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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 Book By Bruno Ulmer Icarus Films 2009. 52 minutes, color. $348.

Jonathan L. Zilberg, Ph.D. Universitas Islam Negeri Syarif Hidayatullah, Ciputat, Jakarta, Indonesia For the reduced published version of this review, see http://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 dating back to the first century of Islam. The radical significance of these fragments is that they predated the standard version of the Koran known today and that they were different. As the Koran is understood to be the unchanged original written record of the revelations received and communicated by the Prophet Mohammad, this is dangerous ground to tread upon. Despite it being such a difficult topic sensitively dealt, 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 the canonization of the Koran is now in its infancy. In that, the purpose of the film is above all to document the project underway in Germany at the Corpus Coranicum under the direction of Angelika Neuwith in collaboration with Francois Deroche and Immam Ferid Heider and other researchers and conservationists in institutions elsewhere including in mosques throughout the Ummat. For historians of religion in particular, it will be an extraordinarily interesting field of research to follow over the coming years. Finally, for students of theology and hermeneutics in general, the film will be exceedingly useful 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 of revelations, the paragraphs known as suras, differed but also how the original texts were in places edited 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 standard Koran but some of which survived nonetheless, these are the kind of extraordinary details revealed here. They will tantalize the scholarly viewer, particularly those with historical and hermeneutic interests. In short, this film will be sure to inspire considerable debate on the historical diversity within Islam. The film documents a collaborative project on the Sana’a fragments by a team of European philologists (Orientalists as they are termed here) and Islamic scholars and conservationists. This peculiar division of labor based on a said fundamental difference in their analytic capacities due to reasons of faith versus scientific reasoning lies at the heart of the film. The distinction will make the film highly problematic for many non-scripturalist Muslim scholars who will find such logic antithetical to the 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, and especially for those interested in the history of sacred texts, this is a fascinating and beautifully made documentary film. Through the experience of the main character, Ferid Heider, a young Imam and scholar associated with the Institute of the Dialogue of Cultures in Berlin, it relates the extraordinary story of how and why the Koran as we know it today, the Vulgate of Uthman (al-Umm or Mushaf Usmani), was created 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 great mosque at Al-Azhar in Cairo, examines the original Koran commissioned by Uthman the third successor 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 of
the Caliphate was resolved in 661, that is, over whether Ali and his followers or those of Abu Bakar would rule. Ali became the Caliph and by then the Vulgate of Uthman had already been canonized as the authoritative version of the Koran and as the saying goes, the rest is history. What will be most interesting perhaps to those students formerly unfamiliar with this history is how despite the enduring conflict over the legitimacy of succession, and despite the differences regarding the canonization of the Koran, the latter problem has received less attention than the more tendentious issue being one of the interpretation of the canonized version. Keeping the incommensarable differences between scripturalist and 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 and potentially dangerous business. The important issue then to highlight for this film is that while the early conflict within the Caliphate was over succession and thus political power, it had also been over the manner of the creation and institutionalization of the hegemonic status of the Uthman vulgate written between 632 and 656. This is the historical pivot upon which the logic of this film rests. Its potential interpretive and political consequence is greatly understated. It is in essence then also a film about the origins of the conflict between the Shiite and Sunni Muslims, that is, those who followed Ali or Abu Bakar, those who descended in the Prophet’s bloodline versus those who did not. Intervening conflict and differences in ritual practices aside, imagine the sense of physical and spiritual connection that a pious Muslim must feel 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 the Vulgate 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 the sole and legitimate version of the Koran. Thus the discovery and analysis of the Sana’a fragments is potentially 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 the other versions of the Korans. Remember that Ali is recorded as having declared this objection to the Vulgate: “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 punished though the film does not tell us how. In this way, particular points in the film carry enormous consequence as does the central purpose itself which is to reveal how the Koran as we know it today was created. Recall too that Ali was assassinated by Uthman in 656 and that Uthman was in turn assassinated by Ulawiyah/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 in immaculate 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 of veneration believers must have in being able to see and touch such a manuscript. In that, this film cannot fail to have a powerful impact on Muslims in particular by connecting them to places, texts and events that resonate powerfully in the collective historical consciousness of the Muslim world.

The case of Ibn Masud, is of particular importance to highlight in this context as he was one of the first converts to Islam. Masud was one of Mohammad’s closest companions and the person the Prophet trusted above all others in his knowledge of the revelations and his fearful commitment to their perfect transmission. The fact then that it was Masud who had objected to the Vulgate of Uthman (Usman or Osman), specifically to what had been left out, and changed, and that we now have access to some of that material, is potentially seismic and could add enormous frisson to the non-scripturalist and interpretive schools of thought. Such ideas are in most quarters by the weight of law, sentiment and tradition considered deeply heretical though Masud’s knowledge was kept alive by the rebellious people of Kufa. That plurality within the Islamic tradition was written down and passed on as hadiths and

tafsirs, the former being sayings and actions attributed to the Prophet, not attributed to the Koran and
the latter being explanations of the Koran by Mohammad and others. Hadiths are interpretations or exegesis of the Koran by the Prophet, his companions and subsequent scholars of particular eminence and are particularly important as regards matters of Islamic jurisprudence. The Shiites and Sunnis use different collections of hadiths and these different hadiths have major interpretive consequences for reading and applying the Koran in which debates abound over the difference between stronger and weaker hadiths and their application in contemporary contexts. The critical point is however that in his recitations of the Koran Ibn Masud did not at all view them as hadiths but as Koranic verses, that is, as actual revelations. The film also explains the context of the creation of the Vulgate during the expansionist phase of Islam during the Umayad Dynasty (661-750) when Damascus became the center of the Islamic world. As Islam spread to places like Armenia and Azerbejahn where Arabic was not the local lingua franca, conflicts began to emerge over the competing versions of the Koran. One Ibn Massoud Hudhaifa witnessed these conflicts and appealed to Uthman (Usman Ibn Afran) to solve the problem. He begged him to choose one version so as to prevent even greater conflicts than were already breaking out. In response, Usman set up a committee which created the standardized Koran. Six official copies were made and sent out to Muslim centers across the Ummat (the Muslim world), especially across the Maghreb where Islam was establishing a dominant presence in the latter half of the 7 th Century. For instance, in 670 Caliph Muhawiya sent a copy of the Vulgate to Tunisia with a General who built the great mosque there to house it. That Koran became the prime document for the copying of all Korans in the region thereafter. Thus all the great mosques successively built West of Cairo became institutional and spiritual centers for the promulgation of the Vulgate in North Africa.

And as the film also shows well, it was only much later that the history of the Koran entered a second phase in which diacritics were added so as to distinguish the vowels as well as periods to make it easier to read. Specifically, it was Abu Aswad Addualiy who “invented” or introduced the use of the period in the Arabic script in 708 C. E. Prior to those inventions, the Hejazi script did not include punctuation marks nor indicate vowels making it very difficult to read the text never mind opening it up to considerable interpretation. The film illustrates the former problem well in that when Ferid Heider tries to read the Vulgate of Usman in Al Azhar, he can barely do so - even though he is a highly trained Koranic scholar. Let us return with all the above in mind to the beginning and pivot of the whole film. The narrator emphasizes in the film’s opening scene that there is only one version of the Koran and that it contains 6 000 verses grouped into 114 chapters (surah). Each chapter is identified by titles and organized in sequence according to their length from the longest to the shortest. It has been accepted since the Ummayad period as unquestioned dogma that this is the original revelation in its original form, that is, unchanged, the exact revelation. Yet the film very effectively explains that Ali’s text recorded three times as many revelations, that the sequences differed in different versions and that what we learn from the Sana’a fragments is that even the texts themselves had been altered and in the original included non-Arabic words. To say that this would be seen as heretical by fundamentalists is to put it mildly. For this particular religious community as a whole and the different interpretive communities within the Ummat, the very notion that the Koran has a history is a potentially explosive political and religious issue with enormous implications particularly as regards gender and patriarchy. On this issue, the film reminds us that it was Fahtima/Aishya one of the Prophet’s wives who had first committed the Koran to memory, reciting it by heart in the company of the Prophet himself. Later, it was Hafshah bint Umar another wife who safeguarded the first texts of the revelations committed to memory. Women have thus played all critical roles in this history and this raises other doctrinal issues relating to patriarchy and Islam well worth exploring though not here. What needs to be foregrounded instead and something the film succeeds very well at is conveying the point that the first Korans were not technically books as we understand them but de memoire (memory aids) for the recitation of words already committed to memory by oral transmission. At first, the followers of the Prophet recited the revelations constantly so as to preserve them without change. To this day this form of oral tradition, aural transmission rather than text based memorization, plays an important part in Islamic pedagogy. This is in fact the main vehicle in Koranic study. The text still functions as a memory aid and texts (mushafs) of the Prophets sayings and his followers’ discussions as the focus of textual exegesis referring back to koranic texts are embedded within the very heart and mind of the devout Muslim

through prayer and recitation. As today amongst the most learned and devout, those who wrote it down knew the original revelations by heart. And in that sense as the film poetically conveys, the inscription of the revelations as text, allowed for “a perpetual echo” of the original prophetic experience. The film is not without significant problems. For myself, the two fundamental problems, or perhaps tensions worth exploring are these. First, the notion that there is a difference between Western scientific study and Islamic scholarship repeats itself throughout the film almost as a matter of principle. Does this not rest on an explicitly essentialist view that because it is a matter of faith, Muslim scholars are incapable of the rational, scientific study of these new documents recording the earliest history and diversity of the Koran? In contrast, non-Muslim Western scholars are presented here as rational scientists, ineluctably different, thus capable of “scientific analysis”, that is value free analysis. Second, at no point in the film is there any recognition of the issue of interpretation. Not only are these serious issues for academics interested in Orientalism, colonialism and hermeneutics but the latter is an arena of major contention in the Muslim world, particularly in Indonesia. As no Muslim scholar is on record in this film commenting upon this evolution or on matters of interpretation, one does in fact and most unfortunately gains the impression that in “the Muslim mind,” an extraordinary idea in itself of a unitary and essentialized Other, it is unimaginable that one could question the canonical version or disagree about the nature and structure of the content of the Koran. These criticisms aside, the film succeeds admirably in conveying a sense of the intense religious devotion Muslims have for the Koran. On a broader level, the film provides tantalizing glimpses into the ecumenical history of Islamic civilization in terms of the decorative arts and architecture. For instance, in some of the illuminated pages of the Koranic manuscripts found at Sana’a, the border elements clearly reference architectural details of the Great Mosque of Damascus particularly the ornate hanging lamps. We also learn here that in the Umaayad period when Abdul Malik designed iconic Islamic buildings such as the Ummayad Mosque, Byzantine Christian craftsmen were employed in the construction and decoration of mosques. The consequence was that the Christian mosaic tradition extending back to ancient Greece entered into Islamic architectural history. One would naturally want to explore the history of other design and material traditions such as that of stained glass and whether they are part of this particular decorative arts fusion. And towards conclusion, there is an even more powerful example of the shared history between Islam and Christianity in this film in which we see how the tomb of Jahya (John the Baptist), the Church of St John the Baptist, has been incorporated into the center of the Ummayad Mosque venerated by Muslims ever since. In all this the film has enormous potential for inter-faith discussions above and beyond its value for teaching about the history of Islamic religion and civilization, art and

architecture, and bookmaking. One of the greatest values of this film then is how it might take both Muslims and non-Muslims, theists and atheists, into sacred spaces that one would never have otherwise been able to enter, the pace serene, the images as beautiful as the music, the echo of the revelation gently reverberating across time and into the future.

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