Monday, March 16, 2015

Islam, The Quran, And Textual Criticism

TWH: Not a week goes by where I'm not thinking about textual criticism of the New Testament one way or another. Right now, in fact, I have an independent study going on at Capital Seminary and Graduate School. One of our students is completing the requirements for her degree and expressed her interest in studying this step in the exegetical process more in depth. She's done a really phenomenal job, and I can tell this independent study has stretched her way out of her comfort zone. But she has thrived, and that's been awesome to watch as a professor.

Well, I have recently been thinking about textual criticism and the Quran. It's a really interesting question. What do Muslims think about textual criticism and what role, if any, does it play in Islamic studies?

Diane Morgan says, "Islamic studies have always been more resistant to textual criticism than have biblical studies" (Essential Islam: A Comprehensive Guide to Belief and Practice, 97).

Charles Cassini says there are are "several main problem areas with the Quranic tradition . . . as accepted by virtually all Muslims today" (Islam: Claims and Counterclaims, 168). He says:
"Scholars are finding the received tradition–holding that from Uthman's time to the present not so much as a single word has been added, subtracted or changed–difficult to defend. Even more to be doubted is the claim that the Quran's division into sourish and alas follows scrupulously the outline as determined by the prophet himself, although no one had actually taken the various parts and unified them into a single codex prior to his death. Recent scholarship, both on the historical record and the textual criticism of the Quran itself, cast serious doubts that what Muslims presently have in hand as their sacred scripture is the pure and entire version of what Muhammad originally recited and passed onto the believing community."
"The question of when the project was completed is fraught with serious import. The longer this process took, the more likely that errors could have crept into the text. during the prophet's lifetime no final and approved written form of the book had been compiled, and what segments of it that had been so engraved on palm branches, animal bone fragments and other inapt recording mediums could only have existed in a disjoined fashion." (Islam: Claims and Counterclaims, 168-169) 
Cassini continues:
"That many textual variants did occur and that these resulted in serious differences of meaning is arguable from the hadith tradition itself. In some cases, there is substantial evidence supporting the existence of hundreds of Quranic verses that were expunged from earlier collections as well as serious reasons to hold that additions were made to later texts. Two incontestable facts support this view. The first comes from the original inscriptions on the Dome of the Rock, Quranic like alas that have no corresponding verses in the Quran as it exists today. The second comes from the many coins of Islam's first century which, again, bear inscriptions that are written in the same vein as the alas themselves. These as well have no word for word similitude in the sourish of the Quran or even close approximations. The upshot of these considerations is that while some additions or deletions may have been motivated by stylistic or explicatory motives, there are other interpolations that, it can be argued, have serious dogmatic or political agendas associated with them. The rock bottom damage that such prospects have on fundamental Islamic beliefs is that it places the claims of integral purity of the Quran in serious jeopardy." (Islam: Claims and Counterclaims, 171)
Out of the books that I have seen, though, it is Keith E. Small's Textual Criticism and the Qur'an Manuscripts that shines forth as the go-to resource on this topic. I went ahead and requested this book through our library's ILL system tonight. I'm not sure I want to purchase it yet, so I want to check it out first. I'm particularly interested in Part III: Evaluating the Textual Variants (36 pages).

Not everyone agrees that textual criticism of the Quran is necessary. Shabbier Akhtar says this:
"No discipline among the sciences of the Quran corresponds to the critical historical concerns of critical biblical scholarship, a field covering textual criticism as well as form, source, redaction, literary, and historical criticism. The Muslim reluctance to develop the discipline of critical Quranic scholarship is mistakenly thought to be connected to religious obscurantism. In fact, there are no materials and no need for such a discipline. The Quran, unlike the Bible, is not the heterogeneous work of many hands, in several genres, in a trio of languages, in varied geographical locales, stretching over millennia, surviving only in uncertain and fragmentary forms. It is a unified canon, 'revealed' in just over two decades, addressed to a man fully known to his contemporaries and to subsequent history, a man living in only two geographical locations in the same country. It was written in one language, the language of the recipient and of the first audience, a living language that is still widely spoken. The period between its oral revelation and final authoritative compilation is only about two decades. Apart from some variant readings that do not materially affect the sense, the text is invariant, defined and fixed. Textual emendation–editing the text to remove alleged corruption and errors in copying–was never permitted. The text has retained perfect purity; a unique version has enjoyed universal currency during the entire history of Islam. I cannot see, barring motives of malice and envy (that should have no place in scholarship), any grounds for developing a critical textual scholarship of the Quran." (The Quran and the Secular Mind: A Philosophy of Islam, 123)
Now that's quite different than some of the other things we read above. Hey, at least there is one thing Shabbier and I agree on. Indeed, there is no place for malice and envy in scholarship.

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