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Review of Bruno Ulmer's film The Koran

Review of Bruno Ulmer's film The Koran

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Published by Jonathan Zilberg
This is the long version of the short review published by Leonardo at http://www.leonardo.info/reviews/aug2012/ulmer-zilberg.php
This is the long version of the short review published by Leonardo at http://www.leonardo.info/reviews/aug2012/ulmer-zilberg.php

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Published by: Jonathan Zilberg on Dec 20, 2012
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The Koran: The Origins of The BookBy Bruno UlmerIcarus Films 2009. 52 minutes, color. $348.
Jonathan L. Zilberg, Ph.D.Universitas Islam Negeri Syarif Hidayatullah, Ciputat, Jakarta, IndonesiaFor the reduced published version of this review, seehttp://www.leonardo.info/reviews/aug2012/ulmer-zilberg.php 
In 1972, after an earthquake in Yemen, the ancient mosque of Sana’a was partially destroyed.
Hidden behind a wall, revealed in the debris, was a collection of pages and fragments of Korans datingback to the first century of Islam. The radical significance of these fragments is that they predated thestandard version of the Koran known today and that they were different. As the Koran is understood tobe the unchanged original written record of the revelations received and communicated by the ProphetMohammad, this is dangerous ground to tread upon. Despite it being such a difficult topic sensitivelydealt, and perhaps precisely because of that, it is not entirely successful. In particular, as regards the
heavy handed notion of a seamless “Muslim tradition”, it is deeply flawed. Nevertheless this film is
essential viewing for anyone interested in the history of Islam.As it stands then today, and is the film so well conveys, the study of the earliest period of thecanonization of the Koran is now in its infancy. In that, the purpose of the film is above all to documentthe project underway in Germany at the Corpus Coranicum under the direction of Angelika Neuwith incollaboration with Francois Deroche and Immam Ferid Heider and other researchers andconservationists in institutions elsewhere including in mosques throughout the Ummat. For historiansof religion in particular, it will be an extraordinarily interesting field of research to follow over thecoming years. Finally, for students of theology and hermeneutics in general, the film will be exceedinglyuseful as an introduction to the history of texts and doctrinal conflicts in world religions.
The Prophet’s
continuous revelations began in Mecca in 609 and continued for the next 23
years until his death in 632 CE. The Sana’a fragments which are at the heart of this film’s genesis date
back to 680 CE that is, within the first half century of Islam. They show not only how the sequences ofrevelations, the paragraphs known as
suras
, differed but also how the original texts were in placesedited by covering over and changing words. While the latter potentially theologically seismic detail is
 
not explored, nor the nature and content of the many
suras
which were not included in the standardKoran but some of which survived nonetheless, these are the kind of extraordinary details revealedhere. They will tantalize the scholarly viewer, particularly those with historical and hermeneuticinterests. In short, this film will be sure to inspire considerable debate on the historical diversity withinIslam.The film documents a collaborative project on the
Sana’a
fragments by a team of Europeanphilologists (Orientalists as they are termed here) and Islamic scholars and conservationists. Thispeculiar division of labor based on a said fundamental difference in their analytic capacities due toreasons of faith versus scientific reasoning lies at the heart of the film. The distinction will make the filmhighly problematic for many non-scripturalist Muslim scholars who will find such logic antithetical tothe study of Islamic jurisprudence and interpretive historical issues concerning gender in particular.Yet despite that, for anyone interested in the history of monotheism and Islam in particular, andespecially for those interested in the history of sacred texts, this is a fascinating and beautifully madedocumentary film.Through the experience of the main character, Ferid Heider, a young Imam and scholarassociated with the Institute of the Dialogue of Cultures in Berlin, it relates the extraordinary story ofhow and why the Koran as we know it today, the Vulgate of Uthman (
al-Umm
or
Mushaf Usmani
), wascreated and promulgated across the Muslim world (
Ummat
) not 30 years after the Prophet
Muhammad’s passing. We watch as Imam Heider, in awe and reverence
in the library in the greatmosque at Al-Azhar in Cairo, examines the original Koran commissioned by Uthman the thirdsuccessor of Mohammad, following after Abu Bakar and then Umar (Omar, Muhawiya I). Uthman, the
Third Caliph of Damascus, was also one of the Prophet’s companions. He was assassinated in 656
during the early years of the conflict not only over who would succeed the Prophet as the leader of the
Ummat
but over the hegemony of the Vulgate itself. The conflict over the succession of the leadership ofthe Caliphate was resolved in 661, that is, over whether Ali and his followers or those of Abu Bakarwould rule. Ali became the Caliph and by then the Vulgate of Uthman had already been canonized asthe authoritative version of the Koran and as the saying goes, the rest is history. What will be mostinteresting perhaps to those students formerly unfamiliar with this history is how despite the enduringconflict over the legitimacy of succession, and despite the differences regarding the canonization of theKoran, the latter problem has received less attention than the more tendentious issue being one of theinterpretation of the canonized version. Keeping the incommensarable differences between scripturalistand non-scripturalist and intercessionist versus non-intercessionist interpretive communities aside,
 
questioning the canon through revealing the process of the construction of the Koran is serious andpotentially dangerous business.The important issue then to highlight for this film is that while the early conflict within theCaliphate was over succession and thus political power, it had also been over the manner of thecreation and institutionalization of the hegemonic status of the Uthman vulgate written between 632and 656. This is the historical pivot upon which the logic of this film rests. Its potential interpretive andpolitical consequence is greatly understated. It is in essence then also a film about the origins of theconflict between the Shiite and Sunni Muslims, that is, those who followed Ali or Abu Bakar, those who
descended in the Prophet’s blood
line versus those who did not. Intervening conflict and differences inritual practices aside, imagine the sense of physical and spiritual connection that a pious Muslim mustfeel in the presence of the original book commissioned by Uthman,
one of the Prophet’s companions.
This elemental emotional charge sets up a wonderful context for a history lesson on the origins of theVulgate as a full and exact perpetual echo of the revelations - contested at the outset but not thereafter,at least that is, after the Hussein massacre in which the Sunni put down the Shiite revolt.From that decisive moment in history, the Shiites were forced to recognize the Vulgate as thesole and legitimate version of the Koran. Thus th
e discovery and analysis of the Sana’a fragments
ispotentially extraordinarily dangerous as it opens an old and original wound. It
returns us to Ali’s
accusation that Uthman had reduced the Koran to a single text in his despotic decision to forbid theother versions of the Korans. Remember that Ali is recorded as having declared this objection to theVulgate
: “The Koran was several books and you have reduced them to one!” Similarly, another of the
 
Prophet’s
companions, Ibn Masud refused to accept the canonization and was publically punishedthough the film does not tell us how. In this way, particular points in the film carry enormousconsequence as does the central purpose itself which is to reveal how the Koran as we know it todaywas created.Recall too that Ali was assassinated by Uthman in 656 and that Uthman was in turnassassinated by Ul
awiyah/Muhawiyah. In fact, Ali’s severed head is still kept there in the mosque and
much revered as we witness in the film. And as for the original text, huge, 1,450 years old and inimmaculate condition, here it is in Cairo having being moved there at some point from Samarkand.Again without seeing the film and thus the original Vulgate itself, one can imagine the extreme sense ofveneration believers must have in being able to see and touch such a manuscript. In that, this filmcannot fail to have a powerful impact on Muslims in particular by connecting them to places, texts andevents that resonate powerfully in the collective historical consciousness of the Muslim world.

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