"Is the Qur'an the Word of God?" - Part 2
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C1: The Qur'an's Makeup
Muslims claim that the superiority of the Qur'an over all other revelations is due to its sophisticated structure and eloquent literary style. They quote from suras 10:37-38, 2:23, or 17:88, which say:
"Will they say Muhammad hath forged it?' Answer: Bring there- fore a chapter like unto it, and call whom ye may to your assistance, besides Allah, if ye speak truth.' This boast is echoed in the Hadith (Mishkat III, pg.664), which says: The Qur'an is the greatest wonder among the wonders of the world... This book is second to none in the world according to the unanimous decision of the learned men in points of diction, style, rhetoric, thoughts and soundness of laws and regulations to shape the destinies of mankind."
Yet, the Qur'an itself presents doubts as to its early formulation, and certainly creates suspicion concerning its inimitability. In fact we know that it wasn't until the end of the tenth century that the idea of inimitability took its fullest expression, mainly in response to the Christian polemical writings of that time (Rippin 1990:26).
There are certain Muslims who wonder whether the question of inimitability is at all appropriate for the Qur'an. C.G. Pfander, the scholar on Islam, pointed out in 1835 that, "It is by no means the universal opinion of unprejudiced Arabic scholars that the literary style of the Qur'an is superior to that of all other books in the Arabic language. Some doubt whether in eloquence and poetry it surpasses the Mu'allaqat by Imraul Quais, or the Maqamat of Hariri, though in Muslim lands few people are courageous enough to express such an opinion." (Pfander 1835:264)
Pfander elaborates by comparing the Qur'an with the Bible. He states, "When we read the Old Testament in the original Hebrew, many scholars hold that the eloquence of Isaiah, Deuteronomy, and many of the Psalms, for instance, is greater than that of any part of the Qur'an. Hardly anyone but a Muslim would deny this, and probably no Muslim who knew both Arabic and Hebrew well would be able to deny it." (Pfander 1835:266)
C1b: Structural weaknesses
A comparison with the Bible brings other problems to light. When anyone familiar with the Bible begins to read the Qur'an it is immediately apparent that the Qur'an is an entirely different kind of literature, whatever its poetic merits.
Whereas the Bible contains much historical narrative, the Qur'an contains very little. Whereas the Bible goes out of its way to explain unfamiliar terminology or territory, the Qur'an remains silent. In fact, the very structure of the Bible, consisting of a library of 66 books, written over a period of 1,500 years reveals that it is ordered according to chronology, subject and theme.
The Qur'an, on the other hand, reads more like a jumbled and confused collection of statements and ideas, many of which bear little relationship to preceding chapters and verses. Many scholars admit that the Qur'an is so haphazard in its make-up that it requires the utmost sense of duty for anyone to plough through it!
The German secular scholar Salomon Reinach in his rather harsh analysis states that:
"From the literary point of view, the Koran has little merit. Declamation, repetition, puerility, a lack of logic and coherence strike the unprepared reader at every turn. It is humiliating to the human intellect to think that this mediocre literature has been the subject of innumerable commentaries, and that millions of men are still wasting time in absorbing it." (Reinach 1932:176)In a similar vein, McClintock and Strong's encyclopedia maintains that:
"The matter of the [Koran] is exceedingly incoherent and sen- tentious, the book evidently being without any logical order of thought either as a whole or in its parts. This agrees with the desultory and incidental manner in which it is said to have been delivered. (McClintock and Strong 1981:151)
Upon reading the suras of the Qur'an one soon realizes that it is not chronological. According to tradition the longest chapters which are at the beginning are those which were delivered later, and the shortest chapters found at the end are considered to be the oldest. Yet these same traditions tell us that there are certain suras which contain both early and late revelations. Thus it is difficult to know whether any statement in the Qur'an is early or late.
Another problem is that of repetition. The Qur'an, we are told, was intended to be memorized by those who were illiterate and uneducated. It therefore engages in the principle of endless repetition of the same material (Morey 1992:113). This all leads to a good bit of confusion for the novice reader, and seems to point to a style reminiscent of the storytellers mentioned earlier.
The Qur'an has other literary difficulties. "The subject matter within individual chapters jumps from one topic to the next, with duplications and apparent inconsistencies in grammar, law and theology also abound" (Rippin 1990:23). The language is semi-poetical, while its grammar, due to omission, is so elliptical as to be often obscure and ambiguous. There is grammatical discord (such as the use of plural verbs with singular subjects), and variations in the treatment of the gender nouns (for examples, see suras 2:177; 3:59; 4:162; 5:69; 7:160; and 63:10) (Rippin 1990:28). Many times the sentences leave verbs out, and it assumes the reader is well informed. It has few explanations and consequently it is difficult to read.
These aren't the only structural problems. Patricia Crone points out that, "within blocks of verses trivial dislocations are surprisingly frequent. God may appear in the first and third persons in one and the same sentence. There may be omissions, which if not made good by interpretation, render the sense unintelligible." (Cook 1983:68)
In response to these accusations, the theologian-grammarian al-Rummani (d.996 A.D.) argued that the ellipses and grammatical irregularities were really positive rhetorical devices rather than evidence of rushed or sloppy writing (Rippin 1990:27). This sort of argument is almost impossible to evaluate, however, due to the lack of any contemporaneous secular literature with which to compare. It leaves the "argument a dogmatic one...but one which operates (like many other religious arguments) within the presupposition of Islam alone." (Rippin 1990:27)
None the less there have been attempts by non-Muslims to rebut the above contention by exposing the true reason for these irregularities. Al-Kindi, a Christian polemicist employed in the Caliphal court, had discussions with Muslims as early as 830 A.D. (thus soon after what I believe was the Qur'an's canonization). He seemed to understand the agenda of the Muslims at that time. Anticipating the claim by Muslims that the Qur'an itself was proof for its divine inspiration he responded by saying:
"The result of all of this [process by which the Qur'an came into being] is patent to you who have read the scriptures and see how, in your book, histories are all jumbled together and intermingled; an evidence that many different hands have been at work therein, and caused discrepancies, adding or cutting out whatever they liked or disliked. Are such, now, the conditions of a revelation sent down from heaven?" (Muir 1882:18-19,28)Interestingly, Al-Kindi's pronouncement as early as the ninth century agrees with the conclusion of Wansbrough over eleven hundred years later; both maintaining that the Qu'ran is the result of a haphazard compilation by later redactors a century or more after the event (Wansbrough 1977:51).
Another difficulty with the Qur'an is its scope. Some verses state that it is a book only for the Arabs (Suras 14:4; 42:7; 43:3 and 46:12), while other verses imply it is a revelation for all people and all time (Suras 34:28; 33:40). Did this universal application come later on, appended after the expansion of Islam into foreign lands, and among foreign peoples? If so, it then puts added doubt upon its reliability as an early source.
In the Qur'an there are also clear cases of interpolation. An example which Michael Cook points to can be found in the fifty-third sura, where "the basic text consists of uniformly short verses in an inspired style, but in two places it is interrupted by a prosaic [unimaginative] and prolix [verbose, boring] amplification which is stylistically quite out of place." (Cook 1983:69) Did these come from the same source, and do they even belong in this sura?
Another significant feature is the frequency with which we find alternative versions of the same passage in different parts of the Qur'an. The same story can be found repeated with small variations in different suras. When placed side by side these various versions often show the same sort of variation that one would find between parallel versions of oral traditions (Cook 1983:69). Again we are faced with another example of a book not written by a single author, but a book compiled later by a number of individuals.
This problem becomes clearer when we look at some of the supposed "Biblical" data which we find in the Qur'an.
C2: Talmudic Sources in the Qur'an
Possibly the greatest puzzlement for Christians who pick up the Qur'an and read it are the numerous seeming Biblical stories which bear little similarity to the Biblical accounts. The Qur'anic stories include many distortions, amendments, and some bizarre additions to the familiar stories we have known and learned. So, where did these stories come from, if not from the previous scriptures?
Fortunately, we do have much Jewish apocryphal literature (much of it from the Talmud), dating from the second century A.D. with which we can compare many of these stories. It is when we do so, that we find remarkable similarities between these fables or folk tales, and the stories which are recounted in the Qur'an (note:Talmudic material taken from Feinburg 1993:1162-1163).
The Talmudic writings were compiled in the second century A.D., from oral laws (Mishnah) and traditions of those laws (Gemara). These laws and traditions were created to adapt the law of Moses (the Torah) to the changing times. They also included interpretations and discussions of the laws (the Halakhah and Haggadah etc.). Many Jews do not consider the Talmudic writings authoritative, but they read them nonetheless with interest for the light they cast on the times in which they were written.
So how did these non-authoritative Jewish Talmudic writings come to be included in the Qur'an? Between the seventh and ninth centuries many Jewish communities could be found in the Arabian Peninsula (known as the Hijaz). They were part of the diaspora who had fled Palestine after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. A large number of these Jews were guided by these Talmudic writings which had been passed down orally from father to son for generations. Each generation embellished the accounts, or at times incorporated local folklore, so that it was difficult to know what the original stories contained. There were even those amongst the Jews who believed that these Talmudic writings had been added to the "preserved tablets" (i.e. the Ten Commandments, and the Torah which were kept in the Ark of the Covenant), and were believed to be replicas of the heavenly book (Feinburg 1993:1163).
Some scholars believe that when later Islamic compilers came onto the scene, in the eighth to ninth centuries, they merely added this body of literature to the nascent Qur'anic material. It is therefore, not surprising that a number of these traditions from Judaism were inadvertently accepted by later redactors, and incorporated into the holy writings' of Islam.
There are quite a few stories which have their root in second century Jewish apocryphal literature. I will look at only three here, and then mention others at the end of this section:
C2a: The story of Cain and Abel
The story (found in sura 5:30-32) begins much as it does in the Biblical account with Cain killing his brother Abel (though they are not named in the Qur'anic account). Yet in aya 31, after Cain slays Abel, the story changes and no longer follows the Biblical account. Where could this Qur'anic account have come from? Is this an historical record which was unknown to the Biblical writers?
Indeed it was, as the source for this account was drafted long after the Old Testament had been canonized, and after the New Testament was written. In fact there are three sources from which this account could have been taken: the Targum of Jonathan-ben-Uzziah, The Targum of Jerusalem, and a book called The Pirke-Rabbi Eleazar (Shorrosh 1988:144). All these three documents are Jewish writings from the Talmud, which were oral traditions from between 150-200 A.D. These stories comment on the Laws of the Bible, yet are known to contain nothing more than Hebrew myths and fables.
As we read this particular story from the Qur'an (on the left) we find a striking parallel to the three Talmudic sources (on the right):
Qur'an- sura 5:31
"Then Allah sent a raven, who scratched the ground, to show him how to hide the shame of his brother. 'Woe is me!' said he; 'Was I not even able to be as this raven, and to hide the shame of my brother?' Then he became full of regrets."Targum of Jonathan-ben-Uzziah
"Adam and Eve, sitting by the corpse, wept not knowing what to do, for they had as yet no knowledge of burial. A raven came up, took the dead body of its fellow, and having scratched at the earth, buried it thus before their eyes. Adam said, 'Let us follow the example of the raven,' so taking up Abel's body, buried it at once."Apart from the contrast between who buried who, the two stories are otherwise uncannily similar. We can only conclude that it was from here that Muhammad, or a later compiler obtained his story. Thus we find that a Jewish fable, a myth, is repeated as historical fact in the Qur'an.
Yet that is not all, for when we continue in our reading of sura 5, in the following aya 32 (on the left), we find a further proof of plagiarism from apocryphal Jewish literature; this time the Jewish Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 (on the right).
Qur'an- sura 5:32
"On that account: We ordained for the Children of Israel that if anyone slew a person-unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land-it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people..."Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5
"We find it said in the case of Cain who murdered his brother, the voice of thy brother's blood crieth out' [this latter is a quote from the Bible, Genesis 4:10], and he says, it does not sayeth he hath blood in the singular, but bloods in the plural.' Thou was created single in order to show that to him who kills a single individual, it should be reckoned that he has slain the whole race. But to him who has preserved the life of a single individual, it is counted that he has preserved the whole race.There is no connection between the previous verse (aya 31) and that which we find in aya 32 (above). What does the murder of Abel by Cain have to do with the slaying or saving of the whole people? Nothing. Ironically, this aya 32, in fact, supports the basis of the Old Testament hope for the finished work of Jesus, who was to take away the sins of the world (see John 1:29). Yet, it doesn't flow from the verse which preceded it. So why is it here?
If we were to turn to the Jewish Talmud again, this time to the Mishnah Sanhendrin, chapter 4, verse 5, we will find where the author obtained his material, and why he included it here.
In this account we read a Rabbi's comments, where he interprets the word 'blood' to mean, "his own blood and the blood of his seed." Remember, this is nothing but the comment of a Rabbi. It is his own interpretation, and a highly speculative one at that.
Therefore, it is rather interesting that he then goes on to comment on the plural word for blood.' Yet this Rabbi's comments are repeated almost word-for-word in the Qur'an, in aya 32 of sura 5! How is it that a Rabbi's comments on the Biblical text, the muses of a mere human become the Qur'anic holy writ, and attributed to God?
The only conclusion is that the later compilers learned this admonition from this Rabbi's writings, because there is no connection between the narrative concerning the killing of Cain in the Qur'an (aya 31), and the subsequent verse about the whole race (aya 32).
It is only when we read the Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 that we find the connection between these two stories: a Rabbi's exposition of a biblical verse and a core word. The reason why this connection is lacking in the Qur'an is now quite easy to understand. The author of sura 5 simply did not know the context in which the Rabbi was talking, and therefore was not aware that these were merely comments on the Biblical text and not from the Bible itself. He simply added them to the Qur'an, repeating what he had heard without understanding the implication.
C2b: The story of Abraham
In sura 21:51-71, we find the story of Abraham. In the Qur'anic account Abraham confronts his people and his father because of the many idols which they worship. After an argument between Abraham and the people, they depart and Abraham breaks the smaller idols, leaving the larger ones intact. When the people see this they call Abraham and ask if he is responsible, to which he replies that it must have been the larger idols which did the destruction. He challenges them to ask the larger idols to find out, to which they reply, "Thou knowest full well that these (idols) do not speak!" (aya 65). He gives a taunting retort, and they then throw him into a fire. But in aya 69 Allah commands the fire to be cool, making it safe for Abraham, and he miraculously walks out unscathed.
There are no parallels to this story in our Bible. There is a parallel, however, in a second century book of Jewish folktales called The Midrash Rabbah. In this account Abraham breaks all the idols except the biggest one. His father and the others challenged him on this, and with a humor removed from the Qur'anic account, Abraham replies that he had given the biggest idol an ox for all the idols to eat, but because the smaller idols went ahead and ate, showing no respect, the bigger idol smashed the smaller ones. The enraged father did not believe Abraham's account, and so took him to a man named Nimrod, who simply threw him into a fire. But God made it cool for him and he walked out unscathed.
The similarity between these two stories is unmistakable. A second century Jewish fable, a folklore, and myth is repeated in the "holy Qur'an." It is quite evident that the compiler of this account heard snatches of the Biblical narratives from visiting Jews and assuming they came from the same source unwittingly wrote Jewish folklore into the Qur'an.
Some Muslims claim that this myth, and not the Biblical account, is in reality the true Word of God. They maintain that the Jews simply expunged it so as not to correspond with the later Qur'anic account. Without attempting to explain how the Jews would have known to expunge this particular story, since the Qur'an was not to appear until centuries later, we nontheless must ask where this folklore comes from?
The Bible itself gives us the answer. In Genesis 15:7, the Lord tells Abraham that it was He who brought Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldeans. Ur is a place, also mentioned in Genesis 11:31. We have evidence that a Jewish scribe named Jonathan Ben Uziel mistook the Hebrew word "Ur" for the Hebrew word which means "fire." Thus in his commentary of this verse he writes, "I am the Lord who brought you out of the fire of the Chaldeans."
Consequently, because of this misunderstanding, and because of a misreading of the Biblical verse a fable became popular around this era, which stated that God had brought Abraham out of the fire.
With this information in hand, we can, therefore, discern where the Jewish fable originated: from a misunderstanding of one word in a Biblical verse by one errant scribe. Yet, somehow this errant understanding found its way into the Qur'an.
It is obvious from these examples that the compiler of the Qur'an simply repeated what he had heard, and not being able to distinguish between that which he heard and that which was Biblical truth, he simply introduced them side-by-side in the Qur'an.
C2c: The Story of Solomon and Sheba
In sura 27:17-44 we read the story concerning Solomon, a Hoopoo bird and the Queen of Sheba. After reading the Qur'anic account of Solomon in sura 27 (on the left), it would be helpful to compare it with the account (on the right) taken from a Jewish folklore, the II Targum of Esther, which was written in the second Century A.D., nearly five hundred years before the creation of the Qur'an (Tisdall 1904:80-88; Shorrosh 1988:146-150):
Qur'an- sura 27:17-44
(aya 17) "And before Solomon were marshalled his hosts-of Jinns and men, and birds, and they were all kept in order and ranks.II Targum of Esther
(aya 20) And he took a muster of the Birds;and he said: 'Why is it I see not the Hoopoe? Or is he among the absentees?
(aya 21) I will certainly punish him with a severe penalty, or execute him, unless he bring me a clear reason (for absence).
(aya 22) But the Hoopoe tarried not far: he (came up and) said: 'I have compassed (territory) which thou hast not compassed, and I have come to thee from Saba with tidings true.
(aya 23) I found (there) a woman ruling over them and provided with every requisite; and she has a magnificent throne...
(aya 27) (Solomon) said: 'Soon shall we see whether thou hast told the truth or lied!
(aya 28) Go thou, with this letter of mine, and deliver it to them: then draw back from them, and (wait to) see what answer they return."
(aya 29) (The queen) said: "Ye chiefs! Here is delivered to me-a letter worthy of respect.
(aya 30) It is from Solomon, and is (as follows In the name of Allah, most Gracious, Most Merciful: Be ye not arrogant against me, but come to me in submission (to the true Religion).'"
(aya 32) She said: "Ye chiefs! Advise me in (this) my affair: no affair have I decided except in your presence."
(aya 33) They said: "We are endued with strength, and given to vehement war: but the command is with thee; so consider what thou wilt command."
(aya 35) She said..."But I am going to send him a present, and (wait) to see with what (answer) return (my) ambassadors."
(aya 42) So when she arrived, (aya 44) she was asked to enter the lofty Palace: but when she saw it, she thought it was a lake of water, and she (tucked up her skirts), uncovering her legs. He said: "This is but a palace paved smooth with slabs of glass."
"Solomon... gave orders... I will send King and armies against thee...(of) Genii [jinn] beasts of the land the birds of the air.It is rather obvious, once you have read the two accounts above, where the compiler of the story of Solomon and Sheba in the Qur'an obtained his data. In content and style the Qur'anic story is almost identical with the account taken from the Jewish Targum, written in the second Century A.D., nearly five hundred years before the creation of the Qur'an. The two stories are uncannily similar; the jinns, the birds, and in particular the messenger bird, which Solomon initially could not find, but then used as a liason between himself and the Queen of Sheba, along with the letter and the glass floor, are unique to these two accounts. One will not find these parallels in the Biblical passages at all. Once again we must ask how a Jewish folklore from the second century A.D. found its way into the Qur'an?
Just then the Red-cock (a bird), enjoying itself, could not be found; King Solomon said that they should seize it and bring it by force, and indeed he sought to kill it.
But just then, the cock appeared in the presence of the King and said, "I had seen the whole world (and) know the city and kingdom (of Sheba) which is not subject to thee, My Lord King. They are ruled by a woman called the Queen of Sheba. Then I found the fortified city in the Eastlands (Sheba) and around it are stones of gold and silver in the streets." By chance the Queen of Sheba was out in the morning worshipping the sea, the scribes prepared a letter, which was placed under the bird's wing and away it flew and (it) reached the Fort of Sheba. Seeing the letter under its wing (Sheba) opened it and read it.
"King Solomon sends to you his Salaams. Now if it please thee to come and ask after my welfare, I will set thee high above all. But if it please thee not, I will send kings and armies against thee."
The Queen of Sheba heard it, she tore her garments, and sending for her Nobles asked their advice. They knew not Solomon, but advised her to send vessels by the sea, full of beautiful ornaments and gems...also to send a letter to him.
When at last she came, Solomon sent a messenger...to meet her...Solomon, hearing she had come, arose and sat down in the palace of glass. When the Queen of Sheba saw it, she thought the glass floor was water, and so in crossing over lifted up her garments. When Solomon seeing the hair about her legs, (He) cried out to her..."
There are other instances where we find both apocryphal Jewish and Christian literatures within the Qur'anic text. The account of Mt. Sinai being lifted up and held over the heads of the Jews as a threat for rejecting the law (sura 7:171) comes from the second century Jewish apocryphal book, The Abodah Sarah. The odd accounts of the early childhood of Jesus in the Qur'an can be traced to a number of Christian apocryphal writings: the Palm tree which provides for the anguish of Mary after Jesus's birth (sura 19:22-26) comes from The Lost Books of the Bible; while the account of the infant Jesus creating birds from clay (sura 3:49) comes from Thomas' Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ. The story of the baby Jesus talking (sura 19:29-33) can be traced to Arabic apocryphal fable from Egypt named The first Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ.
In sura 17:1 we have the report of Muhammad's journey by night from the sacred mosque to the farthest mosque.' From later traditions we know this aya is referring to Muhammad ascending up to the seventh heaven, after a miraculous night journey (the Mi'raj) from Mecca to Jerusalem, on a "horse" called Buraq. More detail is furnished us in the Mishkat al Masabih. We can trace the story back to a fictitious book called The Testament of Abraham, written around 200 B.C., in Egypt, and then translated into Greek and Arabic. Another analogous account is that of The Secrets of Enoch ( chapter 1:4-10 and 2:1), which predates the Qur'an by four centuries. Yet a further similar account is largely modelled on the story contained in the old Persian book entitled Arta-i Viraf Namak, telling how a pious young Zoroastrian ascended to the skies, and, on his return, related what he had seen, or professed to have seen (Pfander 1835:295-296).
The Qur'anic description of Hell resembles the descriptions of hell in the Homilies of Ephraim, a Nestorian preacher of the sixth century (Glubb 1971:36)
The author of the Qur'an in suras 42:17 and 101:6-9 possibly utilized The Testament of Abraham to teach that a scale or balance will be used on the day of judgment to weigh good and bad deeds in order to determine whether one goes to heaven or to hell.
The description of Paradise in suras 55:56-58 and 56:22-24,35-37, which speak of the righteous being rewarded with wide-eyed houris who have eyes like pearls has interesting parallels in the Zoroastrian religion of Persia, where the name for the maidens is not houris, but Paaris.
It is important to remember that the Talmudic accounts were not considered by the orthodox Jews of that period as authentic for one very good reason: they were not in existence at the council of Jamnia in 80 A.D. when the Old Testament was canonized. Neither were the Christian apocryphal material considered canonical, as they were not attested as authoritative both prior to and after the council of Nicea in 325 A.D. Thus these accounts have always been understood as heretical by both the Jewish and Christian orthodox believers and the literate. It is for this reason that we find it deeply suspicious that the apocryphal accounts should have made their way into a book claiming to be the final revelation from the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
C3: Scientific Peculiarities in the Qur'an
We now come to the final area of difficulty which we observe when we read the Qur'an; that is the scientific peculiarities. From the vantage point of modern science we can now observe what look like gross scientific flaws within the Qur'anic text. Some of these are mere contradictions with the earlier Biblical accounts, such as: (a) the story of Moses' adoption by Pharoah's wife in the Qur'an (sura 28:9), whereas the Bible states it was Pharoah's daughter (Exodus 2:10); or (b) the claim that the name of Yahya is unique to the first century John the Baptist in sura 19:7, whereas this name is mentioned much earlier in 2 Kings 25:23; or (c) the inclusion in the definition of the Christian trinity the person of Mary in sura 5:116, which contradicts not only the Biblical account but the belief held by almost the entire Christian population for the last 2,000 years.
Interestingly, an insignificant and heretical sect called the Cholloridians held this view, and lived in the Middle East at the time of the Qur'an's compilation. Could this be the source for such a gross error? Certainly an all-knowing God would have known such a basic tenet of the Christan faith.
There are internal contradictions as well, such as the confusion of Mary, recorded as the sister of Aaron and the daughter of Imran (Biblical Amran) as well as the mother of Jesus, though the two Mary's lived 1,570 years apart (suras 18:28; 66:12; and 20:25-30).
Another difficult yet well known passage is that concerning Haman. In the Qur'an Haman is referred to as a servant of Pharaoh, who built a high tower to ascend up to the God of Moses (sura 28:38; 29:38; 40:25,38). Yet the Babel tower occurs 750 years earlier (Genesis 11), and the name Haman is correctly found in the story of Esther in Babylon, 1,100 years after Pharaoh. Yusuf Ali believes that the reference here is simply to another Haman, yet the name Haman is not Egyptian, but uniquely Babylonian (Pfander 1835:283-284).
While these examples do not necessarily bring into question any scientific findings, they point out an ignorance of the earlier scriptures. This speaks of a certain isolationism, which one would expect if the stories had been transmitted orally in an environment distant from that in which they originated.
A more serious difficulty is evidenced by those suras which contradict observable secular historical and scientific data. There are quite a number to be found in the Qur'an, but for sake of brevity I will refer to just a few.
According to the Qur'an (sura 20:85-87, 95-97) it is a Samaritan who molded the calf at mount Horeb, though the term Samaritan was not coined until several hundred years later, in 722 B.C. (Pfander 1835:284). The name Issa is erroneously applied to Jesus, when the correct Arabic name for Jesus should be Yesuwa. Of particular interest are the rather odd statements in suras 16:15; 21:31 31:10; 78:6-7; 88:19 claiming that mountains are used as tent pegs to keep the earth from shaking. We now know from the study of geology that mountains are the result either of volcanic activity or of two tectonic plates colliding against the other (Campbell 1989:170-173). Ironically, both these reasons prove that the existence of mountains is evidence of instability in the earth's crust and not vice-versa.
In sura 7:124 Pharaoh admonishes his sorcerers by threatening them with death on a cross. In sura 12:41, the baker in the story of Joseph is told he would be crucified. However, there were no crosses in those days (not to be confused with the Egyptian ankh which was an object for fertility and life, and not an instrument of death). Crucifixion was first practised by the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians and then borrowed extensively by the Romans close to the time of Christ, 1700 years after Pharaoh!
There are other observable scientific inconsistencies, such as the contention in Sura 41:9-11 that the heavens were created from smoke (the Arabic word used is Dukhan), versus the Biblical portrayal of creation coming about by water (Genesis 1:1-2). Neuman and Eckelmann, two eminent physicists maintain that smoke, which is made up of organic particles could not have existed in a primordial state, whereas water (the Hebrew word used is mayim) most likely was present as new research on evolving nebulas show us the need for the presence of hydrogen and oxygen (or H2O) in a primordial state (Neuman/Eckelmann 1977:71-72 and Campbell 1989:22-25). Ironically it is the Bible and not the Qur'an which is closer to modern scientific findings.
Meteors, and even stars, according to the Qu'ran are said to be missiles fired at eavesdropping satans and jinn who seek to listen to the reading of the Qur'an in heaven, and then pass on what they hear to men (suras 15:16-18; 37:6-10; 55:33-35; 67:5; 72:6-9 & 86:2-3). How are we to understand these suras? Are we to believe that Allah throws meteors (material matter) made up of carbon dioxide or iron-nickel, at non-material devils who steal a hearing at the heavenly council? And how are we to explain the fact that many of earth's meteors come in showers which subsequently travel in parallel paths? Are we to understand that these parallel paths imply that the devils are all lined up in rows at the same moment (Campbell 1989:175-177)?
Another favourite of modern-day Muslims concerns the stages in the formation of the fetus (see suras 2:259; 22:5; 23:12-14; 40:67; 75:37-39; and 96:1-2). According to these suras the fetus passes through four stages, starting with the sperm which becomes the Alaqa. Though no-one seems to know what this word exactly means, many have tried, contending that it is anything from something which clings, to a clot, or an adhesion, an embryonic lump, and even chewed flesh etc... The Alaqa then becomes bones that are finally covered by the flesh (Rahman 1979:13).
There are a number of difficulties with these suras, however. First of all there is no clotting stage during the formation of a fetus (Campbell 1989:185). Furthermore, the sperm does not become an "adhesion" or fertilized ovum without an unfertilized ovum. One needs the other. Secondly, "the thing which clings" does not stop clinging to become "chewed meat," but remains clinging for 8.5 months! And finally the skeleton is not formed before the flesh (or muscles), as the muscles and the cartilage precursors of the bones start forming simultaneously (Campbell 1989:188). In fact, according to Dr. T.W. Sadler Phd., the author of Langman's Medical Embryology, from a personal letter to Dr. Campbell in 1987, it has been proved that the muscles form several weeks before there are calcified bones, rather than arriving later as the Qur'an implies (Campbell 1989:188).
It is ironic to hear the above accounts cited as proof by modern day apologists of the Qur'ans inviobility, when in fact, once the truth be known it is the very science which they hope to harness for their cause which proves to be their undoing.
C4: A Possible Solution ("Salvation History")
Islam tells us that the revelations for the Qur'an were received by Muhammad and compiled into a final written form by Zaid ibn Thabit, between 646-650 A.D., under the auspices of the third caliph, Uthman (Glasse 1991:230). Historians take two positions in response to this assertion by Muslim Tradition.
The first group, supported best by the historian John Burton, agree somewhat with Muslim Tradition, contending that the Qur'an was collated during or soon after Muhammad's lifetime. Burton, in his defense uses legal texts to date the Qur'an around the prophet's life. There are few in the west, however, who agree with Burton. Many find his theory quite illogical as there is so little written text on which to base any firm conclusions (Rippin 1985:154).
The second position flies in the face of Muslim Tradition, and is best supported by John Wansbrough, from SOAS (University of London). He uses an historical analysis similar to that of biblical criticism to arrive at his conclusions (Wansbrough 1977:9). Wansbrough maintains that the Qur'an, as we know it with all its literal and structural problems, could not have come into existence until 800 A.D. (Wansbrough 1977:160-163). The Qur'an, he suggests, is not a text which was handed to the world via one individual, but involved the work of various writers from about the ninth century (Wansbrough 1977:51).
Wansbrough expands on this claim by maintaining that the entire corpus of early Islamic documentation must be viewed as "Salvation History," a history which "is not an historical account of saving events open to the study of the historian, since salvation history did not happen, as it is a literary form which has its own historical context." (Thompson 1974:328) In other words it was written with an agenda in mind. Thus, literary records of salvation history, although they present themselves as being contemporary with the events they describe, as we have mentioned earlier, actually belong to a period well after such events, which suggests that they have been written according to a later interpretation in order to fit the ethos of that later time. The actual "history" in the sense of "what really happened" has, therefore, become subsumed within later interpretation and is virtually, if not completely, inextricable from it (Crone 1987:213-215; Rippin 1985:156).
The question of whether there is an underlying "grain of historical truth" is of some concern here. Even if we admit that there exists a "kernel" of historical truth, it becomes almost impossible to identify it.
Wansbrough contends that the Qur'an, the Tafsir, and Sira are all components of Islamic salvation history, which he suggests were written to point to God's role in directing the worldly affairs of humanity, especially during the time of Muhammad's life (Rippin 1985:154).
He argues that we do not know, and probably will never know what really happened. All we can know is what later people believed happened, as has been recorded in salvation history. The point of Islamic salvation history, he suggests, was to formulate a specifically Arab religious identity. This was accomplished by adopting and adapting ideas and stories from a well-established pool of Judeo-Christian religious themes, the inception of which could then be placed in seventh-century Arabia. Wansbrough refers to evidences within the Qur'an which point to their extrapolation from a Judeo-Christian context: for example, the prophetic line ending in the Seal of the prophets, the sequence of scriptures, the notion of the destroyed communities, and the common narrative motifs (Rippin 1985:157).
If Wansbrough's analysis is correct, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the Qur'an as an accurate source for Islam, or as a source for Muslim Tradition, especially in light of the fact that it could possibly post-date the traditions themselves. While the dating of the Qur'an is a substantial deterrent for its authenticity, it is by no means the only one.
In response, there are many Muslim scholars who contend that the continual presence of a number of men who had memorized the Qur'an in its entirety maintained its credibility. These men were called Hafiz. They were the repositories of the Qur'an to whom later compilers could refer if any questions arose (Glasse 1991:143,230).
Today we have quite a number of Hafiz living within the Middle East and Asia (there is even one studying at SOAS). We know whether they have memorized the Qur'an correctly, as we can refer to the written text in our hands and ascertain if what they relate follows it. What did earlier compilers refer to in order to ascertain the correctness of the Hafiz of their day? Where are their documents?
Essentially we come back to the same problem that we discussed in the previous section. The early Hafiz' must have had documents from which to memorize, as the credibility for any Hafiz is derived from the resemblance of his recitation to the document he claims to know; not the other way around. Did these documents ever exist? If they simply memorized that which they heard from other individuals as a sort of oral tradition then their recitations become even more suspect since oral tradition, particularly religious oral tradition, is by its very nature prone to exaggeration, embellishment and consequently, corruption.
What then should we do with the internal problems which we find in the Qu'ran? How are we to explain the structural and literary problems, as well as the spurious accounts and scientific peculiarities which have found their way into its pages? These difficulties do seem to point away from a divine authorship and point towards a more plausible scenario, that the Qur'an is nothing more than a collection of disparate sources borrowed from surrounding pieces of literature, folk tales, or oral traditions 'making the rounds' at that time, and accidently grafted in by unsuspecting later compilers.
Because of the doubtful dating of the Qur'an, the fact that there is no substantial documentation prior to 750 A.D., and the disparate sources from which it derives, as well as its specific Arab application, it behooves us not to use it as a source in ascertaining its own authenticity. Essentially we are left with very little early Islamic material from which we may delineate any authority for the Qur'an, or for the origins of Islam.
Where then must we go to find the true origins of Islam if both the traditions and the Qur'an are suspect?