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Textual Criticism, the New Testament, and the Qur’an

March 21, 2013

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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  1. M. Gould permalink

    Professor Hurtado,

    I found that article fascinating (and some of the responses).
    I suppose as you observe, it is difficult for some adherents of both Islam and Christianity to accept that there may be variations in early texts. But perhaps this matters less for Christianity? If Muslims are taught that the Qur’an is “The Word of God” and that the reason for differences of the treatment of similar material in The Bible are due to corruption of texts of the Bible, then any scholarship which suggests early variations in The Qur’an, must be (?) treated with hostility by devout Muslims? No doubt Islam will adjust eventually to cope with such possibilities. Christian scholarship surely benefits from the comparative availability of such variations?
    Thank you for such an interesting post.

    • Muslim scholars familiar with the evidence all know that there was a significant amount of early variation in Qur’anic material. It’s an apologetic claim accepted on good faith in popular Muslim circles that the Qur’an has been transmitted in a fixed form from Muhammad onward. But, accepting the evidence of early textual variation and a very early fixity of the text (from Uthman onward), my point was simply how studying the textual history of various material illuminates our sense of any other body of material. In this case, comparing the textual history of the Qur’an and the NT helps us to see the particularities of each better. That’s all.

  2. Bobby Garringer permalink

    Rather than contrasting an early Christians focus on “meaning” and “message” rather than “wording,” wouldn’t it be enough to say that most textual variants did not alter the message?

    So in so many words, there was no early Christian “effort to suppress textual variation and enforce one textual tradition,” because, in general, the variations of which they were aware were not that significant.

  3. anon permalink

    I agree with Ali Hussain (I am a Muslim). There is too much “Christian-Centric” scholarship and not enough that is neutral—Western scholars need to look at a tradition on its own so they can hear what it says instead of superimposing the notion that if xyz happened in christianity/N/T—xyz must also happen in Islam/Quran.

    I have not read Small so this is a general comment on “western scholarship” of Islam and Quran.

    Yr post said that Small compared Quran texts from 8th century onwards to todays print and concludes that these texts have no significant variations. But early texts had significant variations.

    The scholars of textual criticism of the Torah arrived at the Documentary Hypothesis theory because they looked at the unity of the text. They had to do so because there are no written works to go by. Since the Quran also has an oral tradition—this may be an interesting way to look at it as early works have not survived.

    Muslim tradition has it that soon after the death of the Prophet(pbuh) in 632 CE, The Quranic texts were compiled by Caliph Abu Bakr from both written works and oral tradition—and this oral tradition was vigorously vetted to ensure textual integrity. Uthman ibn Affan became Caliph in 644 CE—that is only about a dozen years after the death of the Prophet(pbuh)—this is when the “Uthmani codex” was compiled and distributed. Therefore the “original Quran” cannot have been “lost” or “forgotton” between the time of Abu Bakr and Uthman. Since we have no surviving written texts from this period—one could use the method employed in the study of the Torah and look at the Unity of the text to see its integrity.

    Since Muslims have always been concerned about “corruption” of the Quran—a lot of work has been done by Muslim scholars themselves on this issue. The Quran has been analyzed in various ways.

    Perhaps the quality of preservation may be a bit “unsettling”/unpopular for the Western Scholar, but it should not effect an unbiased neutral assessment of early Islamic history simply because the text of the Quran has been better preserved. (so, they should stop insisting on its corruption simply because it has happened to the N/T—and instead look at Islamic history in its own terms)

    • Sir: I posted on one work, by Keith Small, and not about Islam, or the traditions of scholarship on it or the Qur’an more generally. You admit not having read Small’s book, so your comments are entirely beside the point, and your sweeping and defensive condemnations of “Western” scholarship are out of place. As indicated in my post, Small repeatedly emphasizes how well the text of the Qur’an is preserved in the 22 manuscripts studied. But other evidence, of Muslim provenance, e.g., palimpsest manuscripts, erasures in Qur’an manuscripts, Muslim reports of textual variants, all combine to suggest strongly a larger amount of variation in the ordering and working of the Qur’an in the very earliest years. This is the very thing that Uthman sought to overcome. The NT is studied by scholars of various religious persuasions and none, and heavily from a strictly historical interest. The same should be the case for the Qur’an. There is no anti-Muslim motive involved in saying this. Simply a desire that the past of all traditions be studied in the same methods and without prescriptive rules that seek to exempt some texts.

  4. Thanks Larry: nice to see Keith’s work (which I co-supervised) getting this recognition. The thesis itself contained a very detailed comparison of the actual variations found in manuscripts of the Surah with the actual variations found in manuscripts of a passage in Acts, and showed persuasively (in my view) that the Qur’anic material has significant variation showing in the mss we have available (as you note), although the evidence is often harder to find because of ‘Uthman’s suppression of variant mss. The NT work is good too!

  5. I think the New Testament and the Quran should not be compared as both of them are different texts , arising in different places few hundred years apart . Scholars should treat both of them differently .Often the comparison is done in Christian and Muslim apologetic circles with each trying to out do the other .

    Muslim claim of linking the fidelity of the text of Quran to God are not a good line of reasoning as it completely undermines any effort on the study of the history of the text on a balanced way .Having said that i should also say the text of Quran has not been treated by the western scholarship in a good scholarly way , often the scholars studying the history are found short in the depth of Arabic language , ignoring what the Muslim history and scholarship is saying completely and coming to conclusions without any facts .

    I have not gone through the latest work of Kieth E Small so i cant comment on it , but he is a Christian apologist who have been seen previously denouncing Islam and he has an agenda . Can we take his work as authoritative ? and likewise can a Christian take the work of any Muslim apologist who do a Phd on the Bible in a scholarly way?

    • Ali: Small is a Christian, but I think his work has to be assessed on its scholarly merits (which, I must confess, given my lack of competence in Arabic, I’m not fully able to do). It does have endorsements from respected figures (Andrew Rippin, David Powers). I see no overt apologetic in his discussion. Indeed, he seems to me to manifest and urge a respect for the Qur’an and Islam. He by no means ignores traditional Muslim scholarship but instead references it. Nothing prevented Muslim scholars from carrying out the sort of project that Small did, and nothing of an apologetic nature seems to me to have distorted his findings.
      The object is not to “score points” of one religion against another. My points are two: (1) The Qur’an (as true of any ancient text) has a textual history, apparently an initial period of greater diversity (in text, ordering of material, etc.) and then (remarkably early, as a result of Uthman’s project) an impressive fixity; and (2) the contrast with the textual history of other texts, including the NT, reflects the different religo-political histories of Islam in comparison with Christianity. No evaluation or unfavorable implication. Just the historical facts.
      It will be a bit unsettling for “popular” Muslim piety to learn that the Qur’an has a textual history such as Small (and many other scholars of Muslim and non-Muslim affiliation recognize), and it is also sometimes unsettling for uninformed Christians to learn that the NT has a textual history. But intelligent Christians and Muslims should be able to come to terms with this, and without feeling that the essentials of their faith are thereby threatened.

  6. “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.”

    I wonder if this doesn’t have something to do with the late antique hermeneutical traditions that laid the groundwork for medieval Scripture reading among Christians. I know nothing about early Islamic hermeneutics, but it seems probable to me that they lacked the heavy hand of an Origen or Augustine for whom to words signified rather than embodied the meaning, pointing beyond the words to truths which could be accessed only allegorically or tropologically. If the words themselves are never anything more than a veil over their actual meaning, then standardizing those words becomes less urgent.

    In any case, it seems right to me to stress the differing political situations of early Christianity and Islam respectively. Standardization on the scale being discussed here requires a powerful centralized authority. Even with the advent of imperial Christianity, Constantine’s was an empire in its twilight while the early caliphate was a civilization on the rise.

    • Hmm. Well, Augustine is far too late to consider (for the early manuscripts from the 3rd century CE), and I’m not confident that Origen had all that much influence on the copying of NT manuscripts. I rather doubt that Origen had any “heavy hand” on it. Your take on the respective imperial situations is worth considering further, I guess. But it is also important that, from its origins, Islam sought and obtained political power, initially locally in Muhammad’s time, and then more broadly. But Christianity makes its way in its first three centuries without this sort of state backing (and so without the top-down controle that inevitably comes from that “backing”).

      • The issue is not that Origen or Augustine directly guided the copying of manuscripts. It is that they pioneered the hermeneutical methods which would be popular for centuries in Christianity East and West. It is precisely these hermeneutics which might explain your observed difference between the stress on “message” rather than text and thus illuminate the comparative apathy of Christians for creating a standardized text.

      • Thanks, but no, the flexibility/variety in the textual transmission of the NT is evident apart from and prior to Origen. The stress on the “message” seems to go back much earlier. Origen’s emphasis was on how to read the OT specifically, given that it seemed not directly to accord with his Christian faith. So, he used allegorical reading, allowing him to read meaning(s) into the OT text other than its grammatical one.

      • Origen and Augustine are a synechdoce. The hermeneutical tradition is neither as narrow nor as conditioned by the particular concerns of Origen as you make it out to be. It traces back through Origen and Clement at least to the Middle Platonic tendencies of Philo which antedates the New Testament altogether.

        The point is the late antique culture of meaning in which early Christian hermeneutics arise (the hermeneutics typified by Origen and Augustine), a context not shared by early Islam. The variety of textual transmission from the earliest period of Christianity isn’t in dispute, but your own summary of the book suggests that there was variety in the earliest transmission of Quran as well. The question is why did Muslims feel the need to standardize their text and Christians did not. You suggest the different political situations and the stress on message rather than text. I agree. I am merely suggesting that the stress on message is very likely related to the hermeneutical traditions that dominated medieval Christianity (at the time when Islam is just being established), typified by Origen and Augustine, derived from the pre-Christian hermeneutics of Philo, consonant with the precepts of Middle and Neo-Platonism which locate meaning beyond its immediate manifestation.

      • I’ll let you have the last word on this. I’ve said my piece.

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