Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Forgotten Witness: Evidence for the Early Codification of the Qur'an

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Forgotten Witness: Evidence for the Early Codification of the Qur'an

Article excerpt

In the last two decades a controversy has arisen over the period in which the text of Muslim scripture became codified. The traditional Islamic view can be summarized as follows.(1) Both Abu Bakr (A.H. 11-13/A.D. 632-34) and Umar (13-23/634-44) made efforts to gather together the scraps of revelation that had been written down by the faithful during the lifetime of the Prophet, on bones, on palm leaves, on potsherds, and on whatever other materials were at hand, as well as being preserved in "the breasts of men."(2) But it was the third caliph, Uthman (23-35/644-61), who first charged a small group of men at al-Madinah with codifying and standardizing the text. Alarmed by reported divergences in the recitation of the revelation, he commissioned one of the Prophet's former secretaries, Zayd b. Thabit, and several prominent members of Quraysh - Abd Allah b. al-Zubayr, Sa id b. al- As, and Abd al-Rahman b. al-Harith are those most often mentioned - to produce a standard copy of the text, based on the compilation in the keeping of Hafsah, daughter of Umar. If there was disagreement over language among members of the commission, it was to be resolved in accordance with the dialect spoken by Quraysh. Once the standard text had been established, several copies were made and sent to major cities in the Islamic domain, specifically Damascus, al-Basrah, al-Kufah, and perhaps others. Although there are variations in detail, for example, in the list of names of those who served on Uthman's commission and in the list of cities to which copies were sent, this basic outline is not in dispute within the Muslim world.

Oral recitation nevertheless remained the preferred mode of transmission, and, as time passed, variant versions of the text proliferated - the kind of organic change that is endemic to an oral tradition. In addition, because of the nature of the early Arabic script, in which short vowels were not indicated and consonants of similar form were only sometimes distinguished by pointing, writing, too, was subject to misunderstanding, copyist's error, and change over time. In the early tenth century, at Baghdad, Abu Bakr Ibn Mujahid (d. 324/936) succeeded in reducing the number of acceptable readings to the seven that were predominant in the main Muslim centers of the time: al-Madinah, Makkah, Damascus, al-Basrah, and al-Kufah. Some Qur an readers who persisted in deviating from these seven readings were subjected to draconian punishments. Nevertheless, with the passage of time, additional variant readings were readmitted, first "the three after the seven," then "the four after the ten." The modern Cairo edition, prepared at al-Azhar in the 1920s, is based on one of the seven readings permitted by Ibn Mujahid, that of Abu Bakr Asim (d. ca. 127/745) as transmitted by Hafs b. Sulayman (d. 180/796).

Early efforts by Muslim scholars to establish the sequence of the revelation, particularly the verses revealed at Makkah and those revealed at al-Madinah, were emulated by European scholars, who focused on similar problems, though often adopting somewhat different criteria for determining solutions.(3) Nevertheless, already in the early twentieth century Alphonse Mingana seriously challenged the entire historical framework outlined here.(4) Mingana, whose approach was patently tendentious,(5) argued that the Qur an had not been codified in book form until several decades later than was generally accepted, in the reign of the fifth Umayyad caliph, Abd al-Malik b. Marwan (65-86/685-705). In the 1970s John Wansbrough went much farther, concluding, on the basis of textual and linguistic analysis, that there is no evidence for a "canonical" version of the Qur anic text before the very end of the eighth century at the earliest.(6)

Wansbrough argued that the nature of the text itself presupposes "an organic development from originally independent traditions during a long period of transmission . . . juxtaposition of independent pericopes to some extent unified by means of a limited number of rhetorical conventions. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.