So, hey, I finally have five minutes to write something, so let’s see what’s happening…wow, peace talks over Syria, that’s…oh, ok. Egypt is progressing toward…well, civil war, actually, but at least they’re going to have a new elected government soon and it won’t be led by the mili–you know what, let’s leave that alone too. Ukraine is tearing itself apart over whether or not it should stay in Russia’s hip pocket, and Russia meanwhile is getting ready to host an Olympics that looks less and less safe all the time. Uh, any progress on Israel-Palestine talks? Oh, I see, progress in the opposite direction. Oh, and this is awful, whatever’s happening there. At least this horrible human being is hopefully going to prison, so that’s something.
Sorry, I’ll write about some or all of this stuff soon, but as I try to get back into the swing of things and sit here in my basement office freezing, I just can’t handle anything that heavy. Instead, I came across this piece, “How do we know the Quran is unchanged?” on a website called Lost Islamic History. This is a nice site and they dig up some interesting stuff sometimes; I particularly like their Twitter feed for that reason. But this piece, and it’s old, I know, is kind of a textbook case in how not to do history, so I thought it might be worthwhile to write about since history, and especially Islamic history, is one of the things we do around here.
The site is run by a history teacher named Firas Alkhateeb, and as far as I know he writes most of the content including this piece. He’s critical of the European/Orientalist study of the Qurʾan for its assumption that the text of the Qurʾan, like other religious texts that are studied today, changed its content somewhat over time, and that the text we have today is not necessarily the same text that existed at its origins. He criticizes western scholars for ignoring what Islamic tradition itself says about the Qurʾan, but they problem with this argument is that, in uncritically accepting Islamic tradition as accurate, Alkhateeb is guilty of the same crime against history, just in reverse.
Alkhateeb starts by quoting the Qurʾan to demonstrate its own accuracy, which is always a bad sign for a piece like this. For one thing, a text’s authenticity can’t possibly be demonstrated by the fact that the text itself says it’s accurate. For another, we’re talking about a charged issue, the origins and development of a religious text, and the immediate reference to the text to speak on its own behalf warns us that our writer has already surrendered to bias before we’ve even started:
Muslims believe that Allah has already promised to protect the Quran from the change and error that happened to earlier holy texts. Allah states in the Quran in Surat al-Hijr, verse 9:
إِنَّا نَحْنُ نَزَّلْنَا الذِّكْرَ وَإِنَّا لَهُ لَحَافِظُونَ
“Indeed, it is We who sent down the Quran and indeed, We will be it’s [sic] guardian.”
For Muslims, this verse of promise from Allah is enough to know that He will indeed protect the Quran from any errors and changes over time. For people who do not accept the authenticity of the Quran in the first place, however, clearly this verse cannot serve as proof of its authenticity, since it is in the Quran itself. It is from here that the academic discussion begins.
I bolded that bit there because its an extraordinarily sloppy statement. Referring to the Qurʾan to prove its own authenticity isn’t just unpersuasive for people who don’t accept the Qurʾan’s authenticity “in the first place,” it’s unpersuasive to anybody trying to make a legitimate, evidence-based argument about Qurʾanic origins, one way or another.
The Prophet ﷺ appointed numerous Companions of his to serve as scribes, writing down the latest verses as soon as they were revealed. Mu’awiya ibn Abu Sufyan and Zaid bin Thabit were among the scribes who had this duty. For the most part, new verses would be written on scraps of bone, hide, or parchment, since paper had not yet been imported from China. It is important to note that Muhammad ﷺ would have the scribes read back the verses to him after writing them down so he can proofread and make sure there were no errors.1
To further ensure that there were no errors, Muhammad ﷺ ordered that no one records anything else, not even his words, hadith, on the same sheet as Quran. Regarding the sheets that the Quran was being written down on, he stated “and whoever has written anything from me other than the Quran should erase it”2. This was done to ensure that no other words were accidentally thought to be part of the text of the Quran.
This is all right out of the traditional narrative about the Qurʾan, for sure, but the problem here is very simple: that traditional narrative already presupposes the authenticity and stability of the Qurʾanic text. This is more or less like relying on the writings of the early church fathers to verify the authenticity of the Gospels. Those church fathers weren’t making an argument about the historicity of the Gospels; they already assumed that the Gospels faithfully depicted the life of Jesus and went from there. Relying on writers who assumed the authenticity of the text in order to verify the authenticity of that text is only a small step removed from using the text itself to verify its own authenticity. Worse, those church fathers, like the earliest Islamic historians upon whose writings we’re basing our claims about the origins and provenance of the Qurʾan, were writing centuries after the fact. That alone makes them questionable sources at best, but there are plenty of other reasons to question what they have to say.
The Quran was not narrated to just a few select Companions. It was heard and memorized by hundreds and thousands of people, many of them travelers to Madinah. Thus, chapters and verses of the Quran quickly spread during the life of the Prophet ﷺ to all corners of the Arabian Peninsula. Those who had heard verses from the Prophet ﷺ would go and spread them to tribes far away, who would also memorize them. In this way, the Quran achieved a literary status known among the Arabs as mutawatir. Mutawatir means that it was so vastly disseminated to so many different groups of people, who all had the same exact wording, that it is inconceivable that that any one person or group could have falsified it.
This seems like a compelling argument; one person’s memory could be faulty, but the memories of hundreds and thousands of people, all remembering the same exact passages? That’s evidence, right? Of course, the claim that all these people remembered precisely the same verses in precisely the same way is also taken from the traditional, but very unreliable, Islamic historical narrative whose flaws we just noted above. Moreover, the claim that “thousands” of people actually did remember the same verses in exactly the same way is so outside the realm of possibility that it would need its own body of evidence to verify it. When your supporting “evidence” is as fantastical as the theory it’s supposed to be supporting, you’re not on very firm ground.
During the reigns of the first caliphs, however, a need to compile all the verses into a central book arose. Taking preemptive action, the caliphs who ruled the Muslim world after the death of the Prophet ﷺ feared that if the number of people who had the Quran memorized dipped too low, the community would be in danger of losing the Quran forever. As a result, the first caliph, Abu Bakr, who ruled from 632 to 634, ordered a committee be organized, under the leadership of Zaid bin Thabit, to collect all the written pieces of Quran that were spread throughout the Muslim community. The plan was to collect them all into one central book that could be preserved in case the people who had the Quran memorized died out.
Zaid was very meticulous about who he accepted verses from. Because of the enormous responsibility of not accidentally altering the words of the Quran, he only accepted pieces of parchment with Quran on them had to have been written down in the presence of the Prophet ﷺ and there had to be two witnesses who can attest to that fact.3 These fragments of Quran that he collected were each compared with the memorized Quran itself, ensuring that there was no discrepancy between the written and oral versions.
When the task was completed, a finalized book of all the verses was compiled and presented to Abu Bakr, who secured it in the archives of the young Muslim state in Madinah. It can be assumed with certainty that this copy that Abu Bakr had matched exactly the words that Muhammad ﷺ had spoken because of the numerous memorizers of Quran present in Madinah, coupled with the disseminated pieces of parchment on which it was recorded. Had there been discrepancies, the people of Madinah would have raised the issue. There is, however, no record of any opposition to Abu Bakr’s project or its outcome.
Again, this is a fine summary of the Islamic tradition, but that’s all it is. Without some substantial work to show that the traditional narrative is accurate, a tall order since we have very little independent material to check it against, no objective historian could support this argument.
During Uthman’s reign, people coming into the Muslim world at its periphery, in places like Persia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and North Africa were beginning to learn the Quran. An issue arose for them when it came to pronunciation of words, as they would hear different Arabs pronouncing the same verses differently. Although the different pronunciations were sanctioned by the Prophet ﷺ and there was no inherent harm in people reciting and teaching them, it led to confusion among new non-Arab Muslims.
Uthman responded by commissioning a group to come together, organize the Quran according to the dialect of the tribe of Quraysh (the Prophet ﷺ’s tribe), and spread the Qurayshi dialect to all parts of the empire. Uthman’s team (which again included Zaid bin Thabit) compiled a Quran into one book (known as a mus’haf – from the word for page, sahifa) based on first hand manuscripts along with the memories of the best Quran reciters of Madinah. This mus’haf was then compared with the copy that Abu Bakr commissioned, to make sure there were no discrepancies. Uthman then ordered numerous copies of the mus’haf to be made, which were sent to far off provinces throughout the empire, along with reciters who would teach the masses the Quran.
The codification of the text by Uthman is well-known in Islamic history, but unfortunately we have no existing copy (mushaf) of the Qurʾan that can be reliably dated earlier than the 8th century, upwards of a century after Muhammad started preaching his revelations in Mecca. There is simply, again, no independent evidence that Uthman actually did codify the text apart from historical narratives written long after Uthman was dead, and there’s even less evidence to support the existence of “the copy that Abu Bakr commissioned.”
Alkhateeb seems to take issue with the idea that there were ever “variant” readings of the Qurʾan’s text (early copies of the text lack the diacritic and vowel markings that would otherwise lock in a particular reading of the text; without them, Arabic allows some variability in terms of what a given text says), but the thing is, we know there were variant readings of the text. There are ten variant readings that are, today, accepted readings of the text, and four known rejected readings. It would be highly unlikely if these were the only 14 readings of the text that ever existed. It’s actually a point in favor of early codification/stabilization of the text that none of these variant readings is all that divergent from the others (none, say, includes some big chunk of text that isn’t included in the other readings), but Alkhateeb deals so disingenuously with the issue of variant readings at all that he can’t get to that point.
Alkhateeb then defends the veracity of the text based on the use of isnad, or chain of transmitters, in tracing each verse back to Muhammad and its original transmitter. Isnad are records of eyewitness accounts, literally “X heard from Y that Z told A that he heard Muhammad say B.” They were most heavily used by early Islamic scholars in authenticating hadith, or sayings and deeds of Muhammad, based on the somewhat subjective determination about which transmitters were reliable and whether a given transmitter could have ever actually had contact with the person he/she received the transmission from and the person to whom he/she transmitted it in turn. They are, as you might imagine, absurdly easy to fake, and there are reams of supposed hadith that were invented whole-cloth by later Muslim leaders to support this or that decision or this or that doctrinal point. Hadith are considered dangerously unreliable in modern scholarship because of this, and there’s no justification for using isnad as proof of the Qurʾan’s authenticity, either.
I haven’t even mentioned the biggest problem with relying on Islamic tradition to verify the Qurʾan’s textual stability, which is that you have to ignore the parts of the tradition that say the opposite. Traditional Islamic history holds that at the time when Uthman was codifying the text, several other community leaders (most prominently Ali) actually did have their own compilations that differed in several key respects from what Uthman eventually put together. We’re told that none of these folks objected to Uthman’s text, but again there’s nothing to check that against and, anyway, the existence of these alternate versions (assuming they did, in fact, exist) contradicts the idea that everyone who heard a recitation of the Qurʾan remembered it in precisely the same way as everyone else, doesn’t it? There’s also the question of the “Satanic Verses” to consider; these are a couple of short lines that Islamic tradition, the same Islamic tradition upon which we have been uncritically relying in order to demonstrate the unchanging provenance of the Qurʾan text, says were inserted into the Qurʾan by Muhammad due to the influence of Satan. They identify three pagan Meccan goddesses as “intercessors” between the believer and God, and they were repudiated in a later revelation. Not only is the existence of these verses, and their removal (so much for an unchanging text, right?) part of Islamic tradition, but it’s an episode that is embarrassing enough to Muhammad that modern historians are inclined to believe it really happened (why invent it, otherwise?).
None of this is intended to argue that the Qurʾan is not authentic or that its content was not stable from the beginning until modern times. But these are not claims that can be verified historically and so they remain outside the realm of historical scholarship. Historians can certainly make arguments about the Qurʾan’s origins and its history, but not pronouncements.