The Iranian religious scholar Seyed Mostafa Azmayesh has been studying the origins and language of the Koran for decades. Ulrich von Schwerin spoke to him about his efforts to develop a new approach to the Koran, thereby saving the Prophet′s true message from what he perceives to be an erroneous interpretation of Islam
Last year an ancient Koran manuscript was discovered by the University of Birmingham. What is the significance of this finding for Koranic research?
Seyed Mostafa Azmayesh: It is known that the Koran was not written in a homogeneous language but composed in three different styles. As a result there has always been much debate about the sources of the Koran. Some even believed that the Koran was only composed two centuries after Muhammad′s lifetime by a group of scholars in Iran. But the Koran in Birmingham and other manuscripts show that this book already existed in the lifetime of the Prophet himself. An analysis of the paper and ink using the latest technology shows that the Koran of Birmingham is the oldest existing copy and that it was written at a time when the Prophet was still alive. This discovery has put an end to much speculation about the origin of the Koran. So now we have to find another explanation for the non-homogeneity of the language of the Koran.
You write in your recently published book on the Koran that the Prophet Muhammad stood in the tradition of previous monotheist religions and that he was familiar with their scriptures.
Azmayesh: In the Prophet′s lifetime the majority of people in the Arabian peninsula were uneducated and illiterate Bedouin. But in Mecca and Medina there was an educated community to which Muhammad′s family belonged. This community was acquainted with the monotheistic religions of Christianity, Judaism and Manichaeism, which were common in Syria and Yemen. The main part of the Koran displays continuity with the pre-existing texts and teachings of the monotheistic masters such as Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael. It refers to these sources – not necessarily to the official Bible but to another source – which according to my research are the scriptures found in the Qumran scrolls discovered near the Dead Sea.
Open to everybody: “the Koran is God′s teachings for humankind and it is a book to be read like other books. This idea that it cannot be understood in and of itself blocks the reader. It is the result of brain-washing by clerics who don′t want us to think,” asserts Azmayesh
You have said that if the Koran was composed in the lifetime of Muhammad you would have to find another explanation for the different styles in the Koran. What is your explanation?
Azmayesh: When Muhammad started to teach the Bedouin, who were uneducated, illiterate idol-worshippers, about monotheism, they couldn′t understand and accept what he was saying. In their eyes Muhammad was an infiltrated agent from a culture foreign to the Arabian peninsula, who wanted to change their traditions and customs. The Bedouin posed a lot of objections to the teachings of Muhammad which are repeated in their own language in the Koran. Hence the three styles found in the Koran: the pure teachings of Muhammad, the objections of the Bedouin and the answers of Muhammad to them. This is why you don′t have a homogeneous language in the Koran.
So your thesis is that if you correctly analyse the Koran, you will be able to distinguish the three different parts and to identify the true message of the Prophet?
Azmayesh: Yes, this knowledge of the three different parts gives a relative aspect to the Koran. What is written in the Koran is important, but you cannot act according to everything in the Koran, because certain parts are objections by the Prophet′s critics, which were ultimately rejected by the Koran. The true message can be found if you study and grasp the soul of the Koran.
How can you distinguish these three different parts in the Koran?
Azmayesh: It is very easy – the language is completely different. Our main focus is the language of the Koran. The language used in the Prophet′s discussion with his critics is very different from the language of the original teachings of Muhammad.
You propose returning to the Koran and no longer referring to the Islamic traditions.
Azmayesh: The clergy pretend that you cannot comprehend the Koran without studying the revayat, the sayings of the Prophet. But they are immersed in the revayat and totally forget the verses of the Koran. In the religious seminaries, the Koran is simply a sacred scripture – it is not used at all.
And you would argue that the Koran can be understood by itself?
Azmayesh: Of course. The Koran is God′s teachings for humankind and it is a book to be read like other books. This idea that it cannot be understood in and of itself blocks the reader. It is the result of brain-washing by clerics who don′t want us to think. The Koran is open to everybody.
But if you don′t know anything about the Koran, can you really distinguish its true message?
Azmayesh: Present research is enabling us to break down a lot of dogmas and obstacles erected by scholars like Muhammad al-Ghazali, who created an ideology under the name of Islam when he was engaged by the Seljuk king. He issued a fatwa that forbade people to think and ordered believers to follow the clergy and the clergy to follow the revayat.
You write in your book that two different interpretations of the Koran developed from the outset and persist until today. What were these two interpretations?
Azmayesh: The people of Mecca did not accept the message of the Prophet and obliged him to migrate to Medina. When he finally returned victoriously to Mecca the people were forced to choose between conversion and exile, so they decided to convert to Islam. But although they became Muslims, they did not change their beliefs and went on to develop their own interpretation of the Koran. So even in the lifetime of Muhammad, two antagonistic versions were born under the name of Islam, which rejected each other. All these tribal traditions such as stoning, the circumcision of girls, the cutting of hands and considering Muslims better than other people were introduced into Islam at that time.
Three linguistic styles are found in the Koran: the pure teachings of Muhammad, the objections of the Bedouin and the answers of Muhammad to them
So you are saying that even during the lifetime of the Prophet an erroneous interpretation of Islam developed which Muhammad was not able to eliminate?
Azmayesh: Yes, the newly converted Muslims which the Koran calls hypocrites and who remained attached to the tribal traditions, their hearts filled with teachings from the period of ignorance, presented a commentary of the Koran which was contrary to its actual intention. They committed a lot of atrocities against the people of the Arabian peninsula in the name of Islam and this continued throughout the Umayyad, the Abbasid and the Ottoman dynasties. This has become the history of Islam, yet it has nothing to do with the teachings of Muhammad. Hence, everything written about the history of Islam needs to be revised from the ground up.
What you are basically proposing is rejecting a large part of the established teachings of Islam and of that which is commonly understood as Islam. That′s highly controversial.
“I oppose the false Muslims and the people who pretend to be Muslims but know nothing about the teachings of the Koran. These extremists extract eight verses from the Koran about jihad, for instance, to form their own religion and world view, with the aim of conquering other countries and persecuting other peoples,” says Azmayesh
Azmayesh: What is happening today in the world in the name of Islam has nothing to do with the teachings of the Koran. I oppose the false Muslims and the people who pretend to be Muslims but know nothing about the teachings of the Koran. These extremists extract eight verses from the Koran about jihad, for instance, to form their own religion and world view, with the aim of conquering other countries and persecuting other peoples.
So what in your view is the true message of the Koran?
Azmayesh: Muhammad′s main message was much the same as the message of previous prophets: how to develop the capacities of the soul, how to become a spiritual advocate and how to control your own ego. This is the true message of the Koran. God sent his messengers to create a model of society and civilisation in which social relations are based on equality. The aim of each prophet was to recreate the same model which was first established at the time of David and Solomon. When we speak of respect for human rights, many people think they are modern values, but respect for human rights clearly exists in the Koran.
The religious scholar and human rights activist Seyed Mostafa Azmayesh was born in 1952 in Tehran. He studied Arabian literature and law in Tehran, before continuing his studies in theology, the history of law and comparative religious science in Paris and Lyon. His latest book, “New Researches on the Quran: Why and how two versions of Islam entered the history of mankind” was published in 2016.