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Thursday, February 10, 2005

Studying the Quran

Talk to a Muslim about religion and one of the first arguments he will raise concerning the advantages of being Muslim is the Quran. According to Muslims, the Hebrew and Christian Bibles became corrupted and are untrustworthy. They will use, as their evidence, passages which seem to contradict one another, passages which seem to call into question Jesus’ divinity and the fact that we have literally dozens of different English Bible translations. Further, they will point out that the Quran has been kept pure from the moment it was delivered to Mohammed, this purity maintained by requiring thousands of children in each generation to memorize the entirety of the book.

This contention lies at the basis of Islamic belief (note that the word “lies” is really very appropriate). Let’s consider the facts.

The Original Revelation
Every prophet in the Old and New Testament received Holy Scripture directly from God Himself. According to Mohammed’s own testimony, however, he is the only prophet in history not to receive revelation directly from God. He was given the Quran by an angel while meditating in a cave in the desert. But that’s not all.

You see, Mohammed is the first person in recorded history to mistake a messenger from God for a demon from hell. According to his own testimony, he at first thought this angel was a demon, from whom he ran and hid in fear. But there’s more.

Mohammed only realized his error after his wife - who never saw or heard the supernatural messenger - convinced him otherwise. Now, the visions that Mohammed received included the understanding that the testimony of a woman is worth only half that of a man, so it is unclear why Mohammed accepted her testimony, but he did. He would have written the vision down, but he couldn’t because he was illiterate. So others had to write the visions down as he dictated them.

Compiling the Quran
Unfortunately, the secretaries he used were not very particular about what they used for writing materials. Palm leaves, the shoulder bones of half-eaten camels, whatever came to hand was sufficient. These written surahs, or verses, were left lying around in no particular order during Mohammed’s life. Eventually, after his death, they were gathered up and thrown into a chest, but not before some were eaten by a farm animal.

After Mohammed died, his followers did begin memorizing the Holy Quran. Unfortunately, it does not appear they were all memorizing the same version. By the time of the third Caliph, Uthman, the differences between the various oral versions of the Quran were so great that various Islamic tribes were ready to start a war over the problem.

Caliph Uthman solved the problem by having all the versions of the Quran gathered together. Any verse to which two people could attest as having come from the prophets’ mouth was retained. Everything else was burned. This resulted in many people asking where some of their favorite verses had gone.

Now, it is important to remember that Mohammed was the last and greatest of the prophets. Caliph Uthman never claimed divine inspiration, nor does the office of Caliph carry with it the charism of infallibility or anything like it. So the obvious question arises: how do we know Uthman burned the right things? Is it possible he burned all or part of the real Quran while retaining a false Quran? After all, he was not guided by God, as Mohammed was.

There is strong evidence that he did burn valid versions of the Quran. Mohammed himself is reported to have said that the Quran might be read in any one of seven different dialects, each with a different meaning. Uthman burned six of them. But he got away with it. The version he didn’t burn was the one that stuck. This is the version that has been memorized by generation after generation of Muslims, so that no (further) error might creep in.

But let us ignore the fact that the Quran is a book dictated to scribes by a man who was only indirectly a prophet through visions from an angel of questionable character (questioned by Mohammed himself, in fact), vouched for by a woman who had never seen the angel, written by numerous secretaries on numerous odds and ends which eyewitnesses attest were not correctly gathered together, some portions eaten by animals, the rest compiled together after the only true eyewitness was already dead, thus resulting in numerous versions, almost all of which were burned by a man who was not guided by God in deciding which ones to burn, the same man who we know from eyewitnesses had already left verses out.

Let’s ignore all that and assume the Quran came from God and was protected by God in its compilation so that we have the one true Quran today.


Give me a minute…


It’s all gone. I’m ready. Now, let’s look at the Quran itself.

The Content of the Quran
The first thing we notice is, Allah seems to get things confused sometimes. For instance, Sura 5:116 says the Christian Trinity is composed of God, Jesus and Mary. Hmm… Even Catholics wouldn’t go along with that description. We could attribute the error to Mohammed, except that would be blasphemy, or we could attribute the error to the scribes, except they seem to be quite consistent in their errors, since the same mistake is made in Sura 5:77 and 4:169. Hmmm…. Well, at least we know why Moslems frequently ask Christians if they really think Mary is God.

But there’s more. In some cases, the Suras are contradictory. For example, Sura 2.219 absolutely forbids drinking wine, but Sura 16.67 says that drinking wine is healthy. Adam is said to have been created from clay (23.12); from sperm (77.22); and from primeval water (21.31; 25.56; 24.44). Perhaps all three simultaneously? We don’t know. Now, it is true that Sura 2:105 says "Whatever verses we [Allah] cancel or cause you to forget, we bring a better or its like." (though why Allah refers to himself in the plural if God is not Trinitarian is something of a mystery, but let us pass on). We can only wonder why Allah needs to revise His revelation so often?

And when was it His revelation? At the risk of receiving part of Salmon Rushdie’s fatwah, we must point out that absolutely reliable Muslim sources (al-Tabari, Waqidi and Ibn Sa'd) describe a problem regarding Sura 53, the infamous Satanic Verses. While Mohammed was conversing with Meccan leaders next to the Kaaba, he began to recite Sura 53 – the angel Gabriel’s (?) first visits to him. The original wording was: "What do you think of al-Lat and al-Uzza And Manat the third beside? These are exalted Females, Whose intercession verily is to be sought after."

Unfortunately, these favorable references to Meccan pantheistic goddesses, and their favorite goddesses no less, was in total opposition to Islamic monotheism. Gabriel apparently visited Mohammed later and yelled at him for getting the verse wrong. Gabriel then gave him the true verse, a verse that denigrated the goddesses. Islamic scholars say the false verse was put in his mouth by Satan.

But if we believe Islamic scholars, one of two things would seem to be true, or perhaps both together: either Mohammed deliberately lied to the Meccans in order to curry political favor or Satan influenced his revelation as easily as God did. In either case, it puts both the content of the Quran and Mohammed’s status as prophet into serious question. This would perhaps be something we could overlook as a one-time error, if it were not for the whole structure and tenor of the Quran itself.

No one who has studied the Quran can disagree with a simple fact: all the passages that preach tolerance are early (Meccan) Suras, and all the passages that recommend killing, decapitating and maiming are late (Medinan) Suras. How might we interpret that fact? Well, one way is to remember that in the early years Mohammed was politically weak and set upon by numerous foes. During this time, Allah had him preached tolerance of belief and being kind to the weak. When he gained the upper hand and began to militarily crush anyone who opposed him, Allah suddenly changed the tenor of revelation to emphasize the holiness of crushing anyone who opposed him. This is why Islamic scholars can range from the mildest of the mild all the way to Osama bin Laden. It all depends on what verses you want to emphasize.

The Quran Has Many Versions
And this leads us to perhaps the biggest problem with the Quran, one with which our Protestant brethren are all too familiar. There may be one literal version of the Quran, but how many de facto versions are there? Put another way, how does a good Muslim know which verses are more important? The closest thing Islam has ever had to a central authority is the Caliph.

The first Caliphs were both spiritual and temporal leaders of Islam, but as intrigue and assassination hewed through the ranks of believers and Islam shattered into warring factions each intent on putting their man into the Caliphate, it subsequently became a purely political office. By the 1600’s, it was just an empty figurehead office, by the beginning of the twentieth century, there was no one to fill it at all. The caliphate has been empty for over a century and it will remain so – it would be impossible for the various Islamic sects to agree on a successor.

So, there are now as many versions of the Quran as there are imams to interpret it. If one imam or group of imams says this Sura is more important than that one, and another group says something else, what are we to do? There is no one to adjudicate between the two groups, no one who can exert authority and say with authority that one group is wrong while the other is right. Thus, when modern commentators claim to oppose Islamic fundamentalism, it simply isn’t clear what they mean. Are the fundamentalists the ones who insist on the primacy of the Meccan verses or are they the ones who insist on the primacy of the Medinian verses?

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