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AXIAL – (Winter 2013)
SnowStar Institute of Religion, Kingsville, Ontario
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On The Historical Qur’an   By Salim Mansur

Any query about the historical Qur’an unavoidably implies there is a non-historical or a-historical Qur’an. Or there is the Qur’an Muslims take as their
sacred text and its meaning for them is extra-historical. Then there is the Qur’an as a text, a document with history, that like any document may be examined objectively in terms of its origin, preparation, assembly, textual consistency and
meaning. And if there are two or more of such texts found, then one looks for variance, interpolations, redaction and other indications that might confirm or
alter the authenticity of the text in question. Modern textual criticism and hermeneutics of the Qur’an as a text with history run counter to the views held by the Muslim orthodoxy. Qur’anic exegesis is not lacking among Muslims, though Muslim scholarship, unlike that of non-Muslims, is confined by the traditional formula that the Qur’an is the Word of God revealed to Muhammad.

Any discussion on what is the historical Quran, as it is with the historical Muhammad, is fraught with the peril of, at a minimum, inflicting discomfort on the religious sensibility of Muslims. I am acutely aware of this as a Muslim; and yet, I
believe, questions about the historical Qur’an are deserving of serious consideration and response. The response of a Muslim might not be convincing to non-Muslim scholars and critics. But a Muslim response would be that of an individual examining the fundamentals of his faith and this would be indicative there are Muslims, however small in numbers, not unwilling to question their orthodoxy. Indeed Muslims, or at least some Muslims, have struggled how best to read the Quran, to interpret it, to reconcile their faith in revelation with reason. And reason demands to consider the Qur’an objectively, even as faith is not entirely contained by, or the product of, reason since the “last proceeding of
reason,” as Blaise Pascal reputedly noted, “is to recognize that there is infinity of things which are beyond it.”

Michael Cook has written, “When we ask how God’s speech came to be collected in the form in which we now read it, we leave theology firmly behind us and re-enter the world of history.” It is accepted by most historians of Islam that following Muhammad’s demise in 632 his followers began collecting all available records of revelation dictated to his scribes and in the possession of individuals
who were with him, put them in order, and made available one authoritative edition for the Muslim community as it began to grow and spread. What came out of this collective effort spread over nearly two decades was the text of the Qur’an made available to Muslims under the authority of the “rightly-guided” Caliph Uthman, the third caliph or temporal successor of the Prophet. This is the
authoritative version of the Qur’an, and this text is taken by Muslims to be the Word of God. According to Cook:

The book as a whole thus consists always and everywhere of the same 6,200-odd verses in the same order (the exact number depends on the placing of the divisions between the verses, not on the text itself). This striking invariant text is known as the ‘Uthmanic codex, since according
to the standard account it was established on the initiative of the Caliph ‘Uthman (ruled 644-56), at some time around 650. (The vagueness of the
date arises from the fact that the event seems to have had no place in the early Arabic annalistic tradition.) All the Korans which we possess today
represent this recension, though as will be seen, this may not be true of all surviving fragments of the Koranic text.

(The Koran: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 117.)

Here then is the main contention of non-Muslim scholars and critics, as we note in Cook’s words, that though the available text referred to as the ‘Uthmanic
codex is found to be invariant on the whole, there have been fragments found which do not quite fit with this text. The findings of these fragments, and
manuscripts in whole or in part of what might well be texts of the Qur’an, lead to questions about textual editing and/or interpolation, and interpretations of the Qur’an that became standard or authorized reading of it.

The discovery in 1972 of very old manuscripts – damaged over the centuries by rain, dampness, rats and insects – inside the Great Mosque of Sana’a, Yemen, renewed the debate over the historical Qur’an. This debate is about whether the collection of the totality of the revelation recorded in written form, verified by those who had committed the revelation to memory, and compiled into a single authoritative text called mushaf and referred to by Cook as the ‘Uthmanic codex should be accepted as definitive, or if the discovery in Sana’a of old parchments suggests there were other possible arrangements of the mushaf different from the compilation we possess. There is also the unresolved issue of how many copies or mushafs were prepared under the directive of ‘Uthman and sent to the various garrison towns of the expanding Arab-Muslim empire. Cook writes:

Once the work was completed, ‘Uthman returned the leaves to Hafsa [daughter of Umar, the second Caliph following Abu Bakr, and a widow of the Prophet]. A parallel version of the same narrative tells us that he then sent out a copy of the new text to each of the provinces, and ordered all others to be destroyed. One thing this particular account fails to tell us is which provinces received copies. Dani states that they were sent to Kufa, Basra, and Damascus, while one remained in Medina; he adds that a less reliable tradition extends the list to Mecca, Yemen, and Bahrayn.

(Ibid., 118.)

It is worth noting here that two of the five or six copies Cook mentions are respectively in the possession of the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul, Turkey, and the Tashkent Museum of History in Uzbekistan, and both copies are on display for public viewing.

The Sana’a discovery remains locked, and its findings are unavailable. The cover story “What Is the Koran?” by Toby Lester for the January 1999 issue of The Atlantic Monthly focused on the Sana’a discovery and its relevance. Lester wrote,

The mainly secular effort to reinterpret the Koran – in part based on textual evidence such as that provided by the Yemeni fragments – is disturbing and offensive to many Muslims, just as attempts to reinterpret the Bible and the life of Jesus are disturbing and offensive to many conservative Christians. Nevertheless, there are scholars, Muslims among them, who feel that such an effort, which amounts essentially to placing the Koran in history, will provide fuel for an Islamic revival of sorts – a reappropriation of tradition, a going forward by looking back. Thus far
confined to scholarly argument, this sort of thinking can be nonetheless very powerful and – as the histories of the Renaissance and the Reformation demonstrate – can lead to major social change. The Koran, after all, is currently the world’s most ideologically influential text.

(January 1999, 44.)

While we await to learn what the Sana’a discovery will reveal, Andrew Higgins reported in 2008 in the Wall Street Journal that a “unique photo archive of
ancient manuscripts of the Quran” consisting of 450 rolls of film assembled before the war and believed lost, as a result of bombings on April 24, 1944 that
destroyed the Bavarian Academy of Science, has been found safe and undamaged. The study of this photo archive of ancient manuscripts and its findings are also unavailable. But Gerd-R. Puin, a specialist in Arabic calligraphy and Qur’anic palaeography, was sent by the German government to assist in the restoration project of the Sana’a manuscripts. The only other person, according to Toby Lester, granted permission to examine the Yemeni fragments was Puin’s colleague, H.-C. Graf von Bothmer, an Islamic art historian at Saarland University, Saarbrucken. Higgins quoted Puin commenting on this discovery of the photo archive that the Qur’an “didn’t just fall from heaven.” Puin has written:

It is true, unfortunately, that the (scriptural) variants are hardly helpful for a better understanding of much of the text which is still far from being as mubin (“clear”) as the Qur’an claims to be! Thus, even if a complete collection of variants could be achieved, it will probably not lead to a breakthrough in Qur’anic studies. Certainly, though, it will help to reveal the stages of Qur’anic (and Arabic) orthography.

(What the Koran Really Says. Prometheus Books, 739.)

Apart from poring over the textual variants found in fragmentary evidences or parchment manuscripts, as discovered in Yemen and the yet to be disclosed study of the photo archive once held in the Bavarian Academy of Science, the modern hermeneutic study of the Qur’an runs the risk of undermining the traditional or orthodox commentaries of eminent Muslim scholars from the classical period in Islamic history. Though the Qur’an is in the language of the Arabs, the Qur’anic Arabic requires special training to comprehend the scripture. This means the vast majority of Muslims, including Arabs, need commentaries to assist them in understanding the Qur’an. According to Ibn Warraq, a modern non-Muslim scholar and critic of Islam:

The Muslim tradition has woven a fantastic spiderweb around its holy scripture from which even modern scholarship has not managed to
disentangle itself. For all Muslims, much of the Koran remains incomprehensible without the commentaries; indeed, that is the very reason there are so many Muslim commentaries. As Leemhuis put it, “…The more of the Qur’an that became obscure in the course of time, the more it became provided with an explanation.” One would hardly need them if the Koran were truly mubeen, “clear.” But…despite all the thousands of pages devoted to clarifying the text, the Koran still remains incomprehensible, even for those Western scholars who accept the traditional, specially chronological Muslim framework of the Koran.
Muslim Koranic exegesis of such influential scholars as Tabari tended to be tafsir bi’l-ma’thur (interpretation following tradition), rather than
tafsir bi’l-ra’y (interpretation by personal opinion). Tabari’s great work, Jami’ al-bayan ‘an taw’ il ay al-Qur’an, is full of exegetical hadiths, where the Prophet gives his explanation of various obscure verses. Similarly, Ibn Kathir advises that if we are unable to elucidate some
passage, then one must examine the prophetic sunna, and if that fails, then one must have resort to the sayings of the companions of Muhammad. However, if we accept the negative conclusions of Goldziher, Schacht, Wansbrough, Crone, and Cook about the authenticity of hadiths in general, then we must be equally skeptical of the hadiths concerning exegesis of the Koran. In other words, we cannot separate discussions of the compilation and meaning of the Koran from the questions about the authenticity of hadith and the sirah, the life of Muhammad.

(What the Koran Really Says, 59-60.)

This then is the sum total of the problem for critics of Islam and the Qur’an. Apart from what might well be the controversy arising from the examination of fragments of ancient manuscripts of the Qur’an, there remains the accompanying controversy over how to decode the text contextually while setting aside traditional commentaries as unsatisfactory or misleading.

Religion is inseparable from civilization. Fernand Braudel observed “religion is the strongest feature of civilizations, at the heart of both their present and their past.” In premodern history the higher function of religion was providing legitimacy to power, and those holding power shaped religion, laid down what was authoritative, punished those who dissented and protected the scripture from those who read it differently.

The speed with which the Prophet’s generation established an empire did not provide for the space within which the fundamentals of Islam – its scripture and the life of its founder as the model for normative conduct of his followers – could be arranged at some distance from those holding power. The wars of apostasy breaking out on the death of the Prophet and waged by Abu Bakr, the first Caliph, laid the template of the Islamic empire. The well-known ayat or verse of the Qur’an reads “There is no compulsion in religion,” (2:256). But Abu Bakr determined to crush all rebellion among the desert Arabs as apostasy when they refused to pledge loyalty to him. This heavy handed use of force made a travesty of the Qur’anic injunction that there is no compulsion in religion. Muslims might argue about whether Abu Bakr was right or not, or whether the situation he found with tribes unwilling to accept him as their leader was analogous to the opposition the Prophet confronted in establishing Islam. But the template was set, precedent established, and religious disagreements could be deemed treason. The schismatic wars over succession following the killing of ‘Uthman culminated in the murder of Ali, the fourth Caliph, in 661 and the destruction of the Prophet’s family at Karbala in 680 when Hussein – Muhammad’s grandson by his daughter Fatimah married to Ali – was hacked to death by the opposing army of Yazid ibn Mu’awiyah. These religious political quarrels irrevocably divided Muslims into the two main sects, the majority Sunni and the minority Shi’ite, and influenced the subsequent history of Islam and Muslims. It was in the context of this history, or this history looming in the background, that the compilation of the Qur’an, the writing of the Prophet’s early biographies and the
collection of his traditions in the making of Hadith occurred. And this history was only too recent when the four Sunni schools of law (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi and Hanbali) and the Shi’ite school (Ja’afari) were founded.

Any modern Muslim scholar has to consider, to be credible, how this early Islamic history has shaped subsequent narrative and understanding of his faith. This early history of Islam is burdened with sectarian controversy, and modern historiography and hermeneutics compound the controversy. Yet there are Muslim scholars who have not flinched in the face of controversy or worse to advance a richer understanding of their religious inheritance. But before I make reference to them here is a perspective of a formidable historian and critic of Islam even though he was a friend of Muslims and deeply respectful of their faith and culture.

It is not sufficient to affirm how Muslims accept the Qur’an as the Word of God, according to Wilfred Cantwell Smith (1916-2000), since the far greater majority of people do not. The question Smith posed in his Taylor Lectures at the Yale Divinity School for 1963 was “Is the Qur’an the Word of God?” Smith observed:

Those who have answered it ‘yes’ have taken the answer passionately. They have been willing to die for it; and what is perhaps more important, if one remarks that people may be stirred to die for many roseate causes, they have been willing to live for it too, to order their lives in accord with it, day after day, year in, year out, generation after generation, patterning their behaviour and controlling their choices and selecting their goals, and to persist, firmly but quietly – against both opposition and distraction, against both attack and indifference – in taking it seriously.
The other group, whose answer has been ‘no’, have in one sense shown no corresponding passion or fanfare. Yet their persistence has been hardly less steady; and the seriousness of their rejection, not really less. Their conviction has been just as firmly held that the answer is not only ‘no’, but is obviously ‘no’ – so obviously ‘no’ that the matter is not worth bothering about. The West’s very indifference to the question is a measure of the profundity of its assurance. Westerners allowed centuries to pass without going around busily asking themselves whether the Quran is the word of God, not because they did not have the time or were unconcerned, not because they thought that such issues did not matter (what could matter more?), but because at heart they took for granted that they knew very well what the answer was.
The question, then, is not a minor one. Nor are the groups that have answered it this way or that. It is no small band of eccentrics that holds this book to be God’s word; nor is the idea a passing fashion among some volatile crowd. Those who have held it are to be numbered in the many hundreds of millions. And as we have already remarked, it has continued to be held over wide parts of the world for century after changing century. Civilizations are not easy to construct, or to sustain; yet great civilizations have been raised on the basis of this conviction. Major cultures have sprung from it, winning the allegiance and inspiring the loyalty and shaping the dreams and eliciting the poetry of ages proud to bow before its manifest grandeur and, to them, limpid truth…
Equally impressive, however, have been those who have said ‘no’. They, too, are not negligible. They, too, are to be numbered in the hundreds or thousands of millions. They, too, have constructed great civilizations, have made great cultures dynamic. The outsider distorts his world if he fails to recognize what has been accomplished on earth by those inspired by the positive response. The Muslim distorts his, if he fails to appreciate the possibilities evidently open and beckoning to those who say ‘no’.

(On Understanding Islam. Delhi: Idarah-i-Adabiyat-Delli, 282-300.)

Smith’s question – “Is the Qur’an the Word of God?” – went beyond the differences between Muslims and non-Muslims on matters of faith, to how faith is constituted within a community and with what results. When members of any one faith community insist their understanding of truth is the only correct understanding, then this has less to do with truth in and of itself, and instead reflects the group psychology of that faith community.

The Qur’an is a historical document available to anyone; yet it is, as Smith reminded his audience, more than a text to some very large portion of people in the world, and to them, Muslims, it is a sacred text as the Word of God based on the authority of Muhammad as the Messenger of God. The sacredness of the Qur’an for Muslims is a matter of belief, where belief remains a priori to reasoning. Belief may be buttressed by reason; but reason is insufficient by itself to confirm faith, since it can neither prove nor disprove belief. Religious truth is not simply a subject of academic or scholarly discourse that may be assessed by a logical method for consistency and appeal; its test lies in the conduct of believers. An excellence of belief can only be judged by the excellence of conduct; hence a plurality of faiths does not obstruct good conduct, and the Qur’an instructs “excel in good deeds.” The matter of whether the Qur’an is, or is not, the Word of God might be set aside since it is a matter of belief; what matters, instead, is to assess, in response to the Word of God, how adequately or inadequately Muslims have contributed to the general welfare of mankind.

Muslim understanding of the Qur’an has varied and has been contentious. An early dispute arose over the question whether the Qur’an was created in time as God addressed Muhammad, or the Qur’an being eternal was uncreated and coeval with God. This dispute had far ranging implications for at its centre was the issue of revelation and reason. Those known as Mu’tazilah or rationalists took the view the Qur’an was created as God’s Word revealed to Muhammad. They believed humans were gifted with free will and this made us responsible and accountable on the day of reckoning. But the Mu’tazili or the rationalist school of thinking was declared heretical by the Muslim orthodoxy. The
orthodoxy took the Qur’an literally, and insisted only revelation, not reason and irrespective of any reasoning, instructed Muslims on what was good and what was forbidden. The orthodox victory over Mu’tazilah brought an end to independent reasoning among Muslims fearful of being charged with heresy. Islamic orthodoxy became the traditional consensus, and in holding it Muslims proceeded to build an Islamic civilization until eventually Europeans surpassed it.

In the shadow of the European civilization Muslims began questioning their history. It would invariably place their faith under scrutiny. In Egypt
Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849-1905), as did his teacher Jamal-ad-din “al Afghani” (1838-97), struggled to find harmony between revelation and reason; and in
India Sayyid Ahmed Khan (1817-1898), a contemporary of ‘Abduh, struggled similarly to reconcile faith with reason. But traditionalists remained firm despite the efforts of ‘Abduh, Khan and like-minded reformist Muslims.

In 1925 Ali ‘Abd al-Raziq (1888-1966) published al-Islam wa Usul al-Hukm (Islam and the Principles of Government). Al-Raziq was a student of ‘Abduh and his book took Egypt and the Muslim world by storm. He defended the abolition of the Caliphate on religious grounds, and contended Islam was exclusively a spiritual community and not a political doctrine. He wrote, “The truth is that Muslim religion has nothing to do with the caliphate, which the Muslims generally recognize.”

In India Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938), a contemporary of al-Raziq, questioned orthodoxy, and argued in favour of new thinking consistent with the modern world. In Iqbal’s view the Qur’an was about awakening man to his divinely gifted potential. He wrote, “Its main purpose, as I have said before, is to
awaken in man the higher consciousness of his relation with God and the universe.” Muslim modernists following ‘Abduh and Khan, al-Raziq and Iqbal, would venture further in the exegesis of the Qur’an believing that God’s Word being eternal could not be kept bound by the views of earlier generations of Muslims.

It is an old controversy whether the Qur’an was Muhammad’s fabrication or not. The Qur’an states, “Or do they say ‘He has fabricated it’? Say (to them)
‘Then bring ten suras like it, fabricated ones, and appeal to anyone you can, apart from God, if you are honest!’” (11:16). But the controversy persists. It is an article of faith for Muslims that the Qur’an is the Word of God. Indeed, before there was a text compiled of the revelation, there was only the Word of God as heard by Muhammad, and it was through Muhammad that the Word was received by others. Fazlur Rahman (1919-88), a Muslim scholar and philosopher of Indo-Pakistani origin, proposed a radical interpretation by pointing out that the pristine Qur’an was Muhammad’s divinely inspired speech before the ‘Uthmanic codex was compiled. This got him into deep trouble with the orthodoxy and he was forced into exile. Rahman wrote:

But orthodoxy (indeed, all medieval thought) lacked the necessary intellectual tools to combine in its formulation of the dogma the
otherness and verbal character of the Revelation on the one hand, and its intimate connection with the work and the religious personality of the Prophet on the other, i.e. it lacked the intellectual capacity to say both that the Qur’an is entirely the Word of God and, in an ordinary sense, also entirely the word of Muhammad. The Qur’an obviously holds both, for it insists that it has come to the ‘heart’ of the Prophet, how can it be external to him?

(Islam. Chicago University Press, 31.)

Rahman’s answer to the old question was bold, yet carefully formulated. Others, such as Ma’ruf al-Rusafi (1875-1945), Iraqi poet and literary critic and Ali Dashti (1896-1982), Iranian scholar, novelist and senator, were more direct in maintaining the Qur’an is the speech of Muhammad, inspired, eloquent, forceful and seemingly miraculous. If we view the Qur’an as Rahman suggests, or accept the views of al-Rusafi and Dashti, inconsistencies then can be explained in terms of Muhammad’s own struggle with the world around him, while he remained seized by the vision of God. This would explain such instances as the controversy surrounding the Satanic verses, references to Muhammad’s life in terms of his difficulties in marriages, the incident with Ayesha and the rumours floated that were insulting to him, the incident with the blind man, or his marriage to the divorced spouse of his adopted son, all of which raise the question why should such matters be found in the Qur’an as the Word of God eternally preserved. The orthodoxy holds to the belief that the eternity of the Qur’an meant that God knew ahead of time events in Muhammad’s life. The relevant verse of the Qur’an reads, “This is indeed a Glorious Qur’an, inscribed in a Tablet Preserved” (85:21). A modern reading of this verse might well be the Qur’an is eternally preserved in the hearts of men and women, as it was indeed in Muhammad’s heart, and generates God-consciousness or devotion in a believer. Muhammad’s occasional struggles with temptations or weakness of mind would then be instances of his inner conflict spoken truthfully as found recorded in the Qur’an.

We might imagine how Muhammad likely would have responded if told he was founding a new religion. The Qur’an repeatedly informs Muhammad was a messenger (rasul) bearing the primordial message of the Oneness of God. Moreover, the Qur’an reconfirmed for pagan Arabs stories told by Jews and Christians and with which they were familiar. Muhammad’s mission was to bring pagan Arabs into the fold of Abraham’s monotheism, and this mission was not unlike that of Paul who carried the good news of Jesus into the world of pagan Gentiles.

Some thirty years after the lecture Smith gave at the Yale Divinity School, he returned to thinking about the Qur’an as scripture. Smith wrote that “to
understand the Qur’an as scripture one must recognize it as scripture.” He insisted when Muslims take the Qur’an as scripture others should also take it as scripture when studying it, and not merely as another text. This was not simply a matter of politeness; it was about how to engage as an outsider with a religious tradition. And a scripture, any scripture, according to Smith, “means, what it in fact means, and has meant, to those for whom it has been meaningful.” Smith was a critic of the Enlightenment rationality when it came to religion, and he believed “the modern analytic mode of thinking has itself been inherently oriented away from human wholeness, and creativity, and synthesizing vision.” He wrote, “The real meaning of the Qur’an is not any one meaning but is a dynamic process of meanings, in variegated and unending flow.” Much earlier Iqbal had written, “The teaching of the Qur’an that life is a process of progressive creation necessitates that each generation, guided but unhampered by the work of its predecessors, should be permitted to solve its own problems.” Smith leaned towards post-modern epistemology as the search for meaning in texts instead of being confined by the authoritativeness of texts, and he came to agree with Iqbal.

Iqbal’s reading of the Qur’an was also reflective of his understanding as to why Islam as a civilization decayed. He believed Muslims deferred to their past history in an uncritical manner that crippled them intellectually, culturally and politically to confront the challenges facing them in the present. Muslims scholars in recent years have pushed deeper and further in the direction charted by Iqbal and his contemporaries.

There was Mohammed Arkoun (1928-2010), an Algerian who lived and taught in France, for whom “rethinking Islam” meant liberating Qur’anic discourse from the authority of the “Closed Official Corpus” of the Muslim community. Arkoun welcomed western critics’ question and examined the traditional study of Qur’an in terms of modern historiography, anthropology, sociology and deconstructed the dominant orthodox view that conflated traditional interpretation of the Qur’an with divine revelation. The authority of the past invariably becomes dogmatic and, Arkoun wrote, “dogmas become stakes in the game of politics.” In Egypt the non-traditional approach of ‘Abduh and al-Raziq was pushed further by Hasan Hanafi (b. 1935) and Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid (1943-2010) at great risks from activists of the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies. Nasr Hamid was declared an apostate and forced into exile in Holland with his wife. Nasr Hamid contended, as a hermeneutist, for differentiating between religion itself and human understanding of it. He maintained the Qur’an “is divine as revelation and human as interpretation.”

There is the Iranian thinker Abdolkarim Soroush (b. 1945), who took leave of Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime to pursue his studies in modern philosophy. Soroush has sought to distinguish between “Islam as identity” and “Islam as truth”; the former, he suggests, is a guise for cultural identity and a response to the “crisis of identity,” while the later refers to Islam as a repository of truth. He
writes,

[T]he latter can coexist with other truths; the former, however, is, by its very nature, belligerent and bellicose. It is the Islam of war, not the Islam of peace. Two identities would fight each other, while two truths would
cooperate.

(Reason, Freedom, and Democracy in Islam. Oxford University Press, 24)

Nasr Hamid and Soroush read the Qur’an as an open book wherein the colloquy of God is unending. This approach is also found in the work of Farid
Esack (b. 1959), a South African scholar of Islam. And such an approach brought Esack to an “advocacy of a South African qur’anic hermeneutic of religious pluralism for liberation.” Among women thinkers there is Fatema Mernissi (b. 1940), a Moroccan anthropologist, and her reading of the Qur’an has been to provide a feminist view in a world increasingly aware of itself in term of interdependent cultures. There is a common thread in this growing body of Muslim scholars which ties them together in the contemporary world of change and upheaval, of greater self-awareness among people of all nationalities in various socioeconomic situations, of cooperation and competition. This thread is their commitment to engage in ijtihad – the effort invested in independent reasoning – as the tool by which to maintain faith in their religious tradition, to draw spiritual nourishment and guidance from the Qur’an, and to help Muslim societies find their internal equilibrium in order to be at peace with others.

The historical Qur’an, in concluding, is a text that has history in terms of its compilation and how it is read and understood by successive generations of Muslims and non-Muslims. Before the Qur’an was compiled into a text It was, however, the Word of God spoken and recited by Muhammad. What has come down to us through fourteen centuries as compilation or mushaf are scratches on leaves of paper that can never be turned into the sound, the rhythm, the majesty of the Word declaimed by the Prophet to those around him. For if this could be
imagined it would be as if someone on reading a text of Enrico Caruso’s favourite aria could hear the tenor of his great voice soaring above an audience held in
rapture by his incomparable performance. The historic Qur’an is a text distinct from the revelation a Muslim recites, commits to memory, and which he believes draws him near by imitating Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, to the Lord of the Universe and Master of the Day of Reckoning whose mercy he seeks.

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Salim Mansur is a professor of Political Science at the University of Western Ontario (London).

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