The Qur’an is Preserved and Unchanged Revelation from Allah
Most people are probably familiar with the place given to the Qur’an in Islam, that it is the “holy book” of the Muslim religion. This is an accurate assessment, for Muslims grant a very high place of honor to the Qur’an in their minds, hearts, and lives. As we would expect, Muslims hold to a very exalted view of the Qur’an. Foremost among Muslim beliefs about the Qur’an is that it was given to Mohammed by direct revelation from Allah. The traditional Muslim histories affirm this by stating that the angel Gabriel transmitted the Qur’an word for word to Mohammed from Allah, and that Mohammed then recited these words to his Companions, who memorized, and sometimes transcribed, these qira‘ (recitations) that form the Qur’an 1. Further, this revelation from Allah has remained the same, word for word, never changing through all the intervening centuries of copying and transmission. A typical presentation of the orthodox Muslim position can be found in the statement below from the Pakistani revivalist and religious authority Syed Maududi,
“The original texts of most of the former divine Books were lost altogether, and only their translations exist today. The Qur’an, on the other hand, exists exactly as it had been revealed to the Prophet; not a word – nay, not a dot of it – has been changed. It is available in its original text and the Word of God has been preserved for all times to come.” 2
“So well has it [the Qur’an] been preserved both in memory and in writing, that the Arabic text we have today is identical to the text as it was revealed to the Prophet. Not even a single letter has yielded to corruption during the passage of the centuries. And so it will remain forever, by the consent of Allah.”3
Yet, even within the general Muslim tradition, all is not well for these sorts of assertions. Certain traditions suggest, with several of the ahadith as their authority, that after Mohammed’s death, the fear that portions of these teachings of Allah would be lost due to battle and the deaths of Mohammed’s companions motivated early Muslim rulers to begin the compilation of the revelations that Mohammed claimed to have received. The end result of this compilation, began by Mohammed’s successor Abu Bakr, and finished by Caliph Uthman (traditionally 644-656 AD), is said to be the Qur’an in its present form, perfect copies of which were sent out to every province of the new Muslim Empire 4 (though what usually remains unmentioned is that the traditions also report that Uthman carried out the destruction by fire of all variant readings and texts that did not conform to his compilation.)
The Tangible Evidences
Textual and archaeological evidences do not support the traditional views about the formation and preservation of the quranic text. All of the ancient manuscriptual evidence that has been found post-dates Uthman by at least a century, and differs from the present “standard” version of the Arabic Qur’an at a number of points. This divergence is true even for those manuscripts and other evidences that are dated closer to the time of Uthman’s life.
Some Muslim scholars claim to have uncovered 7th century copies of the original quranic manuscript, sent throughout the newly formed Arab Empire by Uthman. The texts that form the basis for this claim are the Topkapi MSS in Istanbul, and the Samarkand MSS in Tashkent. Despite the assertions, manuscript experts have ruled out the possibility that these are first-generation copies of Uthman‘s text, and instead date these manuscripts from the late 8th century, at the earliest. The reason for doing so is because these two manuscripts were copied in what is known as the Kufic script, a style which originated in the Iraqi city of Kufah and was largely used from the late 8th to the 11th centuries, only gradually finding widespread use in the rest of the Muslim world, until it was replaced by a different style of script called the Naskh script5.
In addition to the anachronistic Kufic script that was used, other evidence from the examination of the Samarkand codex suggests a later date. This manuscript bears artistic ornamentation between many of the suwar, as well as medallions containing kufic-style numerals that gauge progress through each individual surah, all of which suggests an 8th or 9th century age for the manuscript. Islamic calligraphy expert Safadi says,
“It is significant that, until the beginning of the 9th century, Kufic Qur’ans received little illumination, but once this initial reluctance was overcome, various ornamental devices were evolved, many of which served necessary functions. Notable among these were the Unwan (title pages), Surah (chapter) headings, verse divisions, verse counts, section indicators, and colophons.”6
The Samarkand manuscripts show exactly these types of adornment, which tells us that they were copied much later than the time of Uthman. The same sort of ornamentation appears in the Topkapi codex as well, likewise indicating its later date.
Additional evidence calls into question the claim that the Samarkand codex is one of the original copies sent out by Uthman to the various Muslim centers in the mid-7th century. This manuscript is very eclectic, with the text from page to page alternating between careful copying and hasty, untidy transmission. Some pages contain broad and flowing text, while on others the text is cramped and compressed. This evidence seems to discount the notion that a single scribe copied the entire manuscript, and even calls into question whether the whole manuscript would have been copied at one time.
Further, and most importantly, there are several differences in reading that exist between the Samarkand codex and the “standard” quranic text as it exists today. A prominent example is found in Surah 37:103. In the Samarkand manuscript, the relevant portion of this ayah reads wa ma ‘aslamaa, which translated means “and they did not submit” (i.e. become Muslims). Yet, the present Arabic “standard” Qur’an reads Falammaa ‘aslamaa, which when translated means “when they submitted”7. Thus, the change of one word alters the meaning of the passage to one that is exactly the opposite! Numerous additional differences between the Samarkand codex and the present Arabic version had been noted by the Sherif and Elhennawy, who show that the quranic text has undergone a number of alterations. They amount to the same sort of changes in consonantal readings (the Samarkand is without vowel pointings) and even the changing of whole words, in Suwar 2:15, 2:57, 2:284, 5:99, 6:11, 7:27, 7:69, 18:83, 19:72, 20:3, 20:79, 20:108, 36:20-21, 38:26, as well as other ayat8. This shows us that, despite the claims made by many Muslim scholars and theologians (those quoted above, for instance) that no changes were ever introduced into the quranic manuscript history and that the Arabic Qur’an has always remained the same, there were indeed alterations in quranic manuscripts during the early years of Islam and that the original Arabic readings have not been preserved intact in each daughter manuscript.
Some Muslim apologists have argued that these differences are only a matter of a different dialect of Arabic being used in this text. This argument must be considered unsound if the apologists wish to keep their position on the Qur’an and its history internally consistent with the claims for which they are attempting to argue in support. If the apologists are correct, and the Samarkand manuscript really is a 7th century first-generation daughter manuscript of the originally compiled Uthman text, then it should be in the same Arabic dialect as the original revelation (which is presumably, per the apologetic claims, the Classical Arabic used in the Qur’an today). Even if the differences are due to the use of diverging dialects in Arabic, this does not alter the fact that the words themselves, regardless of the dialect, still mean different things. As a Semitic language, Arabic dialects diverge comparatively little from one another, and the consonantal bases of words in that idiom will not vary as greatly between dialects as the apologists would need for their argument to have any validity. The differences seen between the Samarkand text and the codified Arabic Qur’an of today, as mentioned above, are changes in consonants. This means that words and concepts have changed, since Semitic languages like Arabic rely upon triconsonantal roots which have a basic meaning, and which are modified by vowel pointings, prefixes, suffixes and so forth to provide the variety of gender, number, verb tense, etc. necessary to make a language intelligible. For example, in Arabic, the root ‘mh has the basic idea of “togetherness, community”, while the root ‘md means “period of time”. Making such a consonantal change in a manuscript would obviously alter the understanding of the word being transcribed, and would change the perceived meaning of the entire ayah in which it appears. The differing words found between the two text-types have different meanings that cannot be accounted for by mere appeal to disparity of dialect. You can say “elevator” in American English and “boot” (automobile trunk) in British English, and the difference in dialect does not account for the difference in meaning between those two words.
Further, given the emphasis on Classical Arabic as the “only” language in which the Qur’an can truly be said to be “Allah’s Word” (more will be said about this later), it seems highly unlikely that early Muslims, having freshly compiled and codified the revelation of their holy book, would then set about to make copies of it in another dialect, and send these out to all the places where they had conquered and settled for use as the official codices of their holy text. Thus, we can see that the Muslim apologetic arguments that point to the “perfect and uncorrupted” nature of each individual manuscript of the Qur’an as a proof of the finality and truth of Islam, since Allah has “obviously” protected it throughout its history, rest on shaky ground.
It is notable that as yet, no such in-depth study has been allowed on the Topkapi codex, which has been kept under wraps except for brief glimpses. Even photographic record of this codex is forbidden, which has made objective analysis of the text of this document impossible.
A very ancient manuscript, perhaps slightly older than the previously mentioned codices, was housed in the British Museum in London. This text was written in the Ma’il style of script, used indigenously in the Hijaz region of Arabia, which includes Mecca and Medina. This manuscript, however, has been dated by Dr. Martin Lings (himself a practicing Muslim) to around the end of the 8th century, and is said to be one of the two oldest known quranic texts9. In fact, only the Sana’a manuscripts, a cache of ancient quranic leaves found in a sealed room of an antiquated Yemen mosque, seem to date earlier than the first quarter of the 8th century10. These leaves and fragments are dated towards the end of the 7th century, but also contain several readings that differ from the standardized text used today, as was reported in The Atlantic Online 11. The evidences from these texts are important for two reasons. First, they falsify the Muslim claims to having found the “original” copies made of Uthman’s recension, and thus cannot be used as a proof for the early uniformity of the quranic text. Second, the readily apparent divergences from the present standard text show that such uniformity did not even exist in the early Qur’an in the first place.
Other tangible evidence for the Qur’an’s mutability exists. Cook discusses the existence of quranic quotations on early Muslim coins that differ from the present Qur’an,
“Equally, when the first Koranic quotations appear on coins and inscriptions towards the end of the seventh century, they show divergences from the canonical text. These appear trivial from the point of view of content, but the fact that they appear in such formal contexts as these goes badly with the notion that the text had already been frozen.” 12
Essentially, he is saying that the appearance of divergent readings on what are really official, state-sponsored documents, indicates that the quranic text was still in a state of flux, even well into the Umayyad dynasty (661-750 AD). This lack of uniformity likewise implies to scholars that the Qur’an was not invested with the same air of authority that Muslims in our day give to it. As we will see, there is not any really solid evidence that the Qur’an existed in its final, edited form for over a century or more after the rise of the Arab Empire. It can perhaps be rightly suggested that rather than the Qur’an being the beginning of Islam (as Muslims claim), Islam was the finisher of the Qur’an.
“And yet, Schacht’s studies of the early development of legal doctrine within the community demonstrate that with very few exceptions, Muslim jurisprudence was not derived from the contents of the Qur’an. It may be added that those few exceptions are themselves hardly evidence for the existence of the canon, and further observed that even where doctrine was alleged to draw upon scripture, such is not necessarily evidence of the scriptural source. Derivation of law from scripture (halakhic exegesis) was a phenomenon of the third/ninth century, and while the obvious inference is admittedly an argumentum e silentio, the chronology of the source material demands that it be mentioned. A similar kind of negative evidence is absence of any reference to the Qur’an in the Fiqh Akbar.”13
The fiqh al-akbar is one of the earliest extant works of Muslim jurisprudence, produced by the jurist Abu Hanifa (699-767 AD). We can see that from the evidence of this 8th century legal creed, with its lack of reference to the Qur’an, the Qur’an probably had minimal to no impact on early Muslim society. Indeed, if the Qur’an had existed in its present form, and was imbued with the gravitas of authority as the perfect revelation of God’s law, it seems very strange that it would not have been mentioned in a foundational legal standard for the Muslim community. Only over time did it develop sufficient status to become a source of law and practice.
Schacht further states in this vein,
“…the first considerable body of legal traditions from the Prophet originated towards the middle of the second [Islamic] century, in opposition to slightly earlier traditions from Companions and other authorities and to the “living tradition” of the ancient schools of law….the evidence of legal traditions carries us back to about the year 100 A.H. only; at that time Islamic legal thought started from late Umaiyad administrative and popular practice.”14
“Muhammedan law did not derive directly from the Koran but developed as we saw out of popular and administrative practice under the Umaiyads, and this practice often diverged from the intentions and even the explicit wording of the Koran….apart from the most elementary rules, norms derived from the Koran were introduced into Muhammedan law almost invariably at a secondary stage. This applies not only to those branches of law that are not covered in detail by the Koranic legislation – if we may use this term of the essentially ethical and only incidentally legal body of maxims contained in the Koran – but to family law, the law of inheritance, and even cult and ritual.”15
Hinds and Crone also note that the early caliphs were more or less free to make and unmake the Sunnat, doing so under their own authority as “God’s representative”, not because of any traditions stemming from the Qur’an or from the example set by Mohammed or his companions16. Only later, as they have argued, did the religious elite of the second or third Islamic centuries lend a divine authority to this body of Sunnat. Indeed, in another work, Crone points out that, far from being handed down by Allah in the Qur’an, the Islamic shari’a is merely a reshaped version of the provincial law that existed in the Near East from Hellenistic times right down to the Byzantine period preceding the Arab Empire17. In effect, Islamic law was built on the substrate of the laws that had been found in the Middle East for a millennium. This law was adjusted according to the custom and preference of the early caliphs, and finally set it in stone at the behest of the Muslim ulama (theologians) as the veritable edicts of Allah, not to be questioned, only to be obeyed.
Evolving into Scripture
Thus, the Qur’an appears to have had only a marginal effect on the body of Islamic law that was being built in the first centuries of the Arab Empire. Of much greater impact were the popular practices of the people themselves and the expedients of governing needed to manage the new order. These helped to mold the legal system of Islam in preparation for the eventual quranic overlay that was to be superimposed onto the earlier foundation. In other words, the Qur’an was developed and invested with its authority as “scripture” through a process of evolution in Muslim culture, instead of the traditional view that the Qur’an laid the foundation for Muslim society in the ummah. It was not until near the end of the 8th century that the Qur’an began to be truly considered to have the authority to which later Islam would give it.
It is apparent that until the first half of the 8th century AD, those non-Muslims who interacted with them seem not to have had any understanding of an established, canonical “holy book” among the Arabs. Mingana observed,
“….the Christian historians of the whole of the seventh century had no idea that the “Hagarian” conquerors had any sacred book; similar is the case among historians and theologians of the beginning of the eighth century.”18
Correlating with this are the evidences from non-Muslim sources that were contemporary to the rise of Islam, from which we can surmise that the Qur’an, at least to the extent and in the format which it presently has, was not known to those who interacted with the early Muslims. For instance, in a debate between an Arab noble and a Christian monk from a town called Beth Hale, dated to sometime after 710 AD, we see an interesting bit of information. In reply to a question about commandments given to Christians by Christ, the monk observes to the Arab that “not all your laws and commandments are in the Qur’an which Muhammad taught you”, and then proceeds to list other sources for the laws of the Arabs – surat albaqrah (now Surah 2 in the Qur’an as it presently stands), the gygy (the euaggelion, the Gospels), and the twrh (the Torah)19. This evidence suggests that at this time, Surah al-baqarah was not part of the Qur’an, but was a viewed as a separate work, on par with the Qur’an, the Gospels, and the Torah. Crone and Cook note that this dialog is the first reference to a book called the “Qur’an”, but that this evidence does not necessarily argue for the Qur’an as it presently is since the monk’s dialog indicates a content and extent for this “Qur’an” that is different from the present one20.
Similarly, later contemporary sources show knowledge of the existence of only a part of the Qur’an. John of Damascus was a Syriac Christian priest who lived in the 8th century, during and after the Arab takeover of Syria. In his work De Haeresibus (c. 750 AD), John reveals that he had an intimate familiarity with many Arab traditions. Among these traditions are certain books that he attributes to “this Mohammed”. From John’s apologetic defenses, it has become apparent to scholars that he was only familiar with Suwar 2-5 of what is presently the Qur’an, plus a few other Islamic oral traditions21, some of which eventually found their way into the Qur’an, such as a variant story similar to Surah 33:37, an allusion to the three rivers flowing with water, milk, and wine (Surah 47:15), and a story similar to that of Salih’s camel (Suwar 7:77, 91:11-14)22. In addition, John deals at length with another book, which he describes by its title as the “book on the Camel of God”, which does not appear in the present Qur’an, but which he yet refers to as one of the books of the “Ishmaelites”. He lists this book in parallel with “the book of the Table” (Surah 5), “the book of the Heifer” (Surah 2), and the “book of the Woman” (Surah 4), dealing with them in the same way to refute the heresy taught within them23. This suggests that “the Book of the Camel of God” was viewed by the “Ishmaelites” with whom he was dealing as equally authoritative as the other books that do now appear in the Qur’an. The Qur’an also makes passing references to this Book of the Camel of God (see Suwar 7:73,77; 91:13-14), but this book failed to make it into the final compilation of the Arab holy writings.
Another witness to the status of the Arab religious texts in the 8th century would be the Emperor Leo III of Byzantium (r. 717-741 AD). Leo was in a position to be familiar with the religious status of the Syria-Palestine area, as he was raised on the frontier of Syria, and was even reputed to be bilingual in Greek and Arabic. Thus, he would almost surely have become acquainted, either orally or from a holy book, with the religious teachings of the Arabs who were placing increasing pressure onto what was left of the Byzantine Empire in Asia Minor. In a correspondence that he wrote to the Caliph Umar II (r. 717-720 AD), he issued a defense of Christianity against the doctrines of the particular Arab monotheism that was developing. In this apologetic, he does not mention the Qur’an as a specific corpus of material (indeed, in the older text of his letter, an Armenian text dating from somewhere in the late 9th century24, the Qur’an is not even quoted)25. In his letter, Leo refers primarily to Suwar 2-5, while making a handful of scattered references that can be interpreted as pointing to other suwar of what is now the Qur’an. Overall, however, the impression is that Leo knew of written compilations of Suwar 2-5, but was relying upon oral tradition and/or other more unofficial writings, which had either not yet been assembled into a form of religious compilation by the Arabs, or else had only very recently been assembled and was still in a state of flux as far as their form and order were concerned26.
Another interesting piece of evidence from Leo’s letter to Umar is the assertion which Leo makes that the texts of the Arab holy books were redacted, replaced, or otherwise altered by al-Hajjaj, an Umayyad administrator who died in 714 AD, saying that al-Hajjaj “….had men gather up your ancient books, which he replaced by others composed by himself, according to his taste….”27. Jeffrey discusses this accusation as it appears in Leo’s letter and as it reappears in later Christian writings against Islam, noting that this argument cannot merely be chalked up to religious polemicism,
“….we know from Ibn ‘Asakir that one of al-Hajjaj’s claims to fame was his being instrumental in giving the Qur’an to the people, and from Ibn Duqmaq we know of the commotion in Egypt when a Codex from those which al-Hajjaj had had officially written out to be sent to the chief cities of the Muslim Empire, reached that country. As there were stories about al-Hajjaj being connected with the earliest attempts at putting diacritical marks in the Qur’anic text to make its readings more certain (Ibn Khallikan I, 183 quoting Abu Ahmad al-‘Askari), and also with the earliest attempts at dividing the text into sections (Ibn Abi Dawud, Kitab al-Masahif), it might be suggested that this recension of his was merely an improved edition of the Uthmanic text, which he had had sent out as the edition to be officially used. Such a suggestion would also suit the story in the as yet unprinted Mushkil of Ibn Qutaiba, that he ordered the destruction of all the Codices representing a text earlier than that canonized by Uthman, and with his well-known enmity towards the famous text of Ibn Masud (Ibn Asakir, IV, 69; Ibn al-Athir, Chronicon, IV, 463). In Ibn Abi Dawud (pp. 49, 117), however, we have a list of eleven passages, on the authority of no less a person than Abu Hatim as-Sijistani, where our present text is said to be that of al-Hajjaj, arrived at by tampering with the earlier text. It would thus seem that some revision of the text, as well as clarification by division and pointing, was undertaken by al-Hajjaj, and that this was known to the Christians of that day, and naturally exaggerated by them for polemical purposes. As this work would seem to have been done by al-Hajjaj during his period of office under the Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik b. Marwan, who died in 86 A.H./ 705 C.E., there is no difficulty in supposing that Leo may have heard of it during his official life in Syria.”28
We should note here that some of Jeffrey’s Arabic sources actually suggest that al-Hajjaj went beyond merely adding diacritical marks and the like to the quranic text – they assert that al-Hajjaj actually changed the text itself, and that some readings which appear in the present Arabic Qur’an are the result of al-Hajjaj’s creativity. This is interesting in light of the textual history which has been demonstrated above for the Qur’an through the manuscripts, and which will be seen below in further detail. Included in this history are traditions which actually affirm readings now appearing in the Qur’an as not being the originals.
Crone and Cook summarize the evident situation found by examination of the contemporary evidences,
“On the Christian side, the monk of Bet Hale distinguishes pointedly between the Koran and the Surat al-baqara as sources of law, while Levond has the emperor Leo describe how Hajjaj destroyed the old Hagarene ‘writings’. Secondly, there is the internal evidence of the literary character of the Koran. The book is strikingly lacking in overall structure, frequently obscure and inconsequential in both language and content, perfunctory in its linking of disparate materials, and given to repetition of whole passages in variant versions. On this basis it can plausibly be argued that the book is the product of the belated and imperfect editing of materials from a plurality of traditions.”29
Scholars have also observed the great amount of influence that Judaeo-Christianity had upon the initial development of Islam, Judaeo-Christianity being here defined as those sects who were present in Palestine, Syria, and Iraq and who accepted Christ as a Messianic figure, but who rejected His deity (e.g. the Nazoreans, Ebionites, etc.). Indeed, many beliefs of these groups coincide with those later held by Islam, including a belief that Jesus Christ was not a member of the Godhead, but was instead a subordinated prophet of God, and the emphasis upon Abraham as the first “man of knowledge” who had the knowledge of God conferred upon him by an angel30. Other aspects of the theology of these Judaeo-Christian groups were later adopted by the Arabs into their developing monotheism after their military expansion into these regions. These include the denial of the crucifixion, the obligation to observe the sabbath and other elements of the Mosaic law, and the qiblah (direction of prayer) towards Jerusalem, which was the initial direction recorded in Islamic tradition before it was changed to Mecca. The Arabs, of course, would have been exposed to the religious beliefs of these groups, as well as those of the Jews and the various Christian sects, due to the presence of some of these groups in Arabia, as well as through trade relations. After the Arabs expanded their conquests into Persia/Mesopotamia and the eastern end of the Byzantine Empire, it would not be surprising that these doctrines were accepted into the larger aegis of the developing state monotheism, especially as the Arabs sought to distinguish themselves from both the Jews and the Christians of the Byzantine Empire.
All of this helps to explain the great amount of quranic borrowing from Christian, Jewish, and especially Judaeo-Christian sources. It is likely that the Arabs developed the belief system of Islam only after leaving the Arabian desert and coming into contact with these Judaeo-Christian groups (primarily) and other belief systems outside of Arabia. A striking evidence of the influence of Judaeo-Christianity on the early development of Islam is found in an early Syrian variant of the shahada (the Muslim “witness” or profession of their core belief in Allah and Mohammed as his prophet) that included a belief in Jesus in its statement. Bashear summarizes the significance of this evidence,
“Essentially, the scheme of Islam’s self perception vis-à-vis the issue of belief in Jesus, outlined above, conveys a sense of dependence upon and continuity of a certain Judaeo-Christian legacy that ran much deeper than the general notion of accepting Jesus only as one of several other pre-Islamic prophets and saintly figures. A close examination of the material on Qur’an 3:55 and 4:159 clearly shows the existence of a second century current which presented the roots of Islam as going back to a certain Judaeo-Christian group whose basic feature was the belief in Jesus. Though being the word (or will) of God personified, and in spite of being raised up to him once his mission was complete, Jesus himself was only human and, so to speak, earthly. This belief, we are told, was suppressed by mainstream Christianity and Judaism until it was regenerated by Islam.”31
As such, Bashear bases the origin of Islamic thought about Jesus, as it would later appear in the Qur’an, upon the foundation of earlier Judaeo-Christian groups who rejected the deity of Jesus Christ while yet according Him a high position in their systems of thought as a prophet and conduit of God’s revelation and will. Wansbrough also points out that the internal allusions in the Qur’an itself seem to indicate that it arose against the backdrop of sectarian strife with other religious groups found in Syria-Palestine and Iraq (and thus, was not a product of central Arabian revelation),
“Quranic allusion presupposes familiarity with the narrative material of Judaeo-Christian scripture32, which was not so much reformulated as merely referred to….But taken together, the quantity of reference, the mechanically repetitious employment of rhetorical convention, and the stridently polemical style, all suggest a strongly sectarian atmosphere in which the corpus of familiar scripture was being pressed into the service of as yet unfamiliar doctrine.” 33
Thus, these Judaeo-Christian scriptures were relied upon to formulate and validate the new Arab monotheism, and the evolution of the Qur’an as a body of scripture was influenced by the traditions and teachings of the Judaeo-Christian world that existed outside of Arabia. These traditions and knowledge entered into the consciousness of the Arabs’ new religion from the conquered Christian lands (along with the large Jewish populations) taken in Yemen, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. Likewise, the trace of Zoroastrian tales in the Qur’an most likely entered the Islamic realm after the subjugation of the revived Persian Empire under Yazdegird III, the last Sassanid Shah. Coming into contact with the higher civilizations of Constantinople and Ctesiphon, each with their own established monotheistic religion, it is not surprising that the Arabs would desire to invest their new religion with the same sort of traditions. As Wansbrough pointed out, the Qur’an was likely formed because of a desire to provide Mohammed, said to be a prophet of the Mosaic model, with his very own Holy Writ. Just as Moses received the Word from God, so must Mohammed, to legitimize the Arab claims about his prophethood. In fact, it has been pointed out that Muslim philologists have systematically tried to manipulate the evidence from Arabian poetry so as to give a pre-Islamic appearance for such poetry (patterned along the lines of the Qur’an), for the purpose of giving the Qur’an a more Arabian flavor and thus supporting the claim that the Qur’an was given to an Arabian prophet in pure Arabic, from God34.
In fact, the very importance of Mohammed as the true moving force behind the original Arab religion is questionable. Scholarly investigation has shown that pretty much all of the biographical information about Mohammed presented by early Islamic tradition is of questionable trustworthiness. As Cook states,
“The other view is that false ascription was rife among the eighth-century scholars, and that in any case Ibn Ishaq and his contemporaries were drawing on oral tradition. Neither of these propositions is as arbitrary as it sounds. We have reason to believe that numerous traditions on questions of dogma and law were provided with spurious chains of authorities by those who put them into circulation; and at the same time we have much evidence of controversy in the eighth century as to whether it was permissible to reduce oral tradition to writing. The implications of this view for the reliability of our sources are clearly rather negative. If we cannot trust the chains of authorities, we can no longer claim to know that we have before us the separately transmitted accounts of independent witnesses; and if knowledge of the life of Muhammed was transmitted orally for a century before it was reduced to writing, then the chances are that the material will have undergone considerable alteration in the process.”35
Two eminent scholars of Islam, Michael Cook and Patricia Crone, on very valid logical and evidential grounds, reject the whole Islamic history of Mohammed which was supposedly presented “in the clear light of history”,
“They regard the whole established version of Islamic history down to at least the time of Abd al-Malik (685-705) as a later fabrication, and reconstruct the Arab Conquests and the formation of the Caliphate as a movement of peninsular Arabs who had been inspired by Jewish messianism to try to reclaim the Promised Land. In this interpretation, Islam emerged as an autonomous religion and culture only within the process of a long struggle for identity among the disparate peoples yoked together by the Conquests: Jacobite Syrians, Nestorian Aramaeans in Iraq, Copts, Jews, and (finally) peninsular Arabs.”36
Thus, there is a strong and growing scholarly contention against the traditional (and uncritically accepted) view of Mohammed and very early Islamic history, including the origins of the Qur’an. Concerning Mohammed specifically, this will be revisited in chapter 5.
Manufacturing the Qur’an
Moving on to a later age, the earliest tangible appearance of the complete Qur’an in its present form dates from the 10th century, when the text as it now stands was compiled from seven different versions of the quranic text to form an amalgamated, mutually acceptable text made easier to understand by the addition of vowel and diacritical marks to the Arabic script (where they had previously been lacking37, and hence made the texts harder to read).
Many Muslim apologists claim, however, that Mohammed had already compiled a complete quranic manuscript before his death in 632 AD, and that following manuscripts (as was seen above) agreed with this first text perfectly. The claim is made that there were no conflicting manuscripts produced. These assertions are contradicted both by evidence from scholarly study and by variant Muslim assertions, mentioned above and articulated more fully below, which claim that Mohammed’s followers compiled the quranic teachings after his death.
“One thing only is certain and is openly recognized by tradition, namely, that there was not in existence any collection of revelations in final form, because, as long as he was alive, new revelations were being added to the earlier ones.” 38
Scholars understand that at Mohammed’s death, there was no singular codex for the Qur’an 39. Indeed, as has been noted above, there probably was not even a codex of the Qur’an until at or after the middle part of the 8th century (the leaves mentioned earlier are single pages, not comprising a whole collection of writings). Given the late appearance of complete quranic texts, this appears to bear witness to the truth. However, as was seen above, many Muslim scholars make the claim that the Qur’an has existed exactly as it was handed down to Mohammed, even to this day.
Yet, scholarship finds that there was no single copy of the Qur’an even in existence until long after the time of Mohammed’s death according to the traditional history. There may have been portions of the Qur’an that had been written down at various points, even in the very early years of Islam (most likely the Suwar 2-5 observed by John and Leo, as well as a few others). However, not all Muslim traditions teach that the Qur’an was completed in codex form at the time of Mohammed’s death. Indeed, one of the more prominent traditions records the compilation of the Qur’an (assumed, of course, to be the whole Qur’an) from various sources upon which the recitations has been inscribed, including bones and palm fronds. According to the Muslim traditions themselves, these were the parts that, along with the portions of the Qur’an present in the memories of various companions of Mohammed, Zaid ibn Thabit (a companion of Mohammed who produced a compilation of the Qur’an) sought out to make his compilation of the Qur’an codex for Abu Bakr, the first Caliph and successor of Mohammed.
As was mentioned before, many Muslims will claim that the Qur’an was handed down in its present and complete form to Mohammed and has remained unchanged since. However, if such were the case, there would have been no need for the collection of the texts and recitations that Zaid performed for Abu Bakr as indicated in the most well-known of the hadith traditions (a collection and collation which other close companions of Mohammed had also been doing, independently). Why send out a man to make the compilation if you already have the complete and perfect text before you? If nothing else, this affirms the notion, articulated by Cook above, that the body of early Muslim traditions, usually set down in writing over a century and a half after the events that they purport to chronicle, are very untrustworthy as sources for drawing up an historical reconstruction of the early Muslim era. It shows that these traditions can portray events or storylines that may be completely at odds with other sources within the body of historiographic material. These traditional sources, produced as they were within the framework of internecine fighting amongst different factions hoping to gain ascendancy in the Arab Empire, are naturally polemical and written with the aim of bolstering the positions and legitimacy of the factions. Hence, there can be several different versions of the same story or set of events, each one placing a different general or other important person with whom the faction wishes to identify, at the site of an important event40.
Let us now look at the most generally accepted tradition about the compilation of the Qur‘an, which I will relate in its details. Note that even this tradition seems to contain contradictory teachings, as well as some conceptual flaws. The discussion that follows will be framed so as to address this tradition as Muslim scholars understood it, even though I do not consider the traditional account of the compilation of the Qur’an to be historically accurate or reliable. I will deal with it here so as to highlight the conceptual flaws and problems with the traditional account.
Muslims will often claim that the memories of several hundreds of the close companions of Mohammed were all supernaturally enhanced so as to allow them all to memorize the quranic recitations, so that the Qur’an was preserved perfectly in their witness as well. But again, this begs the question of why Zaid would have to range far and wide to search out every last ayat if they were readily available in the memories of any one of hundreds of companions who were readily on hand? The fact that these men did NOT have the Qur’an memorized, and that the recitations were scattered all over the place seems evident from the hadith literature itself.
Narrated Zaid bin Thabit:
So I started compiling the Quran by collecting it from the leafless stalks of the date-palm tree and from the pieces of leather and hides and from the stones, and from the chests of men (who had memorized the Quran). I found the last verses of Sirat-at-Tauba: (“Verily there has come unto you an Apostle (Muhammad) from amongst yourselves–‘ (9.128-129)) from Khuzaima or Abi Khuzaima and I added to it the rest of the Sura. 41
Let us take note of two things that this tradition says: That Zaid had to scrounge up portions of the Qur’an from all over the place (palm leaves, stones, etc.) as well as from the memories of men. Also, it says that Zaid found a verse of the Qur’an that was known by only ONE companion. Thus, the idea that hundreds of companions knew the Qur’an perfectly by heart is not supported even by this tradition. In addition to these two ayat (9:128-129), other traditions record yet another verse which was found with only one Companion,
Narrated Kharija bin Zaid: Zaid bin Thabit said, “When the Quran was compiled from various written manuscripts, one of the Verses of Surat Al-Ahzab was missing which I used to hear Allah’s Apostle reciting. I could not find it except with Khuzaima bin Thabit Al-Ansari, whose witness Allah’s Apostle regarded as equal to the witness of two men. And the Verse was:– “Among the believers are men who have been true to what they covenanted with Allah.” (33.23)42
The truth is that Zaid probably did not get the entirety of the original quranic recitations into his compilation. Hadithic tradition demonstrates this by informing us that many of the reciters were killed at the battle of Yamama (a battle waged to re-subdue several Arab tribes who revolted from Islam following Mohammed’s death) and that many portions of the Qur’an were irretrievably lost.
“Many (of the passages) of the Qur’an that were sent down were known by those who died on the day of Yamama….but they were not known (by those who) survived them, nor were they written down, nor had Abu Bakr, Umar or Uthman (by that time) collected the Qur’an, nor were they found with even one (person) after them.” 43
Abi Dawud elsewhere expresses the same concern,
“‘Umar b. al-Khattab enquired about a verse of the Book of God. On being informed that it had been in the possession of so-and-so who had been killed in the Yemama wars, ‘Umar exclaimed the formula expressing loss, ‘We are God’s and unto Him is our return.’ ‘Umar gave the command and the Qur’an was collected. He was the first to collect the Qur’an.”44
Hence, possibly large portions of the original revelation attributed to Mohammed simply ceased to exist (perhaps the Book of the Camel of God would be included in this category?) It was, in fact, the knowledge of this that prompted Abu Bakr (or Uthman, or Ali, or ‘Umar, depending on the tradition) to initiate Zaid’s mission to compile the Qur’an.
In addition to losing parts of the Qur’an due to battle losses, the traditions report that both Mohammed and his Companions would simply forget various of the revealed recitations. Mohammed would forget recitations from the Qur’an,
“Allah’s Apostle heard a man reciting the Qur’an at night, and said, “May Allah bestow His Mercy on him, as he has reminded me of such-and-such Verses of such-and-such Suras, which I was caused to forget.”45
Similar lapses of memory are recorded for Companions as well, such as the case of Abu Musa al-Ash’ari, who confessed to forgetting practically an entire surah of recitations.
“Abu Harb b. Abu al-Aswad reported on the authority of his father that Abu Musa al-Ash’ari sent for the reciters of Basra. They came to him and they were three hundred in number. They recited the Qur’an and he said: You are the best among the inhabitants of Basra, for you are the reciters among them. So continue to recite it. (But bear in mind) that your reciting for a long time may not harden your hearts as were hardened the hearts of those before you. We used to recite a surah which resembled in length and severity to (Surah) Bara’at. I have, however, forgotten it with the exception of this which I remember out of it:” If there were two valleys full of riches, for the son of Adam, he would long for a third valley, and nothing would fill the stomach of the son of Adam but dust.” And we used to recite a surah which resembled one of the surahs of Musabbihat, and I have forgotten it, but remember (this much) out of it:” Oh people who believe, why do you say that which you do not practise” (lxi 2.) and “that is recorded in your necks as a witness (against you) and you would be asked about it on the Day of Resurrection” (xvii. 13). 46
Indeed, the traditions suggest that it is Allah himself who made Mohammed and his Companions forget portions of the Qur’an!
“‘Abdullah reported Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: What a wretched person is he amongst them who says: I have forgotten such and such a verse. (He should instead of using this expression say): I have been made to forget it. Try to remember the Qur’an for it is more apt to escape from men’s minds than a hobbled camel.” 47
None of this bodes well for giving an assurance of the integrity of the quranic revelations. That the state of the quranic compilation was a shambles is seen from traditional statements as well. As-Suyuti records a tradition in which Muslims are positively discouraged from claiming that they have the entire Qur’an,
“‘Abdullah b. ‘Umar reported said, ‘Let none of you say, “I have got the whole Koran.” How does he know what all of it is? Much of the Koran has gone. Let him say instead, “I have got what has survived.”‘” 48
Eventually, Zaid got as much of the Qur’an as he could find compiled together. Once this happened, as Gilchrist reports, the compilation was concealed, receiving no publicity for several years 49. Then a crisis arose. Nineteen years after Mohammed’s death, a Muslim general, Hudhayfah, campaigning in northern Syria, reported back to Caliph Uthman that the troops in his army, some from Syria and some from Iraq, were using different readings of the Qur’an. The reason for this was because two other companions of Mohammed, Abdullah ibn Mas’ud and Ubayy ibn Ka’b, had each prepared their own compilations of the Qur’an independently of each other and of Zaid. They were also close companions of Mohammed who knew much of the Qur’an and had found much of the rest. The problem was that each was propagating a different text from the other.
Caliph Uthman’s solution to this problem was to bring the Zaid codex out of hiding, establish IT as the “standard” quranic text for all Muslims, and he then tried to burn all other codices that differed from the Zaid text. He also had the Zaid text standardized to conform to Quraishi Arabic (spoken around Mecca, and the dialect Mohammed is said to have used). Zaid himself was from Medina, and his dialect was slightly different from that of the Quraish.
Narrated Anas: Uthman called Zaid bin Thabit, Abdullah bin Az-Zubair, Said bin Al-‘As and ‘AbdurRahman bin Al-Harith bin Hisham, and then they wrote the manuscripts of the Holy Qur’an in the form of book in several copies. ‘Uthman said to the three Quraishi persons. ” If you differ with Zaid bin Thabit on any point of the Quran, then write it in the language of Quraish, as the Quran was revealed in their language.” So they acted accordingly. 50
Thus, these three Quraishis went over Zaid’s text, and altered it at any point at which it was not conformable to the Quraishi dialect. Further Muslim historiography reports,
“Abu Amr states that he received the following relation from Katada as-Sadusi: “When the first copy of the Koran was written out and presented to (the khalif) Othman Ibn Affan, he said: ‘There are faults of language in it, and let the Arabs of the desert rectify them with their tongues.'”51
It appears then that Uthman was still not satisfied with the purity of the language, and relied upon the Bedouin to resolve some of the issues (the Bedouin were traditionally said to be arbiters on questions of Arabic grammar, both before and after the advent of Islam, due to the prestige of the Bedouin speech and its place as the pure language of poetry)52 . In relating the above tradition from Muslim sources, the general sense of unreliability for these traditions must again be emphasized. However, in a garbled form and fashion, the traditions may relate legitimate details about the collection of the Qur’an. While it may not have happened in the manner described by the historiographers, the details of the collation and correction of the Qur’an may well reflect analogous events occurring during the solidification of the Arab Empire and the development of the Arab monotheism, especially from the tumultuous years of the early civil wars. Indeed, the kernel of truth most likely is there, surrounded by the shuck of later literary exaggeration and ornamentation.
Many Muslim apologists will argue that the differences mentioned above between the various compilations, were due to pronunciation differences, and that no difference in the actual text existed. One Muslim apologist with whom I have had much discussion said it this way, “Although minor in nature, yet the differences in the pronunciation were seen with concern by the cautious Caliph who feared they could develop into different versions with the possibility of different meanings. It was required that just like a standard text, a standard pronunciation should also be decided.”
The problem with this argument is that differences in pronunciation between various compilations would not APPEAR in the text, as the use of pointing to mark vowels was not yet in use for the quranic text. This is because Arabic is a language, like all Semitic languages, based on consonantal word roots, with the weak vowels supplied either by tacit knowledge and context, or (as in later times) by diacritical marks called “pointing”, that indicate which vowel is used in each syllable. The same basic consonantal root can be used, but have different pointing marks to indicate different verb tenses, number, gender, etc. Hence, it would be possible to have different pronunciations, yes, based upon regional accents and dialects. BUT, these differences in pronunciation would not appear in the various texts. The texts could all say the same thing as far as the actual consonants that were written down, and still be pronounced differently. The fact that there were significant enough differences in the texts themselves (which would be INDEPENDENT of pronunciation) to cause Uthman to seek to eliminate all competitors to the Zaid text immediately tells us that these readings, the actual WORDS, represented significant differences between the words of the texts themselves.
And differences there were between the texts. For instance, the hadithic tradition records the following:
Narrated Ibrahim: “The companions of ‘Abdullah (bin Mas’ud) came to Abi Darda’, (and before they arrived at his home), he looked for them and found them. Then he asked them,: “Who among you can recite (Qur’an) as ‘Abdullah recites it?” They replied, “All of us.” He asked, “Who among you knows it by heart?” They pointed at ‘Alqama. Then he asked Alqama. “How did you hear ‘Abdullah bin Mas’ud reciting Surat Al-Lail (The Night)?” Alqama recited:
‘By the male and the female.’
Abu Ad-Darda said, “I testify that I heard me Prophet reciting it likewise, but these people want me to recite it:–
‘And by Him Who created male and female.’ But by Allah, I will not follow them.” 53
Thus, we see that the text of Surah 92:3 taught and recited by Abdullah Ibn Mas’ud differed from that used by certain other Muslims, not just in pronunciation, but in the words themselves, in a way which changes the meaning of the verse (in this case, eliminating a reference to Allah). Note also, the reading which is claimed to have been spoken by Mohammed himself is not the one presently found in the Qur’an.
Gilchrist and others report likewise that much controversy was generated through the years by reports that ibn Mas’ud left out Suwar numbers 1, 113, and 114 from his compilation.
Four notable differences between the Zaid text and the ibn Mas’ud text are detailed by Gilchrist 54:
Surah 2:275 – Zaid text – Allathiina yaakuluunar-ribaa laa yaquumuun – “those that devour usury will not stand”
Mas’ud text – Allathiina yaakuluunar-ribaa laa yaquumuun yawmal qiyaamati – “those that devour usury will not stand IN THE RESURRECTION DAY.”
Surah 5:89 (listed as 5:91 by Gilchrist) – Zaid text – Fasiyaamu thalaathati ayyaamin – “fast for three days”
Mas’ud text – Fasiyaamu thalaathati ayyaamin mutataabi’aatin – “fast for three SUCCESSIVE days”
Surah 6:153 – Zaid text – Wa anna haathaa siraatii – “Verily this is my path”
Mas’ud text – Wa haathaa siraatu rabbakum – “This is the path OF YOUR LORD”
Incidentally, the text of Ubayy ibn Ka’b also has this reading, except that the word rabbakum is replaced with rabbika.
Surah 33:6 – Zaid text – Wa azwaajuhuu ummahaatuhuu – “and his wives are their mothers”
Mas’ud text – Wa azwaajuhuu ummahaatuhuu wa huwa abuu laahum – “and his wives are their mothers AND HE IS THEIR FATHER.”
The Ibn Ka’b text has these same words, but reverses the statements about Mohammed’s wives being mothers and he being a father to the Muslim community, placing the statement about Mohammed first.
The traditions provide a number of examples of other alterations and/or versions in the Arabic textual history of the Qur’an besides those of men like Mas’ud and Ibn Ka’b. For instance,
“Narrated Anas bin Malik:
(The tribes of) Ril, Dhakwan, ‘Usaiya and Bani Lihyan asked Allah’s Apostle to provide them with some men to support them against their enemy. He therefore provided them with seventy men from the Ansar whom we used to call Al-Qurra’ in their lifetime. They used to collect wood by daytime and pray at night. When they were at the well of Ma’una, the infidels killed them by betraying them. When this news reached the Prophet , he said Al-Qunut for one month In the morning prayer, invoking evil upon some of the ‘Arab tribes, upon Ril, Dhakwan, ‘Usaiya and Bani Libyan. We used to read a verse of the Qur’an revealed in their connection, but later the verse was cancelled. It was: “convey to our people on our behalf the information that we have met our Lord, and He is pleased with us, and has made us pleased.” (Anas bin Malik added:) Allah’s Prophet said Qunut for one month in the morning prayer, invoking evil upon some of the ‘Arab tribes (namely), Ril, Dhakwan, Usaiya, and Bani Libyan. (Anas added:) Those seventy Ansari men were killed at the well of Mauna.”55
Per this tradition, a part of the Qur’an was “cancelled”, though the usual process of abrogation (mansukh) does not see to be in view here. Other examples of the liberty which the early Muslims apparently took with the quranic text is seen in the tradition relating Aisha’s command to her freedman to change a reading in a copy of the Qur’an which he was transcribing.
“Yahya related to me from Malik from Zayd ibn Aslam from al-Qaqa ibn Hakim that Abu Yunus, the mawla of A’isha, umm al-muminin [Mother of the Believers] said, ”A’isha ordered me to write out a Qur’an for her. She said, ‘When you reach this ayat [2:238), let me know, “Guard the prayers carefully and the middle prayer and stand obedient to Allah.[hafiz ‘ala s-salawati wa-s-salati l-wusta wa qumu li-l-lahi qanitin]” ‘ When I reached it I told her, and she dictated to me, ‘Guard the prayers carefully and the middle prayer and the asr prayer and stand obedient to Allah. [hafiz ‘ala s-salawati wa-s-salati l-wusta wa-s-salati l-‘asri wa qumu li-l-lahi qanitin]’ A’isha said, ‘I heard it from the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace.'” 56
Though the change itself is minor, this again provides proof from the Muslim traditions themselves as to the fluidity of the quranic text before it was fixed. As with the example from Surah al-Lail (92:3), the reading which is said to have been heard from Mohammed himself is not the reading found in the present Qur’an. Further, we see the disappearance of the “stoning verse” from the Qur’an documented in the traditions,
“‘Umar said, “I am afraid that after a long time has passed, people may say, “We do not find the Verses of the Rajam (stoning to death) in the Holy Book,” and consequently they may go astray by leaving an obligation that Allah has revealed. Lo! I confirm that the penalty of Rajam be inflicted on him who commits illegal sexual intercourse, if he is already married and the crime is proved by witnesses or pregnancy or confession.” Sufyan added, “I have memorized this narration in this way.” ‘Umar added, “Surely Allah’s Apostle carried out the penalty of Rajam, and so did we after him.”57
Again, a narration obtained from Mohammed has disappeared from the present version of the Qur’an.
Hence, there WERE very definite differences between these early versions of the Qur’an, which cannot be explained away by appeals to pronunciation. These that I have mentioned are only four of the differences between early compilations of the Qur’an. Arthur Jeffery’s book, Materials for the History of the Text of the Qur’an, contains over 350 pages of details concerning variant readings between early quranic compilations of the time. Further, the eminent scholar of Islam, W. Montgomery Watt, makes this remark,
“No copies exist of any of the early codices, but the list of variant readings from the two just mentioned is extensive [Ed. note – obtained from the various works of early Muslim historiographers who quote these variants], running to a thousand or more items in both cases.” 58
Thus, there appear to have been MANY variations in early quranic texts, despite the claims of perfection and invariance that are made for the Qur’an.
We must understand the place and significance of all that has been said above. Christianity, once it reached a position to be able to investigate this type of field with evidence and scientific methodology, has been able to investigate the textual history of the Bible in a systematic way. This has enabled Christians to ascertain what were the readings of the original biblical autographs, even though said autographs no longer exist today. This has also allowed Christianity to detect and eliminate spurious alterations or omissions made from individual manuscripts, thus maintaining a pure text while yet acknowledging the obvious presence of disparate readings between individual manuscripts. Thus, through recourse to the examination of the sum total of the manuscript evidence, along with concurrent evidence from other ancient versions and the quotations of patristic writers from the early years of the faith, Christians can be certain that the words of God have been preserved for them throughout the ages and are available to them today, even without having the original autographs.
The same assurance cannot be had by the Muslim, who has been barricaded into accepting as the “orthodox” position the view that the Qur’an has never once changed since its original inception, and that the Qur’an does not even HAVE a textual history. Whether a Muslim believes that the Qur’an was handed down intact and whole to Mohammed and has not changed since, or that the Qur’an was preserved in the compilation of Zaid and Uthman and has not changed since, he or she is still placed into the same logically and factually untenable position. Whereas Christianity has been realistic about the matter, has accepted that individual manuscripts can and will become altered over time (whether accidental or purposeful makes no difference), and has developed a fairly simple yet scientific method for discerning the true from the false59, Islam does not have this recourse. Because of the record of Uthman’s destruction and suppression of alternate quranic versions, the Muslim has no means by which to truly and scientifically determine whether the readings in his present Qur’an are REALLY the original readings. All that can be truthfully said (if one accepts the history presented in the traditions) is that the present readings were those of Uthman’s purported version. Yet, because of the destruction of so much authentic source material, there is no way to judge to what extent, numerically and geographically, the variant Qur’ans of ibn Ka’b, ibn Mas’ud, and other compilers were found. The Muslim cannot in any rational way state that certain readings found, for instance, in the Mas’ud version were definitely not the true revelation received by Mohammed. As noted above, the Mas’ud reading of Al-Lail 92:3 as recorded in the hadithic record is said to be that which was obtained from Mohammed himself. YET, this reading does not appear in the present Qur’an, which suggests that an authentic pronouncement of the prophet of Islam was lost in Uthman’s zeal to establish a uniform standard. How can the Muslim EVER know (aside from blind faith) that the current reading of 92:3 is the right one? Islam, with its untenable approach to the textual issue coupled with the artificial standardization of a pre-approved text, has trapped itself into a seemingly inescapable conundrum.
Garbled in Transmission
Thus, from what we have seen above, the text of the Qur’an cannot rationally be considered to have arrived in its present form without any changes from when Mohammed claimed to have received it from Allah. Portions of the Qur’an were lost forever at Yamama (according to Muslim tradition itself), there were variant readings all over the Muslim world until Uthman reined them in and established the Zaid/Abu Bakr text (after Quraishi revision) as the “standard” text for all Muslims. In such a situation, it is inevitable that confusion must reign. Even now, many Shi’ite Muslims will maintain that Caliph Uthman had up to a quarter of the original Qur’an removed for political reasons: the ayat spoke of Ali, with whom Uthman had a personal grudge.
But then, what of the other major claim made by many Muslims concerning the Qur’an, which relates to its present perfection and divine authorship? The same Muslim apologist who I quoted earlier had this to say, “That Qur’an is authoritative in Islam, which you’ll find in your nearest bookstore. The presence of a SINGLE text of the Qur’an in the whole Muslim world is the proof of this.” This claim is the standard view of orthodox Islam. But is this true? Is there a single text of the Qur’an in Arabic used today the world over?
The answer is, of course, no. The Arabic Qur’ans have come to the present day through a series of what are called “transmissions”. Essentially, there were in the 2nd-3rd centuries AH (roughly the 8th-9th centuries) seven men who were considered authoritative “readers” of the Qur’an, and their recitations were written down (transmitted) by other scholars, and these readings have come down to us today as the various transmissions. Properly speaking, the two main transmissions used today are those transmitted by Hafs (d. 805) and Warsh (d. 812), though two others (ad-Duri, d. 860, and Qalun, d. 835, he being a secondary transmitter of Warsh) are also in print. The Hafs is the most commonly used transmission, though the Warsh is (or at least used to be until recently) the most common in North Africa.
For the Muslim assertion to be true, it would have to be shown that there are NO differences between these various transmissions. It would have to be true that even though there were seven different reciters and several different transmitters, they all recited and wrote the same text with no variance, and this would transmit to us today. Hence, the Hafs and Warsh ought to be identical.
Yet, they are not. Samuel Green, in his work, The Different Arabic Versions of the Qur’an60, makes a note of many of the differences in reading between these two particular transmissions, some of which I will give below. Please note, the difference in ayat references are due to the difference in the numbering systems between the two Qur’ans, but they refer to the words in question from the same passages:
Surah 3:133 (Hafs) – wasaari’uu
Surah 3:133 (Warsh) – saari‘uu
Surah 2:140 (Hafs) – taquluna
Surah 2:139 (Warsh) – yaquluna
Surah 3:81 (Hafs) – ataytukum
Surah 3:80 (Warsh) – ataynakum
Surah 2:259 (Hafs) – nunshizuhaa
Surah 2:258 (Warsh) – nunshiruhaa
Surah 2:10 (Hafs) – yakdhibuuna
Surah 2:9 (Warsh) – yukadhdhibuuna
Surah 2:184 (Hafs) – ta’aamu miskiinin
Surah 2:183 (Warsh) – ta’aami masakiina
These are not merely differences in pronunciation, but instead differences between transmissions both in diacritical marks (for vowels) and also consonantal sounds61. So, no, the Muslim claim that there is a single quranic text used the world over is not substantiated by fact. In short, if the question is asked: Is the Qur’an unchanged and uniform, we would have to answer with a negative in both cases.
Home Grown Inspiration
As was mentioned earlier, after the establishment of the Zaid text as the standard canon across Islam, Caliph Uthman attempted to carry out the complete destruction of all variant readings by fire. Why did Caliph Uthman feel the need to carry out the destruction of manuscripts that conflicted with his compilation? Was Uthman afraid that earlier copies of the Qur’an contradicted his and would reveal his own text to be deficient in authority because of the addition and subtraction of material?
Addition and subtraction to the quranic text there seems to have been, too. Guillaume reports that many of the original verses of the Qur’an were lost, either to deliberate removal, or to accidents. One surah originally had 200 verses in the time of Ayesha (one of Mohammed’s wives), but by the time of Uthman’s recension, it had only 73 verses, for a total of 127 verses subtracted 62. In fact, in the scholarly realm, that verses have been removed from the Qur’an throughout its history is almost universally accepted. Many of the quranic renderings that Uthman destroyed contained verses that Uthman did not approve of, probably indicating an overall tendency towards early addition to and subtraction from what was supposed to be the final, complete word of Allah (which would be in line with what was shown earlier about the authority of the early Caliphs to alter legal tradition to suit their own purposes).
Further, there is evidence from the traditions that indicates to us that Mohammed himself made, or at least allowed, direct alteration of the revelation that supposedly came from Allah. The dissident Iranian scholar Ali Dashti related one such tradition, about one of Mohammed’s scribes in Medina, a man by the name of Abdollah Abi Sahr. This account relates that Abi Sahr had,
“….with the Prophet’s consent, changed the closing words of verses. For example when the Prophet had said ‘And God is mighty and wise’ (‘aziz, hakim), ‘Abdollah b. Abi Sarh suggested writing down ‘knowing and wise’ (‘alim, hakim), and the Prophet answered that there was no objection. Having observed a succession of changes of this type, ‘Abdollah renounced Islam on the ground that revelations, if from God, could not be changed at the prompting of a scribe….” 63
It is not surprising to find out that the tradition records that Abi Sahr was one of the first men whom Mohammed condemned to die after Mecca was conquered (though he pardoned him because of the intercession of Abi Sahr’s uncle Uthman, and upon Abi Sahr‘s reversion back to Islam).
There is evidence that suggests that the Hijaz, the region in the Arabian peninsula that includes Mecca, was not even the site of origin for the new Arab monotheistic religion that developed into Islam. Nevo and Koren note that the earliest appearance of classical Arabic (the Arabic in which the Qur’an was supposed to have been handed down – the pure language of Allah) in the Hijaz dates to around the 40s AH (~660s AD), found near Ta’if64. They further argue, on the basis of archaeological findings in the Hijaz and surrounding regions which show no evidence for the many pagan Jahiliyya cults attributed to the area by Muslim tradition in the 6th and 7th centuries, that the point of origin for the Arab monotheism was not in the Hijaz, but elsewhere65. The conclusion they draw from their investigations is that the point of origin for this new religion was in the conquered lands of Syria-Palestine, where the most interaction between the Arab invaders and the Christian/Jewish/Judaeo-Christian subjects would take place. Later, the Arabs sought to establish a more independent identity for their new monotheism, thus creating a biography for Islam based in the Hijaz, the idealized Arab heartland. The information from the Muslim traditional historiography concerning the pre-Islamic pagan system in Mecca and the Hijaz might well have been “imported” from the pagan Arabs living in the frontier regions of Syria and Palestine, and transposed backwards as a programmatic example of the pagan systems that Islam was meant to root out, just as was done in the ideal history of Mecca.
The positive argument from the appearance of Classical Arabic in the area nearly four decades AFTER the Qur’an was supposedly handed down and Islam started, is very convincing. It suggests that this quranic language was brought into the region from the northern areas in Syria and Iraq, regions conquered and occupied by the Arabs, and which had the necessary ferment of religious interaction to cause the Arabs to desire a defining monotheism of their own. This perhaps complements the already present trend towards monotheism which was growing stronger in Arabia at this time, and which would have flowed out of the peninsula with the migrating tribes. Thus, the many high gods of the various Arab tribes would each be folded into the supreme god of the new monotheism, subjugated and assimilated into the developing state religion. The early holy books of the Arabs to which John of Damascus and Leo III allude may have originated in the area of Syria-Palestine, and the dialect began to be recognized more widely as the Arabic of the holy books of the state religion. However, caution must be employed, for we must again recognize that the Islamic traditions often are mutually contradictory and it is a difficult task to piece any coherent chain or chronology of events from them. It is best to draw general inferences of the sort of events that took place, and let archaeology and epigraphy fill in the details. As for the particulars of the development of Islam in the Syro-Palestinian environment, more will be said of this in the discussion about Mohammed in Chapter 5.
The early evolution of Muslim doctrine and practice suggests that present quranic and hadithic statements were not always viewed as inspired or received from Allah. Additionally, they do not all seem to have existed in Uthman’s compilation. Instead, this phenomenon suggests the constant addition to and taking away from the Muslim holy books, and the end result is likely that several different authors over at least two centuries were responsible for the production of the Qur’an. This is entirely within the realm of possibility, given that the first verifiable full texts of the Qur’an conformable to the reading of one of today’s transmissions dates at its earliest back to the 10th century, while earlier available manuscripts (such as the Yemeni) contain variant readings and omissions. In short, the Qur’an appears to be a work which was authored and edited by the Arabs in Syria and/or Iraq which had several variant readings that were destroyed, and which took several centuries to appear in the final form available today.
(1) – S.N. Fisher, The Middle East: A History, p. 59(2) – S.A.A. Maudadi, Towards Understanding Islam, p. 109(3) – The Holy Qur’an, English Translation of the Meanings and Commentary, King Fahd Holy Qur’an Printing Complex, p. v(4) – Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 6, Bk. 61, No. 510(5) – J. Gilchrist, Jam’ Al-Qur’an: The Codification of the Qur’an Text, p. 144(6) – Y.H. Safadi, Islamic Calligraphy, pp. 10-11; see also M. Lings and Y.H. Safadi, The Qur’an, p. 17(7) – “Brother Mark”, A Perfect Qur’an, p. 67(8) – O.E. Sherif and M.A. Elhennawy, “Preserving and Protecting the Qur’an”, published at http://www.submission.org/quran/protect.html
(9) – M. Lings and Y.H. Safadi, op. cit., pp. 17, 20(10) – A. Schimmel, Calligraphy and Islamic Culture, p. 4(11) – T. Lester, “What is the Koran?”, The Atlantic Monthly Online, January 1999
(12) – M. Cook, Muhammad, p. 74(13) – J. Wansbrough, Quranic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation, p. 44(14) – J. Schacht, The Origins of Muhammedan Jurisprudence, pp. 4-5(15) – Ibid., pp. 224-225(16) – P. Crone and M. Hinds, God’s Caliph: Religious Authority in the First Centuries of Islam, p. 52(17) – P. Crone, Roman, Provincial, and Islamic Law: The Origins of the Islamic Patronate, p. 99(18) – A. Mingana, “The Transmission of the Koran”, The Moslem World, Vol. 7 (1917), pp. 223-232, 402-414(19) – R. Hoyland, Seeing Islam as Others Saw It: A Survey and Evaluation of Christian, Jewish, and Zoroastrian Writings on Early Islam, p. 471(20) – See P. Crone and M. Cook, Hagarism, p. 18(21) – See e.g. J. Meyendorff, “Byzantine Views of Islam”, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 18 (1964), p. 118(22) – Hoyland, op. cit., p. 486(23) – See Saint John of Damascus: Writings, trans. F.H. Chase, pp. 157-159(24) – Per A. Jeffry, “Ghevond’s Text of the Correspondence between ‘Umar II and Leo III.”, Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 37 (1944), esp. pp. 275-276; see Hoyland, op. cit., pp. 490-494 for his discussion supporting a late 8th century origin for the text.(25) – Y.D. Nevo and J. Koren, Crossroads to Islam, p. 239(26) – Ibid., pp. 240-241(27) – See Jeffrey, op. cit., p. 298(28) – Ibid, n. 48(29) – Crone and Cook, op. cit., pp. 17-18(30) – Nevo and Koren, op. cit., p. 193(31) – S. Bashear, “Jesus in an Early Muslim Shahada and Related Issues: A New Perspective”, Studies in Early Islamic Tradition, Ch. 15, pp. 17-18; presented as a paper at the fourth Hadith Colloquium held in Amsterdam, August 1991(32) – Wansbrough here uses the term in the sense of Judaism and Christianity(33) – Wansbrough, op. cit., p. 20(34) – Ibid., p. 97(35) – Cook, op. cit., p. 65(36) – R.S. Humphreys, Islamic History: A Framework for Inquiry, pp. 84-85(37) – Fisher, loc. cit.(38) – F. Buhl, Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam, eds. H.A.R. Gibb and J.H. Kramers, p. 277(39) – E.g. C. Farah, Islam: Beliefs and Observances, p. 95(40) – See Nevo and Koren, op. cit., pp. 87-168 for some examples of this phenomenon, as well as a general reconstruction of the events of the Arab takeover of Syria-Palestine as derived from contemporary literary sources and archaeological discoveries(41) – Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 9, Bk. 89, No. 301; also Vol. 6, Bk. 61, No. 511(42) – Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 4, Bk. 52, No. 62; also Vol. 5, Bk. 59, No. 379 and Vol. 6, Bk. 60, No. 307(43) – Ibn Abi Dawud, Kitab al-Masahif, p. 23(44) – Ibn Abi Dawud, Kitab al-Masahif, p. 10(45) – Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 6, Bk. 61, No. 558(46) – Sahih Muslim, Bk. 5, No. 2286(47) – Sahih Muslim, Bk. 4, No. 1724; see also Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 6, Bk. 61, No. 559(48) – As-Suyuti, Itqan fi ‘ulum al-Qur’an, Pt. 2, p. 25, cited in J. Burton, The Collection of the Qur’an, p. 117(49) – Gilchrist, op. cit., p. 41(50) – Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 4, Bk. 56, No. 709; also Vol. 6, Bk. 61, No. 507(51) – Ibn Khallikan, Wafayat al-Ayan, trans. B.M. de Slane, Vol. 2, p. 401(52) – See G.E. von Grunebaum, “The Nature of Arab Unity Before Islam”, Arabica, Vol. 10 (1963), No. 1, p. 14(53) – Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 6, Bk. 60, No. 468(54) – Gilchrist, op.cit., pp. 69-71(55) – Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 5, Bk. 59, No. 416(56) – Muwatta of Malik, Bk. 8, Sect. 8, No. 26; the hadith following immediately after (No. 27) relates the same story, except that it is Amr ibn Rafi making this same change for Hafsah, another wife of Mohammed(57) – Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 8, Bk. 82, No. 816; see also Sahih Muslim, Bk. 17, Nos. 4194 and 4209; Muwatta of Malik, Bk. 41, Sect. 1, No. 2(58) – W.M. Watt and R. Bell, Introduction to the Qur’an, p. 45(59) – Even if this method has been abused by those seeking to promote the spurious Alexandrian manuscripts over and above the vast majority of Byzantine/Traditional Text manuscripts.(60) – This resource can be found online at http://www.answering-islam.org/Green/seven.htm
(61) – For a more in-depth investigation into the history and significance of variations, both textual and transmissional, see Ibn Warraq’s essays Which Koran? and Which Koran? (Part II)
(62) – A. Guillaume, Islam, p. 191(63) – Ali Dashti, Twenty-Three Years: A Study of the Prophetic Career of Mohammed, p. 98(64) – Nevo and Koren, op. cit., p. 174(65) – Ibid., pp. 173-174
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