Islamic Cultures, Islamic Contexts: Essays in Honor of Professor Patricia Crone
ISLAMIC CULTURES ISLAMIC CONTEXTS – Book Sample
Variant Traditions, Relative Chronology, and the Study of Intra-Quranic Parallels-Introduction
A comparison of two passages with identical subjects – even if they do not originate from entirely different periods – can occasionally suggest the likelihood that one originated earlier than the other. Since Muḥammad clearly often repeats himself, it is sometimes possible to distinguish the original from the later version.2
This paper treats parallel accounts in the Quran which use similar but not identical language to relate different versions of the same story. To use the lan-guage of Claus Schedl, I wish to examine the “synoptic problem” of the Quran.3
That the Quran contains many such repetitions and parallel passages is well known. Opinions, however, vary greatly as to how this fact should be inter-preted and evaluated. To demonstrate the variety let us contrast two quota-tions. A folklorist remarks that:
[A] modern editor, armed with the “Find” feature on his or her computer, would no doubt have eliminated such duplicate Qurʾan passages as being unnecessarily repetitious. However, since the Qurʾan is thought to be a sacred text consisting of Allah’s own words, it would have been deemed sacrilegious to delete such duplicate passages.4
A famous Ashʿarite theologian, on the other hand, states that “repeating a story in different words which convey the same meaning is a difficult matter in which eloquence manifests itself and good style becomes evident.”5
But eloquence or lack thereof is not the only question posed by the parallel accounts. They raise other issues of greater historical interest. Do the repeated narratives indicate that the Quran as we have it is not the product of one author? Might a careful study of parallel passages teach us something about the form in which the suras were composed (oral versus written)?
Can they be utilized to establish a relative chronology between suras? What do they teach us about the coherence of suras? And finally, do they tell us anything about the ways in which the Quran adapted earlier traditions?
Scholars have approached these important questions in different ways and I will not resolve all these issues here. My goals are rather more modest. In what follows I will briefly survey some approaches to the problem of the par-allel accounts and then examine two examples in detail. In doing so I wish to emphasize several points.
First, a systematic study of parallel passages in the Quran is long overdue in order for us to answer basic questions concerning the formation of the Quran.6 Second, a comparison with pre-Islamic traditions at times allows us to follow the changes and transformations of specific motifs in the Quran.7 Third, scholars tend to emphasize one model or other of studying parallel accounts, whereas it seems that a combination of several approaches is called for.
At times parallel passages are examined from theological or apologetic angles.8 Consider, for example, a short article written in Cairo in 1925 by the scholar and missionary Earl E. Elder. In it he examines parallel accounts of Moses in the Quran and concludes:
The Moslem who is disturbed by reading the accounts of the same event as recorded in the different gospels must remember that other books for which the claim is made that they are divine – even the Koran which he reveres – contain considerable matter that needs harmonizing. The basis for rejecting the authority or authenticity of a book is not to be the find-ing of variant readings or differences in parallel passages. The truth of a book claiming to be a revelation rests not in its outward form, but in its intrinsic values and effect.9
My essay, however, steers away from theology and is devoted to explanations of the phenomenon of parallel accounts and their emergence. Among the various scholarly approaches one finds a great variety of opinion. Whereas one scholar compares Muhammad to a composer who revisits a theme several times with variations,10 another scholar sees in the parallel accounts an indication that several subsequent hands were at work in the production of the Quran, a pro-cess which continued after the death of the Prophet.11
In this section I would like to briefly and somewhat schematically describe a few approaches or models to the problem of the parallel accounts. Approaches to the Quran generally can be plotted on a grid consisting of several axes con-cerning some related yet independent basic textual assumptions, which often are not stated explicitly.
Especially important for our topic are the following axes: synchronic – diachronic; atomistic – coherent; oral – written; single author – multiple authors; harmony – discord; human – divine. Unfortunately, the history and methods of Quranic studies remain under-studied, as does the text itself.12
This essay, however, will not attempt to give a full analysis of scholarly approaches to the Quran. Focusing on views that are pertinent to our topic, I will discuss theories of variant traditions; harmonistic interpretations; views emphasizing the oral composition of the text; contextual readings; and dia-chronic methods of analyzing the Quran.
Independent Variant Traditions: Wansbrough
A radical position is presented by John Wansbrough, who sees in these paral-lel accounts variant traditions. These indicate “the existence of independent, possibly regional, traditions incorporated more or less intact into the canoni-cal compilation, itself the product of expansion and strife within the Muslim community.”13
The inspiration of Biblical criticism is evident.14 Although Wansbrough did not elaborate his approach, the seven pages he devoted to this issue have the merit of having drawn the attention of Western scholarship to the problem of the parallel accounts.15 One striking weakness of Wansbrough’s
approach is that he does not satisfactorily explain the undeniable relation-ship between the parallel accounts, a relationship which he himself recog-nized.16 Another question that requires an explanation is why the variants are preserved in the Quran. Is this the result of conservative editing or merely oversight?17
The mirror image of Wansbrough’s model is found in the traditional Islamic approach, which tends to read such parallel accounts harmonistically. The idea is that the true story is to be found by combining the various Quranic reports.18 Though the harmonistic approach is at times convincing, in itself it is insuffi-cient. It cannot easily explain blatant contradictions between parallel versions and does not explain why the Quran chooses to present a given story slightly differently each time.
The harmonistic approach to the Quranic parallel accounts shares many of the problems that led to the rejection of harmonistic readings of the Hebrew Bible or of the New Testament.19 Ultimately, in reconstructing what really hap-pened by combining all parallel accounts, the harmonists create a new ver-sion which is incompatible with all the other ones.20 Moreover, by ignoring the literary units in which the various versions occur, the harmonistic synthesis decontextualizes the Quranic retellings.21
Another way of understanding the phenomenon of parallel accounts would be in light of the oral nature of the Quran. Several scholars have noted affinities between the narratives of the Quran and folkloristic storytelling. Commenting on discrepancies between the Quranic stories and their Biblical counterparts, Haim Schwarzbaum has noted that Muhammad’s deviations from the Biblical pattern or from the Biblical text would seem quite natural and even reasonable to anyone who has even a moderate acquaintance with the basic laws of oral storytelling, as well as of oral transmission and diffusion of tales.
Stories which are merely dependent upon human memory for their preservation are quite different from textually fixed tales. Muhammad’s Jewish and Christian informants . . . did not stick to any fixed, written, literary text. They behaved in the same way as all Quṣṣāṣ (storytellers) do since time imme-morial: they tell their stories in a free, spontaneous manner.22
Though Schwarzbaum limits his comments to what he terms somewhat crudely “Muhammad’s informants,” one could also apply a similar logic to the Quran itself. This is exactly what another folklorist, Alan Dundes, does in a heavily flawed but interesting book. Dundes draws on the work of Parry and Lord regarding the use of formulas in oral composition to understand the Quran.23
According to Parry and Lord, “oral poetry” is not fully recited from memory but rather is recomposed during each performance. This procedure is aided by a thesaurus of formulaic phrases which allow the reciter/poet to find the right words under conditions of stress. This then would explain why the parallel versions in the Quran are never entirely identical.24
Angelika Neuwirth has briefly argued against the broad applicability of this theory to the Quran, stressing the origin of some suras in nocturnal vig-ils rather than in public performances, and emphasizing that later suras are devoid of mnemonic devices and therefore seem to betray an immediate fixing in writing or even their being written compositions to begin with.25 Even if one accepts this inconclusive criticism, it should not lead to a complete rejection of the oral model.
It should be kept in mind that in many antique and late antique cultures there is hardly a complete and utter divide between oral and literary works; rather one finds a continuum in which written works might display oral characteristics.26
There is, however, a different problem with the oral variations model: the assumption that when pre-existing material is retold orally, small changes occur naturally, does not supply a full explanation for the differences between……
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