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The Koran: Back to the Origins of The Book

by Bruno Ulmer
Icarus Films, Brooklyn, NY, 2010
52 mins., col. Sales, $348.
Distributor’s website:  http://www.icarusfilms.com/new2010/koran.html.

Reviewed by Jonathan Zilberg
Universitas Islam Negeri Syarif Hidayatullah
Jakarta, Indonesia.

Essential viewing for anyone interested in the history of Islam, the purpose of this film is to make public the study of the earliest period of the canonization of the Koran and specifically to document a collaborative manuscript preservation and research project underway in Germany at the Corpus Coranicum under the direction of Angelika Neuwith in collaboration with Francois Deroche and Immam Ferid Heider. [1] This fascinating story begins in 1972, after an earthquake in Yemen in which the ancient mosque of Sana’a was partially destroyed. Hidden behind a wall, revealed in the debris, was a collection of pages and fragments of Korans dating back to the first century of Islam. The radical significance of these fragments is that they predated the standard version of the Koran known today and that they were different. As the Koran is understood to be the unchanged original written record of the revelations received and communicated by the Prophet Mohammad, the film treads as gently and respectfully as possible on such dangerous hallowed ground.

The Prophet’s continuous revelations began in Mecca in 609 and continued for the next 23 years until his death in 632 CE. The Sana’a fragments that are at the heart of this film’s genesis date back to 680 CE––that is, within the first half century of Islam. They show not only how the sequences of revelations, the paragraphs known as suras, differed but also how the original texts were in places edited by covering over and changing words. While the latter potentially theologically seismic detail is not explored, nor the nature and content of the many suras that were not included in the standard Koran but some of which survived nonetheless, these are the kind of extraordinary details revealed here. They will tantalize the scholarly viewer, particularly those with historical and hermeneutic interests. The film will be sure to inspire considerable debate on the historical diversity within Islam and can be exceedingly useful in any introduction to the history of texts and doctrinal conflicts in world religions.

Two fundamental problems, however, bedevil the film. First, the notion that there is a difference between Western scientific study and Islamic scholarship repeats itself throughout the film almost as a matter of principle. While non-Muslim Western scholars are represented as rational scientists capable of “scientific analysis”, that is value free analysis, Muslim scholars are, to put it bluntly, portrayed, even by themselves, as incapable of rational, scientific study of these new documents recording the earliest history and diversity of the Koran. Second, at no point in the film is there any recognition of the issue of interpretation. Not only are these serious issues for academics interested in Orientalism, colonialism and hermeneutics but also the latter is an arena of major contention in the Muslim world. As no Muslim scholar is on record in this film commenting upon this evolution or on matters of interpretation, one gains the impression that in the Muslim mind (an extraordinary idea in itself of a unitary and essentialized Other) it appears unimaginable that one could question the canonical version of the Koran or disagree about the nature and structure of the content. These criticisms aside, the film succeeds admirably in conveying a sense of the intense religious devotion Muslims have for the Koran.

To end on the subject of art, science and religion, the film provides tantalizing glimpses into the ecumenical history of Islamic civilization in terms of the decorative arts and architecture. [3] For instance, in some of the illuminated pages of the Koranic manuscripts found at Sana’a, the border elements clearly reference architectural details of the Great Mosque of Damascus particularly the ornate hanging lamps. We also learn here that in the Umaayad period when Abdul Malik designed iconic Islamic buildings such as the Ummayad Mosque, Byzantine Christian craftsmen were employed in the construction and decoration of mosques. The consequence was that the Christian mosaic tradition extending back to ancient Greece entered into Islamic architectural history. One would naturally want to explore the history of other design and material traditions such as that of stained glass and whether they are part of this particular decorative arts fusion. Lastly, there is an even more powerful example of the shared history between Islam and Christianity in which we are able to see how the tomb of Jahya (John the Baptist), the Church of St John the Baptist, has been incorporated into the center of the Ummayad Mosque and venerated by Muslims ever since. In all this the film has enormous potential for inter-faith discussions above and beyond its value for teaching about the history of Islamic religion and civilization, art and architecture, and bookmaking. One of the greatest values of this film then is how it takes both Muslims and non-Muslims, theists and atheists, into deeply sacred spaces that one would never have otherwise been able to enter, the pace serene, the images as beautiful as the music and recitation, the echo of the revelation gently reverberating across time and into the future.


1. See Tom Holland. “Where Mystery Meets History.” History Today, May 12, 2012, Volume 62, Issue 5, pp. 19-24. For exceptional elaboration, see the multiple articles in “Aux Origines de Coran”, Religions & Histoire, Janvier-Fevrier 2008, No. 18, pp. 12-65 and Pascal Buresi, Histoire de l’Islam, Juillet-Aout 2007, Dossier no. 8058. Also see the Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an Online, 2007, Brill Online Resources.

2 See Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents. Robert Irwin. 2006. Woodstock: The Overlook Press.

3. See Islamic Art. 2001. Florence: SKALA and “From the Prophet to postmodernism? New world orders and the end of Islamic art”, Finbarr Barry Flood in Making Art History: A Changing Discipline and its Institutions, ed. Elizabeth Mansfield, pp. 31-53. Routledge: New York.

Last Updated 2 August 2012

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