Interview with Terry Kelhawk, author of The Topkapi Secret (Prometheus Books)
By Vincent Czyz
In what RT Book Reviews calls “meticulously researched,” this novel takes you from San Francisco across America and Europe into the Middle East and North Africa. The plot comes wrapped in details ranging from the harems of the Ottoman Empire and Turkish Baths, to the English countryside and literature, art and architecture, women explorers, the 2006 war in Lebanon, insights on Arab life in Dearborn, Michigan, Middle Eastern cooking, and Islamic extremism. The Topkapi Secret also shines a light on long-standing myths about Islam and the Koran. All except a few percent of Muslims around the world sincerely believe the Koran has never been changed – that it is the same now as it was at the time of Mohammed, and as it is in heaven. Islamic and Western academic sources show otherwise. What The Topkapi Secret says about the Koran is backed by authoritative references. (See “References” page on website or in the book’s appendix.)
Terry Kelhawk is an award-winning speaker, writer, and teacher with significant personal and professional experience with Islam and the Middle East. She holds a doctorate degree, and her areas of interest include culture, religion, and women’s rights–especially in the Middle East. She blogs on huffingtonpost.com, foxnews.com, and politicalmavens.com.
1. What’s your religious background?
My goal in writing The Topkapi Secret was to do it from a non-religious perspective, as if it could have been written by anyone – atheist, Buddhist, Christian, Jew, Muslim. It’s not a treatise on which religion might be right, but an adventure novel that exposes a problem.
2. How did you become involved with Islam and the Middle East?
Since I was a child I’ve had friends from the Middle East and North Africa. Over the years, personal and professional connections have given me a deeper insight into the thinking of the Muslim world. Apart from relationships and conversations with thousands of Muslims, I’ve learned about Islam directly from Islamic writings, and from presentations by Muslim leaders in mosques, Islamic institutes, and universities.
3. The vast majority of Muslims around the world believe the Koran is the same now as it was at the time of Mohammed and that it is identical to the copy on a table in heaven. How did you become aware that there are variant copies of the Koran?
In 1999 I began to take Islam seriously. In talking to Muslims and going to Islamic meetings, it gradually dawned on me that what I was hearing about the Koran from Muslims did not fit with what their own sources and non-Muslim scholars said. There were huge discrepancies.
I discovered that average Muslims sincerely believe in the integrity of an unchanged Koran. Some leaders know otherwise, but parrot the party line to their credulous people.
4. If you are correct what does this mean for Islam?
The cornerstone in radical Islam is the belief that the Koran has never changed, and the extreme devotion this false belief engenders. Sura 9:40, tells Muslims to fight until the Koran is uppermost. This verse is used by terrorist leaders like Muslim Brotherhood founder Hasan al Banna and Osama bin Laden’s successor Ayman al-Zawahri to promote violent jihad.
Muslims are victims of one of the greatest cover-ups in history. In order to control and radicalize them, they have been kept ignorant that Islamic sources show the Koran has had many revisions. If the truth became common knowledge in the Muslim World, an “Arab summer” might follow the “Arab Spring”: we could see a time of unrivaled openness to new ideas and a dramatic decrease in extremism.
Any cover-up of magnitude – whether it be Watergate politics, priests with little boys, or foundational falsehood – should be exposed. People deserve to know the truth.
5. I lived in Istanbul, Turkey on and off for about nine years. During one of my stays, I was part of a conversation involving a Sudanese English teacher, who insisted that, unlike the Bible, “There is only ONE version of the Koran.” He held up a finger for emphasis. When our colleague Robert, another American, brought up the fact that one of the first four “rightly guided Caliphs,” Uthman, burned variant copies of the Koran, the Sudanese teacher actually covered his ears with his hands. “I can’t even talk about this,” he said angrily.
This story exemplifies the Muslim prohibition against asking questions that might cause them to doubt (Koran sura 5:101).
A Sudanese man I know became apostate over this very issue. He was persecuted for asking his teachers simple questions like why he must pray in Arabic, was it the only language God understood? But at least he survived – his classmate did not.
Closer to home, in America an East Coast university professor told me that we – even just the two of us alone – could not discuss a topic because it might raise doubts. How does this fit with the Western idea that university education trains us to think out of the box?
If a Muslim discovers the truth about the poor preservation of the Koran, he is not allowed expose it. According to their teaching that would be an “enormity”, or major sin, for it puts Islam in an unfavorable light.
Thus, one thing the West can do to help Muslims and to combat terrorism is for us to expose the Koran, since Muslims themselves can not.
6. Other than plugging their ears, how do Muslims who believe there has always been only one version of the Koran deal with the fact that Uthman burned versions that preceded his own standardized edition?
Few Muslims know that Caliph Uthman burned editions of the Koran that rivaled his own. Those who do know often try to excuse it by saying that Uthman burned only heretical or inaccurate versions.
This explanation doesn’t hold water however. The Prophet Mohammed authorized several of his most trusted “companions” to collect the Koran. Uthman himself was not one of them; yet he insisted upon penalty that all other versions, including those authorized by Mohammed, be delivered to the flames. Conflicts arose and manuscripts were hidden, to the end that some pre-Uthmanic variants escaped burning. Not only are these different, but subsequently a large number of variants arose within Uthman’s edition itself.
7. What made you decide to tackle the problem by writing a novel?
There is good deal of material on the topic published in academic literature; but few people pay attention to it and it is far from public knowledge. A novel can take facts from the ivory tower to the kitchen table. Considering the potential consequences involved, when I came upon this cover-up I thought, “Wow! What a great theme for a novel!”
8. Do you find yourself confronting dismissive attitudes because your book is fiction rather than a scholarly dissertation?
Yes, it was a challenge. Agents ran scared. I chose Prometheus Books because they had a track record of publishing books that others would shy away from.
After my query simmered in a heap for about 9 months, I received a call from their chief editor. He liked the idea, but had to mull it over because they were a non-fiction house, and because my doctorate was not in the subject. Finally he read and liked the story. The publisher compromised that if an Islamic scholar would back me up, they would publish it. I got several. You don’t need a PhD to write a novel: what matters are storytelling and accurate handling of others’ scholarship.
9. What drew Prometheus Books to your novel?
Prometheus likes books with what they call “staying power” rather than “three-month wonders”. They felt that The Topkapi Secret was that kind of book and that it complemented other books on their list.
10. Have you had to deal with any backlash from the Islamic community?
We must bear in mind that a perfectly preserved Koran is pivotal for the religion of Islam. Islam significantly differs in precept and practice from the prior monotheistic faiths it claims to descend from. In order to supplant them, Islam must demonstrate that its revelation is superior and more reliable than those before it. Otherwise, why should a monotheist follow Islam? When it is revealed that their scripture is changed and corrupted, they lose this cornerstone and move into a glass house – an uncomfortable base for throwing stones.
When I discuss the topic with Muslims personally, I receive strong denials and anger if I even gently touch upon the subject. They have been so programmed to believe that the Koran is unchanged and is eternally preserved in paradise that they are affronted that anyone would state otherwise.
“Denial” then is the first and most common of the five “Ds” which characterize Muslim responses to hearing that the Koran has changed. Others are: downplay, disqualify, doubt, and defect.
For example, an embarrassed West Coast university professor downplayed the importance the Koran’s changes when I exposed them to a student in his presence. The student, however, was stunned.
“Disqualify” is what happens in the debate setting where the Koran is defended by claiming its changes do not count as “changes”, when they clearly would for any other document. One Muslim debater conceded the additions, deletions and other changes in the Koran, but excused them by saying, “The Koran is perfectly preserved in the way Allah wanted it to be preserved.”
Sometimes this knowledge makes Muslims “doubt” their faith. I have seen educated Muslims reeling when the truth finally hits them. Another debater recently left Islam, or “defected”, largely over this issue.
As far as backlashes go, frankly I was prepared for more. This may yet occur as the book becomes more known, and especially after it is released on Kindle, in Arabic electronically, and in Turkish in Turkey within a year. There has been some hate-mail of course, but no Muslim leader or group has taken an official stand against it. Perhaps they are following the advice I gave in other interviews, to respond better to this offense than they have previously. Having read a few Muslim reviews, I think many are hoping that if they hold their breath the message will fade away and they can go back to whitewash.
A number of my fans actually are Muslim. I am glad they like my website (www.TheTopkapiSecret.com) and hope they have watched the video trailer and read the book. Although the revelations The Topkapi Secret makes about the Koran may be difficult for Muslims to swallow, the story features Muslims in positive roles that liberal Muslims could enjoy.
11. What message would you hope Muslim readers of your novel come away with?
The Topkapi Secret is a fun story with a message. I would love it if Muslims read the novel, enjoyed the characters and culture, and came away with their perspective changed.