The Koran, the true history of a book with intense impact on world politics

[Mondher Sfar, In search of the original Koran: the true history of the revealed text (New York: Prometheus Books, 2008) 152pp]


REVIEW /  Marina G. Reina


Not much has been done regarding research about the authenticity of the Quranic text. This is something that Mondher Sfar has in mind throughout the book, that makes use of the scriptural techniques of the Koran, the scarce research material available, and the Islamic tradition, to redraw the erased story of the transmission of the holy book of Muslims. The same tradition that imposes “a representation of the revelation and of its textual product-which (…) is totally alien to the spirit and to the content of the Quranic text.”

The work is a sequencing of questions that arise from the gaps that the Islamic tradition leaves regarding the earliest testimony about the Koran and the biography of Prophet Muhammad. The result is an imprecise or inconclusive answer because it is almost impossible to trace the line back to the very early centuries of the existence of Islam, and due to an “insurmountable barrier” that “has been established against any historical and relativized perception of the Koran (…) to consecrate definitively the new orthodox ideology as the only possible and true one.” 

As mentioned, Sfar’s main sources are those found in the tradition, by which we mean the records from notorious personalities in the early years of the religion. Their sayings prove “the existence in Muhammad’s time of two states of the revealed text: a first state and a reworked state that have been modified and corrected.” This fact “imperils the validity and identity of Revelation, even if its divine authenticity remains unquestioned.”

The synthesis that the author makes on the “kinds of division” (or alterations of the Revelation), reducing them to three from certain ayas in the Koran, is also of notorious interest. In short, these are “that of the modification of the text; that of satanic revelations; and finally, that of the ambiguous nature of the portion of the Revelation.” The first one exemplifies how the writing of the Revelation was changed along time; the second is grounded on a direct reference to this phenomenon in the Koran, when it says that “Satan threw some [false revelations] into his (Muhammad’s) recitation” (22:52), something that, by the way, is also mentioned in the Bible in Ezekiel 13:3, 6.

Another key point in the book is that of the components of the Koran (the surahs and the ayas) being either invented or disorganized later in time. The manuscripts of the “revealed text” vary in style and form, and the order of the verses was not definitively fixed until the Umayyad era. It is remarkable how something as basic as the titles of the surahs “does not figure in the first known Koranic manuscript”, nor was it reported by contemporaries to the Prophet to be ever mentioned by him. The same mystery arises upon the letters that can be read above at the beginning of the preambles in the surahs. According to the Tradition, they are part of the Revelation, whilst the author argues that they are linked to “the process of the formation of surahs”, as a way of numeration or as signatures from the scribes. As already mentioned, it is believed that the Koran version that we know today was made in two phases; in the second phase or correction phase surahs would have been added or divided. The writer remarks how a few surahs lack the common preambles and these characteristic letters, which leads to think that these elements were added in the proofreading part of the manuscript, so these organizational signals were omitted.

It may seem that at some points the author makes too many turns on the same topic (in fact, he even raises questions that remain unresolved throughout the book). Nonetheless, it is difficult to question those issues that have been downplayed from the Tradition and that, certainly, are weighty considerations that provide a completely different vision of what is known as the "spirit of the law.” This is precisely what he refers to by repeatedly naming the figure of the scribes of the Prophet, that “shaped” the divine word, “and it is this operation that later generations have tried to erase, in order to give a simplified and more-reassuring image of the Quranic message, that of a text composed by God in person,” instead of being “the product of a historical elaboration.”

What the author makes clear throughout the book is that the most significant and, therefore, most suspicious alterations of the Koran are those introduced by the first caliphs. Especially during the times of the third caliph, Uthman, the Koran was put on the agenda again, after years of being limited to a set of “sheets” that were not consulted. Uthman made copies of a certain “compilation” and “ordered the destruction of all the other existing copies.” Indeed, there is evidence of the existence of “other private collections” that belonged to dignitaries around the Prophet, of whose existence, Sfar notes that “around the fourth century of the Hijra, no trace was left.”

The author shows that the current conception of the Koran is rather simplistic and based on “several dogmas about, and mythical reconstructions of, the history.” Such is the case with the “myth of the literal ‘authenticity’,” which comes more “from apologetics than from the realm of historical truth.” This is tricky, especially when considering that the Koran is the result of a process of wahy (inspiration), not of a literal transcription, setting the differentiation between the Kitab (“the heavenly tablet”) and the Koran (“a liturgical lesson or a recitation”). Moreover, Sfar addresses the canonization of the Koran, which was made by Uthman, and which was criticized at its time for reducing the “several revelations without links between them, and that they were not designed to make up a book” into a single composition. This illustrates that “the principal star that dominated the period of prophetic revelation was to prove that the prophetic mission claimed by Muhammad was indeed authentic, and not to prove the literal authenticity of the divine message,” what is what the current Muslim schools of taught are inclined to support.

In general, although the main argument of the author suggests that the “Vulgate” version of the Koran might not be the original one, his other arguments lead the reader to deduce that this first manuscript does not vary a lot from the one we know today. Although it might seem so at first glance, the book is not a critique to the historicity of Islam or to the veracity of the Koran itself. It rather refers to the conservation and transmission thereof, which is one of the major claims in the Koran; of it being an honorable recitation in a well-guarded book (56:77-78). Perhaps, for those unfamiliar with the Muslim religion, this may seem insignificant. However, it is indeed a game-changer for the whole grounding of the faith. Muslims, the author says, remain ignorant of a lot of aspects of their religion because they do not go beyond the limits set by the scholars and religious authorities. It is the prevention from understanding the history that prevents from “better understanding the Koran” and, thus, the religion.

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