Islamic Studies Qurʾan and Context
Stephen J. Shoemaker
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0280


The historical context that gave rise to the Qurʾan remains one of the most persistent mysteries from the end of antiquity. Although the Islamic historical tradition contains abundant details concerning the Qurʾan’s origins, the information in these accounts was written down at least 100 or 200 years after the fact. Accordingly, most critical scholars view these reports with considerable skepticism for understanding the nature of the Qurʾan’s historical milieu. Little is definitively known about the context or conditions in which the Qurʾan first came to be; in many respects it seems to appear out of thin air into a world already saturated with Abrahamic monotheisms. Modern Qurʾanic scholarship has been largely governed by traditional Islamic views of the Qurʾan. Even many scholars who seek deliberately to undertake historical-critical study of this text remain under the powerful influence of the Islamic tradition’s pull, at times without fully realizing it. When the Qurʾan and the process of its composition are analyzed outside of the faith tradition, questions arise regarding the nature of its historical matrix. The cultures of the central Hijaz in Muhammad’s lifetime were, according to the current consensus, fundamentally nonliterate. Therefore, we must assume that if this is where the Qurʾan first was born, it likely would have circulated orally for several decades before being written down. Given what we know about human memory and oral transmission, this means that the text of the Qurʾan was continually composed and recomposed for decades after Muhammad’s death. Therefore, it likely would have circulated orally for several decades before being written down, and its written form was likely ultimately determined by his followers once they had settled in as a regnant minority alongside the other Abrahamic monotheists of the late ancient Near East, particularly Jews and Christians. Although scholars have frequently assumed a sizable Christian presence in the Hijaz, since the Qurʾan engages extensively with Christian traditions, it must be noted that there is no evidence for any Christian presence in the central Hijaz during Muhammad’s lifetime or before; the closest Christian communities that we know of were at around 700 kilometers distant from Mecca and Medina. In the absence of any evidence indicating a Christian presence in the central Hijaz, it seems most likely that most of the Christian traditions included in the Qurʾan were learned by Muhammad’s followers—and thus added to the emerging collection of scriptural traditions—after and in the context of the occupation of the Near East.

General Introductions to the Qurʾan and its Context

There is no fully satisfactory introduction to the Qurʾan in English, particularly in regard to the question of the Qurʾan’s historical context. Cook 2000 is a solid introductory text in English for this topic. The single most influential work on the Qurʾan, Nöldeke, et al. 2013 (originally 1860–1938), is hardly an introduction for beginners, although it is perhaps the most comprehensive work available on the Qurʾan’s history. Although this tome, written in German during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is frequently identified as the work of Theodor Nöldeke, each of the four authors (Nöldeke, Friedrich Schwally, Gotthelf Bergsträsser, and Otto Pretzl) made equally significant contributions. Nevertheless, Nöldeke, et al. 2013 present an only lightly edited version of the canonical Sunni narrative of the Qurʾan’s origins, with the result that this confessional narrative of the Qurʾan’s origins has controlled much subsequent scholarship. It maintains that the contents of the Qurʾan originated entirely during Muhammad’s lifetime in his preaching in Mecca and Medina. These teachings, according to this traditional account, were quickly captured in writing, so that the Qurʾan was canonized in the form that we now have it in the second half of the reign of the caliph ʿUthmān (c. 650–656). Like Nöldeke, et al. 2013, Bell and Watt 1970 approaches the Qurʾan’s history through the memory of the Sunni tradition, and this work has been a standard introduction to the Qurʾan for the last fifty years. Sinai 2017 stands squarely in the tradition of Nöldeke’s approach, and is certainly the best introduction from this perspective: it is easy to read and student friendly. De Prémare 2004, however, presents a study of the Qurʾan’s origins and the context of its formation that is not beholden to the dictates of the Islamic tradition. The same also applies to the “monograph” recently published in two parts in Dye 2019a and Dye 2019b, which offers an outstanding introduction to the Qurʾan’s early history as well as questions concerning the historical context of its origins. Abdel Haleem 2010, by contrast, explains the Qurʾan’s development fully according to the conditions and events identified in the later Islamic tradition.

  • Abdel Haleem, M. A. Understanding the Qurʾan: Themes and Style. London: I. B. Tauris, 2010.

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    A recent and authoritative example of reading the Qurʾan’s context and formation through the lens of the Islamic tradition.

  • Bell, Richard, and W. Montgomery Watt. Bell’s Introduction to the Qurʾān. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1970.

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    A standard introduction first published in 1953 that reflects a traditional view of the Qurʾan’s origins, heavily influenced by the Sunni tradition.

  • Cook, Michael. The Koran: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780192853448.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    The final section on the formation of the Qurʾan (pp. 117–143) offers one of the best introductions in English to the ambiguities surrounding the Qurʾan’s early history.

  • de Prémare, Alfred-Louis. Aux origines du Coran: Questions d’hier, approches d’aujourd’hui. L’Islam en débats. Paris: Téraèdre, 2004.

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    Makes a compelling argument for the Qurʾan’s formation as a long process that culminates only under ʿAbd al-Malik around the turn of the 8th century.

  • Dye, Guillaume. “Le corpus coranique: Contexte, chronologie, composition, canonisation.” In Le Coran des historiens. Vol. 1. Edited by Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi and Guillaume Dye, 733–846. Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 2019a.

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    This chapter offers a sharp critique of the paradigm developed by Nöldeke and highlights the historical problems with the context imagined by the later Islamic tradition.

  • Dye, Guillaume. “Le corpus coranique: Questions autour de sa canonisation.” In Le Coran des historiens. Vol. 1. Edited by Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi and Guillaume Dye, 847–918. Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 2019b.

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    Focuses on reconstructing the Qurʾan’s gradual composition as a written text and its canonization later in the 7th century. Argues that the Qurʾan continued to develop well after Muhammad’s death and outside of the Hijaz.

  • Nöldeke, Theodor, Friedrich Schwally, Gotthelf Bergsträsser, and O. Pretzl. The History of the Qurʾān. Translated by Wolfgang Behn. Texts and Studies on the Qurʾān 8. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1163/9789004228795Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    The first major Western study of the Qurʾan’s history, published in German in several parts between 1860 and 1938. Highly authoritative among traditionally oriented scholars.

  • Shah, Mustafa, and M. A. Abdel Haleem, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Qurʼanic Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020.

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    An excellent and up-to-date collection of essays by many of the most important scholars on various topics relevant to the study of the Qurʾan. Several of the contributions directly address matters related to the Qurʾan’s context.

  • Sinai, Nicolai. The Qurʾan: A Historical-Critical Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017.

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    A student-friendly introduction that adheres to and explains the view of the Qurʾan’s genesis originally articulated by Nöldeke, et al. 2013, while introducing a literary analysis of the Qurʾan.

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