Review of Ibn Warraq (ed.), "The Origins of the Koran: Classic Essays on Islam's Holy Book", Prometheus Books, NY: 1998

Todd Lawson
Journal of American Oriental Society (JAOS), Volume 122, Number 3, (July-Sept 2002), p. 658

The Origins of the Koran

This is a collection of articles in Qur’?nic studies by some of the most influential early pioneers in the field: N?ldeke’s famous article for the Britannica (9th edition, 1891); Caetani’s study of the “Uthm?nic recension tradition” (1915); Mingana’s: “Three Ancient Korans” (1914) and “The Transmission of the Koran” (1916); four seemingly idiosyncratically chosen articles by Arthur Jeffery (1935?39); Margoliouth’s study of variants (1925); Geiger’s “What Did Muhammad Borrow from Judaism” (1898) [segments]; W. St. Clair-Tisdall’s “The Sources of Islam” (1901) [segments]; and Torry’s “The Jewish Foundations of Islam” (1933) [segments]. The collection ends with Andrew Rippin’s earnest discussion of the stimulating, controversial, daunting, and ill-starred work of John Wansbrough (1985). Here, one gets the impression that Wansbrough is the only post-war scholar to have taken the literary presuppositions and findings of the other earlier authors seriously enough to press these to some logical conclusions. Why this should be so is not addressed. But the discussion does yield a salubrious insight: the Qur’?n is first and foremost an instance of “Salvation History”, not a book of history qua history, and that stabilization??and therefore a kind of canonization??of the text occurred at a much later period than generally assumed.[1]

Gathered here together, it will become clear to the reader that each article is important also as a product of a specific time, place and ?lan. Such is indeed signaled on the dustjacket where it is pointed out that this “penetrating work” begins with “the first truly scientific study of the Koran” (i.e., N?ldeke’s). The editor, “Ibn Warraq”, whom the same dustjacket identifies as “the author of “Why I Am Not A Muslim”, has done a service for undergraduates and others who have difficulty in locating the originals of these groundbreaking??and, in some sense??relics of Qur’?nic scholarship. It will also quickly become clears to the contemporary student of Islam, however, that several of these various essays are about much more than the pure vertical love of Qur’?nic scholarship.

Beyond questioning the motives for publishing such a collection at the end of the twentieth century, the reader is confronted with an “Introduction” distinctive for its repeated lapses in style: “the founder of the Shias” (p. 11), “Heilgeschichte” (p. 34), unreferenced quotations and assertions (e.g., pp. 14, 19, 34).

Arrogance and amateurish deductions abound; and all is sounded in the key of gormless hysteria: ?Some of the stories in the Koran are enormously long; for instance, the story of Joseph takes up a whole chapter of 111 verses. Are we really to believed that Muhammad remembered it exactly as it was revealed?? (p. 13); or even better: ?Most scholars believe that there are interpolations in the Koran.?[2] (p. 17). Indeed.

This same “Introduction” uses for a motto a statement published in 1933 by that prolific apostle of scientism, Saloman Reinach (1858?1932): ?From the literary point of view, the Koran has little merit. Declamation, repetition, puerility, a lack of logic and coherence strike the unprepared reader at every turn. It is humiliating to the human intellect to think that this mediocre literature has been the subject of innumerable commentaries, and that millions of men are still wasting time absorbing it.?[3] (p. 9).

It is difficult to see how this characterization improves upon the more famous and better written one by Thomas Carlyle a hundred years earlier, except perhaps in degree of offensiveness. It must be said that it undoubtedly demonstrates the editor’s diligence and industry in finding churlish things to say about the Qur’?n in English.

It is difficult to recommend this production, except perhaps for antiquarian interests and the archaeology of the study of Islam.

Tood Lawson, McGill University.

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Notes (added by Asif Iqbal)

[1] The excessively skeptical attitude towards the sources and the general conclusions reached at by J. Wansbrough, especially the one cited here, has not been accepted by the serious and mainstream Islamic scholarship. To really understand the position of this argument of Wansbrough, let us reproduce Professor Lawson’s above description:

The Qur’?n is first and foremost an instance of “Salvation History”, not a book of history qua history, and that stabilization??and therefore a kind of canonization??of the text occurred at a much later period than generally assumed.

Now consider the response of Alford T. Welch to this argument:

A distinctive feature of the Koran that cannot be ignored if the Muslim scripture is to be fully understood is its close relationship to the life of Muhammad and his contemporaries… [T]he Koran is a historical document that reflects the prophetic career of Muhammad and responds constantly to the specific needs and problems of the emerging Muslim community.

It abounds in references and allusions to historical events that occurred during the last twenty or so years of Muhammad’s lifetime, a period during which it was itself a history making event. (Qur’anic Studies?Problems and Prospects, in Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 47, 1980, p. 626)

Moreover, the newly-discovered Qur’?nic manuscripts (for instance the Sana’? manuscripts etc.) suggest the existence of a canonized Qur’?n at the end of the first Islamic century. All this is truly troublesome for Wansbrough’s theories.

[2] cf., even N?ldeke’s remarks from his Encyclopedia Britannica article:

…there is no single verse or clause which can be plausibly made out to be an interpolation by Zaid at the instance of Ab? Bakr, `Umar or `Uthm?n. Slight clerical errors there may have been, but the Koran of `Uthm?n contains none but genuine elements…

[3] cf. Sir H. A. R. Gibb’s remarks:

… years of close study confirm[s] his [i.e., Thomas Carlyle’s] further judgment that in it [i.e., the Qur’?n] “there is a merit quite other than the literary one. If a book come[s] from the heart, it will contrive to reach other hearts; all art and authorcraft are of small account to that.” Though, to be sure, the question of literary merit is one not to be judged on a priori grounds but in relation to the genius of the Arabic language; and no man in fifteen hundred years has ever played on that deep-toned instrument with such power, such boldness, and such range of emotional effects as Mohammed did. (in Mohammedanism, London: Oxford Univ. Press, 2nd ed., 1957, pp. 36?37).

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