99 Truth Papers
Hyde Park Christian Fellowship
3rd June 1996
- The Problems with the Islamic Traditions
- An Internal Critique of the Qur’an
- An External Critique of the Qur’an
- Can We Use These Non-Muslim Sources?
- References Cited
In August of 1995 I was invited to debate the motion, “Is the Qur’an the Word of God?” with Dr. Jamal Badawi. The debate took place at Trinity College, Cambridge, and after our papers had been presented the debate was opened to the floor for an hour of questions from both the Muslims and Christians present. Below is the content of the paper which I gave at the debate, as well as further material which I used in the question and answer period, and further data which has come out since the time of the debate. Because of the interest shown in the topic, we have put this paper along with ten other apologetical papers, and certain Muslim rebuttals to the material, as well as a number of the popular 99 Truth Tracts on a web-site, on the internet (this site). Our hope is that with the material on this web-site the debate can continue around the world, and help to enliven the dialogue already begun by the Cambridge debate.
(Note: I have tried to footnote those statements which could prove to be contentious, or which would stimulate the readers to look for further data. I have used the Harvard model, which commences with the author’s name, followed by the date of publication, and page number). Let us then begin our study.
Islam claims that the Qur’an is not only God’s Word, but that it is the final revelation given to humanity. It comes from the “Mother of all books” according to sura 43:2-4. Muslims maintain that the Qur’an is an exact word-for-word copy of God’s final revelation which is found on the original tablets that have always existed in heaven. They point to sura 85:21-22 which says, “Nay this is a glorious Qur’an, (inscribed) in a tablet preserved.” Islamic scholars contend that this passage refers to the tablets which were never created. They believe that the Qur’an is an identical copy of the eternal heavenly book, even so far as the punctuation, titles and divisions of chapters are concerned.
According to Muslim tradition, these revelations’ began to be sent down (Tanzil or Nazil) (sura 17:85), to the lowest of the seven heavens in the month of Ramadan, during the night of power or destiny (lailat al Qadr) 1. From there they were revealed to Muhammad in installments, as need arose, via the angel Gabriel (sura 25:32). Consequently, every letter and every word is free from any human influence, which gives the Qur’an an aura of authority, even holiness, and with such, its integrity.
Most westerners have accepted these claims from Muslims at face value. They have never had the ability to argue their veracity, because the claims could neither be proved nor disproved, as their authority was derived solely from the Qur’an itself (dispelling any attempt to wrest from the pages of the Bible fulfilled prophecies of Deuteronomy 18, John 14, 16; and perhaps others).
There has also been a reticence to question the Qur’an and the prophet due to the adverse response directed upon those who were brave enough to attempt it in the past. The fact is that for too long westerners have been content to assume that the Muslims had evidence and data to substantiate their claims.
It is only now, as secular scholars of Islam (known as “Orientalists”) re-examine the Islamic sources, that evidence is being uncovered which puts into question much of what we have been led to believe concerning Muhammad and his revelation,’ the Qur’an.
The findings of these scholars indicate that the Qur’an was not revealed to just one man, but was a compilation of later redactions (or editions) formulated by a group of men, over the course of a few hundred years 2. In other words, the Qur’an which we read today is not that which was in existence in the mid-seventh century, but was more than likely a product of the eighth and ninth centuries 3. It was at this time, the Orientalists say, particularly in the ninth century, that Islam took on its classical identity and became that which is recognizable today. Consequently, the formative stage of Islam, they contend, was not within the lifetime of Muhammad but evolved over a period of 200-300 years 4.
Source material for this period, however, is sparse. Essentially the only sources which had been available to the historians were Muslim sources. What is more, outside the Qur’an,’ the sources are all late. Prior to 750 A.D. we have no verifiable Muslim documents which can give us a window into this formative period of Islam 5. Nothing exists with which to corroborate Muslim Tradition’ material (that is, Islamic history based on their traditions). Later documents simply draw upon earlier documents, which no longer exist today (if indeed they existed at all) 6. This classical period (around 800 A.D.) describes the earlier period, but from its own viewpoint, much like an adult, writing about their childhood will tend to remember those areas which were pleasant. Thus, the account is coloured, and biased, and as such cannot be accepted as authentic by historical scholars 7.
Consequently, the demarcation line between what the historian will accept and that which Muslim Traditions maintain is growing further apart for the following reasons: Islam, according to orthodox Muslim scholars, gives complete credence to divine intervention for its revelation. Muslim Tradition asserts that Allah sent down his revelation to Muhammad via the angel Gabriel (Jibril) over a period of twenty-two years (610-632 A.D.), in which time many of the laws and traditions which delineate that which we define as Islam were formulated and worked out.
Yet it is this scenario which secular historians are balking at today, as it presupposes that in the early seventh century, Islam, a religion of immense sophistication, of intricate laws and traditions was formulated in a backward’ nomadic culture and became fully functional in only twenty two years.
The Hijaz (central Arabia) before that time was hardly known in the civilized world. Even the later traditions refer to this period as Jahiliyya (or period of ignorance, implying its backwardness). Arabia before Muhammad did not have an urbanized culture, nor could it boast a sophisticated infrastructure needed to create, let alone maintain the scenario painted by the later traditions for the early period of Islam 8. So, how did it come together so neatly and so quickly? There is no historical precedence for such a scenario. One would expect such a degree of sophistication over a period of one or two centuries, provided there were other sources, such as neighbouring cultures from which traditions and laws could be borrowed, but certainly not within an unsophisticated desert environment, and certainly not within a period of a mere 22 years.
Secular historians cannot simply accept the position posited by the later traditions that this all came about by divine revelation, as they maintain that all of history must be substantiated with historical evidence. They are forced to stand back and ask how we know what we know, where the information originates, and whether it stands up to an “unbiased” or neutral historical analysis.
Historians had, therefore, been pushed into a dilemma. Due to their secular presuppositions they could not base their research on the existence of God, yet they could not throw out the Muslim Traditions (which naturally presuppose His existence), because they were the best and at times only documents available.
That is, until recently.
The new crop of historical experts on Islam (such as Dr. John Wansbrough, Michael Cook [both from SOAS], Patricia Crone formerly from Oxford, now lecturing at Cambridge, Yehuda Nevo from the University of Jerusalem, Andrew Rippin from Canada, and others), while admitting that there is a mystery concerning the question of divine intervention, are now looking more closely at other sources concerning the Qur’an to ascertain clues to its origins. It is these sources which are now beginning to reveal evidence for alternative explanations to the beginnings of a religion which today encompasses 1/5th of the world’s population, and is growing faster then any other major religion.
It is their work, therefore, that I would like to use, to understand better a possible origin for the Qur’an. It is their material, and others, which, I feel, Muslim apologists will need to face seriously in the years ahead, as much of this new data puts into serious doubt many of the claims forwarded by traditional Muslim scholars concerning their holy book, the Qur’an, and their prophet, Muhammad. Let us, then begin our analysis by taking a look at the sources for much of what we know concerning Islam, its prophet and its book.
B: The Problems with the Islamic Traditions
In order to make a critique of the Qur’an it is important not to listen to what the exegetes are saying today, but to go back to the beginning, to the earliest sources of the Qur’an which we have at our disposal, to pick up clues as to its authenticity. One would assume that this should be quite easy to do, as it is a relatively new piece of literature, having appeared on the scene, according to Muslims, a mere “1,400 years ago.”
B1: The Sources
The question of sources has always been a contentious area for the secular scholar of Islam, as any study of the Qur’an must begin with the problem of primary versus secondary sources. Primary sources are those materials which are the closest, or have direct access to the event. Secondary sources concern any material which tends to be more recent and, consequently, is dependent on the primary sources. In Islam, the primary sources which we possess are 150-300 years after the events which they describe, and therefore are quite distant from those events 9. For that reason they are, for all practical purposes, secondary sources, as they rely on other material, much of which no longer exists. The first and largest of these sources is that of “Muslim or Islamic Traditions.” Because of the importance of the Muslim Traditions it is crucial that we deal with them first.
Muslim Traditions are comprised of writings which were compiled by Muslims in the late eighth to early tenth centuries concerning what the prophet Muhammad said and did back in the seventh century, and commentaries on the Qur’an. They are by far the most extensive body of material which we have today on the early period of Islam. They are also written in greater detail then anything else in our possession, in that they include dates as well as explanations for what happened. They are a complement to the Qur’an.
The Qur’an by itself is difficult to follow, as it leaves the reader confused while it jumps from story to story, with little background narration or explanation. It is at this point that the traditions are important as they fill in details which otherwise would be lost. In some instances the traditions prevail over the Qur’an; as for example, when the Qur’an refers to three daily prayers 10, while the five daily prayers stipulated by the later traditions have been adopted by Muslims ever since 11.
A number of genres exist within these traditions. Their authors were not writers themselves, but were compilers and editors who drew together information “passed to them,” and produced it. There are many compilers, but the four who are considered by many Muslims to be the most authoritative in each genre all lived and assembled their material between 750-923 A.D. (or 120-290 years after the death of Muhammad). It may be helpful to list their works, along with their dates:
- The Sira are accounts concerning the traditional life of the prophet (including his battles). The most comprehensive Sira was written by Ibn Ishaq (died 765 A.D.), though none of his manuscripts exist today. Consequently, we are dependent on the Sira of Ibn Hisham (died 833 A.D.), which was supposedly taken from that of Ibn Ishaq, though, by his own admission (according to the research of Patricia Crone) he omitted those areas which might have caused offense (such as anything which he felt was repugnant, poems not attested elsewhere, as well as matters which he could not accept as trustworthy) 12.
- The Hadith are thousands of short reports or narratives (akhbar) on the sayings and deeds of the prophet which were collected by Muslims in the ninth and tenth centuries. Of the six most famous collections of Hadith, those of al-Bukhari (died 870 A.D.) are considered by many Muslims as the most authoritative.
- The Ta’rikh are histories or chronologies of the prophet’s life, the most famous written by al-Tabari (died 923 A.D.) early in the tenth century.
- The Tafsir, are commentaries and exegesis on the Qur’an, its grammar and its context; the best known also written by al-Tabari (died 923 A.D.).
B2: Late Dates
Obviously, the first question which we must ask is why these traditions were written so late, 150-300 years after the fact? We simply do not have any “account from the Islamic’ community during the [initial] 150 years or so, between the first Arab conquests [of the early seventh century] and the appearance, with the sira-maghazi narratives, of the earliest Islamic literature” [towards the late eighth century] 13. We should expect to find, in those intervening 150 years, at least remnants of evidence for the development of the old Arab religion towards Islam (i.e. Muslim traditions); yet we find nothing 14.
There are Muslims who disagree, maintaining that there is evidence of earlier traditions, principly the Muwatta by Malik ibn Anas (born in 712 A.D. and died in 795 A.D.). Norman Calder in his book Studies in Early Muslim Jurisprudence disagrees with such an early date and questions whether works can be attributed to the authors listed. He argues that most of the texts we have from these supposedly early authors are “school texts,” transmitted and developed over several generations, and achieving the form in which we know them considerably later than the putative “authors” to whom they are usually ascribed. Following the current assumption that “Shafi’i’s law” (which demanded that all hadith be traced to Muhammad) did not come into effect until after 820 A.D., he concluded that because the Mudawwana does not speak of Muhammad’s prophetic authority whereas the Muwatta does, the Muwatta must be the later document. Consequently, Calder positions the Muwatta not prior to 795 A.D., but sometime after the Mudawwana which was written in 854 A.D. In fact Calder places the Muwatta not even in eighth century Arabia but in eleventh century Cordoba, Spain 15. If he is correct then we are indeed left with little evidence of any traditions from the early period of Islam.
Humphreys crystallizes this problem when he points out that, “Muslims, we would suppose, must surely have taken great care to record their spectacular achievements, while the highly literate and urbanized societies which they had subjugated could hardly avoid coming to grips with what had happened to them.” 16 Yet, according to Humphreys all we find from this early period are sources which are, “either fragmentary or represent very specific or even eccentric perspectives,” completely annulling any posibility of reconstructing Islam’s first century adequately 17.
The question, therefore, must be asked as to where the eighth and ninth century compilers actually obtained their material from?
The answer is that we just don’t know. “Our evidence for documentation prior to 750 A.D. consists almost entirely of rather dubious citations in later compilations.” 18 Consequently, we have no reliable proof that the traditions speak truly of the life of Muhammad, or even of the Qur’an 19. We are asked to believe that these documents, written hundreds of years later are accurate, though we are not presented with any evidence for their veracity, outside of Isnads, which are nothing more than lists purporting to give the names of those from whom these oral traditions were passed down. Yet even the Isnads lack any supportive documentation with which to corroborate their authenticity 20! However, more of that later in the paper.
Muslims maintain that the late dates of the primary sources can be attributed to the fact that writing was simply not used in such an isolated area at that time. This assumption is completely unfounded, as writing on paper began long before the seventh century. Writing paper was invented in the fourth century, and used extensively thoughout the civilized world thereafter. The Umayyad dynasty was headquartered in the former Byzantine area of Syria and not Arabia. Thus it was a sophisticated society which used secretaries in the Caliphal courts, proving that manuscript writing was well developed there.
Furthermore, we are told that Arabia (better known as the Hijaz) in the seventh century and earlier, was an area of trade, with caravans plying routes north-south, and possibly east-and west. While the evidence shows that the trade was primarily local (as we will discuss later), caravans were in use. How did the caravaneers keep their records? They certainly didn’t memorize the figures.
And finally, we must ask how we came by the Qur’an if there was no-one capable of putting-pen-to-paper before that time? Muslims claim the existence of a number of codices of the Qur’an shortly after the death of Muhammad, such as those of Abdullah ibn Mas’ud, Abu Musa, and Ubayy b. Ka’b 21. What were these codices if they were not written documents? The Uthmanic text itself had to have been written, otherwise it would not be a text! Writing was available, but for some reason, no record was kept of those supposed earlier documents prior to 750 A.D.
Other Muslim scholars maintain that the absence of early documentation can be blamed on old age. They believe that the material upon which the primary sources were written either disintegrated over time, leaving us with few examples today, or wore out from heavy handling and so were destroyed.
This argument is rather dubious. In the British Library we have ample examples of documents written by individuals in communities which were not too distant from Arabia, yet they predate these manuscripts by hundreds of years. On display are New Testament manuscripts such as the Codex Syniaticus and the Codex Alexandrinus, both of which were written in the fourth century, three to four hundred years before the period in question! Why have they not disintegrated with age?
Where this argument is especially weak, however, is when we apply it to the Qur’an itself. The “Uthmanic text” of the Qur’an (the final canon supposedly compiled by Zaid ibn Thabit, under the direction of the third caliph Uthman) is considered by all Muslims to be the most important piece of literature ever written. As we noted earlier, according to Sura 43:2-4, it is the “mother of books.” Its importance lies in the fact that it is considered to be an exact replica of the “eternal tablets” which exist in heaven 22. Muslim tradition informs us that all other competing codices and manuscripts were destroyed after 646-650 A.D. Even “Hafsah’s copy,” from which the final recension was taken was burned. If this Uthmanic text was so important, why then was it not written on paper, or other material which would have lasted till today? And certainly, if the earliest manuscripts wore out with usage, why were they not replaced with others written on skin, like so many other older documents which are still in existence today?
We have absolutely no evidence for the original Qur’anic text 23. Nor do we have any of the alleged four copies which were made of this recension and sent to Mecca, Medina, Basra and Damascus (see Gilchrist’s arguments in his book Jam’ al-Qur’an, 1989, pp. 140-154, as well as Ling’s & Safadi’s The Qur’an 1976, pp. 11-17). Even if these copies had somehow disintegrated with age, there would surely be some fragments of the documents which we could refer to. By the end of the seventh century Islam had expanded right across North Africa and up into Spain, and east as far as India. The Qur’an (according to tradition) was the centrepiece of their faith. Certainly within that enormous sphere of influence there should be some Qur’anic documents or manuscripts which still exist till this day. Yet, there is nothing from that period at all.
While Christianity can claim more than 5,300 known Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, 10,000 Latin Vulgates and at least 9,300 other early versions, adding up to over 24,000 New Testament manuscripts still in existence 24, most of which were written between 25-400 years after the death of Christ (or between the 1st and 5th centuries) 25, Islam can not provide a single manuscript until well into the eighth century 26. If the Christians could retain so many thousands of ancient manuscripts, all of which were written long before the seventh century, at a time when paper had not yet been intoduced, forcing the dependency on papyrus which disintegtrated, then one wonders why the Muslims are not able to forward a single manuscript from this much later period, when it was supposedly revealed? This indeed presents a problem for the argument that the earliest Qur’ans all simply disintegrated with age, or were destroyed because they were worn.
In response, Muslims contend that they do have a number of these “Uthmanic recensions,” these original copies from the seventh century still in their possession. I have heard Muslims claim that there are original copies in Mecca, in Cairo and in almost every ancient Islamic settlement. I have often asked them to furnish me with the data which would substantiate their antiquity; a task which, to date, nobody has been able to do.
There are two documents, however, which do hold some credibility, and to which many Muslims refer. These are the Samarkand Manuscript, which is located in the Soviet State Library, at Tashkent, Uzbekistan (in the southern part of the former Soviet Union), and the Topkapi Manuscript, which can be found in the Topkapi Museum, in Istanbul, Turkey.
These two documents are indeed old, and there has been ample enough etymological and paleographical analysis done on them by scriptologists, as well as experts in Arabic calligraphy to warrant their discussion here.
Samarkand Manuscript – taken from Gilchrist’s Jam’ al-Qur’an 1989, pp. 148-150:
The Samarkand Manuscript is not at all a complete document. In fact, out of the 114 suras found in today’s Qur’ans, only parts of suras 2 to 43 are included. Of these suras much of the text is missing. The actual inscription of the text in the Samarkand codex presents a real problem, as it is very irregular. Some pages are neatly and uniformly copied out while others are quite untidy and imbalanced 27. On some pages the text is fairly expansive, while on other pages it is severely cramped and condensed. At times the Arabic letter KAF has been excluded from the text, while at others it not only is extended but is the dominant letter in the text. Because so many pages of the manuscript differ so extensively from one another, the assumption today is that we have a composite text, compiled from portions of different manuscripts 28.
Also within the text one can find artistic illuminations between the suras, usually made up of coloured bands of rows of squares, as well as 151 red, green, blue and orange medallions. These illuminations have compelled the scriptologists to give the codex a ninth century origin, as it is grossly unlikely that such embellishments would have accompanied a seventh century Uthmanic manuscript sent out to the various provinces 29.
Muslims claim that this too must be one of the original copies, if not the original one compiled by Zaid ibn Thabit. Yet one only needs to compare it with the Samarkand codex to realize that they most certainly cannot both be Uthmanic originals. For instance, the Istanbul’s Topkapi codex has 18 lines to the page whereas the Samarkand codex in Tashkent has only half that many, between 8 and 12 lines to the page; the Istanbul codex is inscribed throughout in a very formal manner, the words and lines quite uniformly written out, while the text of the Samarkand codex is often haphazard and considerably distorted. One cannot believe that both these manuscripts were copied out by the same scribes.
Experts in manuscript analysis use three tests for ascertaining their age. To begin with, they test the age of the paper on which the manuscript is written, using such chemical processes as carbon-14 dating. This is adequate for recent documents such as the Qur’an, as precise dating of between +/-20 years is possible. There has been a reticence to use it, however, because the amount of material that has to be destroyed in the process (1 to 3 grams) would require the loss of too much of the manuscript. A more refined form of carbon-14 dating, known as AMS (Accelerator Mass Spectometry) is now used, requiring only 0.5 to 1.0 mg. of material for testing 32. Yet, to date neither of these manuscripts have been tested by this more advanced method.
Experts also study the ink of the manuscript and analyse its makeup, discerning where it originated, or if it had been erased and copied over. But the age for these documents would be difficult to pinpoint because of the lateness of the document. These problems are compounded by the inaccessibility of these manuscripts for detailed research, due to a fear by those who guard them.
Thus the specialists must go to the script itself, analyse whether the manuscript is recent or old. This study is better known as paleography. Styles of letter formation change over time. These changes tend to be uniform as manuscripts were usually written by professional scribes. Thus the penmanship tended to follow easy to delineate conventions, with only gradual modifications 33. By examining the handwriting in texts whose dates are already known and noting their development over time, a paleographer can compare them with other undated texts and thereby ascertain the time period to which they belong.
It is when we apply the paleographical test to both the Samarkand and Topkapi manuscripts that we arrive at some interesting conclusions concerning their dates. It is this evidence which is proving to be the most serious argument against the possibility that either of these two manuscripts could be those copied out, or ‘Uthman’, or that they were even in existence in the seventh century.
The Kufic Script:
What most Muslims do not realize is that these two manuscripts are written in the Kufic Script, a script which according to modern Qur’anic experts, such as Martin Lings and Yasin Hamid Safadi, did not appear until late into the eighth century (790s and later), and was not in use at all in Mecca and Medina in the seventh century 34.
The reasons for this are quite simple. Consider: The Kufic script, properly known as al-Khatt al-Kufi, derives its name from the city of Kufa in Iraq 35. It would be rather odd for this to be the official script of an Arabic Qur’an as it is a script which takes its name from a city that had only been conquered by the Arabs a mere 10-14 years earlier.
It is important to note that the city of Kufa, which is in present day Iraq, was a city which would have been Sassanid or Persian before that time (637-8 A.D.). Thus, while Arabic would have been known there, it would not have been the predominant language, let alone the predominant script, until much later.
We know in fact, that the Kufic script reached its perfection during the late eighth century (up to one hundred and fifty years after Muhammad’s death) and thereafter it became widely used throughout the Muslim world 36. This makes sense, since after 750 A.D. the Abbasids controlled Islam, and due to their Persian background were headquartered in the Kufa and Baghdad areas. They would thus have wanted their script to dominate. Having been themselves dominated by the Umayyads (who were based in Damascus) for around 100 years, it would now be quite understandable that an Arabic script which originated in their area of influence, such as the Kufic script, would evolve into that which we find in these two documents mentioned here.
The Landscape Format:
Another factor which points to the late dates for these two manuscripts are the format in which they are written. One will observe that due to the elongated style of the Kufic script, they both use sheets which are wider than they are tall. This is known as the ‘landscape format’, a format borrowed from Syriac and Iraqi Christian documents of the eighth and ninth centuries. The earlier Arabic manuscripts were all written in the ‘upright format’ (thanks to Dr. Hugh Goodacre of the Oriental and India Office Collections, who pointed this fact out to me for the South Bank debate).
Therefore, it stands to reason that both the Topkapi and Samarkand Manuscripts, because they are written in the Kufic script, and because they use the landscape format, could not have been written earlier than 150 years after the Uthmanic Recension was supposedly compiled; at the earliest the late 700s or early 800s 37.
Ma’il and Mashq Scripts:
So what script would have been used in the Hijaz (Arabia) at that time? We do know that there were two earlier Arabic scripts which most modern Muslims are not familiar with. These are the al-Ma’il Script, developed in the Hijaz, particularly in Mecca and Medina, and the Mashq Script, also developed in Medina 38. The al-Ma’il Script came into use in the seventh century and is easily identified, as it was written at a slight angle (see the example on page 16 of Gilchrist’s Jam’ al-Qur’an, 1989). In fact the word al-Ma’il means “slanting.” This script survived for about two centuries before falling into disuse.
The Mashq Script also began in the seventh century, but continued to be used for many centuries. It is more horizontal in form and can be distinguished by its somewhat cursive and leisurely style 39.
If the Qur’an had been compiled at this time in the seventh century, then one would expect it to have been written in either the Ma’il or Mashq script.
Interestingly, we do have a Qur’an written in the Ma’il script, and considered to be the earliest Qur’an in our possession today. Yet it is not found in either Istanbul or Tashkent, but, ironically, resides in the British Library in London 40. It has been dated towards the end of the eighth century, by Martin Lings, the former curator for the manuscripts of the British Library, who is himself, a practising Muslim.
Therefore, with the help of script analysis, we are quite certain that there is no known manuscript of the Qur’an which we possess today which can be dated from the seventh century 41.
Furthermore, virtually all the earliest Qur’anic manuscript fragments which we do possess cannot be dated earlier than 100 years after the time of Muhammad. In her book Calligraphy and Islamic Culture, Annemarie Schimmel underlines this point when she states that apart from the recently discovered [Korans] in Sanaa, “the earliest datable fragments go back to the first quarter of the eighth century.” 42
Interestingly, these Qur’ans from Sanaa still remain a mystery, as the Yemen government has not permitted the Germans who discovered them to publish their findings. Could this be a possible cover-up due to what these earliest’ Qur’ans might reveal? There have been suggestions that the script in these early eighth century Qur’ans does not correspond to that which we have today. We still wait to know the whole truth.
From the evidence we do have, however, it would seem improbable that portions of the Qur’an supposedly copied out at Uthman’s direction have survived. What we are left with is the intervening 150 years for which we cannot account. However, before continuing with the Qur’an, let us return to the Muslim traditions and continue our discussion on whether these earliest sources of the Qur’an can provide an adequate assessment of the Qur’an’s authority. The body of traditions which are most widely used are the Hadith.
There is much discussion not only amongst the secular historians, but within Islam as well, even today, as to the credibility of the hadith compilations.
As we noted earlier, the bulk of our historical texts on early Islam were compiled between 850-950 A.D. 43. All later material used these compilations as their standard, while earlier material simply cannot be corroborated with any degree of authenticity 44. It could be that the earlier traditions were no longer relevant, and so were left to disintegrate, or were destroyed. We don’t know. What we do know is that these compilers most likely took their material from collections compiled within the decades around 800 A.D., and not from any documents which were written in the seventh century, and certainly not from the person of Muhammad or his companions 45.
We also know that many of their compilations were paraphrases of earlier Akhbars (anecdotes and phrases) which they considered to be acceptable, though what their criterion was is still a mystery 46. It now seems obvious that the early ninth century “schools of law” authenticated their own agenda by asserting that their doctrines came initially from the companions of the prophet and then from the prophet himself 47.
Schacht maintains that the origin for this undertaking was the scholar al-Shafi’i (died in 820 A.D.). It was he who stipulated that all traditions of law must be traced back to Muhammad in order to retain their credibility. As a result the great mass of legal traditions perpetrated by the classical schools of law invoking the authority of the prophet originated during the time of Shafi’i and later, and consequently express later Iraqian doctrines, and not those from early Arabia 48. It is this agenda imposed by each school of law concerning the choice of the traditions in the ninth and tenth centuries which many now believe invalidates the authenticity for the hadith.
Wansbrough agrees with Humphreys and Schacht when he maintains that literary records, although presenting themselves as contemporary with the events they describe, actually belonged to a period well after such events, which suggests that they had been written according to later points of view in order to fit the purposes and agendas of that later time 49. Take the example of the Shi’ites. Their agenda is indeed quite transparent, as they maintain that of the 2,000 valid hadith the majority (1,750) were derived from Ali, the son-in-law of the prophet, to whom all Shi’ites look for inspiration. To a casual observer this looks rather suspect. If the premise for authenticity for the Shi’ites was purely political, then why should we not deduce the same premise was likewise at work with the other compilers of the traditions?
The question we must ask is whether or not there is an underlying “grain of historical truth” which is left for us to use? Schacht and Wansbrough are both sceptical on this point 50.
Patricia Crone takes the argument one step further by contending that credibility for the traditions has been lost due to the bias of each individual compiler. She states,
The works of the first compilers such as Abu Mikhnaf, Sayf b.’Umar, ‘Awana, Ibn Ishaq and Ibn al-Kalbi are accordingly mere piles of disparate traditions reflecting no one personality, school, time or place: as the Medinese Ibn Ishaq transmits traditions in favour of Iraq, so the Iraqi Sayf has traditions against it. And all the compilations are characterized by the inclusion of material in support of conflicting legal and doctrinal persuasions. (Crone 1980:10)
In other words, local schools of law simply formed different traditions, relying on local conventions and the opinions of local scholars 51. In time scholars became aware of this diversity and saw the need to unify Muslim law. The solution was found by appealing to Prophetic tradition, which would have authority over a scholar’s ra’y (opinion). Hence the traditions attributed to the Prophet began to multiply from around 820 A.D. onwards 52.
Take the example of the Sira, which gives us the best material on the prophet’s life. It seems to take some of its information from the Qur’an. Although Isnads are used to determine authenticity (which we now know to be suspect, as we shall see later), its authority is dependent on the authority of the Qur’an, whose credibility is now in doubt as well (also to be discussed in a later section). According to G. Levi Della Vida, in his article on the Sira, the formation of the Sira down to the period of its reduction to its “canonical” form seems to have taken place along the following lines:
The continually increasing veneration for the person of Muhammad provoked the growth around his figure of a legend of hagiographical (idolizing) character in which alongside of more-or-less corrupt historical memories there gathered episodes modelled on Jewish or Christian religious tradition (perhaps also Iranian, although to a much lesser degree). 53
He goes on to explain that his material became , organized and systematized in the schools of the Medina muhaddithun, through a ‘midrash,’ subtle and full of combinations, made up of passages from the Qur’an in which exegesis had delighted to discover allusions to very definite events in the life of the Prophet. It was in this way that the history of the Medina period was formed. 54
We are therefore left with documents which hold little credibility 55. Even earlier material helps us little. The Maghazi, which are stories of the prophet’s battles and campaigns, are the earliest Muslim documents which we possess. They should have given us the best snapshot of that time, yet they tell us little concerning the prophet’s life or teachings. In fact, oddly enough nowhere in these documents is there a veneration of Muhammad as a prophet!
A further problem with the traditions are the contradictions, confusions and inconsistencies as well as anomalies which are evident throughout. For instance Crone asks, “What do we do with Baladhuri’s statement that the Qibla (direction for prayer) in the first Kufan mosque was to the west…that there are so many Fatimas, and that ‘Ali is sometimes Muhammad’s brother? It is a tradition in which information means nothing and leads nowhere.” 56
Certain authors wrote reports which contradict other reports which they had themselves written 57. Al-Tabari, for instance, often gives different, and sometimes conflicting accounts of the same incidents 58. The question of how far al-Tabari edited his material therefore remains an open one. Did he select the akhbar (short narratives) which he used in order to develop and illustrate major themes about the history of the Islamic state? We don’t know.
Ibn Ishaq informs us that Muhammad stepped into a political vacuum upon entering Yathrib (Medina), but then later tells us that he snatched away authority from a well-established ruler there 59. Ibn Ishaq also relates that the Jews in Medina were supportive of their Arab neighbours, and yet were molested by them 60. Which of these contradictory accounts are we to believe? As Crone points out, “the stories are told with complete disregard for what the situation in Medina may or may not have been like in historical fact.” 61
Another difficulty are the seeming contradictory accounts given by different compilers 62. Many are variations on a common theme. Take for example the 15 different accounts of Muhammad’s encounter with a representative of a non-Islamic religion who recognizes him as a future prophet 63. Some traditions place this encounter during his infancy 64, others when he was nine or twelve years old 65, while others say he was twenty-five at the time 66. Some traditions maintain that he was seen by Ethiopian Christians 67, or by Jews 68, while others maintain it was a seer or a Kahin at either Mecca, or Ukaz or Dhu’l-Majaz 69. Crone concludes that what we have here is nothing more than “fifteen equally fictitious versions of an event that never took place.” 70
Consequently it is difficult to ascertain which reports are authentic, and which are to be discarded. This is a problem which confounds Muslims and orientalists even today.
On the other hand, many of the traditions reflect the same material as the others, implying the recycling of the same body of data down through the centuries without any reference to where it originated.
Take for example al-Tabari’s history of the life of the prophet which is much the same as Ibn Hisham’s Sira, and much the same as his “Commentary on the Qur’an,” which is much the same as Bukhari’s Hadith collection. Because of their similarities at such a late date, they seem to point to a singular source early in the ninth century, from which all the others took their material 71. Does this suggest a “canon” of material authorized by the Ulama? Possibly, but we can never be sure.
These materials, consequently, create immense problems for the historian who may only consider them authentic if there is observable data which can be objectively assessed to be derived from outside the secondary sources themselves, such as the primary sources from which these traditions were obtained. Yet we have few if any to refer to. The question, therefore, must be asked, Did the primary sources ever exist, and if so would we be able to recognize them, using the secondary material at our disposal?’
A further problem with these traditions is that of proliferation 72. As we have mentioned, these works begin to appear not earlier than the eighth century (200-300 years after the event to which they refer). Then suddenly they proliferate by the hundreds of thousands. Why? How can we explain this proliferation?
Take the instance of the death of ‘Abdallah, the father of Muhammad. The compilers of the mid to late eighth century (Ibn Ishaq and Ma’mar) were agreed that Abdallah had died early enough to leave Muhammad an orphan; but as to the specific details of his death, God knew best’ 73.
Further on into the ninth century more seems to be known. Waqidi, who wrote fifty years later tells us not only when Abdallah died, but how he died, where he died, what his age was, and the exact place of his burial. According to Michael Cook, “this evolution in the course of half a century from uncertainty to a profusion of precise detail suggests that a fair amount of what Waqidi knew was not knowledge.” 74 This is rather typical of Waqidi. He was always willing to give precise dates, locations, names where Ibn Ishaq had none 75. “It is no wonder,” Crone retorts,
that scholars are so fond of Waqidi: where else does one find such wonderfully precise information about everything one wishes to know? But given that this information was all unknown earlier to Ibn Ishaq, its value is doubtful in the extreme. And if spurious information accumulated at this rate in the two generations between Ibn Ishaq and Waqidi, it is hard to avoid the conslusion that even more must have accumulated in the three generations between the Prophet and Ibn Ishaq.” 76
Consequently, without any real supervision, or the desire to present any documentation the compilers became more than what their office permitted.
Muslim scholars who are aware of this proliferation excuse it by contending that the Muslim religion was beginning to stabilize at this time. Thus, it was natural that the literary works would also begin to appear more numerous. Earlier written material, they say, was no longer relevant for the new Islam, and consequently was either discarded or lost 77.
While there is some credence to this theory, one would assume that even a few of these documents would have remained, tucked away in some library, or within someone’s collection. Yet there is nothing, and this is suspicious.
Of more importance, however, is whether the “Uthmanic Qur’anic text” (the final recension, supposedly compiled by Zaid ibn Thabit in 646-650 A.D., and the source for our contemporary Qur’an) would be included in this scenario? Certainly it would have been considered to be of relevance, for, as we have previously mentioned, according to tradition all of the other copies and codices were burned by the Caliph Uthman soon after, leaving this one text, from which four copies were made. Where are these copies today? The earliest manuscript segments of the Qur’an which we possess are not dated earlier then 690-750 A.D.! 78 Are those who hold this position willing to admit that these four copies were also discarded because they were no longer relevant for the new Islam?
Furthermore, the sheer number of Hadiths which suddenly appear in the ninth century creates a good deal of scepticism. It has been claimed that by the mid-ninth century there were over 600,000 hadith, or early stories about the prophet. In fact, tradition has it that they were so numerous that the ruling Caliph asked Al Bukhari, the well-known scholar, to collect the true sayings of the prophet out of the 600,000. Obviously, even then there was doubt concerning the veracity for many of these Hadith.
Bukhari never spelled out the criteria which guided his choice, except for vague pronouncements of “unreliability” or “unsuitability” 79. In the end, he retained only 7,397 of the hadith, or roughly a mere 1.2%! However, allowing for repetition, the net total was 2,762, gathered, it is said, from the 600,000 80. What this means is that of the 600,000 hadith 592,603 of them were false, and had to be scrapped. Thus nearly 99% of these hadith were considered spurious. This beggars belief!
Ironically it is just this sort of scenario which creates doubt about the authenticity of any of the hadith. Where did these 600,000 sayings come from in the first place if so many were considered to be spurious? Were any of them written down? Do we have any evidence of their existence before this time? None at all!
The fact that they suddenly materialized at this period (in the ninth century, or 250 years after the event to which they refer), and just as suddenly were rejected, seems to suggest that they were created or adopted at this time, and not at an earlier date. This echoes the statement made earlier by Schacht concerning the need by compilers of the ninth century to authenticate borrowed laws and traditions by finding a link with the Prophet. In their haste they borrowed much too liberally, which in turn, forced the Ulama to step in and canonize those hadith which they considered supported their agenda.
That still leaves us with the problem of how they decided which hadith were authentic and which were not.
To answer this problem, Muslim scholars maintain that the primary means for choosing between the authentic and the spurious hadith was a process of oral transmission called in Arabic Isnad. This, Muslims contend, was the science which was used by Bukhari, Tabari and other ninth and tenth century compilers to authenticate their compilations. In order to know who was the original author of the numerous hadith at their disposal, the compilers provided a list of names which supposedly traced back the authorship through time to the prophet himself. Because of its importance for our discussion, this science of Isnad needs to be explained in greater detail:
In order to give credibility to a hadith, or a narrative, a list of names was attached to each document supposedly designating through whom the hadith had been passed down. It was a chain of names of transmitters, stating, I received this from ____ who obtained it from ____ who got it from a companion of the prophet.’ (Rippin 1990:37-39)
While we in the West find oral transmission suspect, it was well developed within the Arab world, and the vehicle for passing down much of their history. The problem with oral transmission is that by its very nature, it can be open to corruption as it has no written formula or documentation to corroborate it. Thus, it can easily be manipulated according to the agenda of the orator (much like a child’s game of “Chinese Whispers”).
For the early Muslim, however, an Isnad was considered essential, as it gave the signature of those from whom the document came. Our concern is how we can know whether the names were authentic? Did the person to whom the Isnad is credited really say what he is credited as saying?
A compiler, in order to gain credibility for his writings, would list historically well-known individuals in his Isnad, similar to the custom we use today of requesting noteworthy individuals to write forwards in our books. The larger the list within the chain the greater its credibility. But unlike those who write forwards today, the ninth century compilers had no documentation to prove that their sources were authentic. Those individuals whose names they borrowed were long dead, and could not vouch for what they had allegedly said.
Curiously, “isnads had a tendency to grow backwards.’ In certain early texts a statement will be found attributed to a caliph of the Umayyad dynasty, for example, or will even be unattributed, as in the case of certain legal maxims; elsewhere, the same statements will be found in the form of hadith reports with fully documented isnads going back to Muhammad or one of his companions.” 81
It therefore seems likely that isnads were used to give authority to certain hadith which “clearly are concerned with matters of interest to the community in generations after Muhammad but which have been framed as predictions made by him.” 82 These isnads and the hadith which they supposedly authenticate merely testify to what the exegetes chose to believe rather than to what can be deemed as historical facts, which in turn weakens that which they sought to communicate (Crone 1987:214).
It is rather obvious, therefore, that the isnads rather then corroborating and substantiating the material which we find in the Muslim traditions, present instead an even greater problem. We are left with the realisation that without any continuous transmission between the seventh and eighth centuries, the traditions can only be considered a snapshot of the later ninth and tenth centuries and nothing more 83.
What is more, the science of Isnad, which set about to authenticate those very Isnads only began in the tenth century, long after the Isnads in question had already been compiled 84, and so have little relevance for our discussion. Consequently, because it is such an inexact science, the rule of thumb’ for most historians today is: the larger the list, which includes the best known historical names, the more suspect its authenticity.’ We will never know, therefore, whether the names listed in the Isnads ever gave or received the information with which they are credited.
Possibly the greatest argument against the use of Muslim Tradition as a source is the problem of transmission. To better understand the argument we need to delve into the hundred or so years prior to Ibn Ishaq (765A.D.), and after the death of Muhammad in (632 A.D.), since, “the Muslim ‘rabbis’ to whom we owe [Muhammad’s] biography were not the original memory banks of the Prophet’s tradition.” 85
According to Patricia Crone, a Danish researcher in this field of source criticism, we know little about the original material, as the traditions have been reshaped by a progression of storytellers over a period of a century and a half 86. These storytellers were called Kussas. It is believed that they compiled their stories using the model of the Biblical legends which were quite popular in and around the Byzantine world at that time, as well as stories of Iranian origin. From their stories there grew up a literature which belonged to the historical novel rather than to history 87.
Within these stories were examples of material which were transmitted by oral tradition for generations before they were written down. They were of two kinds: Mutawatir (material handed down successively) and Mashhur (material which was well-known or widely known) 88.
Patricia Crone, in her book: Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam, maintains that most of what the later compilers received came from these story-tellers (Kussas) who were traditionally the real repositories of history:
…it was the storytellers who created the [Muslim] tradition. The sound historical tradition to which they are supposed to have added their fables simply did not exist. It is because the storytellers played such a crucial role in the formation of the tradition that there is so little historicity to it. As storyteller followed upon storyteller, the recollection of the past was reduced to a common stock of stories, themes, and motifs that could be combined and recombined in a profusion of apparently factual accounts. Each combination and recombination would generate new details, and as spurious information accumulated, genuine information would be lost. In the absence of an alternative tradition, early scholars were forced to rely on the tales of storytellers, as did Ibn Ishaq, Waqidi, and other historians. It is because they relied on the same repertoire of tales that they all said such similar things. (Crone 1987:225)
ecause the earliest written accounts of Muhammad’s life were not written until the late Umayyid period (around 750 A.D.), “the religious tradition of Islam,” Crone believes, “is thus a monument to the destruction rather than the preservation of the past,” 89 and “it is [this] tradition where information means nothing and leads nowhere.” 90 Therefore, it stands to reason that Muslim Tradition is simply not trustworthy as it has had too much development during the course of its transmission from one generation to the next. In fact, we might as well repeat what we have already stated: the traditions are relevant only when they speak on the period in which they were written, and nothing more.
There are so many difficulties in the traditions: the late dates for the earliest manuscripts, the loss of credibility due to a later agenda, and the contradictions which are evident when one reads them, as well as the proliferation due to aggressive redaction by the storytellers, and the inexact science of Isnad used for corroboration. Is it any wonder that historians, while obliged to refer to the material presented by Muslim Tradition (because of its size and scope), prefer to find alternative explanations to the traditionally accepted ideas and theories, while looking elsewhere for further source material? Having referred earlier to the Qur’an, it makes sense, therefore, to return to it, as there are many Muslim scholars who claim that it is the Qur’an itself which affords us the best source for its own authority, and not the traditions.
- Pfander, 1910:262 ↩
- Rippin 1985:155; and 1990:3,25, 60 ↩
- Wansbrough 1977:160-163 ↩
- Humphreys 1991:71, 83-89 ↩
- Wansbrough 1978:58-59 ↩
- Crone 1987:225-226; Humphreys 1991:73 ↩
- refer to Crone’s studies on the problems of the traditions,’ especially those which were dependent on local storytellers, in Meccan Trade….1987, pp.203-230 and Slaves on Horses, 1980, pp. 3-17 ↩
- Rippin 1990:3-4 ↩
- Nevo 1994:108; Wansbrough 1978:119; Crone 1987:204 ↩
- suras 11:114; 17:78-79; 30:17-18 and possibly 24:58 ↩
- Glasse 1991:381 ↩
- Crone 1980:6 ↩
- Wansbrough 1978:119 ↩
- Nevo 1994:108; Crone 1980:5-8 ↩
- Calder 1993 ↩
- Humphreys 1991:69 ↩
- Humphreys 1991:69 ↩
- Humphreys 1991:80 ↩
- Schacht 1949:143-154 ↩
- Humphreys 1991:81-83 ↩
- Pearson 1986:406 ↩
- Sura 85:22 ↩
- Schimmel 1984:4 ↩
- McDowell 1990:43-55 ↩
- McDowell 1972:39-49 ↩
- Lings & Safadi 1976:17; Schimmel 1984:4-6 ↩
- Gilchrist 1989:139 and 154 ↩
- Gilchrist 1989:150 ↩
- Lings & Safadi 1976:17-20; Gilchrist 1989:151 ↩
- see Gilchrist, 1989, pp.151-153 ↩
- Lings & Safadi 1976:17-20 ↩
- Vanderkam 1994: 17 ↩
- Vanderkam 1994:16 ↩
- Lings & Safadi 1976:12-13,17; Gilchrist 1989:145-146; 152-153 ↩
- Lings & Safadi 1976:17 ↩
- Lings & Safadi 1976:12,17; Gilchrist 1989:145-146 ↩
- Gilchrist 1989:144-147 ↩
- Lings & Safadi 1976:11; Gilchrist 1989:144-145 ↩
- Gilchrist 1989:144 ↩
- Lings & Safadi 1976:17,20; Gilchrist 1989:16,144 ↩
- Gilchrist 1989:147-148,153 ↩
- Schimmels 1984:4 ↩
- Humphreys 1991:71 ↩
- Humphreys 1991:71-72 ↩
- Humphreys 1991:73, 83; Schacht 1949:143-145; Goldziher 1889-90:72 ↩
- Humphreys 1991:83 ↩
- Schacht 1949:153-154 ↩
- chacht 1949:145 ↩
- Rippin 1985:155-156 ↩
- Schacht 1949:147-149; Wansbrough 1978:119 ↩
- Rippin 1990:76-77 ↩
- Schacht 1949:145; Rippin 1990:78 ↩
- Levi Della Vida 1934:441 ↩
- Levi Della Vida 1934:441 ↩
- Crone 1987:213-215 ↩
- Crone 1980:12 ↩
- Humphreys 1991:73; Crone 1987:217-218 ↩
- Kennedy 1986:362 ↩
- Ibn Hisham ed.1860: 285, 385, 411 ↩
- Ibn Hisham ed.1860:286, 372, 373, 378 ↩
- Crone 1987:218 ↩
- Rippin 1990:10-11 ↩
- Crone 1987:219-220 ↩
- Ibn Hisham ed.1860:107 ↩
- Ibn Sa’d 1960:120 ↩
- Ibn Hisham ed.1860:119 ↩
- Ibn Hisham ed.1860:107 ↩
- Abd al-Razzaq 1972: 318 ↩
- Ibn Sa’d 1960:166; Abd al-Razzaq 1972:317; Abu Nu’aym 1950:95, 116f ↩
- Crone 1987:220 ↩
- Crone 1980:11 ↩
- Rippin 1990:34 ↩
- Cook 1983:63 ↩
- Cook 1983:63-65 ↩
- Crone 1987:22 ↩
- Crone 1987:224 ↩
- Humphreys 1991:72 ↩
- Schimmel 1984:4 ↩
- Humphreys 1991:73 ↩
- A.K.C. 1993:12 ↩
- Rippin 1990:38 ↩
- Rippin 1990:38 ↩
- Crone 1987:226 ↩
- Humphreys 1991:81 ↩
- Crone 1980:5 ↩
- Crone 1980:3 ↩
- Levi Della Vida 1934:441 ↩
- Welch 1991:361 ↩
- Crone 1980:7 ↩
- Crone 1980:12 ↩