The House of David

"dawnbreak in the west"

Saturday, April 23, 2016

On anachronisms

Nicolai Sinai - Guillaume Dye's foil - once said this:

The question at stake is not so much whether the Quran contains or does not contain anachronisms in the strict sense but whether we can detect in it concerns that are best understood as those of editors active in the second half of the seventh century rather than those of the Meccan and Medinan Urgemeinde. If the Quranic rasm did not reach closure until c. 700, it does seem odd that it should nowhere engage with the major developments that defined Islamic history between 630 and 700, in particular the unprecedented speed with which an alliance of “barbarian” tribes from the fringes of the Byzantine and Sasanian empires established themselves as the masters of an immense territory, and the bitter disputes and civil wars that soon wreaked havoc on the unity of the conquerors.

I have been disagreeing with exactly that since - well, on record, since I first put House of War out there: sura 14's core argument is inexplicable in a Muhammadan context. Works great for the Zubayris though! Anyway why listen to a self-published weirdo like me when now we have Guillaume Dye, pp. 70-1:

Sinai makes as if the only pertinent anachronisms concern the history of the Muslim community and of its divisions. He thus takes the lack of explicit reference to the first or second fitna for proof that the Koran was compiled under ‘Uṯmān - but that is a non sequitur. Rather, there exist a non-negligible number passages that seem inexplicable in the Meccan or Medinan context of the Prophet's epoch, and for which it is difficult to account if located under ‘Uṯmān - instead they are very well explained in the context of the second half of the seventh century. This concerns, among others: the finality of prophecy (Q 33:40) more intelligible in a Sufyanid context or especially Marwanid; sura 19, which is a reworked version of a text that was most likely composed after the conquests; the 33-64 verses of sura 3, which are posterior to the oldest stratum of sura 19 and which must be understood in the context of Syria-Palestine, doubtless after 650 [F. van der Velden, « Konvergenztexte syrischer und arabischer Christologie », loc. cit., notably p. 179.]; or divers aspects of sura 5. Moreover, the Quran demonstrates an ambiguous attitude towards Christians: some passages seem Christian, or indicate a convergence of will or compromise with Christianity (Q 2:87; 5:82-83; 19:1-33, etc.), while others are violent polemics (Q 4:171-172; 5:17, 51; 19:34-40, etc.). To explain this situation (which further signal firm contexts that have given rise to these contradictory judgments of the editorial work that appears in the text) as ceasing at the time of ‘Uṯmān remains, at best, very acrobatic - while if one takes into account a fairly long duration, until the Marwanid epoch, matters are explained much better. Finally, on a plan not chronologic but geographic, many passages do not fit the context of the Ḥiǧāz. [P. Crone, « How did the quranic pagans make a living? », Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 68.3 (2005), 387-399]

Then in p. 71 Dye brings up sura 18 being based on the Alexander Nes'hana, most likely known to the proto-Muslim community only after the conquests. That is scholarly-consensus to such a point now, that I'd not be surprised if even the Muslims quietly relegate that sura to deuterocanonical status, somewhere between the Fatiha and the two qunut suras of Ubayy.

I haggle over Q. 3:33-64 > 19:1-40 - I've said for thirteen years that the Dome of the Rock cited Q. 3:1-64, and that Q. 19:1-40 cited the Dome. But if someone has proven without use of sura 19 that Q. 3:33-64 is (literally) ‘Uṯmānienne, I shan't argue; for my part I've assigned sura 6 to that caliph mahdi.

Also Dye is being too modest about whether the Qur'an does or does not on principle refer to Umayyad / anti-Umayyad fitna. But I'll deal with that separately.

Moving on -

Thence the dilemma follows: we cannot say that the general framework given by Muslim tradition is right and, at the same time, take seriously the Qur'anic text. If taken seriously (in other words, if one avoids the Procrustean bed that the tradition has prepared for it), we will indeed admit at least one of these possibilities:

  • First hypothesis: the Ḥiǧāz, in the Prophet's day, has a level of Christian presence and literary culture comparable to Syria-Palestine - There are Christians in the Ḥiǧāz, and Christian ideas are known there, but one can also encounter there the kind of scribe who may write texts like suras 3, 5, 18 and 19.
  • Second hypothesis: at least in part, the mission of the Prophet did not take place in the Ḥiǧāz but further north.
  • Third hypothesis: at the time of the Prophet, a Christian presence was in the Ḥiǧāz, but the situation is not comparable to Syria-Palestine, nor even to what is found further north in the Arabian peninsula. If some passages Koranic "scholars" have assigned to that time (or earlier?), they are due to editors, probably located more north, with whom Arabs of the Ḥiǧāz maintained relations.
  • Fourth hypothesis: one must disassociate the Qur'an's redaction from the Prophet's career, and consider that a substantial part of the Koran was written after the death of Muhammad, still further north (and not in full before ‘Uṯmān).

A model combining the last two hypotheses seems the most plausible solution: ie, the Qur'an has not one context, but many.

UPDATE 8/7/2016: Or you could read what Dye himself has to say in English, "The Qur’ān and its Hypertextuality in Light of Redaction Criticism". Page 18. (I'd forgotten about this paper.)

posted by Zimri on 13:53 | link | 0 comments

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