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Book Reviews

Mohammed Ali Amir-Moezzi, Le Coran silencieux et le Coran parlant

In the last decades research on the Qur’an and on the beginnings of Islam made great progress thanks to new epigraphic and archeological discoveries and new methodologies of analyzing sources. The importance of the topic is obvious if we consider the importance of the Qur’an in the Islamic religion. But it is also obvious that in order to understand how the Muslim sacred text was written it is necessary to form a very clear picture of the community of the origins, because it was in the first years of its life, while aiming at conquering the antique world, that it made certain basic choices that would determine the fundamental featured of Islam for centuries to come.



In general this decisive period is presented both for what concerns the general context as well as the specific collection of the Qur’an (jam‘ al-Qur’ân) in the light of classic Sunnite texts, the reliability of which is then examined by modern scholars who selectively classify them along a gamut ranging from credibility (until proven otherwise) to total refusal. On the other hand, the lack of appreciation of the Shiite sources was almost unanimous. They were considered biased in the presentation of the facts because they tended to justify in every way the pretext of Ali and his descendants to the caliphate.



Different to this approach, the Amir-Moezzi book, which benefits from a series of research carried out over the last two decades, proves instead two fundamental thesis. The first is that all the Islamic sources of the first two centuries are ideologically orientated and not only the Shiite ones. The first century of Islam was in fact a period of great violence where the community was often lacerated by contrasts and civil wars. Just to give an example, three out of four caliphs (the Muhammed first successors) die violent deaths. From a reading of the antique sources, Sunnite and Shiite, we learn how misleading is today’s prevalent characterization of the Era of the Companions and their Successors as a golden époque of peace and harmony. If this is true, the writing of the Qur’an must have resented this climate of extreme violence. Amir-Moezzi’s conclusion is therefore that all the sources must be examined critically and rigorously because ‘the Sunnite writings, especially the most antique are also ideological and in any case for a better understanding of a history so profoundly marked by civil violence, an examination of the ‘archives of the opposition’ as the Shiite sources are called, is as indispensable as that of the official sources which have more or less obtained the imprimatur of power’. The second thesis of the Franco-Persian scholar is that the Shiite sources seem to follow a direction similar to that of modern historical critical research, where it suggest that the process of compilation of the sacred text continued beyond the caliphate of Uthman (m. 656) to the Umayyad age.



Amir-Moezzi analyses in detail five works: the book of Sulaym Ibn Qays which represents the most antique Shiite writing that has come down to us, The book of Revelations and Falsifications, by al-Sayyari (ninth century), the comment on the Qur’an by al-Hibari, died in 899, the monograph on the Grades of Knowledge by al-Saffar al-Qummi (died 902/903) and the collection of traditions by al-Kulayni (died towards 940) which forms the most antique and important collection of hadîths of Shia. These texts belong to different literary genres, from historical account, to the exegetical treatise, from the Gnostic text to the collection of traditions. However, the author emphasizes, case by case, how these conserve important data which sometimes agree with discreet allusions contained in the Sunnite sources. ‘The least we can say - the author concludes - is that this fact invites us to examine the Shiite sources with less suspicion’ (p. 209).



In fact Amir-Moezzi in his chronological study does not limit himself to gathering significant elements for his study on the relationship between the historical conflicts of the origins of Islam and the formation of its canonic Scriptures, but he gives us the history of the progressive emerging of Shia as integral doctrine up to the ‘constitution of a complete religion’ (p. 203). This phenomenon is historically illustrated by the author but is of theological understanding. In fact he thinks that the historical failure of Ali’s partisans excluded from being guides of the community (book of Sulaym Ibn Qays) would have led the imam to choose an hermeneutic work to safeguard the religion of Muhammed from being altered. It is in this context that the idea of the existence of a silent Qur’an emerges (the canonic version of the text, incomplete), which should be interpreted and almost animated by the presence of a speaking Qur’an, the imam. In this sense, Amr-Moezzi concludes, ‘more than a Book religion the Shia is a person religion, a figure, the imam, just as Christianity is the religion of Christ’ (p. 217). This process finally emerges in the tenth century, during the elaboration of a religion of the imam ‘full of gnosis and neo-Platonism’ (p. 217), which represents the original tradition prior to rational theology and Sunnite Law.



It is therefore the whole story of the origins of Shia that Amir-Moezzi offers the reader in this precious volume, through the lens of the progressive recording of Islamic texts.


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