To study the Qur’ān, or any book, in a systematic scientific study, the neutral researcher must adhere to the controls and conditions of scholarly research,[1] including, for example, the date of the text was written, the accuracy of the information and the sources from which the author of the book has drawn, and the writing style of the author.

BY NAFI SHABOU


THE SCIENTIFIC STUDY of the Qur’ān cannot dispense with questions concerning the author, the history of its authorship, the literary art that prevailed at the time of writing, and the sources from which the writer has drawn. This means undertaking an audit to produce a correct understanding of the book’s text.

The text is not an idol that we are to venerate and not dare to approach (as Muslim scholars and jurists claim). It is a work that has been placed in the mouth of human beings for us to understand in a human way. It must therefore be subjected to the science of criticism. This is a process by which one understands and distinguishes things, using all the methods of reason to properly understand a human language, even if that language carries the words of God. This is what literary criticism is, a knowledge of the words and phrases of the language in which a work has been written.

It is the psychological action of the Islamic faith that has dissuaded millions of people from discussing or researching the vast quantity of contradictions and irrational ideas that they encounter when studying, researching and scrutinizing the texts of the Qur’ān. Throughout Islamic history books by people who tried to use reason, logic, philosophy and criticism of the Qur’ān have been suppressed or burned. In the ‘Abbāsid era, particularly during the reign of al-Mutawakkil bi-Allah who fought against the Mu‘tazilites,[2] who advocated prioritising the application of reason over the transmission of texts, and against all ideas that cast doubt on the eternity of the Qur’ān in the ‘Preserved Tablet’.[3]

The Muslim scholars never gave the intellect an opportunity to free itself from the sanctity of the Qur’ānic text

For al-Ghazali, reason was the primary enemy of Islam, and so he saw that the Muslim should surrender completely to that which had been transmitted to him, that is, all that was mentioned in the revelation of the Qur’ān and the Sunna of the Prophet and handed down from the Righteous Predecessors (the Salaf) with respect to how the texts and Sharī‘a are to be interpreted, without any question or discussion. In his way, the authority of transmission triumphed over the application of reason and closed the door of ijtihād[4] among the jurists of Islam, in conformity with Al-Ghazālī’s prescription. Thus it was that transmission, not reason, became the victor in Islamic societies even since the ninth century AD and up to the present day.

The reader of the Qur’ān will thus come to the realisation that the work is not superior, in terms of eloquence, to the works of poets and writers, and that expression of the Qur’ān is an expression of faith. In his book The Muhammadan Personality, Ma ‘rūf al-Ruṣāfī wrote that

Muslims talk about faith and belief, but not of contemplation or thinking. They conform to everything the Qur’ān says but without contemplating its meanings, its words, its source, its defects and its impact on people.

‘Abbās ‘Abd al-Nūr in his work My ordeal with the Qur’ān and with God in the Qur’ān[5] has this to say:

The Muslim scholars never gave the intellect an opportunity to free itself from the sanctity of the Qur’ānic text and the prohibition on examining it closely to verify it. Muslims extracted the Qur’ānic text from its environment and presented the Qur’ān as an eternal divine text that had nothing to do with human thought.

The writer then invites readers to urgently and candidly re-read the Qur’ān in order to understand its truth in the light of criticism, studies, history, logic and reason, and break all the shackles and restrictions that have distorted the thinking of Muslims for over 1,400 years, and corrupted their reading of life, the universe and destiny. The book is a serious critical attempt at liberating from the thawābit (the ‘fixed constants’) that has ended up with Muslims being where they are today. It is a book that seeks to emancipate the Muslim from worshipping the text, clinging to it and bowing down before it. On p.8 the author says that ‘First and foremost, we must tear away the layer of sanctity and holiness that surrounds this text.’

There is no difference between those who worship statues and those who worship the text

Secondly, he calls for ‘disrobing the text, seeing it naked, and questioning its sanctity’ (that is, the employment of doubt in order to attain to certainty). Thirdly, he calls for the application of rational method to the text.

For there is no difference between those who worship statues and those who worship the text…There is nothing sacred but humanity, and the mind which distinguishes man from other creatures…

The time has come for us to climb over the walls built around us as a result of the confiscation of reason. There is no other way to do this other than by starting a revolution of understanding, … it must be a revolution that will come from seeing the texts in a new way and treating them as we would treat any object that is subject to analysis and reason.

If we don’t do this, the text will remain dominating and immovable, as ‘there is none who can alter His words.’[6] The old perceptions will remain fixed, limiting us… Our grandfathers devoted themselves to studying the Qur’ān. It was a study full of invention, concoction, and artefact. They ascribed to the Qur’ān eloquence, clarity, and miraculousness that it did not merit. They wrestled from it meanings, intentions, and purposes that never occurred to its author. They spread around it processions of images, colours, imaginary beings, and gloss that no other book has been granted… The Arabic Qur’ān has been credited with an unparalleled unique and mythical character. They made it live outside of history.

Finally, the writer asks: ‘I wonder when it will emerge from this dark tunnel to enter the courtyard of history’. And elsewhere in his book, he adds:

The tyranny of the text has prevailed over every attempt at a renaissance—even the dream of a renaissance—so that all efforts to produce one came to nothing, and all of our hopes of achieving a plan for a renaissance are dashed. Instead, we have seen that the Salafis, fundamentalists, the bloodthirsty and the regressive have all conspired to throttle the tentative breaths of any renaissance, and disabled all initiatives that might lead to one. It is a pity that the march of history never sleeps or stands still, except in our countries….. You should read the Qur’ān and not worship the mere act of reading which only increases the blindness of the blind. Engage rather in a reading of analysis, synthesis, weighing, comparison, contrast, doubt, criticism, evaluation, of tracking each verse, of studying it separately, and linking it to other verses. Questioning religious and cultural heritage is a bold step that one must take in order to build a new mentality and a new thought”

The lack of a scientific approach for Muslim researchers on the historicity of the Qur’ānic texts and the sources from which the writer (or scribes) of the Qur’ān derived their information, and their neglect in delving into the comparison of these texts with previous texts circulating during the era that these texts were written, was due to a naïve argument that the contemporary researcher cannot accept. This argument was their conception that ‘The source of the Qur’ānic text is the angel Gabriel who dictated it to Muḥammad, and these texts were written down in Arabic on the Preserved Tablet since time immemorial.’

Such talk is a mockery of people’s minds and is simply laughing at them. It is time for Muslims to escape the culture of silence and break the sacred barrier that has surrounded the Qur’ānic texts, and instead search for facts revealed by researchers and specialists in the scientific, objective study of the Qur’ān, and place their reliance on archaeological discoveries, manuscripts, comparative religious phenomenology, comparative philology and other evidences that lead us to historical facts about the Qur’ānic text, its sources and its development.

The tyranny of the text has prevailed over every attempt at a renaissance—even the dream of a renaissance

For example, whenever the contemporary researcher detects a relationship between the Qur’ān and previous works, he cannot then simply rely on Islamic sources which have tried in every way to distort, confuse and obliterate the historical facts of the Qur’ān and its actual sources.

The divine nature that Muḥammad claimed for the text was on many occasions used as an ideological weapon against his opponents. We might remember that the Jews in Yathrib, before Muḥammad expelled them from their city and slaughtered their entire tribe, boasted to the Arabs that they were ‘the People of the Book’, while the Arabs were an illiterate nation that did not have a book. This would be turned on its head when Muḥammad entered Yathrib, the city of politics. Now with Muḥammad, the Arabs began to compose a book with a divine authority in the eyes of Muḥammad. This divinity, whether at the hands of Muḥammad himself or his followers, was transformed into an ideological factor pitched against the adherents of other divine authorities, especially those who were called ‘the People of the Book’.[7]

Christopher Luxenberg, the scholar who initiated a revolution concerning the truth of the origins of the Syriac Qur’ān, suggests that specialists should start afresh, neglect Muslim commentaries, and use only the most advanced linguistic and historical methodologies.[8]

The orientalist Alphonse Mingana argued that:

I am convinced that a thorough study of the text of the Kur’an independently of Muslim commentators would yield a great harvest of fresh information. The only qualification needed is that the critic should be armed with a good knowledge of Syriac, Hebrew, and Ethiopic. In my opinion, however, Syriac is much more useful than Hebrew and Ethiopic as the former language seems to have a much more pronounced influence on the style of the Kur’an… We must remark, however, that the very restricted knowledge which all the Muslim authors had of the other Semitic languages besides Arabic often renders their conclusions very unreliable and misleading. [9]

The writer and thinker Nādir Qurayṭ had this to say:

I think that there are many indications that lead us to believe that the Qur’ān, the hadiths, the Arabic language, Arabic calligraphy, the manuscripts that have been uncovered, the religious conceptions and so on are not such as to be credibly hailing from the Hijaz, since they need to be from area with a cultural, linguistic and religious heritage that was not available in such a sparsely populated, arid Bedouin area.[10]

The Qur’an itself does not reflect the conditions of the Arabian Peninsula, but rather the cultures of the Middle East to the north of the lands of the Arabian Peninsula. For this reason, argues Ḥamūd Ḥamūd:

everything mentioned in the Qur’ān must be reinterpreted semantically. By concentrating solely on the Qur’ān, by endlessly circling around it without any historical source, we will no doubt see how the Qur’ān remains closed, suspended in mid-air, silent, of unknown origin, without any reference in it to Makka, nor the Hijaz, nor the Ka‘ba, nor Yathrib, nor even to a person like Muḥammad (whose name is mentioned only four times in the Qur’ān. One suspects that his name was subsequently inserted into Qur’ānic verses long after his death). There is even the question of who was Muḥammad? This is still pending. Perhaps it was a character created by other characters because they needed this to provide the role of a ‘saviour’ for them during their arguments and debates.[11]


[1] The ‘scientific method’ is an organized method for collecting reliable information, recording observations and objectively analysing that information by following specific scientific methodologies with the intention of verifying its validity, modifying or adding new information, and then establishing some laws and theories, predicting the future occurrence of such phenomena and checking their causes. It is also the means by which a specific problem can be solved, or new facts can be discovered through accurate information.

[2] See Glossary: ‘Mu’tazila.

[3] See Glossary: ‘Preserved Tablet’ and ‘Khalq al-Qur’ān’ along with the Almuslih backgrounder on this doctrine here.

[4] See Glossary: ‘ijtihād’.

[5] Download ‘Abbās ‘Abd al-Nūr’s work My Ordeal with the Qur’ān here.

[6] Qur’ān XVIII (al-Kahf), 27: And recite what has been revealed to you of the Book of your Lord, there is none who can alter His words.

[7] Ḥamūd Ḥamūd, قراءة نقدية لكتاب هاوتينغ “فكرة الوثنية ونشوء الإسلام  

[8] On this see in the Almuslih Library: The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran : A contribution to the decoding of the language of the Koran (tr. of Die Syro-aramäische Lesart des Koran: ein Beitrag zur Entschlusselung der Koransprache.(English) Berlin: Hans Schiler, 2004.

[9] A. Mingana, Syriac Influence on the Style of the Kur’an, p.79. See this work in the Almuslih Library here.

[10] Citation in Ḥamūd Ḥamūd, Op. cit.

[11] Ḥamūd Ḥamūd, قراءة نقدية لكتاب هاوتينغ “فكرة الوثنية ونشوء الإسلام

Muslims need to place their reliance on archaeological discoveries, manuscripts, comparative philology and other evidences
Alfonse Mingana: “The very restricted knowledge which all the Muslim authors had of the other Semitic languages besides Arabic often renders their conclusions very unreliable”