Video: Qur’anic Studies Today (Holger Zellentin)

Holger Zellentin is Associate Professor in Jewish Studies at the University of Nottingham. His ongoing project, Jewish Christianity and the Quran, explores the possibility of ritual connexions between the earliest followers of Jesus and Muhammad.

In this video – interviewed by Tom O’Loughlin – he sketches out the field of Qur’anic studies in Western academia today. He sees three main approaches at work. Traditionalists work squarely within the familiar Islamic framework, using the classical tools of exegesis and hadith criticism. Neo-traditionalists accept the Islamic narrative in broad strokes, but are more sceptical of the particulars. Revisionists, on the other hand, doubt that the Islamic historical tradition can be relied on to illuminate the Qur’an in any meaningful way.

Within the neo-traditionalist camp Zellentin places the Corpus Coranicum project associated with Angelika Neuwirth (Freie Universität Berlin), as well as a less formal network of scholars clustered around the work of Gabriel Said Reynolds (Notre Dame). Revisionists include the bolshy Inârah Institute, who would disentangle the life of Muhammad from the study of the Qur’an entirely.

It’s significant, I think, that Zellentin doesn’t bother to mention any particular traditionalist scholar or group in this, admittedly brief, overview. The collision of very revisionist and very traditionalist scholarship in the ’70s and ’80s has opened the field to deeper, more innovative criticism of (and within) the Islamic historical tradition. Wholesale revisionists – as Zellentin defines them – may still be out on the fringe, but traditionalist scholarship looks hopelessly passé.

Ian D. Morris

Ian D. Morris

Historian and occasional human, powered by tea and cat videos.


  1. Very informative……love your blogs….. can you date the earliest Quran and where is it located. Is it the same as the 1924 Cairo edition. thank you

    • The earliest known Qur’an is probably the incomplete Sanaa manuscript. It’s a palimpsest: the original text, the scriptio inferior, was washed away, and a new text, the scriptio superior, was added. The scriptio inferior contains many small differences from the canonical Qur’an – more than we’re used to seeing in medieval manuscripts – which has been interpreted to mean that this is an early non-canonical specimen. Carbon-dating suggests that the vellum is early-seventh-century or thereabouts. The original text may have been produced in the mid-seventh century; even if it’s slightly later than that, it’s the strongest contender for oldest Qur’an manuscript. (The Birmingham Qur’an is not, but further studies might yet make the case.)

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