“During the first centuries of Islam, there were several versions of the Koran”

Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi is director of studies in Islamology at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes (EPHE, Paris). Co-director, in 2019, of Quran of Historians (Cerf, 4,372 pages, 89 euros), a monumental work bringing together thirty eminent scholars of Islam, he has just co-published The History of the Quran (Cerf, 1,092 pages, 34 euros), which synthesizes, completes and updates part of the texts of the first.

This last book is particularly interested in the historical, political, religious and cultural context which saw the birth of the Koran, placed at the crossroads of the many traditions and religions of Late Antiquity, starting with Judaism and Eastern Christianity. In an interview at Worldit summarizes the latest advances in research on the enigmatic sacred book of Muslims.

What do we know about the date of writing of the Quran?

For Muslims, the Quran is the Word of God revealed to Muhammad [Mahomet, 571-632]. It is transmitted to the Prophet by the angel Gabriel, who appears to him on numerous occasions over a period of twenty years. As he receives this revelation, Muhammad dictates it to copyists. A few years after his death, when Othman became caliph (644-656), the multiple fragments of the revelation are brought together in a single book. This is what the Koran is according to the Muslim tradition.

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Still, a historian must immediately insist on one point: according to Muslim sources themselves, during the first four centuries of Islam, there were several versions of the Koran. It is only in the IVe hegira century [début du calendrier islamique]i.e. at the Xe century of the Christian era, that the “official” Koran, the one that would have been transcribed under Othman, stands out as the one and only version of the text.

Until then, the Muslims were divided into several hostile factions, and the clashes were mainly at stake over the content of the holy book. Since the Othmanian Koran imposed itself among all Muslims, the divergent versions have disappeared. The Orthodox narrative has erased them.

How did this Koran of Othman impose itself as the only version of the sacred text?

Until Xe century, many groups – and above all the Shiites – are questioning the Koran of Othman. However, on this date, the latter manage to take power in the Muslim empire. The new Shiite leaders quickly understand how much the Sunnis, who are the majority, are attached to this version of the book. To prevent the Sunni masses from revolting against them, they therefore erase their most explicitly Shia characteristics.

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