Riddles of the book (interview)


Sana’a Qur’an parchments SOURCE/Wikipedia

When is it likely that the Qur’an was composed, and how many strata of composition does it consist of?

The tradition is that the Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad over a period of twenty-two years, between 610 and 632. Muslims believe that Muhammad was not literate, and so he could not himself have produced the Qur’an. He memorized it, and a few of his followers memorized some parts of it or wrote them down. So when he died in 632 there was no codex as such. Different disciples had variants written down, creating a need around 650 to produce a canonical version, because ‘Uthman—the Caliph at the time—feared these differences might cause splits among Muslims. So he put together a committee to produce a standard text for the faithful. That’s the traditional account of the origin of the written text, which was in circulation by the middle of the seventh century ce. We have scarcely any documentary evidence from the seventh century itself, only oral traditions whose authenticity is hard to verify, with many conflicting narratives, which makes the task of the scholar very difficult. A very few exceptions exist, such as the inscription inside the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (built in 692) which documents a few verses from the Qur’an (e.g. 4.171–172).

As a historian, when you start examining the Qur’an, you realize that this is a very difficult text. It is not like the Hebrew Bible, and can’t be compared to the Gospels. It doesn’t tell us the story of a person or a people. The Hebrew Bible is the story of the Israelites; the Gospels record the story of Jesus’s ministry. The Qur’an is not a story of the Arabs or of Muhammad’s ministry. Its unique character as a narrative poses particular problems for the historian. If you only read the Qur’an, you would not know much about Mecca, Muhammad, and Arabia. Muslims have always read the Qur’an by using the books on the Life of Muhammad to help explain what the Qur’an intends. There is nothing like it, which actually is something that the Qur’an acknowledges. Aside from some verses that address legal matters, the Qur’an has a tendency to be brief and alludes to stories, events and issues with the assumption that its direct audience already knows them.

Some modern historians have postulated a human agent to have produced it, but was there one author or several authors? For a long time scholars in the field—the most influential was John Wansbrough—believed that the Qur’an was finalized at the end of the eighth century, or the beginning of the ninth. Since we have some early inscriptions and a recent discovery of partial manuscripts of the Qur’an that can be dated to the late seventh or early eighth century, that view is now discredited. The material and the type of script used tell us when these were produced. For example, the Muslim world was by and large using paper by the middle of the eighth century, or the early ninth. Leather, papyri and parchment were abandoned because they were so much less practical. Script is also important. In the seventh century the principal script was Kufic, believed to have been invented in Iraq. Later, as Muslims started to develop new styles of writing, this was completely abandoned. So, by and large, anything written in Kufic script must come from the seventh or eighth century, especially if it is on papyri or parchment.

Where was this new manuscript evidence found?

New Left Review for more

(Thanks to Robin Khundkar)

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