Shaykh Al-Azami began his professional career in Qatar, where he taught Arabic to non-Arabs. After sometime he joined the National Public Library in Qatar as a librarian. An insatiable thirst for knowledge and a deep interest in the study of Hadith took him to the University of Cambridge, where he registered for the Ph. D. programme under the supervision of the well-known Orientalist Arthur J. Arberry and R. B. Sergeant. He wrote his thesis on “Studies in early Hadith literature.”
After obtaining a doctorate from the University of Cambridge, Shaykh Al-Azami travelled to Saudi Arabia and joined Umm al-Qura University in Makkah as an associate professor in 1968. In 1973 he left Umm al-Qura University and joined King Saud University as a professor of Hadith, a post he held until his retirement in 1991. Upon his retirement, he was made Emeritus Professor at King Saud University. In addition to teaching courses in Hadith, he supervised many students in their doctoral research in Hadith studies at both Umm al-Qura and King Saud universities.
Shaykh Al-Azami was a visiting professor at several universities, including the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA (1981082), St. Cross College, Oxford, UK (1987), University of Colorado, USA (1989-90) and Princeton University, New Jersey, USA (1992). He was appointed as Honorary Professor at the Department of Islamic Studies, University of Wales, UK.
In 1980 Shaykh Al-Azami received the prestigious King Faisal Award for his outstanding contribution to Hadith studies.
In order to appreciate the highly significant and wide-ranging contributions of Shaykh Al-Azami, it is fruitful to consider them against the backdrop of Western perceptions of Islam and Orientalist scholarship. Since the early Middle Ages, the perception of Islam in the West has been shaped by a mixture of ignorance, prejudice, fear and hostility. In Western discourse, Islam has often been portrayed as a ‘demonic religion of apostasy, blasphemy and obscurity’. A set of ideological, political and cultural factors, including the legacy of the Crusades, confrontations with the Ottoman Empire, the ideology of white supremacy and European colonialism, have been responsible for this perception.
The greatest stimulus to the academic interest in Islam in Europe, which began around the middle of the 18th century and gathered momentum in the second half of the 19th and the early decades of the 20th century, came from Orientalism, which was embedded in the historical, political and ideological context of European colonial expansion. During the colonial era, the European powers sought to dominate and control a vast swathe of the Muslim world not only through conquest and violence and the colonial policy of divide and rule and espionage but also through missionaries, the new education system and scholars and academics. Edward Said, in his path-breaking study Colonialism (1978), has persuasively argued that the discourse of Orientalism was inseparably entangled with Western imperialism and that it consequently produced a distorted picture of non-Western cultures and civilizations, particularly Muslim societies. Much of the information about Islam and Muslim societies that was used by the European colonial rulers for the administration of colonized territories and the justification of colonial rule over Africa and Asia derived from the works of Orientalists.
By and large, Orientalist writings on Islam and Muslim societies reflected and reinforced racist and imperialist stereotypes and essentialised and reduced the diversity and complexity of Muslim societies to simplistic generalisations and caricatures. Orientalism imagined the Muslim world as the West’s radical Other and depicted Islam as a ‘cluster of absences’ (such as the absence of rationality, liberalism, progress, modernity). Orientalist writings and the colonial ideology, which harboured racist and imperialist sentiments and had a virulent dislike of Islam and Muslims, had a profound impact on the Western intellectual and political elite, including Voltaire, Ernest Renan (1823-1892) and Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859). Voltaire, one of the towering figures of the Enlightenment, authored a play in which he mocked the Prophet of Islam as “the founder of a false and barbarous sect” and a “sublime and hearty charlatan.” Renan, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Ibn Rushd, declared that Islam was the last religious creation of humanity and its least original. He stated that, compared to other religions, Islam brought forth the heaviest fetter humanity ever had to endure. Renan also declared that Islam was inimical to science and philosophy.
Tocqueville, the celebrated author of Democracy in America, wrote in 1843: “I must say that I emerged convinced that there are in the entire world few religions with such morbid consequences as that of Mohammed. To me it is the primary cause of the now visible decadence of the Islamic world.” Tocqueville, the much-acclaimed champion of democracy, argued that “whole villages must be wiped out and their inhabitants not killed off but dispersed, if France were to conquer this territory and thus reestablish her prominence as a European power.” It is interesting to note that Robert Nisbet, in his widely-read book The Sociological Tradition, which deals with what Nisbet calls the ‘golden age’ of sociology, makes frequent and laudatory references to Tocqueville.
William Robertson Smith (1846-1894), a Scottish Orientalist, Old Testament scholar and a minister of the Free Church of Scotland, was one of the pioneering figures in the West who employed a sociological framework for the analysis of religious phenomena. He was greatly influenced by the unilinear evolutionism of John F. McLennan and the writings of Orientalists like Theodor Noeldeke and Ignaz Goldziher. One of Smith’s well-known works is Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia (1885), which was based on textual and historical sources as interpreted by Orientalists. The book clearly reflects Smith’s highly biased view of Islam. He described Islam as a “system of organized hypocrisy.”
Some European scholars, who were actively involved in missionary activities in Muslim countries, gained a reputation as experts on Islam and Muslims. The centuries-old Western legacy of hatred against Islam led them to paint Islam and Muslims in the darkest of colours. Samuel M. Zwemer (1867-1952), an American minister of the Dutch Reformed Church who established missions in Iraq and Bahrain and edited the journal The Moslem World, consistently portrayed Islam as a fanatical and backward faith that was incompatible with modernity and progress. One of his books was significantly titled The Disintegration of Islam (1916). Reuben Levy’s book The Sociology of Islam (1931-33), which was later published as The Social Structure of Islam (1957), is based on a sociological reconstruction of Islamic society in an Orientalist framework. The book bears the unmistakable imprint of the Orientalist outlook. Thus Levy writes that “Islam is at a standstill in the Western world….it would seem that the creed of Mohammad the Prophet is not suited to people reared in the Greek and Roman traditions and codes.”
The negative representation of Islam and Muslims in the Western intellectual tradition and in the discourse of Orientalism in the 19th and the early part of the 20th century was reinforced by the resistance to colonial rule by Muslims in North Africa and South and Southeast Asia. European colonizers, particularly scholars who were tied to colonial administration, such as W. W. Hunter and Snouck Hurgronje, portrayed Muslims as being prone to aggression and violence and as being hostile to progress and development.
In the second half of the 20th century, the most effective refutation of the assumptions and claims of Western Orientalists, based on formidable research, came from Professor Muhammad Hamidullah, Professor Fuat Sezgin and Shaykh Mustafa Al-‘Azami. Shaykh Al-Azami was a prolific writer in Arabic and English. His wide-ranging and original contributions to Islamic studies cover six distinct areas: (i) Hadith studies (ii) critical editions of important texts of Hadith (iii) computerisation of Hadith (iv) historical and comparative study of the text of the Quran (v) biography of the Prophet (vi) Islamic jurisprudence.
Western Orientalists have cast aspersions on the historicity and authenticity of Hadith and have argued that the process of writing and compilation of works in Hadith began long after the death of the Prophet, in the second and third centuries of the Islamic era. Muslim scholars, notably Mawlana Manazir Ahsan Gilani, Dr Muhammad Zubayr Siddiqi and Professor Muhammad Hamidullah, have refuted this claim of Orientalists and have convincingly demonstrated that the process of writing of Hadith began in the lifetime of the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم).
One of the astonishing contributions of Islam to the enrichment of civilization is that it spawned, promoted and disseminated a culture of writing. Writing, or the commitment of the word to space, enlarges the potentiality of language beyond measure. More than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness. The culture of literacy entails an emphasis on the accuracy of transmission and a sense of history. Writing has played a crucial role in the preservation, transmission and dissemination of knowledge, including sacred knowledge. It is significant to note that the first verses of the Quran which were revealed to the Prophet at the beginning of his prophetic mission mentioned writing.
Recite, in the name of thy Lord Who created
He created man out of a leech-like clot.
Recite, and thy Lord is Most Bountiful,
Who taught (man) through the pen.
He taught man what he knew not. (Quran 96: 1-5)
The word Kitab (book) is mentioned in 230 places in the Quran, which suggests that the Quran was meant to be committed to writing. The Quran also mentions a number of words associated with the technology and culture of writing, such as parchment (52:3), scroll (21:104), papyrus (6:7, 6:91), pen (68:1, 96:4), tablet (7:150), tomes (62:5) and scriptures (3:184). The second chapter of the Quran, which was revealed to the Prophet after his migration to Madina, lays down that every transaction on credit should be committed to writing in the presence of at least two witnesses (Quran 2:282). Though the Prophet knew neither reading nor writing, he was acutely aware of the potential and importance of writing. He declared that it was the duty of a father towards his son to teach him writing. He appointed Abdullah ibn Said ibn al-‘As, who was a good calligrapher, to teach writing to those of his Companions who spent most of their time in the Prophet’s mosque. The Prophet is reported to have said, “Should any Muslim possess property fit for testamentary will, it would not be proper for him to pass even three nights without having a written will with him.”
In the Battle of Badr about 70 prisoners of war were captured by Muslims. Abu Bakr suggested that they should be set free on payment of ransom. The Prophet agreed with the suggestion and a ransom of a hundred camels or four thousand dirhams was fixed as ransom. Some of the prisoners were too poor to pay the ransom, but they knew reading and writing. The Prophet suggested that a literate prisoner could secure his release by teaching ten Muslim children to write. It was from one of these prisoners that young Zayd ibn Thabit, who later served as the Prophet’s secretary, learnt writing.
It is estimated that 65 Companions of the Prophet served as his scribes. About 40 of them were selected to write down the verses of the Quran as and when they were revealed. These included Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, Ali, Zayd ibn Thabit, Aban bin Sa’id, Abu Umama, Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, Abu Hudhayfa, Ubbay ibn Ka’ab, Thabit ibn Qays, Abdullah ibn Umar, Amr ibn al-As, Muadh ibn Jabal and Muawiya. After dictating the revealed verses, the Prophet used to ask the scribe to read out what he had written. The chapters and verses of the Quran were arranged according to his instructions, which were divinely mandated. Other scribes were entrusted with the responsibility of writing covenants and agreements as well as letters, on behalf of the Prophet, to kings, governors and leaders of Jews, Christians and pagan Arabs. Many of these covenants, agreements and letters have been preserved in historical sources. Professor Hamidullah has collected the texts of about 300 documents from the time of the Prophet and his Companions in his pioneering work Al-Wathaiq al-Siyasiyyah (1983).
Shortly after the arrival of the Prophet in Madinah, a census of the Muslim population of the city was carried out on the instruction of the Prophet. In all, 1,500 Muslim residents were identified and enumerated and their names written down.
When the Prophet’s Companion Amr ibn Hazm was appointed governor of Yemen, he was given written instructions about his official duties and obligations. Some of the Prophet’s Companions, including Abdullah ibn Amr ibn al-‘As, Abu Hurayrah, Abdullah ibn al-Abbas and Anas ibn Malik, not only memorised thousands of Hadith but also had their personal written collections of them.
Shaykh Al-‘Azami’s doctoral dissertation was later published as Studies in Early Hadith Literature. In this work, he refuted the claim of Western Orientalists that the writing of Hadith began two centuries after the death of the Prophet and that the authenticity and reliability of the vast corpus of Hadith was open to question. Shaykh Al-‘Azami convincingly demonstrated that the sayings and statements as well as the letters of the Prophet were committed to writing in his lifetime and that Muslim scholars evolved a sound methodology, which focussed on the unbroken chain of narrators, for the verification of Hadith.
The first edition of Studies in Early Hadith Literature was published from Beirut in 1968 and the second and third editions from the US in 1978 and 1988. The book was subsequently reprinted several times and was translated into Turkish and Malay languages. It was translated into Arabic as دراسات في الحديث النبوي وتاريخ تدوينه. It continues to be taught as a textbook in universities in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Malaysia, Indonesia and other countries.
Shaykh Al-‘Azami published a companion volume to the afore-mentioned book, Studies in Hadith Methodology and Literature, in 1977. An Arabic version of the book was published as منهج النقد عند المحدثين نشأته وتاريخه .
Shaykh Al-‘Azami published a number of critically edited and collated texts of Hadith. He discovered a rare manuscript of an early Hadith text, known as the Sahih of Ibn Khuzaymah (صحيح ابن خزيمة ). He published a critically edited version of the text in four volumes. The first edition was published from Beirut in 1970 and was subsequently reprinted many times. He published a critical edition of the Muwatta of Imam Malik ( موطا إمام مالك ) in 8 volumes.
Shaykh Al-‘Azami chanced upon a rare manuscript of the Sahih of Imam Bukhari, written in 725 A. H., in Istanbul in 1977. He edited the volume and supplemented it with footnotes and commentaries by eminent scholars of Hadith. He also edited and published a book of Imam Muslim, Kitab al-Tamyiz. He also brought out a critical edition of an important text of Hadith, Al-Ilal (العلل لعلي بن عبد الله المديني ), written by Ali ibn Abdullah al-Madyani. Shaykh Al-Azami wrote a historical account of the scholars of Hadith from Yamamah ( المحدثون من اليمامة إلى 250 هجري تقريبا) during the first three centuries of the Islamic era.
While pursuing his doctoral research at Cambridge University, Shaykh Al-‘Azami realised the potential and significance of the use of digital technology for the preservation and transmission of Hadith literature. Later he critically edited and computerised one of the major works of Hadith, the Sunan of Ibn Majah (سنن ابن ماجة). He was thus a pioneer in the computerisation of Hadith. His pioneering contribution has inspired other Muslim scholars to computerise the major texts of Hadith as well as other Islamic textual sources.
In the past few years the Internet has emerged as an important source of information on Islam and Muslims. The entire text of the Quran, including recitation and translations and commentaries into English, French and other languages, several collections of Hadith and Islamic law and legal edicts (fatawa) are now available online. An important aspect of the digitization of Islam is the preparation of CD-ROM discs containing 7,500 Hadith from the seven authoritative collections of Hadith, with translations of selected texts in ten languages. In 2000, more than 14,000 fatwas could be found on the Internet. The US-based IslamiCity has published more than 5000 fatwas on the Internet. A-Sunna Foundation of America runs a website http:///www.sunnah.org/fatwa on the subject. One can get a fatwa online from efatwa.com, askimam.com and other sites. Online fatwas are available in English, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Malay, Urdu and Thai languages. Cairo’s famed Al-Azhar University runs an “Islamic Hotline,” where users can call or email a question, which is answered within 48 hours. Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi runs a website called IslamOnline, which he founded in 1997, where he offers his opinions and fatawa on a variety of issues.
Authenticity of the Text of the Quran
The Quran, which is believed by Muslims to be the last testament in a long series of divine revelations, was revealed to the Prophet, who was unlettered, incrementally over a period of 23 years. Since the Quran was destined to be the last and final message of God, its preservation in its original form and language was of utmost importance. The Prophet adopted, under divine instruction, two methods for the preservation of the text of the Quran: memorization and writing. As soon as the verses of the Quran were revealed, the Prophet would memorise them and recite them in his prayers and in the course of his conversations. He also encouraged his companions to invoke and memorise the verses of the Quran as often as possible. During his lifetime, scores of his companions, including some women, had memorised the entire text of the Quran. These included Abu Bakr, Umar ibn al-Khattab, Uthman ibn Affan, Ali ibn Abi Talib, Abdullah ibn Masud, Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, Abu ad-Darda, Abu Zayd, Abu Musa al-Ashari, Ubbay ibn Ka’ab, Zayd ibn Thabit, Hudhayfa, Ubada ibn as-Samit, Abdullah ibn Umar, Amr ibn al-‘As and Muadh ibn Jabal. The ladies who had memorized the whole text of the Quran included Aisha and Hafsa, the wives of the Prophet, and Umm Warqa.
During the time of the Prophet, the verses of the Quran were written on stone tablets, ribs of palm branches, camel ribs, shoulder blades, pieces of wooden board and parchment. During the Prophet’s lifetime, the written fragments of the Quran existed in a scattered state. They were not compiled or bound together in one volume. During the caliphate of Abu Bakr, seventy Companions of the Prophet, who had memorized the Quran, were killed in the battle of Yamama in the twelfth year of the Hijra (633 AD.) This unfortunate event caused great anxiety and apprehension among the Prophet’s senior Companions, particularly Umar, who suggested to Abu Bakr to have the scattered fragments of the Quran collected in one volume. After some hesitation, Abu Bakr agreed to the suggestion and commissioned Zayd ibn Thabit, who had served as the Prophet’s secretary, to carry out this task. Zayd transferred on parchment, which was made from calf hide or goat skin, the verses of the Quran from stone slabs, palm branches and shoulder blades. Even though he was a hafiz, Zayd cross-checked each verse on the testimony of at least two Companions who had memorized the Quran. This shows the extreme care and meticulousness with which he went about his assignment. The work of compilation and arrangement was completed in a year. The completed manuscript of the Quran was kept in the custody of Abu Bakr, who passed it on to Umar before he breathed his last. After Caliph Umar’s assassination the manuscript came in possession of his daughter and the Prophet’s wife Hafsa, who had also memorised the Quran. Aisha, Hafsa and Umm Salma had their personal copies of the Quran.
During the caliphate of Uthman, the frontiers of the Islamic state extended up to Azerbaijan and Armenia in Central Asia. Hudhaifa ibn al-Yaman, a companion of the Prophet who had taken part in the battles of Armenia and Azerbaijan and had thereafter travelled far and wide in the course of his other military campaigns, was astounded and distressed to find that many Muslims in the farther regions of the Islamic state pronounced certain words of the Quran differently from those of mainland Arabia. On his return to Madina in 25 Hijra, he approached Caliph Uthman, informed him about the disturbing situation he had witnessed and requested him to commission the preparation of an orthographically and phoenetically standardized copy of the Quran.
Realising the gravity of the problem, Caliph Uthman requested Hafsa to hand over the manuscript of the Quran which was prepared at the instance of Abu Bakr, so that it could be used as a model for the preparation of a fresh codex. He then appointed a four-member committee, which included the veteran Zayd ibn Thabit, Abdullah ibn Zubayr, Said ibn al-‘As and Abdur-Rahman ibn al-Harith, to oversee and execute the preparation of a standardized text of the Quran according to the diction of the Quraysh, to which the Prophet belonged. The committee adopted a meticulous methodology for the purpose. It began its work by collecting fragments of the Quran, under oath, which were written by the Companions during the Prophet’s lifetime. The scribes took care to eliminate ambiguities in pronunciation and spellings in the verses and standardized the spellings. The master copy prepared by the committee was compared and collated with Aisha’s personal copy of the Quran. The committee found no discrepancies and inconsistencies between the copy that was prepared at the instance of Caliph Abu Bakr, which was used as a model for the preparation of a fresh codex, and the personal copy of Aisha. The whole project was personally supervised by Caliph Uthman, and the final copy was read out before a gathering of the Companions and in Caliph Uthman’s presence for approval and endorsement. The committee thereafter prepared five or seven copies of the standardized text in the Hijazi scirpt, and the original copy was returned to Hafsa. These copies were dispatched to the main cities of the Islamic state, including Makkah, Madinah, Kufah, Basra, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain, along with an accredited “reciter” (qari) who would recite the verses of the Quran according to the standard Arabic diction. One copy was kept in the Prophet’s mosque in Madinah and another was kept by Caliph Uthman as his personal copy.
The study of the text of the Quran in Europe began in the 19th century in the context of a deeply-entrenched prejudice and hostility against Islam. European Orientalists, such as Noeldeke, Goltziher and Arthur Jeffery, have argued that the text of the Quran was not committed to writing in the lifetime of the Prophet or of the Companions, that the writing of the Quran began around the second or third century of the Hijra and that the arrangement of the chapters and verses of the Quran was not determined by the Prophet. A French Orientalist, Regis Blachere, who translated the Quran into French, had the audacity to change the arrangement of the chapters. An American historian, John Wansborough (d. 2002), claimed that the Quran was written long after the Prophet’s death and that, consequently, there are no manuscripts of the Quran which belong to the first century of the Islamic era.
This argument not only reflects the characteristic prejudice of Orientalist scholarship but also flies in the face of evidence. Hundreds of thousands of complete or partial manuscripts of the Quran as well as fragments exist in libraries, museums and private collections in Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Yemen, Iraq, Britain, Austria, Russia, Germany, Kuwait, Bahrain, Paris, St. Petersburg and India.
It is estimated that there are over 250,000 extant manuscripts or fragments of the Quran, many of which date from the first century Hijra. This is corroborated by a statement of Ibn Hazm (d. 456 AH/1064 CE) to the effect that by the time of caliph Umar’s death (24 AH), nearly 100,000 copies of the Quran were in circulation in Makkah, Madinah, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and other Islamic cities. Nearly 210,000 folios of ancient Quran manuscripts are preserved at Turk ve Islam Eserleri Muzesi (Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art) in Istanbul. A large and hidden cache of very old Quran manuscripts – estimated to be more than 40,000 – was discovered at the Great Mosque of San’a in Yemen in 1965.
In the past few decades a large number of fragments of ancient Quran manuscripts have been discovered and are now in libraries and museums in Europe, Turkey, Yemen and Bahrain. Some of these manuscripts have been dated through radiocarbon analysis to the first century of the Islamic era and a few very close to the time of the Prophet. Some of the Quran fragments discovered at San’a in Yemen were written not more than 15 years after the Prophet’s death. A radiocarbon dating of the San’a palimpsest, discovered in 1972, suggested a date before 671, with 99% accuracy. The radiocarbon analysis of fragments of the Quran at Tubingen University in Germany suggested that it was written between 649 and 675, 20-40 years after the Prophet’s death. The fragments of the Quran in the Orientalist collection of Leiden University were written in the second half of the 7th century, 30 to 70 years after the death of the Prophet. Some fragments of the Quran at the Bibliotheque Nationale de France in Paris, at the Vatican and at the National Library in St. Petersburg, Russia have been dated to the first century of the Islamic era.
UNESCO brought out a CD containing photographs of fragments of more than 40 manuscripts of the Quran dating from the first century of Hijra, as part of its Memory of the World project. A folio from the Sana’a collection, which dates to the middle of the first century Hijra, was auctioned by Christie’s in 2008 for a record £2,484,500, 20 times its estimated price.
The Mingana Collection at Birmingham University’s Cadbury Research Library has more than 3,000 manuscripts from the Middle East. The manuscripts at the Mingana Collection were gathered by Alphonse Mingana, a Chaldean priest born near Mosul in present-day Iraq. He was commissioned by Edward Cadbury to collect Arabic manuscripts from the Middle East in the 1920s.
Two folios of an ancient Quran manuscript, written on parchment in a fairly legible Hijazi script, were discovered in the Mingana Collection in October 2015. Radiocarbon analysis of the parchment on which the text is written suggested a date between 568 and 645 CE, with 95.4% accuracy. The test was carried out at the Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit at the University of Oxford.
The Prophet passed away in 632 AD. The radiocarbon date suggests that the text was written by a person who was alive during the lifetime of the Prophet and was in all probability one of his companions. The text contains verses 23-31 from Surah Al-Kahf and 91-98 from Surah Maryam and some verses from Surah Taha. There are no no diacritical marks on the verses. The arrangement and sequence of verses is exactly identical with that of standard Quran copies, which testifies to the belief held by Muslims that the chapters and verses of the Quran were arranged according to the Prophet’s instructions.
In the Sana’a collection, there are 275 folios (86 per cent of the text) of a very old manuscript of the Quran (covering 86 per cent of the text), which is believed to have been written by Caliph Ali. There are dots and vowel signs on some letters. A facsimile edition of this manuscript, edited by Dr Tayyar Altikulac, was published by the Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture, Istanbul in 2011. It was probably written in the second half of the first century AH.
The variations in orthography in the Sana’a texts of the Quran and the standard Quran are minor and inconsequential. Behnam Sadegihi and Uwe Bergmann, who carried out a radiocarbon test on some of the Sana’a manuscripts, found only 32 instances of variations, such as suffixes, prefixes and missing words.
Some European Orientalists, such as William Muir and Arthur Jeffrey, have admitted that the text of the Quran has remained free from tampering and corruption over the past fourteen centuries. Thus Arthur Jeffrey says: “Practically all the early codices and fragments (of the Quran) that have so far been carefully examined, show the same type of text, such variants as occur being almost always explainable as scribal errors.
In the early decades of the 20th century, the Institut fur Koranforschung at the University of Munich in Germany had collected thousands of complete and incomplete manuscripts of the Quran from many countries, and after several years of research had reported that there were no variants in the copies. It is generally believed that the building in which the Institute was located was destroyed in the American bombing of Germany during the Second World War. However, the information that surfaced after 2008 tells a different story. The story begins with Gotthelf Bergstrasser (1886-1933), a German scholar of Semitic languages and a protege of the well-known German Orientalist Theodor Noeldeke (d. 1930). Bergstrasser had a special interest in the history of the text of the Quran and had collected photographs and microfilms of a large number of old manuscripts of the Quran in the course of his travels in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. He died in a mishap in the Bavarian Alps in 1933.
Bergstrasser’s unfinished work was taken over by his pupil and another German Arabist, Otto Pretzl (1893-1941), who worked largely in German military intelligence. Pretzl travelled to Morocco in 1934 and took photographs of some ancient Quran manuscripts at the Royal Library there. Professor Muhammad Hamidullah writes that in 1933, when he was pursuing his doctoral research at the Sorbonne, Pretzl came to Paris in order to collect microfilms of old Quran manuscripts in the city’s libraries. He told Professor Hamidullah that his institute in Munich had collected photographs and microfilms of some 42,000 old Quran manuscripts and that the process of collation was underway. Pretzl died in a plane crash in 1941. The photographs and microfilms collected by Bergstrasser and Pretzl -- some 450 rolls of film -- came in possession of Anton Spitaler, another German Arabicist. Spitaler served in the command offices in Germany and later as an Arabicist in Austria. After World War II he returned to academia in Munich and began moving boxes that contained the old Quran archive collected by Bergstrasser and Pretzl into a room at Bavaria’s Academy of Sciences. He did not follow up the work of his predecessors nor did he scrutinized the archive. Instead, for reasons that are shrouded in mystery, he spread the false information that the archive had been destroyed during the British RAF bombing of the Bavarian Academy of Science, where the archives had been placed, on April 24, 1944.
In 1990, Ms. Angelika Neuwirth, a German Arabist and a pupil of Spitaler, met him in Berlin. Spitaler told Ms. Neuwirth in the course of conversation that he still had the Quran archive in his possession and offered to it to her. Ms. Neuwirth later sent two of her students to Munich to collect the archive and bring it to Berlin. Spitaler died in 2003. 16 Ms. Neuwirth, a professor of Arabic studies at Berlin’s Free University, is now working on the archive. A project called Corpus Coranicum was launched at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Science and Humanities in 2007 to study and research the archive.
One of the important works of Shaykh Al-Azami, The History of the Quranic Text from Revelation to Compilation, published in 2003, recounts in great detail the fascinating saga of the preservation of the text of the Quran since the time of its revelation to the present. A particularly illuminating section of the book deals with a comparative study, from a historical and critical perspective, of the Quran and the Old and New Testaments.
Shaykh Al-Azami also made a significant contribution to the biography of the Prophet. One of his important works in this field is The Scribes of the Prophet (كتاب النبي). With painstaking research, he identified at least 60 Companions of the Prophet who acted as his scribes and writers at different points of time. They were summoned by the Prophet as and when the verses of the Quran were revealed. Some of them were entrusted with the responsibility of writing letters, on his behalf, to kings, rulers and governors. The first edition of the book was published from Damascus in 1974 and was later reprinted from Beirut and Riyadh. A distinctive genre in studies devoted to the biography of the Prophet is known as Maghazi. One of the first persons to write a work on maghazi was an eminent Tabi’I scholar, Urwah ibn Zubayr. Shaykh Al-Azami published a critical edition of Ibn Zubayr’s work Maghazi Rasulullah (مغازي رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم لعروة بن زبير برواية أبي الأسود) in 1981
Joseph Schacht (1902-1969) was a well-known German Orientalist and Arabicist. One of his major works is Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence (1950). Schacht criticised the methodology of Isnad employed by Muslim scholars of Hadith to test and verify the authenticity and reliability of Hadith and claimed that in most cases the chains of narrators (Isnad) were fabricated by Muslim jurists. He claimed that the edicts of the Prophet relating to legal matters were fabricated by Muslim jurists in the early decades of the second century of the Islamic era. Shaykh Al-‘Azami, in his book On Schacht’s Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence (1996), critically examined the sources on which Schacht had relied, which underpinned his assumptions relating to the linkage between the Quran and Islamic law. He also exposed the flaws in Schacht’s reasoning and his methodology.