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Obituary: Dr Keith Small

11 January 2019

Julia Cameron writes:

KEITH EDWARD SMALL, who died on 6 December, aged 59, was one of the foremost Qur’an scholars of our time. He wore achievements lightly, and few outside his academic circles would have known of them.

Keith was born on 24 July 1959 in Battle Creek, Michigan. He earned his first degree from Western Michigan University, his Master’s degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, and his Ph.D. from the London School of Theology.

Keith had resolved that work among Muslims would be his calling when, as a graduate student, he read of the East India Company chaplain Henry Martyn, who, in his short life, translated the New Testament and other parts of scripture into Hindustani (Urdu) and Persian. So, in 1989, Keith and his wife, Celeste, with their one-year-old son, left Dallas for the UK, to settle in a predominantly Muslim community in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire.

Keith’s gentle character and natural humility, evident in personal friendships with Muslims in West Yorkshire, were equally evident in the halls of academia. There was always respect, indeed honour, for those with whom he disagreed. While firm in his convictions, his instinctive honouring of others in debate could be disarming.

Over the years, discussions with Muslim friends left unresolved questions about how the original Qur’an had been handed down as a physical entity. This would form the kernel of Keith’s later scholarly inquiry. While clearly an able scholar, he perceived himself first as a pastor and a missionary; so his academic work always retained a link to his life’s calling.

His doctorate compared features of the earliest manuscripts of the Qur’an to those of the New Testament, five centuries earlier. For this, he applied the same critical techniques to 21 Qur’anic manuscripts as were used in Biblical studies and in the examination of ancient Western literature. To borrow from the title of his thesis, he was “mapping a new country” in textual analysis.

He made a significant discovery that the earliest extant manuscripts of the Qur’an were edited versions of a manuscript now lost. His findings were published in his book Textual Criticism and Qur’ān Manuscripts (Lexington Books, 2011), now the standard text for this field. His work would prove to be of momentous significance; it showed that the “uncreated, perfect” nature of the Qur’an existed only in the minds of believers. The Qur’an, then, was un-anchored in time or reality; so it sat awkwardly alongside other ancient texts. This discovery undermined the Muslim veneration of Muhammad as a worthy channel for the perfect word of God; for no -one knew what that word was.

While Keith’s conclusions were often contested, and could have left him vulnerable, he was unafraid, and he presented his findings in many academic settings in the US, Eastern and Western Europe, and North Africa. He held positions at the London School of Theology and the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics. He spoke regularly at the International Qur’anic Studies Association, and chaired its Manuscripts and Textual Criticism unit from its inception in 2012. He was a guest lecturer at the University of Oxford, and took part at the annual Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival.

Reasonable doubt was now being cast among the scholarly Islamics community, which would extend beyond the ivory tower. It was becoming clear that wrong assumptions about the Qur’an were leading to uninformed policy-making. These new findings, for example, if true, would negate the ability of salafi Muslims to appeal to the Qur’an as divine authority for justifying acts of violence and “judicial killing”. (It is the doctrine of the eternal uncreated nature of the Qur’an which feeds politically violent forms of Islam, intolerant of non-Islamic ideologies.)

The Small family moved to Oxford in 2011, the year these findings were first published, at the invitation of the Zacharias Trust. In 2014, Keith was appointed Manuscript Consultant to Oxford University’s Bodleian Library. In 2015, the Bodleian published his Qur’āns: Books of divine encounter, which featured more than 50 rare and significant Qur’an manuscripts. His published work won him credibility internationally at Qur’anic studies conferences and with Muslim and secular Qur’an scholars. He strove to be meticulous in his analysis and circumspect in his conclusions, never stretching or overreaching the evidence.

Keith endured a difficult final illness, but remained a passionate evangelist. When a friend asked what to bring him in hospital, he requested Gideon Bibles to give to the medical staff. His final book project is due to be published by the Ravi Zacharias Trust, as part of a new apologetics series.

He is survived by Celeste, whom he married in 1985, and by his three adult children, William, Taylor, and Beverly.

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