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

This is a col­lec­tion of arti­cles in Qur’an­ic stud­ies by some of the most influ­en­tial ear­ly pio­neers in the field : Nold­eke’s famous arti­cle for the Bri­tan­ni­ca (9th edi­tion, 1891); Cae­tani’s study of the Uth­man­ic 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 élan. 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., Nold­eke’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’an­ic 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’an­ic 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, 1934).

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 (18581932): 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’an in English.

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

Todd Law­son, McGill Uni­ver­si­ty. Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in : Jour­nal of Amer­i­can Ori­en­tal Soci­ety (JAOS), Vol­ume 122, Num­ber 3, (July-Sept 2002), p. 658 See also Yasin Dut­ton, The Ori­gins of the Koran — A Crit­i­cal Analysis
Cite this arti­cle as : Todd Law­son, Book Review : Ibn War­raq (ed.), The Ori­gins of the Koran : Clas­sic Essays on Islam’s Holy Book”, Prometheus Books, NY : 1998,” in Bis­mi­ka Allahu­ma, Octo­ber 11, 2005, last accessed May 27, 2024, https://​bis​mikaal​lahu​ma​.org/​b​o​o​k​-​r​e​v​i​e​w​s​/​t​h​e​-​o​r​i​g​i​n​s​-​o​f​-​t​h​e​-​k​o​r​an/
  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’an 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’an­ic man­u­scripts (for instance the Sana’a man­u­scripts etc.) sug­gest the exis­tence of a can­on­ized Qur’an at the end of the first Islam­ic cen­tu­ry. All this is tru­ly trou­ble­some for Wans­brough’s the­o­ries.[]
  2. cf., even Nold­eke’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 Uth­man 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’an] 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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