Introduction to Richard Bell

The Rev. Dr. Richard Bell was born in Scotland in 1876, and educated at Edinburgh University, where he studied Semitic languages and divinity. He became a minister of the Church of Scotland in 1904, and ordained to the parish of Wamphrey in 1907. After fourteen years in the parish ministry, Bell returned to Edinburgh as lecturer in Arabic, attaining the position of reader in Arabic in 1938, a position he held until his retirement in 1947. He died in 1952.1

Bell seems to have a led an uneventful life, having dedicated his entire life to the church and his scholarly pursuits. After an initial interest in Arabic mathematical manuscripts,2 Bell switched to and concentrated on the Christian influences on the development of Islam, and the structure, chronology and composition of the Qur'an. He gave the Gunning Lectures at the University of Edinburgh in 1925, and these were published the following year as his first book, under the title The Origin of Islam in its Christian Environment.'3 In the latter book Bell argued that "the key to a great deal both in the Qur'an and in the career of Muhammad lies ... just in his gradual acquisition of knowledge of what the Bible contained and of what Jews and Christians believed."4

Henceforth, Bell concentrated on the Qur'an, producing seven articles on various aspects of Qur'anic studies, before bringing out his English translation of the Qur'an, The Qur'an Translated, with a Critical Rearrangement of the Surahs.5

Further articles followed,6 and finally what had been his class lectures on the Qur'an appeared posthumously in 1953 as Introduction to the Qur'an.?

But as Bosworth and Richardson point out it is the "The Qur'an Translated which may be regarded as Bell's magnum opus.... By closely examining the Qur'anic text verse by verse, observing the lengths of verses, their external and internal rhymes and assonances, etc., he came to believe that the structure of the Qur'an was far more complex than had hitherto been believed. He concluded that the revelations underwent considerable revision, including expansion, replacement of certain portions by others, re-arrangements, etc;, and that the use of written documents was involved, under the Prophet's guidance, so that the Qur'an as we know it took shape in the last eight years or so of Muhammad's mission at Medina, i.e. from A.H. 2-10 / C.E. 624-32. This corresponded to what Bell called "the Book period," when a written scripture was produced out of the revelations previously used largely for liturgical purposes. His The Qur'an Translated endeavored therefore to show schematically on the printed page, by the use of significant indentation, dotted lines separating passages, parallel columns, and so on, in order to show which pieces of revelation had been substituted for others or written on the back of one fragment of writing material, whilst at the same time retaining the traditional order of what Bell nevertheless now regarded as highly composite suras." 8

Bell explains his objectives in the preface to his translation of the Qur'an:

"The main object has been to understand the deliverances of Muhammad afresh, as far as possible in their historical setting, and therefore to get behind the traditional interpretation. But the Moslem commentators have not been ignored. Baydawi has constantly, and other standard commentaries have occasionally, been consulted. But dogmatic prepossessions sometimes vitiate their exegesis, and in many passages the grammatical construction is evidently difficult even to them."9

"The translation goes frankly on the assumption that the Qur'an was in written form when the redactors started their work, whether actually written by Muhammad himself, as I personally believe, or by others at his dictation.... .

All the possibilities of confusion in written documents have had to be considered-corrections, interlinear additions, additions on the margin, deletions and substitutions, pieces cut off from a passage and wrongly placed, passages written on the back of others and then read continuously, front and back following each other." 10

For Bell, the Qur'an was revealed in short passages. Rippin sums up Bell's views thus:

"Abrupt changes in rhyme patterns, repetition of rhyme words, rupture in grammatical structure, sudden variation in verse length, and unwarranted shift in personal pronouns all point to revisions undertaken by Muhammad due to a change in purpose sometime during his career. Bell suggests that three periods may be separated in Muhammad's career: the early period in which "signs" and praise of God play the predominant role; next, the Qur'an period which covers the later Meccan and Medinan era up to the year 2 A.H.; and finally the Book period which is from the year 2 A.H. on."11

Watt also sums up Bell's hypothesis and then examines Sura LXXXVIII.17-20 to bring out Bell's meaning:

[Bell's] theory was not simply that parts of the Qur'an had been written down at a fairly early stage in Muhammad's career, but more particularly that the occurrence in the middle of a sura of a passage wholly unrelated to the context was to be explained by the supposition that this passage had been written on the back of the `scrap of paper ' used for one of the neighbouring passages which properly belonged to the sura....

Bell's arguments can be presented most clearly in the case of sura LXXXVIII.17-20:

"The sura begins with a description of the Judgement and the fate of the wicked, and then continues with a picture of the righteous

The argument here is as follows. The passage 17-20 has no connection of thought either with what goes before or with what comes after; and it is marked off by its rhyme. It is thus difficult to know why it has been placed here. If one assumes that its position has been given to it by a collector, one may still ask whether a responsible collector could not have found a more suitable place for it. Bell's hypothesis is that verses 17-20 have been placed here because they were found written on the back of verses 13-16. He further holds in this particular case that 13-16, which are marked off by rhyme from the preceding verses, were a later addition to these, and happened to have been written on the back of a "scrap" which already contained 17-20."12

In his preface to the translation of the Qur'an, Bell regretted that "owing to the cost of printing, the mass of notes which have accumulated in the course of the work have had to be suppressed. . . ." These notes were eventually reworked into a commentary, but were never published during Bell's lifetime. Sometime in the early 1970s, a microfilm of the typescript of this commentary was entrusted to Professor C. E. Bosworth by the then secretary of the Edinburgh University Press. The microfilm was taken home, and then lay forgotten in a cupboard for nearly twenty years, until a chance remark brought the existence of the microfilm back to mind.13 As a result, we have the two volumes of Bell's Commentary, edited by Bosworth and Richardson.

Welch, in his article on the Qur'an in the Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd edition,14 considers Bell a pioneer, and Bosworth and Richardson think that it "would be hard to imagine the radical, contemporary approaches to Qur'anic scholarship represented, in differing ways, by e.g. John Wansbrough and Angelika Neuwirth, without the pioneering work of Bell." 15 Muslim scholars consider him a "Scottish crackpot";16 and Rippin, while admitting that Bell's Commentary is valuable for his efforts at determining meaning in the Qur'anic text "in terms of providing a reading strategy for the Qur'an, however, the work reveals its age." Rippin ends his article on a positive note, however: "What merit there is in [Bell's Commentary] lies in its emphasis on discerning the meaning of the text; we will be able to consider the appearance of the book worthwhile if, as a result of its circulation, it helps move scholarship away from a preoccupation with theories about the Qur'anic text and turn attention to the actual text itself."17


Full-Length Works

The Origin of Islam in its Christian Environment. London: Macmillan, 1926; reprint, London: Frank Cass, 1968.

The Qur'an Translated, with a Critical Re-arrangement of the Surahs. 2 vols. Edinburgh T. & T.Clark, 1937-39.

Introduction to the Qur'an, Language and Literature No. 6, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1953. Reprinted as Bell and Watt, Introduction to the Qur'an, revised and enlarged by W. M.Watt (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1970).

A Commentary on the Qur'an. Manchester, 1991.


"A Duplicate in the Koran; The Composition of Surah xxiii." MW 18 (1928): 227-33.

"Who were the Hanifs? MW 20 (1930): 120-24.

"The Men of A`raf (Surah vii: 44)." MW 22 (1932): 43-48.

"The Origin of the IId al-Adha'. MW 23 (1933): 117-20.

"Muhammad's Call." MW 24 (1934): 13-19.

"Muhammad's Visions." MW 24 (1934): 145-54.

"Muhammd and previous Messengers." MW 24 (1934): 330-40.

"Muhammad and Divorce in the Qur'an." MW 29 (1939): 55-62.

"Sural al-Hashr: A Study of Its Composition." MW 38 (1948): 29-42.

"Muhammad's Pilgrimage Proclamation." JRAS (1937): 233-44.

"The Development of Muhammad's Teaching and Prophetic Consciousness." School of Oriental Studies Bulletin (June 1935): 1-9.

"The Beginnings of Muhammad's Religious Activity." TGUOS 7 (1934-5): 16-24.

"The Sacrifice of Ishmael." TGUOS 10: 29-31.

"The Style of the Qur'an." TGUOS 11 (1942-44) 9-15.

"Muhammad's Knowledge of the Old Testament." Studia Semitica et Orientalia 2 (1945): 1-20.

"Critical Observations on the mistakes of Philologers...." JRAS (1904): 95-118.

"List of the Arabic Manuscripts in the baillie Collection in the Library of Edinburgh University." JRAS (1905): 513-20

"John of Damascus and the controversy with Islam." TGUOS 4 (1913-22): 37-38

"Notes on Moslem Traditions." TGUOS 4 (1913-22): 78-79.

"Some early literary contacts between Moslem Spain and the East. TGUOS 13 (1947-49): 48-51.

"A Moslem Thinker on the Teaching of Religion: al-Ghazzali A.D.1058-1111." Hibbert Journal 42 (1943): 31-36.


Merrill, J. E. "Dr. Bell's Critical Analysis of the Qur'an." MW 37 (1947):134-48.

Nagel, Tilman. "Vom Qur'an zur Schrift: Bells Hypothese aus religions- geschichtlicher Sicht." Der Islam 60 (1983): 143-65.

Parvez Manzoor, S. "Method against Truth: Orientalism and Qur'anic Studies." Muslim World Book Review 7, no. 4 (1987): 35.

Rippin, A. "Reading the Qur'an with Richard Bell." JAOS 112, no. 4 (1992): 639-47.

Tritton, A. S. "Obituary." JRAS (1952-53): 180.

Watt, W. M. "The Dating of the Qur'an: A Review of Richard Bell's Theories." JRAS (1957): 46-56.

Welch, A. T. s.v. EI2 5: 418a, s.v. "dur'an."


Vahiduddin, S. "Richard Bell's Study of the Qur'an." IC 30 (1956): 263-72.

Jeffery, Arthur. MW 44 (1954): 254-58

Paret, Rudi. ZDMG 105 (1954): 497-501.

Schacht, Joseph. Oriens 7 (1954): 359-62

Arberry, A.J. BSOAS 17 (1955): 380-81.


1. C. E. Bosworth and M. E. J. Richardson, "Introduction," Bell's A Commentary on the Qur'an (Manchester, 1991), pp. xiii-xiv. Almost all the details of Bell's biography come from this introduction.

2. According to A. S. Tritton, "Obituary," JRAS (1952-53): 180, quoted by A. Rippin, "Reading the Qur'an with Richard Bell," JAOS 112, no. 4 (1992): 639.

3. R. Bell, The Origin of Islam in its Christian Environment (London: Macmillan, 1926; reprint, London: Frank Cass, 1968).

4. Ibid., pp. 68-69, quoted by Rippin, "Reading the Qur'an with Richard Bell," p. 640.

5. R. Bell, The Qur'an Translated, with a Critical Re-arrangement of the Surahs, (Edinburgh: T & T. Clark, 1937-39).

6. For a complete list of his articles see the bibliography.

7. R. Bell, Introduction to the Qur'an, Language and Literature No. 6 (Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh 1953.

8. Bosworth and Richardson, "Introduction" pp. xiv-xv.

9. Bell, The Qur'an Translated, vol.1, p. v.

10. Ibid., p. vi.

11. Rippin, "Reading the Qur'an with Richard Bell," p. 641.

12. Bell and Watt, Introduction to the Qur'an (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1970), pp. 101-102.

13. Bosworth and Richardson, "Introduction," p. xiii.

14. A. T. Welch, E12 5: 418a, s.v. "dur'an"

15. C. E. Bosworth and M. E. J. Richardson, Introduction to Bell's A Commentary on the Qur'an, Manchester, 1991, pxvi

16. At least one does: S. Parvez Manzoor, "Method against Truth: Orientalism and Qur'anic Studies," Muslim World Book Review 7, no. 4 (1987): 35; quoted in Rippin, "Reading the Qur'an with Richard Bell," p. 640

17. Rippin, "Reading the Qur'an with Richard Bell," pp. 645, 647.

18. All the bibliographic details come from ibid. and Bell and Watt, Introduction to the Qur'an.

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