September 6, 2004
Facts v. Revelations in the QuranBy James Arlandson
If anyone studies the Quran objectively, he or she will be struck by the verses that differ widely from cherished Biblical passages and one significant historical fact. Normally, these differences should not pose any problems, provided they remain in the realm of abstract theology.
However, as noted here and here, these differences do not remain in abstraction, but are applied to life and politics in the Islamic world, sometimes with troubling consequences for the Western world.
This article explores passages in the Quran that contradict one simple historical fact, and transform or add assertions to the much—older Bible.
1. An absolutist doctrine of inspiration lands Islam in interpretive difficulties.
In Islamic theology, it is believed that the Quran existed in heaven, and the angel Gabriel came down and over time spoke it to Muhammad and therefore spoke it into earthly existence as a physical book. Sometimes a comparison is made between the Quran's 'inlibration' (from the root 'libr' or 'book') with Christ's 'incarnation' (from the root 'carn' or 'flesh'). That is, as the heavenly Son of God was 'made flesh,' so the heavenly Quran was 'made book.'
This is an exceptionally high view of inspiration.
By comparison, basic Christian theology of Scriptural inspiration does not come even close. It says God inspired the New Testament writers, true, but he did not through Gabriel dictate to them or recite Scripture into their ears. This is clear even from a casual reading of the New Testament.
Paul, for example, writes his epistles mainly to solve problems (1 and 2 Corinthians) or to explain his theology systematically (Epistle to Romans), and the reader can see his mind sorting out his answers to the problems or his theology based on his thorough knowledge of the Old Testament (or Hebrew Scriptures). Also, the Gospels Matthew and Luke borrow from Mark and each other, and Luke says outright that he researched other accounts before he wrote his Gospel (Luke 1:1—4). Thus, basic Christian theology of inspiration is much more 'organic' and human—cooperative than the inspiration of the Quran.
These passages illustrate the extremely strict doctrine of Quranic inspiration:
While Muhammad was living in Mecca before his Hijrah (Emigration) to Medina in 622, the Meccans disputed the divine origin of the Quran and wanted Muhammad to change it, but Allah tells Muhammad how to answer them in this verse:
10:15 [Prophet], say: It is not for me to change it of my own accord; I only follow what is revealed to me, for I fear torment of an awesome day, if I were to disobey my Lord.
This promise of torment as a penalty for changing the Book applies not only to Muhammad, but also to all later followers. Muslims take that verse seriously and would not dare to change a verse—they may interpret some difficult verses softly, but never change them.
These short verses also show the high standard of inspiration:
39:28 . . . an Arabic Quran, free from all distortions—so that people may be mindful.
55:1 The Beneficent [Allah] 2 taught the Quran.
75:18 When We [Allah] have recited it, repeat the recitation, 19 and We shall make it clear.
26:193 The faithful Spirit [Gabriel] has brought it [the Quran] . . . 195 in plain Arabic language.
Those last two verses in sura (chapter) 26 (vv. 193 and 195) demonstrate that Gabriel came down and spoke the Quran to Muhammad.
All of these verses land Muslims in interpretive problems, because every word must be taken literally when the passages are clear—not, for example, when a passage is an illustration (39:27—29). However, the following passages are not illustrations, but are clear and straightforward. We will follow the dilemma that confronts strict Muslim commentators through simple but absolutist logic.
2. The Quran contradicts one simple historical fact: the crucifixion of Jesus.
4:157 And for their [Jews'] saying: We have killed the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah, and they killed him not, nor did they cause his death on the cross, but was made to appear to them as such. And certainly those who differ therein are in doubt about it. They have no knowledge about it, but only follow a conjecture, and they killed him not for certain.
This passage denying Jesus' actual death absorbs Gnostic teaching circulating around the larger Mediterranean world, e.g. the spurious and late Gospel of Barnabas, which holds that the flesh, the physical body, is evil. Therefore, a divine person like Jesus could not really die in the flesh, but would merely appear to do so, though Muhammad did not hold that Jesus was divine, but merely a prophet like himself. Thus, later Muslims who adopt an absolutist interpretation of straightforward verses have difficulties in showing that Jesus was not crucified. Some commentators (e.g. Maulana Muhammad Ali, whose translation we are mostly using) assert without reliable evidence that Jesus traveled to Kashmir and was buried there (23:50).
This syllogism reflects the conflict between an absolutist doctrine of the inspiration of the Quran, a clear verse that is impossible to rationalize away (4:157), and unadorned history.
(1) Every historical fact that contradicts the revealed Quran did not actually happen.
The conclusion can be shown to be false because the death of Jesus is supported by seven ancient texts outside of the New Testament by writers who did not favor Christianity—indeed, some were biased against it—and by one representative modern skeptic.
First, the 'letter of Mara Bar—Serapion' (c. 73 AD), housed in the British Museum, asks of Jesus' crucifixion: 'What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise King?'
Second, the third—century Julius Africanus (c. 221 AD) reports that the first—century historian Thallus says that 'when discussing the darkness which fell upon the land during the crucifixion of Christ,' it was an eclipse.
Third, the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus (c. 55—117 AD) wrote: 'a wise man who was called Jesus . . . Pilate condemned him to be condemned and to die.' Tacitus also notes that the disciples of Jesus 'reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive.'
Fourth, Josephus (c. 37—100 AD) the Jewish historian wrote: 'Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him [Jesus] to the cross (18.3).
Fifth, the second—century Greek satirist Lucian (born c. 120), who traveled widely in the eastern Mediterranean world where Israel is located, in his On the Death of Peregrine, speaks of Christ '[A]s the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced a new cult into the world,' also calling him a 'crucified sophist.'
Sixth, the Roman author Phlegon, freedman of the Emperor Hadrian (who reigned 117—38 AD) never doubted that Jesus was crucified: 'Jesus, while alive, was of no assistance to himself, but that he arose after death and exhibited the marks of his punishment, and showed how his hands had been pierced by nails.'
Seventh, even the Talmud does not deny the death of Jesus (his divinity is another matter): 'on the eve of Passover they hanged Yeshu (of Nazareth)' . . . . (Sanhedrin 43a, 'Eve of Passover').
Finally, in our own skeptical times, not even the most radical of New Testament critics, Rudolph Bultmann, denies that Jesus was crucified. Bultmann may take away from Jesus' miracles, his claim to divinity, the atoning interpretation of his death on the cross, but not the fact of his death. Indeed, that may be the only thing left in Bultmann's analysis.
Therefore, in light of all this extra—Biblical evidence and modern research as exemplified by Bultmann, the historical fact of the crucifixion—quite apart from its theological interpretation—is verified, and the much—later Quran, to speak plainly, is wrong on this matter. This should surprise no one, for Muhammad never conducted historical research.
Therefore, the first absolutist syllogism collapses under the weight of historical facts.
3. The Quran contradicts the Biblical biography of Abraham and Isaac.
37:102 But when he [Ishmael] became of age to work with him, he said: O my son, I [Abraham] have seen in a dream that I should sacrifice thee: so consider what thou seest. He said: O my father, do as thou art commanded: if Allah please, thou wilt find me patient. 103 So when they both submitted and he had thrown him down upon his forehead, and 104 We called out to him saying O Abraham, 105 Thou hast indeed fulfilled the vision. Thus do We reward the doers of good. 106 Surely this is a manifest trial. 107 And we ransomed him with a great sacrifice.
In Genesis 22 the sacrifice of Isaac is known as the Akedah ('binding') because Abraham bound Isaac and was about to sacrifice him under the knife until the angel of the Lord intervened at the last moment, raising the reader's suspense. However, Muhammad contradicts this passage with Abraham's son Ishmael, born from Hagar, Sarah's handmaid. Abraham gets a vision that he should sacrifice Ishmael. They both pass the test. Countless Muslims believe this took place, not the Akedah in Genesis.
Muhammad had permission to contradict the Bible because, he believed, it had been corrupted or altered (2:75, 79; 3:77—78; 4:44—49). This belief leads to the (unspoken) logic of any absolutist interpreter of the Quran:
(4) Every passage in the earlier Bible that contradicts the later Quran has been altered or corrupted.
Before we challenge this unsound logic, we can examine a similar revelation in the Quran and another absolutist syllogism.
4. The Quran adds to the Biblical biography of Abraham and Ishmael.
The following passage asserts that Abraham settled Ishmael in Arabia near Mecca so that he could lead the Arabs in prayer and denounce idol worship:
14:35 And when Abraham said: My Lord, make this city [Mecca] secure, and save me and my sons [Ishmael and Arabs] from worshipping idols . . . 37 Our Lord, I have settled a part of my offspring in a valley unproductive of fruit near Thy sacred House [Kabah], our Lord, that they may keep up prayer . . . .
And these verses claim that Abraham and Ishmael, while in Mecca, rebuilt and purified the Kabah, the sacred shrine that houses a black stone:
2:127 And when Abraham and Ishmael raised the foundation of the House [Kabah]: Our Lord, accept from us . . . 129 Our Lord, and raise up in them [descendents of Abraham and Ishmael] a Messenger from among them who shall recite to them Thy messages and teach them the Book [Quran] and the wisdom, and purify them.
In these two passages Muhammad receives revelations that make historical claims, not strictly doctrinal claims, such as the unity of God as opposed to the Trinity, neither of which can be verified by empirical investigation. The two passages are also based on the Bible, for Abraham and Ishmael would never have been known in Arabia without the Bible. This full syllogism follows from those two passages about the Biblical patriarchs and lurks unseen behind any absolutist interpreter who desires earnestly to maintain the strict inerrancy of the Quran:
(7) Every Quranic revelation based on the Bible and making historical claims but having no support from the Bible or historical evidence is still true and accurate.
The syllogism is long, but it reflects the iron—clad attitude of absolutists who need to cover all of their bases. The essence can be boiled down: any verse in the revealed Quran that touches on history supercedes or trumps actual historical evidence and facts.
The last two syllogisms can be challenged together from three angles: (A) the absence of historical evidence that Abraham ever set foot in Arabia; (B) Muhammad's motives to receive such revelations (see 2:122—129); and (C) the absence of evidence (and nefarious motives in the author of Genesis, traditionally Moses), to alter the text against the Arabs in the Peninsula living at any time, but especially during Muhammad's time, about 2100 years later.
A. Personally, I believe Abraham and the other patriarchs actually lived, but I must concede that no extra—Biblical evidence—e.g. archeological or textual—confirms their existence. Therefore, by extension, no reliable historical evidence can be advanced to support Abraham's sojourn down to distant Mecca. Muhammad was simply relying on Arab folk belief, not revelation, and elevated it to his sacred Scripture. This is not surprising, since he was not an historian as, say, Luke was, who researched the material for his Gospel and his Book of Acts.
B. What motives could Muhammad have for assimilating this folk belief into his Quran?
First, he was deeply attached to the Kabah shrine. While living in Mecca, he often circled it and prayed to Allah. One early Muslim historian, Ibn Ishaq, whom historians even today respect as a reliable source (except the miraculous elements), says he kissed the black stone. This attachment prevented him from rising above a religious, geographical location and looking to a 'spiritual' Kabah alone, so to speak, as Jesus looked beyond the earthly Jerusalem. This motive of Muhammad is psychological.
Second, the Kabah drew numerous pilgrims to it, long before the new religion Islam arrived on the scene. But it was dedicated to polytheism, so Muhammad could not let that stand. Indeed, he says in another passage that his Muslims should fight polytheists there until 'religion is only for Allah' (2:193). This motive is theological, mixed with jihad.
Third, it cannot be denied that the Meccans persecuted Muhammad before his Hijrah, so permission from God was granted to him to fight the polytheists until 'religion is only for Allah.' He thus incorporated the dubious Arab custom of retaliation into the eternal Quran, which poses interpretive difficulties for Muslims today . This motive is cultural.
Finally, we must not overlook the fact that the Kabah generated a lot of money from pilgrimages, and it would have increased the fortunes of the Muslims. Simply put, Muhammad, from the moment of his Hijrah and his (unprovoked) raids against Meccan caravans, to his military conquest of the city in 630, wanted to control the popular Kabah. This motive adds up to fame through prowess (an Arab cultural value) and fortune.
C. Did Moses (or anyone else) alter or corrupt Genesis 22 and the other chapters that recount Abraham's life just to spite other peoples and tribes? It is simply beyond sound scholarship to argue that he (or anyone else) could have foreseen the troubles with the Muslim Arabs and hence corrupted the text to replace Ishmael with Isaac in Genesis 22 or erased Abraham's journey to Arabia.
In fact, rarely does a serious scholar believe that the Hebrew Bible from the editorship of Ezra in the fifth century BC down to the Medieval Masoretic text (largely the basis of the Hebrew Bible) has been altered substantially, and certainly not maliciously. This has been confirmed by the finding of the Isaiah scroll at Qumran and comparing it with the Masoretic text of Isaiah. Only a few incidental lines and words are different, and none affects the theology of the Book. Jewish copyists throughout history took their craft seriously.
Therefore, the last two syllogisms simply dissolve away, A, B, C.
Furthermore, these are the two main reasons I believe that Abraham and the other patriarchs existed: there is no evidence outside the Bible that denies their existence, and there is no evidence that the manuscripts of Hebrew Bible have been corrupted, especially against disputes that arise two millennia later and hundreds of miles away in Arabia. Therefore, I can count on the authors of Scripture not to make such things up. However, other much—later legends that embellish the Bible are suspect, given the motives to create legends like Abraham and Ishmael honoring the Kabah in Mecca with a visit. The Bible takes top priority, since it came before the Quran and is the foundation of the later legends.
Despite the positive evidence for Jesus' crucifixion or the absence of evidence for Abraham's sacrifice of Ishmael (outside the Quran) and his sojourn to Mecca, a devout Muslim is entitled to believe—by a sheer act of faith—that the Quran on those matters is true. However, this questionable belief should live only in his or her heart, not in material or political life. The real world should follow evidence, and history should trump revelation.
On the other hand, those of us on the outside of Islam are allowed to question, albeit respectfully, the absolutist claims in the revealed Quran that support by circular reasoning its own inspiration, and we are allowed to doubt the rigid interpretations of absolutists about verses claiming historical knowledge, but actually having no basis in historical facts.
Jim Arlandson (Ph.D.) teaches introductory philosophy and world religions at a college in southern California and has published a book, Women, Class, and Society in Early Christianity (Hendrickson, 1997).