Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Distortion and the Qur'an (Part 1)

An analysis of the notion of distortion

Masud Masihiyyen

The Muslim world suffers from a particular faith crisis that no other faith system endures: being torn between accepting the Holy Bible as the word of God and denying and attacking the Holy Bible as the corrupted and unreliable word of God. This inevitable dilemma gave birth to a fear of the Holy Bible, which we can call Bible-phobia. The cause of this crisis is strikingly the Qur’an, the scripture and main source of the Islamic faith. The first generation of Muslims had probably not fallen into the grip of this crisis until they had access to the Scripture of the Jews and Christians and found an occasion to make a comparison between these texts and their own book. It is easy to imagine the disappointment and temporary shock they first experienced when they saw that the books of the Jews and Christians endorsed some of the teachings openly denounced and denied in their Qur’an, which claimed to function as the confirmer of the previous revelations:

It is He Who sent down to thee (step by step), in truth, the Book, confirming what went before it; and He sent down the Law (of Moses) and the Gospel (of Jesus). (Surah 3:3 Yusuf Ali)

And believe in what I reveal, confirming the revelation which is with you, and be not the first to reject Faith therein, nor sell My Signs for a small price; and fear Me, and Me alone. (Surah 2:41 Yusuf Ali)

And when there cometh unto them a messenger from Allah, confirming that which they possess, a party of those who have received the Scripture fling the Scripture of Allah behind their backs as if they knew not. (Surah 2:101 Pickthall)

O ye unto whom the Scripture hath been given! Believe in what We have revealed confirming that which ye possess, before We destroy countenances so as to confound them, or curse them as We cursed the Sabbath-breakers (of old time). The commandment of Allah is always executed. (Surah 4:47 Pickthall)

And unto thee have We revealed the Scripture with the truth, confirming whatever Scripture was before it, and a watcher over it. (Surah 5:48 Pickthall)

As for that which We inspire in thee of the Scripture, it is the Truth confirming that which was (revealed) before it. Lo! Allah is indeed Observer, Seer of His slaves. (Surah 35:31 Pickthall)

Of course, Muslims had to find a way out of this dilemma and they did this by making a distinction between the former and present form of the Bible: they started to claim that the Bible had been corrupted by men and had lost its authenticity, the result being the differences and contradictions between the Scripture of Muslims and that of non-Muslims. Ironically, Muslims distorted their own scripture when they asserted despite the lack of evidence that the revelations preceding the Qur’an were no more in their original form. As manifest in some of the verses quoted above, the author of the Qur’an made it clear that what was confirmed was not a lost and ghost-like book, but the very scriptures possessed by Jews and Christians in Mohammad’s era!

Besides, the writer of the Qur’an asked Muhammad’s followers to believe in existing and real books rather than in some lost copies of the previous revelations when he devised the following verse:

Say ye: "We believe in God, and the revelation given to us, and to Abraham, Isma'il, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and that given to Moses and Jesus, and that given to (all) prophets from their Lord: We make no difference between one and another of them: And we bow to God (in Islam)." (Surah 2:136 Yusuf Ali)1

In sharp contrast to this verse, Muslims today do not believe in what was given before the Qur’an, but merely believe that some books were given before the Qur’an. The writer of the verse above would have simply asked Muslims to believe in the idea of former revelations rather than in the texts if he had had any doubts concerning their originality or wished to teach the doctrine of corruption. The allegations of the Bible’s textual corruption also go against this particular verse because Muslims draw a line between the Bible and the Qur’an with regard to the idea of textual corruption and thus make a difference between them, disobeying the commandment to consider all the revelations equal.

Partial or wholesome confirmation?

A similar act of distortion is tried particularly on the Qur’an verses talking of the confirmation of the former books through the addition of the claim that the Qur’an confirmed some of the Bible. No one can give a list of the verses that were confirmed by the Islamic scripture although the fundamental criterion is unsurprisingly based on the supposed veracity of the Qur’an. All biblical verses and teachings that contradict Muhammad’s book are automatically left out of the process of confirmation. Nonetheless, this is a conclusion invented by Muslims and then ascribed to the Qur’an. It survives only in the form of misinterpretation and wishful thinking since no verse in the Qur’an confirms this interpretation.

The assertion regarding the partial confirmation of the Bible has no basis in the Qur’an and is ridiculous also because the writer of the Qur’an never asked Muslims to use their scripture as a checkpoint or criterion for the integrity or truthfulness of the former scriptures. More to the point, the author of the Qur’an propagated the teaching that the former books were confirmed by the new revelation in the early period of Islam even when it was impossible for Muslims to hold and compare most of the Qur’an with the Books of the Jews and Christians. For instance, according to the chronological order of the Islamic scripture, the following verse was recorded even before Surah 19, which relates the first Islamic account of Jesus’ birth and infancy:

As for that which We inspire in thee of the Scripture, it is the Truth confirming that which was (revealed) before it. Lo! Allah is indeed Observer, Seer of His slaves. (Surah 35:31 Pickthall)

The same teaching was repeated in Surah 12, which was devised long before the migration:

There is, in their stories, instruction for men endued with understanding. It is not a tale invented, but a confirmation of what went before it, - a detailed exposition of all things, and a guide and a mercy to any such as believe. (Surah 12:101 Yusuf Ali)

Second, the traditional Islamic assertion that only the partial confirmation of the Bible is meant in the Qur’an is not fully compatible with the notion of confirmation as it suggests that confirmation went hand in hand with correction. However, the Qur’an contains no verse that supports this view and does not even imply that one of its functions is to correct the mistakes of the former scriptures. Such a doctrine would in any case be absurd because it would entail that God confirmed a dubious text full of errors instead of correcting it first before the confirmation. Above all, the concept of confirmation in the Qur’an would be meaningless if it was indeed associated with correction, for in that case what was confirmed would be the Islamic scripture itself rather than the former scriptures as confirmation would be possible only through the corrections occurring only in and through the Qur’an.

Third, the writer of the Qur’an in a few instances asked Muhammad or others to consult the People of the Book in order to cease their doubts concerning the veracity of the new revelation:

If thou wert in doubt as to what We have revealed unto thee, then ask those who have been reading the Book from before thee: the Truth hath indeed come to thee from thy Lord: so be in no wise of those in doubt. (Surah 10:94 Yusuf Ali)

And We sent not (as Our messengers) before thee other than men, whom We inspired. Ask the followers of the Reminder if ye know not? (Surah 21:7 Pickthall)

If the writer of the Qur’an had really considered his book a corrector of the former revelations and possessed doubts about the inerrancy of the Bible, he would not have asked people to consult the possessors of the Bible for verification as he would not have trusted them on this issue. Similarly, he would not have asked Christians to make judgments by using their own scripture:

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. (Surah 5:46-47 Pickthall)

Fourth, the claim of partial confirmation would definitely necessitate the overt denial of some parts of the former scriptures in the Qur’an, but the word denial is missing from the verses where the confirmation of the Bible is strongly attested. Nowhere is it written that some parts of the Bible are erroneous and thus refused. If the former scriptures had really been partly corrupted, a statement of contrast and distinction between confirmation and rejection would have been crucial for the prevention of misunderstandings and misinterpretations.

Fifth, Muslims who speak in favor of partial confirmation disregard the fact that it is not in harmony with the Qur’an verses, which denounce and threaten people for dividing a scripture into parts and not believing in all of it:

As we sent down (punishment) on the separatists who dismember the Qur'an. (Surah 15:90-91 Palmer)

After this it is ye, the same people, who slay among yourselves, and banish a party of you from their homes; assist (Their enemies) against them, in guilt and rancour; and if they come to you as captives, ye ransom them, though it was not lawful for you to banish them. Then is it only a part of the Book that ye believe in, and do ye reject the rest? but what is the reward for those among you who behave like this but disgrace in this life? - and on the Day of Judgment they shall be consigned to the most grievous penalty. For God is not unmindful of what ye do. (Surah 2:85 Yusuf Ali)

In short, the assertion concerning the partial confirmation of the former scriptures is false and contrary to the Qur’an.

A matter of divine inconsistency: Only the Qur’an was preserved

Muslims do not only claim that the Bible is no more in its original form, but that the Qur’an is the only scripture that has never been corrupted! In order to support this baseless assertion, they mostly quote the following verse from their scripture:

Lo! We, even We, reveal the Reminder, and lo! We verily are its Guardian. (Surah 15:9 Pickthall)

However, this verse does not say that only the Qur’an will be guarded by God. It rather implies that all the former revelations were equally protected from corruption on the basis of the correlation constructed in this statement between the revealer and protector. The verse does not state that only the Qur’an will be guarded because it is in any way special or privileged. Unsurprisingly, Muslims who are aware of the contradictions between the Bible and the Qur’an and therefore feel obliged to prove the alleged textual corruption of the Jewish and Christian scriptures either ignore the theological implications of this verse or make efforts to exclude the Bible from the general promise of divine protection.

Although the promise of preservation from corruption is by no means limited to the Qur’an in Surah 15:9, the occurrence of the word “Reminder” in this particular verse may be taken as a word pertaining to Qur’an alone and distinguishing it from the former scriptures. Yet this argument falls apart when it is remembered that the writer of the Qur’an used the identical term while referring to the Jewish and Christian scriptures. To compare:

Lo! We, even We, reveal the Reminder, and lo! We verily are its Guardian. (Surah 15:9 Pickthall) (Inna nahnu nazzalna alththikra wa-inna lahu lahafithoona)

And We sent not (as Our messengers) before thee other than men, whom We inspired. Ask the followers of the Reminder if ye know not? (Surah 21:7 Pickthall) (Wama arsalna qablaka illa rijalan noohee ilayhim fais-aloo ahla alththikri in kuntum la taAAlamoona)

Evidently, the author of the Qur’an did not confine the use of the word “Reminder” to the Islamic scripture, but designated the People of the Book as the followers of the “Reminder”. A similar course is taken when the word furqan (criterion) is claimed to be a name pertaining to the Islamic scripture alone. The presentation of the Qur’an as the criterion in the following verses may be interpreted in support of the view that the Qur’an functions as the criterion separating truth from falsehood:

Blessed is He who sent down the criterion to His servant, that it may be an admonition to all creatures. (Surah 25:1 Yusuf Ali)

It is He Who sent down to thee (step by step), in truth, the Book, confirming what went before it; and He sent down the Law (of Moses) and the Gospel (of Jesus). Before this, as a guide to mankind, and He sent down the criterion (of judgment between right and wrong). Then those who reject Faith in the Signs of God will suffer the severest penalty, and God is Exalted in Might, Lord of Retribution. (Surah 3:3-4 Yusuf Ali)

The month of Ramadan in which was revealed the Qur'an, a guidance for mankind, and clear proofs of the guidance, and the Criterion (of right and wrong). (Surah 2:185 Pickthall)

However, the word furqan does not refer to Qur’an alone. In the following verse we see that the book that was supposedly revealed to Moses is also called Criterion:

And We verily gave Moses and Aaron the Criterion (of right and wrong) and a light and a Reminder for those who keep from evil. (Surah 21:48 Pickthall)

If we admit the faulty assertion that the Criterion pertains to the Islamic scripture, we must believe that God actually revealed the Qur’an to Moses and Aaron! More, in a verse we read that the word Criterion is again used in reference to book revealed to Moses, but this time it is separated from the Torah:

And remember We gave Moses the Scripture and the Criterion (Between right and wrong): There was a chance for you to be guided aright. (Surah 2:53 Yusuf Ali)

This distinct usage makes it clear that the writer of the Qur’an felt free to use the word furqan (criterion) sometimes as a noun referring to a book and sometimes as an adjective pertaining to a fundamental feature or function of a book, but never as a word reserved only for Muhammad’s scripture.

The verses of the Qur’an are far from convincing us that only the Islamic scripture was preserved whilst all the former revelations were corrupted and replaced with their fake copies. Accordingly, we cannot accuse the author of the Qur’an of teaching the doctrine of divine inconsistency and injustice.2 This theory turns out to be a matter of inconsistent and misleading interpretation of the Qur’an.

The need to preserve all the revelations

There is no verse in the Qur’an stating that God chose to guard only the supposed revelation to Muhammad, but it may be argued that God did not also need to preserve the revelations preceding the Qur’an. This argument goes hand in hand with the basic Islamic teaching that the Qur’an is the final and perfect revelation of God. Being the final and perfect revelation allegedly makes the Qur’an unique and necessitates its preservation. However, this argument ignores the fact that Surah 15:9 by no means highlights a distinct feature of the Qur’an or states a reason for its preservation other than that it was revealed by God.

Besides, the idea that the Islamic scripture is the latest link in the chain of divine revelation is not a scientific and objective fact. If what determines the preservation of a book is the belief that it is the final and perfect revelation, it becomes possible to question and deny the supposed preservation of the Qur’an. In that case a member of the Baha’i faith would claim that the Qur’an was not guarded from corruption because it was not the final revelation. A Christian would teach that the New Testament was crucially guarded from corruption because everything gained perfection in Christ, who is the First and the Last. This teaching would not only undermine the Islamic assertion that the scripture of the Christians was corrupted, but also that the Qur’an cannot be the final and perfect revelation. Since the New Testament was preserved by God, there was no need for the revelation of the Qur’an!

A relevant theory is that God did not guard the former scriptures because He recurrently sent the same message to His messengers. When a book was corrupted, the same divine teaching was given again in the form of a new revelation.3 When the Qur’an was revealed, it was guarded from corruption because it had been destined to be the final revelation and after it the same message would not be given to mankind. This theory is apparently based on a flawed reasoning and contradicts the Qur’an as it suggests that a new revelation functioned to replace the former. The Qur’an, on the other hand, teaches that every revelation came to confirm what went before it. Thus, there was confirmation rather than replacement.

Second, the Islamic scripture does not claim that the same divine message was given each time under a different name. Nowhere in the Qur’an is it even implied that one revelation was identical in form and content to another. Although every messenger is asserted to have preached one and same religion for mankind, different scriptures are said to have been revealed via different messengers on different occasions. More, the last of the four scriptures (the Qur’an) is alleged to have been revealed to a different community (Arabs rather than to the Children of Israel).

Third, the Qur’an says that different communities of believers were appointed a different law, cancelling the contention that all communities were given the same message:

And unto thee have We revealed the Scripture with the truth, confirming whatever Scripture was before it, and a watcher over it. So judge between them by that which Allah hath revealed, and follow not their desires away from the truth which hath come unto thee. For each We have appointed a divine law and a traced-out way. Had Allah willed He could have made you one community. But that He may try you by that which He hath given you (He hath made you as ye are). So vie one with another in good works. Unto Allah ye will all return, and He will then inform you of that wherein ye differ. (Surah 5:48 Pickthall)

Similarly, the narrative in Surah 3 claims that Jesus was sent to declare some of the previously forbidden foods clean to the Children of Israel. The following verse proves that messengers in Islam did not preach the same message and/or law:

And (I come) confirming that which was before me of the Torah, and to make lawful some of that which was forbidden unto you. I come unto you with a sign from your Lord, so keep your duty to Allah and obey me. (Surah 3:50 Pickthall)

Fourth, the author of the Qur’an would not have asked Christians to judge by their own scripture if he had held the belief that the Qur’an had replaced all the former books:

Let the people of the Gospel judge by what God hath revealed therein. If any do fail to judge by (the light of) what God hath revealed, they are (no better than) those who rebel. (Surah 5:47 Yusuf Ali)

Fifth, even if we disregard all these verses and embrace the fallacious theory that the books preceding the Qur’an were not guarded from corruption because the same message would be revealed repeatedly until Muhammad’s time, the preservation of one book at least until its reappearance in the form of a new revelation would be crucial as these scriptures would be given to different communities living in different times. Otherwise, the People of the Gospel, for example, would keep faithful to the allegedly corrupted text and deny that the original message was revealed again in the form of a new scripture. This would cause chaos and division, leading people to doubts and disbelief.4

Sixth, the corruption of a text would mean the replacement of the divine truth with falsehood and the loss of God’s words until the revelation of another book. This would not only represent God’s concession to defeat, but also give birth to the idea that the almighty and benevolent God allowed His believers to be deprived of His truth and misled into disbelief and ignorance. More to the point, the supposed corruption would hinder people from believing in the new revelation, perpetuating their ignorance and disbelief through their unawareness of the truth.

Seventh, this theory depicts the Islamic deity as a god that does not care about his word until the advent of a new messenger/prophet. He actually drops a message and then keeps aside so that evil people can corrupt his divine text and he can reappear later to correct his former mistake. This process of repetition for correction goes on until he suddenly decides to stop sending a new scripture. After all, what is the purpose of sending a revelation if it is destined to be corrupted?

Above all, the author of the Qur’an reiterated the biblical doctrine (Isaiah 40:8, Psalm 119:89) concerning the immutability of God’s words:

Before thee have apostles already been charged with falsehood: but they bore the charge and the wrong with constancy, till our help came to them;--for none can change the words of God. But this history of His Sent Ones hath already reached thee. (Surah 6:34 Rodwell)

And the words of thy Lord are perfect in truth and in justice: none can change his words: He is the Hearing, Knowing. (Surah 6:115 Rodwell)

For them are Glad Tidings, in the life of the Present and in the Hereafter: No change can there be in the Words of God. This is indeed the supreme Felicity. (Surah 10:64 Yusuf Ali)

And recite that which hath been revealed unto thee of the Scripture of thy Lord. There is none who can change His words, and thou wilt find no refuge beside Him. (Surah 18:27 Pickthall)

Obviously, the writer of the Qur’an regarded the immutability of God’s words as a foremost sign of God’s omnipotence. Further, he did not have only the Islamic scripture in mind while devising these verses because he used the phrase “words of God” without making a distinction between one revelation and another. If he had indeed meant that there was none to change only the words of God in the Qur’an, this would have contradicted these verses as he would have bafflingly taught that it was both possible and impossible to change the words of God.

More, the doctrine that there is nobody who can change the words of God makes sense and demonstrates God’s omnipotence when the existing potential of alteration/replacement is prevented. If God had not given his words to mankind, there would be no danger or risk of alteration, and the claim that no one can change God’s words would therefore be meaningless. Otherwise, God would be similar to a man who concealed from everyone that he was rich, yet always bragged about being mighty and said: “There is none to steal my wealth”.

Final try: some verses talking of the perversion of the former scriptures

Despite the existence of all these verses confirming the unchangeable nature of God’s words and some other verses testifying to the truthfulness of the scriptures that the Jews and Christians possessed in Muhammad’s time (for example, Surah 7:157), some Muslims try a final remedy and present a number of verses where the People of the Book are accused of perverting their scripture in the Qur’an. A careful analysis of all these verses shows that the charge of corruption is but a lie stemming from their misinterpretation.

And they measure not the power of Allah its true measure when they say: Allah hath naught revealed unto a human being. Say (unto the Jews who speak thus): Who revealed the Book which Moses brought, a light and guidance for mankind, which ye have put on parchments which ye show, but ye hide much (thereof), and (by which) ye were taught that which ye knew not yourselves nor (did) your fathers (know it)? Say: Allah. Then leave them to their play of cavilling. (Surah 6:91 Pickthall)

This is a verse belonging to the pre-migration period of the Qur’an and overtly addressing the Jews of Muhammad’s time. Although there is an accusation in this verse, it is not about the supposed textual corruption of the Jewish scripture. Ironically, Muhammad admitted and confessed through this verse that his Jewish contacts possessed the very book given to Moses. His accusation was based on the claim that the Jews concealed some parts of their scripture in an effort to deny Muhammad’s designation as a true messenger of God.

But those of them who did wrong changed the word which had been told them for another saying, and We sent down upon them wrath from heaven for their wrongdoing. (Surah 7:162 Pickthall)

This verse, which also belongs to the pre-migration period of the Islamic scripture and later reappears in a slightly modified form in Surah 2:59, does not refer to the textual corruption of the Book given to Moses. Only a party of the Jews wandering in the wilderness under Moses’ leadership is blamed for changing the divine instruction given to them, but there is no implication that these same people managed to alter their scripture and replace the original book with their false copy. Further, the assertion that they were directly punished by God in return for modifying the word that had been given to them dismisses the possibility that God would allow some Jews to corrupt His words and to replace truth with falsehood permanently. Thus, this verse ironically implies that no person would get away with changing God’s words.

Have ye any hope that they will be true to you when a party of them used to listen to the word of Allah, then used to change it, after they had understood it, knowingly? (Surah 2:75 Pickthall)

When read along with Surah 2:73-74, the accused group in this verse turns out to be some Jews rather than Christians. However, we cannot know for sure if the phrase “the word of Allah” refers to the Jewish or Islamic scripture since it would also be possible for the Jews of Muhammad’s era to hear some verses of the Qur’an and intentionally change their meaning. If the Qur’an is in view, it becomes implausible to conclude that this verse hints at the corruption of the Jewish scripture. If the Torah is in view, we can conclude that no textual corruption may have been meant in this verse in accordance with the Torah’s designation as “the word of God” and the Qur’an verse stating that “there is none to alter the words of God” (Surah 18:27).

Although Surah 2:75 seems to contradict Surah 18:27, the problem disappears when we notice that the verb used in Surah 2:75 is not identical with the verb used in Surah 18:27 although both of them pertain to the act of changing. The Arabic word occurring in Surah 2:75 is associated with the word “tahrif”, which does not necessarily refer to the act of changing a text in written form and permanently as it does not include the notion of replacement. Thus, the author of the Qur’an did not accuse the Jews of replacing the genuine text of the Torah with a distorted and false copy in Surah 2:75. He only claimed that a party of the Jews distorted the word of God by misrepresenting it after hearing it in its true form.

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. (Surah 2:78-79 Pickthall)

These verses are apparently related and again accuse some people of presenting the Scripture they write with their own hands as the direct revelation from God. No matter how these two verses are regarded in Islamic circles as hard evidence for the alleged corruption of the Jewish scripture, they do not actually talk about corruption as they do not contain either the word “tahrif” or “tabdil”. In other words, the author of the Qur’an did not assert that the authentic Scripture of the Jews was affected by this act of dishonesty. He most likely pointed at some apocryphal / non-canonical writings of Judaism. Similarly, a Christian believer may refer to the false Gospels written by heretics and Gnostics, but the existence of such apocryphal texts does not mean that the New Testament writings were corrupted.

Second, it is a matter of wonder how an illiterate folk can be accused of writing a scripture. Were they similar to Muhammad in that they had been illiterate until they got a message from above and were enabled to write a book? Or did the author of the Qur’an mean “Gentile” when he used the Arabic word “ummi”? In that case we cannot say that the people who wrote the Scripture with their hands were Jewish.

Third, while some unlettered people are charged with fraud in Surah 2:78-79, they are said not to know the Scripture except from hearsay. Since this Scripture cannot be the false text fabricated by some deceivers, it is reasonable to conclude that the authentic Torah existed in Muhammad’s time although some unlettered people did not know it. Thus, these verses ironically prove that the Jews possessed the words of God at the birth of Islam.

Fourth, it is interesting to see Muhammad criticize some illiterate Jews for fabricating a book and attributing it to God in Surah 2:78-79. However, he had criticized Jews in another Surah for denying that God revealed a book to mankind:

They do not prize God at His true worth when they say, 'God has never revealed to mortal anything.' Say, 'Who revealed the Book wherewith Moses came, a light and a guidance unto men? Ye put it on papers which ye show, though ye hide much and ye are taught what ye knew not, neither you nor your fathers.' Say, 'God,' then leave them in their discussion to play. (Surah 6:91 Palmer)

Fifth, Surah 2:79 is thematically relevant to the following verse:

Who is guilty of more wrong than he who forgeth a lie against Allah, or saith: I am inspired, when he is not inspired in aught; and who saith: I will reveal the like of that which Allah hath revealed? If thou couldst see, when the wrong-doers reach the pangs of death and the angels stretch their hands out (saying): Deliver up your souls. This day ye are awarded doom of degradation for that ye spake concerning Allah other than the truth, and used to scorn His portents. (Surah 6:93 Pickthall)

It seems that Surah 2:78-79 were produced because Muhammad deemed it crucial to mark some Jews or Gentiles – depending on the sense of the Arabic word ummi in this context – as the guiltiest people that forged a lie against God.

And lo! there is a party of them who distort the Scripture with their tongues, that ye may think that what they say is from the Scripture, when it is not from the Scripture. And they say: It is from Allah, when it is not from Allah; and they speak a lie concerning Allah knowingly. (Surah 3:78 Pickthall)

It is obvious in this verse that some Jews and/or Christians distorted the Scripture by misreading it. No written text is exempt from this kind of perversion. If Jews and Christians had corrupted their scriptures textually and replaced the original text with its false copy, some of them would not have needed to distort it with their tongues.

Some of those who are Jews change words from their context and say: "We hear and disobey; hear thou as one who heareth not" and "Listen to us!" distorting with their tongues and slandering religion. If they had said: "We hear and we obey: hear thou, and look at us" it had been better for them, and more upright. But Allah hath cursed them for their disbelief, so they believe not, save a few. (Surah 4:46 Pickthall)

This verse cannot be used in support of the assertion that the Torah was corrupted because the Jews of Muhammad’s time were only claimed to change words from their context, but these words are not said to be the words of God in the Torah.

O Messenger! Let not them grieve thee who vie one with another in the race to disbelief, of such as say with their mouths: "We believe," but their hearts believe not, and of the Jews: listeners for the sake of falsehood, listeners on behalf of other folk who come not unto thee, changing words from their context and saying: If this be given unto you, receive it, but if this be not given unto you, then beware! He whom Allah doometh unto sin, thou (by thine efforts) wilt avail him naught against Allah. Those are they for whom the Will of Allah is that He cleanse not their hearts. Theirs in the world will be ignominy, and in the Hereafter an awful doom. (Surah 5:41 Pickthall)

Again, Muhammad was angry with some Jews who allegedly spread lies about him and tampered with words, but these words are not said to be the words of God in the Torah. As a result, this verse does not testify to the supposed textual corruption of the Jewish scripture.

Allah made a covenant of old with the Children of Israel and We raised among them twelve chieftains, and Allah said: Lo! I am with you. If ye establish worship and pay the poor-due, and believe in My messengers and support them, and lend unto Allah a kindly loan, surely I shall remit your sins, and surely I shall bring you into Gardens underneath which rivers flow. Whoso among you disbelieveth after this will go astray from a plain road. And because of their breaking their covenant, We have cursed them and made hard their hearts. They change words from their context and forget a part of that whereof they were admonished. Thou wilt not cease to discover treachery from all save a few of them. But bear with them and pardon them. Lo! Allah loveth the kindly. And with those who say: "Lo! we are Christians," We made a covenant, but they forgot a part of that whereof they were admonished. Therefore We have stirred up enmity and hatred among them till the Day of Resurrection, when Allah will inform them of their handiwork. (Surah 5:12-14 Pickthall)

In these verses the Jews are not denounced for changing the words of God in their scripture. It is true that both Jews and Christians are criticized for forgetting a part of the divine message, but this does not refer to the supposed corruption of the Bible. The act of “forgetting” corresponds to negligence in this context. We could similarly denounce Muslims for breaking their promise and forgetting the following verse in their Qur’an:

Say ye: "We believe in God, and the revelation given to us, and to Abraham, Isma'il, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and that given to Moses and Jesus, and that given to (all) prophets from their Lord: We make no difference between one and another of them: And we bow to God (in Islam)." (Surah 2:136 Yusuf Ali)

The Qur’an is not exempt from distortion!

Although the author of the Qur’an reiterated the teaching that it was impossible to alter God’s words permanently and claimed that his revelation would be preserved from replacement and/or loss, this does not change the fact that it is possible to distort the Qur’an by misreading it, mistranslating it, misinterpreting it, and concealing some of its parts from the reader. In other words, the Islamic scripture is not exempt from distortion, and the bitter irony becomes evident when we see that some Muslims today do to their scripture what the writer of the Qur’an accused some Jews of doing to Moses’ Book in verses such as, Surah 2:75, Surah 3:78. If Muslim scholars are eager to conclude that the acts of distortion mentioned in the Qur’an with the aim of highlighting the treachery and unreliability of the disbelieving Jews suffice to prove the supposed textual falsification of the Torah, it is similarly possible and reasonable to conclude that the acts of distortion conducted by some Muslims on the Qur’an suffice to rebut the claim that Allah protected the Islamic scripture from corruption.

Distortion via translation

A number of Muslim translators change the meaning of the Qur’an by mistranslating it into a foreign language. Although mistranslation is an act of distortion that does not affect the written text of Islam’s book, it still does change the meaning of a verse and misleads readers that cannot check the accuracy of a translation and base their perception on faulty translations, failing to understand the original meaning of a verse. Unsurprisingly, mistranslations come up whenever some translators feel obliged to cover some theological problems or charges of mistakes by modifying the meaning of a troublesome word or phrase.

For example, the writer of the Qur’an identified Jesus’ mother Mary as Aaron’s sister in Surah 19:28 and as Imran’s biological daughter in Surah 3:35-36, making a gross historical blunder through the assimilation of the Miriam in the Hebrew Bible. According to the account of Mary’s nativity given in Surah 3, Mary was born of Imran’s wife. The first clause of Surah 3:35 is rendered by different translators as:

(Remember) when the wife of 'Imran said … (Pickthall)

(Remember) when the wife of 'Imran said … (Hilali-Khan)

The wife of Amram said … (Khalifa)

When the wife of Imran said … (Arberry)

When Imran’s wife said … (Palmer)

Remember when the wife of Imran said … (Rodwell)

[Remember] when the wife of Imran said … (Sale)

Ith qalati imraatu AAimrana … (Arabic transliteration)

Obviously, some translators considered it necessary to save the Qur’an from this historical blunder by mistranslating the Arabic phrase imraatu AAimrana as a woman of Imran and suggesting that Mary’s biological mother was not actually Imran’s wife but an unidentified woman descending from his lineage:

Behold! a woman of 'Imran said …(Yusuf Ali)

When a woman of Imran said … (Shakir)

Remember when a women [sic] of Imran said … (Sher Ali)

I discussed this mistranslation issue in my first article on Imran’s Fatherhood in Islam (*) and showed how some Muslim translators did not hesitate to distort the meaning of their scripture through faulty translation for the sake of defending it.

A similar kind of distortion occurs in the translation of a verse that is related to another major blunder of the Qur’an. The writer of the Islamic scripture bafflingly reckoned Jacob as the second child given to Abraham after Isaac (Surah 19:49, Surah 11:71, Surah 29:27, Surah 6:84). Of course, Muslim scholars realized this mistaken formulation and argued that the occurrence of Jacob’s name in these verses was natural rather than faulty since Jacob was Abraham’s grandson. The writer of the Qur’an repeated the same sequence in Surah 21:71, but this time added that Jacob was given to Abraham as an additional gift:

And we granted him Isaac and Jacob as a gift, and we made them both righteous (Khalifa)

And We gave him Isaac and Jacob in superfluity, and every one made We righteous (Arberry)

And we bestowed upon him Isaac and Jacob as a fresh gift, and each of them we made righteous persons (Palmer)

And we gave him Isaac and Jacob as a farther gift, and we made all of them righteous (Rodwell)

And we bestowed on him Isaac, and Jacob, as an additional gift: And we made all [of them] righteous persons. (Sale)

Wawahabna lahu ishaqa wayaAAqooba nafilatan wakullan jaAAalna saliheena (Arabic transliteration)

However, a number of translators did not hesitate a moment to mistranslate this verse and incorporate their personal interpretation into it through Jacob’s identification as Abraham’s grandson:

And We bestowed upon him Isaac, and Jacob as a grandson. Each of them We made righteous. (Pickthall)

And We gave him Ishaq and Yaqoob, a son's son, and We made (them) all good. (Shakir)

And WE bestowed upon him Isaac, and a grandson, Jacob, and WE made all of them righteous. (Sher Ali)

Some others placed the word grandson in brackets, admitting that their interpretation was not in the original text:

And We bestowed on him Isaac and, as an additional gift, (a grandson), Jacob, and We made righteous men of every one (of them). (Yusuf Ali)

And We bestowed upon him Ishaque (Isaac), and (a grandson) Ya'qub (Jacob). Each one We made righteous. (Hilali-Khan)

In either case the reader of the Qur’an is manipulated and misled as the word additional does not necessarily pertain to a grandson. Even though it is possible to designate a grandson as an additional gift, it is not implausible or wrong to regard a second child as an additional gift. When Muslim translators were bothered by this fact, they resorted to changing the meaning of a verse by adding their interpretation in the process of translation.5

Distortion through misinterpretation

The Qur’an is not exempt from distortion through misinterpretation. There may be and are Muslims who misinterpret their scripture and walk in the same way as some Jews that were accused of deliberately changing the meaning of a section from the Torah after having heard and comprehended it (Surah 2:75). For instance, a Muslim scholar and columnist may claim to comprehend the Islamic scripture better than all his colleagues and construe it in a modern and untraditional way. He may try to establish a connection between the two following verses in order to argue that Islam implicitly forbids polygamy:

If ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, Marry women of your choice, Two or three or four; but if ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one, or (a captive) that your right hands possess, that will be more suitable, to prevent you from doing injustice. (Surah 4:3 Yusuf Ali)

Ye are never able to be fair and just as between women, even if it is your ardent desire. But turn not away (from a woman) altogether, so as to leave her (as it were) hanging (in the air). If ye come to a friendly understanding, and practise self-restraint, God is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful. (Surah 4:129 Yusuf Ali)

The first verse asks Muslim men to prefer one single wife if they cannot practice justice while the second verse declares that it is impossible to treat wives justly. This is why the second verse may be said to imply that the permission to marry more than one woman was later repealed. This kind of an interpretation may be appealing to some Muslims who dislike polygamy and consider it a major flaw stemming from the mistaken interpretation of the Qur’an.

Nonetheless, it is wrong and not compatible with what the verses actually teach. First, Surah 4:3 does not say that “men who cannot treat their wives justly” should marry one woman, but that “men who fear that they will not be able to treat their wives justly” can marry one wife. There is a great difference between these two statements. Second, Surah 4:129 does not only state that it is impossible for a man to be perfectly fair to his women, but that he should still do his best to avoid full injustice. In this respect Surah 4:129 actually implies that there is no need for a man to be afraid of dealing with his wives unjustly since full justice is beyond his capability. Instead, he is instructed to be moderate about this issue, avoiding extremes. Thus, Surah 4:129 seems to provide an excuse and flexibility for men who marry more than one woman and do not / cannot treat their wives justly. Additionally, in Surah 4:3 monogamy is not the only thing recommended since Muslim men are given the alternative of marrying what their right hands possess. As a result, it would be wrong to conclude that Islam forbids polygamy and recommends monogamy.

Concealing some parts of the Qur’an

The Islamic scripture is not exempt from distortion through the concealment of some of its parts. This particular technique of distortion results in the alteration of meaning since the context of a verse and its essential parts for an accurate interpretation are disregarded, coming mostly in the form of clipped or omitted quotations. People who are not familiar with the entire Qur’an and programmed to believe in Islam are the ones that are most easily manipulated and misled.

I remember how a lecturer of Islamic theology quoted the following verse on a TV show about comparative religions and argued that Islam associated the creation of mankind with the concept of God’s perfection and did not endorse the Christian doctrine of original sin:

We have indeed created man in the best of moulds (Surah 95:4 Yusuf Ali)

Although Islam does not endorse the Christian tenet of original sin, the quoted verse above is not actually relevant to this denial. The lecturer recited only this verse, ignoring the fact that the following verse was thematically bound to the one above:

Then do We abase him (to be) the lowest of the low (Surah 95:5 Yusuf Ali)

Nothing is stated in the Qur’an with regard to the reason underlying this drastic change in the previously perfectly created human nature. Still, the Muslim lecturer deliberately disregarded that verse 4 continued into verse 5 and revealed a contrast. He avoided quoting this verse most likely because this would undermine his flawed comparison and argument.

I am also familiar with Muslims who commonly recite the following verse while having a theological debate with me and struggling to convince me that the Creator in Islam is also full of love to mankind as he is very close to them:

We are nearer to him than his jugular vein. (Surah 50:16 Pickthall)

Of course, as a person knowing the Qur’an well, I understood that this verse was not fully recited, some of its parts having been omitted. The full verse reads as follows:

We verily created man and We know what his soul whispereth to him, and We are nearer to him than his jugular vein. (Surah 50:16 Pickthall)

In its original form this verse is not about divine love, but divine knowledge and wisdom.6 Allah says that he is closer to men than their jugular veins in order to make it clear that nothing can be hidden from him. More to the point, this verse continues into verses 17-18, where we find out that Allah’s closeness to mankind is through some intermediary beings (angels) recording the actions of humans:

When the two Receivers receive (him), seated on the right hand and on the left, He uttereth no word but there is with him an observer ready. (Surah 50:17-18 Pickthall)

However, a person who is unaware of the fact that verses 17-18 are connected to the preceding verse may mistakenly conclude and claim that Surah 50:16 depicts Allah’s love for mankind.

Pseudo-Miracles and the new trend of distortion

Ironically, since last century the distortion of the Qur’an has become systematic and crucial in the hands of some Muslim propagandists who make funny efforts to prove the supposed harmony between the Islamic scripture and sciences. A whole book may be devoted to the analysis and rebuttal of the so-called scientific miracles of the Qur’an. Almost every day a new miracle claim is fabricated and added to the group of the previous inventions. What turns the Qur’an into a rich source of pseudo-miracles is some propagators’ crafty application of various distortion techniques.

In the invention process of such pseudo-miracles we generally see that the context of a verse, which plays the key role in its accurate interpretation, is inevitably disregarded and even obscured so that the reader can be blinded and easily convinced of the miracle claim. For example, as I demonstrated in one of my rebuttals to the great miracle hunter Harun Yahya, a simple Qur’an verse delivering the basic teaching that “it is impossible for humans to escape God and His judgments wherever they might be” (Surah 55:33) is purported to contain a divine prediction referring to space travel in modern times when its particular context and the thematic unity of the whole chapter are ignored and concealed.For a detailed discussion, see my article named “Scientific Predictions in the Qur’an?

In some cases a miracle claim is created and strengthened through the use of various distortion techniques at the same time. To illustrate, the assertion that the descent of iron to our world from outer space was miraculously revealed in the Qur’an (Surah 57:25) is derived from the deliberate misinterpretation of the Arabic verb meaning “descend/bring down” in a literal sense, from the denial of the fact that the context of the verse does not allow a literal interpretation, and through the isolation of the verse from a similar verse where the metaphorical sense of the word is made obvious (Surah 42:17). Finally, the production of a relevant and extra miracle claim is achieved through the misquotation/misrepresentation of the same verse concerning the descent of iron.7

The issue of narratives showing variations in the Qur’an

The critics of the Bible often quote from the Gospels multiple narratives that show variation in order to support their traditional yet unsubstantiated claim that the Gospel was textually corrupted and is no more authentic. This kind of an argument is useless and flawed as it ignores the fact that Jesus’ message was recorded by four different authors, who purposefully appealed to a specific audience and naturally made use of varying elements and motifs. Thus, nothing would be more natural for these authors than forming a peculiar writing style. Moreover, these variations in narration are also natural since otherwise we would not be talking of four different authors and each one’s individual testimony.

However, a meticulous analysis of the narratives in the Islamic scripture proves that the same charge of corruption and distortion can be directed to the Qur’an since it contains narratives that show variation in details. What is more remarkable is that these variations pose a more serious threat to the integrity and authenticity of Muhammad’s book in accordance with the fundamental teaching that it was produced by one single author and perfectly preserved by people who memorized it in its original form with no risk or possibility of alteration. Consequently, the reader of the Qur’an rightly deserves to question why the following two verses are not identical although they relate the same incident and story:

And We inspired the mother of Moses, saying: Suckle him and, when thou fearest for him, then cast him into the river and fear not nor grieve. Lo! We shall bring him back unto thee and shall make him (one) of Our messengers. (Surah 28:7 Pickthall)

And indeed, another time, already We have shown thee favour, When we inspired in thy mother that which is inspired, Saying: Throw him into the ark, and throw it into the river, then the river shall throw it on to the bank, and there an enemy to Me and an enemy to him shall take him. And I endued thee with love from Me that thou mightest be trained according to My will. (Surah 20:37-39 Pickthall)

How is it possible to know what Allah precisely said to Moses’ mother through inspiration? Did he command her to cast Moses into the river or put him into the ark first, and then cast the ark into the river? What was cast into the river was only Moses or the ark that held Moses? Apparently, Allah changed his formulation while reporting to Moses what he had inspired to his mother. The only thing we can say is that these two narratives do not perfectly match although they allegedly came from the same source and were uttered by the same person.

Here is another interesting example:

But those who did wrong changed the word which had been told them for another saying, and We sent down upon the evil-doers wrath from heaven for their evil-doing. (Surah 2:59 Pickthall)

But those of them who did wrong changed the word which had been told them for another saying, and We sent down upon them wrath from heaven for their wrongdoing. (Surah 7:162 Pickthall)

It is easier to detect the variations in the Arabic transliterations of these verses. The bolded words show the differences:

Fabaddala allatheena thalamoo qawlan ghayra allathee qeela lahum faanzalna AAala allatheena thalamoo rijzan mina alssama-i bima kanoo yafsuqoona (Surah 2:59)

Fabaddala allatheena thalamoo minhum qawlan ghayra allathee qeela lahum faarsalna AAalayhim rijzan mina alssama-i bima kanoo yathlimoona (Surah 7:162)

If these kinds of variations suffice to prove textual corruption, it is possible to conclude that the Qur’an was not perfectly guarded.

Qur’an’s alteration during its formation!

A number of verses in the Qur’an testify to its alteration even in the process of its so-called revelation to Muhammad. In the first place, the act of corruption is ascribed to Satan, who is depicted as capable of beguiling every messenger and replacing Allah’s message with his own:

Never sent We a messenger or a prophet before thee but when He recited (the message) Satan proposed (opposition) in respect of that which he recited thereof. But Allah abolisheth that which Satan proposeth. Then Allah establisheth His revelations. Allah is Knower, Wise. (Surah 22:52 Pickthall)

Evidently, the Qur’an does not deny the scandalous idea of Satan’s intervention in the process of divine revelation, but also presents Satan’s achievement as a default action that no one was exempt from. Thus, what Allah does in response to Satan’s intervention is only a second alteration that aims to bring the message back to its original form. Whatever is added by Satan is later deleted by Allah, the message undergoing two modifications.

A similar teaching that is scandalous and alien to the Bible, but promoted by the Qur’an is the replacement of some verses with similar or better ones, which is called abrogation. The author of the Qur’an bafflingly taught that Allah abrogated some of his verses and tried to dismiss the objections to these changes by laying stress on Allah’s omnipotence and arbitrary choice:

And when We put a revelation in place of (another) revelation, - and Allah knoweth best what He revealeth - they say: Lo! thou art but inventing. Most of them know not. (Surah 16:101 Pickthall)

None of Our revelations do We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, but We substitute something better or similar: Knowest thou not that God Hath power over all things? (Surah 2:106 Yusuf Ali)8

Strikingly, the second verse above teaches that Allah’s ability to do all things is manifested in his replacement of his verses with better or similar ones. This kind of reasoning turns Allah into an author who changed and replaced his words in the process of their creation and revelation. Consequently, it will not be wrong to praise Allah as the best of distorters.

It is also worthy of note that Muhammad hinted at the possibility of this supposedly divine act of alteration when he was confronted by some disbelievers that asked him to change the Qur’an:

But when Our Clear Signs are rehearsed unto them, those who rest not their hope on their meeting with Us, Say: "Bring us a reading other than this, or change this," Say: "It is not for me, of my own accord, to change it: I follow naught but what is revealed unto me: if I were to disobey my Lord, I should myself fear the penalty of a Great Day (to come)." (Surah 10:15 Yusuf Ali)

Apparently, Muhammad did not deny the idea of the modification or replacement of God’s words altogether, but taught that he would not be able to do it by himself. Being the best of distorters, his deity would accomplish this great task by giving him new verses in place of others.

The production of the Qur’an through the distortion of the Bible

We have seen so far that the Islamic scripture is distorted not only in our day and thus long after its compilation, but also right in the process of its production. However, a closer examination of the Qur’an and a comparison of its narratives with the accounts in the Bible reveal that what Muslims have today in their hands as the final word of God is a distorted and altered version of the Bible. The writer of the Qur’an turns out to have copied many biblical stories ineptly and reshaped them while devising the scripture that was supposedly given to Muhammad from above. In the second part of this series I shall analyze the Islamic version of the biblical account of Abraham’s visitors giving the good news of Isaac’s birth and demonstrate how the author of the Qur’an distorted the Bible in contrast to his fundamental claim that both these scriptures came from the same source.

Continue with Part 2.

[First published: 9 July 2012]
[Last updated: 9 August 2012]


1 This instruction to believe in all the books given to different messengers by God and not to consider one different from the other is repeated in Surah 3:84.

2 Such an accusation would not be fair at least in this matter since the Qur’an does contain a lot of inconsistency and injustice in regard to other issues.

3 A quick comparison of the Old Testament with the New suffices to rebut this claim as we see that the Gospel is harmonious with, but different from the Torah. The New Testament is not a repetition of the Law given to Moses. Consequently, the question posed by Muslims must be reformulated. Instead of asking why God did not guard the former scriptures, Muslims must ask why God needed to send the same message again and again. Did he know that his scripture would be corrupted and he would not be able to prevent that? This change in the order of the questions reveals that Muslims who propagate this theory actually believe that God did not need to preserve His word because it had been destined to be corrupted!

4 It is absurd indeed to believe that God did not preserve the Gospel because He would give the same message to Arabs six hundred years after Christ whilst Christians did not have this doctrine in their scriptures and theology!

5 A more detailed discussion about this verse will be found in the second part of this series.

6 It is not about nearness in the sense of tender love, but rather a “big brother is watching you” nearness, a “don’t you ever think you can hide anything from me” surveillance.

7 A comprehensive analysis and rebuttal to this pseudo-miracle can be found in my article entitled “A Fortress of Iron or a Castle of Sand?

8 Particularly, this verse makes it clear that what was abrogated was the Qur’an rather than the former scriptures. It is ludicrous to suggest that God replaced the scripture of the Jews and Christians with the Qur’an as the Christians living in Muhammad’s era did not get a special revelation telling them that their book was abrogated, nor was their scripture caused to be forgotten to them.

Articles by Masud Masihiyyen
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