"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Thoughts on the Quran (mostly)

I'm reading Jesus & Muhammad: Parallel Tracks, Parallel Lives by F.E. Peters. I found it on the new book shelf at the library the other day.  Peters delves more into the historical Jesus and historical Muhammad as well as the texts and extra-biblical or extra-quranic sources that speak of these men, their communities, their ministries, the stories surrounding their births, lives and deaths.  Nothing spectacular has stood out although I have found much of it good and interesting. I guess the part about Jesus that made me pause was early on when the author said "Jesus and his followers were avid students of the Bible. Isaiah and Daniel were among their favorite reading, but they were equally interested in what we - but not they - have called the apocrypha, the various works attributed to Ezra and Baruch, the Assumption of Moses, the Testament of Abraham. It was from them that both Jesus and his audience were drawing upon their understanding of the past, and the future, of the Covenant."  (pg. 5). This statement made me want to go find these Writings just to see what types of things the Jews of that day were reading!

The author talks much about Q and the Gospels, but what I found of greater interest - perhaps because it was new to me - were his thoughts on the Quran. I decided to copy some of it to see what you think and to hopefully find out what Muslims have to say about their own scriptures concerning these matters.

So what do you think of this?

The author writes:

In our bondage to written texts, we must constantly remind ourselves that, when it comes to the Quran, there can be no question of an "original."  The original of the Quran is the recitation or performance that Muhammad chose to have his followers memorize, and which is very unlikely to have been its first utterance. Thus, the "original" of our Quran is the finished sura that either Muhammad or someone else had edited and that had then become fixed by social memorization. In neither instance is there any concern to preserve what we might think of as the original revelation in the sense of the first (and only) words to issue from the Prophet's mouth on a given subject.  As we have seen, that notion, though theologically a cornerstone of belief - the Quran is God's unchanging Word - defies every convention of oral poetry and performance.  Our Quran, like the Iliad, is a fixed product standing at the end of a complex and fluid process. (pg.134)

After taking a closer look at the Quran:

We note a marked change in the suras after we have arranged them in something approximating their chronological order. The revelations delivered at Medina are quite different from the earlier Meccan ones.  The high emotion, richly affective images, the rhymes and powerful rhythms of the Meccan poetry have all yielded at Medina to something that is not only longer but far more didactic and prosaic.  The high poetic style of the Meccan suras disappears, along with their insistent rhymes and assonances. The oaths, the bold imagery, and the intense fervor of the early poems - we may even call them songs, as we have seen - have yielded to a flatter diction and a lower and more level emotional pitch.

The author realizes the suras were written to different audiences.  In Mecca Muhammad was writing to encourage people to leave idolatry and become Muslims, whereas in Medina new rules were needed for the growing ummah.  But the author suggests also that maybe Muhammad found a scribe in Medina as the suras there seem more like they were dictated.  "The Prophet could no longer recite in the earlier bardic style but now had to pronounce, and slowly and clearly enough for an unskilled scribe to catch and record it."  (pg. 135)

Earlier in the book the author had noted that "the Quran shows an ongoing awareness of audience reaction. There are ... on-the-spot explanations - introduced by "What will make you understand...?" - that are obviously cued by audience reaction (101:9-11), or in these instances, perhaps a lack of it. There are direct answers to both questions and criticisms (2:135, etc.). And there was, finally, the charge that the 'revelations' were somewhat too improvised, that Muhammad was in effect making it up as he went along, with one eye steadily fixed on the main chance (21:5, 52:33). No,he recited only what - and when - he had received from God (10:15-16). Not all of these responses had necessarily to occur in the original performance, however, since these performances were certainly, and in the case of the Quran, necessarily, repeated, and there was an opportunity for the poet, or the prophet, to make adjustments."  (pg. 76)

What do you think of what F.E. Peters wrote about the Quran? How do you explain the differing style of the earlier suras compared to the later ones? Do you think the idea of Muhammad editing the text by his supervising the memorization of the words has any truth to it? Do you agree that Muhammad made adjustments depending on audience reaction?  What do you think about Muhammad perhaps having a scribe in Medina thus the style of the Quran changed because the words could now be written down instead of merely memorized by the followers (which would require shorter, more rhyming suras)?  Any thoughts on anything else mentioned in this post or from your own understanding?


Balqis De Cesare said...

As you said, the arguments changed depending on the situation they were revealed hence the difference between makkans and madinese suras
No one edited anything, at least according to our belief
The prophet learned from angel Gabriel, who often reviewed the recitation with him, and then recited the verses to his followers
There are some episodes of the life of the companions, like that of Umar bin khattab who found his sister and husband reciting from some papers, which makes think that the prophet dictated and then revised the whole

Suroor said...

There are some people who think that Khadeejah's cousin, the Christian monk, inspired if not dictated the Meccan surahs. I have not been able to understand their brevity and I think the aim was not to make them easier to memorise. It is almost like there are two different sources. I disagree with M. Watt that the Muhammad of Mecca is not different from the Muhammad of Medina. I feel he had different roles in the two different cities and hence the revelations are different too addressing two distinct situations.

Amber said...


I think the style difference is best explained by the simple fact that the circumstances had changed. Mohammed was no longer working inside of a city/system of people who were against him and his new religion. He was surrounded by his followers, people who already believed in him. The needs had changed. He needed to set up an actual, working system of religion rather than just call against the existing one based on a single principle.

I think Mohammed editing/revising the text of the Qur'an by controlling the memorization as it happened makes a lot of sense and is entirely possible.

Do you agree that Muhammad made adjustments depending on audience reaction?

Sure. Let's look at the sura's and their revelation to the people as informal speeches or lectures. A good speaker or lecturer will see the crowd, see their reactions (especially if it's in an interactive forum) and adapt to the responses to get their desired goal.

I think it's plausible that he acquired a scribe of some sort in Medina. His circumstances had changed for the better, at least in so far as respect afforded to him and his position. So it wouldn't even necessarily be a question of him being able to afford to hire one himself.

Lat said...

"It was from them that both Jesus and his audience were drawing upon their understanding of the past, and the future, of the Covenant"

This is interesting.You mean Jesus and his followers were reading on the apocrypha? Is this wholly a Jewish document?

"Our Quran, like the Iliad, is a fixed product standing at the end of a complex and fluid process"

This is possible and as the author said the differences of suras in both ciites are noticeable and muslims who study thme know that as well,as far as my reading says.

Susanne said...

Balqis De Cesare, welcome and thank you for your feedback! I find what you added of interest. Yes, the author did point out that according to belief, nothing was edited. Good point!

Suroor, yes, so you think the message just changed somewhat due to the audience being different in the two cities. In one he was evangelizing and in the other instructing moreso.

Amber, great thoughts! Thank you for being so thorough. I enjoyed them as always!

Lat, yes, I think Jesus and his contemporaries were reading books that WE consider apocrypha. I guess if you think of the OT books being individual books or scrolls and not all together as they are now, you could see how they might read Isaiah (the scroll), or Daniel (which are both canonized NOW) yet also books that were not included by the Jews in their Scripture,but were still of interest to the populace to varying degrees. I found that interesting as well!

Thank you all for your feedback! I enjoyed it!

Ze2red said...

I find it kind of offending for someone to write that Prophet Mohammad edited/wrote the Qura'an, or saying it's poetry. We - Muslims - believe that it was sent it to us by God through his messenger, and Angel Gebriel recited it to Prophet Mohammad and he memoriezed it, then recited it to his companions whom afterward started writing it down. Through out history it is shown that the writings of the Qura'an, and i mean the wordings, have not changed. The documentation which was done by Mohammad's companions preserved the Qura'an from any changes.

Now I have a question, and it's something out of courtesy and respect, Do Christians believe that the Bible is a holy book, and should be respected and considered even in the eyes of none Christians as is?

Now about if the tone of the sowar changed between the ones recited originally in Mecca and Madina. Yes there is a difference in the tone and the wordings. In Mecca it was the prophet's first days, and the wordings had to be firm for so many reasons to suit that time. But when he immigrated to Madina things were different. The people over there were known of more hospitality, and they were waiting for the prophet and welcoming him. So the tone became easier, and more motivating. The thing is there is a divine purpose behind this all till this day. Sometimes when people get off track and need reassurance in an easy way you find the Madinan sowar are more nearer to your heart, they are delicate. Mecca's sowar are still till today considered firm eye openers to what's right and wrong.

Amber said...

You say that you can prove it hasn't been changed since it was written down. But that's not really the claim of the author. He's saying that Mohammed edited the *original* recitation by controlling how it was recorded.

As for calling it poetry, is it not poetic language? We're told over and over again how transcendent it is in the original language. The Bible contains books of poetry. It's not meant to be an insult.

I understand that Muslims believe that the Qur'an is the direct word of God. But the fact of the matter is that non-Muslims don't. By asking us to treat it with the level of...devotional respect that Muslims do - which appears to involve little to no admittance of textual criticism is, honestly, academically crippling and sort of ridiculous.

Do Christians believe that the Bible is a holy book,


and should be respected and considered even in the eyes of none Christians as is?

I think the second half of your question is supposed to be asking if we want people who are not Christian to respect the Bible as sacred even though they don't believe in it.

If that's correct, then I would say that I would want people to treat the Bible as they would the most sacred text of their own religion. Or at least to treat it with a measure of respect if they are atheists or agnostics and have no sacred text of their own. That being said, since most Christians have no delusions about how the Bible came to be, and welcome textual and historical criticism of it, I don't think that applying those same thoughts and questions to the Qur'an is out of line.

Ze2red said...


I'm glad that some people - like urself - are respecting others believes. And questioning is part of understanding others point of views, and i think it's very healthy.

I come from an academic background so for me - personally - there is a big difference between asking a question seeking an answer which provides elaboration, then you are entitled to be convinced or not. And there is questioning which most of the time is a way of saying indirectly I believe in what i know, and whatever the other person says i'm not willing to listen.

In addition when i claim something, at least i should have a proof to back things up. This is how we do it in science, so why not do it when it comes to religion, right?

So you were asking if i can say for sure if Mohammed edited the Qura'an or not. No one can say if he did or didn't, even the book's author. So to make it clear, what offended me is that he said "It was edited" like he knows for sure. Does he really know?, i mean does he have any proof? I wish if he said it all, that he has his doubts, yet over history it didn't change, and leave the rest for the reader to conclude it.

Susanne said...

Ze2red, nice to see you! I'm glad you dropped by to share your thoughts!

Ah, don't get offended by the author's views. You know what, it's only his opinion and there is no need to let it bother you much. People say all kinds of things about the Bible, about Jesus, about Christians and some of it is very unflattering, but I have tried to mostly let it slide and not affect me so much. I realize there are billions of people in the world and they aren't all going to believe the same as I.And that's OK. :) So I don't want you to let it bother you much that this author happens to see it this way. It's his logic, his deduction as a historian or whatever he claims to be. Doesn't mean he knows for sure,but it's what *he* thinks and writes about. He doesn't seem to be Muslim so he's not going to view the Quran or Muhammad in the same way a Muslim would. :)

As for your questions, I try to be respectful of others' beliefs. I wouldn't purposefully damage a Quran or other holy book simply because I don't believe they are holy. But I don't really expect people to never criticize my holy book - they do a lot - and say they are disrespecting it by saying things against it. Muslims saying the Bible is corrupted means that I follow a corrupted book and is this not disrespectful to an extent? What if I said your Quran had been corrupted by Omar or Uthman and the followers of Muhammad during the Umayyadan dynasty? Would this seem disrespectful to you or just Susanne stating her opinion? I guess you'd have to let me know what "disrespectful" means to you so I could answer that better. But I hope that was helpful. Eek, scratch that! Oh, you know, I just reread your questions and I think I answered something entirely different. Sorry! Well, I think Amber did a great job with that already so maybe hers will suffice! :)

Thanks for the explanation about the Meccan and Medinan suras! I appreciate your sharing this! I didn't realize the Medinan suras were gentler. I read the Quran, but since it's edited (put together) out of chronological order, I have a hard time recalling which were for the Meccans and which were for the Medinans.

I enjoyed your feedback! Thank you!

Amber, I appreciate what you added! Always nice to hear your take on questions (especially when you actually answer the questions given *ahem!*)! That's it...from here on out, you are my official spokesperson! :-D Thank you!

Amber said...


Ah. I see what you're saying now.

I think the author wasn't actually saying that he knows for certain that the Qur'an was edited at any point. It seems, from the quotes that Susanne gave us (I've never read this book so that's all I've got to work on) that he's taken that as a starting assumption for a theory. And I would assume that in the rest of the book he's included reasoning behind that assumption. Otherwise it's just a wacky theory. And while I love wacky theories in general, they don't tend to get very far without less wacky facts behind them. :D

In addition when i claim something, at least i should have a proof to back things up. This is how we do it in science, so why not do it when it comes to religion, right?

Science and religion can't be treated the same though. With religion, there comes a point where scientific level proof is impossible. And that's where faith comes in.

Susanne said...

Well, the author does not present all his facts in this book otherwise I'm sure it would be REALLY long because he makes these "historian" statements while discussing all the various aspects of the Bible, Quran, Jesus and Muhammad. He just refers to what historians have deduced without showing us the paths they've taken to get there. Maybe that is wacky. I don't know. Maybe he figures his book is a summary - a jumping off point - and someone interested could look for a book with more detail.

Amber said...

Meh. Does he at least have footnotes or references to the works he refers to? If not, that annoys me. I get that some works like this are meant to bring high concept theories down to the general populace, but how are we supposed to judge their conclusions if we aren't presented with the information and path they took to get there?

Susanne said...

Yes! No worries! He has pages (maybe 1/4 of the book) of end notes with his sources sited! I browsed through those as I read each chapter. :)

Here is a bit about him:


Becky said...

I tend to believe, as has been pointed out by several others above, that the main reason for the difference in the Surahs from the Meccan and the Medinan period respectively, is due to different circumstances and requirements.

As for whether or not Muhammed edited the text himself, or if it was changed later on, I think you can only research it so far, and at the end of the day it boils down to a matter of belief. (as it does with the Bible as well).

Ze2red said...

Susanne: you both did a good job answering my questions. I really enjoy it when there are topics that i can discuss with u over here and find out what people think.

I read a great deal of what you post i just hold back my comments because i don't have enough knowledge to discuss. You are an amazing book worm and i learn from you ;)

Amber: I can't agree more with you about the proof thing, because in each and every single religion there are things which can't be explained except by saying they are signs of divinity, and we should have faith.

When i said proof i only meant it when it comes to things related to Human then for sure there is some kind of proof, because Mohammad is a human being after all, and he is just a messenger.

thanks for the discussion i really enjoyed it.

Susanne said...

Becky, very true! Faith is involved a great deal! Thanks for your comment!

Ze2red, thank you! You are always welcome to give you input. I love learning from others and even challenging me on things is helpful as it makes me try to figure out why I believe what I believe or said what I did! :) I'm glad you dropped by. I enjoyed reading yours and Amber's discussion! :D