Review of “Quranic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation” by John Wansbrough


Review of “Quranic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation” byJohn Wansbrough

7 May 2012

From the very beginning of Islam there have been two opposing views regarding the origin of the Quran.

The Muslim view

God revealed the Quran to Muhammad (peace be upon him) through the agency of the Archangel Gabriel in stages over approximately 23 years.

Many of the incidents mentioned in the Quran also occur in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. This is to be expected since Abraham, Moses and Jesus (to name but a few) were prophets of God just like Muhammad. (Peace be upon them all.)

The non-Muslim view

The Quran was composed by Muhammad (pbuh) himself who falsely claimed that it had come from God (or who may have genuinely but incorrectly believed that it came from God).

The Jewish and Christian themes mentioned in the Quran appear there because Muhammad (pbuh) was familiar with them from Jews and Christians that he encountered. There was a whole body of stories, known as the Israiliyat in Arabic, known at that time from which Muhammad (pbuh) took the themes in the Quran. For more details, I recommend reading the book “Judaism in Islam: Biblical and Talmudic Backgrounds of the Koran and its Commentaries” by Abraham I. Katsh.

The Quranic response to this non-Muslim view

This non-Muslim view is mentioned many times in the Quran. The response from God, as stated in the Quran, is that if the disbelievers considered that Muhammad (pbuh) was composing the Quran himself, they were challenged to compose something of equivalent literary merit.

Now this Qur’an could not possibly have been devised by anyone save God: nay indeed, it confirms the truth of whatever there still remains [of earlier revelations] and clearly spells out the revelation [which comes] – let there be no doubt about it – from the Sustainer of all the worlds. And yet, they [who are bent on denying the truth] assert, “[Muhammad] has invented it!” Say [unto them]: “Produce, then, a surah of similar merit; and [to this end] call to your aid whomever you can, other than God, if what you say is true!

Quran 10:37-38 Muhammad Asad translation.

The same point is made in many other places in the Quran.

Where the two viewpoints agree

The Muslim view and the non-Muslim view agree on the following basic facts, amongst others:

  • Muhammad (pbuh) was born in Mecca, grew up there and began having revelations which he claimed came from God.
  • Muhammad (pbuh) was persecuted by the pagan Arabs.
  • Muhammad (pbuh) moved from Mecca to Medina where he was the leader of the community.
  • After Muhammad (pbuh) died, Abu Bakr succeeded him as caliph and was followed by caliphs Umar, Uthman and Ali and then others.

The disagreement between Muslims and non-Muslims is not about the basic facts but about whether Muhammad (pbuh) received the Quran from God or whether he composed it himself. 1400 years later we have no way of deciding that as a factual question; it is inevitably a matter of faith as are most other religious questions.

The non-Muslim view should not be regarded by Muslims as in any way problematical. The Quran itself recognises that many will choose not to believe in Islam while making it clear that they face the risk of punishment in the afterlife.

Say, “The truth is from your Lord”: Let him who will believe, and let him who will, reject (it): for the wrong-doers We have prepared a Fire whose (smoke and flames), like the walls and roof of a tent, will hem them in: if they implore relief they will be granted water like melted brass, that will scald their faces, how dreadful the drink! How uncomfortable a couch to recline on!

Quran 18:29 Yusuf Ali translation

The radical non-Muslim view

40 years ago a radically different view was put forward by the academic John Wansbrough. His work has been taken forward in diverse ways by a number of his students and others, and there is no single consistent “radical” view. However, Wansbrough’s own view was that the Quran was most probably composed around 200 years later than the standard date, and in Mesopotamia rather than the Hijaz (the area of Western Arabia that includes Mecca and Medina.)

This radical view is much more challenging to a Muslim than the standard non-Muslim view. If the Quran was composed 200 years later and in Mesopotamia, then God could not possibly have given it to Muhammad (pbuh).

I do not believe in ignoring an argument just because the person is saying things that contradict what I believe. Wansbrough was a serious academic and deserves to be engaged with. Rather than looking at secondary sources, I decided to read the original book in which Wansbrough set out his views.

In passing, there seems to be only one other review freely available on the internet, a three page review by Carool Kersten in theThe American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences.

Overview of the book

This book was originally published in 1977 but the preface by John Wansbrough which is dated July 1975 states that the final draft was completed in July 1972 and that Wansbrough therefore did not take account of studies published since that date. Hence the ideas are about 40 years old as mentioned above.

The current edition was published in 2004 and contains a forward, translations and expanded notes by Andrew Rippin, one of Wansbrough’s graduate students and now a leading scholar in his own right. The annotations are on pages 257 – 308. It would have helped to have them as footnotes on each page to avoid having to leaf backwards and forwards but Rippin did not wish to be seen as changing Wansbrough’s original text.

This book was written by an academic for other academics. Accordingly it is incredibly hard to read unless you are a specialist, since the author moves seamlessly between highly academic English, Arabic written in Arabic script, transliterated Arabic, Latin, Hebrew, Greek and German. The author assumes total familiarity with the language that biblical scholars use to analyse and discuss the text of the Bible; a reasonable assumption given the audience that Wansbrough was writing for. Accordingly I found the book very tough going.

Despite the challenges I persevered and am glad that I did so. Leaving aside the annotations, indices etc. the book runs from pages 1 – 246 even though it feels much longer due to its difficulty!

It is not an easy book to summarise, especially since it comprises essays that were originally written separately. They have been melded into a book but with relatively little fusion. Accordingly I will not attempt to condense the book. However in this section I would like to give the reader an overview of the book before offering my own concluding comments.

Forward (by Andrew Rippin)

Rippin has contributed a new forward to Wansbrough’s book and starts:

“The academic study of the Quran, it has often been remarked, lags far behind the study of the Bible while being, at the same time, closely modelled after it. Not only are the resources available to scholars of the Quran much more limited than those available to their biblical-scholar counterparts, but the depth of methodological experimentation in dealing with the scriptural text has been severely limited in comparison. This situation is illustrated by consideration of the sheer quantity of scholarship that has been produced and the number of scholarly landmarks that exist in the field. Modern biblical scholarship fills a library many times the size of that devoted to the Quran. Each subdiscipline of biblical studies has its own set of ‘classics.’ By contrast, it is still possible to point to individual works in the history of the study of the Quran and declare them the pivotal texts that provide the foundation for all later studies.”

In Rippin’s view modern Quran scholarship began with Abraham Geiger’s 1832 essay originally written in Latin and then published in German as “Was hat Mohammed aus dem Judenthume aufgenommen?” (“What has Mohammed received from Judaism?” per Google Translate.) It was translated by FM Young and published in English in 1898 as “Judaism and Islam.” ( I have not yet read it.) Rippin writes:

“Geiger’s approach to the Quran marks the beginning of the European scholarly quest for the sources of Muslim scripture in Judaism and, to a lesser extent, Christianity. No longer was the Quran being approached from the mediaeval perspective of polemic grounded in the notion that Muhammad was a religious imposter. Geiger’s work set a new direction for scholarship because its working assumption was that Muhammad was sincere in his religious mission. Geiger’s study was motivated by the underlying thrust of post-Enlightenment work generally, which promoted a sense of curiosity to which no particular value was added over and above the desire to know the previously unknown.”

After touching on the work of other scholars, Rippin comes to Wansbrough.

“Wansbrough was the first person to subject to scholarly analysis an entire body of literature attributed to the first four centuries of Islam that stands as a witness to the rise of the Quran to the position of absolute authority in the Muslim community. Although these exegetical works were known to exist, having faithfully being catalogued by Sezgin, no scholar had actually read them and tried to make coherent sense of the material. This is one of Wansbrough’s main accomplishments as reflected in this book, which lists 17 manuscript works. Notably, almost all of these books have now been edited and published.”

Rippin goes on to set out the question Wansbrough and the other scholars are trying to address.

“Fundamentally, the question revolves around what we mean by ‘the Quran’ and what sort of evidence we have to answer that question. There is a good deal of uncertainty as to what we do mean here by ‘the Quran.’ Wansbrough is certainly talking about something that has significance, not a theoretical construct. I would say that when we speak of the Quran in this context, and if we are going to have a meaningful discussion of the question, three elements must come into play: one, there must be a fixed body of text that is, two, written down, and, three, has some measure of acceptance among a group of people as a source of authority.”

Preface

Wansbrough introduces his work by setting the scene.

“…As the record of Muslim revelation the book requires no introduction. As a document susceptible of analysis by the instruments and techniques of Biblical criticism it is virtually unknown. The doctrinal obstacles that have traditionally impeded such investigation are, on the other hand, very well-known. Not merely dogmas such as those defining scripture as the uncreated Word of God and acknowledging its formal and substantive inimitability, but also the entire corpus of Islamic historiography, by providing a more or less coherent and plausible report of the circumstances of the Quranic revelation, have discouraged examination of the document as representative of a literary type. But historiography, like other kind of literature, derives an important share of its momentum from the rhetorical devices upon which it depends for expression, that is, upon techniques designed, developed, or borrowed to enhance and to interpret its communication. Historical reports of the Quranic revelation are no exception, and it seemed to me that a structural analysis, not only of the text of scripture but also of the other evidence associated with its genesis and with its interpretation, might produce some useful comparisons with the traditional historiography.”

In other words, by looking at the text of the Quran and the text of existing Muslim historical writings about the Quran, Wansbrough considered that he could come up with an alternative explanation about its origins.

Bibliography

As one would expect in a scholarly work, there is a 12 page bibliography.

Manuscripts utilised in Quranic studies

This table prepared by Rippin lists the 17 manuscripts upon which Wansbrough relied and gives references in those cases where they have since been published.

The main body of the book then follows in four essays.

1.  Revelation and Canon

This chapter is divided into two parts.

The document

Wansbrough starts by setting out his overall perspective on the Quran.

“Both formally and conceptually, Muslim scripture drew upon a traditional stock of monotheistic imagery, which may be described as schemata of revelation.… Originally narrative material was reduced almost invariably to a series of discrete and parabolic utterances. An illustration is Surat Yusuf, often cited as a single instance of complete and sustained narrative in the Quran. In fact, without benefit of exegesis the Quranic story of Joseph is anything but clear, a consequence in part of its elliptical presentation and in part of occasional allusion to extra-Biblical tradition, e.g. versus 24, 67, 77. It may, indeed, be supposed that the public for whom Muslim scripture was intended could be expected to supply the missing detail. A distinctly referential, as contrasted with expository, style characterises Quranic treatment of most of what I have alluded to as schemata of revelation…”

Wansbrough is drawing attention to a stylistic aspect of the Quran which often surprises new readers, especially if they are familiar with the straightforward narrative style of the Bible. The Quran is written in a fundamentally different style which is much less narrative and in language that is more elliptical and contains many allusions. However it is worth reading Surat Yusuf oneself to see if it is really as unclear as Wansbrough states.

Wansbrough proceeds to illustrate his point with a large number of detailed and minutely analysed references which are not easy to summarise and which should be read in the original book.

Wansbrough sets out his views on variants within the text. By variants he appears to mean multiple versions of the same story within the text of the Quran.

“The problem of ‘variants’ can be usefully approached by distinguishing between variant readings, the proper concern of the masoretes, and variant traditions. In the Muslim exegetical literature the latter were explained, or evaded, by reference to the chronology of revelation, by means of which unmistakable repetition in the Quranic text could be justified. Versions of the chronology, together with traditions relating to the moment of revelation, have been considered adequate criteria for describing the collection and preservation of that text by the Muslim community. But the variant traditions are present in such quantity as to deserve some attention in a description of the process by which revelation became canon. Unlike the minutiae to be gained from variae lectiones,[variant readings] analysis of variant traditions will not support the theory of an Urtext [original text] nor even that of a composite edition produced by deliberations in committee, both of which may, not surprisingly, be traced to Rabbinic Vorlagen [prior texts]. Such analysis indicates, rather, the existence of independent, possibly regional, traditions incorporated more or less intact into the canonical compilation, itself a product of expansion and strife within the Muslim community.”

Wansbrough appears to consider that the repetition in the Quran rules out there being a single author, or even an editorial committee. Instead he appears to contend that segments of text, already regarded as sacred, were stuck together to make the Quran. However apart from what he says about the repetitions themselves, I could not see any additional support being offered for his assertions.

Wansbrough goes on to criticise other scholars who have sought to understand the Quran relying upon the traditional chronology of its revelation.

“For the Quranic material pertaining to Abraham, the studies of Beck and Moubarac were developed from a wholly arbitrary adherence to the traditional chronology of revelation and ended in a ‘historical’ survey of the prophet’s ‘changing attitude towards the patriarchs’.Demonstration of the ‘historical development of Abraham in the Quran’, for Moubarac the evolution of a composite figure out an originally dual image, required not only a verifiable chronology of revelation but also the structural unity of the Canon. Both were asserted; neither was proved.”

Its composition

Wansbrough sets the scene by explaining how he sees the Quran as fitting within the wider tradition of revelation and the preceding Jewish and Christian scriptures. He is aware that Muslims consider that the Quran fulfills and completes the prior revelations.

“Procedures of transmission and preservation demand that the word of God conform to recognisable patterns of human utterance. From the foregoing analysis of rhetorical schemata and of variant tradition, exegetical gloss, and conceptual assimilation, it may be supposed that the Quranic revelation is no exception to the general rule. But the mimetic process is a complex one. Isolation of such monotheist imagery as is characteristic of themes like divine retribution and sign, covenant and exile, indicates the perpetuation in Muslim scripture of established literary types. And yet, the merely allusive style of that document would appear to preclude positing the relationship of figural interpretation (typology) admitted to exist between the Old and New Testaments. The pattern of fulfilment (figuram implere) [‘to fill the figure’ per Google Translate] cannot, or at least hardly, be elicited from a comparison of Muslim with Hebrew scripture. That this is not merely a negative inference from the absence of an explicit connection of the sort established between the Christian and Hebrew scriptures ought to be clear from an examination of the Quranic forms themselves, which reflect, but do not develop, most of the themes traditionally associated with literature of prophetical expression. If the claim to place the Quran within that clearly defined literary tradition is conceded, it would none the less be inaccurate to describe that document as exhibiting essentially a calque of earlier fixed forms. The relationship is rather more complicated, due at least in part to the origins of Muslim scripture in polemic.”

Wansbrough appears to have preconceived views regarding how the Quran should be written and what it should say if it is going to“develop, most of the themes traditionally associated with literature of prophetical expression”. He also repeats his earlier assertion that the Quran originated in intra-Muslim polemics, but I was unable to see any clear explanation of why he holds that view.

Wansbrough rejects the traditional view that the Quran was revealed in stages and that a chronology of the revelation is known. He spends a number of pages analysing the appearance of Jafar ibn Abi Talib before the ruler of Ethiopia when the Quraysh sent a mission to secure the return of the emigrants to Mecca. He discusses a number of different accounts of this story in the manuscripts and concludes that what is said about the chronology of the revelation of Surat Maryam cannot be relied upon.

Wansbrough mentions the view of earlier scholars regarding the Muslim traditions and then dismisses it.

“Critical analysis of the tradition (s) is set out in the second part of the fundamental work of Noldeke – Schwally, in which may be read the authors’ concluding judgement on the diametrical opposition between formation of the Quranic canon and that of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures: ‘The emergence of the Muslim canon is completely exceptional; one could even say that it was formed in opposition to the norm. It is not the work of several writers, but only of one man who accomplished it in the short span of a generation.’ [substituting Rippin’s translation in place of the original German cited by Wansbrough] Now, it seems to me at least arguable that the evidence of the Quran itself, quite apart from that of the exegetical tradition, lends little support to that assertion. It may, indeed, appear from my description of that document that the Muslim scripture is not only composite, but also, and such can be inferred from a typological analysis of Quranic exegesis, that the period required for its achievement was rather more than a single generation.”

Wansbrough goes on to explain his view that the Quran was composed from separate collections of texts which had already achieved religious status in the various communities within which they originated, putting particular emphasis on Mesopotamia.

He dismisses the view that there were Jewish communities in the Hijaz.

“Some scholars, among them Ben-Zvi and Katsch [the same person as the Katsh I mention above, the spelling seems to have changed], have been excessively generous in their assessment of the documentary value of Islamic source materials for the existence and cultural significance (!) of Jewish communities in the Hijaz, about which Jewish sources are themselves silent. References in Rabbinic literature to Arabia are of remarkably little worth for purposes of historical reconstruction, and especially for the Hijaz in the sixth and seventh centuries. The incompatibility of Islamic and Jewish sources was only partially neutralised, but the tyranny of the ‘Hijazi origins of Islam’ fully demonstrated, by insistence upon a major Jewish immigration into central Arabia. Some of the material assembled by Rabin, such as apocalyptic concept and embellishments to prophetology, represent of course diffusion through contact, but do not require an exodus from Judaea into the Arabian desert.”

2. Emblems of prophethood

In this chapter Wansbrough sets out his views regarding the nature of prophethood.

“The certainty that already in the Hexateuch the figure of Moses was the product of literary elaboration is of some relevance to a description of the analogous process for Muhammad.… But unlike the Hexateuch, from which could be inferred at least the outlines of a historical portrait of Moses, the role of the Quran in the delineation of an Arabian prophet was peripheral: evidence of a divine communication but not a report of its circumstances. The historical value of Muslim scripture lies, it seems to me, not in its role as source for the biography of Muhammad, but rather as source for the concepts eventually applied to composition of the Muslim theology of prophethood. The latter are both directly accessible in the text of scripture and susceptible of schematic realisation, while the very notion of biographical data in the Quran depends upon exegetical principles derived from material external to the canon.”

To the extent that Wansbrough is saying that the Quran gives very little biographical information about Muhammad (pbuh), his comment is trivial as that is obvious from the simplest reading of the Quran.

Wansbrough proceeds to critique what Muslims have written about the circumstances of revelation and the life of the Prophet, in particular the biography by Ibn Ishaq.

“Coordination of the Quranic revelation with that process of Gemeindebildung [‘community education’ per Google Translate] was the achievement of haggadic exegesis, in which the essentially anonymous references of the text of revelation were carefully related to the originally independent figure of the Arabian prophet. The haggadic literary devices were many and varied. The extent to which the haggadists were concerned primarily to elucidate a fixed scriptural text has perhaps been exaggerated. To describe at least part of Ibn Ishaq’s activity, for example, as exegetical (tafsir) is convenient but, if the technical term is construed in its traditional sense (explication de texte), possibly misleading.… All three of the structural levels [discussed in the text skipped over in the ellipsis] exhibit a single impulse, namely a concern to locate the origins of Islam in the Hijaz.”

Wansbrough spends a number of pages analysing what Muslims have written about the Prophet (pbuh) and the possible impact upon Islam of Christian attitudes to scripture and prophethood. One of the most accessible comments he makes is:

“The extraordinary position occupied by ‘scripture’ in Muslim prophetology requires to be examined in the light of two doctrines commonly interpreted as unique to the theology of Islam, namely, that the Quran is inimitable and the word of God uncreated. Discussion of both turned upon the form and content of kalam allah, [the Word of God] which might seem to have taken on a dimension out of all proportion to its role as prophetical bona fides. While that role was never neglected, it would be more realistic to suppose that the qualities of inimitability and eternity were formulated in the attempt to secure a position within the Muslim community for the document of revelation. The fact of canonicity, here postulated as sum of a long and uneven process of Gemeindebildung [‘community education’ per Google Translate], meant acceptance of scripture not merely as evidence for the divine commission of one man, but also and more especially, recognition of its authority in the life of the community.”

Wansbrough goes on to discuss the views of scholars such as Schacht that originally Islamic jurisprudence did not rely upon the Quran or Sunnah and that their use in jurisprudence came later.

3. Origins of classical Arabic

In this chapter Wansbrough sets out his views of the way that the Arabic language developed.

4. Principles of exegesis

In this chapter Wansbrough sets out his own views regarding the typology of Islamic exegesis. What struck me was Wansbrough’s approach to the sources. The dates are given as Anno Hegira / Anno Domini.

“From the point of view of chronology, the development of Muslim exegetical literature envisaged here required a span of approximately a century and a half, from Muqatil (d. 150/767) to Ibn Qutayba (d. 276/889). Within that period the principles of exegesis were evolved and perfected, and it would not be too much to say that thereafter few, if any, methodological innovations were introduced. For isolation and description of its components the selection of criteria is a matter requiring the greatest care. In his analysis of Tabari’s historyWellhausen employed exclusively the factor of ascription, a choice rendered deceptively attractive by Tabari’s fairly consistent use of chains of transmission. But even when supported by a highly differentiated nomenclature for the modalities of transmission, ascription can be remarkably unstable.… For these reasons I have thought it best to ignore, or at least to discount, ascription and, by concentrating on the elements of explication both in and out of context, isolate and identify methodological devices which can be recognised without resort to biographical data.”

Wansbrough basis much of his view that the Quran had not yet received status as a recognised authority for doctrine or for policy from one of the sources he discusses.

“The first of these is the Risala fil-sahaba of Ibn Muqaffa (d. 142/759). The standpoint of the author in matters pertaining to the practical administration of justice was characterised by Schacht as a recommendation of procedural uniformity, to be imposed by the government (sic) upon a situation of juridical chaos. The elements of confusion could be identified as regional dispute, about the priority of sunna (asius consuetudinis) [customary law] and ra’y (as practical inference), overlaid by the legacy of Umayyad administrative practice.… My interest here lies exclusively in the role of scripture in Ibn Muqaffa’s suggestions for organising the Islamic community. As a source of caliphal authority the Quran (designated kitab) received but scant attention, usually in tandem: al-kitab wal-sunna, and was only once cited, as ‘revelation’ (tanzil)…”

Concluding comments

In the brief extracts quoted above, I have only been able to give a limited impression of the style of the book. In particular I have skipped over the many pages of detailed textual analysis. Overall, I encourage people interested in the subject read the book but they will find it very heavy going.

As a Muslim, I believe that the Quran was revealed by God to Muhammad (pbuh). However leaving aside what I believe as a matter of faith, I have a number of criticisms of Wansbrough’s approach and his conclusions.

Wansbrough’s writing style

Apart from the short biography supplied with the book and the profile on Wikipedia, I know nothing else about Wansbrough. It is quite rare for the author of a book to succeed in irritating me (no matter how much I might disagree with what the author has written) but Wansbrough has succeeded in doing so.

It may not emerge well enough from the limited extracts quoted above, but I found Wansbrough’s writing style to be arrogant, and lacking in respect for the people he is discussing or indeed the scholars he is criticising, sufficiently so as to be irritating.

Wansbrough ignores history

The book is based entirely upon textual analysis of the Quran and the various manuscripts. Wansbrough dismisses all of the Muslim historiography on the grounds that it was written long after the events it covers and therefore must be ignored. However he also ignores all other historical information as no historical facts are cited anywhere in the book.

This is a serious deficiency. For example in one of the extracts quoted above Wansbrough dismisses the presence of Jews in the Hijaz. “… but do not require an exodus from Judaea into the Arabian Desert.” He either ignores or does not know that Jews were widely spread at that time and were found not just in Palestine but also in large numbers in Mesopotamia (where the Babylonian Talmud had already been composed) and also in the Yemen where there had been a Jewish Kingdom of Himyar. Since there were Jews to the north of the Hijaz and Jews to the south of the Hijaz, I do not understand why Wansbrough regards it as incredible that there were Jews in the Hijaz!

Similarly, while Wansbrough chooses to draw his own conclusions about the implications of the Muslim doctrine of the eternal Quran, he completely fails to mention the historical context of the disagreement between the Mutazilites and the Asharites. The Mutazilite supporters of the view that the Quran was created by God had enforced their views aided by the political authority of the caliph, especially Mamun Al Rashid, until a later caliph sided with the opposing view. Instead he mentions the eternal Quran as if this was a freestanding concept devised only to give the Quran more authority.

This absence of historical context applies to everything Wansbrough writes.

A short time period in a stable environment

Biblical scholarship developed to understand how the Bible came to be written over a very long period. As a simple illustration, there are about 1,000 years between the fall of Samaria (721 BC) and the Council of Nicea (325 AD) during which time Palestine was repeatedly conquered by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks and Romans with Jewish civilisation being repeatedly disrupted. Accordingly one has to rely entirely upon the written texts, as oral histories could not survive such a long period, especially with the disruptions that the society suffered during the period concerned.

Wansbrough takes that mindset over to the study of the Quran, but ignores the major differences:

  • The time period involved is much shorter.
  • The environment was stable, with people living continuously in the same place essentially undisturbed.

The period from the Hegira (the move of the Prophet (pbuh) from Mecca to Medina) to the earliest written sources is in the region of 150 – 200 years, possibly less for some of the sources.

150 years is not a long time for a culture that was primarily oral yet Wansbrough dismisses any possibility of any historical information, no matter how significant, surviving that period through oral transmission.

As an illustration, consider the city of Medina and the tombs of the Prophet (pbuh), Abu Bakr and Umar which are now contained within the Prophet’s Mosque (due to its enlargement) with the Al Baqi cemetery adjacent, possibly the most visited cemetery in the world. Medina has never been conquered by non-Muslims and has been inhabited by Muslims continuously for the last 1,400 years. It defies common sense that at some point in time someone would have been able to “plant” three spurious graves in Medina and convince the citizens that these graves had always been there. Similarly the location where the battle of Uhud took place, and where the Muslim fallen are buried, has been known continuously from the time of the battle until now. In particular it would have been known to the people who showed the battlefield to the first Muslim historical writers around 200 A.H.

The continuous history of Mecca and Medina is one of the most inspiring aspects of visiting those cities, as I did during the Hajj in 2002. The birth of Islam during the lifetime of the Prophet is by far the most significant thing that has ever happened in that part of the world, and parents told their children about it in an unbroken chain. While the details of the Prophet’s life might be expected to be embellished in the oral telling, that is quite different from managing to invent, without anyone noticing, a person who never existed.

A thought experiment set in America

Scientists often use “thought experiments” as a way of testing or explaining their thinking. Imagine that over the last two hundred years the USA had not used writing, so that all historical knowledge would depend upon word of mouth transmission.

What would we reliably know about the American civil war, the most catastrophic event ever to take place in America, based upon word of mouth transmission? The USA has been inhabited continuously from 1860 until now, with many families still living in the same areas they lived in then. I believe we would reliably know:

  • The American civil war had taken place with large losses of life, even if the casualty statistics transmitted orally had become unreliable.
  • The locations of major battles such as Gettysburg and Antietam.
  • Slavery of black people had been practiced in the South, and ended by the Civil War.
  • The North had been led by an inspirational president called Abraham Lincoln, who had been assassinated.
  • I would expect the text of the Gettysburg Address to have reached us, more or less unchanged. It is only two minutes long and many Americans memorise it even now. In a purely oral culture, I would expect most Americans, at least those from the North, to revere the speech and to continue to transmit it orally to their children.

The birth of Islam (followed by major conquests all over the Middle East and North Africa) was at least as significant to Mecca and Medina as the American Civil War to the USA, and in the society of the time I would expect the major details to be preserved reasonably reliably through oral transmission for 150-200 years. The Quran is a text which many people memorise, and in a society where writing was little used one would expect even more memorisation.

Retrofitting a composed Quran into Muslim civilisation?

By 200 years after the Hegira, Muslims had conquered Spain, the whole of North Africa, Iran, parts of the Indus Valley and parts of Asia north of the Oxus, with the religion also starting to diffuse into China. Also by then Muslims were writing manuscripts which have survived.

Wansbrough does not even attempt to address how a Quran could be composed in Mesopotamia, ascribed to a fictitious prophet from the Hijaz, and then spread throughout the Muslim world as having canonical authority without anybody objecting and without anybody writing down either that it was happening or expressing any concerns.

It is much easier to accept that when Arabs exploded out of Arabia and conquered territories to the West, the North and the East that they took with them their existing religious beliefs and their memorised religious book than to accept that a Quran composed 200 years later in Mesopotamia could then be foisted upon everyone and passed off as having originated 200 years earlier.

The simplest explanation is usually the best

In my opinion, Occam’s Razor is on the side of the generally accepted view of the origin of Islam. Namely, the Quran originated where people have always believed it did, the Hijaz, and at the time always believed, 610 AD – 632 AD, and there really was a prophet called Muhammad (pbuh). These are the most likely historical facts, regardless of whether or not one believes that Muhammad (pbuh) was divinely inspired.

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