Western Scholarship on the Qur’an

Orientalist means as well western artists inspired by Orient and Western scholars specializing in the study of Oriental languages, religions and cultures. According to Edward Said, Orient and Occident are not natural divisions, but rather the imaginative geography. The term then comes to the pejorative meaning; orientalists are the western scholars that ostensibly lacks objectivity and reflect bias towards western though, which then Muslims often do not appreciate them.


There was a peaceful life among Muslims, Jews and Christians in Andalusia during that time, proofed by some inter-faith dialogue on religious theme, like gathering of the doctor-Muslim, Ibn al-Kattani (d.420/1029), the Jewish doctor, Hasdai ibn Shaprut (d.380/990) and the Christian bishop, Rabi‘ ibn Zayd (fl.350/961), at the Royal palace to study ‘the book of Dioscorides’ – De Materia Medica, an Ancient Greek medical text and the existence of 70 libraries with hundreds of thousands of books in Cordoba. This co-existence began to decline in 1031 when the Cordoba Caliphate ended; Andalusia had been under control of Christian’s rulers while Jews and Muslims were forced to leave or convert to Christianity.

Translations Polemic

Around the period of Cordoba’s decline, the translations towards Arabic text increased, including scientific, philosophical text, and Qur’an itself. Translations during the time were polemical since Christians and Muslims competed to show the superiority of each faith. Many Christian scholars refuted Islam by translations which aimed to show that Qur’an was fabricated by Muhammad.

Some important scholars and works are: Peter the Venerable stated that Christians should proceed against Muslims by words, not arms. Al-Kindi’s Risala (3/9 Century) considered as the first complete refutation, stating that Qur’an is not original; Muhammad was in influence of Christian monk, Sirguis, which intents to imitate the Gospel. Bahira Legend claimed that Sirguis taught Muhammad, and he therefore was the main inspirations behind Qur’an. The work of John of Damascus (2/8 Century), concerning the issue of polygamy and divorce, he used to refute Islam.

The Crusades, combined with Roman Catholic Church authority, fuel the anti-Islam view and produced the refutations text toward Qur’an. The influential work are: Robert of Ketton’s (fl.530–551/1136–1157) Latin Translations, Raymond Lull’s (d.715/1316) voluminous Arabic writings which largely devoted to converting Muslims to Christianity; Lull’s work inspired many universities to have oriental language studies, so as he was claimed as the founder of orientalist, the work of The Dominican priest, Riccoldo da Monte Croce (d.719/1320), which summarized Christian objections to the Qur’an.


European’s studies on Islam, Qur’an, and Arabic increased for military, political, and economic reasons. The studies implied both positive and negative impacts.

Positive: John of Segovia (d.1458), were motivated to translate Qur’an in co-operations with Isa Dha Jabir (or Yça Gidelli, fl.1450) to facilitate living in harmony with Muslims and to criticize the translations of Robert of Ketton.

Negative: the study also oriented for missionary effort. Scaliger argued that scholars should study Qur’an to understand Muslim culture and the Arabic language for their own sake, rather than solely for polemical purposes. Wheelock produced both an English translation of the Qur’an and an Arabic refutation of the text.

For economical reasons, Paganino de paganinis published Qur’an for first time, however he could never sell it to Muslims.

The large development come to establish Islamic Studies at University of Leiden in 1575, and Joseph Justus Scaliger was appointed professor of Arabic. In 17th century, many scholars study Qur’an from its original form in Arabic. Seldon quoted directly to Arabic form in criticizing Ketton’s translation.  After all, however Pope Alexander VII (1655–1667) officially forbade the publication of the Qur’an in Latin.


During the Enlightenment, many thinkers questioned the foundations of religions, in which Voltaire (d.1778) wrote Mahomet: tragédie (1741) and described Qur’an as illogical and undecipherable. Meanwhile, many others scholars kept taking effort for it. Arabic language and Islamic culture come to special course in Paris and Vienna. George Sale (d.1736) published the first English translation directly from Arabic—which has introductions containing Prophet life, Islamic history, theology, and law—which then was influential until 20th century. In 19th, Gustav Flügel (d.1870), published a translation of the Qur’an with his own numbering system of verses, which is then criticized by Muslims. Since the quantity of scholarship continued to increase, Qur’anic studies come to an independent study as a subset of oriental studies.


This is the era in which many scholars from both Muslims and non-Muslims co-operate studying Qur’an when the gap between two boards breaks down. They work together in studying Islam and Qur’an with various perspectives; some questions about the origins of Qur’an and some do not. Then, it is necessary to note the argumentations of Edward Said that every understanding of each scholar must always be understood based on their own culture-history.

Some scholars are:

Theodor Noldeke describes Qur’an as a book ‘composed of unstable words and letters and full of variants which could not possibly be divine. He rearranges Qur’an into chronological order, which then Richard Bell re-orders. Noldeke orders it in the manner of phraseology sequence. His work was then praised by some as the first truly scientific study on Qur’an, etc.

John Wansbrough questions the evidence of acceptance and canonization of Qur’an. This proponent of revisionist approach to the Qur’an claimed that Qur’an was not completed until around 150 years after the Prophet death, and the traditions about its compilations were just a salvations story projected by scholars in Umayyad Period. Further, he claims that Islam is a sect growing up from Judaeo-Christian tradition. His work afterwards was adopted by many; Gerald Hawting, Patricia Crone, Michael Cook, etc.

However, Muslims scholars criticized him indeed, and some non-Muslims as well as they argued that the gap was much shorter.

Patricia Crone and Michael Cook question the origins of Qur’an and suggest that Islam is a Hagarism, a sect of Judaism, as the claim of Muhammad as the descendant of Hagar (Abraham slave wife) in their book; Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World. They also say that Qur’an had just been compiled under the governor al-Hallaj (85/705). They are immediately criticized by Muslims and non-Muslims, and even Wansbrough.

Andrew Rippin argues that Qur’an must be understood within a broader monotheistic rather that purely Arabian environment. He is well-known to be influenced by Wansbrough, reflected by his edited on Wansbrough work. The response on him is varied; some accuses his analysis is arbitrary and some praises him as the expert in early tafsir.

Christoph Luxenberg argues that Qur’an is a document written in a language closer to Aramaic than Arabic, based on his knowledge on semitic language.

Gerd Puin suggests that parts of Qur’an were found even hundreds years before Islam and that Qur’an is probably a kind of cocktail of texts that were not all understood even in the era of Muhammad. He based his argument on his research on 1500 ancient sheets in Yamane, 1972, which contained the record of Qur’anic verses.

Richard Bell and William Montgomery Watt are responsible for Introduction to the Qur’an written by Bell and revised by Watt. Bell spent much of his life to examine the possible influence of Christian on Islam and Qur’an. In his other writing, he re-orders the Qur’an, in part based on the work of Gustav Flügel and Theodor Noldeke. Bell believes that Muhammad played a significant role in composition Qur’an. On the other hand, Watt believes that Qur’an came from God and it is divinely inspired in a particular time and circumstances as the bible was. Watt is known as the ‘last Orientalist’ and key figure of Islamic history study.

Muslims Scholars in Western Settings. The increasing number of Muslims studying in western universities results the new approaches to the Qur’an, the combining methode between traditional and modern theories, and some proponent names such as Fazlur Rahman, Amina Wadud, Mohammed Arkoun,Khaled Abou El Fadl, Asma Barlas, and Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd.

Jane Dammen McAuliffe and the Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an. Number of collaburative research is best reflected in Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an which was first published by E.J. Brill in 2001. They work in many areas including linguistic, rhetorical and narrative analysis of the Qur’an. It provides extensive data on terms, concepts, places and history, and exegesis.


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