Review of Stephen Shoemaker’s new book, Creating the Qur’an by Peter C. Patton, Ph.D.

Review of Stephen Shoemaker’s new book,
Creating the Qur’an
by Peter C. Patton, Ph.D.
© copyright
August 10, 2022

Stephen Shoemaker, Ph.D. (Duke University) is a professor of Religious Studies and an Ira E. Gaston Fellow in Christian Studies at the University of Oregon.  He has also written extensively about the large amount of “heretical” Christian doctrine that has found its way into the Qur’an and how it might have gotten there.  His book, Creating the Qur’an, is the first systematic historical-critical study of the Qur’an’s origins.  Shoemaker has written other books, including: The Apocalypse of Empire, The Death of a Prophet, and A Prophet Has Appeared (and numerous others).  He has been awarded fellowships from numerous prestigious organizations, such as: the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Rockefeller Foundation.  He has written on Byzantine and Near Eastern Christianity, and the origin of the veneration of Mary.  His book, The Ancient Traditions of the Virgin Mary’s Dormition and Assumption was published by Oxford in 2002.

This Reviewer’s personal prefatory note: Understand my own extensive and intensive, objective study, before I read Schoemaker’s book. Over the past two years I have read completely more than 125 books on the Qur’an in an effort to uncover, what is the “true” Qur’an, when it first existed, when it was changed or corrupted.  That undertaking requires the internal fortitude of an Indiana Jones.  I read Shoemaker’s book the first day that it became available (published July 26, 2022); but if I had been able to read it sooner I would have saved myself a lot of time and money, as I would have circumvented most all halal rabbit trails and red herrings.  For those who relish brevity, and want “the short version”, I can summarize his book in one sentence by quoting the 15th Century Muslim scholar Al-Suyuti: “The Qur’an was created in three places: Mecca, Medina, and Syria.”

Understand also: I personally had read the Qur’an in English translation and I had even taught it in a graduate seminar on Global Religions and Belief Systems at St. Mary’s University in Minneapolis.  I also have a Ph.D. and was also a professor of Ancient Studies; and have taught at the university level, around the world, in several states in the U.S.  I found the Qur’an very difficult to understand (though I read comprehensively in 5 languages, including two dead ones, Sanskrit and Sumerian; English, Russian, French being the others).  Speaking in terms of overall averages, it seems that every fifth verse of the current traditional text is meaningless, due to hundreds of non-Arabic words introduced into the text, that have been imported from Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, Aramaic, Ge’ez, Persian, and perhaps a dozen other languages.  The Qur’an is considered to be the very first book that was ever written in Arabic; and interestingly, it includes topics that the polytheistic Arabs had never even considered.*  Naturally, to be able to even discuss these ideas, words had to be borrowed from the Hebrew Old Testament, the Christian New Testament, and even from Zoroastrian doctrine.  The famous Persian Qur’an commentator Al-Tabari (born A.D. c.839), who reportedly memorized the Qur’an at the age of 7, spends a lot of time in his book-length Introduction trying to explain this very problem in his 30-voume Tafsir; and even attempts to invent Arabic tri-literal consonantal roots for some of these obviously foreign roots.

[* Of course, I am speaking only of the peoples who subsequently replaced the original Ishmaelites and original Persians; as originally, they were monotheistic, being descended from Abraham, though they eventually corrupted the true faith, and then were replaced by alien peoples who assumed their name.  However, even in the Name Allah, is recognized the Hebrew title for God, Elohiym, and even more notably in its singular form, Eloah.]

There still is no word for “Hell” in Arabic.  The Qur’an calls it al-nar, “the fire”.  The Bible refers to “the other place” mostly as “Heaven”, but 3 times, the New Testament refers to it as Paradise;* and the Qur’an refers to Heaven by its Persian name Ferdous, that is, “Paradise” or more often janaat eadn, “The Garden of God”.

[* Luke 23:43; II Corinthians 12:4; and Revelation 2:7; albeit, the latter passage most probably is referring to the Kingdom of God on Earth, which can be considered a “Colony of Heaven”; and it is not referring to Heaven Proper.]

Based upon my extensive reading on the Qur’an I would place Stephen Shoemaker solidly in the camp of John Wansbrough (an American who was professor of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), where he also served as vice chancellor for nearly a decade), Danish-born historian Patricia Crone (Professor at Princeton University, who also lectured at Oxford and Cambridge), and Fred Donner, Ph.D. (Professor of Near Eastern History at the University of Chicago).

In Creating the Qur’an, Shoemaker praises Wansbrough for “getting it basically right” (scholars almost never do that, so when one actually does, true scholars appreciate it).

Shoemaker, likewise, praises the late Patricia Crone (who also lauded him in one of her last papers (before her passing in 2015), for his finding an obscure Qur’an reference from a small Christian community’s unique infancy narrative.

Fred Donner wrote a cover blurb for Shoemaker’s Creating the Qur’an, and declared it, “a milestone in Qur’anic studies” —which it most certainly is!

This coterie of renown scholars informs us that the 1,400 years of Islamic tradition concerning the origin of the Qur’an is inconsistent and not historically useful; and reveal that intensive research and text analysis concludes that the Qur’an was not “collected”—and that it was not even committed to writing until a hundred years after Muhammad’s death, and thus, for a full century or more, the entire text was solely “preserved” and transmitted by memory and word of mouth.  The studies and contributions of these eminent scholars also shows that Mecca and Yathrib (Medina) were geographically, economically, and culturally isolated hamlets that had little contact with monotheistic Hebrews (for a millennia and longer, anterior to the Year of Our Lord) or Christians (of course, from the year a.d. 30 or so onward).  Their research and analysis also established that the large number of foreign words are used in religious terminology in the Qur’an—including paraphrases of hundreds of Old Testament and New Testament passages, as well as passages from heretical (Gnostic and other) “Christian” writings and the Jewish midrashim—and they conclude that the incorporation of these non-Arabic words and paraphrases must have come from Palestine and Syria at later dates: The statistical probability that such parallel teachings were “original” and that they were not derived from those sources (which sources are centuries and even millennia older than Muhammad himself, A.D. c.570-632) is impossible.

So, what is the conclusion of Shoemaker’s exhaustive Historical-Critical study?  I personally judge it as a sort of Rudolf Bultmannesque denouement, that is, so-called historical / higher criticism—with qualification: in terms of its result; not in terms of its method, integrity, or intention (as Bultman’s method, integrity, intention, and notions are spurious and pure fantasy).  After more than 80 years, from the time of Muhammad’s “revelations” in the early 600s, up until the time that the Qur’an was actually committed, for the first time, to becoming a written record, in the early 700s, it seems nearly impossible that any of Muhammad’s actually teaching, in its pure*1 form (whatever that was) could have been faithfully preserved solely through memory and word of mouth transmission.  Therefore, the final Qur’an (that is, the Qur’an as it exists today) is instead the record of the shared beliefs of a later religious community, at the time that the Qur’an was finally committed to writing, around a century posterior to Muhammad.  Therefore, the issue is that the Qur’an is not the actual words of Muhammad, either spoken or written; nor is it the memories of his Companions; nor is it any of the many divergent stories of his life; nor is it Burkari’s*2 2,700 “certified” Hadith*3 — but it is only the shared beliefs and experience of a later religious community in the region where Muhammad had lived; who then attributed their ideas to Muhammad whom they had not known.

[*1 by “pure” I do not mean in terms of holiness, truth, or legitimacy of doctrine, but merely “pure”, as in 100% teaching of Muhammad, without any alterations, corruptions, or additions by the oral storytellers or subsequent authors and copyists.

*2 Imam Muhammad ibn Ismail al-Bukhari (A.D. 810-870).

*3 orally transmitted remembrances of Muhammad’s teaching by his Companions.]

Of course, Bultmann levelled similar (but false) accusations against the Bible, claiming corrupted texts by a conglomeration of authors, layered one over the other, attempting to undermine Christianity through pseudo-scholarly academia being passed off as “truth” — however, the New Testament is the best-attested written document of antiquity with four uncial versions and 990 cursive (full or partial) versions—and literally thousands of other Greek manuscripts, complete or parial: 5,800 complete or fragmented Greek manuscripts catalogued, in addition to 10,000 Latin manuscripts, and some 9,300 manuscripts in numerous other ancient languages, such as Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopic, Gothic,* Slavic,* Syriac, etc.  We can also track the development of the disciples’ written memoirs through quotations from the Church Fathers up to Justin Martyr’s Diatessaron, and his student Tatian’s Diatessaron in A.D. 160, up to the final canonical Gospels. The sheer number of many thousand of Bible manuscripts, Old and New Testament, the copies of which were produced very in very close proximity to the time that the originals were written, and the cross-comparison of these myriad texts assures the reader of the integrity of Bible; that is, it being true to the original (non-extant) manuscripts is more certain than the words of Homer, Julius Caesar, or William Shakespeare.  In fact, due to the vast quotations of the Early Church Fathers, the entire Bible can be reconstructed—except for 11 verses.  The Bible is a 788,280-word document, and the majority of any differences among the plethora of ancient copies are very minor in scope (such as the word “the” instead of “these”).

[* that of the brothers, missionary “Saints” Methodius and Cyril (a.d. 815-885) who actually invented the Cyrillic alphabet (no written alphabet for the Slavs having existed up to that time) in order to translate the Bible into the Slavic tongue.  Wulfila / Ulfilas did the same (a.d. 350), inventing the written Gothic alphabet in order to translate the Bible into the Gothic (East Germanic family) tongue.]

We can track some of the apocryphal Christian content of the Qur’an in several ways. Transliterated text from radio carbon-dated Syriac Christian documents that were written before Muhammad was even born, eventually found their way into the canonical Qur’an during its final preparation in Syria under Caliph Abd Al-Malik and his viceroy Al-Hajjaj, governor of Iraq, in the early 700s.

My conclusion, and that of Schoemaker and the other scholars mentioned, can only be that in terms of being a record of Muhammad’s prophetic calling, the Qur’an is a not what it is claimed to be (an authentic work of Muhammad’s preserved words) and it is a disappointment.  Better for his followers he had employed a secretary / scribe as Jeremiah had in Baruch.  Many inquiring minds of persons who are not followers of Mohammed (including me personally) would like to know what he really said.  The Qur’an is certainly not an authetic representation of the words of Mohammed, though it is the work, it would seem, of a gifted Arab prophet knowledgable of Abrahamic monotheism.

However, the Qur’an is the religious icon of more than a billion dedicated Muslims; and the pertinent issue is whether they really care to know the truth of the text that they consider holy, which they believe to be the actual words of Muhammad—uninfluenced by any other religion, but which they believe is a direct revelation from Allah.  This, it would seem, would be the litmus test between a sincere scholar and worshipper who sincerely wants to know the truth, or a dogmatic fanatic that is a blind follower who does not care about truth, but merely interested in continuing “tradition”—even if corrupt.  Christianity faces this same dilemma, not in the Biblical documents itself, but in the plethora of corrupt denominations, false doctrine, spurious interpretations, and deceptive modern translations relying upon manuscripts known to be corrupt (instead of the trustworthy ones).  The difference is between mere “religiousity” and unbiblical “spirituality”—or true religion: that based solely on the proven sound Biblical manuscripts according to the only valid Biblical method of interpretation. Anything less is humanism—humanistic delusion passed off as Christianity.

Understand: I personally worked, on and off, for 20 years in the Muslim world, as a consultant in Higher Education.  One time the Minister of Higher Education for the United Arab Emirates called me on the phone and asked me to fly immediately to his University at Al-Ain.  He made this entreaty to me when I was a vice-provost at the University of Pennsylvania, during spring break, requesting that I would serve as arbiter to negotiate a compromise between the Dean of Engineering and the Dean of Science—both deans being distinguished Egyptian-American scholars whom I knew personally.

In the past, whenever I had participated in similar negotiations among other groups and individuals, I often quoted from sources that would be dynamic to those individuals in dispute; such as when I quoted a sentiment or two from the Talmud* (Baba Metzia) when facilitating a negotiation among Jews; or such as when I quoted from Luke’s Gospel when negociating with Christians.

[* —which I do not endorse.]

However, I was at a loss concerning how to deal with this situation among Muslims, when I was called in to help.  Upon arrival to the university in the UAE I noticed a beautiful hand-written, illuminated copy of the Qur’an on the Dean of Science’s coffee table—and remembering that Muhammad was first a businessman who had carried out a caravan trading business for his first wife Kedijah, I quoted, in English, from the Qur’an, from memory.  Both deans snapped to full attention and one asked me: “Professor Patton, have you read the Qur’an...?”  When I replied that I had read it, but only in English, he said: “I have been a Muslim all my life, I have taken the Hadj,* but I have never read the Qur’an.”

[* that is, the Fifth Pillar of Islam: an annual pilgrimage to the Ka’aba or sacred shrine in Mecca.]