A brave telling of the Koran’s human stories

Most of the attention given to this book so far has, rightly, been favourable. But it has skirted round the key point. Tom Holland is attempting to show that much of what Muslims believe about the Koran is incorrect. Since their belief is rigorously literal – they hold that the Koran is the uncreated word of God recited (the word Koran means “recitation”) directly through the mouth of Mohammed – any Muslim who accepted Holland’s evidence would have to reconsider many aspects of his faith.

This painful process of textual inquiry into scripture has been well known to Christians since the 19th century, when the Bible came under similar scrutiny. It has caused anguish, but many have been able to reconcile their faith with the discoveries of scholarship. No such process has taken place in Islam. Indeed, the suppression of questioning has actually got worse. Until 1924, for example, seven different versions of the text were considered canonical, so areas of doubt were implicitly acknowledged. Now there is only one normative text, and it is inconsistent in many particulars, but Muslims dare not say so. Holland is being brave.

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