Guest Post: Qur’anic Revisionism Revised

I’m brimming with excitement in introducing our fourth guest writer, Jessica. A doctoral candidate in theology who is specializing in the history of Islam’s interactions with other religions, Jessica’s approach to research and history is nothing short of refreshing–and thorough. She routinely debunks commonly held misperceptions, including the idea that history becomes more progressive as it progresses. In this guest post, Jessica explores the working biases that have come into effect when non-Muslims attempt to research the Qur’an and its origin, including the privileging of non-Muslim sources and methods of analysis & criticism.

Hi all!  My name is Jessica, and I’m the author of askanislamicist.  Nahida very sweetly asked me to write a guest post for her.  I’m a researcher in Islamic studies, finishing up a PhD at Oxford.  My research focuses predominantly on the theological interactions between Christianity and Islam in the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries, although blogging has increased my interest in the modern history of the field of Islamic studies and how that impacts our work as researchers.

I’m currently in the (slightly soul-crushing) process of final revisions on my thesis, and have been rereading a lot of material about the Qur’an and modern scholarship on the Qur’an, so when Nahida approached me, I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk about how the modern history of the field of Islamic studies can affect the research itself, specifically looking at the example of modern theories on the dating and origins of the Qur’an.

The Muslim tradition holds that the Qur’an was revealed to Muhammad (peace be upon him) over a period of about twenty years, from circa 610 to his death in 632.  Passages of the Qur’an were transmitted orally for the first few decades; the first attempt at a written version was under the first caliph Abu Bakr (s’lm), but the complete version wasn’t assembled until the caliphate of Uthman (s’lm) around 650.  This version was transmitted during the Islamic expansion to what became the Muslim lands – North Africa, the Middle East, and Mesopotamia.

Western scholarship on the Qur’an took a long time to be anything more than polemical – many works accepted elements of the Muslim account of the work’s composition, but also routinely referred to Muhammad (s’lm) as the Antichrist and a demon, so it’s hard to claim they had much by way of a critical analysis.  It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that Western scholars started to study the text critically.  The earliest Western Quranic scholars were largely Semeticists, people who studied Syriac and Hebrew, as well, such as Theodor Noldeke, who attempted to apply the methodology of Biblical criticism to the Quran, studying sentence structure, word choice, and repeated phrases in an attempt to put the suras in order, assuming that those written at the same time would have a similar topic, tone, and structure.

The theory was flawed both methodologically and philosophically – methodologically because the Qur’an was potentially written over a period of decades to the Hebrew Bible’s[1] centuries, leaving much less time for language evolution, and philosophically because Biblical criticism had been developed to cope with the lack of sources contemporary to the Hebrew Bible, so the internal focus of comparing books of the Bible to other books of the Bible was really the only option.  There are, however, a wide range of sources referencing Islam from the seventh century, and although in the nineteenth century there were few Arabic sources known, there were sources in Greek and Syriac that referenced the rise of Islam, as a Semeticist like Noldeke should have known.  However, Noldeke’s dating, which largely accepted the Muslim account (minus Muhammad’s (s’lm) prophetic office), remained the implicit assumption of Western Quranic scholars for another century.

In the last forty years, however, a number of scholars have offered new datings on the Qu’ran.  These new works, called collectively “the revisionists,” all center on the assumption that the Muslim account cannot be accepted as being biased, because, you know, religion and stuff.  The first, and probably most well-known, revisionist history is Hagarism by Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, which theorized that Islam started out as a variant Jewish cult, and that the Qur’an, as it exists today, was not created until what was then the earliest extant manuscript evidence for it, a century later[2].  Crone and Cook argued that there was no reason to accept the Muslim account a priori, as lacking sufficient archeological evidence to support it, and reached instead for Jewish Messianism, of which, while there are certainly examples throughout the Near East, there were very few examples in Arabia in the seventh century.

Since the publication of Hagarism, there have been a number of alternate arguments that similarly start from the assumption that we cannot accept the Muslim account.  John Wansbrough, who is routinely cited for having coined the concept of a “milieu,” a culture context used for dating texts, also published a work arguing for the Qur’an as dating from after the Abbasid revolution in 750, claiming it was a form of state-building by the Abbasids.  Gunter Luling, also writing in the1970s, expanded Noldeke’s work to argue for four strands to the Qur’an, the earliest being the liturgy of non-Trinitarian Christians in Mecca.  And Yehuda Nevo, whose work was published posthumously by colleague Judith Koren, argued for dismissing all textual evidence, as being too easily corruptible, and relying exclusively on inscriptions and archaeological evidence, and again claiming a Jewish root for Islam, based on Islam’s use of Biblical prophets in its inscribed messages.

This range of theses have also infected public knowledge about the Qur’an to various degrees, fueling a belief that the Qur’an is essentially impossible to study.  Resistance to the revisionist movement by Muslims has also fueled a belief that Muslims are somehow against the study of their religion.  However, as some Western scholars, including Gabriel Said Reynolds and Fred Donner, have started to argue, this revisionism is itself as essentially flawed as the quasi-Biblical approach it sought to replace.

Firstly, Qur’anic revisionism is often itself a-historical.  It’s perfectly reasonable to want to compare Islam to its Abrahamic neighbors, as many of the revisionists do, but it should be done in a source-relevant way.  Luling, for example, reaches back to obscure 3rd century Jewish and Christian apocalypses for his narrative imagery, without any account of how these works would have been transmitted to Arabia (or in what language).  Crone and Cook and Nevo and Koren both reference Jewish cults in Arabia, and Luling theorizes Jewish-Christian and non-Trinitarian Christian Arabians, all without reference to the wide range of actual Jewish and Christian sources from the seventh century.  We have letters, sermons, books of heresy, teaching manuals, and books of canon law, all discussing each and every variety and sect of Christian and Jew, all without any reference to these Arabian cults who make these theories work.

Secondly, revision requires privileging non-Muslim sources, even those written thousands of miles away or centuries later.  Nevo and Koren are maybe the funniest example of this – in the introduction to their work The Origins of the Arab Religion, they lay out, in no uncertain terms, that they intend to use exclusively physical sources (inscriptions and archaeological evidence) because texts can be corrupted, and even uncorrupted, are often written centuries later. And then, on the very next page, they start to lay out the context for the rise of Islam in the seventh century using the accounts of Theophanes the Confessor (9th century), the Annales of Eutychius (10th century), and Nikephorus Gregoras (13th century), all without reference to any contemporary sixth or seventh archaeological or epigraphical evidence to support these later sources, or apparently, any sense of irony.

Thirdly, it’s internally inconsistent.  Luling says use narrative for internal dating.  Nevo and Koren say no texts, never, and then immediately break this rule because you can’t write a history using only inscriptions: no one inscribes a stone with everything that’s happened that year, let alone that decade or century.  This is particularly clear when we’re talking about the religion of pre-Islamic Arabians – were they Jewish?  Jewish Messianists?  Jewish Christians?  Or were there no variant cults at all, as suggested by Gerald Hawting?  Methodology, at its core, is supposed to aid in the study of a field or subject, by suggesting new ways of looking at things or new ways to interpret data in order to create a coherent narrative, but the revisionist theses are all wildly diverse, contradictory between each other, and based on so many assumptions that we can’t do much with them except either accept or reject them wholesale.

And finally, it suggests a universal conspiracy of silence for which we have no evidence.  No matter when you want to date the writing of the Qur’an, if it’s outside of the period of the early community, then at some point, not only did everyone writing about it agree to pretend it was written then, but they also implicitly agreed to never mention that it was changed.  In a caliphate that stretched from Spain to Afghanistan, and had several major sects vying for rule, that kind of conspiracy of silence would be impressive.  But that’s not even considering the non-Muslim sources.  By the early eighth century, we have John of Damascus writing a book of heresies and including a refutation of Islam, John of Ephesus writing canons explicitly telling Christians how to deal with Muslims, and anonymous apocalypses and apologies cropping up in Greek, Syriac, and Coptic, all explaining how evil and awful Islam is.  Surely if the Muslims had just started circulating a holy book a few years earlier AND were running around claiming it was a hundred years old, someone would have said something.  Someone would have written something in a language the Muslims couldn’t understand.  No conspiracy is that effective.  And yet there is no evidence for this at all.  Christian authors claim Muhammad (s’lm) is a demon, and that Muslims are really worshipping Aphrodite or a star when they say, “Allah al-Akhbar” (God is Great), but no contemporary is saying, “Hey, these guys want us to believe their holy book is a hundred years old!  Remember when they were just a bunch of Jewish-Christian-Messianists?”

So why do these works keep coming?  Well, part of it is definitely that our field has gotten a lot more attention recently, and controversy sells.  No one is going to get invited on CNN or written up in the New York Times for discussing manuscript transmission.  But Crone and Wansbrough predate much of the modern Islamophobia-driven media focus by several decades.

I think at its most basic, it’s the problem that it’s much easier to recognize other people’s biases than your own.  It’s certainly the case that Muslims’ religious devotion can and has led to some strange analyses about the Qur’an and other topics (and if I have to read one more tenth century Arabic debate about when God created the throne upon which he sits, it’ll be too soon).  All of these scholars started from their own resistance to those beliefs, and their rejection of them, but failed to apply the same rules of logical analyses to their own assumptions.


[1] Hebrew Bible = Old Testament, for those unfamiliar with the phrase.

[2] Since Hagarism‘s publication in the 1970s, manuscripts with Qur’anic passages have been found that date to the Uthmanic period, and, it’s probably worth noting, Crone has largely rescinded her support of her earlier thesis.

4 thoughts on “Guest Post: Qur’anic Revisionism Revised

  1. Mel

    No matter when you want to date the writing of the Qur’an, if it’s outside of the period of the early community, then at some point, not only did everyone writing about it agree to pretend it was written then, but they also implicitly agreed to never mention that it was changed.

    This is so true, it echoes. I’ve never heard a better argument that the Qur’an hasn’t been changed. That would mean that everyone, for centuries, including people during the rise of Islam who weren’t even Muslim, would have been lying.


  2. The arrogant, willful ignorance of Western scholars in dealing with Islam is reprehensible (luv that word). “Oh, we’re the white folks and we have all the power and divine blessings!” This makes my radical side pissed off, and my ol’ black dog (depression) sniff around my ankles again. I am indignant. Grrr.

    Yet another timely and well-written essay in this run of guest posts. The black dog will have to fend for itself. :-)


  3. Patrick Lemaire

    Actually, Muslims have often complained that the Quran was changed during the first century. Shia muslims still do. As for when the Quran first appeared that depends what’s your definition of the word Quran. Is it a lectionary, i.e. a text written from a religious book (Bible or Torah) for recitation at mass? the recitation itself from the priest or believers, the (incomplete) book as when testimonies mention that the book of Arabs is Al Baqara, the complete book as it exists now? Do you mean a written book with the rasm, with signs to distinguish between consonants or the full diacriotical marks for vowels and consonants? the bare text itself or with the tafsir for hard-to-understand words, expressions and passages either in notes, in parentheses or as substitute for the words? If you accept all definitions then you can have quran(s) as work in progress for 200 years (which is the date given by mathematical analysis)
    The Arab invaders of Spain had no Koran and had never heard of Muhammad.
    Have you heard of the Nazarean hypothesis? A unitarian Christian sect which refused the conclusions of the Nicea council, which didn’t think Jesus was God, which expected the return of the messaiah if they rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem and made animal sacrifices, and who had similar beliefs to later Muslims. They were based in Syria. It explains in a coherent way all the apparent discrepancies of the revisionists. Yes you need to take the revisionists wholesale but you have to understand that what is a Jew for a chronicler can be a heterodox Christian for another, especially if that monotheist expects the coming of the messiah.



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