Dr Keith Small was one of the foremost Quar’an scholars of our time. His work on early manuscripts provoked new questions among secular and Islamic scholars alike.
While at Dallas Theological Seminary, Keith read of Henry Martyn, and resolved to give his life to work among Muslims. He married Celeste Gardner in 1985, equally committed to the Muslim world, and they moved to the UK the following year, settling in Dewsbury.
The family later moved to London while Keith completed a doctorate. Taking the earliest 21 Qur’anic manuscripts, he applied to them the same tools used for examining biblical manuscripts.
His ground-breaking work showed that the ‘uncreated, perfect’ nature of the Qur’an existed only in the minds of believers, for the Qur’an stemmed from an earlier text, no longer extant.
This discovery undermined the Muslim veneration of Mohammed as a worthy channel for the perfect word of God. His book, Textual Criticism and Qur’an Manuscripts is a standard text in this field.
These findings, if accepted, negate the ability of Salafi Muslims to appeal to the Qur’an as divine justification for violence and ‘judicial killing’. (The doctrine of the eternal, uncreated nature of the Qur’an feeds intolerant, violent forms of Islam.)
Keith was modest about his achievements; few outside his academic circles would have known of them. While clearly an able scholar, he saw himself first as a pastor and a missionary, so his academic work always retained a link to this calling.
The Small family moved to Oxford in 2011 at the invitation of the Ravi Zacharias Trust and joined St Ebbe’s Church. In 2014, Keith was appointed Manuscript Consultant to the Bodleian Library.
In 2015, the Bodleian published his Qur’āns: Books of Divine Encounter. He strove to be meticulous in his analysis and circumspect in his conclusions, always affording kindness and respect to those with whom he disagreed. 2 Timothy 2:24-25 had been his watchword from the outset.
Keith chaired the Manuscripts and Textual Criticism unit of the International Qur’anic Studies Association (IQSA) from its inception in 2012. He was a guest lecturer at the university of Oxford and spoke at the annual Hay-on-Wye literary festival.
Keith endured a difficult final illness with grace. He remained a passionate evangelist, giving Gideon Bibles to the medical staff. His final book is forthcoming with Ravi Zacharias Trust, as part of a new apologetics series.