Have you ever wondered where the Qur’an came from? My last several posts focused on the Bible. In this article, we will look at the Qur’an. If you are just joining us, you may read other articles in this series here.
Admittedly, I have not read the entire Qur’an, but not because I have any aversion to doing so or disdain Muslims, Islam, or the Qur’an. On the contrary, though I never prioritized it nor took the initiative to read it, it is a worthwhile time investment, and I may do so at some point in my life.
I also do not consider myself an expert in the history of the Quran. My limited understanding of the Qur’an’s origins is from non-Islamic sources, as I have been a student of the Bible and a follower of Jesus since early in life.
Nevertheless, essential issues relating to the Qur’an and the Bible, some of which we have already dealt with in previous posts, play into a proper interpretation of the text.
I have recently been reading a book by Stephen J Shoemaker, “Creating the Qur’an.” It is an insightful historical-critical study of the completion and compilation of the written text as we can read it today.
According to the most widely held traditional Islamic teaching, Allah authored the Qur’an and instructed the angel Gabriel to verbally relay its message to Mohammad gradually over the final twenty-plus years of his life. At that time, tradition holds that Mohammad committed the “revelations” to memory, repeating verses back to Gabriel to confirm proper pronunciation and understanding. The teaching and spread of the Qur’an’s verses, or suras, was primarily an oral tradition during Mohammad’s lifetime and, to a degree, the true Qur’an still is today.
There are numerous traditions and accounts about who collected and transcribed the material into written form. Many believe that Mohammad’s close companions transcribed some, if not all, of the suras before his death. This belief, however, is devoid of a verified chain of events leading from oral to written collections.
The most widely accepted narratives hold that Caliph Uthman collected and standardized the text around AD 650, within two decades of Mohammad’s death, into the current canonical form. But the evidence leading to this conclusion is disputable and alternative traditions divulge a web of uncertainty when compared and scrutinized.
With the Qur’an’s early history of oral, not written dissemination, it relies on human memory to correctly reconstruct and relay the message between individuals. As a result, it should not surprise us to learn that after Mohammad’s death, at least five or six different written versions existed in neighboring regions.
The broadly agreed-upon understanding that Caliph Uthman collected and unified the texts into their current form lacks substantial evidence. A critical analysis provides ample reason to doubt the particulars of this tradition. It is also doubtful that he had the means and influence to undertake the standardization and elimination of alternate texts at that time. His doing so would provide more excellent continuity between Mohammad’s life and a finalized Qur’an, but evidence suggests otherwise. It is more likely that al-Hajjaj, under the direction of Caliph Abd al-Malik, undertook the task closer to the turn of the century. But there is evidence that suggests that the finalized Qur’an in its current canonical form only emerged as authoritative and complete later in the eighth century. Shoemaker, in his book, provides evidence pointing to significant alteration and liberties in making changes during compilation and merging then-existing textual variations.
Looking at contemporary non-Islamic sources confuses the matter further. If God spoke through a prophet, and his followers preserved those words in written form, its existence should be evident outside the Islamic community. But we find something else.
Interestingly, no non-Islamic source within roughly the first century after Mohammad died in AD 632 even mentions that Muslims have a sacred writing, which now is a centerpiece of these believers’ faith. It is not until the early eighth century that we find any mention of such a text, providing further evidence against the standardization of the Qur’an under Uthman and possibly even al-Hajjaj.
The manuscript evidence does not help. Muslims claim that existing manuscripts reportedly dated to the mid-seventh century validate the Qur’anic tradition. If the dates accurately reflect the publication of written material, they would prove monumental in their attribution of truth.
But manuscript dating is more complex than carbon dating a document sample and accepting the results. Parchments come from living organisms. Carbon dating obtains results by estimating the original amount of carbon in the organism at its death, and the depletion rate over the years since that organism died.
Examining tree rings has enabled scientists to build a case data repository to help with this estimation, but it is not an exact science. Scientists are now learning that carbon depletion occurs at different rates on different continents and regions. Northern and southern hemispheres also yield different results. Additionally, the area close to the equator where the Qur’anic manuscripts were created has little to no recorded historical tree ring data and is particularly troublesome. To further complicate estimations in this region, depletion rates also frequently differ by season. Generally, carbon dating a manuscript is only reliable to within one to two centuries, especially for the Qur’anic manuscripts and other documents originating in the southern Arabic region. Independent tests of the same manuscript by different labs often yield drastically different results, sometimes up to a century or more.
Additionally, carbon dating only dates the material containing the written text, not the text itself. It is quite possible that the blank documents sat for decades or more before use. Sometimes, parchments are erased, cleaned, and reused as well. Therefore, historians must employ other textual dating methods to determine the date a written piece originated. Many of these methods provide more accurate results than carbon dating but often yield later less-satisfying results.
For the few early manuscripts we have today, the script and content demonstrate a later production no earlier than the eighth century.
Nonetheless, Muslims attest that the Qur’an we have today is God’s revealed teaching as was taught by Mohammad, coming down to us through history in a nearly unbroken chain from Mohammad to the present day via primarily oral tradition.
By faith, Muslims accept the truth behind the words as Christians do of the Bible. Both Christians and Muslims point to prophecy and science to validate their holy books.
Learned individuals can explain away supposed “inconsistencies” and “contradictions” in the texts.
So, assuming the Qur’an was collected and preserved according to the recognized traditional narrative, against the testimony of existing historical evidence, or perhaps Allah protected it over time by some other unknown means we have yet to uncover, which holy book, the Bible or the Qur’an, is God’s word?
We will continue this discussion next time.
For more information, I encourage you to read Stephen Shoemaker’s book, Creating the Qur’an.