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Book Review

Explaining the history of the Qur’anic text

Muzaffar Iqbal

The History of the Qur’anic Text from Revelation to Compilation: A Comparative Study with the Old and the New Testament by M. M. Al-A’zami. Pub. UK Islamic Academy, Leicester, UK, 2003. Pp: xxii + 376. ISBN 1872531660. Pbk: £18.95.

It was toward the end of the month of Ramadan (in August 610 CE) when one night an angel came to Muhammad—may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him—in the form of a man and commanded him: “Recite!” Then, in his fortieth year and given to spending long periods on solitary meditations in the cave of Hira, about ten kilometers (six miles) south of the Ka’bah, Muhammad (saw) replied, “I am not a reciter.” Whereupon “the angel took me in his embrace,” he himself later narrated, “and whelmed me, until he had reached the limit of my endurance. Then he released me and said, “Recite!” I said: “I am not a reciter,” and again he took me and whelmed me in his embrace, and again when he had reached the limit of my endurance, he released me and said: “Recite!”, and again I said: “I am not a reciter,” and then a third time he whelmed me as before, then released me and said: “Recite in the name of thy Sustainer Who created, He created man out of a leech-like clot. Recite; and thy Sustainer is the Most Bountiful. He Who taught by the Pen, taught man what he knew not.”

Beginning with this short passage, which is now the first five ayaat of surah al-Alaq (Q. 96), the revelations continued for the next twenty-three years, until the completion of the Qur’an a few days before the death of the Prophet (saw) in Madinah. In its entirety, the Qur’an consists of approximately 6,500 ayaat arranged into 114 surahs. From the day of its revelation, the Qur’an has been at the heart of Islam; it is the very foundation on which Islam, now the faith of one fifth of humanity, was established. The Qur’an is the alpha and the omega of Islam, its very core.

The Qur’an is a unique book in many ways, but the most extraordinary aspect of its uniqueness arises from its own claim that it is the actual Word of Allah revealed to Prophet Muhammad in “clear Arabic” (arabiyun mubeen, al-Qur’an: 16:103). The Muslims have always believed in this divine origin of the Book which forms the basis of their faith. This Qur’anic claim was, however, not accepted by most Makkan contemporaries of the Prophet (saw), who called him a poet, sorcerer, liar and forger, while simultaneously calling him the most trustworthy (al-Ameen) and depositing their valuables with him for safekeeping. The Qur’an dealt with all their allegations, including the allegation that the Prophet (saw) had been instructed by others to write this book. Despite their initial opposition, the people of Makkah eventually accepted Islam near the end of the life of the Prophet (saw), but their initial allegations against the Qur’an later found other supporters: the Orientalists and a whole range of Western scholars reformulated these objections in later centuries and refused to accept the Qur’anic claim on a “scientific basis”.

This movement, which gained momentum with the first translations of the Qur’an into Western languages in 1143, developed into a complete academic discipline that continues to flourish. New variations have been added to the original objections raised by the Makkan non-believers. Borrowing some of the tools of the so-called higher criticism of the Bible, many Western scholars have painstakingly constructed “scientific” theories that deal with the text of the Qur’an and attempt to prove that the Book, as we have it today, could not have come into existence without being changed and distorted on the way.

Most of the objections of Western scholars rest on their claim that the Qur’an, as we have it today, was not compiled in this form during the time of the Prophet (saw). They claim that the fifteen-year interval between the death of the Prophet (saw) in 632 CE and the preparation of the Uthmani Mushaf of the Qur’an during the caliphate of the third Caliph, Uthman bin ‘Affan, is long enough for the addition of variants. They further claim that the written form of the Arabic language was not developed enough at that time to prevent corruption of the text.

These speculations, and many other “proofs” of Western theories about the Qur’an, were brought into the limelight with the discovery of certain Qur’anic fragments in a cave in Sana’, Yemen. This discovery, which was immediately popularized as a discovery comparable to that of the Dead Sea Scrolls, brought about a spate of new allegations. The Atlanic Monthly of January 1999 published “What is Koran?”, a leading article by Toby Lester, in which he relied heavily on the work of Dr Gerd-R. Joseph Puin, who was one of the main figures in the restoration of the fragments found in Sana’.

Toby Lester’s article is full of challenges, inaccuracies and accusations. Its main point, however, is its claim that Muslims are incapable of “proving” that the Qur’an is, in fact, the Word of Allah, in any scholarly fashion. In order to prevent any backlash against Lester’s article, Dr Puin wrote a long letter in Arabic to al-Qadi al-Akwa’ of Yemen; it was later published in the daily ath-Thawra newspaper. This letter is a masterpiece of Orientalist practice: its subtlety, its vagueness and its apparently sympathetic tone, all are typical of the cunning and finesse of the discipline whose mission is to cast a pall of doubt over the entire history of the Qur’an.

The History of the Qur’anic Text: From Revelation to Compilation, A Comparative Study with the Old and the New Testament is a Muslim scholar’s response to these accusations. But this book is not just a response; it is the work of a scholar in his seventies who has spent a lifetime on careful research into primary sources, and who has given to the world such groundbreaking works as Studies in Early Hadith Literature and On Schacht’s Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence. It is, moreover, a work that is deliberately written for both scholars and laymen. This has required a certain balancing effort, but it has successfully fulfilled the need to produce a book that is accessible to the common reader without sacrificing scholarly exactness and critical referential apparatus.

However, the book is not merely a refutation of Western allegations; rather, it is concerned with a wide range of issues dealing with the nature of religious texts, and a third of it is devoted to the Old and the New Testaments. At first sight this may seem inappropriate and irrelevant, but as one reads it becomes clear that the author has devoted so much attention to the two because the history of these texts and their corruption is directly related to Western attitudes toward the Qur’an.

One of the most important features of Professor al-A’zami’s new book is that it assumes no prior knowledge of Islam on the part of the reader, and therefore can be read as an introduction to Islam by those who are sincerely interested in it. It begins with a very brief introduction to Islam and the life of Prophet Muhammad (saw), and within forty pages brings the reader to the caliphate of ‘Uthman (ra). Chapters 3 to 7 are exclusively devoted to the Qur’an, from its revelation to early recording and the arrangement of the surahs. Thoroughly researched and referenced, these chapters are a veritable storehouse of information culled from primary sources. Beautiful full-colour illustrations of early Qur’anic manuscripts adorn these pages. Within this fascinating narrative are gems of lucid thought and reflection, comments and footnotes dealing with major issues in the history of Islamic thought, and careful remarks about Western attitudes toward the Islamic heritage. There is an internal consistency and fluidity in these reflections which make them much more than passing thoughts. For instance, Professor Al-A’zami mentions in the Preface that “several years ago, Professor C. E. Bosworth, one of the editors of Brill’s Encyclopaedia of Islam, delivered a lecture at the University of Colorado. When asked why Muslim scholars, even those trained in Western institutions, were not invited to contribute to the Encyclopaedia’s essential articles (such as Qur’an, hadith, jihad, etc.), he responded that this work was by the Western pen for Western people. His answer though was only half correct: this work is not intended solely for Western consumption. To quote something which Edward Said uses in his work, Orientalism: ‘They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented.’” (xviii-xiv). This anecdote, inserted into the flow of a thoughtful Preface, becomes much more than an aside when we notice that one layer of this perceptive study deals with the issue of Western studies on Islam, and Professor Al-A’zami continuously points out gross errors, inaccuracies and wilful attacks against Islam in these studies. In footnote 97, for instance, he refutes one of the basic assumptions of the author of the entry on “Kitabkhana” in the Encyclopaedia of Islam. This and many other remarks, insights and observations are a real treat for those who are interested in understanding motives and methodologies of Western scholarship on Islam.

The plan of the book is not only internally cohesive but also built on a clear understanding of categories and branches of knowledge dealing with the Qur’an (ulum al-Qur’an). Having dealt with the main historical data about the compilation of the Qur’an in the early chapters, Professor Al-A’zami then turns his attention to the development of internal aids to the reading and understanding of the Book of Allah (chapters 8 to 11). Here we find such important themes as the emergence of methods for surah and ayah separation, the history of Arabic palaeography, the emergence of various scripts, and the issue of dating of Kufic mushafs. Chapter 12, “The Muslim Educational Methodology”, is broadly based on Professor Al-A’zami’s own groundbreaking works on hadith, and brings into sharp relief such fundamental issues as the beginning and development of the isnad system and the methods of authentication of isnad. It also deals with the efforts of the first generation of scholars to preserve the Book of Allah. The last chapter of the first section of the book, “The So-Called Mushafs of Ibn Mas’ud and Alleged Variances Therein”, is a highly sophisticated treatment of the issue of variants. It examines Arthur Jeffery’s allegation that Ibn Mas’ud, may Allah be pleased with him, had a mushaf that differed from the Mushaf of Uthman (ra) in its arrangement of surahs, in its text, and in that it omitted three surahs altogether. This famous attack on the integrity of the Qur’an is thoroughly examined and refuted: Professor Al-A’zami utilizes the methodology of Western scholarship, thereby indirectly responding to the gauntlet thrown down by Toby Lester.

This takes the reader to Part II (chapters 14 to 17) of the book, which deals with the history of the Biblical scriptures and their corruption. It is in this part that one begins to grasp the links between Western studies of the Qur’an and Biblical studies. Here Professor Al-A’zami traces the history of Biblical texts from their original conception to the present form, and pinpoints various corruptions which have entered these texts.

The last part of the book, “An Appraisal of Orientalism”, is specifically concerned with Oriental scholarship on the Qur’an, although the title suggests a much broader study. Remaining focused on the theme of the Qur’an, Professor Al-A’zami examines almost all the major issues in Oriental Qur’anic studies—from their criticism of the Qur’anic compilation to their attempted distortions of the Qur’an. This section is full of bold and lucid critiques of Orientalists. It is in this section that one finds the anguish of a scholar who has fully understood the tragic and evil wedding of Orientalism and colonialism. Remarking on Schacht’s praise of Snouck Hurgronje in his Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence as the scholar to whom we owe our “understanding of Muhammad Law”, Professor Al-A’zami asks: “but who was Snouck Hurgronje?” and then himself answers: “An Orientalist whose agenda was to deceive the Muslim masses of Indonesia into accepting the Dutch government’s colonialist exploitation: ‘Islam is the religion of peace,’ he preached, ‘and the duty of the Muslims according to the shari’a is to follow the orders of the [Dutch] rulers—and not to disobey and commit violence’ “ (p.327).

Here is a scholar who has witnessed the prejudice and dishonesty of Western scholars and who has the courage to point out that “while those accused of unfavourable remarks toward Judaism are roundly denounced, ostracized and dismissed, the very members of Jewish intelligentsia who condemn Strugnell’s prejudices are themselves apathetic to Israeli bigotry against Muslim culture and Muslim artifacts. Meanwhile, the far greater prejudice of Hurgonje and a host of other colonialists agents and clergymen—manifesting itself not simply in words, but in deception and direct military subjugation—is casually overlooked, and their status in Western spheres as ‘Orientalists pioneers’ remains untouched” (p.327).

The book contains a valuable bibliography—a treasure-trove for everyone interested in further study and research on various aspects of the Qur’an. Printed on glossy paper, with numerous reproductions of original calligraphic works, this book will insha’Allah become a landmark in the long history of works on the Qur’an. One wishes only that the editors had done a more careful proofreading of the typeset text.

Born in the early nineteen-thirties in the famed weavers’ city of Mau, India, Professor Al-A’zami has devoted a lifetime to the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. He is truly one of the most competent scholars of Islam today. This work adds a new dimension to his scholarly output because of its accessibility to the ordinary reader, who may be well-read but is no specialist. It is to be hoped that now, instead of continuing to allow themselves to be confused, misled and cast into doubt by modern Western ‘scholarship’ on the Qur’an, the Muslims will take this excellent work as the last word on the subject, and devote their attention and efforts to tasks that are more directly useful to the main challenges facing the global Islamic movement today. In the academic-intellectual sphere the main part of this task is research and writing on the Seerah, to deduce conclusions and strategies from it to deal with the modern world.


Article from

Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 9

Sha'ban 16, 14252004-11-01


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