In Search of the Original Koran: The True History of the Revealed Text

In Search of the Original Koran: The True History of the Revealed Text

by Mondher Sfar

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Orthodox Muslims venerate the Koran as the sacred word of God, which they believe was literally revealed by dictation from the angel Gabriel to the prophet Muhammad. This fundamentalist attitude toward the Muslim holy book denies the possibility of error in the Koran-even though there are some fairly obvious self-contradictions, inconsistencies, and incoherent… See more details below


Orthodox Muslims venerate the Koran as the sacred word of God, which they believe was literally revealed by dictation from the angel Gabriel to the prophet Muhammad. This fundamentalist attitude toward the Muslim holy book denies the possibility of error in the Koran-even though there are some fairly obvious self-contradictions, inconsistencies, and incoherent passages in the text. To justify the claim that the Koran is inerrant, the orthodox have simply pointed to centuries of hidebound tradition and the consensus view of conservative leaders who back up this interpretation. But does the very beginning of the Muslim tradition lend support to the orthodox view?
In this fascinating study of the origins of Islam, historian Mondher Sfar reveals that there is no historical, or even theological, basis for the orthodox view that Muhammad or his earliest followers intended the Koran to be treated as the inviolable word of God. With great erudition and painstaking historical research, Sfar demonstrates that the Koran itself does not support the literalist claims of Muslim orthodoxy. Indeed, as he carefully points out, passages from Islam's sacred book clearly indicate that the revealed text should not be equated with the perfect text of the original "celestial Koran," which was believed to exist only in heaven and to be fully known only by God.
This early belief helps to explain why there were many variant texts of the Koran during Muhammad's lifetime and immediately thereafter, and also why this lack of consistency and the occasional revisions of earlier revelations seemed not to disturb his first disciples. They viewed the Koran as only an imperfect copy of the real heavenlyoriginal, a copy subject to the happenstances of Muhammad's life and to the human risks of its transmission. Only later, for reasons of social order and political power, did the first caliphs establish an orthodox policy, which turned Muhammad's revelations into the inerrant word of God, from which no deviation or dissent was permissible.
This original historical exploration into the origins of Islam is also an important contribution to the growing movement for reform of Islam initiated by courageous Muslim thinkers convinced of the necessity of bringing Islam into the modern world.

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By Mondher Sfar
Prometheus Books
Copyright © 2008

Prometheus Books
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59102-521-4


The transmission of the divine message to Muhammad took place in a particular mode that is more complex than the one represented in orthodox Muslim doctrine. According to the latter, God literally dictated his message. Thus Muhammad is meant to have reproduced in the Koran the words that were created for all eternity by Allah.

In fact, the text revealed to the Prophet comes from another text kept close to God. This is the famous tablet, in Arabic lawh, the exclusive property of God, and to which he is the only one to have access, along with the angel-scribes or angel-messengers like Gabriel. It was only on the basis of this original that the Koranic text was transmitted to Muhammad and then to mankind. From the start, then, the Koran establishes a distinction of decisive importance within the process of revelation.

Here in effect lies a question central to our inquiry into the authenticity of the revealed text. Consequently, Koranic doctrine is clear: the revealed Koranic text represents merely a supposed copy that cannot be confused with the heavenly original, and in this sense, it could not possibly pretend to be authentic. Here, the Koranic text is free from ambiguity: the heavenly original is designated by the term kitâb, which signifies "writing," while the text that derives from it by means of revelation is called qur'ân, an entity that is essentially liturgical and designates recitation.

Between the copy and the original, there is a whole history that quite evidently refers us to the nature of revelation and to the mode of transmission it is presumed to employ. Cleary understood, the decisive question that we would want to pose at the outset is more theological than historical. And we shall see that the Koranic philosophy of the nature of revelation illuminates in an original and unsuspected manner the history of the transmission of the Koran down to our day.

First let me rectify a misunderstanding long maintained by Muslim orthodoxy. In order to prove that the Koranic text is perfectly authentic, it has been alleged that God committed himself to preserving it from any alteration due to the vagaries of its transmission through time and across generations. This doctrine was essentially founded on this verse: "We have, without doubt, sent down the Message (dhikr); and We will assuredly guard it (innâ lahu lahâfizûn)" (15:9). One often finds this verse as an epigraph in Koran copies in order to stress their authenticity. Does the dhikr refer here to the Koranic text? In fact, study of the occurrences of this term in the Koran show that dhikr designates the genre of the tale that one is citing (dhakara, i.e., to cite) for pedagogic purposes, in order to draw a lesson from it. The Koran utilizes this term specifically to designate the tales of ancient peoples like 'Âd, Thamûd, and so on, which believers are called upon to keep in their memories. God thus possesses the detailed stories of these peoples, which he keeps close to himself. This is repeated elsewhere: the message (tadhkira) is found "in Books held in honor, exalted, kept pure and holy, [written] by the hands of scribes honorable and pious and just" (80:13-16). And so it is clear that dhikr refers not to the Koranic text but to the ensemble of stories drawn from the heavenly pages, which benefit from the greatest divine care. It is the same for the qur'ân, which is still drawn from a heavenly original: "This is a Glorious Qur'ân (recitation), [inscribed] in a Tablet Preserved! (mahfûz)" (85:21-22). Although here the Arabic text does not tell us clearly whether it is the tablet (the original) or the recitation that is the object of conservation, in any case, this recitation is authenticated by means of the celestial tablet that exists as the original. And like any original, it is the object of every care-"by the hands of scribes honorable and pious and just"-and especially of every kind of vigilance: "... in a Book well-guarded, which none shall touch but those who are clean" (56:78-79). Note that at no time are these heavenly guardians occupied with the safekeeping or preservation of the recited copy (qur'ân) from any alteration in the course of its transmission across the generations.

In addition, the text revealed to Muhammad constitutes only an extract of the great book (kitâb) in God's possession, which includes among other things the chronicle of the world. When Pharaoh challenged Moses by posing this question-"What then is the condition of previous generations?"-the latter replied: "The knowledge of that ('ilmuhâ) is with my Lord, duly recorded (kitâb) [by means of which] my Lord never errs, nor forgets" (20:51-52). So this is a matter of a veritable celestial library containing the knowledge of the world, from which is extracted the Koranic revelation, as well as the other Abrahamic revelations.

The idea that this heavenly book is consigned to a preserved tablet is quite ancient, going back to the Sumerians. They bequeathed to us the idea of destiny consigned to writing: maktûb is an important concept in Oriental and Arab-Muslim mentality, found in the Koran through the expression kutiba 'alâ: "[it has been] decreed to [someone]."

Similarly, it is the original of the book-and not its copy-that God has committed himself to preserving, for example, when he orders Muhammad: "And recite what has been revealed to you of the Book (kitâb) of thy Lord: none can change His Words (kalimât), and you shall find no refuge besides Him" (18:27). Since the original text is not subject to the principle of change, the Prophet could not feel authorized to modify the recited copy. We can indeed see that the original serves as a source of authentication, and at the same time as a dissuasive argument against any attempt at falsehood, including on the part of the Prophet himself.

This original, moreover, is designated as "Mother of the Book" (umm al-kitâb): "By the Book that makes things plain [...] in the Mother of the Book, in Our Keeping" (43:2-4). This notion of "Mother" signifies in the Arabic language the "source," or else the "center," as in the Koranic expression "the mother of cities" (umm al-qurä), referring to Mecca as the Arab capital. It is the very function of the original to play the role of matrix or kernel from which the copy is drawn. Thus we see appearing a genetic relation, or rather the precedence of an immutable original over a copy exposed to all dangers.

However, another term exists that is utilized in the Koran to refer to the troubled relation between the original and the copy, the verb saddaqa, as in this passage from the Koran: "That which We have revealed to you of the Book (kitâb) is the Truth, in accordance (musaddiqan) with [the original Book] that is in His possession (mâ bayna yadayhi)" (35:31). The revelation is here declared through the verb saddaqa, meaning conforming or faithful to the heavenly original.


But does this mean that this conformity signifies a literal identity between the copy and its original? Here the answer can only be negative, since this notion of conformity is applied in the Koran to designate the type of relationship between previous revealed texts that necessarily differ among themselves in the letter, but are identical as to their spiritual content: "now that a Book [the Koran] confirming (musaddiq) their own has come to them [Jews] from God ..." (2:89). Just as the "Gospel" coming through Jesus conforms to the Torah (5:46), so the book (kitâb) coming through Muhammad conforms to the "Scripture" (5:48). These examples demonstrate that the conformity of the copy to its original is identical to that which exists between the revealed texts. The copy revealed to Muhammad is thus far from reproducing literally the heavenly text (kitâb) consigned to the tablet guarded by the pure angels: according to the Koran, it merely conserves its general meaning.

For their part, Muslim traditionalists have not hesitated to formulate clearly hypotheses about the literal nonconformity between the heavenly original and its copy transmitted by Muhammad. Thus, Suyûtî (died in 1505 CE)-author of a treatise that remains a model of its kind on the Koran-lays out three hypotheses about the mode of transmission of the original text. The first is quite evidently that of the literal conformity between the original and the copy. The second hypothesizes that the archangel "Gabriel could have descended especially [sic] with the meanings [of the Koran], and Muhammad could then have learned these meanings and expressed them in the language of the Arabs." The third hypothesis is that "Gabriel would have received these meanings [of the Koranic text] and he would have expressed them in the Arabic language-the inhabitants of Heaven would have read the Koran in Arabic-and in this way he would have made it descend [onto Muhammad]." Here we see that the last two hypotheses clearly advance the idea of the literal inauthenticity of the Koranic text with respect to the heavenly original.

One verse of the Koran even chimes with the second scenario of the transmission of the heavenly text: "We have made it [the kitâb] a recitation (qur'ân) in Arabic" (43:3). So it is indeed God and his angelic scribes, with Gabriel at their head, who are thought to have proceeded to the elaboration of the Arabic text received by Muhammad. Still, one should not necessarily see this Arabic version as a literal translation of the original. Tradition even claims that Gabriel had not himself read the heavenly tablet and that God, in order to transmit his words, had inspired in him "[the] revealed [Words] (takallama bi-al-wahy)." This divine inspiration in a loud voice is said to "make Heaven tremble for fear of God. And as soon as the inhabitants of Heaven hear [these words], they are struck by lightning and fall down prostrate. And the first who lifts his head is Gabriel. This is when God communicates to him orally what He wants of His revelation. Gabriel dictates in his turn these Words to [other angels]. And in each one of the Heavens, the inhabitants ask him: 'What did our Lord say?' and Gabriel replies: '[He said] the Truth.'" And this is how Gabriel transmits the revelation from heaven to heaven down to Muhammad, his final recipient.

The exegete Al-Juwaynî has split things down the middle. For him, the Koran contains two genres of juxtaposed texts that conform to two customary possibilities of transmission of missives within royal tradition. One part of the Koranic text is said to be transmitted according to the meaning, without taking into account the letter of the original text dictated by God. The other part, inversely, is said to be a copy literally conforming to the message dictated by God.


With this doctrine of a revelation transmitted according to the meaning and not according to the letter, we attain a new stage in the rupture of the unity of the Koranic revelation. After having witnessed the splitting of the revelation into an original and a copy, and then the literal differentiation between the two, we now arrive at the explosion of the copy into a multiplicity of possibilities of literal expression. This is the theory advanced by the Tradition of the Seven Letters (sab' ahruf), or Seven Readings (sab' qirâ'ât). Tradition justifies this theory by means of a hadîth reported by Uthmân, which has Muhammad say: "The Koran descended according to Seven Letters."

Suyûtî asserts that this hadîth has been interpreted in forty ways. Among them, Ibn Qutayba's thesis explains that it must have been a matter of seven "modes of variation" of the Koran's text, as follows: 1) that of declension, without the meaning being affected; 2) that of verb tenses; 3) that of letters with the same graphic form but having different diacritical signs; 4) that of letters similar in their graphics; 5) that of the place of groups of words in the sentence; 6) variation of the text by adding or suppressing words; and finally, 7) variation in words according to their synonyms. Al-Râzî, for his part, adds variations of words of the Koran by the kind, number, and mode of pronunciation. The same Suyûtî relates a thesis, reported by Ibn Hanbal, explaining the "Seven Letters" as the possibility for each word of the Koran to be replaced by seven synonyms. Ubayy, one of the secretaries of Muhammad charged with the redaction of the Koran, was even said to have expressed this as a rule that he applied in his version of the Koran: "I said [in the Koran] Magisterial and Learned, [instead of] Powerful and Wise, [but without going so far as to betray the meaning, as is done when] one substitutes the expression for pardon with one for punishment, or vice versa." Thus, Ubayy, one of the most important scribes of the Prophet, whose name is associated with the redaction of the Koran, goes well beyond simple synonymy in establishing the legitimacy of the infinite freedom of variants-on the sole condition, however, that this does not lead to misinterpretation. It has even been said that the second caliph, Umar (to whom has been attributed the first collection of the texts comprising the Koran), made this assertion: "Everything that is said in the Koran is correct (sawâb) as long as one does not substitute punishment for pardon (i.e., one does not commit misinterpretation)."

Suyûtî reports here variants used by Ubayy in verse 2:20, substituting for "walk" the synonyms "pass" and "go." Suyû(r)î also cites variants by Ibn Mas'ûd, another secretary to Muhammad, replacing in verse 57:13 the verb "to be patient" with "to wait" and "to delay the outcome." And Suyûtî reports this anecdote: "Ibn Mas'ûd asked a reader to read the phrase 'the tree of Zaqqûm shall be the food of the sinner' (44:43-44). But this reader could only pronounce 'the food of the orphan.' Ibn Mas'ûd had him take it again but with no success. So then he asked him: 'Can you pronounce "food of the depraved"?' The man replied 'Yes,' so Ibn Mas'ûd told him: 'Then keep this expression!'"


Excerpted from IN SEARCH OF THE ORIGINAL KORAN by Mondher Sfar Copyright © 2008 by Prometheus Books. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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