The Silent Qur’an and the Speaking Qur’an: Scriptural Sources of Islam Between History and Fervor

  • Book Title:
 The Silent Quran And The Speaking Quran
  • Book Author:
Eric OrmsbyMohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi
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The very first centuries of Islam were marked by two ma- jor and inextricably linked events which have determined the historical and spiritual evolution of this religion up to our : the elaboration of scriptural sources—the Qur’an and the Hadith—and a chronic violence manifest mainly in the form of civil wars.

With regard to the scriptural sources, according to the Sunni tradition which eventually comes to be considered as “orthodox,” matters trans- pired simply enough. The divine revelations, quite faithfully and inte- grally collected by the two first caliphs Abu Bakr and cUmar, were brought together in a unique Qur’an by a council of scholars during the reign of cUthman, the third caliph (reg. 23/644–35/656)—in other words, less than thirty years after the death of the Prophet Mul,ammad (d. 11/632).1

 Parallel Qur’anic recensions, deemed untrustworthy, were destroyed and the official version, the so-called vulgate of cUthman, was rapidly accepted by the entire community of the faithful apart from a scattering of heretics.

Moreover, as regards the Hadith, i.e., the prophetic traditions in their thousands, these were subjected to a stringent critical examination by the learned in order to distinguish those that were authentic from those that were false—a process that led to the elaboration of a large and reliable cor- pus established in accord with the strict rules and criteria of the science of Hadith.

Now critical research, subjecting Islamic and non-Islamic sources of all sorts to historical and philological examination for over a century and a half, offers a far more complex and problematic picture of the history of the redaction of the sacred Scriptures of Islam. A significant body of statements going back to Mul,ammad was quite gradually distinguished in the Qur’an and the Hadith, i.e., identified as the Word of God and pro- phetic traditions, respectively.3

The official Qur’an, assigned a posteri- ori to the caliphate of cUthman, was established later, probably during the caliphate of the Umayyad cAbd al-Malik b. Marwan (reg. 65/685 to 86/705). Moreover, it bears all the characteristics of a protracted editorial task probably carried out by a team of scribes and qualified scholars.

Merely a few decades separate the rules of the two caliphs, but these few dozen years have the force of several centuries given that between the two periods, the immeasurable effects of ceaseless civil wars and vast and dazzling conquests overwhelmed history, society, and the mindset of the first Muslims. Furthermore, even when completed and declared official, the state-sponsored vulgate took several centuries to be accepted by all Muslims.

Among the scholars and tendencies opposed to the Umayyad state, a number of important figures would not accept the authenticity of “cUthman’s Qur’an” and considered it a falsified version of the revelations accorded the Prophet; of these, it is the Shi’ites who articulate both the most systematic and the more numerous critiques with respect to the official Qur’an.

 Other recensions of the Qur’an, often quite different in form and content—as, for example, that of cAli, the cousin and son- in-law of the Prophet and the fourth caliph, or those of the Companions cAbd Allah b. Mascüd and Ubayy b. Kacb—remained in circulation at least until the fourth/tenth century. Likewise, endless discussions over the authencity of hadiths set scholars against one another for centuries.

And even when Sunnis toward the fourth/tenth and fifth/eleventh centuries came to increasing agreement in accepting the corpus of what they termed the Sums of Accepted Traditions, Shi’ites established their own corpus in which the very definition of the term hadith diverged from that of the Sunnis.

For the latter, Hadith is the totality of traditions traced back to the Prophet (and in some rare instances to certain of his Companions), whereas for Shi’ites the term applies to traditions going back to prophet, to his daughter Fatima, to cAli, and to the imams descended from them.

As for the endemic violence in which Islam was born and took shape, it is enough to recall certain historical facts which appear settled in their broad outlines. Immediately following the Hijra, the Prophet’s final years were strewn with battle after battle.

Of these, the battle of Badr in the year 2/624, the first great victory of the Prophet over his Meccan opponents from his own tribe of Quraysh, seems to have left traces which those same opponents found hard to forget even after their own conversion to Islam. After Mul:ammad’s death—by poison according to some rare traditions— the succession to him launched a wave of violence to which I will return later.

Under Abu Bakr, the first caliph, the bloody “Wars of Apostasy” (ridda) broke out because he blocked newly converted Arabs from revert- ing to their ancestral religion after the death of the Apostle of God. Accord- ing to most accounts, Abu Bakr died a natural death, but according to others he too was poisoned. The period of cUmar b. al-Khattab, the second caliph, was that in which the wars of the great Arab conquests occurred.

 He too was killed, apparently by a Persian slave. cUthman b. cAffan, the third caliph, was swept away by what is usually called the first great civil war between Muslims. The brief rule of the fourth caliph, cAli b. Abi Talib, consisted of an uninterrupted succession of civil wars: the great Battle of Şiffin pitted him against Mucawiya, leader of the powerful Umayyads, his perennial enemies;

it was a battle which followed upon the Battle of the Camel (Jamal) against cA’isha, the Prophet’s widow, allied with two of his Companions; and it was preceded by the battle of Nahrawan against the Kharijites, old allies who had become cAli’s bitterest enemies. In the end it was one of these who assassinated cAli. Umayyad rule was one long series of ghastly suppressions and massacres of their adversaries, most particularly the Alids, “the people of cAli,” who would come to be known as Shi’ites.

 The hellish cycle of bloody suppression and armed revolts was thus set in motion for a considerable length of time. The most momentous instance is the massacre of al-I:usayn, the Prophet’s beloved grandson and the son of cAli, along with amost all his family, by order of the second Umayyad caliph, Yazid I, mere decades after the Prophet’s death.

 The Umayyads themselves were violently overthrown by a huge armed revolution, that of the Abbasids, under whom the fierce suppression of adversaries, especially of Alids of all stripes yet again, continued intermittently for centuries.

The establishment of a religion, accompanied by violence, notably stemming from the complicated process of its institutionalization or from

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