Get 20M+ Full-Text Papers For Less Than $1.50/day. Start a 14-Day Trial for You or Your Team.

Learn More →

Revisiting Wansbrough’s Perspective on the Qurʾān’s Synoptic Problem

Revisiting Wansbrough’s Perspective on the Qurʾān’s Synoptic Problem 1Introduction1A characteristic of Qurʾānic narratives is that several of them come in different versions. The same story may be reported in a number of parallel accounts. Witztum, who describes this feature as ‘the synoptic problem of the Qurʾān’, offers a very useful appraisal of the scholarly approaches to interpreting this phenomenon. He advances that there are five approaches to this problem. Harmonistic readings, in which the parallel accounts are combined together to construct the true story, constitute one approach. A second approach utilises the oral nature of the Qurʾān. It treats the retelling of the narratives as public performances with the implication that each time a narrative is retold, small changes occur. Another approach, the contextual approach, holds that the discrepancies between the passages can be accounted for by considering the context – mainly the sūrahs. The fourth approach to interpreting the variations considers the chronology of the Qurʾān. The parallel accounts, therefore, emerge as a consequence of the Qurʾān’s revision of its messages. The fifth position is that of Wansbrough, the focus of this piece.2In this paper, I will provide a short summary of a critique levelled at Wansbrough’s hypothesis, namely that of Stewart, and then suggest further ways for corroborating and amplifying that critique. The discussion will be appended with some illustrative examples. To be sure, this paper does not claim to bring something radically new – Wansbrough has already been challenged in the extant literature. My aim is rather modest: to provide further lenses for understanding the variant traditions.2The Variant Traditions HypothesisWansbrough lays down his theory in the first chapter, ‘Revelation and Canon’, after his discussion of the narrative passages, which he takes as consisting mainly of exempla that existed originally as distinct pericopes. According to Wansbrough, the analysis of these exempla indicates the ‘existence of independent, possibly regional, traditions incorporated more or less intact into the canonical compilation, itself the product of expansion and strife within the Muslim community’. This claim is substantiated mainly by analysing the story of Shuʿayb in three of its occurrences in the Qurʾān – al-Aʿrāf, Hūd and al-Shuʿarāʾ. Wansbrough’s comparison of the three versions enables him to detect some discrepancies between the three versions, the implication of which is that the unit in al-Shuʿarāʾ is the primitive one. The discrepancies include the following: that the formula of commission is missing from al-Shuʿarāʾ; that the corroboratio, which introduces the main message, is nearer its original position in al-Shuʿarāʾ; and that some elements constituting the altercation are missing from the al-Shuʿarāʾ version. Wansbrough’s overall conclusion is that they exhibit ‘ample evidence of literary elaboration, drawn from recognizable and well-established types of prophetical report’.3 These findings clearly have a far-reaching historical and theological load. They have bearings, for example, on the authorship of the Qurʾān – towards the end of the chapter, Wansbrough writes:Particularly in the exempla of salvation history, characterized by variant traditions … ellipsis and repetition are such as to suggest not the carefully executed project of one or of many men, but rather the product of an organic development from originally independent traditions during a long period of transmission.43Critique of the HypothesisIn a footnote to “Qurʾān, Crisis and Memory”, Neuwirth draws attention to a drawback in Wansbrough’s approach: ‘J. Wansbrough’s methodologically inspiring chapter on “Revelation and Canon”, Qur’anic Studies, 1–54, is impaired by its damnatio memoriae of the sophisticated poetics of the Qur’ān as a literary text’.5 Although Neuwirth does not explicitly target the aforementioned hypothesis, her criticism, in my view, does apply to it. It may also be added that the main complaint against Wansbrough’s thesis, insofar as I have understood Neuwirth correctly, is that it represents a pre-canonical reading of the Qurʾān; a problematic reading which, according to Neuwirth, ‘decontextualizes single sections, isolating them from the particular polemic-apologetic discourse they are part of’.6 In a nuanced critique of the hypothesis, this criticism is picked up and developed by Stewart:A possible criticism of this argument is that it fails to consider sufficiently the relationship between the pre-scriptural material and the current text, particularly the processes by which oral performances affect the shape of a repertoire of traditional narratives or by which existing stories may have been molded and modified to fit the particular passages in which they occur in the Qurʾān.Stewart suggests that the sūrahs within which the narratives occur are to be regarded as ‘sermons’, and that each narrative is tailored to serve the objectives of the particular sermon in which it appears.7 The implication is that the elements that are emphasised (or otherwise) in each narrative depend on the objectives of each sūrah.8 Stewart’s more specific responses to the hypothesis include the following: he submits that the formula of commission – which is missing from al-Shuʿarāʾ – occurs in al-Aʿrāf because ‘it occurs in all of the parallel accounts in this sūra’. And the same also applies to the Hūd pericope. Furthermore, Stewart observes that the elements which are, according to Wansbrough, missing in al-Shuʿarāʾ ‘are missing because they are missing in all of the other parallel punishment stories included in Sūrat ash-Shuʿarāʾ’. This suggests that the discrepancies in the Shuʿayb narratives ‘result from the framing of the story within the macroform, and not merely discrepancies due to different versions underlying the present text in the transmission history of the individual pericopes’.9 Taking Stewart’s response to Wansbrough as my starting point, I present in what follows four additional inter-related ways in which this critique could be amplified.3.1Empirical Evidence from the Near EastI would like to suggest that Stewart’s critique could be corroborated by resorting to the cognate field of Biblical criticism – which was the analytic lens through which Wansbrough developed the hypothesis in the first place.10 In particular, I will draw on Berman’s monograph, Inconsistency in the Torah. In this significant contribution to the revisions of the form-critical method, Berman argues for an empirical approach towards studying the composition of the Bible. This is in response to the problem at the root of the historical-critical scholarship; that ‘scholars have rooted their compositional theories for the growth of the biblical text entirely in their own intuition of what constitutes literary unity’. Alternatively, Berman seeks ‘to question our own notions of consistency and unity in a text, in light of what we discover from the writings of the ancient Near East’.11 For example, Berman responds to the claim made by Pentateuchal scholarship that the disparity of divine names in the Torah provides proof of composite authorship by adducing the Ugaritic Ba’al Cycle, whereby the same deity was referred to by two names. And given that such evidence from the Ba’al Cycle could be assumed to have been written by one author,12 the same could be said of the Torah: the existence of more than one divine name does not necessitate multiple authorship.Part I of Berman’s book is most useful for our purposes. Here, he addresses internal inconsistencies in Biblical narratives through identifying examples in the cognate Near Eastern literature where a single author composes multiple conflicting versions of the same historical account. I will briefly present one of Berman’s case studies. He compares the Kadesh inscriptions of Rameses II with the Exodus 13–15 account of the crossing of the sea. The Kadesh inscriptions are useful in this regard as they show that conflicting accounts of a single event – the same battle – were commissioned by the same auctoritas – Pharaoh Ramesses II – and displayed across Egypt; and Egyptologists agree that the different accounts were commissioned at the same time.13 The battle is presented within three accounts: a poem, a bulletin, and in bas reliefs. The differences occur not only between the three accounts, but also within the poem itself where some inconsistencies are found, such as a shift in the narratorial voice.14 Based on this evidence, Berman argues that the Egyptians were able to overcome these contradictions in the historical accounts because their understanding of history-telling was different from ours: ‘In premodern times, however, it would be more correct to say that when people read accounts of the past, they were reading “exhortation”’.15 Thus, we are operating under two different concepts of historiography. That is, premodern writers ‘never wrote with the disinterested aim of chronicling the past for its own sake; rather, the deeds of the past were harnessed for rhetorical effect to persuade readers to take action in the present’.16 The consequence of this is that, although it is difficult to reconcile the facts of the three accounts, they do complement each other in terms of the lessons to be gleaned from them.17Berman then suggests that the Egyptian literary tradition may have become disseminated into the poetics of Biblical narrative, and goes on to examine the Exodus 13:17–15:19 sea account in light of this. Having demonstrated that the Exodus sea account – which comprises prose and lyric – shows some affinities with the Kadesh inscriptions, Berman argues that the doublets and inconsistencies existing in the prose account of the sea account are not necessarily indications of composite composition in the form of a priestly and a non-priestly source. Berman reaches this conclusion on the basis of the inconsistencies found in the Kadesh inscriptions.18Similarly, Berman holds that the abundant dissimilarities between the prose and lyric accounts of the sea event should be understood in the same way. That is, the accounts are complementary, each of them approaching the same event from a different narratological perspective.19 All of this does not prove, however, that the Exodus sea account stems from a single author. In other words, the biblical scribal milieu need not follow the literary phenomena found in the Near Eastern literature, and even if it generally does, it may not do so on this occasion: it is equally conceivable that they each follow different conventions, or that they sometimes diverge. Berman is well aware of this issue: the empirical evidence ‘should, at the very least, place a check on the confidence that a modern exegete can have when approaching the biblical text and encountering literary phenomena that seem inconsistent’.20One could also apply a similar logic to the inconsistencies in Qurʾānic narratives. In particular, I would like to propose that the existence of fissures in Qurʾānic narratives does not prove a composite authorship of the Qurʾān, nor is it evidence that the Qurʾān was redacted over an extended period of time. When the Qurʾān is situated within its Near Eastern context, and understood against the Biblical back drop, then applying Berman’s empirical findings to the Qurʾān does not seem unwarranted: if the presence of variant traditions attributed to a single author could be comfortably accommodated in Near Eastern and Biblical literature, there is no reason why the same cannot be sustained with regards to the Qurʾān. This, in turn, would lend more weight to the standard narratives of the composition of the Qurʾān. Moreover, the discussion has implications on the qirāʾāt (variant readings): one is tempted to argue that empirical evidence from the Near East could be adduced to make a case that some of the qirāʾāt were given by the Prophet himself. In other words, it indicates that it was not uncommon for a single author to produce a text with variants in the Qurʾānic milieu, the ancient Near East. At the very least, I hope this shows that the possibility of the Qurʾān not being a Gemeindeproduckt is worthy of much further consideration.3.2Evidence from Pre-Islamic PoetryOf closer proximity and greater relevance to the Qurʾān is pre-Islamic poetry. On this basis I will now transition from the broader crucible of the Qurʾān, the Near East, into pre-Islamic poetry in an attempt to make a similar argument as above; namely, that it is not uncommon, in pre-Islamic literary conventions, for a single author to produce different versions of the same literary work. In particular, I will be asking the following question, and then commenting on what it means for our understanding of the variant traditions hypothesis: given that the existence of variants in pre-Islamic Arabic poems is common,21 could the variants of a given qaṣīdah be attributed to its author? In other words, could we envisage the same poet authoring different versions of the same poem?In this connection, Schoeler advanced three possible reasons for the existence of variants in Arabic poetry; one of which is the poet, the author, himself.22 Along the same lines, and in his analysis of ʿAlqamah’s poem in which he petitions for the release of his brother, Montgomery registers the different versions of the poem. He then submits that they ‘do not suggest a defective tradition or a copyist’s corruptions’ and provides three possible explanations to account for this phenomenon. What is important, for the point I am arguing for, is his first explanation: that the variants ‘represent various versions composed by the poet, either in his attempts to strike the right balance, or as variations on a theme’.23 Although Montgomery does not hold this explanation to be the most plausible in ʿAlqamah’s case – for he argues, rather, that the variants represent later attempts by editors to produce a coherent version –, he does, in another study, give an example of a variant composed by the original author. That is, he looks at two poems that resemble each other closely, one originally attributed to Imruʾ al-Qays and the other one attributed to ʿAlqamah, and then argues that both poems ‘should be treated as oral versions of the same poem’, of which Imruʾ al-Qays is ‘the best attested composer’.24 The upshot is that we can imagine different renditions of the same poem produced by a single author.On this topic, Bateson summarizes the process of composition of pre-Islamic poetry, underscoring the possibility of changes being conducted by the author: ‘When called upon to recite, the poet might recite whole odes in which the passages had been carefully united to form a totality, or he might improvise long stretches at the interstices of the original design, to suit a mood or an audience’. Note here her assertion that the poet may improvise parts of the original composition to cater for the audience; she is clearly underscoring the intentional nature of some of the author-composed variants. In supporting this point, she draws an analogy with modern jazz musicians. ‘At certain points’, she writes, ‘one player may genuinely improvise, playing something completely new or rephrasing an old interpretation to meet a particular mood’. It follows from this that the variant renditions of a qaṣīdah ‘reflect the fact that some fluidity was always retained and the poet felt at liberty to change or re-use lines’.25 To recapitulate, my aim is to show that it is possible to explain variants – though admittedly this might not be the best explanation – as representing cases where a single author consciously26 adapts and updates a poem during performance, due to the dictates of the context, and under the influence of the targeted audience. I would also go as far as to suggest that the existence of variants may be seen as an attempt by the originator of the composition to produce more than one original version of his work, that is, the variants are not merely the products of the natural conventions of orality, but of intentional authorship.However circumstantial, and acknowledging that the analogy I am drawing is not an exact one, this evidence from pre-Islamic poetry has implications for the variant traditions hypothesis. My argument runs as follows: the presence of variants is a common feature of both Qurʾānic narratives and pre-Islamic poetry. And one of the possible sources of variants in a pre-Islamic poem is the original author, either from memory fluctuations, or from intentional polishing and re-shaping during the performance of the ode. The latter possibility, the intentional variation, can be understood in one of two ways. First, as a process through which the poet arrives at the final edition, which could be described as the final original version. Alternatively, we could conceive of the poet as authorizing the different variants. It is on this latter hypothesis that my argument rests.Nonetheless, my conjecture is fraught with difficulties, and hence some measure of scepticism is warranted. For instance, it is uncertain whether the author of the qaṣīdah intended for the newer composition to be the final composition, or that he intended for all the different compositions to be equally authoritative. If we maintain the former, my argument falls because the variant Qurʾānic traditions do not abrogate each other – they are all recognized as Qurʾān. Thus, the analogy with pre-Islamic poetry will only work if we allow for the latter, seemingly weak, hypothesis – that the author of the ode intended for all the different versions to be in circulation as acceptable versions or, put differently, that he considered them all original versions. Admittedly, this is not strongly defensible but remains a valid possibility.3.3Corroboration through OralityIt also seems from Wansbrough’s treatment of Qurʾānic narratives that he perceived the repetitions as attesting to the variant traditions hypothesis.27 Perhaps this appeal to the source-critical approach – that is, attributing the repetitions in the narratives to different independent traditions – mirrors, to some extent, one of the aims of Biblical source critics: the production of independent texts ‘that would read cleanly, without the repetitions and doublets that seem to plague a synchronic reading’.28 This argument is built on a presumably implied premise that does not seem entirely defensible: that a single author is not likely to repeat his proclamations frequently. This is not necessarily the case. In particular, if we observe the orality of the Qurʾān – as Wansbrough himself accepts29 – an argument can be made that because such repetitions are typical of the oral style,30 the variant traditions hypothesis is not required. Essentially, we are moving from the acceptance of orality to its consequences: the bearing that orality has on the composition of a text.31 The argument could be spelled out as follows: variant narratives exist in the Qurʾān because it is inherently an oral text, a text that was performed differently at different times as the context required. Therefore, the reason for the inconsistencies in the narratives is not that they were separate logia, but rather because this is how an oral text works.Moreover, repeating the exact same narrative at each instance of retelling may reveal the aims of the author and the message he wants to relay. This process has been most helpfully described by Donner: ‘might such similar passages not just as cogently be viewed as transcripts of different oral recitations of the same story made in close succession, something like different recordings of a politician’s stump speech delivered numerous times over a few days or weeks?’ He further suggests that it can be applied to the Shuʿayb narratives.32 Bannister’s study of the oral-formulaic nature of the Qurʾān also attests to this: in an analysis of the variations that exist between some of the Moses-Pharaoh pericopes (such as Q. 7:103, Q. 10:75, and Q. 43:46), Bannister submits that these are examples of performance variants, that is, ‘a story that has been orally told on more than one occasion with minor variations, which were then reflected when the text was finally committed to writing’.33 Bannister suggests that the multiple retellings of the Ādam and Iblīs complex are also performance variants: ‘Arguably an oral approach to the Qur’an has the potential for being a much better model for explaining the nature of the Iblis and Adam tellings’.34This appeal to orality is not incompatible with the position conceding that the Prophet received divine revelations and did not alter them impromptu. In other words, accepting the oral nature of the Qurʾān does not entail ruling out the Qurʾān’s divine nature. I am unable to see a necessary tension between a text being performed orally on different occasions and it being of divine nature. Moreover, orality need not necessarily be equated with inexactitude – an oral tradition could be transmitted with accuracy and integrity with the aid of different control mechanisms.35There is yet another way to understand the orality of the Qurʾān. In advancing this, we can benefit from the cognate literature and apply an analogy from the Hebrew Bible to the Qurʾān, especially on the basis that orality has been better researched in Biblical studies.36 In her study of orality, and unconvinced by the documentary hypothesis of the emergence of Biblical literature, Niditch suggested four different models along the oral-written continuum through which we can understand the origin of the Bible and its formation. I would like to draw attention to the third model. It holds that the works of the Hebrew Bible ‘were composed in writing by authors who are fully conscious of and immersed in the oral culture’.37 Put differently, this models suggest that instead of maintaining that a work of the Hebrew Bible was ‘delivered orally in community settings’, the work could be said to have been written by an author ‘influenced by and immersed in the aesthetics of an oral world’: the work is, thus, ‘composed specifically for performance’.38 If we can use this model and apply it to the Qurʾān, it is not hard to allow for the possibility that the revelations to the Prophet were designed specifically for oral performance. That is, they were intended to be performed in an oral setting, and hence they were deliberately composed in a fashion that shows all the hallmarks of an oral tradition. To go back to Wansbrough’s example, the implication is that we have repetitions in the Shuʿayb narratives not because they were independent pericopes that were later collated by redactors, but rather because the Prophet advertently transmitted them in that particular way because oral tradition was the norm in the ancient Near East, and oral techniques were desirable in the ancient world as the works were primarily heard.Niditch’s models could be supplemented with additional Biblical literature arguing for the possibility that repetitions are deliberate. Licht, for instance, has posited, in his study of repetitions in Biblical stories, that repetitions influence the shape of Old Testament stories. In particular, he submitted that although repetitions are used in different ways, ‘their most direct effect is always a matter of simple sound manipulation’.39 He also pointed that repetitions are characteristic of ancient narratives possibly because ‘oral composition and transmission are greatly helped by regularly repeated elements’.40 More explicitly on the intentional nature of repetition, Whybray forwards that the connection between the variant versions of the same story may be purely literary, and that the different versions may be included for theological or artistic reasons.41 These considerations, given we appreciate the Qurʾān’s awareness of its time and place, provide further support for my claim that repetitions in the Qurʾān are intended per se.In summary, I submit that the existence of repetitions in Qurʾānic narratives should be considered in light of the Qurʾān’s own oral conventions: imposing anachronistic standards on its literary phenomena can be misleading. As Nöldeke warns us: ‘We are not at liberty therefore, in every case where the connection in the Koran is obscure, to say that it is really broken, and set it down as, the clumsy patchwork of a later hand’.423.4Interpretive BackreferencingIt is also tempting to utilise the notion of inner Qurʾānic interpretation in order to understand the discrepancies between the narrative units. At least broadly speaking, I find it not unreasonable to characterise the phenomenon of the variant traditions as a form of inner-Qurʾānic interpretation. Useful in this regard is one of Sinai’s analytic categories for inner-Qurʾānic interpretation: interpretive backreferencing. This applies to ‘cases in which a later Qur’ānic passage B modifies the meaning of some temporally antecedent passage A or a cluster of several such passages, with A and B occurring in independent Qur’ānic proclamations or sūras’.43 Consequently, we can perceive the variant traditions through the interpretive lens, especially since Sinai has argued that interpretive backreferencing is not uncommon in Qurʾānic narrative passages.44 For example, in his analysis of the different versions of the Ādam and Iblīs narrative, Sinai argues that ‘we may assume at least a substantial part of the addressees of a given text in the series to have been familiar with the texts preceding it, and that conspicuous overlaps between a later text and an earlier one could in principle constitute a case of deliberate allusion’.45 One of Sinai’s more specific findings is that the divergences between the version of the story in Q. 15 and the versions in Q. 38 and Q. 17 can be read ‘as having an interpretive significance’.46 The result of this is that the repetitions of narratives in different versions serve to clarify and elucidate earlier ones.47 In this light, we can understand the existence of variant traditions as a means of extending the range of interpretations. Likewise, Bodman notes this interpretive function in his study of the Iblīs narratives:[E]xamined narratologically, we do find that inclusions and omissions in various versions do expand the range of interpretation … The story is the same, but the version of the story is different and the location of the story within an extensive range of interpretation shifts with each version.484Illustrative CasesBy way of illustration, and to shed light on the relevance of the theory discussed above, it may be of interest to revisit some Qurʾānic narratives (including that of Shuʿayb) in which discrepancies exist and assess them in light of what I have established; namely, in terms of interpretive backreferencing as well the notion of sūrah holism (which is indicated by Stewart when speaks about the sūrah as a sermon).First of all, I would like to revisit the Shuʿayb narrative. A different approach to this narrative would be to invoke the lens of interpretive backreferencing. In other words, I will consider briefly the three Shuʿayb narratives studied by Wansbrough – al-Aʿrāf, Hūd and al-Shuʿarāʾ – and examine whether they can be seen to be engaged in interpretive backreferencing. One conjectural observation will suffice. Regarding the omission of the formula of commission in al-Shuʿarāʾ, it could be hypothesised that the audience were acquainted with the previous retellings (al-Aʿrāf, Hūd, or both) and were therefore able to fill this (minor) gap. That is, this particular element was missing as a consequence of the phenomenon of interpretive backreferencing. However, in order to make this argument, we must discern the chronology. Now, if we assume that the mean verse length of Qurʾānic sūrahs tended to increase over time, then this argument will be refuted. That is because according to Sinai’s figures, we obtain the following order: al-Shuʿarāʾ (with a mean verse length of 36.71), Hūd (96.18), and al-Aʿrāf (104.27).49 However, one means of avoiding this problem is to rely on some of the traditional chronological lists. According to one of the lists given in al-Itqān and attributed to Ibn ʿAbbās (d. 68/687), al-Aʿrāf was revealed before al-Shuʿarāʾ,50 thus allowing for the possibility that the latter was referring back to the former. Nonetheless, dating Qurʾānic proclamations involves an element of speculation.51A second example of interpretive backreferencing concerns Abraham’s reply to the messengers as presented in the following verses:They went in to see him and said, ‘Peace’. He said: ‘Peace, these people are strangers’ (Q. 51:25).When they came to him and said, ‘Peace’, he said, ‘We are afraid of you’ (Q. 15:52).To Abraham our messengers brought good news. They said, ‘Peace’. He answered, ‘Peace’, and without delay he brought in a roasted calf (Q. 11:69).The discrepancy here is between Q. 15:52 on the one hand and Q. 51:25 and Q. 11:69 on the other: did Abraham reply by saying ‘Peace’ or did he say ‘We are afraid of you’? Perhaps one way to answer this question is to apply the notion of interpretive backreferencing, at least broadly. Again, applying Sinai’s calculations in this case, we can order the verses as follows: Q. 51:25, Q. 15:52, and Q. 11:69.52 On this basis, it could be said that Q. 15:52, which did not mention ‘Peace’, was referring back to the previous proclamation, Q. 51:25. In other words, it might be a reasonable hypothesis to assume that the hearers of the Qurʾān detected no contradiction here as they were aware of the previous telling of the story. Put simply, they may have understood that Abraham did say both things, and they might not have had any issue with the fact that part of Abraham’s response was modified in Q. 15:52. Even a quick look at the exegetical tradition reveals that it was perfectly comfortable with these variant versions. For instance, Rāzī (d. 606/1210), in his commentary on Q. 15:52, did not raise the question although he acknowledged that the narrative is expanded in Q. 11.53 Ālūsī (d. 1270/1854), with his usual exegetical sensitivity, noticed the tension and responded by advancing the view that the greeting was omitted in this pericope as it occurred elsewhere – clearly pointing to Q. 51 and Q. 11.54 Ibn ʿĀshūr (d. 1973) avered to the fact that the greeting in Q. 15:52 was omitted as a matter of brevity, given that it is very clear (ījāzan li-ẓuhūrih).55 Perhaps one of the most explicit recognitions of interpretive backreferencing with regards to these verses was given by al-Kirmānī (d. 505/1111). He submitted that the greeting was omitted in Q. 15:52 because Q. 15 was a later proclamation (li-anna hādhihi s-sūrata mutʾakhkhirah), that relied on the expanded version in Q. 11. That is, the greeting was already indicated in Q. 11, and thus it was not necessary to repeat it again.56 The issue with this theorizing, however, is that it seems that al-Kirmānī was following the final canonical ordering of the muṣḥaf, not the order of revelation. Nonetheless, this evidence indicates a recognition in the tradition of some form of conscious interpretativen Rückbezüge.My third and fourth examples are intended to show how the variant traditions highlight features of the general macroform in which they occur. Thus, they are both founded upon the notion of sūrah holism. I begin with the narrative of Lot. The Qurʾān presents the encounter of Lot with his people in a number of sūrahs, with various discrepancies. I will, however, focus on two particular verses within two sūrahs: Q. 7:81 and Q. 27:55. In these almost identical verses, near-doublets,57 Lot describes his people in the former as being transgressors (musrifūn), whereas he describes them in the latter as having ignorance (tajhalūn). The question is this: does the existence of this discrepancy support Wansbrough’s hypothesis, or is there another possible explanation? I would lean towards the latter option: we can consider the two sūrahs in which the narratives appear to be sermons, each of which has its unique purposes and themes. In other words, the choice of words is a consequence of the location of the verses within the general macroform. Taking this further, I would like to put forward the following conjecture. The use of musrifūn in Q. 7:81 is consistent with the theme of isrāf, extravagance, mentioned in the same sūrah, Q. 7:31, ‘Children of Adam, dress well whenever you are at worship, and eat and drink [as We have permitted] but do not be extravagant: God does not like extravagant people (al-musrifīn)’. In a similar manner, the use of tajhalūn in Q. 27:55, the antithesis of knowledge, is adapted to underscore the recurring notion of knowledge in Q. 27: in Q. 27:15, ‘We gave knowledge to David and Solomon, and they both said, “Praise be to God, who has favoured us over many of His believing servants”’; in Q. 27:22, ‘I have learned something you did not know’, and in Q. 27:40, ‘but one of them who had some knowledge of the Scripture said, “I will bring it to you in the twinkling of an eye”’. Hence, the choice of words is reworked to highlight the particular emphasis of each sermon: the nuances send different signals.58Let us now turn to the narrative of Ṣāliḥ where I will be looking in particular at the punishment accounts of the story and attempt to provide an explanation for the formulaic variations therein. Similar to the Shuʿayb stories analysed by Wansbrough, the main occurrences of the Ṣāliḥ complex are in al-Aʿrāf, Hūd and al-Shuʿarāʾ. The punishment is described differently in the three sūrahs. Presented in the order of sūrah chronology discerned above, they are:So do not harm her, or the punishment of a terrible day will befall you (fa-yaʾkhudhakum ʿadhābu yawmin ʿaẓīm) (Q. 26:156).My people, this camel belongs to God, a sign for you, so leave it to pasture on God’s earth and do not harm it, or you will soon be punished (fa-yaʾkhudhakum ʿadhābun qarīb)’ (Q. 11:64).To the people of Thamūd We sent their brother, Ṣāliḥ. He said, ‘My people, serve God: you have no god other than Him. A clear sign has come to you now from your Lord: this is God’s she-camel – a sign for you – so let her graze in God’s land and do not harm her in any way, or you will be struck by a painful torment’ (fa-yaʾkhudhakum ʿadhābun alīm) (Q. 7:73).Again, the very idea of sūrah holism underpins my analysis. In explaining the variants, use will be made of the context and macroform. In Q. 21:156, ‘or the punishment of a terrible day will befall you’, the choice of the term ‘day’ (yawm) could be attributed to the fact that in the immediate vicinity, Q. 21:155, the word ‘day’ is used: ‘He said, “Here is a camel. She should have her turn to drink and so should you, each on a specified day”’.59 The case could perhaps be strengthened by observing that in the same sūrah two additional occurrences of the phrase (yawmin ʿaẓīm) are found, making them three in total (Q. 21:135; 21:156; 21:189). Thus, it was apposite to use the phrase ‘day’ to maintain consistency across the sūrah. Next, how are we to explain Q. 11:64 where the punishment is described as impending? The answer seems to be found in the verse that follows it, Q. 11:65, ‘But they hamstrung it, so he said, “Enjoy life for another three days”’. It follows that the stipulation of a ‘waiting period’ makes it apt to describe the punishment as ‘impending’ in the preceding verse.60 Unlike the previous ones, the case of al-Aʿrāf is much more difficult, and I cannot muster an indefeasible explanation as to why a ‘painful torment’ (ʿadhābun alīm) is chosen in this particular verse, Q. 7:73. Yet, and with all its shortcomings, this example indicates that there are prospects for explaining at least two of the three punishment accounts of the Ṣāliḥ narrative against the backdrop of the sūrah and the immediate context.5ConclusionMy aim here was to examine Wansbrough’s variant traditions hypothesis, and to offer alternative ways for viewing the variant traditions. Following the presentation of Stewart’s convincing criticism, I have attempted to contest the theory at four different, although interrelated, levels. For starters, I submitted that because the occurrence of variant versions of the same tale through the commission of the same author is not uncommon in Near Eastern literature, the variant traditions of the Qurʾān do not necessarily suggest that the Qurʾān was a project executed by more than one person. In other words, the existence of different versions of the same story is not a sufficient condition in itself to confirm Wansbrough’s hypothesis, if we were to factor the Near Eastern rhetorical convention into our studies of the Qurʾān. Secondly, I used evidence from pre-Islamic poetry – to the effect that a single author might produce variant editions of the same work – in order to militate against the hypothesis that variants are indicative of multiple authorship. My third contention was that the orality of the Qurʾān appears to provide a promising approach to questioning Wansbrough’s hypothesis. That is, it could be submitted that orality could be adduced to explain the differences between the parallel versions and perhaps answer the question of why the Qurʾān chooses to present a narrative differently each time. The discrepancies were shaped by the dictates of the oral context: such differences should, therefore, be viewed as natural, required and intended. Fourth, I attempted to demonstrate that the differences between the narratives could be understood in light of the concept of interpretive backreferencing: the reason why some narratival elements were modified or omitted is that the text was relying on the familiarity of the recipients with the previous versions. Next, I presented some cases from the Qurʾān to illustrate my argument. This analysis, in turn, shows that there are other ways to approach the variant traditions beyond some of the revisionist tendencies. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Al-Bayan: Journal of Qur’an and Hadith Studies Brill

Revisiting Wansbrough’s Perspective on the Qurʾān’s Synoptic Problem

Loading next page...
 
/lp/brill/revisiting-wansbrough-s-perspective-on-the-qur-n-s-synoptic-problem-n109XY5ck6

References (17)

Publisher
Brill
Copyright
Copyright © Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, The Netherlands
ISSN
2232-1950
eISSN
2232-1969
DOI
10.1163/22321969-12340118
Publisher site
See Article on Publisher Site

Abstract

1Introduction1A characteristic of Qurʾānic narratives is that several of them come in different versions. The same story may be reported in a number of parallel accounts. Witztum, who describes this feature as ‘the synoptic problem of the Qurʾān’, offers a very useful appraisal of the scholarly approaches to interpreting this phenomenon. He advances that there are five approaches to this problem. Harmonistic readings, in which the parallel accounts are combined together to construct the true story, constitute one approach. A second approach utilises the oral nature of the Qurʾān. It treats the retelling of the narratives as public performances with the implication that each time a narrative is retold, small changes occur. Another approach, the contextual approach, holds that the discrepancies between the passages can be accounted for by considering the context – mainly the sūrahs. The fourth approach to interpreting the variations considers the chronology of the Qurʾān. The parallel accounts, therefore, emerge as a consequence of the Qurʾān’s revision of its messages. The fifth position is that of Wansbrough, the focus of this piece.2In this paper, I will provide a short summary of a critique levelled at Wansbrough’s hypothesis, namely that of Stewart, and then suggest further ways for corroborating and amplifying that critique. The discussion will be appended with some illustrative examples. To be sure, this paper does not claim to bring something radically new – Wansbrough has already been challenged in the extant literature. My aim is rather modest: to provide further lenses for understanding the variant traditions.2The Variant Traditions HypothesisWansbrough lays down his theory in the first chapter, ‘Revelation and Canon’, after his discussion of the narrative passages, which he takes as consisting mainly of exempla that existed originally as distinct pericopes. According to Wansbrough, the analysis of these exempla indicates the ‘existence of independent, possibly regional, traditions incorporated more or less intact into the canonical compilation, itself the product of expansion and strife within the Muslim community’. This claim is substantiated mainly by analysing the story of Shuʿayb in three of its occurrences in the Qurʾān – al-Aʿrāf, Hūd and al-Shuʿarāʾ. Wansbrough’s comparison of the three versions enables him to detect some discrepancies between the three versions, the implication of which is that the unit in al-Shuʿarāʾ is the primitive one. The discrepancies include the following: that the formula of commission is missing from al-Shuʿarāʾ; that the corroboratio, which introduces the main message, is nearer its original position in al-Shuʿarāʾ; and that some elements constituting the altercation are missing from the al-Shuʿarāʾ version. Wansbrough’s overall conclusion is that they exhibit ‘ample evidence of literary elaboration, drawn from recognizable and well-established types of prophetical report’.3 These findings clearly have a far-reaching historical and theological load. They have bearings, for example, on the authorship of the Qurʾān – towards the end of the chapter, Wansbrough writes:Particularly in the exempla of salvation history, characterized by variant traditions … ellipsis and repetition are such as to suggest not the carefully executed project of one or of many men, but rather the product of an organic development from originally independent traditions during a long period of transmission.43Critique of the HypothesisIn a footnote to “Qurʾān, Crisis and Memory”, Neuwirth draws attention to a drawback in Wansbrough’s approach: ‘J. Wansbrough’s methodologically inspiring chapter on “Revelation and Canon”, Qur’anic Studies, 1–54, is impaired by its damnatio memoriae of the sophisticated poetics of the Qur’ān as a literary text’.5 Although Neuwirth does not explicitly target the aforementioned hypothesis, her criticism, in my view, does apply to it. It may also be added that the main complaint against Wansbrough’s thesis, insofar as I have understood Neuwirth correctly, is that it represents a pre-canonical reading of the Qurʾān; a problematic reading which, according to Neuwirth, ‘decontextualizes single sections, isolating them from the particular polemic-apologetic discourse they are part of’.6 In a nuanced critique of the hypothesis, this criticism is picked up and developed by Stewart:A possible criticism of this argument is that it fails to consider sufficiently the relationship between the pre-scriptural material and the current text, particularly the processes by which oral performances affect the shape of a repertoire of traditional narratives or by which existing stories may have been molded and modified to fit the particular passages in which they occur in the Qurʾān.Stewart suggests that the sūrahs within which the narratives occur are to be regarded as ‘sermons’, and that each narrative is tailored to serve the objectives of the particular sermon in which it appears.7 The implication is that the elements that are emphasised (or otherwise) in each narrative depend on the objectives of each sūrah.8 Stewart’s more specific responses to the hypothesis include the following: he submits that the formula of commission – which is missing from al-Shuʿarāʾ – occurs in al-Aʿrāf because ‘it occurs in all of the parallel accounts in this sūra’. And the same also applies to the Hūd pericope. Furthermore, Stewart observes that the elements which are, according to Wansbrough, missing in al-Shuʿarāʾ ‘are missing because they are missing in all of the other parallel punishment stories included in Sūrat ash-Shuʿarāʾ’. This suggests that the discrepancies in the Shuʿayb narratives ‘result from the framing of the story within the macroform, and not merely discrepancies due to different versions underlying the present text in the transmission history of the individual pericopes’.9 Taking Stewart’s response to Wansbrough as my starting point, I present in what follows four additional inter-related ways in which this critique could be amplified.3.1Empirical Evidence from the Near EastI would like to suggest that Stewart’s critique could be corroborated by resorting to the cognate field of Biblical criticism – which was the analytic lens through which Wansbrough developed the hypothesis in the first place.10 In particular, I will draw on Berman’s monograph, Inconsistency in the Torah. In this significant contribution to the revisions of the form-critical method, Berman argues for an empirical approach towards studying the composition of the Bible. This is in response to the problem at the root of the historical-critical scholarship; that ‘scholars have rooted their compositional theories for the growth of the biblical text entirely in their own intuition of what constitutes literary unity’. Alternatively, Berman seeks ‘to question our own notions of consistency and unity in a text, in light of what we discover from the writings of the ancient Near East’.11 For example, Berman responds to the claim made by Pentateuchal scholarship that the disparity of divine names in the Torah provides proof of composite authorship by adducing the Ugaritic Ba’al Cycle, whereby the same deity was referred to by two names. And given that such evidence from the Ba’al Cycle could be assumed to have been written by one author,12 the same could be said of the Torah: the existence of more than one divine name does not necessitate multiple authorship.Part I of Berman’s book is most useful for our purposes. Here, he addresses internal inconsistencies in Biblical narratives through identifying examples in the cognate Near Eastern literature where a single author composes multiple conflicting versions of the same historical account. I will briefly present one of Berman’s case studies. He compares the Kadesh inscriptions of Rameses II with the Exodus 13–15 account of the crossing of the sea. The Kadesh inscriptions are useful in this regard as they show that conflicting accounts of a single event – the same battle – were commissioned by the same auctoritas – Pharaoh Ramesses II – and displayed across Egypt; and Egyptologists agree that the different accounts were commissioned at the same time.13 The battle is presented within three accounts: a poem, a bulletin, and in bas reliefs. The differences occur not only between the three accounts, but also within the poem itself where some inconsistencies are found, such as a shift in the narratorial voice.14 Based on this evidence, Berman argues that the Egyptians were able to overcome these contradictions in the historical accounts because their understanding of history-telling was different from ours: ‘In premodern times, however, it would be more correct to say that when people read accounts of the past, they were reading “exhortation”’.15 Thus, we are operating under two different concepts of historiography. That is, premodern writers ‘never wrote with the disinterested aim of chronicling the past for its own sake; rather, the deeds of the past were harnessed for rhetorical effect to persuade readers to take action in the present’.16 The consequence of this is that, although it is difficult to reconcile the facts of the three accounts, they do complement each other in terms of the lessons to be gleaned from them.17Berman then suggests that the Egyptian literary tradition may have become disseminated into the poetics of Biblical narrative, and goes on to examine the Exodus 13:17–15:19 sea account in light of this. Having demonstrated that the Exodus sea account – which comprises prose and lyric – shows some affinities with the Kadesh inscriptions, Berman argues that the doublets and inconsistencies existing in the prose account of the sea account are not necessarily indications of composite composition in the form of a priestly and a non-priestly source. Berman reaches this conclusion on the basis of the inconsistencies found in the Kadesh inscriptions.18Similarly, Berman holds that the abundant dissimilarities between the prose and lyric accounts of the sea event should be understood in the same way. That is, the accounts are complementary, each of them approaching the same event from a different narratological perspective.19 All of this does not prove, however, that the Exodus sea account stems from a single author. In other words, the biblical scribal milieu need not follow the literary phenomena found in the Near Eastern literature, and even if it generally does, it may not do so on this occasion: it is equally conceivable that they each follow different conventions, or that they sometimes diverge. Berman is well aware of this issue: the empirical evidence ‘should, at the very least, place a check on the confidence that a modern exegete can have when approaching the biblical text and encountering literary phenomena that seem inconsistent’.20One could also apply a similar logic to the inconsistencies in Qurʾānic narratives. In particular, I would like to propose that the existence of fissures in Qurʾānic narratives does not prove a composite authorship of the Qurʾān, nor is it evidence that the Qurʾān was redacted over an extended period of time. When the Qurʾān is situated within its Near Eastern context, and understood against the Biblical back drop, then applying Berman’s empirical findings to the Qurʾān does not seem unwarranted: if the presence of variant traditions attributed to a single author could be comfortably accommodated in Near Eastern and Biblical literature, there is no reason why the same cannot be sustained with regards to the Qurʾān. This, in turn, would lend more weight to the standard narratives of the composition of the Qurʾān. Moreover, the discussion has implications on the qirāʾāt (variant readings): one is tempted to argue that empirical evidence from the Near East could be adduced to make a case that some of the qirāʾāt were given by the Prophet himself. In other words, it indicates that it was not uncommon for a single author to produce a text with variants in the Qurʾānic milieu, the ancient Near East. At the very least, I hope this shows that the possibility of the Qurʾān not being a Gemeindeproduckt is worthy of much further consideration.3.2Evidence from Pre-Islamic PoetryOf closer proximity and greater relevance to the Qurʾān is pre-Islamic poetry. On this basis I will now transition from the broader crucible of the Qurʾān, the Near East, into pre-Islamic poetry in an attempt to make a similar argument as above; namely, that it is not uncommon, in pre-Islamic literary conventions, for a single author to produce different versions of the same literary work. In particular, I will be asking the following question, and then commenting on what it means for our understanding of the variant traditions hypothesis: given that the existence of variants in pre-Islamic Arabic poems is common,21 could the variants of a given qaṣīdah be attributed to its author? In other words, could we envisage the same poet authoring different versions of the same poem?In this connection, Schoeler advanced three possible reasons for the existence of variants in Arabic poetry; one of which is the poet, the author, himself.22 Along the same lines, and in his analysis of ʿAlqamah’s poem in which he petitions for the release of his brother, Montgomery registers the different versions of the poem. He then submits that they ‘do not suggest a defective tradition or a copyist’s corruptions’ and provides three possible explanations to account for this phenomenon. What is important, for the point I am arguing for, is his first explanation: that the variants ‘represent various versions composed by the poet, either in his attempts to strike the right balance, or as variations on a theme’.23 Although Montgomery does not hold this explanation to be the most plausible in ʿAlqamah’s case – for he argues, rather, that the variants represent later attempts by editors to produce a coherent version –, he does, in another study, give an example of a variant composed by the original author. That is, he looks at two poems that resemble each other closely, one originally attributed to Imruʾ al-Qays and the other one attributed to ʿAlqamah, and then argues that both poems ‘should be treated as oral versions of the same poem’, of which Imruʾ al-Qays is ‘the best attested composer’.24 The upshot is that we can imagine different renditions of the same poem produced by a single author.On this topic, Bateson summarizes the process of composition of pre-Islamic poetry, underscoring the possibility of changes being conducted by the author: ‘When called upon to recite, the poet might recite whole odes in which the passages had been carefully united to form a totality, or he might improvise long stretches at the interstices of the original design, to suit a mood or an audience’. Note here her assertion that the poet may improvise parts of the original composition to cater for the audience; she is clearly underscoring the intentional nature of some of the author-composed variants. In supporting this point, she draws an analogy with modern jazz musicians. ‘At certain points’, she writes, ‘one player may genuinely improvise, playing something completely new or rephrasing an old interpretation to meet a particular mood’. It follows from this that the variant renditions of a qaṣīdah ‘reflect the fact that some fluidity was always retained and the poet felt at liberty to change or re-use lines’.25 To recapitulate, my aim is to show that it is possible to explain variants – though admittedly this might not be the best explanation – as representing cases where a single author consciously26 adapts and updates a poem during performance, due to the dictates of the context, and under the influence of the targeted audience. I would also go as far as to suggest that the existence of variants may be seen as an attempt by the originator of the composition to produce more than one original version of his work, that is, the variants are not merely the products of the natural conventions of orality, but of intentional authorship.However circumstantial, and acknowledging that the analogy I am drawing is not an exact one, this evidence from pre-Islamic poetry has implications for the variant traditions hypothesis. My argument runs as follows: the presence of variants is a common feature of both Qurʾānic narratives and pre-Islamic poetry. And one of the possible sources of variants in a pre-Islamic poem is the original author, either from memory fluctuations, or from intentional polishing and re-shaping during the performance of the ode. The latter possibility, the intentional variation, can be understood in one of two ways. First, as a process through which the poet arrives at the final edition, which could be described as the final original version. Alternatively, we could conceive of the poet as authorizing the different variants. It is on this latter hypothesis that my argument rests.Nonetheless, my conjecture is fraught with difficulties, and hence some measure of scepticism is warranted. For instance, it is uncertain whether the author of the qaṣīdah intended for the newer composition to be the final composition, or that he intended for all the different compositions to be equally authoritative. If we maintain the former, my argument falls because the variant Qurʾānic traditions do not abrogate each other – they are all recognized as Qurʾān. Thus, the analogy with pre-Islamic poetry will only work if we allow for the latter, seemingly weak, hypothesis – that the author of the ode intended for all the different versions to be in circulation as acceptable versions or, put differently, that he considered them all original versions. Admittedly, this is not strongly defensible but remains a valid possibility.3.3Corroboration through OralityIt also seems from Wansbrough’s treatment of Qurʾānic narratives that he perceived the repetitions as attesting to the variant traditions hypothesis.27 Perhaps this appeal to the source-critical approach – that is, attributing the repetitions in the narratives to different independent traditions – mirrors, to some extent, one of the aims of Biblical source critics: the production of independent texts ‘that would read cleanly, without the repetitions and doublets that seem to plague a synchronic reading’.28 This argument is built on a presumably implied premise that does not seem entirely defensible: that a single author is not likely to repeat his proclamations frequently. This is not necessarily the case. In particular, if we observe the orality of the Qurʾān – as Wansbrough himself accepts29 – an argument can be made that because such repetitions are typical of the oral style,30 the variant traditions hypothesis is not required. Essentially, we are moving from the acceptance of orality to its consequences: the bearing that orality has on the composition of a text.31 The argument could be spelled out as follows: variant narratives exist in the Qurʾān because it is inherently an oral text, a text that was performed differently at different times as the context required. Therefore, the reason for the inconsistencies in the narratives is not that they were separate logia, but rather because this is how an oral text works.Moreover, repeating the exact same narrative at each instance of retelling may reveal the aims of the author and the message he wants to relay. This process has been most helpfully described by Donner: ‘might such similar passages not just as cogently be viewed as transcripts of different oral recitations of the same story made in close succession, something like different recordings of a politician’s stump speech delivered numerous times over a few days or weeks?’ He further suggests that it can be applied to the Shuʿayb narratives.32 Bannister’s study of the oral-formulaic nature of the Qurʾān also attests to this: in an analysis of the variations that exist between some of the Moses-Pharaoh pericopes (such as Q. 7:103, Q. 10:75, and Q. 43:46), Bannister submits that these are examples of performance variants, that is, ‘a story that has been orally told on more than one occasion with minor variations, which were then reflected when the text was finally committed to writing’.33 Bannister suggests that the multiple retellings of the Ādam and Iblīs complex are also performance variants: ‘Arguably an oral approach to the Qur’an has the potential for being a much better model for explaining the nature of the Iblis and Adam tellings’.34This appeal to orality is not incompatible with the position conceding that the Prophet received divine revelations and did not alter them impromptu. In other words, accepting the oral nature of the Qurʾān does not entail ruling out the Qurʾān’s divine nature. I am unable to see a necessary tension between a text being performed orally on different occasions and it being of divine nature. Moreover, orality need not necessarily be equated with inexactitude – an oral tradition could be transmitted with accuracy and integrity with the aid of different control mechanisms.35There is yet another way to understand the orality of the Qurʾān. In advancing this, we can benefit from the cognate literature and apply an analogy from the Hebrew Bible to the Qurʾān, especially on the basis that orality has been better researched in Biblical studies.36 In her study of orality, and unconvinced by the documentary hypothesis of the emergence of Biblical literature, Niditch suggested four different models along the oral-written continuum through which we can understand the origin of the Bible and its formation. I would like to draw attention to the third model. It holds that the works of the Hebrew Bible ‘were composed in writing by authors who are fully conscious of and immersed in the oral culture’.37 Put differently, this models suggest that instead of maintaining that a work of the Hebrew Bible was ‘delivered orally in community settings’, the work could be said to have been written by an author ‘influenced by and immersed in the aesthetics of an oral world’: the work is, thus, ‘composed specifically for performance’.38 If we can use this model and apply it to the Qurʾān, it is not hard to allow for the possibility that the revelations to the Prophet were designed specifically for oral performance. That is, they were intended to be performed in an oral setting, and hence they were deliberately composed in a fashion that shows all the hallmarks of an oral tradition. To go back to Wansbrough’s example, the implication is that we have repetitions in the Shuʿayb narratives not because they were independent pericopes that were later collated by redactors, but rather because the Prophet advertently transmitted them in that particular way because oral tradition was the norm in the ancient Near East, and oral techniques were desirable in the ancient world as the works were primarily heard.Niditch’s models could be supplemented with additional Biblical literature arguing for the possibility that repetitions are deliberate. Licht, for instance, has posited, in his study of repetitions in Biblical stories, that repetitions influence the shape of Old Testament stories. In particular, he submitted that although repetitions are used in different ways, ‘their most direct effect is always a matter of simple sound manipulation’.39 He also pointed that repetitions are characteristic of ancient narratives possibly because ‘oral composition and transmission are greatly helped by regularly repeated elements’.40 More explicitly on the intentional nature of repetition, Whybray forwards that the connection between the variant versions of the same story may be purely literary, and that the different versions may be included for theological or artistic reasons.41 These considerations, given we appreciate the Qurʾān’s awareness of its time and place, provide further support for my claim that repetitions in the Qurʾān are intended per se.In summary, I submit that the existence of repetitions in Qurʾānic narratives should be considered in light of the Qurʾān’s own oral conventions: imposing anachronistic standards on its literary phenomena can be misleading. As Nöldeke warns us: ‘We are not at liberty therefore, in every case where the connection in the Koran is obscure, to say that it is really broken, and set it down as, the clumsy patchwork of a later hand’.423.4Interpretive BackreferencingIt is also tempting to utilise the notion of inner Qurʾānic interpretation in order to understand the discrepancies between the narrative units. At least broadly speaking, I find it not unreasonable to characterise the phenomenon of the variant traditions as a form of inner-Qurʾānic interpretation. Useful in this regard is one of Sinai’s analytic categories for inner-Qurʾānic interpretation: interpretive backreferencing. This applies to ‘cases in which a later Qur’ānic passage B modifies the meaning of some temporally antecedent passage A or a cluster of several such passages, with A and B occurring in independent Qur’ānic proclamations or sūras’.43 Consequently, we can perceive the variant traditions through the interpretive lens, especially since Sinai has argued that interpretive backreferencing is not uncommon in Qurʾānic narrative passages.44 For example, in his analysis of the different versions of the Ādam and Iblīs narrative, Sinai argues that ‘we may assume at least a substantial part of the addressees of a given text in the series to have been familiar with the texts preceding it, and that conspicuous overlaps between a later text and an earlier one could in principle constitute a case of deliberate allusion’.45 One of Sinai’s more specific findings is that the divergences between the version of the story in Q. 15 and the versions in Q. 38 and Q. 17 can be read ‘as having an interpretive significance’.46 The result of this is that the repetitions of narratives in different versions serve to clarify and elucidate earlier ones.47 In this light, we can understand the existence of variant traditions as a means of extending the range of interpretations. Likewise, Bodman notes this interpretive function in his study of the Iblīs narratives:[E]xamined narratologically, we do find that inclusions and omissions in various versions do expand the range of interpretation … The story is the same, but the version of the story is different and the location of the story within an extensive range of interpretation shifts with each version.484Illustrative CasesBy way of illustration, and to shed light on the relevance of the theory discussed above, it may be of interest to revisit some Qurʾānic narratives (including that of Shuʿayb) in which discrepancies exist and assess them in light of what I have established; namely, in terms of interpretive backreferencing as well the notion of sūrah holism (which is indicated by Stewart when speaks about the sūrah as a sermon).First of all, I would like to revisit the Shuʿayb narrative. A different approach to this narrative would be to invoke the lens of interpretive backreferencing. In other words, I will consider briefly the three Shuʿayb narratives studied by Wansbrough – al-Aʿrāf, Hūd and al-Shuʿarāʾ – and examine whether they can be seen to be engaged in interpretive backreferencing. One conjectural observation will suffice. Regarding the omission of the formula of commission in al-Shuʿarāʾ, it could be hypothesised that the audience were acquainted with the previous retellings (al-Aʿrāf, Hūd, or both) and were therefore able to fill this (minor) gap. That is, this particular element was missing as a consequence of the phenomenon of interpretive backreferencing. However, in order to make this argument, we must discern the chronology. Now, if we assume that the mean verse length of Qurʾānic sūrahs tended to increase over time, then this argument will be refuted. That is because according to Sinai’s figures, we obtain the following order: al-Shuʿarāʾ (with a mean verse length of 36.71), Hūd (96.18), and al-Aʿrāf (104.27).49 However, one means of avoiding this problem is to rely on some of the traditional chronological lists. According to one of the lists given in al-Itqān and attributed to Ibn ʿAbbās (d. 68/687), al-Aʿrāf was revealed before al-Shuʿarāʾ,50 thus allowing for the possibility that the latter was referring back to the former. Nonetheless, dating Qurʾānic proclamations involves an element of speculation.51A second example of interpretive backreferencing concerns Abraham’s reply to the messengers as presented in the following verses:They went in to see him and said, ‘Peace’. He said: ‘Peace, these people are strangers’ (Q. 51:25).When they came to him and said, ‘Peace’, he said, ‘We are afraid of you’ (Q. 15:52).To Abraham our messengers brought good news. They said, ‘Peace’. He answered, ‘Peace’, and without delay he brought in a roasted calf (Q. 11:69).The discrepancy here is between Q. 15:52 on the one hand and Q. 51:25 and Q. 11:69 on the other: did Abraham reply by saying ‘Peace’ or did he say ‘We are afraid of you’? Perhaps one way to answer this question is to apply the notion of interpretive backreferencing, at least broadly. Again, applying Sinai’s calculations in this case, we can order the verses as follows: Q. 51:25, Q. 15:52, and Q. 11:69.52 On this basis, it could be said that Q. 15:52, which did not mention ‘Peace’, was referring back to the previous proclamation, Q. 51:25. In other words, it might be a reasonable hypothesis to assume that the hearers of the Qurʾān detected no contradiction here as they were aware of the previous telling of the story. Put simply, they may have understood that Abraham did say both things, and they might not have had any issue with the fact that part of Abraham’s response was modified in Q. 15:52. Even a quick look at the exegetical tradition reveals that it was perfectly comfortable with these variant versions. For instance, Rāzī (d. 606/1210), in his commentary on Q. 15:52, did not raise the question although he acknowledged that the narrative is expanded in Q. 11.53 Ālūsī (d. 1270/1854), with his usual exegetical sensitivity, noticed the tension and responded by advancing the view that the greeting was omitted in this pericope as it occurred elsewhere – clearly pointing to Q. 51 and Q. 11.54 Ibn ʿĀshūr (d. 1973) avered to the fact that the greeting in Q. 15:52 was omitted as a matter of brevity, given that it is very clear (ījāzan li-ẓuhūrih).55 Perhaps one of the most explicit recognitions of interpretive backreferencing with regards to these verses was given by al-Kirmānī (d. 505/1111). He submitted that the greeting was omitted in Q. 15:52 because Q. 15 was a later proclamation (li-anna hādhihi s-sūrata mutʾakhkhirah), that relied on the expanded version in Q. 11. That is, the greeting was already indicated in Q. 11, and thus it was not necessary to repeat it again.56 The issue with this theorizing, however, is that it seems that al-Kirmānī was following the final canonical ordering of the muṣḥaf, not the order of revelation. Nonetheless, this evidence indicates a recognition in the tradition of some form of conscious interpretativen Rückbezüge.My third and fourth examples are intended to show how the variant traditions highlight features of the general macroform in which they occur. Thus, they are both founded upon the notion of sūrah holism. I begin with the narrative of Lot. The Qurʾān presents the encounter of Lot with his people in a number of sūrahs, with various discrepancies. I will, however, focus on two particular verses within two sūrahs: Q. 7:81 and Q. 27:55. In these almost identical verses, near-doublets,57 Lot describes his people in the former as being transgressors (musrifūn), whereas he describes them in the latter as having ignorance (tajhalūn). The question is this: does the existence of this discrepancy support Wansbrough’s hypothesis, or is there another possible explanation? I would lean towards the latter option: we can consider the two sūrahs in which the narratives appear to be sermons, each of which has its unique purposes and themes. In other words, the choice of words is a consequence of the location of the verses within the general macroform. Taking this further, I would like to put forward the following conjecture. The use of musrifūn in Q. 7:81 is consistent with the theme of isrāf, extravagance, mentioned in the same sūrah, Q. 7:31, ‘Children of Adam, dress well whenever you are at worship, and eat and drink [as We have permitted] but do not be extravagant: God does not like extravagant people (al-musrifīn)’. In a similar manner, the use of tajhalūn in Q. 27:55, the antithesis of knowledge, is adapted to underscore the recurring notion of knowledge in Q. 27: in Q. 27:15, ‘We gave knowledge to David and Solomon, and they both said, “Praise be to God, who has favoured us over many of His believing servants”’; in Q. 27:22, ‘I have learned something you did not know’, and in Q. 27:40, ‘but one of them who had some knowledge of the Scripture said, “I will bring it to you in the twinkling of an eye”’. Hence, the choice of words is reworked to highlight the particular emphasis of each sermon: the nuances send different signals.58Let us now turn to the narrative of Ṣāliḥ where I will be looking in particular at the punishment accounts of the story and attempt to provide an explanation for the formulaic variations therein. Similar to the Shuʿayb stories analysed by Wansbrough, the main occurrences of the Ṣāliḥ complex are in al-Aʿrāf, Hūd and al-Shuʿarāʾ. The punishment is described differently in the three sūrahs. Presented in the order of sūrah chronology discerned above, they are:So do not harm her, or the punishment of a terrible day will befall you (fa-yaʾkhudhakum ʿadhābu yawmin ʿaẓīm) (Q. 26:156).My people, this camel belongs to God, a sign for you, so leave it to pasture on God’s earth and do not harm it, or you will soon be punished (fa-yaʾkhudhakum ʿadhābun qarīb)’ (Q. 11:64).To the people of Thamūd We sent their brother, Ṣāliḥ. He said, ‘My people, serve God: you have no god other than Him. A clear sign has come to you now from your Lord: this is God’s she-camel – a sign for you – so let her graze in God’s land and do not harm her in any way, or you will be struck by a painful torment’ (fa-yaʾkhudhakum ʿadhābun alīm) (Q. 7:73).Again, the very idea of sūrah holism underpins my analysis. In explaining the variants, use will be made of the context and macroform. In Q. 21:156, ‘or the punishment of a terrible day will befall you’, the choice of the term ‘day’ (yawm) could be attributed to the fact that in the immediate vicinity, Q. 21:155, the word ‘day’ is used: ‘He said, “Here is a camel. She should have her turn to drink and so should you, each on a specified day”’.59 The case could perhaps be strengthened by observing that in the same sūrah two additional occurrences of the phrase (yawmin ʿaẓīm) are found, making them three in total (Q. 21:135; 21:156; 21:189). Thus, it was apposite to use the phrase ‘day’ to maintain consistency across the sūrah. Next, how are we to explain Q. 11:64 where the punishment is described as impending? The answer seems to be found in the verse that follows it, Q. 11:65, ‘But they hamstrung it, so he said, “Enjoy life for another three days”’. It follows that the stipulation of a ‘waiting period’ makes it apt to describe the punishment as ‘impending’ in the preceding verse.60 Unlike the previous ones, the case of al-Aʿrāf is much more difficult, and I cannot muster an indefeasible explanation as to why a ‘painful torment’ (ʿadhābun alīm) is chosen in this particular verse, Q. 7:73. Yet, and with all its shortcomings, this example indicates that there are prospects for explaining at least two of the three punishment accounts of the Ṣāliḥ narrative against the backdrop of the sūrah and the immediate context.5ConclusionMy aim here was to examine Wansbrough’s variant traditions hypothesis, and to offer alternative ways for viewing the variant traditions. Following the presentation of Stewart’s convincing criticism, I have attempted to contest the theory at four different, although interrelated, levels. For starters, I submitted that because the occurrence of variant versions of the same tale through the commission of the same author is not uncommon in Near Eastern literature, the variant traditions of the Qurʾān do not necessarily suggest that the Qurʾān was a project executed by more than one person. In other words, the existence of different versions of the same story is not a sufficient condition in itself to confirm Wansbrough’s hypothesis, if we were to factor the Near Eastern rhetorical convention into our studies of the Qurʾān. Secondly, I used evidence from pre-Islamic poetry – to the effect that a single author might produce variant editions of the same work – in order to militate against the hypothesis that variants are indicative of multiple authorship. My third contention was that the orality of the Qurʾān appears to provide a promising approach to questioning Wansbrough’s hypothesis. That is, it could be submitted that orality could be adduced to explain the differences between the parallel versions and perhaps answer the question of why the Qurʾān chooses to present a narrative differently each time. The discrepancies were shaped by the dictates of the oral context: such differences should, therefore, be viewed as natural, required and intended. Fourth, I attempted to demonstrate that the differences between the narratives could be understood in light of the concept of interpretive backreferencing: the reason why some narratival elements were modified or omitted is that the text was relying on the familiarity of the recipients with the previous versions. Next, I presented some cases from the Qurʾān to illustrate my argument. This analysis, in turn, shows that there are other ways to approach the variant traditions beyond some of the revisionist tendencies.

Journal

Al-Bayan: Journal of Qur’an and Hadith StudiesBrill

Published: Dec 5, 2022

There are no references for this article.