The Evolution of the Qur’an

Introduction

Islam maintains that the Qur’an that we have is the unalterable word of God.  It is now exactly what it has always been.  Muslims use this as a proof that the Qur’an and the Qur’an alone is inspired and that only the Qur’an has been saved from human corruption.  Allah personally preserved the text as his true, eternal, and perfect testimony.  This article will demonstrate that the text of the Qur’an is neither eternal nor perfect.  Instead, it is a book of purely human origins, evolving over a period of time.

Orthodox Muslim View

There are various views on the origin of the Qur’an.  Ahmad Von Denffer, in his work entitle Ulum al Qur’an is widely considered authoritative and orthodox within the Muslim community.  In order to present the orthodox view, the Ulum al Qur’an will serve as the source for the traditional view of how the Qur’an came into existence.

Revelation

Ahmad Von Denffer defines the Qur’an as “The speech of Allah, sent down upon the last Prophet Muhammad, through the Angel Gabriel, in its precise meaning and precise wording,
transmitted to us by numerous persons (tawatur), both verbally and in writing.  Inimitable and unique, protected by God from corruption.”[1]  Muhammad received his revelations from the Angel Gabriel, who received them from “the well preserved tablet” in heaven.

If Von Denffer is correct, then there can be no room for error in the Qur’an.  The writings as they exist today are exactly that given by God Himself and are therefore perfect in every respect.  In fact, this is the accepted belief of Muslims world wide.  Any defect revealed in the Qur’an undermines the very foundation of Islam.

Transmission

According to Von Denffer, whenever Muhammad received a revelation, he called for the scribe and dictated to him.[2]  These revelations were memorized during the time of Muhammad by Muhammad himself as well as his companions.  The Qur’an was not only transmitted orally by many Muslims who had learned parts or the whole of it, but that it was also written down during the lifetime of the Prophet.[3]

Memorization was encouraged by Muhammad and he sent teachers to communities to instruct them in Islam.[4]  In the words of Von Denffer “It is therefore certain that the Qur’an had been memorised by the Companions of the Prophet during his lifetime. This tradition continued among the Companions after the Prophet’s death and, later, among the tabi’un and all generations of Muslims that have followed, until today.”[5]

Von Denffer further writes that it was Muhammad himself “who instructed his scribes as to where the different revealed verses should be placed, and thus determined the order and arrangement. This order and arrangement was well known to the Muslims and strictly observed by them. The Angel Gabriel went through all the revelation with Muhammad each year in Ramadan, and went through it twice in the year the Prophet died. There are numerous reports about the existence of the written Qur’an – in the form of a book or piece of writing (kitab) during the lifetime of the Prophet.”[6]

Within one to two years after Muhammad’s death, the Caliphate Abu Bakr commissioned Zaid bin Thabit to compose the entire revelation of the Qur’an from its various sources.  Zaid composed the revelations from both written and oral sources and put them into a written form which became known as the suhuf.[7]  Abu Bakr made a single copy which later became the possession of Umar, the second Caliphate. It was then kept by Umar’s daughter, Hafsa, after his death.  When Uthman became Caliphate, serious differences arouse over the correct recitation of the Qur’an.  In response, Uthman commissioned Zaid to make a number of fresh copies from the suhuf and have them sent to the various Muslim regions to replace other material in circulation.  The suhuf was then returned to Hafsa and later destroyed “presumably fearing it might become the cause for new disputes.”[8]  The resulting text became know as the Uthman’s collection and represents the consensus of all of the companions of Muhammad, “all of whom agreed that it contained what Muhammad had brought as revelation from Allah.”[9]

Evidence of an Evolving Qur’an

The doctrine of the inimitability of the Qur’an did not always exist. A major theological debate in fact arose within Islam in the late eighth century, pitting those who believed in the Qur’an as the “uncreated” and eternal Word of God against those who believed in it as created in time, like anything that isn’t God himself. Under the Caliph al-Ma’mun (813-833) this latter view briefly became orthodox doctrine.[10]  By the end of the end of the tenth century this view changed and the official doctrine became that of “inimitability.”[11]

What about the evidence?  Does the evidence support the conclusion of Ahmad Von Denffer of inimitability?  It does not.  Until recently most scholars have simply accepted the position of Muslims concerning the genesis of the Qur’an.  However, this is no longer the case.  New discoveries have challenged age old beliefs and undermine the very foundation of Islam itself.  This section will discuss evidence contrary to the views of orthodox Muslims and demonstrate that the Qur’an in existence today was the result of an evolutionary process.

Transmission

There is clear evidence within Islamic traditions themselves that contradict the claims of Von Denffer that the Qur’an was composed during the time of Muhammad.  In the most respected tradition in Islam, Sahih Bukhari, we have the testimony of Muhammad’s secretary Zaid bin Thabit:

Narrated Zaid bin Thabit: Abu Bakr as-Siddiq sent for me when the people of Yamama had been killed. Then Abu Bakr said (to me): “You are a wise young man and we do not have any suspicion about you, and you used to write the Divine Inspiration for Allah’s Apostle (saw). So you should search for (the fragmentary scripts of) the Qur’an and collect it (in one book)”. By Allah! If they had ordered me to shift one of the mountains, it would not have been heavier for me than this ordering me to collect the Qur’an. Then I said to Abu Bakr, “How will you do something which Allah’s Apostle (saw) did not do?” Abu Bakr replied “By Allah, it is a good project”. (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 6, p.477).

 

This is a clear testimony to the fact that the Qur’an had not been compiled during the time of Mohammad.  This tradition is in direct conflict with the earlier words of Von Denffer that the Qur’an existed “in the form of a book . . . during the lifetime of the Prophet.”

John Gilchrist makes a very good point, that if Muhammad had in fact bequeathed a complete, codified text of the Qur’an as is claimed by some Muslim writers there would have been no need for a collection or recension of the text after his death.[12]  Once Muhammad had passed away, it would stand to reason that the existing text would have formulated the Qur’an.  Furthermore, according to Von Deffner, Islamic tradition (Suyuti [Itqan 1, p. 124.]) mentions more than twenty well know persons who memorized the revelation, with Abu Bakr and Uthman listed among them.[13]  This raises an interesting question.  Why would both Abu Bakr and Uthman have to commission Zaid bin Thabit to compile the revelation of Muhammad if they had themselves memorized the text?  Additionally, if this was know by Zaid, why would he consider the gathering and compiling the sources such a monumental task?  The explanations must be that either Muhammad’s companions did not memorize the text as stated or that their memory was faulty to the point that there must have been variations among the companions themselves; else Abu Bakr nor Uthman would have need of assistance from Zaid.

In opposition to Von Denffer’s implication that the Qur’an commissioned by Abu Bakr was immediately recognized, Gilchrist provides evidence that this simply was not the case.  The traditions of Sahih al-Bukhari, tells of an incident that occurred about nineteen years after the death of Muhammad.  A dispute broke out between two Muslim groups.  One group used the codex of Abdullah ibn Mas’ud while the other group used the codex of Ubayy ibn Ka’b.  In order to maintain peace, Uthman decided to standardize the text based on the version compiled by Zaid.  This version was chosen not because it was the best, but because it had an official status.[14]  Abu Bakr’s version of the Qur’an was not some version of the Qur’an authorized by Muhammad.  Instead it was the compilation of one man who had no idea that this would become the official codex for the whole Muslim community.

Before this time, this text was the private text of Abu Bakr and unknown to the Muslim community and “cannot be regarded as having been more authentic than the others”[15]  Abu Bakr never imposed his codex upon the Muslim community; that was done under Uthman.  In conjunction with standardizing the codex of Zaid, Uthman ordered all other codexes burned.  This included complete manuscripts of the Qur’an copied out by Muhammad’s immediate companions.  If there were no significant differences between the Uthman codex and those of Muhammad’s companions, then why destroy what all Muslims believe to be the Word of God?

After Zaid’s codex was selected as the source, Uthman immediately ordered that the text undergo a recension. Evidence suggests that there was a general consultation with a number of other prominent Muslims in Medina on the recension of the Qur’an and a more general revision may well have taken place.[16]

Research done by Crone and Cook provide an even stronger indictment against the integrity of the Qur’an.  According to their findings “there is no indication of the existence of the Qur’an before the end of the seventh century.”[17]  Crone and Cook further maintain that under the governor Hajjaj of Iraq in 705 A.D. the Qur’an was first compiled as Muhammad’s scripture.  Hajjaj collected “all the old Hagarene writings and replaced them with others “according to his own taste, and disseminated them everywhere among [his] nation.”  The conclusion is that it was during this time that the Qur’an began its evolution unit it was finally canonized in the mid to late eighth century as the Qur’an of today.[18]

Missing Text

Further in conflict with Von Denffer’s position of a divinely inspired book transmitted directly from heaven, is ample evidence that there are numerous passages missing from the current version of the Qur’an.  According to Islamic tradition, many of the revelations of Muhammad perished in the battle of Yamama “Many (of the passages) of the Qur’an that were sent down were known by those who died on the day of Yamama … but they were not known (by those who) survived them, nor were they written down, nor had Abu Bakr, Umar or Uthman (by that time) collected the Qur’an, nor were they found with even one (person) after them. (Ibn Abi Dawud, Kitab al-Masahif, p.23).”[19]  The point here is clear.  There were many passages that were lost forever and could not be recovered.   It is evident that the revelation in today’s Qur’an is not the complete revelation allegedly passed down by the Angle Gabriel.

We find more evidence that support the fact that some of Muhammad’s revelations may have been lost from one of the earliest works of the Hadith.  In the words of Muhammad’s wife Aisha: “Aishah said: A man got up (for prayer) at night, he read the Qur’an and raised his voice in reading. When morning came, the Apostle of Allah (saw) said: May Allah have mercy on so-and-so! Last night he reminded me a number of verses I was about to forget. (Sunan Abu Dawud, Vol. 3, p.1114).”[20]  How should we expect that the companions of Muhammad would have a flawless memory when the “Apostle” himself was prone to lapses of memory?  This is even more interesting considering the fact that according to tradition, Muhammad would have to recite the Qur’an to the Angle Gabriel at least once a year at which time Gabriel would authenticate the word for word revelation.

Gilchrist presents a number of other examples of missing passages from the Qur’an.  Abdullah ibn Umar, in the earliest days of Islam, was quite emphatic about the fact of missing Qur’anic text:

It is reported from Ismail ibn Ibrahim from Ayyub from Naafi from Ibn Umar who said: “Let none of you say ‘I have acquired the whole of the Qur’an’. How does he know what all of it is when much of the Qur’an has disappeared? Rather let him say ‘I have acquired what has survived.'” (as-Suyuti, Al-Itqan fii Ulum al-Qur’an, p.524).[21]

 

A further example of missing text from the Qur’an can be found in Sahih Muslim, Book 8, Number 3421 where Aisha says: “It had been revealed in the Qur’an that ten clear sucklings make the marriage unlawful, then it was abrogated (and substituted) by five sucklings and Allah’s Apostle (peace_be_upon_him) died and it was before that time (found) in the Qur’an [emphasis added] (and recited by the Muslims).”  However, this verse is found nowhere in the Qur’an of today.

The evidence is clear that the Qur’an that Muslims have today cannot be an exact replica of the tables in heaven as Von Denffer would have us to believe.  There were clearly variant reading which differ from quotes in the hadiths, which itself serves as a witness to the mutability of the Qur’an.

Textual Variants

During a restoration of the Great Mosque of Sanan’a in Yemen, laborers discovered a graveyard of Qur’anic text.   It contained tens of thousands of fragments from close to a thousand different parchment codices of the Qur’an dating back to the seventh and eighth centuries A.D.[22]

The first person to spend a considerable amount of time with the fragments was Gerd-R. Puin, a specialist in Arabic calligraphy and Qur’anic paleography based at Saarland University, in Saarbrücken, Germany.[23]  He discovered that the fragments “revealed unconventional verse orderings, minor textual variations, and rare styles of orthography and artistic embellishment.”[24]  In the estimation of Puin, this evidence suggests “an evolving text rather than simply the Word of God as revealed in its entirety to the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century A.D.”[25]   This conflicts with Von Denffer’s position stated earlier that Muhammad “determined the order and arrangement” of the text and that “This order and arrangement was well known to the Muslims and strictly observed by them.”

As already noted, there were a number of competing versions of the Qur’an.  According to Arthur Jeffery “the text ‘canonized by Uthman was only one among several types of text in existence at the time”[26]  W. Montgomery Watt in comparing just two of the codices-that of ibn Mas’ud of Rufa and ibn Ka’b of Syria writes “No copies exist of any of the early codices, but the list of variant readings from the two just mentioned is extensive, running to a thousand or more items in both cases.”[27]

Furthermore, not even all Muslims today accept one and the same version of the Qur’an.  Sunite Muslims accept the Shih tradition of Masud.   He was one of the few authorized teachers of the Qur’an by Muhammad.  The “the Ibn Masud Codex of the Qur’an used by them has multitudinous variations from the Uthmanic recension. In the second sura alone there are nearly 150 variations.”[28]  We also have Shi’ite Muslims who claim that “Caliph Uthman intentionally eliminated many verses from the Qur’an that spoke of Ali.”[29]

The removal of the Satanic Verses is another illustration of change that has occurred in the Qur’an from the time the original text was compiled.  These verses were supposedly revealed to Muhammad during his time in Mecca.  These verses indicated that pagan gods could be used to intercede on behalf of people.  Muhammad later received another revelation canceling these verses and replacing them with others.[30]  And although both versions were recited publicly, Muhammad explained by saying that Satan had deceived him and inserting the verses without his knowledge.[31]

According to Clakir-Tisdall, famous worker among Muslims, even today we find variations in the Qur’an:

Among various readings may be mentioned: (1) in Surah XXVIII, 48, some read “sahirani” for “sihrani”: (2) in Surah XXXII, 6, after “ummahatuhum” one reading adds the words “wa hua abun lahum”: (3) in Surah XXXIV, 18, for “rabbana ba’id” some read “rabuna ba’ada”: (4) in Surah XXXVIII, 22, for “tis’un” another reading is “tis’atun”: (5) in Surah XIX, 35, for “tantaruna” some read “yamtaruna”[32]

 

Although orthodox Muslims maintain that these were not variant text, but reading, this simply does not make sense since the earliest codex’s did not even contain vowel points.  Thus any differences in the recitation would not have appeared in the text.  Yet it is clear that it was the competing text that was destroyed by Uthman during his purging of the text under the guise of standardization.  We are left to come to the conclusion that the differences were in the text, not the readings.

We find further evidence of an evolving Qur’an when we look outside the Qur’an to references to the Qur’an.  We now have coins with supposed Qur’anic writing dating to 685 A.D.  We also have the Qur’anic quotations on the Dome of the Rock sanctuary built by Abd al-Malik in 691 A.D.  The quotations from both the coins and the Dome of Rock differ from the Qur’anic text today.[33]  Two etymologists, Van Berchem and Grohmann have done extensive research on the Dome of the Rock inscriptions write “the earliest inscriptions contain ‘variant verbal forms, extensive deviances, as well as omissions from the text which we have today.’”[34]  This simply does not make sense if the Qur’an developed the way Von Denffer maintains.  If these inscriptions had been derived from the Qur’an with these variants, then how could the Qur’an been canonized prior to this time?

The manuscript evidence does not help the Muslim view of the development of the Qur’an.  In fact it is hostile to the notion that the current Qur’an is the exact Qur’an received by Muhammad.  About the manuscript evidence, Jay Smith writes “our earliest manuscripts date from the ninth century. That leaves a gap of roughly 200 years between the life of the Prophet and our first indisputable evidence of a uniform, stabilized text of the Quran.”[35]

The missing manuscripts are huge embarrassment to Muslims.  It simply does not make sense that there are not any earlier manuscripts.  The New Testament writers wrote on papyrus, far less durable and robust than the parchment used for the Qur’an.  Yet there are plenty of New Testament manuscripts that have been written on parchments that are in extremely good condition even though they predate the Qur’an by several centuries.[36]

Interestingly, we have no copies of the Uthmanic text.  If it is, as Muslims claim, to be the most important literature ever written, then why do we not have any early manuscripts?  The fact is that “we have absolutely no evidence for the original Qur’anic text.”[37]  Not only that, but there is also no evidence for the alleged four copies that were made and sent to the different regions.  By the end of the seventh century Islam had expanded across North Africa and up into Spain.  With the Qur’an being the centerpiece of their faith, surely there would be some manuscript evidence which still exists today.  Yet there is nothing from that period at all.[38]

This is in sharp contrast to Christianity which can claim more than 5,300 early manuscripts, most written between the 1st and 5th centuries, before the time of paper.  Yet Islam cannot produce a single manuscript until well into the eighth century.[39]  John Wansbrough, formerly of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, concluded that the reason that no Islamic source material from the first century or so of Islam has survived, is that it never existed.[40]

Conclusion

It is now evident that the position held by orthodox Muslims concerning the origin of the Qur’an is simply untenable in light of the clear evidence.  The view echoed by Ahmad Von Denffer that what is in the Qur’an today is an exact duplicate of the God’s tablets in heaven-transmitted to Muhammad via Gabriel is effectively contradicted by modern scholarship and common sense.

In conclusion, the Qur’an is not divine.  Its authors were mere fallible men, writing a mere fallible book, which evolved over a period of time into what we have today.

 

Notes

[1] Ahmad Von Denffer, Ulum al Qur’an, <http://www.islamworld.net/UUQ/1-a.txt>.

[2] Ibid. < http://www.islamworld.net/UUQ/2.txt >.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Toby Lester, “What Is the Koran?,”  The Atlantic Monthly  99.01: Jan. 1999, <http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/99jan/koran3.htm>.

[11] Ibid. <http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/99jan/koran3.htm>.

[12] John Gilchrist, 1989,  Jam’ Al-Qur’an,  <http://answering-islam.org/Gilchrist/Jam/chap1.html>.

[13] Ahmad Von Denffer, Ulum al Qur’an, < http://www.islamworld.net/UUQ/2.txt >.

[14] Gilchrist, <http://answering-islam.org/Gilchrist/Jam/chap2.html>.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid. <http://answering-islam.org/Gilchrist/Jam/chap3.html>.

[17] Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, Hagarism, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1977), 18; quoted in Jay Smith, 1999, Is the Qur’an the Word of God, <http://debate.org.uk/topics/history/debate/part3.htm#D8>.

[18] Jay Smith, 1999, Is the Qur’an the Word of God, <http://debate.org.uk/topics/history/debate/part3.htm#D8>.

[19] Gilchrist, Jam’ Al-Qur’an, <http://answering-islam.org/Gilchrist/Jam/chap1.html>.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.  <http://answering-islam.org/Gilchrist/Jam/chap4.html>.

[22] Lester, <http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/99jan/koran.htm>.

[23] Gerd-R. Puin; quoted in Toby Lester, “What Is the Koran?,”  The Atlantic Monthly  99.01: Jan. 1999, <http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/99jan/koran.htm>.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Lester, <http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/99jan/koran.htm>.

[26] Arthur Jeffery, Materials for the History of the Text of the Qur’an, (New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1975);  quoted in, Norman L. Geisler and Abdul Saleeb, Answering Islam : The Crescent in Light of the Cross, 2nd ed.,  (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2002), 197.

[27] Norman L. Geisler and Abdul Saleeb, Answering Islam : The Crescent in Light of the Cross, 2nd ed., (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2002), 197.

[28] Geisler,198.

[29] W. St. Clair Tisdall, A Manual of the Leading Muhammedan Objections to Christianity (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1904), 59; quoted in Norman L., and Abdul Saleeb, Answering Islam : The Crescent in Light of the Cross, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2002), 199.

[30] Geisler,198.

[31] W. Montgomery Watt, Muhammad at Medina, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956), 60-61; quoted in Norman L Geisler and Abdul Saleeb, Answering Islam : The Crescent in Light of the Cross, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2002) 199.

[32] Tisdall, 60.

[33] Smith, <http://debate.org.uk/topics/history/debate/part3.htm#D8>.

[34] Crone and Cook, 167-168.

[35] Daniel Brown, A New Introduction to Islam, (Blackwell, 2004) 55.

[36] Isa Mashith, July 1998, Problems with the Qu’ran, , <http://debate.org.uk/topics/isamasih/jul98/problems.htm>.

[37] Smith, <http://debate.org.uk/topics/history/debate/debate.htm.>

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Lester, <http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/99jan/koran3.htm>.