Tuesday, 7 April 2009

What do we know of the historical reliability of the Qur’an?

About the existing Manuscripts, the historical sources, the existence of different modes (Ahruf), of their destruction by Uthman and the different readings

Before starting, you should know that in Islam, any discerning approach to the Qur’an is considered as a crime. If you don’t want to be considered heretical and you are a Muslim, please stop here.

Muslims are warned in Surah 5:101-102 “
not to ask questions about things which, if made plain to you, may cause you trouble. But if ye ask about things when the Qur’an is being revealed, they will be made plain to you, Allah will forgive those. However, some people before you did ask such questions, and on that account lost their faith.” This may explain the touchiness of some imams when asked questions (here)

So, what do we know about the existing of Qur’anic Manuscripts (MS)? For the time being (except the Sana’a MS, that is still being analyzed (Link)), we have available two MS: The Topkapi and the Samarcandan (Tashkent, o/w 60% of the text is missing). They are written in 8th century Arabic (kufic writing, al-Khatt al-Kufi, originating from Kufa (Iraq)), a defective scripture, that is composed of only consonants, has thus no vowels and diacritical signs (for the short vowels). This scripture expanded around 750-790 AD (170-200 years later than the original), after that the Abassids (of Persian origin, headquartered in Kufa) spreaded it. This scripture was not in use in Mecca and Medina during the 7th century. In Uthman's lifetime, Medinian texts were normally written in the Ma'il or Mashq scripts. If the Qur’an would have been written during the 7th century (at Muhammad’s time), it would be written in “Ma’il” or “Mashq”. But we don’t have any example or MS that was written in that language. Even the one that exists now in the British Museum, is dated around 790 AD (done by Martin Lings, himself a Muslim).

Because of the kind of scripture, it is impossible that the two MS are an original copy of the one held by Uthman, even if Muslims believe it is, because the scripture and the text are very different. Even, in one case, both say exactly the opposite.

You have to keep in mind another problem: the sensitiveness of the kufic Arabic scripture to the slightest changes: let’s see of how big the impact can be: in 4-5 places we have the consonant “lam” (=L): “L” means “certainly”, while “La” means “no”. Instead of reading “no”, you can thus find “certainly”. Let’s take an example: “believers will not go to hell”, can become: “will certainly go to hell”! Even without assuming that some scribes could not actually write perfectly, the kufic script is deemed to be wrongly understood, with the risk of having meanings that are at the very opposite of the original one. The same goes for “ql” that can be read as “qala” (he said) or “qul” (say!). This means, that you go from a past tense to an indicative one (that can have a dramatic impact)

Thus, reading this MS is difficult because it is hard to distinguish the ba/taa/tha or y/q j/h/kh or r/z or s/d/sh or d/dh…ironically, it suffices that a fly lefts “something” on the paper that it could dramatically change the text!

Going back to the MS problem: there is another one unique to the Qur’an. Actually, there aren’t any! Comparing it to what we know of the Bible is astonishing: for the Bible (the OT is almost 2000 years and the NT 700 years older than the Qur’an), we have several tens of thousands of MS, even at a time when paper was still not in use! For the Qur’an, we don’t have any trace of MS at all! We don’t even be sure that the Islamic traditions actually speak about the real life of Muhammad! If the copies were shattered, we should still have some little fragments around! Not at all! Not even of the four copies sent to Damascus, Medina, Mecca and Basra.

What is mostly strange, is that we don’t have any fragment of the bones, palms, stones etc, i.e. the pieces on which the Qur’an were written under Muhammad, Abou Bakr, Ali, Ubai b. Ka’b, Ibn Mas’ud, Abu Musa and Uthman. What happened to them? It is almost impossible that they were all destroyed. What a sacrilege! How could they treat in this way these testimonies, the most directs ones, of the revelation? Finally, if they had existed, how can we explain the fear of Abou Bakr that the Qur’an could disappear by the death of the reciters after the battle of Yamama?

All scholars of the Qur’an agree that there is no evidence of its existence till at least 691 AD (i.e. 59 years after Muhammad’s death). Because the first written testimony derives from the inscriptions we have on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. The problem is that even these inscriptions are different from the Qur’an we have now. This should show that the Qur’an showed some kind of evolution during its infancy. This goes along with the fact that all we know about Muhammad himself is around 130-300 years old.

It goes so far away that for example Christoph Lustenberg sustains that the inscriptions are not actually Arab but Christian (check: “The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran” (where he finds out for example that the word “Qur’an” derives actually from the Syriac “qeryana” (liturgical lectionary) as the word “huri”= means bunch of grapes“. John Bar Penkaye (a 7th century East Syrian Christian monk who lived at the time of the fifth caliph of the Umayyad dynasty Abd al-Malik (685-705) and thus was testimony of their conquests), doesn’t seem to be aware of the existence of a sacred, holy book of the Muslims. Only in the first 25 years of the 8th century, some Nestorians, Jacobites and Melchites take note of its existence (check “The Apology of al-Kindi 835 AD (at that time three of the four official copies should already be lost). Ali Tabari: replied to the questions posed by al-Kindi, but didn’t answer anyone that touched the transmission of the Qur’an.

Let’s take some practical examples: let’s talk about the historical evidence of Mecca: we have a problem here, because there is no evidence or reference to Mecca before the rise of Islam. We don’t have any report on Mecca or the Ka’ba before the 8th century (Cook 1983:74; Crone-Cook 1977:22). The first time that we have some reference, it is dated 724-742 AD, in the “Continuation Byzantia Arabica”, written during the Caliphate of Hisham, that is fully 100 years after the birth of Islam! If Mecca was so important, someone had to mention it before! It is even more difficult to believe not only that Mecca was a big and important city, but that it was the centre of the commercial routes in Arabia during the 7th century and before. Following Richard Bulliet (professor of history at Columbia University who specializes in the history of Islamic society and institutions), Mecca was not in any major route, and especially not in one for “natural” commercial purposes. Why should any caravan go through the steep valley of Mecca instead of stopping in Ta’if? For the problem concerning the location of Mecca please check the excellent: Crone & Cook “Hagarism” (1977: 23, 173), where what we at least can say, is that all data that are available are little confused. This city, moreover, had already several important sanctuaries and had enough food supplies. The existence of trade with Greece and India, after the 1st century, went all through the see (that was much more cheaper). Even during Diocletian times, we know that it was cheaper to transport grains for 1250 miles by ship, than 50 miles on earth (Crone 1987:7). If Mecca was so important, then we should have some note somewhere. But we don’t. Greeks mentioned Ta’if and Yathrib (Medina), and even Kaybar, but not Mecca. Patricia Crone in his “Meccan Trade and Rise of Islam” shows that its existence is not so sure prior to the fact that it was made a centre of pilgrimage.

There are other Western Scholars that take the same stance. These are: John Wansbrought; A.S. Trittan; Joseph Schacht; Arthur Jeffrey; Bat Ye’or; Alfred-Louis de Prémare (all that regards Islam and Mecca dates 250 years later after the facts. He dates for example the “Battle of the Trench” dated around March 31, 627. in 688 AD in Syria and not in Medina (50 years after the death of Muhammad); Gerd Puin; Andrew Rippin; Alphonse Mingana; Ibn Warraq; Antoine Moussali; Ali Sina; Ali Dashti; W. St. Clair Tisdall’s “The Sources of the Qur’an” and Ibn Warraq’s “The Origins of the Qur’an” and “The Quest for the Historical Muhammad” and Ignacio Plaguë: “Les Arabs n’ont jamais envahi l’Espagne”: where he states that Muhammad (a name for the “Boss” of the tribes, still gave order around 855 AD.

Let’s now give a look to the timetable of the hijira: when did it take place? All Arab material (coins, papyrus, inscriptions) omit data (except a grave with the date 29 AH, known from an old literary source). There are as well two Nestorians from 676 and 680 AD that talk about an emigration of Ismahelites, but not towards Arabia but from Arabia out. In 57 AH, we can find some attestations that speak of the hijira, but not from Mecca to Medina but from Arabia direction north (Crone 1994: 355-363). There are as well Armenian chronicles that talk about Muhammad (around 660 AD), a merchant that talked a lot about Abraham, but didn’t say anything about prophecies (Cook 1983:73). The oldest Islamic texts don’t say as well anything about an universal prophecy of Muhammad (John Wansbrough 1978: p. 111 “Muslim and Islam”): the adhesion to the abrahamitic faith explains why there is no mention till the 7th century (Cook 83:74; Crone Cook 77:8). The first inscription is to be found on the Dome of the Rock (built 691 by Abd el-Malik, 60 years after the death of Muhammad): Before, the Arabs were called “Magaritai” (Greek Papyrus 642 AD and Atanasyius 68 AD in Syriac).

In Surah 33:35 you can find the word “Muslim”, but this term was not known during Muhammad’s time. For this reason we have to take into consideration the hypothesis of the evolution of the Qur’an. The writings on the Dome of the Rock and on coins make some references to the Qur’an, but there are some differences in respect to the actual text (Cook 83:74). Van Berchem and Grohmann (two etymologists), advocate the existence of different verbal forms, of big deviations and omissions from the actual text (Cook 83:71, Crone Cook 77 167-8, Van Berchem part 2 Vol ii, n° 1927:215-7). The question is: if these inscriptions derive from the Qur’an, with the existing variants, than how is it possible that the Qur’an has been canonized before that time? This speaks for the evolution of the Qur’an. Actually, it seems that the Qur’an has been put together in a hasty way, without a global structure, in an obscure way, in terms of language and contents. The editing seems very imperfect, deriving from a rapid composition. We can conclude by saying that it seems that there was no Qur’an before 700 AD, and that it is surely not the one canonized in 650 AD by Uthman. It seems that only the documents we have from 790 AD on are similar to the current version (thus written not 16 but 160 years later). It has been probably canonized in the initial period by the Abassids.

What a difference with the Bible and its historical accuracy: the Pentateuch (or Torah). Scholars have long been sceptical about its historical evidence: it was originally thought not having been written by Moses, because it was believed that at that time there was no evidence of the existence of written scripture. But then, the Back Stele was discovered, with the Hammurabi code, written around 300 years in the same region, before Moses time (around 1300 BC). The Tablets of Ebla were as well discovered (around 17’000, 2’300 BC). There were as well grave doubts about the reliability of the Old Testament, because the oldest text (the Masoretic one) dated around 916 AD (there was no Jewish Bible around before the 10th century!). But then, they discovered in Qumran almost the entire Jewish Bible (“dead sea scroll”), dated around Jesus time or even before (around 125 BC). And what a surprise: there were only minor differences: the Masoretic text was almost identical to the one discovered and that was around 1000 years younger!

The Bible has never “been rectified” or forcefully “edited” as in the case of Uthman. There has never been a Malik b. Marwan that burnt old copies (even the ones spared by Uthman). People point to the fact that there are differences in the two Jesus’ genealogies of Matthew and Luke. But this shows exactly the fact that they have never been “modified”. If that were the case, the Jews should have erased the “supposed” prophecies about Jesus in the OT, or where it speaks about the “Paracletus” to whom Mani made references. There are big differences between the Bible and the Qur’an, where some verses were alternated by Umar and Uthman, in order not to make appear Ali as the first Caliph. This is the reason why the whole Surah “Surahtu’n Nurain” was omitted (that’s the Shiia’s opinion).

There have been (and is usual in Islamic apologetics, it just suffices to enter an Islamic library and open randomly a book) several attempt to discredit the Bible in order to advance the Qur’an. Maurice Bucaille, a French physician, that practised at the court of King Faisal of Arabia, in his “The Bible, The Qur'an and Science” exalts the miracles of the Qur’an, while at the same time trying to dismiss the Bible, his books has a large diffusion, especially in the Islamic world: He wrote in his books about around 100 Gospels that were suppressed (however, giving no references). That could be true in local areas, but Church leader did not have any political power and could not do anything, at least till 324 AD, with Constantine. It is correct that some books had been burnt, but that was not on order of the Christians. In 303 AD, Diocletian decided to destroy all Christian books (as well the apocryphal ones). Till the Synod of Hippo 393 AD, there were no books officially accepted. But the Sinaiticus and the Vaticanus codex were written 40-50 years before the Synod and both had 27 books (accepted by believers before that the Church had political power). Bucaille cries about the disappearance of Christian material, but he doesn’t say any word about what Uthman did to the Qur’an. Moreover, the “gospels” that were rejected and that Bucaille mentions in his book, are all but one doctrinal gospels.

Now, let’s give a look to the history of the Qur’an: Are there different modes (Ahruf) and recitations of the Qur’an? (Link)

For more insight, please check “The Qur’an. Apologetic Paper (Joseph Smith)” May 1995, (Link)


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