THE QUR’AN AND THE ORIENTALISTS: AN EXAMINATION OF THEIR MAIN THEORIES AND ASSUMPTIONS
By MUHAMMAD MOHARALI (Formerly Professor of the History of Islam, Madina Islamic University, Madina, and Imam Muhammad Islamic University, Riyad)
IPSWICH JAM’IYAT ‘II:IYAA’ MINHAAJ AL-SUNNAH 2004
It has been a constant endeavour of the orientalists to assail the Qur’an. This has been so since the rise of orientalism itself. Their main aim has been to prove that the Qur’an is a product of human mind and hand. Basically this attitude on the part of non-Muslims is as old as the Qur’an itself. The Makkan unbelievers, the immediate audience of the Qur’anic revelations, made exactly the. same allegation, saying that these were only a man’s utterances, 1 that their trustworthy but unlettered young man Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be on him) had turned a poet or a sorcerer2 or someone else had composed the passages of the Qur’an which he memorized in the morning and the evening and gave out as Allah’s revelations or that these were mere ancient fables. 3 The Qur’an categorically denies these allegations and gives appropriate replies to this particular objection. In general the Qur’an’s response to this allegation takes at least seven principal forms.
(a) Allah declares that the Qur’an is not the composition of a human being nor did the Prophet turn a poet. 4
(b) The Qur’an repeatedly says that it is Allah Who sent down the Qur’an and that also in the Arabic language.5
(c) Allah repeatedly asked the Prophet not to move his tongue hastily in order to memorize what was being delivered to him and to listen patiently and carefully till the completion of the communication, assuring him that He would enable him to remember what was being delivered to him. 6 This group of the Qur’anic passages clearly prove that what was being delivered to the Prophet was in the form of particular texts.
(d) Allah consoles the Prophet and asks him to bear with patience the objection and rejection of the unbelievers by reminding him that in the past there had not been a single Prophet who had not been similarly disbelieved and objected to.7 In fact the accounts of the previous Prophets given in the Qur’an are geared to this end and to bring home to the
‘ Qur”an, 74:25.
2 Qur”an, 10:76, 21:5, 21:36,37:4, 47:7; 51:52-53,74:24. 52:30.
‘ Qur’an, 25:5.
• Qur”an, 36:69; 69:40-41.
‘ Qur’an, 4:166; 6:96; 12:2; 14:1; 20:113; 22:16; 21:50; 24:1; 25:6; 38:29; 44:3; 97:1, among others.
6 Qur’an, 20:114; 75:16.
7 Qur’an, 3:183-84; 6:34; 13:23; 21:41; 36:30, among others.
2 THE QUR’AN AND THE ORIENTALISTS
unbelievers the truth of the message.
(e) Allah asks the Prophet to declare that if he fabricated anything himself and then gave it out in the name of Allah he would be severely punished.1
(f) Allah asks the Prophet to tell the people that He is the Witness between him and them and that there could be no better a witness of this matter than Allah.2 This is very significant; for Allah’s communication with His Messengers is essentially an intimate affair which no outsider can witness or vouchsafe for.
(g) Allah asks the Prophet to throw out a challenge to listeners of all times to come up with a text similar to that of even a single surah of the Qur’an if they had any doubt about its being the words of God. 3
The challenge remains open till today.
Ever since the time of the Prophet unbelievers and critics have merely rehearsed the Makkan unbelievers’ view about the Qur’an. And since the middle of the nineteenth century modern European scholars, the orientalists, have repeated the same objections and arguments. Foremost of these nineteenth and early twentieth century orientalists are A Sprenger, William Muir, Theodor Noldeke, Ignaz Goldziher, W. Wellhausen, Leone Caetani and David S. Margoliouth. Their work and conclusions have been further developed and summarised in the middle and later part of the twentieth century principally by Richard Bell and his pupil W. Montgomery Watt. All these scholars have attempted to show, by one device or another, that the Qur’an is Muhammad’s (peace and blessings of Allah be on him) own composition.
During the last quarter of the twentieth century, however, a new trend has appeared among certain orientalists who have come forward with the suggestion that not only is the Qur’an a work by human hand but that it came into being through a process of evolution and growth over the first two centuries of Islam. These group of orientalists are generally known as the “revisionists”. Foremost among the proponents of these views are J. Wansborough, Patricia Crone, Michael Cook and Yahuda De Nevo. Their views are summarised and publicised by others like Andrew Rippin, Ibn Warraq, Toby Lester, and others.
Those who suggest that the Qur’an is the Prophet’s composition have recourse to the following lines of arguments:
1 Qur’an, 69:44-46.
2 Qur’an, 6:19; 4:76; 4:166; 13:43; 17:96; 29:52, among others.
3 Qur’an, 2:23; 10:38; 11:13.
(a) That the Prophet was an ambitious person who made preparations for giving out the Qur’an and for the role he played.1 Especially he cultivated poetical skill since his early life to be able to compose the Qur’an.2
(b) That he was not quite an unlettered person and the term ‘ummiy applied to him has a different connotation;3
(c) That he borrowed ideas and information from Judaism and Christianity which he incorporated in the Qur’an;4
(d) That contemporary scientific errors are reflected in the Qur’an; so are many commercial terms and foreign words, both showing his authorship of it. 5
(e) That the term wahy by means of which he gave out the Qur’an does not mean verbal communication of any text but “suggestions” and “intellectual locution”.6
As regards the other group of the orientalists who try to prove that the Qur’an is not simply the Prophet’s composition but that it came into being through a process of evolution and amendments during the course of a couple of centuries, their arguments and assumptions revolve mainly round the following themes: 7
(a) The alleged unreliability of the sources and the history and collection of the Qur’an.
(b) The assumptions round the recent discovery of certain Qur’anic manuscripts at San’a’.
(c) Textual criticism and the alleged copyists’ errors in the Qur’an.
It should have been clear from the above that the orientalists leave no stone unturned to assail the Qur’an. The following few chapters examine the assumptions and theories of both the groups of the orientalists regarding the Qur’an. This has been done in three broad sections. In part I, the assumptions
1 See for instance W. Muir, Life of Mahomet, 3rd edition, reprinted 1923, pp. 25-26; D. S. Margoliouth, Mohammed and the Rise of lslam, 3rd edition, London, 1905, pp. 64-65; Montgomery Watt, Muhammad at Mecca, Oxford, 1960, p. 39 and Muhammad’s Mecca, Edinburgh, 1988, pp. 50-51.
2 Muir, op. dt., p. 15; Margoliouth, op. dt., pp. 52-53, 60. ·
3 Watt, Muhammad’s Mecca, op. cit., pp. 52-53
4 See for instance Abraham Geiger, Wa.r bat Mohammed au.r dem judenthem aufgenommen? Bonn, 1833. See also his essay in Judaism and Islam, Madras, 1898; Richard Bell, The Origin of lslam in its Christian Environment, London, 1926; C. C. Torrey, The Jewish Foundation of lslam, New Work, 1933; A. I. Katsh,Judaism in Islam, New York, 1954.
5 Watt, Muhammad’s Mecca, pp. 45-46; C. C. Torrey, The Commercial-Theological Terms of the Koran, Leiden, 1892; Arthur Jeffery, The Foreign Vocabulary of the Qur’dn, Baroda, 1938.
6 See for instance Richard Bell, “Mohammed’s call”, The Moslem World, January, 1934, pp. 13-19; “Mohammed’s visions”, ibid, April, 1934, pp.19-34; Watt, Muhammad at Mecca, op. cit., pp.52-58 and his The lslam Revelation in the Modern World, Edinburgh, 1969
7 References regarding these themes are given in the course of discussion in the respective chapters.
4 THE QUR’AN AND THE ORIENTALISTS
and theories of the orientalists about the Prophet’s alleged authorship of the Qur’an have been examined. Part II is devoted to an examination of their assumptions and surmises about the Qur’anic wahy. In the third part their views and assumptions about the history and text of the Qur’an, including the views of the “revisionists”, have been dealt with.