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 Textual Criticism And Quran Manuscripts Pdf
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Keith E. Small
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A Critical Text for the Qur’ān?

It is widely acknowledged that there has never been a critical text produced for the Qur’ān based on extant manuscripts, as has been done with other sacred books and bodies of ancient literature.1 The current printed texts of the Qur’ān are based on medieval Islamic tradition instead of the collation and analysis of extant manuscripts.

In other literary disciplines it is almost taken for granted that scholarly study of a text must start with a text based on the collation and analysis of the oldest and best manuscripts available for that text. Qur’ānic studies operates with an open knowledge of this lack concerning the Qur’ān, and as such methods and their results have had to be adapted to this fundamental deficiency.

Western scholars have often expressed the handicap they feel over the absence of such a text. The scholars Arthur Jeffery, Gotthelf Bergsträsser and Otto Pretzl worked on complementary projects from the 1920s into the 1930s, and Jeffery alone into the 1950s, to amass necessary source materials to begin the construction of a critical text of the Qur’ān. Rippin noted in 1982 of Jeffery’s attempt,

When Jeffery wrote this article [“The Present Status of Qur’ānic Studies,” 1957], one of his major interests, and that of a number of other people at the time, was to construct a printed text of the Qur’ān complete with a critical apparatus of textual and orthographic variants and so forth. This project did not come to fruition, nor does it seem today very likely that it will, although the need for and the desirability of such is still there.2

This is still an accurate description of the situation more than twenty-five years later, although a significant step to remedy this is in progress with the Corpus Coranicum project.3 Most attempts to construct a critical text of the Qur’ān were abandoned for various reasons after World War II.4

Recently, interest in such a project has revived because of significant discoveries of early manuscripts in Yemen, the rediscovery of the Bergsträsser photo archive of an- cient Qur’āns, and because of the development of computer software which can overcome some of the practical collation problems.5

But even with this start, Neuwirth and Sinai are correct in describing the overall situation as a “veritable litany” of lacunae, with “no critical edition of the text, no free access to all of the relevant manuscript evidence, no clear conception of the cultural and linguistic profile of the milieu within which it [the Qur’ān] has emerged, and no consensus on the basic issues of methodology” just to name a few of the more glaring omissions.6

Donner helpfully notes that in view of the many limitations preventing the production of a critical text, the greater need of the moment is for preliminary work developing tools and methods with the eventual goal of producing a critical edition of the Qur’ān.7

This book seeks to contribute to this preliminary work by exploring what can be achieved through a careful collation of textual variants from extant manuscripts and early Islamic literature and using them to address questions of textual origins and history for the Qur’ān.

If this exercise were extended to the remaining portions of text available in the earliest Qur’ān manuscripts, it would provide a better basis for approaching the wide spectrum of issues currently addressed in academic Qur’ānic studies.

The Plan of This Book

This book contains four parts, each containing one or more chapters. Part 1 comprises introductory matters and in two chapters contains the introduction (chapter 1) and a description and pictures of the manuscripts used, together with a collation of their texts for Surah 14:35–41 (chapter 2). Part 2 concerns the textual variants observed in the manuscripts in six chapters.

Chapters 3 through 8 present the kinds of variants found: orthographic variants (chapter 3), copyist mistakes (chapter 4), diacritical mark variants and variants affecting grammar (chapter 5), variants to the consonantal line of text (chapter 6: Rasm variants), verse marker variants (chapter 7), and physical corrections to the manuscripts (chapter 8).

 Part 3 contains evaluation of these variants in three chapters: how the variants in the manuscripts compare to Islamic records of textual variants (chapter 9), concerning intentionality and non-intentionality on the part of scribes (chapter 10), and the role of orality in the textual transmission of the Qur’ān (chapter 11). Part 4 is chapter 12 which is devoted to conclusions.


The method of Reasoned Eclecticism is the method of textual criticism chosen for this study. It is the method that has been used by the majority of New Testament scholars for at least a century. It is the approach behind the main critical New Testament texts in use among Christian and secular Western scholars.8 Holmes sets out the basic approach of Reasoned Eclecticism:9

By “reasoned eclecticism” I mean an approach that seeks to take into account all available evidence, both external (i.e., that provided by the manuscripts themselves) and internal (considerations having to do with the habits, mistakes, and tendencies of scribes, or the style and thought of an author). Central to this approach is a fundamental guideline: the variant most likely to be original is the one that best accounts for the origin of all competing variants in terms of both external and internal evidence.

This particular method has proven to be useful in two important ways. First, it is grounded in an academic discipline that has existed for more than two centuries. Second, it is a well-tested method for examining textual vari- ants in ancient manuscripts across many literary traditions.

Third, this method has proven flexible enough to take into account the variety of features found in the Arabic scripts involved. Fourth, it is a method that is not controlled by a particular religious, political, or academic ideology. It is a suitable vehicle for treating ancient manuscripts with the respect that such significant religious artifacts deserve, while yet maintaining a critical and realistic attitude toward the human influences in ancient book production.

In addition to there being a need to apply textual criticism to Qur’ān manuscripts to establish the earliest possible form of the text, there were also other important orthographic and historical issues that textual criticism addresses.

In 1979, E. Hobbs noted that the emphasis of scholarly interest over many decades vacillated between the search for the original text and tracing textual transmission:10

There is an ebb and flow in these tendencies, and today there is more interest again in establishing the Urtext; but this double interest tends to be reflected in textual criticism in many fields today: to recover the Urtext, but also (or instead if the first is impossible) to establish the history of the text as far as is feasible.

Thirty years later, the tendency in Qur’ānic studies is flowing to explore both of these issues with a renewed vigor. This work seeks to demonstrate how traditional methods of textual criticism can inform both of these goals.

What Is the “Original Text” Of the Qur’ān?

On the face of it, the question “What is the ‘original text’ of the Qur’ān?” may seem simplistic and even patently self-evident. However, when one is dealing with the complexities of ancient book production, it becomes a multifaceted issue deserving precise definition.

 This is especially true when one is dealing with a literary tradition that operates with a mixture of oral and written literary conventions. For ancient books produced in cultures that preserved, maintained, and distributed their cultural and religious literatures through predominantly written means, the original text can be viewed as the state of the text when the document left the author’s desk to be published and circulated. When oral dynamics are introduced, one may have a variety of oral performances preserved and distributed through oral and written means that could all vie for status as “originals.”

One major discussion in Qur’ānic studies has centered on the search for an Urtext of the Qur’ān. Donner helpfully summarizes the search for this form of text to date and outlines many of the outstanding questions regarding it.11 Islamic tradition has usually identified the Qur’ān as we know it with this Urtext, and this view has achieved a status of religious orthodoxy.

 In contemporary popular Islamic discourse, it is an assertion oft stated as established fact that the text of the Qur’ān has been preserved perfectly since it was given to Muḥammad. To the contrary, early and medieval Islamic scholarship was quite free in its recognition of textual variation and missing portions of the Qur’ān, and did not tend to make claims of perfect transmission.

 Also, study of ancient Qur’ānic manuscripts confirms the flexibility described in the earlier ages of Islamic scholarship. In 1999 Eldon Epp explored how the term “original text” has been used in New Testament studies and pointed out that it has been used with a variety of meanings and a general lack of precision.

He demonstrated that the process of an oral or written text becoming a published book was not a single event but in- stead involved discrete stages. Rippin makes the important point that illumines the scope of these stages that in these discussions, there needs to be clarity on what exactly is meant by the words “the Qur’ān.”12

He states that three elements must be kept in mind: a fixed body of text, the fixed body of text available in a written form, and that written form acquiring a measure of authority among a group of people. Each of these three elements implies processes whereby fixed- ness, written form, and consensus of authority were obtained. Any definition and explanation of an original text of the Qur’ān must clearly acknowledge and delineate these processes.

Also, differing views of the history of the Qur’ān’s textual history will vary in their views of the processes and length of time that it took the written text of the Qur’ān to acquire all three of these facets.

A useful scheme is a modified form of one developed by the New Testa- ment scholar Eldon Epp. His scheme describes the process of book produc- tion by delineating four categories which this writer has expanded to five:13

  1. Predecessor text-form: the oral or written sources the author used.
  2. Autographic text-form: the form the author wrote as it left his desk.
  3. Authoritative text-form: a form of text that acquired a degree of local geographic consensual authority.
  4. Canonical text-form: a form of the text that acquired a degree of wide geographic consensual authority.
  5. Interpretive text-form: any later intentional reformulation for stylistic, practical, or dogmatic reasons.

This scheme will be used throughout this book with these terms used as technical terms for various stages in the history of the development of the text. Also, with the state of early extant materials for the Qur’ān, one is at a loss for documenting the earliest recorded oral and written portions. This is because what comes down to us are early edited portions of just some of the material attributed to Muḥammad.

With this limitation in mind, the emphasis of this book will be the examination of available written material, but with the recognition that there was an oral tradition in the background to which the written transmission was intimately related, and that what can be recovered is closely related chronologically to earlier versions of the text.

Original Text Issues for the Qur’ān

These categories are useful in determining which form of text of the Qur’ān is the appropriate goal for text critical study. For thorough reviews of the Islamic traditions concerning the initial collection of the Qur’ān the reader is invited to consult the standard Western academic critiques as well as Islamic treatments.14 For the purposes of this book and considering the issue of the original text to be sought through textual criticism, some comments on traditional views of the Qur’ān’s collection would be useful.

According to some Islamic traditions, within Muḥammad’s lifetime his recitations were recorded in both writing and by memorization, but not in a complete, organized collection.15 There are traditions that assert Muḥammad did leave a complete collection, but there are many reasons which make this unlikely, and this view has not gained acceptance in many scholarly circles.16

 These portions of material from within Muḥammad’s lifetime, either written or oral, are equivalent to Epp’s Predecessor text- form. They made up a loose collection of autographic material, though it had not been put in a single autographic text-form. One could legitimately speak of autographic text forms.

After Muḥammad’s death, there were collections of this material in use among his Companions that became authoritative versions in their own right. This is seen in that they were recited and used in the different geographic locations where these Companions went in the early Islamic conquests.

 These can be considered Authoritative text-forms, each authoritative in its own right and in its own geographical sphere. It was the use of these different versions that allegedly caused conflicts so severe they threatened the unity of the em- pire and prompted ‘Uthmān to create a single version. The traditions recount that ‘Uthmān did this using for a basis one Companion’s version, ‘Umar’s, but after ‘Umar’s death it was in the care of his daughter Ḥafsa. ‘Uthmān had this version edited, possibly including additional material as well as removing some material.

This version of ‘Uthmān’s then became the Canonical text- form. Any later versions that improved the orthography, such as by al-Ḥajjāj and Ibn Mujāhid, and any others that added consonantal pointing or vocaliza- tion notation systems, could be termed Interpretive text-forms. If this action was taken by ‘Uthmān, it prevented the possibility of fully recovering either the authoritative text-forms of the Companions, or the autographic predeces- sor text-forms of the Qur’ān.

If Islamic tradition is correct, then a relatively early Canonical text-form can be recovered if the dates given to the earliest Qur’ān manuscripts are correct and are as early as suggested. Western Qur’ān scholarship from the last century has generally confirmed this part of Islamic tradition, in that no manuscripts with forms of the text that could clearly be considered an Authoritative text-form or an Autographic Predecessor text-form have been discovered.

Most extant Qur’ān manuscripts contain forms of the Canonical text-form and later Interpretive text-forms, with the possible exception of the few existing Qur’ānic palimpsests. The study of these manuscripts is still in the beginning stages.

The ones studied so far show a text-form related to the Canonical text-form, but with more significant textual variants than any other known Qur’ān manuscripts. Western scholarship has also exposed some difficulties in reconstructing the Authoritative text-forms of the Companions, in that the secondary records for these are inadequate for the scope of the task,17 and also, such reconstruction is undermined by a lack of consistency in the Islamic records of these variants.

This has led to doubts in their authenticity.18 Though these records may provide a basis for a partial reconstruction of Qur’ān material that was available after Muḥammad’s death, that basis is a tentative one.

Is the pursuit of a critical text which reconstructs the Autographic text-form of the Qur’ān a fruitless exercise, then? By no means. In view of the two main….

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