Reading the Quran with Richard Bell

Article excerpt

BORN IN SCOTLAND IN 1876 AND educated at Edinburgh, receiving degrees in both Semitic studies and divinity, Richard Bell(1) came to some prominence in the field of the study of the Quran and early Islam with the publication in expanded form of his 1925 Edinburgh University Gunning Lectures, under the title The Origin of Islam in its Christian Environment.(2) A little over a decade later he published the work for which he has become most famous (and infamous), The Quran, Translated, with a Critical Re-arrangement of the Surahs.(3) In the preface to that work, Bell mentioned that "owing to the cost of printing, the mass of notes which have been accumulated in the course of the work have had to be suppressed". In the decades surrounding the appearance of his translation, he also published a series of 15 articles on Muhammad and the Quran dedicated to explaining the ideas and principles lying behind his work.(4) Finally, just before his death in 1952, he was able to bring together some class lectures which provided a full explanation of his views on the Quran, something which he felt was desirable because they "have not always been understood"; these lectures appeared as Introduction to the Quran.(5) In a publisher's note to the Introduction, mention was made once again of Bell's notes to his translation, which, it was clarified, were not the same as this text; the notes, it was said, "may be published if circumstances permit". In 1991, circumstances appear to have prevailed and the massive, two-volume A Commentary on the Quran(6) has appeared. Having apparently lingered in microfilm form (the original typescript is reported to have gone missing) in a cupboard of Edmund Bosworth for some twenty years, these are Bell's notes to his translation which he had been revising for publication in the years before his death.

Assessments of Bell's scholarship have varied radically over the years. A recent attempt to rehabilitate the theories of Bell (whose analysis of the Quran, it is stated, "has often been misunderstood or ignored by later writers.... But it must be remembered that Bell was a pioneer in this field ..."(7)) is matched by strident condemnations of the work of this "Scottish crackpot."(8) Indeed, for some people, Bell seems to have become a prime representative of Christian-Orientalist bias; looking at some of his works in the library recently, I discovered that someone had written at the end of the preface to Origin, under the name Richard Bell, "F*** you son-of-an-infidel whore!" and his Introduction was defaced throughout, although in more reasoned language. These sorts of comments do not, of course, reflect an understanding of Richard Bell's principles of scholarship, only a reaction to his most infamous act, reordering the text of the Quran by cutting it up into little bits.

Bell's approach to the Quran developed, according to his own statements, while he was preparing his lectures which were published as Origin.(9) When asking the question, "what was the role of Christianity in the rise of Islam?" he saw a unifying development of that theme at work in the text of the Quran. He came to rely on this insight because of the untrustworthy nature of Muslim tradition, especially as related to the first part of Muhammad's life, and because of the confusion which he sensed in the text of the Quran. Bell saw evidence of Muhammad's own revisions in the Quran and he argued that all of the suras, even the shortest ones, were of a composite nature. Viewing Muhammad's career in relation to his increasing knowledge of and contact with Christianity was Bell's overall insight. "The key to a great deal both in the Quran and in the career of Muhammad lies, as I hope to show, just in his gradual acquisition of knowledge of what the Bible contained and of what Jews and Christians believed" (Origin, 68-69). Much of this reconstruction depended upon a psychological reconstruction of Muhammad. "Muhammad was a visionary, no doubt, but he was not a crack-brained enthusiast. …