by Ibn Warraq (Dec. 2007)
[This is part three in a three-part series on Koranic exegesis. Part one is here and part two is here]
It was Gustav Weil in his Mohammed der prophet, sein Leben und sein Lehre (
However, his access to the primary sources was very limited, though he did manage to get hold of a manuscript of the oldest extant biography of the Prophet by Ibn Hisham; but it is only some years later with the discovery and publication of the works of Ibn Sa’d, Al-Tabari, and the edition of Ibn Hisham in 1858 by G.Wustenfeld, that scholars had the means for the first time to critically examine the sources of the rise of Islam and the life of its putative founder Muhammad. Weil translated Ibn Hisham into German in 1864. Waqidi’s Kitab al Maghazi was edited in 1856 by Alfred von Kremer, and printed at
The biography of the Prophet made great advances in the writings of Sir William Muir, Aloys Sprenger, and Theodor Noldeke.
Muir’s “Life of Mahomet” appeared in four volumes between 1856 and 1861. It is worth examining Muir’s methodological assumptions since they seem to have been shared by many Islamologists to the present time. Muir brought a highly critical mind to bear on the hitherto recalcitrant material on the life of the Apostle of God. He recognized the purely legendary nature of much of the details, he realized the utter worthlessness of the tales contributed by the storytellers, and he was equally skeptical of the absolute value of the Traditions, “…Even respectably derived traditions often contained much that was exaggerated and fabulous.” Muir then continues by quoting Weil approvingly, “Reliance upon oral traditions, at a time when they were transmitted by memory alone, and every day produced new divisions among the professors of Islam, opened up a wide field for fabrication and distortion. There was nothing easier, when required to defend any religious or political system, than to appeal to an oral tradition of the Prophet. The nature of these so-called traditions, and the manner in which the name of Mohammad was abused to support all possible lies and absurdities, may be gathered most clearly from the fact that Al-Bukhari who travelled from land to land to gather from the learned the traditions they had received, came to conclusion, after many years’ sifting, that out of 600,000 traditions, ascertained by him to be then current, only 4000 were authentic! And of this selected number, the European critic is compelled without hesitation to reject al least one-half.” [Weil, Gesch.Chalifen, ii. 290; I .Kh. ii. 595] 
A little later, Muir passes an even more damning judgment on traditions, while written records would have fixed “the terms in which the evidence was given; whereas tradition purely oral is affected by the character and habits, the associations and the prejudices, of each witness in the chain of repetition. No precaution could hinder the commingling in oral tradition of mistaken or fabricated matter with what at the first may have been trustworthy evidence. The floodgates of error, exaggeration, and fiction were thrown open; …” 
Muir even takes Sprenger to task for being too optimistic about our ability to correct the bias of the sources, “It is, indeed, the opinion of Sprenger that ‘although the nearest view of the Prophet which we can obtain is at a distance of one hundred years, ‘and although this long vista is formed of a medium exclusively Mohammadan, yet our knowledge of the bias of the narrators ‘enables us to correct the media, and to make them almost achromatic.’ The remark is true to some extent; but its full application would carry us beyond the truth.”  One would have thought that these considerations would have induced extreme skepticism in Muir about our ability to construct a life of Muhammad out of such crooked timber. Not a bit of it! It was all a matter of “a comprehensive consideration of the subject, and careful discrimination of the several sources of error, we may reach at least a fair approximation to the truth.”  Muir also accepted totally uncritically the absolute authenticity of the Koran as a contemporary record; and he had unbounded confidence in the accuracy of the early historians, particularly, Ibn Ishaq, Ibn Hisham, Al ‘Waqidi, Ibn Sa’d, and Al Tabari. The result was the massive four volume “Life of Mahomet.” Even a cursory glance at Muir’s labours makes one wonder just what he has discarded from the traditions, since he seems to have taken at face value and included in his biography of the Prophet countless details, uncritically garnered from Al Waqidi, that are of dubious historical value, from long speeches to the minutiae of Muhammad’s appearance and dress.
Julius Wellhausen in his pioneering work on the Old Testament, which he began publishing in 1876, showed that the Pentateuch was a composite work in which one could discern the hand of four different “writers,” usually referred to by the four letters J, E, D, and P. A century later, his Biblical Higher Criticism is still considered valid and very influential. Wellhausen then turned his critical mind to the sources of early Islam. Towards the end of the 19th century, Wellhausen tried to disentangle an authentic tradition from the snares of a deliberately concocted artificial tradition; the latter being full of tendentious distortions. The authentic tradition was to be found in Abu Mikhnaf, al-Waqidi, and al Madaini, while the false tradition was to be found in Sayf b.’Umar. For Wellhausen the “value of the isnad depends on the value of the historian who deems it reliable. With bad historians one cannot put faith in good isnads, while good historians merit trust if they give no isnad at all, simply noting that ‘I have this from someone whom I believe.’ All this permits a great simplification of critical analysis.”  As Patricia Crone says, “one might have expected his ‘Prolegomena zur altesten Geschichte des Islams’ to have been as revolutionary a work as was his ‘Prolegomena zur altesten Geschichte
The next great step in the critical examination of our sources for Muhammad and the rise of Islam was taken by the great scholar Ignaz Goldziher in his “Muhammedanische Studien” (Halle, 1889, 1890) who showed that a certain amount of careful sifting or tinkering was not enough, and that the vast number of hadiths were total forgeries from the late 2nd and 3rd Muslim centuries. This meant, of course, “that the meticulous isnads which supported them were utterly fictitious.”  Faced with Goldziher’s impeccably documented arguments, conservative historians began to panic and devised spurious ways of keeping skepticism at bay, by, for instance, postulating ad hoc distinctions between legal and historical traditions. But as Humphreys says, “ In terms of their formal structures , the hadith and the historical khabar [Arabic, pl. akhbar, discrete anecdotes and reports] were very similar indeed; more important, many 2nd/ 8th and 3rd/9th century scholars had devoted their efforts to both kinds of text equally. Altogether, if hadith isnads were suspect, so then should be the isnads attached to historical reports.” 
In 1905, Prince Caetani in his introduction to his monumental ten folio volumes of Annali dell’ Islam (1905 – 26), came to “the pessimistic conclusion that we can find almost nothing true on Mahomet in the Traditions, we can discount as apocryphal all the traditional material that we possess.”  Caetani had “compiled and arranged (year by year, and event by event) all the material which the sources, the Arab historians offered. The resultant conclusions based on the facts, which took into account the variant forms in which they were found in the sources, were accompanied by a critical analysis that reflected the methodological skepticism which Langlois and Seignobos had just set forth as absolutely indispensible for the historian.”  But like Muir, Weil, and Sprenger before him, Caetani failed to push to their logical conclusion the negative consequences of his methodology, and like his predecessors, thought it was all a matter of critically sifting through the mass of Traditions until we arrived at some authentic core.
The methodological skepticism of Goldziher and the positivist Caetani was taken up with a vengeance by Henri Lammens, the Belgian Jesuit. Though born in
Though he had what Rodinson calls a “holy contempt for Islam, for its ‘delusive glory’ and its works, for its ‘dissembling’ and ‘lascivious’ Prophet,” and despite his other methodological shortcomings, to be discussed below, Lammens, according to F. E. Peters, “whatever his motives and style …has never been refuted.”  Lawrence Conrad makes a similar point that despite Lammens’ well-known hostility to Islam, he offers a “number of useful insights.”  Rodinson also concedes Lammens’ partiality, but once again realizes that Lammens’ “colossal efforts at demolishing also had constructive results.”  “They have forced us to be much more highly demanding of our sources. With the traditional edifice of history definitively brought down, one could now proceed to the reconstruction.”  Finally, as Salibi summarizes, “although the Sira thesis of Lammens did not remain unquestioned, it continues to serve as a working principle. The modern reaction in favour of the authenticity of the Sira, represented by A. Guillaume and W. Montgomery Watt, has modified this working principle in some details without seriously affecting its essence. Lammens certainly provided Sira scholarship with an important clue to the riddle of Muhammad; and many of his own conclusions, as well as his technique, have been adopted and developed by later scholars,” 
In the first of the three works translated here for the first time into English, Lammens, influenced both by Goldziher’s analysis of hadith, and Snouck Hurgronje’s emphasis on the importance of the Koran for the Sira, “asserted that the traditional Arabic Sira, like the modern Orientalist biographies of the Prophet, depended mainly on hadith, whereas the Quran alone can serve as a valid historical basis for a knowledge of the Prophet’s life and career. The historical and biographical hadith, far from being the control of the Sira or the source of supplementary information, is merely an apocryphal exegesis of the historical and biographical allusions of the Quran. The value of an hadith regarding the Prophet’s life or career, he argued, would lie in its independence from the Quran, where such independence can be clearly demonstrated. As a rule, he adds, a hadith which is clearly exegetical of the Quran should be disregarded.” 
Lammens is often criticized for accepting uncritically any material that disparaged the Prophet, and conversely, for applying rigorous criticism when the source material tended to praise the Prophet. In his defense, Lammens pleaded that “pious Traditionists and Sira writers could not have invented information that reflected poorly on Muhammad; and therefore, any such information which may have slipped in must be true.”  But at other times, Lammens adhered to the principle that we ought not to judge Muhammad from modern European standards of right and wrong, since traits in the Prophet’s character, found to be unacceptable by Europeans may have been highly thought of by the early Muslims.
In the third of his works in the present volume, Fatima et les Filles de Mahomet (Fatima and the daughters of Muhammad), “Lammens set out to prove that
The ideas of the Positivist Caetani and the Jesuit Lammens were taken up by a group of Soviet Islamologists, whose conclusions sometimes show a remarkable similarity to the works of Wansbrough, Cook, and Crone. N. A. Morozov propounded the theory that until the Crusades, Islam was indistinguishable from Judaism and that only then did Islam receive its independent character, while Muhammad and the first caliphs were mythical figures. Morozov’s arguments, first developed in his “Christ” (1930), are summarized by Smirnov,  “In the Middle Ages Islam was merely an off-shoot of Arianism evoked by a meteorological event in the Red Sea near Mecca; it was akin to Byzantine iconoclasm. The Koran bears the traces of late composition, up to the eleventh century. The
Under the influence of Morozov, Klimovich published an article called “Did Muhammad Exist?” (1930), in which he makes the valid point that all the sources of our information on the life of Muhammad are late. Muhammad was a necessary fiction since it is always assumed that every religion must have a founder. Whereas another Soviet scholar, Tolstov , compares the myth of Muhammad with the “deified shamans” of the Yakuts, the Buryats, and the Altays. “The social purpose of this myth was to check the disintegration of the political block of traders, nomads, and peasants, which had brought to power the new, feudal aristocracy.” Vinnikov also compares the myth of Muhammad to “shamanism,” pointing to primitive magic aspects of such ritual as Muhammad having water poured over him. While E. A. Belyaev rejects the theories of Morozov, Klimovich and Tolstov which argued that Muhammad never existed, he does consider the Koran to have been concocted after the death of the Prophet. 
Ignaz Goldziher’s arguments were followed up nearly sixty years later by another great Islamicist, Joseph Schacht, whose works on Islamic law are considered classics in their field. Schacht’s conclusions were even more radical and perturbing, and their full implications have not yet sunk in.
Humphreys has summed up Schacht’s theses as: “(1) that isnads going all the way back to the Prophet only began to be widely used around the time of the Abbasid Revolution – i.e. the mid-2nd / 8th century; (2) that, ironically, the more elaborate and formally correct an isnad appeared to be, the more likely it was to be spurious. In general, he concluded, no existing hadith could be reliably ascribed to the Prophet, though some might ultimately be rooted in his teaching. And though he devoted only a few pages to historical reports about the early Caliphate, he explicitly asserted that the same strictures should apply to them.” 
Here is how Schacht sums up his won thesis: “It is generally conceded that the criticism of traditions as practised by the Muhammadan scholars is inadequate and that, however many forgeries may have been eliminated by it, even the classical corpus contains a great many traditions which cannot possibly be authentic. All efforts to extract from this often self-contradictory mass an authentic core by ‘historic intuition,’ as it has been called, have failed.” Goldziher, in another of his fundamental works [Muh.St.ii pp 1 – 274] has not only voiced his “sceptical reserve” with regard to the traditions contained even in the classical collections, but shown positively that the great majority of traditions from the Prophet are documents not of the time to which they claim to belong, but of the successive stages of development of doctrines during the first centuries of Islam. This brilliant discovery became the corner-stone of all serious investigation of early Muhammadan law and jurisprudence, even if some later authors, while accepting Goldziher’s method in principle, in their natural desire for positive results were inclined to minimize it in practice.
“This book [Schacht’s own work, The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence] will be found to confirm Goldziher’s results, and to go beyond them in the following respects: a great many traditions in the classical and other collections were put into circulation only after Shafi’i’s time [Shafi’i died 820 C.E.]; the first considerable body of legal traditions from the Prophet originated towards the middle of the second [Muslim] century, in opposition to the slightly earlier traditions from Companions and other authorities, and to the “living tradition” of the ancient schools of law; traditions from Companions and other authorities underwent the same process of growth, and are to be considered in the same light, as traditions from the Prophet; the study of isnads often enables us to date traditions; the isnads show a tendency to grow backwards and to claim higher and higher authority until they arrive at the Prophet; the evidence of legal traditions carries us back to about the year 100 A.H.[8th Century C.E.] only ….” 
Schacht proves that, for example, a tradition did not exist at a particular time by showing that it was not used as a legal argument in a discussion which would have made reference to it imperative if it had existed. For Schacht every legal tradition from the Prophet must be taken as inauthentic and fictitious expression of a legal doctrine formulated at a later date: “… We shall not meet any legal tradition from the Prophet which can positively be considered authentic.” 
Traditions were formulated polemically in order to rebut a contrary doctrine or practice; Schacht calls these traditions ‘counter traditions.’ Isnads “were often put together very carelessly. Any typical representative of the group whose doctrine was to be projected back on to an ancient authority, could be chosen at random and put into an isnad. We find therefore a number of alternative names in otherwise identical isnads ….” Another important discovery of Schacht’s which has considerable consequences only appreciated recently by Wansbrough and his followers is that “Muhammadan [Islamic] law did not derive directly from the Koran but developed …out of popular and administrative practice under the Umaiyads, and this practice often diverged from the intentions and even the explicit wording of the Koran …. Norms derived from the Koran were introduced into Muhammadan law almost invariably at a secondary stage.” 
The distinguished French Arabist Regis Blachere, translator of the Koran and historian of Arabic Literature, undertook to write a critical biography of the Prophet taking fully into account the skeptical conclusions of Goldziher and Lammens. His short study appeared in 1952, two years after Schacht’s pioneering work. Blachere takes a highly critical view of the sources, and he is particularly pessimistic about our ability to reconstruct the life of Muhammad prior to the Hijra in 622 C.E.  His preliminary reappraisal of the sources ends on this very negative note: “The conclusions to be drawn from this survey will appear disappointing only to those more smitten with illusion than truth. The sole contemporary source for Muhammad, the Koran, only gives us fragmentary hints, often sibylline, almost always subject to divergent interpretations. The biographical Tradition is certainly more rich and more workable but suspect by its very nature, it poses, in addition, a problem of method since for Muhammad’s apostolate it originates from the Koran which it tries to explain and complete at the same time. In sum, we no longer have any sources that would allow us to write a detailed history of Muhammad with a rigorous and continuous chronology. To resign oneself to a partial or total ignorance is necessary, above all for everything that concerns the period prior to Muhammad’s divine call [ c. 610 C.E.]. All that a truly scientific biography can achieve is to lay out the successive problems engendered by this pre-apostolate period, sketch out the general background atmosphere in which Muhammad received his divine call, to give in broad brushstrokes the development of his apostleship at Mecca, to try with a greater chance of success to put in order the known facts, and finally to put back into the penumbra all that remains uncertain. To want to go further is to fall into hagiography or romanticization.” 
And yet, the biography that emerges despite Blachere’s professed skepticism is dependent upon the very traditions that Goldziher, Lammens, and Schacht had cast into doubt. Blachere’s account of the life of the Prophet is far less radical than one would have expected, it is full of the recognizable events and characters familiar from the Traditional Biography, though shorn of the details.
Some of the most discussed works published in the 1950s were the three publications of Harris Birkeland, a Swedish Orientalist: “The Legend of the Opening of Muhammad’s Breast,” “Old Muslim Opposition against Interpretation of the Koran,” and the third, “The Lord Guide , Studies on Primitive Islam,” which examines five Suras that he considers the earliest stratum of the Koran, and which express, so he contends, the early ideas of Muhammad. In The Lord Guides, Birkeland argues that, “Goldziher’s method to evaluate traditions according to their contents is rather disappointing. We are not entitled to limit our study to the texts (the so–called matns). We have the imperative duty to scrutinize the Isnads too…and to consider the matns in their relation to the isnads… For it is very often the age of the contents that we do not know and which we, consequently, wish to decide. The study of the isnads in many cases gives us valuable assistance to fulfill this wish, despite the fact that in principle they must be held to be spurious. However fictitious they are, they represent sociological facts.” 
Birkeland expends a vast amount of energy “in collecting, differentiating and thoroughly scrutinizing all traditions and comments concerning a certain passage of the Quran or some legend about the Prophet.”  But the German scholar Rudi Paret, for one, finds the results “rather disappointing.”  Birkeland maintains that “the Muslim interpretation of the Quran in the form it has been transmitted to us, namely in its oldest stage as hadith, does not contain reliable information on the earliest period of Muhammad in
Even the most conservative scholars now accept the unreliability of the Muslim sources, but an increasing number also seem to confirm, however indirectly, the more radical conclusions of Wansbrough, Cook, and Crone. One of the most remarkable of the latter was Dr. Suliman Bashear, a leading scholar and administrator at the
In one study Bashear  examines verses 114 –116 of surah 2 of the Koran and their exegesis by Shams al-Din Suyuti (d.880) and others. Koran 2:114 reads, “Who is more wicked than the men who seek to destroy the mosques of God and forbid His name to be mentioned in them, when it behooves these men to enter them with fear in their hearts? They shall be held up to shame in this world and sternly punished in the hereafter.” Koran 2:115 –116 reads, “To God belongs the East and the West. Whichever way you turn there is the face of God. He is omnipresent and all-knowing. They say: ‘God has begotten a son.’ Glory be to Him! His is what the heavens and earth contain; all things are obedient to Him.”
Bashear was intrigued by verse 114 and Suyuti’s claim that it was revealed concerning the barring of Muslims by the Byzantines from the
“Two main questions are tackled here concerning the occasion of revelation of the verse [2:114]: who are those it blames, and where and when was the act of barring from, or destroying the mosques committed? The answers are split between four notions current in exegetical traditions and commentaries:
(i) The Jerusalem–Christian/Byzantine context;
(ii) The Meccan–Qurashi context
(iii) A general meaning without specific reference to any historical context ….
(iv) It was the Jews who tried to destroy the Kaba or the Prophet’s mosque in
Bashear, after a meticulous examination of the commentaries, concluded that “up to the mid second [Muslim] century a clear anti-Christian / Byzantine sentiment prevailed in the exegesis of 2 :114 which overwhelmingly presented it as referring to the Jerusalem sanctuary – temple. We have also seen that no trace of sira material could be detected in such exegesis and that the first authentic attempt to present the occasion of its revelation within the framework of Muhammad’s sira [biography] in Mecca is primarily associated with the name of Ibn Zayd who circulated a tradition to that effect in the second half of the second [Muslim] century. Other attempts to produce earlier traditional authorities for this notion could easily be exposed as a later infiltration of sira material simply by conducting a cross–examination of sira sources on the occasions of both Quraysh’s persecution of Muhammad before the hijra and their barring of him at Hudaybiyya.… [T]he notion of an early Meccan framework cannot be attested before the first half of the second [Muslim] century.
“All in all, the case of verse 2: 114 gives support to Wansbrough’s main thesis since it shows that from the mid second [Muslim] century on Quranic exegesis underwent a consistent change, the main ‘impulse’ behind which was to assert the Hijazi origins of Islam . In that process, the appearance and circulation of a tradition by the otherwise unimportant Ibn Zayd slowly gathered prominence. Simultaneously, other ingenuous attempts were made to find earlier authorities precisely bearing Ibn Abbas’s name for the same notion while the more genuine core of the original tradition of Ibn Abbas was gradually watered down because it was no longer recognized after the ‘legend of Muhammad’ was established.” 
Bashear also indirectly complements the work of G. Hawting  and M. J. Kister  when he claims that “on yet another level, literary criticism of the traditional material on the position of Jerusalem in early Islam has clearly shown that the stress on its priority was not necessarily a function of the attempt to undermine Mecca but rather was independent of the position of the latter since Islam seems not to have yet developed one firmly established cultic centre.” 
Bashear then towards the end of his analysis remarks: “The present inquiry has shown how precisely around this period (mid second [Muslim] century) elements of a Hijazi orientation made their presence felt in the exegetical efforts to fit what became the canon of Muslim scripture into the new historical framework of Arabian Islam. From the literary scrutiny of the development of these efforts it becomes clear how such exegetical efforts affected the textual composition of 2:114-16 in a way that fitted the general orientation, attested from other literary fields, towards a Hijazi sira, sanctuary and, with them, scriptural revelation.” 
In his study of the title “faruq” and its association with Umar I Bashear confirms the findings of Crone and Cook  that “this title must be seen as an Islamic fossilization of a basically Jewish apocalyptic idea of the awaited messiah.”  And a little later Bashear says that certain traditions give “unique support to the rather bold suggestion forwarded by Cook and Crone that the rise of Umar as a redeemer was prophesized and awaited.”  Again as in his discussion of Koran 2:114 discussed above, Bashear thinks his analysis of the traditions about the conversion of Umar to Islam and Koran 4:60 has broader implications for our understanding of early Islam. Bashear tentatively suggests that certain traditions were fabricated to give an Hijazi orientation to events that probably took place outside it.
In “Abraham’s Sacrifice of His Son and Related Issues,”  Bashear discusses the question as to which of the two sons was meant to be sacrificed by Abraham, Ishaq or Ismail. He concludes, “In itself, the impressively long list of mainly late scholars and commentators who favoured Ismail confirms Goldziher’s note that this view eventually emerged victorious. In view of the present study, however, one must immediately add that such victory was facilitated only as part of the general process of promoting the position of Mecca as the cultic center of Islam by connecting it with the Biblical heritage on the story of Abraham’s trial or, to use Wansbrough’s terminology, the reproduction of an Arabian–Hijazi version of Judaeo-Christian ‘prophetology.’”  Bashear once again brings his examination to a close with the observation that it was only later traditionists who consciously promoted Ismail and Mecca for nationalist purposes to give an Hijazi orientation to the emerging religious identity of the Muslims: “For, our attempt to date the relevant traditional material confirms on the whole the conclusions which Schacht arrived at from another field, specifically the tendency of isnads to grow backwards. Time and again it has been demonstrated how serious doubts could easily be cast not only against traditions attributed to the Prophet and companions but a great deal of those bearing the names of successors too. We have actually seen how the acute struggle of clear national motive to promote the positions of Ismail and
“Though we did not initially aim at investigating the development of Muslim hajj rituals in Mecca, let alone its religious position in early Islam in general, our enquiry strongly leads to the conclusion that such issues were far from settled during the first half of the second [Muslim] century. While few scholars have lately arrived at similar conclusions from different directions, it is Goldziher who must be accredited with the initial note that Muslim consecration of certain locations in the Hijaz commenced with the rise of the Abbasids to power.  Indeed we have seen how ‘the mosque of the ram’ was one of such locations.” 
Bashear continues his research with his article “Riding Beasts on Divine Missions: An Examination of the Ass and Camel Traditions” where he tentatively suggests that “prominence of the image of the camel-rider was a function of the literary process of shaping the emergence of Arabian Islam.”  Thus much of Bashear’s work seems to confirm the Wansbrough /Cook /Crone line that “Islam” far from being born fully–fledged with a water-tight creed, rites, rituals, holy places, shrines, and a holy scripture was a late literary creation as the early Arab warriors spilled out of the Hijaz in such dramatic fashion and encountered sophisticated civilizations; encounters which forced them to forge their own religious identity out of the already available materials, which were reworked to fit into a mythical Hijazi framework. This is further underlined by Bashear’s last major work published posthumously in 1997, Arabs and Others in Early Islam.  The core of the latter work was adumbrated in Chapter VIII, Al-Islam wa-l-Arab, of his work published in Arabic in 1984, Muqaddima Fi al-Tarikh al –Akhar. In Arabs and Others in Early Islam, Bashear questions the a priori acceptance of the notion that the rise of the Arab polity and Islam were one and the same thing from the beginning. Furthermore he doubts the Hijazi origins of classical Islam, “The proposition that
How can we characterize the situation in the year 2000? Even in the early eighties, a certain skepticism of the sources was fairly widespread; M. J. Kister was able to round off his survey of the sira literature that first appeared in 1983, with the following words: “The narratives of the Sirah have to be carefully and meticulously sifted in order to get at the kernel of historically valid information, which is in fact meagre and scanty.”  If we can consider the new edition of the Encyclopaedia of Islam as some kind of a yardstick of the prevailing scholarly opinion on the reliability of our sources for the life of the Prophet and the rise of Islam, then the situation is clearly negative. W. Raven in the entry for “sira” (Vol IX), written in the mid-nineteen nineties comes to this conclusion in an excellent survey of the sira material:
“The sira materials as a whole are so heterogeneous that a coherent image of the Prophet cannot be obtained from it. Can any of them be used at all for a historically reliable biography of Muhammad, or for the historiography of early Islam? Several arguments plead against it:
(1) Hardly any sira text can be dated back to the first century of Islam.
(2) The various versions of a text often show discrepancies, both in chronology and in contents.
(3) The later the sources are, the more they claim to know about the time of the Prophet.
(4) Non-Islamic sources are often at variance with Islamic sources (see P. Crone and M. Cook, Hagarism)
(5) Most sira fragments can be classed with one of the genres mentioned above. Pieces of salvation history and elaborations on Kuranic texts are unfit as sources for scientific historiography …” 
For And Against Wansbrough
John Wansbrough, despite his meager output, more than any other scholar has, as Herbert Berg says, undermined all previous scholarship on the first three centuries of Islam. Many scholars continue as though nothing had changed, and carry on working along traditional lines taking the historical reliability of the exclusively Islamic sources for granted. Others, sometimes known as the revisionists, find Wansbrough’s methodology, at least, very fruitful. Thus we are left with an ever-widening gap between the two camps, nowhere more apparent than when those opposed, or even hostile, to Wansbrough’s work refused to contribute to a collection of essays devoted to the implications and achievements of his work.
Space forbids us to devote too much time to those scholars who have extended or have been influenced by Wansbrough’s work, such as Hawting, Calder, Rippin, Nevo, van Ess, Christopher Buck, and Claude Gilliot,  amongst others. It would be just as well to interject a word of caution here: the scholars who have been influenced by Wansbrough do not necessarily and uncritically endorse every aspect of his theories, nor all would agree with Wansbrough’s late date for the establishment of the canonical Koran, for instance. The so–called disciples of Wansbrough far from being epigones are formidable and original scholars in their own right; and in true Popperian fashion would be prepared to abandon this or that aspect of the master’s theories should contrary evidence materialize. Nor do the scholars who do not accept Wansbrough’s conclusions necessarily blindly accept the traditional Muslim account of the Sira, the rise of Islam or the compilation of the Koran; John Burton, Gerd Puin, and Gunter Luling are some of the scholars in this latter category.
But now perhaps I should say something about recent articles or books challenging Wansbrough’s basic assumptions. One debate revolves round the person of Ibn Abbas, the cousin of the Prophet, and source of a great deal of exegetical material. Rippin sums up the arguments on both sides with admirable clarity:
“Wansbrough drew attention to a series of texts ascribed specifically to Ibn Abbas, all of them of a lexicographical nature. One of the roles of the figure of Ibn Abbas within the development of tafsir, according to Wansbrough’s argument, was bringing the language of the Quran into alignment with the language of the “Arabs” … Identity of the people as solidified through language and became a major ideological stance promulgated in such texts.
“Such an argument, however, depended upon a number of preceding factors, including the emergence of the Quran as authoritative, before it could be mounted. Such an argument could not have been contemporary with Ibn Abbas, who died in 687 C.E., but must stem from several centuries later. The ascription to Ibn Abbas was an appeal to authority in the past, to the family of the Prophet and to a name which was gathering an association with exegetical activity in general.”
Issa Boullata examines one such text attributed to Ibn Abbas, and argues “that the tradition which aligns Ibn Abbas with lexicographical matters related to the Quran is early, although it was clearly subject to elaboration as time went on ….But Boullata raises the crucial issue: ‘J. Wansbrough believes that the reference of rare or unknown Quranic words to the great corpus of early Arabic poetry is an exegetical method which is considerably posterior to the activity of Ibn Abbas’  While the activity may have been limited, Boullata admits, ‘If there was anybody who could have dared to do it (or have such activity ascribed to him) it was Ibn Abbas, the Prophet’s cousin and Companion, because of his family relationship and authoritative position.’  ‘Oral tradition’ would have been the means by which these traditions from Ibn Abbas were transmitted down to later exegetical writers. Just because poetical citations are not found in early texts (as Wansbrough had pointed out) does not mean, for Boullata, that such an exegetical practice did not exist. ‘One cannot determine what of these materials is authentic and what is not, but everything points to the possibility that there existed a smaller core of materials which was most likely preserved in a tradition of oral transmission for several generations before it was put down in writing with enlargements.’” 
“‘Possibility’ and ‘most likely’ are the key methodological assumptions of this historical approach, and certainly all historical investigations proceed on the basis of analogy of processes which underlie these assumptions. But Boullata underestimates the overall significance of what Wansbrough has argued. The debate is not whether a core of the material is authentic or not….By underemphasizing issues of the establishment of authority of scripture and bringing into comparison profane texts with scripture, Boullata avoids the central crux. Ultimately, the assertion is that it would have been ‘only natural’ for the Arabs to have followed this procedure within exegesis. Boullata asserts that there is an ‘Arab proclivity to cite proverbs or poetic verses orally to corroborate ideas in certain circumstances. This is a very old Arab trait which Ibn Abbas…could possibly have had.’ For Wansbrough, nothing is ‘natural’ in the development of exegetical tools. The tools reflect ideological needs and have a history behind them.
“Substantial evidence in favour of the overall point which Wansbrough makes in this regard stems from Claude Gilliot’s extensive analysis of the tafsir of al-Tabari (d.923 C.E.). It is surely significant that al-Tabari would still be arguing in the tenth century about the role and value of the Arabic language in its relationship to the Quran, and that his own extensive tafsir work is founded upon an argument to make just that case for language. The relationship of the sacred to the profane in language was not an issue which allowed itself to be simply assumed within the culture. It was subject to vigorous debate and back-forth between scholars.” 
Another scholar whose views and methodological assumptions differ radically from John Wansbrough’s is C. H. M. Versteegh. Essentially, Versteegh has a vision of the rise of Islam that is no longer accepted by a number of historians; he is convinced that “after the death of the Prophet the main preoccupation of the believers was the text of the Quran. This determined all their efforts to get to grip on the phenomenon of language, and it is, therefore, in the earliest commentaries on the Quran that we shall have to start looking for the original form of language study in Islam.”  However, by contrast, Wansbrough and others “have argued that ‘Islam’ as we know it took a number of centuries to come into being and did not spring from the desert as a mature, self-reflective, defined entity. The idea that Muhammad provided the community with its scripture and that after his death all focus immediately turned to coming to an understanding of that scripture and founding a society based upon it simply does not match the evidence which we have before us in Wansbrough’s interpretation. Nor does it match the model by which we have come to understand the emergence of complex social systems, be they motivated by religion or other ideologies.” 
Versteegh has a totally different conception of ‘interpretation’; where he sees it as “a process somewhat abstracted from society as a whole, an activity motivated by piety and a dispassionate…concern for the religious ethos and which took place right at the historical beginnings of Islam.” Wansbrough sees it as “a far more interactive and active participant within the society in which it takes place …The pressures of the time and the needs of the society provide the impetus and the desired results of the interpretative efforts.”  However, as Rippin concludes, it is not simply a question of skepticism about texts, but also a question of our understanding of how religious and other movements in human history emerge and evolve, and finally of the “interpretative nature of human existence as mediated through language.” 
Estelle Whelan in a recent article challenges Wansbrough’s conclusions. She is perfectly aware of the rather devastating implications of Wansbrough’s analysis, that is, “that the entire Muslim tradition about the early history of the text of the Quran is a pious forgery, a forgery so immediately effective and so all-pervasive in its acceptance that no trace of independent contemporary evidence has survived to betray it. An important related issue involves the dating of early manuscripts of the Quran. If Wansbrough is correct that approximately a century and a half elapsed before Muslim scripture was established in ‘’canonical’ form, then none of the surviving manuscripts can be attributed to the Umayyad or even the very early Abassid period; particularly, one controversial manuscript discovered in San’a in the 1970s …for which a date around the turn of the eighth century has been proposed, would have to have been copied at a much later period.”
Ms.Whelan devotes considerable space to examining the inscriptions at the Dome of the Rock in
Whelan’s arguments are by no means very convincing, and will certainly not appease the skeptics. First, one cannot argue from a part to a whole; the fact that there are some late 7th century inscriptions at the Dome of the Rock which can be identified as being from the “Koran” as we know it today, does not mean that the whole of the “Koran” already existed at the end of the 7th century. Because a part of the Koran exists, does not mean that the whole of it does; what we know as the Koran has a long history, it did not materialize out of nowhere, fully formed, but emerged slowly over time. We would expect the Koran to have some authority in the community, and there is no evidence that that is the case as early as the first Muslim century.
To assert that the deviations from the Koran which are apparent in the inscriptions at the Dome of the Rock are not really deviations but rather sermons seems a little ad hoc to say the least; one could just as easily argue that the inscriptions and the “sermons” are similar because they are drawing on the same not yet canonical body of literature. In fact Wansbrough himself allows for the early existence of “quranic logia” which precedes the canonized Koran, and which would account rather well or even better for the inscriptions at the Dome of the Rock.
Whelan also blithely side-steps all the skepticism that has been directed against all the sources of our “knowledge” of early Islam, and in the section on “the copying of the Quran” takes for granted that these sources are totally reliable as history. We do not have independent sources for the biographical material that she uses; she is reduced to using the very sources at which so much criticism has been leveled for over a century, from at least Goldziher onwards. The reliability of these sources is precisely the issue; the same forces that produced the literature about the formation of the canon are at work on these other materials used by Whelan, and which, hence, suffer from the same limitations (e.g. these sources are late, tendentious, they all contradict each other, and are literary fictions rather than history).
Fred Donner is another very distinguished scholar who takes issue with Wansbrough and the revisionists. In The Early Islamic Conquests (1981),  Donner, though he is, like so many historians in the past, very cautious about the sources, is nonetheless very confident that a reliable account of the early Muslim conquests can be reconstructed. However as Hawting points out in his review of Donner, “When contradictions between different accounts cannot be resolved, broad generalization is resorted to …and there is a tendency to accept information which is consistent with the thesis being argued while rejecting or even ignoring that which is inconsistent.” While Donner’s account may be plausible, contradictory ones are no less so. 
More recently, Donner  has argued that the language of the Koran and the language of hadith are different, and that this suggests a chronological separation between the two, with the Koran preceding the hadith. He also argues for a Hijazi (Arabian) origin of the Koran. Again, skeptics find Donner’s arguments less than compelling. Even the revisionists, on the whole, do not deny that there are differences between the two; the language of the Koran is like nothing else, and obviously does not come from the same context as hadith. The question is what are the sources of those differences? We certainly cannot legitimately jump to the chronological conclusion in the way that Donner does; and in any case why make the Koran first? We need additional arguments whereas Donner has simply accepted the traditional Muslim account, which, as we have seen, is precisely what the skeptics are skeptical about. For a certain number of scholars, the most plausible hypothesis is that much if not all of the Koranic material predates Muhammad, and that it is liturgical material used in some community of possibly Judeo-Christian, and certainly monotheist, Arabs, and that is why by the time the Muslims got around to writing their commentaries on the Koran, they did not have the faintest idea what large parts of this material meant, and were forced to invent some absurd explanations for these obscurities, but it all eventually got collected together as the Arabian book of God, in order to forge a specifically Arabian religious identity. This scenario, of course, only makes sense if we accept the revisionists’ thesis that “Islam” as such did not emerge fully-fledged in the Hijaz as the Muslim traditions would have us believe. Even Luling and Puin’s ideas make more sense if we do not try to fit these ideas into the Meccan /Medinan procrustean bed that the Muslims Traditions have prepared for us, but rather accept that the Arabs forged their religious identity only when they encountered the older religious communities outside the Hijaz, since the thought that Mecca in the late 6th and early 7th century was host to such a Judeo-Christian community seems highly improbable.
Juynboll once said that Wansbrough’s theories were so hard to swallow because of the obvious disparity in style and contents of Meccan and Medinan suras.  There is indeed a difference in language, style and even message between the so-called Meccan and Medinan suras. But all that shows is that there are two quite different styles in the Koran, and of course, Muslim exegetes solved this problem by assigning one set to Mecca and the other to Medina, with considerable tinkering (verses from the ‘Medinese’ suras assigned to Mecca and vice versa). But why should we accept the Medinan and Meccan labels? What is the source or sources of this difference? To accept these labels is simply to accept the entire traditional Muslim account of the compilation of the Koran, the biography of the Prophet, and the Rise of Islam. Again, this is precisely what is at stake: the reliability of the sources. The differences, if anything, point to a history far more extensive than the short life of Muhammad as found in the Sira, and they do not have to be interpreted biographically through the history of the life of Muhammad in
It is Muslim tradition that has unfortunately saddled us with the fiction that such and such verse in the Koran was revealed at such and such time during Muhammad’s ministry. As early as 1861, the Reverend Rodwell in his preface to the translation of the Koran wrote, “It may be considered quite certain that it was not customary to reduce to writing any traditions concerning Muhammad himself, for at least the greater part of a century. They rested entirely on the memory of those who have handed them down, and must necessarily have been coloured by their prejudices and convictions, to say nothing of the tendency to the formation of myths and to actual fabrication, which early shews itself, especially in interpretations of the Koran, to subserve the purposes of the contending factions of the Umayyads and Abbasids.” Even the writings of historians such as Ibn Ishaq are “necessarily coloured by the theological tendencies of their master and patron … Traditions can never be considered as at all reliable, unless they are traceable to some common origin, have descended to us by independent witnesses, and correspond with the statements of the Koran itself – always of course deducting such texts as (which is not unfrequently the case) have themselves given rise to the tradition. It soon becomes obvious to the reader of Muslim traditions and commentators that both miracles and historical events have been invented for the sake of expounding a dark and perplexing text; and that even the earlier traditions are largely tinged with the mythical element.”  [My emphasis, I.W.]
The above passage is a remarkable anticipation of the works of not only Goldziher but also Henri Lammens. The former showed by 1890 the entirely spurious and tendentious nature of the hadith, and the latter that “on the fabric of the Koranic text, the hadith has embroidered its legend, being satisfied with inventing names of additional actors presented or with spinning out the original theme.” It is the Koran, in fact, that has generated all the details of the life of the Prophet, and not vice versa: “one begins with the Koran while pretending to conclude with it.” Muslim Tradition has often been able to do this because of the often vague and very general way events are referred to, such that they leave open the possibility of any interpretation that the Muslim exegetes care to embroider.
Michael Schub  shows that the traditional interpretation of sura IX verse 40 is suspect, and is more probably derived from the Old Testament, I Samuel 23, verses 16ff. “Faithful Muslims will forever believe that Quran IX. 40: ‘If ye help him not, still Allah helped him when those who disbelieve drove him forth, the second of two; when they two were in the cave, when he said unto his comrade: Grieve not. Lo! Allah is with us. Then Allah caused His peace of reassurance to descend upon him and supported him with hosts ye cannot see, and made the word of those who disbelieved the nethermost, while Allah’s word it was that became uppermost. Allah is mighty, wise’ refers to the Prophet Muhammad and Ab’ Bakr, although not one word of the Quranic text supports this.”
Rippin has also argued that certain passages in the Koran that are traditionally interpreted as referring to Muhammad are not necessarily historical. Citing sura 93, Rippin states that “there is nothing absolutely compelling about interpreting [sura XCIII] in light of the life or the lifetime of Muhammad. The ‘thee’ [in verse 3: “The Lord has neither forsaken thee nor hates thee”] of this passage does not have to be Muhammad. It certainly could be, but it does not have to be (I might also point out that Arberry’s translation also suggests the necessity of ‘he’ as God [i.e. He] which is also not necessarily compelling .) All the elements in the verses are motifs of religious literature (and indeed, themes of the Qur’an) and they need not be taken to reflect historical ‘reality’ as such, but, rather, could well be understood as the foundational material of monotheist religious preaching.”  One of Rippin’s conclusions is that “the close correlation between the sira and the Qur’an can be taken to be more indicative of exegetical and narrative development within the Islamic community rather than evidence for thinking that one source witnesses the veracity of another. To me, it does seem that in no sense can the Qur’an be assumed to be a primary document in constructing the life of Muhammad. The text is far too opaque when it comes to history; its shifting referents leave the text in a conceptual muddle for historical purposes. This is the point of my quick look at the evidence of the ‘addressee’ of the text; the way in which the shifts occur renders it problematic to make any assumption about the addressee and his (or her) historical situation. If one wishes to read the Qur’an in a historical manner, then it can only be interpreted in light of other material.” 
In his Quranic Studies, John Wansbrough had expressed the view that asbab material had its major reference point in halakhic works, that is to say, works concerned with deriving laws from the Koran. Andrew Rippin, however, examined numerous texts, and concluded that the primary purpose of the asbab material was in fact not halakhic, but rather haggadic: ‘that is, the asbab functions to provide an interpretation of a verse within a broad narrative framework.’ This puts the origin of the asbab material in the context of the qussas: ‘the wandering storytellers, and pious preachers and to a basically popular religious worship situation where such stories would prove both enjoyable and edifying.’ He also notes that the primary purpose of such stories is to historicize the text of the Koran in order to prove that: ‘God really did reveal his book to humanity on earth,’ and that in arguments over conflicting asbab reports isnad (chain of transmission) criticism was a tool which could be: ’employed when needed and disregarded when not.’
As Hawting points out, “The very diversity of these ‘occasions of revelation’ (asbab al-nuz´l), the variety of the interpretations and historical situations the tradition provides for individual koranic verses, is an argument for the uncertain nature of the explanations that are provided. One often feels that the meaning and context supplied for a particular verse or passage of the Koran is not based on any historical memory or upon a secure knowledge of the circumstances of its revelation, but rather reflect attempts to establish a meaning. That meaning, naturally, was established within a framework of accepted ideas about the setting in which the Prophet lived and the revelation was delivered. In that way, the work of interpretation also defines and describes what had come to be understood as the setting for the revelation.” 
Given the above examples of some of the difficulties, any critical reading of the Koran should prompt the exasperated but healthy response, “What on earth is going on here?” The fact that so many, but thankfully not all, scholars of the last sixty years have failed to even ask this question let alone begin to answer it, shows that they have been crushed into silence out of respect for the tender sensibilities of Muslims, by political correctness, post-colonial feelings of guilt, and dogmatic Islamophilia, and have been practicing “Islamic scholarship” rather than scholarship on Islam.
Some scholars did pose pertinent questions, and gave us important insights. And yet so often their keen and just observations were vitiated by a faulty chronology, that is, they all accepted the traditional historical framework fabricated by Muslim tradition. It seems to me that their work makes far more sense within a broad revisionist structure provisionally constructed by Wansbrough, and his disciples.
To give a plausible account of the rise of Islam we must put back the last of the three monotheist religions in its Near Eastern geographical, religious, historical, and linguistic (Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac) context. Scholars have been well aware of the influences of Talmudic Judaism, heretical Christianity, and now even Essenes, on Islam, but relying on the fictive chronology of Muslim tradition has often meant the invention of ingenious but ultimately far-fetched scenarios of how Christian monks, Jewish rabbis, or Essenes fleeing Romans, had whispered their arcane knowledge into the ears of an Arabian merchant.
So many scholars have also accepted totally uncritically the traditional account of the compilation of the Koran. But this account is, in the words of
Given that so much of the Koran remains incomprehensible despite hundreds of commentaries, surely it is time to look for some more plausible historical mechanism by which the Koran came to be the Koran, and to restore the original text.
Barth and Fischer’s important work on emendations and interpolations, though it did influence Richard Bell in the writing of his commentary on the Koran, was unfortunately not followed up. Even Bell, on the whole, is unwilling to accept emendations too readily, and most scholars seem to agree with Nöldeke that the Koran is free of omissions and additions. But as Hirschfeld says, “Considering the way in which the compilation was made, it would have been a miracle, had the Qoran been kept free of omissions, as well as interpolations.”  Some scholars did question the authenticity of certain verses: Antoine-Isaac Silvestre de Sacy was doubtful about sura III.138; Weil of sura III. 182; XVII. 1; XXI.35-36; XXIX.57; XLVI.14; XXXIX. 30; and Sprenger of LIX. 7. 
Another scholar who has dared to question the authenticity of the Koran is Paul Casanova, whose ideas are rather perfunctorily dismissed by Watt and Bell. Casanova finished his study, Mohammed et la fin du Monde, in 1921, but in recent years his work has been, I believe unjustly, ignored. I suspect one reason for this neglect has nothing to do with the force of his arguments or the quality of his scholarship, but the simple unavailability of all three volumes of his work; volume three, pages 169- 244, being particularly difficult to come by.
Casanova wrote: “It is generally admitted that the text of the Koran, such as it has come down to us, is authentic and that it reproduces exactly the thought of Muhammad, faithfully gathered by his secretaries as the revelations gradually appeared. We know that some of his secretaries were highly unreliable, that the immediate successor of the Prophet made a strict recension, that, a few years later, the arrangement of the text was altered. We have obvious examples of verses suppressed, and such a bizarre way in which the text is presented to us (in order of the size of the chapters or surahs) shows well the artificial character of the Koran that we possess. Despite that, the assurance with which Muslims – who do not refrain from accusing Jews and Christians of having altered their Scriptures – present this incoherent collection as rigorously authentic in all its parts has imposed itself upon the orientalists, and the thesis that I wish to uphold will seem very paradoxal and forced.
I maintain, however, that the real doctrine of Muhammad was, if not falsified, at least concealed with the greatest of care. I shall set out soon the extremely simple reasons which led first Abu Bakr, then Uthman, to alter thoroughly the sacred text, and this rearrangement was done with such skill that, thenceforth, it seemed impossible to reconstitute the Ur-Koran or the original Koran. If however my thesis was accepted, it could serve as a point of departure for this reconstitution, at least for everything that concerns the original revelations, the only really interesting ones from my point of view, the only ones, moreover, that there was any advantage in reworking, by means of either very light changes of the text, or by deplacements. There is abundant evidence that the first Muslims, despite the undoubtedly powerful memories of the Arabs, were profoundly ignorant of the Koran, and one could, with Muhammad dead, recite them verses of which they had not, at their own admission, the slightest idea. A rearrangement which did not change the exterior forms of the verses was thus the easiest. Sprenger, who had had a vague intimation of the thesis that I advocate, accuses Muhammad of having thrown the incoherence into his text himself, in order to get rid of the trace of imprudent words. I say in fact that it is for a reason of this kind that the incoherence was introduced, but not by the author – by his successors.” 
According to Casanova, Muhammad, under the influence of a Christian sect, put great emphasis on the imminent end of the world in his early proclamations. When the approaching end failed to take place, the early followers of the Prophet were forced to refashion or rework the text of the Koran to eliminate that doctrine from it.
Casanova provides some very convincing arguments for the presence of interpolations in the Koranic text, and further points up its general incoherence. Whether they prove what he wanted to prove is another matter. But it is certainly unfair of Watt/Bell to pronounce dismissively that Casanova’s thesis is “founded less upon the study of the Qur’an than upon investigation of some of the byways of early Islam.”  Casanova has anticipated just such a criticism, and we can see the following as an implicit answer to Watt/ Bell type accusations:
“Already, at this period [Caliph, `Abd al- Malik, reigned 685-705 C.E.] the book [Koran] was hardly understood. ‘If obscurity and lack of coherence with the context in our modern Koran ought to be considered as proof of non-authenticity, I fear that we ought to condemn more than one verse,’ says Nöldeke.” 
I confess that as for me I accept these premises and this conclusion. Obscurity and incoherence are the reasons, not to deny absolutely, but to suspect the authenticity [of the Koran], and they permit all effort to restore a more clear and more coherent text.
Permit me some characteristic examples. I have collected them by a careful study of the Koranic text,  I could have multiplied them but that would have uselessly padded out this article. Besides, in most cases, all the while feeling the strangeness and obscurity of terms, that the naive exegesis of the commentators only brings out the better, one is very perplexed to propose a rational solution, a credible restoration. I ought to be on my guard, the more so because people will not fail to accuse me (that has already been done) of declaring falsified such and such passages because they go counter to my theories. To defend myself from this reproach, I shall add to this list of alterations a short analysis of those which have been noted before me by scholars totally unaware of my aforementioned thesis.”  There then follow examples of interpolations, displacement of verses, etc., in other words, all the evidence of the general incoherence of the Koran.
It requires little reflection to see, once again, the circularity of Watt/Bell’s argument. If by authentic we mean that the Koran was the word of God, as passed onto, either directly from God or through the intermediary of an angel, a historical figure called Muhammad, supposedly living in Arabia, then clearly we need some independent confirmation of this extraordinary claim. We cannot say the Koran is authentic because “it does fit …into a real historical experience.”
For this circular reasoning would give us the following tautology: “the Koran is authentic, that is, it fits into a real historical experience, because it fits into a real historical experience.”
Some have scholars have, of course, been trying to prise the Koranic text away from the supposed historical fit with the sira, the life of Muhammad: Lammens, Tor Andrae, and more modestly Andrew Rippin, and Michael Schub. But perhaps the most radical thesis is that of Gunter Lüling, who argues very persuasively, that at least a third of the Koran pre-dates Islam, and thus, of course, has nothing whatsoever to do with someone called Muhammad. A third of the Koran was originally a pre-Islamic Christian hymnody that was re-interpreted by Muslims, whose task was made that much easier by the ambiguity of the rasm, that is the unpointed and unvowelled Arabic letters. Thus both Casanova and Lüling point to the present incoherence of the Koranic text as evidence for its later editing, refashioning, emending, ‘re-interpretation’ and manipulation. It is interesting to note that though he finds Lüling’s evidence “unsound, and his method undisciplined,”  Wansbrough, nonetheless, thinks that the “recent conjectures of Lüling with regard to the essentially hymnic character of Muslim scripture are not unreasonable, though I [Wansbrough] am unable to accept what seems to me [Lüling’s] very subjective reconstruction of the text. The liturgical form of the Qur’an is abundantly clear even in the traditional recension, as well as from the traditional literature describing its communal uses.The detection of strophic formation is certainly not difficult, and the theological (as opposed to rhetorical) nature of orthodox insistence upon the absence from scripture of poetry and even (though less unanimous) of rhymed prose must be acknowledged.” 
Lüling is reviving a theory first put forward by H. Müller,  according to which it was possible to find in the Koran, as in the Bible, an ancient poetical form, the strophe or stanza. This form was present in seventeen suras, particularly suras LVI and XXVI. For Müller, composition in strophes was characteristic of prophetic literature. Rudolph Geyer took up the theory, and thought he had proved the presence of a strophic structure in such suras as sura LXXVIII. These ideas were dismissed at the time, but perhaps make more sense now, if we see, as Lüling does, in the Koran pre-Islamic Christians texts.
Lüling’s thorough grounding in Semitic languages enables him to show that we cannot hope to understand the Muslim tradition’s reworking of the Koranic text without an understanding of Hebrew, Aramaic and Syriac. Following in the footsteps of Mingana, Jeffery and Margoliouth, but going way beyond them, is Christoph Luxenberg,  who also tries to show that many of the obscurities of the Koran disappear if we read certain words as being Syriac and not Arabic. In order to elucidate passages in the Koran that had baffled generations of scholars, Muslim and non-Muslim, Luxenberg used the following method:
1) He went carefully through al-Tabari’s great commentary on the Koran, and also consulted Ibn al–Manzur’s celebrated dictionary of the Arabic language, Lisan al-Arab, in order to see if Western scholars of the Koran had not omitted any of the plausible explanations proposed by the Muslim commentators and philologists. If this preliminary search did not yield any solutions, then,
2) he tried to replace the obscure Arabic word in a phrase or sentence that had hitherto mystified the Muslim commentators, or which had resulted in unconvincing, strained or far-fetched explanations with a Syriac homonym, which had a different meaning (though the same sound), but which made more sense in the context. If this step did not yield a comprehensible sentence then,
3) he proceeded to the first round of changes of the diacritical points which, according to Luxenberg’s theory, must have been badly placed by the Arabic readers or whoever was the original redactor or copier of the Koran, and which had resulted in the actual obscurity of the Koranic passage concerned. In this way, he hoped to obtain another more logical reading of the Arabic. If this also failed to give any results,
4) Luxenberg then proceeded to the second round of changes of the diacritical points in order to eventually obtain a more coherent SYRIAC reading, and not an Arabic one. If all these attempts still did not yield any positive results, then,
5) he tried to decipher the real meaning of the Arabic word, which did not make any sense in its present context, by retranslating it into Syriac to deduce from the semantic contents of the Syriac root the meaning best suited to the Koranic context.
In this way, Luxenberg was able to explain not only the so-called obscure passages, but a certain number of passages which he considers were misunderstood, and whose meaning up to now no one had doubted. He was also able explain certain orthographic and grammatical analomies which abound in the Koran.
This method allows Luxenberg, to the probable horror of all Muslim males dreaming of sexual bliss in the Muslim hereafter, to conjure away the wide-eyed houris promised to the faithful in suras XLIV.54 and LII .20. According to Luxenberg, the new analysis yields ‘white raisins’ of ‘crystal clarity’ rather than doe-eyed, and ever willing virgins. Luxenberg claims that the context makes it clear that it is food and drink that is being offered, and not unsullied maidens. Similarly, the immortal, pearl-like ephebes or youths of suras such as LXXVI. 19, are really a misreading of a Syriac expression meaning “chilled raisins (or drinks)” that the Just will have the pleasure of tasting in contrast to the “boiling drinks” promised the unfaithful and damned.
 Muir, The Life of Mahomet, 3rd .Edn., Indian Reprint,
 Muir, ibid., p. xlvi
 Muir, ibid., p. xlviii (quoting Sprenger ‘s Mohammad , p.68 )
 Muir, ibid., p. xlviii
 J. Wellhausen, Prolegomena, 4, quoted by R.S.Humphreys, Islamic History: A Framework for Inquiry,
 Patricia Crone, Slaves on Horses: the Evolution of the Islamic Polity,
 R. S. Humphreys, Islamic History:. A Framework for Inquiry,
 R. S. Humphreys, ibid., p. 83
 Quoted by R. Blachere, Le Probleme de Mahomet,
 C. V. Langlois and C. Seignobos, Introduction aux études historiques,
 M. Rodinson, A Critical Survey of Modern Studies on Muhammad , in ed. M.Swartz , Studies on Islam ,
 K.S.Salibi , Islam and
 K.S.Salibi , ibid , p331 .
 M. Rodinson , A Critical Survey of Modern Studies on Muhammad , in Studies On Islam , ed M.Swartz ,
[15 ] F. E. Peters , The Quest of the Historical Muhammad , IJMES 23 (1991 ) , pp291-315 ,
[ page of the present volume ]
 Lawrence Conrad , Abraha and Muhammad Some Observations Apropos of Chronology and Literary Topoi in the Early Arabic Historical Tradition , BSOAS I ( 1987 ) pp225 .
 Cf. A.Schweitzer , The Quest of the Historical Jesus , trans.W.Montgomery , London 1945 [ Ist Eng.Edn., 1910 ]p4, 5 , « For hate as well as love can write a Life of Jesus , and the greatest of them are written with hate : that of Reimarus , the Wolfenbuttel Fragmentist , and that of D .F. Strauss ….And their hate sharpened their historical insight .They advanced the study of the subject more than all the others put together .But for the offence which they gave , the science of historical theology would not have stood where it does to-day « .
 M. Rodinson , op. cit , pp26-27
 K. S. Salibi , op.cit , p.335
 ibid . p 335
 ibid . p.335
 ibid., p.336
 E.A.Belyaev , Arabs , Islam and the Arab Caliphate in the Early Middle Ages ,
 R.S.Humphreys , op.cit., p.83
 J.Schacht , The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence ,
 J.Schacht , ibid ., p.149
 J.Schacht , ibid., p.163
 J.Schacht , ibid., p;224 .
 R.Blachere , Le Probleme de Mahomet : Essai de Biographie Critique du fondateur de l’Islam ,
 R.Blachere , op.cit. p.17-18 .
 H.Birkeland , The Lord Guides , Studies on Primitive Islam ,
 R.Paret , Researches on the Life of the Prophet Muhammad , in JPHS ,1958.pp81-96.
 ibid., p.89
 Birkeland , op.cit.pp.133-135
 R.Paret , op.cit p.89 .
 S.Bashear , Arabs and Others In Early Islam ,
 S.Bashear , Quran 2 :114 and
 ibid., p.215-16
 ibd., p.217
 J.Wansbrough , Quranic Studies ,
 S.Bashear , Quran 2 :114 and
 G.Hawting , The First Dynasty of Islam , London , 1986 pp.6-7 ; also The Origins of the Muslim Sanctuary at Mecca , in , ed. G.H.A.Juynboll , Studies in the First Century of Islam , Illinois , 1982 .
 M.J.Kister , On ‘Concessions ‘ and Conduct : A Study in Early Hadith , in ed ;G.H.A.Juynboll , Studies , pp.89 – 108 .
 S.Bashear , Quran 2 :114 and
 ibid ., p.238
 P.Crone & M.Cook , Hagarism ,
 S.Bashear , The title « faruq « and its association with Umar 1 , in Studia Islamica 72 [ 1990 ] p.69 .
 ibid., p.69
 ibid p.70
 S.Bashear , Abraham’s Sacrifice of His Son and Related Issues , Der Islam 67 ( 1990 ) pp.243- 277 .
 J.Wansbrough , Quranic Studies ,
 J.Schacht , Origins …
 [Bashear’s note : « G.R.Hawting has lately argued that Islam does not seem to have one firmly established cultic center in the first [ Muslim ] century, The First Dynasty of Islam , London , 1986 , pp.6-7 . Before that Kister has shown how the struggle between
 Goldziher , Muslim Studies ,
 S.Bashear , Abraham’s Sacrifice of His Son and Related Issues , Der Islam 67 ( 1990 ) p.277 .
 S.Bashear , Riding Beasts on Divine Missions : An Examination of the Ass and Camel Traditions , JSS XXXVII/1 Spring 1991 , pp37-75 .
 ibid p.75
 S. Bashear, Arabs and Others in Early Islam , ( Studies in Late Antiquity and Early Islam 8 )
 ibid., p.3
 ibid .,p.113
 ibid., p.116
 ibid p.118
 M. J. Kister, The Sirah Literature , in edd Beeston , Johnstone et al., Arabic Literature to the End of the Umayyad Period , Cambridge 1983 .p.367
 W. Raven , Sira , in EI² , Vol.IX , p662
 Which eventually appeared with only the contributions of the advocates of Wansbrough : Islamic Origins Reconsidered : John Wansbrough and the Study of Early Islam , ed Herbert Berg , in Method & Theory in the Study of Religion , Volume 9-1 ( 1997 ) Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin ; with articles by H.Berg , G.R.Hawting , Andrew Rippin , Norman Calder , and Charles J.Adams .
 See bibliography at the end of the present chapter for full details .
 Issa Boullata , Poetry citation as interpretive illustration in Quran exegesis : Masa’il Nafi’ ibn al-Azraq . In Wael B.Hallaq and Donald P.Little (eds) , Islamic Studies Presented to Charles J.Adams ,pp 27-40 .Leiden : E.J.Brill , 1991 .p.38
 ibid., p.40.
 ibid., p.38
 Claude Gilliot , Exégèse , langue et theologie en Islam .Lexégèse coranique de Tabari ( m.311- 923 ) .Paris :Vrin .
 A. Rippin, Quranic Studies, part IV: Some methodological notes . In Islamic Origins Reconsidered: John Wansbrough and the Study of Early Islam , ed Herbert Berg , in Method & Theory in the Study of Religion , Volume 9-1 ( 1997 ) Mouton
 C. H. M. Versteegh , Arabic Grammar and Quranic Exegesis in Early Islam ,
 A. Rippin , op.cit.p.44
 ibid , p.45
 E. Whelan , Forgotten Witness : evidence for the early codification of the Quran . In JAOS , Jan-March , 1998 .
 F. Donner , The Early Islamic Conquests ,
 G. R. Hawting , Review of Donner in BSOAS , xlvii [ 1984 ] , 130 – 133 .
 R. S. Humphreys , Islamic History . A Framework for Inquiry ,
 F. Donner , Narratives of Islamic Origins .The Beginnings of Islamic Historical Writing ,
 G. Luling asserts that a third of the Koran is of pre-Islamic Christian origins , see Uber den Urkoran ,
 Gerd Puin is quoted as saying in the Atlantic Monthly , January , 1999 , « The Koran claims for itself that it is ‘mubeen ‘ or ‘clear ‘ .But if you look at it , you will notice that every fifth sentence or so simply doesn’t make sense …the fact is that a fifth of the Koranic text is just incomprehensible . … »
 G. H. A. Juynboll , review of John Wansbrough , Quranic Studies , in JSS 24 ( 1979 ) pp.293-296 .
 Rev. J. M. Rodwell, The Koran translated , E.P.Dutton ,
 M. Schub , Dave and the Knave in the Cave of the Brave , ZAL , 38 , 2000 pp.88-90
 A. Rippin , Muhammad in the Qur’an : Reading Scripture in the 21st Century , in H.Motzki , ed. , The Biography of Muhammad : The Issue of the Sources , Brill ,
 Ibid., p.307
 A. Rippin , The function of the asbŒb al-nuz´l in Qur’Œnic Exegesis , BSOAS , 51 (1988) , 1-20 , also in Ibn Warraq, ed. The Quest for the Historical Muhammad ,
 G. R. Hawting , The Idea of Idolatry and the Emergence of Islam . From Polemic to History .
 John Burton, The Collection of the Qur’an ,
 John Burton , p.219.
 H. Hirschfeld , New Researches into the Composition and Exegesis of the Qoran ,
 S.de Sacy , Journal des savants , 1832 , p.535 sq. ; G.Weil , Historisch –Kritische Einleitung in den Koran , second edn., Bielefeld , 1878 , p.52 , A. Sprenger , Das Leben und die Lehre des Mohammad , Berlin , 1861-5 , Vol III p.164 .
 I hope to publish extracts in English in an anthology in the near future .
 I was lucky enough to obtain a photocopy of the third volume at New York Public Library. Two of the greatest modern scholars of the Koran did not possess the third volume, and were happy to receive a photocopy from me. What I have called volume three is, in fact, Notes Complementaires II , of Deuxième Fascicule .
 A. Sprenger , Das Leben und die Lehre des Mohammad , 2ed. p.533
 P. Casanova , Mohammed et la Fin du Monde ,
 Watt./Bell, op.cit., pp.53-54
 Noldeke , Gesch. des Q. p.202 .
 My emphasis , I.W.
 Casanova , op.cit., pp.147 ff.
 Watt/Bell , op. cit., pp.53-54
 H. Lammens , Koran and Tradition ,pp.169-187 in ed. Ibn Warraq , The Quest for the Historical Muhammad ,
 T. Andrae , Die Legenden von der Berufung Muhammeds , Le Monde Oriental 6 (1912 ) pp.5-18 .
 A . Rippin , Muhammad in the Qur’an : Reading Scripture in the 21st Century , in H.Motzki , ed. , The Biography of Muhammad : The Issue of the Sources , Brill ,
 M. Schub , Quran 9.40 , Dave and the Knave in the Cave of the Brave , ZAL, 38 ( 2000 ) pp88-90
 J. Wansbrough , The Sectarian Milieu ,
 Ibid., p.69 .
 H. Müller , Die Propheten in ihrer ursprünglichen Form , Vienne , 1896 .
 R. Geyer , Zur Strophik des Qurans , in WZKM , XXII(1908 ) 265-86 .
 C. Luxenberg , Die Syro-Aramaische Lesart des Koran , Verlag: Das Arabische Buch; Berlin, 2000
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