July 14, 2003

Critical Edition

I found this post by Zack Ajmal of Procrastination of interest. Zack quotes a Lebanon Daily Star article on efforts to research the early history of the Qur'an, and produce a critical edition on the basis of what appears to be an early, alternative manuscript.

Brian Ulrich (who found the link) wrote that the effort is

...influenced by manuscripts found in Sana'a which differ from the standard text. Muslims, of course, consider the Qur'an the divinely revealed word of God, and hence do not subject it to the same styles of exegesis you find among many Christians with the Bible, though the interpretation of the Qur'an by Muslim scholars is more complicated than generally believed by the average non-Muslim. However, the standard edition of the Qur'an was actually compiled during the reign of the caliph Uthman, and hence there is a certain room for uncertainty as to what other versions of the text might have existed.

Zack writes,

I heard about these Yemeni manuscripts first in an article in the Atlantic Monthly. This article created a bit of controversy in Muslim circles.

This is a subject I am very much interested in but as I have mentioned before, most of the work in this area has been by extremists, who either want to refute Islam or Muslims who want to defend orthodoxy against orientalists. I would really like to see Muslims take on these projects with scholarship and impartiality. That is why I am excited to hear about the Tunisian scholars work.

I am too, although I suspect that, should the Tunisian scholars produce a work at variance with the accepted text of the Qur'an, they will become fodder for both types of extremists.

Quite a few Christian denominations might disagree, but one can simultaneously be a believing Christian while doubting that, say, some of the Pauline epistles were written by Paul, or that Revelation was not divinely inspired.

I've read now and again arguments that the Islamic world must go through the same process of questioning the Qur'an to which Western scholars -- believers, doubters, atheists, and what not -- subjected the Bible. I think this misses the mark somewhat. A fairer comparison might run as follows:

A sealed tomb is discovered in Jerusalem bearing the inscription, in Aramaic of course, "Here lies Jesus of Nazareth." Archaeologists reliably date the sealed tomb to the first century A.D.; let us say that it is discovered thanks to a newly uncovered ancient text -- perhaps a denunciation of a heresiarch who claimed that Christ was not divine, that he died like other men. The heresiarch claims he witnessed the sealing of the tomb with Christ's remains, a point with which the orthodox commentator takes particular issue, since all know the tomb wasn't sealed, that Christ rose bodily from the dead, that he was seen by his disciples, that Paul encountered him on the road to Damascus...

If our archaeologists discovered a skeleten within the tomb, perhaps more evidence consistent with a crucifixion...what would be the effect? It is not hard to imagine that some would take the tomb as conclusive proof that Christianity was a fraud, while believers would attack the scholarship involved in the discovery of the "false" tomb of the Messiah.

My analogy is not entirely apt, but the Qur'an, to the believer, is the revealed word of God, his last message to humanity conveyed through the last Prophet. That there might be two versions of the message, meaning one or the other, or, worse, both versions, was corrupted is an intolerable idea.

Posted by Ideofact at July 14, 2003 11:42 PM
Comments

The analogy is actually more apt than many people would think since the Quran's being in the same form is nowadays a central tenet of Islam. (There is some difference among the Shia, but I am not well-versed in Shia doctrine.)

Once again, the Abbasid era needs to be revisited for the conflict between the various theological groups, especially the Mutazilites (sp?). I have not read this stuff for ages but I think they had some interesting theological and philosophical ideas. One of the conflicts at the time was about Quran as eternal and "uncreated" versus a living document (if I remember correctly). Not sure about textual analysis and differences among manuscripts though.

Conjecture: Since these Sanaa manuscripts are somewhat different and they are from the late 7th and 8th centuries, scholars at the time probably did encounter such differences. What did they do about them? Were they supressed? Did these different manuscripts survive for a while? Long while?

One has to remember that Arabic (and Urdu as well) are written without the aid of short vowels. In addition, even the dots signifying the difference between "th", "t" and "b" for example were not used during the early era of Islam. So the written version was going to be somewhat ambiguous, unless you knew if by heart.

OK, I have rambled on enough.

Posted by: Zack at July 15, 2003 12:59 AM

the shia preserve some mutazilite ideas/methods. the window of Reason & Interpretation is still open....

perhaps one way that a sunni neo-liberalism could arise is to appeal to early antecedants-declaring themselves neo-mutazilites, so that the "orthodox" can not dismiss them as new-fangled plants by the west? the jehovah's witness for instance reject the athanasian trinity and hold that christ is a less important figure than the father-how do they give weight to this heresy? they claim to be the spiritual heirs of the ancient arians who left no genetically continuous heirs....

Posted by: razib at July 15, 2003 02:50 AM


there is actually a doctrine among certain Shi'a groups that states that Uthman (whose hatred of Ali was well documented) made changes to the Qur'an in order to obfuscate the special relationship of Ali to the Prophet and to God. Uthman ordred all other copies burned, which is shocking in and of itself.

I must be deliberately silent in public about whether my specific sect adheres to this doctrine. It's an intensely personal matter.

However, were a version of teh QUr'an to be found that dated to befpore Uthman's compilation, I know that there would iundeed be many muslims who would bevery interested indeed.

As for rationalism, someone once complimented me (I think?) that we Fatimi Ismaili Shi'a would give the Jesuits a run for their money when it comes to casuistry :)

Regarding your analogy, Bill, I think it's pretty good. But perhaps this one is even better - what if a secret society called the Priory of Sion were to make public their posession of a sarcophagus that contained the bones of Mary Magdalene, and also had reams of ancient documents that recorded the lineage of the descendents of the children of Magdalene and Jesus himself, a lineage that married into French Royal blood (the Merovingian dynasty, to be specific) and which continues to this day?

(I've been reading The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. It's stunning.)

Posted by: Aziz Poonawalla at July 15, 2003 05:02 PM

Zack and Razib,

I'm familiar with the Mu'tazilites; unless I'm mistaken, though, their ideas come down to us from heresiographers.

My recollection is that they rigorously asserted the unity and, as it were, indivisibility of God. They saw him as attributeless -- he did not speak, he did not know (although of course was omniscient, but this omniscience was part of his essence), he did not hear or see, he did not take an active part in the affairs of men so it was pointless to ask for his mercy; instead, he was just, the order he created was just, and man, through his free will, can either revere this order or, through his own actions, run afoul of it.

Because the Qur'an explicitly says that God saw, that he knew, that he spoke, that he heard, the Mu'tazilites argued that it was not to be taken literally, that such verses were to be understood figuratively, that it was open to interpretation. I believe this ran to counter to orthodoxy even then; I believe some Mu'tazilites went so far as to claim that the Qur'an was not eternal and uncreated, because it was a book of Arabic words with divided the Divinity into parts.

The doctrine possibly drew on Neoplatonic thought; my hunch is that it was limited to intellectuals, although at one point, in the 9th century, they had the approbation of the caliph Al-Ma'mun.

I'm not sure that reviving a 9th Century heresy would be the best way to try to provoke a Sunni reformation, which is not to say that I don't find the Mu'tazilite theology intriguing.

Posted by: Bill at July 15, 2003 10:09 PM

Aziz --

Very interesting comment. I wonder though, whether the reaction to an alternative text of the Qur'an would have the same effect that the early translations of the Bible had -- because Catholic practice had departed so far from the text of the Bible, vernacular versions were regarded as a threat to the power of the Church. William Tyndale, who made the first great English translation of the New Testament (and revolutionized the English language in the process), was strangled for his efforts.

By the way, let me recommend Umberto Eco's work Foucault's Pendulum if you're interested in a tour of esoteric thought. There's a fairly lengthy tradition of believing that the Holy Grail -- which carried the blood of Christ -- was a metaphor for the womb of Mary Magdalene.

Posted by: Bill at July 15, 2003 10:16 PM

Even those who believed the Quran was created would still believe in its creation by God and that its utterance by the Prophet (saws) was perfect and complete. So that door doesn't lead to revision of the text or the acceptance of different versions, just to differing interpretations of the one Quran.

Posted by: Bin Gregory at July 16, 2003 04:10 AM

Bill,

a lot of Mutazili doctrine also in in the Ismaili - traced back to the early writing of Shi'a Imam Jafar as Sadiq, who actually was the teacher of the four Sunnis who later founded the Hanbali, Hanafi, Maliki, and ... er, I cant recall the last one. Our view of God (and the Qur'an) are very similar. It also is why I find the arguments by the Qur'an researchers that "every 5th line of the Qur'an doesn't make sense" to suggest it was an evolving text, to be somewhat polemical. With an interpretative, and symbologic approach to teh Qur'an, every line indeed does make sense (as I have found in my own religious studies). In fact it makes unbelievable, profound, staggering sense.

I do wish that there were Mutazilis still around. It would be interesting indeed to be able to discuss theology with one, speaking as an Ismaili :)

the Mary Magdalene thing is exactly where I was going. I can see how any proof of such would be a profound threat to teh Catholic church - it after all completely denies the divinity of Christ (hey, come to think of it, that also explains the Catholic Church's wariness of Islam...). The Da Vinci Code goes into incredible detail about the Priory of Sion and whatnot, and it was an incredible read. I'll review it fully on unmedia soon.

However, I don't fear any research that shows differences in Qur'anic text in teh same way that a Sunni believeing in the Qur'an as uncreated would, or a Catholic faced with proof of Christ's bloodline. The fact that these early texts were found in Yemen, favored by Ali in those times, speaks volumes to me.

BG: you'r right, the perfection and completeness of the Qur'an is absolute. I think that the whole created vs increated debate is really about whether teh Qur'an even NEEDS to be interpreted or not (and if so, by whose authority?)

Posted by: Aziz at July 16, 2003 08:10 AM

I agree with much of what you say about the centrality of the Qur'an to Muslims. What I find interesting however, are two things:

1.) "The Qur'an" is mainly the Uthmanic recension thereof. Those editors had to make decisions about which orally circulating materials were authentic.

2.) The differences in the Sana'a manuscripts aren't that great...mainly differences in the order of verses and minor wording differences. Depending on what we learn about their history, that might actually come to support Muslim ideas about the Qur'an, in a sense.

Posted by: Brian Ulrich at July 16, 2003 06:36 PM

Rational and intellectual analysis would tell us that the Quran as a book has been created by man. First of all according to core Islamic beliefs, only God is perfect. If man compiled and put the book together then there has to be imperfections. If the Quran as compiled is perfect then we are ascrbing divinity to the compilers.

Second, there is a tendency to reify and over glorify the time period during the life of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). Most Islamic teachings emphasize how the Ashaba's were pure people who were exactly following the edicts of the Prophet. However, I find this hard to believe. Greed, envy, jealousy and lying were not put on hold while the Prophet was preaching the message. Given the vast amount of wealth and land that became available during the early days of Islam, the Ashaba's were just a fallible as the common Mullah in Peshawar. Madelung's book on the sucession of the prophet is very instructive in this matter.

Third, to think that political rivalries did not impact the compilation of the Quran is to be ignorant of human vice and action. Why would early Muslims be any different from the rest of the world in the compilation of the Quran. The compilation of the Quran was as much a political event as a religous, devotional attempt.

Finally, there was no instruction manual for the Quran. Who decided that Surah Alaq, of whose the first five verses were first revealed to the Prophet, should be near the end of the Quran and should be joined with later verses. Who decided when a certain surah started and ended? Who gave the names of the surahs?

We, Muslims, need to be critical of the Mullahs who deify the Quran as being divine. The book is not divine. Only Allah is. We should examine the book as instructive religous advise in spirit and not in terms of the letter.

Posted by: eaglemoon at July 18, 2003 11:20 AM