Popular Orientalists’ Approach to the Holy Quran

In this tabulated piece I attempt to summarize the popular /major Orientalist works surrounding Quran. Initially their works was limited to translation with some preface/companion. Those translations were far from being decent and even further from being fair. However, of late their works have snowballed and now they have been able to put forward elaborate (conspiracy) theories surrounding the Quran.

Needless to say their works are far from being fair. This tabulation is not intended to be exhaustive nor is it intended for any pedagogical purpose regarding Quran. This is aimed to be a basic reference source regarding different authors in their theories and claims about Quran. This work is essentially summarized from The Quran and the Orientalist by Dr Mohar Ali.

AuthorAuthor informationViews on Quran
Robert Ketenensis ,
Herman of Dalmatia
First Latin translators of QuranThis translation was commissioned by Raymond the Archbishop of Toledo and Peter the venerable, abbot of Cluny to refute Islam. The translation was completed in 1143. The translation is more of paraphrasing with various mistakes and issues.
Thomas Bibilander
(Martin Luther)
The early protestant reformerWrote a preface to the above Latin translation of the Quran which was then compiled along with other Christian propaganda and published by Thomas Bibilander from Basel and Zurich between 1543 to 1550.
Andrea Arrivabene Translated Quran to Italian in 1547Published a translation of the Quran from the Latin work to Italian 1547. This was the first translation of the Quran in the modern European language.
Solomon Schweigger Translated Quran to German in 1616Used the Italian translation which was heavily mistaken and also translated from a faulty Latin translation to formulate a German translation of the Quran
Andre du RyerFrench Consul of EgyptWrote a French translation of the Quran from Arabic text and was published in Paris in 1647. The translation was riddled with error omission and additions. To the point, even orientalists like George Sale noted that his work contained unpardonable mistakes.
Alexander RossTranslated the Quran to English in 1649First English translation or “rendering” of Quran. This translation was done from the French translation of Ryer
GlazemakerTranslated Quran to Dutch in 1658Did a Dutch translation of Quran from Ryers French translation
LangeTranslated Quran to Germany in 1688German translation of Quran from Ryers French translation
Postnikov and
Translated Quran to Russian in 1688Russian Translation of Quran from Ryers French translation
Ludovico MarracciConfessor of Pope Innocent XI did a translation of the Quran in 1698 and dedicated the work to Emperor Leopold I second edition of this work was published in 1721He did his independent Latin translation and added the Arabic text in the translation. He added commentaries in translation. Also added a companion to the work titled “Refutation of the Quran
David NerreterTranslated Quran and Marraccis work in German  in 1703Translated Marraccis work in German
George Sale1697–1736 was a British Orientalist scholar and practicing solicitor, best known for his 1734 translation of the Quran into English.Translated Marraccis’s work in English, marking his famous translation of the Quran. He had a preliminary discourse of the Quran as a preface and that was also based on Marraccis’s work.

While Sale claimed that the translation was independently done and perhaps its so, there was the undoubted influence of Marraccis’s work. Sale was extremely hostile in his approach to Quran. Not to mention his translation still wasn’t up to the mark as it contained paraphrasing and at times mistranslation or omission of words. Eg. He translates the Basmallah as in the name of Most Merciful God, paraphrasing Rahman and Rahim together(or omitting Rahim)
Theodore ArnoldPublished his translation in German in 1746Translated Sale’s work in German
M SavaryPublished translation of Quran in French in 1751Translated the Quran from Marraccis Latin text and interestingly claimed that this translation was done in Makkah.
It was a false claim but proved to be an important claim for publicity given people thought this was an officially endorsed translation and became as popular as Sales translation and was reprinted over and over again
M KasimirskiPublished French translation of Quran in 1840Based his French translation on Sale’s translation
Gustav Leberecht
1802 –1870 was a German orientalist.Published an edition of Quran which had varied aya numbering. This numbering system is usually followed by the early western orientalist academia. Notably Watt and Arberry.
Abraham Geiger1810 – 1874 German rabbi and scholar considered the founding father of Reform Judaism. Emphasizing Judaism’s constant development along with history and universalist traits, Geiger sought to re-formulate received forms and design what he regarded as a religion compliant with modern times.Viewed that both Christianity and Islam are an unoriginal extension of Judaism. He viewed that Islam (and Christianity) were meant by which Judaic monotheism was being spread to a pagan world.
He was one of the first modern scholars to forward a systematic thesis of Islam copying Judeo-Christian works to formulate the Quran.
John Medows
 1808–1900 an English clergyman of the Church of England and a Non-Muslim Islamic scholar.He was heavily influenced by Muir and Noldeke and wrote a translation of the Quran in 1861. He noted that Islam is essentially Judaism divested from its Mosaic ceremonial and Christianity divested of the Atonement of Trinity aimed at absorbing both.

In his translation noted that to convert Muslims to Christianity, Christians shouldn’t attack Quran and Islam from the get-go rather assert that it contains a fragment of truth that is ultimately derived from Christianity.
William Muir1819 – 1905 Scottish Orientalist, and colonial administrator, Principal of the University of Edinburgh, and Lieutenant Governor of the North-West Provinces of British India.He believed Prophet (saw) forged the Quran due to his ambition to making people (all Arabs) bow towards himself. He noted that Prophet (saw) was inspired by the poetic competitions from the Ukaz fair.
He was a staunch advocate of the Quran being borrowed from Biblical sources. He credits 3 people from whom Prophet (saw) could have learned about biblical stories.

Quss ibn Saida – at Uakaz fair

Zaid ibn Haritha who he believed was from a family exposed to Christianity and later sold to Prophet (saw) as a slave/ taken as the adopted son.

Waraqa ibn Nawfal

Additionally, he believed that Prophet (saw) learned about Judeo-Christian beliefs in his trade visits to Syria. He notes that Prophet learned about Ibrahim (as) from these trade visits and then back-projected the practices of Arabs ( eg. tawaf of Kaba) to Ibrahim (as). He asserts that Prophet (saw) received the message of Christianity from catholic fractions particularly concerning Jesus and Mary.  

He also asserts an odd timeline of the Prophet’s activities. According to him, Prophet (saw) was already doing poetic sessions of concern regarding the pagan society with his small band of ragtag followers: Waraqa, Ali(ra), Khadija (ra)and Abu Bakr(ra). The Quraysh other than Abu jahls and his few minions remained careless. Then his followers instigated him to come out as a prophet to guide people from pagan belief to which Prophet (saw) agreed.

Following this, he formulated the aya “Iqra bismi rabbika Allazi Khalaq”: “Proclaim in the name of your Lord who created”. From then on Prophet (saw) went to the whole Quraysh as a prophet claiming to have wahy. He alleges that after Prophet (saw) received a negative response he fell back to being unsure so there was no new revelation for some time. Then when he became sure again of reclaiming to be a prophet, he came up with more revelation poetries.
David Samuel
1858 – 1940 was an English orientalist. He was briefly active as a priest in the Church of England. He was Laudian Professor of Arabic at the University of Oxford from 1889 to 1937.Echoes Muir on Quran being a tool to realize prophet(saw)’s ambition. He references Surah Ash Shahr (verse 1 to 4) where Allah tells the prophet(saw) that Allah has made his name renowned. He believed its due to Prophet’s ambition and personal distinction which prompted him to participate in Fijar War.

Echoing Muir he alleges that Prophet (saw) was inspired by the poetries that he might have heard in Ukaz fair. He noted that Prophet had a superficial knowledge of Jewish and Christian faith and that is reflected in Quran. Then Prophet(saw) after learning about the name Ibrahim as a revered figure for both Jews and Christians attempted to trace his own teachings ie Quran to Sayyidinah Ibrahim for Islam to claim precedence over Judeo Christian scriptures.

Margoliouth claimed that Prophet undertook trickery and imposture to make people believe that he was a medium to produce a message from another world. Thus, to make people believe it, the prophet would often fall and agitate, his face would become livid. Over time Prophet allegedly became more adept in faking epilepsy and thus could just produce wahy on demand. Prophet would initially mimic the messages of Jews and Christian from what he was able to know till he grew enough to make his message. The key of the message ie eloquence was initially mimicked from Quss ibn Saida.

Both Margoliouth and Muir(above) note a narration where it is stated that Prophet (saw) heard Quss preach at the Uakaz fair. This narration that Prophet used to attend preaching sessions in poetry gatherings is spurious as it contains a known liar Muhammad ibn al Hallaj al Lakhmi (according to Dahabi and many others) Margoliouth also erroneously claimed that initially, Prophet (saw) claimed that Allah himself came down to teach him the Quran based on a faulty interpretation of 53:2-10, where he interprets the one coming to the horizon as Allah rather than an angel.
Aloys SprengerWas involved in reforming the madrassas in Calcutta at the behest of the British and as its principle.His works on Quran have similarities with Noldekes(see below). Noldeke explicitly affirms his influence from Sprenger. Sprenger asserted that Prophet (saw) made a parade of foreign vocabularies and expressions and incorporated those in Arabic to make Quran unique.
Theodore Noldeke1836 –  1930 was a German orientalist and scholar. His research interests ranged from Old Testament studies, Semitic languages, and Arabic, Persian and Syriac literature. He and Goldziher are considered informally to be the father of modern oriental study when it comes to Islamic aspects of Oriental studies. He collaborated in the translation of Tabaris Tarikh and also wrote a very influential work titled “The History of Quran” It should be noted that while he is listed below D. S. Margoliouth due to the timeline consistency his ideas influenced D. S. Margoliouth, not the other way around.In his magnum opus The history of the Quran, he divides the Quranic surahs into 4 periods: early Makkan the mid-Makkan, late Makkan, and the Madinian. Each group had its distinctive length theme and literary style and what he conceived to be the “convulsive excitement” of the early group, the gradual diminishing of the glow and fervour of the middle and late Makkan group, and the “Prosaic” tone of the Madinan group of surahs. He also believed that the disjoint letters eg Alif laam meem are abbreviations of different authors who wrote those surahs.

It should be obvious by now that by this standard of judgment his proposed surah chronological orders don’t match the Muslim chronology. He believed like his predecessors Quran is a heterogeneous collection of facts and fiction partly derived from Judeo-Christian sources. His view was, Zaid ibn Thabit collected the otherwise independent passages available and then corrected and redacted them to the current Quranic order, nevertheless, the Quran is incomplete as that process was lacking somewhat.

His untenable view of separating sections of surahs and assigning them date based on the perceived theme that he held later was partially redacted, as he noted himself that he went too far with this kind of exercise. He later asserted that perhaps the majority of the surahs were how it was originally authored rather than Zaid redacting those independent passages from different timeline together to make surahs. However bulk of his views on the Quran being an eclectic work sourced through human effort remained. He also believed that as Quran was primarily transmitted orally deliberate and inadvertent alterations of all kinds in the current Quran that we read cant be ruled out.

For Uthmanic retention, he maintained that no trustworthy information regarding how it happened can be found and it might have been zaid finding as many copies of Quran that he previously collated and then dictating it to scribes from those different collation who transcribed. He does hold that Zaid didn’t have any nefarious motive in his effort to compile Quran and as such anything that he missed must have been those he thought wasn’t Quran but might have been(for that he asserts Ubay’s mushaf having the marginal prayers which he holds was part of Quran) and he also notes that ibn Masood(ra)s piece had few fewer surahs indicating that there was a dispute regarding what the complete Quran was and Zaid’s view took precedence.
Charles Cutler
1863 –1956 was an American historian, archaeologist, and scholar, one of the chief students of Noldeke. He is known for, presenting through his books, manuscript evidence supporting alternate views on the origins of Christian and Islamic religious texts. He founded the American School of Archaeology at Jerusalem in 1901.Noted that during the Makkan period Prophet (saw) had various informant from whom he would take instructions regarding the Jewish/Christian monotheism on which the prophet (saw) based his message ie Quran on.

To assert this he used the following verse from Quran. “And We surely know that they say, “No one is teaching him except a human.” But the man they refer to speaks a foreign tongue, whereas this ˹Quran˺ is ˹in˺ eloquent Arabic.” Quran 16:103

He noted that this verse doesn’t deny that the Prophet (saw) had a human teacher, the message he was preaching came from heaven and is in Arabic. This indicates that Torrey’s view is Prophet (saw) consulted people (at least one person) and gathered information and then later formulated Quran in Arabic and claimed its divine origin.

The mufassirs explaining this ayat generally alludes that it’s Jabr a Christian slave of ibn al Mughira or another slave Yaish from Banu al Hadrami. There are other varied opinions on the person concerned in the aya. Jabr is a popular choice because the Quraysh tried to torture Jabr to make him admit that he taught Prophet (saw) Quran. Jabr became Muslim by that time and replied to the Quraysh “It’s not I who teaches Muhammed (saw), rather he who guides me” (recorded in Qurtubi)
Richard Bell1876 – 1952 was a British Arabist. He was a lecturer in Arabic at the University of Edinburgh and also served as Minister of Newton Wamphray, a small country parish from 1907 to 1921. On returning to Edinburgh, he spent his remaining years at the university in the study of the Qur’an.He posited.

a) The traditions regarding the coming of wahy are inventions of a later age and are founded upon the Quranic passage Quran 53:1-8

b) Before the prophet (saw) encountered the “visions” described in Quran 53:1-8, Prophet had been speaking in some manner but didn’t start delivering or composing Quran

c) Wahy doesn’t mean a verbal revelation rather it’s more likely suggestion or inspiration to compose the Quran.

d) Prophet initially claimed he saw Allah according to 53:1-8, but when he was more informed about God and monotheistic reception of God he mystified and modified it to make it seem like a spiritual vision.

e) He then became aware of what an angel is and in surah 81 he restated the vision in literal form by stating Angel brought the message.

f) By the time he went to Madinah he was more aware of Jewish angels and introduced Jibril as the messenger.  

As can be noted Bell had to restructure the timing of different revelations. For Eg, if he asserts that Jibril was introduced to the Quranic language after the prophet (saw) went to Madinah so all the verses that are Makki but have reference to Jibril would then, according to him, be categorized as Madani(wrongly attributed as Makki by Muslims).

While Bell has room for some degree of inspiration that prophet (saw) had for compiling his teachings into a book format ie the Quran, he explicitly denies a continual oral revelation. He also did a translation of the Quran
Arthur Jeffery1892 – 1959
A Protestant Australian professor of Semitic languages from 1921 at the School of Oriental Studies in Cairo, and from 1938 until his death jointly at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
He was heavily influenced by Noldeke. Unlike the other orientalist, however, he was well educated in Quranic studies. He tried to forward the orientalist views using his capacity as a scholar using whatever Islamic materials he could find.

He made a list of the variant readings of different Qiraat or from hadith corpus regarding different verses to insinuate the codification of Quran took a while and there were multiple independent versions of Quran flying around before the codification happened and Uthman’s final codification represents one or a collection of few of such rival Qurans.

He mentions a list of 15 companions who had independent primary codices of the Quran which while overlapped in content also differed at places according to him. The 15 that he listed are Umar ibn Khattab, Ali ibn Abi Talib, UIbay ibn Kaab, Abdullah ibn Masood, Hafsah, Zayd ibn Thabit, Aisha, and Abdullah ibn Zubayr (may Allah be pleased with them all).

He also finished an edition of Kitab al Masahif of Abu Bakr ibn Dawood using the manuscript preserved in Zahiriya Library at Damascus.
Arthur John
1905– 1969 a British orientalist. A scholar of Arabic, Persian, and Islamic studies, he was educated at Portsmouth Grammar School and Pembroke College, Cambridge.Wrote a translation of the Quran. Generally speaking he more fair in his translation than the earlier works and pays specific interest in the language.

He notes that his translation is an interpretation given he concedes to the Muslim claim that Quran is untranslatable.

He also notes that the current Quran in our hand is the same as the Uthmanic rendition. He used the Flugels numbering system.
Montgomery WattMarch 1909 – October 2006 was a Scottish Orientalist, historian, academic, and Anglican priest. From 1964 to 1979, he was a Professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Edinburgh. He is known to have opined that Quran was divinely inspired but not infallibly true.Similar theory of learning about Islam from Judeo Christian sources as Muir, he notes that Judeo- Christian ideas had become acclimatized in the Hijaz during Prophet (saw)’s time.  He followed the same line of reasoning as CC Torrey on the informant issue in Makkah. He also held the position of Margoliout and Bell in noting that Prophet initially had the vision of God, then iterated that it was an angel and whatever inspiration Prophet (saw).   However, unlike Margoliout and Bell, Watt didn’t try to dismiss traditions ie Hadith supporting the revelations as later Muslim fabrications.

What he tried to do instead was to make a conciliatory attempt to find traditions that would support his (and Bells) views on Quran. He tried to claim impartiality and even castigated his predecessors for being partial against Islam and Prophet. Eg. While Bell dismisses the tradition of Prophet (saw) going to Hira to have some solitude, Watt affirms it on the ground `that there is no good reason to deny such claims. He posited perhaps Prophet (saw) was mimicking Jewish Monks, or perhaps it was a custom to go to came to avoid the heat during summer.  

He asserted that with time Prophet (saw)’s biblical literacy increased as such the later revelations of the Quran had more accurate Jewish and Christian teachings compared to earlier. Watt tries to demonstrate this by the stories of Ibrahim and Lut (as) across different surahs(37, 26,27, and 7). He uses Bell’s dating of each different account to show that there is a growth in the information given Bell dates the more informative passages to the Madinan period. However, Muslim scholars have always maintained independently through the hadith corpus that the stories of the 2 messengers were from Makkan sources. 

He initially noted the issue that Quran got trinity with Father-son and Mary and as such (like Muir) alludes that Islam was informed about Christianity from marginal Catholics. Though in his later works he mentioned that and noted that Quran is saying that Christians took Jesus and Mary as 2 gods other than God almighty rather than claiming that they are part of the trinity, indicating that he redacted his view of the Quran misinterpreting trinity. Watt notes that Quran makes a chief error regarding Jews on the issue of them taking Uzair as the son of God.

Watt tries to forward a conciliatory approach of the Quran essentially being the book of guidance mimicked the belief of pagans regarding the world around them, and as such it may have replicated their mistaken views of nature. He maintains that this isn’t a big issue as the aim of the Quran wasn’t to teach about the world but to guide people and as such repeating their mistaken views is inconsequential. One example of such claim is Watt assuming Quran indicating the sky is ceiling “presumably made of rock”.

Overall, Watt tried to have a conciliatory approach instead of the combative one like Muir and others. While his conclusions are practically the same as theirs in many issues he tried to assert that Prophet (saw) was sincere. He also didn’t dismiss the idea of inspiration, and as such in his model it wouldn’t be impossible to assert that prophet (saw) received all the help from informants and Jewish tribes to formulate an Arabic Quran which was then compiled via inspiration from a higher power, or all those help were somehow intended for him via higher power. Watt holds that it’s possible that in most of the cases where Prophet (saw) saw angels and heard revelation, it was mostly some sort of vision that may have happened.

In the end Watts model allows Prophet to be seen as something like a lesser old testament prophet with political ideals who was immensely successful in his ministry.
John Burton1921 – 2005 was a British orientalist, Lecturer in the Art and Architecture of India at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). He was an editor, and prolific contributor, to the Second Edition of the Encyclopaedia of Islam between 1960 and 1995He was heavily influenced by Goldziher -Schacht. He maintained that Prophet (saw) himself compiled the whole Quran during his lifetime. Then Abu Bakr and Umar (and Uthman in a subsidiary role)manipulated the reports to indicate that the compilation was done after.

He noted that the Quran was finished by the time of Prophet and compiled. Later jurists then forged the concept of Naskh along with forging verses to support that and then heavily edited the Quran. This editing procedure took place during the time of Abu Bakr and Uthman.
John Edward
1928 –  2002 An American historian who taught at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), where he was vice-chancellor from 1985 to 1992. Wansbrough is credited with founding the so-called “revisionist” school of Islamic Studies through his fundamental criticism of the historical credibility of the classical Islamic narratives concerning Islam’s beginnings and his attempt to develop an alternative, historically more credible version of Islam’s beginnings. He argued the Quran was written and collected over 200 years, and should be dated not from the 1st-century Hijaz, Western Arabia, but the 2nd/3rd century AH in Abbasid Iraq.He tried to employ the biblical criticism method eg Form Criticism, Source Criticism, Redaction Criticism to reinterpret the history regarding Quran.

His central hypothesis’ are listed below:

a) The different parts of the Quran originated in different communities located in Iraq and Syria and these evolved only gradually from originally independent prophetical tradition during a long period of oral transmission and its final canonical form that happened in the late 8th century.

b) The text that became scripture consists of only a small part of the vast corpus of tradition, the rest of these traditions became hadith.

c) this development occurred during a time of sectarianism where Christians, Jews Zoroastrians, and the early believers were making claims against one another and then the larger body of the believers solidified with its theological basis.

d) The canonization of the Quran happened during the time Arabic as a language started to be codified.

e) Given Quran contains polemical materials especially against Jews it served as a motivation to complete the canonization.

f) Islamic traditions are a biblical counterpart of salvation history ie a theologically motivated story reprojected to create a convenient historical narrative.

g) The reason why no Islamic source material from the first century exists today is that those never existed and the text of the Quran became authoritative to Muslims after 9 th century.
Patricia Crone and
Michael Cook
Crone 1945 –2015; Cook 1940- Both orientalists were keen on the “revisionist” school of Islamic StudiesTheir views on Quran are very much identical to Wansbrough.
James A Bellamy1925 – 2015 Professor Emeritus of Arabic Literature at the University of Michigan. Was a scholar in textual criticism of the Quran. He published several of his works on this in the early and mid-90s.Forwarded the assertion that there are multiple words and phrases in Quran which are copyist mistakes and as such he proposed several amendments to those twenty-two instances that he found for such cases.

He also held some notion that the starting of surahs which has disjoint letters ie Alif Laam meem etc might be considered as abbreviations of basmallah in different early dialects.
A pseudonymous character who wrote The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran: A Contribution to the Decoding of the Language of the Qur’an (German edition 2000, English translation 2007) and several articles in anthologies about early Islam.Followed the line of thought of Wansbrough. He forwarded the same idea that Quran came into being gradual across different generations and from multiple sources.

His special assertion was parts of the Quran are derived from pre-existing Christian Aramaic text which was misinterpreted by early Arabs and Arabicized it rather than keeping the source as Aramaic. This was possible given both language has similar pronunciation of text and as such mistaken reading can be possible.
Yahuda D Nevo and
Judith Koren
Nevo 1932-1992 was a Middle Eastern archeologist living in Israel.Their joint work published in 2003 mimicked the revisionist school of Wansbrough. They started their work with 2 assumption

a) It is necessary to corroborate a view derived solely from Muslim literary account by hard facts of material remains and if there is a conflict then the latter should be preferred.

b) If there is no evidence from any event outside of the traditional account one must conclude that such event didn’t happen.  

With these 2 assumptions, they asserted that because some pagan materials (resembling jahiliyyah) were excavated dating to the Abbasid period in the Negev it indicates that these stories about the time of Jahiliyyah are back-projected from the time of Abbasids.

Nevo concluded that Quran was authorized later by a community who had its local prophet and his logias became known as Quran. He claimed it’s much later than the standard narrative as the vocabularies of the Quran didn’t exist (according to him) during the time Quran is said to have been codified by the standard narrative. Their views came with sharp criticism from even many orientalist authors.

4 thoughts on “Popular Orientalists’ Approach to the Holy Quran

Add yours

  1. “a) The different parts of the Quran originated in different communities located in Iraq and Syria and these evolved only gradually from originally independent prophetical tradition during a long period of oral transmission and its final canonical form that happened in the late 8th century.”

    does fred donner defend this theory?

    1. I am not sure if he does, his general thesis is against Wansbrough Crone and Nevo who basically argues that Quran is a very late product during Abbasid period. So I wouldnt be surprised if he disagrees with this premise which is quite the standard premise of the Revisionist school in SOAS. But if Fred defends this particular premise that Quran or parts of it originated in places outside of Jazeeral al Arab independently… i am not sure. If I can find something concrete I ll get back to you.
      Thank you for your question and giving me some food for thought.

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