Evolution of the Early Qur’ān

From Anonymous Apocalypse to Charismatic Prophet

by Daniel Beck (Author)
©2018 Monographs XXVIII, 386 Pages
Series: Apocalypticism, Volume 2


Critical scholarship on the Qur’ān and early Islam has neglected the enigmatic earliest surahs. Advocating a more evolutionary analytical method, this book argues that the basal surahs are logical, clear, and intelligible compositions. The analysis systematically elucidates the apocalyptic context of the Qur’ān’s most archaic layers. Decisive new explanations are given for classic problems such as what the surah of the elephant means, why an anonymous man is said to frown and turn away from a blind man, why the prophet is summoned as one who wraps or cloaks himself, and what the surah of the qadr refers to.
Grounded in contemporary context, the analysis avoids reducing these innovative recitations to Islamic, Jewish, or Christian models. By capitalizing on recent advances in fields such as Arabian epigraphy, historical linguistics, Manichaean studies, and Sasanian history, a very different picture of the early quranic milieu emerges. This picture challenges prevailing critical and traditional models alike. Against the view that quranic revelation was a protracted process, the analysis suggests a more compressed timeframe, in which Mecca played relatively little role. The analysis further demonstrates that the earliest surahs were already intimately connected to the progression of the era’s cataclysmic Byzantine-Sasanian war. All scholars interested in the Qur’ān, early Islam, late antique history, and the apocalyptic genre will be interested in the book’s dynamic new approach to resolving intractable problems in these areas.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Notes
  • References
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1: Maccabees Not Mecca: The Biblical Subtext and the Apocalyptic Context of Sūrat al-Fīl (Q 105)
  • Text and Translation of Sūrat al-Fīl
  • The Traditional Islamic Context of Sūrat al-Fīl
  • Problems with the Traditional Islamic Context of Sūrat al-Fīl
  • The “Maccabees” Books of Late Antiquity
  • 2 Maccabees—Divine Intervention Rescues the Jews of Jerusalem from Annihilation by Seleucid War Elephants
  • 3 Maccabees—Divine Intervention Rescues the Egyptian Jews from Annihilation by Ptolemaic War Elephants
  • The Maccabean Subtext of Sūrat al-Fīl
  • Clay Balls from Small Birds—Or Stones Inscribed with the Lord’s Decrees of Judgment and Delivered by His Ominous Messengers?
  • Suppression of the Cosmic Angelology of Archaic Surahs
  • The Quranic ṭyr as Birds, Fates, and Stars
  • Ṭayran ’abābīla Sent by the Lord to Carry Devouring Judgment to the Wicked
  • The Maccabean Repetition of Q 105—An Apocalyptic Anti-Sasanian Reminder
  • Reading Early Surahs as Apocalyptic Warnings of Imminent Anti-Sasanian Judgment
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 2: Al-ṣamad of Sūrat Al-Iḫlāṣ (Q 112)
  • Text and Translation of Sūrat al-Iḫlāṣ
  • The Scholarly Dispute over Al-Ṣamad
  • Problems with a ‘Pure Arabic’ Interpretation of Al-Ṣamad
  • Two Early Greek Translations of Ṣamad— Rare Greek Terms that Follow the Syriac Sense of ‘Joined Together into a Unity’
  • The Message of Q 112 and the Problems of Prophetic Creationism
  • Interpreting Q 112 in a Context of Generalized Soteriological Innovation
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 3: On the Genealogy of the Rasūl Function: From Eschatological Descent of the Astral Messenger to the Devotional Ascent of the Earthly Messenger
  • Basic Monotheisms of Late Antiquity and the Quranic Progression towards Stricter Monotheism
  • The Revelation Theology of Early Syriac Christianity—The One God Who Reveals Himself as Many Forms in Our Lower World
  • God’s Rūḥ in the Qur’ān—A Descending Entity that Confers the Lord’s Authority on his Human Servant in Connection with an ’Amr
  • Quranic Revelation Theology: An Intensifying Conflict over Revelatory Authority
  • Evolution of the Messenger Function—From Anonymous Angelic Apocalypse to a Charismatic Human Prophet with Messianic Authority
  • Q 86 and the Piercing Star that Forges the Cosmic Path
  • Q 81 and God’s Astral The Cosmic Messenger
  • Q 53—Two Theophanic Descents of the Lord to his Apostolic Slave
  • Q 73 and 74—The Human Rasūl, Wrapped in Divinizing Ethical Purity, Stands into his Lord’s Presence
  • Q 69:40—The Word of the Noble Rasūl, Not the Speech of a Human Poet or Priest, but the Noble Rasūl Is Implicitly the Human Servant
  • Q 68—The Human Servant Is a Great Creation, Opposed by Those Who Compromise the Truth Because of Their Worldly Ambition
  • Q 17:79−81—A Human Rasūl Hopes to Assume his Maḥmūd Position Near the Lord, When He Will Stand into Sacred Space and Return as a Prophet with a Spirit of Messianic Authority
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 4: Sūrat Al-Qadr (Q 97): Celebrating the Celestial Savior’s Descent and Refuting Christian Communal Ritual
  • Text and Translation of Sūrat al-Qadr
  • The Scholarly Dispute about Sūrat al-Qadr
  • Two Manichaean Jesuses: Jesus the Luminous (Nocturnal Savior of Mankind) and the Historical Jesus of Nazareth (A Prior Prophet, Lesser than Mani)
  • Analysis of Sūrat al-Qadr
  • The Manichaean Bēma Vigil—Like Christmas, but with More Mani
  • The ‘Second Meccan’ Assertion of a Charismatic Human Rasūl Who Receives Quranic Revelation and a Spirit of Authority by his Devotional Ascent, Suppressing the Descending Astral Rasūl
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 5: Opening and Pouring-Out the Warner: Sūrat al-Šarḥ (Q 94) and the Construction of Quranic Prophetology
  • Text and Translation of Sūrat al-Šarḥ
  • Islamic Exegesis of Sūrat al-Šarḥ
  • Modern Scholarship on Q 94—Birkeland and The Lord Guideth
  • Analysis of Q 94:1−4—The Dual Character of the Warner’s Prophetic Gifts
  • Analysis of Q 94:5–8—God’s Servant Purifies his Self by Sacrificing his Worldly Desires, in Complete Obedience to the Lord’s Command, Which Enables Him to Stand Before his Lord with Single-Minded Love
  • The Basal Quranic Replacement of Prophetic Personality with Legitimation by a Messenger’s Divine Speech
  • A Basal Soteriological Generalization of Late-Antique Monotheism—The Pre-Quranic Milieu (Non-Prophetic)
  • Secondary Innovation in Revelation Theology—Divine Speech (Anti-Prophetic)
  • Tertiary Introduction of Charismatic Prophetic Function (Neo-Prophetic)
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 6: A Servant Wrapped in Glory: The Counter-Baptism of Sūrat al-Muddaṯṯir and Sūrat al-Muzzammil (Q 73 and 74)
  • Text and Translation of Q 73:1–10 and Q 74:1–10
  • Traditional Islamic Exegesis of the Clothing Language of Q 73 and 74
  • Modern Scholarship Regarding the Clothing Language of Q 73 and 74
  • Syriac Christian Clothing Metaphors— Believers Become Divinized by Putting on the ‘Robe of Glory/Praise,’ Which Is Their Eschatological Garment
  • Putting on the ‘Robe of Glory’ by Ritual Baptism
  • Glorifying the Self and Keeping the Robe of Glory Pure by Ethical Righteousness
  • The Kenotic Encounter—The Elite Believer Enters his Lord’s Presence in Pre-Eschatological Time
  • The Basal Quranic Soteriology
  • Al-Muddattir and his Prophetic Commission (Q 74)
  • The Quranic Ruhbān—Monks or Bishops?
  • The Quranic Kāhin as Christian Priest and Polytheist Soothsayer
  • Al-Muzzammil and His Composition of the Quranic Verses (Q 73)
  • Notes
  • References
  • Postface—Chronology and Geography
  • Quranic Chronology
  • Quranic Sacred Geography
  • Notes
  • References
  • Works Cited
  • Index
  • Series index

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The earliest surahs of the Qur’ān, which can be roughly equated with the surahs that the influential scholar Theodor Nöldeke assigned to his ‘First Meccan’ period,1 are often the most fascinating. Their imagery is astonishing. In their concision and varied rhyme, they contrast with the sprawling ‘rhymed prose’ of the later corpus. Yet the earliest surahs also tend to be deeply enigmatic, permeated with difficult terms and vague references. Islamic tradition supplies a vast interpretive apparatus that explains the meaning of these recitations, generally by relating them to ‘occasions of revelation,’ ’asbāb al-nuzūl, in the prophet Muammad’s biographical narratives. As clarified by Islamic exegetical context, the archaic surahs were delivered in Mecca via a basal form of the prophetic mission that later reached its apex in the city of Medina (originally called Yarib), located in the iğāz region of the western Arabian peninsula, following Muammad’s hiğrah (emigration) from Mecca in 622 CE / AH 1.

The more closely one examines the earliest recitations, the less satisfying such traditional explanations become. Contradictions and puzzles appear at every turn. Many obscure terms and references receive so many varied explanations from the mufassirūn (Islamic exegetes) that it is difficult to avoid the impression of pious guesswork. The exegetical apparatus is so flexible, moreover, that it provides no determinate way to weigh competing theories. ← xiii | xiv → Indeterminacy reigns. Nowhere has this indeterminacy proven more intractable than in the earliest corpus.

This book attempts to direct incisive new analytical light upon the earliest surahs. It tackles their most intriguing interpretive problems, such as what the ‘surah of the elephant’ means (Q 105), why Allāh is called al-amad (Q 112), what the night of qadr was and how it related to Christmas (Q 97), why the quranic addressee is summoned to his prophetic vocation as one who ‘wraps/cloaks himself’ (Q 73:1 and Q 74:1), and similar classic enigmas. Each chapter analyzes a major textual problem in depth. That analysis will suggest new ways by which broader classes of interpretive problems in the quranic corpus can be resolved.

Modern scholars have long sought to resolve such problems by applying a more critical attitude within Islamic exegetical structures, an approach typified by Nöldeke and the renowned tradition of German-language quranic scholarship. Angelika Neuwirth and Nicolai Sinai are leading current representatives. Although often insightful when applied by a scholar of Sinai’s caliber, this approach suffers from the isolation imposed by its traditional framework, which largely precludes analyzing the texts with methods that are applied in comparable fields of religious studies. As Patricia Crone describes the parallel methodological problem for critical study of early Islamic history, “one can take the picture presented [by Islamic tradition] or one can leave it, but one cannot work with it.”2

To circumvent that problem, many scholars now approach quranic texts from outside Islamic tradition. The method typically proceeds by showing the tradition’s inability to adequately resolve a specific interpretive problem. A solution is then proposed based on extrinsic resources, usually textual (often biblical or para-biblical), linguistic (often Syriac), or historical (often non-Islamic). Gabriel Said Reynolds and Guillaume Dye are leading examples of the many scholars who have produced illuminating insights with such approaches. Like traditional Islamic exegesis, however, outside approaches also tend to suffer from indeterminacy. The lack of control structures allows interpretations to proliferate in unchecked abstraction. Even when influences are convincingly identified, the analysis is often unable to explain why the quranic expression has diverged in crucial respects relative to its putative influence.

Both inside and outside approaches tend to reduce the early corpus to presumptive support for broader theories about the aggregate corpus. For example, from an internal perspective, Q 97 appears to relate a proto-Islamic ritual that Muammad’s early followers celebrated (as Sinai suggests). From an external ← xiv | xv → perspective, Q 97 looks like an essentially Christian text that referred to Christmas night (as Dye suggests). Most readers, however, will find that the recitation seems to be arguing for something altogether different. Its essential function remains elusive. The interpretive gap, I suggest, results largely from analytical methods that are not designed to conceptualize the early corpus as a body of coherent arguments that evolved along fluid and contingent lines. Teleological mandates force the interpretation of archaic surahs into relic-Christian, relic-Jewish, or proto-Islamic frames. This reductivism masks their innovative elements, depriving them of autonomy relative to prior and later forms.

This book was developed from a series of essays that were designed, at their outset, to bridge the gap and better pursue theoretical adequacy relative to interpretive problems raised by the early corpus. From the hypothesis that significantly increased explanatory yields are possible—the postulate that early surahs were not nearly so opaque, within their original context, as modern scholarship implicitly regards them—a more evolutionary mode of analysis was formulated. The resulting interpretive method is cladistic, in the sense of organizing the quranic data into a logically-efficient genealogical structure. The early corpus is construed as a coherent structure of theology that was progressively differentiated relative to more general forms of Near Eastern theology. The approach seeks to precisely identify specific theological claims made by the recitations without reducing them to teleological adjuncts. Evolutionary analysis is employed, not in the sense of narrative biography, but as a logically-efficient structure of ordering contingent character state transformations relative to the textual data set.

The analytical method (1) construes the archaic recitations as a set of theological arguments and exhortations that were facially intelligible relative to major late-antique religious traditions, as opposed to requiring an apparatus of extrinsic prophetic biography to be rendered intelligible (I term this the ‘principle of facial intelligibility’); while (2) tracing ways in which the early corpus progressively innovates, as a chronological sequence, relative to those traditions. A relatively low degree of resolution in compositional chronology will be applied.3 I do not assume that more than a relatively rough sequence of transitions can be identified by formal criteria. Further, I do not exclude the possibility of compositional polygenesis, which complicates efforts to postulate a linear sequence. Since this book focuses on recitations falling in Nöldeke’s ‘First Meccan’ category, however, polygenesis is less concerning here. The relative compositional chronology that is employed will be similar to Nöldeke and Sinai’s respective chronologies, and should not be overly controversial. ← xv | xvi →

Technical interpretive problems are the primary resource that genealogical analysis requires to produce logically-determinate results. Although each chapter of this book nominally addresses a narrow textual problem, the supporting analysis will, in the aggregate, address most of the primary interpretive problems raised by the early corpus. By analyzing a broad variety of textual problems simultaneously within an integrated logical structure, parsimony can function as an effective control mechanism against pseudo-explanatory interpretive functions. Yet Quranic Studies typically avoids such integrated approaches. Candidly, scholars rarely expect the early recitations to be more than marginally intelligible. If certain core aspects of an archaic surah cannot be convincingly explained, it is tacitly assumed that they probably never made much sense to begin with, or else only their composer understood his intended reference. Common analytical wastebaskets include assigning serious textual problems to ecstatic speech, esoteric biographical references known only to their original audiences, Arabian poetic peculiarities, Arabic language exceptionalism, Bedouin culture, multiple authors, textual corruptions, unknown interpolations, orality, and so forth.

Such pseudo-explanatory devices will not be employed here (or, more accurately, I will work to minimize them). I will construe the archaic surahs as proclamations that were readily intelligible for late-antique Arabian audiences who were familiar with basic contemporary religious traditions, without requiring those audiences to have known an isolated Sitz im Leben context that has been lost to us. Their language must be explained by methods that would suffice in comparable fields of religious studies; invoking variants of ‘Arabian exceptionalism’ is not acceptable, unless their application to a particular problem is convincingly proven against a high evidentiary standard. I will generally follow Sinai’s principle of ‘default holism,’ meaning that claims of textual interpolation will require significant supporting evidence (typically a major shift in verse length, broken rhyme scheme, or similar indicia). At no point will I argue that the rasm, meaning the consonantal orthography of the Qur’ān prior to its disambiguation with diacritics and full vowelization, has been corrupted. In only a couple of instances, where I follow prior scholars and the evidence of misreading is exceptionally strong, will it be argued that Islamic tradition did not correctly disambiguate specific consonants from the rasm. Where text cannot be decisively explained, a convincing explanation for that interpretive deficiency will be expected. When that cannot be provided, it will be presumed that the proffered interpretative framework—whether traditional or modern—is itself defective, rather than declaring the text mysterious. Archaic surahs, in short, will be presumed fully intelligible and authentic. ← xvi | xvii →

This interpretive standard is demanding, while excluding many of the resources and arguments that, traditionally, would be used to effectuate the interpretive function. Anybody can pound their fist and insist that difficult problems must be rigorously resolved with reliable evidence—the hard part is doing that. With such a strict analytical approach, how can one produce convincing interpretations of early surahs?

That concern, I hope to show, rests on illusory foundations. As the mathematician David Hilbert proclaimed, “The very effort for rigor forces us to find out simpler methods of proof.” Once we are forced to proceed without wastebasket analytical devices, we are not limited by their cumulative deficiencies. True evolutionary analysis can exploit more varied evidentiary resources and angles of analytical attack. It becomes possible to leverage modern scholarship across a much wider variety of subject areas. It becomes possible to leverage determinate logical structures against much broader classes of textual problems. Surahs can be analyzed as texts that are amenable to the modes of analysis that are routinely employed in other fields of religious studies. Such normal analysis has spectacular advantages.

It permits normal readings of the texts.4 This book will advocate plain readings to an extent that readers may find surprising. Where Islamic exegetical tradition suggests a contrary reading, that suggestion will be considered, but a considerable burden of proof must be met for sustaining it. Where a plain reading of later chronological strata appears to conflict with a plain reading of earlier strata, it will be asked whether this disjunction does not reflect a genuine theological transition. As an example that indicates something of what I mean by ‘plain reading,’ I will occasionally ask the reader to consider how various quranic phrases would most likely have been understood by a contemporary Arabic speaker5 in al-īrah, the Transjordan, or Nağrān, who was not first instructed by an Islamicizing apparatus about what these phrases supposedly meant (e.g., what would late-antique Arabophone audiences normally identify as the ’ummah al-qurā, or as the ‘nineteen’ entities who preside over hellfire?). Alternatively, I will ask how we would normally understand the phrase or claim if it had been delivered by another Arabophone prophet shortly before Muammad’s own career (e.g. 600 CE), and was thus segregated from his Islam-specific biography. The logical efficiency of this insistently exoteric approach, it will be shown, accumulates across multiple problem classes. In most cases, it will be suggested that the exoteric meaning was the more basal meaning, while the esoteric Islamic reading is secondary, and was developed to help support emerging forms of Islamicizing theology and narrative. I will then trace how that development may have been implemented in the later ← xvii | xviii → corpus. I emphasize, of course, that such transitions were rarely simple or binary. As typical for evolutionary processes, exaptations—the non-teleological term used by modern evolutionary theory to identify what used to be called pre-adaptations—in the older recitations were frequently seized upon to help effectuate new theological functions.

Quranic texts can be, and should be, presumptively situated within a normal historical context. The primary vectors that facilitated afterlife-oriented innovations in pre-Islamic west Arabian religion were Judaism, anti-Chalcedonian Christianity, and Manichaeism. For centuries before Islam, anti-Chalcedonian Christianity and Manichaeism directed intensive missionary efforts at Arabophone populaces along the imperial periphery. I will argue that archaic surahs reflect a milieu that was already familiar with the fundamental theology and narratives from such traditions, but was not dominated by the authority of their formal ecclesiastical structures. By situating the texts, in the first instance, in contiguity with the dominant religious traditions in adjacent regions, a much broader range of evidence and argument can be considered. By proceeding without presumptive conformity to the isolating constructs of Islamic Heilsgeschichte, we can more directly compare the devotional language of archaic surahs to parallel transformation of the devotional language of pre-Islamic Ancient North Arabian epigraphy. We can connect the texts with how Arabian ‘polytheism’ had evolved more generally in the centuries prior to Islam.

Where I quote translations of the Qur’ān, I will use either the fine recent English translation by A.J. Droge or the classic German translation by Rudi Paret. Where different translations are used, including my own, these will be indicated, and reasons for the translation will be given. I will frequently transliterate the quranic rasm. Reflecting its continuing dependence upon Islamic tradition, the field of Quranic Studies still normally centers upon a Classical Arabic vocalization of the rasm. That practice effectively presumes an unbroken continuity between the oral compositions embodied in quranic orthography and their Islamic recitation and exegesis. Recently, however, many aspects of the Arabic language embodied in the quranic consonantal text, which I shall refer to as Quranic Arabic,6 have been decisively clarified by historical linguists like Ahmad Al-Jallad and Marijn van Putten.7 Quranic Arabic differed in significant respects from the Arabic language now used by Islamic recitation of the Qur’ān. For example, Quranic Arabic lacked nunation and short final case vowels in non-pausal contexts, which are not written in the rasm and were not originally recited either. Similarly, Quranic Arabic had lost the ← xviii | xix → glottal stop (hamzah) in all contexts except word-final -ā’. Although the rasm consistently reflects this loss in its internal rhyme scheme, Islamic tradition secondarily imposed the glottal stop throughout quranic recitation. Thus the word mūminūn, ‘believers,’ which is spelled mwmnwn in the rasm, is traditionally recited as mu’minūn. Marking is added to its initial long ū, written with w as a mater lectionis, to indicate that this orthography actually designates the recitation of a glottal stop combined with a short u. The difference is vaguely akin to reciting the written English phrase ‘you have’ as ‘thou hast.’ Such archaizing vocalization still conveys the written phrase’s meaning, certainly, but it may obscure the composition’s rhyme, and cannot be presumed accurate when analyzing the oral compositions that the rasm embodies.

Although my approach focuses on systematically resolving technical problems in interpreting the earliest surahs, readers may be interested in the broader picture of Islamic origins that the results imply. Before proceeding to the texts, which are the important part, I will briefly outline what readers might expect. The resulting broad picture is rather conventional in most respects, relative to recent critical scholarship. The early corpus is consistent with a Qurayš warner, likely from Mecca or its surroundings, making his hiğrah to Yarib around the year 622 CE, where as commander of the believers he died in 632, or at the latest 634/5. It is consistent with that warner composing the basal corpus himself, albeit allowing for some evident interpolations (e.g. Q 74:31, 73:20) that look inconsistent with single authorship. Further, the analysis confirms that the archaic corpus was always decisively distinct from Nicene Christian theology and ecclesiastical structures. Finally, the analysis suggests that the quranic corpus was developed earlier, and fossilized much more quickly into written texts, than many critical scholars have contended, particularly those influenced by John Wansbrough’s work.

Yet the analysis diverges from Islamic tradition on many key points. Most obviously, it supports the trend of modern scholarship to reject the traditional picture of an isolated prophet who disruptively preached a revealed monotheism to Meccan pagans. Claude Gilliot, for example, has discussed how quranic composition emerged within a highly-syncretistic milieu.8 The early recitations make fluid and innovative use of contemporary theological concepts. They cannot be understood as a static ‘relic’ theology, nor as a radical departure from pagan communal norms. The recitations effectively presume that their addressees are familiar with basic forms of Syrian and Mesopotamian theology. Those forms compose a shared ideological substrate that the recitations creatively innovate upon. ← xix | xx →

Modern scholars commonly observe that quranic composition must have taken place in a milieu that was significantly more Christianized than the Meccan milieu that Islamic tradition describes. The Qur’ān itself declares that the nearest group to the believers are those who say “We are naārā” (Q 5:82). There are consistent indications that early quranic theology was indeed, from a confessional perspective, closest to peripheral forms of anti-Chalcedonian Christianity, sometimes called Monophysite, Miaphysite, or Jacobite Christianity. Following the trend of specialist scholars, I will avoid using the latter three terms, which anachronistically imply that ‘Jacobite’ Christianity and its moderate Severan theology were orthodox, while all other anti-Chalcedonian factions were deviant heresies.9 Anti-Chalcedonian Christianity was the dominant pre-Islamic Christian tradition in northwest Arabia, South Arabia, and among the mobile and semi-mobile Arab tribes that surrounded the sedentary population of al-īrah.10 Yet the field of Qur’anic Studies has paid surprisingly little attention to the contiguities between quranic theology and peripheral forms of anti-Chalcedonian Christianity. The leading exception is John Bowman, who from genetic analysis concluded that “Muammad’s monotheism is derived from a Monophysite Syriac Christianity protesting against Orthodoxy.”11 ‘Derived’ is surely too strong, but basal quranic theology could be characterized as a ‘sister clade’ relative to 5th–6th century forms of anti-Chalcedonian Christianity. To be clear, the early corpus displays radical divergences relative to Nicene Christianity. Its theology rejects clerical authority, denies the soteriological efficacy of Christian sacrament, does not attribute unique soteriological significance to the human life of Jesus of Nazareth, and asserts novel structures of revelatory legitimation within a vernacular language. Quranic theology was a distinctive new clade at its outset, not a derivative form of Nicene Christianity. From a confessional perspective, however, early quranic theology emerged like a ‘corrected’ relative of anti-Chalcedonian Christianity, one purged of clerical errors and supported by a prophetic repetition.

This book’s analysis consistently indicates that the archaic surahs were continuous with Christian forms of anti-Sasanian historical apocalypse—they embedded general forms of apocalyptic expectation that emerged alongside the Byzantine-Sasanian war of 602–628 CE, which many believers shared across confessional boundaries. It will further be suggested that many, and in fact most, of the so-called ‘Meccan’ recitations were likely delivered in Yarib, post-hiğrah. The traditional presumption that each surah was composed to relate the warner’s near-contemporaneous revelatory experiences in a strict ← xx | xxi → linear sequence cannot be sustained. A simple example is Q 74, which Islamic tradition and Nöldeke both identify as the second surah to be revealed/composed, since it appears to relate the warner’s initial prophetic commission. That chronology is, from a phylogenetic perspective, implausible. Nicolai Sinai places Q 74 as the 29th surah in his chronology, categorizing it as part of his Gruppe IIIa, which is consistent with where I also assign its state of theological differentiation relative to earlier surahs. Reducing the early corpus to a presumptive adjunct of narrative prophetic biography, a unified sequence of ‘occasions of revelation,’ has obscured the prophetic typology and retrospective legitimating composition that so-called ‘Meccan’ surahs relentlessly employ—just as Islamic tradition’s success in articulating the concept of a unique Arabic Book given to the prophet Muammad has concealed the continuities between early quranic recitations and their contemporaneous forms of Christian and Manichaean historical apocalypse.

Many scholars have cited Manichaean influence on quranic prophetology. François de Blois argues that Manichaeans were present in Mecca, and that the Qurayš encountered Manichaeans when trading with al-īrah.12 This book will demonstrate, however, that the cosmology, eschatology, and prophetology of the earliest surahs is also congruent with Manichaean theology. More precisely, the early surahs diverge from Nicene Christianity by converging with the general concepts fundamental to what Ibn al-Nadīm later termed the “sects of the Chaldean dualists” in his Fihrist, Mesopotamian groups that persisted long into the Islamic era (and still persist in the case of the Mandaeans). John Reeves has recently championed the ‘Chaldean dualists’ taxon as a way to roughly identify a variety of Mesopotamian sects, ranging from the ‘Sābians’ of arrān in upper Mesopotamia, to the Manichaeans, to the baptist sects which clustered south of Seleucia-Ctesiphon.13 I will follow Reeves’ taxonomic lead in this book. Such sects typically relied upon biblical narratives and imagery, but were not governed by Nicene Christian or rabbinical orthodoxy. Reeves subdivides Chaldean dualist sects into ‘classical gnostic’ (Valentinian and/or Sethian) and ‘baptizing’ (Nasorean or so-called Sābian) categories. The prophet Mani himself was born into a baptist Elchasite sect located near Seleucia-Ctesiphon. After he received the second descent of a cosmic redeemer, his angelic twin, he left his community and founded an anti-baptismal sect centered upon his own charismatic authority, which as Manichaeism became the most successful Chaldean dualist sect. I will argue that an array of classic Chaldean dualist doctrines and imagery was employed within basal quranic theology, which displays a variety of generalized Mesopotamian structures. ← xxi | xxii →

The analysis indicates, moreover, that such Chaldean dualist elements were systematically suppressed and ‘corrected’ at a relatively early compositional juncture. This suppression begins in what Sinai classifies as ‘Gruppe IIIb’ of the frühmekkanische (early-Meccan) surahs, but it becomes insistent dogma with mittelmekkanische (middle-Meccan) surahs. It is probably not coincidence that this is also when rhetoric praising the South Arabian divine name Ramān and criticizing širk (‘associating,’ essentially a heresiological charge of polytheism) begins appearing in the corpus. What might be called a systematic de-peripheralization becomes evident at this juncture, suggesting a significant change of compositional context—despite Islamic tradition’s assurance that so-called ‘Meccan’ surahs were revealed over twelve years of relatively sedentary prophetic function in Mecca.

Finally, scholars like Stephen Shoemaker contend that Jerusalem was much more important for the early believers than Islamic narratives indicate. My analysis strongly supports that contention. But unlike prior scholarship, I will argue that the Sasanian capital of Seleucia-Ctesiphon (located near ancient Babylon, and usually called the “Two Cities” or “Cities” in Semitic languages of the era) also played a dominant role. Many abstract early quranic references, it will be asserted, are best understood in light of the era’s more general apocalyptic expectations regarding the transgressions of Khusrow II, the Sasanian King-of-kings, who in western Christian perception was the “destroyer of the world,” following in the footprints of his grandfather, Khusrow I, the nemesis of Syrian Christianity. When Khusrow II was killed by a coup in 628 CE, quranic theology shifted accordingly. A form of messianic expectation that centered on the Arabian prophet’s surging charismatic authority as commander of the believers was progressively written over theological structures that were initially much more contiguous with the generalized anti-Sasanian apocalyptic expectations of Levantine and west-Arabian Christianity. Hence this book’s subtitle: from anonymous apocalypse to charismatic prophet.

At the outset, I obviously do not want readers to form conclusions regarding any of the points listed above. They are just a preview of some major themes. I hope readers will challenge, explore, and revise the variety of arguments proposed in this book. Its ruling idea is that we can expect greater logical efficiency, consistency, and depth when interpreting the early corpus—and further, that we should consider whether the early corpus was much more directly connected with contemporary developments outside the iğāz than is usually thought. ← xxii | xxiii →

Some readers may be troubled by the application of such insistent demands for logical efficiency and coherence to a body of marvelous recitations that, after all, claims to be God’s own words, and which much of the world rightly treasures. This book’s analysis is, admittedly, not intended to further broader social goals, be they ecumenical or polemical. And it is not intended to guide or disrupt how believers understand their sacred book. Effectively resolving several classes of technical interpretive problems, not narrating Weltanschauung, is this book’s intended function.

But it would be a mistake to view the application of strict logical method to the early corpus as a destructive or unsympathetic endeavor, any more than the application of cladistic discipline to biological taxonomy is incompatible with appreciating the irreducible singularity of each living organism. The point of ascertaining precise relations to predecessor and subsequent forms is not to blur medial forms into a larger whole, or to reduce their value. It is the opposite: To apprehend a religious vision in its unique and inimitable intensity. To move beyond a tamed and static conception of the basal corpus.

I hope this book will be appreciated by those who, like me, not only feel a deep personal affiliation with the apocalyptic genre, but regard the Qur’ān’s earliest surahs as the most perfect and beautiful apocalyptic vision that Antiquity ever produced—a vision of such overwhelming power that a reader who has directly apprehended its imagery should be consistently awestruck.

Such apprehension requires vision, which logical precision can facilitate. As the great Austrian novelist Robert Musil observed, “We do not have too much intellect and too little soul, but too little precision in matters of the soul.”


1. The Qur’ān’s 114 surahs are traditionally divided into ‘Meccan’ and ‘Medinan’ periods, with the latter being attributed to the prophet’s life following his hiğrah from Mecca to Medina in 622 CE. In his influential chronology, Nöldeke further subdivided the ‘Meccan’ surahs into First, Second, and Third Meccan periods. Since Nöldeke’s quadripartite scheme is so well-known, I will frequently cite it as a rough chronological framework. The chronological progression proposed by Nicolai Sinai, however, is closer to the structure that I would advocate. For Sinai’s chronology, see http://corpuscoranicum.de/kommentar/uebersicht.

2. Patricia Crone, Slaves on Horses: The Evolution of the Islamic Polity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 4.

3. For the possibility and utility of diachronic analysis of the corpus, see Nicolai Sinai, Fortschreibung und Auslegung: Studien zur frühen Koraninterpretation (Wiesbaden: ← xxiii | xxiv → Harrassowitz, 2009); Nicolai Sinai, “The Qur’an as Process,” in The Qur’ān in Context: Historical and Literary Investigations into the Qur’ānic Milieu, eds. A. Neuwirth, N. Sinai, M. Marx (Leiden: Brill, 2010): 407–39.

4. In Islamic doctrine, the surahs are Allāh’s eternal uncreated words, as transmitted by the angel Ğibrīl, recited by Muammad, and accurately preserved by the seven orthodox recitation traditions. Those recitation traditions were secondarily embodied in the orthography of physical manuscripts, including the standard Cairo text that dominates today. For Islamic theology, the recitation traditions remain primary. I will follow the normal practice of religious studies, however, and treat the oldest attested forms of the Qur’ān, meaning the earliest manuscripts and more particularly the rasm (some modern historical linguists, like Ahmad Al-Jallad and Marijn van Putten, use the phrase ‘Quranic Consonantal Text’ or ‘QCT’ to describe the rasm as it is disambiguated by Islamic tradition into specific consonants and long vowels) that the manuscripts embody, as chronologically primary relative to the recitation traditions, which are not historically attested in determinate form until long after the rasm.

5. When I refer to ‘Arabs’ in this book, I simply refer to persons whose primary spoken language was a form of Arabic, rather than to a specific and unified concept of ethnic identity. The formation of ‘Arab’ ethnic identity was a complex and protracted process, on which see Peter Webb, Imagining the Arabs: Arab Identity and the Rise of Islam (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016).

6. The Arabic language of the Qur’ān is commonly defined as Quranic Arabic in the circular sense of being the type of Classical Arabic that the Qur’ān uses. I take the orthography of the rasm to instead reflect a living iğāzi dialect of Arabic language, with characteristics that historical linguists can ascertain via standard analytical procedures.

7. I refer here not only to well-known phenomena like the omission of the medial glottal stop in the Arabic language of the rasm, but also to lesser-known phenomena like the reflex of word-final *ay (alif-maqūrah retains a distinct non-ā vocalization in the quranic rhyme scheme, like –ay or –ē, so that final etymological *ay had not collapsed to –ā like it did in Classical Arabic), the loss of final short vowels (and thus a partial loss of case inflection, except where protected by final long vowels or in construct position), the quranic inflection of feminine nouns as diptotes rather than the Classical Arabic triptote, the loss of nunation, the failure to preserve the distinction in the vowelization of collapsed triphthongs in Aramaic loanwords like lwh, and the traditions’ inflection of certain words (e.g. amūd) in ways that cannot represent a real spoken dialect. For these and other points, see the recent series of articles by Ahmad Al-Jallad and Marijn van Putten, e.g., Ahmad Al-Jallad, “Was it sūrat al-baqárah? Evidence for antepenultimate stress in the Quranic Consonantal Text and its Relevance for صلوه Type Nouns,” ZDMG 167, no. 1 (2017), 81–90; Marijn van Putten, “The development of the triphthongs in Quranic and Classical Arabic,” Arabian Epigraphic Notes 3 (2017), 47–74. See also Ahmad Al-Jallad, The Damascus Psalm Fragment: Middle Arabic and the Legacy of Old igāzi [forthcoming, Oriental Institute, Chicago] (I thank the author for sharing a pre-publication draft). In my view, since Islamic tradition was able to disambiguate and vocalize the rasm with considerable accuracy, the most probable explanation is that the corpus was written down very early, but a relatively limited context of oral recitation was maintained after Muammad’s death, probably by those scribes and officials who copied, transmitted, and consulted the texts. After a few decades, one written compilation (i.e. the ‘Uthmanic’ codex) was innovatively recited ← xxiv | xxv → in the more prestigious archaizing register that eventually became codified as Classical Arabic.

8. Claude Gilliot, “Le Coran avant le Coran. Queques réflexions sur le syncrétisme religieux en Arabie centrale,” in Le Coran: Nouvelles approches, ed. M. Azaiez (Paris, 2013), 145–87; see also Guillaume Dye, “Jewish Christianity, the Qur’ān, and Early Islam: Some Methodological Caveats,” paper for 8th Annual ASMEA Conference, Washington (October 29–31, 2015).

9. Following scholars like Cornelia Horn, I will use ‘anti-Chalcedonian’ rather than ‘monophysite,’ ‘miaphysite,’ ‘non-Chalcedonian,’ or ‘Jacobite’ to designate the late antique Christian factions that opposed the Council of Chalcedon (while excluding factions like dyophysitism, which had already split away prior to the Council). See Cornelia Horn, Asceticism and Christological Controversy in Fifth-Century Palestine: The Career of Peter the Iberian (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 8–9; see also Cornelia Horn, “A Chapter in the Pre-History of the Christological Controversies in Arabic,” Parole de l’Orient 30 (2005): 133–156, 135 n. 4. In addition to the more general reasons given by Horn, this distinction is useful for Quranic Studies because terms like ‘monophysite’ and ‘Jacobite’ imply a misleading degree of ecclesiastical uniformity. The opposition to Chalcedonian Christianity included many conflicting positions on christology and ecclesiastical authority. To conceptualize the heterogeneous Christian resistance to Chalcedon as ‘Jacobite’ or ‘miaphysite’ is to anachronistically assimilate its complexity with later forms of Christian orthodoxy, much of which was promulgated in the seventh century or later. On the latter point, see Jack Tannous, Syria between Byzantium and Islam (Princeton dissertation, November, 2010).

10. For a discussion of anti-Chalcedonian Christianity among the mobile Arab groups around al-īrah, i.e. the Tanū tribe and the alāf (‘confederates’), as opposed to the city’s sedentary ‘Ibād elite, see Isabell Toral-Niehoff, “The ‘Ibād of al-īra: An Arab Christian Community in Late Antique Iraq,” in The Qur’ān in Context: Historical and Literary Investigations into the Qur’ānic Milieu, eds. A. Neuwirth, N. Sinai, M. Marx (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 323–47. “The Syrian Desert then, which includes the environs of al-īra, was the main missionary area of Monophysite monks, where they converted many nomadic Arab tribes like the Taghlib. The abovementioned Audemmeh was credited with having converted the Arabs of ‘Aqūla (Kufa) and the Tanūkh, thus attesting the Monophysite missionary focus on rural and suburban areas. The nearby oasis of ‘Ayn an-Namir, for instance, adopted the doctrine of the Phantasiasts, an extreme Monophysite sect. Al-īra thus appears to have been surrounded by a Monophysite Bedouin environment.” Ibid., 338.

11. John Bowman, “The Debt of Islam to Monophysite Syriac Christianity,” in Essays in Honour of Griffithes Wheeler Thatcher, 1863–1950, ed. E.C.B. MacLaurin (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1965): 191–216, 192.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (April)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2018. XXVII, 386 pp. 2 b/w ills.

Biographical notes

Daniel Beck (Author)

Daniel Beck is civil litigation counsel for the United States Attorney’s Office. He received his Juris Doctorate degree from Yale Law School, where his research interests concentrated on religious law in Antiquity. Over the years his interests have transitioned to Qur’ānic studies.


Title: Evolution of the Early Qur’ān
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416 pages