Stephen Shoemaker - Creating the Qur’an: The Formation of the Last Ancient Scripture
Hi again. Welcome to my final post, and I’d like to thank Bart for the opportunity to engage this lively forum and also all of its members for reading and considering my thoughts. In my two previous posts, you will recall, I noted some significant problems with prevailing understandings of how the Qur’an as we now have it came into existence. In my first post, I noted the rather uncritical manner in which most scholarship on early Islam has simply accepted the Islamic tradition’s own accounts of the Qur’an’s formation. Such acquiescence to tradition of course marks a sharp contrast with the rigorous skepticism that scholars of the bible and early Christianity (and early Judaism) bring to their respective objects of study and to traditional narratives of origins in particular.
This deference to traditional perspectives currently marks the sharpest divide between the study of early Islam and the formative histories of other religious traditions. I would also note that, if you look back over many of the comments to my earlier posts, those with the strongest objections tend to base their critiques in references to the authority of traditional Islamic materials – all of which were written much later than the period in question. In my second post, I also explained why radiocarbon dating, despite the enthusiastic hopes of many scholars, cannot solve the problem of the Qur’an’s origins by securing it an early date, leaving open many significant questions about the Qur’an’s early history.
So far, then, I’ve explained some of the major problems that have hindered critical study of early Islam and the formation of the Qur’an, but what I haven’t done is told you when, where, why, and how I am convinced the Qur’an as we now have it came into being. Therefore, to conclude this trilogy of posts, I thought I would describe how I understand the Qur’an’s formation from a historical-critical, rather than traditional, point of view.
Where did the Qur’an come from and how did the text come to be in the form that it has come down to us today? If one were to peruse the scholarly literature on the Qur’an from the last century and a half, one would find that the vast majority of scholars, both Muslim and non-Muslim, follow the (Sunni) Islamic tradition in ascribing the collection of the Qur’an as we have it today to the fourth Caliph (“successor” of Muhammad), Uthman (644-56). Since this particular tradition was included in an early and authoritative collection of Islamic religious traditions (al-Bukhari’s collection of hadith), it became the canonical account of the Qur’an’s formation for Muslims and, by consequence, for most scholars of Islamic studies.
The truth of the matter, however, is that this is not the only memory of the Qur’an’s origins that one will find in the Islamic historical tradition. Indeed, the Islamic evidence for the Qur’an’s collection and composition is itself a convoluted tangle of traditions. Of course, it is certainly understandable that the Islamic tradition would eventually settle on a particular narrative of the Qur’an’s origins chosen from among these various accounts. Nevertheless, the sheer diversity of information coming from the early Islamic tradition and its complexities regarding the matter of the Qur’an’s production should occasion far less certainty from modern scholars.
As it turns out, there is also a memory in the Islamic tradition that the canonical version of the Qur’an – the text that has come down to us today – was established in its final form much later: under the Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik, who reigned from the end of the seventh century into the beginning of the eighth (685-705). And judging from all the evidence available to us, if we take a true historical-critical and skeptical approach to the sources in question, this era in fact seems to present the most likely context for the Qur’an’s formation.
Although the evidence and arguments involved in reaching this conclusion are of course highly complex (as is so often the case: again, see my free book
for further details), this tradition holds the most consistency with the full range of our available evidence. For instance, in purely historical terms, caliphal (Islamic) state at the time of Uthman does not seem to have been sufficiently organized that it could have established a stable, canonical Qur’an, as the tradition maintains. Only in the time of ‘Abd al-Malik, do we find evidence of a state apparatus that could actually achieve this. Yet even more importantly, the canonical Qur’an’s establishment under ‘Abd al-Malik is witnessed not only by the early Islamic tradition, but these reports are also confirmed by several non-Islamic sources that are almost contemporary with the events in question. Need I say, multiple independent attestation?
Nevertheless, let me be clear: I am not suggesting that the Qur’an was created out of whole cloth only at this relatively late point in time. Rather, it was under ‘Abd al-Malik that earlier collections of Islamic sacred traditions, both oral and written, were compiled into the final, canonical version of the Qur’an that we have today. Thus, the collective witness of the Islamic tradition and contemporary non-Islamic sources informs us. This means, that the content of the Qur’an was still in process and undergoing development until it reached this final stage when ‘Abd al-Malik established and imposed – with imperial coercion – the canonical version of the Qur’an. Indeed, through forceful intervention by the state, all versions of the Qur’an that deviated from this new standard were seized and destroyed.
Accordingly, we need to adopt an understanding of the Qur’an’s formation that envisions its development over a period of several decades, involving oral transmission from memory as well as, one imagines, the production of local written collections to aid with memory. One important consequence of adopting this perspective of the Qur’an is that it is no longer tenable to imagine its contents as having a singular origin in Muhammad’s teaching. Rather, the various components of the Qur’an must instead derive from a range of different historical contexts. These were then brought together by the early Islamic tradition into a single canonical text that was sanctioned as a new scripture for Muhammad’s followers around the close of the seventh century.
At the same time, I have no doubts whatsoever that many elements of the Qur’an have significant roots in the teaching of Muhammad to his followers in Mecca and Medina. Yet we must recognize that this material has been highly modified in the process of its transmission and has been supplemented significantly with new traditions that his followers encountered after invading and occupying the lands of the Roman and Sassanian Near East. Indeed, we must also bear in mind that as Muhammad’s followers shared their memories of sacred traditions with one another during these early decades, whether orally or in writing, they did so independently in pockets scattered across the vast empire that Muhammad’s followers had conquered and colonized.
Therefore, to briefly conclude, what we now have in the Qur’an is not in fact the exact words of an early seventh-century Arabian prophet, but a collection made by his early followers over many years after his death. The contents of this corpus were therefore shaped and reshaped by decades of oral (and eventually written) transmission, along with constant adoption and adaptation of new traditions learned from ongoing dialogue with the other religions and cultures of western Asia in late antiquity. In fact, many Qur’anic traditions, as other scholars have already noted, suppose an environmental, or economic, or cultural context that is simply not compatible with the conditions of central Hijaz during the early seventh century. Accordingly, numerous elements of the Qur’an make far better sense if we understand the collection as an evolving product of decades of memory work and oral transmission, much of which took place within the culturally diverse contexts of late ancient Syro-Palestine and Iraq in dialogue with other Abrahamic traditions.
Only through the direct intervention of the caliph ʿAbd al-Malik did this process finally come to an end around the turn of the eighth century. The result is the Qur’an that we have today: an imperially produced and enforced collection that brought uniformity and order to the diverse and diffuse sacred traditions that were circulating among Muhammad’s followers for decades after his death. And thanks to ʿAbd al-Malik’s highly effective exercise of raw political power, much that we would like to know about the complexity of Qur’an’s prior history remains shrouded in mystery. Accordingly, moving forward in our efforts to understand the Qur’an’s formation we must proceed cautiously and skeptically, guided always by the hermeneutics of suspicion, historical criticism, and the historical study of religions.