Monday, January 3, 2011

‘The Topkapi Secret’ by Terry Kelhawk – Book Review

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My first book review of 2011 is of ‘The Topkapi Secret’ by Terry Kelhawk, a novel which takes a critical view of the religion of Islam.

Here is the synopsis of this fascinating book:

A 1,400 year old secret….Those who threaten this secret die…Two people risk their lives to uncover the truth…
Cultures clash and emotions soar as Arab researcher Mohammed Atareek and American professor Angela Hall team up to solve one of history’s greatest cover-ups. Time is running out. Opponents who will stop at nothing are dedicated to maintaining the secret. Will Mohammed and Angela finish their whirlwind journey of discovery or will it cost them their lives?
On display at Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul lies the Topkapi Codex, an ancient manuscript of the Koran. Its secrets are just out of reach, sealed behind impenetrable glass. Is its text the key to exploding a centuries-old myth about the Koran? Are its pages stained with the blood of one of the Prophet Mohammed’s mortally wounded followers? No one knows, because the Topkapi Codex is off-limits.
Mohammed Atareek is committed to gaining access to the museum’s forbidden manuscript. His research leads him to believe that the Koran hides within it an extraordinary secret – a truth that would turn the Muslim world upside down. Evidence lies within the Topkapi Codex, but the risks involved increase as other Koranic scholars start turning up dead.
Angela has lost just about everything except her money and her job. On a study trip to the Middle East, her research on women’s issues gets sidetracked when her path crosses Mohammed’s. His overconfident, impulsive behavior is strangely refreshing, but when he tries to engage Angela in his quest, he finds she has an agenda of her own. Death awaits at every turn, and sparks of romance fly in this compelling adventure that reaches from the United States, across Europe, and through exotic settings of North Africa and the Middle East.
Based on solid historical research, The Topkapi Secret is a captivating debut novel of romance and mystery that sizzles like the desert heat with vivid characters, a page-turning plot, colorful locales, and eye-opening facts about the Muslim holy book.

You can also learn more about the book from its Facebook fan page.

Here is the biography of the author:

Terry Kelhawk is an award-winning writer, speaker, and teacher. She holds a doctorate degree and has considerable personal and professional experience with the Middle East and Islam.
In Terry’s words, “I love peoples and cultures. We have so much to learn from each other, and this makes the world a richer place. Yet when I come across a misunderstanding or deception which adversely impacts a culture or people group, for the sake of those people I believe it should be exposed.”
Terry Kelhawk holds a doctorate degree, but believes people should keep on learning through life. Her areas of interest are culture, religion, and women’s rights – especially of Middle East. She blogs at,, and, and likes travel, reading, and asking questions.
Terry believes we should, as Honey Jean of Atlanta in The Topkapi Secret would say, “Make the world a better place, or y’all just taking up space!”

Here is the book trailer for this adventurous and suspenseful novel:

Early on in the book, readers learn about one of the most important relics in Islam, located in Istanbul, Turkey:

For there, at the foot of all the ancient relics the guide had pointed out, lay the unmentioned Topkapi Codex, one of the earliest Korans and claimed to be the Koran that Caliph Uthman was reading when he died. The one with his blood.
This important relic of the faith and the mystery surrounding it had been an ongoing obsession of Mohammed Atareek. He stared at the two pages open for display, his mind swimming with questions. Which Koran had Uthman been reading – and which was stained with his blood? The Topkapi Codex, as the Turks claimed, or the Samarkand Codex, as the Uzbekis claimed? Perhaps neither. Perhaps Uthman’s Koran was destroyed by his assailants or lost over time. Perhaps the whole story was nothing more than a legend fabricated by the Sunnis to smear the Shiites. Such partisan hadiths, or traditions, had been known to exist. (p. 23)

Mohammed discovers that his research is dangerous, but he makes a decision about it. Here is a conversation between him and his colleague, Nasir:

       “What should we do?” Nasir inquired.
“I don’t know. So far I only have one idea. Research. It sounds straightforward, but the more I look into it, the more complicated it gets. I am trying to find everyone in the world who is expert in Arabic or Islam or ancient manuscripts. I started checking the rosters of the professional organizations we belong to. Now I am checking all the universities with departments of Islam or Middle Eastern  Studies. After I assemble a list of names, I need to research each professor to see what he or she published. From there, we will need to read between the lines to determine who are likely candidates to be ‘one of us.’” (p. 54)

In their research and travels, they encountered a gentleman named Jamal al-Hajji in Beirut, Lebanon:

Jamal al-Hajji was a self-professed infidel of the worst kind. He had traveled the route of Nasir and Ibrahim two decades earlier, and ended up becoming what imams warned would happen to anyone who questioned Islam – he became an atheist. He was an apostate under a death fatwa.
Al-Hajji now lived out his last days in semi-hiding in Beirut, under an assumed name, like an old Nazi in Brazil. He was sound in his academics and still retained a historical interest in the development of Islam, so he had been invited to work on the same project as Nasir and Mohammed.
Although in his eighties, Al-Hajji’s mind was sharp. He remembered not only the multitudinous volumes of Islamic learning, which he taught at the Islamic University al-Madinah al-Munawwarah in Saudi Arabia, but he continued on with clever insights into the new manuscripts. It was he who noticed the difference in ink composition between AD 640 and 655. (p. 127)

Angela Hall, the other main character, is a professor of Women’s Studies. Interspersed throughout the book is information on woman throughout history. I was not familiar with most of them. One of them was Gertrude Bell:

Finding an appropriate page, she read what Gertrude Bell said of Damascus when she was there in 1905.

The view from Nakshibendi’s balcony is immortal. The great and splendid city of Damascus with its gardens and domes and its minarets, lies spread out below, and beyond it to the desert, the desert reaching almost to its gates.

Gertrude Bell was one of Angela’s favorite writers. Also known as the “Female Lawrence of Arabia,” she overcame the barriers of class and gender to attain influence in the Middle East under the British, and became the first and only woman Oriental Secretary to the British Imperial Service. (p. 245)

Another thing I learned from ‘The Topkapi Secret’ is a doctrine in Islam known as the Doctrine of Abrogation. I could hardly believe what I read, but it is true. Here is a conversation between Mohammed and Angela, beginning with Mohammed:

        “I found the way experts explain the contradictions.”
        “What’s that?”
        “The Doctrine of Abrogation.”
“Yes, the idea that one revelation can cancel another. It is based on sura 2, verse 106: ‘Such of Our revelations as we abrogate or cause to be forgotten, we bring in place one better or like thereof.’ This doctrine explains that the peaceful verses revealed to Mohammed when he was in Mecca, and trying to gain favor with the Jews and Christians, are cancelled by relevation received after he moved to Medina, when he had the power to spread the faith by the sword.”
“You mean the verses about war replace the ones about peace?”
“Exactly! For example, sura 9, verse 5 cancels 124 peaceful verses.”
The implication of this soaked into Angela from the top of her head down, and she said slowly, “Oh, my God. Then Osama bin Laden has not ‘hijacked the religion…”
Mohammed finished the thought. “He is just practicing it strictly as revealed in the Koran through the Doctrine of Abrogation, and as assisted by the hadiths and commentaries.”
“But most Muslims are peaceful!” She thought of her beloved Uncle Mohammed in Dearborn.
“Average Muslims don’t know of or accept the Doctrine of Abrogation. If they don’t either ignore or have a problem with the numerous contradictions. If they do accept it, as do many of the deeply religious Muslims, then---”
“Voila!” Angela interjected. “We have the kind of Islam that America is fighting. It almost makes me feel ashamed.”
“That’s the way I felt,” Mohammed said. (pp. 282-283)

Many of the issues and problems with the Koran are addressed in this book. The character Mohammed explains the meaning of the ‘Satanic Verses.’ That phrase was made famous by the book written by author Salman Rushdie. I had not read that book, and was unfamiliar with the meaning of the phrase:

Mohammed explained, “They refer to sura 53:19. Some experts think they used to say that three goddesses worshipped by Mohammed’s tribe were intercessors to Allah. Afterward, when Mohammed realized this was against monotheism, he abrogated it. He received a revelation that told him not to worry – Satan always mixes his words with the ones Allah gives the prophets.”
Incredulously, Angela asked, “Seriously? If that’s the case, the cure is as bad as the disease. How do we know which words are God’s and which are Satan’s?”
“Exactly. But that’s what the Koran says. Check out sura 22.”
Angela picked up her Koran, and read it.
“So you see how the dinosaur is reconstructed,” Mohammed said, pointing at his sketch, which now resembled a pin cushion, “and how easily it is shot down.” (p. 337)

The book ends with a chase that rivals any I’ve seen in a movie! As a matter of fact, I think this book would make a remarkable movie. It is full of twists and turns, and lots of creativity.

The Postscript reads this way:

In 2007, the Topkapi Palace finally published the Topkapi Codex of the Koran. It is currently under academic study, but preliminary finding show significant variations from other ancient texts of the Koran, as well as the 1924 Cairo edition used by most Muslims in the world today. (p. 402)

I was really intrigued by this book – both the storyline and the amount of information was imparted by Ms. Kelhawk; she obviously has done a lot of research. I was aware of the inconsistencies in the Koran to a certain extent, but not to the extent that Ms. Kelhawk shares in this novel. Although this is a novel, the information is based on research and fact. This book also strengthened my faith in Jesus and the God of the Bible. The Bible can stand up to scrutiny in a way that the Koran cannot.  

You can order this book here.

This book was published by Prometheus Books and provided by Glass Road Public Relations for review purposes.

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