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.
Charfi is a devout Muslim. He has never been a member of a political party, refused to support the ex-dictator Ben Ali in elections and was therefore forced to retire early from his post as deacon at the University of Tunis. After that, his work was censored and a publication ban was placed on him. But he never gave up, retiring from public life and starting a research group for his Koran project. There was no salary. Germanyʹs Konrad Adenauer Stiftung financed trips to archives in Yemen and Berlin. Finally, a Lebanese patron agreed to finance the complex, full-colour printing of the volumes in Rabat.
Like any academic editor, Charfi knows: "Our work is not meant for a mass audience. We have got positive feedback from our academic colleagues." But while, for example, Kafka variations are primarily of interest to Kafka scholars, this project is quite different. Variations in the Koran can be significant to 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide. Charfi is aware of the implications.
To take an example: in sura 61:6 of the canonical Koran, it says that Jesus declared a prophet named Ahmed would come after him. For Muslims, this is Muhammad, Godʹs last prophet. But in Charfiʹs edition there is a variation that doesnʹt contain a name. Charfiʹs edition was banned in Saudi Arabia immediately after publication. In Tunisia, the edition is now sold out.
Then the conversation takes a political turn: "We need to stop taking the Koran literally," Charfi warns. The consequences of this new way of reading the holy book are huge: "There is a subversive, prophetic message in the Koran. But in Islam there is also an institutionalised religion that creates dogma, rituals and sects." Muslims today, then, should "Get back to the sources: there is nothing greater than God."
Shaking the foundations
"This goes right to the foundations of Islam," says Jean Fontaine, a Catholic theologian and head of the Centre dʹEtudes de Carthage in Tunis, which has been devoted to interfaith dialogue for almost sixty years. Anyone who studies the variants with him will be left speechless by the horizon of meaning opening up in front of him. The sentence in the 3rd sura that is fundamental to the Muslim faith community, "The true religion with Allah is Islam," is just one of many options in Charfiʹs edition.
There is also a variant that says: "The true religion in the eyes of God is Hanifism," the faith of Abraham, the father of all monotheistic religions (this pre-Islamic religion should not be confused with Hanafism, one of the four Sunni legal schools). There is also talk in the 3rd sura of "umma", the true community willed by God, as Muslims understand it. But one variant speaks of "aʹimma", the best preachers that Muhammad sees among his disciples. "The Islamists are going to put pressure on this," says Fontaine.
This is also how the Berlin-based Arabist Angelika Neuwirth sees it. She regards the new edition not only as a pioneering academic achievement, but as a real test of courage: "The Salafists donʹt want to know that the Koran has an earthly history." The verses on violence, for example, did not come from heaven; they have a specific historical context. Itʹs only when you understand this, she argues, that you can truly understand the Koran. Neuwirth says: "The Koran isnʹt a book, itʹs an event. It contains traces of the debates that Muhammad conducted with his community." The Tunisian edition makes it possible to read the Koran as "an echo chamber of its time."
Charfi, who in person is the embodiment of modesty and restraint, has set out to do nothing less than redefine the status of the Koran within Islam. According to Charfi and his school of critical, historical Koran exegesis, the Koran is at once the product of divine inspiration and a text passed down in human language, influenced by the Prophetʹs personality and the circumstances in which he lived, his culture and community.
Anyone who denies this today, says Charfi, is separating religion from life. He believes that Islam only has a future if the Koran is re-read in harmony with the values of the modern world, with respect for universal human rights.
Bulwark against Wahhabism
There is a tradition of critical Koran readings in Tunisia. The University of Al-Zaytuna, founded in 737 in the heart of Tunisʹs Old Town, was an international centre of moderate Islam, a bulwark against Wahhabism, until it was shut down by Bourguiba, the founder of the Tunisian Republic. Today, there is no such site of academic discussion within Islam. At the same time, Tunisia is the only country in the region where researchers have spent decades engaging with the Koran in humanities faculties; elsewhere, Koran studies have been monopolised by dogmatic religious institutions.
The Tunisian approach doesnʹt always meet with goodwill from the countryʹs Arab neighbours. Recently, the guardians of the faith at Cairoʹs Al-Azhar mosque have threatened to strike Tunisia off the list of Islamic countries if it carries on with its programme of democratic modernisation "at the cost of Islam".
Last summer, President Essebi called Charfi into the newly-founded political commission on "Individual Freedoms and Equality". The issue to be addressed was Tunisiaʹs inheritance laws, which disadvantaged women and for years had been a bone of contention for civil society and human rights campaigners. But even liberal members of parliament had not wanted to touch them, because the rules of inheritance are laid out word for word in the Koran, making them Godʹs will.
What if Charfi could pull the rug out from under this judgement? In an already tense social atmosphere, the explosive political potential of the idea for the ruling coalition of secular and Islamist parties is so great that the commission decided only to publish its report after the local elections at the start of May, the first in the countryʹs history.
© NZZ/Qantara.de 2018
Translated from the German by Ruth Martin
"Al-Mushaf wa Qira’atuh", Rabat 2016. 2330 Seiten, 5 volumes (published by Mominoun Without Borders for Publishing & Distribution/Beirut)