The Transmission of the Koran

Alphonse Mingana

NOT MANY SACRED BOOKS are better known than the Koran, and only a few of them have more obscure origins. The outcome of early Koranic researches was summarized in Hammer’s well-known verdict: “We hold the Kur’an to be as truly Muhammad’s word as the Muhammadans hold it to be the word of God.” This, however, has not been found in the last few years to be irrefragable. Scholars who like Nöldeke had believed that the Koran was wholly authentic, without any interpolation —“Keine Fälschung; der Koran enthält nur echte Stücke”1—were obliged to revise their opinion and admit without restriction the possibility of interpolations (“Ich stimme aber mit Fischer darin Überein, dass die Möglichkeit von Interpolationen in Qoran unbedingt zugegeben werden muses”).2

In England, where the views of Nöldeke had gathered considerable weight, no serious attempt was made for some years to study the subject afresh. It is, therefore, with warm welcome that one receives original and well considered opinions such as those found in Hirschfeld’s “New Researches,” in St. Clair-Tisdall’s Original Sources, and in D. S. Margoliouth’s masterly publications.3 The first writer has suggested that the four verses in which the name “Muhammad” occurs were spurious.4 In the same sense many good works have lately appeared in France, the gist of which is embodied in Lammens’s studies in the series Scripta Pontificii lnstituti Biblici, and in the interesting book of Casanova who has demonstrated convincingly the existence of many interpolated passages.5

Originally published in The journal of the Manchester Egyptian and Oriental Society (1916) and subsequently reprinted in The Muslim World 7 (1917): 223-32; 402-14.

We do not intend to offer in the present essay an exhaustive investigation of the sacred book of Islam, nor to dilate on minutiae regarding a given verse in particular; we propose to write on something more essential and more general, on the all-important question of how the book called the Koran, which most of us read in a more scientific and comparative way than a Zamakhshari or a Baidawi ever knew, has come to be fixed in the form in which we read it in our days.


The first historical data about the collection of the Koran have come down to us by the way of oral Hadith, and not of history. This is very unfortunate; because a critic is thrown into that medley and compact body of legends, true or false, genuine or spurious, which began to receive unchallenged credit at the time of the recrudescence of Islamic orthodoxy which gave birth to the intolerant Caliph Mutawakkil (847-861 C.E.). The reader is thus astonished to find that the earliest record about the compilation of the Koran is transmitted by Ibn Sa’d (844 C.E.) and by the traditionists Bukhari (870 C.E.) and Muslim (874 C.E.). Before their time nothing is known with certainty, not even with tolerable probability, and the imposing enumeration of early commentators dwindles in face of the fact that two-thirds of their authority and at least one-third of their historicity are thrust back into the mist of the prehistoric; at the most they could have been some of those oral Qurra’s of whom L. Caetani has spoken in his “Annali dell’ Islam.”6

The most ancient writer, Ibn Sa‘ad, has devoted in his tabakat7 a long chapter to an account of those of the “Companions” who had “collected” the Koran in the time of the Prophet. He has preserved ten somewhat contradictory traditions, in which he enumerates ten different persons, each with a list more or less numerous of traditions in his favor;8 these persons are: Ubai ibn Ka’b (with eleven traditions); Mu‘adh (with ten traditions); Zaid ibn Thabit (with eight traditions); Abu Zaid (with seven traditions); Abud-Darda (with six traditions); Tamimud-Dari (with three traditions); Sa’ad ibn‘Ubald (with two traditions); ‘Ubadah ibnus Samit (with two traditions); Abu Ayyub (with two traditions); ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan (with two traditions).

On page 113 another curious tradition informs us that it was ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan who collected the Koran under the caliphate of ‘Umar, and, therefore, not in the time of the Prophet. Another tradition reported by the same author, already noticed by Nöldeke,9attributes the collection of the Koran in suhufs to the caliph ‘Umar himself

The second in date, but the most important, Muslim traditionist, Bukhari, has a very different account in connection with the collectors of the Koran in the time of the Prophet.10 According to one tradition which he reports, these collectors were four HelpersUbai ibn Ka‘b, Mu’adh ibn Jabal, Zaid ibn Thabit, Abu Zaid.11 According to another tradition they were: Abud-Darda, Mu’adh ibn Jabal, Zaid ibn Thabit, Abu Zaid.

On page 392 is found the famous tradition endorsed by many historians, and recently by the present writer also,12 on the authority of Nöldeke; it states that the Koran was collected in the time of Abu Bakr, and not in the time of the Prophet:

We have been told by Musa b. Isma‘il, who heard it from Ibrahim b. Sa’d, who heard it from ibn Shihab, who in his turn heard it from ‘Ubaid b. Sabbak, who related that Zaid b. Thabit said: “At the massacre of Yamamah, Abu Bakr summoned me,13 while ‘Umar ibnul-Khattab was with him; and Abu Bakr said: ‘Slaughter has waxed hot among the readers of the Koran, in the day of Yamamah, and I fear that it may again wax hot among the readers in other countries as well; and that much may be lost from the Koran. Now, therefore, I deem that thou shouldest give orders for the collection of the Koran.’ I said to ‘Umar, ‘How doest thou something that the Apostle of God—may God pray on him and give him peace—has not done?’ And ‘Umar said: ‘By Allah, this is good.’ And ‘Umar did not cease to renew it repeatedly to me, until God set my breast at ease towards it, and I considered it as ‘Umar had considered it.” Zaid added and said: “Abu Bakr then said ‘Thou art a young man and wise, against whom no man can cast an imputation, and thou wast writing down the Revelation for the Apostle of God—may God pray on him and give him peace—search out then the Koran and collect it.’ By Allah, if I were ordered to transfer a mountain it would not have been more difficult for me than this order to collect the Koran; and I said: ‘How canst thou do something that the Apostle of God—may God pray on him and give him peace—has not done’; and (Abu Bakr) said: ‘By Allah, this is good’; and he did not cease to renew it repeatedly to me, until God set my heart at ease towards it, as He has done for ‘Umar and Abu Bakr—may God be pleased with both of them—and I sought out the Koran, collecting it from palm-branches, white-stones, and breasts of men.... And the subufs (rolls) were with Abu Bakr until God took him to Himself, then with ‘Umar, in all his life-time, then with Hafsah, the daughter of ‘Umar—may God be pleased with him.”14

This tradition proves that the Koran was all collected (a) under the caliphate of Abu Bakr, and (b) exclusively by Zaid ibn Thabit.

The tradition is immediately followed by another which runs thus:

We have been told by Musa b. Isma‘il, who took it from Ibrahim, who said that he had been told by Ibn Shihab, who said that Anas b. Malik told him as follows: “Hudaifah b. Yaman went to ‘Uthman, and he had fought with the inhabitants of Syria for the conquest of Armenia and had fought in Adhurbaijan with the inhabitants of Iraq; and because their divergencies in the recital of the Koran had terrified him, Hudaifah said to ‘Uthman, ‘O Commander of the Faithful, overtake this nation before they have discrepancies about the Book as the Jews and the Christians have.’ ‘Uthman, therefore, sent to Hafsah saying: ‘Send us the subufs in order that we may transcribe them in the masahifs; and then we will send them back to thee.’ And Hafsah sent them to ‘Uthman, who ordered Zaid ibn Thabit, and ‘Abdallah b. Zubair, and Sa‘id b. ‘As, and ‘Abdur-Rahman b. Harith b. Hisham, to transcribe them in the masahifs. And ‘Uthman said to the company of the three Quraishites: ‘If there is divergence between you and Zaid b. Thabit about anything from the Koran, write it down in the dialect of the Quraishs, because it has been revealed in their dialect’;15 and they did it, and when they transcribed the subufs in the masahifs, ‘Uthman gave back the suhufs to Hafsah, and sent to every country a mishaf of what they had transcribed, and ordered that everything else from the Koran (found) in (the form of) Sahifah or mishaf should be burnt.”16

This is the oral record which, appearing 238 years after the Prophet’s death, was accepted as true and authentic, to the exclusion of any other, by the most eminent Orientalists of the last century, led by Nöldeke. Why we should prefer these two traditions to the great number of the above traditions sanctioned by Ibn Sa’d, an author anterior by twenty-six years to Bukhari, and by Bukhari himself, I do not know. Professor Casanova remarks: “Quant à admettre une seule des traditions comme vraie au detriment de l‘autre, c’est ce qui me parait impossible sans tomber dans l‘arbitraire.” 17 Nöldeke, however, believes that Bukhari is right and Ibn Sa’d wrong, because if the Koran was collected in the time of the Prophet, why should people have taken such trouble to collect it after his death? (“Wenn sie aber den ganzen Qorân gesammelt hatten, warum bedurfte es denn später so grosser Mühe, denselben zusammenzubringen?”).18 But the question is, Why should we prefer at all the story of Bukhari to that of Ibn Sa’d who is at least credited with priority of time? What should we do then with the other two traditions of Bukhari which are in harmony with Ibn Sa’d in assigning the collection of the Koran to the lifetime of the Prophet? What, too, should we make of the tradition reported by Ibn Sa’d to the effect that the Koran was collected by ‘Uthman b. ‘Affan alone, under the caliphate of ‘Umar? What, finally, should we say about the numerous persons who in the traditions reported above alternate so confusedly in this “collection”? Which of them has effectively collected and which of them has not?

In examining carefully all these oral traditions coming into play more than 230 years after the events, at the time of those numerous polemics in which the Muslim writers were obliged to use the same weapons as those handled by the People of the Book, we are tempted to say that the same credence ought to be attributed to them as that which has long ago been attributed to the other isnadic lucubrations of which only those who read the detailed oral compilations of Bukhari and his imitators have a true idea. “La (critique) a mis en pleine lumière la faible valeur documentaire, sinon de la primitive littérature islamique, du moins du riche développement ultérieur, représenté notamment par le recueil de Bokhari.”19 Another authorized writer20 has justly pointed out: “Les details qui entourent cette figure principale (de Muhammad) sont vraiment bien estompés et finissent même par s‘effacer dans la brume de l’incertitude.” Not many years ago similar honours of genuineness were conferred upon the imposing list of the so-called “early Arabian poems,” but the last nail for the coffin of the majority of them has lately been provided by Professor D. S. Margoliouth;21 and it is to be hoped that, until fuller light dawns, they will never rise again.

We quote, with some reserve, the ironical phrases of an able French scholar: “Nous 1’ avons note précédemment: à cote des poètes, nous possédons la Sira, les Maghazi, les Sahih, les Mosnad, les Sonan, bibliothèque historique unique en son genre, comme étendue et variété. A leur témoignage concordant qui oserait denier toute valeur?”22

We can dispense with traditional compilers of a later date who throw more confusion than light on the theme, and who for the most part only quote their masters Bukhari, Muslim, and Tirmidhi; Nöldeke has already referred to the majority of them,23 and the critic who has time to spare, can easily examine them in his book. We must mention, however, the account of the author of the Fihrist who, although writing several years after the above traditionists, is nevertheless credited with a considerable amount of encyclopaedic learning which many a writer could not possess in his time. After giving the tradition of Bukhari which we have translated, he devotes a special paragraph to the “Collectors of the Koran in the time of the Prophet,”24 and then proceeds to name them without any isnad. They are according to him:—‘Ali b. Abi Talib, Sa’d b.‘Ubaid, Abud-Darda, Mu‘adh b. Jabal, Abu Zaid, Ubai ibn Ka’b,‘Ubald b. Mu’awiah. These names occur in the list of Ibn Sa’d and that of Bukhari combined; but the Fihrist adds two new factors: ‘Ali b. Abi Talib, and ‘Ubaid b. Mu’awiah.

The historian Tabari has another account:25 “‘All b. Abi Talib, and ‘Uthman b. ‘Affan wrote the Revelation to the Prophet; but in their absence it was Ubai b. Ka’b and Zaid b. Thabit who wrote it. ”He informs us, too, that people said to ‘Uthman: “The Koran was in many books, and thou discreditedst them all but one”;26 and after the Prophet’s death, “People gave him as successor Abu Bakr, who in his turn was succeeded by ‘Umar; and both of them acted according to the Book and the Sunnah of the Apostle of God—and praise be to God the Lord of the worlds; then people elected ‘Uthman b. Affan who ... tore up the Book.”27

A more ancient historian, Wakidi,28 has the following sentence in which it is suggested that ‘Abdallah b. Sa’d, b. Abi Sarh, and a Christian slave, ibn Qumta, had something to do with the Koran. And ibn Abi Sarh came back and said to Quraish: “It was only a Christian slave who was teaching him (Muhammad); I used to write to him and change whatever I wanted.” And the pseudo-Wakidi (printed by Nassau Lees29) brings forward a certain Sharahbil b. Hasanah as the amanuensis of the Prophet.

A second series of traditions attributes a kind of collection (Jam) of the Koran to the Umayyad caliph ‘Abdul-Malik b. Marwan (684-704 C.E.) and to his famous lieutenant Hajjaj b. Yūsuf. Barhebraeus,30 has preserved the interesting and important tradition: “ ‘Abdul-Malik b. Marwan used to say, ‘I fear death in the month of Ramadan—in it I was born, in it I was weaned, in it I have collected the Koran (Jama’tul-Qur‘ana), and in it I was elected Caliph.”’ This is also reported by Jalalud-Din as-Suyuti,31 as derived from Tha’alibi.

Ibn Dukmak, in his Description of Egypt,32 and Makrizi in his Khitat33 say about the Koran of Asma: “The reason why this Koran was written is that Hajjaj b. Yusuf Thakafi wrote Korans and sent them to the head-provinces. One of them was sent to Egypt. ‘Abdul-‘Aziz b. Marwan, who was then governor of Egypt in the name of his brother ‘Abdul-Malik, was irritated and said: ‘How could he send a Koran to a district of which I am the chief?’ ” Ibnul-Athir34 relates that al-Hajjaj proscribed the Koran according to the reading of Ibn Mas’ud. Ibn Khallikan35 reports that owing to some orthographical difficulties such various readings had crept into the recitation of the Koran in the time of al-Hajjaj that he was obliged to ask some writers to put an end to them, but without success, because the only way to recite rightly the Koran was to learn it orally from teachers, each word in its right place.

At the end of this first part of our inquiry, it is well to state that not a single trace of the work of the above collectors has come down to posterity, except in the case of Ubai ibn Ka‘b and Ibn Mas’ud. The Kashshaf of Zamakhshari and in a lesser degree the Anwarut-Tanzil of Baidawi record many Koranic variants derived from the scraps of the Koran edited by the above named companions of the Prophet. The fact is known to all Arabists and does not need explanation.36 We need only translate a typical passage from the newly published Dictionary of Learned Men of Yakut:

Isma‘il b. ‘Ali al-Khatbi has recorded in the “Book of History” and said: “The story of a man called b. Shanbudh became famous in Baghdad; he used to read and to teach the reading (of the Koran) with letters in which he contradicted the mislaf; he read according to ‘Abdallah b. Mas’ud and Ubai b. Ka‘b and others; and used the readings employed before the mishaf was collected by ‘Uthman b. ‘Affan, and followed anomalies; he read and proved them in discussions, until his affair became important and ominous; people did not tolerate him anymore, and the Sultan sent emissaries to seize him, in the year 828; he was brought to the house of the vizier Muhammad b. Muklah who summoned judges, lawyers, and Readers of the Koran. The vizier charged him in his presence with what he had done, and he did not desist from it, but corroborated it; the vizier then tried to make him discredit it, and cease to read with these disgraceful anomalies, which were an addition to the mishaf of ‘Uthman, but he refused. Those who were present disapproved of this and hinted that he should be punished in such a way as to compel him to desist. (The vizier) then ordered that he should be stripped of his clothes and struck with a staff on his back. He received about ten hard strokes, and could not endure any more; he cried out for mercy, and agreed to yield and repent. He was then released and given his clothes ... and Sheikh Abu Muhammad Yusuf b. Sairafi told me that he (b. Shanbudh) had recorded many readings.”

A study of Shi‘ah books reveals also some variants derived from the recension of ‘Ali’s disciples. They will be discussed in a subsequent article.


In considering the question of the transmission of the Koran according to Christian writers, the reader will feel that he is more in the domain of historical facts than in that of the precarious Hadith; unfortunately, any information found in books written at the very beginning of Islam is naturally scanty. In face of the conflagration which in a few years shook the political foundations of the near East, Christian writers were more anxious to save their skin from the onslaughts of the Ishmaelites and Hagarians—as they used to call the early Arabs—than to study the kind of religion they professed. Syriac books, however, contain important data which throw great light upon our subject, and overshadow by their antiquity the tardy Muslim Hadith of the ninth century.

The first account is, in order of date, the colloquy or the discussion which took place in Syria between ‘Amr b. al-‘As and the Monophysite patriarch of Antioch, John I, in the eighteenth year of the Hijra (Sunday, 9 May, 639 C.E.). It has been published from a MS. in the British Museum dated 874 C.E. by F. Nau, in the Journal Asiatique.38 The patriarch was summoned before ‘Amr along with five bishops and a great number of notable Christians, and some days after the discussion, the patriarch and the bishops wrote a careful report of what had happened, and sent it to the Christians of Mesopotamia, asking them to “pray for the illustrious Amir, that God might grant him wisdom and enlighten him in what is the will of the Lord.” The questions that ‘Amr asked and the introductory words of the colloquy are as follows:

... We inform your love that on the ninth of this month of May, on the holy Sunday, we went in before the glorious General Amir. The blessed Father of all was asked by the Amir whether the Gospel, which is in the hands of all who are called Christians in all the world, was one and without any difference whatever. The blessed Patriarch answered.... Then the Amir asked why if the Gospel was one, faith was different; and the Patriarch answered ...

The Amir then asked, “What do you think of the Christ? Is He God or not? Our Father then answered ...” And the glorious Amir asked him this question, “When the Christ, whom you call God, was in the womb of Mary, who was holding and governing heaven and earth?” Our blessed Father answered.... And the glorious Amir said, “What were the views and the belief of Abraham and Moses?” Our blessed Father answered ... And the Amir said, “Why did they not write clearly and show their belief about the Christ?” and our blessed Father answered.... When the Amir heard these things, he only asked whether the Christ born of Mary was God, and whether God had a son, and whether this could be proved from the Torah and by reason. And our blessed Father said, “Not only Moses, but all the holy prophets have previously related these points of the Christ....” And the glorious Amir said that he would not accept the proof of these points by quotations from the prophets; but only required that it should be proved to him by quotations from Moses that the Christ was God. And the blessed Father among other quotations, brought forth the following from Moses, “Then the Lord from before the Lord brought down fire and brimstone upon Sodom and Gomorrah;”39 and the glorious Amir required that this quotation should be shown to him in the Book. And our Father showed it to him without delay,40 in the complete Greek and Syriac Books. In that assembly, some Hagarians (Muslims) were present with us, and they saw the text41 with their own eyes, and the existence of the glorious name of the Lord twice. And the Amir called a certain Jew, who was believed by the Jews to be a Knower of Books, and asked him if this was literally true in the Torah; and the Jew answered, “I do not know with certainty.”

Then the Amir digressed from this point and asked about the laws of the Christians, how and what they were, and if they were written in the Gospel; and asked, too, if a man dies and leaves sons or daughters, with a wife, a mother, a sister and a cousin, how would his heritage be divided between them? ... A long discussion ensued; and not only the best-known men among the Hagarians (Muslims) were present there, but also the heads and the rulers of the town, and of the faithful and Christ-loving tribes: Tannukhians, Tu‘ians, and ‘Akulians.42 And the glorious Amir said, “I want you to do one of these three things: either to show me that your laws are written in the Gospel, and that you are following them, or to follow the laws of the Hagarians (Muslims).” And our Father answered, “Our laws, the laws of us Christians, are just, equitable, and in harmony with the teaching and the Commandment of the Gospel, the prescriptions of the Apostles and the laws of the Church.” It is with this that the first gathering of that day ended, and up to now we have not been again before the Amir.

From this important document written in the fifth year of ‘Umar’s caliphate and possibly43 some months after the terrible year of ashes, and of plague,44 we can safely infer (1) that no Bible was translated into Arabic at that early period;45 (2) that the teaching of the Koran on the matter of heritages, the denial of the divinity and the death of Christ, and on the subject of the Torah, which is given a marked predilection in Muhammad’s oracles, was familiar to the Muslims present in the discussion; (3) that no Islamic book was mentioned when the colloquy took place; (4) that some of the early Arab conquerors knew how to read and to write.46

About 647 C.E., in the first years of ‘Uthman’s caliphate, the famous patriarch of Seleucia, Isho‘yahb III, said in one of his letters which he wrote when still bishop of Nineveh, “In excusing yourselves falsely, you might perhaps say, or the Heretics might make you say, ‘What has happened was due to the order given by the Arabs’ (Tayyayé); but this would not be true at all, because the Arab Hagarians (Muslims) do not help those who attribute sufferings and death to God, the Lord of everything.”47 From what we know of Isho’yahb, he would have surely mentioned or quoted the Islamic book, had he known it, or even heard of it (cf., ibid., p. 251).

The anonymous writer printed by Guidi48 knows nothing about a sacred book of Islam in 680 C.E., at the time of the Umayyad caliphate of Yazid, son of Mu’awiah. He believed the Arabs to be simply the descendents of Ishmael, who professed the old Abrahamic faith, and gives Muhammad as a mere general, without any religious character.

Then God raised against (the Persians) the sons of Ishmael like the sand of the sea-shores, with their leader Muhammad.... As to the Ka’bah we cannot know what it was, except in supposing that the blessed Abraham having become very rich in possessions, and wanting to avoid the envy of the Canaanites, chose to dwell in the distant and large localities of the desert; and as he was living under tents, built that place for the worship of God and the offering of sacrifices; for this reason, this place received its title of our days, and the memory of the place was transmitted from generation to generation with the evolution of the Arab race. It was not, therefore, new for the Arabs to worship in that place, but their worship therein was from the beginning of their days; in this, they were rendering honour to the father of the head of their race ... and Madinah was called after Madian, the fourth son of Abraham from Keturah; the town is also called Yathrib.

John Bar Penkaye49 has some interesting records in his chronicle about the early Arab conquests and the famous Shurat of whose exploits he was an eyewitness, but he does not know that these Arabs had any sacred book in 690 C.E., when he was writing, under the caliphate of ‘Abdul-Malik.

The Arabs, as I have said above, had a certain order from the one who was their leader, in favour of the Christian people and the monks; they held also, under his leadership, the worship of one God, according to the customs of the Old Covenant; at the outset they were so attached to the tradition of Muhammad who was their teacher, that they inflicted the pain of death upon any one who seemed to contradict his tradition.50... Among them there were many Christians, some from the Heretics,51 and some from us.52

From these quotations and from many passages of some contemporary writers, it is evident that the Christian historians of the whole of the seventh century had no idea that the “Hagarian” conquerors had any sacred book; similar is the case among historians and theologians of the beginning of the eighth century. It is only towards the end of the first quarter of this century that the Koran became the theme of conversation in Nestorian, Jacobite, and Melchite ecclesiastical circles. The Christians, in spite of the intolerant attitude of Muslim caliphs and governors, continued to write, frequently under pain of death, many polemical lucubrations in refutation of the sacred book of Islam, which met with a swarm of answers from the Muslim side. For the end of the century the reader will find good information in Steinschneider’s well-known work.53 Some years before this date two important publications, not yet edited, saw the light, viz., the “Refutation of the Koran” by Abu Noh, secretary to the governor of Mosul,54 and the “Apology of Christianity” by Timothy, Nestorian patriarch of Seleucia, recently made known by Braun in Oriens Christianus.55

So far as the transmission of the Koran is concerned, by far the most important work is the apology of al-Kindi, critically studied in 1887 by W Muir.56

Casanova writes: “Il faut, je crois, dans l‘histoire critique du Coran, faire une place de premier ordre au Chrétien Kindite.”57 According to this Kindite, who wrote some forty years before Bukhari, the history of the Koran is, briefly, as follows:

Sergius,59 a Nestorian monk, was excommunicated for a certain offense; to expiate it he set out on a mission to Arabia; in Mecca he met Muhammad with whom he had intimate converse. At the death of the monk, two Jewish doctors, ‘Abdallah and Ka‘b, ingratiated themselves with Muhammad and had great influence over him. Upon the Prophet’s death, and at the instigation of the Jews, ‘Ali refused to swear allegiance to Abu Bakr, but when he despaired of succeeding to the caliphate, he presented himself before him, forty days (some say six months) after the Prophet’s death. As he was swearing allegiance to him, he was asked, “O Father of Hasan, what hath delayed thee so long?” He answered, “I was busy collecting the Book of the Lord, for that the Prophet committed to my care.” The men present about Abu Bakr represented that there were scraps and pieces of the Koran with them as well as with ‘Ali; and then it was agreed to collect the whole from every quarter together. So they collected various parts from the memory of individuals (as Suratul-Bara’ah, which they wrote out at the dictation of a certain Arab from the desert), and other portions from different people; besides that which was copied out from tablets of stone, and palm-leaves, and shoulder-bones, and such like. It was not at first collected in a volume, but remained in separate leaves. Then the people fell to variance in their reading; some read according to the version of ‘Ali, which they follow to the present day; some read according to the collection of which we have made mention; one party read according to the text of ibn Mas’ud, and another according to that of Ubai ibn Ka’b.

When ‘Uthman came to power, and people everywhere differed in their reading, ‘Ali sought grounds of accusation against him, compassing his death. One man would read a verse one way, and another man another way; and there was change and interpolation, some copies having more and some less. When this was represented to ‘Uthman, and the danger urged of division, strife, and apostasy, he thereupon caused to be collected together all the leaves and scraps that he could, together with the copy that was written out at the first. But they did not interfere with that which was in the hands of ‘Ali, or of those who followed his reading. Ubai was dead by this time; as for ibn Mas‘ud, they demanded his exemplar, but he refused to give it up. Then they commanded Zaid ibn Thabit, and with him ‘Abdallah ibn ‘Abbas, to revise and correct the text, eliminating all that was corrupt; they were instructed, when they differed on any reading, word, or name, to follow the dialect of the Quraish.

When the recension was completed, four exemplars were written out in large text; one was sent to Mecca, and another to Medina; the third was despatched to Syria, and is to this day at Malatya; the fourth was deposited in Kufa. People say that this last copy is still extant at Kufa, but this is not the case, for it was lost in the insurrection of Mukhtar (A.H. 67). The copy at Mecca remained there till the city was stormed by Abu Sarayah (A.H. 200); he did not carry it away; but it is supposed to have been burned in the conflagration. The Medina exemplar was lost in the reign of terror, that is, in the days of Yazid b. Mu’awiah (A.H. 60-64).

After what we have related above, ‘Uthman called in all the former leaves and copies, and destroyed them, threatening those who held any portion back; and so only some scattered remains, concealed here and there, survived. Ibn Mas’ud, however, retained his exemplar in his own hands, and it was inherited by his posterity, as it is this day; and likewise the collection of ‘Ali has descended in his family.60

Then followed the business of Hajjaj b. Yusuf, who gathered together every single copy he could lay hold of, and caused to be omitted from the text a great many passages. Among these, they say, were verses revealed concerning the House of Umayyah with names of certain persons, and concerning the House of ‘Abbas also with names.61 Six copies of the text thus revised were distributed to Egypt, Syria, Medina, Mecca, Kufa, and Basra.62 After that he called in and destroyed all the preceding copies, even as ‘Uthman had done before him. The enmity subsisting between ‘Ali and Abu Bakr, ‘Umar and ‘Uthman is well known; now each of these entered in the text whatever favored his own claims, and left out what was otherwise. How, then, can we distinguish between the genuine and the counterfeit? And what about the losses caused by Hajjaj? The kind of faith that this tyrant held in other matters is well-known; how can we make an arbiter as to the Book of God a man who never ceased to play into the hands of the Umayyads whenever he found opportunity?

Then al-Kindi, addressing his Muslim friend, says: “All that I have said is drawn from your own authorities, and no single argument has been advanced but what is based on evidence accepted by yourselves; in proof thereof, we have the Kur’an itself, which is a confused heap, with neither system nor order.”

It should be noticed here that something which might be termed an answer to al-Kindi from the Muslim side has been discovered among the Arabic manuscripts of the John Rylands Library, Manchester. In a MS., dated 616 of the Hijrah, I found the Kitabud-Dini wad-Daulah, “Book of Religion and Empire,” written in 855 C.E., by the physician ‘All b. Rabbanat-Tabari, at the request of the caliph Mutawakkil. It is an official apology of Islam, appearing at an interval of some twenty years after the apology of Christianity by al-Kindi. On the important point of the transmission of the Kur’an, the author is content to appeal to the piety, asceticism, and devotion of the early caliphs and disciples of the Prophet, and says, “If such people may be accused of forgery and falsehood, the disciples of the Christ might also be accused of the same.” This is a meagre answer to the historical indictments of al-Kindi.

We trust that the Arabists will rightly value the outstanding importance of this new work, written before all the traditional compilations of the second half of the ninth century. So far as the religious system of Islam is concerned, it is of an unparalleled significance, containing, as it does, many traditions dealing with the Prophet, his religion and his disciples, which are not found elsewhere. I have prepared the text for the press and translated it with some critical annotations required by its antiquity and its extrinsic and intrinsic importance.63 After a long introduction in which the author praises Islam, gives good advice to be followed in discussions, and shows the laudable zeal of the caliph Mutawakkil in the propagation and vindication of his faith, he sets forth the reasons why people of the tolerated cults do not embrace Islam and why they should embrace it, and because the greater number of the non-Muslim population were Christian, he addresses the Christians more frequently; in the second rank come Jews, Magians, Hindus, and Dualists, who, however, are attacked more sharply. The order of the chapters is as follows:

(a) Different forms of historical facts and common agreement. (b) Criteria for the verification of historical facts. (c) The Prophet called to the unity of God and to what all the prophets have believed. (d) Merits of the ways of acting and the prescriptions of the Prophet. (e) Miracles of the Prophet which the “People of the Book” have rejected. (f) The Prophet foretold events hidden from him, which were realized in his lifetime. (g) Prophecies of the Prophet, which were realized after his death. (h) The Prophet was an unlettered man, and the book which God revealed to him is, therefore, a sign of prophetic office. (i) The victory won by the Prophet is a sign of prophetic office. (j) The disciples of the Prophet and the eye-witnesses of his career were most honest and pious: (1) asceticism of Abu Bakr; (2) asceticism of ‘Umar; (3) asceticism of ‘Ali; (4) asceticism of ‘Umar b. ‘Abdul-Aziz, of ‘Abdallah b. ‘Umar b. Khattab, and of some other pious Muslims. (k) If the Prophet had not appeared the prophecies of the prophets about him and about Ishmael would have been without object. (l) Prophecies of the prophets about him: Moses, David, Isaiah, Hosea, Micah, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Zechariah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Christ and His disciples. (m) Answer to those who have blamed the prescriptions of Islam. (n) Answer to those who are shocked that the Prophet should have innovated and changed some prescriptions of the Torah and the Gospel. (o) Answer to those who pretend that no one but the Christ has mentioned the Resurrection. (p) Conclusion.

In his biblical quotations, the author refers to the version of a certain “Marcus the Interpreter,” of which we are still unable to find any trace in any other book, either Syriac or Arabic.

Apart from the question of an official edition of the Koran being unknown to Christian writers till the second half of the eighth century, the idea gathered from the ancient Christian compositions is in complete agreement with “the theory that Islam is primarily a political adventure;”64 and as in the Semitic mind political adventures cannot succeed without some “persuasions” to heaven, and “dissuasions” from hell, it is the merit of the first caliphs to have so skilfully handled, after their master and in imitation of “the people of the Book,” the spiritual instrument which was easy and handy and which brought them such wonderful results. (Ist der Islam) “Keineswegs als ein Religionssystem ins Leben getreten, sondern als ein Versuch sozialistischer Art, gewissen überhandnehmenden irdischen Miss-ständen entgegenzutreten.”65


From all the above facts and documents, any impartial critic, interested in the Koranic literature of the Muslim world, can draw his own conclusions. If we may express our opinion, we would be tempted to say:

(1) If all signs do not mislead us, very few oracular sentences, if any, were written in the time of the Prophet. The kind of life that he led, and the rudimentary character of reading and writing in that part of the world in which he appeared, are sufficient witnesses in favor of this view. Our ignorance of the Arabic language in that early period of its evolution is such that we cannot even know with certainty whether it had any writing of its own in Mecca and Medina. If a kind of writing existed in these two localities, it must have been something very similar to the Estrangelo or the Hebraic characters. Ibn Khaldun66 informs us that the people of Taif and Quraish learnt the “art of writing” from the Christians of the town of Hirah, and the first Quraishite who learned it was Sufyan b. Umayyah.67 Further, Hirschfeld68 has already noted that “The Qoran, the text-book of Islam, is in reality nothing but a counterfeit of the Bible”; this verdict applies in a more accentuated manner to the compilation of the Koran. No disciple of Moses or of Christ wrote the respective oracles of these two religious leaders in their lifetime, and probably no such disciple did so in the case of the Prophet. A man did not become an acknowledged prophet in a short time; years elapsed before his teaching was considered worth preserving on parchment. Lammens69 has observed, “Le Prophète s‘était fait intimer par Allah (Qoran, lxxv. 16—17) l’ordre de ne pas se presser pour éditer le Qoran, comme recueil séparé. La precaution était prudente, étant donné le caractère inconsistant de certaines révélations.”

(2) Some years after the Prophet’s death many of his companions, seeing that his cause was really flourishing and gathering considerable momentum by means of able generals, vied in writing down, each one in his own sphere, the oracles of their master. This work gave them prestige, and sometimes high posts which they could scarcely have obtained otherwise; in this series is to be included the compilation of Ubai b. Ka‘b, Ibn Mas’ud, ‘Uthman b. ‘Affan, and probably ‘Ali b. Abi Talib. When ‘Uthman obtained the caliphate, his version was naturally given a royal sanction, to the detriment of the three other recensions. The story of the Quraishite scribes who were told by ‘Uthman to write down the Revelation in the dialect of Quraish, ought to be discarded as half legendary. We all know how ill adapted was the Arabic writing even of the eighth century to express all the phonetic niceties of the new philological schools; it is highly improbable, therefore, that it could express them in the first years of the Hijrah. Moreover, a very legitimate doubt can be entertained about the literary proficiency of all the collectors mentioned in the tardy Hadith of the ninth century. Most of them were more tribal chieftains than men of literature, and probably very few of them could even read or write; for this reason the greater part of their work must have been accomplished by some skilled Christian or Jewish amanuensis, converted to Islam.

(3) This last work of Companions and Helpers does not seem to have been put into book form by ‘Uthman, but was written on rolls of parchment, on suhufs, and it remained in that state till the time of ‘Abdul-Malik and Hajjaj ibn Yusuf. At this time, being more familiar with writing by their intercourse with the Jews and Christians of the enlightened capital of Syria, and feeling more acutely the necessity of competing on even terms with them, the caliph and his powerful lieutenant gave to those rolls the character and the continuity of a book, and very possibly, added new material from some oral reciters of the Prophet’s oracular sentences. At any rate, the incident of both Hajjaj and ‘Uthman writing copies of the Koran and sending them to the head-provinces is very curious. We will conclude the first chapter of this enquiry with the following sentences by Professor Casanova70 to which we fully adhere:

Mais les fragments d’os, de palmier, etc., sur lesquels étaient écrits, de la main des secrétaires, les versets dictés par le Prophète, et qui avaient servi à la premiere recension, sous Aboû Bakr, que sont-ils devenus? Je me refuse à croire qu‘ils auraient été détruits. Quel extraordinaire sacriliège! Comment aurait-on pu trailer ainsi ces témoins les plus directs de la revelation. Enfin s’ils avaient existé, comment expliquer la crainte que ‘Oumar et Aboû Bakr témoignèrent de voir le Coran disparaître par la mort des récitateurs? S’ils n‘avaient pas existé, tous les passages si nombreux où le Coran est désigné (par le mot Kitab) auraient été introduits après coup! Voilà bien des contradictions inhérentes au récit traditionnel, et toutes se résolvent par la conclusion que j’adopte: Le Coran a été mis, par écrit, pour la premiere fois par les soins d‘al Hajjaj qui probablement s’appuyait sur la légende d‘un prototype dû à ‘Outhmân. Il est possible qu’il y ait eu des transcriptions antérieures, mais sans caractère officiel, et par consequent sans unite. [See note 70 for translation]

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