The Origins of the Koran (cont.)

In Slaves on Horses: The Evolution of the Islamic Polity (1980), Patricia Crone dismisses the Muslim traditions concerning the early caliphate (down to the 680s) as useless fictions. In Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam (1987), she argues that many so-called historical reports are "fanciful elaborations on difficult Koranic passages." In the latter work, Crone convincingly shows how the Koran "generated masses of spurious information." The numerous historical events which are supposed to have been the causes of certain revelations (for example, the battle of Badr, see above), "are likely to owe at least some of their features, occasionally their very existence, to the Quran." Clearly storytellers were the first to invent historical contexts for particular verses of the Koran. But much of their information is contradictory (for example, we are told that when Muhammad arrived in Medina for the first time it was torn by feuds, and yet at the same time we are asked to believe that the people of Medina were united under their undisputed leader Ibn Ubayyl), and there was a tendency "for apparently independent accounts to collapse into variations on a common theme" (for example, the large number of stories which exist around the theme of "Muhammad’s encounter with the representatives of non-Islamic religions who recognize him as a future prophet"). Finally, there was a tendency for the information to grow the further away one went from the events described; for example, if one storyteller should happen to mention a raid, the next one would tell you the exact date of this raid, and the third one would furnish you even more details. Waqidi (d. 823), who wrote years after Ibn Ishaq (d. 768),

will always give precise dates, locations, names, where Ibn Ishaq has none, accounts of what triggered the expedition, miscellaneous information to lend color to the event, as well as reasons why, as was usually the case, no fighting took place. No wonder that scholars are fond of Waqidi: where else does one find such wonderfully precise information about everything one wishes to know? But given that this information was all unknown to Ibn Ishaq, its value is doubtful in the extreme. And if spurious information accumulated at this rate in the two generations between Ibn Ishaq and Waqidi, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that even more must have accumulated in the three generations between the Prophet and Ibn Ishaq.

It is obvious that these early Muslim historians drew on a common pool of material fabricated by the storytellers.

Crone takes to task certain conservative modern historians, such as Watt, for being unjustifiably optimistic about the historical worth of the Muslim sources on the rise of Islam. And we shall end this chapter on the sources with Crone’s conclusions regarding all these Muslim sources:

[Watt’s methodology rests] on a misjudgment of these sources. The problem is the very mode of origin of the tradition, not some minor distortions subsequently introduced. Allowing for distortions arising from various allegiances within Islam such as those to a particular area, tribe, sect or school does nothing to correct the tendentiousness arising from allegiance to Islam itself. The entire tradition is tendentious, its aim being the elaboration of an Arabian Heilgeschichte, and this tendentiousness has shaped the facts as we have them, not merely added some partisan statements we can deduct.

Editorial Note

 Most of the articles in this collection were originally published more than fifty years ago (and a couple dare to the nineteenth century), when there was little consistency in the way Arabic terms were transliterated into English. Thus, the name of Islam’s holy book was variously written as Kortan, Kur’an, Quran, Qur’an, Coran, etc., and the name of Islam’s Prophet was transliterated as Mahomet, Mohammed, Muhammad, etc. To leave the diverse forms of these names, and many other Arabic terms, would confuse the reader; in some cases it might even obscure the fact that two authors are discussing the same person or text. Therefore, the original spellings have been changed where necessary to make them conform to modern usage and to ensure that a consistent spelling is used in every article.

Accordingly, Islam’s sacred book is always referred to by its most recognizable form—Koran (even though Qur'an is preferred by scholars and is closer to the actual Arabic pronunciation). The name of Islam’s founder is consistently spelled Muhammad. Arabic names that used to be transliterated with an o will be spelled with a u, e.g, ‘Uthman, ‘Umar (not Othman, Omar). The symbol ‘ is used to express Arabic ain, the symbol ’ expresses Arabic hamca. Other diacritical marks have been eliminated since they mean little or nothing to nonspecialists and specialists already know the original Arabic to which the transliteration refers. The term "Prophet" with a capital "p," when used by itself, refers to Muhammad, in contrast to the same word with a lowercase "p," which refers to prophets from other religions.