• Book Title:
 The Transmission And Dynamics Of The Textual Sources Of Islam
  • Book Author:
Kees Versteegh
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The Qurʾān and the records of the Prophet Muḥammad’s acts and say-ings (the Ḥ adīth) remain the undisputed textual sources of religious authority among virtually all Muslims worldwide. Although this does not mean that all Muslims are pious believers who try to model their lives after the examples offered in the Qurʾānic text and the life of the Prophet, both are universally respected from Morocco to Indonesia.

The protests in the Muslim world following the alleged “abuse” of the Qurʾān by American soldiers in the Guantanamo Bay prison as well as the publication of several Danish cartoons of the Prophet several years ago seem cases in point of how sacred these sources are to believers.

While such protests should probably be seen in the wider political context of a perceived Western “assault on Islam”, of which these inci-dents are supposedly only the latest examples, they nevertheless show that criticism of or even insults against these sources in our day and age are sensitive to say the least, as they are in other religions.

Strongly connected to the notion that the Qurʾān and the Sunna are the undisputed textual sources of religious authority for Muslims is the popularly-held idea that these sources can be fully equated with Islam as a whole and that if one wants to know something about that reli-gion, one need only consult these books. This view is often espoused by critics of Islam but many Muslims also support the view that their religion is indeed wholly contained in the Qurʾān and the Sunna and that believers must simply follow those sources as closely as possible in order to live up to “real Islam”.

 This belief in the homogeneity and clear-cut message of the sources begs the question of what the Qurʾān and the Sunna actually say. Non-Muslim critics of Islam often answer this question by stating that Islam is an inherently violent ideology and quote militant passages from the Qurʾān to “prove” their point. Muslims, on the other hand, have come up with a host of often hugely divergent replies, thereby showing that the supposedly uniform mes-sage of the sources is much more dynamic and often leads to very different views and interpretations.

Recent research, including the present volume, has not only shown that the Qurʾān and the Sunna are much more complicated historical sources than is sometimes believed but also that they can be used in different ways with regard to contentious contemporary issues. This research has brought the study of the textual sources of Islam to a much higher level by critically examining the texts from various points of view.

 The results this research has yielded often show that we actually know much less about early-Islamic history than the work of great scholars like Watt seems to suggest1 and that the application of the texts in Muslims’ daily lives is highly dynamic and far from homoge-neous. This is not only a reason for continued research on the textual sources of Islam as an academic subject in itself but it also shows that the seemingly obscure subjects that this volume deals with are actually related to the commonly-held myths of an essentialist Islam embodied by the supposedly mono-interpretable sources.

Overview of the Volume

The present volume deals with the transmission and dynamics of the textual sources of Islam. It focuses on four themes, namely production, transmission, interpretation and reception of the sources. Through these four themes, this book shows how the sources are dealt with, interpreted and applied by individual Muslims and, in some cases, why this has happened.

 As such, the book shows that Islamic tradition is not only transmitted in various ways but also that it is constantly re-evaluated and re-appropriated by Muslims in a dynamic process that differs according to the various contexts in which it takes place. Thus, the book’s focus on the transmission and dynamics of seemingly unchangeable sources shows that Muslims are engaged in a continu-ous process of negotiation with their textual tradition on the one hand and the demands and challenges they face on the other.


The subject of transmission is mostly, though not entirely, seen in the first two parts of this volume. The first contribution, by Boekhoff-van der Voort, deals with the work of ʿAbd al-Razzāq b. Hammām al-Ṣanʿānī. By focusing on a single source (ʿAbd al-Razzāq’s Kitāb al-maghāzī), she shows that the study of such texts and particularly of their dating and origins often involves trying to trace their earli-est source through their transmission by others. This is also shown in Schoeler’s contribution, which deals with the Kitāb al-maghāzī by Mūsā b. ʿUqba. Schoeler’s paper builds on his earlier work about the same subject and traces the origin of the document through its transmission by early Muslims.

 The Berlin fragment on which Schoe-ler bases his present study consists of 20 aḥādīth that are ascribed to Mūsā b. ʿUqba. Research on the early Muslims to whom traditions are ascribed is of particular importance since the efforts by scholars such as Boekhoff-van der Voort and Schoeler to trace texts as far back in time as possible may shed new light on their original authorship and, subsequently, on important aspects of early Islamic history.

The relevance of Ḥ adīth for the study of the intellectual development of the Islamic world is further underlined by Fierro’s contribution on ḥadīth literature in al-Andalus, in which the author calls for—amongst other things—a greater emphasis on compiling bio-bibliographical databases of Andalusi ḥadīth transmitters (muḥaddithūn).

Another recommendation for future research on aḥādīth is to apply new ana-lytical approaches. Fierro advocates several interesting research issues, including a stronger emphasis on relations between ḥadīth study and other Islamic disciplines and a greater focus on the historical and local contexts in which the muḥaddithūn worked and what their position was in the societies in which they lived and worked. Fierro’s contribu-tion thereby underlines that even highly specialised research such as hers is not just interesting in itself but can also teach us something about broader developments in Islamic history.

A different kind of transmission, the manuscript tradition of the Qurʾān, is found in Leemhuis’ contribution. He has found what he refers to as “a peculiar manuscript of the Qurʾān” in Groningen Uni-versity’s library.

 The peculiarity of the manuscript consists in the fact that the Arabic script used is normally found written on parchment and not on paper, as is the case here. More important, how-ever, are the misplaced parts of the text that Leemhuis has discovered. Although one can rarely be certain about the exact explanation for this, Leemhuis’ analysis comes up with plausible reasons as to why this has happened.

Undoubtedly, the collection of the Qurʾān, traditionally believed by Muslims to have been undertaken on the initiative of the third caliph ʿUthmān b. ʿAffān, as well as the actual text of the Qurʾān still need more research to give us a clearer picture of the transmission of the text.

 Even more mystery surrounds the context of the alleged revelation of the Qurʾān, which is precisely what Gilliot’s contribu-tion to this volume deals with. He distinguishes reconstructing the Qurʾān on the basis of sources stemming from the period after the book was collected, a process based on the ʿUthmānic codex, from research on Qurʾānic textual elements that were “borrowed” from ear-lier scriptures or religious traditions.

 Adopting the latter approach, Gilliot concludes that many elements in the “Arabic lectionary”, as he refers to the Meccan Qurʾān, show that the Prophet’s community were more familiar with the existing religious traditions around them than is often assumed. Gilliot’s study of this subject therefore provides us with valuable details about the religious and cultural context of early Islamic history and how these were reflected in the Qurʾān.


While the theme of transmission is introduced in this book by Boek-hoff-van der Voort’s paper and can clearly be discerned in all con-tributions mentioned above, these articles do not concentrate on the process of transmission per se, which is the central focus of the second part of this volume. Its first contribution, by Görke, shows that there is no academic consensus on how to study the life of the Prophet and gives a useful overview of approaches to the study of transmitted aḥādīth, including the one developed by Harald Motzki: the isnād-cum-matn method.

The use of this approach in this volume is illustrated by, amongst others, the contribution by Scheiner, who reconstructs accounts of the conquest of Damascus in the 1st/7th cen-tury on the basis of the oldest sources available. Interestingly, he shows that where the isnād-cum-matn analysis does not suffice due to a lack of enough variants of the same ḥadīth, he is able to further analyse the texts by focusing on their narrative structures. Scheiner concludes that any historical analysis on the conquest of Damascus that lacks a sound critique of the sources as well as a reconstruction of the oldest material is bound to be “methodologically questionable”.

Whereas the conquest of Damascus was a major event in early-Islamic history, Lecker contends that even historically insignificant occurrences, such as (in his case) the assassination of the Jewish mer-chant Ibn Sunayna by a companion of the Prophet, can tell us a great deal about ḥadīth transmission. Lecker shows that the reason such a relatively unimportant event was recorded and transmitted has much to do with the fact that Ibn Sunayna’s assassin, Muḥayṣṣa, had several sons who probably wanted to preserve their father’s memory and rep-utation for posterity.

 As a result, Lecker concludes that the account of this murder as presented by the culprit’s family is of dubious historical value and, considering that more such family accounts exist, states that these should be treated with care when trying to recover historical data about the life of the Prophet.2

The issue of personal reputation is further explored by Jarrar, who focuses on one particular transmitter, the Medinan muḥaddith and akhbārī Ibn Abī Yaḥyā. Although seen as an important scholar by several of his contemporaries, his apparent sympathies with Shīʿī Islam—a charge that, in various forms, has also been levelled against other early-Islamic transmitters3—at a time when Muslims were in the process of forming an “orthodox” Islam4 meant that his legacy was not fully preserved among Sunnī scholars.

This study in a sense shows us the mirror image of what Fierro writes about: whereas she argues that ḥadīth literature can inform us about the context in which muḥaddithūn lived, Jarrar points out that our knowledge of the religious and political context can help us understand individual transmitters.

That a political context can have a major effect on texts and their transmission is shown quite dramatically by Wiegers’ contribution to this volume. Focusing on an Islamic prophetic treatise, Wiegers shows that this document is most probably based on the French friar Jean de Roquetaille’s Vademecum in Tribulatione, although it was rendered into a more Islamic text by an anonymous Muslim editor.

Wiegers states that the precarious position of Muslims in Medieval Spain at the time probably explains their recourse to messianic and prophetic stories and that they apparently even went so far as to adopt Christian versions of such stories if that served their needs, transmitting them to posterity as if they were authentic Muslim texts.


The relationship between text and context referred to above does not just have an effect on the production and transmission of texts but also helps explain how such texts are interpreted and received by later Muslims. This becomes clear in the last two themes of this volume, which show the dynamics of the textual sources of Islam among later generations of Muslims, both in the Islamic world and in the West.

This is aptly shown in Rubin’s contribution about two verses from the Qurʾān (44: 10–11). While apparently dealing with an eschatological warning issued by the Prophet against unbelievers while he was still in Mecca and unable to act decisively against their resistance to Islam, the meaning of these verses is reinterpreted by exegetes, who looked at Muḥammad through the prism of his much more assertive and power-ful Medinan rule. As a result, they no longer interpreted these particu-lar verses as eschatological warnings, but as references to events that actually took place during the Prophet’s life, thereby portraying him as a triumphant leader who overcame his non-Muslim enemies rather than a powerless warner against their future punishment.

Rubin briefly mentions how modern Muslims deal with the verses he focuses on, as does Versteegh, whose paper concentrates on a com-mentary ascribed to the 2nd/8th century exegete al-Ḍaḥḥāk. While this scholar deals with numerous aspects of the Qurʾān in great detail, including foreign words, the day of resurrection (yawm al-qiyāma) and even the name of an ant Sulaymān is said to have talked to, Ver-steegh shows that on modern-day Islamic internet forums, al-Ḍaḥḥāk is mainly remembered for one thing: his forceful advocacy of jihad by stating that the so-called “sword verse” (Q. 9: 5) has abrogated earlier, more conciliatory verses.

The present-day interpretation of the sources is explored in greater detail by Wagemakers and Berg, although with regard to entirely dif-ferent groups of Muslims in different geographical settings. Wage-makers’ contribution focuses on three contemporary Jihādī-Salafī scholars debating to what extent Muslims can be held responsible for sinful acts of whose wrongfulness they were unaware. All three schol-ars use numerous selected Qurʾānic verses to make their case, lead- ing to conclusions that ultimately have far-reaching consequences for politics and society.

The fact that these scholars, all radical ideologues willing to support violence, disagree so vehemently about this issue shows that the dynamics of the sources even extend into groups of Muslims usually seen as ideologically fixed and rigid.

Whereas Wagemakers focuses on Muslims who form an important part of Sunnī Islam in our time, Berg concentrates on the first leader of the African-American Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, whose organisation was (and remains) highly contested but which neverthe-less claims to represent the true meaning of Islam. Berg shows that through a strongly Black nationalist and racialist interpretation of the sources, Elijah Muhammad reinterpreted the Qurʾān and the life of Muḥammad in such a way as to make it seem that Islam was revealed especially for African-Americans. He even went so far as to interpret certain Qurʾānic verses as applicable to himself rather than the Prophet Muḥammad.

The Transmission and Dynamics of the Textual Sources of Islam, The Transmission and Dynamics of the Textual Sources of Islam, The Transmission and Dynamics of the Textual Sources of Islam


Berg’s contribution shows an interpretation of the textual sources that is clearly at odds with what most Muslims believe. In fact, such divergent receptions of the sources in Muslims’ everyday lives are not uncommon, as the fourth and final part of this volume makes clear. Tayob’s contribution on human rights in modern Islamic discourse, for example, shows that Muslim intellectuals have reacted quite dif-ferently to the oft-perceived clash between modern notions of human rights and the textual sources of Islam.

Focusing on two Muslim thinkers who have written extensively on women’s rights in particular, Tayob shows that Muslim scholars have indeed incorporated the idea of rights into their discourse but sometimes with clear limitations on women’s freedom. This, Tayob maintains, points to a deeper resistance to the broader acceptance of modern notions of human rights, thereby betraying their ambivalence towards the subject.

A different and probably more vehement debate than the one described by Tayob can be seen in Meijer’s paper, which focuses on the use of al-jarḥ wa-l-taʿdīl (“wounding and praise”, traditionally applied to the evaluation of aḥādīth) by the Saudi Salafī scholar Rabīʿ b. Hādī al-Madkhalī to attack his ideological opponents and assert his own religious authority. As Meijer shows, al-Madkhalī and his supporters are so much against the mixing of religion and politics and criticism of………

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