Touching and Ingesting: Early Debates over the Material Quran

Article excerpt


Ibn Abi Dawud al-Sijistani (d. 316/929) opens the Kitab al-Masahif, a study of the textus receptus of the Quran, with the famed narrative of how the third caliph, Uthman b. Affan (r. 23-35/644-656), was reading from the Quran when assassinated. Uthman's blood, the account goes, spilled over the codex and finally beaded up on the following verse, "... God will be sufficient for you against them, He is the all-hearing, the all-knowing" (Q 2:137). (1) This particular anecdote occurs with some frequency in the third/ninth-century historiographical sources, with chains of transmission (asanid) that stretch back to at least the Umayyad period. (2) The literary form of the account, foretelling future schisms within Islam, with such a clear intersection between scripture and salvation history, suggests a discourse associated with the professional qussas, early preachers who often served as mouthpieces for Umayyad propaganda. (3)

It is not entirely apodictic to observe that this particular narrative of Uthman's assassination presupposes a physical copy of the revelation to Muhammad. The portentous power of this particular codex (mushaf), (4) as it relates to Uthman's place in the larger arc of history, can only fully be understood when set against the central role that Uthman plays in the codification of the Quran. Not only is Uthman remembered for establishing the textus receptus, but also for attempting to burn or erase all variant Quranic copies then in circulation. (5) Nonetheless, the various accounts of the collection of the Quran into its final recension, as recorded in the maghazi, sira, and hadith literature, and inflecting the broader traditions of ulum al-Quran, are embroiled in contradictions and discrepancies. (6) Based on isnad analysis of the accounts detailing Uthman's recension, much of the material converges on the religious scholar Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri (d. ca. 124/742), who closely aligned himself to the Umayyad regime. (7) As to what extent these accounts can be traced even further back, and whether they reflect the actual process of codification, is open to debate. (8)

Origins are notoriously messy for historians; this is especially so for historians of religion. The codification of the Quran is a case in point--the impact of scholarship from the last century on the formative periods of Islam is still strongly felt, such that today it is much more difficult to accept at face value early Muslim accounts of their own history. As with any quest for origins, the question of how and when the revelation to Muhammad became a written scripture remains extremely contentious. This article, however, does not attempt to answer either how or when the Quran was first gathered into a mushaf in its canonical form, (9) as quests of this order are clouded by the Heilsgeschichte running throughout the primary sources and mired in the very epistemological positivism necessary for such endeavors. Rather, the present study examines early debates surrounding the physical codex in order to better understand the symbolic and ritual significance of the Quran as a material object in the nascent periods of Islamic history.

At the symbolic level, Uthman's blood-stained codex prefigures the first Muslim civil war (fitna), which centered on the conflicts ensuing from the accession to the caliphate of A1i b. Abi Talib (d. 40/661). In the Battle of the Camel (35/656) and again at Siffin (37/657), masahif appear prominently. In the course of these separate battles, the raising up of Quranic codices (rafal-masahif) is used to signify a move for arbitration. In the case of Muawiya (r. 41-60/661-680) at Siffin, several traditions detail how his forces lifted the masahif on the tips of their spears to demonstrate their desire for a resolution to the conflict through arbitration based on the book of God (kitab Allah). (10)

The historiographical accounts of these two incidents date back well into the second/eighth century, and while the sources themselves reflect a range of sectarian biases, the symbolic centrality of the Quran in its material form is consistent throughout. …