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!