Does Q. 2:77-79 speak of Bible Corruption?

Sam Shamoun

Bismikaallahuma’s sister site, Noorullah, has produced a short rebuttal to an unnamed Christian who appealed to the Quran to prove that Muslims must accept and believe in the Holy Bible as God’s uncorrupt Word (*).

The aim of this article is to address some of the issues raised by the Muslim writer whose aim is to contest the claim of the Christian. The author begins by saying that:

Some Christians have claimed that the Qur’an commands Muslims to read and obey the 4 Gospels. First, one of the reasons Allah has sent Islam and the Qur’an was because all the scriptures that came before it were either corrupted or lost. The Qur’an says the following of the books that came before it…

After citing Q. 2:77-79 he says:

The Book refers to the book of the People of the Book (aka Men of Faith), which section 9 in Chapter 2 talks about. The Noble Qur’an clearly says that the Book was corrupted by men, "those who write the Book with their own hands, and then say: ‘This is from Allah,". It can’t get any clearer then that!

No [sic], as you can see from the above verses the Qur’an claims the Book of the People of the Book have corrupted their own books. With that in mind let’s move on.

When I asked the Christian how did he get to this conclusion, he gave the following verses:

He then cites Q. 2:97, 5:82, 42:15, 5:46-48, 10:94 and makes the candid admission that:

Without knowing that the Noble Qur’an claims that the scriptures before it were corrupted by men (2:77-79), you can easily come to the conclusion that the Noble Qur’an confirms the Bible.
However, the Qur’an talks about the True scriptures He has sent to the prophets before Muhammad (pbuh), not the corrupted Bible.

Thus, his interpretation of these passages hinges on his understanding of Q. 2:77-79, that these other texts cannot mean that the Holy Bible is the uncorrupt Word of God since the Quran elsewhere says that the Jews and Christians have distorted their Scriptures.

What the author’s comments imply is that if on the flipside it can be demonstrated that Q. 2:77-79 does not teach that the Jews and Christians have corrupted their Scriptures then these other texts actually prove that the Quran does confirm the Holy Bible, especially the four Canonical Gospels.

Before proceeding with our response we need to first quote the verses for all to read:

Are they then unaware that Allah knoweth that which they keep hidden and that which they proclaim? Among them are unlettered folk who know the Scripture not except from hearsay. They but guess. Therefore woe be unto those who write the Scripture with their hands and then say, "This is from Allah," that they may purchase a small gain therewith. Woe unto them for that their hands have written, and woe unto them for that they earn thereby. S. 2:77-79 Pickthall

With the foregoing in perspective we can now move to our rebuttal.

In the first place, the author has arbitrarily chosen to interpret the passages which speak highly of the Bible in light of Q. 2:77-79 as opposed to understanding the latter citation in light of what these other references say about this issue. But why should we seek to understand the entire host of verses which refer to the availability of uncorrupt Scriptures in light of a single reference which may imply that the previous Books have been tampered with? (We say may imply since a careful reading of the verses in question do not prove that the former Writings have been corrupted as we shall seek to prove here.) Why not assume that passages such as Q. 5:46-48 and 10:94 are normative and should guide our exegesis of Q. 2:77-79? Note, for instance, what these specific verses state:

And We caused Jesus, son of Mary, to follow in their footsteps, confirming that WHICH IS BETWEEN HIS HANDS of the Torah (musaddiqan lima bayna yadayhi mina alttawrati), and We bestowed on him the Gospel wherein is guidance and light, confirming that WHICH IS BETWEEN HIS HANDS of the Torah (musaddiqan lima bayna yadayhi mina alttawrati) - a guidance (wa hudan) and an admonition unto those who ward off (evil). And let the followers of the Gospel judge by what Allah revealed in it; and whoever does not judge by what Allah revealed, those are they that are the transgressors. And We have sent down to you the Book in the truth, CONFIRMING the Book that is before it, and ASSURING it. So judge between them according to what Allah has sent down, and do not follow their caprices, to forsake the truth that has come to you… S. 5:46-48

How could the Jews and Christians judge by and follow the guidance and light found within the Torah and the Gospel if these books were no longer available in an uncorrupt form? What kind of guidance could such corrupted texts give to these communities? Moreover, how could the Quran confirm and assure the Book in the possession of the Jews and Christians during Muhammad’s time if their Scriptures were changed?

And if thou (Muhammad) art in doubt concerning that which We reveal unto thee, then question those who read the Scripture (that was) before thee. Verily the Truth from thy Lord hath come unto thee. So be not thou of the waverers. S. 10:94 Pickthall

Again, how can the Quran appeal to a corrupted Scripture for verification? What kind of verification could a Book changed by Jews and Christians provide for the veracity of the Quran? Don’t all of these references actually presuppose that the Scriptures in the hands of the Jews and Christians were reliable and authoritative? And shouldn’t these very same citations guide our interpretation and explanation of Q. 2:77-79 as opposed to the other way around?

Second, Q. 2:77-79 actually presupposes the availability and knowledge of the original contents of the previous Revelations. After all, in order to know whether the Scriptures were corrupted one must first know what the original Books said, otherwise how could one know that corruptions had taken place?

Third, according to the commentators Q. 2:75-79 refers to the Jews, not to Christians:

There was little Hope that the Jews Who lived during the Time of the Prophet could have believed

Allah said…

<Do you covet> O believers…

<That they will believe in your religion> meaning, that these people would obey you They are the deviant sect of Jews whose fathers witnessed the clear signs but their hearts became hard afterwards. Allah said next…

<Inspite of the fact that a party of them (Jewish rabbis) used to hear the Word of Allah (the Tawrah), then they used to change it> meaning, distort its meaning…

<after they understood it>. They understood well, yet they used to defy the truth…

<knowingly>, being fully aware of their erroneous interpretations and corruption. This statement is similar to Allah's statement…

<So, because of their violation of their covenant, We cursed them and made their hearts grow hard. They change the words from their (right) places> (5:13).

Qatadah commented that Allah's statement …

<Then they used to change it knowingly after they understood it> "They are the Jews who used to hear Allah's Words and then alter them after they understood and comprehended them."' Also, Mujahid said, "Those who used to alter it and conceal its truths; they were their scholars." Also, Ibn Wahb said that Ibn Zayd commented…

<used to hear the Word of Allah (the Tawrah), then they used to change it> "They altered the Tawrah that Allah revealed to them, making it say that the lawful is unlawful and the prohibited is allowed, and that what is right is false and that what is false is right. So when a person seeking the truth comes to them with a bribe, they judge his case by the Book of Allah, but when a person comes to them seeking to do evil with a bribe, they take out the other (distorted) book, in which it is stated that he is in the right. When someone comes to them who is not seeking what is right, nor offering them bribe, then they enjoin righteousness on him. This is why Allah said to them …

<Enjoin you Al-Birr (piety and righteousness and every act of obedience to Allah) on the people and you forget (to practise it) yourselves, while you recite the Scripture (the Tawrah)! Have you then no sense> (2:44)" (Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Q. 2:75-76; source)

Woe unto Those Criminals among the Jews

Allah said…

<Then Waylun (woe) to those who write the book with their own hands and then say, "This is from Allah," to purchase with it a little price!>.

This is another category of people among the Jews who called to misguidance with falsehood and lies about Allah, thriving on unjustly amassing people's property. `Waylun (woe)' carries meanings of destruction and perishing, and it is a well-known word in the Arabic language. Az-Zuhri said that `Ubadydullah bin `Abdullah narrated that Ibn `Abbas said, "O Muslims! How could you ask the People of the Book about anything, while the Book of Allah (Qur'an) that He revealed to His Prophet is the most recent Book from Him and you still read it fresh and young Allah told you that the People of the Book altered the Book of Allah, changed it and wrote another book with their own hands. They then said, `This book is from Allah,' so that they acquired a small profit by it. Hasn't the knowledge that came to you prohibited you from asking them By Allah! We have not seen any of them asking you about what was revealed to you." This Hadith was also collected by Al-Bukhari. Al-Hasan Al-Basri said, "The little amount here means this life and all that it contains."

Allah's statement…

<Woe to them for what their hands have written and woe to them for that they earn thereby> means, "Woe to them because of what they have written with their own hands, the lies, falsehood and alterations. Woe to them because of the property that they unjustly acquired." Ad-Dahhak said that Ibn `Abbas commented…

<Woe to them>, "Means the torment will be theirs because of the lies that they wrote with their own hands…

<And woe to them for that they earn thereby>, which they unjustly acquired from people, be they commoners or otherwise." (Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Q. 2:79; source)

This means that even in the case that this citation refers to Jews who corrupted their Scriptures this would only be in regards to their own Books, not to the New Testaments Books which the Jews reject. More importantly, this would only be applicable to their own copies of the Hebrew Bible, not to the copies in the possession of the Christians. After all, during the time of Muhammad there were plenty of copies of the Hebrew Bible in various languages which were in circulation among the Christians all over the then known world. It would literally have required a miracle for the Jews to be able to corrupt all these copies and versions of these Scriptures seeing that they were in the hands of groups who were not at all sympathetic to them.

Fourth, as the above comments show, the passages are only speaking of a group of Jews:

Do you (faithful believers) covet that they will believe in your religion in spite of the fact that A PARTY of them (Jewish rabbis) used to hear the Word of Allah [the Taurat (Torah)], then they used to change it knowingly after they understood it? And when they (Jews) meet those who believe (Muslims), they say, "We believe", but when they meet one another in private, they say, "Shall you (Jews) tell them (Muslims) what Allah has revealed to you [Jews, about the description and the qualities of Prophet Muhammad Peace be upon him , that which are written in the Taurat (Torah)] that they (Muslims) may argue with you (Jews) about it before your Lord?" Have you (Jews) then no understanding? Know they (Jews) not that Allah knows what they conceal and what they reveal? And there are AMONG them (Jews) unlettered people, who know not the Book, but they trust upon false desires and they but guess. Then woe to those who write the Book with their own hands and then say, "This is from Allah," to purchase with it a little price! Woe to them for what their hands have written and woe to them for that they earn thereby. S. 2:75-79 Hilali-Khan

Thus, even if we were to assume that this is addressing biblical textual corruption this would only be in reference to a group among the Jews who tampered with God’s Word. It nowhere says or even remotely implies that all the Jews everywhere were guilty of changing the text of their Holy Scriptures.

In fact, the Quran itself testifies that there was a group among the People of the Book (i.e. Jews and Christians) who were reciting the verses of God and did not corrupt their Scriptures for personal gain:

Those unto whom We have given the Scripture, who read it with the right reading, those believe in it. And whoso disbelieveth in it, those are they who are the losers. S. 2:121 Pickthall

Notice how the expositors exegeted Q. 2:121:

Allah then mentioned the believers from among the people of the Book: ‘Abdullah Ibn Salam and his companions, Bahirah the Monk and the Negus and his followers, saying: (Those unto whom We have given the Scripture) given knowledge of the Scripture, i.e. the Torah, (who read it with the right reading) describe it AS IT IS AND DO NOT ALTER IT: expositing what is lawful and unlawful, its commands and prohibitions to whomever asks them, and they further act according to what is clear and unambiguous and believe in that which is ambiguous therein, (those believe in it) in Muhammad and the Qur’an. (And who disbelieveth in it) in Muhammad and the Qur’an, (those are they who are losers) who are duped in that they loose both this world and the world to come. (Tanwr al-Miqbs min Tafsr Ibn ‘Abbs; source; bold, capital and underline emphasis ours)

(121) Wahidi relates on the authority of Ibn 'Abbas, "This verse was sent down concerning the people of the ship who came [to Medina] with Ja'far ibn Abi Talib from Abyssinia. They were forty men, thirty-two from Abyssinia and eight of the monks of Syria. The monk Bahirah was said to be among them." In another tradition related on the authority of al-Dahhak, we are told, "The verse was sent down concerning those among the Jews who accepted faith [such as 'Abdallah ibn Sallam and others]." Still another tradition related on the authority of Qatadah and 'Ikrimah states, "It was sent down concerning the Companions of Muhammad" (Wahidi, p. 37; see also Ibn Kathir, I, pp. 286-287; Qurtubi, II, p. 95; Tabarsi, I, p. 448; and Shawkani, I, pp. 135-136)

Zamakhshari interprets the verse as follows: "'They to whom we have given the scriptures' are the faithful among the people of the Book who recite the scriptures in their true recitation, neither altering nor changing what they contain of the description of the Apostle of God. Those who have faith in their scriptures are contrasted with 'whosoever rejects faith in it [the scriptures],' that is, alterers. 'These shall be the losers' because they exchange guidance for error." (Zamakhshari, I, p. 308) (Mahmoud M. Ayoub, The Qur'an and its Interpreters [State University of New York Press (SUNY), Albany], Volume 1, pp. 149-150; bold emphasis ours)

Other texts also state:

They are not all alike. Of the People of the Scripture there is a staunch community who recite the revelations of Allah in the night season, falling prostrate (before Him). They believe in Allah and the Last Day, and enjoin right conduct and forbid indecency, and vie one with another in good works. These are of the righteous. S. 3:113-114 Pickthall

And there are, certainly, among the people of the Scripture (Jews and Christians), those who believe in Allah and in that which has been revealed to you, and in that which has been revealed to them, humbling themselves before Allah. They do not sell the Verses of Allah for a little price, for them is a reward with their Lord. Surely, Allah is Swift in account. S. 3:199 Pickthall

Of the people of Moses there is a nation who guide by the truth, and by it act with justice… And there succeeded after them a succession who inherited the Book, taking the chance goods of this lower world, and saying, 'It will be forgiven us'; and if chance goods the like of them come to them, they will take them. Has not the compact of the Book been taken touching them, that they should say concerning God nothing but the truth? And they have studied what is in it; and the Last Abode is better for those who are godfearing. Do you not understand? And those who hold fast to the Book, and perform the prayer -- surely We leave not to waste the wage of those who set aright. S. 7:159, 169-170 Arberry

What all of these passages demonstrate is that there were righteous Jews and Christians who preserved their Scriptures and would obviously have no hesitation exposing those among them that were tampering with their sacred texts.

Fifth, the foregoing is based on the assumption that Q. 2:79 is suggesting that certain Jews corrupted their Bibles, yet that is not what it says:

Then woe to those who write the Book with their own hands, and then say: "This is from God," to traffic with it for miserable price! - Woe to them for what their hands do write, and for the gain they make thereby. Y. Ali

Notice that the verse doesn’t say that they were corrupting the Scriptures but that they were writing a book which they passed off as inspired Revelation. In other words, the reference isn’t saying that they were changing the text of the inspired Scriptures which God gave them but adding uninspired books to the canon. Thus, the issue here is not one of tampering with the text of the Holy Bible but of adding to the Scriptures something which does not belong there.

This leads us to our final point. The immediate context says that it was the ummiyyun among them that were writing a book which they passed off as the Word of God. This word has been variously rendered as "illiterate", "unlettered", "common folk", "gentiles". Here are two examples of how this term is translated:

And some there are of them that are common folk not knowing the Book, but only fancies and mere conjectures. S. 2:78 Arberry

Among them are gentiles who do not know the scripture, except through hearsay, then assume that they know it. Rashad Khalifa

A careful examination of the way this word is used in the Quran suggests that this refers to individuals who had not been given inspired Scriptures, in contrast to the Jews and Christians. More specifically, it refers to specific Gentiles that had no revealed Book. If this understanding is correct then what Q. 2:78-79 is saying is that there either were some Jews or possibly Gentile converts to Judaism who didn’t know the Scriptures, being ignorant of their contents, who then decided to write a book which they passed off as revelation in order to profit from it.

Al-Tabari provides some support for this proposed interpretation by citing Ibn Abbas. Muslim turned atheist, Ibn Warraq, while writing about the different definitions proposed by scholars regarding the meaning of ummiyyun, says:

"Bell thinks 'ummiyyun means belonging to the 'ummah or community, while Blachere translates it as ‘Gentiles,’ in the sense of ‘pagan.’ For the French scholar it is clear that the word 'ummi designates pagan Arabs, who, unlike the Jews and Christians, had not received any revelation and were thus living in ignorance of the divine law. Tabari does indeed quote some traditions that give this sense to the word ummi: according to Ibn 'Abbas, 'ummiyyun (refers to) some people who did not believe in a prophet sent by God, nor in a scripture revealed by God; and they wrote a scripture with their own hands. Then they said to the ignorant, common people: "This is from God."’ However, Tabari himself does not accept this interpretation, instead gives a totally unconvincing and improbable account of the derivation of the word: ‘I am of the opinion that an illiterate person is called ummi, relating him in his lack of ability to write to his mother (umm), because writing was something which men, and not women, did, so that a man who could not write and form letters was linked to his mother, and not to his father, in his ignorance of writing.’" (Warraq, "Introduction," What the Koran Really Says, Language, Text & Commentary [Prometheus Books, 2002; ISBN: 157392945X], p. 44; underline emphasis ours)

What the above implies is that Q. 2:78-79 cannot be referring to certain persons corrupting the Holy Bible since it expressly says that these individuals didn’t know the Scriptures:

Among them are unlettered folk who know the Scripture not except from hearsay. They but guess. Therefore woe be unto those who write the Scripture with their hands and then say, "This is from Allah," that they may purchase a small gain therewith. Woe unto them for that their hands have written, and woe unto them for that they earn thereby. Pickthall

How, then, could they change the text of a Scripture that they had no knowledge of except from hearsay? They obviously couldn’t.

Finally, the author erroneously claimed that one of the reasons that the Quran was sent down was because the previous Scriptures had been corrupted. That is not what the Quran claims! Rather, the Quran expressly says that it was sent down in Arabic to confirm, not contradict, the prior inspired Writings:

Moreover, We gave Moses the Book, completing (Our favour) to those who would do right, and explaining all things in detail, - and a guide and a mercy, that they might believe in the meeting with their Lord. And this is a Book which We have revealed as a blessing: so follow it and be righteous, that ye may receive mercy: Lest ye should say: "The Book was sent down to two Peoples before us, and for our part, we remained unacquainted with all that they learned by assiduous study:" Or lest ye should say: "If the Book had only been sent down to us, we should have followed its guidance better than they." Now then hath come unto you a clear (sign) from your Lord, - and a guide and a mercy: then who could do more wrong than one who rejecteth God's signs, and turneth away therefrom? In good time shall We requite those who turn away from Our signs, with a dreadful penalty, for their turning away. S. 6:154-157 Y. Ali

And before this, was the Book of Moses as a guide and a mercy: And this Book confirms (it) in the Arabic tongue; to admonish the unjust, and as Glad Tidings to those who do right. S. 46:12 Y. Ali

We challenge the author to quote a single verse which says that the Quran was sent down because of the corruption of the previous Scriptures.

The author next tries to address Q. 5:82 which really doesn’t deal with the issue of the Bible’s veracity so we will simply ignore his statements.

In reference to Q. 42:15 the writer asserts that:

Again, Qur’an makes it clear that it is talking about what Allah has sent down, and not the corrupted Bible… I think we are repeating a cycle. It is obvious the Gospel is not the four gospels. Answer these questions to your self. Are any of the gospels told or narrated or written by Jesus (pbuh) himself? How many Gospels are there in the NT?

Indeed, we are repeating a cycle since the author is assuming, but failing to prove, that the Quran is not referring to the Canonical Gospels but only to that which Jesus preached. The problem with this ahistorical view is that it fails to adequately deal with the fact that the Quran appeals to the Writings which were in the hands of the Christians during the time of Muhammad. For instance, note what the following references say:

And We caused Jesus, son of Mary, to follow in their footsteps, confirming that which was (revealed) before him in the Torah, and We bestowed on him the Gospel wherein IS guidance and a light, confirming that which was (revealed) before it in the Torah - a guidance and an admonition unto those who ward off (evil). Let the People of the Gospel judge by that which Allah hath revealed therein. Whoso judgeth not by that which Allah hath revealed: such are evil-livers. S. 5:46-47 Pickthall

If only they had stood fast by the Law, the Gospel, and all the revelation that was sent to them from their Lord, they would have enjoyed happiness from every side. There is from among them a party on the right course: but many of them follow a course that is evil… Say: "O People of the Book! ye have no ground to stand upon unless ye stand fast by the Law, the Gospel, and all the revelation that has come to you from your Lord." It is the revelation that cometh to thee from thy Lord, that increaseth in most of them their obstinate rebellion and blasphemy. But sorrow thou not over (these) people without Faith. S. 5:66, 68 Y. Ali

In the above passages the Quran exhorts Muhammad’s Christian contemporaries to follow the guidance found in the Gospel. The natural question to ask is what Gospel was available at the time which the Christians had to abide by?

And this is the real issue that the author (and any other Muslim polemicist for that matter) must contend with; he (they) must explain to us what Gospel did the Christians of Muhammad’s time have in their possession? What Gospel was Muhammad appealing to when he exhorted Christians to follow it?

If he (they) is (are) honest to history he (they) must accept the fact that the only Gospel which was available to the orthodox Christian community was the Good News found in the NT corpus, specifically the four Canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

This, perhaps, explains why certain Muslims had no hesitation identifying the Canonical Gospels as the very Gospel God gave to Christ. For example, in the oldest extant biography on the life of Muhammad we find the following interesting statement:

Among the things which have reached me about what Jesus the Son of Mary stated in the Gospel which he received from God for the followers of the Gospel, in applying a term to describe the apostle of God, is the following. It is extracted FROM WHAT JOHN THE APOSTLE SET DOWN FOR THEM WHEN HE WROTE THE GOSPEL FOR THEM FROM THE TESTAMENT OF JESUS SON OF MARY: 'He that hateth me hateth the Lord. And if I had not done in their presence works which none other before me did, they had not sin: but from now they are puffed up with pride and think that they will overcome me and also the Lord. But the word that is in the law must be fulfilled, "They hated me without a cause" (i.e. without reason). But when the Comforter has come whom God will send to you from the Lord's presence, and the spirit of truth which will have gone forth from the Lord's presence he (shall bear) witness of me and ye also, because ye have been with me from the beginning. I have spoken unto you about this that ye should not be in doubt.’

The Munahhemana (God bless and preserve him!) in Syriac is Muhammad; in Greek he is the paraclete. (The Life of Muhammad, A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, with introduction and notes by Alfred Guillaume [Karachi Oxford University Press, Karachi, Tenth Impression 1995], pp. 103-104; bold and capital emphasis ours)

The chronicler, Ibn Ishaq, quotes the Gospel of John, specifically John 15:23-16:1, and identifies it as THE Gospel which God gave to Jesus!

And this is the dilemma that the author faces. The Quran appeals to and confirms the extant Writings of the Jews and Christians during Muhammad’s time. The historical record shows that the only Scriptures which the orthodox Jewish and Christian communities have possessed, the only Torah and Gospel that they have held in their hands, are the Pentateuch and the four Gospels found in our present day Bibles. This means that the Quran is basically confirming the Bible as we now possess it seeing that this is the same Scripture that the Jews and Christians of Muhammad’s time possessed.

The preceding points sufficiently demonstrate that Q. 2:77-79 does not support the author’s erroneous contention that the Quran teaches that God’s true Word, the Holy Bible, has been changed, and that Muslims are not obligated to follow these inspired Writings.

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