Who really wrote the Qur’an?

The debate about eating Iftar meals last week highlights the need for a better understanding of Islam amongst many Christians. Here, Will Jones explores one important area of misunderstanding.

Who wrote the Qur’an? You may think the answer to this is obvious: Muhammad wrote the Qur’an. And the crucial difference between Muslims and non-Muslims is whether they believe he was inspired by God to do it. But if you did give that answer, you’d be completely wrong.

For one thing, not even Muslims think that Muhammad wrote the Qur’an. They believe that God wrote it and then revealed it to Muhammad. A technicality you might think. But actually, they don’t even believe that Muhammad, once it had been revealed to him, wrote it down either. He spoke it, preached it, recited it (qur’an literally translates as ‘recitation’). And those around him, his followers, then memorised it, and some noted it down on anything to hand, like palm leaves and stones. So how did it become a book? According to Islamic tradition, not until after Muhammad had died (in AD 632), under the first caliph Abu Bakr, were these parts all gathered together and arranged into a book. The scribe Zaid was charged with the job of locating all the parts and compiling them into one volume. And around 20 years later, under the third caliph Uthman, the same scribe was charged with gathering all the variant versions that still existed, determining the correct one and burning the rest. You might think this haphazard process is not one which would have inspired confidence that the final product contained the authentic words, and only the authentic words, of Muhammad. But this is the official story, and Muslims seem happy enough with it.

What do modern scholars think of this story? Not very much, as it happens. There are all sorts of potential issues with the traditional Islamic account, which is derived from sources only compiled centuries after Muhammad. Perhaps the most significant, and worth leading with here, is that there is mounting evidence that the Qur’an, or at least the bulk of it, predates Muhammad. A number of manuscript fragments have been found which can be dated (by carbon dating of parchment) to well before the time Muhammad was active. It is also packed with agricultural and geographical references which are out of place in the arid Arabian Peninsula, and written in a dialect of Arabic which even early Muslim scholars agreed was not the dialect of Muhammad’s tribe in Mecca. Current thinking is still far from settled, but some evidence suggests it may have originated in the southern Levant or northern Arabia.

So how did it come to be associated with the prophetic vocation of Muhammad of Mecca? That is a question which scholars are really only just beginning to explore, and it is still much too early days to give answers with any kind of certainty. An important dimension of the problem is that the Qur’an consists of two distinct layers, one earlier and one later. Muslim tradition accounts for this in terms of Muhammad’s migration from Mecca to Medina in 622 (the Hijra), when his emphasis shifted markedly from peaceable coexistence with those of other beliefs to a violent intolerance and imperial ambition. However, the two layers, A and B, are of so completely different a character that it seems difficult to attribute them to the same author or authors. They make use of a very different vocabulary and style, are worlds apart in their rhetorical quality, and evince some very different priorities.

Layer A (which approximates to the 86 suras (chapters) ‘revealed before Hijra’, though there is some mixing up) is a finely written theological work of high rhetorical skill. It is general in scope, with much of it devoted to recounting biblical (and apocryphal) stories (especially those of Adam, Noah, Abraham and Moses) as encouragements and warnings, and referring to the events in them as Signs and those involved in bringing God’s word as Messengers. It shows an intense interest in reconciling biblical traditions with its own theological narrative, and contains very few detailed ethical prescriptions.

Layer B (approximating to the 28 ‘after Hijra’ suras) is completely different: it has a much clunkier rhetorical style (on the most part, though with some finer passages), longer verses, and has many fewer biblical references, makes heavy use of the second person (addressing the hearer directly) and includes many references to the Messenger (singular) who is reciting the Qur’an as a Prophet, emphasising the need to obey him. It includes various specific local references to Muhammad, Mecca, the Mosque, and Yathrib (Medina), a host of detailed moral and legal prescriptions, some personal guidance for the Prophet and special dispensations for him (especially about his wives), numerous anti-Christian and anti-Jewish polemics, and many exhortations to fight against the enemy and unbeliever.

Scholars are still investigating explanations for the origin of these two layers. One of the more likely possibilities is that the first layer somehow came into the possession of Muhammad’s community in Mecca, where they began their monotheistic Qur’anic sect, and where they subsequently recognised a prophetic vocation for Muhammad in the Qur’anic tradition. The second layer was then added later by Muhammad (and possibly those around him) following the move to Medina, where the Qur’anic religion and Muhammad’s prophetic vocation quickly became tools for gaining power and building empire. This is not to say that Muhammad and his companions did not sincerely believe in his prophetic vocation – they may well have done. But those who were aware of the true origin of the Qur’an may have been quite happy to allow Muhammad, seen as the last and greatest of the Messengers and Prophets, to co-opt it to his vocation and incorporate it as he deemed fit.

Alternatively there may be a quite different explanation, such as one in which Muhammad is not involved in the production of the Qur’an at all (such ideas have certainly been entertained by some scholars, referred to as ‘revisionists’). Whatever the truth though, one thing is looking increasingly likely: that most of the Qur’an originated somewhere quite different from with someone quite other than Muhammad of Mecca. And that alone threatens some fundamental Islamic claims about the origins of their religion.

If this information was more widely known amongst Muslims, it would surely have the potential to steer some away from a devotion to the life and example of Muhammad. For how could it not moderate the appeal of the Prophet of Islam, if it became accepted that he could not have been the original messenger of most of Islam’s most sacred text?

For too long have Muslims been cossetted from exposure to the bracing winds of historical-critical scholarship, and the result has been that Islam’s origin mythology has been able to maintain a hold over the minds of Muslims. So many of the radical groups who have waged jihad against the world in the name of their Prophet have looked to his example as a model and inspiration in their struggle. In our time, when many Muslims are already questioning Islam because of the violent and destructive fruit born of the global Islamic awakening, modern scholarship can play a part in guiding hearts towards a more peaceful path.

(This article was first published in Crisis Magazine and is reproduced here with permission.)

Colin Chapman has written a fascinating account of the expectations that Muslims have of holy scriptures, how they view the Bible, and a Christian response to their questions. The Bible Through Muslim Eyes can be bought at the Grove Books website for £3.95 post free.

Follow me on Twitter @psephizoLike my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?

31 thoughts on “Who really wrote the Qur’an?”

  1. Thanks Will. I read Tom Holland’s book “In the Shadow of the Sword” a few years ago – and watched his subsequent programme on C4 about it – which really opened my eyes to some of the historical issues regarding the Qu’ran.

    It seems to me that the Bible and Qu’ran aren’t really comparable – the Bible is full of references to history, dates, people, events, places – the Qu’ran has very little.

    • Hi Phill. Yes, the Qur’an has a completely different character to the Bible, with very little to connect it to actual people and places. This is especially true of layer A, which can only be located (if at all) through the references it makes to the forms of agriculture the readers/hearers would presumably be familiar with, and some geographical references to a ruined city which it assumes the hearer is acquainted with (and the dialect of Arabic of course). Layer B names Muhammad a couple of times and a few other specific references, but not like the Bible in locating it clearly in a wider history and context.

      The qur’anic scholar who advised me in writing this article is shortly to publish a book comparing and contrasting the Qur’an and Bible, particularly from a theological point of view, which should be very interesting.

  2. I forget where, but I have recollection of a blog article calling the Qu’ran (is that spelling we’re sticking with here?) a “largely plagiarised” book. Would you go that far Will? Is the connection to biblical sources evident in the first 86 Suras one of inspiration, or of copy?

    Additionally, to carry forward your metaphor, do you think ‘the wind’ is likely to change? If the Qu’ran and the Muslim community as a whole have “escaped the bracing winds of historical-critical scholarship” (and I agree with that assessment), do you see signs of that changing? I am not so sure, nessecary though it is, unless such change comes from within Islam itself.

    • Hi Mat.

      I wouldn’t call it plagiarised. Whoever wrote/composed the Qur’an, or rather layer A, was a very talented person/group who incorporated biblical/apocryphal stories into their prophetic utterances very skilfully. It doesn’t claim to be original: it keeps using the word ‘remember’ (remember Noah, Moses, Abraham etc), before recounting a story about this ‘messenger’ and their ‘signs’ intended to reinforce the basic message to heed God’s messengers and signs and do good works before the day of judgement. Not really copy either. More drawing on a source.

      I agree that there is, sadly, little sign of critical scholarship having much impact on the Islamic world generally. But they do place great store by being a rational religion, and regard the Qur’an as the great proof of Muhammad’s vocation (since by tradition he was illiterate), so over time perhaps, as more courses in more institutions explore these issues properly and rigorously, it will filter down.

      • “I agree that there is, sadly, little sign of critical scholarship having much impact on the Islamic world generally.”

        In the event it does appear, which do you think more likely:

        -Critical scholarship coming from within Islam, via Islamic scholars.
        -Critical scholarship coming from secular educational institutions, universities etc.
        -Critical scholarship coming from other religious domains, such as Catholicism.

        • I guess non-Islamic (which will limit its impact) since I think whereas Christianity could successfully adapt to the new critical paradigm, I think Islam will struggle more because of how tightly bound its central claims are with Muhammad and his relationship to the Qur’an.

          I imagine both secular and religious.

          • Will, do you happen to know anything about the ordering of the Qur’an according to the principle of length-of-chapter? I have always struggled with the continuity of the text, and accordingly can take very little in!

          • Christopher Shell. The Qur’an sura are ordered longest to shortest (from sura 2 to the end. Sura 1 is an introduction). The letters in the NT are organised the same way. This does affect understanding of chronology.

            In general the shorter ones are the earlier ones, and the longer ones are the later ones written in the Medinan context where Muhammad is involved in being a political leader.

            This site gives the chronological order of the sura https://wikiislam.net/wiki/Chronological_Order_of_the_Qur%27an

          • Hi Christopher. Only that the suras are almost entirely ordered by length, longest first. The Qur’an has no narrative continuity, and also a lot of repetition. Some lengthy passages are almost verbatim repeats. This presumably reflects the composition process following Muhammad’s death.

            There isn’t that much to take in, in the sense that the message of most of it is very simple. Here’s a description of a messenger from God and his signs which you should heed and so do good deeds and be rewarded and not condemned. Then there are later bits which have more specific instructions from the Messenger (singular) about all kinds of things. There are also some passages about Christians and Jews and how the Qur’anic message relates to them; these differ in older and newer parts (older are more friendly and conciliatory).

  3. The Qu’ran is quite a difficult read. I ploughed through a lot of it (and around Islam/Hezbollah/etc) some years ago after a visit to Syria as part of my sabattical. That’s mainly because, as far as I know, there is no real interest in translating it into modern English or any other language. The language of Allah is Arabic. For the ardent believer ; ‘Why would one, how dare one debase this?’. Speaking it out ultimately is more important than reading it. You can see that testified to in any madrasa.

    The Qu’ran is undersood as separate from the world and is more comparable with Jesus as the Word of God than the Bible. Mohammed is only a messenger not an originator.

    Likewise; when did Islam begin? The answer is that it ‘always was’.

    Id be genuinely grateful for any corrections to my understanding. Syria is still on my heart and in my prayers. I maintain a thin contact in Aleppo.

    • Hi Ian.

      Muhammad is ‘only’ a messenger in Islam, but he is the last and greatest Messenger and the Qur’an (layer B) includes many injunctions to obey the Messenger. His life and teachings (outside the Qur’an) are a model for Muslims to follow. The ‘revelation’ of the Qur’an is regarded as Muhammad’s great miracle (there is no claim he did others) and the proof of his divine vocation.

      So it is very important to Islam and the idea of Muhammad as Prophet that the human origin of the Qur’an was with him.

    • Ian, to add to Will’s useful reply here. The theological comparison is between Jesus, the Word made flesh (the Word incarnate) and the Qur’an, the Word made book (the Word inlibrate). That is a very important point to remember.

      However, the person of Muhammad is effectively the way of Islam incarnate. Anne-Marie Schwimmel points out that it is almost impossible to overestimate his impact and position. He is the perfect model, speaks the very words of Allah, and the ultimate vision of perfect Islam. The poetry, the influence of Sufism, that he is beloved of Allah, he is the light of creation, and the stories and practises hold him as being the vision of Islam par excellence. He is not worshipped, nor divine, but only a gnats whisker short of that. And this is a gap that is often crossed in practise.

  4. Thanks both, Will and Colin,

    This “The theological comparison is between Jesus, the Word made flesh (the Word incarnate) and the Qur’an, the Word made book (the Word inlibrate). ” is how I understand it. I think it’s important that more Christians get hold of it. There’s generally no understanding of this correct IMHO comparison and the resultant weak critique . Jesus and Muhammed poles apart, more of a category error.

    • I agree that that’s very important to keep to the fore. However, at the level of allegiance and mode of salvation through allegiance, there is a direct comparison between Jesus and Muhammad. It large swathes of many sunni Muslim communities, there is a strong belief that allegiance to (indeed, participation in) Muhammad is the way to salvation. I have had a Muslim friend say to me “Because I am in him [Muhammad], I will be saved”. This narrative is a strong undercurrent in practise and belief for many Muslims. So there is, at this level, a direct competition between the two. This is seated in social dynamics that is strongly patron/client oriented, where honour is the sine qua non of relationships, and where shame is to be avoided. Thus evangelism is not so much “Jesus loves you”, but “Jesus is of the greatest honour. Jesus is Lord. And in allegiance to him, participation in him, [through the Spirit] is salvation” This inevitably highlights the competition for allegiance that is currently focussed on Muhammad.

      • “Because I am in him [Muhammad], I will be saved”. I’ve never encountered such an expression before. How (if at all) might this compare to St. Paul speaking in 1 Cor. 10:2 of being baptized into Moses?

        • It’s hardly ever expressed as baldly as that, but its a very strong narrative in many Muslim contexts. I spent 17 years in South Asia. The story goes:
          On the day of judgment, so we will all stand before Allah on the field of judgement. He will say “Before we begin, Muhammad, this isn’t for you. Come and stand by me”. Muhammad will then go and stand by Allah, and call all those that are in his and in his community of belonging. [Many Sufi’s believe that not only Muhmmad, but all the holy men (saints, pirs, sheikhs), will be called out and they will take their communities with them.] After that then judgment will start.
          I often asked people if they had heard that story and if others believed it. The answer, from Sunni people, in South asia was that they had almost all heard a version of that story, that most people they knew held to that, but that they themselves, of course, didn’t as it wasn’t correct teaching. Talking with conversts about 90% of them say they had believed that before converting. The difference was now they know that only Jesus is the way, which is proven by his resurrection.

          Re “In Him” being related to the “in Him” of Pauline language. Well, yes, and no. (Can you tell I do theology?). The “In” of south asia is very buddhist in nautre. The “I am in everything and everything is in me” Nirvana is where I dissolve to be lost in everything and one with everything. Interestingly, where Islam had come in, that was still true to a point but there is also a sense of continuation of the individual. So it does ring well with NT thinking. (But then, who knows what St Paul had in mind when he wrote those words?) However we have to be careful at times of the nirvana type overtones.

          For furhter reading see Johnson C. (2008) ‘One Under Our Father?: A socio-anthropological approach to patronage, reconciliation and salvation in the South Asian Islamic setting.’ St Francis Magazine Nr. 3 Vol. IV http://www.stfrancismagazine.info/ja/images/pdf/4.%20%20one%20under%20the%20father.%20%20patronage,%20reconciliation%20and%20salvation%20in%20south%20asian%20islam.pdf

          • Many thanks for all the additional detail, and the reference!
            The answers from Sunni people and converts make for quite an interesting combination!

            Such a body – or bodies – of extra-Qur’anic traditions and beliefs is something it would be good to have an overview of…

  5. With the Qur’an being so difficult to read, there is a recent short book that may be of use to those who would like a quick but legitimate exposure, organized by topic. It’s “Islam in its Own Words: Selected Quotations from Islamic Scriptures,” edited by Peter Hussein and available from Amazon etc. Most of the quotations are from the Qur’an, but the book also includes short passages from the Sunnah (several early writings about Muhammad, considered to be scripture), and quotations from ancient and some modern Islamic authorities, all of whom are Muslim. The book is not an academic work, but rather serves as an accessible introduction to the primary materials.

  6. Will Jones comments, “The qur’anic scholar who advised me in writing this article is shortly to publish a book comparing and contrasting the Qur’an and Bible, particularly from a theological point of view”.

    Keep us posted, please!

    Meanwhile, any little list of recommendations for further reading?

    Colin Edwards comments, “Anne-Marie Schwimmel points out” – where, please? (It sounds worth reading!)

    • Annemarie Schimmel (1985) And Muhammad Is His Messenger: The Veneration of the Prophet in Islamic Piety (Studies in Religion) Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina
      (Apologies: I put a “w” in her name in the post above, which shouldn’t be there)


      She writes: and the non-Muslim reader will perhaps understand from the witness of theologians and poets, of Arabs, Persians, and Turks, of Muslims in India and in Africa, how deep the Muslims’ love for him, how warm their trust in him are, how widely he has been venerated and called upon throughout the ages, and how he has been surrounded with the most glorious epithets. He will find that Muhammad indeed constitutes the exemplar and model for every Muslim believer, who is called to imitate him in all, even seemingly insignificant, actions and habits, and he will likely be amazed by the way in which the mystics developed the doctrine of Muhammad’s primordial light and accorded to him, in his position as The Perfect Man, an almost cosmic status and function (p4.)

      Her book on “Mystical Dimensions of Islam” is also excellent.

  7. With regard to layers A and B, in some of the Qur’an translations I have, there are notes of minute analysis assigning (as far as possible) occasions and dates of distinct passages or verses within Surahs – which, if I recall correctly, are in the first instance the result of the work of Muslim scholars.

    What is the history of this sort of analysis, which seems quite different from the agreements reached about different possible vocalizations of certain words?

    And, what is the history of the teaching (if that is an acceptable term) about ‘abrogation’ of earlier by later, where there appears to be a contradiction?

    • Hi David

      In terms of further reading, have you followed the links embedded in the article? There are some good avenues to explore there, including Nicolai Sinai’s book, if you want something scholarly.

      Abrogation is a principle found in the Qur’an itself, in layer B. Here’s 16:101:
      ‘When We substitute a verse in place of another verse—and Allah knows best what He reveals—they say, “You are an impostor.” But most of them do not know.’

      Muslim scholars have identified over 550 instances of earlier verses being abrogated by later (based on their assessment of which are earlier and later). The Wiki page on this is good: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naskh_(tafsir)

  8. In some non-Muslim popular-scholarly accounts (presumably drawing on Muslim accounts), I have seen a three-way disagreement on the interpretation of a Qur’an text as decisive to the results of the Battle of Siffin (dated to AD 657, 25 years after the death of Mohammed), eventually effectively resulting in the divisions between Sunnites, Shiits, and Kharijites.

    Is this interpretation widely shared? And, any recommended reading on the history of effectively authoritative and/or widely agreed upon interpretations of the Qur’an, and their concrete effects?

  9. I am sad that Kenneth Cragg’s “Readings in the Qur’an” is not better known. As a Christian he was surely one of the 20th Century’s leading Arabic scholars, his thematic arrangement of the Qur’an makes it so much more readable, and the index is really useful.
    Before he died, I was able to speak with him a few times, and he did not discourage me from the prayer that one day, Muslims will come to see that the Qur’an does not deny that Jesus died on the dross.

    • Thanks for this! I read in one (older) popular-scholarly work that some Shiite (as I should have spelt it above!) scholars read the text in question as not suggesting Jesus did not die on the cross – but it had no detailed reference!


Leave a comment