Has the Koran ever been studied via Higher Criticism methods in the same way as the Bible?

Bear with my lack of the technical terms, but my recollection is that the concept of “Higher Criticism” in the 19th century was intensive study of textual analysis, word patterns, and so on, to try to determine how the various books of the Bible were compose and when.

Have those same analytical tools ever been applied to the Koran?

I thought the Koran was uncontroversially dictated by Mohammed (over an extended period of years) and reduced to writing shortly after his death. It is not like the Bible, which without question has had a large variety of human authors composing at different times in history.

To what end would textual analysis be performed if the origin of the Koran is as concentrated in time and authorship as it is? I am familiar with attempts to use textual analysis in a forensic setting to demonstrate that a person said to have confessed was not the author of the words in the confession (by calculation of the rate at which certain indicator words appear, etc) but it rarely works, because the baseline of natural variation within any one individual is so wide.

Would that not make textual analysis somewhat unpromising an enterprise?

The short answer is yes.

A longer answer is that the study of the Qur’an by non-Muslims is something of a complicated subject in Islam. While the Qur’an recognizes that it will be of interest to non-Muslims, its self-identity as religious truth makes challenging it akin to denying that truth. Readers, then, are segregated between those who accept its truth and those who do not, and are therefore antagonistic. There is not really an idea of someone reading the Qur’an for purely secular enlightenment. Early Islam tended to see the motivations of interested but non-converting parties as antagonistic and there is evidence of things like early Christians being forbidden to teach their children the Qur’an on the grounds that they would twist the truth.

Over the centuries, this distrustful view was pretty heavily validated by Christian apologetics that used the Qur’anic text to attack the supposed truth of Islam. It was not until the later middle ages when understanding of the Qur’an began to be seen by Christian scholars as useful for its own sake, without worrying about apologetics or converting. You began to see works that were not particularly polemical and driven by a desire to understand, even if the authors were almost invariably hostile to Islam itself.

When the historical-critical studies of the Bible came into vogue in the 18th century, it took a little while for it to be applied to the Qur’an because scholars still had this idea that the Qur’an was derivative of the Bible. There was, however, some very interesting philological scholarship done in Germany around this time that marked a big shift in European Islamic studies. Abraham Geiger (19th C) wrote a very interesting work that sought to trace the origins of the Qur’an within Judaism and Christianity, and did so without raising the “truth” or “false prophet” issues that other works did. It placed Muhammad, as best it could, within the context of his time. Authors like Gustav Weil and Theodor Nöldeke continued in this vein. They did a good job in some ways and applied a lot of tools you mention, but they were a bit too text-focused for me.

This kind of approach was basically what Western scholarship focused on up until 1970. What was interesting, though, is even when scholars like Richard Bell approached the Qur’an from new directions and were critical of Islamic claims, they still maintained acceptance of basic tenants of Muslim traditions of the Qur’an and its compilation, treating these historical accounts, at times, more seriously than Muslims themselves. So you get this idea that the origins of the Qur’an are uncontroversial and settled and it was quickly compiled and was caused by, if not revelation, then at least a religious experience by Muhammad, etc.

Dissatisfaction with this state of affairs led to a flowering of new scholarship that has really pushed a lot of the bounds of Qur’anic inquiry and mainstream thought. One pivotal and controversial author is John Wansbrough, who directly challenged Islamic historical traditions and proposed a greatly extended formation period for the Qur’an. Wansbrough, along with later author John Burton, labeled Muslim sources of early Islam forms of literary activism rather than history. He took his lead from biblical studies and identified independent traditions that seem to imply a much larger and longer pool of origin for the Qur’an than tradition would say. The specific Qur’an we have today, Wansbrough said, was the result of 9th century Islamic scholars seeking to justify their legal rulings, rather than an Abu Bakr collection or an Uthman one.

While Wansbrough is not exactly taken as gospel (heh) today, his work’s biggest impact was in opening up the study of Qur’an to new methods, assumptions, and a bit of creativity. Angelika Neuwirth contributed but went on quite a different path, looking at the literary structure of the Qur’an from the base unit of the Sura rather than a complete work as Wansbrough did. Her research understands the Qur’an as a collection of liturgical units developed for worship purposes and she tracks their evolutions in stages as chronicling the rise of the proto-Islamic sect as an independent group.

A couple more examples of innovative, if at times going near polemical/controversial, research in the Biblical studies mode: Gunther Luling, who was preoccupied with the idea that Christian and Jewish dogmas had abandoned primitive beliefs, took to the study of Islam and stripped the Qur’an pretty much down to its bare bones in order to conclude that the Qur’an has a pre-Islamic Christian text as a primitive bedrock layer. So there are formerly Christian passages that have been given new meanings by the tradition, and new Islamic passages put on top of them. It was also influenced by pre-Islamic Arab Paganism. Luling holds that the Qur’an was revised several times in the course of reaching its final form. My recollection is Luling is considered to have been pretty reaching at times in making his conclusions, though there was definite Christian influence on Early Islam and the composition of the Qur’an.

Cristoph Luxenbourg wrote a very interesting study on how Syro-Aramaic influenced the Qur’an’s Arabic. He believed the language of the Qur’an was a mixture of Aramaic and Arabic and that the knowledge of the peculiar Meccan dialect spoken by Muhammad was lost by the time punctuation and exegesis of the text began, which is why there was a lot of confusion and misreading of Muslim scholars. As you can imagine, this interpretation has not gone unchallenged. He gives a period of about 1.5 centuries for the Qur’an to fully form, and is notable for downplaying the importance of the Qur’an in the earliest days of Islam.

These guys are all a bit old, but I hope they show the trajectory that Islamic studies have gone in terms of not being afraid to push the envelope. I don’t know newer stuff on this as well but I’m sure I can dig some out if you see it necessary. Patricia Crone is fun. Karen Armstrong is nice too. Reza Aslan has some interesting insights.

Recently (last 30 years) there has been a growing movement among Qur’anic (and actually, all sorts of religious scholars) scholars to stop focusing on text so much and examine instead how Muslims themselves have approached the Qur’an, both in practice and in exegetical literature. Focusing too much on the circumstances and historical origins of text removes us from the actual realities that these texts inspire. In this sense, then, the study of the Qur’an is moving along pretty well with the study of other religious traditions and texts. There still is a (not always called for) tendency towards polemics, and on the other side, a (again not always called for) tendency in the Muslim community to view scholarship produced by non-Muslims as risky and untrustworthy at best. But there’s a ton of good scholarship being produced in the meantime.

I do not necessarily endorse the views of the above authors, though I will be glad to expand on them if anyone cares. They are just representative (I hope) of movements in how Western scholarship has approached the Qur’an and how the answer to your question is basically yes. There is a lot we don’t know about early Islamic history, a lot to debate, and a lot of research being done.

If I have made any mistakes in the above, I look forward to correction. To refresh my memory in writing this I consulted the Cambridge Companion to the Qur’an, Chapters 3 and 11, by Harald Motzki and Andrew Rippin, respectively. To make it simpler on myself I kept it to mostly info from there, which explains why I chose the above authors to mention.

Oh yeah there are a lots of theories about it. One night I was interested in this and spent the time googling around for info on things like

If Mohammed didn’t write the Koran who did?

If the Koran isn’t inspired then where did the stories come from

You have to google around for it and you can find many websites that will go into such things.

It’s hard because a lot of the websites are very anti-Islam with an agenda to promote. I don’t believe that makes them totally unreliable but like anything you have to pick your way through the propaganda messages.

Well-known works published far more recently than the Koran, and with similarly accepted authorship, have been subject to textual analysis for the purpose of authorship determination. An enormous volume of analysis has been done on the works of Shakespeare, for example, to variously support or oppose the notion that Shakespeare himself wrote the works attributed to him. You might as well ask what the purpose of all that was.

Besides, textual analysis isn’t just for authorship determination. It can tell us a lot of other things about a text, its author, its intended audience, its inspiration, the social mores of the society in which it was composed, etc.

My experience is actually the exact opposite. I’ve done some web searches for “authorship koran” or similar phrases, and almost everything that comes back is the work of Muslim apologists asserting the standard fairy tale that the Koran is the word of God as dictated by Mohammed and recorded by his disciples. Most of them don’t even source the arguments they are opposing.

Yeah, finding good, reliable info about Islam online (even moreso than other religions, it seems to me at times) is annoyingly tough. I have yet to meet an Islamicist who considers Wikipedia useful at all as a source, and most other websites are openly partisan. While they can and often do have true info, unless you really investigate it’s next to impossible to sort out the wheat from the chaff.

One more thing I must mention is that these days, the boundary between “Western” Islamic study and “Muslim” Islamic study is considerably blurred. I’ve been lucky to have studied with some excellent Muslim professors and students who are fully capable in participating in the academic study of Islam. Differentiating Islamic exegesis (tafsir) from non-Muslim religious study is more difficult than you would think these days.

Much of the scholarly process I mentioned above is contributed to and critiqued by scholars who happen to also be Muslim and that has long been the norm. We can define western scholarship above as being that done with a non-confessional attitude, but even that is undergoing criticism these days as unfairly limiting. Regardless, much as how Christian scholars were perfectly capable of using higher criticism tools, Muslim scholars are too. In case that was not clear. I shouldn’t write long essays on religion after midnight…

Sure, but if instead, you compare the Koran to individual books of the Bible, then it’s a whole different story. To believers, most books of the Bible are each of uncontroversial authorship, either actually set down on paper by the author, or at least composed orally and set down by others soon after.

Therefore, not only is the OP’s question entirely reasonable, but I find it very interesting that even more recent writers (psychonaut mentioned Shakespeare) have been subjected to similar analysis. I wonder what the results might be if they analyzed an even more recent work which had been authored by a committee – the US Declaration of Independence, or the Constitution, for example. Would the analysis point to various sections and say, “See? This part was clearly written by a different author than that part!” or would the collaborative process tend to smoothen out those distinctions?

Thank you for this informative answer.

Why critique of the Qur’an pissing in wind:

Critique: Through the Qur’an, Islam is portrayed as a phallocentric religion that advocates violence towards non believers and those who transgress its precepts, promotes misogyny and whose prophet is represented as a paedophile, among his other dubious traits.

Critique rebuttle: Westerner’s misinterpret the Qur’an because they do not understand pure Arabic and that Islam is the only true religion and is in fact the doctrine of peace.

Rebuttle²: If Islam is the only one true path that we all must follow, why is it presented in such an arcane manner that only the most scholarly Arab Muslim has a true graps of its teachings, in spite of the fact most practicing Muslims do not speak Arabic period? Also, if Islam eqauates to peace; why does Islam translate to ‘submission’ – a concept that flies directly in the face of humanity?

Rebuttle³: Blasphemy! Die, infidel!!
So I wager, no – the Qur’an likely has not been submitted to the same level of scrutiny as its counterpart belief systems… and for good reason!

Your logic escapes me. Do you think that the average Jew or Christian has as good a grasp of the Bible’s teachings as a scholarly rabbi or priest or minister who has been studying it for decades? Do you think that most practicing Jews and Christians speak Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek?

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Many thanks, ñañi. That’s what makes GQ the must spot of the Internet!

May I ask what the derivation of your user name is?

Excellent posts. ñañi.

Surprise, surprise, not all Muslims are raving loonies sitting in a cave somewhere. Muslims are just people, each with a different perspective and different understanding of their faith. Just like Christianity, there are those who take everything literally. But there are also those who are in it more as a cultural institution than a sincere belief, those who believe there are truths to it but they may not be literal, those who believe Islam is one of many paths leading to the same place, those who just put on the hat and do the prayers because that’s what they’ve always done and they can’t be bothered changing, those that do it because they feel like it’s beneficial to raise a child in a congregation, and those who value the higher-level philosophy behind it.

It’s not wildly different than any other religion, and your average Muslim is likely to be pretty similar to your average Christian in terms of orthodoxy and level of belief- they pray, they attend services, they take comfort in their traditions, but they don’t worry too much about the nuts and bolts. Muslims also think about post-modernism, deconstructionism and other theory. In college, a lot of them also do keg-stands and do stupid stuff to impress girls. They are just people.

Anyway, the point is that universities around the world have no shortage of Muslims. Some of these Muslims are going to be interested in textual analysis, comparative religion, etc.

Probably most adherents of the faith wouldn’t take it seriously, but the writer calling himself Ibn Warraq wrote Why I am Not a Muslim, which has many citations from non-Muslim critical studies of the Koran. He also edited the Origins of the Koran, a collection of articles on the origins of parts of the Koran, which is very relevant to this thread. Ibn Warraq himself has been described as “anti-Islamic”, and one review of the latter book states that “*t seems that Ibn Warraq has included some of the essays not on the basis of their scholarly value or their status as ‘classics’, but rather on the basis of their hostility to Islam. This does not necessarily diminish the value of the collection, but the reader should be aware that this collection does not fully represent classic scholarship on the Quran.”

I believe the point is that Islam teaches that only the Quran in the original Arabic is the Quran - translations are not the same thing. Christianity does not teach that complete understanding of the Bible can only be achieved by reading in the original languages. It is certainly a good practice to read it in Greek or Hebrew, but that is not the same as the belief “if it is not in Arabic it isn’t real” or however Muslims would express it.

Whether or not it is a valid point against Islam is another matter.


“If English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.”

Actually, some flavours of Christianity do indeed make such claims for certain versions of the Bible. Some adherents of the King James Only movement, for example, hold that the King James Version is the only authoritative version of the Bible—superior even to the original Greek and Hebrew texts.

Ah, the Reverend Ian Paisley:

However, I don’t think he represents All Protestants. Just as I’m aware there are many flavors of Muslim!

(Interesting thread.)