Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Corpus Coranicum Project

THE CORPUS CORANICUM: Qur'anic studies come of age.
The origins of a holy book

Using ancient texts, scholars have begun an audacious effort to unravel the story of the Koran. What will they find?

By Drake Bennett (Boston Globe)
March 28, 2010

Later this spring, a team of scholars at Germany’s Berlin-Brandenberg Academy of Sciences will complete the first phase of what will ultimately be an unprecedented, two-decade effort to throw light on the origins of the Koran.

The project, called the Corpus Coranicum, will be something that scholars of the Koran have long yearned for: a central repository of imagery, information, and analysis about the Muslim holy book. Modern research into Islam’s origin and early years has been hampered by the paucity and inaccessibility of ancient texts, and the reluctance of Muslim governments in places like Yemen to allow wide access to them.

But, drawing on some of the earliest Korans in existence — codices found in Istanbul, Cairo, Paris, and Morocco — the Corpus Coranicum will allow users to study for themselves images of thousands of pages of early Korans, texts that differ in small but potentially telling ways from the modern standard version. The project will also link passages in the text to analogous ones in the New Testament and Hebrew Bible, and offer an exhaustive critical

commentary on the Koran’s language, structure, themes, and roots. The project’s creators are calling it the world’s first “critical edition” of the Koran, a resource that gathers historical evidence and scholarly literature into one searchable, cross-referenced whole.


Though the publication of the first section of the Corpus is only the beginning, it’s possible to see in it the outlines of its larger ambitions. The goal, essentially, is to place the text in a historical context. “We want to frame the Koran as a text of late antiquity,” says Michael Marx, the project’s research director. “We put stress on the links that the Koran has to other Near Eastern religions: Christian sources, rabbinic sources.”

For instance, in one of the parallels that the researchers will post, they compare one of the most important passages in the entire Koran — “He is God, one, God the absolute, He did not beget nor is He begotten, And there is none like Him” — to nearly identical passages in the Hebrew Bible and the Nicene Creed (the profession of faith in many Christian liturgical services). Both the Bible and the Creed long predate the birth of the Koran. To Marx, this demonstrates the extent to which the Koran, a text that proclaims itself immutable and eternal, is in fact a recognizable product of the particular historical moment in which it was created.

“Once you have all the texts on the table,” he says, “it’s possible to make quite clear that the Koran has a history, that it is interacting with human history.”


Other contemporary scholars take things further. Gerd-R. Puin, a retired professor of Arabic studies at Germany’s Saarland University, has been working for decades on a trove of Korans from a mosque in Yemen — possibly the oldest ones in existence. Because they were primarily memory aids, early Korans were written in a vowel-less “skeleton” language. Deciphering those clusters of consonants requires a sense of what languages and what cultural and religious traditions Mohammed and his earliest followers were borrowing from and reacting against. Much of the wording and imagery of the Koran are borrowed from Christian and Jewish texts, Puin argues. In fact, he says, much of the Koran is incomprehensible unless read alongside those earlier texts. As an example, he points to the term “sakina,” which Muslim scholars have translated as a spirit of calm — Puin argues that it only makes sense as a descendant of the Hebrew term “shekhinah,” which means the presence of God. The more one studies its historical context, Puin argues, the harder it is to resist the sense that the Koran itself was, at least in part, pieced together from parts of other religions.

This sounds like an extraordinarily important project from both a text-critical and a history-of-religions perspective. And a courageous one as well: it is bound to generate strident opposition in some circles.

A couple of years ago I noted the story about the recovered photographic archive of Qur'an manuscripts, but this article give much more information about the whole project. For the Corpus Coranicum website, follow the link.