The Scholar’s Touch: An article by Navid Kermani on German Islamic Scholar, Angelika Neuwirth

Salafism or Philology

The Scholar’s Touch

Angelika Neuwirth

Angelika Neuwirth

by Navid Kermani

The Islamic scholar Angelika Neuwirth has had a greater impact on Koranic research in Germany than anyone else in recent decades. What she has to say is revolutionary – not only for Muslims, but also for Europe. Salafists, in particular, could learn a great deal from her.

Some time ago, a group of devout Muslims announced that they intended to give every German a generally-intelligible edition of the Koran. To invite their fellow citizens to read the Koran, these devout Muslims planned to stand about in pedestrian precincts and go around ringing people′s doorbells. At the same time, they also intended to run a poster campaign bearing the slogan: ′Read!′ – Read!

In the generally-intelligible translation that was to be distributed in the pedestrian precincts, this constituted both the opening of Sura 96 and also, according to these devout believers, the very first word God said to the Prophet: iqra` bismi rabbika lladhi chalaq / chalaqa l-insana min ‘alaq – Read! in the name of your Lord, who created / Created man from a clot of blood′.

Their announcement caused quite a stir and indeed disquiet, among the German public. The devout Muslims were the top story on the television news; they found themselves on the front pages of national newspapers and were invited onto talk shows on the main public TV channels. The German Interior Minister also expressed his concern and the security services declared that they were keeping a very close eye on these people.

The devout Muslims themselves firmly rejected any suggestions that they had extremist sympathies, pointing out that the Bible was also given away for free in generally-intelligible translations. Their campaign should not, they said, be seen as a mission – there is no such term in Islam – but simply as dacwa, an invitation. Why shouldn′t one read the Koran just as one reads the Bible?

Yes – why not?

Like so many debates that are whipped up into minor hysteria by the constant noise from all sides that constitutes the shaping of public opinion nowadays, the one about handing out Korans also died down quickly. The devout Muslims didn′t have enough money to print eighty million or fifty million or even one million copies of their Koran, nor were there enough volunteers all over the country to invite people to read it.

It eventually emerged that the Koran had only been distributed in those pedestrian precincts that were also furnished with television cameras. And yet the question remained, hanging in the air and in the press, as well: why shouldn′t one read the Koran just as one reads the Bible? The newspapers and talkshows, the interior minister and the security services all provided answers.

But philology can give answers that are more exciting, more logical, even more politically relevant – that is, exemplary philology like that of Angelika Neuwirth. If one wished to reduce her research to a single denominator, a single statement, a fundamental theme, it would be this: the Koran itself is the reason why it shouldn′t be read like a Bible.

It begins with the dating of Sura 96, which, if one examines it closely, can hardly be the first, and it continues with the simple Arabic wording that the devout Muslims obviously failed to understand. In Koranic Arabic, iqra` means not ′Read!′ but ′Declaim!′, ′Recite!′ or even ′Repeat!′ The Koran itself explicitly denies that the Prophet was presented with a written document, comparable to Moses′ Decalogue.

The modus of revelation is repeatedly given as the spoken word: spoken aloud, recited like a cantilena, or even sung – rattili l-Qur`ana tartila, as it says elsewhere in the Koran. The poet Friedrich Ruckert translated this section into German more beautifully and more precisely than any devout Muslim: ′Singe den Koran sangweise,′ he wrote. ′Sing the Koran like a song.′

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