Irrational belief must yield to facts
James M. 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 historical fact. Normally, these differences should not pose any material or down-to-earth problems, provided they remain in the realm of abstract theology.
However, 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 and elsewhere around the world struggling with Islam.
This article explores passages in the Quran that contradict one simple historical fact, and transform or add assertions to the much older and much more reliable 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 Qurans "inlibration" (from the root "libr" or "book") with Christs "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.
For problems inhering in this doctrine, see this article, which discusses Gabriels role. This article brings out the paradox of Islamic belief in the Oneness of Allah and the uncreatedness of the Quran.
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 (Romans 14:5, 22; 1 Corinthians 1:13-17; 7:6, 10, 12, 17). 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 claimed inspiration of the Quran.
The following 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 When Our clear revelations are recited to them, those who do not expect to meet Us say, "Bring [us] a different Quran, or change it." [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 the torment of an awesome Day, if I were to disobey my Lord." (MAS Abdel Haleem, The Quran, Oxford UP, 2004. This translation is used in the rest of the article, unless otherwise noted)
This promise of torment as a penalty for changing the Book applies not only to Muhammad, but also to all later followers. Today, most Muslims take that verse seriously and would not dare to change a versethey may interpret some difficult verses softly, but never change them. However, as the Quran was being formed over the early decades, it did undergo changes, as this article shows.
These short verses in the Meccan suras also show the super-high standard of inspiration:
39:28 An Arabic Quran free from any distortionso that people may be mindful.
55:1 It is the Lord of Mercy 2 who taught the Quran.
75:17 We shall make sure of its [the Qurans] safe collection and recitation. 18 When We have recited it, repeat the recitation 19 and We shall make it clear.
26:192 Truly, this Quran has been sent down by the Lord of the worlds: 193 the Trustworthy Spirit [Gabriel] brought it down 194 to your heart [Prophet], so that you could bring warning 195 in a clear Arabic tongue.
All of these verses land Muslims in interpretive problems, because every word must be taken as they are written, when the passages are clearnot, 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 explain 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 [A]nd [the Jews] said, "We have killed the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, the Messenger of God." (They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, though it was made to appear like that to him. Those that disagreed about him are full of doubt, with no knowledge to follow, only supposition: they certainly did not kill him.
This passage denying Jesus actual death absorbs Gnostic teaching circulating around the larger Mediterranean world, 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. (For more information on Gnosticism and other sources inspiring this belief in the Quran, see this chapter, and scroll down to "Denial of the Crucifixion of Jesus.") Thus, later Muslims who adopt an absolutist interpretation of straightforward verses have difficulties in showing that Jesus was not crucified. Some commentators, for example, Maulana Muhammad Ali, assert without reliable evidence that Jesus traveled to Kashmir and was buried there (Sura 23:50). Though he belongs to the Ahmadiyyah sect, this shows how far revelation and the interpretation of revelations can go astray. But how can we blame Maulana Ali? After all, Muhammad went astray in Sura 4:157.
The following syllogism reflects the conflict between an absolutist doctrine of the inspiration of the Quran, a clear verse that is impossible to rationalize away (Sura 4:157), and unadorned history.
(1) Every historical fact that contradicts the revealed Quran did not actually happen.
(2) The crucifixion of Jesus is an historical fact that contradicts the revealed Quran.
(3) Therefore, the crucifixion of Jesus 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 Christianityindeed, some were biased against it.
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").
Therefore, in light of all this extra-Biblical evidencequite apart from its theological interpretationthe historical fact of the crucifixion 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.
For a superb analysis of how absurd this denial of the crucifixion can become even within the Quran itself, see this article.
This article compares the best argument for the validity of Islam (the Quran) with the best argument for the validity of Christianity (the Resurrection).
3. The Quran contradicts the Biblical biography of Abraham and Isaac.
37:102 When the boy was old enough to work with his father, Abraham said, "My son, I have seen myself sacrificing you in a dream. What do you think?" He said, "Father, do as you are commanded and, God willing, you will find me steadfast."
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 readers suspense. However, Muhammad contradicts this passage because Abrahams son Ishmael, born from Hagar, Sarahs handmaid, was to be sacrificed. Even though Ishmael is not mentioned by name, his identity is a fair deduction because Sura 37:117 says that Allah gave Abraham the good news of Isaac after the near-sacrifice of (the unnamed) Ishmael. Be that as it may, Abraham and Ishmael, says traditional Islam, both pass the test. Countless Muslims believe this took place, not the Akedah in Genesis.
If there is any contradiction or discrepancy, the fault must lie in the earlier Bible, because Muhammad believes that he spoke the final revelation. Jews were said to conceal the truth about Muhammads prophethood and the righteous practices of Islam (Suras 2:42, 146, 159, 174; 3:187-188; 5:70), so the Bible really testifies about him, though the Jews do not want this to leak out. His later followers assert that the Bible had been corrupted or altered (2:75, 79; 3:77-78; 4:44-49).
This belief leads to the (unspoken) logic of any later absolutist interpreter of the Quran:
(4) Every passage in the earlier Bible that disagrees with the later Quran
has been altered or corrupted.
(5) The Akedah in Genesis 22 disagrees with the later Quran.
(6) Therefore, the Akedah in Genesis 22 has been altered or corrupted.
Before we challenge this unsound logic, we should examine a similar revelation in the Quran and another absolutist syllogism.
For more information on the Quranic confusion on Abraham and Ishmael, see this article.
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 Remember when Abraham said, "Lord, make this town [Mecca] safe! Lord, preserve me and my offspring from idolatry . . . .
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 As Abraham and Ishmael built up the foundation of the House [Kabah] [they prayed, "Our Lord, accept [this] from us" . . . .
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) If the revealed Quranic adds to the Bible and fabricates historical facts,
then the revelations are still true and accurate.
(8) The revelation about Abraham and Ishmael adds to the Bible and fabricates historical facts.
(9) Therefore, that revelation 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 of the argument can be boiled down to this: 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) Muhammads motives to receive such revelations (see 2:122-129); and (C) the absence of evidence and of 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 Muhammads time, about 2100 years after Moses.
A. Personally, I believe Abraham and the other patriarchs actually lived, but I must concede that no extra-Biblical evidencee.g. archeological or textualconfirms their existence. Therefore, by extension, no reliable historical evidence can be advanced to support Abrahams sojourn down to distant Mecca. Muhammad was simply relying on Arab folk belief or his own imagination, not revelation, and elevated it to his sacred Scripture. This is not surprising, since he was not an historian, say, as Luke was, who researched the material for his Gospel and his Book of Acts (Luke 1:1-4).
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 (Life of Muhammad, trans. A. Guillaume, Oxford UP, 1955, p. 131). 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 (John 4:19-26). 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 "the religion becomes that of Allah" (Sura 2:193, Majid Fakhry, An Interpretation of the Quran, NYUP, 2000, 2004). 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 "the religion becomes that of Allah." He thus incorporated the dubious Arab custom of retaliation into the eternal Quran, which pose 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.
The Quran supports this reason: "God has made the Kabathe Sacred Housea means of support for people, and the Sacred Months, the animals for sacrifice and their garlands" . . . . Sura (5:97). 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 Abrahams 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 Abrahams 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 Abrahams sacrifice of Ishmael (outside the Quran) and his sojourn to Mecca, a devout Muslim is entitled to believeby a sheer act of faiththat 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 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 Muslim absolutists about verses claiming historical knowledge, but which actually have no basis in historical facts.
The inspiration of the Quran, as outlined in the introduction of this article, is suspect, so the entire Muslim holy book must be placed under the microscope of sound scholarship.
So far, the results do not look promising.
For more information on the problems inhering in the Quran, go to this page, and click on any of the articles.
For more information on the reliability of the Bible, go to this page, and click on any of the articles.
For other articles dealing with the non-crucifixion of Jesus, go here and here.
This article has a companion piece that may be read here.
Articles by James Arlandson
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