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Could the Qur’an have been adapted from a Christian text?

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Author’s note: This is the fourth segment of my review of Robert Spencer’s new revised and expanded edition of Did Muhammad Exist?. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here.

In Chapter nine, Spencer tackles the vexatious problem of the variants in the Koran, largely but not entirely, due to the ambiguous nature of the Arabic script. With his customary thoroughness, Spencer also looks at the problem of early manuscripts and their inconclusive dating.

Chapter ten deals with the question of the original language of the Koran, and the original sources for the various stories in the Koran. For example, “The story of the ‘Companions of the Cave and of the Inscription’ (18:9–26) is an Islamic version of the Christian account of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, which was well known in Eastern Christianity at the time that Islam was taking shape. And when the Qur’an writes of the child Jesus fashioning clay birds and then bringing them to life (Qur’an 3:49), it recounts something that is recorded in the second-century Infancy Gospel of Thomas.” Spencer discusses the important work of Christoph Luxenberg, who was possibly the first scholar to point out the Syriac underlying the text of the Arabic.

Spencer’s conclusion is worth quoting in full:

It may be, then, that the Qur’an’s foreign derivation is one of the primary reasons why the book takes pains to establish itself as an Arabic text. One reason for the Qur’an’s Arabic protestations, other than the charges that Muhammad was listening to a nonnative speaker of Arabic, may be that the Qur’an was not originally written in Arabic at all but was eventually rendered in Arabic as the new religion was being developed. Because the empire that it was designed to buttress was an Arabic one, it was essential that the new holy book be in Arabic. The political imperative was to provide the new and growing empire with a religious culture distinct from that of the Byzantines and Persians—one that would provide for the loyalty, cohesiveness, and unity of the newly conquered domains.

This was not done, and probably could not have been done, in a neat and orderly fashion, as is demonstrated by the startling number of variations in what is often affirmed to be an unchanging Qur’anic text.

Chapter eleven gives evidence for Spencer’s startling claim that the Koran was adapted from a Christian text, examining the work of Gunter Lüling and Luxenberg, while chapter twelve tries to establish who collected the Qur’an, and when this was accomplished. Chapter thirteen, “Making Sense of it All,” gives a wonderful summary of all the arguments, and their conclusions, to be found in this book:

  • No record of Muhammad’s reported death in 632 appears until more than a century after that date.
  • A Christian account apparently dating from the mid-630s speaks of an Arab prophet “armed with a sword” who seems to be still alive.
  • The early accounts written by the people the Arabs conquered never mention Islam, Muhammad, or the Qur’an. They call the conquerors “Ishmaelites,” “Saracens,” “Muhajirun,” and “Hagarians,” but never “Muslims.”
  • The Arab conquerors, in their coins and inscriptions, don’t mention Islam or the Qur’an for the first six decades of their conquests. Mentions of “Muhammad” are nonspecific and on at least two occasions are accompanied by a cross. The word “Muhammad” can be used both as a proper name and as an honorific.
  • The Qur’an, even by the canonical Muslim account, was not distributed in its present form until 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.
  • The Qur’an contains numerous characters and stories that have been taken over from Judaism, Christianity, and other sources.
  • The Qur’an contains a great many words that make little or no sense in Arabic, but are clearly derived from Syro-Aramaic, or become clear when they are read as Syro-Aramaic. Even the Arabic words for the Five Pillars of Islam are derived from Syriac and Hebrew.
  • During the reign of the caliph Muawiya (661–680), the Arabs constructed at least one public building whose inscription was headed by a cross.
  • We begin hearing about Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, and about Islam itself in the 690s, during the reign of the caliph Abd al-Malik. Coins and inscriptions reflecting Islamic beliefs begin to appear at this time also.
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