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The Qu'ran: The Scripture of Islam


1. The Qur'anic Doctrine of Abrogation.

There are a number of passages in the Qur'an which teach that Allah cancels certain revelations and teachings he has given and substitutes them with new revelations. The most prominent verse in the Qur'an which sets forth this doctrine is this one:

In the early days of Islam it was widely accepted that this meant that some of the earlier parts of the Qur'an were superseded by later revelations. For example, in some passages wine is regarded as having good and bad effects (Surah 2. 219) and at first the Muslims in Medina were bidden not to come to their daily prayers in a state of intoxication (Surah 4.43). Later, however, the drinking of wine was prohibited altogether (Surah 5. 93-94). Accordingly the consumption of all alcoholic beverages was henceforth forbidden in Islam. In some cases it was taught that even the sunnah (the example of Muhammad's life as recorded in the Hadith) could abrogate the teachings of the Qur'an. The Qur'an teaches that the penalty for adultery is a hundred stripes (Surah 24.2) but it is recorded in all the works of Hadith that it was Muhammad's practice to stone adulterers to death. To this day the sunnah prevails over the Qur'an in Arabia where those guilty of adultery are put to death. (On the other hand the second caliph, Umar, once stated that the Qur'an itself originally taught that adulterers were to be stoned - we will return to this subject in the next section).

The great commentators Baidawi and Zamakshari both taught that Surah 2.106 meant that the full revelation of God's will could be deferred and that he could make certain allowances in earlier revelations which were to be disallowed in later revelations.

The author adds in a footnote that at an earlier point in the same passage Baidawi also said "Abrogation of a verse indicates that it has ceased to be a pious act to recite it, or that any law based upon it has ceased to be valid, or both" (op. cit.). This great Muslim commentator clearly believed that, if a verse was abrogated, both its recitation and its contents were of no effect. The other great commentator, Zamakshari, taught precisely the same thing. In his tafsir (commentary) on Surah 2.106 he says:

He even goes on to say that such verses even disappeared by Gabriel's express command from the Qur'anic text. There remain clear cases, however, where the Qur'an records both the mansukh verse (the one cancelled) and the naskh verse (the new one that cancels it).

The earlier passage exhorts Muhammad to spend about half of each night in prayer and recitation (Surah 73.1,4), but in a later verse in the same surah (73.20), where it acknowledged that Muhammad and his companions spend at least a third and, at times, up to two-thirds of the night in prayer, Allah himself relaxes the commandment. He allows for the ability of the Muslims to determine precisely the hours of the night, that some are in ill-health or on various journeys, and commands them instead simply to read as much "as may be easy" for them. Another verse in the Qur'an which teaches the doctrine of abrogation is this one:

One highly respected Muslim commentator of the Qur'an of more recent times allows that Surah 2.106 does indeed teach clear doctrine of abrogation:

On the other hand he says of the later verses (Surah 87.6-7): "There can be no question of this having any reference to the abrogation of any verses of the Qur'an" (p. 1724). He alleges that it is simply one of God's mercies that we should innocuously forget former events and revelations "lest our minds become confused"! The great early commentators, however, settled the interpretation of these verses upon the teaching of the other verse (Surah 2.106) and their conclusion was that Allah had expressly caused Muhammad to forget the abrogated passages and had deleted them from the developing text of the Qur'an.

Whether all the abrogated verses were deleted from the Qur'an or whether some remain in the text was never determined, and still is by many fugaha (jurists) of Islam, is that the Qur'an teaches quite clearly that some of its earlier revelations can be superseded and replaced by later revelations. This doctrine has become unpalatable to many modern Muslims, however, as it tends to undermine their conviction that nothing in the Qur'an has ever been changed, neither in its text, nor in its teachings. There are yet other verses, nonetheless, supporting this doctrine of abrogation:

All these verses, however, are interpreted by modern Muslims to mean that the Qur'an abrogates the previous revelations, especially the Tawrat of Moses and the Injil of Jesus. One such commentator says:

Another apologist says of Surah 2.106: "If one law, namely the biblical law, is cancelled, then a better one is given to Muhammad" (Khalifa, The Sublime Qur'an and Orientalism p. 95). Surah 13.39 may well refer to the cancelling of previous books as the verse just preceding it talks of apostles sent before Muhammad and closes with the statement that each kitaba (scripture) revealed to them was only likulli ajal - "for each period" (Surah 13.38). Surah 16.101, however, speaks purely in the context of the Qur'an itself and the following verses are a defence of the book against its detractors. Furthermore it is not said in this verse that God cancels a kitab by replacing it with another, but rather that he substitutes an ayah, a word generally meaning "sign" but, in the context of scriptural revelation, referring solely to a verse of a book and not the book itself. This verse, therefore, clearly teaches that Allah substitutes one verse of the Qur'an for another, and it was this claim that made the Quraysh allege that Muhammad was "but a forger", for it appeared to be a very expedient way of explaining the anomaly of earlier verses being "substituted" or "forgotten".

Yusuf Ali translates the next verse as "Say, the Holy Spirit has brought the revelation from thy Lord in Truth" (Surah 16.102) which tends to imply that the whole Qur'an is the revelation spoken of in the previous verse which replaces other, earlier revelations, such as the Tawrat and Injil. The translator has not been entirely accurate in this interpretation, however, for there is no word for "revelation" in the original text in Surah 16.102. Usually he puts explanatory clauses in parentheses, but here simply inserts the word as though it is a direct translation from the original, which it is not. The text actually reads: Qul nazzalahuu ruuhul qudusi mirrabbika bil haqq and, literally interpreted, it simply means "Say, it is sent down by the Holy Spirit from thy Lord in Truth". The word ayah does not appear in the original verse. If a noun had to be supplied, it would more properly be al-kitab or al-Qur'an.

In Surah 2.106 the word for "revelations" is once again ayat, invariably used of actual verses of the Qur'an and not of the whole book or other scriptures. The Qur'anic word to expressly describe an earlier revelation in a scriptural form is always kitab and not ayah. The latter word is often used of God's signs and communications (Jesus himself is called an ayah - Surah 19.21), but it is never used specifically of a previous scripture. Furthermore, if the Qur'an teaches that it is former scriptures that God causes to be forgotten, then Surah 87.6-7 and Surah 2.106 must be interpreted to mean that Allah had caused Muhammad to forget these rather than earlier verses he had received. "But as Muhammad had never learnt the law of Moses, he cannot be said to have forgotten it" (Sell, The Historical Development of the Qur'an, p. 37). It is surely more reasonable to conclude that the Qur'an is referring to actual revelations made to Muhammad himself which had later been substituted or "forgotten".

One understands the attempts by modern Muslim writers to explain away the obvious meaning of these verses. They certainly do tend to imply that Muhammad found he was forgetting some of his earlier recitations and, as his mission developed, became aware of the need to replace or amend earlier teachings. There appears to be some substance in the conclusion of the Quraysh that Muhammad himself was artfully adapting his Qur'an to suit the needs of the moment as he went along.

2. The Stories of the Biblical and other Prophets.

The Qur'an is hardly a book of history. Not only does its composition cover nothing more than a twenty-three year period early in the seventh century AD, but the book itself contains no chronology of the historical events it alludes to or otherwise records.

Not only are no details given in the Qur'an of any sequence in the contemporary events of Muhammad's life but the book also makes virtually no reference to current events outside the Hijaz (the area of Arabia near the Red Sea where most of the action in Muhammad's ministry took place). There is one notable exception - Surah 30 begins with a mention of a recent defeat of the Byzantines by the Sassanids of Persia, "the only instance in the Qur'an of a world-historical allusion outside Arabia" (Stanton, The Teaching of the Qur'an, p. 24). Yet even here the Byzantines are called Ar-Rum - "The Romans" (Surah 30.2), an apparent misnomer for the predominantly Greek armies of Byzantium (now Istanbul). It is probable, however, that the ruling European forces in the Middle East and North Africa were collectively called Romans after many centuries of rule by the Roman Empire in these regions.

It is the stories of the Biblical prophets that particularly lack any manner of logical sequence in the Qur'an. In some places there are lists of prophets which are hardly given in any sort of order. In the following verse the early patriarchs are given in the correct sequence (though Ishmael is discounted as a prophet in the Bible), but the names of the prophets thereafter are completely mixed up:

One cannot help presuming that Muhammad had a fairly sound knowledge of the history of the patriarchs from Noah to the sons of Jacob but was somewhat at sea regarding the sequence of the prophets that followed. Indeed the later prophets, from Isaiah to Malachi, with the exception of Jonah, are conspicuous purely by their absence in the Qur'an.

On the other hand there are numerous stories in the Qur'an relating to the earlier prophets and New Testament figureheads which are borrowed from Jewish Talmudic sources and Christian apocryphal writings respectively. Examples of these are found in the sections on Qur'anic origins and sources to follow. It seems that Muhammad's knowledge of the Bible was limited to information from secondary sources, though this knowledge did improve as time went on.

An example of the growing accuracy of the Qur'anic records of the events in the lives of the Biblical prophets proves the point. In Surah 26.160-175 one finds a brief record of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and of a typical conversation between the prophet Lot and his unbelieving people. Lot was delivered with his family "except an old woman who lingered behind" (Surah 26.171, as also 37.135). The story is roughly repeated in Surah 27.54-58, except that in this case, as in all the other later records of this event, the woman is now positively identified as his wife (Surah 27.57). There is as yet no hint of the involvement of the angels who came as God's messengers in human form to destroy the cities but, in later passages, they finally appear while the narratives of the whole episode are simultaneously embellished with further information.

In Surah 15.51-77 there is a brief record of the visit of the angels and their mission. Furthermore Abraham is now linked to the story of the destruction of these cities (typically not mentioned by name in the Qur'an) in that the angels visit him first to announce their purpose (v.58-60) as in the Bible (Genesis 18.16-22). When they come to Lot, however, they disclose their true identities immediately as well as their design and call on him to leave by night with his household (v.63-66). Only after this do the townsmen come to Lot to demand his guests and, as in the Bible (Genesis 19.8), Lot offers them his daughters (v.71). The record is very similar to the Biblical account except that in the Bible the angels only make their true identities known after the altercation with the tribesmen (Genesis 19.11) and only then command him to prepare to leave with his family as they make their mission known to him (Genesis 19.12-13). The Qur'anic error in placing these disclosures before the visit of the townsmen leads to a somewhat irrational situation:

In Surah 11.74-85 Muhammad finally gets it right. Once again the angels come to Abraham and this time the Qur'an mentions the prayer he offered to deliver the cities. Furthermore the disclosure of the identities of the angelic guests and their purpose to deliver Lot and his family and destroy the cities is now rightly placed after the altercation with the townsmen (v.81-82). Now the fears of Lot about the security of his guests when the townsmen arrive makes sense. He is said to have "felt himself powerless" (v.77) to protect them and openly expresses his regret that he could not summon powerful support on their behalf (v.80). Only at this point do they disclose their true identities as angelic messengers and only now is he called to leave with his family by night. All this is consistent with the Biblical narrative but is contradictory of the account in Surah 15 where the disclosures are said to have been made before the townsmen confronted Lot.

All these features strongly support the statement made by Margoliouth that, as the Qur'an developed, so its record of the events relating to the Biblical prophets became significantly more accurate. This conclusion can hardly be resisted in the circumstances:

That Muhammad derived much of his knowledge of the prophets from those around him is backed up further by the fact that many of the names it gives to these prophets are not in their original form but rather in the form we find in the Greek texts of the New Testament, which is most significant because Arabic is a Semitic language in many respects closely related to Hebrew while it is considerably different to Greek. The prophets Jonah and Elijah are called Yunus and Ilyas respectively in the Qur'an, and the New Testament Greek forms of their names are likewise Yunas and Elias. The names of these prophets, therefore, as well as others (ea. Ishaq for Isaac) in the Qur'an, are given in neither their proper Hebrew nor Arabic forms but in the corresponding Greek form.

It seems fair to conclude that, in all these instances, the Qur'an records nothing more than information which Muhammad received respecting the Biblical prophets, not through a divine revelation from heaven, but purely through communications between himself and the Jews and other knowledgeable folk he chanced to meet.

3. Mary, the Mother of Jesus, in the Qur'an.

One of the most significant features of the Qur'an is the attention it pays to Mary, the mother of Jesus. She is the only woman mentioned by name in the book and features so prominently that the 19th Surah is named after her, namely Suratu-Maryam. Yet, despite the eminent position she holds in the Qur'an, much of its teaching about her is derived from apocryphal sources and no small amount of confusion about her true role is found in the book.

In the story referred to we find that the mother of Mary, a "woman of Imran" (Surah 3.35), dedicated her child while it was still in the womb to the Temple service but was surprised to find that it was a female when it was born (v.36). Nevertheless the Qur'an states that God accepted her dedication and that she was committed to the care of Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist, and remained constantly in her mihrab (v.37). The word today refers to the niche in all mosques giving the direction of Mecca but in this case refers to her "chamber" in the Temple. (The mihrab in the great mosque at Cordoba in Spain is in the form of a small chamber). That it was actually intended to be in the Temple itself is strengthened by the statement that Zachariah alone had access to her (v.37) for only the Levitical priests could venture into the inner parts of the Temple and the High Priest alone into the Holy of Holies, and that but once a year.

Although Mary's mother is not named, some of the works of Hadith say that her name was Hannah and most Qur'anic commentators thus describe her. Both ancient and modern commentaries on the Qur'an accept that this was her real name. One of the more recent commentaries says:

Another commentator says of the "wife of Imran" that she is "Mary's mother, Jesus' grandmother, known as Hannah or Anne" (Daryabadi, The Holy Qur'an, p. 52A). It is further said in this passage in the Qur'an that Zachariah was astonished to find that, although Mary was always shut up in her chamber, she was always supplied with food. When he asked where it came from, she answered huwa min 'indillah - "it is from the realm of God" (Surah 3.37). It is needless to add, surely, that all this has no equivalent in the Biblical record of the life of our Lord's mother. Where then does it all come from? In the quote from Glubb's biography we are given one of its origins - the heretical "Protevangelium of James the Less". We have here a relevant quote from this apocryphal work:

It is quite clear where this strange story originated. One finds many things salt about Jesus in the Qur'an derived from similar apocryphal works which circulated in and around Arabia at Muhammad's time (e.g. a claim that he spoke from the cradle, Surah 19.29-30, which is derived from the "Arabic Gospel of the Infancy", so-called because the surviving manuscripts of this work are significantly all in Arabic!). Tisdall adds that this story of Mary's confinement and sustenance in the Temple is also found in other writings:

One can hardly blame Muhammad for the composition of this strange story but, by including it in the Qur'an, he has made his book teach strange things about the mother of Jesus. In fact the whole story is a marvellous confusion of various passages in the Bible. Mary is clearly confused with Elijah, for a start, for he was the prophet confined to solitude who was fed by ravens who brought him food from above (1 Kings 17.6). Nevertheless it is the name given to Mary's mother, namely Hannah, that really gives us the clue as to where the composers of the story obtained their material.

It is striking to find that Hannah, Mary's supposed mother, prayed for a child and promised to dedicate it to the service and worship of the House of God. Even Sunday-school children will guess that Mary has, in this case, been confused with Samuel, for it was his mother, the true Hannah. who thus prayed for a child no less than a thousand years earlier and promised to devote him to the service of God:

When Samuel was born he was duly dedicated to the House of the Lord (1 Samuel 1.28) and it was he who anointed David King over Israel. One can clearly see where the confusion arose, but how did it come about? We have to go back to the time of Mary to find out. In Luke's Gospel we find this most enlightening passage:

One can clearly see now how the anachronism came about. Once again we have a woman whose original Hebrew name was Hannah and yet we find that it is this woman who remained in the Temple night and day, significantly worshipping and fasting for a good many years. Mary has clearly been confused, not only with Elijah and Samuel, but with Anna the prophetess as well! It is clear that the two respective Hannahs - the mother of Samuel and the daughter of Phanuel - have been confused with one another and the story in Surah 3 in the Qur'an is therefore clearly a peculiar blending of the two totally different stories in the Bible about these two women.

What makes this connection even more certain is a perusal of the praises given to God by Hannah and Mary respectively after they had been blessed with the conception of their holy sons through the power of God when such conceptions were most unlikely. Part of Hannah's prayer reads:

Now compare her prayer with these words extracted from the famous Magnificat, the oracle of praise which Mary uttered when Jesus was conceived in her womb:

The two oracles are remarkably similar and the perceiving reader will immediately see that Hannah was a type of Mary just as her son Samuel was a type of Jesus Christ and foreshadowed his coming. On the other hand, some less perceptive minds strangely confused the stories of Hannah and Mary, compounded the confusion by further mixing up the stories of the two Hannahs in the Old and New Testaments respectively, and then added a bit of flavour from the story of Elijah to the final concoction to produce the bewildering narrative found in the apocryphal writings which has even more startingly found its way into the text of the Qur'an as a story true to history and authenticated by divine revelation!

As if all this were not enough, we even find Mary confused with Miriam, the sister of Aaron, in the Qur'an as well! In the Surah named after Mary we find that, when the child Jesus was born, her neighbours said to her:

Some Muslims have alleged that Mary really had a brother named Aaron, but this is pure speculation and inconsistent with the fact that the only one named in the Qur'an, called Harun, is specifically called the brother of Moses (Surah 20.30). It is hard to resist the conclusion that Muhammad confounded the mother of Jesus with Miriam, the true sister of Aaron, the first high-priest of Israel.

In this case Muhammad's error cannot be attributed to an apocryphal writing as in the case of Hannah and Samuel. This time the confusion is entirely his own. Indeed, during his own lifetime, he was confronted by Christians with this anachronism and the answer he gave is very interesting:

Accordingly most Muslim efforts to explain away the anomaly follow this line of reasoning. It is extremely hard to credit, however, as there is no other instance in the Qur'an where anyone else is so called. Muslim writers often claim that Christians find an anachronism here purely because they are ignorant of Arabic, yet one struggles to find another example of such a figure of speech in the Qur'an. One writer refers to the non-Biblical prophets Hud and Salih who are called brothers of their people (Surah 11.50 and 11.61 respectively) and says of those who allege that Muhammad confounded the mother of Jesus with the sister of Aaron:

Actually the word is only used in this context in a few passages which duplicate each other where the two prophets spoken of are so described. This is how "often" the word appears in this context in the Qur'an. In every other case it is always a blood-brother who is referred to (in fact the word is used most commonly for Aaron who is invariably described as the brother of Moses as we have seen. In the light of the subject now at hand, namely the title "sister of Aaron", this is very significant as it is hard to believe that Aaron would so often be called the brother of Moses in the direct sense if this other clause "sister of Aaron" was intended to be taken indirectly). Furthermore the prophets spoken of were not named after other figureheads but simply as brothers of their people generally - a very different use of the expression "brother" from the title "sister of Aaron". Khalifa's defence is hardly convincing. It seems that he is hoping that all his readers are indeed as ignorant of Arabic as he supposes those Christians to be whom he sets out to refute, for he implies that the Qur'an regularly uses the word akha (brother) in the sense of "related to" which is simply not the case.

Furthermore it is important to point out, on the other hand, that the Qur'an nowhere speaks of a "sister" who is "related to her people". The only word used in the Qur'an for "a sister" is ukhtun and it appears in Surah 4.12 where it obviously refers to an immediate blood-sister as the verse deals with immediate degrees of inheritance from one who has left no ascendants or descendants. Sisters are also spoken of in Surah 4.23 and 4.176 and blood-sisters are once again clearly intended. In Surah 19.28 Mary's companions address her Yaa ukhta Haaruuna - "O sister of Aaron"! A proper exegesis of the word "sister" here consistent with the use of the word elsewhere in the Qur'an can only yield the meaning "a blood-sister of Aaron". There is no warrant whatsoever for the interpretation "one who is related to Aaron".

Even if it was intended to carry this meaning we would still be faced with extreme difficulties for it leads to untenable suppositions. Another Muslim writer comments on the use of the expression in Surah 19.28:

It is true that people descended from famous forefathers in the Bible are often described as such, e.g. the names given to Jesus "the son of David, the son of Abraham" (Matthew 1.1), but they are always actually descended from them as Elizabeth was from Aaron. Only the tribe of Levi could act as priests and both Aaron and Zachariah, together with his wife Elizabeth, were actually descended from Levi.

Mary, on the other hand, was descended from Judah through the line of David (Luke 1.32). She was not related to Aaron in any specific way at all, other than as an Israelite, like him, descended from Abraham. She was not even of his tribe. Whatever "relationship" existed was purely national and ethnic - the remotest there could be. It is true Elizabeth is called her "kinswoman" in Luke 1.36 but, if there had been any intermarrying between their ancestors in any way, it must have been on Elizabeth's side. One of her ancestors must have married into the tribe of Judah (which is hardly surprising as, after the exiles to Assyria and Babylon, this tribe constituted the overwhelming remnant of Israel that finally returned to the promised land). On the other hand it is expressly stated in the Bible that Jesus is an eternal high-priest after the order of Melchisedec and he, therefore, could not have been descended in any way from Levi through Aaron. Accordingly his mother Mary likewise could not have had any Levitical blood in her and so was in no way descended from or related to Aaron:

This passage makes it quite plain that Jesus had no lineal connection with Aaron whatsoever. Furthermore, whereas it was common to call people the sons or daughters of illustrious ancestors, they were never described as their brothers or sisters. This holds true for both the Bible and the Qur'an. The attempts by Muslim commentators to explain away the strange confusion between the true sister of Aaron and the mother of Jesus are simply unconvincing. This impression does indeed seem to be very appropriate:

The evidence in favour of the claim that Muhammad erred at this point is, on the contrary, entirely persuasive. As pointed out already, the original name of Mary was the same as that of the actual sister of Aaron, Miriam in Hebrew and Maryam in Arabic. If there had been no real sister of Aaron by that name, the title given to Mary would still have seemed inappropriate. But, as there really was a Miriam, sister of Aaron, the anachronism so obviously presents itself. What strengthens this conclusion is the fact that Miriam is distinctly called the "sister of Aaron" in the Bible:

We have seen that ukhta Harun in the Qur'an must mean the blood-sister of Aaron and this is precisely what Miriam was. Muhammad has clearly confused Maryam, the mother of Jesus, with this woman. Furthermore the evidence is strongly substantiated by the name given to Mary's father in the Qur'an. In the Bible we read that Jochebed "bore to Amran, Aaron and Moses and Miriam their sister" (Numbers 26.59). So the father of Aaron and Miriam was a man called Amran - and yet this is the very name given to the father of Mary, the mother of Jesus, in the Qur'an' He is called Imran, the Arabic form of Amran (as Ibrahim is the Arabic form of Abraham). Mary, accordingly, is expressly called Maryamabnata 'Imraan - "Mary, daughter of Imran" - in the Qur'an (Surah 66.12). So she is not only called the sister of Aaron but also the daughter of Imran. We therefore have a double-proof of the fact that she has been confused with Miriam, the true sister of Aaron and daughter of Amran.

Lastly, it may well be asked, why is Mary called the "sister of Aaron" in the Qur'an if she is not confused with Miriam? We have shown that she was in no way descended from him and no more closely related to him than to any other patriarch or figurehead of Israel. Accordingly, what relevance is there in the appellation? Why was she called after Aaron rather than Moses, Elijah, Joseph, Solomon, or some other prophet? Not only can one find no relevance in the title, the passage quoted above from the Book of Hebrews also makes it plain that it is, on the contrary, ill-conceived and quite inappropriate.

Let it be said in conclusion that, whereas the Qur'an is a truly remarkable book and one of many virtues, it hardly justifies its claim to be the Word of God.

Muhammad and The Religion of Islam: Table of Contents

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