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Tuesday, March 28, 2017
The making of the Medinan Qur'an
Last week, the British Crown sponsored a meeting: “unlocking the Medinan Qur’an” – a “work shop”, as the jargon goes. I wasn’t there (I’m bad about keeping up) and I first learnt of it from Nicolai Sinai’s summary, uploaded this morning. I’ve been pondering how to respond. I have deemed it best to deliver a message as if I had been there, and been given abstracts in advance. So:
As Professor Nicolai Sinai intuits, anyone speaking of a “Medinan Qur’an” assumes a collection of suras different from the collection of suras as currently edited. Our colleagues in this workshop assume a subset sorted by chronology. I intend to explore this assumption with a focus on sura 16, the Bee.
Currently the Muslims associate suras and even verses with the situational needs of the Prophet’s mission at any given moment: “occasions of revelation”, asbab al-nuzul. They associate the Mecca / Madina division with Year One of their calendar, the Hijra. That is their prerogative as Believers. But we are not Believers; we need to be convinced.
Whichever texts make up the Madinese sura-set, or subset, their assembly is not mentioned nor even implied in the Qur’an itself; and no such collection is noted in the histories, independent of the overall mushaf. As far as first-century scribal activity in the Madinat Yathrib, the Umayyads ascribed a jâmi‘ to ‘Uthmân, but this – they claimed – contained the whole of the Qur’an. The first we hear of a sura-subset promulgated in the Madina, it is on al-Walîd’s mosaics in the Prophet’s Mosque there (now dismantled), which – the historians inform us – collected suras 91-114.*[Estelle Whelan.] These particular suras have mainly been ascribed to the Prophet in Mecca, not in the Madina.
So before a workshop for this topic may have value, it must first study the Islamic discovery of a Madinan subset.
It is natural for the reader of any collection to want to know in what order to read it. In Islam, the reader’s very soul is on the line, at least where the suras bear legal content and are subject to naskh. Jalâl al-Dîn al-Suyûtî, for one, has transmitted several Muslims’ attempts. We even know of codices arranged thus; if only for the private convenience of trained mufassirs, like that ascribed to the exegetic school of Ibn ‘Abbâs.*[Arthur Jeffery.] For this workshop’s purpose, we must uncover why the Muslims chose to draw so stark a line within the list.
As I look over the prospectus here, I observe a consensus that the post-hijri “Madinan” (sub)Qur’an contains suras 2, 4, 5, 8, 49, 61, 66 and maybe 7. Dr Walid Saleh would add sura 16, at least as a “transitional text”. (Muslims have adduced interpolations into the text, straddling the hijri line. Dr Saleh rejects them. I propose later to explain them.) Sura 16 in its present form repeatedly alludes to other suras, including suras in this workshop’s list. *[16:51 < 5:116, 16:98 < 5:48, 16:102 < 5:109, 16:107 < 5:67, 16:115-18 < 5:3. Argued, perhaps chaotically, in mine own "Plots Against The Qurrâ’".] So whatever we call the Latter Half Qur’an, I agree that our sûrat al-nahl belongs in it.
My problem with treating this sura as “Madinan” is that I see copious Abrahamic material including such associated, exactly, with Mecca.*[16:112 < 14:35-7.] I do not find here anything particularly autobiographical about the Meccan Prophet in exile as we find, for instance, in sura 8. Sura 16 more discusses Islam’s martyrs and – if I may bring a Catholic term – “confessors”. The associated Hadith agrees, mainly pointing to ‘Ammâr bin Yâsir.*[Mairaj U Syed, “The Construction of Historical Memory in the Exegesis of Kor 16, 106”.]
Even in a sura as late as the Bee, Mecca remains on the Muslim’s mind. This suggests that the Mecca / Madina division of the suras is not driven by historical memory. The division often stands in tension with the suras’ very content.
The canonical division of suras instead is to be sought in the first biographies of the Prophet, after the Muslims made the decision to canonize the collection and to ascribe all its content to him. The compilation of the Muhammadan vita was an effort of generations, and never fully resolved. As witness, I give you the Suyuti explanation of sura 16: “Meccan” and “Madinan” verses, inside a single sura; despite that they fit perfectly in the text and are nowhere attested as textual variants, except as adduced in the phantastical tales of asbab al-nuzul. Such suras could not and can not be squeezed whole into this biographical schema.
This renders irrational any discussion of a “Madinan Qur’an” on its own terms. For those observing this workshop’s restriction of suras, I am afraid the selection is as arbitrary for you as it was for the early Muslims. I hope that this workshop will be among the last of its kind.
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