The Significance of the Non-Muslim Evidence for Qur’anic Studies

Ibn Warraq

Alphonse Mingana, surveying the writings of Christians of the seventh century—the colloquy between an Arab general and the Monophysite patriarch of Antioch, John I; the letters of Isho`yahb III, patriarch of Seleucia; and the chronicles of John Bar Penkaye—came to the conclusion that “the Christian historians of the whole of the seventh century had no idea that the ‘Hagarian’ conquerors had any sacred book; similar is the case among historians and theologians of the beginning of the eighth century.” Mingana further argues:

No disciple of Moses or of Christ wrote the respective oracles of these two religious leaders in their lifetime, and probably no such disciple did so in the case of the Prophet. A man did not become an acknowledged prophet in a short time; years elapsed before his teaching was considered worth preserving on parchment. . . . The story of the Qurayshite scribes who were told by Uthman to write down the Revelation in the dialect of the Quraysh ought to be discarded as half legendary. We all know how ill-adapted was Arabic writing even of the eighth century to express all the phonetic niceties of the new philological schools; it is highly improbable, therefore, that it could express them in the first years of the Hijrah. Moreover, a very legitimate doubt can be entertained about the literary proficiency of all the collectors mentioned in the tardy Hadith of the ninth century. Most of them were more tribal chieftains than men of literature, and probably very few of them could even read or write; for this reason, the greater part of their work must have been accomplished by some skilled Christian or Jewish amanuensis, converted to Islam.

“This last work of the Companions and Helpers,” continues Mingana,

 does not seem to have been put into book form by Uthman but was written on rolls of parchments, on suhufs, and it remained in that state till the time of Abdul Malik [Abd al-Malik] and Hajjaj ibn Yusuf [also known as al-Hajjaj or simply Hajjaj]. At this time, being more familiar with writing by their intercourse with Jews and Christians of the enlightened capital of Syria, and feeling more acutely the necessity of competing on even terms with them, the caliph [Abdul Malik] and his powerful lieutenant [alHajjaj] gave to those rolls the character and the continuity of a book, and very possibly added new material from oral reciters of the Prophet’s oracular sentences. At any rate, the incident of both Hajjaj and Uthman writing copies of the Qur’an and sending them to the head-provinces is very curious.

Thus, in emphasizing the lack of seventhcentury confirmation of the existence of the Qur’an and the probable slow growth of Islam in a sectarian milieu after the time of Abdul Malik, Mingana anticipates in many ways the work of John Wansbrough, Gerald Hawting, Patricia Crone, and Michael Cook. It is to the two latter scholars we now turn to see what use they make of the Christian sources.

Cook and Crone write, “On the Christian side, the monk of Bet Hale distinguishes pointedly between the Qur’an and the Sura al-baqara as sources of law, while Levond [Ghevond] has the emperor Leo describe how al-Hjjaj destroyed the old Hagarene ‘writings.’ Secondly there is the internal evidence of the literary character of the Qur’an. The book is strikingly lacking in overall structure, frequently obscure and inconsequential in both language and content, perfunctory in its linking of disparate materials, and given to the repetition of whole passages in variant versions. On this basis, it can plausibly be argued that the book is the product of the belated and imperfect editing of materials from a plurality of traditions.”

“The earliest reference,” continue Cook and Crone:

from outside the Islamic literary tradition to a book called the Qur’an occurs in the late Umayyad dialogue between the Arab and the monk of Bet Hale; but as we have seen, it may have differed considerably in content from the Qur’an we now know. In any case, with the single exception of a passage in the dialogue between the patriarch and the emir which might be construed as an implicit reference to the Qur’anic law of inheritance, there is no indication of the existence of the Qur’an before the end of the seventh century. Now both Christian and Muslim sources attribute some kind of role to Hajjaj in the history of Muslim scripture. In the account attributed to Leo by Levond, Hajjaj is said to have collected and destroyed the old Hagarene writings, and replaced them with others composed according to his own tastes; the Muslim traditions are more restrained, though far from uniform. It is thus not unlikely that we have here the historical context in which the Qur’an was first put together as Muhammad’s scripture.

European attitudes toward the Qur’an during the Middle Ages

While their Eastern brethren were trying to come to terms in both physical and intellectual ways with the rapid, aggressive, even devastating emergence of the new religion of Islam, its founder, and its holy book in the seventh and eighth centuries, it is unlikely that the Western Christians of Northern Europe had any precise idea of Islam; few had even heard of Muhammad prior to 1100 C.E., with the exception of Abbot Majolus of Cluny. Northern Europe was, of course, well aware of the existence of the Saracens by the eighth century; for example, we have the Ecclesiastical History of the Venerable Bede (673–735), who describes them without polemic or rancor as the descendants of Hagar and her son Ishmael and is totally unperturbed by them. It is an entirely different matter with Spain, parts of which were conquered by the Muslims as early as 711. By the middle of the ninth century, Spanish Christians were deeply immersed in Arabic culture, studying their theologians, philosophers, and even writing elegant Arabic—able to write better poems in Arabic than the Arabs themselves. As a reaction to this Christian laxism, Eulogius, future Bishop of Toledo (died a martyr in 859), and his biographer, Paul Alvarus, writing during the reigns of the Cordoban caliphs, Abd al-Rahman II (r.822–852) and Muhammad I (r.852–886) tried to rouse their Christian brethren from their spiritual sloth, denounced Islam, and saw the Prophet as the Antichrist predicted in the Christian Scriptures. They remained ignorant of Islam as a religion and relied on a slim biography of Muhammad by an anonymous Spanish author for the little they did know.

After the First Crusade (1096), the situation began to change slowly. However, the three biographies of Muhammad that were known in Northern Europe by the first half of the twelfth century were all based on oral testimony, vague and completely unreliable as history. As R.W. Southern points out, “The earliest account of Muhammad and his religion that has any objective value” was by Petrus Alfonsi (1062–1110), a Spanish Jew who converted to Christianity in 1106. However, his work does not seem to have exercised any lasting influence on the course of Islamic studies in the West. But we know that by the middle of the twelfth century, rational appraisals of Islam were widespread, culminating in the landmark translation of the Qur’an into Latin by the English scholar Robert of Ketton.

Ibn Warraq

Ibn Warraq, Islamic scholar and a leading figure in Qur’anic criticism, was a senior research fellow at the Center for Inquiry. He is the author of many books, including What the Qur’an Really Says (Prometheus Books, 2002) and Which Koran? Variants, Manuscripts, Linguistics.


Alphonse Mingana, surveying the writings of Christians of the seventh century—the colloquy between an Arab general and the Monophysite patriarch of Antioch, John I; the letters of Isho`yahb III, patriarch of Seleucia; and the chronicles of John Bar Penkaye—came to the conclusion that “the Christian historians of the whole of the seventh century had no …

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