In 1972, a ‘paper grave’ was found by labourers doing restoration work in the Great Mosque in Sana’a, Yemen. Between the mosque’s inner and outer roofs was a collection of old parchment and paper documents, damaged books and individual pages. Centuries of rain and damp, and damage by insects and rats had made much of it unreadable. Qadhi Isma’il al-Akwa’, then president of the Yemeni Antiquities Authority, thought that the find could be important, and tried to obtain the funds and expertise necessary to examine and preserve the documents. In 1979 he managed to interest a visiting German scholar in the documents, who in turn persuaded the German government to fund and organise their restoration.
The German government sent Gerd-R. Puin, a specialist in Arabic calligraphy and Qur’anic paleology, from Saarland University to supervise the project in 1981. Now, more than 15,000 documents have been cleaned and sorted, and lie in Yemen’s House of Manuscripts. The documents include tens of thousands of fragments from almost one thousand different copies of the Qur’an. Some pieces may date back to the first and second centuries after the hijra, making them among the oldest surviving Qur’anic manuscripts. The Yemeni authorities do not want the fact that Orientalists are working on these documents to be widely known, fearing protest from concerned Muslims. So far, they have only allowed Puin and H.-C. Grant von Bothner, an Islamic art historian from the same university, to examine the documents closely.
To the excitement of Puin and von Bothner, some showed minor differences in wording and verse-order from Qur’ans in use today. Knowing that access to the documents could be prevented in future if Muslims realized the implications of their research, von Bothner took more than 35,000 pictures on microfilm of the texts. Now that the microfilm is safely in Germany, Orientalists are free to study the documents and publish their conclusions, and journalists, self-proclaimed reformers and other interested parties can also discuss the implications of the find without having to worry about jeopardizing Puin and von Bonther’s research.
An article entitled What is the Koran? was published in the Atlantic Monthly in January 1999 about this restoration project. It clarifies its objectives: Puin wants to challenge the Muslim belief that the Qur’an is the unchanged word of God. Muslims, he says, have agreed with the textual critics of the Bible that the Bible has a history and "did not fall straight out of the sky", but have refused to accept that the Qur’an also has a history. He believes that the fragments found in Sana’a will prove that the Qur’an is "a kind of cocktail of texts that were not all understood even at the time of Muhammad" (p. 46). Andrew Rippin, professor of Religious Studies at the University of Calgary, Canada, claims that they show that the Qur’anic text "is less stable, and therefore has less authority, than has always been claimed" (p. 45).
The fact is that the existence of minor differences in wording and in the ordering of the surahs in the earliest masahif (manuscripts) is no surprise to Muslims familiar with classical Islamic scholarship of the Qur’an. Such variations occurred for several reasons. One factor is the dialectical differences then existing in different regions of Arabia. Another is that some of the Sahaba kiram (Companions) recorded such masahif for their own personal use. As these persons had either memorised the Qur’an in its entirety or large portions of it, such masahif were written merely as an aid to memory. Therefore, notes in the margins such as the wording of du’as (supplications) occurred, and the order of surahs varied. Books written by classical Muslim scholars, such as al-Suyuti’s Itqan, go into great detail about such issues.
When the Khalifa ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan ordered that one standard text be used and others destroyed, the Sahaba who possessed masahif containing variants did not object to this ruling, which shows that they agreed with his verdict. Moreover, in the subsequent civil war between the supporters of the Khalifa Ali ibn Abi-Talib and Mu’awiya, calls for arbitration according to the Qur’an never involved claims that the other side had an incomplete or changed Qur’an. This would have been a convenient and devastating weapon if it could have been at all convincing. Knowledge about these variations has been preserved by classical Muslim scholarship, and has been useful to scholars of tafsir (Qur’anic interpretation). It was never seen as evidence against the integrity of the Qur’anic text, however, and for this reason Orientalists have not succeeded in building a compelling argument upon it. Having their own documents to build speculations upon gives them much more room to manoeuvre, as they can define the terms and conditions of their research.
Studies of the texts are likely to achieve two main objectives. For Orientalists, the Sana’a fragments provide more material upon which to build conjectures about the ‘evolution’ of the Qur’anic text and events in early Islamic history. Would-be reformers will use the documents, or, more likely, Orientalists’ conclusions about them, to undercut the authority of the classical scholars and contemporary ulama. The Atlantic Monthly indicates that some Orientalists and ‘reformers’ will work together on the project of reinterpreting the Qur’an: An Encyclopedia of the Qur’an, similar to Biblical encyclopedias written by textual critics, is being published to present the latest Orientalist approaches to Qur’anic interpretation. Nasr Abu-Zaid, who claims that the Qur’an can only be understood as a literary text, and was legally declared an apostate in Egypt in 1995, is on the advisory board.
Western study of the Qur’an and of Islam originated in missionary and military concerns. Modern ‘specialists’ in Islam have tried to distance themselves from this heritage and project their conclusions as secular, scientific and unbiased. However, the article reveals a persistent Biblical as well as secular bias These specialists seem blissfully unaware that Biblical criticism and their version of Qur’anic studies did not "fall out of the sky" either. These approaches to scripture are products of a particular historical, political and economic climate.
The Bible is the implicit model against which the Qur’an is measured. It is considered a "cocktail" because it does not present material in the chronological or thematic order typical of Biblical narratives. Secular biases in both Biblical and Qur’anic studies are revealed in hostility to divine revelation in any form: any text dealing with miraculous occurrences is deemed inauthentic. Also, the Biblical form of any narrative is considered to be the most authentic, because it is older, while the idea that the Qur’an, as the latest revelation, could be correct in its different accounts of events is dismissed. The limitations of the purveyors of this ‘unbiased’ and ‘scientific’ study of the Qur’an are arrogantly imposed on the sacred text itself. Puin claims that one-fifth of the Qur’an is incomprehensible, apparently because he himself cannot understand it. Fourteen hundred years of Muslim scholarship, devotion and art issuing forth from the Qur’an are seen as carrying less weight than the opinions of a handful of non-Muslims who cannot even claim native fluency in classical Arabic.
The fact that the preservation of Qur’anic documents is left in the hands of such people is a tragedy that reflects the impotence and lack of faith of the Muslim Ummah. It brings to mind the ahadith which describe the disappearance of the Qur’an from the masahif and the memories of people which will occur in the Last Days. The openly political agenda of these Orientalists is evident; once the Muslims’ confidence in the authenticity of the Qur’an is undermined, Islam will have no social or political authority. Muslims will no longer be able to claim to know what the divine will is on issues ranging from the implementation of Islamic laws to the liberation of al-Quds (Jerusalem).
Convenient solutions, based on the realities of the political and economic domination of the west, will be imposed upon them with utter impunity.
Muslimedia: May 16-31, 1999