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01 July 2006

Is the Qur'an the Word of God?

by Amy Orr-Ewing

Both Christians and Muslims believe that their scriptures are the Word of God. Three questions will help in our consideration of this subject.

Is the Qur'an accurate in its recording of history?

The Qur'an refers to a number of Bible stories but with altered details. For instance, in the Qur'an, Ishmael is Abraham’s child of promise rather than Isaac, and Moses’ sister Miriam is also confused with Mary, the mother of Jesus. In contrast, the Biblical texts, written at the time and passed down carefully by scribes, seem to be more reliable. Muslims insist the Bible is corrupted because it undermines the Qur'anic grasp of history, however this is arguing backwards from the assumption that the Qur'an is true.

'The early history of the Qur'anic text is much more of an open question than many have suspected'

A further issue for Muslims is that the Qur'an declares the Gospels (Injil) and Torah to be true in Sura 5.68. Muslims respond by alleging that the Gospels and Torah that Muhammed mentions are the original ones, and that our Bible has been changed.

Manuscript evidence suggests otherwise. The Pentateuch and four Gospels, as we have them today, were in existence during Muhammed’s time, and nowhere in the Qur'an is it stated that Christians, known as "People of the Book", did not possess authentic scriptures nor that theInjilhad been corrupted.

Is the Qur'an a miracle in and of itself?

Muslims believe that, although there are no miracles related to Muhammad's life, the self-authenticating miracle in Islam is the Qur'an, which we are told is unique and miraculous, its beauty and elegance remarkable. The book itself is considered perfect, dictated by God and the ultimate expression of truth.

Iranian Islamic scholar Sayyid Hossein Nasr comments, “Many people, especially non-Muslims, who read the Qur'an for the first time, are struck by what appears to be a kind of incoherence.... It is neither like a high mystical text nor a manual of Aristotelian logic, though it contains both mysticism and logic.”

He goes on to say, “The Qur'an contains a quality which is difficult to express in modern language. One might call it divine magic.”

If the beauty and miraculous nature of the Qur'an are not in fact self-evident, on what basis should one accept the book as true revelation? This argument requires a priori belief – a commitment based not on evidence but nonetheless insisted upon. Using a rigorously technical approach, the Iranian author Ali Dashti commented in his book, Twenty-Three Years: The Life of the Prophet Mohammed, that the errors in the Qur'an were so many that grammatical rules had to be altered to fit the claim that the book was perfect.

Muslims also claim that the Qur'an is a miracle on the basis of Mohammed's illiteracy. However, all scholars agree that Mohammed had scribes and therefore could very possibly have composed the Qur'an without a miracle. We know that Homer was blind and probably illiterate, yet he authored The Iliad and The Odyssey, the two greatest epics of the ancient world.

Is the text of the Qur'an reliable?

Muslims claim that the Qu'ran has not been altered since it was recorded in Muhammed's day. However, Islamic history in the form of the Hadith tells us that the third Caliph Uthman was involved in canonising the Qur'an.

Arthur Jeffrey, a noted European archaeologist, discovered Qur'anic texts that were written prior to their canonisation by Uthman, and he notes differences from what we have today. In his compilation Uthman had a number of suras destroyed, probably due to contradictions contained within them.

Jeffrey concludes, “There can be little doubt that the text canonised by Uthman was only one among several types of text in existence at the time.”

Discovery of some ancient Qur'anic fragments in Yemen in 1972 has led to research into the development of the Qur'an. These fragments reveal unconventional verse orderings, textual variations and artistic embellishment. Among the manuscripts are versions which have been written over earlier and then washed off, which seems to suggest an evolving text.

“The impact of the Yemeni manuscripts is still to be felt,” wrote Calgary University religious studies professor Andrew Rippon in 1999. “These manuscripts say that the early history of the Qur'anic text is much more of an open question than many have suspected: the text was less stable, and therefore had less authority, than has always been claimed.”

A stark contrast

On the basis of these three questions, can the Qur'an be called the Word of God? In my opinion, it cannot.

The Bible stands in stark contrast to the Qur'an in a number of ways. First, it does not claim to be dictation from God. The Bible is unashamedly open about human participation in its pages, as it was written by a variety of authors over 2,000 years. It is a holy book inspired by God and involving human collaboration. The Bible is revelation from God, which connects with us as human beings who are capable of reading, understanding and appreciating it because it comes through human messengers.

The Bible contains reliable accounts of the life, ministry and death of Jesus. These Gospels are not written by Jesus himself but by those who knew Him intimately and composed them during their lifetime.

The Encyclopaedia of Islam (1981) suggests that “the closest analogue in Christian belief to the role of the Qur'an in Muslim belief is not the Bible, but Christ.” Jesus himself is the eternal Word. He is superior to any book or text. He is God incarnate, coming in human form to live, die and be resurrected on this earth. Through self-revelation God draws us to Himself. He does not merely send tablets from heaven – marvellous as that is - but takes on flesh so that we can have real relationship with Him. The Bible is a conduit of that relationship, with one clear intention: that we might read it and believe (John 20.31).

Zacharias TrustAmy Orr-Ewing

  • For more information on The Zacharias Trust, and to book speakers, visit www.zactrust.org
  • Amy Orr-Ewing is the Zacharias Trust's training director

Part of the Big Question series first published in idea magazine between May 2004 & July 2007