The expansion of the chronological framework for the analysis of Islamic Holy Scripture

This article was published in Oasis 20. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:24:22

Le Coran.jpgReview of Mehdi Azaiez (ed.) with Sabrina Mervin, "Le Coran. Nouvelles approches", CNRS Éditions, Paris 2013.

Contemporary research on the Qur’an, though extremely heterogeneous in methods and results, shares a tendency to expand the chronological framework for the analysis of Islamic Holy Scripture. But in what direction?

The paths immediately diverge. For some scholars, what is essential are the events before Muhammad: the Qur’an thus becomes an ‘Arab lectionary’ that is profoundly marked by debates within the Christian, Jewish or Judeo-Christian worlds of late-antiquity, without underestimating the importance of Manicheism and Gnosticism. For others, on the contrary, what really matters is the period after Muhammad, the decisive years that go from the Arab conquests to the Omayyad caliphate and lead to the institutionalisation of Islam as a religion distinct from Judaism and Christianity. Lastly, a third way stresses the need not to dilute excessively the historical figure of the Prophet of Islam and the specifically Arab character of his message.

Le Coran. Nouvelles approches bears witness to these three directions of inquiry. The first essay actually establishes a fundamental limit to any chronological enlargement after Muhammad. Through an analysis of some manuscripts François Déroche demonstrates how the fixing of the Qur’anic text had already taken place during the Omayyad epoch, in a process that went through different phases and bears the traces of direct intervention by the central authority. The role of the caliphal power is also highlighted by Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, who exploits the oldest Shiite sources, and Frédric Imbert, a specialist in Arab epigraphy. A first reliable point thus seems to have been established.

On the other hand, the middle contributions emphasise the connections between Islamic Holy Scripture and the world of late-antiquity (the fundamental thesis of Angelika Neuwirth), whose boundaries were at any rate rather indistinct and syncretised (Claude Gilliot), whereas the thesis of the essentially Arab character of the Qur’an is espoused only by Jacqueline Chabbi in a thought-provoking but isolated analysis. The most interesting argument along these lines is, however, that of Geneviève Gobillot who demonstrates how the abrogation referred to in 2,106 does not mean the replacement of a Qur’anic verse with one of a later period, as mainstream Islamic exegesis argues, but relates to single passages of previous Scriptures. On the basis of this thesis Gobillot convincingly explains two enigmatic passages relating to the linguistic polemic with the Jews of Medina and the figure of Salomon. Of especial significance is the fact that similar conclusions are reached by different routes by Michel Cuypers through a rhetorical analysis of 2,106 and its context. This is an important affirmation that could lead Muslim scholars to reconsider the whole question of the relationship between the Qur’an and Biblical texts, which today are habitually dismissed as a whole as unreliable. If Gobillot and Cuypers are right, the Qur’an seems in this to be much more nuanced than its exegetes. Lastly, amongst the various linguistic contributions, the essay of Pierre Larcher continues his research into the archaising patina that the final revision of the Qur’an is said to have placed on the original text.

Can these approaches be reconciled? To a certain extent. For example, while reading the volume central Arabia seems to be constantly changing its clothes, becoming, from one essay to another, pagan, Christianised, profoundly marked by Judaism, the refuge of Gnostic sects or, lastly, of secondary importance for a development of Islam which is said to have taken place more in a Syrian-Iraqi context. Despite the praiseworthy introduction of the editor, a concern to achieve a harmonisation remains absent in this volume, as is the case in general in contemporary research on the Qur’an. But it is specifically a synthesis that is now needed: a strong overall hypothesis which can hold together disparate elements, freeing itself from the illusion that it is sufficient to accumulate detailed observations to produce in a magic way a comprehensive formula. Quite on the contrary, this goal can only be achieved by a conscious effort directed towards identifying the general hypothesis that is able to explain the greatest number of particulars.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

To cite this article

Printed version:
Martino Diez, “Three directions to explore the Quran”, Oasis, year X, n. 20, December 2014, p. 116.

Online version:
Martino Diez, “Three directions to explore the Quran”, Oasis [online], published on 8th April 2015, URL: