Nevo and Negev Inscriptions: The Use & Abuse Of The Evidence

Nevo and Negev Inscriptions: The Use & Abuse Of The Evidence

Mohamad Mostafa Nassar


1. Introduction

The aim of this paper is to examine the work carried out by Yehuda Nevo which deals with Arabic inscriptions in the Negev desert and its interpretation to ‘show’ that the late codification of the Qur’an (after 150 AH) as suggested by John Wansbrough.

We will examine the evidence presented by Nevo and some of the observations made by Orientalists concerning Nevo’s work.

2. Background

For the people who wish to enter into this uncharted waters, we first begin with a brief mention of the thesis of John Wansbrough. Wansbrough proposed an alternate version of the history of the rise of Islam that in many ways contradict the traditional Islamic history. The theories that emerge from John Wansbrough’s analysis are, in his own words “conjectural”[1], “provisional”[2]¬†and “tentative and emphatically provisional”[3].

Nevertheless, the implications are enormous: neither the Qur’an nor Islam are the products of Muhammad(P)¬†or even Arabia. During the early Arab expansion beyond Arabia, there is no evidence that the conquerors were Muslim. Almost 200 years later “early” Muslim literature began to be written by the Mesopotamian clerical elite.

The implication may be that the hitherto secular polity discovered and adopted a new movement which, though a non-Jewish, non-Christian movement, was a product of Judeo-Christian milieu. This movement and its history were soon Arabicized. The Qur’an however took somewhat longer to canonize – not until¬†c. 800 CE. Most formidable is the conclusion, not stated explicitly but inescapable from Wansbrough’s analysis, that the entire Muslim tradition about the early history of the text of the Qur’an is a pious forgery.

In order to substantiate Wansbrough’s “conjectural,” “provisional” and “tentative and emphatically provisional” theories of the alternate version of the history of rise of Islam, Yehuda Nevo published a paper on the research that was carried out on the inscriptions in the Negev desert. Drawing heavily from the conclusions of Wansbrough, an important point to be noted, Nevo concludes that:

Nonetheless, the texts (prophetical¬†logia, in Wansbrough’s terminology) out which the Qur’an¬†was¬†canonized reflects a Judaeo-Christian environment lacking in specifically Muslim concepts. The basic class texts reflect, similarly, a Judeo-Christian environment and attest its existence, in the Negev at least, in the late first and second centuries A.H., while the common texts reflect the most widespread form of Arab monotheistic belief during the first century, the stratum upon which, as it were, the more complicated religious edifices were built.

From the fact that the Qur’an exhibits a “prophetical” Judaeo-Christianity and the basic class does not, I conclude that the general Judaeo-Christian sectarian environment was widespread, including at least one group defined by adherence to a prophet, whose corpus of logia form the basis of the Qur’an.[4]

Further he adds:

From the fact that the Qur’an contains many phrases present in the Muslim inscriptions of the late second century A.H. and later, but absent from the inscriptions of Hisam’s days or earlier, I would conclude that it was canonized quite late, i.e., after these phrases had entered the religious vocabulary.[5]

After reading these important conclusions of Nevo concerning the inscriptions in Negev desert, it is not surprising to see that the Christian missionaries as well as some other non-Muslim writers were overjoyed.

The Christian missionary Joseph Smith drawing heavily from the work of Nevo (See under “Nevo’s Rock inscriptions”)¬†concludes¬†the following:

  1. No reference to Muhammad(P) or the ‘Muhammadan’ formulae is made in the inscriptions of the Negev desert and other rock inscriptions before 690 CE. What they did contain was a monotheistic form of belief, belonging to a certain body of sectarian literature with developed Judaeo-Christian conceptions in a particular literary style, but one which contained no features specific to any known monotheistic religion.
  2. The Muslim texts only begin to appear at the beginning of the ninth century (around 822 A.D.), coinciding with the first written Qur’ans, as well as the first written traditional Muslim accounts.

Toby Lester writing in the Atlantic Monthly says:

In 1994 the journal Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam published a posthumous study by Yehuda D. Nevo, of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, detailing seventh- and eighth-century religious inscriptions on stones in the Negev Desert which, Nevo suggested, pose “considerable problems for the traditional Muslim account of the history of Islam.”

In this paper, we will deal with the significance of Nevo’s research on Arabic inscriptions in Negev desert as well as the problems with its conclusions.

3. The Use & Abuse Of The Evidence

What the Christian missionary Joseph Smith and the writer Toby Lester failed to mentioned in their paper is that Wansbrough’s thesis in his own words is “conjectural,” “provisional” and “tentative and emphatically provisional”. Yehuda Nevo in his work on Negev inscriptions has simply used Wansbrough’s “conjectural,” “provisional” and “tentative and emphatically provisional” hypothesis without substantiating them with evidence, as his conclusions. In other words, Nevo’s argument is circular. Professor Fred Donner had mentioned this important point:

Recently, Yehuda Nevo has analyzed the content of a number of early Arabic inscriptions from the Negev and elsewhere in geographical Syria and concluded that the information in them seems to support Wansbrough’s theory of the Qur’an’s codification, both as to date (relatively late-second or third century AH) and place (Fertile Crescent, rather than Arabia).¬†

His argument, however, is circular. The absence of specifically Qur’anic or Muslim phraseology from the generic monotheism of the earliest Negev texts, which he carefully demonstrates, may be taken as evidence for late codification of the Qur’an only if we knew that the Qur’anic text crystallized in this region (i.e. the Negev, or at least geographical Syria) rather than somewhere else, such as Arabia; but the crystallization of the Qur’an outside Arabia is merely another of Nevo’s (and Wansbrough’s) assumptions, not a known fact.¬†

If we assume the Qur’an to be an early text of Arabian origin, on the other hand, the gradual penetration of a pre-existing monotheistic discourse by Qur’anic phraseology over the course of a few centuries is exactly what we might expect to find, as the Qur’an became gradually better-known among Arabic-speaking monotheists in Syria.

Moreover, Nevo’s theory also assumes that the people who left these inscriptions would have known the Qur’an from written texts, and would have wished to copy the text exactly as they saw it. But it seems highly likely that most early Believers first came to know parts of the Qur’an through oral transmission- the basic meaning of Qur’an, after all, is “recitation.”

This opens the possibility that they may either have remembered it incorrectly, or were willing to write free variations on the text when making graffiti, using pious phrases from the Qur’an in what seemed ways appropriate to the writers’ circumstances at the moment. The existence of variants of this kind, in other words, hardly provides reason to assume that the Qur’an text had not yet assumed stable form.

The inscriptions in the Dome of the Rock, which closely follow but are not identical in all respects to passages in the Qur’an, have also been used by some to question the stability of the Qur’anic text at the time of the Dome’s construction.¬†

The most recent analysis[6]¬†of this phenomenon, however, suggests that the disparities are “minor textual variations… introduced to fit the sense,” and in no way lend support to Wansbrough’s hypothesis of a late date for the Qur’an’s codification; moreover, it argues that broader patterns of inscriptional evidence suggest that the traditional Muslim view, that the Qur’an was codified during the caliphate of `Uthman, is reliable.[7]

A similar message is also conveyed by Estella Whelan who says:

In a recent article Y. D. Nevo …. has attempted to confirm the interval suggested by Wansbrough by tracing the gradual evolution of rock-cut inscriptions in the Negev from “basic” (pre-Islamic) to “Muhammadan” to “Muslim” religious texts.

Aside from the fact that these terms are not clearly defined, Professor Donner has noted (personal communication) that¬†Nevo’s argument can be taken equally well to support the traditional view that early Islam and the Qur’anic text evolved primarily in al-Madinah and other urban centers, to which the Negev was entirely peripheral.[8]

In other words, apart from circularity of Nevo’s argument, it is apparent that the evidence which he is trying to show is like finding the clues for Lockerbie plane crash (in Scotland) on the French sea coast. It is heartening to note that the Scotland Yard fares far better than some of the revisionists and Christian missionaries when in comes to the issue of understanding the concept of proof and evidence.

One can now say that the traditional Muslim view of the codification of the Qur’an is more reliable than Wansbrough’s “conjectural,” “provisional” and “tentative and emphatically provisional” thesis.

From the above discussion it is clear, that Nevo’s study can be equally used to prove that the claims of traditional Islamic origins. This is because Islam and the Qur’an originated from al-Madinah and Makkah not Negev which was entirely peripheral. This issue was also addressed by `Abdur-Rahim Green partially in his debate with Smith where he had¬†mentioned:

As far as the so called extensive research of Yehuda Nevo, which Smith claims shows that there are no inscriptions which contain the title of Prophethood, then it is known by anyone who is familiar with the work of Yehuda (Smith obviously isn’t one of them) that his research was restricted to a very small section of the Negeb desert some 500-600km away from Makkah.¬†

Nevo’s research also conveniently excluded any inscriptions found in the Arabian peninsula This already means that his research is inconclusive.

Even if we look at Nevo’s research analytically we find nothing. Some rock inscriptions in some far-off desert, written by some anonymous people that do not mention the Prophethood of Muhammad. Why would we expect someone who doesn’t accept the Prophethood of Muhammad to refer to him as a Prophet? Do we refer to Smith as an expert on Islamic History, just because his cronies do?

Nevo’s research proves absolutely nothing.

Attention should also be drawn to a recent study by Robert Hoyland that deals extensively with Islamic inscriptions from various parts of Middle East as opposed to a narrow work of Nevo done in Negev desert. His conclusions are radically different from Nevo.

It has been inferred from the relatively limited stock of specifically Muslim concepts present in the early inscriptions that either Islamicisation was as yet shallow, or that Islam itself was as yet little developed.[9] But, aside from the fact that the medium imposed severe constraints upon the complexity and variety of a message, these texts were never intended as catechisms of Islamic doctrine.

Moreover, to say that “the inscriptions lack typical Islamic expressions” or “exhibit indeterminate monotheism” just because they do not mention Muhammad[10,11]¬†is to misconstrue Islam, which is not primarily Muhammadanism, but rather subordinate to an omnipotent and unique God. So the very common formula¬†la ilaha illa Allah wahdahu la sharika lahu, though not incompatible with Judaism and Christianity, can nevertheless be said to be specifically Islamic.[12]

The refutation of Wansbrough’s and his followers’ claim of late codification of the Qur’an comes from a source which they had dismissed as unreliable: the¬†hadith. Wansbrough and his followers had relied on the work of Joseph Schacht and considered that Schacht had sufficiently proven unreliability of Muslim tradition. However, in the last two decades considerable amount of progress has been made in the Western studies on¬†hadith.

This is due to two reasons:

Firstly, the availability of new sources that are “pre-canonical” such as¬†Musannafs¬†of `Abd al-Razzaq al-San`ani and Ibn Abi Shayba or `Umar bin Shabba’s¬†Tarikh al-Madinah¬†(Schacht had no access to earlier sources); and

secondly, the development of¬†isnad¬†and¬†matn¬†analysis of the¬†hadiths that resulted in the investigation of textual variants of the¬†hadiths. Harald Motzki, in his recent work “The Collection Of The Qur’an:

A Reconsideration Of The Western Views In Light Of Recent Methodological Developments”,[13]¬†uses these methodological approaches on the traditions dealing with the collection of the Qur’an by Abu Bakr and `Uthman as mentioned in various¬†hadith collections.

He conservatively dates the availability of the¬†hadith of collection of the Qur’an to the last decades of 1st century of¬†hijra¬†by using the date of death of Anas b. Malik. Beyond that Motzki is not willing to commit as one can see in his conclusions:

We are unable to prove that the accounts on the history of Qur’an go back to the eye-witnesses of the events which were alleged to have occurred. We cannot be sure that the things really happened as is reported in the traditions.¬†

However, Muslims account are much earlier and thus much nearer to the time of the events than hitherto assumed in Western scholarship. Admittedly, these accounts contain some details which seem to be implausible or, to put it more cautiously, await explanation, 

but the Western views which claim to replace them by more plausible and historically more reliable accounts are obviously far away from what they make themselves out to be.[14]

In other words, the methodology of Wansbrough, Burton and Mingana used to study the codification of the Qur’an appeared to have been finally laid to rest. The focus is now back on the Islamic sources.

4. Early Islamic Architecture

After dealing with the non-conclusive nature of Nevo’s research on the inscriptions in Negev desert as well as his circular argument to show the late codification of the Qur’an, let us now move over to the issue of lack of mention of the name of Muhammad(P) or the “Muhammadan formulae” in the early Islamic inscriptions/architecture before 690 CE.

Creswell says concerning early mosques:

… their architectural resources, before they started in their career of conquest, were barely enough to give expression to their needs.¬†In other words Arabia constituted an almost perfect architectural vacuum…¬†The first mosques in the great hiras, or half nomadic encampments of the conquest, such as Basra, Kufa and Fustat, were primitive in the extreme, and in Syria the first mosques were churches that had been converted or merely divided:

In fact there is no reason for believing that any mosque was built as such in Syria until the time of al-Walid (705-15) or possibly `Abd al-Malik (685-705),¬†For over a generation the Arabs remained quite untouched by any architectural ambitions…[15]

Since we have the state of the complete lack of architectural pretensions of the early Muslims, we would hardly expect to find a dearth of inscriptions praising and eulogising the Prophet Muhammad(P).

It is worth noting that the Prophet(P) disliked extravagance and impressive architecture in buildings, especially mosques. The relative simplicity of early mosques is in fact a historical example of how the Prophet’s Companions diligently followed his wishes.

5. Conclusions

We have discussed here briefly the use and abuse of the evidence that comes in the form of Arabic inscriptions from Negev desert by Nevo and his subsequent followers. The argument of Nevo concerning the origin of the Qur’an is circular as he simply assumes what Wansbrough assumes in his thesis and uses them as his conclusions.

Moreover, Nevo’s evidence concerning the origins of Islam can be used to show that the tradition Muslim account of about early Islamic history is reliable as Negev is entirely peripheral to Madinah or Makkah.

The lack of early Islamic inscriptions that mention Muhammad(P) is a red herring. Creswell has pointed out that for over a generation the Arabs remained quite untouched by any architectural ambitions. If this is the case then why should we expect to find inscriptions about Muhammad(P)?

And Allah knows best!


[1] John Wansbrough, Qur’anic Studies: Sources & Methods Of Scriptural Interpretation, 1977, Oxford University Press, p. xi.

[2] ibid., p. ix

[3] John Wansbrough, The Sectarian Milieu: Content & Composition Of Islamic Salvation History, 1978, Oxford University Press, p. x.

[4] Yehuda D. Nevo, “Towards A Prehistory Of Islam”, Jerusalem Studies In Arabic And Islam, 1994, Vol.17, pp. 125-126.

[5] ibid., p. 126.

[6] Estella Whelan, “Forgotten Witness: Evidence for the Early Codification of the Qur’an“, 1998,¬†Journal Of The American Oriental Society, Volume 118, No. 1, pp. 1-14.

[7] Fred M. Donner, Narratives Of Islamic Origins: The Beginnings Of Islamic Historical Writing, 1998, Darwin Press, Inc., Princeton, New Jersey, pp. 62-63.

[8] Whelan, “Forgotten Witness: Evidence for the Early Codification of the Qur’an“,¬†op. cit.,¬†p. 2.

[9] Nevo, “Towards A Prehistory Of Islam”, op. cit., p. 108-141.

[10] J. Koren & Y. Nevo, “Methodological Approaches To Islamic Studies”, 1991, Der Islam, Volume 68, pp. 103-104.

[11] Nevo, “Towards A Prehistory Of Islam”, op. cit., p. 110.

[12] R. G. Hoyland, “The Content And Context Of Early Arabic Inscriptions“, 1997,¬†Jerusalem Studies In Arabic And Islam, Volume 21, p. 96.

[13] H. Motzki, “The Collection Of The Qur’an: A Reconsideration Of The Western Views In Light Of Recent Methodological Developments”, Der Islam, 2001, Vol. 78.

The Western views on the collection of the Qur’an that Motzki discusses are the works of Wansbrough (Qur’anic Studies: Sources & Methods Of Scriptural Interpretation, 1977, Oxford University Press), Watt (Muhammad’s Mecca, 1988, Edinburgh), N√∂ldeke and Schwally (Geschichte des Qorans, 1938, Leipzig), Casanova (Mohammad et la fin du Monde, 1911, Paris), Mingana (“The Transmission Of The Qur’an”, 1916, Journal of The Manchester Egyptian and Oriental Society) and Burton (The Collection Of The Qur’an, 1979, Cambridge University Press).

[14] ibid., p. 31.

[15] K. A. C. Creswell, A Short Account Of Early Muslim Architecture, 1968, Librairie Du Liban, Beirut, pp. 15-16.