The Qur'an as Scripture, Part I

Arthur Jeffery

[Part I] [Part II] [Part III] [Part IV]

In the old-fashioned classification of religions familiar to our forebears, Islam fell among the Scriptural religions as contrasted with those religions which possessed no Holy Book revered by the people as the depository of their religious traditions, and the source to which they turned both for the prescriptions to regulate the daily practice of their religion and the material on which to feed their devotional life. The Qur'an as the Holy Book of Islam thus belonged to the category of Scripture and took its place among the Sacred Books of the East.

This characterization is still valid. The Qur'an is the Scripture of Islam. It is the Holy Book which Muslims revere in precisely the same way as other communities have revered and do revere their Holy Books. It is the source from which the Muslim community draws the primary prescriptions for the regulation of daily living, and to which its people turn to find nourishment for their devotional life. That they turn also to Tradition (hadith) as a supple­mentary source both for the regulation of life and for devotion no more lessens the unique authority of the Qur'an as a Scripture than does the fact that both Jews and Christians also use supplementary sources for the same purpose lessen the Scriptural authority for them of the Old and New Testaments.

Like other Scriptures the Qur'an passed through various stages of textual history till there emerged a standard text which came to be regarded as sacrosanct. As a sacrosanct text it came in time to function in certain circles as an instrument of magic, in precisely the same way as other sacrosanct texts have done. Like other Scriptures it ere long needed explanation so that it became the subject of Commentaries, at first simple and then elaborate, and the work of the exegetes in Islam has followed very much the same lines of development as we find in the history of the exegesis of other Holy Books. There have been exegetes interested in linguistic and philological problems, others interested in theological and juristic problems, others in a mystical exegesis, and others in using the text for homiletic and devotional purpose. All these are quite legitimate types of exegesis and have been, within their limits, quite as fruitful in the case of the Qur'an as they have been in the service of other Scriptures. Like other Scriptures the Qur'an was used liturgically in services of worship, so that, as has happened with other Holy Books, there grew up traditional systems of cantillation of its text for liturgical purposes.

Every Sacred Book, just because it is sacred, is certain to make a deep impression on the cultural life of the community which reveres it, yet in some ways the Qur'an has entered even more deeply into the life of the Muslim community than any other Scripture has done in the older religious groups. To Christians Jesus Himself was the Word of God, so that in the life of the Church He, rather than the written documents, was the Gospel, the "good news," mak­ing Scripture of less importance to the Church than the risen Lord ever present and active among them through the Spirit. So we find in the Coptic Manichaean texts that Mani himself is "the Illumina­tor," the "Master of the Writings," whose person was for the Mani­chaean community, as that of the Buddha for the various Buddhist communities, far more important than any Scripture. But in Islam Muhammad is only the mouthpiece of revelation. The Qur'an is the word of Allah. Later Muslim piety, it is true, has made much of the person of the founder, but it was the Book, the Qur'an, not the person Muhammad, which was the significant factor in forming the mould in which the Islamic system took shape.

Arabic philology grew out of the study of the Qur'an, so that Arabic grammar, to an even greater extent than Hebrew grammar, has been accommodated to the language of the Scripture. Muslim law, which is often regarded as the greatest achievement of the early Muslim community, was given its framework by the ahkam, the commands, prohibitions and judgments found in the Qur'an. Islamic theology would naturally turn to the Qur'an for the basic material on which to develop its doctrine of God, doctrine of Man, doctrine of the Last Things, etc., just as the theologies of other religions have turned to their Scriptures for this purpose. Yet if Is­lamic theology is, as is so often charged, unique in its barrenness, that barrenness is almost wholly due to the fact that the early rise of a dogma as to the impeccability of the Qur'an as the word of God effectually barred any freedom of theological development. In areas where there was no conflict with the statements of the Qur'an, Muslim theologians often show a remarkable subtlety of mind and capacity for closely reasoned argument, so that had they had freedom, the product of their labours might have been very different from what we have from their pens. No one who reads Dr. Elder's recent translation of the Commentary of at-Taftazani on the credal statement of al-Nasafi can fail to be struck by the frequency with which the Mu'tazilites opened up promising avenues of theological speculation only to have them closed off by appeal to the consensus of the community that the statements of the Qur'an must be ac­cepted in simple faith, while any questioning as to how or why was unbelief.

Even in the realm of literary criticism the Qur'an was a limiting factor. It may be doubted whether there could have appeared in any other religious community such a work as al-Baqillani's I'jaz al-Qur'an, in which masterpieces of the Arabic literature whose use of words, elegance of diction, variety of expression, stylistic artifice, literary artistry, are to the Western student vastly superior to the uncouthness and dreary monotony of the Qur'an, are compared in detail with the Qur'an to their detriment, since ex hypothesi the Qur'an as the word of God must be perfect in style and diction and all that deviates therefrom must be shown to be imperfect.

Thus one can hardly exaggerate the importance of the role that the Qur'an as the Scripture of Islam has played in moulding the Islamic system as it has developed from century to century. The Scripture of no other community, not even the Old Testament among the Jews, has had quite the same influence on the life of the community as the Qur'an has had in Islam. One naturally asks why?, and the answer is to be found in the Islamic doctrine of Scripture.

This brings us face to face with an important question, that of the nature of Scripture. In most cases a body of writing that has come to be the Scripture of a community has been given the sacred character which makes it a Holy Book, distinct from other writings which are not holy, by the action of the community. It was the Christian community which selected four Gospels out of many, gathered a corpus of twenty-one Epistles, and combined these with the Acts and the Apocalypse to form the New Testament. It was the Zoroastrian community which drew together the Yasna and the Yashts, the Vendidad and the Visparad to form the older Avesta. These separate writings were not originally written with the idea that they were to enter into the composition of a Holy Book to be called the New Testament or the Avesta, any more than the writings gathered into the Taoist Canon or the various Buddhist Canons were written for the purpose of being included in those Canons of Scripture. The separate writings were the work of individuals, but the forming of them into a Scripture was the work of the commu­nity. The writers of the Vedas and the Puranas were no more con­scious than the Prophet Amos or the Apostle Paul that they were writing material that would one day form part of a Holy Book and would serve as the Scripture of a religious community. It was the community which decided this matter of what was and what was not Scripture. It was the community which selected and gathered together for its own use those writings in which it felt that it heard the authentic voice of religious authority valid for its peculiar re­ligious experience.

Sometimes the collection of material for such a Scripture and its authorization for use as such were conscious and deliberate. The fixing of the Jewish Canon of Scripture at the Council of Jamnia c. 90 A.D., where certain writings were accepted as authoritative and others excluded as unauthoritative, was a conscious and deliberate action of the community working through its leaders. The reconstruction of the Taoist Canon in the XIth century was likewise a community undertaking, and such "Scripture lists" as that, for example, in the famous 60th Canon of the Council of Laodicea (c.363 A.D.) are but registering the judgment of the community as to what was and what was not to be considered Scripture. In other cases the process was unconscious. No one can say just when and where the Homeric poems came to be in such a curious way the "Bible of the Greeks." In ancient Mesopotamia and in ancient Egypt there were religious texts which continued to be copied by generation after generation of scribes, which seem to have been used liturgically in the temples as in some sense authoritative religious writings, and which certainly were used to feed the devotional life of their communities, yet apparently had come to be accepted in the community without any official authorization.

In all these ancient Scriptures the writings included were of varied authorship, generally anonymous, and coming from different periods in the life of the community whose Holy Book they formed. The nature of the writings accepted into the collection depended to some extent on the culture of the community concerned. Thus a Zoroastrian Parsee feels some astonishment at what the Taoists have included in their Canon, and to us it sometimes seems strange to find, even in deliberately canonized Scriptures, writings of a type that we should never dream of accepting as of religious authority. In each case it was the community feeling, in terms of its own cul­ture, which decided what was to be included and what excluded.

The case of the Qur'an is obviously very different from this. It is from beginning to end the product of one man and from one period. It was the community which did the formal gathering to­gether of the material after the founder's death and prepared it for use by the community, but its content had been given to them as Scripture before his death. It was not the product of the community in the sense that they decided that this was the collection of writings which had grown up in the community and in which they heard the authentic voice of religious authority, but it was formed by one man and given to the community on his authority as a collec­tion of "revelations" which was to be regulative for their religious life as a community. Thus it resembles the Scripture which Mani set himself to provide as the sacred writings for his community, or such modern pseudo-Scriptures as the Book of Mormon, or Oahspe, or the writtings of Baha'llah, each of which was the work of one man, and consciously produced for the purpose of being used by a community as a Holy Book. It also has in common with these the fact that it is conscious of the existence of earlier Scriptures, which were authoritative for religious communities, and was produced in deliberate imitation of them.

This fact is of the first importance when we are seeking to un­derstand the Muslim doctrine of Scripture. The writers of the New Testament were aware of and quote from the Old Testament as Scripture. Similarly the compilers of the Khorda Avesta were aware of the older Avesta. In neither case, however, were the authors of the various writings consciously intending to produce documents which would take their place beside the older Scriptures as them­selves of Scriptural rank. They were raised to Scriptural rank be­cause the community heard in them the same authentic voice of religious authority it had been accustomed to hear in the older Scriptures. The Qur'an, on the contrary, was given to the com­munity on the authority of Muhammad, and the community was bidden to accept it as authoritative in the same way as the Jews and Christians accepted their Scriptures.

What then did Muhammad conceive the nature of Scripture to be? Unfortunately we can never fully know what Muhammad himself thought of when he used such words as Kitab wahy, Qur'an, aya, hikma, 'ilm, etc., for we have only part of the evidence before us, and no assurance that at this distance we always understand aright all the evidence we have. We have, however, all that the early Muslim community had, and we have fair assurance that what that early community was able to preserve of the pronounce­ments of its founder has been on the whole faithfully transmitted to us, even though in a fragmentary and curiously jumbled condi­tion. Neither the Sira nor Tradition is of much help to us in this matter, and though the exegetes have preserved in their work good evidence of what was thought in their day to be the meaning of words and phrases in the Qur'an, the bewildering array of variant opinions they record on almost every crucial point of interpreta­tion, makes it quite clear than even the very early circle of exegetes was as much in doubt as we are as to the exact meaning of many of the terms that interest us the most. Modern scholars, however, have the advantage of a knowledge of the environment of sixth century Arabia, particularly its cultural and religious environment, and the use of tools of comparative linguistics and comparative religion, which were not available to earlier generations. So even though we may never be able to answer fully this question of what Muham­mad's conception of Scripture was, we can perhaps approach very close to an understanding of those elements in his thought which were basic to the doctrine of Scripture in Islam.

Our starting point must be the recognition that the Qur'an is the result of, and in part the record of, a religious experience of Muhammad. It was because of a religious experience that he came forward in his generation as a religious reformer, and because of a growing religious experience that he carried through what he felt to be his mission in life. His place in history is that of a founder of a religious community. It may be that the evidence points to his having been a pathological case not to be judged by normal stand­ards of behavior. It may be true that incidentally his mission caused him to be in some sense the champion of the proletariat against a wealthy merchant aristocracy who formed the ruling class. It may be true that he showed himself a man of unusual political genius who deserves to rank among the world's great nationalist leaders. Yet primarily he was a religious leader, as truly convinced as were Luther or John Wesley that he had a "call" to a religious mission, in the first instance to his own people, and then beyond them; a mission on which he would stake everything, and whose successful completion would make an enormous change in the religious life of his world. His "call," his sense of mission, came to him from a religious experience through which he had passed, just as it came in the well known cases of Luther and Wesley just mentioned.

Unfortunately we do not know in Muhammad's case just what that initial experience was. The familiar account preserved in the Sira, and in Tradition, of how the angel appeared to him while he was in meditation practising tahannuth in the cave at Mt. Hira, is obviously based on the vague references to the "call" in the Qur'an itself, which it seeks to supplement. Moreover, in the details of the account there are so many striking coincidences with the tales preserved of how the great angel Vohu Manah appeared to Zoroaster, after he had spent some time in a natural cave in a mountain, and gave him his "call" to his mission,1 of how Mani, who had had no human teacher or Master, was called to his mission by an angelic visitant who brought him Divine wisdom,2 and of how Elchasai3 was called to his preaching of the One God and an imminent Day of Judgment by an enormous angelic visitant who filled the horizon and brought him sheets of a heavenly book, that one is led to wonder whether the writers of the account in the Sira were not fol­lowing a pattern of what was popularly recognized in their Milieu as the correct way for a religious "messenger" to be called to his mission.

In any case, whatever this initial religious experience may have been, one fruit of it was the Qur'an and in the Qur'an we can trace to some extent the development of Muhammad's conception of his mission, and the measures he took to bring about the re­ligious reformation with which that mission was primarily con­cerned. The task imposed on him by his acceptance of that mission was a many-sided one, as indeed is the task of every religious re­former. All the varied activities of his ministry, however, arose from his conviction that he was called to bring to the Arabs, who had had no prophet sent them, the same religion which the prophets had brought to those other religious communities whom he referred to as the People of the Book (Ahl al-Kitab). Since they had a Scripture his people must have in Arabic a Scripture. But what did he have in mind when he spoke of Qur'an and Scripture?

The common word for Scripture is Kitab. This literally means "a writing," then "a written document". The special meaning "book" seems to have developed in Arabic under the influence of Aramaic, but was in use in Arabic in this sense long before the time of Muhammad. Kitab is used in the secular sense of "letter" in the story of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba in Sura XXVII.28,29, and of a document of manumission in XXIV.33. The verb is used in II.282,283 with reference to writing contracts, but with these exceptions the word is used in the Qur'an only in connection with Allah's concerns with His creatures.4

The idea that written documents entered into the relations between the divine and the human is to be found very early in the religious history of the Near East. One inheritance from the early Sumerian culture was the feeling that matters of importance must be written and that there is a certain finality about things when once it can be said, "it is written." So in heaven things were written, as things are on earth, and among the things so written in heaven was the will of the gods concerning the world of men. Perhaps the most solemn day in the annual Mesopotamian celebration of the New Year Festival was the day when all the gods gathered in the "Assembly Room" and went into council to fix the fates and arrange for all that was to happen among men during the coming year, while Nabu, the divine scribe, wrote down the decrees as they were fixed.5

Since these written decrees affected men in a particular way we often read of men being shown them. Sirach speaks of God showing men His decrees (Eccles. XVII.12). In Jubilee's XXXII.21 we read of Jacob being shown seven of the tables in which were contained records of all the things that were to happen to him and his descendants throughout the ages. The angel said to Enoch: "Observe, Enoch, these heavenly tablets, and read what is written thereon, and mark each fact. And I observed the heavenly tablets, and read everything thereon written, and understood it all. And I read the book of all the actions of man." (Eth. Enoch LXXXI.1,2; cf. XCLI.3; CIII.2,3; CVI.19; CVII.1; CVIII.7,10). In the Prayer of Joseph preserved in Philocalia XXIII.15, the patriarch says: "For I have read in the tablets of heaven all that shall befall you and your sons." The angelic figure says to Daniel: "I will tell thee what is inscribed in the writing of truth" (Dan. X.21).

Allah's book of decrees is mentioned several times in the Qur'an. In it is written whether a man's life is to be long or short (XXXV.11/12), so that one written down to die cannot escape (III.154/148) nor can anyone die without a written and dated permission from Allah (III.145/139). The punishments to be visited on earthly cities are written there (XV.4; XVII.58/60), and those to be meted out to individuals (XV.79; cf. Jer. XXII.30). No misfortune can happen which was not previously written there (LVII.22; IX.51), because for every term there is a Kitab (i.e. decree, XIII.38). This is the Book which uttereth truth so that no one will be wronged (XXIII.62/64; XLV.29/28), which contains men's names till the Day of Resurrection (XXX.56), and is apparently the Book in which Allah has written these things that He will surely accomplish (LVIII.21).

Since things are thus recorded as decreed, the word kitab can be used to mean not the Book of Decrees but Allah's decree itself, i.e., what has been written for men and must therefore needs come to pass.6 "Had it not been for a decree (kitab) from Allah which preceded" (VIII.68/69), such and such would have happened. So the prescriptions which Allah has laid down to be observed by men are kitab, something which as decreed may not be set aside (II.236; IV.103/104). Kutiba, "it has been written," is used in connection with the law regarding retaliation (II.178/173), testamentary declaration (II.180/176), fasting (II.183/179), holy war (II.216/212). Not only are Allah's laws for the Muslim community thus prescribed (II.187/183; IV.77/79,127/126), but so were His laws for the Jewish community (II.246/247; V.32/35,45/49; VII.156/155), and those for the Christians (LVII.27), while VI.12 and 54 speaks of what Allah has prescribed as incumbent on Himself, by which, as written, He himself is bound. A specimen of these things decreed is given in XXII.4, where, concerning Satan, whom ignorant men perversely follow, we read: "Concerning whom it is written. ‘Whoso takes him as patron will be assuredly lead astray.’"

Another "Book" with Allah, possibly part of this same Book of Decrees, but more likely an independent Book, is the Inventory Book in which everything great and small in His universe is recorded (X.61/62; XI.6/8; VI.59; XXII.79/69; XXVII.75/77; XXXIV.3). It was doubtless in this book of Inventory that Allah had with Him the account of former generations (XX.52/54; cf. Eth. Enoch LXXXI.2), for He has neglected nothing in it (VI.38). It would also doubtless be in this Book that such matters as the number of the months was fixed at creation (IX.36), and maybe it is the record book referred to in L.4. Seven times this Inventory is called the "clear book," or the "book that makes clear" (kitab mubin). This immediately refers us back to ancient Mesopotamia where there were elaborate inventories of every kind in order that everything might be kept clear. God's book of inventory is referred to by the Psalmist when he mentions the book in which all his members were written (Ps. CXXXIX.16). The heavenly books into which Enoch looked had an inventory of all things that had been and were yet to be, and the heavenly tablets of the Testaments of the XII Patriarchs seem to be of this nature, though at times it is difficult to distinguish between the inventory and the Book of Decrees.

Another heavenly Book often mentioned in the literature of the ancient religions is the Record Book or register of the good and evil deeds of men. The Zoroastrian Yasna XXXI.14 states that all men's works are duly recorded, and in XLIX.10 and XXXIV.2 we read that this record is preserved in the House of Ahura Mazda. Religious texts from Babylonia speak of the Tablets on which sins are recorded and which suppliants pray to have broken, as well as tuppu damiqti on which good works are written.7 In the Old Testament Malachi refers to the book of remembrance that is written before Jehovah (III.16), and in the Talmud, Pirqe Aboth, II.1 reads: "Know what is above thee - a seeing eye and a hearing ear, and all thy deeds are written in a book." Slav. Enoch XIX.5 mentions the angels set over the souls of men "who write down all their deeds and lives before the Lord," while Eth. Enoch XCVIII.7 tells how every sin is every day recorded in heaven in the presence of the Most High.

The Qur'an knows of this heavenly Record Book in which all that men are saying and doing is being written down (IX.120/121,121/122; LIV.52; XLIII.19/18), nothing, whether great or small being omitted (XVIII.49/47; LIV.53). This record is being kept that Allah may recompense (IX.121/122; cf. Eth. Enoch LXXXI.4), and on the Last Day it will be brought forth that men may face their record (XVII.13/14,14/15,71/73; XVIII.49/47; XXXIX.69; LXXVIII.29) reminding us of familiar passages about the Books being opened for judgment in Dan. VII.10; Rev. XXI.1-13; Eth. Enoch XCVII.6; XC.20. Some passages speak of Allah Himself doing the writing (III.181/177; IV.81/83; XIX.79/82; XXI.94; XXXVI.12/11 XLV.29/28),8 but others speak of heavenly scribes occupying themselves with this recording of men's deeds (X.21/22; XLIII.80; L.17/16; LXXXII.11).9 The verses LXXXIII.7,18 suggest that there were two books, one for the record of the wicked and one for the record of the virtuous, or if we have to think of individual tablets for individual persons as in Babylonian thought, then that the records of wickedness were kept in one place and those of virtue in another. Certainly they were individual records which on the Day of Judgment, it was thought, each person would receive in his own hand (XVII.71/73; LXIX.19,25; LXXXIV.7,10). This Record Book of the deeds of men is likewise referred to as a kitab mubin (XXXVI.12/11), a "book which makes clear."

In all this it is clear that we are dealing with religious concepts which had been circulating from very early times throughout the Near East, and which had doubtless been part of the background of religious thought for most of the audiences that Muhammad addressed during the course of his ministry. The fact that in his preaching he is able to assume that he is talking about matters with which his audience is already familiar is proof of this. Moreover, the verses that have been preserved as coming from the old Arab poets show that there was even literary use of these concepts contemporary with, even if not earlier than Muhammad's ministry. He could therefore assume some familiarity on the part of his audiences with the idea of such heavenly writings as the Record Books of human deeds, the celestial Book of Inventory, and the great Book of Decrees.

But it would seem that his audience, or at least some of his audience, knew of yet another heavenly book. In XVII.93/95 the audience declares that they will not believe till he brings them down (from heaven) a kitab which they may read. This is usually regarded as a Meccan passage, but if, as Dr. Bell suggests (Qur'an, p. 262), it is Madinan, then it is explained by IV.153/152, where it is the Jews who challenge him to bring a heavenly book, and the answer is in VI.7, that even if Allah were to send down a book written on parchment which they could hold in their hands, they would say that he had but worked some magic trick and would not believe. To the People of the Book the idea of a man receiving a heavenly document written on parchment would not be strange. Ezekiel saw a celestial hand holding out to him a parchment scroll written within and without (Ezek. II.9), and the Seer in the Apocalypse had to take the little book that was in the hand of the angel (Rev. X.8-10), where since the Seer had to eat it we must assume that it was a book in the form of a scroll. In the story of Elchasai also the angelic visitant handed the Seer a "book." It is very interesting, therefore, to read in LXXIV.52, which is apparently an earlier Meccan passage, how the audience which turns away from Muhammad's "Reminder" like startled asses fleeing from a lion, has the reproach levelled against it that each one of them wishes that he were the recipient of revelation in "sheets unrolled" (suhuf munashshara), where suhuf "sheets," "scrolls," "pages" would represent exactly what is pictured in the stories of Ezekiel, John and Elchasai. Now the revelation given to Moses is said in the Qur'an to have been on suhuf (LIII.36/37; LXXXVII.18,19), the true Scriptures were in "sheets kept pure," (XCVIII.2,3/2), and Muhammad's own "Reminder" is said to be "in honoured sheets exalted, kept pure" (LXXX.11-14).

Here we approach something that is fundamental to the thought of Scripture in the Qur'an. The megillath sepher which was handed to Ezekiel was a heavenly book, but it was not Scripture in the sense that the canonical Book of Ezekiel is Scripture. Neither was the biblaridion of the story in the Apocalypse, though it was a book from heaven sent down to a man, a Scripture in the same sense that the Book of Revelation is Scripture. On the other hand the biblos of the story of Elchasai, whose ministry was in the midst of religious communities which possessed and revered Holy Books, was said to have been handed on by the founder to one of his disciples as a book of revelation, a book which Eusebius, Hist. Eccles. VI.38, knows was used in the Elkesite community as a Scripture. Here the heavenly book has itself become a Scripture. This is quite a different conception of the nature of Scripture, and it is clearly this new conception which appears before us in the passages from the Qur'an we have been considering.

At a very early period in ancient Mesopotamia it was believed that the gods might make known their will to mankind. This they might do through omens or signs or presages which skilled priests could interpret. Or they might make it known through dreams, as they did to that mighty king Gudea, or through the oracle. Shamash was "the Lord of the oracle." There were oracle priests trained to consult and interpret the oracle, and we have an abundance of oracle texts surviving from relatively early periods. In a prayer to Shamash we read:

"To him who cannot see Thou providest light.
Thou readest the hidden tablet that is not revealed.
On the innards of sheep Thou dost write the omen
And dost provide a decision."

If we interpret this aright it means that there were things written on the heavenly tablets to which man had no access but which it was important for men to know, and Shamash could and would enlighten men.10 Revelations of this kind, however, were necessarily limited in scope. Often a fuller and more detailed expression of the will of the gods as regards men was desirable and was possible. One way of securing this desirable expression of their mind and will was by embodying their injunctions in a Code of Law, whose prescriptions would provide a practical rule of life whereby man could know how to live on earth the kind of life that would be most pleasing to the gods and most profitable to themselves. How early such Codes began to appear we cannot tell, but c.2500 B.C. we find Urukagina at Larsa11 executing extensive reforms, removing abuses, issuing decrees "to restore the Law of God." The Code of laws was the writing of king Urukagina himself, but it was done, he tells us, under the inspiration of his god Ningirsu, so that the Code was ultimately a revelation of the prescriptions of God for the direction of men. Hammurabi also, it will be remembered, later set forth his more famous Code under the name and authority of Shamash.

Law in this sense is both prescription and instruction, in other words what the Jews meant by Torah. Now the Jews came to believe that the Torah was in written form with God long before the creation of the world, that its prescriptions were in part made known to and observed by Adam and the Patriarchs before it was revealed in its fullness by being brought down to Moses, and that it will be revealed anew when the Messiah comes.12 Elchasai, we know,13 appeared in close association with the Jewish and Judaeo-Christian Ebionite communities of the Transjordan area, so that there can be little doubt that he, or whoever circulated the story about his "Book" received from heaven, had learned from them the idea that a Holy Book is something that was in heaven before it was sent down to be a Scripture for a community on earth. Are we then, to think that Muhammad also had learned, directly or indirectly, from the Jewish communities of Arabia, to think of a heavenly Book of Scripture, a celestial archetype from which the various individual Books of Scripture among men derived?

Certain passages in the Qur'an certainly suggest this. Sura XIII.39 tells objectors that Allah can delete or confirm what He wills since He has there with Him the "Mother of the Book" (Umm al-kitab). This by itself might not mean more than that since Allah is the author of each special decree, He can confirm it or abrogate it as He sees fit. In XLIII.4/3, however, after a statement that this has been made an Arabic Qur'an so that the Arabs may understand, we read: "And, behold! it is in the Mother of the Book in Our presence," a passage which is difficult to understand otherwise than as a reference to a celestial archetype of the Qur'an. Again in LVI.77/76ff. it is said to be "a noble Qur'an in a treasured Book," and in XLI.41 the "Reminder" is said to be a "Book sublime" to which no falsehood comes either from before or behind, in both of which passages, though the reference could possibly be to Scripture as a whole of which the message of Muhammad forms a part, it is generally taken to refer to the archetype. Finally in LXXXV.21,22 we read of "a glorious Qur'an in a preserved tablet," which is the verse from which is derived the later legend of the Tablet on which the Divine Pen wrote when Time had just begun. The fact that "Qur'an" in the above passages may mean "Scripture lesson" and not refer at all to the book we now have in front of us as a book, does not affect this question of the archetype from which Scripture is drawn.

If these passages mean that Muhammad thought of such a heavenly original Scripture, a written word of God which was the origin of all Scripture, it would explain very neatly his insistance that the content of his own message was in Scriptures of former peoples (XXVI.196),14 that his Qur'an is both a confirmation of and a safeguard for previous Scripture (II.41/38,91/85,97/91; III.3/2 and V.48/52) so that those who accept previously revealed Scripture ought to accept his Qur'an also (II.121/115; V.68/72). Thus it is easy to see why Muhammad's followers are told that they are to believe in "the entire Book" (III.119/115), both what came to them through Muhammad, and what had come through previous "messengers" (V.59/64. cf. XLII,15/14), and why the Scriptures brought by previous "messengers" are only a portion of the Book (III.23/22; IV.44/47,51/54), just as what has come to Muhammad is only a part of what is in the Book (XXIX.45/44; XXXV.31/28, and cf. II.231; XVIII.27/26).

This concept appears relatively late in Muhammad's ministry. In particular the passages which may refer to an archetype seem all to be Madinan, coming from a period when he had been for some time in fairly close contact with the Jewish communities. If this is so it makes significant a number of small details we find in connection with his words about Scripture.

(a) As we have already noticed, the revelation given to Moses is said in LIII.36/37; LXXXVII.19 to have been on suhuf, "sheets," "scrolls." So in Canticle's Rabba V.14 we read that though the Tablets of the Law were made of hardest stone they could nevertheless be rolled up like a scroll.

(b) The word used in LXXXV.22 for the "tablet" of the celestial archetype is lauh, the very word which is used in Hebrew and Aramaic for the tablets which Moses received at Sinai. Indeed it is the word used in the Qur'an in Sura VII.145/142ff., in the story of Moses receiving the Law.

(c) Muhammad seems to have thought of Moses receiving the whole of the Torah at Sinai. The Biblical accounts in Exod. XXXI.18 ff.; Deut. X.1-5, apparently mean us to think of the two tablets written by the finger of God as containing nothing more than the Decalogue, which would about fill two tablets written on both sides. Later Jewish accounts, however, spoke of the whole of the Torah being given there.

(d) Sura XVII.93/95 speaks of an ascension to heaven in connection with Muhammad's claim to have revelation material. Jewish legend told of Moses' ascent to heavenly places where he studied the Torah which he was to receive and deliver to the people.

There can be little doubt, therefore, that when Muhammad came forward in response to his "call" he came to preach to audiences which not only had a knowledge of Scriptures being used as Holy Books by religious communities, but which, in some cases at least, were familiar with a definite theory as to the nature of Scripture, a theory which had grown up in the Jewish community and had already before Muhammad's time passed from them to other communities. Clearly Muhammad in his turn accepted from his contemporaries this theory, which he proceeded to develop in his own way as he worked out the implications of the mission to which his "call" had committed him.

Here then is the first fixed point in our discussion of the Qur'an as Scripture. Kitab as heavenly book was a concept that had had a long history in the religious thought of the Near East. Kitab as Scripture had had a special development in Jewish thought and had given rise to a theory, current not only among Jews but also among other religious communities, as to the nature of Scripture. This theory is evidently basic to Muhammad's teaching about Scripture in his Madinan period if not earlier, and would seem to have been taken over by him from the religious thought of his environment. The fact that it is an erroneous theory is for the moment irrelevant. The important thing is that it involved the idea of a progressive revelation.


Columbia University


1 Porphyrius. de Antro Nymph. VI.7; Zat-sparam, XXI.8; Dinkart, VII.iii, 51-53.

2 Manichäische Homilien, ed. Polotsky, p. 47; Fihrist, ed. Flügel, p. 328; al-Biruni, Chronologie, p. 208.

3 Hippolytus. Philosopheumena, IX.13; Epiphanius, Panarion, XIX.1; XXX. 17.

4 Possibly a secular sense is intended in XXI.104, which describes how on the Last Day Allah will roll up the heavens like a scroll for writings. (sijill li'l-kutub). Otherwise the word used for secular books is sifr, (plu. asfar in LXII.5), which is cognate with the Heb. sepher, Aram. siphra. cf. safara used for "scribes" in LXXX.15.

5 See now M. David, Les dieux et le destin en Babylonie, Paris, 1949.

6 Cf. Ps. CXIIX.9; XL.7; Eth. Enoch XCI.14; Slav. Enoch LIII.3; and note the assumption underlying such New Testament passages as Luke XXII.37: John XV.25.

7 Zimmern in Schrader's Die Keilinschriften und das Alte Testament, pp. 402, 405; Meissner, Babylonien und Assyrien, II.125; Martin, Textes religieux babyloniens, p. 256.

8 Since LVIII.22 speaks of Allah inscribing faith on the hearts of Believers the question arises as to how literally this writing of Allah is to be taken. Perhaps it was thought of both literally and figuratively. Jeremiah speaks of God writing His covenant on the hearts of His people (Jer. XXXI.33 quoted in Heb. VIII.10; X.16; cf. Job XIII.26 and Ps. LXXXVII.6) while the tablets of the Law were "written by the finger of God" (Ex. XXXI.18; Deut. IX.10). Both in ancient Egypt and in ancient Mesopotamia we find the picture of a deity who writes, so there was a long-existent tradition in this area for the notion of a God who literally writes, and we imagine that no one would have found anything strange in the fact that Sura III.53/46 (cf. V.83/86) represents the disciples of Jesus asking Allah to write them down as those who bear witness.

9 In the older religions we find that it was generally angels who did this recording. See Ta'anith 11a; Lev. Rabba, XXII; Test. Abrah. XII; Slav. Enoch XIX; Apoc. Pauli, 10, and for the Zoroastrian tradition Dadistan-i-Dinik, XIV.23.

10 The text is in Oxford Editions of Cuneiform Texts, VI, 83. On Shainash as sun god and Lord of the oracle see Contenau. La Divination chez les Assyriens et les Babyloniens, pp. 28ff.

11 On Urukagina see Patrick Carleton, Buried Empires, pp. 113-116.

12 For the pre-existence of the Torah see Gen. Rabba VIII, Midrash Tehillim, ed. Buber, p. 391, and also pp. 449, 450, where it is deduced from Ps. CV.8 that the Torah was in existence a thousand generations before it was revealed. For Adam and the Torah see Sifre Deut. §41; Gen. Rabba XVI.5; Pirqe de Rabbi Eliezer XII. For the new Torah to be revealed by the Messiah see Alphabet of Rabbi Aqiba in Jellinek Bet Hamidrasch, III.27.

13 Brandt. Elchasai ein Religionsstifter, pp. 11, 73.

14 The word used here is zubur not kutub, but the use of this word zubur both for the record books of men's deeds (LIV.52), and for the books with which Allah's messengers were sent (III.184/181; XVI.44/46; XXXV.25/23), makes it clear that it was used interchangeably with kutub. In LIV.43, indeed, zubur seems to mean "Scripture" in general.

The Muslim World, Volume 40 (1950), pp. 41-55.

Books and Articles by Arthur Jeffery
The Qur'an
Answering Islam Home Page