Book Review: The Qur’an – A Historical-Critical Introduction by Nicolai Sinai

I first read the Qur’an in English translation at the age of 18 during the summer break following my ‘A’ level exams and the start of university. Up until then I had largely only read the Qur’an in Arabic – a language I did not understand at the time – at the madrasa. The translation that I first read was by Marmaduke Pickthall which my mother had bought for me some years previously and I had put it aside as I was uninterested at the time. Now, during that long summer, on beginning to read the Qur’an I was at once gripped by the authority and immediacy with which the Qur’an spoke. This really was like no other book I had ever previously read. The Qur’an repeatedly claimed to be Divine speech and demanded to be taken seriously by the reader.

In the many years since that summer, I have purchased and read many different English translations of the Qur’an and have also sought out Western critiques of the Qur’an too. After all, a true faith should be able to withstand criticism, right?

Beginning in the late 1970’s a revisionist school of thought appeared amongst some influential Western scholars including John Wansbrough, Patricia Crone and Michael Cook. This school claimed to have uncovered findings which undermined the traditional Muslim accounts of Islamic/Qur’anic history and argued that the Qur’an was not revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in the early 7th century (610 – 632 CE according to traditional Muslim accounts), but was produced much later. Wansbrough argued that the Qur’an was produced in the late 8th/early 9th century during the Abbasid era. If true, these claims would cause immense damage to the Muslim worldview.

In his latest book “The Qur’an: A Historical-Critical Introduction“, Nicolai Sinai, an Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at Oxford University, says that the “…aim of the present book is to induct readers into the current state of the historical-critical study of the Qur’an.” His findings will be of interest to many Muslims and some detractors too.

Sinai quickly disposes of the revisionist school’s arguments. In the years since Wansbrough/Crone/Cook made their claims a number of Qur’anic fragments have been discovered – including a few years ago in Birmingham – that appear to strongly support the traditional Muslim account of the Qur’an’s genesis.

“…it appears increasingly certain that at least a large part of the Qur’an was extant by the middle of the seventh century, since several sheets from early Qur’anic manuscripts have now been subjected to radiocarbon dating. Thus, the testing of a folio belonging to a very substantial Qur’anic palimpsest discovered in the Grand Mosque of San’a has produced a likelihood of more than 95% that the parchment is older than 660 CE…the increasing number of such tests would appear to confirm that a very considerable portion of the Qur’anic text was around, albeit not without variants, by the 650s.”

The revisionist school had also claimed that Islam had not originated in the Hijaz but much further to the north near the border of Palestine. This argument was also taken up by Tom Holland in his book, In The Shadow of the Sword (which I reviewed here) and his accompanying sensationalist Channel 4 documentary “Islam: The Untold Story”. Holland argued that Islam’s origins lay not in the Makka that we know today, but much closer to the modern Israeli border in the north. Makka, argued Holland, was a much later creation by the Umayyads. Sinai debunks this hypothesis too. Sinai adduces a number of arguments which support the traditional Muslim history of Islam’s origins including pointing out that the Qur’an (33:13) explicitly refers to Yathrib (later renamed to al-Madinah) which is in the Hijaz and has been attested to in other literary and epigraphic sources. Sinai says:

“…[I have ended up] endorsing core aspects of [the traditional Muslim] scenario, namely, the historical existence of Muhammad, a default dating of most of the Qur’an to his lifetime and…a placement of the Qur’an’s genesis in the Hijaz region of Western Arabia…the prospects for identifying a compelling alternative to the traditional Hijazi locale and for explaining why and how the Qur’an’s true birthplace could have been so completely obliterated from Islamic historical memory are unpromising, to say the least.”

Sinai’s book also takes a look at how in the past many Western scholars had simply assumed that the Qur’anic suras (chapters) were roughly compiled out of groups of verses and observes how by contrast “a growing tendency in Western scholarship since the 1980s has insisted that many Qur’anic texts are in fact much tighter literary unities”. This is an interesting development and some Muslim readers will recognise that the late Pakistani Islamic scholar, Amin Ahsan Islahi, was one of the pioneers of this school of thought.

Overall, Sinai’s book has much to recommend it. His conclusions do not mean that the Qur’an is God’s Word of course – and I have written previously of how certain Qur’anic passages do pose a problem for modern readers – but it does serve to confirm that the traditional Muslim accounts of the Qur’an’s birthplace do appear to be sound.

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