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Shiite Islam and the Corruption of the Quranic Text

In a previous post…xtual-corruption/, we quoted from the Blackwell’s Companion to the Quran, pp. 165-171, edited by Andrew Rippin, in regards to the textual transmission and corruption of the Muslim scripture. In this installment we are once again going to cite from pp. 378-379 of this reference work, this time in respect to the Shiite view of the Quran’s compilation and distortion. All capital and underline emphasis will be ours.

Early Debates on the Qur’an

This section gives a short survey on the origins of Sunnı-Shı’ı controversies on the integrity of the Qur’anic text. The development of these debates in the first Islamic centuries represents an interesting example of how ideas evolved in the early period through disputes, as well as contacts between various schools of thought (Modarressi 1993). The major issue in these debates was whether the ‘Uthmanic text comprehended all the Qur’anic verses revealed to Muhammad, or whether there had been further verses which are now missing from the text.

At the end of the reign of the third caliph ‘Uthman (d. 35/656), it became evident to some members of the community that there were TOO MANY VARIATIONS in the memorized texts. In 12/634, many of the memorizers (qurra’) of the Quran lost their lives in a battle against a rival community at Yamama in Arabia (al-Ya’qubı 1960: II, 15; al-Tabarı 1960: III, 296; Ibn Kathır 1966: VII, 439). Fearing that the complete Qur’an would be lost, the first caliph Abu Bakr asked ‘Umar and Zayd b. Thabit to record any verse or part of the revelation that at least two witnesses testified at the entrance of the mosque in Medina. All of the material gathered was recorded on sheets of paper (al-Ya’qubı 1960: II, 135; al-Suyutı 1967: I, 185, 207, 208), but was not yet compiled as a volume. These sheets were transmitted from Abu Bakr and ‘Umar to ‘Umar’s daughter Hafsa who gave them to ‘Uthman who had them put together in the form of a volume. ‘Uthman sent several copies of his compilation to different parts of the Muslim world and he then ordered that any other collections or verses of the Qur’an found anywhere else be burned (al-Bukharı 1862–1908: III, 393–4; al-Tirmidhı 1964: IV 347–8; al-Bayhaqı 1985: VII, 150–1).

According to MANY EARLY TRANSMITTED REPORTS, ‘Alı wrote his own compilation of the Quran (Ibn Sa’d 1904–15: II, 338; al-Ya’qubı 1960: II, 135; Ibn al-Nadım 1971: 30; al-Suyutı 1967: I, 204, 248; al-Kulaynı 1957–9: VIII, 18) and presented it to the companions; BUT THEY REJECTED IT, so he took it back home (Sulaym n.d.: 72, 108; al-Kulaynı 1957–9: II, 633; al-Ya’qubı 1960: II, 135–6). These reports also pointed out that THERE WERE SUBSTANTIAL DIFFERENCES between the various compilations of the Qur’an. The only copy of the complete Qur’an with verses proclaiming the exalted status of ‘Alı and the future Imams, was in Alıs possession. ‘Alı, known for his vast knowledge of the Qur’an (Ibn Sa’d 1904–15: I, 204), preserved this original copy and passed it on his successors.

In his codex of the Qur’an he had reportedly indicated the verses which were abrogated, and those which abrogated them (al-Suyutı 1967: I, 204). The Shı’ı community learned early on that to express their beliefs openly was fruitless. This only caused their community to be persecuted. Hence they started to practice taqiyya (religious dissimulation), which allows a Shıite to deny his or her faith under dangerous conditions. In doing so, believers retain their allegiance to Shıism while presenting an orthodox face to the oppressors. THIS APPLIES TO QURANIC INTERPRETATIONS AS WELL. The Shıites were practicing taqiyya to prevent revealing esoteric interpretations to Sunnı Muslims who do not accept them. Thus taqiyya also means keeping the batin secret.

The ‘Uthmanic Qur’an did not put an end to any future variations in reading. Since the science of Arabic orthography was still primitive, variations remained possible. The ‘Uthmanic text contained limited vowel markings or none at all, and the shapes of several consonants were similar, both of which allowed for a great variety of readings. These readings could lead to different interpretations. For example, the Arabic word ‘alı, could be taken either to be a simple adjective signifying “exalted,” OR REFER TO THE PERSON OF ‘Ali and his special role as successor of the prophet. Later in the fourth/tenth century, a limited number of variations were selected and canonized.

Unfortunately, it seems that what the variant texts were and how much they varied will most probably never be discovered. This ambiguity gave space to the most heated debate about the Shı’ı Qur’an, both by Muslim scholars and by Western scholars. In May 1842, Garcin de Tassy edited in the Journal Asiatique the text and translation of an unknown chapter of the Qur’an entitled “Sura of the two lights” (surat al-nurayn), the “two lights” referring respectively to Muhammad and ‘Ali. Most scholars who commented on this sura were uncertain of its origins (Eliash 1966: 125; 1969: 17). However this concept of “two lights” is developed by Shı’ites who distinguished between the “light of the imama” and the “light of prophecy.”

St. Clair Tisdall discovered a manuscript of the Qur’an in India in 1912 that appeared to be about three hundred years old (Tisdall 1913: 228). In this manuscript he found a previously unknown sura that was not part of the ‘Uthmanic Qur’an, as well as a few verses which were unique to this manuscript. The “Sura of divine friendship” (surat al-walaya) contained seven verses which mentioned ‘Alı as walı (“friend”) of God as well as the spiritual heir of the prophet, which Tisdall translated along with few “new” verses, in The Moslem World in 1913. Tisdall could not prove the authenticity of any of these additional chapters, and nor could von Grunebaum (1961: 80) who examined them later.

Meir M. Bar-Asher gave a complete overview of the topic in an article published in 1993 entitled “Variant Readings and Additions of the Imamı-Shı’ı’ to the Qur’an.” Arthur Jeffrey had already catalogued many of variant readings in his Materials for the History of the Text of the Qur’an (1937). Thus Bar-Asher decided to catalogue all of those that Jeffrey did not list and then selected only those variants that were relevant to Shıi’sm (Bar-Asher 1993: 80). He examined the Shı’ı variant readings of the Quran, the nature of the variations, and their difference from the Uthmanic compilation. Bar-Asher divided the variants into four types. First are minor alterations of words by exchanging or adding letters or vowel markings. This is the most common type of variant. Second is the exchange of one word for another, such as imam for umma (community). Third is the rearrangement of word order; this type of variant is the one most commonly accepted by Shı’ites. The Shıites of the first four Muslim centuries believed that Uthman excised significant segments from the original Quran and thus the fourth type of variant concerns some words that were omitted intentionally by Uthman such as references to ‘Alı and the imama (Bar-Asher 1993: 47). Today, the majority of Twelver Shı’ites affirm that the ‘Uthmanic edition preserves the entire text, but in the wrong order. This, to them, explains why the narrative of the Quran does not always flow smoothly.

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