Holy Books: the New Testament, and the Qur’an

KorānsHow much do we really know about the text of Qur’an? Read about some quite illuminating discoveries. It’s good and helpful to know the history.

Read the original article here.

I’ve recently reviewed a fascinating book:  Keith E. Small, Textual Criticism and Qur’an Manuscripts (Lanham/Boulder/New York/Toronto/Plymouth:  Lexington Books, 2012), the review appearing in Scottish Journal of Theology in due course.  The book arises from Small’s 2008 PhD thesis, and is an impressive and stimulating work.  To engage in depth his data requires, of course, a good competence in Arabic, one of my many deficits.  But Small’s analysis and judgements seem measured, always based on evidence he proffers, and also respectful of the scholarship (both “Western” and traditional Islamic) that he so profusely engages.  My reason for mentioning the book on this blog site is that Small’s study prompts some interesting comparisons with the textual history of the New Testament.  Indeed, comparing the two textual histories (of the Qur’an and the New Testament writings) might enhance our appreciation of each one.

As an immediate comparison/contrast, note Small’s opening statement (p. 3):  “It is widely acknowledged that there has never been a critical text produced for the Qur’an based on extant manuscripts, as has been done with other sacred books and bodies of ancient literature.”  Small’s study is a only an initial step in that larger project, but it is illuminating nonetheless.  Selecting one portion of the Qur’an as a sample, Surah 14:35-41, he compared the readings of 22 Qur’anic manuscripts ranging in date from the early 8th century CE (lst century of Islam) down to the a modern-era print copy, 19 of the manuscripts from Islam’s first four centuries.  Also, however, he draws into the discussion evidence from palimpsest manuscripts (in which an earlier entire Qur’an text has been over-written), corrections in manuscripts (where whole words have been erased and written over), and reports of Qur’anic readings in Islamic tradition.  As to approach/method, he draws on the categories and procedures developed in textual criticism of ancient literature generally, particularly New Testament textual criticism.

As to results, Small repeatedly notes that the Qur’an manuscripts exhibit a remarkable stability in the text across many centuries, from the earliest to the latest.  In general terms, not much more than orthographic variants (vowel differences in the consonantal script) and other minor variants are found.  There are occasional copyist mistakes, but no major differences involving whole clauses or sentences.  This accords with traditional, popular Muslim beliefs/claims about the stability of the text of the Qur’an.

But Small also notes that the other evidence (especially palimpsests and reports from early centuries) suggest strongly that there was, in the earliest period, a considerably greater diversity in the text of the Qur’an than is reflected in the extant manuscripts studied.  Moreover, as is widely accepted, in the late 7th century, disturbed by the diversity in the text of the Qur’an, the Caliph Uthman organized a standardization of the consontantal text (early Arabic, like ancient Hebrew, was a consonantal aphabet with no written vowels), suppressing variant versions.

As often the concern of monarchs, Uthman wanted to unify his religio-political doman, and suppress potentially dangerous differences.  Therefore, given the place of the Qur’an in Islam, he focused on fixing its text.  Thereafter, in successive centuries, further steps were taken to fix the text and its recitation.  So, as Small observes, “the history of the transmission of the text of the Qur’an is at least as much a testament to the destruction of Qur’an material as it is to its preservation . . . It is also testimony to the fact that there never was one original text of the Qur’an” (p. 180).

Comparisions and contrasts with the textual history of the New Testament spring to mind.  Most immediately, there is the obvious contrast in the textual diversity reflected in early NT manuscripts.  This contrast seems to reflect historical differences in the two religious traditions.  Even after Christianity was declared the official religion of the Roman Empire (late 4th century CE), there was no equivalent state or ecclesiastically sponsored project to create a standard NT text.  NT manuscripts continue to exhibit significant (sometimes quite striking) variants all down through the first six centuries or more especially; and only by sometime after the eighth century CE do we see emerging the clear preponderance of the text-form called variously the “Byzantine”, “Ecclesiastical” or “Medieval” text, the type of text reflected in the great mass of NT manuscripts thereafter.

Because there was no equivalent early attempt to suppress the variation in NT, we can see the variation amply in the early manuscripts (from the first six centuries).  As noted, differences in the history of Christianity and Islam are factors.  Christianity did not obtain state sponsorship until its fourth century, whereas Islam became a religio-political phenomenon well within its earliest years.  And, as indicated, even after receiving state sponsorship, there wasn’t the same concern to fix the scriptural text in Christian circles.  Instead, perhaps one might see an analogy in the efforts in the 4th century CE and thereafter (promoted by the Emperor) to fix belief/doctrine, e.g., in the Councils of Nicaea and Constaninople.

Indisputably, in Christianity as well as Islam the scriptural texts were and remain crucial and unique in significance.  But for ancient Christianity it appears that it was more the message of the scriptural texts that was the focus, not so much the wording of the texts.  So, in ancient Christianity there wasn’t the same sort of effort to suppress textual variation and enforce one textual tradition.  That’s fortunate for textual criticism, giving us lots of early manuscript evidence with which to work.

Small’s book will be of obvious interest to scholars and students of Islam and the Qur’an, of course.  But it also provides an interesting example of how study of the textual history of one text can throw light on the textual history of others.

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