Nickel, 2011, Narratives of Tampering

Nickel, Gordon, 2011, Narratives of Tampering in the Earliest Commentaries of the Qur’an , Brill, Leiden, 255pp, £96.35, hb


The Muslim accusation of the corruption or deliberate falsification of pre-Qur’ānic scriptures has been a major component of interfaith polemic for a millenium or more. The accusation has frequently sought attestation from a series of “tampering” verses in the Qur’ān. Investigation of the interpretation of these verses in the earliest commentaries on the Qur’ān, however, reveals a discrepancy between the confident polemical accusation and the tentative understandings of the first Muslims. Of greater interest to early commentators was a story of deception and obstinacy by the “People of the Book” in response to the truth claims of Islam. Focusing on the eighth-century commentary of Muqātil ibn Sulaymān and the great exegetical compendium of al-Ṭabarī (d. 923), this book sketches the outlines of the earliest Muslim approach to pre-Qur’ānic scriptures. The resulting discoveries provide a rare opportunity to peek behind the curtain of doctrinaire claim and polemical debate.

(Taken from the publisher’s website)


By Danny Crowther

The Muslim doctrine of taḥrif holds that Christians and Jews have somehow or in some way tampered with their Scriptures. For many Muslims, this doctrine is the chief reason why they do not consider either the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament to be worth reading either as Scripture or as the background to their Scripture. Gordon Nickel surveys all the verses of the Qur’an that relate directly to these former revelations and considers the interpretation of these verses (tafsir) in the first three centuries of Islam. He shows that, in this formative period, the dominant narrative that guided this exegesis was one in which Christians and Jews were believed to have largely authentic Scriptures, but to have tampered with the pronunciation and interpretation of these Scriptures to complicate or alter the clear message to which they witnessed.

Nickel begins his task by noting that, ‘one of the most important scholarly insights in Quranic Studies in recent years is that the style of the Qur’an is allusive and elliptical. The Qur’anic text frequently lacks words or units of information which might otherwise be considered essential to a clear expression of meaning.’ (2011:8). In other words, the verses of the Qur’an that concern the prior Scriptures are open to different interpretation. Nickel finds this to be particularly true in regard to the twenty-six verses that directly relate to the doctrine of taḥrif or ‘tampering’ of these Scriptures. Whilst it is clear that these verses accuse Christians and Jews of mishandling their Scriptures, it is not clear from these verses:

  1. Who has mishandled these Scriptures (whether all or only some Jews, whether all or only some Christians, and, whether Jews and Christians have colluded in their mishandling of the Hebrew Bible).
  2. When the previous Scriptures were mishandled (whether in the present or in the recent past or, even, in the distant past) and why God allowed his revelation to become marred.
  3. How these Scriptures have been mishandled (through poor translation and faulty interpretation or through the intentional alteration of the actual text of these Scriptures or though the accidental alterations and mistakes that occur when scribes hand copy manuscripts).

After introducing these issues in his first chapter, Nickel surveys all the previous scholarly works on taḥrif (Chapter Two) and all the references to prior Scriptures in the Qur’an (Chapter Three). He finds that most of the verses that refer to previous Scriptures speak positively both of these texts and the people who live by them. However, he also finds twenty-six verses that accuse Christians and Jews of mishandling the Scriptures and seven of these verses describe this mishandling as an act of ‘altering’ (ḥarrafa) or ‘substituting’ (baddala) the text.

Nickel understands the exegesis of the Qur’an to involve the explanation of the meaning of one verse in the Qur’an that addresses an issue in relationship to all the other verses that pertain to that issue. This process of exegesis is both limited and guided by previous exegesis: exegesis occurring closer to the time of Muhammad is more likely to be closer to the spirit that inspired Muhammad. Therefore, Nickel chooses two early works of exegesis central to the foundations of all subsequent Muslim exegesis: the first complete exegesis of the Qur’an, that of Muqatil ibn Sulayman (d. 150/767), and the compilation of all authoritative earlier exegeses reported by Abu Jafar ibn Jarir al-Tabari (d.310/923).

Nickel notes that a narrative, which occurs again and again in the exegesis of Muqatil and al-Tabari, is remarkably consistent with the narrative of the biography of Muhammad as recorded by ibn Ishaq (d.151/768). In this narrative, the existence of extant authentic texts in the possession of both Christians and Jews is presumed. In fact, it is relied upon to prove the authenticity of the ministry of Muhammad, and to condemn the hard heartedness of the Jewish majority who fail to believe in the Qur’an despite possessing an authentic witness of previous revelation. In this narrative, the Scriptures of the Jews and Christians are reliable representations of past revelations: a number of notable Christians recognise Muhammad as the Prophet of God through their knowledge of these Scriptures, whilst a number of unscrupulous Jews mispronounce, conceal and deny the parts of their texts that prove Muhammad to be correctly guided in the ways of God. Nickel concludes that, in early Muslim exegesis, the Jews and Christians are understood to have altered their holy texts in response to the advent of Muhammad, but to possess reliable, accurate and uncorrupted Scriptures in the days of Muhammad.

The price and presentation of Nickel’s work indicate that it is designed for the serious scholar. Its contents represent years of careful research. It is, undoubtedly, the most thorough and well-argued work on taḥrif currently available.