Koranic Criticism: 700 C.E. to 825 C.E.
by Ibn Warraq (Oct. 2007)
Muslim scholars themselves, particularly acute and brilliant commentators like Zamakshari, Tabari, and al-Suyuti, made important observations on the Koran but they were all, of course, working within the Islamic framework, and thus were severely limited in their conclusions. Philosophers, deists, agnostics, atheists and zindiks such as al-Razi, al-Warraq and al-Rawandi, and sects considered heretical such as the Muta`zilites and the Ismailis also made valuable contributions but it would be absurd to expect them to look at the Koran in its historical, linguistic, and Middle Eastern sectarian milieu - in its Semitic, Aramaic and Monotheist background.
I am not sure that we can talk of scientific research on the Koran before the pioneering works of Theodor Noldeke [† 1930], Ignaz Goldziher [† 1921], Gustav Weil [† 1889], August Fischer [† 1949], Jacob Barth [† 1914] and Abraham Geiger [† 1874], among others, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The latter illustrious scholars brought to the study of the Koran a width and breadth of learning, knowledge of several Semitic languages, scientific rigor and a skeptical attitude essential in any scientific enterprise, lacking up to then, and which has scarcely been equaled since.
However, there were a number of doctrinal encounters between Islam on the one hand, and Christianity and Judaism on the other, between Muslims and Non-Muslims from the birth of Islam to the nineteenth century which resulted in critiques of the Koran, albeit charged with polemical intent, often seen within a corresponding Christian framework. These criticisms are worth examining, as they can be seen as precursors to later theories concerning the origins of the Koran.
A Monk of Beth Hale and an Arab Notable, Eighth Century C.E.
The disputation between a monk of Beth Hale and an Arab Notable found in two, only recently published, manuscripts in Eastern Syriac, the text of which has been very tentatively dated to sometime after 710 C.E., has a remarkable exchange.
The Arab asks: “What is the reason that you adore the cross when he [Jesus] did not give you such a commandment in his Gospel?”
The monk replies, “I think that for you, too, not all your laws and commandments are in the Quran which Muhammad taught you from the Quran, and some are in surat albaqrah and in gygy and in twrh. So also we, some commandments our Lord taught us, some the Holy Spirit uttered through the mouths of its servants the Apostles, and some [were made known to us] by means of teachers who directed and showed us the Way of Life and the Path of Light.”
Evidently, our monk considers Sura al-Baqrah to be a separate source of Islamic law from the Quran. In the Western Syriac legend of Bahira, the same sura appears as the name of the whole book, with no mention of a Quran: “the book was called surah al-baqrah.” Even an Arab historian, Ibn Sa`d, has Abbas call his men to arms at the battle of Hunayn with the cry, “O followers of the Chapter of the Cow” – “Ya ashab surat al-baqara.” As for gygy and twrh, very probably the Gospel [Injil] and the Torah [Tawrah] are meant. The Monk of Beth Hale also claims that Muhammad learnt his monotheism from “Sargis Bahira.”
The story of the monk Bahira is found in Syriac, Christian Arabic, Latin, Armenian and Hebrew versions. (Of course, we also have the tale of the monk who bore witness to the prophethood of Muhammad in Ibn Ishaq`s life of the Prophet, and Tabari’s history.) The Muslim version was developed by Christian authors, who add that the monk wrote for Muhammad a scripture, which is sometimes called the Surah al Baqarah and sometimes the Quran in the Syriac versions, and Furqan in the Arabic.
The Arabic and Syriac recensions of the Bahira legend cannot pre-date the late ninth century, though it seems certain that some form of the tale was in circulation long before that.
John Of Damascus: Eighth Century C.E.
John of Damascus, probably writing in the 730’s, was a priest and a monk, and perhaps worked for a while as a senior official in the Muslim government. His principle work is the Fount of Knowledge which defends the orthodox faith and which contains a chapter on Islam in the section called Of Heresies. However, it is not certain that this chapter, so different from the others in style and length, was indeed by John. It is still, nonetheless, considered to have been written in the 730’s.
Of Heresies tells us that:
“So until the times of Heraclius they [the Saracens, Hagarenes or Ishmaelites] were plain idolaters. From that time till now a false prophet appeared among them, surnamed Muhammad [Mamed], who, having happened upon the Old and the New Testament and apparently having conversed, in like manner, with an Arian monk, put together his own heresy. And after ingratiating himself with the people by a pretence of piety, he spread rumours of a scripture [graphe] brought down to him from heaven. So, having drafted some ludicrous doctrines in his book, he handed over to them this form of worship [te sebas].”
De haeresibus continues with this attack on the Quran.
“This Muhammad, as it has been mentioned, composed many frivolous tales, to each of which he assigned a name, like the text [graphe] of the Woman, in which he clearly prescribes the taking of four wives and one thousand concubines, if it is possible [a variant of the story of Zayd follows, a clear allusion to, though not identical with, Quran XXXIII.37] …. Another is the text of the Camel of God [story of Salih`s camel; an allusion to Quran XCI.11-14, VII.77] …. You say that in paradise you will have three rivers flowing with water, wine and milk [Cf. Quran XLVII.15] …. Again Muhammad mentions the text of the Table. He says that Christ requested from God a table and it was given to him, for God, he says, told him: 'I have given to you and those with you an incorruptible table.' Again, he mentions the text of the Cow and several other foolish and ludicrous things which, because of their number, I think I should pass over."
This text, whoever the author, also presents quite accurately the Muslim view of Christ. Hoyland thinks that “these and many other allusions to, and even direct quotations from, the Quran interspersed throughout the chapter demonstrate that the author had access to that work.” What Hoyland fails to note is that not once does the author of the chapter talk of or mention the Koran by name. This is surely of some significance. Of course, a revisionist who did not accept that the Koran existed in its final form until the late eighth or early ninth century, would either deny the authenticity of the chapter or its dating to the 730’s. Even if he accepted its dating, he would argue that the fact the Koran is not named shows that it did not yet exist in its final form, though the accurate references to the contents of the Koran show parts of it must have existed even in the eighth century.
The Correspondence of Leo III [717-41] and Umar II [717 -20]: Late Eighth Century to Early Ninth Century, C.E.
The textual history of the correspondence between Leo III and Umar II is very complicated indeed. Some of the material is very probably of the late eighth / early ninth century. The arguments between Leo and Umar throw up some fascinating problems which have never been satisfactorily resolved. One concerns the Paraclete.
“We recognize,” writes Leo in the version recorded by Ghevond, “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as the authors of the Gospel, and yet I know that this truth, recognized by us Christians wounds you, so that you seek to find accomplices for your lie. In brief, you admit that we say that it was written by God, and brought down from the heavens, as you pretend for your Furqan, although we know that it was `Umar, Abu Turab and Salman the Persian, who composed that, even though the rumor has got round among you that God sent it down from heavens…. [God] has chosen the way of sending [the human race] Prophets, and it is for this reason that the Lord, having finished all those things that He had decided on beforehand, and having fore-announced His incarnation by way of His prophets, yet knowing that men still had need of assistance from God, promised to send the Holy Spirit, under the name of Paraclete, (Consoler), to console them in the distress and sorrow they felt at the departure of their Lord and Master. I reiterate, that it was for this cause alone that Jesus called the Holy Spirit the Paraclete, since He sought to console His disciples for His departure, and recall to them all that he had said, all that He had done before their eyes, all that they were called to propagate throughout the world by their witness. Paraclete thus signifies "consoler", while Muhammad means "to give thanks", or "to give grace", a meaning which has no connection whatever with the word Paraclete.”
As Jeffery justly remarks, the Koran itself gives clues that some of Muhammad`s contemporaries knew he had informants of another faith giving him some of his material. For example, at Koran XXV.4-5, we read: “Those who disbelieve say, ‘This is nothing but a lie that he has forged, and others have helped him at it.’ In truth it is they who have put forward an iniquity and a falsehood. And they say, ‘Tales of the ancients, which he has caused to be written: and they are dictated before him morning and evening.’”
We may note that the Muslim’s scripture is here referred to as the Furqan, and not the Koran. The former term and its cognates appear several times in the Koran, and is the title of Sura XXV. Arabic commentators are puzzled by this word and take it to mean “discrimination, distinction, separation” or “criterion [of right and wrong],” or the Koran itself. But Heger has shown very convincingly that it is derived from the Syriac, and should be taken to be mean “redemption, salvation” in the Christian sense. Thus, Sura XXV. 1 is interpreted by Heger as a Christian verse on Jesus Christ meaning, "Blessed be He, who sent down the redemption on His servant that he might become a sacrifice for the (two) worlds.”
Umar was the second Caliph. Abu Turab is Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law and the fourth Caliph. The treatise Contra Muhammad which is printed at the end of Bartholomew of Edessa`s Elenchus et Confutatio Agareni also speaks of Ali as the person through whom the Koran was put into circulation. Salman the Persian is a legendary figure, with many fantastic stories attached to his name. However, as one scholar put it, “In reality, the historical personality of Salman is of the vaguest and it is with difficulty that one can even admit that his legend is based on the actual fact of the conversion of a Medina slave of Persian origin.” At any rate, it is this legend that connects him with the production of the Koran.
Now we come to potentially the most interesting part of Leo’s letter concerning the Paraclete. Muslims have often claimed that the promise of the Paraclete found in John XIV, 16, 26, XV, 26, XVI, 7 is fulfilled in Muhammad. Muslims point to the following verse in the Koran to clinch their argument,
LXI.6: And when Jesus son of Mary, said, "O Children of Israel, I am the messenger of Allah to you, confirming the Torah, now present, and announcing a messenger to come after me, whose name is Ahmad [or “The Praised One”].”
The name Ahmad is from the same root as the name Muhammad, both meaning “the praised one,” which in Greek would be periklutos. The Muslim claim is that this Koranic passage is a clear reference to John XIV, XV and XVI:
Greek NT - Textus Receptus 1550/1894. John 14:16 kai egw erwthsw ton patera kai allon paraklhton dwsei umin ina menh meq umwn ei~ ton aiwna
King James Version [KJV]: John 14:16: And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter [paraklhton, accusative of paraklhto~] that he may abide with you for ever.
Greek NT - Textus Receptus John 14:26: o de paraklhto~ to pneuma to agion o pemyei o pathr en tw onomati mou ekeino~ uma~ didaxei panta kai upomnhsei uma~ panta a eipon umin
KJV: John 14:26: But the Comforter [paraklhto~], which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.
Greek NT - Textus Rec. John 15:26: tan de elqh o paraklhto~ on egw pemyw umin para tou patro~ to pneuma th~ alhqeia~ o para tou patro~ ekporeuetai ekeino~ marturhsei peri emou
KJV: John 15:26: But when the Comforter [paraklhto~] is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me.
Greek NT - Textus Rec. John 16:7: all egw thn alhqeian legw umin sumferei umin ina egw apelqw ean gar mh apelqw o paraklhto~ ouk eleusetai pro~ uma~ ean de poreuqw pemyw auton pro~ uma~.
KJV. John 16:7: Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away:
for if I go not away, the Comforter [paraklhto~] will not come unto
you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you.
In Catholic theology, the Paraclete, or Comforter (Latin: Consolator), is an appellation of the Holy Ghost. The Greek word which, as a designation of the Holy Ghost, occurs only in St. John, has been variously translated “advocate,” “intercessor,” “teacher,” “helper,” or “comforter.” At any rate, Paraclete is far removed from the meaning “the praised one.” Which, strictly speaking, as we have already noted, would be perikluto~, periklutos in Greek.
In the Sira, the biography of the Prophet, written by Ibn Ishaq, we have a quote from the Gospel of St. John that is relevant for us:
“Among the things which have reached me about what Jesus the Son of Mary stated in the Gospel which he received from God for the followers of the Gospel, in applying a term to describe the apostle of God, is the following. It is extracted from what John [Yuhannis] the apostle set down for them when he wrote the Gospel for them from the Testamant of Jesus Son of Mary: ‘He that hateth me hateth the Lord. And if I had not done in their presence works which none other before me did, they had not had sin: but from now they are puffed up with pride and think that they will overcome me and also the Lord. But the word that is in the Law must be fulfilled, 'They hated me without a cause' (ie. without reason). But when the Comforter [Munahhemana] has come whom God will send to you from the Lord's presence, and the spirit of truth [ruhu`l-qist] which will have gone forth from the Lord's presence he (shall bear) witness of me and ye also, because ye have been with me from the beginning. I have spoken unto you about this that you should not be in doubt.’
“The Munahhemana (God bless and preserve him!) in Syriac is Muhammad; in Greek he is the Paraclete [Albaraqlitis ]”
Alfred Guillaume has very convincingly argued that Ibn Ishaq must have had access to a Palestinian Syriac Lectionary of the Gospels:
“It will be apparent to the reader that Ibn Ishaq is quoting from some Semitic version of the Gospels, otherwise the significant word munahhemana could not have found a place there. This word is not to be found in the Peshitta version [Syriac version of the Bible], and in the Eastern patristic literature…it is applied to our Lord Himself. Furthermore the Peshitta, Old Syriac, and Philoxenian versions all write the name of John in the form Yuhanan, not in the Greek form Yuhannis found in the Arabic text. Accordingly to find a text of the Gospels from which Ibn Ishaq could have drawn his quotation we must look for a version which differs from all others in displaying these characteristics. Such a text is the Palestinian Syriac Lectionary of the Gospels which will conclusively prove that the Arabic writer had a Syriac text before him which he, or his informant, skilfully manipulated to provide the reading we have in the Sira.
“ …Apart from the spelling of the name Johannes …the renderings of Paracletus and Spiritus veritatis are crucial. It has long been recognized that the Palestinian Syriac Lectionary has been strongly influenced by Jewish Aramaic and nowhere is this more perceptible than in their rendering of Paraclete which the Syriac Versions and the Vulgate simply transliterate, preserving the original Greek term as the English Bible in some places. The word Paraclete has been 'naturalized' in Talmudic Literature and therefore it is strange that the Syriac translators of the Lectionary should have gone out of their way to introduce an entirely new rendering, which given its Hebrew meaning has, by a strange coincidence, the meaning 'Comforter' of the English Bible ….But in ordinary Syriac no such meaning is known. There menahhemana means ‘life-giver’ and especially one who raises from the dead, while nuhama stands for resurrection in John XI.24, 25. Obviously this cannot be the meaning of our Lord’s words in the passage before us. What is meant is one who consoles and comforts people for the loss of one dear to them, their advocate and strengthener, a meaning attested by numerous citations in Talmudic and Targumic dictionaries.
"Secondly for spiritus veritatis the best MSS of Ibn Ishaq have ruhu `l-qist, which later writers have gratuitously altered to ruhu `l-quds. But qist is not truth, but rather 'equity' or 'justice'. Whence, then, came the word? There is no authority for it in the Old Syriac or Peshitta which read correctly sherara. Again the answer is to be found in the Lectionary which has ruh d`qushta, the correct meaning in Jewish Aramaic."
It is worth noting that Schulthess in his Palestinian Syriac Lexicon gives the secondary meaning of “to Console, comfort” for nHem, naHHem.
Guillaume`s discovery is of enormous importance, since it lends credence to Christoph Luxenberg’s theory that the Koran must have emerged out of a Syriac Christian milieu. Guillaume has conclusively shown that Ibn Ishaq must have had access and recourse to Syriac Christian texts. Luxenberg's argument is even more radical, suggesting that the original text of the Koran may well have been in Syriac, and then badly translated into Arabic by those with a shaky grasp of Syriac.
Coming back to the term “Ahmad,” Muslims have suggested that Ahmad is the translation of periklutos, celebrated or the Praised One, which is a corruption of parakletos, the Paraclete of John XIV, XV and XVI. This is, of course, dismissed by all Christians and most Western scholars.
Muhammad was clearly taken as the Paraclete by Ibn Ishaq, and yet he does not avail himself of the opportunity to refer to Sura LXI.6 (see above). Ibn Ishaq [† 767] and Ibn Hisham [† 833 or 828] must have known the Koran intimately, and surely a quote from LXI.6 would have clinched their argument. This seems to imply, argue Bishop and Guthrie, that they knew nothing “about the surmised reading of periklutos for parakletos, and its possible rendering as Ahmad ….Periklutos does not come into the picture as far as Ibn Ishaq and Ibn Hisham are concerned. The deception is not theirs. The opportunity to introduce Ahmad was not accepted -though it is highly improbable that they were aware of it being a possible rendering of Periklutos. It would have clinched the argument to have followed the Johannine references with a Quranic quotation.” Therefore, they must not have had the same version of the Qur’an we have today.
Bishop and Guthrie quote Bell’s rendering of LXI.6 and develop an intriguing argument:
Bell: “And when Jesus son of Mary, said: ‘O Children of Israel I am Allah’s messenger to you, confirming the Torah which was before me, and announcing the good tidings of a messenger who will come after me, bearing the name Ahmad.’ Then, when he came to them with evidences, they said, ‘This is magic manifest.’”
Now Guthrie and Bishop:
“It is not clear to whom the pronoun ‘he’ refers in the concluding sentence. Bell says ‘probably Jesus,’ but ‘sometimes taken to refer to the promised messenger who is identified with Muhammad.’ Secondly, and in consequence the intervening words, ‘bearing the name Ahmad,’ are grammatically superfluous. They do not help to make the pronominal reference any clearer as to who it was whose Evidences were greeted as magic. Without the clause about Ahmad the context would appear to demand that it was Jesus rather than the next ‘messenger’ who was intended. Whether we maintain the usual reading or adopt that of ‘magician’ (as read by Ibn Masud and others), the charge of sorcery generally would seem as true to the Jewish calumnies in the Fourth Gospel as to the somewhat similar charges brought against Muhammad. In any case it was the Banu Isra'il to whom both Jesus and the ‘messenger’ came, and who regarded the mission as ‘sorcery.’ Once more, if we omit the phrase, ‘bearing the name Ahmad,’ and regard Muhammad as still drawing lessons from previous history, the dubious passage might refer to what happened at Pentecost, and other incidents recorded in the earlier chapters of the Acts. With the absence of any claim on this passage either by Ibn Ishaq or Ibn Hisham, may we go further and suggest that the two Arabic words rendered by Dr Bell, ‘bearing the name Ahmad,’ are an interpolation to be dated after the death of Muhammad.”
However, as Professor Watt pointed out, surely a more obvious interpolation would have been Muhammad. Watt argues rather that for the first century or so of Islam the word ahmadu was regarded not as a proper name but as a simple adjective. “The absence of Ahmads during the early period thus gives rise to a strong presumption that there were none or practically none, and that the name was not in use. …Muslim boys did not begin to receive the name of Ahmad (as commemorating the Prophet) until about 125 A.H. [circa 742 C.E.].” The clause in Sura LXI.6 would then read, “announcing the good tidings of a messenger who will come after me whose name is more worthy of praise.” As Watt suggests, this might be a confused reference to the words “greater works than these shall he do” John XIV 12. If, however, ahmadu is taken to mean more attributive of praise, there might be a reference to the words “He shall glorify me,” John XVI.14.
Watt argues that the standard interpretation of the words ismu-hu ahmadu was not accepted by Muslims until after the first half of the second Islamic century [ninth century C.E.], referring to the fact “that al-Tabari [† 923] in his Commentary on LXI.6, though himself giving the orthodox interpretation, is unable to quote any earlier commentator as authority for it. As he is in the habit of giving strings of authorities for very slight matters, it is reasonable to suppose that he knew of no reputable exegete who had held what was in his time the standard and obvious view.”
Watt tells us that the identification of Muhammad with the Paraclete may be historically independent of any use of the name Ahmad. "The course of events may now be reconstructed as follows. In order to meet Christian criticisms of Islam some Muslims were looking for predictions of Muhammad in the Christian scriptures and noticed the passages about the Paraclete in John XIV-XVI. One of the arguments they adduced to support the identification of Muhammad with the Paraclete was that of the similarity of meaning (which is based on the confusion of parakletos with periklutos). When Sura LXI.6 was read with such a view in mind, the connection between Muhammad and Ahmad would readily be seen, even though ahmadu at this time was normally taken as an adjective.”
I am not sure that Professor Watt has solved all the problems. And of course he has left the central coincidence, that of the similarity of meaning between Ahmad and Muhammad, and the closeness of the two words parakletos and periklutos. He claims that Ahmad was very rare indeed as a proper name, and yet it is readily adopted, Watt claims, as the name of Muhammad once Muslims see the word in Sura LXI.6. Al-Tabari [† 923 C.E.] does not give any early sources for the identification of Ahmad with Muhammad, and yet Watt quotes Ibn Sa’d [† 845 C.E.] as citing three traditions to the effect that the Prophet’s name was Ahmad. There is no mention of Ahmad in Ibn Ishaq, and yet Ahmad is identified as Muhammad in Ibn Hisham.
I believe the only coherent explanation of this problem is to see it outside the Muslim tradition altogether. The Koranic text LXI.6 is very probably a Christian text that pre-dates Muhammad, and ahmadu must indeed be seen as an adjective, and the whole verse is indeed either a translation of John XIV.12 or of John XVI.14, very probably from the Syriac. The name “Muhammad” may well have been adopted after this passage in a pre-Islamic Christian text. In other words, the person we know as the prophet "Muhammad" may well have had another name,- in some sources he bears the name "Qutham"- or are we, in fact, dealing with a totally fictitious character?
Again Leo, in Ghevond’s text, argues, “As for your (book), you have already given us examples of such falsifications, and one knows, among others, of a certain Hajjaj, named by you as Governor of Persia, who had men gather up your ancient books, which he replaced by others composed by himself, according to his taste, and which he propagated everywhere in your nation, because it was easier by far to undertake such a task among people speaking a single language. From this destruction, nevertheless, there escaped a few of the works of Abu Turab, for Hajjaj could not make them disappear completely.”
The contribution of Hajjaj to the composition, redaction and dissemination of the Koran is often alleged in Christian / Muslim disputations. The Christian Al-Kindi (not to be confused with the philosopher) possibly writing in the 9th Century at the court of Al-Mamun, also made this allegation, as did Abraham of Tiberias. But as Jeffery points out, we cannot dismiss these stories just as pieces of Christian polemic since “we know from Ibn ‘Asakir [1105-1176 C.E.] that one of al-Hajjaj’s claims to fame was his being instrumental in giving the Qur’an to the people, and from Ibn Duqmaq [c.1349-1406 C.E.] we know of the commotion in Egypt when a Codex from those which al-Hajjaj had had officially written out to be sent to the chief cities of the Muslim Empire, reached that country. As there were stories about al-Hajjaj being connected with the earliest attempts at putting diacritical marks in the Qur’anic text to make its readings more certain (Ibn Khallikan I, 183 quoting Abu Ahmad al-‘Askari), and also with the earliest attempts at dividing the text into sections (Ibn Abi Dawud , Kitab al-Masahif ), it might be suggested that this recension of his was merely an improved edition of the Uthmanic text, which he had had sent out as the edition to be officially used. Such a suggestion would also suit the story in the as yet unprinted Mushkil of Ibn Qutaiba, that he ordered the destruction of all the Codices representing a text earlier than that canonized by Uthman, and with his well-known enmity towards the famous text of Ibn Masud (Ibn Asakir, IV, 69; Ibn al-Athir. Chronicon, IV, 463). In Ibn Abi Dawud (pp.49, 117), however, we have a list of eleven passages, on the authority of no less a person than Abu Hatim as-Sijistani, where our present text is said to be that of al-Hajjaj, arrived at by tampering with the earlier text. It would thus seem that some revision of the text, as well as clarification by division and pointing, was undertaken by al-Hajjaj, and that this was known to the Christians of that day, and naturally exaggerated by them for polemical purposes. As this work would seem to have been done by al-Hajjaj during his period of office under the Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik b.Marwan, who died in 86 A.H./ 705 C.E., there is no difficulty in supposing that Leo may have heard of it during his official life in Syria."
Elsewhere Jeffery points to the tradition quoted in Ibn Khallikan and Ibn Jinni of “a Codex belonging to al-Hajjaj.”
Given the wealth of evidence of al-Hajjaj’s contribution to the redaction of the Koran, it is astonishing that there is no mention of him in Burton’s The Collection of the Quran. There is just a cursory nod to the possibility of al-Hajjaj being responsible for the diacritical marks in Watt / Bell. The division of the Koran into separate ajza and the introduction of vowel points may be due to al-Hajjaj are mentioned in the second edition of Noldeke’s Geschichte des Qorans, though no greater role is accorded to him.
By contrast, Paul Casanova in his most underrated Mohammed et la fin du monde (Paris 1911-24) considers that the recension of al-Hajjaj existed whereas that of Uthman is but a fable.
The Apology, Risala, Of Al -Kindi, The Christian: Ninth Century C.E.
As Casanova said, in the history of Koranic criticism the highest place must be accorded to al-Kindi. However there is serious disagreement as to the date when al-Kindi wrote his defense of Christianity in the form of a letter to his Muslim friend al-Hashimi. William Muir takes the date to be 830 C.E., Louis Massignon thinks it must be later than 912 C.E., Paul Kraus concludes that the letter must have been composed at the beginning of the 10th century, and finally Pasteur Georges Tartar arrives at a date somewhere between 819 and 825 C.E.
Whatever the precise date, al-Kindi’s work is remarkable since, as Massignon notes, “it contains the first known outline of a critical history of the gradual formation of the present text of the Koran.” Al-Kindi claims that “a Christian monk called Sergius, who later changed his name to Nestorius to indicate his doctrinal leanings, reached Mecca and taught Muhammad the rudiments of Christianity, albeit of a Nestorian variety. At the Christian monk’s premature death, Muhammad came under the influence of two conniving Jews, Abd Allah b.Sallam and Ka’b. At Muhammad’s death, the two Jews almost succeeded in persuading Ali b.Abi Talib to assume the mantle of the Prophet. It was only when Abu Bakr reminded Ali of his oath of allegiance to Muhammad that Ali renounced any claims to prophethood. The two Jews got hold of the book that Ali had inherited from Muhammad, and which essentially reflected Christian teachings as found in the Gospels. The Jews slyly introduced various narratives from the Old Testament, a certain number of laws found there, fables from their own land, as well as contradictions, and accounts of miracles so that anyone who looked at the result would immediately recognize that several different people were speaking, and that they contradicted one another. They added Surahs such "The Bee"  and "The Spider", and many other similar texts.
“When Abu Bakr wondered what Ali had been up to after the death of the Prophet, Ali replied that he had been busy gathering together and editing the book of God just as Muhammad had advised him to do. But you [i.e. recipient of the letter, al-Hashimi] know perfectly well that al-Hajjaj also collected together the sacred texts [of the Koran] and that he suppressed much that was in it originally.
“However, you lost soul! [al-Hashimi], one does not cobble together the Book of God, nor does one suppress things from it. Your own historians tell us that the first manuscript of the Koran was with the Qurayshites. Ali seized it, wishing to protect it from additions and suppressions. This collection was imbued with the spirit of the Gospels, as transmitted by Nestorius, whom Muhammad referred to sometimes as the angel Gabriel and sometimes as ‘the faithful spirit.’
“Abu Bakr claimed that he also possessed parts of the holy scripture, and suggested to Ali that they put their two collections together to form the Book of God. Ali agreed and they gathered texts that people had learnt by heart such as Sura Bara’a , they recovered texts written on leaves, bits of wood, branches of palms, bones of shoulder blades, etc. The text was not collected into a single volume; there were leaves and rolls similar to those of the Jews.
“People were reading differently from one another. Some were reading the text of Ali, that is to say his family and friends. Others from the desert were complaining that they had one verse less or one verse more. No one knew why certain verses were revealed. Even others had access to the reading of Ibn Masud ….Others followed the reading of Ubayy b.Kab, though in fact the latter’s reading was similar to the reading of Ibn Masud….It got to such a state that some were afraid that people would soon start killing each other over such and such reading, and the book [the Koran] would be permanently changed, and that people would eventually apostasize if Uthman did not do something about it.
“Uthman sent out men to gather all the rolls and parchments but would not have anything to do with Ali’s recension. When Ibn Masud refused to hand over his recension, he was exiled far from Kufa. They set their sights on Abu Musa al-Ashari, and ordered Zayd b.Thabit and Ibn Abbas to take charge of the editing of all the texts assembled. The latter two were told that if they disagreed on any point of grammar or pronunciation to write according to the language of the Quraysh, which is what they did.
“Eventually a recension was established, four copies were made and sent to Mecca, Medina, Damascus, and Kufa respectively. Uthman had all the other remaining recensions, manuscripts, texts, anthologies, and rolls destroyed.
“All that remained of the original text was bits and pieces. Some said that the original text of Sura al-Nur  was longer than Sura al-Baqara . Sura al-Ahzab  was truncated and is incomplete; between the Suras al-Anfal  and al-Bara`at , there was no separation, which explains why there is no formula ‘In the name of God the Merciful, the Compassionate’ between the two. Finally, Ibn Masud is said to have rejected the last two Suras [113,114]. According to Umar, no one should claim that the verses on Stoning [for adultery] or temporary marriage [al-mut`a] was not [originally] found in the Book of God.
“Then there was the contribution of al-Hajjaj to the editing of the Koran. He added and suppressed verses, and had six copies made of his recension and sent to Egypt, Damascus, Medina, Mecca, Kufa and Basra. As to the other collections, like Uthman, al-Hajjaj had them destroyed.
“Thus it is clear that your book [Koran] has been tampered with by many hands, each person adding or suppressing or changing what he wanted, causing discrepancies ….You [al-Hashimi] know of the enmity between Ali, Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman; each of them interpolated into the Koran whatever favoured his own claims. In which case how can we distinguish between the genuine and the inauthentic? Al-Hajjaj also added and subtracted at will. You know perfectly well what kind of a man he was, so how can you possibly have confidence in him as to the Book of God, or believe in his honesty when he was always searching ways of pleasing the Umayyads? Added to all that, the Jews meddled in the business with the aim of destroying Islam….
“Furthermore, all we have said comes from your own authorities, who are worthy, according to yourselves, of confidence ….We have the Koran itself as evidence of the truth of what your authorities speak of, for it is made up of such disparate bits and pieces, without system or order, an inconsistent text, with verses contradicting one another….The existence of foreign words in the Koran is further evidence that diverse hands have tampered with the text, and shows that it was not ‘sent down in the Arabic tongue.’ Thus this book far from being inimitable is broken in rhythm, confused in its composition with meaningless flights of fancy. Nor was the Arabic tongue an appanage of the Quraysh, other tribes spoke more eloquently and nobly than they.”
I think by any standard the above is a remarkable critique of the Koran. And if it really dates from the ninth century, it surely has important consequences for the study of the history of the Koran text; the earlier the date, the more we need to ask the source of al-Kindi’s acute observations. We note the recurrent theme of al-Hajjaj’s hand in the compilation, even the rewriting of parts of it. The Risala or Risalah of al-Kindi was enormously influential throughout the Middle Ages when it was translated into Latin, and frequently used in anti-Islamic polemic, and Koranic criticism.
To be continued.