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Ibn Warraq (ed.), The Origins of the Koran: Classic Essays on Islam’s Holy Book. Amherst NY: Prometheus Books, 1998.

Reviewed by Robert M. Price.


When it comes to the study of Islam and the Koran, I confess I am but an interested bystander. My fields of study are Christian Theology and New Testament and Christian Origins, though I have taught World Religions for many years. But perhaps this qualifies me as a reviewer of this fascinating collection of essays on the scripture of Islam, and this for two reasons. First, the book will be of great profit to interested outsiders like me. Second, it chronicles the very gradual shift in the study of the Koran from the paradigm of traditional orthodoxy (long taken for granted even by non-Islamic scholars) to that provided by biblical Higher Criticism. Indeed, I confess, part of my agenda as a reader of such books is, after learning what I can on the primary subject, Islamic Origins, to see what insights I may extrapolate and apply to my own specialty. And this book is enriching on both counts.

The earlier essays reprinted and in some cases excerpted here proceed from the paradigm of traditional orthodoxy but raise more and more questions of the type that eventually led to the overthrow of that framework, a turning point just reached by the time of the closing essay. The masterful introduction by editor Ibn Warraq charts the course of that evolution clearly and concisely, yet with panoramic completeness.

For instance, Theodor Nöldeke’s 1891 Encyclopaedia Britannica article on the Koran highlights but immediately minimizes the great number of grammatical aberrations in the Koran, a vital clue to Koranic origins which would remain dormant like an unexploded landmine till Günter Lüling, in his recent researches on the pre-Islamic Ur-Koran, saw what the grammatical incoherence really meant.

Leone Caetani (“’Uthman and the Recension of the Koran,” 1915) drew attention to the important role of a distinct class of “Readers” or “Reciters” of the suras (individual tracts which would be collected as the Koran). These “ministers of the word” (cf. Luke 1:2) were the guardians of the revelation, and as such they proved a thorn in the side of the Caliphs (political successors of the Prophet). Mere political policies would have stiff competition from the quoted revelations of Muhammad. In this power struggle we can see a parallel to that between the rapidly consolidating early Christian episcopate on the one hand and the wandering apostles and prophets left over from the early days on the other. In both cases, institutional authority prevailed when the institutions managed to coopt the authority of revelation from their charismatic competitors. This happened when early Christian bishops and the Caliph ‘Uthman both canonized a definite collection and text of scripture. With an infallible closed canon as one’s recourse, the loose cannons of prophecy could be safely ignored. Caetani implicitly raises the question of how much and how many of the Koranic suras, like the subsequent hadith (traditional reports of the life or sayings of Muhammad), were manufactured on the spot to win a polemical point. (And, as form critics showed long ago, much or most of the Synoptic Gospel tradition grew up the same way.) I believe we might as well drop the distinction between Koran and hadith, unless we agree to understand the difference between them as precisely parallel to that between Mishnah and Gemara in Rabbinical Judaism.    

Alphonse Mingana was a great delver into obscure ancient manuscripts, many now apparently having lapsed into the obscurity from which he thought to have rescued them. In the preface to his and Agnes Smith’s Leaves from Three Ancient Qurans Possibly Pre-Othmanic with their Variants (1914) he discusses, as do other writers in this volume (most notably Arthur Jeffery) what evidence remains to indicate how the Koran read before the Caliph ‘Uthman had the text standardized, destroying previous manuscripts. (The recent discovery of a treasure trove of Koran manuscript pages much earlier than any previously known may put this whole question in a whole new perspective.) But it especially interesting to read Mingana’s challenge to claims of Muslim (and implicitly Christian) apologists who exaggerate the supposedly photographically retentive memories of Middle Eastern peasants. Unless we suppose that they were able to remember pretty much everything they heard Muhammad (or Jesus) say, it becomes ludicrously arbitrary to assume that the Koran (or the Gospels) accurately represents the ipsissima verba of the Great Man.

Jeffery, C.C. Torrey and others discuss the phenomenon, posited even by ancient Muslim exegetes themselves, of interpolations and insertions into Koranic suras. Recalling Walter Schmithals who divides the major Pauline Epistles into numerous scrambled source documents but ascribes all these materials to Paul, Muslim savants and their Western disciples have tended to ascribe the interpolations to Muhammad himself, or at least to make the interpolated verses genuinely Muhammadan if not crediting him with inserting them. Torrey is very conservative on the question, and the New Testament student will experience deja vu reading Torrey’s contention that, if anyone had begun inserting foreign matter into suras often publicly recited,  listeners would have protested like children indignant at any change in a familiar bedtime story. Of course, Vincent Taylor and other apologists have long used the same circular argument to prove the accuracy of the gospel traditions.

Three substantial pieces (Abraham Geiger, “What Did Muhammad Borrow from Judaism?”, W. St. Clair-Tisdall, “The Sources of Islam,” and Torrey’s “The Jewish Foundation of Islam”) examine the question of Jewish, Christian, and other possible sources of Koranic doctrine and narrative. The authors ascribe more to Jewish traditions and documents than Christian, though some debt to the latter is acknowledged. It strikes me that there is too much thought of written sources, not enough of a general atmosphere of common lore and oral tradition. Also, we ought to keep in mind, as Tor Andre, Lüling and others do, that we need not draw a hard and fast line between the two donor religions, since early Islam was surely influenced by Ebionite Jewish Christianity and the Jewish-Christian sect of the Elchasites. The Zoroastrian influence on the Koran is made clear, as are some parallels to Hindu writings, but I kept waiting for the link to be made (as it surely ought to be) between the Koran’s storm demon Marut and the storm-stirring Maruts, attendants of the Vedic god Rudra.

Reading this survey of modern Koranic scholarship, a little over a century of it, one marvels at how long it has taken to get the critical enterprise off and running. Progress is still frustratingly slow, and Andre Rippin (“Literary Analysis of Koran, Tafsir, and Sira: The Methodologies of John Wansbrough,” 1985) explains why. On the one hand, even supposedly critical scholars find themselves unwilling to embrace “thoroughgoing skepticism” even when the facts seem to warrant it, since then they will be left with no game pieces. They want to be able to say something about the origins of Islam or the Koran, and certain new theories would make this difficult to do. On the other, the new spirit of ecumenical dialogue between the great religions, while a salutary development for other reasons, has the unfortunate side-effect that Christian scholars cleave to traditional Islamic views of the Koran and Muhammad so as to shorten the line of offense.  Since Muslims do not appreciate suggestions that scribes and holy men often fabricated suras or hadith (any more than Christian laity appreciate the work of the Jesus Seminar), their dialogue partners are reluctant to embrace scholarship that presuppose widespread pious fraud.

As Humanists we do not object to such unblinking scrutiny. Indeed, we will settle for nothing less. It is to the credit of Prometheus Books that they have begun a series of serious critical books on Islam and the Koran. And it is not just that no one else will publish some of these scholarly radicals (see the forthcoming On the Pre-Islamic Christian Koran by the much-persecuted Günter Lüling). More importantly, the books are serious studies which seek to understand Islam as a fascinating cultural product of the human imagination. As Humanists,  we seek to debunk superstitious claims for divine inspiration, thus laying bare the incredible hubris of mere mortals who want to see their own utterances exalted to the status of the Word of God. (Can there be any more arrogant “humanism” than theirs?) That much is negative. But there is a positive aspect, too. It may be foolish to believe in the religions, but it is equally foolish to dismiss them as irrelevant. We want to go further to study the faith of Islam, as all others, for the valuable insights it provides into the human heart. Ibn Warraq’s valuable collection is a marvelous tool for that work.



Copyright©2007 by Robert M Price
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