Tradition and Textual Criticism


In the discussion of the historicity of a religion, particularly in the context of the development of scriptural manuscripts. How did we come to possess the Bible and the Qur’an? Do we have the original copies of these scriptures, or can the originals be deduced from the manuscript evidence? Is it possible to see changes and scribal errors that occurred in the various manuscripts we possess in different library collections around the world?

There are many answers to these questions, but they essentially boil down to “yes” or “no.” Perhaps denial of the originals being present in the existing manuscript traditions or a resounding demonstration of the manuscripts containing the originals. This is a science that has been practiced and investigated in Christianity for many years. It would seem that in recent years the study of Qur’anic manuscripts has become an important topic, with many scholars and apologists exploring and debating. This is important since the Bible has been under study in the context of textual criticism for years and it seems a worthy goal to apply the same standards of study to the Qur’an and indeed all sacred scripture.

However, there is one obstacle in the way of studying the textual transmission of the Qur’an, and perhaps other scriptures. Tradition. This was illustrated best in the debate between Jay Smith and Adnan Rashid. Early on in the debate Rashid appealed to hadith to prove that there were Companions of the Prophet Muhammad who acted as scribes and wrote down the Qur’an during the 7th century. The hadiths have been debated and scrutinized by many scholars and the topic of debates. For example, the debate between James White and Adnan Rashid, is an excellent example of the utilization of these documents. However, Jay Smith took a different approach. He pointed out that the focus of the debate should be on the physical manuscripts and the scientific procedures used to determine the time frame in which the manuscripts were created.

It appeared to me, while I was watching this debate, that both men were talking past each other. It didn’t help that Adnan was constantly calling Jay a liar and Adnan’s friend Ali(?) kept interrupting the debate with his loud comments. Also, Jay Smith’s female friend also interrupted. Needless to say, this would not have happened in a formal debate, but this is Speakers Corner, and typical debate rules apparently do not apply.

Having said that, it was interesting that halfway into the video Adnan Rashid produced an article on his phone, written by Professor Nicolai Sinai of Oxford University. Rashid claimed that Professor Sinai’s article demonstrated that there was good reason to think that we can have confidence in the Uthmanic textual transmission. Smith asked Adnan to elaborate and explain HOW Professor Sinai arrives at this conclusion. Rashid refused multiple times, claiming that the article was 100 pages, and he wasn’t willing to even summarize. Amazing! You provide evidence in a debate, but you don’t explain to your audience the main points of the evidence you are providing? Instead he said he would email the article to Smith. They agreed to return for a second debate. This happened 2015, no sequel debate has occurred, at least to my knowledge.

It was interesting that Adnan Rashid left the debate before it was over. I wonder if he ever did email Jay Smith the article by Professor Sinai. What article was it? What evidence did Professor Sinai give to make us feel that Uthman’s version of the Quran exists today? These are questions that need to be answered. However, Jay Smith did highlight an excellent point. When discussing the manuscript evidence for the Qur’an, we need to pay attention to the most recent scholars who are during current investigation. While it is important to study the research done by previous scholars who had a different theories about textual transmission, we need to be clear about theory, tradition, and physical scientific study of manuscripts.

My takeaway from this debate is the importance of clarity when having discussions such as this. Are we debating the reliability of historical tradition? Or are we focusing on the physical manuscripts and the scientific procedures used to analyze them in the context of textual criticism? One side was obviously championed by Adnan Rashid, the other by Jay Smith. No wonder the debate ended the way it did.

Moving forward: When discussing the textual transmission of the Qur’an we need to be aware of hadith but also the defense and criticism of these historical materials. We also need to be aware of the evidence of the analysis of  the Qur’anic manuscripts as a separate area of study. In my opinion we need to be aware of these two, but the issue is trying to force the hadith narrative onto the physical evidence. The danger of this forceful position is the stunting of formal dialogue and debate and the furthering of knowledge regarding the textual history of the Qur’an.


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