In an interview with Sky News Arabia on April 20, Egyptian intellectual Dr. Khaled Montaser referred to the "scientific-miraculous" nature of the Quran (i'jaz) as a "great delusion" and "an anesthetic or a nice sedative" for the Arabs and the Muslims, making them feel superior: "we are superior," "we are the best," "we are the greatest."
Montaser, head of the Dermatology Department of the Suez Canal Authority, linked this "delusion" to the prevalence of Islamic terrorists. "As Muslims," he said, "we pay a steep price for this. We are at the tail end of all the nations."
"Among the names of all those who detonated explosive belts in Europe or America," he went on, "one cannot find a single Hindu or Buddhist name. They always have Muslim names. Furthermore, how come Muslims always oppose modernity?"
"Our interpretation," he went on, "is in conflict with modernity..."
"They insist on screaming their religion out loud: 'I am a Muslim!' They are always screaming that they are the only ones in possession of the truth, that they are the best, the only ones to be spared the Hellfire. They carry these notions with them wherever they go... Where does extremism come from? People, we must admit -- as our president has often said -- that there are elements in our books of heritage that incite to this. We must admit this... As a thinker trying to fix this, I must find this shocking. The reality is bitter. As Muslims, we pay a steep price for this. We are at the tail end of all the nations."
Sixteen years ago, Dr. Montaser published a book in Arabic entitled, "Wahm al-I'jaz al-Ilmi" ("The Illusion of the Scientific-Miraculous Nature [of the Quran]"), in which he called for purging from Islam all materials that contradict scientific findings.
Dr. Khaled Montaser in his interview with Sky News Arabia on April 20, 2018. (Image source: Sky News Arabia video screenshot)
Montaster attributed the attempt to read science into the Quran stems from feeling of inferiority that Muslims feel in relation to the West.. "The Arab individual is paralyzed," he said.
"He cannot walk from his bedroom to the kitchen and from there to the street without a fatwa from his cleric. 'What should I do? How should I sleep? How should I have sex with my wife?' And so on and so forth. He is constantly in need of someone to reassure him. But the scientist cannot provide such reassurance."
Because Muslims, he said, claim that "every new invention has already been mentioned in our Quran and the Hadith [collection of Muhammad's sayings]," the Quran is God's unaltered word and contains "scientific" facts and data that have been there for all eternity and have only been discovered by researchers in modern times. Therefore, the Quran's miracles will never cease, and its message is universal, for all humankind throughout the ages.
This combining of science and miracles helps Muslims defend against any treatment of the Quran as merely a historical document, the way in which some scholars view the Bible. While Muslims like to quote any work that highlights the historical, rather than divine, nature of the Bible, they always say the opposite about the Quran.
As Stanford University's Behnam Sadeghi and Harvard University's Mohsen Goudarzi point out in their 2011 essay "San'a' and the Origins of the Qur'an," however:
"The lower text of San'a' 1 is at present the most important document for the history of the Qur'an. As the only known extant copy from a textual tradition beside the standard 'Uthmanic one, it has the greatest potential of any known manuscript to shed light on the early history of the scripture. Comparing it with parallel textual traditions provides a unique window onto the initial state of the text from which the different traditions emerged. The comparison settles a perennial controversy about the date at which existing passages were joined together to form the suras (chapters). Some ancient reports and modern scholars assign this event to the reign of the third caliph and link it with his standardizing the text of the Qur'an around AT 650. However, the analysis shows that the suras were formed earlier. Furthermore, the manuscript sheds light on the manner in which the text was transmitted. The inception of at least some Qur'anic textual traditions must have involved semi-oral transmission, most likely via hearers who wrote down a text that was recited by the Prophet."
Furthermore, as was discussed in a 1999 piece in The Atlantic, "What Is the Koran? by Toby Lester, some of the fragments of parchment and pages of Arabic text uncovered during the 1972 restoration of the Great Mosque of Sana'a in Yemen "revealed small but intriguing aberrations from the standard Koranic text. Such aberrations, though not surprising to textual historians, are troublingly at odds with the orthodox Muslim belief that the Koran as it has reached us today is quite simply the perfect, timeless, and unchanging Word of God."
Even several respected modern Muslim scholars -- among them Fazlur Rahman, Muhammad Abdu, Taha Hussein, Mohammad Arkoun, Mohammed Abed al-Jabri and Nasr Abu Zayd -- have stressed the historical aspect of the Quran and offered non-traditional approaches to and interpretations of it.
Abu Zayd (1943-2010), an Arabic and Islamic Studies professor at Egypt's Cairo University and Holland's Leiden University, was declared an apostate by an Egyptian court in 1995 for challenging conservative Muslim beliefs. In his 1994 book, Naqd al-Khitab al-Dini ("Critique of Religious Discourse") -- an English edition of which was published in 2018 -- Abu Zayd argued that conventional fundamentalist interpretations of the Quran and other Islamic texts are ahistorical and misleading. The Quran, he asserted, is "a collection of discourses" that should be interpreted and understood in terms of their historical, linguistic, geographic and cultural context.
In an article in the Journal of Qu'ranic Studies in 2003, Angelika Neuwirth, professor of Arabic at the Free University of Berlin, echoed this view. "The history of the Qur'an," she wrote, "does not start with canonisation but is inherent in the text itself, where not only contents but also form and structure can be read as traces of a historical process."
Dr. Montaser goes farther than his predecessors in his declarations that those who cling to the belief that the Quran is "scientifically" the "word of God." Montaser's harsh criticism should be understood as a call, similar to that of other caring Muslims "trying to fix this," not to abandon Islam, but to modernize or to risk remaining "at the tail end of all the nations." It is a call worth heeding.
A. Z. Mohamed is a Muslim born and raised in the Middle East.