Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Da Vinci Coda

Here's an interesting, although sensationalistic, article about the possibility of variant versions of the Qur'an. For Muslims, the Qur'an is the word-for-word dictation of God to the angel Gabriel, who then dictated it to Muhammad. It is the word of God, and copies of it are the incarnated word of God. So while we tend to equate the Qur'an's role in Islam to the Bible's role in Christianity, a better comparison would be to the role of Jesus in Christianity. So claiming that there are variant versions of the Qur'an would undermine Islam in a similar way that refuting the resurrection of Jesus would undermine Christianity. I say the article is sensationalistic because it compares these divergent copies of the Qur'an to the similar claims made about Christianity by The Da Vinci Code.

I've studied New Testament criticism. I find it highly speculative and, frankly, unconvincing. Most modern scholarship on the Bible presupposes that supernatural events are impossible; without that presupposition, most of their research becomes invalid. So I'm very skeptical of similar claims being made of the Qur'an, because I suspect that the arguments are just the same as those used against the Bible.

At any rate, I think other arguments about variant versions of the Qur'an are much more compelling. For example, early copies of the Qur'an did not have the diacritical marks -- the dots above or below the letters -- to define which letter is which. This is significant because the Arabic alphabet has 28 letters, but only 15 letter forms, with the diacritical marks showing which letter is which. For example, the Arabic letters b, t, soft th, y, and n all have the same form; it is only the number of dots above or below the letter which clarifies which of these letters is intended. (Although y and n have more distinctive forms when they occur as the last letter in a word.) Add to this the fact that Semitic languages only include vowels occasionally, and you have a recipe for variant readings. Below is a picture of an early copy of the Qur'an, from about 150 years after Muhammad, and a picture showing the difference between the text without diacritical marks or vowels, with the marks but not the vowels, and with both. To read more about this, click here.


Anonymous said...

Do you recognize the fact that all those mean and read the same way to someone who knows the Classical Arabic Language? All honest historians (non-Muslim) are agreed upon the preservation of the Qur'an as it was recited by MuHammad (sas), regardless if they accept it as divine or not. You're really have to go on a stretch to claim otherwise, very sad.

Jim S. said...

With all due respect, I know Arabic, and they do not "mean and read the same way". It raises the potential for serious alternative readings.

As for the preservation of the Qur'an, I very much doubt that it has been altered. That was kind of my point in writing that I find other arguments more compelling. I was merely arguing that what was preserved was (originally) the text without the diacritical marks, and this opens the door to potential alternative readings. To the best of my knowledge, this is what historians are agreed upon.