Sources of the Quran

Revised by Montgomery Watt




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Sources of the Quran


Chapter 1
The Historical Context

Chapter 2

Mohammed's Prophetic Experience

Chapter 3

The History of the Text

Chapter 4

The external form of the Quran

Chapter 5

The features of Quranic style

Chapter 6

The Shaping of the Quran

Chapter 7
The Chronology of the Quran

Chapter 8
The names of the revealed message

Chapter 9
The Doctrines of the Quran

Chapter 10
Muslim Scholarship and the Quran

Chapter 11
The Quran and Occidental Scholariship



Bell's Introduction to the Quran
Revised by Montgomery Watt

Chapter 2: Mohammed's Prophetic Experience


1 . Criticisms of the claim to prophethood

muhammad Mu°ammad's claim to be a prophet and messenger and to receive messages from God to be conveyed to his fellow Arabs has been criticized and attacked almost from the day it was first put forward. From the quran Qurčňn itself we learn that the pagan Meccans called the messages 'old-world tales' (asatir asň■Šr awwalin al-awwalŠn), 1 while the Jews of Medina mocked muhammad Mu°ammad's claims. These criticisms were taken up by Christian scholars. In medieval Europe there was elaborated the conception of muhammad Mu°ammad as a false prophet, who merely pretended to receive messages from God 2; and this and other falsifications of medieval war-propaganda are only slowly being expunged from the mind of Europe and of Christendom.

The first step towards a more balanced view was taken by Thomas Carlyle when he laughed out of court the idea of an impostor being the founder of one of the world's great religions. 3 Various later scholars followed this with attempts to save muhammad Mu°ammad's sincerity, but sometimes at the expense of his sanity. Gustav Weil sought to prove that he suffered from epilepsy. 4 Aloys Sprenger went further and suggested that in addition muhammad Mu°ammad suffered from hysteria. 5 Sir William Muir retained something of the false-prophet idea; he pictured muhammad Mu°ammad as an earnest and high-souled messenger and preacher while at Mecca, who, when he went to Medina, succumbed to the wiles of Satan for the sake of worldly success. 6 D. S. Margoliouth had no qualms about accusing him of having deliberately mystified the people, and pointed to the history of spiritualism as showing how easily human beings with unusual powers fall into dishonesty. 7 Theodor N÷ldeke, while insisting on the reality of muhammad Mu°ammad's prophetic inspiration, and rejecting the idea that he suffered from epilepsy, thought that he was subject to overpowering fits of emotion which led him to believe that he was under divine influences. 8 Recent writers have on the whole been more favourable and have taken the view that muhammad Mu°ammad was absolutely sincere and acted in complete good faith. Frants Buhl emphasized the far-reaching historical significance of the religious movement he inaugurated 9; while Richard Bell spoke of the eminently practical character of his activity even as a prophet. 10 Tor Andrae examined muhammad Mu°ammad's experience from a psychological standpoint and found it genuine, and also held that he had a prophetic message for his age and generation. 11

In the adverse opinions more attention was paid to certain Traditions than to the evidence of the quran Qurčňn itself. Too little allowance also was made for the fact that the muhammad Mu°ammad whom we know best was to all appearance healthy both in body and in mind. It is incredible that a person subject to epilepsy, or hysteria, or even ungovernable fits of emotion, could have been the active leader of military expeditions, or the cool far-seeing guide of a city-state and a growing religious community; but all this we know muhammad Mu°ammad to have been. In such questions the principle of the historian should be to depend mainly on the quran Qurčňn and to accept Tradition only in so far as it is in harmony with the results of quranic Qurčňnic study. The quran Qurčňn, however, though it apparently chronicles without reserve the gibes and reproaches of his opponents, mentions nothing that would support the belief in some diseased condition in muhammad Mu°ammad. The opponents indeed said he was majnun majn§n, but that meant either simply that they thought his conduct crazy, or that they regarded his utterances as inspired by jinn, as those of soothsayers were supposed to be. Had they been able to point to any evident signs of disease in him we should almost certainly have heard of this. Medieval conceptions must therefore be set aside, and muhammad Mu°ammad regarded as a man who sincerely and in good faith proclaimed messages which he believed came to him from God.


2. Qurčňnic descriptions of revelation and prophethood

One of the latest and clearest descriptions of revelation in the quran Qurčňn is in 2.97/1, where Gabriel is said to have brought it (the message) down upon the Prophet's heart by God's permission. That this was the account accepted by muhammad Mu°ammad and the Muslims in the Medinan period is certain. Tradition is unanimous on the point that Gabriel was the agent of revelation. When Tradition carries this back to the beginning, however, and associates Gabriel with the original call to prophethood, the scholar's suspicions are aroused since Gabriel is only twice mentioned in the quran Qurčňn, both times in Medinan passages. The association of Gabriel with the call appears to be a later interpretation of something which muhammad Mu°ammad had at first understood otherwise.

It is to be noted that in 2.97/1 there is no assertion that Gabriel appeared in visible form; and it may he taken as certain that the revelations were not normally mediated or accompanied by a vision. The quran Qurčňn indeed mentions two occasions on which muhammad Mu°ammad saw a vision [53.1-12, 13-18]. Strictly read, these verses imply that the visions were of God, since the word abd  abd, 'slave' or 'servant', describes a man's relation to God and not to an angel; this interpretation is allowed by some Muslim commentators. In 81.15-25, however, the vision is re-interpreted as that of an angel. This indicates a growing and changing understanding of spiritual things in the minds of muhammad Mu°ammad and the Muslims. At first they assumed that he had seen God himself, but later they realized that that was impossible, and therefore concluded that the vision was of a messenger of God, that is, an angel. Similarly the experience of receiving messages or revelations may have been interpreted differently at the beginning of his mission and at the close of the Medinan period. Yet, however the visions are interpreted or explained, to muhammad Mu°ammad they were undoubtedly real. At the same time they were unique; there is no mention of any other visions, if we except that before the expedition to hudaybiya al-ěudaybiya [48.27]. There is just a little in the quran Qurčňn to support the hypothesis adopted by Tor Andrae 12 that muhammad Mu°ammad actually heard voices; but the fact that the revelations took the form of words might be held to show that muhammad Mu°ammad was closer to the auditory than to the visual type of inspiration. Both the visible appearance of God and the hearing of his voice are excluded by 42.51/0: 'it is not fitting for any human being that God should speak to him except by "revelation" or from behind a veil, or by sending a messenger to "reveal" by his permission what he will'.

What then is meant by 'reveal' and 'revelation', or, as they are rendered in the Bell translation, 'suggest' and 'suggestion'? The Arabic verb and noun, awha aw°ň and wahy wa°y, have become the technical terms of Islamic theology for the communication of the messages or revelations to muhammad Mu°ammad. In accordance with 2.97/1 they have come to imply the recitation of the words of the quran Qurčňn to him by the angel Gabriel, In the quran Qurčňn itself the words are commonly used of this special form of communication, but they are not confined to it. There are several examples of their use in a more general sense. Thus the word awha aw°ň is used in 19.11/12 of Zechariah (Zacharias), after he had become dumb, 'making a sign' or 'indicating' to the people that they should glorify God. Satans (or demons) of jinn and men 'suggest' specious ideas to one another [6.112]. The recipient of wahy wa°y, even from God, is not always a prophet, or even a human being. God 'suggests' to the bee to take houses for herself in the hills and trees and the arbours which men erect [16.68/70]. At the Last Day the earth will give up its burdens because its Lord has 'suggested' to it to do this [99.2-5]. God 'suggested' to each of the seven heavens its special function [41.12/11] .

Even when the recipient is a prophet what is communicated is usually not the words of a revelation but a practical line of conduct, something to do, not to say. Thus it is 'suggested' to Noah to build the ark, and he is to build it under God's eyes and at his suggestion 'suggestion' [II.36/8f.; 23.27]. To Moses it is 'suggested' to set out with his people by night [20.77/9; 26.52], to strike the sea with his staff [26.63], to strike the rock with his staff [7.160]. To muhammad Mu°ammad himself it is 'suggested' that he should follow the religion of Abraham [16.123/4]. These practical 'suggestions' are often formulated in direct speech, as if a form of words had been put into a person's mind [cf. 17.39/41 and previous verses].

There are cases too in which the formula has reference to doctrine rather than to conduct; for example, 'your God is One God' [18.100; 21.108; 41.6/5]. Usually the formula is short, the sort of phrase which after consideration of a matter might flash into a person's mind as the final summing up and solution of it. There are indeed a few passages in which the verb seems to mean the communication of somewhat lengthy pieces to the Prophet; for example in 12.102/3, 'stories of what is unseen (or absent)' may refer to the whole story of Joseph. 13 Even in such passages, however, the actual verbal communication of the stories is not certainly implied. The fundamental sense of the word as used in the quran Qurčňn seems to be the communication of an idea by some quick suggestion or prompting, or, as we might say, by a flash of inspiration. This agrees with examples given in the dictionaries (such as lisan Lisňn arab al- Arab, s.v.) where it is implied that haste or quickness is part of the connotation of the root.

An explanation of the frequent use of this term in connection with the Prophet's inspiration might be that there was something short and sudden about it. If muhammad Mu°ammad was one of those brooding spirits to whom, after a longer or shorter period of intense absorption in a problem, the solution comes in a flash, as if by suggestion from without, then the quranic Qurčňnic use of the word becomes intelligible. Nor is this merely a supposition. There is evidence to show that the Prophet, accessible enough in the ordinary intercourse of men, had something withdrawn and separate about him. In the ultimate issue he took counsel with himself and followed his own decisions. If decisions did come to him in this way, it was perhaps natural that he should attribute them to outside suggestion. The experience was mysterious to him. He had before him the example of the soothsayer (kahin kňhin) who probably claimed that he spoke by outside prompting. Once or twice, probably near the beginning of his mission, when his hesitations had caused him more than usually intense and long-continued mental exertion, the decision had come to him accompanied by a vision. He has assumed that it was God who had appeared to him and 'suggested' that he should speak to the people in public. It is to be noted that in the passage where these visions are described, nothing is said about the quran Qurčňn. A 'suggestion' came to him, but this was simply that he should speak-at least such is the natural interpretation-and it is his 'speaking' which is explained and defended [53.4, 10].

These considerations to some extent justify the hypothesis favoured by Richard Bell that originally the wahy wa°y was a prompting or command to speak. The general content of the utterance was perhaps 'revealed' from without, but it was left to muhammad Mu°ammad himself to find the precise words in which to speak. Sura 73.1-8 was interpreted by Bell of the Prophet taking trouble over the work of composing the quran Qurčňn, choosing the night-hours as being 'strongest in impression and most just in speech', that is, the time when ideas are clearest and when fitting words are most readily found. 14 A similar experience when after effort and meditation the words in the end came easily as if by inspiration, may well have led him to extend to the actual words of his deliverances this idea of suggestion from without. A curious isolated passage [75.16-19] seems to encourage him to cultivate this deliberately: Move not thy tongue that thou mayest do it quickly; ours it is to collect it and recite it; when we recite it follow thou the recitation; then ours it is to explain it'. This has always been taken as referring to the reception of the quran Qurčňn, and if we try to get behind the usual mechanical interpretation we can picture muhammad Mu°ammad in the throes of composition. He has been seeking words which will flow and rhyme and express his meaning, repeating phrases audibly to himself, trying to force the continuation before the whole has become clear. He is here admonished that this is not the way; he must not 'press', but wait for the inspiration which will give the words without this impatient effort to find them. When his mind has calmed, and the whole has taken shape, the words will come; and when they do come, he must take them as they are given him. If they are somewhat cryptic-as they may well happen to be-they can be explained later. If that be the proper interpretation of the passage, it throws light on a characteristic of the quran Qurčňn which has often been remarked on, namely, its disjointedness. For passages composed in such fashion must almost of necessity be comparatively short.

In some such way, then, muhammad Mu°ammad's claim to inspiration might be understood. It has analogies to the experience which poets refer to as the coming of the muse, or more closely to what religious people describe as the coming of guidance after meditation and waiting upon God. 'Guidance' is in fact one of the quran Qurčňn's favourite words for the message. muhammad Mu°ammad's experience was interpreted in various ways. At first he assumed that it was God who spoke to him, just as he had assumed that it was God who had appeared to him in his visions. Then, according to 42.51/0 ff., this idea was rejected in favour of the idea of a spirit implanted within him. Later, when through increasing familiarity with Jewish and Christian ideas he had learned of angels as messengers of God, he assumed that it was angels who brought the message. Finally, he adopted Gabriel as the special angel who prompted him on God's behalf. There are passages in the quran Qurčňn illustrating all these various ideas. Yet always the essence of the experience is the same: he was prompted, 'suggestions' were made to him, the message was brought down upon his heart. That these promptings, however mediated, came ultimately from a divine source, he was convinced. He may, indeed, have had occasional doubts. He realized, perhaps as a result of the false step which he made in recognizing the pagan deities as intercessors, and of other mistakes which he may have made, that Satan sometimes took a hand in the prompting. 15 From the assurances that he was not mad, nor prompted by jinn, it may perhaps be inferred that he sometimes wondered if this was the case. In general, however, he was convinced that the 'suggestions' were from God.

That this experience of 'suggestion' or 'guidance' is a real one, no one who has ever become deeply absorbed in a difficult problem will deny. But the habit of expecting such experiences, and the attempt to induce them, are not without their dangers. We cannot force the answer which we wish, or indeed any answer, at the time we wish it. muhammad Mu°ammad seems to have experienced this also, 18.24/23. It is when the mind is more or less passive that such 'suggestions' come, but it makes a great difference whether this passive attitude is the result of a heavy strain upon the mental and spiritual powers, or is cultivated as a state of more or less mental vacancy. Between these two poles there is the danger that meditation becomes a brooding over passing troubles, or that it allows too easy a response to external stimuli. Of some of these dangers muhammad Mu°ammad seems at times to have been conscious, as is shown by 5.101; 22.52/1. In later life when events pressed upon him and decisions were imperative, and when questions arose which he could not avoid answering, he no doubt tried to force the revelation, though there is no proof that this in fact happened. After a revelation about special marriage privileges for himself, his young wife aisha  ┼čisha is said to have remarked sarcastically, 'Your Lord hastens to do your pleasure'. 16 If this story is true, it shows that there was a conscious rectitude in muhammad Mu°ammad not to be perturbed by such an insinuation. Actually, even in his later days, there were revelations which were contrary to his own natural desires. He was exhorted to steadfastness when his inclination was to compromise, he was urged to policies which he felt to be difficult, and he was taken to task for things he had done or had omitted to do. In all this muhammad Mu°ammad must have been, as he claimed, a passive recipient.

About the details of Bell's theory there is an element of conjecture, and one may be justified in maintaining an attitude of reserve towards them. One difficulty which he does not meet is that awha aw°ň is not the only verb in the quran Qurčňn commonly used for 'reveal'. There are also nazzala and anzala; and these two words in their various forms occur about three times as often as the derivatives of awha aw°ň (about 250 instances as against 78). Nazzala and anzala, however, both mean 'to send down'; and it may be that muhammad Mu°ammad and the Muslims were content with a naive na´ve view of the process of revelation. The central point, however, which is not meant to be contradicted by Bell's theory, is that the ultimate source of the quranic Qurčňnic messages is God. Of this muhammad Mu°ammad was utterly convinced and on this conviction he built up his claims to authority. At the same time he was also modest about himself. He was only a human being to whom 'suggestions' came, a channel through whom divine messages were communicated to the Arabs [18.110; 41.6/5]. The guidance by wahy wa°y, however, was all that the long line of previous prophets had experienced; the one exception was Moses, to whom God had spoken directly [7.144/1; 19.52/3].

Finally, it should be added that neither a psychological account of the precise nature of muhammad Mu°ammad's prophetic experience nor an insistence on his sincerity, answers the final question, 'Is the quran Qurčňn true? Is it really a message from God?' This point will be touched on again at the end of the concluding chapter. muhammad Mu°ammad surrounded his experiences with some degree of awe and mystery. This does not detract from the sincerity of his own belief in them. They were mysterious to himself, and, if they were what he believed them to be, they were worthy of awe. He regarded them always as something separate and distinct; and, as just noted, they often conflicted with his own desires and inclinations. The claim that they were from beyond himself could not have been altogether a pose.

Of the essential sincerity of muhammad Mu°ammad, then, there can be no question. We need not, however, go to the other extreme and picture him as a modern saint. The age was a rude one to our ideas, even in the most enlightened parts of the world, and Arabia was not one of these.

3. The conception of the prophetic function

Closely connected with this question of the precise form of muhammad Mu°ammad's experience of revelation is the further question of how the prophetic function is to be conceived. The changing circumstances of his life-the transition from the preacher of Mecca to the statesman of Medina and then to the ruler of much of Arabia-necessarily affected the use of his time. The changes are reflected in the quran Qurčňn; and indeed it must in large part have been the quran Qurčňn which made muhammad Mu°ammad consciously aware of the new aspects of his function, and even directed the development of the function.

Although in English and other European languages it is usual to speak of muhammad Mu°ammad as 'prophet' or its equivalent, the word commonly applied to him in the quran Qurčňn is rasul ras§l or 'messenger' (also translated 'apostle'). This is likewise the word used in the shahada Shahňda, or confession of faith: 'there is no deity but God, muhammad Mu°ammad is the messenger of God'. The word rasul ras§l can be applied to anyone who is sent with a message. In 81.19 it is used of an angel bearing a message to muhammad Mu°ammad (which is specially appropriate, since angel comes from the Greek word for 'messenger'). It is insisted that there had been a long line of messengers before muhammad Mu°ammad, and that therefore there was nothing novel in his position [46.9/8]. The obvious fact was admitted, of course, that for some time before muhammad Mu°ammad there had been no messengers of this kind; this was described by saying that he came after a 'break' or 'gap' (fatra) in the series [5.19/22]. After his initial experiences of 'suggestion' or 'revelation', muhammad Mu°ammad may well have been puzzled to know what to make of them. There is a story in the Traditions (though not referred to in the quran Qurčňn) that in this situation he was encouraged by Waraqa ibn-Nawfal to regard his experiences as similar to those of prophets in the past; Waraqa was a cousin of muhammad Mu°ammad's wife khadija KhadŠja and was also a Christian. On such a point the Traditions may not be wholly reliable, but it is certain from the quran Qurčňn that from an early date the Muslims assumed an identity in essentials between muhammad Mu°ammad's experiences and those of previous prophets and messengers. The stories of such persons in the quran Qurčňn show that muhammad Mu°ammad had a distinguished spiritual ancestry.

Those 'sent as messengers' (mursalin mursalŠn, roughly equivalent to the plural rusul) are also described in 6.48 as 'announcers' and 'warners' (mubashshirin mubashshirŠn, mundhirin mundhirŠn); and likewise in 33.45/4, 48.8 and 35.24/2 muhammad Mu°ammad himself is spoken of as an 'announcer' and 'warner' (bashir bashŠr, nadhir nadhŠr). The idea that the function of the messenger is to warn his own people is frequent in the earlier passages of the quran Qurčňn. Sometimes the word 'warn' is used absolutely without an object, though one may gather from other passages the kind of object implied; in 92.14 it is the fire, that is, Hell, and in 78.40 it is punishment in the life to come. There are also passages in which a messenger has to warn his people that they will be punished by a temporal calamity (as hud ě§d warned ad  ┼d in 46.21/0). It has sometimes been held, especially by European scholars, that the earliest message of the quran Qurčňn was a warning of either eschatological or temporal punishment. 17 This theory would be supported by the view held by a few Muslim scholars but not the majority, that the first passage of the quran Qurčňn to be revealed was the beginning of sura 74, for this contains the words 'rise and warn' [74.2]. On the other hand, it would seem that the more positive message of sura 106-to be grateful to God and worship him-also belongs to a very early period. It would thus be mistaken to restrict the earliest message to 'warning'.

The word bashir bashŠr, also used of muhammad Mu°ammad, has been rendered 'announcer'. When it is coupled with 'warner', some contrast may be intended; the warner tells men of possible punishment, while the announcer informs them of the rewards of the upright. It is sometimes thought that the corresponding verb bashshara means 'to announce good news'; and in Christian Arabic the noun bishara bishňra is used for 'good news' or 'gospel'. In a number of places, however, the quran Qurčňn uses bashshara of punishment. 18 While this might be understood as 'giving good tidings' in an ironical sense, it seems better to take it simply as 'announce'. The dictionaries suggest that the basic meaning of the word is to announce something which produces a change in a man's bashra or complexion; mostly this is done by good news, such as the birth of a child, but it might also be done by very bad news. The word bashir bashŠr, however, seems to indicate that muhammad Mu°ammad's function is not confined to 'warning'.

Another word used of muhammad Mu°ammad is mudhakkir, which is normally 'one who reminds, admonishes, exhorts', and correspondingly the message is referred to as a tadhkira, 'reminder, admonition'. The root, however, has a rich semantic development in Arabic which makes it impossible in English to indicate all its connotations. Although the first stem of the verb, dhakkara, is usually translated 'remember' or 'mention' there is often no special emphasis on calling to mind something that was previously known and has been forgotten. The thought seems to be rather that of keeping something before the mind, and also adopting an appropriate attitude. Thus the second stem dhakkara (of which mudhakkir is the participle) would mean 'to put something before a person's mind in such a way that he adopts an appropriate attitude', and this may be approximately rendered by 'admonish' or 'exhort'. In the quran Qurčňn the meaning is in fact very close to 'warn', as in 50.45 where muhammad Mu°ammad is instructed to 'admonish by the quran qurčňn (revealed messages) whoever will fear God's threat'. Even the simple word dhikr, often 'remembrance' or 'mention', takes on a suggestion of 'warning' in 7.63/1 and 69/7 where groups are told that 'a dhikr from their Lord' comes upon their messengers so that they may warn (andhara) them.

The primary function of a 'warner' is to convey a message to his people; but, since the warning is aimed at a redirection of the activity of the whole community, it may be said to have a political aspect. It would certainly appear that some of muhammad Mu°ammad's opponents were afraid of a growth of his political influence, for it is insisted in 88.21f. that he is 'only a warner (mudhakkir), not an overseer (musaytir musay■ir). In this connection it is interesting to note that in 7.188 muhammad Mu°ammad is told to make it clear to his opponents that his function is only to convey specific messages which are given to him; he has no general knowledge of the 'unseen' (including the future) of which he could make use to his own advantage. As already noted it is insisted that muhammad Mu°ammad is truly human, like all the previous messengers sent to different peoples; and like them also he has a wife and children. 19 Such statements are designed to correct a misapprehension which must have been current among some of the people, namely, that a messenger from God must be an angelic or semi-divine being. On the contrary, the warner is an ordinary human being without special powers, but one who has been selected by God to perform this function of warning [40.15; etc.].

The Arabic word properly translated 'prophet' is nabi nabŠ, which is derived from Aramaic or Hebrew. 20 It occurs more frequently than the words just considered, but much less frequently than rasul ras§l. According to N÷ldeke's chronology it first occurs in the second Meccan period, but by Bell's dating all the instances are Medinan with the possible exception of 17.55/7. This might indicate that the Muslims became familiar with the word through their contacts with the Jews of Medina. It is further to be noted that nabi nabŠ is not applied to any of the messengers in the Arabian tradition, such as hud ě§d and salih ├ňli°, but only to personages mentioned in the Old or New Testaments (assuming that idris IdrŠs may be identified with Ezra or Enoch). 21 By way of exception, however, muhammad Mu°ammad himself is regarded as a prophet in the quran Qurčňn and often addressed as such [e.g. 33.1, 6, 7; 66.1, 8f.]. In 33.40 he is spoken of as 'the seal of the prophets' (khatam khňtam nabiyyin an-nabiyyŠn), a phrase which perhaps originally meant 'the one confirming previous prophets', though it has also been given other interpretations. Later Muslim scholars debated at length whether the rank of nabi nabŠ or rasul ras§l was higher, and whether every prophet had to be a messenger or vice versa; but these questions have little relevance to the study of the quran Qurčňn itself. 22 In the quran Qurčňn the chief difference between the two words is that nabi nabŠ is only applied to men connected with the Judaeo-Christian tradition, for muhammad Mu°ammad was regarded as continuing and reforming that tradition.

The new functions which devolved upon muhammad Mu°ammad as messenger and prophet after he went to Medina are reflected in a number of quranic Qurčňnic passages. The responsibilities which fell to him as chief of the 'clan' of Emigrants could have been interpreted in a purely secular way. The clearest statement is perhaps that in 4.105/6 (dated by Bell shortly after uhud U°ud): 'We have sent down to you the Book with the truth in order that you may judge between the people on the basis of what God has shown you'. Similarly in 5.42/6 (perhaps a little earlier) muhammad Mu°ammad is told that, if Jews come to him to settle a dispute, and if he agrees to do so, 'he is to judge between them fairly'; the following verse with a reference to the Jews' rejection of the Torah might be taken to imply that judgement was on a basis of scripture. In the light of these verses two other passages [6.89; 3.79/3] which speak of men receiving the Book, the hukm °ukm and prophethood, are probably to be interpreted in the same way; hukm °ukm is from the same root as the word translated 'judge' in 5.42/6, and may be rendered 'judgement' or jurisdiction 'jurisdiction'. With this may be compared 2.151/46 in which the Muslims of Medina are told: 'we have sent a messenger among you, one of yourselves, to recite to you our verses (or signs), to cleanse you (from the impurity of paganism), and to teach you the Book and hikma °ikma . . .'; the last word normally means 'wisdom' and is regarded as of foreign origin, 23 but one wonders if here it has been influenced by the Arabic root.

Another interesting passage is 4.59/62-64/7 where the believers are told to obey God and the Messenger and to bring matters of dispute to God and the Messenger for decision. 24 Decision by God and the Messenger is probably meant to describe decision by muhammad Mu°ammad on the basis of a revealed text. It also seems probable that obedience to God and the Messenger does not mean direct obedience to the Messenger, but only obedience to him in so far as he is proclaiming the divine message; so this would be primarily obedience to the message. If people disobey and then repent, however, the Messenger may ask pardon for them [4.64/7]. This last point is probably to be understood eschatologically, since the picture normally given by the quran Qurčňn is that, when men are judged on the Last Day, the Messenger to their community will be present to bear witness against them (presumably to testify that they have duly had the message communicated to them). 25

In a sense, then, there has been development in the quran Qurčňn but it is not really change. The new aspects are present from the beginning in the conception of the warner. It was the change in the circumstances of muhammad Mu°ammad and the Muslims that made it necessary for these aspects to become explicit. The process of development, therefore, is not to be taken as exposing an inconsistency in the quran Qurčňn but as showing the adaptation of its essential teaching to the changing ideas and changing needs of the Muslims.


4. The writing down of the Qurčňn

It seems probable that for a time, perhaps for years, it was only in their memories that muhammad Mu°ammad and the Muslims retained the passages revealed to him. This was the normal practice in a predominantly oral culture; the pre-Islamic Arabic poems were treated in the same way. It is also probable, however, that much of the quran Qurčňn was written down in some form during muhammad Mu°ammad's lifetime. The problems involved in this matter, however, are of much greater complexity than might be expected. This is because later apologetes for Islam, challenged by Christians and others to point to a miracle of muhammad Mu°ammad's which would authenticate his claim to prophethood, asserted that the quran Qurčňn itself was his miracle. The assertion has some basis in the quran Qurčňn itself where the unbelievers are challenged to produce a similar sura or suras or book [10.38/9; 11.13/16; 28.49]; but the apologetes went beyond this and interpreted various verses in such a way as to enhance the miraculous character of the quran Qurčňn. One of the chief points they made was that muhammad Mu°ammad could neither read nor write.

The same tendency may underly the taking of 96.4 to mean '(God) taught the use of the pen', which is the normal interpretation of Muslim scholars. Partly on the basis of this interpretation European scholars for a time assumed that in muhammad Mu°ammad's day writing was a recent introduction into Arabia, was known to only a few and was still regarded as a marvel. While many simple people still regarded it as something magical or supernatural, it is now known that it was by no means a recent introduction. The verse, too, with the following one, runs literally: 'who taught by the pen, taught man what he did not know'; and this may be interpreted: 'who taught man by the pen (that is, by books) what he did not (otherwise) know', and referred in the first place to previous revelations. Even with this interpretation, however, writing is still regarded as something novel and wonderful.

However ordinary people in Mecca felt about writing, archaeological evidence shows that some forms of writing had been known in Arabia for many centuries. 26 There are inscriptions in the South Arabian language going back far beyond the Christian era. Inscriptions found in north-west Arabia in the Nabataean, lihyanic Li°yňnic and thamudic Tham§dic alphabets belong to the centuries preceding the appearance of muhammad Mu°ammad. For Classical Arabic and the Arabic script the earliest instance is three graffiti on the wall of a temple in Syria, which are dated about AD 300, while four Christian inscriptions have been found belonging to the sixth century. Though this evidence is meagre, one is justified in assuming that, where inscriptions on stone or metal occur, writing on some more convenient material was also well known. When these various scripts are compared with one another, it is clear that the development is one of written forms, which tend to grow more cursive and so less suitable for inscriptional use.

No indisputably early inscriptions have yet been found in the neighbourhood of Mecca and Medina. Mecca, however, was a mercantile town, dependent on its trade for its very existence, and in regular communication with regions where writing was commonly used. The Meccan merchants must have kept some record of their transactions, and it may be assumed that writing was well enough known there. The indirect evidence of the quran Qurčňn confirms this. Its imagery is steeped in a mercantile atmosphere, 27 and implies the keeping of accounts in writing. The Judgement-day is the day of reckoning, when the books will be opened, and when everyone will be shown his account, or will be given his account to read. The angels write the deeds of men, and everything is recorded in a book. Even if some of these images were previously used by Christians, they would not have been adopted had they not been understood in Mecca. The quranic Qurčňnic regulation that debts should be recorded in writing [2.282f.] shows that even in Medina (where this was revealed) persons able to write were not difficult to find. It is reported in Tradition that some of the Meccans captured at Badr earned their ransom by teaching Medinans to write. 28

The report, widely accepted and found in many sources, that the first 'collection' of the quran Qurčňn was made by Zayd thabit ibn-Thňbit in the caliphate of abu bakr Ab§-Bakr (632-4), says that it was collected not only from 'the hearts of men' but also from pieces of parchment or papyrus, flat stones, palm-leaves, shoulder-blades and ribs of animals, pieces of leather and wooden boards. 29 This report is probably not authentic. Apart from the general difficulty about the date (to be considered in the next chapter), it is likely that the report was spread by people who wanted to contrast the relative poverty of muhammad Mu°ammad and his Companions with the material luxury of Umayyad and early abbasid abbaside  Abbňsid times. No doubt the things mentioned were occasionally used for writing in Mecca and Medina-as indeed most of them are known to have been used until recently by Muslims in East Africa-but there is no reason why papyrus should not have been in normal use at Mecca. For purposes of book-production papyrus had by this time given place in the Graeco-Roman world to pergament or parchment, which was prepared from the skins of animals, was more enduring and afforded a better surface. The word raqq in 52.3 probably refers to parchment, and in particular to the Jewish Law given at Sinai. 30 Perhaps the Torah was written on parchment at this period. Papyrus, however, continued to be produced, and was largely used for business purposes and private correspondence. It was made in rectangular sheets of moderate size. In former times rolls for the writing of books had been produced by pasting a number of such sheets together. Long rolls had gone out of fashion, but to a limited extent the sheets might still be pasted together or folded to form a book. Probably it is this material which is denoted by the word qirtas qir■ňs in the quran Qurčňn [6.7, 91], for that is derived from the Greek chartes, meaning a leaf or sheet of papyrus. Since this is an early borrowing, and was probably not taken directly from Greek, it is conceivable that it may have undergone a change of meaning; but this is unlikely, since the word appears to have still had the significance of papyrus in the days of the caliphs. 31 The verse 6.91 may then imply that the Jews used papyrus for writing out separate portions of the Torah, while 6.7 would indicate the possibility of a book being made of papyrus; this may be the kind of book intended when the quran Qurčňn speaks of a book being sent down to muhammad Mu°ammad [e.g. 6.92].

What material was denoted by suhuf Ńu°uf we have no means of knowing. The word occurs several times in the quran Qurčňn, usually in connection with the revelation generally [20.133; 80.13; 98.2], or with the revelation to Abraham and Moses [53.36/7f.; 87.18f.]; in 81.10, however, and probably also in 74.52, it refers to the record of man's deeds. The word is from ancient South Arabian, but occurs in Arabic poetry before muhammad Mu°ammad's time. 32 The singular sahifa Ńa°Šfa probably denotes a sheet of writing material, and so would not specify what it consists of. The plural suhuf Ńu°uf one would naturally take to mean separate (unbound) sheets, but it is possible that the suhuf Ńu°uf of Moses and Abraham mentioned in the quran Qurčňn implied something in the nature of a book. What the words conveyed to the first hearers would depend on what they were familiar with in muhammad Mu°ammad's practice or otherwise.

In the light of this familiarity with writing and writing materials at Mecca and elsewhere, we may turn to the question whether muhammad Mu°ammad himself could read and write. For Muslims it has become almost a dogma that he could do neither. It enhances the miracle of the quran Qurčňn that it should have been delivered by one entirely unlettered. Early Muslim opinion was not so fixed, but on the whole it tended to the same conclusion. One of the chief arguments was from the application of the adjective ummi ummŠ to muhammad Mu°ammad in 7.157/6, 158. The word was alleged to mean 'unlettered', and one could point to 2.78/3, 'of them are ummiyyiun ummiyyi§n who do not know the book . . .7' and argue that they did not know the book because they could not read and write. If the verse is carefully read, however, without a preconceived idea of its meaning, the most natural way to take it is of people without written scriptures. This meaning fits the other instances of the plural found in the quran Qurčňn [3.20/19, (?) 75/69;62.2]; in the first two the ummiyyun ummiyy§n are associated with the Jews but distinct from them, while in the last muhammad Mu°ammad is spoken of as a messenger raised up 'among the ummiyyun ummiyy§n, one of themselves'. All these facts make it virtually certain that ummi ummŠ means 'non-Jewish' or 'Gentile', and that it is derived from the Hebrew phrase ummot ha olam ha- olňm, 'the peoples of the world'. The use of the word by Arabs could also be influenced by the possibility of taking it as meaning 'belonging to the umma or community'; and in this case ummi ummŠ could be rendered as 'native', that is, belonging to the Arab community. This gives a perfectly good sense for 'the ummi ummŠ prophet' of 2.157/6 and 158; he is the Gentile or native prophet sent to the Arabs and sprung from among themselves. Thus there is no argument here for muhammad Mu°ammad being completely unlettered, but at most for his being ignorant of the Jewish and Christian scriptures. 33

A similar conclusion may be reached from examining another verse sometimes interpreted to mean that he could not write, namely, 29.48/7. Sale, following the Muslim commentators, rendered it; 'thou couldest not read any book before this, neither couldest write it with thy right hand'; but a more accurate translation would be: 'you were not reciting previously any book, not inscribing it with your right hand'. The verb tala talň used here-like qara'a from which quran qurčňn is derived-means both 'read' and 'recite', and from what we know of the circumstances of muhammad Mu°ammad's time, the rendering 'recite' was more appropriate then. The verse simply means that he had not been a reader or writer of previous scriptures (that is, as a priest or scribe). This is confirmed by the following words: 'in that case those who invalidate (your claims) would have doubted'; that is, would justly have suspected that you were merely repeating what you had learned from these scriptures. Here again there is nothing which absolutely implies that muhammad Mu°ammad had no knowledge of reading and writing.

The evidence from Tradition is equally inconclusive. In the story of his Call to be a messenger, he is said to have replied, when the angel said to him 'recite' (iqra iqrač), ma mň aqrau aqraču which may mean either 'I do not (cannot) recite' or 'what shall I recite?' This is presumably the earliest version of the Tradition. 34 Those scholars who wanted to emphasize the miraculous quality of the quran Qurčňn naturally chose the first interpretation, and there are also later forms of the Tradition where the words ma mň ana anň bi qarin bi-qňrin are substituted, and these can only mean 'I am not a reciter or reader'. On the other hand there are also versions of the Tradition where Muhammad's reply has the form madha mňdhň aqrau aqraču, which can only mean 'what shall I recite?'. The probability is that the latter was the original meaning, so that there is certainly no conclusive evidence here that muhammad Mu°ammad was unable to read and write.

Even if Tradition is accepted as generally reliable, it fails to prove that muhammad Mu°ammad could write. Frequently when it is said that muhammad Mu°ammad wrote, this only means that he gave instructions for a written message to be sent, since it is well known that, at least in his later years, he employed secretaries. In some forms of the story of the conclusion of the treaty of hudaybiya al-ěudaybiya in 628 he is stated to have written with his own hand. The emissary of the Meccans objected to the designation 'Messenger of God' in the heading of the treaty, and muhammad Mu°ammad told ali  AlŠ, who was acting as secretary, to substitute 'son of abd allah  Abd-Allňh'. When ali  AlŠ refused, muhammad Mu°ammad took the document and himself deleted the title, and some versions add that he wrote the altered designation with his own hand. The whole incident of ali  AlŠ's refusal may be an invention of his partisans to make a political point. The objection to the title and the dropping of it are perhaps indirectly confirmed by the insistence that 'muhammad Mu°ammad is the messenger of God' in 48.29; but some forms of the story imply that the objection was raised before the title was written, and mention no change in the document. 35 Thus the evidence here for muhammad Mu°ammad having written anything is weak. A stronger, though indirect, argument may be drawn from the story of the expedition to Nakhla about two months before the battle of Badr. Previous expeditions had been unsuccessful because some people in Medina seemed to be passing on information to muhammad Mu°ammad's enemies. To guard against such leakage, therefore, the leader of the expedition to Nakhla was given sealed orders-a written letter of instructions-which he was not to open until he was two days' march from Medina. 36 It is not certain that at this early stage of his career in Medina muhammad Mu°ammad employed secretaries, and in any case the need for secrecy was such that the writing of the letter could only have been entrusted to someone of the greatest loyalty and discretion. It is therefore not impossible that muhammad Mu°ammad wrote the letter with his own hand.

While there is thus no convincing proof that muhammad Mu°ammad was able to write, it is not improbable that he could. He may well have learned the art in Mecca itself. Since he conducted business for khadija KhadŠja in his youth, and probably also on his own behalf, he must surely have been able to keep accounts. The Meccan gibe about 'old-world tales, which he has written for himself! they are recited to him morning and evening', even if 'has written' means 'has had written', at least shows that the critics thought that he was working with written material of some sort [25.5/6]. The retort in the following verse does not directly deny that this was so. Again the retort in 18.109 to a presumed gibe about the verbosity of the revelation-'were the sea ink for the words of my Lord, the sea would fail before the words of my Lord would fail, though we brought as much again'-and the similar verse which speaks of all the trees of the world as pens, must imply that ink and pen was being used for the revelation [31.27/6].

An answer may now be given to the question whether muhammad Mu°ammad could read and write. On the whole it seems likely that he could read and write as much as the average merchant of Mecca. On the other hand, from a general consideration of the form of the Biblical stories in the quran Qurčňn, and because ummi ummŠ means one who does not know the previous scriptures, it may be taken as certain that muhammad Mu°ammad had never read the Bible or even had it read to him [cf. 2.78/3]. These conclusions do not seem to be contrary to the doctrine of the miraculous character of the quran Qurčňn. A further point might be added. Some educationists would hold that a person may be illiterate and cultured and another person literate and un-cultured; the first may have a rich store of traditional cultural lore, and the second may have lost all this in the process of learning to read cheap trash. It seems clear that, whether literate or not, muhammad Mu°ammad was a cultured person by the standards of Mecca in his time, and this point would have to be noticed in any contemporary apologetic for the miraculous character of the quran Qurčňn. The point is also relevant to a consideration of the question of sources (chapter II, section 2 below).

It remains to consider the state of the quran Qurčňn at the time of muhammad Mu°ammad's death. Originally the revealed passages were preserved in the memories of muhammad Mu°ammad and his Companions, and after his death 'the hearts of men' continued to be a place where the quran Qurčňn or parts of it were found; since the quran Qurčňn had not been 'collected', no one could have memorized the quran Qurčňn as a single whole, though a few might have memorized most of the parts. It is also known that parts of the quran Qurčňn had been written down. In the story of the conversion of umar  Umar ibn al khattab ibn-al-Kha■■ňb, this is said to have come about when he found his sister and her husband, who were Muslims, having sura ta Ůňč ha hňč [20] read to them by a friend from a sahifa Ńa°Šfa (presumably a sheet of parchment or papyrus); umar  Umar asked to see it, and is said to have been able to read it for himself. 37 If this story is to be trusted (which is not at all certain), it shows that some revelations had been written down by the middle of the Meccan period.

After muhammad Mu°ammad went to Medina his employment of secretaries is well attested. Among those used for the writing down of the revelations were uthman  Uthmňn, muawiya Mu ňwiya, Ubayy ibn kab ibn-Ka b, Zayd thabit ibn-Thňbit and abd allah  Abd-Allňh ibn abi sarh ibn-AbŠ-Sar°. 38 A curious story is told about the last-named. While muhammad Mu°ammad was dictating to him the passage beginning 23.12, he was carried away by wonder at this description of the creation of man; and, when muhammad Mu°ammad paused after the words 'another creature', exclaimed 'blessed be God, the best of creators'. muhammad Mu°ammad accepted this as the continuation of the revelation, and told him to write it down. This aroused doubt, however, in ibn abi sarh Ibn-AbŠ-Sar°, and later he gave up Islam and returned to Mecca; at the conquest of Mecca he was one of those proscribed, but was pardoned on the intercession of uthman  Uthmňn. 39 This is the sort of story that could hardly have been invented. Other Traditions speak of muhammad Mu°ammad telling his secretary to place a newly revealed passage after such and such an older passage. In the case of the legislative revelations at Medina it would be desirable to have them written down at once.

Even if it is allowed that many revealed passages had been written down in this way, it still remains to consider to what extent the revelations had attained something like the form of the quran Qurčňn as we know it. The solution of the problem seems to be largely a matter of degree. On the one hand, muhammad Mu°ammad himself cannot have produced a complete recension of the quran Qurčňn. Had he done so, there would have been no need later for a 'collection' of the quran Qurčňn. In the story of the 'collection' under abu bakr Ab§-Bakr the latter is said to have hesitated when the suggestion was first made on the ground that this was something muhammad Mu°ammad had never done; but this is a story on which in general little reliance can be placed. On the other hand, if different Companions had memorized different selections of passages, and had perhaps put short pieces together differently, one would have expected greater divergences in the various texts than in fact we find. There is therefore a presumption that muhammad Mu°ammad himself had brought together many revealed passages and given them a definite order, and that this order was known and adhered to by his Companions. There is further support for this presumption in the quranic Qurčňnic conception of 'the Book' (to be discussed in chapter 8, section 4).

It may further be suggested as a likely hypothesis that the units in which the revelations were arranged were suras. This is almost implied by the quranic Qurčňnic challenges to opponents to produce similar suras [10.38/9; 11.13/16]. The suras in muhammad Mu°ammad's time would not be identical with the present suras, but might contain the main part of each of the present suras. They may have had no fixed order. The work of the 'collectors' would therefore be to add to the embryonic suras at appropriate points all the verses and short isolated passages not already included somewhere but preserved in the hearts of men or on some of the miscellaneous writing materials on the list. While this view is no more than a hypothesis, it accords with most of the data about which we are reasonably certain.

What remains obscure is the relative amount of the material in muhammad Mu°ammad's suras and that which had to be added to them. One would think that at most the material to be added might be as much again, and at the least perhaps one-fifth of the bulk of the suras.