Much of what Muslims believe is unique to the faith—such as Mohammed being the seal of prophets or besieged believers falling asleep for centuries in a cave—are ideas taken from other religious traditions. For example, centuries before the birth of Mohammed, the Iranian prophet Mani (d. 277 CE), founder of Manichaeism, synthesized elements of Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and even Buddhism to produce his own book of recitation/songs, “Psalms of Bema,” secluded himself in a cave and emerged with a “Book of Painting,” claiming to be the promised “Paraclete” in Christianity, a sort of seal of prophets.
The story of the “People of the Cave” is an older Roman Christian parable from the third century. The Seven Sleepers hide in a cave, near Ephesus in Turkey, to protect their faith during the persecutions of the Roman emperor Decius and end up sleeping for two centuries, awakening during the reign of Theodosius II and dying soon thereafter. Zoroastrian influences, Tom Holland shows in his book In the Shadow of the Sword (2012) shaped the new religion in surprising ways, too. They were the ones who introduced the execution of apostates, the five prayers and the use of the siwak, or toothbrush. (The Koran had assigned apostates to hell, required only three prayers, and made no mention of the siwak.)
Holland notes that the jizya (combining taxation with humiliation) is an old Roman practice, while the reference to Christians as nasara—perhaps the long vanished heretical sect of the Nazoreans, who believed that the Holy Spirit was Christ’s mother—has nothing to do with the prevailing orthodox church. Neither the church nor Jesus would have recognized themselves in the Koran. Maybe the nasara describes the even more ancient adherents of the Gospel of Basilides, who insisted that Christ was not killed or crucified but only appeared to be so. “The echoes of long-muted Christian heretics—of Gnostics and Nazoreans—are sufficiently loud in the [Koran],” comments Holland, “to make one wonder from where, if not from God, they might possibly have come.” Jewish influences are there aplenty, too. “The People of the Trench,” which perplexed interpreters for so long, could very well have been influenced by Jewish thought. The Dead Sea Scrolls refers to hell as “the Trench,” where the damned are consigned to fires. And images of paradise, with its lush pagan scenarios, may well hark back to ancient Greece and Rome. It’s just hard to imagine that such a text was revealed whole in Mecca.
By the dawn of the 7th century, monotheism was the main religion in most of the area, although paganism held its own in a few scattered places, especially in out-of-the-way deserts of Arabia—the ka’ba that Muslims circumambulate during the Hajj pilgrimage is a relic of the pagan reverence for cubes. Such places harbored all manner of heresies and religions.
There is no mention of the word goddess in the Koran, Holland further tells us, nor are pagan shrines or sanctuaries mentioned by name. There is no mention of idols and no archeological record, either. The detailed mention of livestock practices or of produce and vines certainly do not suggest the barren lands of Mecca. Neither does Islam’s obsession with trade. Therefore, it is not clear that pilgrimage to the “House” in Bekka, a “duty owed to God,” is actually in Mecca. Could it have been in in Persia? Was it a reference to the maqom in Mamre (oak tree and well where Abraham rested)? The Quraysh, whose wealthy members owned houses in Syria, could not have been from Mecca, since this kind home ownership was practically unknown in Roman annals. Maybe their name was a corruption of Caesar (qaysar), or shirkat (partnership), which, in Syriac, is qarisha.
The geography of the Koran doesn’t make much sense if we take the traditional accounts of its revelation literally. Moreover, as the scholar F. E. Peters reminds us in The Voice, the Word, the Books (2007), the Koran could not have been written during Mohammed’s time because we have no traces of literacy in 7th-century Mecca and Medina and there were no known tablets in Arabia. Poetry was a public performance and was transmitted orally; like the Koran, it was written down in the 9th to 10th-centuries. When that happened, it was the Arabic of northern Arabia, near Syria, that was used.
As noted in previous articles, the Koran’s literary structure strongly suggests an evolving, ad hoc process of composition. It is a collection of utterances attributed to Mohammed and, according to conventional accounts, arranged into a book in 650 by the caliph Uthman. The inconsistencies that remained in the text were attributed to the Prophet’s forgetfulness and that perennial scapegoat, Satan. And if this weren’t enough, God simply allows himself to abrogate meaning without canceling texts. There is nothing that cannot be fixed by the will of Allah.
Mohammed’s mission (22 years) may have been long compared to those of Jesus and Moses, but he only gets four mentions in the Koran. Sometimes, it seems as if he were the one who is speaking (such as in the sura of al-Fatiha); at most other times, it is either God speaking to humans through him, or God addressing Mohammed directly. In a way, the standard biographies of Mohammed, the siras, were designed to make sense of this complex text.
By the time Caliph Uthman tried to gather the Koranic texts into a book, there was still no “diacritical apparatus” (later borrowed from Syrian Christians) to help confer a more stable meaning on the document. It’s almost certain, F. E. Peters notes, that the Koran, in its current form, was far from being standardized at this point. Koranic inscriptions, dating to 690, found in the Dome of the Rock, as well as the Koranic manuscripts found in Sana` in Yemen, do not always match what’s in the “standard” text we have. This explains why the debate over the proper reading of the Koran, (qira’at) was still alive in the 10th century. The text remained in flux, however, until the Egyptian King Fuad’s commission settled on the “Hafs, from Asim” variation in the printed edition of 1923 or 1924.
Once written down, the mushaf turned into a sacred object, the terrestrial copy of a tablet preserved in heaven. Only those who are purified were allowed to touch it. In fact, a whole literature on purity (tahara) was developed to treat the scared text and other religious matters. Rules were devised on when to touch the Koran, what causes impurity and cancels rituals (such as prayer and pilgrimage), as Islam built its sacred edifice. A few others religions were duly noted, as the Koran recognizes all prophets before Mohammed—some 360,000, in one estimate. But because the tawrat (Torah) and the injil (Gospel) were tampered with (tahrif), Jews and Christians fall somewhere between unbelievers (kafirun) or polytheists (mushrikun) and true Muslims.
What F.E. Peters says about the Koran—covered here in an excessively condensed form—is part of his broader analysis of all three monotheistic scriptures, an analysis that requires far more space and attention to address properly. But what distinguishes the Koran from the other two scriptures is that it is the only one that “enjoys a self-conferred canonicity” and “anoints itself as both Revelation and Scripture.” The Koran, Jacques Ellul remarks in Islam et judéo-christianimse (2006), is supposed to be dictated, word for word, by God. The Bible (old and new), on the other hand, is inspired by the word of God but written by dozens of people in a give-and-take fashion. It is mostly a history book, or rather the history of God’s relations with his people. The difference between the texts of the Koran and Bible may explain the reason why a literature of Koranic criticism has been difficult to undertake by Muslims, for it amounts to tampering with the word of God, even though it is quite clear that the words of the Koran were heavily edited by human hands.
Much remains to be known about the textual history of the Koran. In fact, despite the tremendous noise Islam generates everywhere, we haven’t even begun scratching the surface of its history yet. “We cannot tell when the sura divisions were introduced or who gave them their present names, which we know were not the only ones in circulation. This ignorance extends to many other areas of the text,” writes F. E. Peters. The history of the Koran “is chiefly, and very defectively, written from later literary texts about the [Koran]. And even these traditions are uncertain about many things, on how or why the names were attached to the suras or why twenty-nine of the suras open with a series of “mysterious letters” or what those letters mean.”
Will the doors of the ijtihad open to this vital field?