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J. Kashi

The Quranic Corpus

The Quran (from Arabic qur’ān, ‘recitation’ or ‘reading’) is a relatively compact scripture: with roughly 77,400 Arabic words, its length equals approximately 56 percent of the Greek New Testament (138,020 words in total). It is composed in a language close to the idiom of early Arabic poetry, although both the lexicon and certain grammatical peculiarities of Quranic Arabic are distinct from poetic Arabic. The standard way of reciting the Quran displays the desinential (word-final) inflection of nouns and verbs (i‘rāb) that is a defining feature of classical Arabic.

The first thing that readers are apt to notice is that the Quran displays neither a linear narrative organisation, nor a topical arrangement. This makes it difficult to give a concise account of the Quran’s structure and content. Its basic format is perhaps best characterised as consisting of revelatory addresses treating a wide spectrum of topics and interweaving a multitude of discursive registers. In its standard recension, the Quranic corpus is divided into 114 textual units, designated as ‘surahs’. For various reasons, it would be inadequate to gloss these as ‘chapters’.

One core feature that unites most of the material compiled in the Quranic corpus is the fact that it is punctuated by a divine voice employing the first-person singular or plural (Q 2:2–3). Despite the prominence of this divine voice throughout the Quran, there are entire surahs that lack any explicit occurrence of the divine first person (Q 1; 62; 79; 82; 85; 91; 93; 98–107; 109–114), even though a divine speaker may still be taken to be implied by direct addresses of the Quranic Messenger (Q 62:11). There is also a substantial number of instances of the first person that clearly represent a human rather than a divine speaker. It is true that in the majority of such cases, human first-person statements are preceded by the imperative ‘Say’ (qul) and are thus embedded within a divine utterance (Q 3:15, 20, 31), yet this is by no means always the case (see Q 11: 2–4; 51:50–51).

A further complication arises from the fact that throughout the entire corpus first- and third-person references to God can alternate at a high frequency, sometimes even within one and the same sentence (Q 2:172; 7:143). The divine first person in the Quranic corpus means that the Quran styles itself fairly pervasively as divine speech. This divine voice has its natural counterpart in second-person addresses. They occur not only in the plural (Q 37:4: ‘Your God is one’), but also in the singular (Q 20:2–3).

On occasion, this Quranic ‘you’ (singular) – or, in a more dated register, ‘thou’ – may be understood generically. Yet in the majority of cases, it unmistakably refers to a specific individual who is cast as the recipient of divine revelations and charged with conveying them to a wider audience (Q 17:106; 20:2–3; 76:23), who is defended and comforted in the face of resistance and polemical aspersions (Q 50:29–49; 68:2–6, 44–52; 76:23–26), who can even be rebuked (Q 80:1–10), and whose domestic circumstances and conflicts are sometimes commented on (Q 33:28–34, 37, 53–55; 66:1–5). This individual must be identical with the ‘messenger’ (rasūl) of God whom the Quran’s audience is repeatedly commanded to obey (Q 3:32, 132; 4:13, 59, 69). The Quranic Messenger is also given other titles, for instance, that of a ‘warner’ (nadhīr, mundhir as in Q 32:3; 35:24; 79:45), a ‘bearer of eschatological tidings’ (bashīr or_ mubashshir_ as in Q 11:2; 17:105), and a ‘prophet’ (nabiyy as throughout Q 33). Four verses call the Messenger ‘Muhammad’ (Q 3:144; 33:40; 47:2; 48:29). Like God, the Messenger can be referred to in the third person, especially when the divine speaker turns directly to his audience (Q 81:22).

The divine voice alternately addresses the Messenger (in which case the Quranic audience may be referred to in the third person) and the Messenger’s hearers (in which case the Messenger may be referred to in the third person). In many cases, however, the Messenger and the audience are not only spoken to or spoken about, but themselves figure as speakers. As pointed out above, utterances by the Messenger are normally reconciled with the Quran’s divine voice by means of the framing command ‘Say’, while statements ascribed to the Quranic audience are preceded by formulae of citation such as ‘They say’. These techniques of transitioning from divine to human speech permit the Quran to stage polemical exchanges between the Messenger and his hearers, often interrupted by direct interventions of the divine voice (Q 6:4–73; 37:11–18).

The Quranic proclamations describe themselves as a divine ‘reminder’ (tadhkirah) to man (Q 74:54–55; 80:11–16) and a ‘sending down (tanzīl) from the Lord of all beings’ (Q 26:192; 69:43), thus making explicit what is persistently implied by their extensive deployment of the divine voice. They furthermore claim to derive from an archetypical celestial ‘scripture’ (kitāb) or ‘tablet’ (lawh) (Q 56:77–80; 80:11–16; 85:21–22) and even to constitute a scripture in their own right (Q 2:2–3); they comment on the manner in which they have allegedly been transmitted to the Quranic Messenger (Q 26:192–195); and they defend themselves against the charge of constituting mere poetry or oracles (Q 36:69–70; 69:38–51). One very well-known verse even appears to impart rudimentary guidance on how the Quranic corpus is, or rather is not, to be interpreted, acknowledging that it contains ambiguous passages but warning the addressees against seeking the latter’s interpretation (Q 3:7). Many of these statements occur in the context of polemical exchanges and appear to respond to doubts and objections emanating from the Quran’s audience.

The Quran is not a completely uniform text. What is perhaps more unusual is that such textual variance is not just a feature of the Quran’s manuscript transmission, but was embraced by Muslim scholars, who devoted much effort to cataloguing variant readings (singular qirāʾah) of the Quranic text. The basic form of the Arabic script is characterised by considerable ambiguity, representing the twenty-eight consonants of the Arabic language by a significantly lower number of graphemes. Certain letters must therefore stand for different consonants. A remedy consisted in disambiguating equivocal graphemes by placing diacritical (that is, ‘distinguishing’) dots above or below them, a practice that is selectively attested already in papyri and inscriptions from the first Islamic century. The subsequent development of vowel signs then permitted a fully determinate transcription of Arabic. There is, first, the word’s basic consonantel skeleton (rasm). This undotted and unvocalised sequence of graphemes, read from right to left, leaves a large interpretive margin. It is only by adding diacritical dots to this consonantel skeleton that we arrive at an unequivocal representation of the consonantal sequence. Depending on which vowels are inserted into this string of consonants, this dotted rasm could still represent a number of words. Furthermore, since geminated (that is, doubled) consonants are not written twice, all these residual ambiguities are removed by adding the remaining dashes and curls that grace the full spelling of the word. For any written Arabic text, we may thus distinguish between its basic consonantal skeleton, and the different ways in which this skeleton can be dotted and vocalised. In the case of the Quran, these two layers of the script correspond to different degrees of textual invariance.

The Islamic Account

According to the Islamic tradition, the Quranic corpus faithfully documents the divine revelations that were proclaimed by the Prophet Muhammad in the early seventh century in the West Arabian towns of Mecca and Medina. Muhammad’s hometown of Mecca, located some sixty-seven kilometres inland from the Red Sea and about halfway down the Western coast of the Arabian Peninsula, was situated close to the site of a major Arabian pilgrimage ritual, the ḥajj, and also housed an intramural sanctuary, the Ka‘bah. The city was controlled by the tribe of Quraysh, who were engaged in long-distance trade, exporting pastoralist products – such as leather goods, woollens, and clarified butter – to southern Syria and Yemen, and carrying back cloth, clothing, arms, and agriculturalist foodstuffs that were then distributed within the Arabian Peninsula. After Muhammad began proclaiming the Quran in about 610, the explicit monotheism of his preaching increasingly set him and his followers in opposition to the polytheism that formed the foundation of Mecca’s religious status as a pagan shrine city. In 622, Muhammad and his supporters therefore found it necessary to relocate to the oasis settlement of Yathrib, situated some 320 kilometres to the north – the famous ‘emigration’, or hijrah, that marks the starting point of the Islamic calendar.

At Yathrib, better known as Medina (al-madīnah, ‘the city’), a covenant was concluded that united the Muslims into a new community (ummah) of internally autonomous tribal units who recognised Muhammad as the ‘Messenger of God’. The document, known as the ‘Constitution of Medina’, shows that this ummah included, or was at least affiliated with, a number of Jewish tribes, whose different religious identity is explicitly recognised: ‘the Jews have their religion (dīn) and the Muslims have their religion.’ Crimes and disputes were to be ‘brought before God and Muhammad’. Relatively soon after the hijrah, the supra-tribal community embarked upon a military confrontation with the Meccans, involving several skirmishes and battles as well as a full-blown siege of Medina, known as the Battle of the Trench, in 627. In 630, the Meccans finally surrendered to Muhammad. During these years of armed conflict with the Meccans, the three main Jewish tribes of Medina were either expelled or fought and defeated in battle. At the time of his death in 632, Muhammad left behind an incipient Islamic polity centred in Medina that had already become a dominant regional power in the Arabian Peninsula. The historical successors of the Prophet Muhammad, known generally as the caliphs (from khalīfah, ‘successor’ or ‘deputy’), swiftly advanced into Palestine, Syria, and Mesopotamia; already the second historical caliph, ‘Umar (r. 634–44), won major victories against the Byzantine and Sasanian empires at the battles of Yarmūk and Qādisiyyah, both fought in 636.

This is generally regarded as the historical account known from the comprehensive narrative of Muhammad’s life and career, including specific dates and a substantial number of names, we are dependent on Islamic literary sources that postdate the events they narrate by at least a century. The best-known of these biographical works is by ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Hishām’s (d. 833–4), “Life of Muhammad, the Messenger of God” (sīrat Muḥammad rasūl Allāh), which reworks and abridges Muḥammad ibn Isḥāq’s (d. 767–8) earlier “Book of [the Prophet’s] Military Expeditions” (kitāb al-maghāzī). Similar material is also preserved elsewhere, for example, in the “Book of Military Expeditions” contained in ‘Abd al-Razzāq ibn Hammām al-Ṣan‘ānī’s (d. 827) collection of traditions from the Prophet and other early authorities or in Muḥammad ibn Jarīr al-Ṭabarī’s (d. 923) monumental “History of the Messengers and Kings”. These and other authors claim to be citing earlier sources and are wont to preface reports about events in the life of Muhammad by a list of the successive transmitters through whom they believed the information in question to have reached them. Similarly, the foregoing digest of how the Quranic corpus was compiled and committed to writing is based on two widespread reports that are found in collection of the extra-scriptural sayings and actions of Muhammad and are traced back to early transmitters.

The Non-Islamic Account

In light of the non-Islamic tradition, one way of cross-checking the historical reliability of the Islamic tradition, is to examine what seventh- and eighth-century non-Islamic sources have to say about the history and character of early Islam.

Probably the earliest pertinent reference occurs in the Greek Doctrina Iacobi, a Christian anti-Jewish text allegedly written in 634. It mentions the appearance of ‘a prophet coming with the Saracens’ who is said to be announcing the advent of the Messiah and claiming to be in possession of the keys of paradise. An Armenian history composed in the 660s, conventionally referred to as the History of Pseudo-Sebeos, portrays Muhammad as calling the Arabs to take possession of Palestine, understood to be their rightful inheritance as descendants of Abraham. According to Pseudo-Sebeos, the Arabs’ new awareness of their Abrahamic descent was ultimately triggered by the recent influx of Jewish refugees from Edessa. That Muhammad promised his followers possession of Palestine, ‘a fine land flowing with milk and honey’, is also reported by a later Syriac source that probably preserves parts of the lost eighth-century chronicle of Theophilus of Edessa. Similar to the Doctrina Iacobi, this text has Muhammad himself lead raids into Palestine. Intriguingly, other Syriac and Latin texts dating from the seventh and eighth centuries, and even an early Arabic letter ascribed to the historical caliph ‘Umar II (r. 717–20), can also be read as sharing the assumption that Palestine was conquered already during Muhammad’s lifetime rather than only after his death, as Islamic historians maintain. If one were to accept the non-Islamic material just surveyed as largely accurate and reliable, one may well entertain, the hypothesis that Islam originally emerged as a messianic movement focused on the conquest of Palestine. But of course, it is entirely possible that contemporary outside observers of early Islam, imposed their own agenda or conceptual framework on the events they undertook to recount or that they may simply have suffered from insufficient information and faulty guesswork.

What matters in the present context is above all that non-Islamic sources explicitly confirm the existence of an Arab prophet by the name of Muhammad. Apart from the Doctrina Iacobi’s mention of an anonymous Saracen prophet, a Syriac text probably composed in about 640 reports on a battle between the Romans and the ‘Arabs (ṭayyāyē) of Muhammad’ that is dated, with impressive precision, to Friday, 4 February 634. Thus, Muhammad is attested by name already within a decade of his traditional date of death. A Syriac chronicle from the 660s, the Chronicle of Khuzistan, also refers to Muhammad as the ‘leader’ of the Ishmaelite conquerors of the ‘land of the Persians’. Similarly, the History of Pseudo-Sebeos directly traces the Arab conquests to the preaching of a merchant named Muhammad. To be sure, it is likely that such references to Muhammad in non-Islamic sources are ultimately reliant on statements made by the Muslims themselves. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the Arab conquerors must have been considering themselves to be followers of Muhammad already in about 640.

The preceding references make it rather improbable that the late attestation of Muhammad on coins indicates that the figure of the Islamic Prophet is only a late seventh-century fiction. Rather, just as the new Arab-Islamic ruling elite initially retained the existing administrative structures of the regions they had conquered, so they may at first have seen no reason to break with established Byzantine and Sasanian coin designs, despite the fact that the latter involved religious symbols (the Christian cross or the Zoroastrian fire altar) and expressions of political allegiance (in the form of portraits of Roman and Sasanian rulers) that the Islamic conquerors may not themselves have endorsed. Only after a process of experimentation that lasted for several decades did the new Islamic polity discover coinage as a medium for its own religious and political self-representation and work out a distinctively Islamic coin design. Furthermore, even if a modification of existing coinage practices had been seen as desirable, it may simply not have been immediately feasible to impose this on an indigenous majority population of non-Muslims. Tellingly, a Maronite chronicler writing in Syriac reports that the subjects of the first Umayyad caliph Mu‘āwiyah (d. 680) rejected coins that did not have the customary symbol of the cross on them.

Non-Islamic sources not only substantiate the historical existence of Muhammad, but also confirm or at least complement what Islamic historians tell us about two major episodes of pre-Islamic South Arabian history and, in part, about the main stages of the Arab conquests. In contrast, however, the Islamic dates for three crucial events of seventh-century Middle Eastern history conflict with what can be gleaned from non-Islamic sources. An especially intriguing divergence between the Islamic and the non-Islamic sources consists in the fact, that a relatively wide and heterogeneous selection of non-Islamic texts can be understood to assume that the Arab invaders were led into Palestine by Muhammad himself, which conflicts with the Islamic dating of Muhammad’s death to 632 and the beginning of the conquests to 634. The non-Islamic tradition moves Muhammad’s death from after 634 to 632. Alternatively, it may be that significant Arab raiding into Palestine commenced much earlier than 634, the official Islamic starting date for the conquests, and that already Muhammad succeeded in establishing some control over such raiding activity prior to his death in 632. In other words, the Islamic sources could be giving us, for whatever reason, too late a date for the beginnings of the Arab expansion northwards rather than too early a date for the death of Muhammad. Such a scenario would tally well with the history of Theophilus of Edessa (probably composed in Syriac during the second half of the eighth century and partly preserved in later Greek, Syriac, and Christian Arabic works), which reports that Muhammad dispatched wide-ranging military expeditions northwards while himself remaining based at Yathrib.