Are there different versions of Islam’s Quran?

DUANE ASKS: Are there different versions of the Quran or just different interpretations of the one version?

THE GUY ANSWERS: Since early in the history of Islam, only one Quran text in the original Arabic language has been fully authorized. However, as with most religious matters, the story is complicated. The religion teaches that the Quran existed eternally in heaven before angels gradually revealed the words little by little to the Prophet Muhammad between the year 620 C.E. (“Common Era”) and his death in 632. A tradition that the Prophet was illiterate is said to show the Quran’s miraculous nature and that Muhammad was a passive transmitter who did not produce the words himself. (By contrast, Jews and Christians see their Bible as God’s Word but written by humans.)

The orthodox view of the Quran’s transmission is depicted in English by such scholars as Muhammad Mustafa al-Azami of King Saud University in Saudi Arabia, pioneer English translator N.J. Dawood, Majid Fakhry and Mahmud Zayid of the American University in Lebanon, and A.S. Abdul Haleem of the University of London. Muhammad dictated the revelations to his “Companions,” who preserved them by memorization in an ancient oral culture skilled in accurate preservation that way. (Christian conservatives say that’s also true for materials about Jesus collected in the New Testament Gospels. For instance, see the brand-new The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority by John H. Walton and D. Brent Sandy.) Quran passages were also said to be written down by the Prophet’s secretaries.

Orthodoxy holds that all the material of what became the Quran existed in writing during Muhammad’s lifetime, though oral recitation remained important. A non-Muslim expert, W. Montgomery Watt, judged it “probable” that “much of the Quran was written down in some form” while Muhammad was still living. Al-Azami even contends that the Prophet arranged the final order of the verses and chapters (“suras”), though western scholars disagree.

After Muhammad died, his successors pursued a full written compilation, partly because deaths of Companions in battle raised fears that their memorized material could be lost. Eventually the third caliph (religious and political ruler) in the Sunni line, Uthman (644-656 C.E.), ordered an authorized version, then assigned reciters to deliver copies to several major Muslim towns and sought to destroy all other Quran texts in order to enforce uniformity. Watt considered it “certain that the book still in our hands is essentially” Uthman’s authorized text. (A manuscript in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, is thought to be one-third of a surviving Uthman manuscript; Columbia University’s library has a copy.) Shiites use the same text as Sunnis though the faith’s two main branches disagree on the role of early caliphs. Egypt’s official Quran from 1924 is the recognized Arabic edition.

Certain French writers are skeptical about the orthodox history.

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Porn no more: Secular students inviting religious discussion

Gone is the “low-hanging fruit” of years past when the media converged on the University of Texas-San Antonio campus each year to produce titillating stories on students exchanging Bibles and Qurans for porn.

The annual “Smut for Smut” event is no more. In its place are kinder, gentler atheists, in the form of the Secular Student Alliance. The group says it wants conversation, not provocation, and will not revert to its old ways.

Replacing the saucier stories and the reporters behind them is San Antonio Express-News Godbeat pro Abe Levy. He revisited the topic for a Sunday piece on a topic that has gained a lot of headlines — much of them sensational – in recent years.

Kudos to the Express-News for telling a real news story as opposed to the tabloid stuff. Three years ago, that wasn’t exactly the case. From this week’s story:
But times have changed.

This semester, Atheist Agenda renamed itself the Secular Student Alliance, one of 402 groups affiliated with an Ohio-based umbrella organization of the same name. The makeover underscores a national trend in which secular humanist groups have been dropping edgy, insult-minded strategies for more welcoming ones.

The change wasn’t just conscience-based, however. The story quotes one former member who said the old approach would entice people to the group’s meetings only to turn them off.

The strategy is now paying off for the Secular Student Alliance, apparently:

Meetings now attract people of diverse interests, including those affiliated with a religion but seeking a place to question or doubt without conditions, leaders said.

The new group is awaiting approval as a registered UTSA student organization. But weekly recruiting efforts already reflect a kinder bunch of people.

At a small table in the central campus this week, they passed out fliers challenging the ideologies of major world religions. Alliance president Charles Duncan smiled pleasantly and, in an even-handed tone, spoke of how science and reason was a suitable basis for human charity.

“We’re out here just promoting the values of humanism. You can be moral in the absence of religion,” said Duncan, 24, who in 1997 prayed for Christian salvation during a Billy Graham sermon at the Alamodome and officially came out as an atheist two years ago. “Our goal now is to, instead of inciting hostility, we want to engage in civil dialogue.”

Since we’re going there, the story could have been improved with some input from religious folks. This section at the end offered a perfect opportunity:

Hey AP: Does anyone know why Terry Jones was arrested?

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If you have spent much time studying First Amendment cases you will know that many of the most important cases center on the activities of people with whom no one in his or her right mind would want to have dinner. The bottom line: It’s easy to protect the free-speech rights of nice people. It’s harder to take a legal stand in defense of Nazis who want to assembly and march through a Chicago suburb that is home to hundreds of Holocaust survivors.

This brings us, logically enough, to the Rev. Terry Jones of Florida, the guy who keeps trying to draw media attention by creating bonfires using copies of the Quran, despite appeals from U.S. military leaders that symbolic speech of this kind could lead to the deaths of us troops and other personnel based in tense Islamic cultures.

I would add that his actions could also, when twisted, be used to justify the slaughter of Christians in places like Syria, Egypt and Iraq, not that this is an important a story right now or anything. Just saying.

No one here wants to stand up and cheer for Jones. However, the Associated Press ran a truly disturbing story from earlier this week about his latest brush with the law. Read the top of this story — care of a link to The Washington Post — carefully:

MULBERRY, Fla. – Law enforcement arrested a Florida pastor … as he drove to a park to light nearly 3,000 Qurans on fire to protest the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Polk County sheriff’s deputies arrested Pastor Terry Jones, 61, and his associate pastor, Marvin Sapp Jr., 34, on felony charges as he drove a pickup truck towing a large barbecue-style grill filled with Qurans soaked in kerosene. He had said he was heading to a nearby park to burn 2,998 Qurans — one for every victim of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Sheriff’s officials said they would hold a news conference later Wednesday to discuss specific charges.

Mulberry’s mayor, along with area elected officials, a sheriff’s deputy and several Polk County residents have talked about the need to express love and tolerance for all faiths on Sept. 11.

OK, did you notice any important, rather basic, information missing from that part of the story?

Let’s read on, looking at some key factual material.

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Bali, bikinis, Miss World and fear of Islam’s ‘extremist fringe’

I would like to ask a journalistic question and I want to stress that this question is sincere.

I am not asking this question as part of a rationalization maneuver that allows me to write a post that contains the words “bikinis” and “Islam” in the same headline. Honest.

So here is my question: Does anyone in the mainstream press actually care about what Islam does or does not teach about women’s issues?

Let me put a more specific edge on this question: I get it that traditional forms of Islam stress modesty, but does anyone know what various schools of thought in Islam teach that would lead to, let’s say, a single-piece bathing suit being significantly less sinful than a bikini? Also, is this stress on modesty rooted in culture alone or in interpretations of specific passages in the Koran and other crucial texts?

In other words, is there information that journalists should be referencing in stories about women’s issues, passages worthy of commentary by sources?

Questions about journalistic issues linked to Islamic teachings and tradition have been bothering me for some time, as regular GetReligion readers may have noticed. Right now I am asking these specific questions because of an Associated Press story out of the Pacific rim that ran at The Herald Sun with the rather dangerous headline: “Miss World removes bikinis in Muslim Indonesia.” And here’s the top of the story:

Contestants at this year’s Miss World beauty pageant will not wear bikinis in the parade in a bid to avoid causing offence in Muslim-majority Indonesia, organisers have confirmed.

The 137 women taking part in the September contest will swap bikinis for more conservative attire, such as traditional sarongs, for the beach fashion section.

The contest is being held on the resort island of Bali, where foreign tourists flock in their millions and the beaches are packed with women sunbathing in skimpy swimwear.

But Miss World Organisation chairwoman Julia Morley insisted that none of the pageant’s contestants would wear a bikini.

The religion angle in the story is rather obvious. At this point (check their website), the Miss World authorities seem to be balancing several concerns at the same time — with their eyes focused on television ratings as well as event-site security. Yes, there will be a “beach fashion” section of the competition, but none of the contestants will sport a bikini.

So far so good. So they will all wear sarongs? That isn’t what the statement said.

So what is going on here and what does Lady Gaga have to do with it? Here’s all this short story will say:

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