The Qur’ān does not tell us about space and time and is silent as to the historical events and places. The Qur’ān as a book is nought but a comprehensive collection: Surely on Us (devolves) the collecting of it and the reciting of it. [Qur’ān LXXV (al-Qiyāma), 17]. It is unaware of its author and makes no reference to the biography of Muḥammad. This book fails to maintain a historical sequence and only rarely tells us where events occurred. In fact, the Qur’ān is a strange and odd mystery, there is no other book like it.


HOW DO WE KNOW that the Qur’ānic texts date back to Muḥammad? What sources can the researcher rely on to ascertain this? All evidence that we know of dates back to later biographies written around 150 to 200 years after Muḥammad. The Qur’ānic text has passed through eras of development, as shown by the manuscripts discovered with different ancient scripts. Historiography is the science of documentation and data, yet the Qur’ān does not have a single corroborating witness, rather the Qur’ān simply testifies to itself, something unacceptable in a scientific and historical document, nor indeed to any other book. This is because the writer of any book has to provide the reader with introductions, themes and purposes with a conclusion at the end.

Muslim scholars say that ‘The burden is on those who make the claim, and the Qur’ānic narrations stand as accusation’. In Theodor Nöldeke’s work: The History of the Qur’ān,[1] which is a detailed historical presentation of everything related to the Qur’ān from the Revelation until the last edition appearing in the nineteenth century, its first part is devoted to the Makkan and Madinan sūras. By applying the historical method, Nöldeke followed Weil in his chronological division of the sūras into three Makkan periods and one Madinan period (a categorisation that was well received by many researchers). He also identified in this part the features of the Makkan and Madinan sūras in terms of their style and content. The third part of his work is devoted to the history of the Qur’ān. Nöldeke thus reordered the Qur’ān chronologically, contrary to the established Islamic way, and this ordering of his occupied the minds of all Orientalists and the most significant results in the arena of Qur’ānic studies are attached to this.

The phase of the Qur’ān’s compilation did not take place during the time of the Prophet

Research on the history of the Qur’ān focuses on documenting the Qur’ānic text: the circumstances of its revelation, collection and codification, and its readings. The aim is to link it to its general environment to demonstrate its human origin. (1)

The joint task undertaken by Theodor Nöldeke and his student Friedrich Schwally was to examine the epistemological and historical context in which the Qur’ān came about. It was by using the historical criticism of the Bible as a methodological model, in its role as a historical document of human history, that historical criticism of the Qur’ānic texts began. Nöldeke linked the text to the historical context and the prevailing culture in which it came about in order to root the Qur’ānic text to the environment of its revelation. The Qur’ānic discourse was linked to the predominating conditions of the time in a bid to understand the works of sīra (biographies) and the hadiths, and how these cast light on the sequence of the Qur’ānic text as it was revealed, yielding a chronological order differing from the current ordering of the Qur’ān. It concluded that the source of the Prophethood and the phase of the Qur’ān’s compilation did not take place during the time of the Prophet.

In 1978 John Wansbrough published his Qur’ānic Studies[2] in which he applied the radical approach to the criticism of the text which in the 19th century had famous been used for the texts of the Old and New Testaments. He concluded that the Qur’ān was not written in one, but multiple stages, and that the Qur’ān we have in our hands was written down only in the eighth century AD / second century AH. (2).

The Qur’ān went through five stages of development before reaching the current stage:

1 – The first stage is one of oral and written data: before Muḥammad there existed both oral texts and written texts. An example is this is the depiction of the elephant which was well-known and recorded by the historian Sebeos when describing a battle that took place between the Persians and the Byzantines in 591 AD. 

2 – These oral and written texts were taken by Muḥammad and presented to the Arabs calling them ‘revelations’. The word ‘revelation’ does not necessarily imply a figure like Jibrīl but rather has the sense of ‘inspiration’. The word ‘revelation’ had its own interpretation at that time. Muḥammad thus left to the people an oral text along with texts on stones and fragments. 

The Qur’ān we have in our hands was written down only in the eighth century AD / second century AH

Thus, prior to Muḥammad, the texts existed both in oral and written form, and these Muḥammad made use of. For example, the Sūrat al-Kahf is the story told by Jacob of Serugh which existed among the Syrians. Muḥammad adopted this culture and reproduced it in a new form for the Arabs, so as to raise them to a higher level.[3]

3 – The stage of the official text: After the death of Muḥammad and due to the wars of apostasy and the death of some of the Companions, the caliphs determined that the oral text should be recorded and written down as an official text for use by the Arabs. Several muṣḥafs appeared on the scene, about 20 in all, and after the Ḥafṣa Qur’ān was completed a committee was formed under the direction of Zayd bin Thābit to standardise the Qur’ān. Even so, other Qur’āns appeared on the scene, such as the Qur’āns of ‘Abdullah ibn Mas‘ūd, Ubayy ibn Ka‘b and ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib. 

These Qur’āns were distributed with the Islamic conquests and spread over the areas conquered by the Arabs. A problem consequently arose since more than one official version of the Qur’ān was appearing in Egypt, the Levant and Iraq. These Qur’āns entirely differed in the number and content of the sūras and in the number of verses.

4 – The fourth stage: the caliphate state under the reign of ‘Uthmān saw fit to form a committee to collate the text so that there should be a unified version known as the Canonical Text or the Imam’s Text, and the use of this version was imposed on the provinces.

But the problem remained unsolved and the different readings remained. Al-Ḥajjāj ibn Yūsuf al-Thaqafī, governor of ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Marwān in Iraq, is said to have ‘rewritten the Qur’ān’, making corrections or modifications to the Qur’ānic text (as mentioned in the letter of the Emperor of Byzantium Leo III to the Umayyad caliph ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Azīz). But there are narrations that suggest more corrections than that (the other Qur’āns were subsequently burned).

Muḥammad adopted this culture and reproduced it in a new form for the Arabs, so as to raise them to a higher level

We now reach the stage where the multiplicity of readings continued, because the ‘Uthmānī Qur’ān featured two problems: the first was that it was written without diacritical dots. This means that there are a number of readings possible according to what the reciter reads and understands by the verses. The second is that the Canonical Text continued to bear the weaknesses of the author. 

5 – The fifth stage: this is the final stage where we are now, where we have a text, but one which needs to be modified according to the development of the Arabic language and the evolution of the grammatical rules of this language, so that it conforms to the grammar and the development of the language. This in addition to corrections made due to differences in belief, something which forced Muslims to develop the texts of the Qur’ān and the commentaries.  Some corrections were thus made for doctrinal purposes. The Arabic language was not a developed language at the time and the letters were not provided with diacritical dots or vocalised. Because of that there are now 14 official readings, and this is in addition to changes made to some words within the official text.

In this last stage doubts and ambiguities have emerged concerning the Qur’ānic text. Scholars such as Edward Calais, with the participation of Muḥammad Masīḥ, a researcher in Qur’ānic manuscripts, have produced a 45-page research paper entitled Palaeography and Doubts Concerning Intellectual or Doctrinal Tampering.

The conclusions of this research are that the last stage saw several adjustments made for doctrinal or linguistic purposes. In his research Edward Calais noted more than 40 verses in the Qur’ān that were later added to the Qur’ānic text following the death of Muḥammad. 

For example: the word ‘Muḥammad’ is found four times in the Qur’ān and these were added later. That ism that the name Muḥammad did not exist in the Qur’ān but was added later (as discussed in our earlier articles).
There is also the Sūrat al-Isrā,’ especially the first verse :

Glory be to Him Who made His servant to go on a night from the Sacred Mosque to the remote mosque (al-Aqṣā)

It is believed that this verse was added after the period of ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Marwān based on the construction of the Dome of the Rock mosque. 

In sum, the first Qur’ān (qeryānā or qeryūnā in Syriac) differs from the current Qur’ān because the Qur’ān over time passed through stages of development with additions and deletions made, until it ended up the way it is today. Its evolution took place in a way that could provide a model to serve political interests. There are thus differences noticeable between newly discovered manuscripts, such as the San‘ā’ manuscript, and the current Qur’ān.

[1] See this work in the Almuslih Library.

[2] J Wansbrough, Quranic Studies – Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation available in the Almuslih Library.

[3] The Sūrat al-Kahf contains the story of the Companions of the Cave and is a reproduction of the story of the Sleepers of Ephesus recorded in Syriac by Jacob of Serugh (c. 450-521) which is held to have been based on a now lost Greek original. It is a story of a group of Christian youths who hid in a cave c. AD 250 to escape persecution. In these early versions the number of sleepers in the cave varied, and the literary controversy on this is hinted at in Qur’ān XVIII (al-Kahf), 22, where it advises do not argue about them except with sure knowledge, nor consult any of those who debate about them. (Ed).

Read Part One of this essay here

Read Part Two of this essay here