Interview: Ibn Warraq on the Judeo-Christian Sources of the Koran

by Phyllis Chesler Breitbart September 29, 2014
[Originally published under the title “Exclusive Interview: Koranic Scholar – The Judeo-Christian Sources of the Koran.”]

He is a man who rarely reads a book of less than 600 pages and who has easily written books of that length. Engage him in conversation and he will talk about the footnotes in a particular book—and the footnotes which should have been there but which are missing in action.

I am talking about my dear friend, Ibn Warraq, the author or editor of 12 books, and the only man who has ever roundly defeated Tariq Ramadan in an Intelligence Squared debate in London.

His final riposte (“I do not care to live in a society where you are stoned for adultery, I would rather live in country where you get stoned first and then commit adultery”) brought down the house.

Despite this witticism, Ibn Warraq is essentially a very shy, Old World, and exceedingly courtly man.

Translated, his pen name means “the son of a paper maker.” He does not use his real name because he is an apostate, which constitutes a capital crime in Islam. He is an ex-Muslim. He is also pro-Western, anti-terrorism, pro-Israel, and pro-human rights. In many quarters, such views are also considered “killing” offenses.

Ibn Warraq is known for having dared to summarize the history of Islam as one of imperialism, colonialism, gender and religious apartheid, anti-black racism, and slavery—and for having dared to point out that, far from being odious, imperial, “Orientalists,” European scholars, not Muslim invaders, saved, recorded, painted, preserved, and restored the narratives, scholarship, sculpture, artifacts, languages, customs, and architecture of the Islamic, pre-Islamic, and Christian Middle East, and of Asia, and India.

I can no longer remember exactly where or when we met but our work drew us together and has kept us close. By 2005, we were already familiar with each other’s work and started working together at that time. We have both been involved in a number of honor killing asylum cases—he, for his consummate knowledge about apostasy. Although Ibn Warraq is more of a long-distance intellectual, he has not hesitated to participate in certain public forums. For example, in 2006, he traveled to the Hague to participate in a conference on Islam at the Pim Fortuyn Memorial Conference. Fortuyn was a publicly gay politician who opposed Holland’s immigration policies. (His killer, sentenced to eighteen years, has just been released).

Also in 2006, in the wake of the Mohammed Cartoon travesty/tragedy, Ibn Warraq joined ten other Muslim and ex-Muslim intellectuals, (including Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Irshad Manji, Maryam Namazie, Taslima Nasreen, and Salman Rushdie), in co-signing a MANIFESTO: “Together Facing the New Totalitarianism”[which was published in February, 2006 in Charlie Hebdo]] The statement strongly opposed blasphemy laws and customs.

In 2007, as one of several conference organizers, Ibn Warraq invited me to chair the opening panel of the first Secular Islam Summit in St. Petersburg, Florida in 2007. This conference gathered a number of illustrious Muslim and ex-Muslim dissidents and feminists. The conference published a declaration that urged world governments to reject Sharia law, fatwa courts, state-sanctioned religion, to oppose the penalties for apostasy and blasphemy as a violation of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Although he is a very private man, Ibn Warraq writes about himself in a collection of essays: Virgins? What Virgins?: And Other Essays (2010).

“My family belongs to a distinct group of Indian Muslims known as Khatris who first appear as a Hindu subcaste in the 15th century. This caste of dyers of cloth converted to Islam in the 16th century and eventually settled in the Rann of Kutch and the Sind, slowly becoming merchants and traders. My mother tongue is Kutchi, a dialect linguistically related to Sindhi. There are ninety families in this subcaste, and my real family name is Valera…I was born…into a (Sunni) Muslim family in Rajkot, in the state of Gujarat, a town where Gandhi also grew up (though he was born elsewhere-Porbandar).”

Ibn Warraq grew up in Karachi and, when he was ten, left central Asia for a Christian boarding school in England. He is very English, accent and all, and as he tells it, he has an “English sensibility.” Living in Worcestershire, he acquired a “love of things peculiarly English, the English countryside, especially its bird-life–my early heroes being bird artist, C.F. Tunicliffe, and bird photographer, Eric Hoskins, the descriptions of the natural history and village life in Northamptonshire in the writings of Denys Watkins-Pitchford.”

Off the page, this is how Ibn Warraq often sounds. As a boy, vacationing with an English family in Norfolk, “inevitably led to a passion for English watercolours.…landscapes, and architecture…the uniqueness of London’s architectural history, hence my anguish when the University of London destroyed some parts of Georgian squares in and around Gordon Square… But I was also acquiring Englishness of manner, and feeling, the same awkwardness about sex, money and clothes.” Ibn Warraq is a life-long lover of British and European novels, paintings, poems, philosophical tracts, history, nature, and both European and North American street life.

Ibn Warraq spent two years in Mozambique. His father is buried in Quelimane, Mozambique which was then known as Portuguese East Africa. In his chapter on slavery (in Why The West is Best), Ibn Warraq writes about Quelimane because it was once a slave port; many Indians were involved in the slave trade. In 1974, when the Portuguese colonies became independent, his family lost their trading empire overnight.

My friend and colleague is a man who has sacrificed every and any material advantage in order to pursue a life of Ideas. One might say he is “religiously” devoted to the cause of freedom and truth. Although he has lived on many continents– India, Africa, Europe, and North America– he is not a man-in-exile, nor does he belong to any one country, culture, or ethnicity. Ibn Warraq is a citizen of the universe, at home, or not, in many countries. His true home is in books, either when reading or writing them.

He published two books on the subject of apostasy: Why I am Not A Muslim (1995) and Leaving Islam: Apostates Speak Out (2003).
Although Ibn Warraq believes that “moderate Muslims” do exist, he does not believe that “Islam is moderate.”

His 2007 book on Edward Said, Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism (2007), skewered this Naked Emperor and dhimmi imposter. Said was born in Jerusalem; his family moved to Cairo when Said was twelve years old and by the time Said was 16, he was living in Massachusetts, in the United States. His family was Christian, not Muslim. Nevertheless, as a much lauded professor and author, Said’s ideas about Western “Orientalism,” (“Exoticizing the Other”), swept the Western intelligentsia; it has yet to recover from such exceedingly bad ideas. In Defending the West, Ibn Warraq exposed the intellectual flaws, cracks, and gaping potholes in Said’s work. I urge every professor to read this work. For non-scholars, I strongly recommend Ibn Warraq’s popularization of this critique in Why The West is Best: A Muslim Apostate’s Defense of Liberal Democracy (2011).

Perhaps one of my favorite of Ibn Warraq’s essays is contained in his book, Sir Walter Scott’s Crusades and Other Fantasies (2013). Titled “George Eliot, Daniel Deronda, and Zionism: Some Observations,” Ibn Warraq presents the case for a Jewish Israel and neatly and elegantly rebuts Said’s lethal Palestinian narrative.

My friend from “the East” has urged Western intellectuals to cherish and defend their Western values and freedom.

Although Ibn Warraq believes that “moderate Muslims” do exist, he does not believe that “Islam is moderate” and he is not optimistic about how quickly moderate Muslim theologians will be able to bring about a religious reformation that will be acceptable. Nevertheless, for years now, my scholarly friend would disappear to Europe, mainly to Germany to “do Koranic research.” I had no idea why he kept returning to work with these German scholars. Now, I begin to understand the importance of this research with the publication of his new book, Christmas in the Koran: Luxenberg, Syriac, and the Near Eastern and Judeo-Christian Background of Islam (2014).

I decided to conduct an interview with him about it.

Why should people read this book?

Ibn Warraq: I think the book should, and will, be read by all those who have an inquiring mind. These articles apply to the Koran, the critical method that has been applied to the Bible, both the Old and New Testament for several hundred years, but which has only recently been used to examine the contents and origins of the Koran and the rise of early Islam. The results, as in biblical scholarship, are spectacular and intellectually exhilarating. Luxenberg’s reinterpretations have profound implications for our understanding of Islam, and her holy book, the Koran. The traditional narrative of the compilation of the Koran can no longer be accepted. Instead of being an immutable, divinely revealed scripture, the Koran is very much a human document that has a history.

Can you explain the title and also the general contents of the book?

Ibn Warraq:The title is a reference to an article by the German scholar, Christoph Luxenberg. Luxenberg analyzes a surah, that is to say, a chapter—chapter 97—in the Koran, philologically, and shows that the traditional interpretation is inadequate, and must be re-interpreted with the help of Syriac, an Aramaic dialect, and the language of Eastern Christians since the second century CE. This chapter is traditionally interpreted as referring to the transmission of the Koran to Muhammad, the Prophet. But Luxenberg shows that it is, in fact, talking of the Nativity – the sending down of the Infant Jesus during the Night of Destiny, that is under the Star of Nativity.

With Luxenberg’s mastery of Arabic, both in its Classical and dialectical forms, and Syriac, he not only manages to elucidate obscure passages, but also to uncover numerous hitherto unsuspected misreadings and misinterpreted contents of the Koran. Luxenberg’s scholarship provides ample evidence that the Koran developed from a Judeo-Christian background, since Syriac (a dialect of Aramaic) was the main literary language of both Jews and Christians in the Middle East before the advent of Islam.

What is the general significance and implications of such a book? Do you have any hidden agendas?

Ibn Warraq:Scholars such as Luxenberg, and many others included in the book, are engaged in scientific research, and go wherever that research leads. They are striving for, to use an unfashionable term, objective knowledge. Their results are offered as tentative solutions to various historical and linguistic problems, and hence are open to scientific criticism, and counter-examples. The scholars included in this volume have discarded theological assumptions that have, over the last two hundred years, crept into any discussions of the language and contents of the Koran, and the rise of Islam, assumptions that have hindered scientific progress. Instead these scholars have had recourse only to what Maxime Rodinson once called “the normal mechanisms of human history”.

For us, in studying the Koran, it is necessary to distinguish the historical from the theological attitude. In the present volume we are only concerned with those truths that are yielded by a process of rational inquiry, by scientific examination.

As I said, these scholars are engaged in scientific research and would be horrified if they thought their work was being manipulated for political purposes. They would eschew polemics of any kind. So in what I am about to elaborate I should like to make clear that I am expressing my own private opinion, and have no wish to involve these scholars in polemics.

But surely such an analysis has implications—some might say heretical implications.

Ibn Warraq: Pace non-polemical scholars, how can their research not have political, theological and social implications? The implications of such research are very grave.
I have no hidden agendas since I have never hidden my longer term aims. What is more I do not think they are ignoble aims. I wish to bring enlightenment to the Islamic world. As I wrote over ten years ago in the preface to my work, What the Koran Really Says, my wish “is to dispel the sacred aura surrounding the Arabic language, the Arabic script, and the Holy Arabic Scripture—to desacralize, if I may coin a term —and put them into their historical, linguistic, and Middle Eastern sectarian milieu.”
I wished to emulate the work of Baruch Spinoza who, as Jonathan Israel has shown in his magisterial trilogy on the Enlightenment, was single-handedly responsible for setting the entire enterprise of the European Enlightenment on its way. Both the Renaissance and the Reformation were incomplete. According to Israel, “Spinoza and Spinozism were in fact the intellectual backbone of the European Radical Enlightenment everywhere, not only in the Netherlands, Germany, France, Italy, and Scandinavia but also Britain and Ireland.”

Spinoza was excommunicated (not beheaded or burned at the stake) for his views.

Ibn Warraq:Yes, but for Spinoza the Bible is purely a human and secular text, theology is not an independent source of truth. This work is often considered the beginning of biblical criticism. Koranic criticism lags behind by almost three hundred and fifty years since it has scarcely begun. Hence the significance and importance of works like Christmas in the Koran.

Have the ideas of Christoph Luxenberg found acceptance among specialists?

Ibn Warraq:Yes, there are a number of distinguished Semiticists who find Luxenberg’s analysis of particular surahs (chapters) in the Koran very convincing. These scholars do not accept all of Luxenberg’s reinterpretations of passages in the Koran but they are keeping an open mind and judging case by case. There are, of course, also many scholars who reject everything that Luxenberg has proposed. But far too often their rejections are not backed by rational discourse or scientific arguments; they refuse to engage with Luxenberg’s arguments altogether. Thus it is often unclear why they are rejecting his analyses.

Will introducing and compiling this book get you into any more trouble?

Ibn Warraq:It is true that in the past I have been on several death lists for my writings, death lists of Islamic fundamentalists. However, I do not anticipate any particular negative reaction since the work, Christmas in the Koran, is a work of scholarship which will have to be answered by scholarship of a similar kind. In which case, I shall have succeeded in my aim in bringing about rational discourse about their Holy Scripture, the Koran.

Thank you. Phyllis Chesler, an emerita professor of psychology and women’s studies and the author of fifteen books, is a Shillman-Ginsburg fellow at the Middle East Forum.