Friday, May 05, 2006

Cardinal George Pell on Islam

Cardinal George Pell, Archbishop of Sydney, made a speech to the Legatus Summit, Naples, Florida on the 2nd of February, which has only now been put on the diocesan website. The speech is entitled 'Islam and Western Democracies', and is a wide-ranging overview of Islamic history and theology and our capacity to react to it.

Pell is no softly-spoken diplomat. For example,

In my own reading of the Koran, I began to note down invocations to violence. There are so many of them, however, that I abandoned this exercise after 50 or 60 or 70 pages.
He is not soft on the West, either, though here his points are those you'd expect from a man of the church.
Western secularists regularly have trouble understanding religious faith in their own societies, and are often at sea when it comes to addressing the meaninglessness that secularism spawns. An anorexic vision of democracy and the human person is no match for Islam.
A powerful sentence that last one.

I'm not going to attempt a summary of Pell's speech. I'd just like to note two pieces of information that help to explain a lot. The first regards the binary attribute, 'religion of peace/war'. Defenders of both camps seem to be armed with large stocks of suras. There's a good reason for this.
It is important to bear in mind what the scholars tell us about the difference between the suras (or chapters) of the Koran written during Muhammad’s thirteen years in Mecca, and those that were written after he had based himself at Medina. Irenic interpretations of the Koran typically draw heavily on the suras written in Mecca, when Muhammad was without military power and still hoped to win people, including Christians and Jews, to his revelation through preaching and religious activity. After emigrating to Medina, Muhammad formed an alliance with two Yemeni tribes and the spread of Islam through conquest and coercion began. One calculation is that Muhammad engaged in 78 battles, only one of which, the Battle of the Ditch, was defensive. The suras from the Medina period reflect this decisive change and are often held to abrogate suras from the Meccan period.
[By the way, 'irenic' means conducive to peace. I had to look it up, too.] Isn't that interesting, and utterly credible. When you are weak, you persuade; when you are strong, you command. Simple, and as old as Adam.

And then there's this.
In 2004 a scholar who writes under the pseudonym Christoph Luxenberg published a book in German setting out detailed evidence that the original language of the Koran was a dialect of Aramaic known as Syriac. Syriac or Syro-Aramaic was the written language of the Near East during Muhammad’s time, and Arabic did not assume written form until 150 years after his death. Luxenberg argues that the Koran that has come down to us in Arabic is partially a mistranscription of the original Syriac. A bizarre example he offers which received some attention at the time his book was published is the Koran’s promise that those who enter heaven will be “espoused” to “maidens with eyes like gazelles”; eyes, that is, which are intensely white and black (suras 4454 and 5220). Luxenberg’s meticulous analysis suggests that the Arabic word for maidens is in fact a mistranscription of the Syriac word for grapes. This does strain common sense. Valiant strivings to be consoled by beautiful women is one thing, but to be heroic for a packet of raisins seems a bit much!
Did you clock that? "Arabic did not assume written form until 150 years after his death." By which time, the Arab Empire was just short of Spain in the west and reached to Persia in the east. No wonder nobody can go to town (hermeneutically speaking) on the Koran without risking decapitation. We are speaking here of 2 translations: from Arabic into Syriac, and then several generations later, back from Syriac into Arabic. Since no Syriac version survives, the book is more removed from its source than the New Testament is. As a field for textual exploration and disruption, it is wide open (save for the decapitation).

Further.
Even more explosively, Luxenberg suggests that the Koran has its basis in the texts of the Syriac Christian liturgy, and in particular in the Syriac lectionary, which provides the origin for the Arabic word “koran”. As one scholarly review observes, if Luxenberg is correct the writers who transcribed the Koran into Arabic from Syriac a century and a half after Muhammad’s death transformed it from a text that was “more or less harmonious with the New Testament and Syriac Christian liturgy and literature to one that [was] distinct, of independent origin”.
Do you get the impression of a culture in aspic, kept hermetically sealed? The scholarly interrogation that Christianity was put through in the 19th century has barely begun with Islam. It seems about time.

(via Dinocrat)

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6 comments:

Téméraire V5.0 said...

Luxenberg do not know anything abaout arabic writing and this is to show you his main errors in his book : http://www.islamic-awareness.org/Quran/Text/Mss/vowel.html

NoolaBeulah said...

Téméraire V5.0
I have no means of judging which reconstruction of early Arabic is correct - I do not know Arabic nor enough about historical linguistics to assess the rival claims. People like me, on the 'outside', depend on scholars, who, in turn, depend on peer review and open debate. Unfortunately, there are those within Islam who do everything they can to smother open debate both within and without Islam. Thus scholars like Luxemberg need to use psuedonyms and their books are not translated. It may well be that Saifullah, Ghoniem & Zaman are correct, but it will be difficult for people like me to accept that while the debate is frustrated by a climate of fear.

Téméraire V5.0 said...

I agree that there is fanatics in every religion and maybe especially within Muslims.
Salman Rushdi is still alive Tasneem also and many others even in Arabic countries.


How Muslims schlors can discuss with anonyms about their thesis ?

Luxenberg have to convict Muslims or Others that his thesis is correct ?

This is what “François de Blois” a French Professor said about Luxenberg :
“It is necessary, in conclusion to say a little about the authorship, or rather the non-authorship, the pseudonymity of this book. An article published in the New York Times on 2nd March 2002 (and subsequently broadly disseminated in the internet) referred to this book as the work of 'Christoph Luxenberg, a scholar of ancient Semitic languages in Germany'. It is, I think, sufficiently clear from this review that the person in question is not 'a scholar of ancient Semitic languages'. He is someone who evidently speaks some Arabic dialect, has a passable, but not flawless command of classical Arabic, knows enough Syriac so as to be able to consult a dictionary, but is innocent of any real understanding of the methodology of comparative Semitic linguistics. His book is not a work of scholarship but of dilettantism.
The NYT article goes on to state that 'Christoph Luxeuberg is a pseudonym', to compare him with Salman Rushdie, Naguib Mahfouz and Suliman Bashear and to talk about 'threatened violence as well as the widespread reluctance on United States college campuses to criticize other cultures'. I am not sure what precisely the author means with 'in Germany'. According to my information, 'Christoph Luxenberg' is not a German but a Lebanese Christian. It is thus not a question of some intrepid philologist, pouring over dusty books in obscure languages somewhere in the provinces of Germany and then having to publish his results under a pseudonym so as to avoid the death threats of rabid Muslim extremists, in short an ivory-tower Rushdie. Let us not exaggerate the state of academic freedom in what we still like to call our Western democracies. No European or North American scholar of linguistics, even of Arabic linguistics, needs to conceal his (or her) identity, nor does he (or she) really have any right to do so. These matters must be discussed in public. In the Near East things are, of course, very different.”

NoolaBeulah said...

The plot thickens. François de Blois is right about one thing at least (as I said, I cannot comment on the linguistics): these things must be discussed in public. Scholarship that is closed to debate loses the name of scholarship, but this is the very difficulty we face. To judge from anecdotal reports, discussion is being closed down because of fear -fear of Islamic reprisals. (I detail a few cases of this here).

Actually, my anger is aroused less by the Islamists than by the Westerners who censor themselves. The real problem, I believe, is ours in that we have lost the habit of defending our liberties. The Islamic world is going through a huge transformation, the adaptation to industrial-technological modernity that caused so pain in the West and that the Middle East held off for so long. Just as Christianity did, Islam now seeks to ward off the great changes that are forced on it. It is painful. But it is not helped by us refusing to defend ourselves, especially in the field of ideas.

Alex said...

The linguistics in François De Blois' review is, to my knowledge, correct. Christoph does indeed make mistakes in Arabic, the most egregious of which are the inability to realize the difference between the dual nominative and the singular accusative. Idiotic, really, considering that he accuses the original compilers of the Qur'an to have not known their own language.

NoolaBeulah said...

Wasn't he accusing them of not knowing Aramaic?