However, the book as Muslims know it is a “composite and composed text” that was “altered significantly” and “reimagined, rewritten, and augmented” during a half-century or so after the Prophet’s lifetime and finally standardized under Damascus-based Caliph Abd al-Malik (685–705 CE).
What Muslim tradition tells us about Muhammad’s career may contain factual “nuggets” but much of it is “little more than pious fiction” with “no basis in any genuine historical memories.”
There could be trouble. All that will certainly offend believers in the orthodox view that between 610 and his death in 632, Muhammad, guided by the angel Gabriel, received God’s verbatim words, memorized them, dictated them to scribes, and confirmed the entirety of the Quran’s revelations as they exist today.
This sort of dispute will be familiar to educated Christians, since similar western “historical criticism” or “higher criticism” has been aimed at their New Testament for 200 years.
Now that outlook is being applied to Islam’s holy book in “Creating the Quran.” Author Stephen J. Shoemaker, a prolific scholar of Christian and Muslim origins at the University of Oregon, asserts that experts have been too timid or reverential in promoting a revisionist viewpoint.
“Creating” was published last July but languished in academic obscurity until Baylor University historian Philip Jenkins boosted it as an eye-opener in a recent Patheos.com article. The University of Chicago’s Fred Donner blurbs that this is “a milestone in Quranic studies” and “the most comprehensive and convincing examination” of the issues currently available.
Book publicity may be just a bit overheated in calling this “the first systematic historical-critical study of the Quran’s origins” because prior writers have plowed this ground. But Shoemaker updates their work and combines it with his own theories in a comprehensive, dramatic challenge to Islamic tradition. The Guy confesses he only had time to skim the book before deadline but here can at least provide the gist of the argument to fellow journalists considering coverage.
The more technical examine the latest research on matters like radiocarbon dating of early manuscripts and linguistic analysis, for instance the more than 300 loan words from languages other than Arabic. But his central contention is that the Quran as it stands reflects the sophisticated influence of Syria and Palestine rather than the boondocks of the central Hijaz in western Arabia, the locale of Muhammad’s Mecca and Yathrib (later renamed Medina).
Shoemaker says in the 7th Century this region was “non-literate” (defenders of the faith will cite Muhammad’s own illiteracy as proof the scriptures are God-given and miraculous) and cut off from other cultures without the familiarity needed for the Quran’s references to distant areas’ seafaring, climate, farming, animal species and vegetation.
In particular, he says, the central Hijaz was cut off from Judaism and Christianity, yet much of the Quran makes no sense unless its original readers knew about biblical religion. He reports that there’s no evidence of Christian influence in Mecca or Medina in Muhammad’s era, and the nearest Christian churches were 300 or 400 miles away in Yemen or to the east along the Persian Gulf.
One intriguing detail is the close similarity between Quran 19:22-28 and a distinct tradition about Jesus’ birth preserved at the Kathisma shrine to Mary near Jerusalem. He also theorizes that the Quran contains some pre-Islamic material because certain passages were “unintelligible” to its early Muslim interpreters.
Journalists can read the full text of this University of California Press release here. Naturally, writers assessing the heterodox liberal approach to the Quran will want responses from eminent mainstream Muslim scholars such as the following.
* M.A.S. Abdel Haleem at the University of London, British translator of Oxford’s felicitous 2004 Quran in English (email@example.com or 44–0–20-7898-4325).
* Joseph Lumbard at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Doha, Qatar (firstname.lastname@example.org), an American Muslim and a general editor of “The Study Quran” (2015), a resource The Guy strongly recommends to fellow journalists.
* Ingrid Mattson at Canada’s Huron University College, author of “The Story of the Quran: Its History and Place in Muslim Life” (2007), founder of the Islam Center at Hartford Seminary, and the Islamic Society of North America’s first woman president (email via https://works.bepress.com/ingridmattson/ or contact college P.R. email@example.com or 519–438-7224 Ext. 285).
* Seyyed Hossein Nasr at The George Washington University, an Iranian-American who is Editor-in-Chief of “The Study Quran” (firstname.lastname@example.org or 202–994–5704).
* President Hamza Yusuf at Zaytuna College, U.S. Islam’s first regionally accredited undergraduate school (he’s an adult convert from Catholicism) (email@example.com or 510–356–4760).
FIRST IMAGE: From the website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Muhammad’s Call to Prophecy and the First Revelation — folio from a manuscript of the Majma’ al-Tawarikh (Compendium of Histories)
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