Abdelmajid Charfiʹs workplace is paradise. The Beit al-Hikma Academy of Sciences, Letters and Arts, of which Charfi is currently president, is in Carthage, overlooking the Gulf of Tunis. Itʹs a majestic 19th-century palace built in a Turkish-Andalusian style. The first thing on the table is tea, followed by the Koran, five thick, large-format volumes. The title is a manifesto: "The Koran Text and its Variants".
Charfi, who is Professor Emeritus of Islamic Studies at the University of Tunis, leafs through the thin pages and explains how his edition works: "the verse is printed at the top of the page, in the calligraphy of the Koranic text corpus. Underneath, in red, is the translation into the Arabic script we use today. And the third, light grey part," the editor pauses for a moment – "gives the variations on that verse, citing the author and source." The edition is completely unprecedented in the Muslim world.
Trimmed by the Caliph
In the Islamic tradition, God speaks his message straight into the ear of his last prophet, Muhammad. The Prophet – who was illiterate, which means that pious Muslims regard the book as a miracle for that reason alone, as well as for its linguistic beauty – gives a verbal rendering of the divine text to his companions. His secretaries write down what they hear. Copies containing variations appear from the very beginning – which for Muhammad himself is not a problem: his message lives in the conversations he has with the community.
But as early as twenty years after Muhammadʹs death, the third Caliph Uthman ends the argument about the text. He decides which verses came from the mouth of the Prophet and are therefore valid. All the writings that donʹt fit within his canon are prohibited and burned. This text, still considered by most of the Arab world as the only authoritative version, is printed for the first time in 1924 by Al-Azhar University in Cairo.
But the variants survive, becoming the object of literary interpretation and theological discussion. In Charfiʹs new edition, they now stand alongside the canonical version and put the well-known text in a new light.
Charfi has analysed biblical and Jewish studies, Aramaic and Syrian literature and forbidden manuscripts by friends of the Prophet. Textual critics dig down like archaeologists and Charfi has exposed four layers in the Koran: original Christian texts; Muslim interpretations of this heritage (which has been branded "un-Islamic"); texts that are attributed directly to Muhammad; and finally the parts completed after his death in 633. The echoes of the Judaic and Christian history of ideas in the Koran are unmistakeable.
There are variations of almost every verse of the 114 suras. Only the short, easily remembered suras from the Prophetʹs time in Mecca – around five percent of the total text – are identical in all the texts that have been passed down to us. This is the essential result of Charfiʹs research, conducted over more than ten years with a team of ten volunteer academics: there is not one, clear holy text, but a multi-layered web of texts that carry traces of their own history and that of their authorsʹ political, social and religious environments.
"The variations can be purely formal, or they can be significant in terms of content," the 76-year-old says carefully. Then he becomes diplomatic: "If you look at the variations, you recognise how dangerous a purely literal reading can be." The Koranic verses cannot be used in every situation we encounter in our present-day world. As Charfi says, the Koranʹs revelations were made to the Prophet under specific historical conditions.