The Lost Archive

From the Wall Street Journal: The Lost Archive.

On the night of April 24, 1944, British air force bombers hammered a former Jesuit college here housing the Bavarian Academy of Science. The 16th-century building crumpled in the inferno. Among the treasures lost, later lamented Anton Spitaler, an Arabic scholar at the academy, was a unique photo archive of ancient manuscripts of the Quran.

The 450 rolls of film had been assembled before the war for a bold venture: a study of the evolution of the Quran, the text Muslims view as the verbatim transcript of God’s word. The wartime destruction made the project "outright impossible," Mr. Spitaler wrote in the 1970s.

Mr. Spitaler was lying. The cache of photos survived, and he was sitting on it all along. The truth is only now dribbling out to scholars — and a Quran research project buried for more than 60 years has risen from the grave. [continue]

3 thoughts on “The Lost Archive

  1. It would appear a photographic archive of ancient manuscripts, long thought destroyed, may represent the next “fatwa” target for guardians of the “religion of peace”. Barring a few famous but extremely small fragments, the oldest well-dated Christian manuscripts only go back to the 3rd century. Discovering a cache of manuscripts made only sixty years after Jesus’s ministry would be a remarkable find indeed.

    However, as noted in the article, Islam is tied much more closely to its foundational document than is Christianity on its Testament. Christianity’s foundation in mysticism, its legendary flexibility, and its ease of adaptation (to the point of bloody schism), have allowed it to withstand scholarly critique of its foundational documents.

    Not so Islam, whose structure was quite obviously informed by the blood-drenched religious chaos of seventh century Constantinople. Having read it myself, I can say many parts to me definitely seem to have been composed by someone who knew both Christian and Judaic traditions, albeit second-hand and garbled. It would be ironic indeed if, by so very carefully engineering itself against the weaknesses evident in the Christianity of its time, radical Islam left itself open to its eventual undoing in the face of modern inquiry.

    However, I feel quite realistic in not expecting a “Mohamed Seminar” similar to its Christian counterpart to appear because of all this. After all, if one claims not all of Paul’s letters were in fact written by Paul, and provides convincing evidence to prove it, one does not need to worry about the embrace of lunatics wearing complicated vests.

    I only hope the relevant German authorities quickly take steps to secure (or at least create many copies of) the archive. While I doubt I’ll see it in my time, Islam won’t always be this loopy, and it would be a tragedy to lose such an important collection of ancient documents due to carelessness or sabotage.

    More info, from a more innocent time, is here. It would appear the manuscripts are from perhaps the first few decades of Islam’s history, making them even more important and remarkable. It would at first seem outrageous such a find would be barely known, and (as far as I know) never published. An intact, original gospel or an original Pauline letter collection would rightly cause a sensation in the West. Then I remember who we’re really talking about, and it’s not so outrageous after all.

  2. My Arabic is rudimentary, to say the least. But I can focus. As I did some time ago, on a passage in the coran, which for a certain reason had gotten into the picture. I laid three coranic editions before me, provided with translations, two corans in bookform and one a download from an islamic site, an orthodox one. And having done so I could not fail to find out at once that I had three variants of the same Meccanic Arabic text before me. This is something which does not amaze me at all of course, for in a manuscript tradition of fourteen centuries this occurrence of variants is only to be expected, no more, no less. And the few known facts about the history of the coran tell an obvious story. But also I do know very well the claim of the mohammedans about their sacred texts, about the invariableness and the immutability of their words revealed to Mohammed by the archangel Gabriel.

    Now, as we all know, in the muslim world stagnation has been rampant, for thousand and more years, while at the same time the coranic text continued to be multiplied by hand in scriptoria from West-Africa to China. All these centuries a critical evaluation and a textual analysis on a sound scientific basis has been smothered, as well as practically not been very well possible throught the great distances between the scriptoria. Might we not assume, as they are not unintelligent, being human, that this could be one of the reasons why mohammedans get furious at the thought of scientific inquiry of the coranic text? The reality being, that the coranic text of the Caliphate has fallen apart in variants, already centuries ago, and thoughtful and accurate inspection does immediately bring textual variants to light? Which is something the confessed truth of the mohammedan faith does not deem acceptable.

    I think that it is to be assumed that exactly Mr. Spitaler just saw this all too well. And judged it too risky a matter letting himself be involved and get his fingers burned, be refused entrance in Arabic speaking muslim circles or, God forbid, be decapitated.

    I gave up the inquiry I was busy with. For I do not know which variant is the right one. Perhaps none does exist anymore. I have no way of knowing. And neither has anyone. But that is a rational view of things.

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