The Bible and the Qur’an compared – 2 part

Bible Koran



© Keith E. Small – may 2010

I. Introduction: Christian and Islamic Fundamentalism

In Britain, Christian and Muslim Fundamentalists are often equated as having the same basic kinds of beliefs and attitudes, even leading to the same kinds of fanatical results. This lecture will explore one of the most important foundations of Christian and Muslim fundamentalism- doctrines concerning scripture. It will be demonstrated that even the most fundamentalistic Christian views are qualitatively different from Muslim views, that equating them is quite wrong, and they lead to quite different results in belief and action. One scholar has helpfully observed,

The issue of scripture marks a key difference between Muslim and Christian fundamentalisms. Virtually all Muslims are “fundamentalist” in their attitude to scripture… Likewise, while Muslim fundamentalists stress political goals and implementation of religion in all areas of life, Christian fundamentalists can go either way and some become secularists by Muslim standards.

To clarify this further, note the quotation in the Lester article assigned for homework:

The orthodox Muslim view of the Koran as self-evidently the Word of God, perfect and inimitable in message, language, style, and form is strikingly similar to the fundamentalist Christian notion of the Bible’s “inerrancy” and “verbal inspiration” that is still common in many places today. The notion was given classic expression only a little more than a century ago by the biblical scholar John William Burgon.

The Bible is none other than the voice of Him that sitteth upon the throne! Every Book of it, every Chapter of it, every Verse of it, every word of it, every syllable of it…every letter of it, is the direct utterance of the Most High!

Lester, in what is otherwise an excellent article, makes the fallacy of equating Christian and Muslim views. Contrary to Lester’s understanding, Burgon was writing from an extreme position even in his day. This is not a classic view of Christian inerrancy, and also, if asked I’m sure Burgon would have acknowledged that God had people write the scripture using their full faculties. Burgon’s rhetoric, intended to emphasize God’s role in inspiration is, however, used by Muslims to describe their normal belief.

Here is an outline of how the Evangelical Christian and Muslim doctrines of the inspiration compare:

II. Revelation and Scripture

1.1 Bible: Verbal Plenary Inspiration

1.1.1. Inspiration extends to letters and words
1.1.2. 100% Divine, 100% human- human genres are used and the result in the original autographs is protected- Word of God and words of men

1.1.3. Reliable, sufficient transmission of the text is what is claimed, not perfect transmission of the text in copies.

Qur’an: Mechanical Dictation

2.1.1. Inspiration extends to letters and words
2.1.2. Preserved on a Heavenly Tablet: 100% Divine only, as if spoken or written by God Himself and delivered without human contamination.

…as a way to enhance the status of a canonical text, it is hard to trump the doctrine of its eternity.
2.1.3. Only one genre of revelation: Direct Speech
2.1.4. Perfection of transmission of the text in copies is needed if claim is to be made that the text has been perfectly preserved, and that the text in their hand is the Word of God.

Implications for Apologetics

Muslims tend to read their view on Bible, and we tend to read our view on the Qur’an, rather than comparing views and achieving real understanding
Muslim views of Corruption of the Bible

Their claims to this are not based on actual historical or manuscript evidence,
Rather, they are based on the fact that the Bible as it exists does not match what is described in the Qur’an- one Injil from Jesus, a book called the Taurait that Moses received, and a book that David received called the Zabur. Later Muslim apologists developed the idea that the Christians and Jews changed the text of their scriptures.
This belief that the Bible was changed is used by Muslims to justify the need for the Qur’an and the religion of Islam.

The real issues are:

Does the Qur’an live up to its claims and the claims Muslims make for it for no human contamination of the text by Muhammad or others?
Does the New Testament live up to its claims and the claims Christians make for it to be a historically reliable text and a sufficient witness to the teaching and claims of Christ?
Since the New Testament was not corrupted, there was no need for another Scripture to be given after it, which undercuts a major justification of the religion.

To a normal non-believer, we are trying to demonstrate the Gospels and NT are at least historically reliable testimony to Christ, not prove from the outset divinely-inspired Scripture. Then the person is called to deal with Christ, and after they come to Christ they come to see it is Scripture.

Muslims reverse this, they expect the person from the outset to accept the Qur’an as divine scripture, and the perfection of its text is one of their main supporting claims. The perfection of its text is held to be an apologetic against the alleged corruption of the Bible. Here are three such claims:

Qur-aan is the word of Allah and retains its pristine purity without the least change, alteration, distortion, division, amendment or annulment since it was revealed to the Holy Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W.).

Actually there is no religious literature other than the Last Divine Scripture which has escaped contamination–addition, deletion and deformation, etc.

The Holy Koran differs from any other religious text in that it was not written or edited by any human author; no word has been added to it or subtracted from it.


New Testament

A reliable, sufficient form of the original text can be discerned from within existing manuscripts (NT Critical Texts- UBS 3rd ed., NA27)

Variants of various kinds revolving around a basic text
The variants can be evaluated and sorted to discern the more original reading
Since the manuscripts before the Diocletian persecution and after show the same basic forms of text, and this form of text goes back into the second century, there is good reason to believe on textual, literary, and historical grounds that they are accurate copies of more original texts dating back to the times of the Apostles.

3.2. Qur’an: the Earliest Available Version

Mainly one heavily edited version is available in the manuscripts. To achieve this text, alternative and more original versions of the text were destroyed and suppressed.

Various kinds of variants revolving around a basic text, but there are fewer kinds of variants and fewer numbers of variants comparatively- the basic text is more stable than NT, though both are show remarkable stability.
The variants can be evaluated and sorted to discern the more original form of the text, and the kinds of variants point to the basic text being standardised to a remarkable degree in even the earliest manuscripts.
Since there is historical testimony in Islamic sources of a very early editing project which involved the destruction of earlier forms of the text and variant forms of the text, then the degree of stability of the basic text in the earliest Qur’an manuscripts is evidence that this editing project and ensuing suppression of variant texts did actually take place. Qur’anic palimpsests, because of their rarity and the large numbers and kinds of variants they contain in their underlying texts, are additional and strong evidence of the extent of this early project.
The evidence from the palimpsests and corrections also suggests that the fluidity of the text was much greater in the earliest period of the Qur’an’s collection than current Islamic belief suggests.
The palimpsests and corrections also testify to the fluidity of the text in its earliest period.

Qur’an: the Version Available Now

This early form of the text then had to be improved and edited to make it the form now in use.

The early form was a consonantal text which was ambiguous in many ways. One consonant was invented (the letter hamza), and diacritical marks and vowels had to be added to make the pronunciation and interpretation clear. This took about three hundred years to accomplish.
Even with this improvement, multiple ways of reciting and writing the Qur’an are allowed which involve different consonants, pronunciations, and grammatical constructions. These are very small, but they are there, and if a standard of perfection is being claimed they do not support it.


4.1. Beware of Comparing Apples to Oranges

4.1.1. Don’t let them force their view on you. Instead, challenge their view of their scripture being perfectly preserved, and demonstrate that the Bible has never been changed in the way that they assert.

4.1.2. Don’t expect them to know our view and grant it authority, rather, use the occasion of their challenges to teach them what the Bible is actually about.

4.1.3. Do ask them questions and challenge the consistency of their view while upholding ours. Their view of mechanical inspiration has never actually been the doctrine of the Church, even in its statements that sound the most like mechanical dictation (Burgon included). There has always been the recognition that humans wrote the books of the Bible under the guidance of the Spirit, that human literary genres were used, and that it was given in human languages that could be translated.

4.2. This issue makes difficulties for Islamic Fundamentalists in their justifications for their violence.

4.2.1. First, remember the claim being made for the Qur’an:

The Holy Koran differs from any other religious text in that it was not written or edited by any human author; no word has been added to it or subtracted from it.

4.2.2. Second, a journalist’s reflection on that quote:

“What this means is that all Muslims are what we call ‘fundamentalist’ in a way that no Christian, not even the most literalist, can quite be.”

4.2.3. Third, quotes from two Muslims, one interviewing a British Muslim who is a former spokesman for the group Al-Muhajiroun and known to be a terrorist sympathiser:

Interviewer AT: ‘Given that the Koran is incontestable to the letter, and that it is unique because there is no other religion in which there is a text so pure, handed down from God to man, can there be a moderate Muslim?’

Muslim HB: ‘No. You’ve hit the nail on the head. If someone believes that it’s the incontestable word of Allah, how can he take a moderate view? We must fight if it is the will of Allah.’

Thankfully, most Muslims are refusing to follow their beliefs to this logical end, and they find other ways to interpret the violent texts of the Qur’an. But you can see how it strengthens the fundamentalists in their rhetoric and arguments to Muslims to support them.


5.1. You can have every confidence that the Bible has not been changed the way Muslims assert. This is supported by historical evidence, textual evidence, and also the evidence within the Bible itself as to its testimony to the Messiah (Isaiah 53).

5.2. The Qur’an does not live up to the claims made for it. While one early form of the text has been preserved very well, it took an enormous amount of human effort to create this form of text, to destroy and continue to suppress alternative forms of the text, and then to refine it into what Muslims use today.

The Muslim view of the inspiration of the Qur’an does not work with the actual history of the text for how it came to be in its present form. The theological and hermeneutical doctrine of Abrogation presents more problems to the classic dogma of the Qur’an being a perfectly preserved copy of a heavenly book.

1. The Principle
This is a principle of interpretation stated in the Qur’an and which was then developed in the early centuries of Islam to explain contradictory verses in the Qur’an. Muslim scholars referred to S. 2:106 to justify the doctrine:
Whatever a Verse do We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, We bring a better one or similar to it. Know you not that Allah is able to do all things?
The general principal is that verses revealed later can modify or even cancel the force of ones revealed earlier. If a conflict between them arises, the verses revealed during the Medinan period have more authority than those of the Meccan period. Von Denffer notes that this doctrine, called al-nāsikh wa al-mansūkh (‘the abrogating and the abrogated’), is specifically concerned with legal revelations. Sweetman lists 260 verses that are abrogated or cancelled by later verses within the Qur’an. The most notorious application of this principle is its use concerning S. 9:5, a Medinan passage known in Islamic jurisprudence as ‘The Sword Verse’, which by itself abrogates at least 119 verses. It reads:
Then when the Sacred Months have passed, then kill the Mushrikūn (polytheists) wherever you find them, and capture them and besiege them, and prepare for them each and every ambush. But if they repent and offer prayers perfectly, and give Zakāt (alms), then leave their way free. Verily, Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.
Among the 119 verses this one verse cancels is this often heard, peaceful sentiment from the Meccan verse 2:256:
There is no compulsion in religion. Verily, the Right Path has become distinct from the wrong path. Whoever disbelieves in Taghut (false gods) and believes in Allah, then he has grasped the most trustworthy handhold that will never break. And Allah is All-Hearer, All-Knower.
The verses that are used to justify extending Islam’s rule with political and military force are from the Medinan period, and supersede any more peaceful, persuasion-oriented verses.
The information as to which verses supersede others is found in the Hadith. Also, some Islamic scholars apply the principle not only to other parts of the Qur’an, but to the Sunna itself, and others still believe that the Sunna can sometimes abrogate the Qur’an and even other Sunna. Some modern scholars are going even further and claiming that the Qur’an abrogates all other religions and their Scriptures.

2. Abrogated Verses

Most Classical treatises put the number of abrogated verses at 250+. An exception is al-Zuhrī who lists 42. Some said none at all. In most schemes, the single verse which abrogates the most is S. 9:5, the Sword verse, which abrogates at least 124 other verses. Historically, though, there has been a great deal of disagreement as to exactly how many verses are involved. Here is one table of various historical views from a contemporary Muslim book on the Qur’an:

3. Scope of Abrogation

There was considerable disagreement over the scope of Abrogation. Two areas of disagreement emerged:

1) Between the Qur’an and the Sunna
2) Concerning verses within the Qur’an

Concerning 1), 5 views emerged:

a. Q may abrogate both Q and Sunna (Kufan view)
b. Q abrogates Q, but Sunna cannot abrogate Q (al-Shāfi‘ī)
c. Sunna abrogates both Q and Sunna (unidentified group)
d. Sunna abrogates Sunna but not Q (unidentified group)
e. Neither Q or Sunna is preferable to the other (Muhammad ibn Shujjā‘ in light of the clear contradictions between views a-d.)

4. Abrogation and the Eternal Tablet

How can the heavenly prototype be accurately preserved in the present Qur’an when we are told of the doctrine of Abrogation? Sweetman summarizes the problems with abrogation and the idea of an eternal tablet:

Now the question arises as to how such a theory as this of abrogation can be brought into intelligible and rational relation with what has been said about the heavenly prototype of the Qur’an, and its accurate production in the world by means of the Prophet. If there are texts which abrogate others in the written Qur’an are we to conclude that this abrogation took place in the transcendent realm, and that in the heavenly original the abrogating and abrogated appear only in the earthly copy then what becomes of the theory of the proper copying of the heavenly original? On the other hand, if the abrogated appears in the heavenly original, then what are we to conclude about the Divine Wisdom? Furthermore, if, as some later writers are fond of doing, we consider that abrogation is not to be interpreted in the manner of Abu’l Qasim but really refers to the abrogation of the other scriptures by the Qur’an, then are we to assume that in this case too, the abrogated and the abrogating are together in the heavenly tablet? If so, what sort of notion are we to gather as to the relation of this heavenly tablet to the will of God? It would simply be a record of the temporal changes and chances of human life as seen by divine prescience, and would attribute to the divine all the shades and fluctuations of human life with no certainty as to what is truth and ultimately no concern for it, for that which is truth for yesterday and not for to-day is not truth at all. It would have to assume that a lengthy statement of history, e.g., that Jesus died on the cross, could stand in a book written by God alongside a denial that it took place. Such ideas are the height of absurdity and make a mockery of God.

5. Conclusion: Qur’an History Revisited

In view of these issues, there are important questions that can be raised for each of the periods of the Qur’an’s history.

Period 1 the Qur’an in Muhammad’s Lifetime

1. ‘There exists no canonical book, recognized by any religious community as a revealed or inspired original, whose text in the earliest period of its transmission, shows to such a degree a picture of fluctuation and uncertainty as we find in the text of the Qur’an.

2. How can the heavenly prototype be accurately preserved in the present Qur’an when we are told that it was necessary for Gabriel to revise it yearly with Muhammad? There was liability to error somewhere in the process if this was necessary.

3. The Hadith Qudsi (Holy Hadith) are revelations said to have been given to Muhammad by Gabriel, but why are they not in the Qur’an if it is the full revelation intended to be given from the heavenly tablet?

4. Abrogation relies on an understanding of the chronology of the giving of the text of the Qur’an. Hadith and Sirah literature external to the Qur’an provide this chronology. How can the authority for the basic interpretive principle of a heavenly book be contained in and controlled by human sources?

5. All traditions which assert a precise written version of the Qur’an within this period and the next one are anachronistically reading back a conception of a book of scripture which could only have developed later in Islam. Because the state of Arabic script at the time, and the description of how the ‘revelations’ were received and transmitted, it is more reasonable to see the Qur’an as being preserved mainly as a flexible oral tradition that at Muhammad’s death was not a single coherent, organized, complete system, but instead a fluid stream of various portions of material.

Period 2 The Qur’an among the Companions

1. How can the heavenly prototype be accurately preserved in the present Qur’an when we are told it was necessary for variant copies to be burned, copies gathered by companions of Muhammad that were Muhammad’s acclaimed experts on the Qur’an?

2. The Caliph Umar is reported to have extreme anxiety at the death of Qur’an memorizers at the battle of Yamama. This does not square with the idea of a standard collection being in place at Muhammad’s death.

3. Zaid ibn Thabit’s role is difficult to understand as well. He is said to have been hesitant to undertake a work “for which he had no command from the prophet.” He also complained about the difficulty of the task. ‘He is the first amanuensis of the Prophet, is called to undertake the collection by Abu Bakr at the instance of Umar and protests, and is finally called again to the task by Uthman and makes similar protests.’
Period 3 Uthman’s Recension

1. Uthman’s entire project would have been unnecessary if Muhammad had left a copy that he had checked through with Gabriel.

2. Burning suggests that differing content was the problem, not dialects, because dialects would be notated with short vowels which were not used in Arabic script at the time.

3. How is the heavenly prototype accurately preserved in the present Qur’an when we find the present Qur’an is incomplete. It is missing the verse on stoning for adultery. according to ‘Umar, the verse it read: ‘The adult male and the adult female, when they fornicate, stone them outright, as an exemplary punishment from God. God is mighty, wise.’ Usually described as being abrogated in wording but not in its ruling, Umar is said to have stated, “Had I not been afraid lest people should say I had added to the Qur’an I would have recorded it.” (as-Suyuti, Al-Itqan, ii. 29)

4. How can the heavenly prototype be accurately preserved in the present Qur’an when we know the original script of the Qur’an lacked vowels, thus producing variant readings of the Qur’an?

5. How can the heavenly prototype be accurately preserved in the present Qur’an when we are told of three separate versions of the Qur’an even apart from the companions copies– one from the time of the Muhammad, another in the time of Uthman, and a third in the reign of the Caliph ‘Abd ul Malik (AH 70)?

6. Resistance to Uthman: It was said by opponents of Uthman that he had “torn up the Book” (Tabari, ii. 1, 516) and “The Qur’an was in many books and you discredited all but one”. (Tabari, i. 6, 2952)

7. Another purge was held in AD 933/AH 322. Why would it have been necessary if an authoritative text from Muhammad was in existence?

8. In the tradition “from Isma’il b. Ibrahim, from Ayyub, from Nafi’, from Ibn ‘Umar: He said: Let none of you say ‘I have learned the whole of the Qur’an’, for how does he know that the whole of it is, when much of it has disappeared? Let him rather say, ‘I have learned what is now extant of it’.” It is possible to argue that what exists is some of the Qur’an from the heavenly book, but not that what exists is all of the Qur’an, nor is what exists in the form it was originally given. The question then becomes, is what remains a reliable portion of what was originally given? Perfection is out of the question.

9. Two accurate observations:

The traditional material given to us with regard to the collection of the Qur’an presents so many difficulties, that it is almost impossible to disentangle the elements in order to obtain a consistent historical account. (Burton asserts that it is impossible to reconcile them.)

‘It is clear that almost desperate efforts had to be made to achieve uniformity when once it had been laid down that verbal accuracy was desirable.’

Period 4 7, 10, 14

With the tradition of Muhammad being granted permission to recite the Qur’an in 7 ways (ahruf), the definition of the ahruf was never clearly defined. At least 35 different views of this issue are known as to what the ahruf are and there is no consensus.

Also, Ibn Mujahid never claimed his seven were Muhammad’s seven versions; he evidently just used the number as a working principle. The criteria he used to determine the seven were used by others to claim that more versions were just as good and at least three more were accepted as of equal authority. In many circles there were even an additional four regarded as acceptable. How can this be squared with one perfectly preserved version, and with one perfect version in heaven?

To make matters worse, these 7, 10, or 14 were chosen from among possibly at least 50 versions in use at the time. This number also does not include the collections of Ibn Masud, Ubayy ibn Kab, and ‘Ali which are said to still have been available in written versions at this time.

Period 5 10 – 80

How can 10 versions of the Qur’an which do not go precisely back to Muhammad accurately represent a heavenly original? Much less, how can 80 separate versions of those 10?

Period 6 The 1924 Royal Cairo Edition

The 1924 Royal Cairo edition was not made with reference to the earliest available manuscripts, but according to Medieval Islamic Qur’an science literature. This literature supports the dogmatic view of the Qur’an, but the manuscripts do not since they allow for and even gave rise to so many variant recitations of the Qur’an. Also, palimpsests and corrections in manuscripts show that other variant readings were once part of the manuscript tradition.

With the problems listed for periods 1-5, how can such a production represent a perfectly preserved text from a heavenly tablet?

Appeals to the miraculous nature of the Qur’an, its perfect style, etc. are all appeals that are without foundation if the original text has not been preserved perfectly.

A Closing Thought

…any theory of the writing and revision of the Qur’an during the life of the Prophet is destructive of the usual Muslim belief in the spontaneous, literal and inerrant transcription of a heavenly book. It would almost seem as if one would have to postulate in addition to the miraculous deliverance of the Qur’an to the Prophet, a continual miracle performed by numerous followers, which reminds us that it was claimed for the translators of the Septuagint that working independently they produced each exactly the same translation….an inerrant dictation leaves no room for any sort of literary revision. (emphasis mine)
Adil, Hafiz M., Introduction to Qur’an, Delhi, India: Adam Publishers and Distributors, 1990.
Burton, John, The Collection of the Qur’ân, 1979 Paperback edition edn., Cambridge: CUP, 1977.
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Dodge, Bayard (ed.), The Fihrist of Ibn al-Nadîm, Great Books of the Islamic World, Chicago: Kazi Publications, 1970.
Fedeli, Alba, ‘Early Evidences of Variant Readings in Qur’ânic Manuscripts’ in Ohlig, Karl-Heinz and Puin, Gerd-R. (eds.), Die dunklen Anfänge, Berlin: Hans Schiler, 2005, pp. 293-316.
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—, Schools of Koranic Commentators, Wiesbaden: Harrasowitz Verlag, 2006.
Jeffery, Arthur, Materials for the History of the Text of the Qur’ân, Leiden: Brill, 1937.
Lester, Toby, ‘What is the Qur’an?’, Atlantic Monthly, pp. 43-56.
Omar, Kamal, Deep Into the Qur’an, Delhi, India: Noor Publishing House, 1992.
Powers, David S., ‘The Exegetical Genre nâsikh al-Qur’ân’ in Rippin, A. (ed.), Approaches to the History of the Interpretation of the Qur’ân, Oxford: Clarendon, 1988, pp. 117-138.
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Rippin, Andrew, Muslims: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, Second edn., London: Routledge, 2001.
—, Muslims: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, Third edn., London: Routledge, 2005.
Sell, Canon, The Historical Development of the Qur’an, Reprint edn., Tunbridge Wells, Kent: People International,
Sweetman, J. Windrow, Islam and Christian Theology, London: Lutterworth Press, 1945-1967, Part One, Volume II.


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