There be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. Galatians 1:7-8
Only thirty years after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit moved the Apostle Paul to warn the churches of Galatia of variant doctrines of “other Gospels.” The warning was not superfluous. By the seventh century A.D., much of the church was dominated by an unbiblical papal system, and its accompanying unbiblical doctrines. Throughout the Middle East the Gnostic cultists promulgated counterfeit scriptures containing a counterfeit gospel, a counterfeit Christ, and a counterfeit God. It was in this world, that the religion of Islam was born.
In 610 A.D. Muhammad ibn Abdullah reported that the angel Gabriel visited him with commands to preach religious and social reforms. While meditating on Mt. Hira, he received the first of many revelations which would eventually develop into the Quran and the second largest religion on earth. Needless to say, not everyone was or is overjoyed about this. Like every other religion, Islam had its detractors from its very birth and like every other religion, Islam has its defenders. This paper is a summary critique of some common Muslim defences, and the orthodoxy of those defences with regard to the Quran. I argue that in their zeal to defend their faith, Muslims sometimes deny fundamental Quranic teachings.
It rarely makes for dazzling prose to begin one’s monograph with qualifiers yet I think qualifiers are necessary. So, since I want great prose and qualifiers, you’ll find them in Appendix A. Now, some content. . .
Christian apologist William Lane Craig opened a recent book with an interesting statement: “Probably no chapter in the history of the cosmological argument is as significant or as universally ignored as that of the Arabic theologians and philosophers….the contribution of these Islamic thinkers is virtually ignored in western anthologies and books on the subject.” I think Lane is correct but what Lane says about the cosmological arguments can safely be said of all Muslim apologists and their arguments: they are virtually universally ignored. This silence, however, is not a result of any reluctance on the part of Muslims to argue for their cause. Muslim apologists have long been obeying the Quranic directive to “Invite (all) to the way of the Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in the ways that are best and most gracious.” On this invitation, I will turn my attention to the intellectual defences of Islam.
Seven arguments dominate the Muslim literature used in the defence of Islam and its scriptures: (1) The beauty of the Quran, (2) Scientific details revealed in the Quran, (3) Quranic inerrancy, (4) the spread of Islam, which ties in with (5) fulfilled prophecy, (6) the Miracle of Quranic composition, and (7) the preservation of the Quran. Obviously a summary critique such as this cannot treat all seven to any proper analysis nor does it need to. I am only focusing on those arguments which I hold to be unorthodox in the light of the Quran. And I see the first, fourth, fifth, sixth, and the last argument are all “problem free” in this regard. The remainder of the paper is dedicated to an examination of the two arguments which are left.
Science in the Quran
One of the main advocates of the miraculous revelation of scientific facts in the Quran’ position is Maurice Bucaille. In his popular polemic, The Bible, The Quran and Science, Bucaille enumerates and expounds selected Biblical and Quranic texts that have relevance to creation, astronomy, the earth, the ‘animal and vegetable kingdoms’ and human reproduction. Over two thirds of Bucaille’s “objective study of the texts” constitutes an assault on the Bible and its alleged scientific errors.
Important as that is, this paper is focusing on the claims regarding the Quran and its relation to science. Bucaille opens our discussion with some biographical pontifications:
I had to stop and ask myself: If a man was the author of the Qur’an, how could he have written facts in the Seventh century A.D. that today are shown to be in keeping with modern scientific knowledge?….What human explanation can there be to this observation? In my opinion there is no explanation; there is no special reason why an inhabitant of the Arabian Peninsula should….have had scientific knowledge on certain subjects that was ten centuries ahead of our own.
In their monograph on embryology, the Islamic Information & Da’wah Centre International people answer Dr. Bucailles rhetorical question:
All of this go to show that the Qur’an could not have been the product of the mind of Muhammad….or any other human being living in the 7th century. How could he access information that will not be discovered until the 18th-20th century? How could he or anyone else study the human embryo in its very early stages without using a microscope? Impossible. But then the Qur’an must be from God as it claims. Other Muslim publications espouse the same position: incredible scientific facts are revealed in the Quran centuries before they were discovered by scientists and this is a sure sign of divine revelation. Bucaille maintains that there are no discrepancies between the Quran and genuine science. In spite of this impressive list, there remains a problem inherent in the “scientific argument” a problem epitomized in these verses.
Maurice Bucaille introduces the problem for us in his “Animal and Vegetable Kingdoms” section with a very revealing paragraph:
It will become clear that numerous translations of these passages in the Quran, made by men of letters, must be deemed inaccurate by the scientist. The same holds true for commentaries made by those who do not possess the scientific knowledge necessary for an understanding of the text.
The significance of his hermeneutical principle is profound. He argues explicitly here and elsewhere, that scientific phraseology must be used in translating the Quran even though the literal text suggests something else. He acknowledges that older and contemporary commentators and Arabic scholars disagree with the rendering that he advocates. Bucaille blatantly advocates a type of eisigisis over the orthodox method of exegesis. This is a prevailing problem wherever a translator is first and foremost a scientist, or an apologist, and forces their reading on the text. It is no wonder then that one finds scientific details in some translations of the Quran. First our scientist describes or translates a text using scientific language, then he stands back in amazement, surprised at the striking parallels he has found.
In spite of this crippling defect, one may still accept these parallels. I am willing to grant that if the Quran revealed detailed scientific facts to the seventh century Arabians, we have something which did not originate with man. Both Bucaille and Keith Moore draw very concise interpretations from very vague references. Phrases such as “…could refer to…” and “…Is it possible…” are prevalent in their literature. And, I might add, necessarily so. It is also worth noting that there are ‘unscientific’ passages in the Quran that are dismissed as folklore, or allegorized. And no passage is any more specific in scientific detail than the writings of Euclid, for example, the atomists or the Pythagoreans.
It must be noted that even if this unorthodox method of translating the Quran was allowable, we are still only left with Bucaille’s conclusion not the conclusion found in the paper on Dr. Moore. Bucaille states that “All of this go to show that the Qur’an could not have been the product of the mind of Muhammad….or any other human being living in the 7th century.” I agree. If detailed evidence were seen, we could safely conclude that Muhammad did not write it. But logically speaking, that only tells us that the Quran would be the product of some superhuman intelligence and that does not lead one to conclude that the information is from God. The Quran speaks of jinns, angels, and a deceiver named Satan. All have been around for many centuries, learning and observing. All have super human intelligence and interestingly, Muhammad had plaguing doubts at first that it was Satan deceiving him. Certainly, this is not compatible with orthodox Islam but then again, neither is the hermeneutic that give us the “scientific revelation”.
Key to any understanding of the Quranic position on inerrancy is, of course, a knowledge of the claims which the Quran makes for itself. And the claim which it makes for itself is very clear: “Will they not then meditate upon the Quran? Had it been from other than Allah they would have found therein much discrepancy” (4:82). Surah 41:42 says in part that “No falsehood can approach [the Quran] from before or behind it.” Muslims understand by these texts that “Here God challenges people to find an error in the Quran. If it contains errors then it cannot be from God.” Muslims allow for error in interpretation, but not error in content. With this in mind, we take up the challenge, and look for error not playing on the wording of any text, but on its content.
There are two kinds of inaccuracies which are usually brought up by scholars critiquing the Quran: ‘internal’ and ‘external’ contradictions withing the text, and incongruencies and anachronisms between the quran and earlier documents. There are a number of examples of apparent contradictions within the Quran. Aside from the type mentioned in note 22 of this paper, we also see simple things like the discrepancy between six and eight day creation accounts, the creation of man out of water or clay etc. However there are possible interpretations that can deal with these problems, and therefore I will not spend any time on them.
The majority of alleged errors occur in the area of history. Those familiar with the culture and education of seventh century Arabians notice that there tends to be massive “time compression” in the narration of events. The content of stories was regarded as more important than the chronology of the accounts. In Surah 28:35-42 for example, we see Pharaoh commanding Haman (a Persian ruler born about a thousand years later) to build a tower that closely resembles the Biblical account of the tower of Babal (which was erected hundreds of years before) all in the time of Moses.
The standard method of analyzing historical documents is to accept the older documents as authoritative, unless there is strong evidence of corruption. This brings us to the heart of the issue. When compared with the ancient writings of the Bible, Josephus, and Biblical Archaeology, there are vast areas of disagreement – see Appendix B for some examples. The standard method for Muslim apologists – understandably – has been to deny the accuracy of these ancient texts, and to assert the reliability of the newer text – the Quran. Generally the Muslim apologists appeal to the “higher criticism” which was very much in vogue (in the last century), pseudo-scholastic groups such as the Jesus Seminar, and the generic nobody-really-believes-the-Bible-is-accurate-anymore type arguments. The object of this paper is not to critique the validity of this manoeuvre as a tool of historical analysis. Rather, I raise a more fundamental question for Muslims. Can a Muslim hold that the Bible is corrupted – and still hold an orthodox interpretation of the Quran? I say you can not – and the reason is simple.
The Quran is very clear about a number of facts. Allow me to list them. Fact one: God’s Word cannot contain err, and cannot change. Allah is said to preserve the Quran in Surah 15:9; 41:41-42; 85:21-22; 56:77-78 and later the words of Allah are said to be unalterable: “there is none that can alter the Words (and Decrees) of Allah…” and “…none can change His Words…” Let’s stop here for a moment. If the Quran is true, then what Allah inspires cannot change, and cannot be corrupted. So we ask the obvious question: are the Torah and the Gospels said to be inspired? Any Muslim who knows the Quran, knows the answer.
Surah 3:3 tells us that Allah “…sent down to thee (step by step), in truth, the Book, Confirming what went before it; And he sent down the Torah and the Gospels.” Typical of every mention of the Torah and the Gospels, there is no word about textual corruption. Surahs 3:7, 21, 23, 48, 84, 65, 93, 184, 199; 4:44, 51, 136; 5:15, 43-49, 57-59, 66-69, 113; 6:91, 154; 10:37; 11:17; 16:43; 17:2; 20:133; 21:7, 33; 23:49; 26:196; 32:23; 41:42-45; 46:10-12; 54:43; 57:27; 80:11-16; and 87:18-19 all confirm, rather than repudiate the Torah and Gospels. Surah 5:43-49 for example starts off with a revealing passage:
But why do they come to thee for decision, when they have Torah before them? Therein is the plain command of Allah; yet even after that they would turn away.
It is plain that the author of the Quran believed the text of the Torah was fine in the seventh century. The same fact is echoed in the following verses, while verses 66, and 68-69 make it crystal clear that the problem with the Jews was their refusal to “stand fast by the Torah, The Gospel, and all the revelation that has come to you from the Lord.” Verse fifteen records that they “pass over” the truths of Allah. The Quran commands the Jews to remedy their misunderstandings by a study of the Torah: “Bring ye the Torah and study it, if ye be men of truth.” Further evidence of the integrity of the text is found in Surahs 16:43; 21:7; and 46:10, 12 where Muhammad’s detractors are told to “ask of those who possess the Message” as a confirmation of the Quran. This point cannot be overstressed, but I will stop short of flogging it to death.
For a Muslim to be in accordance with the Quran in his theology, he cannot maintain that the Torah and the Scriptures are corrupted – unless the corruption took place after the Quran was written. Muslims must make a distinction between ignorance of, and rebellion against the Quran and the Bible, and corruption of the Quran and Bible. Already in the days of Muhammad, there was “a section who distort the Book with their tongues,” – when it comes to the Quran, Muslims are quick to point out that false teaching is not to be equated with textual corruption. A consistent interpretation of the Quran requires that the texts used to support textual corruption in the Bible must be treated in the same way.
The Muslim is not given a pleasant choice either way. The one fork in the road leads to historical inaccuracies between revelations – the three books that the Quran says are inspired by God. The other allows a Muslim to account for the differences between the revelations – but it leaves him with an equally serious dilemma. It gives him a Quran which says the Word of God is uncorrupted, yet Muslims are belying that revelation in their zeal to defend that revelation. It leaves the Muslim with a god that cannot preserve his word from interpolations and errors. Furthermore, the apologist who holds to the corruption of previous inspiration is left without a theological court of appeal when he is faced with allegations of textual corruption within the Quran itself. And there are such allegations. He can’t announce that God’s revelation is incorruptible – for he defends that revelation by maintaining that God’s Word was corrupted. Clearly, this argument is not in accordance with the Quran. Clearly, it is not orthodox.
This short paper has only concentrated on two out of seven arguments the two unorthodox ones. The ‘scientific proofs’ require an unorthodox translation of the Quran and the ‘corruption’ position on inerrancy requires an unorthodox treatment of the Quran. If Muslims wish to defend an orthodox faith honestly, they need to reconsider one argument – and forget the other. Does this critique offer solutions for these problems? No. I simply don’t think there are any.