Friday, December 7, 2012

Islam: False religion or Christian heresy?

Heresy has often been defined as a truth carried to the extreme. I first heard Islam referred to as "a Christian heresy," as opposed to a mere false religion, while in seminary. This is not a particularly unusual view and, as Peter Leithart points out, it is now getting a fresh hearing from some scholars.
Near the bottom of the pit of hell, Dante encounters a man walking with his torso split from chin to groin, his guts and other organs spilling out. “See how I tear myself!” the man shrieks. “See how Mahomet is deformed and torn!” For us, the scene is not only gruesome but surprising, for Dante is not in a circle of false religion but in a circle reserved for those who tear the body of Christ. Like many medieval Christians, Dante views Islam less as a rival religion than as a schismatic form of Christianity.

A handful of Western scholars now think there is considerable historical truth to Dantes view. According to the standard Muslim account, the Quran contains revelations that Allah delivered to Mohammed through the angel Jibril between 609 and 632. They were fixed in written form under the third Caliph in the mid seventh century. Islamic scholar Christoph Luxenberg doubts most of this. In 2000, he published the German edition of The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran, whose restrained title and dispassionate tone belie its explosive arguments-explosive enough for the author to hide behind a pseudonym. The book has been banned in several Islamic countries.
It is easy to see why the guardians of Islam's reputation would not want such a book to fall into the hands of the ignorant masses. Consider some of its claims:
One of Luxenbergs central arguments is that the Quran is an Arabic translation of an original Syriac/Aramaic text. Luxenberg is able to resolve oddities in the Arabic text by treating them as erroneous Arabic translations of an original Syriac text. Words that have no Arabic source turn out to be garbled versions of common Syriac terms. Luxenberg even finds evidence in the Quran itself for treating it as a translation. By his rendering, Sura 44:58 says “we have translated [the Koran] into your language so that they may allow themselves to be reminded.”

Luxenberg has become notorious for challenging the common translation of huri, usually understood as the hot-bodied virgins with whom faithful Islamic men hope to be rewarded in paradise. According to Luxenberg, they arent wide-eyed virgins, but white grapes, “juicy fruits hanging down,” ready for picking (Sura 38:52). Its a vision of paradise similar to that of the fourth-century Christian poet, Ephrem the Syrian: “He who abstained from the wine here below, for him yearn the grapevines of Paradise. Each of them extends him a drooping cluster.”

That reference to Ephrem is not accidental, for Luxenberg argues that the Quran derives from a Syriac Christian lectionary. Again, the evidence is hiding in plain sight. It has become commonplace among scholars of Islam to recognize that the word Quran means lectionarium, but few draw the controversial conclusion: “If Koran . . . really means lectionary, then one can assume that the Koran intended itself first of all to be understood as nothing more than a liturgical book with selected texts from the Scriptures (the Old and New Testament) and not at all as a substitute for the Scriptures . . . as an independent Scripture.”
Even more astounding is this challenge to historical conventional wisdom which, if true, would be very inconvenient for Muslims.
Other early Islamic texts support the notion that Islam emerged not as a new religion but as a novel development within a Syriac Christian milieu. In his contribution to Hidden Origins, Luxenberg applies his method to the inscription on the Dome of the Rock, which seems to contain a straightforward Islamic confession: “There is no god but God alone . . . Mohammed the servant of God and messenger.” Luxenberg points out that Mohammed, usually understood as a proper name, means “exalted be” or “praised be,” and also notes that Syriac Christians, who were skeptical of the Nicene doctrine of Jesus divine sonship, preferred Isaiah's title “Servant” for Jesus. He contends that the inscription should read: “There is no god but God alone . . . Praised be the servant of God and his messenger.” This makes better sense of the sequel, which explicitly identifies “Messiah Jesus, son of Mary” as “the messenger of God and his Word.” An inscription about Jesus was later reinterpreted as a confession of a different faith entirely.
Syriac Christians were notorious for embracing heretical ideas, most notably Monophysitism and Nestorianism. The influence of the latter on the development of Islam is well documented.

Perhaps the most accurate way to describe Islam, from an orthodox Christian perspective, is that it is a heresy of a heresy--a truth carried to the extreme, with disastrously extreme consequences.