Book Review: “Textual Criticism and Qur’an Manuscripts” by Keith E. Small

A popular talking point between Muslims and Christians is the very different nature of the history of their sacred text verses ours (which from my vantage means Quranic textual history vs. New Testament textual history). The Christian canon weathers rigorous academic criticism that batters and breaks the faith of many Christians who want to feel certain of a scripture untouched by human hands. And because The West is broadly post-Christian, there is a lot of interest, history, and groundwork in textual criticism with which to challenge and test Christian self-narratives that might’ve otherwise gone untested. Many Muslims on the internet are delighted to walk into this post-Christian territory and find that the work of challenging Christian scripture is already well-worked and popularized in our culture.

But what happens when those tools so well sharpened on Christian manuscripts get turned to the Quran? Enter Textual Criticism and Qur’an Manuscripts by Keith E. Small. My review in short: a very interesting exercise in manuscript academia, but too reliant on other resources to be useful to non-academics.

The State of Quranic Criticism

So one might wonder that if The West has turned to examine with cold scrutiny its Christian heritage and particularly the canonical scripture of that heritage, has the Islamic world done the same to its own? Keith Small opens his book with a general summary as to the state of Quranic textual criticism (which in academia refers to investigation of a text, not nit-picking or looking for unfavorable aspects). He depicts that historically the Quran had come under more frank and speculative questions by Islamic scholars than has been true in recent centuries. However, Textual Criticism and Qur’an Manuscripts is not a history book and is not about the history of Quranic scholarship at heart, so there’s not much direct information given on this topic. The focus of this book is attempting to set the stage for developing a “critical text” of the Quran. A “critical text” is a scholarly reconstruction of any document for which we do not have the original. Musicians might liken this to our “urtext” editions of sheet music, which attempt to dictate only the original composer’s work and intention (which can be difficult, in that composers’ intentions often mutated as their own style changed through their career). But while an urtext would be an edition derived from direct data from original resources, a critical text has to work more indirectly and construct a reasonable, educated guess at the original. It is reliant upon comparing and contrasting early dated manuscripts and the testimonies of early witnesses to the content and nature of those manuscripts.

This preference for the earliest text and evidence possible is something honed in Western manuscript scholarship, but not something present in Quranic scholarship within the Islamic community. Generally, Quran scholars take as an axiom that the modern Quran is exactly in its urtext form, and so seeking out early evidence is assumed redundant. As such, the process of collecting early editions of the Quran and comparing/contrasting their content is fairly absent from Islamic literature. Something that Small assumes you know, but that the average person may not, is that the modern mainstream Quran (in the Arabic, mind you, and not a translation) is an edition approved and mass-produced by the Kingdom of Egypt in 1924. This popularized one variant of the Quran, the Hafs qira’aat, over other varieties much as the KJV did for the English Bible. There are still multiple qira’aat, “readings,” of the Quran in existence, most notably the Warsh ‘an-Naafi’ variant. These variants have also been given a narrative of immutability, though the desire to preserve them all is not equal and many have been lost in favor of the Hafs. These variants are not wildly different from the Hafs, but they are still different and have not been invalidated by Islamic methods of evaluating transmission.

So Western academia is breaking into largely unexplored ground in applying textual criticism to the Quran. As such, Small lays out some of the current obstacles:

  • Limited early manuscripts in existence
  • Limited availability of manuscripts to Western academia
  • Limited contextual resources contemporary to early Quran

I appreciated that Small mentioned the lack of availability of materials to Western academia, because this is something I think it is important for us English-speakers to remember. English is the predominant language of the internet, and if you are an English speaker perhaps you have come to assume that any knowledge you want is out there in a form you can understand. But as it happens, there is still a lot of civilization and knowledge not available in English, or French, or German, or Russian, or any of the mainstream academic languages. In recognizing that English is not in fact omniscient, there is hope that knowledge might still exist out there in other languages to incorporate. We don’t have access to it yet, but might some day. It could be that this knowledge is still being preserved in some private quarter, or protected by some gatekeepers who don’t trust us yet but might in future times be willing to collaborate. So while Small notes that there aren’t many resources to draw from, there is hope that more resources will be added to the picture later.

I am a little saddened to see confirmed again how little Arabic material we have contemporary to the Quran and beginning of Islam. “Contextual resources” would be other books, writings, or cultural artifacts that would give us insight into aspects of the Quran like pronunciation, idioms, and what was assumed “normative” in the culture the Quran arrived into. So for example, in the New Testament we have preserved many letters of correspondence. Because those letters date from a time wherein we have many other letters written in the same Greek language, we can see how their forms match and whether the author was sparse or flourishy in his language compared to the broader culture. We can identify quirks and anachronisms more easily with that broader comparative material, and potentially confirm matters of how a word was pronounced or where an idiom came from. Those sorts of resources did not begin to be compiled until a century after Muhammad’s death, and the work was begun in part when people started to notice their culture changing and those original contexts being lost.

Anyhow, since this field of textual criticism is still fairly new, Small forgoes trying to develop a critical text of the Quran in order to start exploring how viable current methodology would be to create such a text. I pinpointed this sentence to be Small’s thesis statement for the book:

This book seeks to contribute to this preliminary work by exploring what can be achieved through a careful collation of textual variants from extant manuscripts and early Islamic literature and using them to address questions of textual origins and history for the Qur’ān.

Small, Keith E.. Textual Criticism and Qur’an Manuscripts . Lexington Books. Kindle Edition.

Insomuch as he adheres to this thesis statement, I think that Kieth Small’s work is brilliant. Most of this book was fascinating and transparent to the reader, with sources so direct he literally shares pictures of extant manuscripts with you to see for yourself. Access to first-hand resources is something I demand from an academic work like this, and Small delivered beautifully. To keep his scope manageable, Small selected to only apply his methodology to a small segment of the Quran: Surah 14, “Ibrahim,” ayat 35-41.

Meticulous Inventory

Small starts strong by meticulously describing 20 different manuscript folios dated to the first four centuries of Islam, and then also two from the medieval era for the sake of comparing early details to later times when more standards had been established. All of these folios contain the relevant passage, though Small doesn’t always explain whether the folios are from complete Qurans or only fragments. Things to take note of were different systems for differentiating similar-looking letters, the number and placement of ayah markers (so it seems they were not built into the original Quran), and the type of script being used. After talking through each manuscript, Small creates a convenient table with the names, eras, and basic features of each manuscript, which I found important to bookmark so that I could flip back to it continually. Given that most of the manuscript names follow the form of “BNF 330a” or some other abstract combination, I really needed a handy reference to pinpoint the date and detail of a folio when the book started comparing and contrasting.

Most of Small’s work in this book involved documenting and sorting variants in his manuscripts. Critical to this process was some explanation of the development of the Arabic writing system. Arab culture was oral, and as such its writing system was incomplete and “defective.” The written text was more a memory aid for information you already knew, rather than a transmitter of new information. Modern Arabic is still mostly written without vowels, bt f yu knw th lnguag ths snt rlly a prblm. (But if you are teaching yourself the language this is a major roadblock!) Early Arabic, however, didn’t even go so far as to differentiate many of its consonants. This is a problem when all your present tense verbs have pronoun-communicating prefixes, and when those prefixes usually are either تـ, يـ, or نـ, which in early Qurans all were written without any dots and thus looked uniformly like ىـ. Even the writing of long vowels, which are written with the consonants, wasn’t standardized, which leads to variations in the written texts that may not reflect the actual pronunciation of the oral performance. But again, this script served primarily to support an oral culture, and it wasn’t until memories started failing and consonants started shifting that the writing system started to be modified for phonetic precision and clarity. By noting where markings were added to manuscripts, Small is able to deduce when a teacher needed to prevent variation in someone’s oral recitation of the Quran, and this becomes even more meaningful when what they wrote in itself varies from what is considered the proper standard.

Small’s first work is classifying the variants, thereupon he turns to reasoning out explanations for them. This kind of work is largely one of guessing plausible motivations. Because Small has given readers so much information about the manuscripts he’s evaluating, you can follow along and evaluate the fairness of his reasoning with him. I for one found his conclusions on these items to be very fair. His analyses are clearly presented, though you will need basic knowledge of Arabic to get the best experience. Those who want some shocking reveal of corrupted meanings and mangled transmission will be disappointed. The manuscripts might have variations, but many are explainable in terms of the nebulous writing system, copyist errors, or regional pronunciations. Those things that are more deliberately different are still of minor theological importance. From this Small demonstrates that while the oral tradition may have held more variety than is commonly claimed, it was leashed to an early-set, mostly standardized written skeleton that only allowed a very small range of divergence, and that the writing system developed over time in order to better pin down the oral tradition.

Having an inventory of variants available, Small is then able to test historical witnesses who reported variants in order to see if some of their claims were represented within his inventory. And there were some, despite the smallness of the excerpt on which he conducted his study, which bodes well to being able to use historical resources to trace transmission of the Quran. It turns out that in early and medieval Islamic literature there is mention of quite a range of variation in the Quran’s transmission, though some of these reports are questionable for reasons that Small doesn’t explain (he relies on another resource to establish that fact).

Bigger Statements

From what I saw in the manuscript analyses, there wasn’t much to mark this book as “controversial,” as the back cover excerpt promotes this book to be. Indeed, I was led to this book by an ex-Muslim on Reddit who promoted this book to me as one of a few that opened his eyes to the fallibility of the Quran (I passed over the other two he recommended as polemics). But this book confirms that the Quran must have had a definitive form established at an early date, even if that form was written in defective text and thus didn’t solidify explicitly one standard of recitation. One of the key things Islamic tradition builds upon is that the Quran was collected into an authorized standard and preserved at an early date, which this book confirms. To lean on this book to make big sweeping claims of mishandling or errancy in the Quran’s preservation is rather a case of making mountains of molehills.

But, if your personal faith is built on the promise that there are no molehills to look at, then I can see how this inventory and analysis of discrepancies would feel controversial. At the least to me, it suggested that the Arabic oral tradition wasn’t so perfectly reliable as gets claimed, and that even a defectively lettered text was critical in holding oral transmission to account. Indeed, one can see that the script had to be developed and made more precise specifically because the oral tradition was not perfectly reliable. Since much of Islamic culture depends upon the belief that generations-old oral transmissions were as reliable as written ones, then any evidence that the orality of even the most important document to their beliefs had to be corrected and dictated by the written word could be threatening.

Small does make much bigger and more controversial claims in this book. He is confident that our small inventory of surviving ancient Qurans, and their low margin of variation to each other, is evidence that versions with much bigger variation were suppressed. There is plenty of speculative room for this idea, but I came away unconvinced. It’s not that I doubt it, insomuch that this conclusion reached for data outside this book’s scope. This idea needs to be tested by much bigger studies that examine a broader range of the Quran’s content, and moreover more Qurans from a broader geographic area, to strengthen understandings of the level of divergence and standardization across the Islamic Empire. A survey of what sources testify to varieties of the Quran, their motives, and their timelines and geographic placement is also important to gauge how much variety plausibly existed, though absent from the extant manuscripts. It would also be interesting to know more about the quantity of extant Qurans available, plot those on a timeline and map, and compare those to biblical literature. For the first three hundred years of Christianity, Christian sacred literature was suppressed, but then flourished once it gained state sponsorship. Islam arose as a ruling state, albeit a new one that was having to invent its own new culture and institutions, but does its trail of Qurans look like one of a suppressed literature or one enjoying state sponsorship? Though the question of suppression is outside the scope of Textual Criticism‘s project, it is very relevant to Small’s thesis. He set out to demonstrate that current Western methods of textual discernment could be used upon Quranic manuscripts, and to gauge whether this kind of work could be used to develop a speculative approximation of the original text. However, if the oldest Quran manuscripts we have extant only came to us through a millennium of filtration by those protecting their version of orthodoxy, then any critical text developed from these documents would not really represent the Quran’s original form but rather the lowest common denominator of those generations’ notions of what people thought the Quran should be.

The reason that I found Small’s conclusions about this censorship unsatisfying was not that they were implausible or irrelevant to his thesis, but that they were based on resources outside this book that I had no experience with. His citations did not include summaries of their arguments or explanations of their scope (but I was able to recognize and evaluate a citation of Hoyland’s Seeing Islam as Others Saw It!). If you were entrenched in this field of academia, then you would probably know these arguments and be better positioned to know whether you agreed or disagreed with Small’s position. One body of evidence that was mentioned multiple times were documents called “palimpsests,” which are essentially pages whose original text had been removed so that the base material could be recycled. It’s like erasing the pencil writing from a paper so that you can write over it; some evidence of what was originally written still remains. Apparently there are a number of Quranic palimpsests wherein you can find greater variants of the Quranic text, and that they were scrapped for recycling demonstrates that such variation was not tolerated. However, those palimpsests are not examined in this study and you have to go to other works by other authors to get the data. If you come into this book with a wider background in the subject, then maybe you could feel more comfortable with the credibility of these claims.

My Takeaway

This book was a long read, mostly because much of what you are reading are minute entries that in this manuscript on that line in that word this letter was added for what we carefully guess was this purpose. That’s a lot of minutiae, but that is also exactly what you are buying.

You can’t say this title lied to you.

But in truth I enjoyed reading this book. It’s like being on an archaeological dig, but in the comfort of your home with a cup of tea. This is a book that takes you into the tiny details, and I’d say Small does marvelously well with his work. I will follow up on some of the authors and arguments he depended upon to draw his conclusions about the Quran’s censorship, and hope that he (as a relatively young and new person in this field) can make great headway in fleshing out the history of the Quran’s transmission to our body of knowledge in English.

And if my review doesn’t satisfy you, you can also read the Wikipedia page on the book, which goes more into the book’s structure and presents the opinions of actual professionals in the field whose words should mean more than mine.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: “Textual Criticism and Qur’an Manuscripts” by Keith E. Small

  1. Hey there,

    Another great article! I just want to add that I have been following along with your Quranic series and I have enjoyed it very much. Keep up with the great work, I really appreciate your insights into the text, its Arabic etymology and also its history. Best.


      1. Yes definitely. I studied history at university and I find the milieu of Late Antiquity, in which the Quran was written, to be a very interesting period of history with all the confluence of empires, religions, sects and tradig. So following along with your insights has been very illuminating.


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