Gavin McDowell Reviews Le Coran des historiens (Amir-Moezzi and Dye, eds.)

Reviews of the Enoch Seminar 2021.08.06

Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi and Guillaume Dye, eds. Le Coran des historiens IÉtudes sur le contexte et la genèse du Coran; II. Commentaire et analyse du texte coranique. Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 2019. Pp. 3408. ISBN: 9781978700758. € 89,00.

Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi and Guillaume Dye, eds. Le Coran des historiens III. Bibliographie. Prepared by Paul Neuenkirchen. Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 2019. ISBN: 9782204135535. Pp. 330. € 29,00.

Gavin McDowell
Université Laval

Le Coran des historiens is a monumental work of Proustian dimensions. Billed as a “a summary (or perhaps: summa) without precedent in history” and also “an unedited adventure of the spirit,” whatever that might mean, this dense work does have a legitimate claim to be the first of its kind. The introduction to the commentary (Vol. 2a, pp. 7–14) touts itself as the only historical-critical commentary on the entire Qurʼān in the French language. Its only true predecessor is the philological commentary of the controversial Scottish Arabist Richard Bell (d. 1952), which was already out of date when it was finally published in 1991.[1] The introduction also approvingly cites the annotated translations of Rudi Paret,[2] Régis Blachère,[3] and Arthur Droge,[4] who each offered abundant notes but lacked the depth and completeness of the present volumes. This work makes space for more commentary by ditching translation altogether. Despite its title, Le Coran des historiens is not a Qurʼān at all. It is an extended introduction, commentary, and bibliography, but there is no Arabic text or translation.

In terms of methodology, Le Coran des historiens could be described, in a sense, as “backward-looking.” That is, the Qurʼān is interpreted in light of contemporaneous, largely non-Muslim sources and ignores, for the most part, traditional Muslim exegesis. This approach distinguishes the work from two other projects: The Study Qurʼān edited by Seyyed Hossein Nasr[5] and the Corpus Coranicum database ( The Study Qurʼān is a confessional work whose starting point is the very exegetical literature Le Coran des historiens eschews (making it a potentially interesting companion piece; it is “forward-looking,” explaining how the Qurʼān has been received rather than where it came from). The Corpus Coranicum shares a historical-critical perspective with the present work but adheres to the paradigm established by Theodor Nöldeke (d. 1930). Nöldeke and his successors operated under three major assumptions: 1) The Qurʼān is the authentic preaching of Muhammad; 2) The Qurʼān accurately reflects the experiences of the fledgling Muslim community between 610 and 632 CE; and 3) The compilation of the Qurʼān was initiated by ʿUthmān, the third caliph, before his death in 656 CE (see vol. 1, pp. 746–748). Though influential, the presumptions behind the “Nöldeke paradigm” differ little from a confessional approach and lack a solid historical foundation. Representatives of this approach (such as Angelika Neuwirth) are nevertheless well-represented in the commentary since Le Coran des historiens aims at providing a full summary of the current state of critical scholarship.

Le Coran des historiens, like Gaul, is divided into three parts. They are sufficiently different that the individual volumes could be sold separately (indeed, the third volume—the bibliography—is sold separately). The first volume, Études sur le contexte et la genèse du Coran, provides an introduction and background to the Late Antique world in which the Qurʼān emerged. It is almost exactly 1000 pages long. It consists of twenty chapters, some quite long (100 pages or more), written by specialists in their respective fields (not all of whom are specialists of the Qurʼān). As a stand-alone volume, it could almost serve as a general introduction to Late Antiquity. A translated table of contents gives some idea of its breadth:

Part One: The Qurʼān and the Origins of Islam: The Historical and Geographical Context

1. Pre-Islamic Arabia (Christian Julien Robin)
2. Arabs and Iranians Before and at the Beginning of Islam: An Overview of Some Zones of Contact and Conflict (Samra Azarnouche)
3. The Lives of Muhammad (Stephen J. Shoemaker)
4. From Arabia to Empire: Conquest and Caliphal Construction in Early Islam (Antoine Borrut)

Part Two: The Qurʼān at the Crossroad of Late Antique Religious Traditions
5. Judaism and the Qurʼān (Meir M. Bar-Asher)
6. Religious Communities in the Byzantine Empire on the Eve of the Arab Conquest (Muriel Debié and Vincent Déroche)
7. Christians in Sasanid Iran (Christelle Jullien)
8. Ethiopian Christianity (Manfred Kropp and Guillaume Dye)
9. “Jewish-Christian” Currents and Oriental Christians of Late Antiquity (Jan M. F. Van Reeth)
10. Manichaeism: Current Research (Michel Tardieu)
11. Jewish Apocryphal Writings and the Qurʼān (David Hamidović)
12. Syriac Apocalypses (Muriel Debié)
13. Iranian Apocalyptic (Frantz Grenet)
14. The Qurʼān and its Legal Environment (David S. Powers)

Part Three: The Qurʼānic Corpus
15. The Study of Qurʼānic Manuscripts in the West (François Déroche)
16. Ancient Qurʼānic Manuscripts: An Overview of the Evidence and Presentation of Research Tools (Éléonore Cellard)
17. The Qurʼān in Stone[6] (Frédéric Imbert)
18. The Qurʼānic Corpus: Context and Composition (Guillaume Dye)
19. The Qurʼānic Corpus: Questions Concerning its Canonization (Guillaume Dye)
20. Shi‘ism and the Qurʼān (Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi)

As can be seen, only the last quarter or so of this volume explicitly treats the topic of the Qurʼān. This is hardly a criticism. On the contrary, it represents the wide tapestry of areas that could potentially shed light on our understanding of the Qurʼān. It is so vast that it is hard to see what is missing, although I would have liked to see an article on Christian Apocrypha and the Qurʼān.

Two articles stand out as foundational for understanding the contemporary state of Qurʼānic studies: Stephen Shoemaker’s “The Lives of Muhammad” and Guillaume Dye’s two-part study of “The Qurʼānic Corpus.” Both articles make the same essential point: the need to sever contemporary Qurʼānic studies from Muslim tradition. In the first case, the received biography of Muhammad (Sīra) provided early critical scholars (and some contemporary ones) with a means of better understanding the Qurʼānic text since it gives the historical context of the revelation of each sūrah and explains difficult Qurʼānic passages by linking them to specific episodes in the life of Muhammad. However, the biographical literature, compiled more than a century after Muhammad’s death, is both late and tendentious. It is better understood as an example of Qurʼānic exegesis rather than the historical background to the Qurʼānic text.

Consequently, the historical unreliability of the biography of Muhammad means that the origin of the Qurʼān itself is something of a mystery. Dye, in his pair of articles, argues that the scholars should not approach the composition of the Qurʼān in a manner fundamentally different from the way they would approach the composition of the Bible. Dye compares the relative swiftness of the Qurʼān’s redaction to the compilation of the New Testament, including a reference to the Qurʼān’s “synoptic problem” (vol. 1, p. 786, indicating the frequent use of similar passages), although, in my opinion, the form of the Qurʼān more closely resembles (appropriately enough) the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible. In any case, Dye underscores that the Qurʼān is not a single book but rather a corpus, akin to the corpus of biblical books. The tools of form and redaction criticism long familiar to biblical scholars should be applied to the Qurʼān to distinguish the different layers of composition and establish a relative chronology independent of the “Nöldeke paradigm.”

The second volume, Commentaire et analyse du texte coranique, the commentary proper, is divided into two large tomes, labeled 2a and 2b. Volume 2a covers the first 26 sūrahs in approximately 1000 pages. Volume 2b, paginated continuously with the preceding volume, covers the rest of the Qurʼān (sūrahs 27–114) in about 1400 pages. The disparity in size and the number of sūrahs covered in each volume reflects the organization of the Qurʼān from larger sūrahs to smaller ones. Volume 2a, in fact, covers almost two-thirds of the Arabic text, but volume 2b is longer on account of each sūrah receiving several pages of commentary even if it is only three verses long.

A smaller pool of experts, for the most part different from the authors of volume 1, wrote the commentaries. In contrast with the previous volume, the authors here are specifically specialists of the Qurʼān. Most wrote commentaries for at least a block of consecutive sūrahs. Several also wrote additional commentaries for the final, shorter sūrahs:

Paul Neuenkirchen: Sūrahs 1, 47–68, 88, 100–114

Carlos A. Segovia: Sūrahs 2–3
Gabriel Said Reynolds: Sūrahs 4–6
Karl-Friedrich Pohlmann: Sūrahs 7–9
Guillaume Dye and Julien Decharneux: Sūrah 10
Tommaso Tesei: Sūrahs 11, 13–15, 91–95
Julien Decharneux: Sūrahs 12 and 84
Mette Bjerregaard Mortensen: Sūrahs 16–20, 83
Mehdi Azaiez: Sūrahs 21–26, 78, 90
Jan M. F. Van Reeth: Sūrahs 27–36
Anne-Sylvie Boisliveau: Sūrahs 37–46
Guillaume Dye: Sūrahs 69–70, 73–77, 79–82, 85–87, 97–99
Guillaume Dye and Gabriel Said Reynolds: Sūrahs 71 and 72
Guillaume Dye and Manfred Kropp: Sūrahs 89 and 96

Every chapter opens the same way, with the number of verses, the rhyme scheme (the Qurʼān is written in rhymed prose), and an outline of the overall structure of the sūrah. Apart from this, there is a great deal of variety in the approaches to the text, reflecting each author’s personal research interests. For example, Reynolds[7] shows a special interest for the Qurʼān’s discussion of biblical figures and use of biblical language; Pohlmann[8] prefers to discuss redaction criticism and identifies different layers of the text; Azaiez[9] discusses at length the Qurʼān’s “counter-discourse” (i.e., the objections of opponents embedded in the Qurʼānic text); Boisliveau[10] discusses the Qurʼān’s many references to itself. The variety among the authors means that reading the entire commentary in succession is not an insane enterprise. It is, in fact, entirely feasible to read a small portion of the Qurʼānic text alongside the commentary over the course of one or two months.

The third volume, Bibliographie des études sur le Coran, is not included with the other volumes in the boxed set. Instead, the back cover of each volume refers to the publisher’s website, where it can be purchased separately (an electronic edition is also available on Amazon’s Kindle store). The bibliography was assembled by Paul Neuenkirchen, who also wrote the greatest number ofcommentaries and translated many of the English contributions. His introduction (and, indeed, the general introduction: vol. 1, p. 30) suggests that this bibliography was intended to be a regularly updated online reference. Why this is not the case eludes me, and it is an annoyance on two fronts: 1) It is scandalous, in principle, that a bibliography should be sold separately from the main work (some unhappy Amazon customers bought the bibliography unaware that it was not the main work); 2) The other volumes are not available in an electronic format. This latter feature would have been greatly appreciated, since the box set, though pleasing to the eye, weighs seven and a half pounds and takes up a lot of shelf space.

The first two volumes have their fair share of bibliography (one at the end of every chapter), so one could, in principle, skip the third volume. This would be a mistake. The third volume is not merely a master bibliography of all the works cited in the preceding volumes. It is something of a bibliography-cum-index in two parts. In the first part, it arranges the bibliography by sūrah and verse. In the second part, it organizes the bibliography according to every named figure in the Qurʼān (mainly biblical figures). This is an extraordinarily useful feature, and I am certain to use it immediately in future research—possibly more frequently than the commentary itself.

I have very few quibbles with the work. The most evident are the occasional typos, two of which appear in the table of contents. In Volume 1, Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi’s contribution, the twentieth in the volume, is numbered X instead of XX. More bothersome is an error in volume 2b, where the commentary of sūrah 36(Yā Sīn)is attributed to Boisliveau, while sūrah 37 (al-Ṣāffāt) is attributed to Van Reeth. In fact, it is the reverse. The chapters are correctly attributed in the commentaries themselves. Verses that could merit whole books, such as Q 2:102 (Hārūt and Mārūt) or Q 4:157 (the crucifixion of Jesus) are only dealt with briefly. This is hardly surprising as the commentary is already 2,400 pages, but it is a little disappointing. This is one of the reasons that the bibliography in volume 3 is so valuable: it shows where one can go for further reference. Furthermore, the Qurʼān is a repetitive book, and this sometimes leads to repetitive commentary. Twenty-nine sūrahs of the Qurʼān begin with mysterious, disconnected letters that have so far not received a universally satisfying explanation. That has not stopped scholars from trying. Thus, in this commentary, the issue is addressed twenty-nine times. Finally, the professed audience of Le Coran des historiens is the general public (vol. 1, p. 22: “cultivated, certainly, but not specialists”). True to this aim, there is a dearth of footnotes. In addition to the necessary citation of sources, the footnotes will sometimes define concepts that might be unfamiliar to the general reader. Sometimes they are over-explanatory (vol. 2a, p. 834, defines “rhetorical question”).

On a final note, most of the authors are French or Francophone, but not all of them. This is one of the strengths of the work. It is really an international effort. It deserves an international audience.

[1] Richard Bell, A Commentary on the Qurʼān, ed. by Edmund Bosworth and Mervyn E. J. Richardson, 2 vols. (Manchester: University of Manchester, 1991). For the significance of this commentary and its author, see Andrew Rippin, “Reading the Qurʾān with Richard Bell,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 112 (1992): 639–647.

[2] Rudi Paret, Der Koran: Übersetzung von Rudi Paret, 10th ed. (Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer, 2007), and idem, Der Koran: Kommentar und Konkordanz, 3rd ed. (Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer, 1980).

[3] Régis Blachère, Le Coran. Traduction suivant un essai de reclassement des sourates (Paris: Maisonneuve, 1947–1950).

[4] Arthur J. Droge, The Qurʼān: A New Annotated Translation (Sheffield: Equinox Publishing, 2013).

[5] Seyyed Hossein Nasr et al., The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary (New York: Harper Collins, 2015).

[6] That is, the Qurʼān as represented in epigraphy and graffiti.

[7] Gabriel Said Reynolds, The Qurʼān and the Bible: Text and Commentary (New Haven: Yale University Press); idem, The Qurʼān and its Biblical Subtext (London: Routledge, 2010).

[8] Karl-Friedrich Pohlmann, Die Entstehung des Korans: Neue Erkenntnisse aus Sicht der historisch-kritischen Bibelwissenschaft, 3rd ed. (Darmstadt: WBG, 2015).

[9] Mehdi Azaiez, Le contre-discours coranique (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2015).

[10] Anne-Sylvie Boisliveau, Le Coran par lui-même. Vocabulaire et argumentation du discours coranique autoréférentiel (Leiden: Brill, 2015).

Gavin McDowell

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