In Front Page, Moorthy Muthuswamy and I discuss a notable variant reading of the Koranic text, and its huge implications:
Muthuswamy: Thank you for the opportunity, Jamie. First, some background.
In 1972, during the restoration of the Great Mosque of Sana’a, in Yemen, a gravesite containing a mash of old parchment pages was discovered. It became clear that this parchment hoard is an example of what is sometimes referred to as a “paper grave.” In this case, the site was the resting place for tens of thousands of fragments from close to a thousand different parchment codices of the Koran, the Muslim holy book.
Using a technique called “carbon dating,” some of the parchment pages in the Yemeni hoard were dated back to the seventh and eighth centuries, or Islam’s first two centuries. Until now, three ancient copies of the Koran were said to exist. One copy in the Library of Tashkent in Uzbekistan, and another in the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul, Turkey, date from the eighth century. A copy kept in the British Library in London dates from the late seventh century. But the Sana’a parchment pages are even older. Moreover, these pages are written in a script that originates from the Hijaz–the region of Arabia where the prophet Muhammad purportedly lived. This makes the Yemeni Korans not only the oldest to have survived, but one of the earliest copies of the Koran ever.
In 1981, the first scientific undertaking to study the Yemeni Koran was initiated by a group headed by Gerd-R. Puin, a specialist in Arabic calligraphy and Koranic paleography based at Saarland University, in SaarbrÃ¼cken, Germany. Puin and his group recognized the antiquity of some of the parchment fragments. Their preliminary inspection revealed unconventional verse orderings, minor textual variations, and rare styles of orthography and artistic embellishment. Interestingly, some of the sheets were also palimpsests–versions very clearly written over even earlier, washed-off or erased versions.
To quote Puin: “So many Muslims have this belief that everything between the two covers of the Koran is just God’s unaltered word… They like to quote the textual work that shows that the Bible has a history and did not fall straight out of the sky, but until now the Koran has been out of this discussion. The only way to break through this wall is to prove that the Koran has a history too. The Sana’a fragments will help us to do this.”
The idea that the Koran is the literal Word of God, perfect, timeless, and permanent, is crucial to Islam, in particular, to the Islamists at the forefront of spreading sharia and jihad. However, some of the Sana’a fragments revealed small but intriguing aberrations from the standard Koranic text. Indeed, this evidence compels one to conclude that the Muslim holy book has undergone a textual evolution rather than simply the Word of God as revealed in its entirety to the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century.
This explosive ramification has made the State of Yemen reluctant to give further access to the Sana’a fragments. Fortunately, before the door was shut to Western scholars, another German academic, Graf von Bothmer, made 35,000 microfilm pictures of the fragments, which remain at the University of the Saarland.
FP: Robert Spencer, so the Yemeni Koran points to the fact that the Muslim holy book has undergone a textual evolution. Give us your view of the meaning and significance here.
Spencer: Moorthy is quite right: the idea that the Koran is perfect and uncreated, with no textual variants, is central to Islamic proselytizing. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) says the Koran “was memorized by Muhammad and then dictated to his companions. The text of the Qur’an was cross-checked during the life of the Prophet. The 114 chapters of the Qur’an have remained unchanged through the centuries.” This idea is also central to the worldview of jihadist groups. Osama bin Laden bragged in his 2002 letter to the American people that the Koran “will remain preserved and unchanged, after the other Divine books and messages have been changed. The Qur’an is the miracle until the Day of Judgment.”
The textual variants in the Yemeni Koran, simply by showing that the text is not always and everywhere the same, explode the mainstream Islamic belief that the Koran was delivered in perfect form to Muhammad through the angel Gabriel, and has always been miraculously preserved from variant readings.
Yet oddly enough, early Islamic traditions recorded in the Hadith assume the existence of variant readings of the Koran. The impetus for collecting Muhammad’s revelations into a single volume came after Muhammad and other important early Muslims started dying off. Late in the year Muhammad died, 632, a group of Arab tribes that Muhammad had conquered and brought into the Muslim fold revolted. The first caliph, Abu Bakr, led the Muslims into battle to subdue them.
The two sides met in the Battle of Yamama, in which some of the Muslims who had memorized segments of the Koran were killed. One Islamic tradition notes that “many (of the passages) of the Qur’an that were sent down were known by those who died on the day of Yamama…but they were not known (by those who) survived them, nor were they written down, nor had [the first three caliphs] Abu Bakr, Umar or Uthman (by that time) collected the Qur’an, nor were they found with even one (person) after them.” (Ibn Abi Dawud, Kitab al-Masahif)
The official compiler of the Koran, Zaid ibn Thabit, explained that he “started locating Quranic material and collecting it from parchments, scapula, leaf-stalks of date palms and from the memories of men (who knew it by heart). I found with Khuzaima two Verses of Surat-at-Tauba which I had not found with anybody else.” Zaid’s recollection testifies to the ad hoc nature of his work. For example, it was Khuzaima himself, Zaid’s sole source for the last two verses of sura 9, who approached Zaid and informed him of the omission: “I see you have overlooked (two) verses and have not written them.” When he had recited them, an influential companion of Muhammad and the future third caliph, Utman, declared, “I bear witness that these verses are from Allah.” And so they were included in the Koran (9:128-129).
Other sections of the Koran, some mandating stringent punishments for unbelievers and other violators of Islamic law, were lost altogether. One early Muslim declared, “Let none of you say, ‘I have acquired the whole of the Qur’an.’ How does he know what all of it is when much of the Qur’an has disappeared? Rather let him say ‘I have acquired what has survived'” (As-Suyuti, Al-Itqan fii Ulum al-Qur’an ). Other Koranic verses dropped out of the text without replacement. One of these stated, “The religion with Allah is al-Hanifiyyah (the Upright Way) rather than that of the Jews or the Christians, and those who do good will not go unrewarded.” Al-Tirmidhi, the compiler of one of the six collections of Hadith, or Islamic traditions, that Muslims consider to be the most reliable, said that this verse was at one time part of sura 98. It is not found there, however, in Zaid’s canonical version.