The Qur’an is a work primarily concerned with the relationships of the individual with God and with society. The scholarship of early Islam revolved around understanding the Qur’an and developing its applications to society. During these first few hundred years the Qur’an was compiled and standardized, with a blossoming of scholarship on interpretation, ethics, law, rhetoric, and theology. This era saw an intricate dialogue among scholars and the state over acceptable versions of the Qur’an and acceptable interpretations, struggling to reach an acceptable consensus. The state was initially very involved in establishing early Islamic thought and practice through sponsorship of scholarship and decrees on orthodox recitations and interpretations; during this period, scholars became increasingly independent from the state and took on a leadership role within their communities.
From the start, Islam was a movement with a message both religious and political. The prophet Muhammad’s followers were bound by devotion to him and to God as well as acceptance of his message of social justice. Immediately after Muhammad’s death, political and religious authority remained closely linked. Abu Bakr, his successor, tried to take on the mantle of leadership in both areas in his effort to maintain a stable civil society in the mold of Islam. In 632 CE Abu Bakr commissioned Zayd ibn Thabit, a scribe of Muhammad, to collect the many disparate verses of the Qur’an and compile them. This scripture provided an authoritative means for continuity of Islam beyond direct contact with the Companions of Muhammad. However, the Arabic script in use was incomplete, without clear distinction between certain consonants and with no vowels at all. Locales developed their own traditions of recitation of this consonantal skeleton.
There were no guidelines for use of the Qur’an in liturgy and in scholarship; regional variation in recitation and interpretation occurred naturally. Fifteen years after Zayd’s first assignment, Uthman recalled him and other respected scholars to copy out a standardized version of the Qur’an using the original Quraishi dialect. Uthman decreed that only this version be used, seeking to fight division and promote a single form of Islam.
Even after Uthman’s codex, variant readings were still in use. Al-Farra’s early ninth-century interpretative work The Good Significance of the Qur’an discussed several different readings on an equal basis with the Uthmanic text.
One hundred years later only seven systems of recitation based on the Uthmanic text were accepted by religious scholars. Ibn Mujahid, a leading authority of the ninth century, “considered [these seven] authoritatively transmitted and broadly authenticated.”
In Islam, a fundamentally populist religious, authenticity stems from popular support, especially by respected scholars. Although he did not demand a single, orthodox recitation, ibn Mujahid respected the weight of tradition by accepting only widely-used variants from reputable sources.
Establishing the meaning of the Qur’an was even more important than determining its actual words; it was essential to understand correctly the Qur’an’s moral and behavioral instructions. Interpretation of verses began among Muhammad and his companions as he explained obtuse revelations to them. It grew into a major genre of literature, tafsir, by the ninth century, including writings on narrative, legal, rhetorical, and symbolic interpretations
. Tafsir in each area were collected in Muhammad al-Tabari’s eponymous tenth-century tome. Al-Tabari discusses each of the 6200 verses of the Quran, sharing the opinions of respected scholars with his own editorial comments. These opinions were quite varied; through their contrast and al-Tabari’s commentary the reader could derive his own conclusion – no doubt matching al-Tabari’s own. While al-Tabari was unusually inclusive of liberty of thought, he still respected the significance of tradition, providing the chains of transmission (isnad) for each source and giving more weight to those with more text-based evidence or stronger traditional backing.
Al-Tabari provides thirteen pages on the interpretation of a single question the angels ask God about His creation of Adam in 2:30. He offers three main opinions, each supported by several respected scholars, followed by his own comments. These opinions include theological interpretation of God’s intention in making man; moral instruction to Muslims on God’s abhorrence of disobedience; and narrative explanation of the situation. The Quran does not elaborate on the creation story referred to in this verse, which is found in a chapter reminding Muslims and other People of the Book to be grateful for God’s favors.
The narrative interpreters of this verse drew on the Abrahamic creation story of Adam and concept of angels; Islam was closely tied to the other Abrahamic faiths and scholars often quoted non-Quranic sources. Al-Tabari summarized the interpretation of this verse, writing:
The most preferable of these interpretations… [is that the angels’ question] was an inquiry which they made of their Lord, meaning: ‘Teach us, our Lord, are You going to place someone with this attribute [of disobedience]?’ They did not contest what their Lord had taught them… although they were dismayed when they were informed that God would have a creature who would disobey him.
As for the claim that God allowed them to ask about this, and that they then asked him in a way which expressed astonishment, there is no evidence for it in the ostensive meaning of the revelation, nor any tradition from an authority which would be decisive; and it is not permissible to hold a view about the interpretation of the Book of God for which there is no evidence…
Al-Tabari states his preferred interpretation, summarizing it clearly for the reader’s benefit. He dismisses a presumably common misunderstanding on the grounds that there is no textual evidence for it. For al-Tabari, textual evidence for an interpretation was as important as its scholarly credentials. By providing several varying opinions on a given subject and asserting the most authoritative, al-Tabari provided room for accepted variation of opinion within the scholarly community. This tolerance was essential to the sustained dialogue that characterized Qur’anic scholarship. The Qur’an itself was an oral tradition, not a book, and its study followed in this method. The very format of al-Tabari’s Tafsir resembles a dialogue, with one opinion following another and al-Tabari as moderator narrating the flow for the reading audience.
While some of the fundamental scholarship on the Qur’an was state-sponsored (Zayd ibn Thabit’s work, for example), the scholarly culture developed increasing independence beginning in the ninth century. Scholars were at heart community members who were reciters of the Quran, hadith scholars, or interpreters in one or more of the various fields. They were respected as religious authorities and community leaders called ulama. Communities looked to them for guidance on religious, ethical, and legal issues. Particularly after ninth-century Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mun’s failed minha (an attempt to force religious authorities to conform to a state-sponsored orthodoxy), the state was relegated to matters of security and infrastructure, while the ulama regulated civil society and religious life. Legal and religious questions and matters of interpretation were decided by consensus among the ulama – a consensus that allowed for diversity of thought, within boundaries. Shortly after the minha, the ulama was well-established enough as an independent system of leadership that it existed in a symbiosis with the state, supporting the Abbasids politically when the polity was threatened and challenging rulers when they drew away from an Islamic way of government.
The strong scholarly traditions found in Islam reflect the dynamic nature of the faith, rooted in personal dialogue with God and a community dialogue over how to be a good Muslim. From the creation of the Qur’an as a single text to the breaking down of each verse in its minute details and understandings, Islamic scholarship was thorough and lively. In the early stages, scholarship sought to create an orthodox Islam; as the faith became more mature, variation of opinion and variation of ways to be Muslim were accepted. Islam’s tolerance of diversity of thought and way of life has helped it become a focus of scholarship and science in the Middle Ages and grow into the global faith that it is today.