Islamic Virgins ?!?

In case you are offended by this post, my name is Chris Lewis, not Keith Brooks.

While reading Justin Taylor’s blog a few weeks ago I was introduced to the work of philologist Christopher Luxenberg who has stepped onto the minefield of Islamic textual criticism. Many scholars have noted the Koran’s sometimes ambiguous and confusing language. There are various explanations for this, but Islamic textual critics, like Luxenberg, who indulge themselves in such disputes face serious consequences. Spengler from the Asia Times introduces the issues well:

The Archangel Gabriel, by contrast (to Judaism and Christianity), dictated the Koran to Mohammed, according to Islamic doctrine. That sets a dauntingly high threshold for textual critics. How does one criticize the word of God without rejecting its divine character? In that respect the Koran resembles the “Golden Tablets” of the Angel Moroni purported found by the Mormon leader Joseph Smith more than it does the Jewish or Christian bibles.

Islamic textual criticism today is an underground enterprise, practiced in near secret by a handful of scholars with access to alternative sources, eg, variants of Koranic text exhumed in Yemen. The pseudonymous Pakistani writer “Ibn Warraq”, the best-known popularizer of the available academic work, hides his identity with good reason. Muslims who question the divine sanctity of Koranic text face persecution or worse. Ominously, “Ibn Warraq” entitled his best-known book Why I Am Not A Muslim, suggesting that the first effect of Koranic criticism may be rejection rather than reform of Islam.

Deeply embarrassing to Muslims trying to accommodate to the West are the Koranic passages that speak of faithful martyrs receiving virgins in paradise. Not really something to bring up to your Prof from Androgynous U, eh? Koranic commentators have described such passages in ways that would make even a pre-conversion Augustine blush.

No word yet on what the ladies receive for their martyrdom.

Luxenberg’s work is important because it applies directly to these awkward Koranic passages. He believes that the language of the early compositions of the Koran were not exclusively Arabic but also rooted in Syro-Aramaic. According to Islamic tradition, the Koran dates to the 7th century but Arabic literature doesn’t really emerge until two centuries later. He postulates that Arabic literature developed by degrees. At the time of Mohammed’s death in 632 there were no Arab schools … except for Christian ones who had instructed Arabs in Syro-Aramaic. Since the third century aggressive Syrian Christians had pressed into the borders of China, India and the entire Arabian peninsula. Luxenberg says:

In order to spread the Gospel, they necessarily made use of a mishmash of languages. But in an era in which Arabic was just an assembly of dialects and had no written form, the missionaries had no choice but to resort to their own literary language and their own culture; that is, to Syro-Aramaic. The result was that the language of the Koran was born as a written Arabic language, but one of Arab-Aramaic derivation.

Luxenberg believes that obscurities in the Koran dissapear if certain words are read as being Syriac and not Arabic. What about  the “doe eyed willing virgins” given to Islamists with a proclivity for C4?  Ooops. Apparently only “white raisins of crystal clarity” are given to the faithful, not virgins.  Contrary to further confusing the matter, this makes a lot of sense. From Ephrem the Syrian (306-373 AD), we know white raisins are an image of paradise that the faithful will enjoy.

Ibn Warraq sums up his survey of Luxenberg’s work with a memorable turn of phrase:

If (Luxenberg’s) analysis is correct then suicide bombers, or rather prospective martyrs, would do well to abandon their culture of death, and instead concentrate on getting laid 72 times in this world, unless of course they would really prefer chilled or white raisins, according to their taste, in the next.