How was the Qur’an Composed? Part 1

Where did the Qur’an come from is a question that has intrigued me since I first began studying the Qur’an on an academic level two years ago. The traditional view, as well as critical opinions on the Qur’an’s compilation, seemed to me to be unsatisfactory. When I stumbled on the oral-formulaic approach advocated by Andrew Bannister as an answer to the composition of the Qur’an, I found it to be very insightful. Bannister’s utilization of Oral Literary Theory (OLT) to answer questions that other scholars have yet to answer regarding the oral characteristics found in the Qur’an is possibly ground-breaking.


In this series of blogs, I will address issues about the compilation of the Qur’an, by addressing the following categories.

  1. Why the traditional approach and the critical approach do not offer reliable answers to the Qur’an’s composition
  2. I will show why the oral-formulaic approach is much better by assessing Andrew Bannister’s oral-formulaic approach to the Qur’an.

The Traditional Approach

There are considerable problems with the traditional thesis because the traditional position sees the Qur’an primarily and eternally as a written text. Whereas there is evidence that Muhammad and the early Muslims saw it as fluid and that the truths that were revealed to Muhammad orally could be understood in different ways. I am not alone in this assertion.  William Graham sees the Qur’an not as primarily a written text, a view that all traditional and most critical scholars have affirmed, but instead as an oral text. He states, “the very name ‘al-Qur’an’ underscores the fact that the Quranic revelations were originally wholly oral texts intended to be rehearsed and recited, first by Muhammad, then by the faithful; they were not sent as a writing on a parchment.”[1]

If the orality thesis is correct, it may help to solve multiple problems that have stumped Muslim scholars throughout the centuries. Now I want to outline six reasons why the traditionalist thesis runs into some issues as an explanation for the compilation of the Qur’an.

First, there is a lot of Biblicist material found in the Qur’an. The traditionalist position holds that Allah inspired the Qur’an, as well as the other sacred writing such as the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, as part of his plan of revelation. If this is true, one would assume there is at least some theological continuity between the Qur’an and the holy books just mentioned. The traditionalist perspective advocates a continuous revelation of holy books leading up to the disclosure of the Qur’an. Mark Durie, in his book The Qur’an and Its Biblical Reflexes: Investigations into the Genesis of a Religion, offers a different answer. He seeks to answer a critical question, namely whether the theological concepts and ideas found in the Qur’an were inherited or borrowed. If the theological beliefs and stories are inherited, the Qur’an retains the meaning of concepts taught in previous revelations. Borrowing, on the other hand, is where the Qur’an changes the original idea’s meaning from its original context. While the words are the same, the purpose of the term is quite different. Durie concludes that the Biblicist materials found in the Qur’an do not “preserve the theological meanings from which they were ultimately derived.”[2]

Durie uses a linguistic example to make this point. In the creolization of language, a culture borrows words or concepts from another culture to create a new language. One popular creole language that comes to mind is Hattian Creole. This language developed as a result of interaction between French settlers in Haiti and enslaved Africans during the Atlantic slave trade.  “Hattian Creole combines the grammar and semantic structures of the West African languages with French phonological forms.”[3] Thus, the borrowing thesis means “words,” in this case the French language, “have been extracted from their original context, and inserted into new, … quite different structures.”[4] This type of borrowing results in the sound of the word staying the same while changes occur in the meaning of the word.

This example can also be applied to the development of a new religion, as the content resident in the Qur’an appears to be a “process analogous to creolization,” much like when people combine African and European elements of religion.[5] The Qur’an’s use of religious “creativity and theological innovation” is consistent with the tenets of OLT. Durie argues that the Qur’an takes “a preexisting theological framework” to perform a “religious creolization” by pouring new meaning into stories, people, and theological concepts originally found in Christian and Jewish scriptures. This is what one would expect if the OLT is true because the oral poet would draw upon “stories from the collective knowledge of the audience” and repurpose them to formulate new ideas.[6]

Second, there is the problem of the seven readings (Aruf).[7] The traditionalist position holds that the Qur’an came from Allah, dictated by Gabriel to Muhammad, verbatim (Q75:17-18). But that belief runs into serious problems, because many traditionalist scholars also believe the Qur’an was revealed in seven variant readings, and by seven different recitations, meaning there were “seven linguistical variations that reflect the various Arab dialects used in reciting the Qur’an.”[8] [9]  According to Al-Bukhari, the “Qur’an was sent down in seven (different) ways, so recite from it whatever is easy for you .”[10] Yet, it is asserted that these seven different readings were reduced to one by the Caliph Uthman, and put into a book, which is the Qur’an we have now. However, an oral-formulaic view of the Qur’an may offer a better explanation of the Qur’an’s compilation, assuming it is an oral document, not a written one.

Third, there is the problem of abrogation, which is a view “that certain Qur’anic verses had canceled others in whole or in part.”[11] There were verses abrogated before the Qur’an was a written text.[12] For example, Al-Bukhari said there was a verse of stoning once found in the Qur’an that is no longer there.[13] Why, if the verses were revelations from God, initially composed in the heavenly Qur’an, did they not make it into the Qur’an we have today if these verses were once part of the Qur’an? If there is an original Qur’an, eternally existing in heaven, abrogation seems inconsistent with the traditionalist perspective. However, an OLT thesis would be consistent with this doctrine, given the Qur’an’s composition would be an evolving oral one.

Fourth, there were early disputes as to what was part of the original Qur’an. After the death of Muhammad, there were many competing copies of the Qur’an. Two of the most respected Qur’an scholars, as deemed by Muhammad, Abdullah ibn Mas’ud and Ubay ibn Ka’ab, had slightly different readings of the Qur’an that were different codices than the one used by Uthman.[14] This difficulty arises with the traditionalist view because the view assumes the Qur’an was originally written, not an oral composition. Not having an exact reading is not a problem for the oral-formulaic view, because such a result is exactly what one would expect for this view.

Last, there is the problem regarding what Arthur Jeffery calls a “foreign vocabulary” that is present in the Qur’an. According to Jeffery, “it is clear that in the earliest circle of exegetes it was fully recognized and frankly admitted that there were numerous foreign words in the Quran.” [15] It was only later that the apologetic emerged that sought to establish the “dogma of the eternal nature of the Quran.”[16] The language in the Qur’an shows signs that it was not a self-contained linguistic community. The Messenger borrowed vocabulary from non-Arabic sources. The evidence is strong that there are foreign words that are problematic to the traditionalist thesis of the Qur’an’s composition. On the other hand, the oral-formulaic view seems to offer the better explanation for the non-Arabic vocabulary, given that one of its central arguments is that the oral poet utilizes stock phrases, ideas, and vocabulary regularly that have been absorbed in the poet’s thinking from previous thinkers.[17]

One would also assume, given the fact that the original Qur’an is already written in heaven, that it would have few to no signs of orality. Instead, the Qur’an should reflect the signs of a written document. There are strong reasons, however, to arrive at a different conclusion, as the previous points just made suggest.


The Critical Approach

Another approach that has deficiencies is the critical approach, which I will define broadly as encompassing two sub-approaches, namely the hard critical approach and the soft critical approach.[18] The hard critical approach, employed by such scholars as John Wansbrough, Patricia Crone, and Michael Cook, is revisionist in intention, but should not be seen as using a unified methodological system, as this approach has vastly varying methodologies represented in the literature. They would reject the content of the Qur’an being anything like very words of God.[19] Instead, they would see the Qur’an being “delivered in a sinewy oracle style cast in short rhymed phrases, often obscure and sometimes preceded by one or more formal oaths.”[20] The drawback from their research is that there is no “shared paradigm of research,” resulting in “the deepening gap between Western and Islamic Qur’an scholarship.”[21]

This view usually rejects all Islamic sources that may help understand the Qur’an, and instead chooses to start the study from scratch with the goal of offering alternative explanations.[22] What’s more, this view examines the Qur’an as a written document through the lens of literary analysis, and while recognizing the various Biblicist features throughout the Qur’an, it sees the Biblicist material as being directly borrowed from other sources, something akin to a cut-and-paste method.[23] There is at least one significant problem with this thesis since there is no textual overlap from other Biblicist material. This view, while offering some valuable points, doesn’t provide anything like a holistic approach to understanding the composition of the Qur’an.

There is still more work to be done, which is where the soft critical approach might help as it serves as a mediated view between the traditionalist and hard critical views of the Qur’an.[24] The soft critical approach, by and large, “moves away from any literary models” to understand the Qur’an and instead sets its “focus on Muhammad’s role in the formulation of the Qur’an.”[25] The main problem with the critical views is they cannot account for problems such as the seven retellings of the Qur’an. “Ultimately, … the soft critical approaches … tend to approach the Qur’an as a text, and Muhammad as an author and construe whatever influence acted upon him as literary.”[26] Thus, this view fails to account for the oral-formulaic material found in the Qur’an.


[1] Graham. Beyond the Written Word. 88


[2] Mark Durie. The Quran and Its Biblical Reflexes: Investigations into the Genesis of a Religion. (New Yok: Lexington Books, 2018), xxxvi

[3] Durie xliii

[4] Durie

[5] Durie xivii


[6] Durie xxvilii

[8] This belief is based on secondary sources but is acknowledged as being true by Sunni scholars. These scholars believe that the seven different readings were reduced to one during the time of the Caliph Uthman.


[9] Ahmad Ali Al-Imam. Variant Readings of the Quran: A Critical Study of Their Historical and Linguistic Origins (Washington DC: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 2007), 133


[10] Al-Bukhari Book 15, Number 15.5


[11] Khalid Yahya Blankinship. The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. (New York: Oxford University Press, Revised Edition, 2009). Accessed online from university library site.


[12] Sahih Muslim Book 005, Hadith Number 2286Sahih Muslim and Al-Bukhari, authors of two of Sunni Muslims’ most trusted Hadiths, record instances of abrogation that were before the Qur’an became a written text. Sahih Muslim said there were entire chapters removed from the Qur’an.


[13] Sahih Muslim Book 082, Hadith Number 817. Accessed on Feb. 16, 2019.


[14] The third caliph, Uthman, had all the copies burned. The one that we have today is thought to be the one that is the real Qur’an. However, Abdullah ibn Mas’ud and Ubay ibn Ka’ab had slightly different versions of the Qur’an.


[15] Jeffery, Arthur. The Foreign Vocabulary of the Quran. (New Delhi: Isha Books, 2013 reprint) 5 – Typically, it’s thought by traditionalists that the Arabic language is the language spoken in heaven. Traditionally, Muslims and Muslim scholars hold that Allah sent the Qur’an in Arabic, and it is only the Qur’an when in Arabic. Jeffery counters this idea by pointing out that there are 318 words found in the Arabic that don’t have Arabic roots. It was argued early by Islamic scholars that the Qur’an was written in Arabic so the people could easily understand it. However, the existence of foreign words in the Qur’an points to the possibility that the Qur’an might be an oral work, because in an oral work, the speaker always borrows from language, stories, and fables present in his or her cultural milieu, and in this case, the vocabulary that was in everyday use. Since the words were borrowed from other cultures and used in the Arabic society at the time, this negates the thesis that the Qur’an was a pure Arabic script.


[16] Jeffery.


[17] Albert Lord. The Singer of Tales. Second Edition. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 45


[18] Andrew Bannister. An Oral-Formulaic Study of the Qur’an. (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2014) 21-25


[19] “[The canonization of the Koran involved the] attribution of several, partially overlapping, collections of logia [sayings] (exhibiting a distinctly Mosaic imprint) to the image of a Biblical prophet (modified by the material of the Muhammadan evangelism into an Arabian man of God) with a traditional message of salvation (modified by the influence of Rabbinic Judaism into the unmediated and finally immutable word of God).” ~ John Wansbrough. Quote taken from Accessed on Feb. 16, 2019.


[20] H.A.R. Gibb. Mohammedism. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), 24-25


[21] Norman K. Swazo. Prolegomenon to a Phenomenological Description of ‘the Qur’an.’ Sophia (4):443-471 (2015) 445

[22] Gabriel Said Reynolds. The Qur’an in Its Historical Context (Routledge Studies in the Qur’an) 1st Edition. (Routledge, 2007)


[23] Andrew Bannister. Lecture titled How We Got the Quran. Published on September 17, 2017. Accessed on February 16, 2019.


[24] Bannister. An Oral-Formulaic Study of the Qur’an. 25


[25] Bannister. An Oral-Formulaic Study of the Qur’an. 28-29


[26] Bannister. An Oral-Formulaic Study of the Qur’an. 28


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