Does The Qur’an Have A Pre-Islamic History?

This is another part to my up-coming essay on Islamic linguistics.

If the Qur’an needs diacritic aids (the famous dots and strokes) to give it its meaning, then it is quite possible, indeed probable, that the original texts, that were all written without these aids, could have had a completely different meaning. Without today’s guiding dots and strokes telling us where the vowels are and how to pronounce the consonants, the text becomes something of a lottery.

In addition, many surahs in the Qur’an, about one third, have a distinct rhythm and refrain embedded in them, while others are almost completely comprised of prose. Those that contain rhythm are often considered al-mutashabihat, or unclear in meaning, while those that are prose are called al-muhkamat, or clear and unambiguous. This is a huge clue that the origins of the two styles of surah differed in time, place and purpose. For those surahs with rhyme and refrain, the refrain doesn’t follow a strict pattern. This is another clue that there has been some editing after composition and it is where we get the hybrid term rhymed prose, or saj in Arabic, to describe the genre of the Qur’an.

German scholar, Gunter Luling, spent decades trying to see if the earliest rhythmic suras in the oldest Qur’anic texts could be reconstructed back into religious hymns without change to the letters, which are called the rasm in Arabic, but by removing the diacritic aids, re-interpreting the vowels and consonants, taking advantage of different spelling of a word, taking advantage of different meanings for the same word, and following orthodox Arabic grammar instead of the odd grammar found in some parts of the Qur’an.

Below, and through this link, is one result of what he found in a sura where he didn’t change a single letter in the underlying rasm! On the right is surah 96 of today’s Qur’an which is said by Muslim tradition to be the oldest. It is in the simplified English of Rudy Paret’s translation. On the left is Luling’s conclusion as to what the original was. On its own the surah is very obscure and incoherent, which suggests a heavy editorial process to destroy its original meaning. This link takes you to an English translation of the surah from the internet which contains in brackets all the extraneous information needed by the Hadith commentators to make sense of the surah according to Islamic orthodoxy. As you can see, the narrative they have created has no basis within the text itself.

  Sura 96: standard Qur’an Sura 96: Reconstruction with stanzas
1 Recite in the Name of your Lord who has created 1. Invoke the Name of your Lord
2 Has created man out of an embryo!


2. Who created

3. created man from the clay

3 Recite! Your Lord is magnanimous as nobody else in the world 1. Invoke! For thy Lord is the most generous
4 [He] who has taught the use of the writing cane 2. Who taught by the writing cane
5 Has taught unto man what he didn’t know 3. Taught man what he didn’t know.
6 Not at all! Man is really rebellious


1. Not at all that man should be presumptuous
7 Since he considers himself independent


2. Whenever he sees Him overbearingly independent
8 However, to your Lord everything returns. 3. Behold, to God is the recourse
9 What do you think about him who restrains 1. Have you ever seen

2. that he denies

10 a slave when he performs the ritual prayer 3. a servant when he prays
11 Do you believe that he is following the guidance 1. Have you ever seen

2. when he clung firmly to the creed?

12 Or gives the order to be god-fearing.


3. or spoke as a God knower
13 Do you believe that he pronounces lies and turns away. 1. Have you ever seen

2. that he betrayed and turned away?

14 Does he not know what God sees.


3. Have you not learned what God does?
15 Not at all! If he doesn’t cease we shall definitely grab him by the forelock 1. Not at all!

2. If he had not given peace truly he would have been seized

3. by his forelock

16 A forelock full of lies and sinful.


(Added by later editors, see notes below)
17 May he then call for his clique


1. So call for His high council!
18 We will call up the bailiffs


2. You will then call upon the High Angelship!
19 Not at all! Do not obey him! Prostrate and approach. 3. Not at all! Be you not presumptuous against Him


Prostrate and approach!


Points to consider concerning the two versions are as follows:

  1. The poetic nature of Luling’s version is far stronger.
  2. The meaning of the surah is coherent, with a common theme instead of three separate parts (1-5, 6-8, 9-19).
  3. Recite becomes invoke, more closely related to prayer, the theme of the surah.
  4. Not at all (6, 15, 19) is redirected from the preceding sentence to the next sentence. The grammatical rule that it must address the preceding sentence was invented in later centuries.
  5. Without changing the rasm, Have you ever seen now introduces ayats 9, 11 and 13, which become stand-alone stanzas of the hymn.
  6. Seizing God by the forelock is an anathema in Muslim theology, so ayat 16 was added. In the hymn version it is another picture of earnest, struggling prayer.
  7. The final statement Prostrate and approach is the heading for the hymn given at the end instead of the beginning, as is Western custom.
  8. The Christian nature of the hymn becomes obvious and makes far more sense than the convoluted Islamic version and commentary.

I trust the above makes sense!

Kevin Davis

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