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

Introduction

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.

Traditional Accounts of the Qurʾan’s Origins

The publications in this section focus on the Qurʾan’s origins, presenting this phenomenon more or less in accordance with the received narrative of the Sunni tradition. Welch 1960–2005 presents the paradigm established by Nöldeke, et al. 2013 (cited under General Introductions to the Qurʾan and its Context) as it had been received by later 20th-century scholarship. Sinai 2014 presents the most recent defense and interpretation of this Sunni-Nöldekean understanding of the Qurʾan’s origins. Gilliot 2006 affords an excellent overview of the traditional account of the Qurʾan’s formation in the early Islamic memory. Comerro 2012 presents an exhaustive summary of the traditions regarding ʿUthmān’s efforts to standardize the Qurʾan, with some useful analysis. Motzki 2001 demonstrates that the tradition of an ʿUthmānic collection dates to the early 8th century CE. Hamdan 2006 and Hamdan 2010 study the evidence relevant to ʿAbd al-Malik’s intervention in the text of the Qurʾan, arguing that ʿAbd al-Malik’s changes were merely cosmetic improvements on an originally ʿUthmānic Qurʾan. Van Putten 2019 argues that all of the earliest Qurʾan manuscripts appear to derive from a single written exemplar, which van Putten regards as the version of the Qurʾan established by ʿUthmān rather than ʿAbd al-Malik. Note, however, that van Putten relies on radiocarbon datings of some early Qurʾanic manuscripts to exclude ʿAbd al-Malik, and accordingly his study may just as likely demonstrate that all of our Qurʾans descend from a written exemplar established by ʿAbd al-Malik.

Alternatives to the Canonical Sunni (Nöldekean) Tradition

Although the traditional Sunni narrative of the Qurʾan’s origins has found widespread acceptance in Islamic studies, there are a number of alternative hypotheses regarding the Qurʾan’s origins and, consequently, its historical context. Burton 1977 argues that the version of the Qurʾan that has come down to us was prepared by Muhammad himself, who oversaw its commitment to writing during his lifetime. At the other extreme is Wansbrough 1977, who maintains that the Qurʾan first emerged within the “sectarian milieu” of the late ancient Near East, in 9th-century Mesopotamia. Although Wansbrough’s dating of the Qurʾan has been widely rejected, his insights regarding its development in the Near East during the decades after Muhammad’s death retain considerable value. Similarly, Crone and Cook 1977 argues that the Qurʾan emerged from somewhere along the desert frontiers of the Roman Empire. Some scholars have speculated that the Qurʾan—or at least parts of it—predated Muhammad, and that it drew on and incorporated certain already available writings. For example, Lüling 2003 argues that the Qurʾan is based on an earlier Syriac Christian collection of hymns. Amir-Moezzi 2016 offers an excellent account of the earliest Shiʿi memories of the Qurʾan’s formation, which alleges that the true Qurʾan was compiled by Ali but was edited and distorted by the Sunni caliphs. Perhaps the most prevalent alternative to the canonical Sunni narrative is a tradition that the final version of the Qurʾan was established only in ʿAbd al-Malik’s reign. Not only is this tradition well attested in the early Islamic sources but also in non-Islamic sources contemporary with the events themselves. This hypothesis was first proposed at the beginning of the 20th century, almost simultaneously by Casanova 1911–1924 and Mingana 1916, but at the time it was widely rejected in favor of the reigning Sunni-Nöldekean paradigm. Be that as it may, the hypothesis that the Qurʾan continued to develop following the death of Muhammad and outside of Arabia has recently been revived by several scholars, as in de Prémare 2010, Robinson 2005, and Shoemaker 2012.

  • Amir-Moezzi, Mohammad Ali. The Silent Qurʼan and the Speaking Qurʼan: Scriptural Sources of Islam between History and Fervor. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.

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    Offers an overview of early Shiʿi traditions concerning the origins of the Qurʾan, which unfortunately have been rarely taken into account in considering the Qurʾan’s formation.

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  • Burton, John. The Collection of the Qurʾān. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

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    Argues that the Qurʾan was compiled in writing during Muhammad’s lifetime under his supervision.

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  • Casanova, Paul. Mohammed et la fin du monde: Étude critique sur l’Islam primitif. Paris: P. Gauthier, 1911–1924.

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    One of the first scholars to argue that the Qurʾan was not fixed during the reign of ʿUthmān but was completed only during the reign of ʿAbd al-Malik.

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  • Crone, Patricia, and M. A. Cook. Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

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    Argue that Islam and the Qurʾan emerged near the Roman Frontier. Envisions ʿAbd al-Malik as responsible for the final version of the Qurʾan.

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  • De Prémare, Alfred-Louis. “ʿAbd al-Malik b. Marwān and the Process of the Qurʾān’s Composition.” In The Hidden Origins of Islam: New Research into Its Early History. Edited by Karl-Heinz Ohlig and Gerd-R. Puin, 189–221. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2010.

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    One of the best presentations of an argument for the Qurʾan’s collection under ʿAbd al-Malik. A convenient summary in English of the author’s French publications.

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  • Lüling, Günter. A Challenge to Islam for Reformation: The Rediscovery and Reliable Reconstruction of a Comprehensive Pre-Islamic Christian Hymnal Hidden in the Koran under Earliest Islamic Reinterpretations. Rev. ed. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2003.

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    A controversial work arguing that the Qurʾan derives from the adaptation of an older Christian hymnal written in Syriac that the author postulates was used by the Christians of Mecca.

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  • Mingana, Alphonse. “The Transmission of the Kurʾān according to Muslim Writers.” Journal of the Manchester Egyptian and Oriental Society 5 (1916): 25–47.

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    Along with Mingana’s “The Transmission of the Kurʾān according to Christian Writers,” The Muslim World 7 (1917): 402–414, gives a thorough presentation of evidence drawn from Islamic and Christian sources, indicating that the Qurʾan did not take its final shape until the reign ofʿAbd al-Malik.

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  • Robinson, Chase F. ʿAbd al-Malik. Makers of the Muslim World. Oxford: Oneworld, 2005.

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    Argues that the Qurʾan’s final compilation and standardization took place during the reign of ʿAbd al-Malik and that the historical conditions during ʿUthmān’s reign make it highly improbable that he could have achieved such a standardization even if he had tried.

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  • Shoemaker, Stephen J. The Death of a Prophet: The End of Muhammad’s Life and the Beginnings of Islam. Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.9783/9780812205138Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Using methods and perspectives from biblical studies, the author argues for the Qurʾan’s production under ʿAbd al-Malik.

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  • Wansbrough, John E. Quranic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation. London Oriental Series 31. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

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    A thorough analysis of the evidence for the Qurʾan’s formation. Argues that the Qurʾan is a product of 9th-century Mesopotamia.

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The Qurʾan and the Islamic Biographies of Muhammad

Both the Islamic tradition and a number of modern scholars (see, e.g., Watt 1953) have often turned to the traditional Islamic biographies of Muhammad in order to discover the Qurʾan’s historical context. It is widely acknowledged, however, that these biographies have to be engaged critically, with a recognition that they were written 100 years or more after Muhammad’s death and thus likely reflect the later Islamic collective memory, legacy, and even imagination rather than direct transmission. Moreover, these earliest biographies are no longer extant and are known only from incorporation into texts written 200 years after Muhammad’s death. Shoemaker 2009–2011, Shoemaker 2012, and Shoemaker 2019 highlight the problems involved in relying on these sources for information concerning the Qurʾan’s historical context. Anthony 2020 takes a more sanguine approach to these same sources, but concludes nevertheless that ultimately little can be known about the historical figure of Muhammad on their basis. Gilliot 2004 and Gilliot 2010 mine the sources to unearth evidence that the Qurʾan was a collective work produced by Muhammad together with his informants and scribes.

  • Anthony, Sean W. Muhammad and the Empires of Faith. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2020.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctvw1d5tcSave Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    An excellent study that aims to recover what little we can know about the historical figure of Muhammad. Gives significant consideration to the witness of non-Islamic sources and takes a more sanguine approach to the traditional sources that is nevertheless also critical and fully aware of their limitations.

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  • Anthony, Sean W., ed. and trans. Maʻmar ibn Rāshid: The Expeditions: An Early Biography of Muhammad. Library of Arabic Literature. New York: NYU Press, 2014.

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    Arabic text and English translation of one of the earliest collections of biographical traditions about Muhammad. A valuable supplement to the account produced by Ibn Isḥāq.

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  • Gilliot, Claude. “Le Coran, fruit d’un travail collectif ?” In Al-Kitāb: La sacralité du texte dans le monde de l’Islam; Actes du Symposium International tenu à Leuven et Louvain-la-Neuve du 29 mai au 1 juin 2002. Edited by D. de Smet, G. de Callatay, and J. M. F. van Reeth, 185–223. Acta Orientalia Belgica, Subsidia 3. Brussels: Belgian Society of Oriental Studies, 2004.

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    Argues that the Qurʾan is a product of Muhammad’s collaboration with various informants and scribes.

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  • Gilliot, Claude. “On the Origin of the Informants of the Prophet.” In The Hidden Origins of Islam. Edited by Karl-Heinz Ohlig and Gerd R. Puin, 153–187. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2010.

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    A brief summary, in English, of Gilliot 2004.

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  • Guillaume, Alfred, trans. The Life of Muhammad. London: Oxford University Press, 1955.

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    English translation of the earliest and most authoritative biography of Muhammad. Produced in the early 9th century by Ibn Hishām on the basis of an earlier collection made by Ibn Isḥāq in the mid-8th century.

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  • Shoemaker, Stephen J. “In Search of ʿUrwa’s Sīra: Some Methodological Issues in the Quest for ‘Authenticity’ in the Life of Muḥammad.” Der Islam 85 (2009–2011): 257–344.

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    A methodological critique of recent efforts to extract information about the “historical Muhammad” from his traditional biographies.

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  • Shoemaker, Stephen J. “Muḥammad and the Qurʾān.” In The Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity. Edited by Scott F. Johnson, 1078–1108. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

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    Includes a discussion of the relation between Muhammad’s traditional biographies and the Qurʾan’s early history. Argues that Muhammad and his earliest followers expected the imminent end of the world, as evidenced in the Qurʾan.

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  • Shoemaker, Stephen J. “Les vies de Muhammad.” In Le Coran des historiens. Vol. 1. Edited by Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi and Guillaume Dye, 183–245. Paris: Les éditions du Cerf, 2019.

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    Discusses the historical problems in traditional biographies of Muhammad and their value – or lack thereof—for understanding the Qurʾan’s historical context.

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  • Watt, W. Montgomery. Muhammad at Mecca. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1953.

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    See also Montgomery’s Muhammad at Medina (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956). An influential attempt to reconstruct the Qurʾan’s historical context based on biographies of Muhammad. Nevertheless, these studies are often uncritical and credulous in their use of these sources.

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“Arabs” and Arabia before Islam

We know considerably less about the history of “Arabs” and Arabia during this period than we would like. We know the most about those Arabs who were living along the borders of the Roman and Sasanian Empires, the Jafnids and the Naṣrids (or the Ghassānids and Lakhmids, respectively), primarily from Roman and Syriac sources. These Arab tribal groups were allied with the two empires, and thus we often find historical information about them in Roman and Sasanian sources. Fisher 2011 offers the best and most up-to-date survey of the history of these Arab groups. Fisher 2015 includes studies by a number of scholars, especially linguists and archaeologists, in an effort to illuminate the history of the Arabs prior to the rise of Islam. Most of the studies focus on the far north or the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, the sources of most of our evidence. We know little about the history of the central Hijaz, including Mecca and Medina, in the period before (or during) Muhammad’s lifetime. Hoyland 2001 and Retsö 2003 provide useful surveys of what we presently do know about the broader region. Lindstedt 2018 provides a brief up-to-date survey that focuses on the period immediately before the emergence of Islam. Webb 2016 argues that Arab identity developed only gradually among Muhammad’s followers, and that it was largely an achievement of ʿAbd al-Malik’s program of Arabization and Islamicization.

Early Qurʾan Manuscripts

Radiocarbon dating of certain early Qurʾan manuscripts has become a flashpoint in recent scholarship. For those who maintain the accuracy of the traditional Sunni-Nöldekean account of the Qurʾan’s origins, the radiocarbon analysis of several early manuscripts could appear to validate their position. Sadeghi and Bergmann 2010 began this conversation by publishing the radiocarbon analysis of a single folio from an early manuscript from Sanaa. Their analysis indicated a likely date in the middle of the 7th century, which could seem to confirm the traditional narrative of the Qurʾan’s origins. Note, however, that Robin 2015 has published radiocarbon dates from this same manuscript, as well as others, that were measured by several different labs, with divergent and widely varying results. Marx and Jocham 2019 adds to the discussion with assays of additional manuscripts that also could appear to support the traditional position. Nevertheless, Déroche 2014 explains why these radiocarbon datings do not confirm the traditional dating of the Qurʾan’s origins, as some have maintained. In fact, radiocarbon dating is generally not capable of dating an object with greater precision than a century or two. Fedeli 2015 and Fedeli 2021 provide the best discussions of the problems associated with dating early Qurʾan manuscripts. Fedeli argues that scholars should continue to evaluate the earliest manuscripts on the basis of codicology and paleography and should not rely exclusively on radiocarbon datings alone. Déroche 2014 makes the same argument. Small 2011 undertakes a text-critical study of the Qurʾan, the results of which are more limited in comparison with New Testament textual criticism, given the regularity with which the Qurʾan has been transmitted. He concludes that if one gives precedence to the manuscript evidence, the view of the Qurʾan’s gradual development and final composition under ʿAbd al-Malik has the best support. Tillier and Vanthieghem 2021 present physical evidence that Sura 2, “The Cow,” continued to circulate as an independent text at the beginning of the 8th century, as reported in a number of historical sources.

  • Corpus Coranicum.

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    An excellent online resource including many early manuscripts, along with other tools and some commentaries that reflect the perspective of the Berlin school.

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  • Déroche, François. Qurʾans of the Umayyads: A First Overview. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2014.

    DOI: 10.1163/9789004261853Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    The most authoritative study of early Qurʾan manuscripts, their classification, and dating.

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  • Fedeli, Alba. “Early Qur’ānic Manuscripts, Their Text, and the Alphonse Mingana Papers Held in the Department of Special Collections of the University of Birmingham.” PhD diss., University of Birmingham, 2015.

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    Analyzes an important early Qurʾan in the Mingana collection, discovered by the author. The early radiocarbon dating that this manuscript received was sensationalized in the media and on the Internet, but this study presents a sober analysis of the artifact in relation to other early Qurʾans.

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  • Fedeli, Alba. “Dating Early Qurʾanic Manuscripts: Reading the Objects, Their Texts and the Results of Their Material Analysis.” In Early Islam: The Sectarian Milieu of Late Antiquity? Edited by Guillaume Dye. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021 (forthcoming).

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    An excellent discussion of the dating of early Qurʾans, especially the problems with radiocarbon dating.

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  • Marx, Michael Josef, and Tobias J. Jocham. “Radiocarbon (14C) Dating of Qurʾān Manuscripts.” In Qurʾān Quotations Preserved on Papyrus Documents, 7th–10th Centuries. Edited by Andreas Kaplony and Michael Marx, 188–221. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2019.

    DOI: 10.1163/9789004376977_007Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Publishes the radiocarbon analyses of several Qurʾans, which, according to the authors, confirms the traditional narrative of the Qurʾan’s analysis. Some of the datings are of questionable accuracy given that they are based on datings of the oldest folios from a manuscript rather than the most recent.

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  • Robin, Christian Julien. “L’Arabie dans le Coran: Réexamen de quelques termes à la lumière des inscriptions préislamiques.” In Les origines du Coran, le Coran des origines. Edited by François Déroche, Christian Julien Robin, and Michel Zink, 27–74. Paris: Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, 2015.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctvbtznq1.5Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Publishes the radiocarbon datings of several early manuscript folios by multiple labs and briefly discusses problems with the method.

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  • Sadeghi, Behnam, and Uwe Bergmann. “The Codex of a Companion of the Prophet and the Qur’ān of the Prophet.” Arabica 57 (2010): 343–436.

    DOI: 10.1163/157005810X504518Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    The first published radiocarbon dating of an early Qurʾan folio, which, according to the authors, supports the traditional narrative of the Qurʾan’s origins.

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  • Small, Keith E. Textual Criticism and Qur’ān Manuscripts. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2011.

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    One of the only text-critical studies of the Qurʾan that analyzes the known textual variants of the early manuscripts and the Qurʾanic traditions.

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  • Tillier, Mathieu, and Naïm Vanthieghem. The Book of the Cow: An Ancient Papyrus Codex on Papyrus (P. Hamb. Arab. Inv. 68). Documenta Coranica. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2021.

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    The authors publish an early papyrus and conclude that pieces of the Qurʾan continued to circulate as independent texts at the beginning of the 8th century CE.

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Literacy and Language in Pre-Islamic Arabia

The linguistic history of the Arabian Peninsula has recently emerged as an important subfield in Qurʾan studies, largely on account of numerous inscriptions that have been identified in the deserts of Arabia. Macdonald 2000, Macdonald 2005, and Macdonald 2010 lay some of the most important groundwork for understanding the Qurʾan’s linguistic environment, and Macdonald’s conclusions have recently been reaffirmed by Al-Jallad 2020b. Nevertheless, the most important finding of these studies for understanding the Qurʾan’s context is that at the beginning of the 7th century the cultures of the central Hijaz, including Mecca and Medina, were fundamentally nonliterate, even though writing systems were available, a conclusion echoed in Robin 2010. These circumstances make it highly improbable that the Qurʾan was written down, even in parts, during Muhammad’s lifetime, as many scholars have assumed. Al-Jallad 2020a presents the first effort to identify and study the distinctive dialect of the Qurʾan, which the author calls “Old Hijazi.” The evidence identified by Al-Jallad suggests that the Qurʾan was written in the Arabic dialect of later 7th-century Umayyad Syro-Palestine. Jeffery 1938 remains the most thorough study of foreign vocabulary in the Qurʾan, and Carter 2017 provides a brief introduction to this question. These borrowings, mostly from Syriac, suggest that the Qurʾan was composed in a milieu where there was extensive contact with other language traditions: this finding, however, stands at odds with the nonliterate conditions and relative cultural isolation of the Hijaz. Cook 1997 and Schoeler 2006 both survey the strong reluctance to commit traditions to writing during the first Islamic century. On the whole, these recent studies of the Qurʾan’s linguistic context indicate that the text was transmitted orally for several decades before it was written down, in all likelihood beginning in the middle of the 7th century and in the occupied lands of conquest.

  • Al-Jallad, Ahmad. The Damascus Psalm Fragment. Late Antique and Medieval Islamic Near East 2. Chicago: The Oriental Institute, 2020a.

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    Studies a bilingual Greek-Arabic Psalm fragment from Damascus that appears to be written in the same Arabic dialect as the Qurʾan. This evidence would seem to locate the Qurʾan’s dialect in early Islamic Syro-Palestine.

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  • Al-Jallad, Ahmad. “The Linguistic Landscape of pre-Islamic Arabia: Context for the Qurʾan.” In The Oxford Handbook of Qurʾanic Studies. Edited by Mustafa Shah and M. A. Abdel Haleem, 111–127. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020b.

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    The most up-to-date survey of the Qurʾan’s linguistic context, which confirms the conclusions reached in Macdonald’s earlier studies.

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  • Carter, Michael. “Foreign Vocabulary.” In The Wiley Blackwell Companion to the Qurʾan. Edited by Andrew Rippin and Jawid Mojaddedi, 131–150. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2017.

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    A helpful survey of the Qurʾan’s borrowings from other languages.

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  • Cook, Michael. “The Opponents of the Writing of Tradition in Early Islam.” Arabica 44 (1997): 437–530.

    DOI: 10.1163/1570058972582317Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    An important article that draws attention to significant controversies over writing down traditions in early Islam.

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  • Jeffery, Arthur. The Foreign Vocabulary of the Qurʾān. Baroda, India: Oriental Institute, 1938.

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    The most extensive inventory and study of the foreign vocabulary used in the Qurʾan.

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  • Macdonald, M. C. A. “Reflections on the Linguistic Map of Pre-Islamic Arabia.” Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 11 (2000): 28–79.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1600-0471.2000.aae110106.xSave Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    One of the first efforts to systematically study the early linguistic history of the Arabian Peninsula.

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  • Macdonald, M. C. A. “Literacy in an Oral Environment.” In Writing and Ancient Near Eastern Society: Papers in Honour of Alan R. Millard. Edited by Piotr Bienkowski, C. Mee, and E. A. Slater, 45–114. New York: T & T Clark, 2005.

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    Draws upon anthropological studies to explain how a culture, such as that of the Hijaz during Muhammad’s lifetime, can have a writing system but still be fundamentally nonliterate.

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  • Macdonald, M. C. A. “Ancient Arabia and the Written Word.” In The Development of Arabic as a Written Language. Edited by M. C. A. Macdonald, 5–28. Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 40. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2010.

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    A more recent study in which Macdonald concludes “that, before and immediately after the rise of Islam, Arab culture was in all important respects fundamentally oral” (p. 22).

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  • Robin, Christian Julien. “Introduction—The Development of Arabic as a Written Language.” In The Development of Arabic as a Written Language. Edited by M. C. A. Macdonald, 1–3. Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 40. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2010.

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    In this brief survey of Arabic’s emergence as a written language, the author concludes that the inhabitants of the Hijaz in the 7th century CE were nonliterate.

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  • Schoeler, Gregor. The Oral and the Written in Early Islam. Translated by Uwe Vagelpohl. Edited by James E. Montgomery. Routledge Studies in Middle Eastern Literatures 13. London: Routledge, 2006.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203965313Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Includes several important articles originally written in German in which the author carefully charts the move from resistance to writing to the production of written religious texts in the early Islamic tradition.

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Memory, Oral Transmission, and the Composition of the Qurʾan

If we assume that the roots of the Qurʾan are to be found in Muhammad’s teachings at Mecca and Medina, we must nevertheless recognize that these traditions were transmitted orally from memory and without a written standard for decades after Muhammad’s death. This question, as it pertains to the context and circumstances in which the Qurʾanic text took shape, is entirely separate from the matter of memorizations and oral recitations of the Qurʾan once the text eventually came to be written down. We are concerned here with the context that produced the Qurʾan, not its subsequent use in Islamic communities after it was committed to writing. As the studies in this section (among others) make clear, memorization and oral transmission are fundamentally different in contexts that are literate and nonliterate. Previously, scholarship on the generative context of the Qurʾan regularly overlooked this fundamental issue, and, accordingly, the literature identified in this section is intended to assist students of the Qurʾan with engaging evidence that is essential for understanding the context of the Qurʾan’s oral transmission before it was committed to writing. Madigan 2001, for instance, exemplifies the shortcomings of efforts to consider orality without taking into account the results of scientific studies of memory and orality, despite some fine work in this volume on other matters relevant the understanding the Qurʾan’s “self-image.” His study therefore overlooks the matter of inevitable changes to the tradition that oral transmission from memory would have introduced between their origin and their commitment to writing. Peters 1991 is equally innocent of these essential perspectives and illustrates their necessity. Hunter 1985 (along with other similar studies) demonstrates that verbatim memorization of more than fifty words is impossible without a written text. Accordingly, any effort to investigate the circumstances of the Qurʾan’s origins must take into consideration the findings of modern memory science and the study of oral cultures, as Goody 2007 concludes. What we learn from these disciplines is that human memory is astonishingly fallible, including eyewitness memory, as Loftus 1979 demonstrates, particularly in the absence of a written record. As Bartlett 1932 demonstrates, the mind retains only scattered bits and pieces from experience, which it must reconstruct by filling in the gaps based on past experiences, recomposing the memory more or less from scratch in each instance. Schacter 2001 provides an excellent overview of the findings from over a century of studies on human memory. With regard to memories that circulate orally within a culture, the process of remembering is even more complicated and prone to changes in content. As documented in the pioneering studies Lord 2019, Vansina 1965, and Goody 1987, oral cultures are generally able to preserve only the bare bones or “gist” of an event over a brief period of time, but in the context of oral transmission, the content begins to be radically re-remembered from the very start. Oral transmission, as specialists have demonstrated, is not the verbatim transmission of a literary artifact from the past but rather a continuous process of recomposition. This is no less true of preliterate cultures than literate ones. Since we remember the past for the sake of understanding the present, as these memories are transmitted, they are quickly reshaped according to the present concerns of those who transmit them. They are shaped by and adapted to a group’s collective memory, in the sense first articulated by Halbwachs 1992. Assmann 2011 studies the role of collective memory in a number of ancient cultures, with special attention to the process of canonizing oral traditions in written form. Based on the insights afforded by these disciplines, we should understand the Qurʾan as a text that was composed and recomposed in the process of its oral transmission in the midst of and in dialogue with the various religious cultures of western Arabia in the 7th century CE.

  • Assmann, Jan. Cultural Memory and Early Civilization: Writing, Remembrance, and Political Imagination. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511996306Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Brings particular attention to the process of canonizing oral traditions into a written scriptural tradition as part of the production and maintenance of a group’s collective memory. Determines that oral cultures generally begin to record their oral traditions in writing, if it is available, after around forty years, at which point memories have already begun to degrade and differ significantly.

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  • Bartlett, Frederic C. Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1932.

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    A pioneering work of memory science that demonstrates the reconstructive nature of individual memory and its high degree of fallibility.

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  • Goody, Jack. The Interface between the Written and the Oral. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

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    One of the most authoritative studies of the nature of oral cultures in comparison with literate cultures by a leading scholar in the study of oral tradition.

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  • Goody, Jack. “Does the Refinement of the Writing System Allow Us to Draw Conclusions about the Decline of the Oral Transmission?” In Results of Contemporary Research on the Qurʼān: The Question of a Historio-Critical Text of the Qurʼān. Edited by Manfred Kropp, 139–146. Beiruter Texte und Studien 100. Beirut: Orient-Institut der DMG, 2007.

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    This expert on oral cultures considers the Qurʾan specifically and concludes that “in oral cultures it would be virtually impossible to remember a long work like the Qurʼān” (142).

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  • Halbwachs, Maurice. On Collective Memory. Translated by Lewis A. Coser. The Heritage of Sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226774497.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Widely recognized as the most important theoretical work on collective memory, or communally shaped memories of the past that serve the social and cultural needs of a group in the present.

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  • Hunter, Ian M. L. “Lengthy Verbatim Recall: The Role of Text.” In Progress in the Psychology of Language. Edited by Andrew W. Ellis, 207–235. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1985.

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    Demonstrates that the verbatim recall of a sequence of fifty or more words occurs only when there is already “a written text and does not arise in cultural settings where text is unknown. The assumption that nonliterate cultures encourage lengthy verbatim recall is the mistaken projection by literates of text-dependent frames of reference” (p. 207).

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  • Loftus, Elizabeth F. Eyewitness Testimony. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979.

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    Explains why eyewitness memories are not reliable, primarily with an eye toward the use of eyewitness testimony in criminal trials.

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  • Lord, Albert Bates. The Singer of Tales. 3d ed. Edited by David F. Elmer. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2019.

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    The culmination of decades of work comparing the oral transmission of Yugoslavian epic poetry with Homer, initiated by the author’s mentor, Milman Parry. A pioneering work in the study of oral tradition and a model for using modern fieldwork to illuminate ancient textual transmission.

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  • Madigan, Daniel A. The Qurʾan’s Self-Image: Writing and Authority in Islam’s Scripture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.

    DOI: 10.1515/9780691188454Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Often discusses the Qurʾan’s oral transmission in its earliest stages, but unfortunately does so primarily with reference to the Islamic tradition and without including relevant perspectives from memory science and anthropology.

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  • Peters, F. E. “The Quest of the Historical Muhammad.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 23 (1991): 291–315.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0020743800056312Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Maintains that after decades of largely oral transmission, we can be sure that “[o]ur copy of the Qurʾān is, in fact, what Muhammad taught, and is expressed in his own words” (p. 293). One often finds others studies of the Qurʾan making similar statements. Yet the findings of memory science and the study of oral cultures, as exemplified by the works in this section, directly contradict such claims.

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  • Schacter, Daniel L. The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.

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    An excellent overview of the status quaestionis in memory science, aimed at a general audience and written by one of its leading practitioners.

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  • Vansina, Jan. Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology. Translated by H. M. Wright. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965.

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    Another highly influential study of oral cultures by a leading authority. Vansina concludes that in an oral context, a community’s memory is very short-lived and subject to rapid change.

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Textual Difficulties and the Origins of the Qurʾan

In four of the studies cited below (Bellamy 1991, Bellamy 1993, Bellamy 1996, Bellamy 2001), James Bellamy highlights numerous passages in the Qurʾan containing words that were unintelligible to the early Islamic commentators. The commenters were baffled by the meanings of certain key words in these passages and often did not even know how they should be vocalized; they could only guess. Nevertheless, the speculations of these early commentators in the face of uncertainty does not obviate the fact that there are important parts of the Qurʾan that were not intelligible to the later community. The collective inability to determine even the vocalization of certain important words seems to indicate that at least these passages were not passed down orally within the community. If they had been, then we would expect these passages to be understood with much greater clarity, not to mention fully vocalized, since the community would have been responsible for their transmission, recomposition, and intelligibility. According to Bellamy, these passages “prove that there was no oral tradition stemming directly from the prophet strong enough to overcome all the uncertainties inherent in the writing system” (Bellamy 1993, p. 563). Bellamy concludes that these incomprehensibilities are the result of scribal errors in a single manuscript on which all the others depend. Powers 1982 identifies an instance in which the commentators cannot determine the meaning of key terms related to inheritance rules, an argument that he develops more fully in Powers 2009. Similarly, Crone 1994 draws attention to certain legal terms that were unintelligible to the early commentators; their confusion, in Crone’s view, points to the late collection and standardization of the Qurʾan. Perhaps the best example of this problem is the analysis of Sūrat Quraysh in Crone 1987 (p. 106). Crone demonstrates that early interpreters of the Qurʾan were completely confounded by this short four-verse sura and, again, could only guess at its meaning. One possibility is that these incomprehensible passages preserve traces of older textual material that Muhammad and his followers had adapted even as they did not completely understand their contents and meaning. As Reynolds 2018 notes in his comments on the early (pre-Muhammad) radiocarbon dates of certain Qurʾanic manuscripts, this is a possibility that we should take into consideration.

Jewish and Christian Traditions in the Qurʾan

The Qurʾan contains numerous traditions adopted from Jewish and Christian biblical and extra-biblical tradition, most of which are inventoried in Speyer 1931, and some of which are thoughtfully studied in Reynolds 2010. Van der Velden 2007 argues that the Qurʾan’s traditions about Jesus developed in dialogue with a contemporary Christian community. The prominence of these traditions in the Qurʾan indicates that it must have developed in a context with a strong Jewish and Christian presence, and yet, by all indications external to the Qurʾan, there was no Christian presence in the Hijaz in the early 7th century or any time prior, a matter considered in more detail below under Jews, Christians, and “Pagans” in the Pre-Islamic Hijaz. The Qurʾan regularly invokes these earlier Jewish and Christian traditions in an elliptic and compressed manner, requiring its audience to fill in the gaps based on their own broad knowledge of these traditions, as Griffith 2013 explains. The Jews of Medina could possibly account for the Qurʾan’s Jewish traditions, all of which, in such a case, must have entered the tradition in Medina rather than Mecca. Nevertheless, Witztum 2011 has demonstrated that even traditions from the Hebrew Bible seem to be coming from Christian, rather than Jewish, sources. Shoemaker 2003 identifies a clear source for the Qurʾanic traditions of Jesus’s Nativity at a Marian shrine in Jerusalem, the Kathisma church, a finding that is confirmed and further developed in Dye 2012 and in Shoemaker 2021. These traditions match the Qurʾan almost perfectly and are highly localized to Jerusalem—they are not evident anywhere else in the early Christian tradition and were almost certainly encountered by Muhammad’s followers after their conquest of Jerusalem. van Bladel 2007 and Tesei 2013–2014 both demonstrate that the Qurʾan’s account of Dhū al-Qarnayn (Q. 018:83–101) depends directly on the Christian Syriac Alexander Romance, which Muhammad’s followers also are likely to have encountered only after they emerged from the Hijaz in 634 CE.

  • Dye, Guillaume. “Lieux saints communs, partagés ou confisqués: Aux sources de quelques péricopes coraniques (Q 19: 16–33).” In Partage du sacré: Transferts, dévotions mixtes, rivalités interconfessionnelles. Edited by Isabelle Dépret and Guillaume Dye, 55–121. Brussels: EME Editions, 2012.

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    Builds upon and strengthens significantly the argument in Shoemaker 2003. In particular, Dye identifies the source of the Qurʾan’s identification of Mary as the “sister of Aaron” in a liturgical reading that was unique to the Kathisma church.

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  • Griffith, Sidney H. The Bible in Arabic: The Scriptures of the “People of the Book” in the Language of Islam. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781400846580Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    An excellent discussion of the Qurʾan’s relationship to biblical traditions, considering both individual traditions and the phenomenon as a whole.

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  • Reynolds, Gabriel Said. The Qur’ān and its Biblical Subtext. Routledge Studies in the Qurʾan 10. New York: Routledge, 2010.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203856451Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Analyzes the Qurʾan’s adaptation of, and interaction with, twelve antecedent biblical and extrabiblical traditions.

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  • Shoemaker, Stephen J. “Christmas in the Qurʾān: The Qurʾānic Account of Jesus’ Nativity and Palestinian Local Tradition.” Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 28 (2003): 11–39.

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    Locates the source of the Qurʾanic Nativity tradition (Q. 19:16–33) in the traditions and practices of a Palestinian Marian shrine, the Kathisma church—the only instance apart from the Qurʾan in which this combination of traditions comes together.

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  • Shoemaker, Stephen J. “Mary between Bible and Qurʾan: Apocrypha, Archaeology, and the Memory of Mary in Late Ancient Palestine.” In Extracanonical Traditions and the Holy Land. Edited by Harald Buchinger, Andreas Merkt, and Tobias Nicklas. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2021 (forthcoming).

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    Expands upon Shoemaker 2003 in showing the influence of the Kathisma church and its traditions on the Qurʾanic Nativity tradition. Includes and expands on the findings of Dye 2012 as well as analyzing the most up-to-date archaeological data for the site.

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  • Speyer, Heinrich. Die biblischen Erzählungen im Qoran. Gräfenhainichen, Germany: Schultze, 1931.

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    The most thorough inventory of Jewish and Christian traditions adopted by the Qurʾan. An excellent starting point for researchers, although it is no longer exhaustive.

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  • Tesei, Tommaso. “The Prophecy of Ḏū-l-Qarnayn (Q 18:83–102) and the Origins of the Qurʾānic Corpus.” Miscellanea Arabica (2013–2014): 273–290.

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    Builds upon van Bladel 2007 and makes even more clear that the Qurʾan depends on a written version of Syriac Alexander Romance, rather than oral tradition.

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  • van Bladel, Kevin. “The Alexander Legend in the Qurʾān 18.83–102.” In The Qurʾān in its Historical Context. Edited by Gabriel Said Reynolds, 175–203. New York: Routledge, 2007.

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    Demonstrates that the Qurʾanic traditions about Alexander the Great were taken directly from a 6th-century Christian text, the Syriac Alexander Romance.

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  • van der Velden, Frank. “Konvergenztexte syrischer und arabischer Christologie: Stufen der Textentwicklung von Sure 3, 33–64.” Oriens Christianus 91 (2007): 164–203.

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    Argues that certain Qurʾanic passages regarding Jesus manifest an attempt to reach ideological and theological convergence with contemporary Christians regarding the status and significance of Jesus.

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  • Witztum, Joseph. “The Syriac Milieu of the Quran: The Recasting of Biblical Narratives.” PhD diss., Princeton University, 2011.

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    Argues persuasively that many of the Qurʾanic traditions adopted from the Hebrew Bible were taken from Syriac Christian, rather than Jewish, sources.

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The Qurʾan and the World of Late Antiquity

A recent trend in Qurʾanic studies has been to identify the Qurʾan’s context as including not just the culture and society of the central Hijaz, but also the broader world of late antiquity in the Roman and Sasanian Empires. Such an approach is exemplified especially in Neuwirth 2015, Neuwirth 2019, and, more cautiously, Hoyland 2012. Although this turn toward reading the Qurʾan as a late ancient text in conversation with the religious cultures of the late ancient Near East is welcome, it is nonetheless problematic, as the notion that Mecca and Medina were somehow integrated with the broader late ancient world and permeated with its cultures, like some sort of Palmyra or Petra of the Hijaz, is simply not supported by the available evidence. Any significant cultural contact between Muhammad’s early followers and the world of late antiquity seems far more likely to have occurred outside of central Arabia than within it, as Neuwirth proposes. It is certainly not impossible that the Hijaz was integrated into this broader world, but there is no evidence to support this claim (other than the Qurʾan), and most of the evidence that we have tracks strongly against this hypothesis. It is not unthinkable, however, that certain larger themes and ideas from late ancient religious culture may have found their way there, such as the idea of a Promised Land belonging to the descendants of Abraham, or the eschatological roles expected of empires and their conquests. Shoemaker 2018 and Tesei 2018 explore the reception of imperial eschatology as a driving impulse within Muhammad’s new religious movement. Also relevant to this topic are the various responses to this new religious community and its conquest and occupation of western Asia by contemporary non-Islamic writers of the 7th-century Near East. Hoyland 1997 and Shoemaker 2021 provide access to these sources in English translation, while Schadler 2018 focuses especially on John of Damascus, a particularly important witness to early Islam and the Qurʾan.

Jews, Christians, and “Pagans” in the Pre-Islamic Hijaz

As noted above, the Qurʾan assumes an audience that is deeply familiar with the Jewish Torah, the Christian Gospels, and many extra-biblical traditions: indeed, the Qurʾan responds directly to accusations that it has done little more than plagiarize these antecedent scriptures, which, apparently, were well known within its milieu. In the absence of substantial and well-developed Jewish and Christian communities in the Hijaz, it is problematic to suppose that the Qurʾan, or at least a great deal of it, could have been composed in Mecca and Medina. Indeed, the highly allusive nature of the Qurʾan’s references to earlier Jewish and Christian traditions demands an audience that was well versed, steeped even, in Jewish and Christian lore. Yet, as Villeneuve 2010 observes, “to the south of a line passing noticeably at the latitude of Aqaba, there is quite simply almost no trace of Christianity—from any era, for that matter.” Trimingham 1979 and Hainthaler 2012 reach similar conclusions, due to the lack of any positive evidence for Christianity in the region. This finding, also reached by Beaucamp and Robin 1981 and Munt 2015, seems unlikely to be overturned anytime soon, and it profoundly complicates efforts to link the Hijaz with the broader world of late antiquity, as discussed in the section above (The Qurʾan and the World of Late Antiquity). It is true that many scholars of Islam frequently presume the presence of Christians in the Hijaz at the beginning of the 7th century—Neuwirth 2019 is a recent example, but they do so in the absence of any evidence to support this supposition. There were Christians along the Persian Gulf and in Yemen, for which we have significant evidence, making the complete lack of any comparable evidence for the Hijaz especially telling. The early Islamic tradition also reports the lack of any significant Christian presence in the region, and with perhaps the singular exception of Muhammad’s uncle Waraqah, any Christians are generally identified as coming from outside of the Hijaz. Moreover, the presence of Christian traditions in the Qurʾan cannot alone be invoked to argue for a Christian presence in the Hijaz, since the circumstances of the Qurʾan’s origins are themselves the matter in question. Indeed, all extra-Qurʾanic evidence continues to point to the complete absence of any significant Christian presence there, and only a determined commitment to locate all of the Qurʾan’s content in Muhammad’s Hijaz would lead one to invent a Christian community there. Wood 2021 concludes that, in light of Christianity’s absence from the central Hijaz, the Qurʾan’s Christian traditions would have to derive from “Christian proto-Qurʾanic material” composed by Arab-speaking Christians outside of the Hijaz. Shoemaker 2018b rebuts the often proposed and yet unevidenced proposal that Muhammad and his followers were inspired by some sort of “Jewish Christianity” that had managed to linger in this remote region. Lüling 2003, which is one of very few studies to engage seriously the matter of a Christian presence in the Hijaz, is an excellent example of this “Jewish Christian” approach to understanding the Qurʾan. According to Islamic tradition, there was a sizeable Jewish community in Medina, and Muhammad allowed them to become members of his new religious movement even as they remained Jews and continued to adhere to the Torah. There is, however, no mention of this community in sources outside of the early Islamic tradition, although Hoyland 2012 adduces some limited inscriptional evidence to confirm their presence. Hawting 1999 disrupts the tradition of a pre-Islamic Arab “paganism” in Mecca, demonstrating that the Qurʾan appears to oppose not polytheists but other monotheists who, in its judgment, are not sufficiently monotheist. Crone 2010 reexamines the same topic and concludes that Hawting is correct.

  • Beaucamp, Joëlle, and Christian Julien Robin. “Le christianisme dans la péninsule Arabique d’après l’épigraphie et l’archéologie.” Travaux et mémoires 8 (1981): 45–61.

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    Surveys the epigraphical and archaeological evidence for Christianity in the Arabian Peninsula, finding that there was “no true Christian community” in the region of Mecca and Medina.

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  • Crone, Patricia. “The Religion of the Qurʾānic Pagans: God and the Lesser Deities.” Arabica 57 (2010): 151–200.

    DOI: 10.1163/157005810X502637Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Confirms and extends the findings of Hawting 1999.

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  • Hainthaler, Theresia. “Christian Arabs before Islam: A Short Overview.” In People from the Desert: Pre-Islamic Arabs in History and Culture. Edited by Nader Al Jallad, 29–44. Wiesbaden, Germany: Reichert Verlag, 2012.

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    Concludes that “[t]here are no indications of a real indigenous Christianity in Mecca,” and “no indications of an ecclesial organization in this region” (i.e., the central Hijaz). As a result, “Muhammad could not get reliable dogmatic information on Christian faith.”

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  • Hawting, Gerald R. The Idea of Idolatry and the Emergence of Islam: From Polemic to History. Cambridge Studies in Islamic Civilization. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511497490Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Persuasively reinterprets the “polytheist” opponents of the Qurʾan as in fact monotheists whose monotheism was not sufficiently pure in the eyes of the Qurʾan.

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  • Hoyland, Robert G. “The Jews of the Hijaz in the Qurʾān and in Their Inscriptions.” In New Perspectives on the Qur’ān. Edited by Gabriel Said Reynolds, 91–116. London: Routledge, 2012.

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    Provides inscriptional evidence for Jews living in Arabia. These inscriptions are few in number, however, and much of the evidence is indirect. In addition, all of the inscriptions are either from the oasis towns far in the north of the Hijaz or in South Arabia, not the central Hijaz itself.

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  • Lüling, Günter. A Challenge to Islam for Reformation: The Rediscovery and Reliable Reconstruction of a Comprehensive Pre-Islamic Christian Hymnal Hidden in the Koran under Earliest Islamic Reinterpretations. Rev. ed. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2003.

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    A rare example of a study that makes a concerted effort to identify a sizeable Christian community in Hijaz. In doing so, however, Lüling resorts to an enormous amount of speculation and postulates the dubious existence of a non-Trinitarian Judaizing Christian community there in the early 7th century.

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  • Munt, Harry. “‘No Two Religions’: Non-Muslims in the Early Islamic Ḥijāz.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 78.2 (2015): 249–269.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0041977X14001049Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Examines an early Islamic tradition that non-Muslims were forcibly expelled from the Hijaz after the rise of Islam, but concludes that there is no evidence that there were any Christians to be expelled in the first place.

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  • Neuwirth, Angelika. The Qurʾan and Late Antiquity: A Shared Heritage. Translated by Samuel Wilder. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780199928958.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Exemplifies the common tendency, particularly among the Berlin school, to simply assume a Christian presence in Mecca and Medina, yet without any basis in evidence, argument, or analysis, other than a need to make the Qurʾan fit this particular context.

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  • Shoemaker, Stephen J. “Jewish Christianity, Non-Trinitarianism, and the Beginnings of Islam.” In Jewish Christianity and the Origins of Islam: Papers Presented at the Colloquium Held in Washington DC, October 29–31, 2015 (8th ASMEA Conference). Edited by Francisco del Río Sánchez, 105–117. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2018.

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    Argues that there is no evidence to support the influence of a “Jewish Christian” community on Muhammad and the Qurʾan.

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  • Trimingham, J. Spencer. Christianity among the Arabs in Pre-Islamic Times. London: Longman, 1979.

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    In this nearly 350-page study, a mere ten pages (258–267) considers the evidence for the Hijaz. There is no evidence other than reports from the later Islamic tradition, in light of which the author concludes that “Christianity in any of its available forms could have no influence upon its inhabitants” (p. 258). “Consequently, Muhammad imagined Christians, for there was no available Christian community to observe” (p. 266).

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  • Villeneuve, François. “La résistance des cultes bétyliques d’Arabie face au monothéisme: De Paul à Barsauma et à Muhammad.” In Le problème de la christianisation du monde antique. Edited by Hervé Inglebert, Sylvain Destephen, and Bruno Dumézil, 219–231. Paris: Éditions Picard, 2010.

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    Clearly articulates the absence of any evidence for Christianity in Mecca, Medina, and the central Hijaz.

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  • Wood, Philip. “Christianity in the Arabian Peninsula.” In Early Islam: The Sectarian Milieu of Late Antiquity? Edited by Guillaume Dye. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021 (forthcoming).

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    Argues that any encounter between Arabic speakers and late ancient Christianity must have occurred along the Roman frontier, and not in the Hijaz.

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The Qurʾan’s Environmental and Economic Context

Beginning with Lammens 1924, the Qurʾan has been studied against the historical backdrop of a wealthy mercantile economy that dominated Mecca and placed it at the center of a vast network of international trade. Crone 1987 exposed this conjecture as contradictory to the evidence that we have concerning trade in spices and other luxury goods at the time. Mecca was instead, Crone determines, a small desert community with effectively no economy beyond pastoralism. Crone 1992 further clarifies this argument in responding to the unfortunately ad hominem attack in Serjeant 1990, while Crone 2007 reevaluates the matter of Meccan trade and finds that there may have been some trade in leather with Roman soldiers along the Roman limes. It is worth noting that Anthony 2020 persuasively argues that Muhammad was in fact a merchant of some sort before he began a new religious community. Furthermore, significant portions of the Qurʾan do not seem compatible at all with the environmental and economic conditions of its alleged Hijazi context, suggesting that we must look elsewhere to find a home for at least these parts of the Qurʾan. Frequent references to seafaring and farming, for instance, suggest a very different context. Torrey 1892 was the first to note the anomalous prominence of seafaring in the Qurʾan, followed by Barthold 1929, although neither scholar attempted to resolve the issue. Waines 2001 considers the theme of agriculture in the Qurʾan and concludes that much of what the Qurʾan envisions does not seem compatible with conditions in the central Hijaz. Crone 2005 combines the Qurʾan’s problematic discussions of seafaring and agriculture to demonstrate the radical disconnect between these passages and the alleged Hijazi context for the entirety of the Qurʾan. Although Crone does not propose a solution to these problems, she clearly implies that significant parts of the Qurʾan do not fit a Hijazi context.

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