New Light on the History of the Quranic Text?

If Western scholarship wishes to establish a viable empirical approach to the historicity and meaning of the Quranic text, it must first account for the vast literature on these topics in the classical Islamic tradition. Anything less is academically irresponsible.
07/24/2015 04:42 pm ET Updated Jul 24, 2016

The recent discovery of an early manuscript of the Quran has received extensive media attention, appearing on BBC, CNN and even above the fold on the front page of the New York Times. But in the broader context of recent scholarship on early manuscripts of the Quran, Birmingham M 1572 does not radically change the field. Combined with other manuscripts, however, it contributes to a growing body of evidence that the early Islamic sources, as Carl Ernst observes, "still provide a more compelling framework for understanding the Qurʾan than any alternative yet proposed."

In recent years, the field of Quranic Studies in the West has been undergoing a paradigm shift brought about by the discovery and scholarly analysis of the earliest Quranic manuscripts. The most recent scientific analysis of the earliest available Quranic manuscripts conducted by Behnam Sadeghi of Stanford University demonstrates that much of what we know to be the Quran today can be dated to the year 670 AD, or earlier. For the earliest extant manuscript to have undergone extensive analysis, radiocarbon dating gives "a 68% probability of belonging to the period between AD 614 to AD 656. It has a 95% probability of belonging to the period between AD 578 and AD 669."

Behnam Sadeghi has also revealed that these manuscripts have an earlier "under text," that is, the text that was erased from the parchment upon which the text of the earliest manuscripts is written. Given the cost and labor of producing parchment in early seventh century Arabia, when a new text was written, it was often more expedient and cost effective to wash the older texts from the parchment and begin anew. Because the ink employed in the seventh century was metal based, a residue remained that can now be read by subjecting the extant parchment to infrared photography. This is the "under text." For the Sana'a manuscripts, it reveals occasional variations in the ordering of the sūrahs (or chapters) of the Quran, and slight variations in reading that correspond to the variations that had been preserved in the extensive Islamic material detailing variant readings of the Quran. But all of these variations had already been and recorded in the Islamic historiographical tradition. In other words, analysis of the "under text" confirms the accuracy of early Islamic historiography.

This changes the field of Quranic Studies because it provides empirical support for the accuracy of the traditional Islamic accounts that many western scholars have previously claimed to be anachronistic and unreliable, such as the existence of variant manuscripts of the Quran before the collation of the text in 650. Furthermore, statistical analysis of the variants within the earliest manuscripts suggests that the final version that came to be the accepted text of the Quran "is overall a better reproduction of the common source." Even minor textual variations that were reported by early Islamic scholars and transmitted in the Quranic commentary tradition find substantiation in the "under text" of the earliest manuscripts of the Quran.

In addition, recent studies have demonstrated that the earliest Islamic literature on variant readings of the Quran is for the most part reliable and that the historicity of the received data is, as Michael Cook of Princeton University observes, "a testimony to the continuing accuracy of the transmission of the variants." Such findings correspond with the most recent anthropological studies that confirm the historical reliability of oral transmission traditions.

These recent empirical findings are of fundamental importance. They establish that as regards the broad outlines of the history of the compilation and codification of the Quranic text, the classical Islamic sources are far more reliable than had hitherto been assumed. Such findings thus render the vast majority of Western revisionist theories regarding the historical origins of the Quran untenable.

According to early Islamic sources, the Quran was revealed over a twenty-three-year period between AD 610-632, and the consonantal skeleton, or rasm, of the text that we have today was collated by AD 650. Efforts to determine alternative historical origins for the Quran have led to a plethora of incompatible and contradictory theories, ranging from the notion that much of the Quran developed as a proto Syro-Aramaic text before the period Muslim historiographers have established to the idea that it did not develop until the late eighth century or early ninth century. Most revisionist theories now place the development of the text some time in the eighth century under the Umayyad caliph ʿAbd al-Malik b. Marwān (685-705). While such hypotheses gave rise to extensive discussion, they often ignore much of the available historical data and are not based upon the earliest extant manuscripts of the Quran. As such, they have too often obscured rather than clarified the very questions they seek to answer.

As the German scholar Harald Motzki writes in comparing classical Islamic accounts of the history of the Quranic text to source-critical analyses of the Quran promoted in Western scholarship,

Muslim accounts are much earlier and thus much nearer in time to the time of the alleged events than hitherto assumed in Western scholarship. Admittedly, these accounts contain some details which seem to be implausible or, to put it more cautiously, await explanation, but the Western views which claim to replace them by more plausible and historically more reliable accounts are obviously far from what they make themselves out to be. (emphasis mine)

Modern source-critical textual analysis attempts to answer the question, "Where did this text come from?" So too, the Islamic exegetical tradition has been obsessed with this question from its earliest days. As a result, the classical Islamic sources developed an extensive tradition of source-critical analysis that in its main contours has held up to scrutiny. As Montgomery Watt observes regarding the classical Muslim historical tradition, "In so far as it is consistent it gives a rough idea of the chronology of the Qurʾān; and any modern attempt to find a basis for dating must by and large be in agreement with the traditional views, even if in one or two points it contradicts them." In a similar vein, Neal Robinson maintains that early Islamic biographical literature provides a "plausible chronological framework for the revelations."

Indeed, the question of how the text of the Quran came into being during the life of Muhammad and how it was recorded and codified after the death of Muhammad was discussed by Islamic scholars not only as a matter of faith, but also as a matter of historiography. Much of this material is preserved in the commentary tradition and in Islamic historiographical materials, but has too often been discarded in the academic study of the Quran in the West. In analyzing the arguments of scholars who challenge the account of the Islamic sources, Nicolai Sinai of Oxford University observes that epigraphic data and historical evidence "would allow us to take most of what the Islamic sources say at face value, and it is not clear why, in the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary, this should not be our default position."

Ultimately, what we learn from this most recent manuscript discovery in Birmingham and the analysis of several previously discovered manuscripts is that the Islamic historiographical and exegetical traditions have provided honest and accurate information regarding the history of the Quranic text. Like all historical accounts it must be subject to analysis. But to benefit from them, Western academia must, as Nicholai Sinai observes, move beyond the "hermeneutics of suspicion that has become such an instinctive part of modern scholarly habits of reading," and cease to approach Islamic materials with a prejudice that often leads to choosing the most iconoclastic alternatives.

If Western scholarship wishes to establish a viable empirical approach to the historicity and meaning of the Quranic text, it must first account for the vast literature on these topics in the classical Islamic tradition. Anything less is academically irresponsible. If modern scholarship does not fully engage the results of over one thousand years of critical historical and philological engagement with the Quranic text, then where should the scholarship begin? What foundations can it claim to have?