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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

In the Shadow of the Sword II; Quran and Sana'a manuscripts

A segment of the "Sana'a Papyrus"

Bismillahir Rahmanir Raheem: In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful; This verse appears in Quran 114 times, at the beginning of each Surah or chapter apart from one exception. Surah Tauba (Chapter 9) starts without this verse. But Bismillah, as this verse is commonly referred to, also appears in the middle of another Surah. Completing 114 appearances in Quran, equaling the total number of Chapters in it. An interesting trivia which I learnt as a child growing in a Muslim household.

While reading Tom Holland’s “In the shadow of the sword” it never occurred to me that the total number of “Bismillah’s” in Quran will have any relevance to his critique of the origins of Islam. The book itself is a very interesting read. The author has complete mastery over the era which saw the end of the glory days of both Roman and Persian empires. Be it Peroz’s last ditch attempt to regain lost prestige of the house of Sassan, or Justinian’s endeavors to bring Rome back into the Roman Empire, the book paints a picture so well defined and detailed as far as Romans and Persians are concerned. But when it comes to Mecca, Mr. Holland resorts to broad brush strokes. He laments the lack of historic evidence, ruins, engravings, coinage etc. but still assumes so much based on what little “secular” evidence exists.

So, what of the authenticity of Quran? Tom Holland observes that the paradise of Quran sounds very similar to the Greek myths. Why are there so many frequent references to agriculture, olives etc? Could it be that the author(s) of Quran had an eye on the Fertile Crescent, or even better, was it written in Mesopotamia? To a Muslim, such questions are obviously bordering the ridiculous, but a secular reader should also be taken aback by the naivety of such fantastic assumptions.

Mr. Holland’s assertion that Quran is not as infallible and unchanged as Muslims would like to believe because

a. There is no evidence that Quran ever existed as a single text during the life of the Prophet of Islam (pbuh) and

b. The Sana’a manuscripts, discovered in 1970s have evidence that Quran was revised and amended.

As for the first argument, it can be said that the author has willingly ignored the distinctly oral tradition of the Arabs. The fact that thousands of verses of classic Arab poets were preserved without much adulteration in pre-Islamic Arabia: The fact that even in this day and age, millions of Muslims have memorized the full text of the Quran, and can recite it whole without consulting a paper copy.

And when it comes to Sana’a manuscripts, Mr. Holland gets a bit overexcited due to the knee jerk Muslim reaction to the German scholar in charge of the restoration of the Sana’a scrolls. Gerd Puin stated that the scrolls were re-written where various alterations were made to the spellings and order of the verses. Also, in his opinion Quran is not a clear book, its vague and may contain texts from before the time of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Tom Holland has taken a similar stance in his book. But Sadeghi-Gourdarzi critique of Puins’ work (Gerd’s wife published more material recently) debunks the theory that Quranic text has been inconsistent and also confirms the mainstream Muslim understanding of how Quran was compiled and its recitation standardized. If anything at all, Sana’a scrolls are a testament to the early Islamic efforts to ensure Quran was preserved on paper (Papyrus) and disseminated far and wide for the new converts. Sana’a scrolls were washed and re-written with the Mushaf-e-Uthman. And residual traces of old ink show the older version of Quran where many words were spelled differently and some verses/surahs were in different order.

One thing struck me while reading the research on the manuscripts. Scholars working on a particular section of the manuscripts found that they were looking the earliest written version of the end of the 8th and beginning of the 9th Surah. There was no Bismillah written at the beginning of the 9th Surah. So in addition to finding no textual contradictions (additions or deletions) between the Sana’a scrolls and the modern day Quran, there is consistency in minutest details which takes us back to the time of the Prophet of Islam (pbuh). For those insterested I would recommend looking into the "absent" Bismillah before Surah Tauba, which links the revelation of the Surah with cetain events int he life of the Prophet (pbuh). Regardless of what Tom Holland thinks of the authenticity Hadith and Seerah literature, this evidence alone can refute the myth of the "authored Quran".
In his book, Tom Holland also poses a number of other questions which I will address in near future. InshaAllah

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