Monday, 30 April 2012

An Analysis of Abul Kasem's "Who Authored the Qur'an?"

I encountered Abul Kasem here, in one of his series of pernicious articles about Islam. I was distressed to see that he has been widely quoted and lauded. I hope that this response to his "Who Authored the Qur'an?" will draw attention to Kasem's untrustworthy methodology, and encourage readers to be more sceptical when approaching primary sources for Islamic history.

Occasionally this article will refer to the Tradition. By this I mean nothing more than the sum of ḥadīth, sīra, and maghāzī, which, along with the Qurʼān and a handful of less reliable non-Arabic texts, make up the primary sources for research into the life of Muḥammad. I remind the reader that I am not a Muslim, but a secular historian who uses Muslim texts in order to understand the past.

I apologise in advance for the mistakes or omissions that you will surely find; please let me know of them, and I will amend the article accordingly. In fact, any feedback (be polite!) would be appreciated.

An Analysis of Abul Kasem's "Who Authored the Qur'an?" 

I'd like to begin with some general observations. Kasem's article is very, very poor. He does himself no favours by describing his past, which only serves to emphasise how emotionally bound he is to his subject. Given how little we know about sixth-century western Arabia, it takes unreasonable confidence to declare anything “an absolute fact”. The author shows no sensitivity for source criticism, relying heavily on primary sources where none should be taken as authoritative: a ḥadīth rarely “unmistakably shows” anything, given the Tradition's complicated history. Much of the following essay deals with Kasem's abuse of the primary sources.

If Kasem had read the Tradition in tandem with good modern historians, he might have done better. Sadly, his secondary sources are outdated and poorly selected. St. Clair-Tisdall does not feature in modern historical works because, despite his obvious erudition, he was a polemicist, not a historian. T.P. Hughes was a missionary, whose Dictionary is an uncritical distillation of the Tradition, helpful to beginners but not to researchers. Nöldeke is still respected, even referenced, by modern historians; but, given the enormous advances in early-Islamic studies over the past century, we should always cite scholars from more recent decades if possible.

Now, on to the nitty-gritty. Kasem's essay is thoroughly bad, so a point-by-point refutation would be inappropriate. I hope you will tolerate the abysmally loose structure of this analysis.


It's true that the earliest Muslim sources portray the pre-Islamic ijāz as polytheistic, and it's reasonable to assume that Muammad participated in his culture's religion. Despite the impression one might get from this article, there is nothing new or especially controversial about these ideas.

Sadly, Kasem offers that al-Lāh was a “moon god”, without providing a reference. I've seen this claim made a few times, never with sufficient evidence, never by a serious historian; as far as I know, it is completely without basis. The crescent moon did not become an Islamic symbol until the Ottoman period, and even then its significance was cultural rather than mythological. The 'moon god' hypothesis has grown out of a proposed 'trinity' common to the Middle East, consisting of a lunar father, a solar mother, and their child, Venus. If this triad existed in other times and places, it is not evidenced in the sixth- and seventh-century ijāz; it has no place in discussions about early Islam.

In fact, al-Lāh – the name itself means simply “God” – seems to have been a sort of 'high' god: the most distant and powerful, and the least anthropomorphic, of the Arab pantheon. Furthermore, as Kasem's second quotation from Ibn al-Kalbī suggests, the minor gods could intercede on behalf of mortals, but they were at all times subordinate to al-Lāh. Gerard Hawting goes so far as to suggest that the tribal gods were not 'true' gods – this being an eighth-century interpretation of the extinct religion – but rather angels, Christian icons, and so on, which the iconoclastic Muammad decried as a distraction from the true God. (I'm not sure how to respond to the revelation that the name al-Lāh existed in some poetry, except with a terse, Well, yeah: He was kinda well known.)

Whatever the nature of the pre-Islamic Meccan religion, there's no doubt that Muammad's alternative was fully monotheistic, as the Qurʼān, and the behaviour of Muslims over the next few generations, bears out. That he co-opted divine epithets from other monotheistic communities is not surprising. The examples given, al-raḥmān (roughly, 'the Gracious') and al-rabb ('the Lord'), are simply respectful names for the one God, no different in principle from modern Christians' references to the Father, the Lord, or the Almighty. The story about the Jews of al-Yamāma serves to demonstrate the ignorance of the Meccans: that is, the story is a useful polemic against Jāhiliyya, and in no way suggests that al-raḥmān is other than the monotheistic GodKasem has utterly misunderstood his sources.


If Muḥammad was indeed illiterate, this needn't have been a major obstacle to his composing inspirational verse. I doubt that he was, because such claims bear greater doctrinal than historical weight: that is, illiteracy would help to distance him from earlier scriptures, making his achievements appear miraculous. The Qurʼān does not mention his illiteracy; the Tradition interprets the word ummī (7:157) as meaning 'illiterate', but this exegesis is unconvincing, and other, more credible, interpretations have been offered. In any case, Muḥammad had early access to converts who adored his revelations, and who apparently made an effort to learn and record the verses for safe-keeping.

Kasem recounts a ḥadīth (Bukhārī 5.59.379) in which some Muslims, forgetting how part of a sūra went, asked a friend and were reminded. He takes this as proof of 'manipulation'. I cannot see how he reached this conclusion. The Tradition depicts the collection of materials into one definitive Qurʼān, after Muḥammad's death, as a collective effort of many people in the community. Although Muḥammad had scribes, their precise role is uncertain: while they might have written some revelations, especially after the hijra, they certainly didn't try to collate all the verses within Muḥammad's lifetime. That some Muslims engaged in the process weren't “official” scribes (whatever that means in a medieval oasis town) is wholly irrelevant, and needn't imply that the text was substantially, or at all, altered.


Kasem misunderstands the story about ʻAbdullāh b. Saʻd b. Abī al-Sarḥ, identified traditionally as the “scribe of revelation”. Our sources probably recount the mischief caused by ʻAbdullāh in order to attack his extended family, the Umayyad dynasty, by proxy: the tale serves a polemical purpose. If we read as the sources intend, ʻAbdullāh guessed the ending to a verse when Muammad paused; having so done, he arrogantly assumed that he was also divinely inspired, or that Muammad was fraudulent, depending on the account. Reading between the lines, we might conclude that ʻAbdullāh had good reason for doubting Muammad's abilities – there being no other apparent reason for his leaving – but the story itself is about ʻAbdullāh's mistaken pride. He publicly claims that he guided Muammad, which is so clearly a lie that the Islamic historians writing this story needn't say so – and yet Muammad offers him clemency and he returns to the community. Kasem omits this ending, oddly enough.

This is a story about errancy, arrogance and mercy, and it also takes a subliminal swipe at the unpopular Umayyad aristocracy. Meanwhile the (thematically similar) story about the anonymous Christian is intended to prove the wrath of God attendant on those who deny the truth of the Revelation. So angry is God with this liar that the earth will not accept his tainted corpse. Since the man is not named, and since the cartoonish fate of his corpse is patently fictitious, I imagine that he never did exist: the story was fabricated for a polemical purpose. Yet again, Kasem reads these narratives literally, and uses his mistaken conclusions to prop up his spindly thesis. I can't press this point enough: Kasem is a clumsy, tactless, source-grubbing pamphleteer, and not an historian.


Clearly Muammad's sacred verse dealt with issues and imagery similar to those found in profane poetry. They might even have been stylistically similar, but our sources are of lamentable scarcity and quality, so we can only speculate. There were probably accusations that Muammad was a poet: indeed, the Tradition insists that the Qurʼān is not poetry, directly in response to such critics. Kasem takes this to mean that Muammad was in fact plagiarising from other poets. Yet the snippets of poetic and qurʼānic text given don't look all that much alike. Even if they did, this might suggest contamination of the poem by better-known qurʼānic language during the seventh and eighth centuries: although the Qurʼān was quickly written down for safe-keeping, poetry was retained orally pretty much exclusively, and was susceptible to changes along with the fashion of the day. A good historian would have considered this, but Kasem doesn't even entertain the possibility.

I can't find the story about Imrāʼ al-Qays's daughter in the original sources, because he (and St. Clair-Tisdall) have declined to offer a reference, and I suspect that the last line of the quotation – “the story is commonly told amongst the Arabs until now” – means that it is not part of the early Tradition, but merely an apocryphal story told by modern-era Arabs. If the story is part of the Tradition, that still doesn't mean that the daughter was right; merely that she believed so. Remember that Imrāʼ al-Qays had been dead for some time; that his poetry is likely to have evolved in the intervening time; that it dealt with similar issues to the Qurʼān's, commenting on the human condition, forces natural and supernatural, war and love; that the language of the Qurʼān was as moving to the early Muslims as al-Qays's had been to their parents; that we are often overly protective of our parents' memory. She might well have been annoyed that Muammad's art was flourishing, while her father's faded into obscurity; and if she didn't believe Muammad's supernatural claims, her anger at this fraudulent upstart, at she saw him, must have been acute.

In short, Kasem is indiscriminate in his use of sources to support a thesis that he dearly wants to be true. He does not try to empathise with or to 'understand' his sources; they are just evidentiary matter for him to manipulate. He has found no support from serious contemporary academics, but he is happy to use a poorly-sourced polemic from an early-twentieth-century amateur in order to bolster his preconception. He is uncritical and careless. But leaving aside all of these trenchant objections, consider this: had Muammad stolen from al-Qays – by all accounts, one of the best-known poets in the region – people would have noticed. Kasem does not credit this culture, which places such value on poetry and the prestige of its artists, with the ability to recognise plagiarism.


The idea that Zayd b. ʻAmr or Ḥassān b. Thābit wrote parts of the Qurʼān is pure supposition, and shouldn't be taken seriously. An influence on Muammad is possible, but its extent would be impossible to determine. The stories about Zayd's journey to becoming a ḥanīf were probably told to support the Muslim idea that theirs is the primitive monotheism of Abraham, and have little value as history. Zayd was not, as far as I can tell, a humanist, but since Kasem does not expand on this assertion, I shan't linger on the point.

He observes that Ḥassān was useful as a propagandist and satirist, which seems fair enough; but he fails to connect this with the Qurʼān at all, merely assuming a connection. The quotation from Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, 031.6081, does not at all indicate that Ḥassān's poems “were similar to certain Qur'anic verses”, and invokes the Holy Spirit only insofar as talented people are supported by God when they serve His cause: we've all heard artists and musicians claim that God 'helped' them, and this is no more profound a claim than that. Kasem then asserts that the land which Ḥassān received from Abū Ṭalḥa's estate was payment for having composed qurʼānic verses, and implies that the slave Sīrīn was likewise. Again, there is no evidence offered to bear this out: rather, Ḥassān was paid for doing his job as a poet-propagandist. I'm not even sure what the quotation involving ʻĀʼisha is meant to prove, other than that Ḥassān was a highly esteemed member of the community. Let me emphasise this point: there is no evidence for his assertions about Ḥassān. At all. None.

As for Labīd: that Muḥammad approved of some sentiments expressed by a poet does not mean that he plagiarised from him, nor that the poet had a major compositional influence. Kasem is scrabbling for evidence to support a thesis, rather than letting the evidence lead him to a conclusion.


Kasem offers no compelling reason to believe that Jabr, Ibn Qumta, Ubayy b. Kaʻb, ʻAbdullāh b. Salām, Mukhayriq and Waraqa b. Nawfal, or Salmān contributed a single word to the Qurʼān. He simply states that they must have taught Muḥammad about other religions, and that he must have taken entire verses from them. Khadīja is assumed to be an ideological conduit between her cousin and her husband. This is garbage. No serious historian doubts that Muḥammad was a product of his environment – who isn't? – and it is very likely that he learned about different religious traditions from their practitioners; it is an altogether different claim that he conspired with them, or plagiarised from them, to write a sacred text synthesising their ideas. Failing to offer supporting references for “brevity's sake” is highly dubious, given this article's poor sourcing generally, and when Kasem does quote the Qurʼān, he never explains why it is that these segments must have been written by non-Muslims.

The ideas and imagery to which he draws our attention were most likely 'in the air' at the time. The ijāz lay at the crossroads between Yemeni and Israeli Judaism, Ethiopic and Byzantine Christianity, Syro-Mesopotamian Gnostic cults, and Persian Mazdak- and Manichaeism. Kasem would have Muammad consciously stealing imagery from other religions, whereas diffusion is hardly ever conscious: most of us, in every generation, are completely ignorant of where our beliefs come from, or how they reached us, or their mutations over time. He might have written an entertaining article about the origins of qurʼānic imagery, consulting proper historians along the way instead of conspiracy nuts and olde-worlde theologians; but what he has produced is, unfortunately, a paranoid depiction of Muammad as some master of deception, maintaining a secret network of scribes and poets that, curiously, is never hinted at in the sources.


The Tradition's account of Salmān's life shouldn't be taken too seriously. Like Zayd's path to enlightenment, Salmān's serves a theological purpose. It is almost certainly not historical. The same is true of Baḥīrā, who might never have existed; Kasem's claims about him are unadulterated speculation, and again there is no reference given. The qurʼānic verse he offers as a supporting quotation is patently ambiguous – some amateurs believe that it refers to Ibn Qumta; I'm unaware of a dominant scholarly interpretation –, but even if it did refer to Baḥīrā, that would not mean that the monk in fact gave Muḥammad material with which to work; merely that this was alleged.

Stories about Muammad's early contact with Jews and Christians proliferated shortly after the Conquests, for obvious reasons: non-Muslims liked to claim that Muammad stole ideas from, and perverted, their theologies, while Muslims liked to claim that pre-Islamic 'holy men', such as Baḥīrā, recognised Muammad's future as a prophet, or that former non-Muslim monotheists were so convinced of Muammad's obvious prophethood that they joined him. Occasionally the same stories were twisted for two or three conflicting polemical purposes, with amusing results for historians.

Again, there's no sign that Kasem comprehends his sources. He doesn't 'get' that these narratives have context, and should be read critically for polemical bias, or tell-tale tropes and themes; he doesn't understand that they have didactic, legal, or theological significance. He rips stories from their setting and glues them into some grotesque pseudo-historical collage, for the sake of his Big Idea: that Muammad plagiarised the Qurʼān.


Kasem's section on the Ṣābīans is entirely worthless, because he relies on an outdated, unscholarly 'Dictionary of Islam', which does not take into account the revolution in source criticism that has taken place in the past century. My understanding is that the Tradition is rather confused about the Ṣābīans' identity, hinting at their being astrologers, polytheists, platonists and baptists. The Ṣābīans remain unverified, and a few conflicting theories are still discussed. Perhaps Muammad understood the word to mean something different from the Ṣābīans' own usage. In any case, Kasem's certainty about Ṣābīan practice is unfounded, and so his conclusions can be dismissed as delusory.

There is an amusing contrast, by the way, between something that Kasem writes – “He regarded them [the Ṣābīans] as the true believers of Allah” – and what's in the Dictionary he likes to quote from: “Muhammad regarded them as believers in the true God.” If you can see how far Kasem has twisted the original meaning here, then just imagine how cynical he has been elsewhere. Muḥammad did not consider the Ṣābīans “the true believers of Allah”; rather, he counted them amongst the monotheists whose religions were imperfect but righteous – exactly as they are portrayed in the qurʼānic quotations which Kasem then gives us.


There are still issues in Kasem's article which I have not discussed here, and I don't intend to. His comments on ʻĀʼisha are, as far as I can tell, totally irrelevant to his argument; those on Ibn Umm Maktūm ran the risk of being interesting and appropriate, but thankfully he failed to provide any analysis, earning himself a 10/10 for lack of critical insight. This is one of the shoddiest, nastiest, ugliest pieces of non-scholarship it has been my misfortune to read, and I urge you to dismiss Abul Kasem as a pissed-off crank who hasn't the slightest idea how to read and write history.

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