Genesis Of A Holy Book

April 21, 2020 Category: Religion

Frank discussion of the (actual) origins of any given holy book is bound to be a fraught undertaking; as it requires one to navigate a gauntlet of contention from those who would prefer current impressions (based, as they are, on “received wisdom”) to be left “as is”.  This is especially so in the event that inquiries lead to evidence that undermines a sanctified narrative.  After all, such meddling in a homeostatic dogmatic system is bound to sew discord.

Scrutiny tends to expose faults in the ramshackle dogmatic structure–which is typically highly frangible.  Such intrusions can potentially lead to fissures in the consecrated edifice.

There is an irony in the case of Islam’s holy book, though.  It turns out that the religion’s most vaunted sources themselves reveal that the credence of the “Recitations” is on shaky ground…if not quicksand.  In other words, one needn’t bring to bear exogenous critiques; the fatal flaws can be revealed from within the tradition.

All necessary insights can be culled from Islamic sources; which immunizes the critique from those who’s aim to to uphold the tradition based on those same sources.

But why so frangible?  Well, according to the Koran and Hadith, refusing to believe that Mohammed of Mecca was delivering–verbatim–messages from the Creator of the Universe is the worst possible transgression.  For if the text is not deemed to be divine revelation (“tanzil”), then the credence of, well, everything is brought into question. {16}  Consequently, there is a feeling that Islam’s holy book (as well as the historiography used to buttress its credibility) must be quarantined from critical scrutiny…lest the entire house of cards collapse.

Many myths surround what is supposed to be the earliest compilation of the “Recitations”.  Take, for instance, a bit of apocrypha about a figure referred to as “Solomon [“Salmon”] the Persian”, who is supposed to have rendered the Koranic verses in Middle Persian (Pahlavi) during the fabled ministry of Mohammed of Mecca.  This is only plausible–of course–insofar as some verses were actually composed during the lifetime of Mohammed of Mecca (the Seal of the Abrahamic prophets; hereafter: “MoM”).  Insofar as Pahlavi was the second most relevant language in the region (after Syriac), this actually makes sense.  (Classical Arabic did not yet exist.)

As legend has it, MoM relayed the verses–piecemeal–to followers over the course of almost two decades: 613 to 632.  Why did it take two decades for this to happen?  Well, the Abrahamic deity was feeding his appointed messenger excerpts from what was an eternal book.

The explanation given for why the deity did so in installments: It was a necessary a pedagogic stratagem given the circumstances.

And why no more than two decades?  Because MoM was murdered before he could perform his charge (as a mouthpiece) any longer.  The descriptor “mouthpiece” here is apt; as MoM is alleged to have been relaying WORD-FOR-WORD the (literal) speech of the Creator of the Universe.  Thus the Recitations, as the Final revelation, is not just divinely-inspired exposition like the Bible; it is a VERBATIM TRANSCRIPT of speech from the Abrahamic deity, delivered at a specific place and time to a specific person…according to that person.

The notion of “channeling” a deity’s proclamations was nothing new in the Abrahamic tradition–as attested in, say, Deuteronomy 18:18–in which Yahweh states: “I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command.”  This leitmotif comes in very handy for demagogues.  For to claim that one speaks on behalf of the godhead is to assert infallibility: “To question ME is to question the Abrahamic deity.  So don’t question anything I say…lest you impugn an omniscient super-being that, be forewarned, doesn’t take any guff.”

In one fell swoop, a charismatic leader can arrogate to himself limitless license–effectively granting himself a blank check.  (With the imprimatur of the godhead, anything goes.)  The gimmick is universal–as with, say, the “mandate from heaven” in China.  (For more on this topic, see my essay on “The History of Exalted Figures”.)  And this is exactly what we encounter in the Koran.  Verses 31-32 of Surah 33 stipulate that god instructed MoM to tell everyone that “If you love god, then you will follow ME.”  Thus to challenge the designated prophet is to challenge god himself.  (Bringing his decrees into question is to countermand the Creator of the Universe!)

Once one is afforded a casus belli that can be put in the service of whatever one wishes, there are no limits to one’s aspirations.  So it comes as little surprise that MoM insisted that ANYTHING and EVERYTHING he commanded was merely a decree channeled from the Abrahamic deity (as stipulated in 3:32, 4:65/80, 24:63, and 59:7).  The Koran, then, is reputed to be a transcription of that preternatural conveyance…down to every last word.

How plausible is this claim?  It is to this question that the present essay is devoted.

According to the prevailing hagiography, the first passage MoM received from his celestial emissary (the arch-angel, Gabriel) c. 610 correlates with verses 1-5 of chapter 96; though the nascent prophet waited three years before he began conveying this information to others.  The episode occurred on the so-called “Laylat al-Qadr” [Night of Destiny; a.k.a. the Night of Power].

That inaugural pericope was followed by two more “revelations”: 74:1-7 then 53:1-18.  And then the rest, received ad hoc.

Pursuant to claiming to be the anointed “rasul” of “allah”, MoM was able to accumulate a handful of “mu-hajirun” in his hometown of Mecca: the “ansar” [earliest “companions”]…which is to say: the first of the exalted “Sahabah”.  It was this small band of acolytes that accompanied MoM on the famed “hijra[h]” [migration] to a Hijazi oasis settlement a fortnight’s camel-ride to the north: Yathrib.  (So the story goes.)

That core group of acolytes were with MoM from the get-go; and served as the seed of his ministry when he set up shop in Yathrib.

MoM was evidently very charismatic, as most cult leaders tend to be.  Yet having made minimal headway in Mecca, he was obliged to seek greener pastures.  Hence the fabled “hijra” from Mecca.  Upon arriving in Yathrib c. 622, the aspiring prophet managed to engineer sycophancy amongst much of the population.  This is why the municipality was eventually re-christened, “Madinat an-Nabi” [City of the Prophet].

As the story goes, MoM was extremely savvy at arbitrating disputes between Yathrib’s tribal leaders, thereby currying favor with, well, almost everyone in the city.  He managed to leverage this renown for his own aggrandizement…which is simply to say: He shrewdly parlayed the good graces he garnered (as a dependable inter-tribal diplomat) into a phenomenally successful campaign as a full-fledged prophet.

From his initial disciples, the self-proclaimed “messenger of god” was able to grow his following at an alarming rate…in spite of the fact that there is no record of him having offered any groundbreaking new ideas…or profound insights on anything (pace, perhaps, discouraging infanticide).  Bold pronouncements were enough to beguile the denizens of Yathrib.

Clearly, MoM exuded prodigious confidence–projecting a beguiling gravitas.  He had an air of authority that captivated much of his audience.  Over time, his purported “revelations” became increasingly brazen.  That is: his pronouncements grew more self-serving–and tendentious–in proportion to the power he accrued.  The last major Surah was 9–which is, not coincidentally, the most militant.

But one must wonder: Did this “messenger” always remember everything precisely as he declaimed?  Well, not exactly.  According to various Hadith accounts, MoM HIMSELF sometimes forgot some of the verses he recited, and needed to be reminded of them by others.  Even THOSE reminders were dubious.  After all, it was just various people recalling various things–things that seemed to “ring a bell” later on…in the event that MoM happened to hear them repeated back to him from this or that ardent follower.

Sometimes, scribes recommended emendations to a revelation; and MoM would respond with what amounted to: “Ooh; you’re right.  It sounds better THAT way.  So go ahead and say it like that instead.”  These ignominious interludes were subsequently attested to in the “sahih” [unimpeachable] Hadith.  Ironically, such incidents only succeeded in making claims of divine origin all the more implausible.

Recall that MoM was illiterate, and so needed someone to transcribe the “revelations” he proffered.  One of his first scribes was a man named [Abdullah] Ibn Sa’[a]d ibn Abi Sarh [al-Amiri].  In response to Ibn Abi Sarh’s suggestion to re-phrase or elaborate upon certain verses (as with the end of 23:14), MoM’s effective reply was: “Uh, yeah. Sounds good.  Let’s go with that.”  Naturally, this made the scribe rather suspicious.

After all, the verses were supposed to be conveyances of verbiage emanating from the Abrahamic deity (via a celestial emissary); and so were to be taken VERBATIM.  Accordingly, in response to such overtures from a well-meaning scrivener, MoM would not have entertained any suggestions.  (This is especially ironic, in light of verse 6:93.)

Invariably, that particular scribe (Ibn Abi Sarh) was privy to certain things of which nobody else would have been aware at the time.  This may well have become a problem for the aspiring prophet–undermining, as it would have–the inviolable nature of his asseverations.  Consequently, there came to be somewhat of a personal vendetta.

As it came to pass, Ibn Abi Sarh opted to notify others about these peculiar–nay, incriminating–occurrences.  As would be expected, the trusted scribe instantly become persona non grata for letting the cat out of the bag.  Ibn Abi Sarh eventually fled.  Due to his unique access, he was clearly aware that the “revelations” that the self-proclaimed “rasul allah” was relaying to him were of dubious authenticity.

Unsurprisingly, MoM eventually had his former scribe killed for apostasy (read: for spilling the beans).

Interesting fact: Ibn Abi Sarh was the half-brother of Uthman ibn Affan (the man who ended up becoming the third caliph).

Here’s the thing.  Even by the time MoM died (by being poisoned by a Jewess who’s family he’d recently had slaughtered), nobody had gotten around to writing anything down.  And two decades after the self-proclaimed prophet’s (unexpected) death, STILL nobody had jotting down any of the Recitations–at least not in any systematic way.  As one might expect, this would eventually become a problem.

Sure enough, within a generation of MoM’s death, there were various versions of the “Recitations” circulating around Arabia, Mesopotamia, and the Levant…and even westward into the Maghreb and eastward into Persia.  The material would have been in the lingua franca of the region: Syriac.  (I delve into the Koran’s Syriac origins in another essay.)

Eventually, the purported revelations became a veritable OLIO of material–excerpts of which were collected ad hoc by various parties in various places.  Even the most vaunted Hadith collection attests to this fact (ref. Bukhari 4/62, 6/201, 6/307, 6/501-510, 9/301, etc.) {16}

Attempts to divine what–exactly–the ORIGINAL “Recitations” may have been are therefore quixotic.  No written record survives.  Yet the vast majority of Muslims–strangely, even many Progressive Muslims–remain staunchly committed to the untenable position that the book now known as “al-Qur’an” [the Recitations] has been unchanged since the ministry of MoM (that is: each verse is exactly as it was, word for word, since the day it left MoM’s mouth).

Such supplicants obstinately cling to the spurious proposition that the version of the text used today (the “Cairo” version, compiled in 1924 by a committee at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt; based as we’ll see, on the Hafs lineage of transmission) is a perfect transcription of everything that MoM actually said…which was itself a verbatim account of everything the angel Gabriel had allegedly said to HIM, in private.

Note: Revelations are almost ALWAYS delivered when the recipient is alone (a phenomenon I address in my essay on “The History Of Exalted Figures”).  Given what we now know about the relevant historical context (and assuming just a smidgeon of common sense is brought to bear on the matter), the claim is so highly implausible, it is rather astonishing that any sane person might hold it. 

So what REALLY DID happen?  We’ll never know for sure; but it doesn’t hurt to give the most trusted sources IN ISLAM the benefit of the doubt, and heed what they tell us. {16}

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