Book Review: Introduction to the Qur’an (1953) by Richard Bell

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on January 13, 2015


Richard Bell’s Introduction to the Qur’an is, at less than 200 pages, a brief and easily-digestible explanation of the context in which Islam’s “holy” book arose, and the problems of reconciling theological orthodoxy with historical accuracy. More than six decades after publication, the book remains influential in scholarship of the Qur’an.

Bell has been described—by an admirer—as a “flag-waving … Orientalist[].” For some, this no doubt settles the matter: he can have nothing of value to impart. The word “Orientalist” now comes to most people through the filter of Edward Said’s 1978 book of the same name, wherein he said that “every European” who has written about what the Middle East is “a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric”. Of course this is nonsense on particularly elevated stilts. As the great historian of the Middle East Bernard Lewis has put it, “The term ‘Orientalist,’ abandoned by its practitioners as obsolete and inaccurate, was scavenged by Said … and recycled as a term of abuse.” Orientalists existed at a time before academic specialisation; their heirs are now “historians, sociologists, political scientists, linguists, [and] literary scholars.”

This matters not just as a matter of truth but because Bell wrote at a time before Islam became such a conspicuous part of the Western conversation, and before, as Lewis has noted, “Islam … ha[d] a level of immunity from comment and criticism in the Western world that Christianity has lost and Judaism has never had.” Bell’s book is not even slightly polemical—indeed at some points I think it is rather too generous in its interpretation and too deferential to a Tradition that he himself notes is “as a whole unreliable”—but it nonetheless clearly has the imprint of somebody who is not writing in the shadow of fear, either for his academic career or his life. When scholar Tom Holland turned his critical eye on the foundation story of Islam in 2012, he was hounded with much abuse and driven from the airwaves. Yet much of what he wrote about can be found in Bell’s book, written all those decades before, and is common knowledge among scholars of the Qur’an.


Islam’s prophet, Muhammad, was born in 570 or 571, and began his preaching mission in Mecca, a watering hole on the trade routes between the Red Sea and Arabian interior, in 610 or 612. For this period of Islam we have “few definite events,” and Muhammad seems to have had little effect, except to bring persecution on his followers by attacking the Meccan gods. Muhammad and his (small) band of followers moved to Yathrib (now Medina), another oasis, in September 622, the hijra (migration or journey), Islam’s entry into history, the first event for which we have any independent evidence. In Medina, Muhammad was initially an intermediary between warring factions, the Aus and Khazraj clans, and soon took supremacy on his own. Barred from a return to Mecca, Muhammad’s followers would conquer the city in January 630 and cleanse it of pagan idols. By the time Muhammad died in June 632 he had rulership over most of the southern Arabian Peninsula and was engaged in another of many wars with unbelievers to expand his dominion.

Bell rejects the idea that Muhammad was either a conscious fraud or mentally ill in his profession that an Archangel gave him a revelation. Instead, Bell insists on the “essential sincerity” of Muhammad, and deduces that Muhammad was “one of those brooding spirits,” who after contemplation found “the solution comes in a flash, as if by suggestion from without,” and he “mistook his brooding reaction to events for the divine afflatus.” “The experience was mysterious to him,” Bell continues, and in the beginning Muhammad did not in any case insist on an angel and/or Allah giving him the messages; that was anachronistically inserted after Muhammad became more acquainted with the Jewish religion in Medina and concluded that the messages he received must have come this-wise. Bell points out that the form of the Qur’an, “namely its disjointedness,” a feature which all who read it remark upon, would support this idea of random flashes appearing to the prophet. Bell also argues that the inclusion of the taunts levelled at the early Muslim community in the Qur’an attest to the good-faith of the compilers of the Qur’an. As I say—the question of the existence of angels to one side—I think Bell is rather too easy on Muhammad at some stages.

The story of the formation of the Qur’an is as unflattering to Muslims as the formation of the other “holy” books. There do seem to have been some written texts from the Meccan period that would later form part of the Qur’an, however during this period Muhammad’s emphasis was on punishment stories of a recognisably Arab kind (i.e. not influenced by the other monotheisms) to gain converts. Resurrection and Last Judgment are “hardly mentioned,” and the coming of a “mighty day” for the unbelievers refers to an intervention by Allah in the material world to smite those tribes who have rejected His messenger. Muhammad’s Meccan propaganda is “consistently one of monotheism, the service of Allah alone,” rather than a global mission, on the premise that a messenger arises from each people to bring them to the One True God, and Muhammad is that messenger for the Arabs.

It was in Medina that the Book was begun, a haphazard effort to write down a Scripture, initially influenced by Judaism and then by Christianity, and the parts of this Book would later be incorporated into the Qur’an. The determination on an Arabic “holy” book to rival the other monotheisms came after the battle of Badr in March 624. Heavily outmanned against the Quraysh tribe, the Muslims were victorious. The victory elevated Muhammad to leadership in Medina and gave Muslims hope that they might be able to return to Mecca to do the hajj. In addition to this victory, the crucial event in the timing of the decision to create a Scripture in rivalry to the Jews and Christians was Muhammad’s definitive break with the Jews, which took place in December 623, just over a year after the flight to Medina, when the qibla (direction of prayer) was changed from Jerusalem to Mecca. Muhammad had expected the Jews to support the Muslims as fellow monotheists, and he even amended his religion to mirror Judaism after arrival in Medina, noticeably on things like dietary laws, but the Jews rejected him.

The Muslims cleared the Jewish Banu Qaynuqa tribe out of Medina a little over a month after the Badr victory. In September 625, another Jewish colony around Medina, Bani Nadir, were expelled—likely as a demonstration that Muhammad had recovered control after his disastrous set-back at Uhud in March 625 against the Quraysh, and to capture ghanima (war booty) to placate his followers. In March 627, after the Jews had been “lured into expressing sympathy for the [Meccan] attackers,” who had ranged a large coalition against Muhammad’s Medina-based regime in reprisal for its raiding against their trade routes, Muhammad conquered the remaining Jewish colony around Medina, Banu Qurayza, and ruthlessly slaughtered the inhabitants, who were from the Banu Qaynuqa tribe. It is reported that Ali, who would be the fourth Caliph, was among the executioners who murdered 400 to 900 Jewish captives, including by beheading, over several days after the battle. A further attack on the Jews, mostly of the Bani Nadir tribe, at Khaybar was undertaken in May 628, and the terms of the Muslim victory—payment of tribute in exchange for protection—set a precedent for what would become the jizya, the poll tax levied on minorities under Muslim rule. Given that the economy of the early Muslim State was based these taxes from subordinate populations and on raiding and the taking of ghanima, it must have looked quite similar to the Islamic State’s “Caliphate” in Syria and Iraq.

At some point after his arrival in Medina, Muhammad made a momentous discovery: Abraham was neither Christian nor Jewish, but an independent prophet whom god had blessed. Other than hardening his dislike of the Jews, whom he accused of concealing the contents of their scriptures, it led to the transformation of Muhammad from a leader of the Arabs to somebody with a global mission.

By tradition, the first formation of a Qur’an took place after the battle of Yamama in December 632, when so many of those who had the Qur’an memorised (the hafiz) were killed that Omar al-Khattab, who would become the second Caliph (634-44), worried that the text would be lost. He suggested to the Caliph, Abu Bakr (632-34), that Qur’an be collected and written down, and Zayd ibn Thabit was commissioned to do this, famously collecting the Qur’an from “pieces of paper, stones, palm leaves, shoulder-blades, ribs, bits of leather, and from the hearts of men.” This was collected on suhuf (sheets) and presented to the Caliph. The historicity doesn’t work, however. Most of those lost at Yamama were recent converts, for one thing. Then there are the fragmentary documents from Mecca, the Book from Medina, and the fact that—while it does not seem that there were major differences between them—there were at least four editions of the Qur’an already in circulation. A final version of the Qur’an was compiled under the third Caliph, Othman (644-56), and all other editions burned.

This is the least of it. As Bell makes clear, Muhammad changed the text in line with his “changing circumstances, needs and purposes”. As Muhammad’s position changed from embattled leader of a fringe religious community in Mecca, where the focus was on scaring others with stories of what happens to tribes in the here-and-now who do not accept the revelation, to “consciously producing a revelation similar to the revelation in the hands of previous monotheists” in Medina, which in practice, as the ruler of a State, meant law-giving, Muhammad required different religious warrants. And with Muhammad’s evolving conception of the place of his revelation in the universe, there began a focus on settling accounts after death and End Times, influenced by Christianity.

The Surahs (chapters) of the Qur’an are divided into ayah (verses), which are not only mixed up—indeed a chronology of the ayah would greatly clarify things, but we do not have such a timeline—but within the verses lines are clearly added in later, extended, and moved. Muhammad’s awareness of some of these internal contradictions led to the formation of a doctrine—al-nasikh wal-mansukh (the abrogating and abrogated [verses])—which said that Satan had at times pretended to be the Angel Gabriel or Allah when the revelations were being given to Muhammad, but Allah will always send a superior verse—in practical terms, where there is a contradiction, the later verse takes precedence. Alas, the Medina parts of the Qur’an are where Muhammad is a ruler constantly at war with unbelievers, in contrast to the Meccan parts where the Muslims were a persecuted minority, Muhammad’s ambitions did not extend beyond the Arabs, and he had a favourable view of the Jews. This has meant a lot of the more peaceful verses have been eclipsed by more violent and sectarian ones.

The disjointed style of the Qur’an shows itself in narrations, where the Qur’an moves incident to incident, allowing the reader to imagine the connecting parts. It is also in the narrative parts of the Qur’an that its “dependence upon the Bible, especially upon the Old Testament, is most evident.” The Qur’an certainly draws on the Torah, but that the Qur’an contains much Biblical material is “evident at a glance,” and indeed this borrowing of the main stories of the Bible seems to have been conscious once Muhammad decided his revelation was intended to supersede the pre-existing monotheisms. But Muhammad did not take directly, exactly, instead “freely us[ing] for his own purposes” the stories he was given, and he does seem to have been given the stories, orally and from memory, by “chance informants” among lay Christian believers. Muhammad was “never … in contact with theologically educated Christians, but depended on popular accounts,” says Bell, and these people mixed in quite a lot of extra-scriptural superstition. Muhammad never seems to have acquired any deep knowledge of the New Testament, so its imprint on the Qur’an is slight. The other main source of the Qur’an is the pre-Islamic Arab paganism. The idea of the jinn and the pilgrimage to the Kaaba are both pre-Islamic tribal customs modified into theological necessities for all mankind. Islam’s laws on retaliation—that it might not exceed the initial injury and in the best of circumstances forgiveness would be offered—are modified from pre-existing custom, too.

Kaaba (The Cube), Islam’s most sacred mosque in Mecca


As to contents, the “fundamental doctrine” of Islam in the Qur’an is the oneness of god (Tawheed), and Muhammad was particularly harsh against the Christian idea of the Trinity—ensuring, for example, that the Qur’an stated that Allah had no children, explicitly rejecting the idea of god-the-son. Judgement is the “second great doctrine of Islam.” Muhammad’s background as a trader is clearly shown in the legalistic weighing of deeds at the end of life, in Bell’s telling. But still the overriding consideration is belief or unbelief. The images of eternal bliss or torment are mostly drawn from Christianity, and this is particularly obvious in the Qur’anic Hell where the damned ask the saved for water, as in the parable of Lazarus, and the Angels, which is to say god-appointed agents, administer punishment. But some additions are made to make it intelligible to a local Arab audience. Such Arabian additions include that the damned shall eat from the tree of Zaqqum, whose fruit is said to be bitter, and that they shall be given hot water to drink. The delights of Jannah (Paradise) bear an especially heavy Arabian stamp: the springs of water, the milk and honey, the wine served by ever-youthful boys, and the absence of gossip and ridicule are luxuries and reliefs the Muslims at the time would very much have appreciated in the material world. The houris, the “bright-eyed” women, who are on offer in Heaven also have attributes notably attractive to the early Muslims: “modest, retiring, restraining their glances, and … enclosed in pavilions like treasured pearls.”

The Qur’an envisions at most three daily prayers—a morning and evening prayer in Mecca, and a midday prayer is added in Medina. The five-a-day formula seems to come from Zoroastrianism. Alcohol, specifically wine, “had been mentioned as one of the delights of Paradise,” but “came to be disapproved of … and finally forbidden altogether.” This is largely as a result of Christians and Jews holding the wine trade and Muhammad’s own personal disgust at intoxicated congregants. The Qur’an does allow men to take four wives, something Bell thinks is related to the need to care for many widows and orphans after the Battle of Uhud. “Marriage” to slaves and slave concubines is permitted—and the Qur’an is quite plain elsewhere that slavery is vouchsafed to Muslims by god—and the question of mut’ah (temporary marriage) is “moot” since the Holy Law “left the right of divorce in the hands of the man”. A three-month cooling-off period is prescribed before divorces are finalised, but this applies only to the woman: the divorce occurs at once, but the man can take back the woman within that period if he chooses. While the Qur’an was progressive for its time in recognising a right to property for females at all, its laws on inheritance are clear: women receive half what men do. Theft is punishable by cutting off a hand and adultery is punished by stoning to death, though it is made difficult by the demand for four witnesses. (As Bernard Lewis once quipped: meeting these conditions would make one a singularly incompetent adulterer.)

The Qur’an is not entirely clear on the nature of false gods: much of the time they are regarded as illusory, but there are moments when they are said to be jinn and others when it is said that the polytheists worship a rebellious Satan. The Qur’an is certain on the idea of predestination—which it had not been initially—and on Allah’s omnipotence (“When He decides upon a thing He simply says ‘Be,’ and it is.”) Thus, “no one can complain of being wronged” because Allah has laid the plan out; to complain is kufr (literally “ingratitude,” used as a derogatory word for unbelievers). The nature of the Devil is important: he is a tempter, who “whispers in the breasts of men”. The choice of words from the Iranian regime when it refers to the United States as shaytan-e mojassem (Satan incarnate) is not an accident: what scares the clerics the most is the insidious cultural invasion of Western ideas like secularism through the “cracks” in the Islamic society that can lead good Muslims astray. By Medina, when Muhammad grasps that Jews and Christians are different—and that neither is receptive to his revelation—they begin to be spoken of as “those who have been given part of the Book,” and a doctrine arises that says Jews and Christians were initially given the correct revelation, which is to say the one Muhammad has constructed, but they corrupted it over time. Ultimately, we are left with the conclusion:

Qur’an legislation is, in fact, the record of how the many and varied problems which beset Muhammad as the head of a new militant religious community of Islam were dealt with.

This is the main difference with Christianity. Christianity, like Islam, began among a persecuted minority, but unlike Islam Christianity never triumphed in the lifetime of its prophet. The Roman Emperor Constantine (306-337), after whom the Byzantine capital would be renamed Constantinople (now Istanbul), converted to Christianity, and in 380 Christianity would become the State religion. But in the intervening centuries Christians formed an institution, the Church, which was wholly separate from the State, and whether in harmony or discord, Church and State remained separate institutions. Theologically, Christians were able to find Matthew 22:21, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s,” which did a lot of the heavy-lifting after the wars of the Seventeenth Century convinced Christians that religion needed to be separated from State policy.

The history of Islam is very different: Muhammad triumphed in his own lifetime and had to deal with State administration and the making of war; there was no distinction between State and religion. Indeed, the pairs of words associated with this distinction—secular and religious, lay and ecclesiastical, spiritual and temporal—simply did not exist in the world of Islam. When Mustafa Kemal Atatürk established Turkey as a secular Republic, the foreignness of the concept could be seen in the use of the word laik for “secular,” clearly borrowed from the French laïcité. It is this fusion of religion and State that is behind the severe punishment for apostasy (leaving Islam), because to leave the umma (community of believers) was not just heresy at the time of Islam’s founding but something closer to treason.

It is true that in practice Islam has known much more of a division between State and religion than is often acknowledged. By the mid-Thirteenth Century, most of the Islamic world was under the rule of Turkic slave soldiers, the Mamelukes, and when the Abbasid Caliphate was reconstituted in Cairo in 1261 after the sack of Baghdad in 1258 it is true that this was effectively a military regime and the clerics were kept separate from State policy. But the Ottoman Empire that would claim the Caliphate in 1517 was a militantly religious State, and even in its decline maintained most of the attributes of religious law. That the Janissaries, the Caliph’s Praetorians, changed the government by force quite frequently between the Seventeenth and early Nineteenth Century does not alter this fact.

Islam’s theology is thin, which has spared it the raging theological disputes of Christendom: to say the Shahaha, “there is no god but god and Muhammad is his prophet,” is enough to make one a Muslim. But the history of the Islamic Empires—a history believed to have been overseen and directed by god—and the example of the prophet in the Qur’an and the Hadith is very important, and given that the Medina passages replace the Meccan ones, and in Medina Muhammad was eternally waging jihad (struggle or holy war) against unbelievers, this presents a problem for Muslim moderates.


This week, with the massacre of the journalists at Charlie Hebdo, the question of the connection between the violence of self-styled holy warriors and the religion of Islam is very much back at the top of the agenda. The issue has been high on the public mind since at least 9/11, and incidents over the past year like the sexual enslavement of Yazidi women by the Islamic State have helped keep it alive. The two poles in this argument are those who insist that Muslims are only not violent to the extent they do not take their religion seriously, and those who insist that Islam has nothing to do with it, that the cause of violence is really Western foreign policy or some other grievance like poverty or racial discrimination, and in any case “real” Islam is like Quakerism but without the aggressiveness. Both factions make a grave mistake in assuming that they can say what is the authentic version of the religion of others, and the latter faction offers a solution worse than the problem in insisting that those who act violently in the name of Islam are not “real” Muslims, licensing the use of takfir (declarations of heresy) that will redound severely against Muslim liberals.

Even if one suspects that the Iraqi humanist Faisal Saeed al-Mutar is on to something when he says that if Islam were a peaceful religion you would expect the extremists and literalists to be the least violent, this is not the West’s call to make; it is for Muslims to say whether groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State and regimes like those in Saudi Arabia and Iran represent their faith. Denying that these groups and regimes are versions of the faith is, however, counterproductive; it is a strategy of evasion that neglects the hard work of reform that will be necessary if Islam, in its heartlands and in the West, is to make peace with modernity. Bell’s book makes an excellent contribution to the argument for regarding Islam’s salvation as residing with its reformists, people like Maajid Nawaz and Irshad Manji, rather than its moderates.

Moderation would be a welcome interim step but moderates generally are hamstrung by definition: they lack the ruthlessness of their zealous foes. In religious terms, moderates bring their own problems: being classified as moderate in some religions can still encompass believing in some objectively extreme things, and religious moderates legitimise large chunks of what the literalists want, especially as concerns indoctrinating children and penetrating the public square with faith. And Islamic moderates have specific problems that, say, Jains would not have, a religion where the fundamentals actually are pacific, to the point of not fighting against repression and being frightened of treading on ants. Unlike moderates, who finesse or ignore the textual warrants for criminal misbehaviour—the very things that will always lie in wait to depose the moderates—the reformists tackle these verses and traditions, to either abrogate them or give a competing explanation.

The problems within Islam that came so starkly to Western attention on Sept. 11, 2001, are at root a civil war for the definition of the faith between those who want theocracy and those who do not; al-Qaeda’s attack on America was meant to be a shortcut to the theocrats winning that war against other Muslims. The West’s mission, therefore, is to tip the balance against the theocrats, while acknowledging that this is a Muslim problem with a Muslim solution. Writing-off the extremists as “un-Islamic” is not going to help the liberals in the Muslim world, but finally prosecuting the war of ideas just might. Salafism and even Salafi jihadism are much more widespread than most Westerners wish to believe, but there are moderates and reformists, and the best help they could have is logistical: to have an infrastructure—financial, informational, and where necessary military—that means they can compete with the fanatics to redefine Islam.

Post was updated in the section referring to Lazarus to clarify the meaning

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