THE BIBLE AND THE QUR’AN COMPARED Part I
© Keith E. Small
I. INTRODUCTION: OUR DIFFERENT STARTING POINTS
Muslims and Christians usually start from different points when it comes to considering and defending the authenticity and integrity of their scriptures. Muslims tend to work from a position known as “fideism” that the truth of a religion rests ultimately on your faith in that religion. Christians have traditionally worked from a position known as “evidentialism”, that the truth of a religion can be demonstrated by appealing to evidence, and especially historical evidence.
One effect of this is that Muslims are very hesitant to examine the Qur’an critically. They are taught that to doubt it in any way is to sin and to start down to the path to hell (S. 5:101). The ways they defend the Qur’an end up emphazing things that strengthen their faith in the Qur’an, rather than demonstrating its truth to outsiders (Beauty of its sound in Arabic, inimitability of its style). They will often mix in things they think are evidences (scientific knowledge in the Qur’an, perfection of the transmission of its text, and asserting there are no contradictions in it) but when examined closely, these arguments are either false, not really convincing, or irrelevant to outsiders.
Also, Muslims often try to defend the Qur’an by attacking the Bible. The standards they use for their attacks are all ones that are based on what the Qur’an teaches the Bible hypothetically was. It is not in a form that the Qur’an presents as its true one (66 books rather than the Torah, Zabur, and Injil). This is also seen in their attacks that its text must be corrupted because what it teaches disagrees with Qur’anic teaching (the Trinity, that Jesus is God in the flesh, that He was crucified and raised from the dead, and one must believe in Jesus’ sacrificial death and resurrection in order to be forgiven). It is also seen in their assertion that the existence of textual variants for the text of the Bible necessarily means its corrupted (“50,000 errors in the Bible!”). None of these “proofs” prove the Bible was changed and the Qur’an was not, and all of them are ultimately based on the Muslims’ faith in the Qur’an, not on actual evidence.
Christians, on the other hand, defend the Bible on the history of its preservation that shows it does contain the authentic and authoritative sayings and teachings of Jesus and His Apostles (the Christian Scriptures), as well as the Scriptures given by God to the Jews. Since it does stand up to historical scrutiny, we know it is a solid basis for our faith and we can defend it and present it in relevant ways to those outside the faith.
These differences of approach need to be recognised at the outset of a conversation so that we can challenge Muslims and their arguments in relevant ways that will challenge them with the truth of the Gospel and Christ. Otherwise, there can be a lot of confusion as to why the other person isn’t listening or dealing with what we think is solid evidence for our faith. For example, I have often found that when I enter into a conversation with a Muslim, the first thing he wants to challenge me with is the Trinity. At the same time, I am trying to challenge them on the facts of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ and how these show He is the only Saviour. They tend to view what I’m saying as irrelevant, and vice versa. They are unconsciously drawn the Trinity for two reasons: 1) because the Qur’an says repeatedly God is only one and that no man can be God, and 2) that if the Bible were true and uncorrupted, it would say the same kinds of things about God. (They may also choose it for a tactical reason because they have found it is hard for Christians to explain and defend). I however, am unconsciously expecting them to accept the validity of historical evidence, even if it disagrees with the Qur’an. When I pressed this point in a debate the Muslim in effect said “History is wrong. We have the eyewitness that counts. The Qur’an has the right version of the events.”
It is because Muslims think this way that we need to challenge them about the Qur’an. They need to see that there are good reasons for doubting it and that their reasons for rejecting the Bible are wrong.
These notes will help you do that. They will help you understand that it does not live up to their claims for it having a perfectly preserved text. They will also help you understand that the Bible does stand up to scrutiny and to the challenges Muslims make concerning it.
These notes are also prepared with the conviction that reasoning and arguments do not necessarily create faith in the hearer, but that God is pleased to use them to help gain a hearing for the Gospel. Please keep in mind 2 Timothy 2:24-26:
And the Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held by him to do his will.
— YOUR GOAL IS TO WIN A PERSON TO CHRIST, NOT AN ARGUMENT
— THEIR RESPONSE IS BETWEEN THEM AND GOD
— YOUR JOB IS TO PRESENT THE GOSPEL MESSAGE, DEFEND IT AND EXPLAIN IT CLEARLY, FIRMLY, AND KINDLY
May God bless you as you read and use these notes.
II. THE QUR’AN
Holy books have a history. There is always a process in which the sayings and teachings that inspire and define a religious movement are recorded, collected, and then put into some kind of authorized version. This can happen over many centuries, as with the Old Testament scriptures, over a relatively short time of a few decades to three centuries, as for the New Testament, and an even shorter time, 23 years, as is claimed for the Qur’an. Theories of inspiration of scripture are developed in the interaction between historical circumstance and theological dogma. Among Christians, verbal plenary inspiration seeks to hold the two facets of Divine intent and guidance as to meaning, content and word choice together with human involvement as to style, vocabulary, and construction of argument. Among Muslims, mechanical models of inspiration have been consistently chosen so as to minimize the human element and maximize the Divine credentials of the Qur’an. The Islamic dogma that the Qur’an was sent down from a heavenly tablet has in effect locked Muslims into a mechanical view of inspiration. One scholar has noted:
…as a way to enhance the status of a canonical text, it is hard to trump the doctrine of its eternity. Non-Muslim monotheists made little attempt to compete. The view that the Torah had existed for two thousand years before the creation of the world was found among the Jewish rabbis; but compared to the pre-eternity of the Qur’an, such a claim was modesty itself. Taken together, the doctrines which developed around the Koran accorded it a more elevated status than that of the Bible in either Judaism or Christianity.
The history of the Qur’an can be viewed as a prolonged attempt to conform the text of the Qur’an, which came into existence and was collected through human agencies in very earthly circumstances, to a divine ideal presented in what came to be Islamic dogma. Here are some basic ways the Islamic view of the Qur’an is different from the traditional Christian view of the Bible.
SOME COMPARISONS WITH THE BIBLE
A. Differences of Theological Conception
Though Muhammad’s concept of Scripture was similar to that of Jews of his time, it is not a concept that the Bible presents for itself. The idea of the Law of Moses being written on a heavenly archetype was a view that developed in later Judaism. The Gospels or other NT books were never considered to be from heavenly originals. Instead, with Jesus being identified as the eternal personalized Word of God (John 1:1), Christian theology developed a different way and the writings of the Apostles came to be viewed as the writings that God inspired to be written for His Church and mankind.
This does bring one to the important observation that the key theological parallel between Islam and Christianity is Christ and the Qur’an, rather than comparing Christ to Muhammad. The Bible we are presents us with the Word of God made flesh. In Islam one is presented with the Word of God made into a text.
B. Differences of Function
The underlying view of the Qur’an somehow being the very speech of Allah has profound effects on how it is used. The primary use of the Qur’an is its use in oral recitation. For Muslims it is an oral book as much as it is a written one. Studying it for its meaning and application is secondary to this. The recitation of the Qur’an and the doctrines concerning how it was sent down are invested with an aura of magic and heavenly glory. Its effect on the listener, its uses of power in curses, medicine, and for personal protection are by far more important to the average Muslim than the understanding of its content.
This is a tremendous contrast to the Bible, which is first of all meant to be read for understanding. Though for many Christians it is used primarily in liturgy, the emphasis even in that situation is on the meaning of the texts being read, not on their magical effect on the reciter or to maintain some aural mystical contact with God. They are instead statements of worship and adoration being spoken in a personal relationship. For Protestants, it is the divinely authoritative sourcebook for doctrine and practice. It is the complete book to instruct us in morality, church practice, doctrine, theology, all human relationships, and for maintaining our personal relationship with God. The Qur’an needs to be supplemented by other bodies of Islamic literature, like the Hadith, in order to fulfil the same function.
C. Differences of Form
The books of prior scripture that the Qur’an envisages do not match at all the actual books of Scripture used by Christians and Jews. Most of the content of both testaments is treated as if it never existed. The Qur’an also elevates one kind of revelation- direct speech from God- above all other kinds. It ignores the validity of the inspiration of genres of literature that are not direct speech. Again, this is the great majority of the Bible’s content, where many genres of literature are also inspired Scripture. Also, every one of the Bible’s books is written with regard to conventions of literary form. Only minor portions of the Qur’an are written this way. The Qur’an as written literature is a haphazard collection of fragments of varying length assembled with no regard to chronology, theme, or literary form. If there is any underlying order, it is as a work of oral literature, once again showing the foundational conception of it as an oral revelation.
These basic comparisons will form a useful background from which to consider the history of how the Qur’an came to be in its present form. The following survey of the history of the text of the Qur’an will present the outline accepted by the majority of the world’s Muslims together with observations on that outline made by critical scholars. For convenience, the history will be divided into six major periods of the construction of the Qur’an’s text which are taken from traditional Islamic views.
1. PERIOD 1: Initial Recording (610-632 AD)
- Traditional Islamic View
Allah is said to have revealed the contents of the Qur’an to Muhammad through three methods of divine inspiration. ‘Wahy’ is the Arabic term for inspiration. ‘Tanzīl’ is the revelation that is sent down. The idea is that the Qur’an’s content was already recorded on an archetype in heaven and that it was sent down from on high. The contents of the Qur‛ān are said to have been sent down over the 23 years of Muhammad’s career. Surah 42:51 tells of the three methods of wahy:
1) by direct inspiration,
2) by Allah speaking from behind a veil,
3) through an angelic messenger.
Here is an account of the first revelation he received recorded in the Hadith:
Muhammad had retired to a cave for meditation and worship on Mount Hira. On one occasion , ‘An angel came to him and said, “Recite! He replied, “I am not a reciter.” The Prophet said “Then he seized me and squeezed me until fatigue overtook me. Then he let me go, and said, ‘Recite!’ and squeezed me a second time until fatigue overtook me. After that he said, ‘Recite!’ I replied, ‘I am not a reciter.’ Then he seized me and squeezed me a third time util fatigue overtook me. After that he let me go and said, ‘Recite in the name of thy Lord who created, created man from a clot of blood. Recite! Thy Lord is the most noble who taught by the pen: taught man what he did not know.’” Then the Apostle of God repeated these words, his heart trembling the while. And he entered in to Khadijah and said “Wrap me up! Wrap me up!” then they wrapped him up until the fear went from him. Then he spoke to Khadijah and informed her of the matter, saying “I certainly feared for my life.”….
It is related from ‛Ayesha that, ‛Al Harith bin Hisham asked the Apostle of God and said, “O Apostle of God, how does inspiration come to thee?” the Apostle of God replied, “At times it comes to me like the sound of a bell, and that is the most difficult for me, and (Gabriel) would leave me when I had remembered what he said, and at times the angel appears to me like a man and speaks to me and I remember what he says.” ‛Ayesha said, “I have certainly seen inspiration descend upon him on a very cold day, and then leave him with his forehead dripping beads of perspiration.”’
The Qur’an does not record much on how Muhammad experienced these revelations though the traditions list many ways they occurred. Here is a partial list: through dreams while asleep, through visions while awake, an angel appearing in the form of a young man, an angel appearing as an angel, through rapture, and like the sound of a bell. He also experienced it in a more mundane fashion of words suggested in his mind.
NB: these more dramatic of these experiences were so oppressive and painful, that Muhammad repeatedly tried to kill himself:
So much so that the Prophet grieved at what had reached us, so that many times in the morning he wished to throw himself from the summit of a high mountain; but as often as he arrived at the summit of the mountain in order to cast himself down from it, Gabriel appeared to him and said, “O Muhammad, verily thou art the Apostle of God in truth.” At that his heart became at ease, and his soul was comforted.
Some key verses concerning the Qur’an’s revelation:
S. 2:97 Gabriel an angel of revelation to Muhammad
S. 5:101 Asking questions during Tanzil can bring pertinent revelations
S. 12:2 Revealed in the Arabic language in order to be understood (46:12 also)
S. 41:6 Muhammad describes inspiration as occurring within him
S. 42:52 Muhammad inspired by Allah by His spirit (usually taken to mean Gabriel)
S. 53:2-18 A description of two angelic visitations
S. 73:1-8 Muhammad is told that night is the best time to receive words from Allah
S. 75:16-19 The initiative and content for revelation is said to be with Allah and not Muhammad. Muhammad is not to try and speak it faster than he receives it.
S. 81.15-25 Reference to the revelations being established in Allah’s presence and given through angelic vision.
- Critical Evaluation of Traditional View
The traditional view presents a picture of a culture with a mixture of oral transmission and written transmission of religious texts. There is a lively scholarly debate as to the relative importance of these two elements in relation to each other. Muslims tend to place the greatest emphasis on oral transmission in this early period, recognizing that the revelations were also recorded in writing, but that the main method of their preservation was oral memorization. The actual writing down of the revelations tends to be of secondary importance, on a variety of materials, and not kept in any systematic way. Writing Arabic in this period was viewed mainly as an aid to memory using a script that was not phonetically complete. There is not held to be any written Arabic literature of the time, though a lively culture of poetry with its oral transmission is held to have been the mainstay of literary culture.
Arabic was used for business documents, and there are claims that it was used in treaties that Muhammad made with various tribes and groups. Also, from the later seventh century there survive papyrus administrative documents that demonstrate Arabic’s use in the administration government policy. Except for a few inscriptions, there is not, however, any written Arabic documents from before this period, and the Qur’an is regarded as the first real work of written literature in Arabic. Arabic itself was not codified until the eighth century.
Most critical scholars accept these views in their broad outline. Some hypothesize that there was a more lively written Arabic literary culture with there possibly even being Christian Arabic literature. Most scholars recognize that there are many words in the Qur’an that have their origins in other languages and were either loan words at the time of the Qur’an’s writing or foreign words that by that time had been fully adopted into Arabic. All of them recognize that Arabic script in this period was an incomplete phonetic system that presented a degree of ambiguity as to exact meaning in certain situations. Muslims tend to argue that oral transmission and thorough knowledge of Arabic overcame these liabilities from the outset. Critical scholars agree that these can overcome many of the difficulties that the orthography interjects, but that there are many situations where the difficulties were not overcome, and that much of the continued history of the Qur’an text was to correct these difficulties and deficiencies.
2. PERIOD 2: Initial Collection (632-653 AD)
2.1 Traditional Islamic View
Though some claim that Muhammad went through the contents and order of the Qur’an twice with the angel Gabriel before his death, The work of organizing the Qur’an into a complete written document was probably not accomplished in Muhammad’s lifetime because of the above mentioned situation and the additional condition that new revelation or changes could have been given to Muhammad until his death. Muhammad is thought to have died in 632 AD. In 633 AD several of the Muslims who had memorized the Qur’an were killed in a battle. This motivated Muhammad’s successor, Abu Bakr to authorize the formal collection of the Qur’an. He appointed one of Muhammad’s secretaries, Zaid Ibn Thabit, and one of Muhammad’s close companions, Umar, to accomplish the task.
Zaid assembled the portions of the Qur’an from the various written materials he collected as well as the memories of many Muslims. He made a wide search for portions and required each portion to be attested by two witnesses. The sheets he produced were first kept with Abu Bakr, then Umar, and then Hafsa, Umar’s daughter. Zaid was not, though, the only one to possess a written collection. Other Muslims had collected most or all of the Qur’an for themselves. The traditions relate that there were as many as fifteen of these collections. These collections differed in length, spelling, voweling, choice of words, and the number of surahs. These different collections led to differences in the recitation of the Qur’an. These differences grew to threaten the unity of Islam in the reign of the Caliph Uthman (Caliph after Umar and Abu Bakr).
- Critical Evaluation of Traditional View
Burton observed that there are major contradictions between the collection accounts from the Hadith that Muslims consider to be most reliable. He observed that the traditional Muslim view is one that combines these accounts into a story that can accommodate most of the hadiths by leaving out or minimizing the contradictory parts, rather than a consistent story that was recorded early on and then passed on reliably. It is a revisionist exercise creating a history out of disparate stories in order to support a dogmatic picture of the Qur’an’s creation.
Both Muslim and Western scholars acknowledge that the order of chapters (surahs) in the Qur’an was not fixed by the time of Muhammad’s death, though there is disagreement as to the degree of variety. Von Denffer recognizes different orders found among the Companions’ collections. Puin believes on the basis of the MSS found in Yemen that there may very well have been a greater variety of surah order than is recorded in Islamic sources. One eighth century Christian apologetic work cryptically mentions off-handedly that the Qur’an and what is now the second surah, al Baqarah, were two distinct books.
3. PERIOD 3: First Official Recension (653-655 AD)
3.1 Traditional Islamic View
Uthman formed a committee (@ 653 AD) led by Zaid Ibn Thabit to create an authorised version from the divergent versions. He is reputed to have used the copy entrusted to Hafsa as the basis for the new version. When this was completed copies of it were prepared and sent to all the important cities of the empire with the orders that all variant and/or old copies were to be burned. Though there was some resistance to this measure and many continued to recite their old versions, Uthman’s version prevailed. The orthodox Muslim view is that this version represents the Qur’an revealed to Muhammad perfectly, and has been passed down to the present without change. Many ordinary Muslims can have an uninformed understanding of this period and assume that the version they hold in their hands is the one Uthman authorized in every detailed notation.
Contemporary Muslim scholars, however, realize that the text’s history is not that simple, and that many diacritical, vowel, and reading marks have been added at various times and have come to be part of the accepted text. Most contemporary Muslim scholars do however, present that the basic consonantal line of text was agreed on for this first recension. Also, Muslim scholars in retrospect often justify ‘Uthman’s action of destruction for the political effects it had of uniting the Muslim community and maintaining Islamic power at a crucial juncture in Islamic history.
3.2 Critical Evaluation of Traditional View
There does seem to be an authentic memory in these accounts of a culling of variant texts because the earliest MS copies of the Qur’an do show a highly standardized consonantal text for much of the content of the current Qur’an. However, critical scholars tend to disagree as to the degree of standardization achieved. Three major views have emerged among critical scholars as to the date of this early recension:
There are those who hold mainly to the traditional Islamic view (with adjustments for oral tradition elements and refinement of the complete text of the Qur’an) that Uthman established a committee that established a uniform consonantal text. Representatives of this view are: Watt, Whelan, Robinson, Cragg, and most other Western scholars.
This is the view that the codification process happened later, in the late 600’s or early 700’s under early Umayyad Caliphs. Mingana is the main proponent of this and the only one who fixes a firm date, 705 AD, though Luxenberg, Luling, Puin, and others could also be placed here. This view would see the Qur’an text assuming its current shape outside of the era of Uthman but still within the Umayyad caliphate.
This is the view of the Revisionists that the codification did not reach its final shape until during Abbasid times. This view is led by Wansbrough.
All views agree that precise vocalisations of the text was not canonised until 934 AD through Ibn Mujahid’s influence. The disagreement is over when the Qur’an’s present contents and order of contents were firmly in place.
All views agree that distinctly Qur’anic material were present in the seventh century. They disagree on what kind of a form this material was in by c. 700 and how well defined this material was as a body of written scripture. Luling has even postulated that Qur’anic material was present in the 500’s in the form of Arabic and Syriac Christian liturgical and hymnic materials that were later plagiarized and reworked to fit Islam’s dogmas.
All views agree that the initial Qur’an was established in an environment containing both written literary and oral literary conventions. They disagree on:
1) the relative degree of influence of written and oral conventions on the original text, and
2) the amount of time it took for the oral aspects to give way to a fixed literary
All critical views are also united in deploring the destruction of primary source material of the text of the Qur’an through any act of suppression or destruction for political or any other motives.
4. PERIOD 4: Editing and Development of Orthography (655-934 AD)
4.1 Traditional Islamic View
Uthman had copies of his version made and distributed to major metropolitan centres in the growing Islamic empire. Though these originals are thought by some to have been destroyed in various fires through history, other Muslims believe that at least two of the originals survive in Istanbul and Samarkand. Current Muslim books usually describe this period with little detail as being one where the correct pronunciation of the text was preserved orally alongside the imperfectly written text until a completely phonetic orthographic system was developed.
When Muslim scholars discuss this period, they usually do so under a discussion of the ‘Readings’ (Qira’at). The readings are the various ways of oral pronunciation of the basic text that developed in various parts of the Islamic empire.
One instance of editorial activity to the consonantal text that is sometimes acknowledged is that by Al-Hajjaj in 705. He is said to have made some minor alterations in spelling and word choice.
4.2 Critical Evaluation of Traditional View
In this crucial period, the MS evidence presents that there was a great deal of experimentation in developing a more complete orthography for the Qur’an text. To the bare consonantal text various coloured dots were added to signify various systems of pronunciation. The academic study of these systems is still in a state of infancy, partly because of the complexity of the study, and also because there is very little documentation in Islamic sources as to the precise development of these systems.
What can be said, though, is that it was a period when a large degree of flexibility in the pronunciation of the Qur’an’s text was allowed. Much of the variety of systems seems to be tied to geography as well, that different centres of learning in the Islamic world had different ways of pronouncing the text. One scholar has mentioned that at least 50 systems were in use by the early 900’s. He also noted that by 934 a consensus was being reached as to what constituted a correct way of pronouncing the text as opposed to an incorrect way:
…any suggested reading was scrutinized to see whether it could be derived from the accepted consonantal text, whether it was defensible linguistically as being in accordance with the normal rules of Arabic language, and whether it gave a meaning that fitted the generally accepted interpretation of the text.
Considering these criteria carefully, one realizes that certain knowledge of the way the text had been recited in the seventh century had been lost, and that the Islamic scholars were trying to limit the plethora of competing systems by attempting to decipher the text before them.
5. PERIOD 5: Consolidation of Ten Readings (934-1924 AD)
5.1 Traditional Islamic View
In 934, a Qur’an scholar named Ibn Mujahid published a book that presented seven authoritative systems of pronouncing the Qur’an. These fulfilled the three criteria mentioned above and were also said to have chains of names of oral transmitters of these systems going back to Muhammad himself. Soon after, first three, and then four more systems gained approval. Much of Sunni scholarship came to settle on the first ten of these as most reliable. Each of these ten readings has come to be accepted in eight slightly different versions or modes of pronunciation, making a total of eighty different authorized ways of reciting the Qur’an.
5.2 Critical Evaluation of Traditional View
This multiplication of readings is a bit difficult for a Western student to fathom, but they are due to the heavy emphasis still placed on oral transmission and recitation of the Qur’an text among Muslims. This oral transmission, however, is not a separate parallel transmission that has been kept separate and pristine from the written transmission through the Qur’an’s history. Rather, the various oral recitation systems have always arisen from the written text and the ambiguities allowed by its basic consonantal form. As-Said mentions this as he describes the process of the 10 readings becoming 20 and then further on to 80:
Each of the more eminent disciples of the original master, that is to say, of the original “transmitter” of a Reading, in turn established a school composed of his own circle of disciples, and the process repeated itself. Within this school, a number of versions emerged associated with his most eminent disciples and containing select variants from his own corpus…By this time the extent of the varieties within each version was rather limited, since the variants taught by the original master had been absorbed into the numerous versions that emerged in succeeding generations. A slight degree of variation was still possible, however, having to do primarily with intonation and diction rather than voweling or inflection. (Melchert observed that variation was also permitted according to the reader’s personal understanding of grammar.)
This statement of as-Said’s conflicts with the understanding of many Muslims that there is just one Qur’an. It also presents many challenges to critical scholarship to document these lines of transmission. Are they present in actual MSS? It is possible. Some of the ones that are more explicitly described in Islamic sources have been documented.
6. PERIOD 6: Printing and the Royal Cairo Edition (1924-Present)
One development that has limited further proliferation of reading systems and even discouraged the use of the ones that are authorized was the printing of the Qur’an in 1924. This printed copy was one completed under the patronage of King Fu’ād I of Egypt (r. 1917-1936). This text has become a ‘standard version’ in that it has come to be so widely printed throughout the Muslim world. With minor editing improvements it is the Arabic text found in most Qur’ans one finds in the West as well. This text is said to be the transmission of H,afs of the reading of ‛Ās,im, the fifth of the seven authorized readings. An important thing to note about this text is that it was not taken from actual MSS of the Qur’an, but was reconstructed from the written records of oral tradition as to what this reading originally consisted. There are other versions in print, but they have not achieved the same degree of proliferation and acceptance.
6.1 Traditional Islamic View
Technically, the eighty recitation systems are still valid, but in practice they are being usurped by the printed text. This writer does not know if they are being revived with the multitude of CD-Rom and DVD Qur’an recitation programs that are becoming available. However, one man’s attempt to record twenty of the eighty (with the hope of eventually doing the full eighty) failed for both practical reasons and official opposition to the project. In the end, he was only able to record the version of H,afs.
6.2 Critical Evaluation of Traditional View
It should also be noted that only these readings now enjoy any kind of ‘canonical’ status. The readings that were rejected in 934 included the readings attributed to the closest companions of Muhammad. Though the 1924 Cairo text is a useful text because of the near-universal acceptance it now enjoys, it is only one of the eighty accepted readings.
The Qur’an as it is preserved today is a book providing a glimpse into many eras of Qur’an development. The consonantal text preserves much of what was considered Qur’an material from at least the beginning of the eighth century. The diacritical marks on the consonants bear testimony to a period of development between the seventh and the tenth centuries. The vowel points also bear witness to developments in orthography in the ninth and tenth centuries. The pattern of recitation that is found in printed texts provides testimony to the eighty systems of the ten authorized reading systems of the Qur’an that were standardized in the tenth century. The actual form of the printed text also bears witness to the twentieth century in that it was produced specifically for printing and wide acceptance to an international audience.
Though Muslims may take some pride in the fidelity of the preservation of this text, it does not reproduce precisely what was originally considered to be the Qur’an in the seventh century. Because of the standardizations of the text in 653 and 934, together with the constant pressure throughout Islamic history to have one text match their dogma, many texts which had equally good claims to containing authentic readings were suppressed and destroyed. And, because of the emphasis on oral transmission and the vagaries of Arabic as it developed, the written text was constantly vocalized in new ways which did not preserve the original vocalization. The original vocalization must have been lost very early on if it did indeed exist. Brockett mentions a flexibility inherent in some Muslim thinking concerning the Qur’an:
…not one of the graphic differences caused Muslims any doubts about the faultlessly faithful transmission of the Qur’an….Graphic differences like those illustrated above (between two of the eighty readings) were not worried about. Indeed, such variations show that the spirit was more important than the letter.
These quotes sum up the ability Muslims have to hold contradictory claims together in their mind concerning the Qur’an’s textual history. While recognizing the existence of missing portions, politically motivated suppression of variant texts, a bewildering variety of canonical and uncanonical reading systems, and a printed text that represents one eightieth of the authoritative Qur’an’s readings, they assert it is a faultlessly preserved exemplar of a heavenly original. Appeals to the adequacy of oral tradition cannot answer these difficulties. Instead, oral transmission has compounded the problems by providing fertile soil for the creative production of new recitation systems. An Arab poet wisely wrote:
‘Write down my poetry, for the written word is more pleasing to me than memory….A book does not forget, nor does it substitute one word for another.’
The traditional view of the Qur’an, while bearing testimony to the careful preservation of one particular consonantal text, is at least as much a testament to the destruction of Qur’an material as it is to its preservation. It is also testimony to the fact that there never was one original text of the Qur’an.
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