Marie Skłodowska-Curie Global Fellow brings research on the origins of the Qur'an to the DSR

March 9, 2021 by Nicole Bergot

Dr. Seyfeddin Kara has been awarded the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Global Fellowship from the European Commission. He will join the Department for the Study of Religion at University of Toronto, where he will continue work on his research project, “Textual Integrity of the Qur’an: Sunni and Shi’i Historical Narrations on the Falsification” under the supervision of professor Walid Saleh. 

DSR: Tell me about your research project. 

SK:  My research project will look at an established view among Muslims that the Qur’an was collected and compiled into a canon just after the death of the Prophet. Despite this established view, there are theories by certain traditionalist Muslims both in the Sunni sect and in the Shiʿi sect, that parts of the Qur’an were omitted after the death of the Prophet.  For some Sunnis, this argument was made to justify some of the legal views, which otherwise didn't have any place in the Qur’an.  The Shiʿi argued that the omission was related to the succession of the Prophet and the sanctity of the Shiʿi Imams. 

I want to trace the origins of how and when these ideas came about in both the Sunni world and the Shiʿi world.  

DSR: What did the Sunnis gain from this idea that parts of the Qur’an were omitted?  

SK: After the first and second centuries of Islam, these legal schools emerged, and they would interpret the sources, like the Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet, to come up with rules for Muslims to follow. Legal rulings had to come from either the Qur’an or the sayings of the Prophet, and they had to be attributed to the Qur’an to gain legitimacy. But for some of their rulings, there was nothing written about them in the Qur’an. So their solution was to say, “oh, that ruling, or that particular verse was removed from the Qur’an, it was omitted”.  

DSR: What is an example of a rule that the Sunnis claimed were omitted? 

SK: For example, they claimed that the stoning penalty, where an organized group throws stones at a convicted adulterer until that person dies, was a law that was omitted from the Qur’an. There is no such ruling in the Qur’an, but certain legal schools said there was ruling in the Qur’an like this, but it was removed later, after the Prophet. They claim that the ruling is still valid, even if the text is removed. Theologically it is not a very strong argument, but this is what they argued, and still they claim that this stoning law is valid based on the Qur’an and the tradition of the Prophet. 

DSR: What kind of evidence do they have of this?  

SK: It is just the traditions, the sayings of the Prophet were passed down orally.  The circumstantial evidence is not very strong. It has relevance in that sense here and now.  

ISIS, or Islamic State, which is an extremist form of Sunni Islam, wants to justify their sectarian war. They are using this argument that the Shiʿi believe that the Qur’an is incomplete, that the Qur’an is distorted. The Sunnis declare the Shiʿi to be disbelievers and therefore are justified to kill them. But then if you look at the Sunni, Sunni literalists also believe in this omission for their own purposes. So it gets more confusing. 

DSR: So they use the argument that the Shiʿi claims that the Qur’an is incomplete, although the Sunnis believe that as well? 

SK: It is controversial in the sense that you can never make both sides happy.  Of course, nobody likes to believe in the falsification of the Qur’an because both Shiʿi and Sunni Islam hold a view that the Qur’an's authority is established. But this idea of omission also appeals to them. They say ‘oh, we don't believe in it,’ but it's there when it suits them. They claim they don't believe in the falsification of the Qur’an, but then when it comes to defending certain legal issues or justifying the belief in the Shiʿi Imams, they don't mind referring to those ideas, especially when they are talking to their own community.  

DSR: How will you be conducting this research on the Qur’an? 

SK: I will be investigating two questions. One is about the historical origin of the falsification and the influence of the Shiʿi and Sunni traditions. The other will be an extensive examination of the early Muslim traditions on the textual integrity of the Qur’an. This will be different from previous studies as it will comparatively investigate both Sunni and Shiʿi accounts of the falsification. My research aims to break the barriers between the Sunni and Shiʿi studies by utilizing all the available historical data from both denominations. And finally, it will lead to the advancement of knowledge in the understanding of the early history of Islam and the textual history of the Qur’an.  

My research will incorporate a changing methodological trend in Qur’anic studies. In the past few decades, Qur’anic studies has learned a lot from Biblical studies and their methodological achievements. There have been more rigorous historical studies, as well as archaeological and textual studies coming from Biblical studies. Researchers of the Qur’an have been adopting these methodical developments to carry out historically accurate studies on the origins of the Qur’an. This is one reason why I’m very excited about coming to the Department for the Study of Religion, because there are very prominent scholars who employ the historical-critical method on Biblical studies and I'll be learning from them and employing this method better on the early Islamic traditions.  

DSR: Why hasn’t this kind of research been done on the Qur’an? 

SK: Thanks to the most recent studies in the field, it has been scientifically established that the Qur’an was codified soon after the death of the Prophet. This is based on archaeological and textual studies of Muslim sources.  Now, instead of looking for the influence of the Bible and the Old Testament and New Testament on the Qur’an, researchers are trying to understand religious trends in the Middle East in the 7th century by establishing that the Qur’an is an authentic historical text in the sense that it was the work of the Prophet. Of course, you can never prove or disprove that it is the work of God, because this is a matter of faith. But if you accept that it was the work of the Prophet, then it talks about Christianity, Judaism and their belief system and practices.  It's in the Middle East, where there was Judaism and Christianity. So they are saying that the Qur’an can be used as a historical source to understand these religious trends in 7th century Arabia.  

My research contributes to the establishment of the textual integrity of the Qur’an. It gives historical value to the Qur’an, not as a religious text, but as a historical text.  Before that it was considered just a religious text, or a literary text. It was not thought of as having any historical value, but my research will increase the historical value of the text. 

DSR: What accounts for the differences between Biblical and Qur’anic studies? 

SK: Islam didn't get a lot attention in the west until the last 50 years or so. And the attention it did get was mostly negative. For example, people considered Islam a threat, so some Christian scholars wrote about how Islam is a heretical sect coming from the offshoot of Christianity. In the Islamic world research was more about faith-based studies, while in the west, research was more scientific-based. There was a lot of focus on the methodological studies on the Bible, and it's much more advanced because a lot of effort and energy went into this. Qur’anic studies, or Islamic studies, are finally starting to catch up because researchers are becoming increasingly adaptive and fluid in using these Biblical methodologies on the Qur’an.  

 DSR: What made you interested in this project idea?  

SK: When I was doing my master’s degree, I was exposed to the debates on the early history of Islam and the Qur’an. I became fascinated with the different views on the early history of Islam: the debate between the so-called “revisionist school” and “sanguine school” was so intriguing. But I realized that these studies are based on Sunni sources only, so the Shiʿi accounts of the textual history of the Qur’an was neglected. There is a scarcity of sources; for the early history of Islam there are mostly oral traditions and not a lot of written material. Therefore, I went on to write my PhD thesis on the Shiʿi accounts of the textual history of the Qur’an; Ali Ibn Abi Talib’s Qur’anic codex.  When I was doing my PhD, I attended many conferences to talk about the history of the Qur’an. And I would get bombarded with questions about this idea of the falsification of the Qur’an. So it was kind of imposed on me. It seemed that this was an established view, that the Shiʿi didn't believe in the integrity of the Qur’an, so I thought I should do something about it.  Aside from this being my academic interest in in the field, there is a relevance to contemporary issues, especially this sectarianism strife. My research has led me to begin working with the community to help to eradicate this problem. People are getting killed because of this, in Europe and in North America it's causing tension and disharmony, so I thought this could be a way of tackling that issue.  

DSR: Can you tell me a little bit more about working with the community to dispel some of this misinformation? 

SK: Before I started my PhD, I worked in the field of human rights and I attended the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.  Focusing on the issue of Islamophobia, I visited universities and held focus groups and community events. By talking to people and listening to these issues, I could turn that information into reports that I could present at the United Nations. This put me in a position where I could talk to the politicians and different NGOs, to try to resolve these issues. 

I want my research to be relevant to this society, not just to remain in the academic realm. Of course, it's knowledge, and that is good, but it becomes more important if the knowledge is related to the society, if it provides some kind of solution or remedies to some of the problems we face. Working with these communities and understanding their problems, what they are suffering from, helps me to make that connection. For example, while I'm in Toronto I'll visit Muslim community centers, Mosques, Muslim schools, and I will talk to the community including the schoolchildren.  I will talk about this idea of the falsification of the Qur’an and I will teach about the historical roots of this idea. These kinds of problems and tensions are usually coming from lack of dialogue and ignorance. Without dialogue there's no other way of overcoming community tensions, and this is why I am doing this.