What the Koran Really Says

What the Koran Really Says is a somewhat misleading title for Ibn Warraq’s book since the subject is not Islamic theology or Koranic exegesis. What this book is instead, is an anthology of articles dealing with various aspects of the Koran’s origins, history, linguistics, and textual criticism. For a number of reasons, the Koran has not been subjected to textual and literary criticism nearly as much as the Bible and the papers reprinted in What the Koran Really Says help to fill that lack somewhat.


There are political and cultural reasons that the Koran has not been as thoroughly analyzed as the Bible, but one of the main reasons has to be the simple fact that the history and language of the Koran is far more opaque that the Bible’s. The text of the Koran is often very hard to understand, even by native speakers of Arabic and the way the texts jumps from subject to subject within every sura and even within paragraphs suggests a haphazard and complicated history of composition and editing.

The Greek New Testament was written in the context of a highly literate culture with a historical and cultural background fairly well known to the historian. We know more about the events of the first century AD than about almost any other period in the ancient world. The Hebrew Old Testament is older and the circumstances of its composition are somewhat more obscure, but Palestine or Israel is on the cross-road between Asia and Africa and we can gain a fairly accurate idea of the history of the region from the records left by the Egyptians and the various Mesopotamian states, not to mention from the Israelites themselves.

The Koran, on the other hand, was created by a semi-literate people who lived on the fringes of the major civilizations of the time. We have few records of the Arabian Peninsula during the time of Mohammed and for the first century of the Islamic era, beyond traditional Muslim accounts that are difficult to verify. It is possible that almost everything that is said about the composition of the Koran, including the time and place it was revealed, is untrue and in fact, we cannot be certain that Mohammed actually existed or if he did the deeds attributed to him. The language of the Koran is Arabic, but again, many words in the text seem to have been derived from other Semitic languages, and it is not always whether the dialect is that of the Bedouins of central Arabia, as tradition states, or perhaps the language is closer to that of Northern Arabia, where the speakers might be more influenced by Syriac or Aramaic.

The articles presented in What the Koran Really Says deal with these questions and more. They are all very well done and thorough, however they are also intended for an audience of scholars and, as a layman, I sometimes had trouble following them. I think someone more knowledgeable of Arabic grammar and the text of the Koran would get more out of this book than I would. As it is, my attention wandered while reading about the fine points of grammatical constructions or the precise meaning of a sentence. The best and most interesting portions of this book were the introductions written by Ibn Warraq himself and I think he would have done a better service to his readers by writing a book which summarized and explained the arguments found in the various articles.

Still, I cannot complain if the book is not for me. I am certain that any scholar who wishes to study the origins and development of the Koran will find What the Koran Really Says to be a valuable resource.