The Late Dating of the Collection of the Qurʾān: A Critique of the Hypothesis of John Wansbrough

The aim of this article is to scrutinize the view of John Wansbrough in regards to the late codification of the Qurʾān and those who adhere to similar views. Although this article is mainly aimed to attack the hypothesis of Wansbrough, some of the arguments here can also be applied to those scholars who adhere to a Marwanid-era date[1] for the Qurʾān such as Alphonse Mingana, Paul Casanova, Chase F. Robinson, David S. Powers, Stephen J. Shoemaker, Guillaume Dye, Carlos A. Segovia, and Alfred-Louis de Prémare, to name a few.[2]

Having begun in the early 1970’s, revisionism challenged modern academia in its scholarly opinions on early Islām and broke the consensus amongst critical Islāmologist in regards to the Qurʾān. John Wansbrough—the grandfather of the movement—advocated that reference to the ʿUthmānic recension could not be dated earlier than the beginning of the third/ninth century.[3] Moreover, most European scholars hold that the recension of the Qurʾān occurred under ʿUthmān ibn ʿAffān, the third Caliph (Khalīfa).[4]

Per Wansbrough, the traditional Arabic-Islāmic Historiographical sources constituted salvation history, i.e., literary activity of no use to establish historical facts about the formative period. In other words, he worked with the heritage of Ignaz Goldziher and Joseph Schacht in regards to the unreliability of the Islāmic Tradition (ḥadīths).

Considering recent methodological developments within ḥadīth studies and new references, a new set of facts arose that seriously undermines the hypothesis of Wansbrough.

 

Literary Tradition, Textual Evidence and the Dating of the Traditions

It was a common assumption, before the discovery of new sources, that these traditions are not attested before the ninth century. Using text-critical methods, it can be shown that these traditions are attested in multiple sources predating al-Bukhārī (d. 256/870), some of which were not known until recently.  In total, there are six sources which mention the Abū Bakr tradition:

  • The Musnad of Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal (d. 241/855).

 

  • The Musnad of al-Ṭayālisī (d. 204/820).

 

  • The Jāmiʿ of ʿAbd Allāh ibn Wahb (d. 197/812).

 

  • The Tafsīr of ʿAbd al-Razzāq (d. 211/827).

 

  • The Kitāb faḍāʾil of Abū ʿUbayd (d. 224/838).[5]

 

  • al-Ridda wa-l-futūḥ of Sayf ibn ʿUmar (d. ca. 180/796).[6]

 

Thus, it reasonable to suppose that these reports were circulating by the end of by the end of the seventh century or early eighth century AD.

Based on this it can be asserted that this tradition was in circulation in the last quarter of the second/eighth century. When it comes to the tradition of ʿUthmān, it can also be asserted that it was in circulation.

Special attention should be paid to Sayf ibn ʿUmar. Wansbrough held that a final form of the Qurʾān could not have existed in the lifetime of Sayf.[7] Dying around 800 CE, Sayf must have produced his work in the second half of the eighth century, his report, therefore, cannot date later than ca. 120 years after the date of the official copy of the Qurʾān offered by the Islāmic native Tradition.[8]

Using the isnād-cum-matn analysis[9] it can be shown that the traditions that speak about the collection of the Qurʾān at the hands of Abū Bakr and ʿUthmān are from the last quarter of the first/seventh century,[10] hence, the common-link is the Medinan scholar Ibn Shihāb al-Zuhrī (d. 124/742).[11] If the common-link is to be interpreted as the one who systematically spread the tradition, then the tradition must be even older than the common-link itself.[12] Hence, we are dealing with traditions that possibly predate al-Zuhrī[13] thus, taking us back to the first Marwānid Umayyads.[14]

There is a statement attributed to an early authority which implies an early codification of the Qurʾān at the hands of ʿUthmān.

It is reported that Abū Saʿīd al-Khudrī said:

“Do you want to adopt it as copies of the Qurʾan?”[15]

This statement does indicate that the Qurʾān was known as a muṣḥaf in the first century hence, Abū Saʿīd seems to have used that terminology. Noting that here is a distinct possibility that Abū Saʿīd al-Khudrī himself spread the idea of not writing down Prophetic Traditions. Even if one would accept that this statement was attributed to Abū Saʿīd by the individual below him in the isnād, Abū Naḍrah al-Mundhir, it would still imply that the Qurʾān was known as a muṣḥaf hence the tradition must have originated in the beginning of the second century.[16]

Anachronisms

Naturally, if a document such as the Qurʾān lacked any definitive shape and had evolved during the first, second, and third centuries, it would most likely relate events that occurred in its surroundings. Yet there are no anachronisms in the Qurʾān that would reveal a late codification, instead, we are dealing with a document steeped in first/seventh-century Ḥijāz.[17] As one certain revisionist observed:

“In the Qurʾān, on the other hand, we find not a single reference to events, personalities, groups or issues that clearly belong to periods after the time of Muḥammad – ʿAbbāsids, Umayyads, Zubayrids, ʿAlids, the dispute  over free will, the dispute over tax revenues and conversion, tribal rivalries, conquests etc.”[18]

It is rather suspicious if the Qurʾān did not have a definitive shape for over three centuries, and does not mention or even allude to major incidents within Islāmic history such as the civil wars that broke out and caused havoc in the lands. There are no anachronisms within the Qurʾān, and hence, there are no reasons to suppose that the text betrays its historical milieu.

 

Early Coins and Manuscript Evidence

Manuscript discoveries have disproved the notion of a later emergence of the Qurʾān.[19] Certain discoveries, some recent and some old, in the fields of codicology, archaeology and epigraphy indicate an early official recension of the Qurʾān.

  • A fragment from Khirbet el-Mird compromises of a citation of Q. 3:102-103 which seems to indicate a fixed Qurʾānic text towards the end of the Umayyad period.[20]

 

  • Dated to 141/758, a Nubian papyrus contains the formula “And God, may He be glorified and exalted, says in His book” which precedes two Qurʾānic passages, signifying an official recension.[21]

 

  • Coins from the Umayyad period identify the Prophet Muḥammad as the Messenger of God or even includes citations from the Qurʾān.[22]

 

  • The Qurʾānic manuscripts found in Ṣanʿāʾ display two layers, one upper and one lower, the former one being the standard ʿUthmānic text which is dated from the first or second half of the seventh century AD or even the early eighth century.[23]

 

  • The ‘Codex Parisino-Petropolitanus’—a fragmentary Qurʾān manuscript that is very old—is dated to the third quarter of the first century AH[24] based on its writing style and archaic orthography (e.g. qāla is written consistently as QL) and its text follows the ʿUthmānic recension.[25]

 

A Genuine Core

We have some reasons for supposing—generally that is—that the body of traditions talking about ʿUthmān’s role in making an official copy of the Qurʾān has a genuine historical core. Reasons include the following:

  • All our available traditions are unanimous in their agreement that ʿUthmān was the one responsible for rendering the Qurʾān into an official codex.[26] The Islāmic tradition identifying ʿUthmān as the key character quiet consistently, the chronological framework that are connected might be historically credible.

 

  • The responses from the Muslim community and some deviant sects (e.g. Khawārij, Shīʿas, etc.) towards the ʿUthmānic recension imply that a certain historical event of great magnitude had occurred. Accusation labeled at ʿUthmān such as giving up the many Qurʾāns for only one, being the burner of the book of Allāh, etc. are not light claims. These grave accusations could not have possibly been thrown around unless something immense had occurred such as burning all the muṣḥafs except for one, which became the official state copy.

 

  • It is reported that the material used by Zayd ibn Thābit to copy the Qurʾān for ʿUthmān where parchment (ṣuḥuf), which had an exact format for the purpose of creating a collection.[27] Traditions such as these are historically dependable, hence, choice of the materials utilized must have been influenced given the great task of collecting the official edition of the Qurʾān, and that only a codex could be expected for ease of use, a practical requirement which existed for such a copy.[28] One does not have to argue for the historical authenticity of these single traditions, but rather believe the overall picture all these traditions provide.[29]

Conclusion

These facts presented here above cast doubt, undermine or even repudiate the hypothesis of Wansbrough in regards to the codification of the Qurʾān. Instead, we are dealing with a first/seventh-century Ḥijāzī document that was codified under the Caliph ʿUthmān as described in the native Islāmic Tradition.

Endnotes

[1] A mid-Umayyad date means that the text of Qurʾān was open to change and redaction due to lacking a fixed, and an official form until c. 700 CE, until receiving a recension during the time of ʿAbd al-Malik and his governor al-Ḥajjāj ibn Yūsuf (Sinai 2014: 3).

[2] Especially sections: (2), (4), and (6). In regards to section (2), Shoemaker (2012: 148) has rightly emphasized that al-Zuhrī being the common link of the isnāds, does not decide the origins of the Qurʾān, neither does it establish the accuracy of the story. It only shows that the traditions of the ʿUthmānic recension were in circulation at that time. The isnād-cum-matn analysis does not establish the accuracy nor authenticity of a tradition, but only establishes its date based on the common-link, thus establishing authenticity using this method is very rare, if ever possible (Motzki 2010: 235). Per Motzki (2010: 235), simply because a Tradition can be dated to the second half of the first/seventh century does not mean that it is authentic nor historically accurate. Kohlberg & Moezzi (2009: 12) accurately point out that despite the early date of the tradition, it is still many decades after the time of ʿUthmān. Hence, it does not remove the idea that the Qurʾān might have been codified under ʿAbd al-Malik.

[3] John Wansbrough, Quranic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation (USA: Prometheus Books, 2004), p. 45.

[4] Gregor Schoeler, The Oral and Written in Early Islam, trans. Uwe Vagelpohl, ed. James E. Montgomery (London: Routledge, 2006), p. 73; Harald Motzki, “Alternative accounts of the Qurʾān’s formation”, in Jane Dammen McAuliffe (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Qurʾān (United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 62; cf. Behnam Sadeghi and Mohsen Goudarzi, “Ṣanʿāʾ 1 and the Origins of the Qurʾān,” Der Islam, 87 (2012), pp. 3-4

[5] Harald Motzki, “The Collection of the Qurʾān: A Reconsideration of Western Views in Light of Recent Methodological Developments”, Der Islam, 78 (2001), pp. 18-19.

[6] Etan Kohlberg & Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, Revelation and Falsification: The Kitāb al-qirāʾāt of Aḥmad b. Muḥammad al-Sayyārī (Leiden; Boston: Leiden, 2009), p. 12.

[7] Gregor Schoeler, “The Codification of the Qurʾan: A Comment on the Hypotheses of Burton and Wansbrough,” in Angelika Neuwirth, Nicolai Sinai & Michael Marx (eds.), The Qurʾān in Context: Historical and Literary Investigations into the Qurʾānic Milieu (Leiden: Brill, 2010), p. 786.

[8] Ibid., p. 786.

[9] This is a method to date Traditions through identifying the common link. For explanations of this methodology, see Gregor Schoeler, The Oral and Written in Early Islam, trans. Uwe Vagelpohl, ed. James E. Montgomery (London: Routledge, 2006), p. 130; Harald Motzki, “Dating Muslim Traditions: A Survey”, Arabica 52 (2005). For a good introduction to this method, see Andreas Görke, “The Historical Tradition About al-Ḥudaybiya: A Study of ʿUrwa b. al-Zubayr’s Account”, in Harald Motzki (ed.), The Biography of Muḥammad: The Issue of the Sources (Leiden; Boston; Köln: Brill, 2000).

[10] Shady Hekmat Nasser, The Transmission of the Variant Readings of the Qurʾān: The Problem of Tawātur and the Emergence of Shawādhdh (Leiden: Brill, 2012), p. 11. He is citing Motzki.

[11] Harald Motzki, “The Collection of the Qurʾān: A Reconsideration of Western Views in Light of Recent Methodological Developments”, Der Islam, 78 (2001), pp. 22-29. This conclusion is supported by Nasser (2012), Kohlberg & Moezzi (2009), and Sinai (2014).

[12] Andreas Görke, “Eschatology, History, and the Common Link: A Study in Methodology”, in H. Berg (ed.), Method and Theory in the Study of Islamic Origins (Leiden: Brill, 2003), p. 188.

[13] Harald Motzki, “The Collection of the Qurʾān: A Reconsideration of Western Views in Light of Recent Methodological Developments”, Der Islam, 78 (2001), pp. 30-31.

[14] Etan Kohlberg & Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, Revelation and Falsification: The Kitāb al-qirāʾāt of Aḥmad b. Muḥammad al-Sayyārī (Leiden; Boston: Leiden, 2009), p. 12.

[15] This is a famous statement that probably was spread by Abū Saʿīd himself (and not Abū Naḍrah) for the rejection of the movement of writing down Prophetic Traditions (Schoeler, 2006, p. 137).

[16] Gregor Schoeler, “The Codification of the Qurʾan: A Comment on the Hypotheses of Burton and Wansbrough,” in Angelika Neuwirth, Nicolai Sinai & Michael Marx (eds.), The Qurʾān in Context: Historical and Literary Investigations into the Qurʾānic Milieu (Leiden: Brill, 2010), p. 792.

[17] Cf. Stephen J. Shoemaker, The Death of a Prophet: The End of Muhammad’s Life and the Beginnings of Islam (USA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), pp. 153-156; Guillaume Dye, “The Qurʾān and its Hypertextuality in Light of Redaction Criticism,” Paper for the Fourth Nangeroni Meeting: Early Islam: The Sectarian Milieu of Late Antiquity? (Early Islamic Studies Seminar, Milan, 15-19 June 2015).

[18] Fred M. Donner, Narratives of Islamic Origins: The Beginnings of Islamic Historical Writing (Princeton: Darwin Press, 1998), p. 49; cf. Stephen J. Shoemaker, The Death of a Prophet: The End of Muhammad’s Life and the Beginnings of Islam (USA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), pp. 153-156. For a defense of Donner’s argument considering the recent criticisms of Shoemaker, see: Nicolai Sinai, “When did the consonantal skeleton of the Quran reach closure? Parts I and II”, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 77 (2014), pp. 42-45.

[19] Angelika Neuwirth, Orientalism in Oriental Studies? Qurʾanic Studies as a Case in Point / الاستشراق؟ الدراسات القرآنية كمثال واضح

[20] Etan Kohlberg & Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, Revelation and Falsification: The Kitāb al-qirāʾāt of Aḥmad b. Muḥammad al-Sayyārī (Leiden; Boston: Leiden, 2009), p. 11.

[21] Ibid., pp. 11-12.

[22] Ibid., p. 12.

[23] Behnam Sadeghi & Uwe Bergmann, “Codex of a Companion of the Prophet and the Qurʾān of the Prophet,” Arabica 57 (2010), p. 344.

[24] François Déroche, “The codex Parisino-petropolitanus and the ḥijāzī scripts”.

[25] Gregor Schoeler, The Biography of Muḥammad: Nature and Authenticity, ed. J. E. Montgomery, trans. U. Vagelpohl (London/New York: Routledge, 2011), p. 14. Schoeler is citing François Déroche

[26] Gregor Schoeler, “The Codification of the Qurʾan: A Comment on the Hypotheses of Burton and Wansbrough,” in Angelika Neuwirth, Nicolai Sinai & Michael Marx (eds.), The Qurʾān in Context: Historical and Literary Investigations into the Qurʾānic Milieu (Leiden: Brill, 2010), p. 787.

[27] Ibid., 785.

[28] Ibid., 785.

[29] Gregor Schoeler, “Character and Authenticity of the Muslim Tradition on the Life of Muḥammad”, Arabica 49.3 (2002), pp. 360-261; Gregor Schoeler, “The Codification of the Qurʾan: A Comment on the Hypotheses of Burton and Wansbrough,” in Angelika Neuwirth, Nicolai Sinai & Michael Marx (eds.), The Qurʾān in Context: Historical and Literary Investigations into the Qurʾānic Milieu (Leiden: Brill, 2010), p. 787. This approach was also adopted by the skeptic Michael Cook in regards to the opposition of writing down Prophetic Traditions, even though there exist no contemporary reports on the topic (Schoeler, 2002, p. 365).

Bibliography

Blois, F. d. (2010). Islam in its Arabian Context. In A. Neuwirth, N. Sinai, & M. Marx (Eds.), The Qurʾān in Context: Historical and Literary Investigations into the Qurʾānic Milieu . Leiden: Brill.

Donner, F. M. (1998). Narratives of Islamic Origins: The Beginnings of Islamic Historical Writing . Princeton: Darwin Press.

Dye, G. (2015). The Qurʾān and its Hypertextuality in Light of Redaction Criticism.

Görke, A. (2000). The Historical Tradition About al-Ḥudaybiya: A Study of ʿUrwa b. al-Zubayr’s Account. In H. Motzki (Ed.), The Biography of Muḥammad: The Issue of the Sources (pp. 240-271). Leiden; Boston; Köln, Netherlands: Brill.

Görke, A. (2003). Eschatology, History, and the Common Link: A Study in Methodology. In H. Berg (Ed.), Method and Theory in the Study of Islamic Origins. Leiden: Brill.

Kohlberg, E., & Amir-Moezzi, M. A. (2009). Revelation and Falsification: The Kitāb al-qirāʾāt of Aḥmad b. Muḥammad al-Sayyārī. Leiden; Boston, Netherlands : Brill.

Motzki, H. (2001). The Collection of the Qurʾān: A Reconsideration of Western Views in Light of Recent Methodological Developments. Der Islam, 78, 1-34.

Motzki, H. (2005). Dating Muslim Traditions: A Survey. Arabica, 52, 204-253.

Motzki, H., Voort, N. B.-v., & Anthony, S. W. (2010). Analysing Muslim: Studies in Legal, Exegetical and Maghāzī Ḥadīth. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill.

Nasser, S. H. (2012). The Transmission of the Variant Readings of the Qurʾān: The Problem of Tawātur and the Emergence of Shawādhdh . Leiden: Brill.

Rippin, A. (2004). Foreword. In J. Wansbrough, Quranic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation. USA: Prometheus Books.

Sadeghi, B., & Bergmann, U. (2010). Codex of a Companion of the Prophet and the Qurʾān of the Prophet. Arabica, 57, 343-436.

Sadeghi, B., & Goudarzi, M. (2012). Ṣanʿāʾ 1 and the Origins of the Qurʾān. Der Islam, 87, 1-129.

Schoeler, G. (2002). Character and Authenticity of the Muslim Tradition on the Life of Muḥammad. Arabica, 49.3, 360-366.

Schoeler, G. (2006). The Oral and Written in Early Islam. (J. E. Montgomery, Ed., & U. Vagelpohl, Trans.) London: Routledge.

Schoeler, G. (2010). The Codification of the Qurʾan: A Comment on the Hypotheses of Burton and Wansbrough. In A. Neuwirth, N. Sinai, & M. Marx (Eds.), The Qurʾān in Context: Historical and Literary Investigations into the Qurʾānic Milieu. Leiden: Brill.

Schoeler, G. (2011). The Biography of Muḥammad: Nature and Authenticity. (J. E. Montgomery, Ed., & U. Vagelpohl, Trans.) London/New York: Routledge.

Shoemaker, S. J. (2012). The Death of a Prophet: The End of Muhammad’s Life and the Beginnings of Islam. USA: University of Pennsilvania Press.

Sinai, N. (2014). When did the consonantal skeleton of the Quran reach closure? Parts I and II. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies , 77, 1-53.

Wansbrough, J. (2004). Quranic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation. USA: Prometheus Books.

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