The Search for Heretics: Christianity and the Qurʾan

By Gabriel Reynolds

The tradition of western scholarship on the “sources” of the Qurʾan is usually traced to Abraham Geiger’s 1833 work, Was hat Mohammed aus dem Judenthume aufgenommen (“What did Muhammad Take up from Judaism?”).  While Geiger’s work is focused on the Jewish sources of the Qurʾan, others would soon write works focused on the Christian sources of the Qurʾan.  Yet there was something different about works devoted to Christianity and the Qurʾan.  While neither Geiger nor others interested in Judaism showed any particular concern for Jewish heresies or heterodox Jewish doctrine, scholars who wrote on Christianity and the Qurʾan were often fascinated with Christian heresies.

Arius (d. 336) (

Arius (d. 336)

This fascination seems to be connected with a phrase that is (falsely) attributed to Theodoret of Cyrrhus (d. 458 or 466), in which Arabia is described as haeresium ferax, the “bearer” (or “mother”) of heresies.  Scholars, inspired in part by this phrase, often seem to imagine that in the Prophet Muhammad’s day the deserts of Arabia were teeming with Christian heretics who had fled the merciless enforcers of Chalcedonian orthodoxy in Byzantium.  In 1900, for instance, the Protestant missionary Samuel Zwemer wrote:

Not only was religious life at a low level in all parts of Christendom but heresies were continually springing up to disturb the peace or to introduce gigantic errors. Arabia was at one time called “the mother of heresies.”  The most flagrant example was that of the Collyridians, in the fourth century, which consisted in a heathenish distortion of Mariolatry. Cakes were offered to the Holy Virgin, as in heathen times to Ceres. (The Cradle of Islam, 306–7)

Richard Bell, writing in 1925, felt that Arabs were particularly susceptible to heresies:

Arabia (by which probably is meant the Roman province of Arabia, not the land of the nomads) had a reputation in the early Church as a source of heresies. That is perhaps not to be wondered at if we remember that in these regions the Greek and the Semitic mind were in contact, and in a manner in conflict. For the Semitic elements of the Church all along had difficulty in following the subtleties of the Greek intellect. . . . It is possible, however, that some of the heretical movements persecuted in the Empire may have sought refuge in Arabia and helped to form the soil out of which Islam grew. (The Origin of Islam in Its Christian Environment, 20)

In this sort of historical context it seems that, wherever he turned, Muhammad couldn’t have helped bumping into a heretic.  Robert Speer, speaking at the 1911 Lucknow missionary conference, blamed the influence of Christian heretics for Muhammad’s failure to convert to Christianity:

The view of Christianity which lies at the base of Islam and which led Muhammad to repudiate it was a false view.  He had never met the Christianity of Christ and the Apostles. The Qur’an shows what a travesty of the Gospel had come to him. (“The Attitude of the Evangelist toward the Muslim and His Religion,” 233-34)

It is rare to find this sort of fanciful speculation in scholarship these days, but scholars continue to have recourse to Christian heresies in their efforts to explain the Qurʾan.  Geoffery Parrinder wonders whether the manner in which the Qurʾan insists that God would not “take” a son (Q 2:116; 10:68; 17:111; 18:4; 19:35; 19:88, 91, 92; 21:26; 23:91; 25:2; 39:4; 72:3) is a rejection of “Adoptionist and Arian heretics” (Jesus in the Qurʾan, 127).  Scholars regularly refer to al-Nisaʾ (4) 157, the Qurʾanic verse on the Crucifixion, as “Docetist”—even if Docetists were long gone by the seventh century.  Francois de Blois argues that al-Maʾida (5)116—which has Jesus deny ever telling people to worship him and his mother—takes us on a path “which leads directly to the Nazoraeans of Christian heresiographers”  (“Nasrani and Hanif,” BSOAS 65 [2004], 14).

Yet all of this begs the question of whether there is truly any need to follow a path to Christian heretics.  Other passages suggest that the Qurʾan intentionally employs rhetorical tools such as irony and hyperbole.  When the Qurʾan announces to the Prophet, “Give the good news of a painful punishment” to the unbelievers (Q 44:49), it is employing irony (and to good effect).

How are we to understand al-Tawba (9) 31, where the Qurʾan says of the Jews and Christians, “They have taken their rabbis and monks as Lords”? We could take this verse as a sign that Muhammad met some mysterious clergy-worshipping heretical sect in the Arabian desert—we might call them “Sacerdolaters.”  Or instead we might recognize that the Qurʾan is here using hyperbole. So too for other verses, such as al-Nisaʾ (4) 157 or al-Maʾida (5) 116.

Indeed, perhaps in general we should be less concerned with heretics, and more concerned with rhetoric.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2013. All rights reserved.

The Qur’anic Manuscripts of the Mingana Collection and their Electronic Edition

By Alba Fedeli

1. Birmingham: Qur’anic Manuscripts in the Mingana Collection

Fifteen years ago my late mentor, Sergio Noja Noseda, showed me a few ancient Qur’anic parchments published by Giorgio Levi Della Vida in his 1947 catalogue. Those images were the starting point for Noja Noseda’s studies in Qur’anic manuscripts when he was a young scholar following the advice of Giovanni Galbiati (1881-1966), the prefect of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana.  His story was the starting point of my studies in the same field. Subsequent movements from manuscript to manuscript led me to the University of Birmingham, England, where I am now based.

My research in Birmingham focuses on four early Qur’anic manuscripts of the Mingana collection, held in the Cadbury Research Library. The first fragment (MS Mingana Christian Arabic Additional 150) is a palimpsest that was hidden for many years by its scriptio superior and by being wrongly catalogued as an unknown Christian text.[1] Recently I identified its scriptio inferior as a portion of the Qur’anic text, perfectly fitting together with an incomplete half-folio of the famous Cambridge palimpsested codex, the so called Lewis-Mingana palimpsest (MS Cambridge University Library Or.1287). The second manuscript of the Birmingham collection is MS Mingana Islamic Arabic 1572, nine parchment leaves in two parts. One part fits together with MS Marcel 17 in St. Petersburg and MS MIA67 in the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, whereas the other part fits together with MS BnF ar. 328c in Paris. The third fragment (MS Mingana Islamic Arabic 1563) is composed of 39 parchment leaves. Finally, the Birmingham collection includes an uncatalogued papyri collection that Adolf Grohmann had inspected and recommended to a few German libraries, but due to difficulties in getting payment from Germany in the Thirties, the antiquarian Erik von Scherling of Leiden preferred to sell it to Mingana in Great Britain. Among these papyri, one fragment bears a small section of the Qur’anic text.

It is remarkable that all the fragments have the same provenance, in that after Alphonse Mingana had been appointed curator of the Selly Oak Colleges Library in Birmingham, he purchased from Erik von Scherling the papyri collection in 1934 and then—in May, September and October 1936—the above-mentioned Qur’anic fragments on parchment.[2]

MS Christian Arabic Additional 150, recto. MS Christian Arabic Additional 150, rectoSpecial Collections, University of Birmingham by courtesy of Cadbury Research Library

MS Christian Arabic Additional 150, recto. MS Christian Arabic Additional 150, rectoSpecial Collections, University of Birmingham by courtesy of Cadbury Research Library

2. Birmingham Qur’anic Manuscripts: Text, Contexts and Electronic Edition

First, my research on these Qur’anic fragments focuses on the comprehension of the linguistic characteristics they feature. Notably, a few deviations from the standard text found in the manuscripts reflect the linguistic competence of the scribes who were in charge of writing the text, and these linguistic features appear similar to the linguistic characteristics of early papyri. Secondly, the research explores the manuscript text by comparing it with the literature of the Islamic tradition, in order to comprehend the qirā’āt tradition as it is reflected in early Qur’anic manuscripts.

In addition, my research focuses on Alphonse Mingana’s papers held in the Cadbury Research Library, in seeking to place these manuscripts in their historical context. The papers give important information about the provenance of the manuscripts themselves,[3] as well as interesting information about scholars beyond the official story of their published works–thus depicting the atmosphere of Qur’anic studies in the ’30’s.

The outcome of the study of Birmingham early Qur’anic fragments will be their electronic edition.  Indeed, my work adopts the approach of digital philology in editing and tagging the manuscript texts, so that the text may be converted to XML, thus transferring the rich manuscript evidence to the web. I am doing this work thanks to the support of the Institute of Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing in Birmingham, whose scholars have extensive experience in the field of electronic editions—such as, for example, the Codex Sinaiticus Project.

This electronic edition will be not only an expedient way to exhibit the edition and the analysis of the manuscript text but it will also affect our access to it. The digital tools offer technological solutions suitable for representing the movements of the text and its stratigraphic layers, working contrary to the idea of a fixed edited text. Thus an electronic edition and digital philology represent a different approach to the manuscript text itself.

3. The Tools: Non-linear Editions of Stratigraphic Records in Reproducing Textual Images

The use of digital editions and digital tools in editing codices that are now scattered in various institutions—like the Birmingham-Cambridge or the Birmingham-Doha-St. Petersburg fragments—offers two distinct advantages: first, the possibility of a virtual reunification of the codices and second, the prospects of reconstructing each of the two layers of palimpsested fragments.

In addition to this ideal presentation of a virtual/digital reality, digital editions permit a non-linear edition of stratigraphic records. These Qur’anic fragments are stratigraphic records of information added at different stages. The digital edition perfectly renders their multi-layered nature, taking the reader beyond the limits of the linear printed edition. Early Qur’anic fragments are, in some cases, the results of a settlement of differences, a compromise between two (or three) different systems. In different historical moments the two systems could have been coexisting or competing. The manuscripts express a mélange, a compromise between two systems. The manuscripts’ text is a dynamic text and it has a variant nature. Here I am referring first to the stages of the writing process, in that manuscripts could be a mélange of three systems (coexisting and competing); and second to the coexistence of alternative readings marked by red dots (whereas there is no coexistence of alternative readings marked by diacritical signs), as well as to the competition between two alternative readings.

As regards the first mélange, the different stages of the writing process are marked in these manuscripts using different ink colors, i.e. brown, red and black inks.  In the electronic edition, the stages can be edited using the appropriate tags. Thus tags for first hand writing, second and third copyists/correctors, etc., offer the possibility of a stratigraphic transcription of the manuscript text, in contrast to the linear printed edition.

Furthermore, with reference to the second mélange, electronic editions offer the possibility of transcribing the coexistence and the competition of two different systems and the possible correction in the case of a competition that leads to the suppression of one of the two systems. The appropriate tags of alternative readings and the “corrector tags” attached to one of the two alternative readings offer the possibility of editing the information marked in the script. This means that the electronic edition contains all of the information from the stratigraphic records, so that the edition can later answer specific research questions through the established database.

4. The Manuscript Text: Using Digital Tools and Electronic Editions Means a Different Approach

Thus the digital edition of the Birmingham early Qur’anic fragments results in representing the systems performed in the manuscript text. In fact, if the image of a text (i.e. its transcription) can be viewed as a linguistic structure that represents a system,[4] these ancient Qur’anic manuscripts are particular expressions of the presence of more than one system. Thus the strategies adopted in transcribing the image of the text of the manuscripts and their systems are based on the digital philology tools. The starting point of these strategies chosen in editing and tagging the manuscript texts and the manuscript characteristics—like the above-mentioned tags of first hand and second copyist, as well as of alternative reading—are the guidelines gathered by the Institute of Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing and the manual of David Parker.[5] ITSEE’s Guidelines is a manual specifically pertaining to the transcription of Greek manuscripts, within the International Greek New Testament Project, and we have adapted these Guidelines to the characteristics of the early Arabic manuscripts of the Birmingham collection.

Finally, digital tools are not only tools for rendering in a non-linear edition the systems performed and added at different stages, but they also affect the methodology employed in editing the texts. In fact, the approach to early Qur’anic manuscripts prescribed by the characteristics of digital philology could be important in the field of Qur’anic studies, in that we are presenting the text as a series of manuscript artifacts[6] or, more precisely, as a process.[7] Given the fact that the variants and the characteristics featured in the manuscripts are presented as textual movements, the presumption is that we are considering the text as a process. The Islamic qirā’āt tradition itself has described the history and the transmission of the written text as a process, depicting the variety of the text; whereas early Qur’anic manuscripts reflect this variety, for example, in two coexistent readings.

MS Mingana Islamic Arabic 1563, f.26v, l.2

MS Mingana Islamic Arabic 1563, f.26v, l.2

Coexistence of alternative readings marked by red dots (’an ’asri and ’an-i-sri) in Q.26:52

This is the image of the manuscript text we are exhibiting in the electronic edition of the Birmingham early fragments. The importance of digital philology lies in the change of perspective that will help us to understand the richness of the manuscript texts, without imposing the limiting idea of a critical edition of the Qur’anic text.

[1] The fragment was hidden by a wrong label from 1939 to 2011, i.e. from the publication of the manuscript’s catalogue until its discovery in 2011. In fact it is highly probable that Mingana was aware of the content of the scriptio inferior of the palimpsested fragment, as we can infer from his correspondence about a few experiments he conducted in 1937 in order to obtain photographs of the palimpsest, applying ultraviolet lights.

[2] The details of the provenance of the early Qur’anic fragments of Birmingham were mentioned in Alba Fedeli, “The provenance of the manuscript Mingana Islamic Arabic 1572: dispersed folios from a few Qur’anic quires,” Manuscripta Orientalia, 17, 1 (2011), pp. 45-56.

[3] See the information about the Sinai provenance of MS Mingana Christian Arabic Additional 150 in Alba Fedeli, “The Digitization project of the Qur’anic Palimpsest, MS Cambridge University Library Or. 1287, and the Verification of the Mingana-Lewis Edition: ‘Where is Salām?’”, Journal of Islamic Manuscripts, 2, 1 (2011), pp. 100-117.

[4] Cesare Segre, Semiotica filologica. Testo e modelli culturali. Torino: Giulio Einaudi editore, 1979, pp. 64-65.

[5] David C. ParkerAn Introduction to the New Testament Manuscripts and their Texts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

[6] Peter M.W. Robinson. “Manuscript Politics,” in Chernaik, W., Davis, C. and Deegan, M. (eds.), The Politics of the Electronic Text. Oxford: Office for Humanities Communication, 1993, pp. 9-15.

[7] “Every written work is a process and not an object” is the dictum proposed by D.C. Parker in his Textual Scholarship and the Making of the New Testament, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2012.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2013. All rights reserved.

New! A Bibliography of Qur’anic Studies

By Andrew Rippin



Following is the text of my foreword to Morteza Karimi-Nia, Bibliography of Qur’anic Studies in European Languages (Qum: Center for Translation of the Holy Quran [CTHQ], March 2013). The bibliography is comprised of 8812 entries; as described in Karimi-Nia’s introduction, it is an exhaustive bibliography of books and articles published in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, and Latin, within the time-span of 1500-2012 CE. The works catalogued fall in the following categories: general books and bibliographies, Qur’anic sciences (all branches), history of the Qur’an, Qur’anic scripts and manuscripts, tafsīr works and studies, history of tafsīr and the exegetes, Qur’an translators and translation studies, Qur’anic vocabulary and etymology, studies focusing on Qur’anic verses, Suras, personages, or concepts, Qur’anic scholars, the Qur’an and challenges of the modern world, and critiques of Western Qur’anic works. It does not include translations of the Qur’an as such.


A bibliography is defined as “a list of writings relating to a given subject.” It is that, of course, but it is also so very much more. A bibliography serves to define a field of study and to document that field’s history, contours, and participants. It displays in a lucid way how areas of interest come and go over time, and, in its silences and absences, suggests areas of investigation that still need attention.

This bibliography of Qur’anic studies tells us a great deal about our discipline as it has unfolded in European languages. Several observations may be made. For one, the extent of this bibliography has reached proportions that no individual scholar could hope to be intimately acquainted with all of its entries. That state of affairs reflects not only the general phenomenon of the explosion of knowledge—and of the access to that knowledge—in contemporary times but also the significant increase in interest in the scholarly study of the Qur’an in recent decades. The range of topics that this bibliography covers is impressive as well; it is possible to see the emergence of sub-disciplines within Qur’anic studies in the way subjects start to cohere: manuscript studies, tafsīr studies, textual studies, thematic studies, historical studies, the Qur’an in ritual, and so forth.

It is also worth noticing the range of names associated with the scholarly endeavor of Qur’anic studies reflected in this bibliography. Given that all this writing is in European languages, it is notable that the names of the authors reflect the global diversity that is the academic world today. On the basis of those names alone, one would have difficulty in asserting that research in this area is the domain of one particular culture, language, ethnicity, gender, or religion. This fact signifies a number of things. It shows that the Qur’an has truly entered into the canon of world literature, subject to analysis through a wide range of methods, approaches and presuppositions. It also uncovers a hopeful message for the future. I often encounter expressions of distrust when it comes to considering writings about the Qur’an stemming from “outside” Islam. Certainly it is possible to point to entries in this bibliography that no reputable scholar would wish to cite as anything other than a component in the history of the discipline: the existence of bias and questionable motives on the part of some writers must be acknowledged and we must all be alert to the need to detect it (and to teach our students how to assess their sources critically). However, what a bibliography such as this shows us is the active dialogue and debate that is taking place in the academic world of Qur’anic studies across every border and boundary. And that, I believe, is a positive sign that should encourage further development of scholarly studies of the Qur’an and its world.

In the end, however, a bibliography is primarily a research tool, one that allows us access to what other scholars have investigated. The importance of that cannot be overstated. Scholarship must take place as a conversation, a back-and-forth between the individual academic and the scholarly community. It is only in such a way that scholarship can move ahead; that is also how we come to understand the history of why certain questions have become focal points for investigation and why research questions are framed in the way that they are. Every new piece of scholarship must, if it is to be useful and significant, stand in an acknowledged relationship with what has come before it. Thus, this bibliography is an indispensible tool, and all scholars of the Qurʾān from all around the world owe a substantial debt of gratitude to Morteza Karimi-Nia for his efforts in producing this invaluable resource.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2013. All rights reserved.

The Throne Verse (‘āyat-l-kursī) in Light of Rhetorical Analysis

By Mehdi Azaiez



During the first meeting of the Qur’an Seminar in October of 2012 (an academic project dedicated to advancing scholarly understanding of the Qur’anic text, hosted at the University of Notre Dame), I proposed a particular reading of the throne verse based on rhetorical analysis. This method, which was developed by Michel Cuypers, aims to excavate the Qur’an’s compositional structure. It relies on fundamental “figures of speech” such as parallelism and chiasmus. As Cuypers explains, “the aim of the analysis will therefore essentially be to pinpoint the various forms of symmetry which make up the text, defining the relationships which they have with one another, and the textual divisions which they determine.”[1] I present here an example by applying one aspect of this method to the famous throne verse.

My aim here is to show how compositional features of the verse highlight embedded meanings. I will start by presenting the text and its transliteration and then move on to focus on its composition. (Cuypers’ method also proposes an intertextual study, but for the present purposes we will limit the discussion to composition). Lastly, I will briefly compare examples of classical exegesis of this verse and the result of the rhetorical analysis proposed here.

1.     Text

اللَّهُ لَا إِلَٰهَ إِلَّا هُوَ الْحَيُّ الْقَيُّومُ ۚ لَا تَأْخُذُهُ سِنَةٌ وَلَا نَوْمٌ ۚ لَهُ مَا فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَمَا فِي الْأَرْضِ ۗ مَنْ ذَا الَّذِي يَشْفَعُ عِنْدَهُ إِلَّا بِإِذْنِهِ ۚ يَعْلَمُ مَا بَيْنَ أَيْدِيهِمْ وَمَا خَلْفَهُمْ ۖ وَلَا يُحِيطُونَ بِشَيْءٍ مِنْ عِلْمِهِ إِلَّا بِمَا شَاءَ ۚ وَسِعَ كُرْسِيُّهُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضَ ۖ وَلَا يَئُودُهُ حِفْظُهُمَا ۚ وَهُوَ الْعَلِيُّ الْعَظِيمُ

2.     Transliteration

Allāhu lā ˈilāha ˈillā huwa al-ayyu al-qayyūmu lā taˈḫuuhū sinatun wa- lā nawmun lahū mā fī as-samāwāti wa-mā fī al-ˈari man ā allaī yašfaʿu ʿindahū ˈillā bi-ˈinihī yaʿlamu mā bayna ˈaydīhim wa-mā alfahum wa-lā yuīūna bi-šayˈin min ʿilmihī ˈillā bi-mā šāˈa wasiʿa kursiyyuhu as-samāwāti wa al-ˈara wa-lā yaˈūduhū ifuhumā wa-huwa al-ʿaliyyu al-ʿaīmu

3.     Composition

 اللَّهُ لَا إِلَٰهَ إِلَّ

A هُوَ الْحَيُّ الْقَيُّومُ

B لَا تَأْخُذُهُ سِنَةٌ وَلَا نَوْمٌ

C لَهُ مَا فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَمَا فِي الْأَرْضِ

D مَنْ ذَا الَّذِي يَشْفَعُ عِنْدَهُ إِلَّا بِإِذْنِهِ

يَعْلَمُ مَا بَيْنَ أَيْدِيهِمْ وَمَا خَلْفَهُمْ

D’ وَلا يُحيطونَ بِشَيءٍ مِن عِلمِهِ إِلّا بِما شاءَ

C’ وَسِعَ كُرسِيُّهُ السَّماواتِ وَالأَرضَ

B’ وَلا يَئودُهُ حِفظُهُما

A’ وَهُوَ العَلِيُّ العَظيمُ

4.     Some remarks about the composition of this verse

This presentation reveals a symmetrical structure, wherein units of text are arranged concentrically (ABCD/x/D’C’B’A’). The relationship between those units is one of identity: terms and segments have similar meanings,[2] and each segment responds or corresponds to its pair. The first segments (A and A’) possess three words each. Both share an identical term (huwa) and use synonymy which corresponds to attributes of God (al-ayyu al-qayyūmu responding to al-ʿaliyyu al-ʿaīmu). The second segments (B and B’) highlight the role of God as one who maintains the existence of the Universe (lā taˈḫuuhū sinatun wa- lā nawmun /lā yaˈūduhū ifuhumā). The parallelism of the third segments (C, C’) refers to the cosmology and sovereignty of God (lahū mā fī as-samāwāti wa-mā fī al-ˈari/ wasiʿa kursiyyuhu as-samāwāti wa al-ˈara). And finally, the parallelism of the fourth segments (D,D’) draws attention to God’s will (man ā allaī yašfaʿu ʿindahū ˈillā bi-ˈinihī/ wa-lā yuīūna bi-šayˈin min ʿilmihī ˈillā bi-mā šāˈa). These four main topics—God’s attributes, God’s power, God’s sovereignty, and God’s will— converge on one central idea: the knowledge of God embraces all things (yaʿlamu mā bayna ˈaydīhim wa-mā alfahum). Located in the center of the whole structure, this segment has no relationship of identity with any other segment.

As Cuypers points out—and Nils W. Lund before him—this central segment is the semantic pivot. In the perspective of rhetorical analysis, the center gives meaning to the whole structure. Rhetorical analysis thus understands this verse’s principal message to be the glorification of the knowledge of God. This interpretation seems to confirm explanations of the verse by classical mufassirūn, as shown below.

5. Classical interpretation and rhetorical analysis

A brief look at Islamic exegesis reveals the existence of a debate about the nature of the term kursiy (segment C’), which gives the verse its name. On one hand, some traditions insist that this term means a material reality and object which represents the place of the footstool of God,[3] while other traditions identify the kursiy as a metaphor of God’s knowledge. Tabari accepts the latter explanation and comments:

This may be proved by His saying, “And the preservation of them does not burden Him,” which means that He is not burdened by the preservation of that which his knowledge encompasses, which is all that is in the heavens and the earth. God also said of His angels that they say in their prayers, “Our Lord, You encompass all things in mercy and knowledge” (40,7). [4]

Rhetorical analysis thus supports this particular exegetical reading of the verse.

[1] Michel Cuypers, The Banquet, A Reading of the Fifth Sura of the Qur’an, Convivium Press, 2009, p. 35.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Mahmoud Ayoub, The Qur’an and its interpreters, State University of New York Press, 1984, p. 250.

[4] Ibid., p. 250-251.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2013. All rights reserved.