Review Of “The Collection of the Qur’an” By John Burton

Review taken from Abu Ammaar Yasir Qadhi, An Introduction to the Sciences of the Qur’aan (Al-Hidaayah Publishing and Distribution, 1999). Edited by I. Damiel

The last work that shall be discussed is a relatively recent one: The Collection of the Qur’an by John Burton. It was published in 1977 by Cambridge University Press.

What Burton did was to take the theories of Schacht concerning the validity of hadeeth and apply them to the history of the compilation of the Qur’aan. As was mentioned earlier, Schacht (and before him Goldziher) claimed and popularised the theory that all hadeeth literature are forgeries of the scholars of the second and third century of the hijrah. Burton writes in his introduction that his work, “seeks to re-open the question of the collection of the Qur’aan as seen by Muslims. Their accounts will be re-examined in the light of studies by Goldziher and Schacht”.

For Burton’s honesty, at least, he must be given greater credit than Jeffery. He states, “one must either accept all hadeeth as at least potentially guilty of a greater or lesser degree of inherent bias.1 We cannot in our arrogance continue to presume that, guided by merely literary intuition, we can safely pick our way, selecting or rejecting hadeeths”.

Actually, Burton has some very interesting and unique theories. He dismisses all the narrations concerning the collection of the Qur’aan, since all those stories, according to Schacht’s principles, must be inventions by later generations. Therefore, since he has rejected all these narrations, he is forced to bring forth a totally unique and bizarre history of the compilation of the Qur’aan

According to Burton, it was Muhammed (May God bless him and grant him peace) himself who compiled the Qu’raan. However, “Amid his manifold state responsibilities Muhammed could not always himself remember the precise wording in which he had given out certain revelations. This is how different Companions received their slightly differing versions, although all were received direct from the Prophet himself. Certain verses Muhammed forgot outright, others he summarily altered. With his own hand he had cancelled yet other verses”. This is Burton’s understanding of the concept of the ahruf!

In trying to explain why later Muslim authorities claimed that the Companions were the ones who compiled the Qur’aan (since, according to him, these authorities forged the narrations pertaining to the collection of the Qur’aan), Burton comes out with another bizarre theory. After the Prophet’s death, argues Burton, later Muslim jurists forged the concept of naskh, so that they could justify certain fiqh positions that they held (such as the stoning of the adulterer). These jurists wished to somehow support these positions of fiqh, so they decided, according to Burton, to forge certain ‘verses’ that used to be part of the Qur’aan. As it was well known what the Qur’aan was, these verses could not be added into the present mus-haf, so, somehow, a means of proving that these verses had once formed a part of the mus-haf but now no longer did had to be theorised. This was the concept of naskh.

In order to justify this theory, Burton continues, these jurists claimed that the Prophet could not have compiled the Qur’aan in his lifetime, since naskh could occur at anytime during his life. This, according to Burton, led these jurists to develop the concept of naskh, and invent ‘verses’ that had been left out of the present mus-haf that dealt with the fiqh positions that they wished to prove. Since the Prophet could not have compiled the Qur’aan, it must have been the Companions who had done so, and this explains the ‘forged’ narrations concerning the history of the compilation of the Qur’aan.

Burton states, “This motive (i.e., that of proving the validity of naskh) induced the Muslims to exclude their Prophet from the history of the collection of their Qur’aan text. It was a compelling motive. It was their only motive.”

Initially, according to Burton, the role of compiling the Qur’aan was given to Uthmaan. However, when the popularity of Uthmaan declined amongst the masses, the people had to transfer the honour of the initial compilation to Aboo Bakr and Umar, and give Uthmaan a lesser role. With all of these jumbled reports appearing on the scene,

This led to the attempts to harmonise these conflicting attributions; Abu Bakr had initiated the sacred understanding. Umar acquiring the merit of having completed it; Umar is credited with initiating the undertaking, Uthman is grudgingly allowed the lesser merit of completing the work of his pious and energetic predecessor.
This, then, is the summary of Burton’s version of the compilation of the Qur’aan. It is an amusing story, if nothing else. The scholars of Islaam were in a dilemma to explain their stance on certain fiqh issues. Therefore, they had to invent the concept of naskh in the Qur’aan, and back it up by forging ‘verses’ that were supposed to have been mansookh.

If these scholars had so little sincerity that hey had no qualms forging verses from the Qur’aan, then why not just forge hadeeth to support their points? In other words, why go through the nuisance of inventing the concept of naskh and then trying to prove it by backing it up with false narrations, when they could have just as easily concocted a hadeeth to prove their positions? After all, this is the whole theory of Schacht and modern Orientalists – that later jurists concocted hadeeth as they desired!

In reality, Burton does not substantiate his claims with any strong proof. For example, he only brings to verses to prove his thesis that later scholars invented the concept of naskh: the ‘verse of stoning’ and the ‘verse of suckling’. Throughout the whole work, the primary example that is reiterated is the ‘verse of stoning’. If what Burton states is true, then there should exist a large quantity of verses which give fiqh rulings but were left out of the mus-haf. In other words, if the whole concept of naskh was propagated with the sole purpose of supporting certain fiqh positions that a jurist might hold, then certainly these jurists would have used this concept regularly, and attributed many of their views to ‘verses’ that had been abrogated. However, as is well known, these exist very few verses of this nature, and Burton can only quote two examples throughout his work. In addition, he gives a very weak interpretation of the Qur’aanic verses that explicitly mention the concept of naskh, and of the occurrences of naskh during the Prophet’s lifetime.

Another point that Burton absolutely ignores is that the Prophet was illiterate. The indisputably of this fact is well-known, and beyond the need of any isnaad. Even the Qur’aan refers to the Prophet’s illiteracy a number of times. How is it possible, then, that the Prophet secretly authored the Qur’aan, edited it, and distributed it amongst the people?

Throughout the work, Burton constantly re-emphasises one theme: that all the narrations concerning the compilation of the Qur’aan are forgeries of later generations. With this presumption in mind, Burton goes to excessive (and in fact ludicrous) extremes in trying to determine the motives for these forgeries. It never occurs to Burton that the early scholars of Islaam (the salaf) were not so depraved or unscrupulous that they would forge narrations and attribute them to the Prophet at whim. If Burton’s theory (based on Schacht and Goldziher) are true, this implies that the salaf were busy propagating lies and forgeries throughout their lives; all the time well aware that these narrations were all forgeries (since they themselves were doing the forging!), but naively studying them; travelling great distances to obtain them; honouring those that had memorised them; and codifying them with great care! The theory that all these narrations are forgeries that occured on such mass-scales, and the silent approval of all the scholars of that time concerning them, seems so na? and absurd that only one who is blinded in his animosity of Islaam can believe it.

Actually, Burton’s whole theory rests, as was stated earlier, on Schacht’s conception of hadeeth literature. This view has been aptly refuted by M. M. Azami in his superb work, On Schacht’s Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence.2 In this work, Azami demonstrates the inconsistencies in Schacht’s theory and source material; his unwarranted assumptions and unscientific research methods; his ignorance of the political situation of the time; and his misunderstanding and distortions of the quotations of early scholars. Therefore, with the refutation of Schacht, Burton’s theory are automatically disproved.

Burton’s conclusions, though, is unusual, coming from an Orientalist. He claims that the “mus-haf that we have in our hands today is the mus-haf of Muhammad”, meaning that Muhammad (may God bless him and grant him peace) had written the whole Qur’aan in one book before his death.

In conclusion, Burton’s work represents a very bizarre and highly contradictory account of the collection of the Qur’an. Burton seems to take a few examples and draw extraordinary conclusions and sweeping generalities with them, absolutely ignoring all other narrations and factors related to the topic. In this author’s opinion, in order to come forth with something totally unique, Burton outdid himself. bismika-tombstone Review Of "The Collection of the Qur'an" By John Burton

Footnotes

  1. It is amusing how Burton give an either-or argument here concerning hadeeth; either naively accept everything or critically reject everything. He does not even bother to mention the fact that there are strict rules of the muhadeetheen that enable a scholar to detect what is authentic from what is weak. []
  2. Cf. pp. 115-154. No student of knowledge can be without this work, especially if he wishes to respond to the claims of Orientalists (published by John Wiley and Sons, New York, 1985) []

1 Comment

  1. Mashallah brother mashallah!
    We need more well educated Muslims, as the new war is fighting against false information about Islam!
    May Allah reward you with a place in paradise!

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