Modern Scholarly Study of the Qur'an

Western Scholarship and the Quran

Where to best start a series of blogs on articles which discuss the development of the Qur'an? Why not first hear from Andrew Rippin about the history of the development of "scholarly" approaches to the Qur'an?

I put "scholarly" in quotation marks because this is actually one of the questions which Rippin raises in his article "Western Scholarship and the Qur'an"*. He notes that the meaning of this adjective is no longer as clear as it once might have been. Calling an approach "non-confessional," "disinterested," "academic," or "secular" does not mean it is free from its own values, whether conscious or subconscious.

Rippin briefly reviews the approach to the Qur'an taken by Muslims, and the apologetic responses to the Qur'an from medieval Christian authors. Then he describes the works of three 19th-century scholars who he says got qur'anic studies off the ground: Abraham Geiger, Gustav Weil and Theodor Noldeke. Their philological approach came to be known as scholarly, but Rippin notes that they, along with most western scholars well into the 20th century, did not really challenge the core assumptions of the Muslim tradition about the Qur'an.

As one would expect, Rippin highlights the initiative of John Wansbrough to address questions not previously raised within the scholarly framework. Wansbrough asked whether the structure of the qur'anic text itself supports the claim of composition over a short period of time which the Muslim accounts make. Rippin also recommends the work of Angelika Neuwirth in examining the literary structure of the Qur'an.

Rippin describes the Encyclopaedia of the Qur'an as reflecting the spirit of modernism, which he says regards religion as a personal matter for the individual. He contrasts this with "contemporary polemic," which he portrays very negatively. Muslim scholars, however, have been critical of both approaches, and they have been able to find polemic in even the most 'dispassionate' research, notes Rippin.

One question I had about this article was the way it discusses "questions of ultimate truth." Rippin writes insightfully that the Qur'an anticipates only one category of non-Muslim readers--those to whom it appeals to accept "the truth of its religious message." The 19th-century German scholars and their followers put the matter of the truth of the text to one side. But why should there be disdain for scholarly study of the Qur'an which raises questions of truth? It would seem to be the only approach which responds to the Qur'an in its own terms.

in The Cambridge Companion to the Qur'an. Jane Dammen McAuliffe, ed. (Cambridge University Press, 2006).

Manuscripts of the Qur'an

The study of ancient manuscripts is no task for amateurs. Even when reading the descriptions by those best qualified, amateurs can misunderstand and/or draw the wrong conclusions. There is no guarantee that this amateur will get it right, but if you see something wrong, let me know by posting a comment below.

François Déroche is one of the few who could be properly described as an expert in manuscripts of the Qur'an. His article with the same title was published in the Encyclopaedia of the Qur'an in 2003. More recently Déroche published the article "Written Transmission" in a collection edited by Andrew Rippin.*

Muslim tradition ascribes the collection of the Qur'an to the third caliph, 'Uthman. Déroche writes that though there are claims of "'Uthmanic Qur'ans" in existence--six in Istanbul alone--historians are not convinced that any of these are authentic. Rather, the earliest Qur'ans which can be dated or have been dated using reliable evidence "are know to originate from the second quarter of the third/ninth century." (WT, 172)

Déroche helpfully explains the ways in which scholars date Qur'an manuscripts: through codicology, palaeography and philology. He writes that the Arabic script lacked standardization in the 1st/7th century. Certain long vowels were not part of the "consonantal skeleton"; there was no system in place for recording short vowels; and the dots which identify consonants were used with varying frequency by early copyists, sometimes not at all.

"The various deficiencies noted in the hijazi-style manuscripts mean that it was not, in fact, possible to adequately preserve the integrity of the Qur'an through writing" at the time when 'Uthman is reported to have definitively established the text in Muslim tradition. (WT, 173-4)

Déroche gives the details of the changes in the qur'anic codex during the early centuries. The earlier defective script was slowly replaced by a full script, with such marks as vocalization, hamza, sukun and shadda gradually added. "The system as we know it today seems to have been introduced towards the end of the third/ninth century." (WT, 175)

One other point which Déroche includes--perhaps more widely known--is that most Qur'ans today go back to a decision of al-Azhar scholars in 1924 to favour one of the many possible variant readings, that of Hafs 'an 'Asim. Early manuscripts of the Qur'an were not taken into account in the preparation of this now-standard Cairo version, and it received no official sanction except by the shaykhs of al-Azhar. (WT, 184)

*The Blackwell Companion to the Qur'an (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006). At the time of posting, Déroche's article in this collection was accessible online through Google books.

Variant Readings of the Qur'an

The variant readings of the Qur'an (in Arabic qira'at or huruf) is a subject which is very poorly known by non-Muslims and Muslims alike. And yet it is essential to try to get a grasp of this subject if there is ever going to be a meaningful discussion of the challenges of ancient manuscripts which Hebrew Bible, New Testament and Qur'an share.

A fine scholar to lead into this difficult and very specialized topic is Frederik Leemhuis, who provided two helpful articles in the Encyclopaedia of the Qur'an: "Codices of the Qur'an" (Vol. I, 2001), and "Readings of the Qur'an" (Vol. IV, 2004).

One strength of Leemhuis' treatment of this theme is his familiarity with the earliest Muslim commentaries on the Qur'an. He notes, for example, that the grammarian al-Farra' (d. 822) and traditionist 'Abd al-Razzaq al-San'ani (d. 827) commonly cited variant readings associated with the name Ibn Mas'ud.

These variants departed not only from the various possible pointings and pronunciations of the rasm (unmarked consonantal skeleton) attributed by Muslims to 'Uthman. Some variants departed from that rasm altogether. Leemhuis writes that from this evidence, variant readings with a different rasm were still freely discussed in the second Islamic century.

The proscription of the many possible variant readings circulating in the Muslim Empire seems to have been a gradual process taking several centuries and involving, at a number of points, political power. In the third Islamic century Muslim scholars began to limit the variants to what was possible with the rasm which Muslims attributed to 'Uthman.

In the fourth Islamic century the prohibition of rival rasms, especially the popular rasm of Ibn Mas'ud, seems to have come from the activities of Ibn Mujahid (d. 936), enforced by the 'Abbasid vizier Ibn Muqla. Ibn Mujahid limited the permissible readings to seven, and his first criterion was whether a reading was in accordance with one of the codices which--according to Muslim tradition--'Uthman sent to five cities. Even among these traditional codices some 50 differences in the rasm were acknowledged by Ibn Abi Dawud al-Sijistani (d. 929) in his Kitab al-Masahif.

Leemhuis suggests that the "combination of the power of the 'Abbasid state and Ibn Mujahid's authority" proved quite effective in establishing the seven canonical readings. However, Muslim scholars later made arguments for three other readings, which were accepted, and then four more readings, for a total of 14 acceptable readings, each in two transmissions or riwayas.

For centuries, readings tended to be associated with the regions in which they traditionally originated. "The great unifying change came in the tenth/sixteenth century, as the Ottoman empire adopted the Hafs 'an 'Asim reading." (RQ 361) Under the empire this reading became widespread, and when the Egyptian government printed an edition of the Qur'an in 1923, they also chose the Hafs 'an 'Asim reading from among the possible 14. This particular reading is the one we see in printed Qur'ans around the world today.

Let's save the analysis of this material for next week. In the meantime, read Leemhuis' articles if possible to check whether the description above is accurate.

Codices of the Qur'an

We should be very grateful for the research of scholars who have gone the distance with difficult and very specialized questions related to the development of the Qur'an. In the previous blog I described some of the research of Frederik Leemhuis into the variant readings of the Qur'an. Leemhuis goes over some of the same ground--but also extends his analysis--in his EQ article on "codices," or early copies of the complete text of the Qur'an.

Muslims tell a story of how the text of the Qur'an was definitively established during the reign of the third caliph, 'Uthman. No such "'Uthmanic codex" is known to exist, though some Muslims have made this claim (as François Déroche has noted). But in any case, writes Leemhuis, the oldest extant codices only show the consonantal skeleton (rasm), without diacritics to distinguish consonants of the same shape, and without vowel signs.

During the second Islamic century there are indications that Muslims were beginning to develop a textus receptus, but at the same time a "non-'Uthmanic rasm" was also considered by Muslim scholars to be a matter of fact. Leemhuis helpfully details some of the differences which can be found among the ancient codices, related to both different rasms and different readings from the same rasm. (CQ, 348-350)

Dating the earliest codices remains a problem, according to Leemhuis. Some scholars have suggested an Umayyad origin for some leaves from ancient codices. However, "the paleographical study of ancient codices has produced no clear, unambiguous and generally accepted results with respect to the dating of extant codices." (CQ, 351)

Leemhuis' conclusion about Muslim tradition? "Although the concept of the 'Uthmanic rasm suggests a uniform and invariable text, such uniformity is not presented by most of the oldest extant codices." (CQ, 350)

What does Leemhuis mean? He means that the development of the text of the Qur'an seems to be more complicated than the Muslim story of the fixing of the text during the reign of 'Uthman. Ancient documents share many of the same challenges, whether they be manuscripts of Hebrew Bible, New Testament or Qur'an. Is this perhaps a clue to how people of the monotheistic faiths should be talking together about the authenticity of each other's scripture?

Stories of a Collection

One of the most powerful truth claims which Muslims make today is that the Qur'an was fully formed within about 25 years of the death of the messenger of Islam in the seventh century, and that it has remained protected in exactly this form for almost 1400 years. Because this claim is so common and so explosive, the December blogs will seek to describe the most recent scholarship on this topic.

Muslim tradition offers a story of how the Qur'an came together. That story can be found in works of hadith such as Mishkat al-Masabih, and many western authors such as W. Montgomery Watt have passed on the Muslim story in popular books on Islam. The story gives credit for the collection to the first caliph, Abu Bakr, and especially to the third caliph, 'Uthman.

However, there is more than one story of a collection in the earliest Muslim accounts, and this prompted a few western scholars to ask a few basic questions. Various early accounts gave credit for the collection to each of the four "righteously-guided" caliphs. The early account of Ibn Sa'd, for example, credited the second caliph, 'Umar, but didn't mention either Abu Bakr or 'Uthman.

No worthwhile study of this topic can leave out what John Wansbrough wrote about the collection stories in his Quranic Studies. This book is very difficult to understand, but we must start here if we are serious about the truth of the Muslim stories. I have seen nothing written during the past 30 years which improves upon Wansbrough's discussion, even though many scholars have strongly disagreed with him. (You too may disagree, but first know thoroughly what you disagree with!)

Wansbrough simply observed that the various "canonization traditions" are contradictory. How then to deal with them? There is no historical evidence to support any of the stories; the documents referred to in the stories do not exist (as far as we know); and the stories of a collection only began to appear in print about two centuries after the death of Islam's messenger (though some scholars have made the case that they were circulating earlier).

Wansbrough declined to speculate on the trustworthiness of those who first wrote down the stories or the transmitters listed in the isnad. Instead, he asked what literary analysis of the Qur'an which we now possess can tell us about how it may have developed. This analysis, done according to methodology familiar from biblical studies, is a contribution to scholarship on the Qur'an which put Wansbrough in a league of his own.

One of Wansbrough's many helpful observations is that the Muslim collection stories show a polemical character. Islam was distinguishing its scripture from the Torah and Gospel. For example, the words of the Muslim military leader to 'Uthman: "Commander of the faithful, set this people right before they disagree about the Book in the manner of the Jews and the Christians." Collection stories also had much to do with making a case for the prophethood of Islam's messenger. This should alert the scholar to the fact that here we are in the area of religious truth claims.

Scholars now acknowledge the significance of the time gap between written Muslim accounts and the events in early Islam which they purport to recount (150 years now seems to be the minimum agreed-upon gap). The question for many scholars has simply been whether these written accounts are trustworthy. In other words, it is a matter of faith. The value of Wansbrough's research is that he asks, in the absence of both historical evidence and a faith commitment to the truth claims of Islam, "What can the scripture itself tell us about how it may have come together?"

Let's explore this topic together. Read the main hadith story once more. Then buy, beg or borrow (I won't say steal) a copy of Quranic Studies. Andrew Rippin's 2004 Prometheus edition of this book includes a helpful foreword, a glossary, and translations of Wansbrough's many non-English quotations. If I am not mistaken, Dr. Rippin stole the latter idea from me when I was his PhD student 10 years ago!

Mismatch over the punishment for adultery

No discussion of the Muslim stories about the collection of the Qur'an can leave out the scholarship of John Burton. Burton published one of the first modern studies on this topic in 1972*; and 30 years later he wrote the entry on this topic for The Encyclopaedia of the Qur'an. In between, he published his book The Collection of the Qur'an (Cambridge University Press, 1977).

Burton was one of the first to point out that since Muslim traditions on the Qur'an are part of the hadith literature, they should be subjected to the same scrutiny to which Ignaz Goldziher and Joseph Schacht subjected legal hadith. Burton found the Muslim stories on the collection "confused and contradictory." One of his most interesting discoveries was early Muslim distinctions between the "Qur'an" (the recitations in their entirety) and the mushaf (the text as it exists). These distinctions related especially to supposed rulings in the "Qur'an" which had not made their way into the mushaf.

The test case for this concept was the fact that though Islamic Law prescribes the stoning penalty for adultery, and though jurists are agreed that this was part of the sunna of Islam's messenger, the stoning penalty is not found in the mushaf (cf. Q24.2). How then to deal with this apparent mismatch between the word of God and the practice of the messenger? Burton explained that some Muslim scholars simply concluded that in this case sunna takes precedence over Qur'an. Other scholars said no, the messenger would not have given a ruling which was not in the Qur'an. God must have revealed to the messenger a verse commanding stoning which for some reason did not make it into the mushaf.

Muslim jurists created the collection stories, Burton suggested, to account for this and other legal anomalies. Burton reasoned that the jurists did not want it to be said that the collection had been completed before the death of the messenger, lest they not have the freedom to allow for alleged omissions in the actual text of scripture. In any case, Burton concluded that all of the Muslim stories of the collection of the Qur'an were fabricated.

This research seems to pull in two different directions. One is toward an early Muslim uncertainty that the actual text of the Qur'an contained everything that in their view God revealed to the messenger. The other is the suggestion that Muslims stories of the collection, so prized by some Muslims in interfaith polemic, are not trustworthy. In which direction would you take John Burton's research?

*Glasgow University Oriental Society, Transactions xxiii, 1969-70 (1972).