Exposing the Koran's History

She’s written a book about the Koran that could get her killed.

Terry Kelhawk is the pen name of a vivacious, middle-aged college professor whose novel, The Topkapi Secret (Prometheus Books), is out this month.

She’s hoping her book—complete with chase scenes and lush Middle Eastern tableaux—will be for Islam what The DaVinci Code was for Catholics.

“Previously, novelists have taken risks writing about Islam for no better reason than to make sales,” she said. “I believe exposing a detrimental belief is more important.”

Kelhawk’s book is on how the Koran has been changed many times since its 7th-Century origins and is geared to reach the masses with an imaginative Raiders of the Lost Ark style.

The art of the religious pulp novel has outgrown Christianity and Judaism to tackle the big questions in other religions, but sometimes those religions aren’t too quick with the answers.

Muslims say the Koran was dictated by the Angel Gabriel to Mohammed between AD 610 and AD 632 and has not been altered or tampered with since. Mohammad passed along the revelation to his followers who, it’s assumed, memorized his words perfectly.

Some of the literate ones did record this verbatim text from Allah on leather, leaves, bones and palm branches, as paper was rare in the desert. If Abu Bakir, the first caliph and Mohammad’s father-in-law, compiled a collection of the sayings, it has been lost. Thousands of people memorized portions of Mohammad’s teachings and written compilations were stored in Damascus, Mecca, Kufa and Basra.

One compilation was owned by Uthman, the third caliph who ordered more than a dozen rival versions of the Koran to be burned around 653 AD. He then sent copies of his standardized version to various corners of the rapidly expanding Muslim empire. None of these exist, as the earliest remnants of the Koran today date back to the 8th Century. Full versions only date back to the 10th Century.

The protagonists in Kelhawk’s book try to discover how the Topkapi codex—an early version of the Koran that was sitting untranslated in an Istanbul museum—differs from other versions. They are racing against time and a secretive Taliban-like brotherhood that’s killing scholars who question the Koran’s divine origins. It is tough to write a gripping novel about textual criticism but Terry Kelhawk may have pulled it off.

“There’s a lot of rewritten history about the Koran that should be exposed,” she said. “The Koran has been changed and there’s been a cover-up. Maybe this will open Muslims’ eyes as to what the truth is versus what they’ve been spoon-fed all their lives.”

Other monotheistic religions such as Judaism and Christianity have survived critical scholarship about their holy books, but Islam has resisted such questions, fearing that investigating the Koran’s formation could show it to be an all-too-human book.

The Koran lifts huge portions from the Bible with key details changed such as Ishmael, not Isaac, being the son that Abraham intended to sacrifice. Islamic apologists will say the Bible—written centuries earlier than the Koran—is “corrupted” and Mohammad got the facts from Gabriel.

What if faithful Muslims begin to doubt the Koran’s veracity?

That’s heavy stuff for a novel but Kelhawk is determined to use the genre as a way of provoking debate. Maybe, she said, “radical Muslims will be less zealous when they know that theirs is not the only holy book that has not been changed.”

But what if some mullah issues a fatwa ordering her to be assassinated?

“I know there are risks,” she added. “The truth can withstand scrutiny. That’s what we believe in the West. Muslims say it’s a sin to bring disgrace on Islam, which is why it’ll take an outside force to bring this to the world’s attention.”