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Is the Koran the Word of God?  When Was the Koran Collected and Standardized?


Eric V. Snow


Although a thorough-going critique of the Quran (Koran) would require a book of its own, some problems with its text and historical accuracy.  Although a standard Muslim claim says the Quran has no textual variations, this is in fact incorrect.  No one original manuscript of the Quran ever existed, since Muhammad (c. 570-632 A.D.) didn't write any of it.  Instead various followers wrote scattered revelations on whatever material came to hand, including pieces of papyrus, tree bark, palm leaves and mats, stones, the ribs and shoulder blades of animals, etc.  Otherwise, they memorized them.  These disparate materials were susceptible to loss:  Ali Dashti, an Islamic statesman, said animals sometimes ate mats or the palm leaves on which Suras (chapters of the Quran) were written!  After his death, Muhammad revelations were gathered together to eliminate the chaos.  (Even Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon church did better than this:  The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints today possesses the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon).  



To solve the problems of conflicting memories and possibly lost or varying written materials, Sunni Islamic tradition maintains that Caliph Uthman (ruled 644-56) had the text of the Quran forcibly standardized.  He commanded manuscripts with alternative readings to be burned.  But he didn't fully succeed, even assuming this standard story is true (Stephen J. Shoemaker rejects it in “Creating the Qur’an:  A Historical-Critical Study,” which I describe in great detail later below) since variations are still known to have existed and some still do.  The Sura Al-Saff had 200 verses in the days of Muhammad's later wife Ayesha, but Uthman's version had only 52.  Robert Morey says Shiite Muslims claim Uthman cut out a quarter of the Quran's verses for political reasons.  In his manuscript of the Quran, Ubai had a few Suras that Uthman omitted from the standardized version.  Arthur Jeffrey, in his Materials for the History of the Text of the Quran, gives 90 pages of variant readings for the Quran's text, finding 140 alone for Sura 2.  When the Western scholar Bertrasser sought to photograph a rare Kufic manuscript of the Quran, which had "certain curious features" in Cairo, the Egyptian Library suddenly withdrew it, and denied him access to it. 


Even when originally first written, certain problems existed, since Muhammad would make mistakes or corrections to revelations he had made.  Before documenting examples of verses removed from the Quran, Arabic scholar E. Wherry explained first:  "There being some passages in the Quran which are contradictory, the Muhammadan doctors obviate any objection from thence by the doctrine of abrogation; for they say GOD in the Quran commanded several things which were for good reasons afterwards revoked and abrogated."  One follower of Muhammad, Abdollah Sarh, often made suggestions about subtracting, adding, or rephrasing Suras to him that he accepted.  Later, Abdollah renounced Islam because if these revelations had come from God, they shouldn't have been changed at his suggestion.  (Later, after taking Mecca, Muhammad made sure Abdollah was one of the first people he had executed).  Muhammad had the curious policy of renouncing verses of the Quran that he spoke in error.  In the Satanic verses incident he briefly capitulated to polytheism by allowing Allah's followers to worship the goddesses Al-Lat, Al-Uzzah, and Manat (see Sura 53:19; cf. 23:51) (Note that the title of Salman Rushdie's novel, The Satanic Verses, alludes to this incident.  For writing this book he was sentenced to death by Iranian dictator Ayatollah Khomeini).  Could anyone imagine Elijah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, or Jeremiah doing something similar?  Did Muhammad's God make mistakes that required corrections? 



Another problem of the Quran is that its teachings and stories in many cases contradict the Bible.  Theologically, for Islam, this poses a major problem, because the Quran itself says the Bible is composed of earlier revelations from the same God.  Hence, if the Bible's different version of some event or person's life is correct but contradicts the Quran's, then the Quran's own appeal to the Bible's authority is proven false.  Hence, Muslims can't just throw away the Bible completely, but have to claim this or that part of it was corrupted, while the Quran has the right version.  But now logically, granted the standard principles of the bibliographical test described above, since the Bible was finished about 500 years before the Quran, it is the more reliable document.  In many cases, eyewitnesses wrote the Bible, or second-hand reporters using eyewitness accounts.  Muslims may routinely claim the Bible has been corrupted, but the textual evidence shows otherwise:  The variations in the Old and New Testaments are actually smaller than the textual problems the Quran ultimately faces, which Uthman's actions to standardize it merely paper over.  Furthermore, what textual variations the Bible does have don't bend towards Islamic theology in any kind of systematic manner.  For example, the Quran denies the crucifixion of Christ.  There are no New Testament variations that deny the crucifixion.  Furthermore, by secular logic alone, who is more reliable about this?  An eyewitness such as John, or Mark as informed by Peter?  Or someone writing 500+ years later who never even saw Jesus alive?  Since Muhammad did maintain his revelations built upon the Bible, seeing it as coming from the same God, the two shouldn't conflict‑‑but of course, they do. 


Consider some sample contradictions and historical inaccuracies of the Quran as compared to the Bible.  The Quran says the world was made in eight days (2+4+2‑‑Sura 41:9, 10, 12), while the Bible says six in Genesis 1.  Then, still more problematically, the Quran elsewhere says it was made in six days (Sura 7:52, 10:3).  The Quran says one of Noah's sons chose to die in the flood, and that the Ark landed on Mount Judi, not Ararat (Sura 11:44-46).  "Azar" becomes the name of Abraham's father, not Terah (Sura 6:4).  The Quran also blunders by asserting Alexander the Great (Zul-quarain) was a true prophet of God (see Sura 18:82-98).  Secular history proves this to be patently absurd.  Alexander was a thorough-going pagan who never knew Jehovah, the God of Israel.


The Quran often gets its chronology skewered, putting together as living at the same time who may have lived centuries apart according to the Bible.  This occurred because Muhammad evidently got many of the stories second and third hand orally, ultimately often from apocryphal sources such as the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Barnabas, not from the Bible itself.  For example, the Quran portrays Haman, the prime minister for King Ahasuerus (Xerxes I, ruled 486-474 b.c.) of the Persian Empire as Pharaoh's chief minister when Moses challenged the king of Egypt (c. 1445 b.c.) (see Sura 28:38; 29:38; 40:25-27, 38-39).  Another leading error of the Quran occurs by mixing up Mary, the mother of Jesus, with Miriam, the sister of Aaron and Moses, who had lived some 1400 years earlier.  Note Sura 19:29-30:  "Then came she with the babe to her people, bearing him.  They said, "O Mary!  now hast thou done a strange thing!  O sister of Aaron!  Thy father was not a man of wickedness, nor unchaste thy mother."  In a footnote to his translation of the Quran, Dawood tries to rescue Muhammad by saying it was an idiomatic expression in Arabic meaning "virtuous woman."  But elsewhere the Quran refutes this interpretation, because Muhammad asserts the father of Mary was Imran, Moses' father!.  Note Sura 66:12:  "And Mary, the daughter of Imran, who kept her maidenhood, and into whose womb We breathed of Our Spirit . . ."  The father of Moses and Miriam, according to the Bible, was Amram (Ex. 6:20; Num. 26:59).  The Virgin Mary's father was Eli or Heli (Luke 3:23‑‑see above for details).  Muhammad confuses King Saul with the earlier judge Gideon.  At God's inspiration, Gideon reduced Israel's army in size by eliminating those who drank from the water in one way rather than another (compare Judges 7:4-7 with Sura 2:249-250).  Another mistake, although it may be obscured in translation, concerns "The Samaritan" deceiving the children of Israel into worshiping the Golden Calf at the base of Mt. Sinai (mid-fifteenth century b.c.).  Later settling in the Holy Land centuries later, the Samaritans didn't exist until after the Assyrians had taken Israel into captivity (late eighth century b.c. and afterwards‑‑see II Kings 17:22-41).  Rodwell translates "Samiri" here, but according to Morey, this obscures the real meaning in Arabic (see Sura 20:87, 90, 96). 


Further problems with the Quran could be explained, but this suffices for our purposes here.  Although few Muslims know this, the religion of Muhammad's ancestors and his tribe the Quraysh involved the worship of Allah, the name of the moon god, in pre-Islamic times in Arabia.  Anciently an idol was set up for Allah near the Kabah, where today Muslims travel in pilgrimages to Mecca, Saudi Arabia to walk around.  In myth, Allah married the sun-goddess, and they together had three goddesses named Al-Lat, Al-Uzzah, and Manat.  It's hard to over-emphasize the significance of the truth that "Allah" was the name of the moon god in Arabia before the time of Muhammad.  It's no coincidence that during the "Satanic Verses" incident when Muhammad weakened against idolatry briefly, he had allowed the same three goddesses to be worshiped.  Even today, the standard symbol Islam uses to represent itself is (along with a single star) the crescent moon!  (It's not sensibly seen as just a symbol for Ramadan, the month of fasting during the daytime).  Evidently, Muhammad took a pre-existing pagan moon god of Arabia, and then applied to this false god various stories ultimately from the Bible and apocryphal literature about the True God.  As Morey summarizes:  "The cult of the moon god which worshipped Allah was transformed by Muhammad into a monotheistic faith."  Compared to the Almighty God of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, the God of the Quran is a limited god who "inspired" the writing of historically inaccurate, contradictory revelations.


The information above on the Quran is mostly based upon Robert Morey, Islam Unveiled:  The True Desert Storm (Shermans Dale, PA:  The Scholars Press, 1991), pp. 48-51, 61, 75-76, 116-21, 131-41.  The verse numbers as cited above are those of J.M. Rodwell's 1861 translation of the Quran into English, with some reference to Dawood's revised 1974 translation.  Admittedly, Morey's book is decidedly imperfect:  He is careless sometimes, proofread it poorly, and apparently doesn't know Islamic/Middle Eastern history in-depth.  Using a ridiculously out of context citation of the Quran, he falsely accuses Islam of being intrinsically racist (p. 150).  Nevertheless, enough remains in his work to destroy any rational faith in Islam, which another publisher reissued as The Islamic Invasion.  Background on the Satanic Verses incident also comes from W. Montgomery Watt, Muhammad:  Prophet and Statesman (London:  Oxford University Press, 1961), pp. 60-65).


Although the standard story of the collection and standardization of the text of the Koran maintains it occurred primarily under the Caliph Uthman (644-656 A.D.), here the contrarian view is asserted that this process actually occurred almost entirely under Caliph al-Malik (685-705) of the Uymayyad dynasty, with the crucial assistance of his right-hand man, al-Hajjajj.  The main (secondary) source for this thesis is Stephen J. Shoemakers Creating the Quran:  A Historical-Critical Study, which cites the necessary and relevant primary sources to support it.  The intention is that this post is part I, which will deal with why the standard Sunni story of the Qurans compilation, as told by Bukhari that focuses on the role of Uthman in standardizing its text, simply isnt true.  Part II theoretically would deal with the positive evidence that al-Malik, with the able if ruthless assistance of al-Hajjajj, did this instead.


A standard common claim of Islams apologists is that the text of the Quran has absolutely no errors or variations in it.  However, when the actual history of the Qurans transmission, collection, and standardization is examined in reasonably contemporaneous primary sources, it’s obvious that it had many, many variations and different regional text types before al-Malik (r. 685-705) and al-Hajjajj used their imperial authority to forcibly standardize the “received text” of the Quran out of these sources.   The standard story of the standardization of the Quran’s text appears in Bukhari’s important collection of hadith (sayings/teachings attributed to Muhammad), which the Sunni sect of Islam upholds and many Western historians uncritically have signed off on (i.e., the “Noldekean-Schwallian” paradigm, as Shoemaker labels it).  In this telling, Abu Bakr (632-34), the first caliph and Muhammad’s right-hand man, was asked by the man who would succeed him, Umar (634-644), to collect together the recitations of the Quran together because many of those with knowledge of what Muhammad had said recently had died in battle, thus taking their memories to the grave.  Abu Bakr initially objected, by saying if Muhammad hadn’t told his fellow Muslims to do this during his lifetime, why do it now?  However, Umar persisted, and Abu Bakr said it was fine to do so and that the services of the scribe Zayd b. Thabit should be used for assembling the text of the Quran together.  Oddly enough, Zayd made the same objection that Abu Bakr did, but Umar prevailed with him as well.  So then, Zayd went to work looking for various fragments of Muhammad’s revelations as they were preserved in various ways, including stones, palm branches, camel bones, and “in the hearts of men.”  Then Zayd gave the sheets of paper resulting from this project to Abu Bakr, who later at his death passed them along to Umar.  After Umar died, he left these sheets with his daughter Hafsa, who had been a wife of Muhammad.  Then roughly 20 years later, the Caliph Uthman (644-656) towards the end of his reign became concerned about the various differing renditions of the Quran in circulation among Muslims.  One of his top generals, Hudhayfa ibn al-Yaman, told Uthman that in Iraq and Syria significantly different versions of the Quran were in circulation.  He was troubled because Muslims would eventually become divided over which version was the best.  Uthman acted on Hudhayfa’s concerns by getting the sheets that Hafsa had kept, which became the basis for an official version of the Quran that a group of scribes under the direction of Zayd produced. Then Uthman sent out copies of this official text to the major cities of his realm (Kufa, Mecca, Basra, and Damascus).  He also directed that all the other defective versions of Quran should be gathered up and destroyed.  So then, since these final events took place around 650 A.D, Muslims will claim that the Quran has no textual variations.


But is the mainstream Sunni story of the Quran’s compilation historically true?  Even in this account, the Quran’s assembly and production was haphazardly performed.  Furthermore, Sunni coercive imperial authority was applied very early on to the promulgation of a standardized text.  There was no “bottom up” consensus of believers involved in this process, nor did the Muslim scribes have available the knowledge of the techniques and processes of textual reconstruction (as part of “lower criticism”) that the Christian West’s scholars eventually developed.  (By contrast, no Christians had such coercive authority over the New Testament’s text for its first 200 years because they were a persecuted religious minority under the pagan Roman government’s watchful eye).  When Uthman ordered the destruction of the alternative regional variations of the Quran, how did he know that they were wrong in all cases and that his was right?


Furthermore, there’s no unanimity in the primary Islamic sources supporting the story of the Quran’s standardization by Uthman.  There are at least three other accounts of Umar’s or Abu Bakr’s involvement that don’t agree with Buhkari’s version as retold above.  One version says that Umar did the work of collecting the Quran from disparate media without the involvement of Abu Bakr at all.  Another rendition says that Abu Bakr ordered Zayd to write Muhammad’s recitations on palm branches, shoulder bones, and leather before Umar later had Zayd write these down into one document.  Another telling of the story has Abu Bakr fully refuse Umar’s request to have the Quran written down.  So when Umar became caliph, only then he had the Quran written down on leaves. Then there’s in both Shiite and Sunni sources the claim that Ali, who was Muhammad’s son-in-law and cousin, was the first one to collect the Quran together.  There’s one account that Salim b. Ma’qil supposedly assembled the text right after Muhammad died.  Another report says that Aisha, Muhammad’s favorite wife, had a copy of the Quran in the form of a codex.  The rival regional versions of the Quran before Uthman supposedly had its text standardized have been called “the companion codices.”  Purportedly four early followers of Muhammad were respectively responsible for them: Abd Allah ibn Mas‘ud’s version (in Kufa), Miqdad b. al-Aswad (in Hims), and Ubayy b. K’ab (in Syria), and Abu Musa al-Ash’ari (Basra).  There’s hardly any unanimity in the tradition about how the Quran’s text was collected in the primary sources of Islam when other primary sources outside of Bukhari’s own harmonized story are examined.  (See generally Shoemaker, “Creating the Qur’an,” pp. 24-25).


In other early Islamic historical works, outside of the hadith, more inconsistencies about how the Quran was compiled arise.  Ibn Shabba (d. 876) in his “History of Medina,” has a collection of accounts about how the Quran came together, but surprisingly none of them mention Abu Bakr’s role.  One report here says that Umar had begun collecting the Quran’s text together, but was assassinated before the job was done.  Another tradition, by contrast, says that Umar owned a codex of the Quran.  Yet another story says that Umar had disagreements with the version of the text that Ubayy b. Ka’b had collected.  One report says that Zayd and Umar proofed a version of the Quran of Ubayy and routinely edited it based on the authority of Zayd.  As one reads over the stories of Umar’s involvement in the collecting of the Quran, he actually wasn’t trying to compile the Quran but was trying to support the authority of one version among several that had already been collected together.  According to Ibn Shabba, by the time Umar had become the caliph, several versions of the Quran had already been independently compiled, with each having its supporters in different areas.  Umar wanted to assert the authority of the version of the Quran found in Medina against the versions enjoying favor in Iraq and Syria.  Ibn Shabba dedicates an entire long chapter to the traditions about the efforts of Uthman’s compilation of the Quran.  Besides the version of the story that Bukhari preserved, he gives a number of other accounts about Uthman’s participation in standardizing the text of the Quran.  But much like the stories about Umar, Uthman wasn’t collecting the text from scratch, but rather was trying to correct versions of the Quran that were already in circulation to fit in with his caliphate’s preferred rendition.  (See generally Shoemaker, “Creating the Quran,” pp. 25-26).


A somewhat earlier primary source than Ibn Sa’d’s is “Kitab al-tabaqat al-kahib” of Ibn Sa’d (d. 845), which is made up of biographies of the early caliphs and of Muhammad himself.  He provides a wealth of reports about how the Quran was gathered together, which are hardly unanimous about how the process occurred.  As de Premere writes about Ibn Sa’d’s perspective in the early ninth century, “the real history of the Qur’anic corpus seemed blurry and the identity of its architects uncertain.”  Like Ibn Shabba, he says nothing about Abu Bakr’s supposed role in assembling the Quran together.  Most interestingly, when focusing on the rule of Uthman himself, Ibn Sa’d says nothing about Uthman’s supposed role in compiling the Quran, which makes for a major inconsistency with Bukhari’s standard story.  Even more surprisingly, in Zayd’s biography, Ibn Sa’d’s omits any mention of Zayd’s efforts to collect the Quran.  Ibn Sa’d doesn’t make any mention of the sheets that Hafsa supposedly had, which were supposedly used to create the canonical version of the Quran that Uthman commanded to have made.  In yet another account, Uthman indeed did command the Quran to be compiled, but his order went to Ubayy instead of to Zayd.


One problem in examining the accounts of the Quran’s collection concerns the ambiguity of the Arabic word “jama’a,” which can mean both “to memorize” and “to collect.”  This makes the accounts of whether anyone wrote down anything Muhammad said during his lifetime unclear, since it could have meant the “memorization” of what he said, not its “collection.”  In these reports, two men stand out, who were already mentioned above repeatedly, Zayd b. Thabit and Ubayy b. Ka’b, which later traditions say they were Muhammad’s scribes.  Ibn Sa’d has contradictory reports about Umar’s role in compiling the Quran:  One report says that Umar was the first to collect the Quran on sheets, but another says Umar was assassinated before he could compile the Quran together.  Sa’d clearly didn’t know anything about the standard canonical story of Bukhari’s about Uthman, Zayd, and Hafsa’s sheets at the beginning of the ninth century.  As de Premare observes, the silences and inconsistencies of Sa’d are disturbing about the real support that Bukhari’s story actually has in the primary sources.  There’s no uniformity or unanimity in the relevant sources about how the Quran was compiled. (See Shoemaker, pp. 26-28).


A somewhat earlier version about the collection of the Quran appears in “Book of the Conquests,” by Sayf ibn ‘Umar (d. 796-797).  In one key regard, his report agrees with Bukhari’s version in describing the general Hudhayfa’s sense of consternation about the different renditions of the Quran in use by Muslims in different areas of Uthman’s domain.  In one regard, the reported conflicts were worse, however, since rival groups of believers were proclaiming the cases for their preferred versions of the Quran while condemning those found elsewhere.  Since Hudhayfa was greatly distressed about these sharp disputes and major variations in the text of the Quran, he told Uthman in Mecca about this serious problem.  To summarize the situation regionally, the Kufans favored the codex of Abd Allah ibn Mas’ud, the Syrians preferred that of Miqdad b. Al-Aswad (and seemingly Salim), and the Basran’s liked the rendition of Abu Musa al-Ash’ari.  Oddly, the version of Ubayy b. Ka’b receives no mention in this source.  Uthman commanded the partisans of each of these versions of the Quran to appear before him in order to make the case for their respective summary of the words of Muhammad.  These are clearly discordant books in dispute, since Sayf ibn ‘Umar’s account identifies these productions as “codexes.”  So clearly, from the bottom up, rival groups of Muslims in different geographical areas had written down what they believed were Muhammad’s words.  Confronted with this mess, Uthman’s solution wasn’t to create a new collection of the Quran, but to take the version available in Medina, of which he had copies made and then he had them sent out to these other areas of his realm.  He ordered that all the other versions should be destroyed.  It’s not clear that his commands were followed or that he had the effective political/police power to enforce his decisions on this matter on believers who lived far from the Hejaz.  So in the earliest account that we have of the Quran’s compilation in Islamic primary sources, Uthman made no effort to textually reconstruct the “best” version of the Quran out of various regional versions.  There is no primary source before the ninth century that confirms that Uthman and the scribes he directed engaged in any kind of careful systematic process of textual reconstruction.  (See Shoemaker, pp. 28-30). 


One problem that also arises in the efforts to trace back the earliest version of the Quran as a text concerns the original ambiguities between what are now called “hadith” or the sayings/teachings attributes to Muhammad, and the Quran’s text, which purports to only be the words of God Himself.  There clearly was confusion about how to make a distinction between these two kinds of records.  For example, in an early letter said to have been written by Zayd ibn Ali (695-740), two of the hadith quoted are almost identical to what’s in the Quran (5:56; 21:24).  Ibn Sa’d relays Salima b. Jarmi’s assertion that he has gathered “many qurans” from Muhammad together, which presumably were his teachings or hadith, not reports of direct revelations from God.  So then, given these stories about how the Quran was collected by Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, Zayd, Ubayy, etc. they may not have been able in their time to make the clear distinctions that later Sunni scholarship made between the Quran (i.e., divine revelation) and the hadith (i.e., teachings/sayings of Muhammad).  These regional versions of the Quran may well have been hadith to one degree or another.  (See Shoemaker, p.30).


So when all these conflicting stories examined in the early primary Islamic historical sources about the Quran’s original compilation, it becomes obvious that that the standard Bukhari story, which the mainstream Sunni tradition has endorsed, is much too simplistic.  The key error of many Western historians, such as those who endorse the generally reigning “Noldekean-Schwallian” paradigm, has been to uncritically endorse and support the mainstream Sunni viewpoint when it simply isn’t well supported in the primary historical sources.  As Shoemaker quotes Burton as summarizing the relevant primary sources about the Quran’s compilation:  “The reports are a mass of confusions, contradictions, and inconsistencies.  By their nature, they represent the product of a lengthy process of evolution, accretion and ‘improvement.’  They were framed in response to a wide variety of progressing needs. . . . The existence of such reports makes it clear that the Muslims were confused.  The earliest stage of the traditions on the collection of the Qur’an did consist in incompatible attributions of the first collection to Abu Bakr, to ‘Umar, to ‘Uthman.”  De Premare somewhat cynically observes:  “such variation among the reports [indicates] that each one seems to reflect later circumstances rather than the fact that it is alleged to relate.”  (See Shoemaker, pp. 30-31).


The Muslims’ standard claims that there are no variations in the Koran’s text are simply not true.  Most significantly, the variations that still are known to exist are those that survived the ruthless standardization process of the Quran during the reign of Abd al-Malik (685-705).  Abu Hayyan al-Gharnait, who has been an important collector of the Quran’s textual variants, has explicitly noted that he has deliberately not gathered “those variants where there is too wide a divergence from the standard text of ‘Uthman.’” (See Shoemaker, p. 33).  The Quranic inscriptions found in the Dome on the Rock on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount area are among the oldest in existence.  (Since Jerusalem was mainly a Christian city at the time, these inscriptions often bore witness against Christian teachings and beliefs).  However, as Shoemaker notes, these inscriptions, placed by the caliph Abd al-Malik (685-705 A.D.) “are our earliest surviving evidence for the text of the Qur’an, and yet they different from the now canonical version of the Qur’an.”  He asked how this could be possible, if the text of the Quran had been standardized some 40 years earlier in the time of Uthman.  (Shoemaker, p. 64). 


One of the oldest Qurans, the Sanaa manuscript of the eighth century, has actually two differing texts.  The newer one, dating to the middle eighth century, was written over an erased version that dates to the early eighth century.  So why would the same folio pages have two different Qurans laboriously handwritten on them?  Well, the older erased “palimpsest” version varies regularly from the newer “Uthmanic” rendition.  In this case, it’s obvious that that when the newer standardized text of the Quran was promulgated throughout the caliphate of Abd al-Malik, the older version was erased from this particular manuscript’s pages.  What was erased, however, is still recoverable and legible.  It indicates that at least until 700 A.D. or later, non-canonical versions of the Quran were still being copied, which is long past the dates of Uthman’s reign (644-656 A.D.)  (See Shoemaker, p. 77).  Most likely the great majority of the variants that existed in the regional codexes of Ubayy b. Ka’b, Abd Allah ibn Mas’ud, Abu Musa al-Ash’ ari, and Miqdad b. Al-Aswad were totally destroyed; what has been preserved is a feeble remnant.  So then, how do we know what was preserved is really what Muhammad allegedly heard from God as opposed to what was destroyed? Ha



Another interesting set of witnesses about the Quran’s formation comes from early Shiite witnesses from the first three centuries of Islamic history.  The partisans of Ali as the legitimate caliph opposed the rendition of the Quran that mainstream Sunni tradition attributed especially to Uthman’s efforts.  According to the Shiites, it was Ali, not Abu Bakr, Umar, or Uthman, who first gathered together the Quran’s text shortly after Muhammad’s death.  However, the Shiites maintain that Ali’s version of the Quran was much longer than Uthman’s rendition.  The first three caliphs that the Sunnis recognize (Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman) twisted and falsified what Ali had compiled.  For obvious political reasons, the Shiites asserted, these caliphs deleted the section that clearly named Ali as Muhammad’s legitimate political heir. So the Quranic text traditionally attributed to Uthman is a distorted version designed to promote the religious and political program of the first three Sunni caliphs, according to the early Shiite writers. 


It’s true, however, that starting in the tenth century Shiite scholars of the “Twelver” tradition began to repudiate their sect’s earlier witness and began to embrace the Uthman text such as it is.  Because it had become very dangerous to cast doubt on the Quran by this time, they had obvious motives of self-preservation to change their opinions.  Although mainstream Western scholarship has generally arbitrarily rejected the oldest Shiite viewpoint on the development of the Quran’s text, this decision to embrace the Sunni viewpoint has to be regarded as prejudiced.  As already related above, the Sunni primary sources are full of inconsistencies and contradictions, so why should they deemed to be automatically reliable compared to the Shiite viewpoint by impartial historians?  The Shiite viewpoint also has the advantage of being the “minority” viewpoint that lost, which may be all the more valuable since it reports details and has a general perspective that the (Sunni) victors have ignored, twisted, or censored. Interestingly enough, two of the discordant regional texts of the Quran were developed in southern Iraq, where Ali’s support was at its strongest, such as in Kufa and Basra.  Indeed, Kufa was briefly the capital of Ali’s short-lived caliphate. (See Shoemaker, p. 40).


In this context, it’s important to realize how violently the Ummayyads persecuted and quelled the partisans of Ali’s cause in their realm.  Unlike the case for the orthodox Catholics who counter-attacked the Gnostic Christians in the second and third centuries A.D., who were armed only with the power of the pen, the Sunni caliphs had authority over the sword and willingly wielded it to favor their cause.  Amir-Moezzi explains the power of the Umayyad caliphs to impose their political and religious will on their opponents:  “In an attempt to justify these measures [that distorted records of the past], caliphal power set up a complex system of propaganda, censorship, and historical falsification.  First it altered the text of the Qur’an and forged an entire body of traditions falsely ascribed to the Prophet, drawing great scholars, judges, jurists, preachers, and historians into its service—all this within a policy of repression that was as savage as it was methodical, aimed at its opponents at large, but at Alids in particular.”  (As quoted by Shoemaker, p. 37).  The standardized text of the Quran is actually, according to Michael Cook, “a remarkable testimony to the authority of the early Islamic state.”  The imperial efforts to find and destroy dissident Qurans were especially aimed at the proto-Shiites of southern Iraq.  They were so successful, according to Omar Hamdan, “that one could only wonder in disbelief . . . if any remnant of a differing recension [of the Qur’an] were to come to light.  Therefore, given the power of the Sunni caliphs by the eighth century, they easily could have thoroughly censored the viewpoint of Ali’s partisans from the historical sources that they controlled, in a manner bordering upon the fictional Ingsoc’s in Orwell’s novel “ 1984.”  (See generally Shoemaker, pp. 35-38).



However, it’s unlikely that much of what Muhammad said was written down during his lifetime because the small, poor communities of Mecca and Medina were made up of people for whom the spoken word was primary and few were literate in a broader sense.  Shoemaker spends a good amount of space making the case that those living in the Hejaz in Muhammad’s time in these communities wouldn’t have been able to write a complex text like the Quran; most of their writings are short personal messages placed on rocks that are the equivalent of “Kilroy was here.”  He also makes a detailed case against any idea that Mecca was important in the spice trade, in the mining of minerals, or as a pilgrimage site.  Patricia Crone’s work has been particularly devastating against any idea that Mecca was a thriving center of an international spice trade.  Mecca, being a community incapable of growing crops, unlike Medina, was functionally the local version of an almost entirely non-literate, uncultured, impoverished “Gopher Prairie;” Medina wasn’t much better off despite it could irrigate some crops.  Given this realistic portrayal of cultural and economic conditions in the Hejaz, it’s fully believable that Muhammad was indeed illiterate, much like many others in his community. (See Shoemaker generally, pp. 96-133).


Unlike the case for the Jews in the ancient rabbinical tradition which Jesus and His disciples would have followed, there wasn’t an established cultural practice of students carefully memorizing the teachings of their teachers and then passing them along to others, as per the insights of the of Uppsala school of Harald Riesenfeld and Birger Gerhardsson when analyzing the period of time when the content of the Gospels were orally transmitted.  Nothing equivalent to such customs existed among the Arabs of the Hejaz in the early 7th century.  Muslims shouldn’t make the mistake of projecting back the practices of the present day Madrassa schools, in which many students often learn to memorize the entire Quran verbatim from printed texts, back to Muhammad’s own time.   


          Working from a skeptical, naturalistic perspective, Shoemaker and others who have examined the history of the development of religions and their texts find the standard Sunni Bukhari/Uthman story of the compilation and standardization of the Quran’s text to be exceedingly implausible.  It would have happened way too quickly.  Chase Robinson explains why this standard tradition of how the Quran’s text was collected is so unlikely (as quoted in Shoemaker, pp. 38-39):  “The complicated and protracted processes that generated monotheist scripture in antiquity and late antiquity are generally measured in centuries or at least several decades; the [Sunni] tradition would have us believe that in the case of Islam they were telescoped into about twenty years.  Are we really to think that within a single generation God’s word moved from individual lines and chapters scribbled on camel shoulder-blades and rocks to complete, single, fixed and authoritative text on papyrus or vellum?  It would be virtually unprecedented.  It is furthermore unlikely in the light of what we know of early Arabic:  the nature of early Arabic scripture, which only imperfectly described vowels and consonants, and conventions of memorization and reading, which often privileged memory over written text, would militate against the very rapid production of the fixed and authoritative text that the tradition describes.”  Here a strong contrast arises with the environment in which the New Testament was produced, which had much more widespread literacy, including the Founder’s own literacy (i.e., Luke 4:16), among Jewish people and also the educated gentiles with whom the likes of Paul rubbed shoulders, unlike the case for c. 700 A.D. Hejaz.  The Old Testament was already a long standardized text upon which the earliest Jewish Christians would have found to serve as the obvious model to base their own faith upon when the Gospels were written down in Greek after a certain period of oral transmission in (mainly) Aramaic.  The story of the transmission of Paul’s letters in this regard was simpler, however, since they started their lives as written text.  As already surveyed above and as Shoemaker observes (p. 39), the primary sources that portray situation in which the Muslims received and produced the Quran have so many inconsistencies and contradictions demonstrates that historians shouldn’t mechanically place their faith in the standard Sunni Bukhari/Uthman story.


Another factor that likely retarded the collection and standardization of the Quran was the great authority given to the early caliphs over the community of Muslim believers.  They were treated almost like vicars of God on earth functionally, because of the power they had to determine the beliefs and practices of the Muslim community, which was over and above their martial powers to wage war and to administer the law.  As a result, the Quran itself gets very little attention from believers until the end of the eight century.  Shoemaker explains the consequences of this dynamic (p. 41, italics removed):  “This dynamic of a gradual shift from the caliphs’ direct authority as deputies of God to recognizing instead the authority of Muhammad’s teachings as remembers by the members of the ‘ulama also goes a long way toward explaining the Qur’an’s apparent absence from the Believers’ faith until the end of the seventh century, as evidenced by both the Islamic tradition itself and the various contemporary reports from writers outside of the community of the Believers.”  Most strikingly, Muhammad isn’t mentioned at all by the early Muslim governmental authorities before the time of the Caliph Marwan I (684-85).  According to Shoemaker (p. 41), the founder of Islam “is not named by any one of the papyri, inscriptions, or coins from this period.”  However, by the time Abd al-Malik becomes caliph, Marwan I’s son, a pronounced shift occurs:  Now the authority of Muhammad and the Quran are often publicly proclaimed to the Muslim community and to the wider world, when they had been neglected for 50 or 75 years by the Umayyad governmental authorities.  A related reason why Uthman wouldn’t have been important in standardizing the Quran stems from his personal unpopularity and the weakness of the governmental apparatus at his command to coerce obedience in matters of faith at a distance from the Hejaz.  He may have chosen a regional version of the Quran, such as that of Mecca or Medina, and then tried to impose its text on others, but lacked success in doing so.  (See Shoemaker, pp. 40-41).  Much like the standard weakness of the rabbinical sources making up the Mishna and the Talmud, who often projected earlier in time practices and institutions that actually came later, it’s overwhelmingly likely the same problem in reconstruction the past occurred here, in which what al-Malik actually did was projected onto Uthman and the earlier caliphs, who were seen as having more historical legitimacy since they lived and ruled in time closer to Muhammad.


At this point, let’s turn to presenting the evidence that Caliph al-Malik (685-705) and his right-hand man, al-Hajjajj compiled and edited the Quran.  Although Muslims at times will admit that they had some influence on the text of the Quran, they attempt to limit those changes to minor amendments, such as the addition of diacritical marks and standardized spellings.  However, many manuscripts copied after the early eighth century still lacked these features while others clearly did, which proves the falsity of this attempt to minimize al-Malik’s role in substantially producing the text of the Quran as we have it today.  Francois Deroche perceives the problem with this kind of analysis (italics omitted):  “If we turn to the reports stating that the diacritics were introduced in the course of  al-Hajjajj’s ‘Masahif project’ and that ta and ya were selected in order to distinguish between the second and third person of some verbal forms, we have to admit that the manuscript evidence says otherwise.”  However, these modest concessions to al-Malik’s role appear to be an attempt to arbitrarily harmonize the historical primary sources, which also mention the (supposed) roles of Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman as well.


Let’s examine some of the primary sources that attribute major roles to al-Malik and/or al-Hajjajj in editing and compiling the text of the Quran.  One tradition attributes says that al-Malik said that he feared death in the month of Ramadan because (italics omitted), “That is the month in which I was born, it is the month in which I was weaned, it is the month in which I gathered together the Qur’an [jama’tu l-Qur’an], and it is the month in which I was sworn allegiance [as the caliph].”  Another tradition maintain that al-Hajjajj sent codices with the new text of the Quran to all the major centers of the imperial realm, such as Medina, Kufa, Mecca, Basra, Damascus, and Egypt, with the goal of its replacing the local versions of the Quran then in use.  In some cases, it was said that he was not only the first one to sent official codices to all the important cities of his master’s realm, but also he was the one who created the practice of having the Qur’an read aloud in mosques.  He also instructed that all the older, local versions of the Quran should be collected and destroyed, much like it was said that Uthman had done in the official Sunni/Bukhari story.  All the privately owned manuscripts of the Quran with the wrong text were to be seized and disposed of after paying the owners 60 dirham each.  The Islamic governor of Egypt, confronted with al-Hajjajj’s order to accept the new text of the Quran, regarded his command as presumptuous, since he was of the same rank as al-Hajjajj.  He replied that al-Hajjajj “permits himself to send a mushaf [codex] to the very military district [jund] where I am serving, me!”  The Egyptian governor then responded by making his own edition of the Qur’an.  This story completely undermines the standard Sunni narrative of Bukhari, which maintains Uthman’s efforts standardized the Quran’s text, since it indicates it didn’t exist in Egypt at the time al-Malik ruled.  In Medina around this time, Uthman’s own family objected to al-Hajjajj’s edition of the Quran, according to Ibn Shabba.  The people of Mecca were said to have asked Uthman’s family to produce a copy of the Quran of Uthman’s so they may read it.  Uthman’s family responded to this request by saying that it had been destroyed on the same day when Uthman had been assassinated.  (See Shoemaker, pp. 44-46).


Stephen J. Shoemaker, “Creating the Qur’an:  A Historical-Critical Study,” is available for a free download at the University of California’s Luminos Web site, which provides Open Access to academic books.  Click here for the details:  https://luminosoa.org/site/books/m/10.1525/luminos.128/


Being a sincere if unorthodox fundamentalist Christian, I am not in agreement with all of what Shoemaker says in his work, such as when he denies that Jesus was born in Bethlehem or denies that the traditional authors of the Gospels are really Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  However, his book poses a serious, fundamental challenge to the normal claims of Muslim apologists.  In this case, the standard academic skepticism of the “history of religions” school has mostly passed them by, but now its tools are being turned to examine the origin of Islam in the same kind of way that the origins of Judaism and Christianity have long been examined.  In the case of the latter, over the past couple of centuries, skilled academic counter-attacks have developed, such as those of Gleason Archer in “A Survey of Old Testament Introduction,” which rebuts the Wellhausen/JEDP theory of the origins of New Testament and which defends the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch.  Of a similar genre, although it’s a compilation designed for a more popular audience, is Josh McDowell’s “More Evidence That Demands a Verdict,” which deals with the higher critic views of the origin of both the New and Old Testaments.  I suspect, however, that nothing equivalent could possibly be produced by Muslims to blunt the kind of sustained scholarly assault that Shoemaker launches in this book, which at least in part in due to the nature of the Quran itself.  If one is an objective outsider examining its text relative to the bible’s, the Quran is clearly more haphazardly repetitious than the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, and it lacks the general chronological order of the bible.  To my critical conservative Christian eye, much of the Quran comes across as if it were “debate prep” in which God tells Muhammad what to say the next time skeptics denied his revelations.  In this regard, the analogy would be as if we could know what was the background before debates like Jesus had with His fellow Jews in John 6, 8, and 10, with it being like what God the Father would have told Jesus specifically what to say in advance before confronting His critics one more time. 


Muslims may make accusations of racism against anyone who disagrees with how Muslims have interpreted and preserved their own primary sources over the centuries. It's necessary to prove the reasoning of Shoemaker is wrong in some detail instead of just saying he is affected by racism or bias of some kind. An interesting point that Shoemaker makes is that Western scholarship, by and large for many decades, signed off on and agreed with Sunni orthodoxy about how the Quran was written and compiled. What Shoemaker calls the “Noldekean-Schwallian” paradigm is simply the endorsement of the standard Bukhari story about how the Quran was put together. That is, Muslims got off hook for a long time from Western scholars using against the Quran the same kinds of skeptical analyses that they have used against the bible. However, when other early primary sources are examined, mostly by Muslims, but a few are by informed Christians of the time, that story simply can't be true. So what Shoemaker is doing is subjecting the story of Islam's development to the same kind of critical eye that Judaism's and Christianity's development has long been exposed to by using the same kind of historical reasoning processes and (well) naturalistic assumptions. There's no racism in using this kind of scholarly reasoning against Islam as much as it has been used against Christianity and Judaism over the past two centuries. I would also maintain, although this raises a much bigger issue, that human reason, such as Aristotle's philosophy as developed in prior and posterior analytics (i.e., the syllogism and the law of the excluded middle) is fully valid in any culture; it isn't limited by culture in its validity.  A key point of Shoemaker's work is that the early primary sources about the Quran's compilation are all over the map about how the process was done. The early Shiite primary sources about this process are much more likely to be correct, since they were written much closer to the events in question, than later ones in which they had been intimidated by the Sunnite majority, so they felt that they had to adjust in order to survive.


Deroche hedges so heavily about the palaeographic evidence that it's a weak reed to lean upon to make it "our default view ought to be that the Qur'an was standardized earlier than Abd al-Malik's reign." That is, in bold print above, when Deroche says, "The possibility that some of the fragments . . . can in no way be excluded," that's hardly a ringing endorsement of that viewpoint. Shoemaker's dismissive judgment of how subjective such evidence can be shows how hard it is to really "prove" when a manuscript was written by this method.

Before assuming that the default view should be the Bukhari/Sunni story about Uthman, it's also necessary to address the other arguments Shoemaker advances, such as the relatively administrative weakness of Uthman's administration compared to Abd-Malik's to impose a standardize text on the Umayyad caliphate's domain. The lack of unanimity among the ancient primary sources about who wrote down, collected, and standardize the text of the Quran is yet another major problem. It's hard to believe it could have been standardized as early as it is said to be by the traditional Bukhari Sunni story when compared to the chronology of other religious texts of importance, especially when the Hejaz was a relatively poor, nearly illiterate area of the world; it simply lacked the resources to produce such a rich, complicated literary text. It would be the equivalent of expecting the like of (say) James Joyce's "Finnegan's Wake" to emerge from rural Mississippi. So those who aren't familiar with Shoemaker's arguments should be willing to examine them in detail before dismissing them merely because they don't agree with the orthodox Sunni view of the Quran's origins, which much of Western scholarship has unwisely signed off on uncritically.



Let’s focus on the claim that Bakka (Surah 3:96) refers to Mecca. If we go by only what the Quran itself says as opposed to later commentary on it that "explains" this ambiguous text, it isn't clear that the Kaaba and the House of Quran are references to a shrine in Mecca. If we discount later Islamic tradition, it appears that "Bakka" and "Mecca" are different places. The scholars who devised later Islamic tradition, who were evidently desperate to identity "Bakka" as "Mecca," simply started to claim that "Bakka" was another name for "Mecca" or that "Bakka" was a reference to the Kaaba itself. A key reason to deny this standard Muslim interpretation of "Bakka" is a point that Stephen J. Shoemaker makes in "Creating the Qur'an: A Historical-Critical Study," which is a scholarly analysis of how the Quran was compiled based on primary Islamic sources and some early Christian sources (p. 110): "Nothing allows us to assume that when the Qur'an says Bakka it means Mecca, particularly since it correctly names Mecca elsewhere."


As Shoemaker further explains, scholars have long searched long and hard to find what "Bakka" here may actually refer to. Perhaps the best solution, if we discount how Muslims try to get around this problem, is Psalm 84:6-7 in the Old Testament, which is known to be a pilgrimage psalm.


(Psalms 84:6-7) As they pass through the Valley of Baca, They make it a spring; The rain also covers it with pools. They go from strength to strength; Each one appears before God in Zion. (NKJV)


Notice there are some similarities of this Psalm to Surah 3:96-97: "Indeed, the first sanctuary established for mankind was the one at Bakka, a blessed place, a guidance to the peoples, in which are plain memorials, the place where Abraham stood up to pray, and however enters it is safe. The pilgrimage to the house is a duty for mankind to Allah, for him who can find a way to get there. As for him who disbelieves, indeed, Allah is independent of the worlds."


Shoemaker maintain that the parallels between Psalm 84:6-7 and surah 3:96-97 are undeniable (p. 111): "If we are to take seriously the Qur'an intertextuality with the Psalter, then we must acknowledge this instance as a textbook example. It describes pilgrimage to a Holy House dedicated to the God of Abraham, founded by Abraham, at a place called Baka, which is an uncultivatable [surah 14:37] valley." Sure, a number of Muslims identify the Meccan shrine as the Jerusalem temple, but Shoemaker properly sees this apologetical move to read Psalm 84:6-7 as simply "preposterous" to historians, let alone to historians of religion.


Robert Spencer, in "The Critical Qur'an Explained from Key Islamic Commentaries and Contemporary Historical Research," explains these two verses in part this way (italics removed), p. 54: "Gibson observes that Bakka is 'an ancient Semitic word that means to weep or lament. If a location was assigned the title 'Bacca' it would mean the place of bacca. For example, the Valley of Bacca means the Valley of Weeping or the Valley of Tears. This is usually because some calamity happened there that caused people to weep. There are a number of Bacca or Baka valleys in the Middle East today, each named because of some tragedy that occurred there in the past. Luxenburg likewise evaluates the available evidence and concludes that Bakka most likely means 'valley of tears.'. . . . It is more likely, however, that the weeping would have to have been more generalized [than that of tyants becoming humble in this area] for the entire place to be named for it. In line with that, Gibson suggests that this is additional evidence that the original holy city of Islam was not Mecca at all, and supports the theory that the holy city was originally Petra, to which the earliest mosques point (see [Spencer's comments on sura] 2:142). This is because, as Gibson points out, if the first sanctuary was at Bakka, it was likely to have been a place where a terrible tragedy had taken place, but there is no record of such an event in Mecca in the centuries before Islam. In Petra, however, there were major earthquakes in 363, 551, and 713, the last of which may have destroyed the city altogether."


Alternatively, it's known that the original qibla was towards Jerusalem. This is indirect evidence that "Bakka" in surah 3:96-97 refers to the Temple Mount area and/or the Jerusalem temple itself, which (of course) the Romans had destroyed in 70 A.D.




Eric Snow



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