Some Proposed Emendations to the Text of the Koran

By Bellamy, James A. | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, October-December 1993 | Go to article overview

Some Proposed Emendations to the Text of the Koran


Bellamy, James A., The Journal of the American Oriental Society


In this article, eleven difficult passages in the Koran which have defied the efforts of both Muslim commentators and orientalists to explain them are interpreted as corruptions resulting from faulty copying by scribes. Emendations of the text are proposed to bring it as close as possible to the form it had when first spoken by the prophet Muhammad. At the end, a few changes are made in the author's old hypothesis that the Mysterious Letters at the head of some of the surahs are old abbreviations of the basmalah.

A curious feature of studies on the Koran in the West over the last 150 years is the scant attention paid by scholars to the Koranic text as such. Orientalism has many excellent works on the Koran to its credit, but one seeks in vain for a systematic application of the techniques of textual criticism to the textual problems of the Koran, although classicists and Biblical scholars have for centuries made continuous efforts to improve the quality of the texts that are the bases of their disciplines. It is difficult to see why this should be so. Early Koran scholars such as Fleischer, Noldeke, and Goldziher were good textual critics; they were all well educated in classical and Biblical studies, and they made good editions of later Arabic texts that are still in use today.

Whatever the reasons, Western scholarship, with very few exceptions,(1) has chosen to follow the Muslim commentators in not emending the text. When faced with a problem, the Westerners have resorted to etymologizing and hunting for foreign words and foreign influences. They have produced a great deal of valuable scholarship important for our study of the Koran and the origins of Islam, but where they exercised their skill on corrupt texts, they, of course, produced only fantasies.

The Arabs, on the other hand, tend to paraphrase, stating in different terms what they think the passage must mean. However, their Arabic was very good, so we findhe most important clue that an error may have been made is the lack of good sense in the word or passage and the resulting variety of opinion among scholars as to what it means. Another clue is when the word is transmitted in more than one form. In general, different views about the meaning and/or form of a particular word make it likely that the word is wrong. Still another clue is when the word in question is said by the lexicographers to be dialectal or foreign. Some such claims may be the result of academic pretentiousness, but others indicate that the word was not known to the Meccans and the Medinese and hence is probably a mistake.

In proposing emendations, I shall follow rules laid down by classicists. In order to be acceptable, an emendation must make good sense, better than the received text; it must be in harmony with the style of the Koran; it must also be palaeographically justifiable; and finally, it must show how the corruption occurred in the first place.

The cases examined below share a common feature; each occurs in a context of simple, everyday words, which makes it most unlikely that the difficult word represents something mysterious, arcane, or foreign. Indeed, in some cases, as noted above, the meaning required is obvious, or nearly so, so all we have to do is search for a simple, everyday word that will fill the slot and, at the same time, meet the requirements for emendation listed above. The results are likely to be dull and commonplace, since they will lack the ambiguity of the mistakes which allows the imagination of scholars to soar.

1. HASAB : FUEL

We shall begin with a case in which, by a lucky accident, both the original and the error have been preserved. In 21:98 we read: innakum wa-ma tabuduna min duni llahi hasabu jahannama, "You and what you worship other than God shall be the fuel of hell." However, Ubayy read hatab instead of hasab, as did Ali and Aishah.(5) Bell, p. 313, translates, "coals," but in a note says it literally means "pebbles"; Paret, p. …

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