Every now and then, Islamic scholarship provides us with an illuminating work that highlights some superb area of our scholarly heritage, reminding us that we were the world leaders in learning, research, accurate transmission of knowledge, and objectivity. As Muslims today are in a weak position on the world stage, and as Islam is their basic, though latent, source of strength, efforts are often undertaken to keep Muslims away from their true faith. These efforts take different forms in different fields of play. One of the most important fields is the one where Orientalists are not only the players, but they also set the rules and define the standards.
There is no doubt that some Orientalists have shown much respect to Islam and Muslims, but the majority do not demonstrate any inclination to be free of bias. Moreover, in their discourse about Islam and Muslims, many Orientalist adopt a holier-than-thou attitude. But such prejudice has not been without advantage for the cause of Islam. Ever since the time of the Crusades, this attitude has been the trigger for some fine Islamic scholarship, by a line of Muslim scholars, in areas which might not have attracted their attention without Orientalist prejudice. It is when an Orientalist throws a challenge, or makes an outlandish claim, that a Muslim scholar rises to take up the challenge or refute the claim. Such is the case that led to the writing of the scholarly work we are reviewing today.
To a Muslim, that the Qur’an is God’s word is a fact that requires no proof, in the same way that we do not need to prove that the sun gives light and warmth, or the night is dark, or water quenches thirst. You only have to read a passage of the Qur’an to recognize its source. The more you read, the greater is your conviction that it is God’s revelation. Hence, when a call is made requiring solid proof of the source of the Qur’an, a Muslim instinctively suspects the motives behind it.
But it is not only instinctive reaction that casts Orientalists in an unfavorable light. It is often the case that the claims they make are insupportable by the very principles, or research methodology, that they advocate. Most Orientalists insist that the Qur’an was transmitted purely orally in the early period of Islam. They reject all reports of its commitment to writing during the lifetime of the Prophet (peace be upon him). Yet numerous are the Qur’anic references to God’s revelations to Muhammad (peace be upon him) as “The Book”, which could only mean “a written text”. This does not mean that at the time of revelation it was handed to Muhammad written on some sort of a scroll, but the Prophet dictated it to his scribes and it was written shortly after. Orientalists try to leave the door always open to raising doubts about the authenticity of the main sources of Islamic beliefs and laws, namely the Qur’an and the Sunnah. Were they to accept that the Qur’an was transmitted both orally and in written form, right from the time of its revelation to Muhammad (peace be upon him), raising such doubts would become much more difficult. Besides, in their attempts to question the authority of the Qur’an, they always try to preserve for themselves the high ground of “scientific” methods and values.
It was from such a standpoint that Toby Lester made a sweeping judgment on Islamic scholarship and its approach to the Qur’an. Writing in The Atlantic Monthly (January 1999), Lester suggests that Muslims are thoroughly incapable of defending, in any scholarly fashion, their belief that the Qur’an is the unadulterated book of God. Little confidence does Lester seem to have in Muslim scholarship. Yet his words were the direct cause of the authorship of a priceless scholarly study that traces the recording and transmission of the divine text from the days of its revelation.
Professor Muhammad Mustafa Al-Azami is a highly respected scholar of Hadith, (the Prophet’s traditions), a discipline of Islamic study that attaches paramount importance to the reliability, accuracy and authenticity of whatever is attributed to the Prophet. Hence, he is well placed to examine the methods of transmission of the Qur’an in the light of the very stringent procedures established by Hadith scholars over the centuries. Professor Azami felt, as he tells us, that Toby Lester’s article made a challenge, and he decided to take it up. It simply stimulated his long felt desire to author a book on the collection and preservation of the Qur’an. And for certain, the result is superb.
Professor Azami devotes two thirds of his book to documenting the history of the Qur’anic text, from revelation to compilation, relying only on authentic Hadiths and reports. Very early in the book, we learn that the method of verification of textual authenticity employed by Zaid ibn Thabit, was of the most reliable type that would be readily accepted today at the best research centers in our world. It is well known that Zaid ibn Thabit, who embraced Islam at the age of 11, before the Prophet’s arrival in Madinah, was assigned by Abu Bakr, the first caliph, the task of compiling a complete copy of the Qur’an, so that it would serve as the reference copy against which all written Qur’anic text could be checked for accuracy. Zaid was most suited for the task as he was endowed with superb intelligence, sharp memory, good education, experience in recording Qur’anic revelations as they were given to the Prophet, and also he was “one of the fortunate few who attended the Archangel Jibril’s recitation with the Prophet during Ramadan.” Zaid carried out Abu Bakr’s instructions of accepting only written text to which two witnesses testify to its being written as dictated by the Prophet in their presence. Professor Azami compares the 20th century methodology in verifying the authenticity and reliability of historical manuscripts with that which Zaid ibn Thabit established over 1,400 years ago, and finds that Zaid applied the same stringent criteria required by the best academic institutions.
Although the book takes up the Orientalists’ challenge, providing a highly scholarly proof of the reliability and accuracy of the Qur’anic text, as revealed by God to His messenger, Prophet Muhammad, it makes a thoroughly interesting and absorbing reading for Muslims who have never entertained any doubt on this issue. Professor Azami gives us clear answers to certain questions that might have arisen in our minds about the twice undertaken commission of Zaid ibn Thabit, with a gap of 15 years between them. It is well known that Zaid completed the task assigned to him by Abu Bakr and handed the first caliph a complete and accurate copy of the Qur’an. Abu Bakr died less than two years after the Prophet’s death. Barely 15 years later, Uthman, the third caliph, wanted to send reference copies of the Qur’an to the main population centers of the Muslim state. He assigned the task to Zaid ibn Thabit. Zaid did not simply make copies of his first effort, as would be the most likely course of anyone charged with a similar project. He repeated the entire procedure of his first effort, starting from scratch, but this time produced eight standard copies. Working under the guidance of Uthman, who was long recognized as a top authority on the Qur’an, Zaid and his committee of four thoroughly knowledgeable companions of the Prophet produced a newly collated master copy, and made the required number of copies of it. It was at this point that Uthman recalled the original first copy, held in custody by Hafsah bint Umar, the Prophet’s widow, so that a thorough comparative check is undertaken. This was yet another exercise aiming to ensure immaculate accuracy.
Thus we realize that Uthman did not opt for the easy task of copying the first master work. Instead, he undertook a thorough task of verification, authentication and validation unequalled in the history of any nation or religion. Hence, he thoroughly deserves the historical honor of being associated with the most important effort of preserving the Qur’an intact, in its original form.
The task had the additional benefit of checking the accuracy of copies of surahs and passages of the Qur’an held by individuals who were keen to learn the Qur’an. It certainly raised the already high standards of accuracy and reliability.
Professor Azami also takes us through the reasons and benefits of having several variants of reciting the Qur’an, which are known as the qira’at, as well as the Muslim educational methodology and the certification of students’ achievement, including the certification of reading. These confirm the thorough accuracy of preserving the Qur’an both as a written text and as a verbal recitation. Throughout this very scholarly study, Azami provides one piece of evidence after another, but he chooses his evidence from what is particularly authentic. This is not surprising, since he has devoted his entire lifetime to the study of Hadith.
The last third of the book is divided into two parts: one is devoted to the history of Biblical Scriptures, both Jewish and Christian, and the other discusses Orientalism and its motives. Professor Azami undertakes the first part entirely on the basis of Jewish and Christian sources. Thus, he follows the long established tradition of Islamic scholarship of judging others by their own words. He says that he has included this history of Jewish and Christian Scriptures for the sake of comparative study. Needless to say, such comparison is bound to yield only one result: No scriptures of any type could aspire to any degree of reliability or authenticity like the one the Qur’an enjoys. This comes out very clearly in the book and the fact that the author relies on sources of the two faiths in question makes this result particularly significant.
The final part of the book, composed of two chapters, is devoted to a brief discussion of Orientalism and its motives. In his meticulous approach, Professor Azami provides many examples of Orientalist prejudice against Islam. Much of what Orientalists call for is inadmissible by Western academic standards. Can we imagine any reputable academic in the West condoning an alteration of a Shakespearean play, a poem by T.S. Eliot, or even a novel, let alone the text of a legal document? Yet, many are the Orientalists that call on Muslims to ‘revise’ the Qur’an and introduce amendments into it. As recently as the late 1980s, Hans Kung, a Roman Catholic theologian, advised Muslims to admit to the element of human authorship in their Holy Book. Earlier in the 20th century, Richard Bell tried to rearrange the Qur’anic text, totally disregarding the unity of each surah and advocating that verses from different surahs should be brought together while others should be split apart. Bishop Kenneth Cragg urged Muslims to consider the abrogation of the Madani parts of the Qur’an, concentrating only on the Makkan parts with their emphasis on the basic issue of monotheistic faith.
Such suggestions are not only devoid of any scholarly sense; they are an insult to every Muslim and to the Islamic faith. Hence, we ask with Professor Azami, why should such people be credited with a high standard of academic neutrality when they discard their own rules in order to snipe at Islam and Islamic scholarship? “Why should non-Muslims be deemed authorities to the exclusion of practicing Muslims? Why should men of the Church — Mingana, Guillaume, Watt, Anderson, Lammanse, and a horde of others who wish nothing more heartily than to see their religion eclipse Islam — be regarded as the standard in ‘unbiased’ Islamic research? Why should Muir be considered an authority on the Prophet’s life, when he writes that the Qur’an is among ‘the most stubborn enemies of Civilization, Liberty, and the Truth which the World has yet known?”
The best answer is given by Ibn Sirin (d. 110 H/ 728 CE) who says: “This knowledge constitutes your religion, so be careful when choosing whom to learn your religion from.”
With its thorough scholarship and meticulous research, Professor Azami’s book constitutes a major contribution to Qur’anic studies in English. It makes absorbing reading and benefits both scholars and lay readers.
The History of The Qur’anic Text From Revelation to Compilation, by Muhammad Mustafa Al-Azami, UK Islamic Academy; Leicester, 2003, 376 pages
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