Why don’t scholars engage in a historical-critical study of the Qur’an the way they do with the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible?   I get asked this kind of thing all the time – with variations: “Where can I find a scholarly discussion the critical problems with the Qur’an like scholars publish about the Bible all the time?” or “I know Muslims claim the Qur’an is perfect, but what to critical scholars say about it?”  or “Why don’t scholars take a historical to early Islam like they do with early Christianity?”


For most of my career there really hasn’t been much out there to suggest, but in recent years that has begun to change.  In large part that’s because of a former student of mine who is now a prominent scholar of early Christianity, Stephen Shoemaker, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Oregon.  Stephen is an unusually productive scholar with a wide range of expertise (and a deep knowledge of a crazy number of ancient languages and obscure texts!).  Check him out here: https://www.stephen-shoemaker.com/


One of Stephen’s areas of expertise is early Islam, and he has recently written books that take a historical approach to what we can really know.  Of particular interest to most blog readers will be the one that came out last year: Creating the Qur’an: A Historical-Critical Study (University of California Press, 2022).  Click here:  https://www.amazon.com/Creating-Quran-Historical-Critical-Stephen-Shoemaker-ebook/dp/B0B13YBB27/ref=sr_1_2?crid=2SL036XMLMOSP&keywords=stephen+shoemaker&qid=1686899063&sprefix=%2Caps%2C166&sr=8-2

I have asked Stephen to write a couple of guest blog posts to give us a taste of what he covers in his studies of Islam.  It’s not what we normally hear in discussions of the Qur’an.   His title for this post is: 


Problems in the Critical study of Early Islam, or Why there is no Bart Ehrman of the Qur’an.



I am a former student of Bart – much longer ago than either of us would care to admit. My training (at Duke actually) was originally in early Christian studies, and I continue to be active in that field, but I’ve also done a lot of work studying the beginnings of Islam. In my publications on the origins of Islam, I borrow the historical-critical approach that we routinely use in the study of early Christianity – which is undoubtedly well known to members of this blog – and apply it to similar problems and questions that arise from the early Islamic tradition.


As many of you may be aware, such approaches to the beginnings of Islam are very rare, almost to the point of being non-existent. Bart tells me that he regularly hears from subscribers to this blog that they want to read something on the origins of the Qur’an and Islam like his books on the New Testament and early Christianity. But the truth is, there is really nothing comparable out there, and in this blog post I’d like to talk a little bit about why.


The simplest explanation is that the study of Islamic origins remains stalled at the point where early Christian studies stood more or less at the middle of the nineteenth century. Why it remains stalled there is a more complicated matter that we can’t get into here. But the result is that scholars of the Qur’an have been extremely reluctant to adopt the critical approaches, and particularly the methodological skepticism, that have characterized the study of earliest Christianity since the middle of the nineteenth century. Instead, they still rely very heavily on the historical framework of the Islamic tradition itself to guide their studies. It is as if, in early Christian studies, one still allowed Eusebius to set the terms of our investigation of Christian origins.


To be fair, scholars of early Islam have not been entirely unwilling to subject certain aspects of the traditional narratives of Islamic origins to historical criticism. But when it comes to the most important points regarding the historical Muhammad and the formation of the Qur’an, fundamental deference to the tradition remains paramount. For instance, the Islamic tradition maintains that the Qur’an was established – in exactly the same format and wording that we have it today – by the middle of the seventh century. And so when the overwhelming majority of scholars set out to study the Qur’an, they do so with confidence that its contents were fixed within twenty years of Muhammad’s death. The result is that most western scholarship on the Qur’an serves to reinscribe, rather than challenge, the traditional Islamic narrative of the Qur’an’s formation. Acceptance of this viewpoint limits both the questions that may be asked and how they will be answered, resulting in a scholarly cocoon that protects – whether intentionally or not – the views of the Islamic tradition.


Collective confidence in this received account of the Qur’an’s formation obviously leaves off the table many basic questions that scholars routinely ask about the New Testament writings, not to mention other sacred texts. In effect, one is not allowed to probe the history of the Qur’anic traditions and their development. These traditions were recorded soon after Muhammad’s death, by those who had followed him and under careful state supervision, thereby ensuring their accuracy. Accordingly, there is no possibility for form critical analysis of individual traditions or investigations of redactional development within the Qur’anic text. What we find in the Qur’an, scholars regularly assume and assert, is in fact what Muhammad actually taught, thereby obviating the complicated questions that constantly vex (and delight) biblical scholars.


This conviction that the Qur’an indeed preserves the very words of Muhammad himself is perhaps the strangest presumption of Qur’anic studies as practiced in the modern west, particularly when compared with biblical studies. Qur’anic scholars regularly insist that the words found in the Qur’an today are the exact words spoken by Muhammad to his followers in Mecca and Medina during the early seventh century. It is truly astonishing, I think, that so many ostensibly critical, non-Muslim scholars would stalwartly profess the authenticity of the Qur’an as more or less a simple transcript of what Muhammad taught. As readers of Bart’s many works, you will all know that this is of course an impossibility, absent dictation or a miracle, both of which are highly unlikely.


Western scholars of the Qur’an also accept as fundamental to their investigations the Islamic tradition’s chronological schema of the Qur’an’s serial revelation to Muhammad, with only some minor adjustments. According to tradition, Muhammad did not receive the entirety of the Qur’an at once, but its contents were revealed to him piecemeal across a span of two decades. Medieval Muslim scholars therefore established a specific order for these revelations across the span of Muhammad’s career. And so modern scholars, with this dataset in hand (which is presumed to be historically accurate), attempt to trace the development of the Qur’anic text in relation to the progress of Muhammad’s prophetic mission. Frequently (although not always) this chronological reading of the Qur’an is undertaken in conjunction with his traditional biographies, notoriously unreliable texts that were composed more than 100 years after Muhammad’s death. It is as if, by comparison, one were to use the Acts of Paul and Thecla as an interpretive key for understanding the letters of Paul!


Related to this principle of Qur’anic studies is a parallel conviction that everything in the Qur’an had its origin in Muhammad’s prophetic career in Mecca and Medina between 610-632. Any possibility some part of the Qur’an might be a later interpolation after Muhammad’s life is for the most part strictly excluded. Yet even with a window of only around twenty years between Muhammad’s death and the fixation of the canonical Qur’anic text, as acknowledged even in the traditional account, there is ample opportunity for additions and changes to the text. To be sure, the biblical scholar can only respond to such claims with complete, dumbstruck bewilderment. Nevertheless, specialists on early Islam persist in maintaining that everything in the Qur’an comes from Muhammad, and from Mecca and Medina.


There are, however, a number of intractable problems with the presumption that all of the Qur’an must derive from the mouth of Muhammad in either Mecca or Medina. In the first place, Mecca in Muhammad’s lifetime was a remote, hardscrabble place in the arid deserts of western Arabia. According to a recent study, the likely number of total inhabitants in Mecca at this time was around five hundred or so, with only around one-hundred and thirty free adult men. Its nonliterate, pastoralist inhabitants appear to have been quite isolated from the broader world of the ancient Mediterranean and Mesopotamia.


These cultural and economic limitations obviously raise profound questions about the traditional linkage of a text as sophisticated as the Qur’an with a sleepy hamlet such as Muhammad’s Mecca. The Qur’an’s content demands an audience steeped in the traditions of ancient Judaism and Christianity. How would the goatherds of Mecca have possessed the level of religious literacy required to understand the Qur’an’s persistent and elliptic invocations of Jewish and Christian lore? There is, for that matter, no evidence of any significant Christian presence anywhere remotely near Mecca: the closest known community was over 500 miles (900km) distant.


Clearly there must be more to the Qur’an’s origins than the later Islamic tradition has remembered, since Muhammad’s Mecca (or his Medina for that matter) does not seem capable of having produced such a highly cosmopolitan religious text. Nor does it seem likely that the entirety of the Qur’an may be understood as preserving an accurate transcript of the very words that Muhammad spoke to his followers in Mecca and Medina. Unsurprisingly, once we let go of the restrictive assumptions that modern scholarship on the Qur’an has inherited from the Islamic tradition, the Qur’an quickly emerges as a scriptural tradition with a history no less complex than the Jewish and Christian bibles. And so a great task presently awaits those who are willing and able to meet it: the beginnings of the historical-critical study of the Qur’an.

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2023-06-30T11:59:26-04:00June 25th, 2023|Public Forum|

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  1. fishician June 25, 2023 at 10:21 am

    I recently downloaded a copy of the Quran because I want to see for myself what it really says. Your posts will be helpful. Don’t you find it interesting that 3 of the most influential religious leaders in history – the Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed – didn’t write anything down but rather we are dependent on what later followers said they taught? Maybe that actually helped, by cleaning up and refining their ideas?

  2. AngeloB June 25, 2023 at 5:58 pm

    Can’t wait to read the book! This is a new subject for me.

  3. brandon284 June 25, 2023 at 6:00 pm

    Very interesting! It’s wild to me that Western Muslim scholars have essentially turned a blind eye to the historical-critical approach. It’s anathema to academia and very bizarre they would tow a traditional line with Islam. Glad you’re challenging these long outdated methods, Stephen.

  4. edecter June 25, 2023 at 6:55 pm

    Absolutely fascinating. I will plan to read your book, but I wonder if you’d be willing to recommend some very basic reading for those of us who are new to Islam. I’m thinking of a good translation of the Quran, a biography of Muhammad, and an introductory history of early Islam. Any recommendations in these or similar categories would be much appreciated!

  5. Stephen June 25, 2023 at 7:55 pm

    Well, some work is being done. See-

    ‘Textual Criticism and Qur’an Manuscripts’ by Keith Small
    ‘Corrections in Early Qurān Manuscripts’ by Daniel Alan Brubaker
    ‘The One and the Many: The Early History of the Qur’an by François Déroche

    Smalls’ book is a survey of the field and Déroche is particularly well regarded.

    Most the work is being done in the west of course for obvious reasons.

  6. Pattylt June 25, 2023 at 9:46 pm

    I assume a critical examination of the Quran will be as welcomed as the Christian’s did with the NT. Is there actual fear to do so? Salmon Rushdie comes to mind…

    • Mr.Marmelade July 15, 2023 at 6:46 am

      Salman Rushdies book was actual historical garbage to be honest. Also i think there is a huge difference in the islamic and christian tradition. For example muslims have so called “chains of narrations” where they can track sayings of Muhammad over all the years and the narrators all given by their full name and also how their characters were. When i found out about that i was actually kind of fascinated. More to learn!

  7. jscheller June 26, 2023 at 8:02 am

    I wonder if this point would have much effect on some biblical literalists. I think about my experience with people that insist so strongly that the supernatural stories in the bible are factual, and yet, when they are exposed to the non-canonical gospels, they will easily discount the same type of fantastical stories as myths.

    How many of them would rejoice at the news that no serious scholarship has been applied to the development of the Quran, agreeing that, without such work, the provenance of the writings remains in doubt? When the point is then made that Christian scripture has the benefit of such scrutiny, and that the result is the need for serious reconsideration of what church tradition calls “facts”, how many of these folks would then be willing to entertain a second look at their own assumptions?

    Probably, not many…

  8. OmarRobb June 26, 2023 at 9:42 am

    I do criticize many of the “Western Scholars of Islamic Studies” from an academic perspective, and I hope you see my comments from within this perspective.

    We (the Muslims) claim that the Muslims are the only civilization in history prior to 1900 that large bulk of its history were documented via “Chain-Oral-Tradition” (in Arabic: the Sanad). The Roman historians who wrote about Rome were depending on sources that we don’t know, therefore, their written history is depending on “Anonymous-Oral-Tradition”. The same is said for the Greek history and the Christian History. But if you look at the book of Al-Bukhari (for example) you find that he starts with the following structure: I heard from A from B from C from D that he witnessed an event. And we know exactly who Al-Bukhari is and who is A, B, C, and D. We know where they born and died, we know their teachers, we know a lot of things about them. And there is a distinctive body of knowledge with specific criteria to filter the narrators (in this case A, B, C and D) in order to identify the trusted from the non-trusted ones.


    • OmarRobb June 26, 2023 at 9:43 am


      And there are narratives that have multiple unique trusted chains, and we (the Muslims) do claim that a history based on trusted and multiple “Chains” is more accurate than a history that is based on “Anonymous Oral Tradition”, but this is just our claim.

      However, when “Western Scholars” speak about the history of Islam, most of them say that it depends on “Oral Tradition”, therefore it is not reliable. But even in analyzing the reliability of the Roman History (for example) and the “New Testament” they depend on specific criteria, but in the history of Islamic, they made the ultimate conclusion without even conducting any “criteria”.

      Furthermore, the Muslims claim that they have special type of “oral tradition” (the Sanad), which is completely different than the normal “oral tradition”. However, the “Western Scholars” don’t acknowledge that there is a claim here, they don’t want to study it, they didn’t examine if it can provide accurate data, they would just ignore the whole matter, and produce their conclusions without it!


    • OmarRobb June 26, 2023 at 9:43 am


      Now … Islam depends on the Quran and the Hadith, and both are interlinked because the Hadith explains the Quran and related “history”. The first subject that is studied in the Hadith is the concept of the Sanad (i.e. the “Chain Oral Tradition”), because if the Chain is not trusted then the whole narrative will be ignored regardless of its content. This is a fundamental topic to the point that it is briefly introduced in the curriculum of the elementary public schools in the middle east. So, is it not surprising that the “Western Scholars of Islamic Studies” are ignoring this topic!

      If the “Western Scholars of Islamic Studies” start to study this topic and presented some scientific based conclusions about its accuracy (with or against) then we can start discussing their conclusions with them. But how can we discuss this subject with them if they don’t even acknowledge it!

      Are you aware of the “claim” of the Muslims that they have special type of “oral tradition”? Have you study it (in your critical analysis) and presented your conclusions about it (with or against) in the book? Or did you just form your conclusions without studying it?

      • sshoema June 26, 2023 at 1:13 pm

        Hi Omar – Stephen here. Oh yes, this has been studied in great detail by a number of schlars, including myself, and there is largely a consensus among critical (and partiuclarly non-believer) scholars that this oral tradition, despite the overlay of purported transmitters, is no more reliable than any other sort of oral tradition. Don’t forget that al-Bukhari, whom you mention, examined 600,000 traditions and he rejected 593,000 as forgeries. Forgery was simply rampant, again, depite the attribution of isnads – which only seem to have begun, in fact, around one hundred years after Muhammad’s death! So for the first century of Islam, scholars consider them unreliable and generally fictious.

        The most classic studies are

        Goldziher, Ignác. Muslim Studies. Translated by C. R. Barber and S. M. Stern. Edited by S. M. Stern. 2 vols. London: Allen & Unwin, 1967-71.

        Schacht, Joseph. The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1950.

      • sshoema June 26, 2023 at 1:14 pm

        Hi Omar – Stephen here. Oh yes, this has been studied in great detail by a number of schlars, including myself, and there is largely a consensus among critical (and partiuclarly non-believer) scholars that this oral tradition, despite the overlay of purported transmitters, is no more reliable than any other sort of oral tradition. Don’t forget that al-Bukhari, whom you mention, examined 600,000 traditions and he rejected 593,000 as forgeries. Forgery was simply rampant, again, depite the attribution of isnads – which only seem to have begun, in fact, around one hundred years after Muhammad’s death! So for the first century of Islam, scholars consider them unreliable and generally fictious.

        The most classic studies are

        Goldziher, Ignác. Muslim Studies. Translated by C. R. Barber and S. M. Stern. Edited by S. M. Stern. 2 vols. London: Allen & Unwin, 1967-71.

        Schacht, Joseph. The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1950.

        • OmarRobb June 26, 2023 at 1:52 pm

          Can you highlight the criteria and the reasoning that these Scholars used to conclude that this “chain-oral-tradition” is not reliable? Afterall, it is a special type of “oral tradition”, therefore, I would assume that they have good reason to make this conclusion.

          Now … In the NT studies, there are criteria (as the multiple attestation) to filter out the right verses from the false ones. And many critical non-believer Scholars have highlighted many of the verses in the NT that they think that it is accurate using these criteria. But the NT is based on an “Anonymous-Oral-Tradition”: anonymous sources, and anonymous authors, but still, the critical non-believer Scholars have highlighted many verses that they think are accurate using specific criteria.

          Now … you want to use the same critical thinking that is used in the NT. In the NT you are not really refusing all the “oral tradition” but you have criteria for making the decision. So, do you have a clear criteria to filter the hadith, the same as you have a clear criteria to filter the NT?

          • sshoema June 26, 2023 at 2:15 pm

            I’m still trying to figure out how this blog thing workds. Maybe this will – I usually don’t engage much with social media. So, here is the thing. First of all, I’m not interested in the legal tradition, so let’s leave that to the side. I am, however, interested in the historical tradition and especially the accounts of the beginnings of Islam, the so-called “sira” of Muhammad. So you want criteria? Well, this is tricky. For instance, we cannot use multiple independent attestation on this corpus (which is completely different, by the way, from the Qur’an, the subject of my post). Why? Because we really have only one source: the Sira of Ibh Ishaq which was written in the middle of the eighth century on the basis of 100 years of – anonymous – oral tradition before it! It was only at this later stage that names were introduced; previously the transmission had been anonymous.

        • OmarRobb June 26, 2023 at 2:08 pm

          I need to point out the following notes:

          1# The interest for the Sanad came about 40 years after the death of the prophet starting from Ibn-Abbas (the prophet’s cousin). The purpose is that the civil war at the time caused many people to invent narratives. For this reason, Ibn Abbas highlighted that narratives will not be accepted without knowing the people.

          3# With these civil wars, there were thousands of forgeries, and there is a need here to separate between “collectors” and “auditors”. Al-Bukhari is an auditor who only selected the narratives according to the trust level of all the narrators. Al-Tabarani is a collector, he collected all narratives regardless of the auditing. Therefore, the narratives in Al-Tabarani are not regarded valid without making sufficient auditing.

          So, no one denied that there were forgeries, but there were also very serious efforts and criteria (from the start) to filter out these forgeries, the same as the efforts that are used by Scholars today (after many many centuries) to filter out the forgeries in the NT.

          These efforts were based on identifying the trust level of all the narrators, and then Identifying the multiple unique chains for the narrative itself.

          • sshoema June 26, 2023 at 2:17 pm

            So, all later accounts, with some minor exceptions, derive from this single source, and we do not even have this source today but only revisions of it that were made in the ninth and tenth centuries. So the situation is very different from the gospels, for instance. In this case the evidence is, for the historian, much worse. Basically the main criterion that we are left with for judging the antiquity and/or authenticity of material related to the life of Muhammad and beginnings of Islam is therefore the criterion of embarrassement or criterion of dissimilarity. In a very few instances we can get some independent attestation from some of the non-Muslim sources that were actually written in the seventh century, but that is pretty minimal. On that topic you should see my book A Prophet Has Appeared.

          • sshoema June 26, 2023 at 2:20 pm

            As for your 1#, this tradition is attested much later and is introduced to give the appearance that the tradition of citing a chain of authorities goes back further than it actually does. There is a fairly broad consensus that this naming of transmitters was, again, only introduced around the middle of the eighth century following a century of anonymous oral transmission. Even scholars who are sanguine about the origins of the Qur’an are pretty strongly agreed on this point.

          • sshoema June 26, 2023 at 2:24 pm

            If you need to go further than that, I think you will just have to dive into some more technical studies to see why this is the consensus among scholars writing from a non-confessional perspective. I can recommend a couple of studies of my own where I worked on this issue.

            Shoemaker, The Death of a Prophet, chapter 2
            Shoemaker, Stephen J. “In Search of ʿUrwa’s Sīra: Some Methodological Issues in the Quest for ‘Authenticity’ in the Life of Muḥammad.” Der Islam 85, no. 2 (2009-11): 257-344.
            Shoemaker, Stephen J. “Muḥammad and the Qurʾān.” In The Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity, edited by Scott F. Johnson, 1078-1108. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

            Just as a few examples. Maybe start with the latter one – you can find the last two on my academia page.

            And of course, chapters 5, 6, 7 of Creating the Qur’an apply in full as well.

          • sshoema June 26, 2023 at 4:04 pm

            One additional thought. There is one really striking case where we have multiple independent attestation – concerning the timing of Muhammad’s death. According to the Islamic tradition, following the single stream of memory received and transmitted byIbn Ishaq starting in the mid-eighth century, Muhammad died at Medina in 632 before his followers invaded Syro-Palestine and Mesopotamia.

            But, we have multiple independent accounts written during the seventh century that remember Muhammad as still alive and leading his followers as they invaded Syro-Palestine and Mesopotamia. Some of these sources are nearly contemporary with what they describe. So, when and where did Muhammad die? I don’t think we really know, and it would appear that the earliest memories of the end of his life had him still alive into the middle of the 630s and leading his followers in their campaigns in the levant. Or at least, this is the indication of our evidence if we value multiple independent attestation.

            This is the entire focuse of my book the Death of a Prophet, if you are curious.

          • OmarRobb June 26, 2023 at 4:13 pm

            Thank you, Stephen.

            Ibn-Ishaq and Ibn-Hisham are not regarded as authoritative books because they are based on “Anonymous-Oral-Tradition”. We don’t reject these books, but we regard them as history books the same as the history of Alexander or the history of the Romans. We don’t use the contents of these books when we argue about the Quran, Muhammed or the companions. We might use them as supporting accounts, but they are not the main evidence, and for one reason: we cannot assess the chains in these accounts.

            Now … the audited chains are not only related to legal aspects, they cover many domains, including the collection of the Quran, the story of Muhammed, and the story of Othman and the Quran.

            If you based your conclusions on Ibn-Ishaq and Ibn-Hisham, then I am telling you straight forward, these are not authoritative books in the history of Islam.

            But as you want to use the same critical process of thinking related to the NT, then let us compare the book of Ibn-Hisham with the NT:


          • OmarRobb June 26, 2023 at 4:15 pm


            $ Both are without chains.

            $ The NT were written by anonymous authors (except Paul who we really don’t know much about) but we know Ibn-Hisham.

            $ We don’t know exactly when the NT were written (except for Paul) but we know about Ibn-Hisham.


            So, although I am upfront in saying that Ibn-Hisham is not an authoritative book for Islam, but I think it has more credibility.

            ##Regarding your reply to 1#:

            This is your opinion without data (i.e. evidences) as I far as I can see. As you might claim that Muslims Scholars were biased in their conclusions, I can say the same thing about Western Scholars that they have bias in interpreting the data. Actually, there are many biased Western Scholars about Islam, and that it is not hard to prove, but I would assume that it is hard to prove that the main Muslims scholars were biased in there work due to the appeared seriousness in creating their criteria. So, the bias card can be used from both parties. So, let us skip the opinions and go to the evidences.


          • OmarRobb June 26, 2023 at 4:16 pm


            An oral tradition is a data. If this data doesn’t contradict science, then it does have a level of credibility. You might not put it as high, but also, you cannot put it at zero.

            However, an opinion that is supported by probable data has more weight that an opinion without data.

            So, in 1#, we have an oral tradition that doesn’t contradict with science. We know the person of this data (Ibn-Abbas). We have the date of this data (about 40AD), and we have the reason attached to this data (forgeries started by the civil war), and we have a trusted chain for this data.

            I am presenting an opinion with data, but you have an opinion without data.

          • OmarRobb June 26, 2023 at 4:51 pm

            An additional note:

            You are saying that the contents of the Quran were fixed within twenty years of Muhammad’s death. This is not what the Muslims are saying.

            You are referring to Othman and the burning of the Quran. However, look at this mater from this angle: Othman was not a dictator and he didn’t burn people on the stick to enforce his opinion. This should let us ask how the people accepted his decision for burning the Quran.

            However, he didn’t burn the Quran, because the Quran is an oral recited book, but each tribe at that time wrote in different spelling scripts, exactly the same for some different spellings between UK and USA. But the reciting was the same.

            Let us speak a bit about this history of this region:

            What the Westerners call “The Arabian Peninsula” are called by the Arabs as “The Arabian Island”. The ancient Arabs regarded their land to be from the “Euphrates River” in the north to the Arabian sea in the south. It is highly likely that the word “Arab” came from the Sumerian, which ironically means the “Westerners” referring to the people living in the west of the Euphrates.


          • OmarRobb June 26, 2023 at 4:53 pm


            As far as we know, this land of Arabs (The Arabian Peninsula) has never been united in the past 8000 years (at least) before Islam. The people in this land were either under foreign occupation or they were fighting each other. Nonetheless, large buck of this land (especially in the middle and the west) was never controlled by foreign power for the past 8000 years (at least) before Islam.

            There were many languages in this land, few of them are still spoken today. But it seems that the Arabic language start to be the de facto language for commerce and poetry, probably about 250AD. However, as Arabs were never united before, every region would have their own spelling standard.

            This didn’t raise a problem at the start of Islam because the Quran was an oral recited book and writing the Quran was for memory aid. However, in Iraq, people started to argue about the best spelling standard. That immediately alarmed the capital, and a committee was established to standardize the spelling.

          • OmarRobb June 26, 2023 at 5:24 pm

            Another note:

            I am pretty sure (and please correct me if I am wrong) that you don’t precisely know in details the criteria that Muslim scholars used to evaluate the chain-oral-tradition.

            When a narrative passes the trust level, then, it becomes a trusted narrative, then there is classification for these trusted narratives:

            # The single chain, and this is for a narrative that has only one trusted chain. In Arabic it is called Gareeb meaning Strange.

            # The double chain, and this is for a narrative that has two unique trusted chains. In Arabic it is called Azeez, meaning Honored.

            # The Mustafeed (overflow), and this is for a narrative that has 3 to 7 unique trusted chains.

            # The Mutawter (Numerous), and is for a narrative that has more than 7 unique trusted chains.

            In all of the above classification, only the Mutawater is regarded to be “certain”. The others are “highly likely” were the Mustafeed is the most likely. So, when we speak about a trusted chain, we are aware that it is not certain, but it does have a high likely level.


          • OmarRobb June 26, 2023 at 5:25 pm


            After that, Scholars do the “content analysis”, in which the narrative can be compared with other trusted narratives, and there is a clear methodology of how to reject a trusted narrative, especially if it clearly contradicts with other trusted narratives.

            This is what I meant that the Muslims Scholars were very serious in creating the criteria for the Sanad.

            If you are interested, I did write an article detailing a bit the criteria related to the chain-Oral-tradition, which you can find in chapter 8 in this link:


  9. dankoh June 26, 2023 at 10:29 am

    I suspect two reasons there is no (or very little) critical study of the Qur’an, unlike the Jewish and Christian bibles: First, Islam did not experience an equivalent to the Reformation, which broke the political hold of religion (the Sunni-Shi’a split didn’t do that); and, second, Islamic countries did not experience an equivalent of the European Enlightenment, which elevated reason above revelation. (Yes, it’s an over-simplification, but it’s a good one.)

    I do have a question (only one, for now, and I’ve just picked up your book): How does Israilliyat fit into your argument?

  10. Bseiler June 26, 2023 at 10:57 am

    “Why it remains stalled there is a more complicated matter that we can’t get into here. ”
    I don’t understand. Isn’t this the question you were attempting to answer?
    That would be the most interesting thing to read about.

  11. granitemiller June 26, 2023 at 3:33 pm

    this dissertation has some interesting information that may be relevant to this discussion, “A Case Study of Transmission of Authority and Distillation of Knowledge in Ibn Ashir’s Al-Murshid al-Mu’in (The Helpful Guide)”, by Hamza Yusef/Mark Hanson (2020) which explores the transmission of Islam to north and west Africa.

  12. sshoema June 26, 2023 at 9:27 pm

    All of these things are addressed in the articles and chapters that I recommend. If you want to enage in more detail what I have argued, I would suggest turning there. Much of what you suggest I may not know in fact I do and I have addressed thse topics at length. There is just so much more nuance and data than can be handled in a series of blog comments!

    As for Ibn Ishaq, etc., indeed, these are not historically reliable sources. They are more or less the equivalent of the the apocryphal acts of the apostles in the Christian tradition. But they are all that we have to go on for the life of Muhammad and the history of the early community, outside of the non-Islamic sources.

    • OmarRobb June 26, 2023 at 10:01 pm

      This is simply not true, Ibn-Ishaq and Ibn-Hisham are not the only source for the life of Muhammed, and they are not used in any arguments related to the life of Muhammed, because the life of Muhammed is regarded to be a source for the laws, therefore, his life would only be accepted from the trusted chains of narratives and there are many sources for these chains.

      If you based your conclusions on Ibn-Ishaq, then I am telling you clearly: Muslims scholars don’t regard this book to be an authoritative book for the life of Muhammed.

      Having said all the above, can you clarify to me why you equated Ibn-Ishaq to the “apocryphal acts” and not to the four Gospels?

      How the 4 Gospels are more credible than Ibn-Ishaq?

      You said that you want to use the same critical thinking process of the NT, so how did you derive to the conclusion to equate Ibn-Ishaq to the “apocryphal acts” and not to the 4 Gospels?

      Let me be clear here, Ibn-Ishaq is not an authoritative book for the life of Muhammed, I finished discussing this matter, but I am surprised that you didn’t equate Ibn-Ishaq with the 4 Gospels.

    • RM June 27, 2023 at 9:54 am

      Muslim narrations were spread among a community where those during the seerah had gained power, rulership, and were well known for it. It’s not the same as Christianity where Peter James and John die off in relative obscurity with nothing really being attached to their name. They had political power, lived during the events themselves and were able to set the tone of what was spread and what wasn’t. Comparing oral transmission in an environment that was immediately Muslim, governed by the very people who experienced the birth and growth of Islam, to the messy, chaotic, massively divided, massively isolated first century of Christianity beggars belief.

      “The Qur’an’s content demands an audience steeped in the traditions of ancient Judaism and Christianity”

      Except…it doesn’t? Most lay Muslims today like most arabs of back then would have had those references fly over their heads. If this is the best you’ve got it isn’t much and frankly I am glad. You aren’t really going to achieve any scholarship that isn’t easily dismissed as overspeculation and a failed attempt to mirror the absolute shattering hand critical scholarship has dealt to orthodox christianity in the past 200 years. Good luck continuing to struggle.

    • OmarRobb June 27, 2023 at 11:41 pm


      I am reviewing my comments here and it seems that I was a bit tough. I probably could have been able to be more tactful, but this is actually a tough subject which does have (as I truly think) a large room for possible bias either hidden or apparent, intentional or unintentional. If it appeared that I was unreasonably tough, then I do sincerely apologize.

      • sshoema July 12, 2023 at 2:35 pm


        No worries. I am not troubled at all, and these are hardly the toughest comments that I have faced (no offense). But I dropped off the conversation because we are simply talking past each other. I do not accept the accuracy of the Islamic tradition’s memories of what happened at the time of origins, particularly given the late recordning of these memories and the problematic influences of oral transmission and the contours of memory. As I have indicated, many of my reasons are laid out in the hundreds of thousands of words that I have published on the beginnings of Islam. So if you really want to engage some of these questions at a deeper level, we have to start by going there – blog comments simply aren’t the right forum to tackle such complex things that have to be explained and argued over the course of books. So, no offense at all, just a recognition that we were not really speaking in the same terms.

        • OmarRobb July 12, 2023 at 3:33 pm

          Thank you, Stephen.

          I agree that the comments here wouldn’t support a deep debate and it wasn’t designed for it, but it can summarizes positions. I would like to summarize my position here:

          1# I truly think that most of the Western Scholars of Islamic Studies (WSIS) are biased in their analysis to the Islamic traditions specially in their analysis to the Chain Oral Tradition (COT).

          2# I truly think that most of the WSIS don’t know or didn’t thoroughly study the COT.

          3# I truly think that most of the WSIS are not using the proper critical analysis in looking at the COT: All Oral Traditions (AOT & COT) have right data, deformed data, and false data. The critical analysis of the NT didn’t end up by brushing off the NT as unreliable, but Scholars started to create the criteria to filter the right data from this Oral Tradition. It seems to me the WSIS didn’t do the same effort with the Islamic COT.


        • OmarRobb July 12, 2023 at 3:34 pm


          It seems to me that the WSIS just decided to brush off the COT and to depend on sources (as Ibn-Ishaq and Ibn-Hisham) that the Muslims Scholars themselves regarded them to be unauthoritative for the life of Muhammed because it is based on AOT and not COT.

          [AOT: Anonymous Oral Tradition].

          This is my position, and I did write about this matter in the linked article that I have highlighted previously.

          However, there is one question here: I understood from you that you have discussed the COT (the Sanad) in details. I looked at your work at the “academia”, but it was mostly about Ibn-Hisham and I didn’t look deep there because (as I have said before) we don’t regard Ibn-Hisham to be an authoritative book for the life of Muhammed.

          Can you guide me to the articles and chapters where you have analyzed and discussed the COT (Sanad) in details?

          • AngeloB July 14, 2023 at 6:17 pm

            The Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity. Stephen Shoemaker has a chapter in that book on Muhammad and the Qur’an. It is available online (the Oxford University Press website).

          • OmarRobb July 16, 2023 at 9:05 am

            Thank you, AngeloB.

            Found your Provided-Reference (Hereafter PR): Chapter 33 for Oxford-handbook. It is also available in Academia:


            Where are the Criteria in details?

            The Chain-Oral-Tradition (COT – In the PR: “Isnad”), is mentioned in a brief introduction. The stuff I have mentioned here about the COT is very limited (single-chain, double-chain, multiple-chain, criteria for identifying the trusted from the weak, the difference between the audited books and the collections, chain-analysis, content-analysis, etc.), still the details in the PR didn’t even come near.

            It seems to me that I might have been speaking Gibberish here about the COT. So, let us forget about Muhammed and Islam, let us speak about today: You have a story about an event from your friend from his boss from his son. So, we have here a chain of three narrators. You trust your friend and he told you that the boss and his son are “OK”. However, “OK” doesn’t give a high level of trust but an average level. So, you take the story as “OK” (an average acceptance). But next day another different “OK” chain tell you about the same story.


          • OmarRobb July 16, 2023 at 9:06 am


            Although the narrators are “OK”, but the story now is more than “OK”.

            Isn’t this common sense?!

            This is the concept that the ancient Muslim Scholars built the criteria and classifications for the COT. Shouldn’t this be discussed in your Provided-Reference?!

            Furthermore, in the Provided-Reference, it is mentioned that Al-Bukhari reject 593K of the hadith from 600k. But this is not mentioned in the ancient Islamic sources. What is mentioned is that Al-Bukhari selected 7k from 600k of the Hadith. This is because Al-Bukhari had a strict criteria for his book. No ancient Islamic source said that Al-Bukhari regarded the 593k to be forgeries. Changing “selected” to “rejected” is a misleading twist.

            Now … we don’t deny the existence of forgeries, this is why the ancient Muslims Scholars established the COT criteria: to distinguish the trusted COTs from the Weak ones.

            My question still: if the Western Scholars accepted many Anonymous-Oral-Traditions then how on earth they are ignoring the multiple COT’s!!

            I think the Provided-Reference is rich with the supporting opinions of other Western Scholars, but there are little in-depth analyses to the data “as is” from the source. And to me, this is not “critical analysis”.

          • sshoema July 24, 2023 at 7:15 pm

            Hi Omar. Simply adding in the names of some famous figures from the early tradition doesn’t really solve the problem. Especially when those chains were only added at the beginning of the second century of Islam and are known to be highly artificial.

            If you want to see a lengthy discussion of the problems and limitations with this method, particularly with respect to Muhammad’s biographies, see the following article, where I give my explanation.


          • OmarRobb July 25, 2023 at 1:12 pm

            Hi Stephen,

            I am not sure about the names you are referring to here, but my arguments were focused on common sense and probability analysis (as I have explained many times here). If I mentioned few names, then they were probably just supporting data.

            I looked briefly on the referenced-article, and my comments would be the same as I have discussed here, and in the pdf-reply in the radiocarbon-post.

            You have lots of citations to Westerns Scholars without any true analysis or even thorough introduction to the things that the Muslim Scholars themselves have established and said, and without analyzing if the perceived trusted Muslims narrators were serious and dedicated or not.

            For example, you have discussed in brief one classification of the COT which is the multiple chains that originated from someone who is not the source to a single chain to the source. This is “Khabar-Ahad”, and if these chains are trusted then it is still “lower” than the double-chain narrative (because double-chains are linked directly to the source), but higher than the trusted single-chain. However, you have just ended this brief discussion by saying: “this method is not foolproof …..” (page 264-265).


          • OmarRobb July 25, 2023 at 1:15 pm


            This was a very brief analysis to this classification and your conclusion here is not based on thorough evidences, but I think it was just a personal judgement.

            Also, you supported your conclusion with the “widespread forgery of hadith” (page 266), but no one denied the existence of these forgeries (as I have discussed before). It is for this forgeries that the Muslims Scholars established the COT (i.e. no hadith is accepted without a chain), and then they established the criteria for trusted narrators, the criteria for “chain analysis and “content analysis”, etc. All the above are fundamental for COT, which are absent from your analysis.
            I think this work represents your judgments as you have many times clarified in the article: “Yet Motzki’s arguments in this instance are not persuasive” (page 266), “his efforts to press beyond this barrier are considerably less convincing” (page 267), etc.
            I don’t think that you introduce the COT as established by the Muslim Scholars, and I think you based your conclusions on lots of unsupported claims, and to me, this is not critical analysis.
            I have discussed in details my major arguments here and in the pdf-reply in the radiocarbon-post.

  13. Telling June 26, 2023 at 9:44 pm

    Inner sources provided information on Muhammad’s mission which was to correct errors in Christian and Jewish scripture. Regarding Abraham and sacrifice of his son, Jewish scripture reads that Isaac was the focus of the sacrifice, but the Koran is closer to the truth, accurately targeting Ishmael, not Isaac, as Abraham’s firstborn son for sacrifice.

    My sources gave me the most believable story:

    Abraham, unmarried,, went to work for the owner of a camel caravan who owned a slave girl named Hagar. Abraham got the woman pregnant and the owner of the caravan demanded that Abraham take her and raise her child himself, being she was no longer useful being with child. He did, and in the meantime Abraham met Sarah a young woman and he married her. But Sarah didn’t want to compete with Hagar over a firstborn child so she asked Abraham to kill the child after it was born. Abraham dutifly obliged, but Hagar pleaded with him to spare her child on condition she would walk away from Abraham and absolve him of his responsibilities to her. Sarah angreed, and Hagar left the family, carrying her child into the city. This is the true story per my internal sources.

    • riverart July 1, 2023 at 7:31 pm

      Arthur Telling, what are your “Inner sources” if I may ask?

      • Telling July 4, 2023 at 2:30 pm

        Riverart, Yes, of course.

        I began studying metaphysics in 1975 and continue to. Buddhists and Hindus know Mind is the foundation of everything, there is no solid world. My first internal contact was my father in about 1995, he had died about 10 years earlier. I felt his presence and came to communicate with him through telepathy and subtle nods I physically felt.

        In 2020 at about time of the lockdown I made closer contact with him and a 2nd personality whose books I had read during the earlier time 1970-1980s. He is non-physical and channeled through author Jane Roberts whose books were pubished by major book publishers during the 1970s and are in reprint today. Jane was an incarnational personality of his and this is how he entered her body (her willingly) and wrote the books: “Seth Speaks”, “The Nature of Personal Reality” and about 11 more. I trusted my father and I trusted Seth of whom through Jane’s books I had learned much about spirit and physical world and such. A search for Seth Jane Roberts willl bring up a wealth of info, Googling,

        Seth was the source of this info., channeled internally.

  14. Elhirba June 27, 2023 at 12:54 am

    I think that the main reason why no scholar wants to study critically the Qur’an is because we remember what happened in 88 to Salman Rushdie, too risky…

  15. RM June 27, 2023 at 9:36 am

    “Frequently (although not always) this chronological reading of the Qur’an is undertaken in conjunction with his traditional biographies, notoriously unreliable texts that were composed more than 100 years after Muhammad’s death. It is as if, by comparison, one were to use the Acts of Paul and Thecla as an interpretive key for understanding the letters of Paul!”

    I think you are conflating hesitance to adopt the critical method with hesitance to adopt your pretty shoddy scholarship. There are plenty of critical historians who don’t pursue hyper-speculative theories on inch thin evidence then cry “no criticial method!” when the bulk of their fellows don’t share their views. It’s very tempting to do so, kind of like being a member of a political part and assuming your comrades aren’t zealous enough or the enemy is the devil incarnate. But the fact is, in this very paragraph you kind of betray why you aren’t taken that seriously in the field, as much as I imagine you think you should be. For one, scholars like Marijn Van Putten have pretty much, even against their likely preference, accepted the early date for the Quran.

  16. kt June 27, 2023 at 12:56 pm

    I believe that critically studying the emergence of Islam can be challenging, given that it primarily relies on multiple oral sources and narratives (probably also written qur’anic materials). To assert that the suggested oral tradition offers and can provide an objective standard, regardless of the variation of individual in the vast area it refers to is really challenging to even begin or try to believe in. I think the truth is that the process was not purely based on oral transmissions, and even Islamic traditions and sources affirm this. Islamic sources seems to my understanding to acknowledged that written sources were circulating during this early period, although all of them have been lost. The process undertaken by Uthman around 652 AD to compile a unified Quran suggest that there were circulating a whole lot of materials which Uthman supposedly chose from, upon where he dismissed (destroyed, burned they say) a whole lot of them who he did not approve of. Scholars, including Dr. Shady Nassar, suggests that they didn’t rely exclusively on oral traditions, particularly after the Uthmanic period. He asserts that If the oral readings deviated from the written sources, they were disregarded. This raises questions about their view of oral tradition, suggesting it wasn’t automatically considered a reliable source. Dr. Nassar highlights the five stages of Quran canonization and the variations in Quranic readings which in itself might raise a lot of scholarly conserns.

    In relation to this, examining these belief materials (not even discussing the religious content in these) with a scholarly critical lens must in my mind be challenging for many l reasons:

    1. The supposed revelation, which occurred over a few decades, lacks concrete evidence and witnesses. The processes of its “recording”, memorization over centuries (Hadiths and the Siras), and even during the canonization of the Quran are complex and problematic.

    2. The process of canonizing the different versions/readings of the would normally be considered problematic for any scriptures in an evolving belief system.

    3. The Siras (Biography) by Ibn Ishaq, as narrated by Ibn Hisham, who lived and died 200 years after Muhammad and far from where Muhammad lived, adds another layer of complexity or perhaps complexities.

    4. The Hadiths (sayings of Muhammad), from which Al Bukhari of Uzbekistan dismissed almost 600,000 (keeping only about 1%), also present challenges. Al Bukhari, living hundreds of years later and thousands of miles from Mecca, managed to select the 1%. The rest of the orally transmitted Hadiths which he was were dismissed. Other scholars, such as Muslim Ibn Al–Hajjaj (Sahih Muslim), lived centuries later, further complicating the narrative.

    5. The Tafsirs, or interpretations, came even later (in the 10th century).

    Unless one adopts a strong “apologeti”c position, I can’t understand that a good critical scholarship should not be welcomed, also within the islamic belief system.

    • OmarRobb July 1, 2023 at 10:18 am

      I would like to comment on some of your points here:

      1# From the time of Ahmad Deedat (probably the first recorded Islamic debater), the Muslims are claiming that Uthman just standardized the script (i.e. the spelling). But still, the West regarded that Uthman updated the Quran.

      However, it is a free world for forming opinions, but I would assume that it would be more fair to highlight first what the Muslims are claiming then to attach other opinions afterwards.

      To my opinion, this is not totally fair because an academic opinion should be supported with data (i.e. evidences), and the West opinion here is without data, and the Muslims claim are clarified with answers about the What, When, Where, Who, Why, and How. Therefore, it is a claim with details.

      Nonetheless, it might be more fair just to clarify first what the Muslims are claiming in this regard before attaching other opinions, specially that the only source for this matter is just the Muslims, and even if some of the Western Scholars decided to be suspicious of any data the came from the Muslims, still, they need first to clarify the claims of the source.


      • OmarRobb July 1, 2023 at 10:19 am


        2# The first attempt to gather the Quran was about a year after Muhammed. The criteria were simple: the verses of the Quran need to be supported by one written document and two trusted witnesses (at least). So, your conclusion about the first Muslims distrusting the oral tradition is not very accurate.

        3# The Islamic culture did encourage memorizing the Quran from the start. You need to read the Quran when praying and you cannot hold a book while praying. I don’t think the Torah was widely memorized, neither the NT, but the Quran was memorized from many of the people (scholars and commons) from the start until today, and this need to be added in the critical analysis parameters.

        4# Stephen did mentioned that Al-Bukhari rejected 530k hadith, but looking at the references, it didn’t say that he rejected 530k, but he selected 70k. Al-Bukhari in his Saheeh have selected the most trusted narrators.

        For example, Al-Turmithi is a well-known auditor, but he included narrators that are Accepted. A person with high morality and high Memory would be regarded Trusted, but a person with high morality and normal memory would be regarded Accepted.


      • OmarRobb July 1, 2023 at 10:20 am


        So, Al-Bukhari was very selective. Therefore, the implying that comes with the word “Selected” is different than the implying from the word “Rejected”.

        However, the West can form the opinions they want, but it would be more fair to clarify first the data that are claimed by the source.

        5# Ibn-Ishaq and Ibn-Hisham are not authoritative books in regard to the life of Muhammed. So, it would be fair if the West want to use these books in their analysis to clarify first the Muslims position of these books.

        6# The West have used the “Anonymous Oral Tradition” (AOT) to highlight many things that they regarded true. I would assume that the “chain oral tradition” (COT) is much more accurate, because we know more data about the transmission of this tradition compared with AOT. However, if we are going to regard all “Oral Tradition” (OT) to be inaccurate then we need to cancel all human history from before 1900, because all of human history depend on OT.

        Also, If scholars are not consistent with their methods of critical analysis, then these scholars are biased.

        7# Al-Bukhari was born in 810 AD, Muslim Ibn Hajaj was born in 822 AD.

      • OmarRobb July 1, 2023 at 10:40 am

        There is an error in my previous comment: the Hadith in Al-Bukhari Saheeh is 7k not 70k.

  17. AngeloB June 29, 2023 at 11:24 pm

    I started reading your chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity. Interesting stuff! Thanks Stephen.

  18. ByronS June 30, 2023 at 4:15 pm

    I very much enjoyed your post and your book The Death of a Prophet. For most of my life, I thought that the Quran had been written down as soon as Mohammed recited the verses. I had first read about some of the textual criticism efforts in Tom Holland’s In the Shadow of the Sword. A couple of matters caught my eye: (a) Holland’s description of research that suggests “Mecca” was really “Jerusalem” and (b) the fact that some scholars have even questioned the existence of Mohammed. Are these fairly fringe positions or is there some worthy scholarly debate in these areas. Thanks again and I look forward to future posts!

    • sshoema July 24, 2023 at 7:19 pm

      Sorry to be slow on the reply here. As for the first, something is going on with Jerusalem. Something big. But the later tradition really wanted to focus instead on Mecca. So it is hard to tell exactly what Jerusalem’s status was. But i think originally it was more important than Mecca, and I have argued the reasons why.

      As for Muhammad not existing, well, that’s just silly in my judgment. I think there was a founder for this movement whose later followers regarded him as a prophet. That person existed. Some people have suggested Muhammad wasn’t really his name, but was instead a later honorific title given to him. I don’t agree with that, but even if that were the case – so what?

      Same holds true with Jesus, as Bart has explained. Odds strongly favor both men having existed.

  19. riverart June 30, 2023 at 6:38 pm

    I just want to thank both of you for your discussion as it answered some questions of my own about the origins of the Qur’an and Islam and has lead me to additional sources to read.
    Without intending any disrespect or condescension to Omar or Stephen, your back and forth reminds me very much of my discussions and debates with Christian Fundamentalists and Jehovah Witnesses and proves to me exactly what Stephen stated in his post about Qur’anic scholarship being stuck at the stage that Christian Scholarship was at in the mid 19th century.
    The majority of the scholarship on the Qur’an comes from believers, as a result it appears to me to all be of an apologetic nature very much in the style of scholarship practiced by the two Christian groups I previously mentioned.
    What I mean by that is that the scholarship is coming from a perspective that the text in question is 100% genuine, inerrant and divinely inspired. The point of it is to uphold and prove the validity of the text as opposed to questioning the accuracy, origins, authorship and historically validity. An apologist and and a critical analyst are unlikely to come to the same conclusions.

    • sshoema July 12, 2023 at 2:30 pm

      riverart and other BEB members: my apologies firstly for holding up the comments! I did not realize how the system works – I’m not much of an online media kind of guy. But this has been straightened out thankfully.

      Also, I was on a vacation for the last couple of weeks, without much internet much of the time. So I was not paying attention to this at all. For various reason I only saw Omar’s comments initialy. But I am back now, and should have another post on radiocarbon dating following soon.

      I’m really glad to see that this has occasioned so much discussion! Yes, this is a tricky issue as you rightly note, riverart, but in other ways it is simple. We are simply coming at the matter with two different estimations of the later tradition’s reliability. And in the case of early Islam, I see no reason whatsoever to have any more confidence in later tradition’s memory of origins than I do in the case of early Christianity. If you want to learn more why I think that, then have a look at Creating the Qur’an (https://luminosoa.org/site/books/m/10.1525/luminos.128/) or some of my other works mentioned previously.

  20. riverart June 30, 2023 at 6:55 pm

    The distinction of the chain oral tradition vs anonymous o.t. is interesting but this is something that other faiths claim as well. Judaism claims an unbroken chain of oral tradition for the oral law until it was finally committed to writing in 70 C.E. after the destruction of the Second Temple.

    While Omar, disagrees with Stephen on how long the oral tradition was spread before adding the chain, Omar’s date of 40 years after the death of Muhammed vs Stephen’s date of 100 years before the establishment of the “chain” certification still leaves a lot of time for competing oral traditions to spread without any certification of their origins. The chain argument whether it is established 40 or 100 years later is still one that we then have to take on “faith”.

    Working in Education for 30+ years, I’ve introduced many students to the concept of oral transmission and its inherent faults. In 20 minutes, I can pass a story to a student who then recites it privately to another and so on until the last student recites it back to me. The story always changes. I can only imagine the changes that 20 or 30 years would make.

  21. GeoffClifton July 1, 2023 at 11:42 am

    Thank you, Stephen, for a fascinating post. I was one of many Blog members who was very much looking forward to just such a post as this and you certainly didn’t disappoint. However, it clearly is a sensitive subject as the above comments demonstrate. I took part (a few years ago) in an online course (organised by Muslim University lecturers in Britain) which looked at possible influences within the Qu’ran of early Christian writings. Unfortunately the lecturers (even though they were practising Muslims) received some very angry feedback from one particular student who refused to accept that the Qu’ran was anything other than than the pure, unadulterated word of God.
    Just an off-topic thought: has anyone ever done a critical analysis of the Book of Mormon? I guess that could be a sensitive subject too.

  22. FrankLoomer July 1, 2023 at 7:40 pm

    Stephen, no matter what you write, i think Omar will just expound at greater length and firmness how you are wrong. Ask Bart about that sort of thing. Your comments about Chriztian literalists seem much to the point here.

  23. Zach_G July 2, 2023 at 8:30 pm

    Thanks for posting Stephen. This is really quite illuminating. Do you generally find that when you write on this subject in an Internet forum, it’s like chum in the water for apologists?

  24. DirkCampbell July 3, 2023 at 10:59 am

    Having read through all the comments here (including the large amount of special pleading from our Muslim friend) I notice the absence of references to Jay Smith and al-Fadi’s CIRA youtube series. Is that because they are not considered rigorous enough, or because as Christians they are not impartial? Dan Gibson’s research on the likely birthplace of Muhammad in Petra is pretty fascinating. Petra conforms to the descriptions in the qur’an of ‘the mother of cities’ whereas Mecca certainly does not. It would seem that the location was changed from Petra to Mecca for political reasons but the qur’anic text was not modified accordingly.

    • OmarRobb July 12, 2023 at 10:40 am

      Researchers who {only present the supporting data for their affirmed assured conclusions while ignoring the main opposing data (or presenting these data unfairly)} are probably biased.

      In my view, Jay Smith is biased in his research and analysis.

      For Gibson’s hypothesis:

      There are essential data that are missing from his hypothesis that should have been addressed:

      1# Who is the ruler that changed the praying direction from Petra? when was that, and how the Muslims reacted?

      2# Petra is the Greek name for the city, and the Nabataean name is Raqeem. This is known from the historical records and the archaeological inscriptions. This city was never named as Mecca.

      Gibson needs to address this matter.

      3# From the historical records and archaeological findings, Petra encountered a devastating earthquake about 360AD, which destroyed a large part of the city. Many people start to leave the city gradually aftermath until the population were no longer sufficient to maintain the city, especially the complex water-supply system. Hence after, the city was quickly abandoned. It is suggested that at 500AD, there were no one in Petra and the city was lost to history for a long time.

      Gibson needs to address this matter.

  25. RizwanAhmed July 3, 2023 at 9:42 pm

    While it’s true that much of the Islamic traditions about Muhammad are late and unreliable, that’s a different issue from the historical study of the Quran. A historical critical study of the Quran isn’t as advanced or old as the Biblical one, but it certainly exists and has existed for quite a while now. Though we don’t have an entire copy of the Quran dating from the time of Muhammad, there is good evidence (manuscripts and a growing set of inscriptions) suggesting that the consonantal core of the text does indeed go back to Muhammad’s time. The rasm has been shown by Marjin van Putten to be of Hijazi dialect, meaning it certainly wasn’t produced nearly a hundred years later in Damascus. The idea that Abd al-Malik produced the Quran is honestly a rather far fetched idea which is refuted by a rather large amount of scriptural evidence.

    As a side note, I find Reynold’s “The Qur’an and Bible” as a fantastic source for anyone interested in the historical link between the Quran and the texts and traditions of the world in which it was born.

  26. riverart July 4, 2023 at 1:11 pm

    This discussion highlights for me the difficulties in reaching consensus in Religious scholarship. There will always be at minimum two camps – believers and unbelievers. The construction or belief in “reliable” oral transmission is an apologetic argument of the religious faithful believer as to why their scripture and therefore their faith is reliable in spite of what non-sectarian, non-believing academics know from experience – oral transmission is not a reliable means of transmission. You will never get 100% percent accuracy. That’s not to say that the core message of an oral tradition would necessarily be lost or changed but the idea that you would get word for word accuracy over the span or years, decades or even centuries of or oral transmission is not feasible.

    • OmarRobb July 12, 2023 at 10:29 am

      Thank you, Riverart.

      I did write a point to point reply, but it was long, so I put it in this link:


      This is not an article; it is just a 9-points reply to your 3 comments.

      However, I will put here a brief for the first two points:

      1# In my comments, did I imply anything related to faith, beliefs, or metaphysics?

      How am I acting as an apologetic by discussing a type of an “Oral Tradition”?

      The Chain-Oral-Tradition (COT) has nothing to do with faith and we don’t regard COT to be God’s inspired method. But the COT is a method that is recognized by common sense and understanding probabilities. I will discuss this further in point 6.

      2# We don’t regard Al-Bukhari book to be God’s inspired book, and if you asked all Muslims about Al-Bukhari book then they will tell you that it is the most accurate book after the Quran. But the word “most accurate” does imply that it is not totally accurate. I do admit that many Scholars act as though Al-Bukhari book is totally accurate, but there were many well-known Muslims Scholars that rejected some narratives in Al-Bukhari ….

      • riverart July 13, 2023 at 6:01 pm

        It’s quite clear to me from the replies to Stephen’s post that we won’t agree on the reliability of COT. I understand the examples you sent me and the only point that I’ll address because I don’t think it’s been mentioned yet is the qualification for the people who were passing on the tradition “being morally good and having good memories”. Lee Strobel makes an almost identical argument as your example in his book “The Case for Christ”. Dr. Erhman has previously addressed the flaws in the logic of that argument so I won’t repeat them here.

        In my view the nature of what your describing is still a form of Apologetics, what I mean by that is simply that it’s a defense of the faith. I do promise to read the article that you linked about COT and if anything in it changes my mind then I’ll let you know. I very sincerely thank you for taking the time to reply to me and for linking the article. At the end of the day, while we may not be in agreement or reach any consensus, I still find the discussion very valuable in furthering mutual understanding.

        • OmarRobb July 16, 2023 at 7:18 am

          I am not trying to change your mind, because this is related to the belief system and this is a very complex system, which surprisingly, logic is not the major factor in it. So, I am not heading there. My aim was to clarify some points from a specific perspective and to put on the table some possible new thoughts. I think I was clear about this aim in point 9 in my pdf reply.

          For Strobel opinion: This is the same as your previous example of the Talmud, and both are not an apple to apple comparison: regardless of Strobel opinion, the data related to Christ was transmitted via AOT; because we know nothing about the people who transmitted this data. This is completely different than the COT as I have explained before and I will repeat it here again: In the COT, we know exactly the people who transmitted the data from the event to the documentation. We know where they born and died, their career, their teachers and students, what the people have said about them, etc. And there is a clear criteria of how to identify the trusted from the weak narrator.


        • OmarRobb July 16, 2023 at 7:20 am


          The irony here is that I shouldn’t be telling you all of this, because this should have been the job of the WSIS: they should have explained to the Western Audience the data available “as is” from the source (i.e. what the ancient Muslims Scholars have said) then-after. they need to analyze this data. Also, this is not related to the “faith” of the WSIS or any anyone “else”, it is about analyzing the “available data”.

          However, if the Western Scholars accepted many data based on the AOT for the NT and others, then the data that is based on multiple COTs should have more weight. But the WSIS just decided to ignore all the COT. So, I am asking here: Do the WSIS think that the anonymous people are more trusted than the well-known ones!!!

          To me, this is not “critical analysis”. To me this is bias.

          However, this is our common sense and our understanding for the probability analysis, and I acknowledge your right to disagree with all of that regardless whether you have supporting data or not.

          Thank you for having the time to look at my long pdf reply.

  27. michael2911 July 6, 2023 at 1:03 pm

    I read Tom Holland’s In the Shadow of the Sword, which I can’t really recommend because it is mostly NOT about Islam. He takes a critical view of Islam’s beginnings. He even appears to doubt the location of Mecca corresponds to the current location (although the Shias didn’t see fit to challenge its location during the reign of Abd al-Malik, and Abd al-Malik’s power base was in Damascus, and Mecca was quite far from his power base). Most of what we have from Islam’s earliest days comes from Christian sources, not Islamic ones. One similarity is that, the Quran, like the canonical books of the NT, appears to be the best source for the subject material even among critical scholars. Inscriptions from the Quran date back to the earliest days of Islam, but the Hadiths were by and large written down much later. The conclusion I drew is that anyone wanting to divulge the reality of the early days of Islam has their work cut out for them.

  28. SHameed01 July 10, 2023 at 9:47 pm

    As somebody who has been studying Islam alongside with Christianity for over the course of decades and who ALSO COMES from a Muslim background, I would love more than anything to deeply examine and thoroughly study the topic of early Islam at a PhD level. At the age of 36, I do not know if it’s even worth pursuing this greatest dream of mine now. Not trying to complain, but if things went the way I wanted in life trust me I would have been to Islam what Dr. Ehrman is to Christianity. Is it too late for me to get into a PhD program? I don’t know.

    • BDEhrman July 13, 2023 at 9:48 am

      I generally don’t recommend PhD programs for anyone who isn’t willing to commit many years of full time study and considerable resources (without any assurance of employment afterward) to it. IT’s way too painful. Plus even getting into a program is terribly difficult; for both Islamic and early Christian studies just to get admitted into a program requires substantial work already in the relevant languages (Arabic or Greek, etc.) along with lots of academic preparatoin int he fields themselves. the best thing to do is to devote a chunk of life to reading scholarship, and maybe taking online courses, etc.

      • SHameed01 July 13, 2023 at 12:54 pm

        I am deeply passionate about studying and really insanely going into the depths of early Islam and do have a bachelor’s degree but in Economics. Problem is I have not done any work so far in the field except do online and book reading research, while at the same time I am working 40 hours a week at a retail grocery story (long story…). I also live with my parents who are the ones supplying me a home to live in, so I am in a very financially tight spot. So I do thank you for your giving a reality check like response, not being sarcastic.

        However, in light of what I have further shared, what would your advice be? Should I still make attempts in pursuing a phD or not? I mean I am 36 already and now that I look at it in retrospect, I do wish I started at least ten years to pursue my phD passion lol.

  29. Hank_Z July 12, 2023 at 10:43 pm

    Stephen, in your opinion, do some Western scholars shy away from a historical-critical analysis of the Quran because of the fear of physical harm? If that is a material factor, I believe it’s important to recognize it.

  30. Frank July 14, 2023 at 6:19 pm

    Garry Wills, former professor and, like myself, former-SJ, wrote a treatment reading the Qur’an, i.e., iWhat the Qur’an Meant (Penguin: 2017) and noted the sacred text is much like the Tanakh, but more about water.

    I read the ‘Koran’ while in high school before my time spent in the seminary. I found it interesting, albeit a bit confusing in its organization. I went on to study Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Arabic, spending 2 years in Lebanon reading the Qur’an in Arabic and conversing with Qur’anic scholars.

    After the first great schism in 632 CE, there appeared disputed several versions of Qur’an complecated by the prophet, Muhammud, nerver having written anything down but recited it because he could neither read or write his native Language.

    Each of the major Sects, the Sunni and the Shi’ya have several different versions–which most Muslim Qur’anic scholars contend are minor versions of the same thing.

    Garry Wills read read the Qur’an in translation. While there is a poetic feature found the Qur’an in its ‘Quranic Arabic,’ is seen reading many the Hebrew Bible–Proverbs, Psalms and the Song of Solomon, Garry Will’s interpretaion of what he read is very much in line with my impressions.

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