THE GUY ANSWERS: Since early in the history of Islam, only one Quran text in the original Arabic language has been fully authorized. However, as with most religious matters, the story is complicated. The religion teaches that the Quran existed eternally in heaven before angels gradually revealed the words little by little to the Prophet Muhammad between the year 620 C.E. (“Common Era”) and his death in 632. A tradition that the Prophet was illiterate is said to show the Quran’s miraculous nature and that Muhammad was a passive transmitter who did not produce the words himself. (By contrast, Jews and Christians see their Bible as God’s Word but written by humans.)
The orthodox view of the Quran’s transmission is depicted in English by such scholars as Muhammad Mustafa al-Azami of King Saud University in Saudi Arabia, pioneer English translator N.J. Dawood, Majid Fakhry and Mahmud Zayid of the American University in Lebanon, and A.S. Abdul Haleem of the University of London. Muhammad dictated the revelations to his “Companions,” who preserved them by memorization in an ancient oral culture skilled in accurate preservation that way. (Christian conservatives say that’s also true for materials about Jesus collected in the New Testament Gospels. For instance, see the brand-new The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority by John H. Walton and D. Brent Sandy.) Quran passages were also said to be written down by the Prophet’s secretaries.
Orthodoxy holds that all the material of what became the Quran existed in writing during Muhammad’s lifetime, though oral recitation remained important. A non-Muslim expert, W. Montgomery Watt, judged it “probable” that “much of the Quran was written down in some form” while Muhammad was still living. Al-Azami even contends that the Prophet arranged the final order of the verses and chapters (“suras”), though western scholars disagree.
After Muhammad died, his successors pursued a full written compilation, partly because deaths of Companions in battle raised fears that their memorized material could be lost. Eventually the third caliph (religious and political ruler) in the Sunni line, Uthman (644-656 C.E.), ordered an authorized version, then assigned reciters to deliver copies to several major Muslim towns and sought to destroy all other Quran texts in order to enforce uniformity. Watt considered it “certain that the book still in our hands is essentially” Uthman’s authorized text. (A manuscript in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, is thought to be one-third of a surviving Uthman manuscript; Columbia University’s library has a copy.) Shiites use the same text as Sunnis though the faith’s two main branches disagree on the role of early caliphs. Egypt’s official Quran from 1924 is the recognized Arabic edition.
Certain French writers are skeptical about the orthodox history.
Other western experts, more respectful toward Islamic tradition but unrestrained by orthodoxy, have included Watt, Charles J. Adams, Richard Bell, and Arthur Jeffery. Keith E. Small of London’s Center for Islamic Studies has provoked new discussion with his 2011 book Textual Criticism and Quran Manuscripts, which applies New Testament scholars’ techniques to the Quran.
In Uthman’s day, written Arabic consisted only of consonants, some of which closely resembled each other, without any vowels or diacritical markings to differentiate letters, words, and pronunciations. Thus, though orthodoxy disagrees, Adams and others say the writing system required to fix the Arabic text did not exist till the late 9th Century C.E. Adams also says disparate Quran collections existed alongside Uthman’s version for three centuries with “real and substantial” differences but none that affect key doctrines. Citing Islamic sources, Jeffery listed 15 “primary” and other “secondary” Quran versions in circulation long after Uthman’s reign, though none of these has survived.
This, of course, conflicts with the scenario believed by most Muslims. An orthodox U.S. Muslim, Firas Alkhateeb, responds to such challenges posed by western scholars at http://lostislamichistory.com/how-do-we-know-the-quran-is-unchanged.
Duane, who also posted this blog’s December 13, 2013, question about early Bible manuscripts, correctly notes that for Muslims the Quran is truly Scripture only when read in the original Arabic language. All translations are seen as mere study aids and interpretations (whereas Jews and Christians use Bible translations as Scripture). Naturally, there are differences in wording among the various Qurans in English translation, just as there are with Bibles in English.
Texts and translations aside, Quran interpretation can be challenging because, unlike the Bible, the Book is rarely explicit about chronology. One major issue is which early Quran pronouncements may have been abrogated by later ones — crucial for politics, violence and warfare, and relations with other religions. The Hadith, authoritative traditions of Muhammad’s words and deeds, are used as essential aids to interpretation. Problems are compounded when Islamist radicals without the requisite technical training presume to pronounce on what the Quran means to teach.
Islam contends that Judaism and Christianity so corrupted the Bible that God needed to provide the Quran, a charge that those two faiths vigorously deny. Unlike with the Quran, no political ruler with the power to destroy competing manuscripts mandated a universal Bible version. The survival of numerous ancient Bible texts provides rich documentation that undergirds authenticity but requires translators to weigh which variant is closest to the original. For instance, some 230 Old Testament texts were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. They demonstrate the accuracy of transmission by ancient Hebrew scribes, but chief editor Eugene Ulrich thinks they indicate ancient Judaism had more than one edition of 14 biblical books. With the New Testament, Bruce Metzger wrote that 2,896 early manuscripts had been catalogued along with fragments, the earliest dating from the first half of the 2d Century A.D. All these variations occupy Bible translators but few affect major beliefs.
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