The title of this heterogenous collection of thirteen articles points to two nonexisting entities: a Madinan Qur’an and an implied lock which supposedly needs unlocking. Both are non-existent because there is only one Qur’an and the so-called Madinan Qur’an, that is the portion that was revealed after the Hijrah to Madinah, has a seamless integration with what was revealed before that momentous event. Furthermore, there is no special lock in that portion of the revelation that is different from the portion revealed in Makkah; both have the same “lock” to which the Qur’an itself refers in Q 47:24: Do they, then, not reflect upon the Qur’an, or are there locks upon [their] hearts?

Nicolai Sinai rationalizes his terminology on the basis of (i) a misconstrued subdivision which supposedly exists in the “pre-modern Muslim scholarship” and (ii) the 1844 publication of Gustav Weil (1808-1889), Historische-kritische Einleitung in den Koran (Historical-Critical Introduction to the Qur’an), which made this “distinction between Meccan and Medinan suras and passages a cornerstone of modern Western research on the Qur’an”  (p. 1). The reference given for the “pre-modern Muslim scholarship” is a very late work in the history of Muslim scholarship on the Qurʾān: Jalāl al-Dīn ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Suyūṭī’s (ca. 849/1445–911/1505) al-Itqān fī ʿulūm al-Qurʾān. In fact, the need to ascertain chronology of revelation first appeared during the lifetime of the Companions in relation to the applicability of certain legal rulings which were abrogated or modified by later revelations. Yet no Muslim scholar has ever conceived a Makkan and a Medinan Qurʾān as distinct entities; for them—and for every Muslim throughout the centuries—there is only one Qurʾān. Thus, this reference to “pre-modern Muslim scholarship” is a non-starter.

While it is true that Gustav Weil and Theodor Nöldeke (1836-1930) made this dichotomy “a corner stone of modern Western research on the Qur’an”, this corner stone has outlived its utility and to insist on this artificial two-Qurʾān dichotomy a century after its first invention sheds no further light on the enduring concern which has haunted the non-Muslim (mostly Western) scholarship for centuries: whence came this unearthly text that reconfigured human history and that continues to stimulate the hearts of a quarter of humanity. It was easier for the nineteenth and early twentieth century Western scholars to hide their biases through the use of terms such as “historical-critical methodology”, which supposedly was the key to unlock the enigma they faced, but it is truly too late to employ the same old methodologies and vacuous taxonomies to cover the covert assumption that the text of the Qurʾān was composed by the Prophet and he changed it due to the changes in ground realities of his time and place.

Unlocking the Medinan Qur’an attempts to revive this worn-out dichotomy, but its thirteen articles add nothing to our understanding of the text of the Qurʾān or even to the existing Western approaches to the Qurʾān; they merely churn the old soup, construct and deconstruct artificial categories. For instance, Marianna Klar’s article, “Lexical Layers vs Structure Paradigms in the Opening of Sūrat al-Baqara: Typically Medinan Structures in Q 2, Q3, and Some Shorter Medinan Compositions”, the longest in the volume, concludes its microscopic analysis of words and phrases in these suras by stating what is obvious for every elementary-level student of the Qurʾān: “Medinan suras may have utilized Meccan language and Meccan stylistic paradigms for Medinan purposes. This should prevent us from drawing misleading conclusions from Sinai’s tentative observation that opener to Sūrat al-Baqara, a series of isolated letters followed by the statement dhālika l-kitāb (Q 2:1-2), is more typically Meccan than Medinan. A large question mark has also been placed over the feasibility of MVL as a diagnostic tool for discerning the provenance of small blocks of text. Upon closer inspection, the relatively short verses of Q 2:1-7 were found to be not entirely dissimilar to the relatively short verses of Q 3:1-9. The accepted fact that “over time the style of the Qurʾān, as represented by verse length, changed gradually—indeed not only gradually but also monotonically, i.e., irreversibly in one direction,” should not invite the conclusion hat all short verses must therefore be Meccan in origin (or, indeed, all long verses Medinan)” (p. 116-117).

Divided into three sections—“Literary Feature of the Medinan Qur’an”, Ritual, Prophetology, and Law: Some Medinan Themes”, and “Studies of Individual Suras”—containing five, three, and five articles respectively, Unlocking the Medinan Qur’an attempts to impose a self-constructed specificity to Medinan Suras, but almost all the “categories” constructed by its authors are equally applicable to the Suras revealed before the Hijra. Chapters dealing with specific themes and Suras (mostly in Part 3) do have a definable specificity, but similar studies can be—and have been—carried out on themes of the Makkan Suras.

Unlocking the Medinan Qur’an is primarily built upon previous Western scholarship. This means its thirteen articles arise from the same methodologies and concerns which have informed Western Qurʾānic studies ever since its emergence. When Muslim scholarly studies are referenced, they remain secondary. Neal Robinsons’ “Dynamics of Sūrat Āl ʿImrān,” for instance, digresses into a discussion of the meanings of the noun “kitāb” in the Qurʾān wherein he claims that “the classic study is still Arthur Jeffery’s [1950] “The Qurʾān as Scripture”! When he does update his knowledge, he refers to Daniel Madigan’s article, “Book” in Brill’s 2001, Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān, which finds five meanings of the noun, but Robinson either willfully ignores, or is unaware of a far-more sophisticated treatment of the noun kitāb in the article “Books(s)” in the 2013 Integrated Encyclopedia of the Qurʾān, wherein Gibril Haddad has identified twenty-three meanings of the noun on the basis of 48 classical tafsīrs and treatises on Qurʾānic language.

The inability, unwillingness, or incompetence of the Western scholars to read deeply and engage with the centuries-old ocean of knowledge about the Qurʾān which is the result of Muslim scholarly reflections on the Book means that it remains imprisoned in its own crucible, which churns and churns the same old concerns and themes and paddles them under new labels. This enduring legacy is faithfully maintained by the Unlocking the Medinan Qur’an.

Another difficulty faced by the Western Qurʾānic studies in general and such attempts in particular is their refusal to acknowledge the most obvious aspect of the Qurʾān: it addresses a very concrete human reality at a given place and time, but simultaneously transcends both space and time. This aspect of the Qurʾān is known to every Muslim and thus for them the time of revelation of verses and suras has relevance only in as much as it illuminates the Divine intent in revealing what He revealed to His Prophet to guide him and his immediate community, without restricting the application of such verses for later centuries. For instance, O you who believe, the vocative said to be of Medinan period (Chapter 5), reverberates in the heart of all believers past, present, and future and its relative absence in the portion of the Qurʾān revealed in Makkah makes no difference to the taxonomy of the Qurʾān because the verses revealed in Makkah address the same believers in different forms.

As opposed to such myopic views, the focus of Muslim scholarship has always been on both what is said and how it is said, but for the mostly non-Muslim Western scholars, minute details of the phrases gain out-of-proportion importance with the result that it produces “scholarship” that cares more for its self-constructed theories than the text it is claiming to study.

Muzaffar Iqbal

Center for Islamic Sciences, Canada

Muslim World Book Review: The Muslim World Book Review, 43:2, 2023, pp. 20-22