Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Who Really Wrote The Qur'an, and Why?

The Qur'an fragments from the Mingana Collection, Birmingham University Library, UK
'Oldest' Koran fragments found in Birmingham University - BBC News

Who wrote the Qur'an?
  1. God.
  2. Muhammad.
  3. Nobody knows.

A basic Islamic apologetic is the claim that God wrote the Qur'an by guiding Muhammad's hand and the 'proof' of this is that an illiterate camel trader would have been incapable of writing it and such perfection can only have come from God. And besides, it says so in the Qur'an - which was written by God. The circularity of defining the Qur'an as perfect because it came from God and claiming it came from God because it is perfect, and the circularity of claiming it was written by God because God said so in the Qur'an, would shame a ten year-old if it wasn't dressed up with a cloak of religious respectability and defended by immunity from questioning.

The answer to my question is, of course, nobody knows.

The fragments which have recently been discovered in Birmingham University Library, UK, appear to be a Qur'anic text written in the early form of written Arabic used in the Hijaz in the 7th-Century CE, the 'Hijazi' script. It has been reliably carbon-dated to within 20 years of Muhammad's death in 632 CE. It thus becomes possible that the scribe knew Muhammad and heard him reciting the Surahs. This is, of course, a matter of conjecture.

There is nothing to say where this fragment was written, nor from where it was obtained, but it ended up in Birmingham University Library as part of the 'Mingana Collection' of some 3000 Middle Eastern documents, having been collected by Alphonse Mingana, a Chaldean priest from Mosul in modern-day Iraq who had been sponsored by Edward Cadbury of the Cadbury chocolate family.

Although these may be the oldest existing fragments of the early Qur'an they may overlap chronologically with fragments found in Oman. The problem is that there is nothing to show whether these were written in or near Medina/Mecca and taken to Oman and possibly Mosul, or whether they were written there, so any claims that this or the Omani fragments were written by associates of Muhammad are simply speculation.

The Muslim community was not wealthy enough to stockpile animal skins for decades, and to produce a complete Mushaf, or copy, of the Holy Koran required a great many of them.

Dr Waley (a curator for such manuscripts at the British Library)
The Qur'an began life as an oral tradition. The Surahs were leaned by heart and chanted to an audience. Only later were they actually written down and then never in a single collection. The Qur'an as it is known today was compiled from a collection of written versions of these Surahs, some on parchment made from sheep or goat skins, some on stones, some on palm leaves and even some on the blade-bones of camels. None of these sources appear to have survived, which, for sacred writings dictated by God, some people might think unusual.

No-one knows precisely when this was done or who did it but it was sometime during the first three Caliphates (between 632 and 656 CE, probably about 650 CE) by the end of which there was an 'authorized' version for distribution. This is the standard Qur'an.

Strangely, it doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone, even Muhammad, to write the Qur'an up as a complete book during his lifetime, when he could at least made some mark on it to verify it was complete and accurate, and also curiously for a supposed illiterate camel trader, he seems to have managed to write and sign a letter to al-Muqawqis, ruler of Egypt, which can be seen in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.

By the third Caliphate, that of Caliph Uthman ibn Affan, it seems they needed the authority of the word of the cult's founder, as written down in a sacred and unquestionable book. There's nothing like the sacred word of God to ensure conformity, especially when backed by God-sanctioned violence and the threat of eternal torture. By the fourth Caliphate, Islam had split irretrievably into the Sunni and Shiite sects, which suggests the Qur'an was a weapon in the increasingly factious squabbles over the rightful successor to Muhammad; its production was motivated more by political in-fighting and power politics than respect for the sacred word of God.

So, far from being the directly authored word of God as dictated to Muhammad, the Qur'an is at best a second hand account of what Muhammad claimed had been dictated to him. The fact is that we don't even know if it is complete. The dogma that the entire Qur'an was dictated by God complete and in it's present classical Arabic form is perhaps the most sacred dogma in all Islam. It is, of course, like so many religious dogmas, at odds with the truth - which is why it has to be enforced with such vigour and brutality.

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  1. Before Muhammad became a prophet, he was a manager of caravans traveling between Mecca and Syria, a demanding and responsible job. It's highly unlikely that a man in such a position was illiterate. More likely he was literate in both Arabic and Aramaic (the language spoken in Syria at that time, which was related to Arabic).

    The Arabic word now translated as "illiterate" is ummî, which is clearly derived from ummah meaning "nation" or "a people". In context, it's likely that in describing himself as ummî, Muhammad was calling himself the "national" (that is, Arab) prophet, in contrast to earlier prophets who were Jewish. The word ummî has simply changed in meaning over many centuries, as words in all languages tend to do.

    Tom Holland's book In the Shadow of the Sword has some interesting speculations on the origins of the Koran and Islam, though his conclusions shouldn't be accepted uncritically.

  2. Circular. Yep. Self defining:

  3. Isn't it interesting how the actual abilities of Muhammad had to be downgraded so as to make him seem incapable of thinking up the Koran? On the other side of the coin, an illiterate carpenter's son in Judea was said to be able to discourse to the "doctors" on Jewish law on his tenth birthday.

  4. The Qur’an (in Anglicized form: Koran ) is certainly the greatest literary work in classical Arabic and for all Muslims stands as the definitive word of God (in Arabic: Allah ) spoken to the prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel. When reading the Qur’an , you should realize that, for all Muslims, the text you are reading is quite literally the voice of God; because the Qur’an is the direct speech of God in Arabic, translation of the work is seen as blasphemy, as an unforgivable tampering with God’s own speech. Nevertheless, the Qur’an has been translated into Turkish and Farsi (the language of Iran) in this century and is recited in these languages in religious services in Turkey and Iran. The Muslim community tolerates this but just barely. For all practical purposes, to be Muslim, then, means almost universally to be able to read and understand classical Arabic, despite what one’s native language is [Ed. a Muslim reader noted that many Muslims do not understand the language, but they must only read or say the words correctly]. I liked your blog, Take the time to visit the me and say that the change in design and meniu?

    1. If that were true the original Qur'an would still exist, yet it does not. How do you explain this missing original, please? In fact, the Qur'an is not a document dictated to anyone and written verbatim. It is a later compilation of verbal recollections compiled by a committee from which copies were then made, yet not even this original has survived.


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