Ibn War­raq’s Ori­gins Of The Koran”: A Crit­i­cal Analysis

BOOK REVIEW by Prof Y. Dut­ton, lec­tur­er in the depart­ment of Islam­ic Stud­ies, Uni­ver­si­ty of Edin­burgh, tak­en from the Jour­nal of Islam­ic Stud­ies, May 2000 edi­tion. (Oxford Cen­tre for Islam­ic Stud­ies, 2000)

The Ori­gins of the Koran : Clas­sic Essays on Islam’s Holy Book
Edit­ed by IBN WARRAQ. Amherst, NY : Prometheus Books. 1998.
Pp. 411. Price HB $32.95. 1 – 57392-198‑X.

This book, edit­ed by the rather neb­u­lous per­son­age of Ibn War­raq” (nei­ther his full name nor his insti­tu­tion­al affil­i­a­tion, if any, are any­where giv­en), con­sists of thir­teen pre­vi­ous­ly pub­lished essays on the his­to­ry and nature of the Qur’an­ic text, twelve of them dat­ing from the half-cen­tu­ry between 1890 and 1940 and only the thir­teenth dat­ing from as recent­ly as 1985. The book is divid­ed into four parts. Part One con­tains an Intro­duc­tion by the edi­tor which sum­maris­es recent, most­ly revi­sion­ist”, West­ern schol­ar­ship on the ori­gins of the Islam and its writ­ten tra­di­tion, and also a gen­er­al essay, described in the blurb rather grandiose­ly and, one has to say, rather non­sen­si­cal­ly as the first tru­ly sci­en­tif­ic study of the Qur’an ; by Theodor Nold­eke. Part Two, The Col­lec­tion and the Vari­ants of the Koran ; con­sists of essays by Leone Cae­tani, Alphonse Min­gana (two), Arthur Jef­frey (four) and David Mar­go­liouth, on the gen­er­al theme of how the present text came to be estab­lished. Part three, The Sources of the Koran”; presents three long essays by Abra­ham Geiger, W. St Clair-Tis­dall and Charles Tor­rey, all of which explore the sup­posed Jew­ish, Chris­t­ian, and Zoroas­tri­an sources of the Qur’an. Part Four, Mod­ern Tex­tu­al Crit­i­cisms of the Koran”; con­sists of a sin­gle essay by Andrew Rip­pin, the only con­tem­po­rary schol­ar rep­re­sent­ed in the col­lec­tion, which presents the method­olo­gies of John Wans­brough and his use of lit­er­ary analy­sis to ques­tion the stan­dard Mus­lim dat­ing of the ear­li­est Islam­ic texts.

The prob­lem with this col­lec­tion is its ori­en­ta­tion. The edi­tor pur­ports to be con­cerned only with those truths that are yield­ed by a process of ratio­nal enquiry, by sci­en­tif­ic exam­i­na­tion” (9), osten­si­bly to achieve, in Arthur Jef­frey’s words, a crit­i­cal inves­ti­ga­tion of the text of the Qu’ran” (9). How­ev­er, what we see exhib­it­ed by the choice of essays is in fact quite dif­fer­ent. Ibn War­raq him­self rejects most, if not all, Mus­lim schol­ar­ship on the issue, while at the same time seem­ing to accept with­out ques­tion any­thing pro­duced by the revi­sion­ist” wing of mod­ern West­ern schol­ar­ship, nei­ther of which posi­tions would seem ten­able for one seek­ing to pro­duce by ratio­nal enquiry”. More­over, he seems to have ignored even that amount of crit­i­cism of the revi­sion­ist” posi­tion that exists in his own cho­sen essays : thus, for exam­ple, in his Intro­duc­tion he prais­es the work of Crone and Cook, whose book Hagarism he describes as fas­ci­nat­ing” (33) and intel­lec­tu­al­ly exhil­a­rat­ing” (29), with­out seem­ing to be aware of Rip­pin’s caveat else­where in the col­lec­tion that although they (Crone and Cook) suc­cess­ful­ly draw atten­tion to the prob­lems involved in the study of Islam, they have not been able to get beyond the lim­i­ta­tions in the sources, for they are all of ques­tion­able his­tor­i­cal authen­tic­i­ty and, more impor­tant­ly, all are trea­tis­es based in polemic” (352). In oth­er words, the non-Islam­ic sources are no more free from poten­tial bias than the Mus­lim ones. Indeed, the words that best seem to describe Ibn War­raq’s atti­tude are those that he quotes from Rip­pin, who refers to those who approach Islam with less than aca­d­e­m­ic can­dour” (10), and Crone, who warns us that the entire tra­di­tion is ten­den­tious ; which, although intend­ed to refer to Mus­lim his­to­ri­og­ra­phy, applies as much, if not more so, to mod­ern revi­sion­ist scholarship.

But not only is Ibn War­raq’s own posi­tion based on polemic” and an uncrit­i­cal accep­tance of cer­tain sources (in this case, mod­ern revi­sion­ist schol­ar­ship), but so too are the high­ly Chris­tianised” cri­tiques — or attempts at cri­tique — of, for exam­ple, Min­gana and St Clair-Tis­dall, for whom noth­ing is ulti­mate­ly accept­able unless it accords with Chris­t­ian scrip­ture (e.g. 79, 235, 259), and for whom, it seems, the opin­ions of Arab authors?are too worth­less to be quot­ed” (95). Sim­i­lar assump­tions of the pri­ma­cy of Judaism and/​or Chris­tian­i­ty also seem to under­lie many if not most of the oth­er essays in the book. How­ev­er, what in fact for the major­i­ty of these essays show is not a Jew­ish, Chris­t­ian, or even Zoroas­tri­an, source for some Qur’an­ic nar­ra­tive or nar­ra­tives (one is remind­ed of how the unbe­liev­ers in the Qur’an­ic nar­ra­tive always reject the Qur’an as tales of the ancients”), but rather the exis­tence of par­al­lels : any con­clu­sions about direct bor­row­ing in a deriva­to­ry sense are, and can only remain, speculation.

Nev­er­the­less, there is some ben­e­fit to be gained from this book. This review­er in par­tic­u­lar found the essays by Jef­frey and Mar­go­liouth on the vari­ants of the Qu’ran (Chap­ter 6 and 10 respec­tive­ly) to be of more than pass­ing inter­est in that they col­lect togeth­er many use­ful ref­er­ences and sug­gest many lines for future research. But oth­er­wise, this book is lack­ing in inter­est for the seri­ous schol­ar of the ori­gins of the Koran”; for the sim­ple rea­son that it seems to miss, or bypass, the essen­tial issue of the nature of rev­e­la­tion itself and the claims made about it. Put sim­ply, either the Prophet was telling the truth or he was­n’t. Again and again the Qur’an empha­sis­es that this is not the speech of a mere human but rather a send­ing down from the Lord of all the worlds”. Now, either the Prophet was cor­rect in his accept­ing and say­ing this or he was not ; and if he was not, then either he was inad­ver­tent­ly mis­tak­en or he was an out­right impos­tor. To coun­te­nance his being an impos­tor does not, quite frankly, tal­ly with every­thing we know of the excel­lence of his human behav­iour, nor does it tal­ly with the love that oth­ers had for him and the spir­it of self-sac­ri­fice expressed so clear­ly by all who took his path. Nor can we accept that he was mis­tak­en : it is record­ed that when he first expe­ri­enced the phe­nom­e­non of rev­e­la­tion, he was afraid that he might be going mad. His wife, Khadi­ja, how­ev­er, had the deci­sive argu­ment on that point : it did not make sense that some­one who so self­less­ly looked after the sick and the poor, helped those in need, and treat­ed his guests and neigh­bours well-in short, some­one who was always so out­go­ing and help­ful to oth­ers-should be mad. Mad­ness and altru­ism do not go togeth­er. Rather, it is out­ward social action that indi­cates a deep san­i­ty in the human being.

Either one accepts this argu­ment of Khadi­ja, along with the tes­ti­mo­ny of tra­di­tion to the Prophet’s hon­esty and trust­wor­thi­ness both before and after the onset of his rev­e­la­tion­ary expe­ri­ences, bol­stered by the evi­dence of the uncon­di­tion­al love that he engen­dered in those around him-which is hard­ly the effect of a liar and a cheat-or one does not. As for his being mis­tak­en, either one rejects the tes­ti­mo­ny on his own tongue that the Qu’ran was revealed on his heart” and was then expressed out­ward­ly by his own speech but was nev­er­the­less the send­ing down of the Lord of all the worlds” and not of his own voli­tion, or one does not. And either one accepts Khadi­ja’s argu­ment that some­one with such praise­wor­thy out­ward behav­iour-the basic mark of san­i­ty-could not be the object of demon­ic pos­ses­sion but rather was in full pos­ses­sion of his fac­ul­ties, or one does not.

If one takes the Mus­lim posi­tion and accepts these argu­ments-or rather we should say posi­tions, since there is no argu­ment about these points but rather a recog­ni­tion and accep­tance of them-then the nature of rev­e­la­tion is defined by what actu­al­ly hap­pened, rather than by any expec­ta­tions peo­ple might have about what they think should have hap­pened. One can impose no pri­or expec­ta­tions on this mate­r­i­al : rather, the nature of the rev­e­la­tion is at it was, vari­ants and all. And with respect to this lat­ter point, we should remem­ber that Mus­lim schol­ars have nev­er been embar­rassed by the pres­ence of vari­ants, not even the Shad­hdh, or non-stan­dard ones : rather, they have accept­ed their exis­tence, and the fact that peo­ple used them at the time they did, while at the same recog­nis­ing that there was a need to sim­pli­fy and sys­tem­a­tise mat­ters for lat­ter gen­er­a­tions to pre­vent an unac­cept­able pro­lif­er­a­tion, thus lead­ing first to Uth­man’s deci­sion to restrict the writ­ten form of the Qur’an so that, as the reports put it, the com­mu­ni­ty would not become divid­ed about their scrip­ture as had the Jews and Chris­tians”, and, sec­ond­ly, to the sub­se­quent sys­tem­a­ti­sa­tion of the var­i­ous pos­si­bil­i­ties into the accept­ed sys­tems of the Sev­en, Ten, or even Four­teen, Readers.

From this per­spec­tive, the con­tents of the present book seem lit­tle more than a polem­i­cal attempt to debunk the Qur’an and, by exten­sion, Islam. As St Clair-Tis­dall put it in his essay on the sup­posed Jew­ish, Chris­t­ian and Zoroas­tri­an sources of the Qur’an : If we can trace the teach­ing of the Koran, or any part of it, to an earth­ly source, or to human sys­tems exist­ing pre­vi­ous to the Prophet’s age, then Islam at once falls to the ground” (232 ; cf.227, where William Muir, in his Intro­duc­tion to the same piece, repeats the same claim). The rest of the book is not, as we have sug­gest­ed above, in a very dif­fer­ent mode.

Rather, it seems to me that one has to accept a real­i­ty of rev­e­la­tion, expe­ri­enced and medi­at­ed not only by the Prophet Muham­mad but also by many, many Prophets and Mes­sen­gers before him. From this per­spec­tive, one would indeed expect a great deal of sim­i­lar­i­ty in con­tent between pre­vi­ous divine­ly inspired mes­sages. But it remains true that, of these mes­sages, that which we know today as the Qu’ran is our best and most com­plete exam­ple and there­fore the best start­ing point for any­one who wants to bet­ter under­stand this phenomenon. Ibn Warraq's "Origins Of The Koran": A Critical Analysis 1Endmark


  1. Makes quite a lot of sense after read­ing a biased waste of mon­ey book.

  2. This is a schol­ar­ly’ rebut­tal ? This is no bet­ter than Chris­t­ian schol­ars with PhDs who entrench their con­ser­v­a­tive apolo­get­ics in acad­emese to pro­tect their pre­cious dogmas.

  3. While I agree with many of your crit­i­cisms here, the fol­low­ing state­ment is your pure­ly sub­jec­tive and per­son­al opinion :

    But it remains true that, of these mes­sages, that which we know today as the Qu’ran is our best and most com­plete exam­ple and there­fore the best start­ing point for any­one who wants to bet­ter under­stand this phenomenon.”

    There are many oth­er rev­e­la­tions that peo­ple pre­fer to the Qu’ran and con­sid­er supe­ri­or to it. There’s no rea­son why the Qu’ran should be con­sid­ered the best, most com­plete or final” rev­e­la­tion apart from per­son­al preference.

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