The Authenticity of the Qur’an

This is a paper I wrote a while back that I find to be interesting, so meh I’ll put it here. It really should have way more sources to be scholarly, but I’m an undergrad so they don’t care that much. Anyways.

In orthodox Islam, the Qur’an is seen as the exact transcript of God’s word, transmitted through Gabriel to Muhammad (McAuliffe 23). Orthodox Muslims believe that no transmission errors have occurred whatsoever, in contrast to their belief about the Christian Bible. While most Muslims abide by this view, Western scholars generally have their doubts (Mohsen 3). The Westerners are typically not total revisionists, but they do not have as strong of a faith in the authenticity of the Qur’an as do orthodox Muslims (Mohsen 3). There are two facets to the discussion: accuracy and completion. In this paper, the present Qur’an is considered accurate if every syllable that it contains is precisely what Muhammad spoke to his Companions, and it is considered complete if nothing Muhammad spoke to his Companions is absent in the present text. Both of these attributes have come into question. The implications of the Qur’an not being both accurate and complete would be fairly large. Some of Islamic practice is based on the Qur’an being the literal words of God himself. For example, it is believed that reciting the Qur’an brings one close to God.

This paper will argue that the recent discovery of ancient manuscripts with textual differences makes the Qur’an’s accuracy unbelievable, but it very well could be complete. To substantiate this claim, I will present the traditionally accepted arguments in favor of Qur’anic authenticity. This includes arguments from the Qur’an itself and from orthodox history preserved in the hadith. I will then present minority revisionist views from several Western scholars. Finally, I will discuss the recently discovered textual variants.

The traditional view of the Qur’an’s formation comes from historical arguments based on the hadith. According to this view, many of Muhammad’s Companions had the specific job of memorizing the Qur’an (Berque 18). Some scholars, such as Jane McAuliffe, argue that the Qur’an started being written down during the life of Muhammad (31). Others say that it began shortly after Muhammad’s death in 632 AD (Berque 18). Either way, Muslims began writing down the oral transmission very soon after it was revealed. Also either way, the text of the Qur’an is only secondary to the oral transmission; the Qur’an is derived from recitations, recitations are not derived from the Qur’an. Among traditionalists, it is unanimously agreed that many Companions had memorized and written down their memorizations by the time of the first caliph, Abu Bakr (Berque 18). Berque, however, tells of a certain hadith narrated by al-Bukhari that states that only four of the Companions knew the full text of the Qur’an by heart at the time of Muhammad’s death (19).

Many of the Qur’an reciters died at the Battle of Yamama in late 632, and Umar, an important early Islamic figure, was afraid that portions of the Qur’an would be lost if the deaths continued (Khan 195). He brought his concerns to the caliphate of the time, Abu Bakr (Khan 195). Abu Bakr in turn created a committee headed by Zayd ibn Thabit to assemble it (Khan 195). He reports in a hadith, “So I searched for the Qur’an, and collected it from palm leaves, stones, and breasts of men” (Khan 195). This hadith demonstrates how scattered the parchments were; they were collected from “palm leaves and stones.” He is referring to memory when he talks about the “breasts of men.” However, it is uncertain how authoritative this collection became (McAuliffe 31). Hafsa, a widow of Muhammad, was given the codex, i.e. manuscript (Khan 195). It is unusual that a woman was given the codex, and some have suggested that Abu Bakr did not actually want it to become public, or that it did not exist at all (Khan 199). Whatever the case, this collection did not become the final version.

A few years later, the third caliph, Uthman, attempted the same task (McAuliffe 31). Zayd ibn Thabit was again the director of the project (Berque 19). By this time, the caliphate had expanded significantly, and new Muslims from far away were disagreeing on how to properly recite the Qur’an (Khan 196). Tradition says that Uthman asked Hafsa for the collection that Abu Bakr made, so he can copy and distribute the new manuscripts throughout the kingdom (Khan 196). He accomplished this, and the official Qur’an was sent throughout the land for the first time. All other codices were burnt to ensure that confusion did not arise later (Khan 196). This is the traditionally accepted history of the text that we have today.

Khan writes her paper with the assumption that there is at least some historical value in the Islamic tradition (176). She says that she is open to revisionist debate, but thinks that it has essentially been proven fruitless (176). Berque says of the traditional history, it is “one that we have no way of contesting” (19). McAuliffe’s Cambridge Companion to the Qur’an is much broader in scope than the other two articles, and she presents many revisionist takes of early Qur’anic history, including those by John Wansbrough and Christoph Luxemberg. I tend to agree most with Khan, as will be explained. There is probably historical value in the Islamic tradition, and the revisionists are mostly grasping at straws. Both Wansbrough and Luxemberg try to argue for a late compilation of the Qur’an, each through different means. Wansbrough points out the extremely fragmented nature of the text, and thinks that this is only explainable through multiple authors and religious traditions being mixed together into one document (McAuliffe 60). He continues with a similar analysis, trying to show how Islam is not a new religion but has roots in Judaism, Christianity, and paganism. This seems doubtful, considering that Arabs were astounded at how unique the Qur’an was. This uniqueness is multiplied when compared to early Christian works (Berque 23). If the hadith are in question, however, the Arab astonishment is in question. Wansbrough posits a very late date for the finished Qur’an, two centuries rather than two decades after Muhammad’s death (McAuliffe 33). Finally, he concludes that you cannot find any historical facts from the Qur’an, the Sira, or any of the hadith (McAuliffe 62). This is quite an extreme conclusion from such meager evidence, and a minority view among Western scholarship (Mohsen 3). To the author, the isnad system of verification seems fairly trustworthy. It probably does not convey perfect information, but the hadith were not fabricated later to help explain the community’s judicial rulings, as John Burton postulates (McAuliffe 62).

The primary argument for the accuracy and completeness of the Qur’an comes from the orthodox history. The pre-Islamic and early Islamic culture was extremely oral and poetic (Berque 20). This is supported by the fact that the Uthmanic text is what is called a skeleton text (McAuliffe 32). It is only composed of consonants, so only people who had already memorized it could read it. Many Companions were among those who had memorized the revelations, as has been discussed. Uthman’s compilation simply transferred this memory into written form. The text of the Qur’an is perfectly preserved because the memorization was perfect and constantly balanced by the large community. If one person was slightly wrong, ten others could correct him. In addition, the revelations were extremely important to the Muslim community, being the bedrock of their society. This is the environment in which Uthman produced the written Qur’an. If an entire people group agreed on something and felt very strongly about it, then any mistake in a publication of this thing would result in a major uproar, perhaps even an upheaval. There is no evidence of such an upheaval (Berque 20). In fact, it seems that Uthman’s work was unanimously accepted (Berque 20). The question is, how could this be the case if it was not accurate and complete?

One could say that there definitely was such an upheaval, Uthman was assassinated (Berque 25)! This is true, but the assassinating faction does not cite the corruption of the Qur’an as a reason for their action (Berque 27). Far from being evidence for a mistake, this seems to be very strong evidence for a perfect Qur’an. If Uthman had made a mistake in his compilation, then any opposing force would have made this their rallying cry. This simply did not happen.

Another common argument comes from the text of the Qur’an itself. A Muslim accepts the Qur’an as the direct Word of God, so he believes every verse. Thus, Qur’an 15:9 could be put forward as an argument for the perfect preservation of the Qur’an. Muhsin Khan’s translation is, “Verily We: It is We Who have sent down the Dhikr (i.e. the Quran) and surely, We will guard it (from corruption).” Muhsin Khan’s translations are fairly loose, but this is because he mixes in the orthodox interpretation and explanation with the text. As we see, the typical interpretation is that God protected the Qur’an from any corruptions, that is, any changes. First of all, if the Qur’an was not transmitted perfectly, it is very possible that this verse itself was corrupted. Therefore, not even a devout Muslim should use this as a proof-text. To think otherwise is textbook circular reasoning. In addition, Pickthall’s translation calls the Dhikr the Reminder and Yusuf Ali calls it the Message. It is possible that the passage was not talking about the Qur’an at all, but the Islamic faith in general, and it meant that the faith will not be corrupted. If we interpret it as God saying he will guard the faith, it could mean that it will never stop expanding, it will never cease to exist, or any number of things. Admittedly, the context sounds like it is referring to how the Suras were revealed, but any of these interpretations seem possible. Even if none of them fully capture the text, it is clear that the orthodox view is not the only possible view.

Although the traditional arguments seem powerful, it unravels when one turns his attention to the fact of textual variants. A significant hadith is as follows:

Abu al-Aswad related [that] Urwa b. al-Zubayr said, “People differed over the recitation of ‘Those who disbelieve from among the People of Book…’ so Umar b. al-Khattib came to Hafsa, [bringing] with [him a scrap of] leather. He said: When the Messenger of God comes to you, ask him to teach you ‘Those who disbelieve from among the People of the Book’ … and tell him to write it for you on this [scrap of] leather. She did [this], and he [i.e., Muhammad] wrote it for her. This reading became public and widespread.” (Khan 191)

In other words, a few members of the community were not in agreement regarding how to say a revelation. To solve this, they appealed to Hafsa, a wife of Muhammad. They appealed up to the source of the revelation to clarify it, exactly as they should have done. The mere fact that there was disagreement, however, shows that the memorization was not as rigorous as is traditionally believed. The disagreement that prompted Uthman’s compilation yields the same conclusion.

The hadith tradition itself states that the Uthmanic codices were not without error. A few of them had slight errors here and there (McAuliffe 47). Uthman did not seem bothered by this, and said that the recipients will correct the errors themselves (McAuliffe 47). This might have happened, but the uniformity of the initial compilation cannot be maintained if the historical tradition is also maintained. Further, the whole point of the project was to provide a standard that did not have to be corrected, so it is very unusual that Uthman did not correct his work.

The truly powerful argument, however, comes from the discovery of the San’a 1 manuscript in Yemen. In 1972, many manuscripts of the Qur’an were discovered in the Great Mosque of San’a (Mohsen 9). Almost all of these had the standard text that we have today, but one manuscript, named San’a 1, was different (Mohsen 9). Up until this discovery, some scholars doubted the existence of the extra-Uthmanic codices that he supposedly burned and that are mentioned in a few hadith (Mohsen 19). Perhaps all those textual variants were made up, and the memorization was really as perfect as is normally believed. San’a 1 dispels this possibility, being the only existing copy of the Qur’an that is outside the Uthmanic tradition (Mohsen 1). The Uthmanic tradition is very stable, meaning that once it was started, it did not change very much (Mohsen 18). This suggests that San’a 1 arose before Uthman made his compilation. The variations in San’a 1 are very normal transmission errors, such as additions, omissions, substitutions, and transposition (Mohsen 20). This again suggests that memorization and oral transmission were not as involved as is typically believed. These kinds of errors stem from a scribe copying a text, not writing down what he has already memorized.

It is known that many hadith relate the same event or saying, but have very different wordings (Mohsen 26). This is the result of the oral transmission – it was not perfect. Even if the traditional narrative of oral transmission of the Qur’an was true, the same phenomenon would be expected. The following quote summarizes the argument well (note that C-1 refers to San’a 1):

Against this [idea of similar errors in the Qur’an], one might object that the transmission of the Qur’an would have required a high standard of memorization, and, therefore, perhaps memorization could convey the text with precision. The objection is moot to a degree, however, given that the C-1 variants show that the text was in fact not transmitted precisely. (Mohsen 26)

However, San’a 1 is not all bad news for adherents to Qur’anic preservation. Various hadith document the differences between the Uthmanic tradition and other Companion codices, most notably Ibn Mas’ud’s codex (Mohsen 19). An analysis reveals that when these three disagree, Uthman is normally in the majority. That is, when San’a 1 and Ibn Mas’ud agree, Uthman agrees too. This suggests one of two things: either Uthman’s codex was built from those two and others (what tradition says), or it is just a better representation of Muhammad’s prototype (Mohsen 21-22). Therefore, traditional history fits with the data.

In addition, all three codices have the same verses within each Sura, with very few exceptions (Mohsen 23). This means that the Suras were already fixed by the time of Uthman’s compilation. This suggests that the completeness of the Qur’an is entirely possible, even if the accuracy is dubious. The ordering of the Suras, however, is different (Mohsen 24).

Early Muslims seemed to not have a problem with slight variations of the text (Mohsen 28). This would certainly explain why Uthman did not fix the errors in his own codices. Some early traditions explained these by stating that every time Muhammad recited the entire Qur’an to Gabriel during Ramadan, he would recite it a little bit differently (Mohsen 30). This would seem outrageous to many modern Muslims.

In conclusion, there are a number of revisionist arguments put forward against the perfect preservation of Muhammad’s revelations. Most of these arguments are loosely supported and can be refuted through a careful analysis of Islamic tradition. However, the textual variations that are found in San’a 1 and other no longer available codices suggest that the dogma of accuracy of transmission is untenable. Completeness is still very plausible, but the Qur’an as it is today is probably not exactly what Muhammad received.


Works Cited

Berque, Jacques. “The Koranic Text: From Revelation to Compilation.” The Book in the Islamic World: The Written Word and Communication in the Middle East. Ed. George Atiyeh. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995. 17-29. Print.

Khan, Ruqayya. “Did a Woman Edit the Qur’an? Hafsa and her Famed ‘Codex.’” Journal of the American Academy of Religion: 174-216. Print.

McAuliffe, Jane Dammen, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Qur’an. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Web. 6 Apr. 2015.

Sadeghi, Behnam, and Mohsen Goudarzi. “San’a 1 and the Origins of the Qur’an.” Der Islam 1 Jan. 2012: 1-129. Print.

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