History and legend in the origins of Islam (III)

First Sura (al-Fatiha) of the Holy Qur'an | Credit: Hattat Aziz Efendi / Wikimedia Commons
First Sura (al-Fatiha) of the Holy Qur’an | Credit: Hattat Aziz Efendi / Wikimedia Commons

In the last entries of our series on the origins of Islam we shall explore some of the information contained in or directly connected to the Qur’an itself. As I explained in the previous article, the Holy Qur’an is the only important Arabic written document from the VIIth century. Even stone inscriptions in Arabic are not too earlier, the oldest ones (still not using the Arabic alphabet, but a form of Nabatean Aramaic alphabet) coming from the IVth century; the Arabic alphabet itself had to wait still one or two more centuries to start being developed, mostly in what today are Jordan and southern Syria, and mostly used in inscriptions which are undoubtedly Christian 1. As we shall see, the fact that Arabic script had not fully developed yet by the VIIth century causes lots of problems for the correct interpretation of the Qur’an and for the assessment of its origins.

The Qur’an was not originally written as a whole book. Actually, according to Muslim tradition, at the beginning it was not written at all, but just orally recited (qur’an means ‘recitation’) by Muhammad (or, first and foremost, by the archangel Gabriel to the Prophet) and by his disciples, and only later some of these started bothering to transcribe it so as to preserve its memory as acutely as possible. Muhammad’s recitations had no ‘logical’, ‘thematic’ order, but seemed to respond to particular facts or situations the Qur’an itself is profoundly obscure about. The traditional edition of the ‘book’ collects the single ‘revelations’ (verses, i.e., ayaht, or ‘signs’) into 114 ‘chapters’ that have a certain thematic unity (suras), but these ‘chapters’ are not themselves collected according to any chronological, thematic or otherwise systematic guidelines, but simply by its length: the longer suras at the beginning and the shorter ones at the end. Muslim tradition classifies the suras according to whether they have been ‘revealed’ before or after the hijra (622 CE), i.e., to whether they come from the time of Muhammad at Mecca or at Medina. This division between Meccan and Medinan suras was done either for stylistic reasons (the former tend to use shorter verses and employ a slightly different vocabulary –e.g., the name al-Rahman –the Merciful– for God), but also for exegetical reasons: according to the doctrine of ‘abrogation’, the revelations that came later in time can ‘abrogate’ (‘correct’ or ‘substitute’) the message of earlier ones, so that, in case of contradiction between two suras or verses, the Muslim exegetes could argue that one of them was revealed later, and so it is this one which has to be preferred as the interpretation of God’s will.

However, lacking almost any reliable evidence about the validity of the traditional account of the Qur’an’s history, contemporary scholarship has attempted to scrutinize the book in search of hints about its possible origin, influences and circumstances of its edition. This research has led to the proposal of several theories that, unfortunately, remain highly speculative due to lack of definite evidence. We shall present in the remaining of this entry and the next one the main facts these theories are based on.

1) Being the first (and the most) important work composed in Arabic, it is understandable that whoever the author of the Qur’an might be, he (it’s difficult to imagine that it was the work of a woman) was proud of his use of the Arabic language. So the Qur’an mentions many times that it is transmitted ‘in clear, pure Arabic’… in fact, it does it too many times. It is strange this insistence in making it explicit the language in which the work is written, but it is still more strange if we think that the text was originally an oral recitation. “Of course I’m listening that you are speaking to me in Arabic; why do you insist on that obvious point so often?”, one might think. As Spencer 2 puts it, “when the Qur’an repeatedly insists that it is written in Arabic, it is not unreasonable to conclude that someone, somewhere was saying that it wasn’t in Arabic at all. A point needs emphasis only when it is controverted… The Qur’an thus may insist so repeatedly on its Arabic essence because that was precisely the aspect of it that others were challenging”. We shall come back to this point in the next entry.

2) Though obviously the Qur’an is in Arabic, it is not so obvious that it is in “clear Arabic”, as it also repeatedly asserts. As philologist Gerd Puin put it, “if you look at (the Qur’an), 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” (quoted in Spencer, 2012). This is due to multiple kinds of language problems, from terms that only appear in the Qur’an and so it’s difficult to know what they mean, to semantic or syntactic inconsistencies, ellipses, anacolutha, etc. This makes the translation of the Qur’an especially problematic, and it is perhaps one of the reasons why Muslims reject so fiercely to translate their holly book. Muslims exegetes have been deeply conscious of this problem from the beginning, for their work has precisely been that of trying to explain what the Qur’an means; in fact, no Muslim can directly understand most of the Qur’an save thanks to that exegetical work. Of course, the exegesis of sacred texts is not exclusive of Islam, but in the case of the Bible, for example, exegesis tries to explore the ‘occult meaning’ of the text (say, the prophetic or moral message), that usually can be thought to be very different from its ‘apparent meaning’… In the case of the Qur’an, the problem is, instead, that there is often no such a thing as an ‘apparent meaning’. This does not mean, of course, that those difficult-to-understand texts lack strong rhetorical power or poetical sublimity.

3) Another frustrating (especially for Western readers) feature of the Qur’an is that it contains basically no reference at all to the social, historical, or political reality in which it was conceived. Most references to specific and identifiable characters are indeed to Biblical names, from Adam to Jesus; Moses in particular is the most cited person in the whole Qur’an (probably as a paradigm of the mix Prophet/Stateman that Muhammad was claiming for himself). Instead, Muhammad is cited by that name only a fistful of times, though in many occasions the text refers to ‘the Messenger’ (rasul) as the one to which the recitation is addressed, or the person some of whose actions the saying is about. As we saw in previous entries, muhammad means ‘blessed’, so it is not absolutely clear that the word is used as a proper name when it appears. This lack of references to contemporary events that might be tested by independent sources makes the dating of the suras practically impossible, as well as the determination of the place or places of composition. The fortunate finding of a Syriac text entitled Alexander Legend in the late XIXth century has provided one of the few (if not the only) possibilities of dating one particular sura. There is a close parallel between parts of that text and sura 18:83-102 (sura of The Cave3), which seems to be a summary of the ‘prophesies’ the Syriac book attributes to Alexander the Great (the Qur’an –but not the Legend– refers to the Greek king as ‘Dhu l-Qarnyan’, i.e., ‘the Two Horned’, exactly as Alexander was represented in some old coins, bearing two ram horns, probably indicating the power of the sun). The Alexander Legend was most likely composed in northern Syria to commemorate the victory of Byzantine emperor Heraclius over the Persians and the recovery of Jerusalem, around 630 CE. It is an apocalyptic book that became very popular in the following decades, and that mixes some deeds of Alexander with some Christian prophesies in order to show that the clash of the Roman and Persian empires, the raids of northern tribes on Middle East, and other ‘signs’ were announcing the end of the times. The Qur’an summary shares this apocalyptic vision, though of course avoiding a Christian interpretation. It cannot be doubted that the Qur’an version derives (most probably directly, because of the close parallel even in their phrasing) from the Syrian text. This does not make it impossible that the sura of The Cave had been composed by Muhammad in his last years (remember that he is assumed to have died by 632 CE), though two years seems too little time for the Alexander Legend having circulated from Edessa (now in Southern Turkey) to Mecca in so a detailed way as to allow for the existing parallels with the Qur’an text. Another possibilities are, for example, that Muhammad had lived longer (remember that the Doctrina Jacobi mentioned around 635-640 a living ‘prophet’ commanding the Arab invaders of Palestine), or that The Cave had been composed much later by someone else. Whatever the real explanation, the fact is that the chronology of the Alexander Legend is incompatible with the ascription of the sura to the Meccan period (as the Muslim exegesis does), a period that had supposedly ended by 622, too long before the taking of Jerusalem by the Byzantines.


  1. Hoyland, R., (2008), “Epigraphy and the linguistic background to the Qur’an”, in Reynolds, G. S., ed., (2008), The Qur’an in Its Historical Context, London, Routledge. pp. 51-69
  2. Spencer, R., (2012), Did Muhammad Exist? An Inqury into Islam’s Obscure Origins, Washington, ISI Books
  3. Van Bladel, K., (2008), “The Alexander Legend in the Qur’an 18:32-102”, in Reynolds, G. S., ed., (2008), The Qur’an in Its Historical Context, London, Routledge., pp. 175-203

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