Forbidden truth

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.

An undated handout image provided by the University of Birmingham on 22 July 2015 shows an ancient Koran manuscript dating from between 568 and 645 AD (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/Birmingham University)
"We need to stop taking the Koran literally": Charfiʹs research, conducted over more than ten years with a team of ten volunteer academics has revealed that 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

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.

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