Mandelbrot set image very small
Serious writing for
serious readers
Follow @Mohammed_Amin
Join my
email list

Search this site

Custom Search
Mohammed Amin's website
Serious writing
for serious readers
Tap here for MENU

Review of "The Cambridge companion to the Quran" edited by


Created 15 August 2011. Updated 21 January 2015.

The Bible and the Quran are unquestionably the two most important books in human civilisation. Regardless of your religion or your cultural background, your education is incomplete if you are not familiar with both books.

In each case there is no substitute for reading the book itself. However as well as reading the Quran, I believe it is also worthwhile learning what knowledgeable scholars have to say about it. Although many of the authors are not Muslims, I did not regard this as an impediment. One can be extremely knowledgeable about a religion and have worthwhile and illuminating insights about it without being a believer.

The Cambridge companion to the Quran brings together a number of eminent academics. If you follow the link below to the website you can look inside the book and see the three-page listing of the contributors. That gives details of the academic institutions they belong to and some of their previous publications.

After the introduction, the book comprises 14 chapters which are independently written by the authors as itemised below. Thanks to good editing and the subjects covered being so different there is very little overlap. The structure of the book is as follows:

Part 1 – Formation of the Quranic text

  1. The historical context – Fred M. Donner
  2. Creation of a fixed text – Claude Gilliot
  3. Alternative accounts of the Quran's formation – Harald Motzki

Part 2 – Description and analysis

  1. Themes and topics – Daniel A. Madigan
  2. Structural, linguistic and literary features – Angelika Neuwirth
  3. Recitation and aesthetic reception – William A. Graham and Navid Kermani

Part 3 – Transmission and dissemination

  1. From palm leaves to the Internet – Fred Leemhuis
  2. Inscriptions in art and architecture – Sheila Blair and Jonathan Bloom

Part 4 – interpretations and intellectual traditions

  1. The tasks and traditions of interpretation – Jane Dammen McAuliffe
  2. Multiple areas of influence – Alexander Knish
  3. Western scholarship and the Quran – Andrew Rippin

Part 5 – Contemporary readings

  1. Women's readings of the Quran – Asmer Barlas
  2. Political interpretation of the Quran – Stefan Wild
  3. The Quran and other religions – Abdulaziz Sachedina

One of the benefits of reading such a book is being reminded of the enormous diversity in Muslim thinking over the centuries. In today's world there are far too many Muslim groups which contend that their own interpretation of Islam is the only valid one, and awareness of diversity is good inoculation against such attitudes.

There is too much in the book for me to attempt to summarise it but I have selected below a few topics which I find particularly interesting.

Introduction - Jane Dammen McAuliffe

McAuliffe begins the book by introducing us to three famous readers of the Quran, who typify the differing perspectives of the polemicist, the scholar and the convert.

Peter the Venerable (died 1156) was a French abbot who commissioned the first complete Latin translation of the Quran. His reason for doing so was straightforward; he regarded Islam as a grievous heresy and a false religion. If as a Christian he was going to combat this religion, he needed to 'know the enemy.' His translation served as a base for polemic against Islam.

Ignaz Goldziher (died 1921) was a Jew who studied in his native Hungary as well as Berlin, Leipzig, Leyden and Vienna. His doctoral work was in Hebrew, Arabic and Syriac and culminated in a thesis on a mediaeval Arabic commentary on the Bible. McAuliffe stresses his foundational role in the modern field of Arabic and Islamic studies.

Mohammed Asad (died 1992) was born as Leopold Weiss in Poland and converted to Islam at the age of 26. In his 60s, he began work on a new English translation of the Quran as he was dissatisfied with existing translations. McAuliffe writes:

"The reasons for his dissatisfaction are interesting. Largely linguistic, they applied to both Muslim and non-Muslim efforts to render the Quran into a Western language. Asad contends that no non-Arab, whether Muslim or not, can capture the true 'spirit' of the language through academic study, even when supplemented by conversation with contemporary, urban Arabs. Only someone who has spent time with the desert Bedouin of the Arabian peninsula – as Asad himself did – can 'achieve an intimate understanding of the diction of the Quran'. He also takes full account of precisely that stylistic element of the Quran that Noldeke [a European scholar who preceded Goldziher] found so troubling. Classical rhetorical analysis of the Quran uses the technical term ijaz to designate instances of concision or brevity in the text. In Asad’s assessment this is lauded as

'that inimitable ellipticism which often deliberately omits intermediate thought-clauses in order to express the final stage of an idea as pithily and concisely as is possible within the limitations of human language. This method of ijaz is, as I have explained, a peculiar, integral aspect of the Arabic language, and has reached its utmost perfection in the Quran. In order to render its meaning into a language which does not function in a similarly elliptical manner, the thought-links which are missing – that is, deliberately omitted – in the original must be supplied by the translator.'

While the reception of Asad's rendering, like that of many others, has not been uncontroversial, there are many English speaking Muslims who will attest to the appeal of this translation, and who rely upon it daily."

Muhammad Asad's is the translation I turn to first when researching a point in the Quran and features on my page "Reading the Quran".

Alternative accounts of the Quran's formation – Harald Motzki

As a Muslim I believe that the Quran was revealed by God to Muhammad (peace be upon him) via the Archangel Gabriel over a 23 year period starting when the Prophet (pbuh) was aged 40.

Non-Muslims of course do not accept the divine origin of the Quran. The mainstream non-Muslim view has traditionally been that the Quran was composed by Muhammad (pbuh) himself. However there has generally been acceptance by non-Muslims of the traditional Muslim history that the fragments of the Quran were collected together into a canonical text at the instruction of the third Caliph, Uthman, with variant versions destroyed.

This chapter discusses alternative assertions from the 1970s onwards regarding the origin and formation of the Quran. Two books by John Wansbrough have challenged the traditional view: "Quranic studies: sources and methods of scriptural interpretation" (1977) and "The sectarian milieu: content and composition of Islamic salvation history" (1978). The writer explains Wansbrough's approach:

"Wansbrough doubts the value of source analysis that seeks to detect historical facts and to reconstruct 'what really happened'. He begins from the premise that the Muslim sources about the origin of Islam, including the Quran, sira, the traditions from the Prophet (hadith), Quranic exegesis (tafsir) and historiography, are the product of literary activity, i.e., fictional literature, which reflects 'salvation history'. The sources need to be analysed, therefore, as literature, i.e., by using literary-critical methods. Actual historical conclusions can be at best a by-product of such literary analysis. The method of analysis that Wansbrough adopted, form criticism, is drawn from Biblical studies.

Wansbrough points to 'the fragmentary character' of the Quran and to the frequent occurrence of 'variants' in both the Quran and other genres of early literature, i.e., texts or narratives that are similar in content but different in structure or wording. These phenomena do not support the idea of a primitive text (Urtext), originating from or compiled by an individual author or a text carefully edited by a committee, but are better explained by assuming that the Quran has been created by choosing texts from a much larger pool of originally independent traditions. ...."

"His form-critical analysis leads Wansbrough to the conclusion that the traditional account of the Quran’s formation, that which considers Muhammad to be its main conduit and the canonical version to be the result of a collection and redaction shortly after his death – an account based essentially on Muslim traditions – cannot be true. For him, these reports are fictions which, perhaps following the Jewish model, aimed at taking the canon back to the early period of Islam. The hypothesis of a much longer development, one lasting many generations, seems more likely. The corpus of the prophetical logia that serves as source for the compilation of the canon probably developed through oral composition, whereas the emergence of the canonical text itself was a mainly literary undertaking.

Wansbrough dates the canonical version of the Quran no earlier than the third/ninth century. He sees such a late date for the canonisation of the Quran corroborated by the development of the Quranic exegetical literature. ..."

"If Wansbrough's theory is accepted, there is no way to establish anything of the revelation or the life of the historical Muhammad from Quran, sira, tafsir or hadith. To look for historical facts in this sort of literature would be a meaningless research exercise."

Wansbrough's view remains a minority in the field of Quranic studies. I am not currently in a position to comment on it in detail but intend to have a look at his books. [Update 21.1.2015 Since this page was created I have added to my website a review of "Quranic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation" in which John Wansbrough explains his views in detail.] I have met it before but only in the form of newspaper articles. At this stage, I find his logic somewhat circular since he starts by assuming that all of the Islamic traditions must be unreliable.

Apart from my religious beliefs, my reason for rejecting Wansbrough's thesis is an insight about the history of Islam that I gained while I was on Hajj. Both Mecca and Medina have never been conquered by non-Muslims. Accordingly unlike the Israelite kingdom which was destroyed several times, there is a continuous history of control of Mecca and Medina by Muslims. Since the time of the Prophet (pbuh) Muslims have been performing Hajj to Mecca and this continuous interaction by hundreds of thousands of Muslims with the city of Mecca assures us that the Kaaba is exactly where it was at the time of the Prophet (pbuh). Otherwise far too many people would have known that something had changed, and this would have been disseminated throughout Muslim communities worldwide.

Similarly, although visiting Medina is not an official requirement of the Hajj, the continuous history of Muslims in Medina as well as the visits of pilgrims assure us that the Prophet's Mosque is exactly where it was when he died, subject of course to its having been enlarged on many occasions. Within the Prophet's Mosque are the graves of Muhammad (pbuh) himself and the first two caliphs Abu Bakr and Umar. Adjacent is the Al Baqi cemetery where many of the Prophet’s (pbuh) companions are buried, and nearby is the battlefield of Uhud for example. These graves have to be the original graves because it is inconceivable that they could have been changed given the number of Muslims in Medina and visiting Medina. Anything so significant would have spread by word of mouth, and for something so significant I believe that oral history can be relied upon.

With the same thought process, if the story of the collation of the Quran under Caliph Uthman were untrue, people who were alive at that time would have known and would have shared the knowledge of that untruth with their descendants. It is a peculiar kind of cultural imperialism on the part of Wansbrough to completely disregard any evidence from oral traditions; especially evidence from a society that was primarily oral with family genealogies and other historical information being passed down families orally.

The Quran and other religions – Abdulaziz Sachedina

This chapter explores Islam’s view on religious pluralism. Fundamentally there are two alternative views:

  1. Muslims recognise that as well as Islam there are other paths to salvation.
  2. Islam supersedes all other religions and from the time of the Prophet (pbuh) it is the only path to salvation.

The writer reminds us that the Quran sees humanity as one community:

"The message of the Quran underscores both the universal and the particular dimensions of human societies. At the universal level the Quran establishes the unity of human beings as members of a single community. At the particular level it conveys the specific identity of belonging to the community of the faithful that gathered under its founder, a prophet who came with a message from God to guide people to their total welfare in this and the next world.

There is an oft repeated reference to humankind being one community, and that God reserved the power to unite people into a single community, even after sending prophets to various communities separately: 'The people were one community (umma); then God sent forth the prophets, good tidings to bear and warning, and he sent down with them the book with the truth, that he might decide among the people touching their differences.'

In this citation of Q 2: 213, three facts emerge: the unity of humankind under one God; the particularity of religions brought by the prophets; and the role of revelation, i.e., 'the book', in resolving the differences that touch communities of faith. I regard all three of these declarations to be fundamental to the Quranic concept of religious pluralism. On the one hand, that conception does not deny the specificity of each religion and the contradictions that might exist among them in matters touching correct belief and practice. On the other, it emphasises the need to recognise the oneness of humanity in creation and to work towards a better understanding among peoples of faith."

The author goes on to discuss the question of supersession:

"A literal reading of the text argues that the Quran is silent on the question of whether the supersession of previous Abrahamic revelations is a necessary result of the emergence of Muhammad. There is no statement in the Quran, direct or indirect, to suggest that the Quran saw itself as the abrogator of the previous scriptures. In fact, as I shall discuss below, even when repudiating the distortions introduced in the divine message by the followers of Moses and Jesus, the Quran confirms the validity of these revelations and their central theme, namely, 'submission', as founded upon sincere profession of belief in God."

The author goes on to explain why some Muslim scholars have regarded universalist verses such as Quran 2:62 (copied below) as abrogated by other verses. Without getting into excessive detail about abrogation, the author concludes that such verses have not been abrogated and continue in force. That is also my view.

“VERILY, those who have attained to faith [in this divine writ], as well as those who follow the Jewish faith, and the Christians, and the Sabians - all who believe in God and the Last Day and do righteous deeds - shall have their reward with their Sustainer; and no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve.” [Muhammad Asad translation]

Concluding comments

Despite being written by academics, the book is in no sense "academic" to read. On the contrary, I found it very accessible. All of the Arabic terms are clearly translated and there is a well laid out index of all the Quran citations as well as a general index. There is very little overlap between the chapters and each of them contains an extensive set of footnotes and a bibliography for further reading.

I commend this book to Muslims and non-Muslims alike as everyone should seek to understand what the Quran says, regardless of their religious beliefs, just as they should be familiar with what the Bible says.




The Disqus comments facility below allows you to comment on this page. Please respect others when commenting.
You can login using any of your Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or Disqus identities.
Even if you are not registered on any of these, you can still post a comment.

comments powered by Disqus


Follow @Mohammed_Amin

Tap for top of page