A Conference On The Early History Of Islam And The Koran

by Ibn Warraq (May 2008)

Report On The Inarah Otzenhauzen[1] Conference On
  “The Early History Of Islam And The Koran”
     March 13-16, 2008


The newly founded institute, Inârah Institute for Research of Early Islamic History and the Koran, in cooperation with the Religious Studies Department of the University of Saarlandes, Germany and the Europäische Akademie Otzenhausen, Germany held its first International Conference on the Origins of the Koran and Early Islamic History. Inarah consists of a group of German scholars inspired by the work of Christoph Luxenberg but disturbed by the fact Luxenberg's insights were not discussed by other Islamologists because of their implications for the traditional history of the Koran (now thought to be almost certainly false, and fabricated many years after the foundation of Islam). I think it would be fair to say that the idea for the German conference came naturally after the successful conference at the University of California-Davis in January, 2007 on Scripture and Skepticism organised by the Center for Inquiry, Transnational, and the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion [CSER], inspired, organised, and coordinated by Dr. Paul Kurtz and Dr. Joseph Hoffmann. Many of the founders of Inarah, the organisers of the German conference, participated in the Davis Conference, and finding the experience exhilarating, decided a similar conference devoted entirely to the Koran and Early Islam would be in order, a conference that would fearlessly examine the origins of the Koran wherever the empirical research might lead, hence the Otzenhausen Conference.

Prometheus Books, founded by Dr. Paul Kurtz, is committed to publishing works by Inarah, including the proceedings of the present conference. It has already signed a contract to publish Die Dunklen Anfänge, translated into English as The Hidden Origins of Islam - it should be out by August of this year. As you know many of the founders of Inarah contributed to the latter volume.

But the Center for Inquiry also publishes CSER Review, edited by Dr. Hoffmann, soon to re-appear as Caesar: A Journal of Religion and Human Values. And I am hoping some of the scholars who were present will accept to have their papers published in its pages prior to their appearance in the Conference Proceedings.

Finally, I should like to mention that without the enthusiastic, and prompt moral and financial support of Sam Harris, the author of “End of Faith,” and his foundation The Reason Project, and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, the present conference would not have been possible.

All scholars who contributed to the collection of essays, Die dunklen Anfänge (Berlin, 2005) [to be published, in 2008, in the United States by Prometheus Books as The Obscure Origins of Islam] and, Der frühe Islam, (Berlin, 2007) [Early Islam] have been invited, scholars Alba Fedeli (University of Milan, Italy), Claude Gilliot (Aix-en-Provence, France), Markus Gross (Germany), Ibn Warraq (USA), Pierre Larcher (Aix-en-Provence, France), Christoph Luxenberg, Noja Noseda (University of Milan, Italy) Karl-Heinz Ohlig (University of Saarlandes, Germany), Volker Popp and Gerd-R. Puin.

Other scholars and researchers who attended were: Hans-Jörg Döhla (Zurich), Geneviève Gobillot (Lyon, France), Christoph Heger, Manfred Kropp (Mainz), Tom Milo (Amsterdam), Filippo Rainieri, Jan M.F. van Reeth (Louvain, Belgium), Dr Johannes Thomas (Paderborn), Gabriel Reynolds (Notre Dame, USA), Keith Small (U.K.), Helmut Waldman (TŸbingen).

The proceedings of, and the papers delivered at, the conference will be published in German and English; the latter by Prometheus Books.

Here is a brief look at some of the papers:

Professor Johannes Thomas of the University of Paderborn[2] pointed out that our sources for the conquest of Spain by Muslims are quite late and unreliable. There are no Arabic inscriptions dating back to the Eighth Century and only six dating back to the Ninth. The earliest description of the conquest of North Africa and Spain written in Arabic was written by Ibn Abd al-Hakam, an Egyptian who had never been in Spain and who is said to have written the text in the middle of the 9th Century. As the Dutch Arabist Rienhard Dozy said this account has no more historical value than the fairy tales in "The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night". But as Professor Thomas pointed out, al-Hakam is not an exception, all other Arabian reports and compilations give us the same fairy tales.

Leaning on the methodology established by Albrecht Noth, Thomas tries to sort out what really happened between the Eighth and Eleventh Century in Spain.

Professor Helmut Waldmann of TŸbingen gave a brief history of Zurvanism -a branch of Zoroastrianism that had the divinity Zurvan as its First Principle (primordial creator deity). In the second part of his talk, Waldmann gave a sketch of the influence of Zurvanism on Islam.

Filippo Rainieri described the Historic Roots of Sharia, while Geneviève Gobillot of the University of Lyons revealed the astonishing similarities of Koranic theology and the thought of Lactantius [died c.320] an early Christian author, a Latin-speaking native of North Africa, who taught rhetoric in various cities of the Eastern Roman Empire, ending in Constantinople. His Divinae Institutiones ("Divine Institutions"), an early example of a systematic presentation of Christian thought, was probably written between 303 and 311.

Christoph Heger, convinced of the validity of Christoph Luxenberg and Volker Popp's thesis that early documents, inscriptions and coins that contain the terms "muhammad" and " 'ali" should not be understood as proper names of the putatively historical figures of Islamic historiography but as honorific titles of Jesus Christ, argued that confirmation of the said thesis could be found in the old text of an inscription of a talisman in the possession of Tewfik Canaan.[3] The text of the talisman should be read as:

"O healer, O God! Help from God and near victory and good tiding of the believers! O praised one [muhammad], O merciful one, O benefactor. There is no young man like the high one [ 'ali] and no sword like the two-edged sword of the high one. O God, O living one, O eternal one, O Lord of majesty and honour, O merciful one, O compassionate one".

This text should be understood as an invocation of Jesus Christ- the healer, the good tiding, the praised, merciful and high one, the young hero, "out of the mouth [of whom] went a sharp two-edged sword" [Apoc. 1:16], namely “the word of God,” which is “sharper than any two-edged sword” [Hebrews 4:12].

Where Dr. Markus Gross discussed the Buddhist influence on Islam, Professor Kropp explained the Ethiopian elements in the Koran. Independent scholar, traveller, and numismatist Volker Popp argued that Islamic history as recounted by Islamic historians has a Biblical structure –the first four caliphs are clearly modelled on Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Moses. The Muslim historians transformed historical facts to fit a Biblical pattern. Popp also developed a fascinating thesis that Islamic historians had a propensity to turn nomen (gentile) (name of the gens or clan) into patronyms; a patronym being a component of a personal name based on the name of one's father. Thus Islamic historians had a tendency to take, for instance, Iranian names on inscriptions and turn them into Arabic-sounding names. Having turned Iranians into Arabs, the next step was to turn historical events connected with the original Iranians which had nothing to do with Islamic history into Islamic history. For example, Islamic history knows various so called Civil Wars. One of them was between Abd-al-Malik, his governor al-Hajjaj and the rival caliph in Mecca by the name of Abdallah Zubair. The evidence of inscriptions tells us that the name Zubayr is a misreading. The correct reading is ZNBYL. This was made into ZUBYL by the Arab historians. From ZUBYL they derived the name Zubair, which has no Semitic root. The real story is a fight between Abd al-Malik at Merv and the King of Kabulistan, who held the title ZNBYL. This took place between 60 and 75 Arab era in the East of the former Sassanian domains. The historians transferred this feud to Mecca and Jerusalem and then embedded the whole into the structure of a well known story from the Old Testament, the secession of Omri and his building the Temple of Samaria.

The paper delivered by Rainer Nabielek of Berlin provided evidence of a successful application of Luxenberg’s method not only to the Koran but to non-religious texts as well. This was convincingly shown by means of a hitherto unsolved medical term. This medical term can be traced back to Syriac in the same way as many Koranic expressions as demonstrated by Luxenberg. In addition to this Nabielek pointed in his paper to the hitherto overlooked phenomenon of the existence of loan syntax in classical Arabic. His contribution confirms the validity of Luxenberg’s method in general.

Keith Small compared the textual variants in the New Testament manuscripts and Koranic manuscripts. Dr. Elisabeth Puin gave a lucid, and highly original analysis of an early Koran manuscript from Sana, Yemen, [DAM 01-27.1] in part written over a palimpsest Koranic text. Dr. Elisabeth Puin summarized her findings and their implications,

“As for the scriptio superior, the comparison with the Standard text [Cairo 1924/25 Koran] shows that it still contains many differences in orthography and verse counting; there are even minor textual variants, like, for example, singular instead of plural, wa- instead of fa-, and so on. Some - but by far not all - of those differences were at a later stage corrected by erasure and /or amendments. We cannot suppose that all the differences are only due to the calligrapher's inattention, being simply spelling mistakes; there are too many of them on every page, and some of them are found repeatedly, not only in this manuscript but in others too. So we must conclude that at the stage when and in the region where the manuscript was written those variants were not felt to be mistakes but conformed to a specific writing tradition.”    

Professor Van Reeth, already much impressed by Luxenberg's thesis and methodology, gave two talks at the conference. The shorter one compared the image of the pearl in four passages in the Koran that refer to a eucharistic prayer, and a parallel image found in the Eucharist of the Manichaeans. The longer talk discussed the similarities of the Islamic vision of the union of Muhammad with his God, and the commentary of Ephrem the Syrian on the union of the believer with God.

Ibn Warraq gave a brief account of the errors, fallacies, and contradictions in Edward Said's highly influential Orientalism. Dr. Dšhla focused on Spain, and described the historical settings in which the two groups of Mozarabs (8th c. to 12th c.) and Moriscos (16th c.) had been living. These two groups used the Arabic script to write their Romance and Spanish texts. “This contact of two different systems offers the opportunity to find out more about the phonetic realisations of Vulgar-Arabic and the Romance language transcribed.”[4]

Dr Reynolds of the University of Notre Dame (U.S.A.) examined the meaning of the difficult term hanif, found in the Koran but clearly a non-Arabic word. It probably comes from the Syriac word hanpa, meaning pagan, but in the Koran it has a secondary Syriac meaning, of a clan (gens); ethnicity. In the Koran the term is almost always used in connection with Abraham, but in the sense of his ethnicity and never his religion.

Finally, Christoph Luxenberg himself gave an impressive talk that seemed to untie some difficult knots that several centuries of both Islamic and Western scholarship had been unable to undo. He gave an original explanation of the so-called mysterious letters with which some Surahs commence. At the beginning of twenty nine suras following the bismillah stands a letter, or a group of letters which are simply read as separate letters of the alphabet.[5] Luxenberg suggested that they all had something to do with Syriac liturgical traditions. For instance, the letter êŒd at the beginning of Surah 38 indicates the number 90, referring to Psalm 90, while the letters A L R to be found at the beginning of Surahs 10, 11, 12, 14, 15 are a Syriac abbreviation meaning “The Lord said to me.”

There is a distinct possibility that the next Inarah Conference, possibly in late 2009, will take place at Cambridge University, U.K., thanks to Professor Hoffmann's contacts and influence. 


[1] Otzenhausen, Germany is about 250 miles N.E. of Paris, near the Luxemburg border.

[2] N.E.of Dortmund, Germany.

[3] Tewfik Canaan. The Decipherment of Arabic Talismans, in Emilie Savage-Smith ed., Magic and Divination in Early Islam (= volume 42 of Lawrence I. Conrad (general ed.), The Formation of the Classical Islamic World), Aldershot (GB), Burlington (USA) 2004, pp.125-177, here p.132.

[4] Dr. Dšhla sent me a summary of his paper.

[5] Bell/Watt. Introduction to the Qur'an .Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press,1970, p.61

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