The difficulty of reading and comprehending long passages from the Koran is not one that arises only in pedestrian precincts. Right up to the present day, Western academics, especially those influenced by their study of the Bible, have disputed the authenticity of the Koran on the basis of its chaotic, indeed arbitrary-seeming structure.
They claim that the Koran in the form in which we know it today is the product of a later age and owes its existence to many different authors whose writings were assembled at random. Muslims, of course, deny this, as a later date of origin and authorship by an anonymous collective would render the entire foundation of Islam obsolete.
All devout Muslims should read Angelika Neuwirth. She made her reputation as an academic with her first great work, the ″Studies on the Composition of the Meccan Suras″, in which she demonstrated the poetical homogeneity, the internally consistent image matrix and extensive textual integrity of the Koran through a microscopically precise reading of the text.
Exactly those things that appear enigmatic, disconnected, tiring to the ordinary reader and especially to the reader of a generally-intelligible translation – the repetitions, anacolutha, ellipses, insertions, the sudden changes of the grammatical person or the apparently surreal metaphors – are what characterise the quality of Koranic language for an Arab listener and explain why James Joyce was fascinated by the Koran.
Thus, historical-critical textual analysis, which devout Muslims often claim is directed against Islam, broadly confirms the traditional picture of Islamic salvation-history. The Koran is, in its essential components, the work of a single period and of an ingenious, linguistically highly-gifted intelligence. The question is: who was this intelligence?
The answer Angelika Neuwirth provides to this question is, for the devout, a far more uncomfortable one. In the work she did after the ″Studies on the Composition of the Meccan Suras″, she turned her attention to the oral character of the Koran and demonstrated its performative elements. What is meant by this is that the Koran is not simply a text that must be read aloud and which, like a musical score, is only realised in performance.
No – the text itself, as it stands, is in part the written record, the carefully-edited transcript, of a public recitation, a performance, written down after the fact. The Koran thus does not consist solely of the statements of a single speaker: it incorporates interjections from an audience of believers, or of unbelievers – as well as spontaneous responses to these interjections, which repeatedly lead to abrupt changes of subject.
God speaks, Man answers
This, however, means that the congregation, those who were the first to hear the Prophet, made a substantial contribution to the Koranic text and the transition from an oral to a written culture takes place in the Koran itself.
If we read the Koran as precisely as Angelika Neuwirth demonstrates, it becomes clear that the Koran is not dictation, but a conversation: for and against, question and answer, puzzle and solution, warning and fear, promise and hope, the voice of the individual and the refrain of a chorus. That God speaks in the Koran is something one has to believe. But philology is enough for us to see that, in the Koran, Man answers.
This conversation that is the Koran takes place not only with the Prophet′s immediate listeners on the Arabian peninsula in the seventh century. In her more recent work, culminating in the propaedeutics of her Koran commentary, which runs to several volumes, Angelika Neuwirth reveals that the Islamic revelation is embedded in the culture of Late Antiquity – i.e. the same period and cultural realm in which Jewish and Christian theology also developed.