Here is the third part of my refutation of a 2008 article by Patricia Crone (who died in 2015), who was one of the pioneering scholars of historical revisionism regarding the standard account of Muhammad’s life, and yet in this article seemed to retreat from her previous views. The first part is here, and the second part here.
Order the new revised and expanded version of Did Muhammad Exist? here.
“What do we actually know about Mohammed?,” by Patricia Crone, Open Democracy, June 10, 2008:
…Everything else about Mohammed is more uncertain, but we can still say a fair amount with reasonable assurance. Most importantly, we can be reasonably sure that the Qur’an is a collection of utterances that he made in the belief that they had been revealed to him by God. The book may not preserve all the messages he claimed to have received, and he is not responsible for the arrangement in which we have them. They were collected after his death – how long after is controversial. But that he uttered all or most of them is difficult to doubt. Those who deny the existence of an Arabian prophet dispute it, of course, but it causes too many problems with later evidence, and indeed with the Qur’an itself, for the attempt to be persuasive.
These are flat assertions, with no evidence offered to support them. Nonetheless, the assertions can be and should be disputed. The Qur’an, according to the canonical Muslim account, was first distributed in its present form in the 650s. Contradicting that standard account is the fact that neither the Arabians nor the Christians and Jews in the region mention the Qur’an until the early eighth century. That means that if Muhammad uttered the statements that were collected in the Qur’an, they circulated as oral traditions for some seventy years or more after his death until they were actually brought together in the Qur’an. Why, if the Arabs of the seventh century had his words and revered them, did they never quote them or even refer to them in their many interactions with the people they conquered in that period?
The text and the message
For all that, the book is difficult to use as a historical source. The roots of this difficulty include unresolved questions about how it reached its classical form, and the fact that it still is not available in a scholarly edition. But they are also internal to the text. The earliest versions of the Qur’an offer only the consonantal skeleton of the text. No vowels are marked, and worse, there are no diacritical marks, so that many consonants can also be read in a number of ways.
Modern scholars usually assure themselves that since the Qur’an was recited from the start, we can rely on the oral tradition to supply us with the correct reading. But there is often considerable disagreement in the tradition – usually to do with vowelling, but sometimes involving consonants as well – over the correct way in which a word should be read. This rarely affects the overall meaning of the text, but it does affect the details which are so important for historical reconstruction.
In any case, with or without uncertainty over the reading, the Qur’an is often highly obscure. Sometimes it uses expressions that were unknown even to the earliest exegetes, or words that do not seem to fit entirely, though they can be made to fit more or less; sometimes it seems to give us fragments detached from a long-lost context; and the style is highly allusive.
One explanation for these features would be that the prophet formulated his message in the liturgical language current in the religious community in which he grew up, adapting and/or imitating ancient texts such as hymns, recitations, and prayers, which had been translated or adapted from another Semitic language in their turn. This idea has been explored in two German works, by Günter Lüling and Christoph Luxenberg, and there is much to be said for it. At the same time, however, both books are open to so many scholarly objections (notably amateurism in Luxenberg’s case) that they cannot be said to have done the field much good.
The attempt to relate the linguistic and stylistic features of the Qur’an to those of earlier religious texts calls for a mastery of Semitic languages and literature that few today possess, and those who do so tend to work on other things. This is sensible, perhaps, given that the field has become highly charged politically.
Luxenberg’s work is a case in point: it was picked up by the press and paraded in a sensationalist vein on the strength of what to a specialist was its worst idea – to instruct Muslims living in the west that they ought to become enlightened. Neither Muslims nor Islamicists were amused.
Whatever merits (or lack thereof) the works of Lüling and Luxenberg have, it is silly to dismiss their work because “the field has become highly charged politically.” Crone acknowledges that “the earliest versions of the Qur’an offer only the consonantal skeleton of the text. No vowels are marked, and worse, there are no diacritical marks, so that many consonants can also be read in a number of ways.” That opens the door to numerous possibilities about the provenance of the text and its actual meaning. To shy away from these explorations because they call for “a mastery of Semitic languages and literature that few today possess,” or because they have political significance, goes against what academic exploration is supposed to be at its core: a fearless and dogged search for the truth. The anomalies of the Qur’an are numerous and worth exposing and exploring; find out more about them in Did Muhammad Exist?.