Book Review: The Critical Qur’an: Explained from Key Islamic Commentaries and Contemporary Historical Research by Robert Spencer

بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْم

Book Review: The Critical Qur’an: Explained from Key Islamic
Commentaries and Contemporary Historical Research
by Robert Spencer

By QuranandBibleBlog Contributor Mohammed al-Firas

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            This short review is on the book The Critical Qur’an: Explained from Key Islamic Commentaries and Contemporary Historical Research, authored by Robert Spencer. The book aims to introduce readers to the Qurʾān and how classical scholars interpreted the text – particularly passages which the author states are “most problematic for non-Muslim readers”. After a general introduction to the Qurʾān – a description of how the text is viewed among Muslims, as well as a summary of the history of the Qurʾān from a traditional point of view – follows a translation of the entire Qurʾānic text along with two “apocryphal Shi‘ite Suras”. The author includes an introduction to each sūrah, in which he notes whether it is a Meccan or Medinan sūrah as well as other additional information. Throughout the book, the author provides commentaries on selected verses. These include examples of variant readings, classical interpretations of the verses, ḥadīths that are relevant to the verses as well as parallels between other verses from the Qurʾān as well as passages from the Bible.

While discussing the traditional narrative concerning the history and codification of the Qurʾānic text, Spencer states that the Qurʾān, while having been memorized and written down, was not collected together into the form of a muṣḥaf during the lifetime of the Prophet Muḥammad (ṣalla llāhu ʿalayhi wa-sallam) and when some of those who had memorized portions of the Qurʾān were killed in battle, some Muslims “began to press for its collection, the rejection of variant readings, and the codification and distribution of the agreed-upon text”. He claims that “that is, again, according to Islamic tradition supposed to have taken place in the year 653, under the direction of the caliph Uthman”. According to the tradition, however, the Qurʾānic text was first compiled into the form of a muṣḥaf during the lifetime of the first caliph, Abū Bakr, as several reciters were killed in the Battle of Yamāmah.[1] Due to later disagreements concerning the recitation of the Qurʾān, the text was collected again, standardized, and distributed under the reign of the third caliph – ʿUthmān. Spencer asserts that “this account, however widely accepted, lacks any contemporary attestation and is likely to be more legend than historical fact.” Modern scholars, however, have presented several arguments in favour of the historicity of the Uthmanic canonization. Behnam Sadeghi and Uwe Bergmann argue that we can know it was ʿUthmān who sent the regional codices due to the collective memories of various sects and communities – no one traced the standard text to a source other than ʿUthmān – and the fact that recent studies of Qurʾānic manuscripts and the traditional literature have shown that the literature is accurate concerning minute details, such that it would be difficult to imagine that the tradition would “get the wrong name of the caliph who disseminated these codices”.[2] Marijn van Putten has also shown that phrases such as niʿmat Allāh (which is spelled either with a tāʾ maftūḥa or tāʾ marbūṭa) were consistently spelled in the earliest Qurʾānic manuscripts in the same random pattern that they appear in the Cairo Edition, thus indicating that they must have been copied accurately from a written exemplar (an original copy). He concludes that “the manuscripts examined in this study are sufficiently early that a codification of the Uthmanic text type is perfectly consistent with an attribution to its traditional source: ʿUthmān b. ʿAffān”.[3]

The seven or ten qirāʾāt are different ways of reading the Uthmanic rasm (consonantal skeleton). While discussing these variant readings of the Qurʾān, Spencer states that it “seems likely that the hadiths in which Muhammad is made to speak of the Quran being recited in ‘seven different ways’ were invented in order to explain the existence of these seven readings of the text, which had all apparently circulated so widely by the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries that they could be ignored or all copies destroyed.” This is very unlikely to be the case. In addition to the Ṣaḥīḥayn, aḥādīth concerning the revelation of the Qurʾān in seven aḥruf can be found in multiple early ḥadīth collections, such as the Muwaṭṭāʾ of Imam Mālik (d.179), the Musnad of Abū Dāwūd al-Ṭayālisī (d. 204), the Muṣannaf of ʿAbd al-Razzāq (d.211), Abū ʿUbayd’s Faḍāʾil al-Qurʾān (d. 224), the Muṣannaf of Ibn Abī Shaybah (d. 235) and the Musnad of Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal (d. 241).[4] Utilizing a method similar to Juynboll’s ‘common link analysis’, Shady Nasser has shown – based on the versions that can be found in six ḥadīth collections alone – that the concept can be reliably traced back to the lifetime of Ibn Shihāb al-Zuhrī (d.124).[5] The concept of seven agreed-upon readings, however, did not exist prior to Ibn Mujāhid (who had selected the readings of these seven readers). Furthermore, scholars such as Abū ʿUbayd and al-Ṭabarī documented the readings of several readers other than these seven. It is highly unlikely that Muslim communities across various regions agreed to recite according to the readings of these seven readers (or other seven readers) alone at such an early period, or even when the ḥadīth collections were written that would have motivated them to fabricate the seven aḥruf traditions. Regarding the interpretation of these ḥadīths, Spencer states that according to Muslim scholars, the seven aḥruf are “simply variations in the Arabic dialect in which the Qurʾān was transmitted”. While the idea that the seven aḥruf refers to dialectical variants was indeed the opinion of some scholars, several other scholars were of the opinion that they referred to seven ways in which a word can be replaced by its synonym. Others such as Ibn Qutaybah stated that they refer to seven types of differences in recitation.[6]

Throughout the book, the author notes several examples of differences among the canonical readers, as well as variants present in some manuscripts of the Qurʾān. At five places in his book [Q6:93, Q23:86, Q30:9, Q34:35 & Q42:21], Spencer mentions the corrections noted by Daniel Brubaker in his book Corrections in Early Qurʾān Manuscripts: Twenty Examples at these places in early manuscripts. The standard reading can be found in several manuscripts from the same period or earlier than the ones Brubaker presents. For instance, at Q6:93, he states that “instead of ‘or says,’ a Qur’anic fragment in the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar, likely dating from the eighth century, has ‘and says’”. Since this reading (wa qāla) differs from the standard reading (aw qāla) by a single letter, it could easily be explained as the result of a scribal error. The standard reading is attested in Codex Parisino Petropolitanus, BL Or. 2165, DAM 01-29.1 (all three datable to the 1st century AH/7th century CE), Saray Medina 1a, and several other early manuscripts.

Book Review - Robert Spencer Fig 1
Figure 1: Different manuscripts attest to the standard reading in Surah 6:93.

Several other examples of differences present in Qurʾānic manuscripts mentioned by Spencer are inaccurate. At Q3:158 {la ila llāhi tuḥsharūn}, he states that “a Qurʾān published in Tehran in 1978 asserts: “And if you die or are killed, indeed, it is not to Allah that you are gathered.” Unsurprisingly, this is not a valid reading. Instead, this is simply a [mistranslation of a] spelling difference due to an ancient spelling practice whereby an additional alif is added to the particle la-, if it is followed by a word that begins with a hamzah. According to Abū Dāwūd Sulaymān b. Najāḥ, this spelling practice also appears in some muṣḥafs at other parts of the Qurʾān as well such as at Q37:68 {la-ila l-jaḥīm}, 9:47 {la-awḍaʿū} and in all muṣḥafs at Q27:21{la-adhbaḥannahu}.[7] In all of such cases, this additional alif is not vocalized, and the meaning of the verse is unchanged.

At several places, Spencer mentions examples of variants present in a manuscript “examined by Mingana”. In 1914, Mingana and Agnes Smith Lewis published an edition of the lower text of a few Qurʾānic leaves, along with a list of variants present in the manuscript. Alba Fedeli has recently digitalized and analyzed the manuscript, and notes that “the comparison with the variants not related to the orthography (noted in the Mingana-Lewis edition) has revealed that in nineteen cases, out of thirty-one, the text interpreted through the images agrees with the text of the Medina muṣḥaf, whereas in five cases there is a lacuna or the manuscript text is illegible and in seven cases the images reveal a reading that corresponds to the Mingana-Lewis edition”.[8] In other words, in most of the instances where Spencer [quoting Mingana] states that the manuscript differs from the standard reading, the reading present in the manuscript is most likely identical to that of the standard text.[9] For instance, Spencer states that at Q7:153, the manuscript reads ‘and peace’ instead of ‘and mercy’, while at Q9:36, it reads ‘And wage war on the idolaters’ instead of ‘And wage war on all of the idolaters’. The manuscript attests the standard readings at both places:

Book Review - Robert Spencer Fig 2
Figure 2: The standard reading in Quran 9:36 is attested in the manuscript Mingana “examined”.

For variants present in the canonical readings, he relies on information provided by a Christian apologist Jay Smith in an article or video entitled “Qira’at Conundrum: Assessing the Many Qira’at Qur’ans”. Since variant readings can be found in several classical works dedicated to documenting variant readings as well as tafsīr works, his reliance on Smith is surprising, but would explain the occasional errors:

– At Q2:125, he states that “Instead of ‘take as a place of prayer’ (attakhizuu), the Warsh Qur’an and the version transmitted by the eleventh-century scholar al-Asbahaani have ‘they took as a place of prayer’ (attakhazuu)”. This was the reading of Ibn ʿĀmir and Nāfiʿ – Warsh (d. 197/812) was a transmitter of Nāfiʿ and al-Aṣbahānī (d. 296/908) was a transmitter of Nāfiʿ’s reading through Warsh.

– At Q9:66, after mentioning the reading of Ibn Kathīr ‘If a faction of you is pardoned [yuʿfa], another faction will be punished [tuʿadhdhab]’, he states “Instead of ‘we forgive,’ the Warsh Qur’an has ‘he forgives.’ Instead of ‘we punish,’ the Warsh Qur’an has ‘he punishes’.” This, however, is not the reading of Warsh. The reading of Warsh is identical to the reading of Ibn Kathīr – the reading mentioned by Spencer is not a canonical reading at all.[10]

– At Q38:45, he states that “the version of al-Bazzi, one of the transmitters of Hamza’s reading, has, ‘And make mention of our slave’.” This was read by Ibn Kathīr, whose reading al-Bazzī was a transmitter of.

– At Q98:6, he states that “Instead of “created beings” (al-bareiyyati), the Warsh Qur’an has “innocent ones” (al-bare’ati)”. This is simply a difference in pronunciation – the meaning of the verse is unchanged.

Spencer mentions some reports found in the traditional literature which – according to him – indicate the fluidity of the Qurʾānic text. At Q2:2, he mentions a tradition in which a young man (Ḥamzah al-Zayyāt) recited dhālikal-kitābu la zayta fīhi (That is the book in which there is no oil), instead of dhālika l-kitābu la rayba fīhi, due to confusing the letter rāʾ for zāy and tāʾ for bāʾ. However, this does not actually support the idea of fluidity of the Qurʾānic text. According to the tradition, his father heard this, and said: O my son, leave the muṣḥaf, and learn from the mouths of the people.[11] Thus, assuming the tradition was not simply fabricated simply to portray Ḥamzah negatively, the tradition indicates that while mistakes in recitation can occur, these can be prevented by learning to recite the Qurʾān from teachers.

In his introduction to Q27, he states that another indication of the fluidity of the Qurʾānic text is a ḥadīth that “credits several of Muhammad’s companions, Al-Sha’bl [sic], Abu Malik, Qatadah, and Thabit b. ‘Umarah, with the assertion that “the prophet (may peace be upon him) did not write ‘In the name of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful’ until Surah al-Naml was revealed.” He states that “as this is a ninth-century tradition, it may be an indication that the heading ‘in the name of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful’ only started to be added to the sura headings at some time after the Qurʾān, or parts of it, began circulating, and that the omission of it was still recent enough to be remembered by those to whom this hadith was directed as an explanation.” Firstly, none of them (al-Shaʿbī, Abū Mālik, Qatādah or Thābit b. ʿUmārah were Companions of the Prophet Muḥammad (ṣalla llāhu ʿalayhi wa-sallam). Secondly, the scenario Spencer suggests is highly unlikely to be the case as the earliest manuscripts of the Qurʾān datable to the 7th and 8th centuries attest the basmalah “bismi llāhi raḥmāni l-raḥīm” at the beginning of each sūrah, with the exception of sūrah 9.

Book Review - Robert Spencer Fig 3
Figure 3: The beginning of Surah 31 in early manuscripts.[12]
One of the major problems with this edition is that no commentary is provided for most of the Qurʾānic text,[13] and at places where a commentary is provided, the author relies mainly – if not solely – on works that have already been translated into English such as the Tafsīr of Ibn Kathīr and Tafsīr al-Jalālayn. This causes him to only mention one possible interpretation of certain verses, while other interpretations which were often widely held among classical scholars exist as well. For instance, at Q95:1, he states that “according to Ibn Kathir, ‘the fig’ refers to the mosque of Noah ‘that was built upon Mount Al-Judi’ in southeastern Turkey, where Noah’s ark is said to have come to rest. The ‘olive’, meanwhile, says Ibn Kathir, is the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.” However, there are several other interpretations mentioned by Ibn Kathīr and others, such as the statement that tīn refers to the fig that is eaten, while zaytūn refers to the olive that is pressed (to extract oil) – which is attributed to ʿIkrimah, Mujāhid and others.[14] At Q25:52, the translation provided in the book is “So do not obey the unbelievers, but wage jihad against them with a great jihad”. Since the verse uses the phrase wa-jāhid-hum bihi, a more precise translation – in my opinion – would be: {and strive against them with it, a great striving}. He then states that “according to the Tafsir Ibn Abbas, this should be done ‘by means of the Qur’an’ and ‘by means of the sword’”. The authenticity of this work is questionable. Furthermore, al-Ṭabarī and Ibn Kathīr
attribute the statement “with the Qurʾān” alone to Ibn ʿAbbās.[15]

At other places, the author provides commentaries without reference to how classical scholars understood the text. For instance, at Q6:115, he states “No one can change Allah’s word, but at 2:75, the Quran states that the Jews did change it, and at 22:52, the possibility is raised that Satan can tamper with it, although Allah abrogates his changes”. al-Ṭabarī explains that it means that none can change what Allāh has informed us about in his books that are fixed occurrences (divine decree), and that the People of the Book changed other than that.[16]

Despite the fact that the book claims to take into account modern historical research, the author spends a considerable portion of it proposing alternative theories regarding the origins of the Qurʾān and Islām which are contradicted by recent studies. For example, in his introduction to Q2, based on the fact that a Christian text datable to the beginning of the eighth century differentiates between the Qurʾān and sūrat al-Baqarah, he states that “this suggests that the Qur’an’s largest sura was not actually in the Qur’an in the early eighth century but was a stand-alone book nearly sixty years after the Qur’an was supposed to have been finalized by Uthman”. While this is an interesting observation, many of the earliest manuscripts datable to the 7th century attest parts of the sūrah as well as other parts of the Qurʾān, thus the scenario suggested by Spencer is highly unlikely to be the case. At Q2:142, Spencer states – referencing the work of Dan Gibson – that “the earliest Muslims did not pray facing the structure in Mecca”. This theory, however, was harshly criticized by David King, a specialist in early Muslim qiblahs, in his review of Gibson’s book.[17]

As Spencer himself states, this book is particularly interested in explaining passages that are apparently considered to be controversial, and those are indeed the passages that are discussed in slightly greater detail. However, the problems outlined above are applicable there as well. Furthermore, if one were interested in reading commentaries of these few verses alone, there are plenty of books or articles online written by polemicists that are easily accessible that essentially convey the same content as this book.


[1] Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal, Musnad, 1/238, 35/506.

[2] Behnam Sadeghi and Uwe Bergmann, “The Codex of a Companion of the Prophet and the Qurʾān of the Prophet”, Arabica 57 (2010): 365–370, https://bible-quran.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Sadeghi-Bergmann-The-Codex-of-a-Companion-of-the-Prophet-and-the-quran-of-the-Prophet.pdf.

[3] Marijn van Putten, “‘The Grace of God’ as Evidence for a Written Uthmanic Archetype: The Importance of Shared Orthographic Idiosyncrasies,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 82, no. 2 (June 21, 2019): 287, https://www.cambridge.org/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/23C45AC7BC649A5228E0DA6F6BA15C06/S0041977X19000338a.pdf/the-grace-of-god-as-evidence-for-a-written-uthmanic-archetype-the-importance-of-shared-orthographic-idiosyncrasies.pdf.

[4] ʿAbd al-Razzāq, Muṣannaf, 11/218–219, al-Bukhārī, Ṣaḥīḥ, 583, 1276, al-Ṭayālisī, Musnad, 1/44, Abū ʿUbayd, Faḍāʾil, 334–335, Ibn Abī Shaybah, Muṣannaf, 10/47, Ibn Ḥanbal, Musnad, 1/378–379, Mālik, Muwaṭṭāʾ, 2/281.

[5] Shady Nasser, The Transmission of the Variant Readings of the Qurʾān: The Problem of Tawatur and the Emergence of Shawadhdh (Leiden, Netherlads: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2013), pp. 18–31.

A cursory study of the versions found in other ḥadīth collections reveals the presence of several contemporary common links other than al-Zuhrī, thus making it highly likely that the concept predates his generation.

[6] al-Suyūṭī, al-Itqān fi ʿUlūm al-Qurʾān, pp. 72–73.

[7] Abū Dāwūd Sulaymān b. Najāḥ, Mukhtaṣar al-Tabyīn li-Hijāʾ al-Tanzīl, 2/379-380.

[8] Alba Fedeli, Early Qurʾānic Manuscripts, Their Text, and the Alphonse Mingana papers held in the Department of Special Collections of the University of Birmingham, PhD thesis, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, 2015, 314–315.

[9] Two of the differences noted by Spencer [following Mingana and Lewis] at Q 11:29 and Q17:1 are purely differences in spelling. At Q11:29, the manuscript reads: { ارٮکم } and at Q17:1, it reads: { برکناحوله } – thus they agree with the spelling as reflected in modern muṣḥafs. Both of these were read correctly by Mingana and Lewis. However, the muṣḥafs they referred to for the standard reading spelled it as: { اراکم } and { بارکناحوله } respectively, thus causing them to incorrectly assume that the manuscript has variants here – which they translated as {I will show you} and {we knelt down} respectively. This was already noted by al-Aʿẓamī (who himself did not have access to the manuscript) as he states: “Anyone perusing the Muṣḥaf, now printed in Medina, will find that the published spelling is { برکنا }, not { بارکنا }. So Mingana inserts the alif of his own accord in the first instance, then leaves it out in the second to create a ‘variant’.” See, al-Aʿẓamī, The History of the Qur’anic Text from Revelation to Compilation (Leicester, England: UK Islamic Academy, 2004), p. 313.

[10] Ibn al-Jazarī, al-Nashr fī Qirāʾāt al-ʿAshr, 5/1725.

[11] Abū Aḥmad al-ʿAskarī, Kitāb Taṣḥīfāt al-Muḥaddithīn, 1/145.

[12] The manuscripts here are Saray Medina 1a, BL Or. 2165, NLR Marcel 5 & CBL Is. 1615I. The sūrah (with the basmalah at the beginning) is also attested in Codex Parisino Petropolitanus, Ma VI 1615, Codex Arabe 330g and other early manuscripts, most of which are datable to the 1st / 7th century. In fact, the basmalah also appears at the beginning of each sūrah in the lower text of the Sanaa Palimpsest – the only known manuscript that is not of the Uthmanic text type.

[13] For instance, Spencer only provides commentary for around 87 of the 200 verses in Q3, 20 of the 135 verses in Q20 and 12 of the 55 verses in Q54. These include the examples of textual variants at the verses, or references to comments made at earlier verses.

[14] al-Ṭabarī, Jāmiʿ al-Bayān, 24/501-503.

[15] Ibid, 17/470.

[16] Ibid, 9/508.

[17] https://www.academia.edu/40110039/KING_2019_Review_of_GIBSON_Earliest_Qiblas

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