Revisiting the issue of the Quran’s "Descent" – All at once or one piece at a time?

Responding to the claims of Muslim Apologist Bassam Zawadi

Sam Shamoun

Bassam Zawadi has taken a stab at addressing (*) my article concerning the contradictory teachings of the Quran, whether it was "sent down" to Muhammad all at once or given in intervals, i.e. portions at a time (*).

Zawadi says:

Shamoun after studying Islam for more than 15 years still doesn't understand that the Qur'an is not the only source of religious authority for Muslims. Or perhaps he does know this, but as usual he is inconsistent in his methodology.

It isn’t that I don’t understand that orthodox Muslims claim that the Quran isn’t the only source of religious authority. Rather, I simply don’t buy it since it contradicts the testimony of the Muslim scripture that it is a fully detailed explanation of everything and doesn’t need any outside source to explain it:

And no question do they bring to thee but We reveal to thee the truth and the best explanation (waahsana tafseeran) (thereof). S. 25:33 Y. Ali

Shall I seek other than Allah for judge, when He it is Who hath revealed unto you (this) Scripture, fully explained? Those unto whom We gave the Scripture (aforetime) know that it is revealed from thy Lord in truth. So be not thou (O Muhammad) of the waverers. Perfected is the Word of thy Lord in truth and justice. There is naught that can change His words. He is the Hearer, the Knower. S. 6:114-115

Certainly, We have brought to them a Book (the Qur'an) which We have explained in detail with knowledge, - a guidance and a mercy to a people who believe. S. 7:52 Hilali-Khan

In their history verily there is a lesson for men of understanding. It is no invented story but a confirmation of the existing (Scripture) and a detailed explanation of everything, and a guidance and a mercy for folk who believe. S. 12:111

One day We shall raise from all Peoples a witness against them, from amongst themselves: and We shall bring thee as a witness against these (thy people): and We have sent down to thee the Book explaining all things, a Guide, a Mercy, and Glad Tidings to Muslims. S. 16:89 Y. Ali

Thus, to claim otherwise, e.g. that one needs to consult Muhammad’s so-called Sunna, is to falsify what the Quran says of itself. For more details please consult the article How Muhammad’s Sunna Trumps Allah’s Book.

Yet this in itself introduces another contradiction, specifically, the Muslim scripture is anything but complete since it lacks essential details and necessary background information, as well as context. The fact of the matter is that the Quran is a rather disjointed, incoherent and unintelligible piece of writing, just as many scholars have pointed out:

"There are indeed many roughnesses of this kind, and these, it is here claimed, are fundamental evidence for revision. Besides the points already noticed – hidden rhymes, and rhyme-phrases not woven into the texture of the passage – there are the following: abrupt changes of rhyme; repetition of the same rhyme word or rhyme phrase in adjoining verses; the intrusion of an extraneous subject into a passage otherwise homogeneous; a differing treatment of the same subject in neighboring verses, often with repetition of words and phrases; breaks in grammatical construction which raise difficulties in exegesis; abrupt changes in the length of verses; sudden changes of the dramatic situation, with changes of pronoun from singular to plural, from second to third person, and so on; the juxtaposition of apparently contradictory statements; the juxtaposition of passages of different date, with the intrusion of late phrases into early verses. In many cases a passage has alternative continuations which follow one another in the present text. The second of the alternatives is marked by a break in sense and by a break in grammatical construction, since the connection is not with what immediately precedes, but with what stands some distance back." (Richard Bell & W. M. Watt, Introduction to the Quran [Edinburgh, 1977], p. 93 - as cited in Ibn Warraq's Why I am not a Muslim [Prometheus Books; Amherst NY, 1995], pp. 112-113; italic emphasis ours)

The astute remarks and comments of the late Iranian Muslim scholar Ali Dashti still hold true:

"The Qor'an contains sentences which are incomplete and not fully intelligible without the aid of commentaries; foreign words, unfamiliar Arabic words, and words used with other than the normal meaning; adjectives and verbs inflected without observance of the concords of gender and number; illogically and ungrammatically applied pronouns which sometimes have no referent; and predicates which in rhymed passages are often remote from the subjects. These and other such aberrations in the language have given scope to critics who deny the Qor'an's eloquence. The problem also occupied the minds of devout Moslems. It forced the commentators to search for explanations and was probably one of the causes of disagreement over readings." (Dashti, Twenty-Three Years: A Study of the Prophetic Career of Mohammad, translated from Persian by F.R.C. Bagley [Mazda Publishers, Costa Mesa, CA 1994], pp. 48-49)


"To sum up, more than one hundred Qor'anic aberrations from the normal rules and structure of Arabic have been noted. Needless to say, the commentators strove to find explanations and justifications for these irregularities.

"Among them was the great commentator and philologist Mahmud oz-Zamakhshari (467/1075-538/1144), of whom a Moorish author wrote: ‘This grammar-obsessed pedant has committed a shocking error. Our task is not to make the readings conform to Arabic grammar, but to take the whole of the Qor'an as it is and make the Arabic grammar conform to the Qor'an.’

"Up to a point this argument is justifiable. A nation's great speakers and writers respect the rules of its language in so far as they avoid modes of expression which are not generally understood and popularly accepted, though they may occasionally find themselves obliged to take liberties. Among the pre-Islamic Arabs, rhetoric and poetry were well developed and grammatical conventions were already established. The Qor'an, being in the belief of Moslems superior to all previous products of the rhetorical genius, must contain the fewest irregularities.

"Yet the Moorish author's censure of Zamakhshari is open to criticism on the ground that it reverses the usual argument. This is that the Qor'an is God's word because it has a sublime eloquence which no human being can match, and that the man who uttered it was therefore a prophet. The Moorish author maintained that the Qor'an is faultless because it is God's word and that the problem of the grammatical errors in it must be solved by changing the rules of Arabic grammar. In other words, while most Moslems answer deniers by citing the Qor'an's eloquence as proof of Mohammad's prophethood, the Moorish author, having taken the Qor'an's divine origin and Mohammad's prophethood for granted, held all discussion of the Qor'an's wording and contents to be inadmissible." (Pp. 50-51; underline emphasis ours)

For more on the unintelligibility and disjointedness of the Quran please consult the articles found the section on The Incoherence of the Qur’an.

Zawadi proceeds to misrepresent my position:

If Shamoun doesn't like the idea of how Muslims derive their religious teachings, then that is just too bad. If Shamoun strictly believes in "Quran only" then that means that he should remove all of his arguments that are based upon either hadith or Muslim commentators (we estimate this to be around 90% of his arguments or possibly more).

It isn’t that I believe in the Quran alone and reject the ahadith, since I neither affirm the inspiration of the Quran nor the authenticity or authority of the hadiths. Rather, I appeal to these sources to show how the Quran not only contradicts itself, but that there are major problems within the collection of traditions since these reports often conflict with one another as well as teaching things that are contrary to the Muslim scripture itself. I further source the Islamic narratives, or Muslim exegetes, to substantiate my interpretation of a given Islamic verse or text lest I be accused of reading into it my own views or understanding.

Zawadi then tries to show that I am inconsistent in my methodology by raising the following example:

For example, Shamoun has no problem appealing to the commentary of Imam Qurtubi or Imam Tabari when they say that Paul was a disciple of Jesus. Shamoun wouldn't have the attitude:

The Quran nowhere says that Paul was a disciple of Jesus, hence this is a desperate argument.

There are two main problems with Zawadi’s false analogy. First, Zawadi’s example simply provides further evidence that the Quran is incomplete since it fails to mention important details in the lives of the prophets and apostles, such as the names of Jesus’ followers whom the Quran calls Muslims (cf. Q. 3:52; 5:111).

The Quran also doesn’t bother to mention the names of the prophets’ wives, i.e. it never tells its readers that Abraham had children from three different women but actually suggests that his sons Isaac and Ishmael are from the same mother! In fact, the Quran implies that Ishmael was the father of Isaac and that Isaac and Jacob were brothers (1, 2)!

The Muslim scripture also doesn’t know the names of Adam’s first two sons, doesn’t record God’s command to Moses to observe the Passover, the major event which marked the Exodus. Nor does it ever mention Jerusalem but suggests that the Israelites actually inherited the land of Egypt (*)!

Second, I do not base my case on what al-Tabari or al-Qurtubi wrote concerning the apostle Paul, but on the explicit statements of the Quran that God promised Jesus that his faithful followers will become uppermost and remain dominant till the last day:

When Allah said, "Jesus, I will take thee to Me and will raise thee to Me and I will purify thee of those who believe not. I will set thy followers ABOVE the unbelievers TILL THE RESURRECTION DAY. Then unto Me shall you return, and I will decide between you, as to what you were at variance on." S. 3:55

O ye who believe! Be ye helpers of Allah: as said Jesus the son of Mary to the Disciples, "Who will be my helpers to (the work of) Allah?" Said the Disciples, "We are Allah's helpers!" then a portion of the Children of Israel believed, and a portion disbelieved: But We gave power to those who believed against their enemies, AND THEY BECAME THE ONES THAT PREVAILED. S. 61:14

This assertion invites historical investigation, one which includes consulting the earliest historical sources we have from the time of Christ and the first Christians. But to do so is to contend with the mission and epistles of Paul, since he wrote the great bulk of the earliest extant Christian writings that we possess, and see how this fits in with the Quran’s claim that the true believers would prevail over the disbelievers till the day of resurrection.

In other words, if the Quran is correct then Paul must have been one of the believers that God used to spread the true message of Jesus since this is the message, the Gospel, which has prevailed and is spreading throughout the entire world till this very day. Yet if Paul corrupted Christianity, as Muslims such as Zawadi contend, then the Quran is mistaken since Allah failed to preserve Jesus’ message and wasn’t powerful enough to guarantee that the true believers in Jesus would continue to prevail till the last day.

The comments of al-Tabari and al-Qurtubi are simply incidental in that I only source them to show that even Islamic scholars can see how these Quranic statements have a direct bearing on how a Muslim is to view Paul and his impact in spreading Christianity.

And although Zawadi imagines that he has "refuted" my argument we encourage the readers to consult the following where I document how the Quran indirectly confirms Paul’s apostleship (*

Lord willing, in the near future I plan on addressing another "reply" by a Muslim concerning this issue which will also refute Zawadi’s desperate attempt of explaining away the Quran’s implicit attestation that "Pauline" Christianity is the true message of Christ.

Zawadi argues that Q. 2:185 doesn’t prove that the entire scripture was sent down in the month of Ramadan:

Shamoun is reading into the verse. The verse does not say that the entire Qur'an was revealed to mankind in that one night. The verse only says that the Qur'an, which is a book that contains guidance for mankind was revealed that night. That is all. There is a big difference between saying that the Qur'an was revealed to mankind and saying that the Qur'an, which contains guidance for mankind was revealed, since the latter does not necessarily express to whom the Qur'an (which contains guidance) was being revealed to. So Surah 2:185 does not say that the entire Qur'an was revealed to mankind in one night as Shamoun alleged. It only says that the Qur'an was revealed (doesn't say to whom) and that the Qur'an contains guidance for mankind.

It is obvious from Zawadi’s statements that he didn’t even bother reading the context carefully since it is evident that this is referring to the Quran being "sent down" specifically to guide and instruct the Muslims concerning how to carry out their religious obligations such as fasting:

O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that ye may (learn) self-restraint, - (Fasting) for a fixed number of days; but if any of you is ill, or on a journey, the prescribed number (Should be made up) from days later. For those who can do it (With hardship), is a ransom, the feeding of one that is indigent. But he that will give more, of his own free will, - it is better for him. And it is better for you that ye fast, if ye only knew. Ramadhan is the (month) in which was sent down the Qur'an, as a guide to mankind, also clear (Signs) for guidance and judgment (Between right and wrong). So every one of you who is present (at his home) during that month should spend it in fasting, but if any one is ill, or on a journey, the prescribed period (Should be made up) by days later. God intends every facility for you; He does not want to put to difficulties. (He wants you) to complete the prescribed period, and to glorify Him in that He has guided you; and perchance ye shall be grateful. S. 2:183-185

It therefore makes absolutely no sense to argue, like Zawadi does, that the Quran was sent down in Ramadan for the specific purpose of guiding mankind even though it wasn’t given to them until much later! This is nothing more than an ad hoc explanation and only proves that Zawadi will say just about anything to get away from admitting or acknowledging the problem posed by this particular text.

There is not the slightest hint in the above text that the phrase "as a guide to mankind" is to be separated from the first part of the verse and actually refers to a different time than the one mentioned, i.e. Ramadan. The theory that the Quran was actually not sent to mankind but to the angels in Ramadan and only later revealed to Muhammad piece by piece and that stretched out over more than twenty years has no basis in the text itself but is forced onto it from the outside. Zawadi’s interpretation is eisegesis, not exegesis.

Zawadi cites a narration from Musnad Ahmad which provides further attestation that the Quran was "revealed" or "sent down" on the 24th night of Ramadan to Muhammad, and not to the lowest heaven:

(The Suhuf (Pages) of Ibrahim were revealed during the first night of Ramadan. The Torah was revealed during the sixth night of Ramadan. The Injil was revealed during the thirteenth night of Ramadan. Allah revealed the Qur'an on the twenty-fourth night of Ramadan.)

The foregoing shows that, much like Moses and Jesus didn't receive parts of the Torah and Injil over time but were given the entirety of these Scriptures all at once, Muhammad must have also received the Quran in a similar manner.

Moreover, by sourcing this particular narration Zawadi introduces another contradiction, and further proves why the so-called Sunna fails to explain the Quran with all its host of errors and contradictions. According to this particular narration, the Muslim scripture was "sent down" on the 24th day of Ramadan. Zawadi further says that this is an authentic report:

The above hadith is found in Musnad Ahmed and hadith scholar Ahmad Shaakir in 'Umdat-ut-Tafseer, Volume 1, page 220 pointed out that it is an authentic narration.

The problem which Zawadi now faces is that, according to the Quran’s own witness, the Muslim scripture was "revealed" on the night of decree or power (laylat al-qadr):

Verily! We have sent it (this Qur'an) down in the night of Al-Qadr (Decree) And what will make you know what the night of Al-Qadr (Decree) is? The night of Al-Qadr (Decree) is better than a thousand months (i.e. worshipping Allah in that night is better than worshipping Him a thousand months, i.e. 83 years and 4 months). Therein descend the angels and the Ruh [Jibrael (Gabriel)] by Allah's Permission with all Decrees, Peace! (All that night, there is Peace and Goodness from Allah to His believing slaves) until the appearance of dawn. S. 97:1-5 Hilali-Khan

CDXLIX: Tafsir of Surat al-Qadr, which begins "We sent it down"

It is said that "matla'" (97:5) is rising, and matla' is the place from which it rises. In "Anzalnahu" (97:1) the ha' refers to the Qur'an. It is in the plural when it is Allah who sent it down. The Arabs stress the action of one and makes it plural so that it has greater stress. (Aisha Bewley, The Sahih Collection of al-Bukhari, Chapter 68. Book of Tafsir; source; underline emphasis ours)

These next narrations say that the exact date of this night was unknown by Muhammad since he had forgotten it!

II: The excellence of the Night of Power

Allah Almighty says, "Truly We sent it down on the Night of Power. And what will convey to you what the Night of Power is? The Night of Power is better than a thousand months. In it the angels and the Spirit descend by their Lord's authority with every ordinance. It is Peace until the coming of the dawn." (97)

Ibn 'Uyayna said, "The ma in the Qur'an in 'ma adraka' indicates that He has informed him, and the ma in 'ma yudrika' that He has not informed him." …

III: Looking for the Night of Power during the last seven days

1911. It is related from Ibn 'Umar that some of the Companions of the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, were shown in a dream that the Night of Power is during the last seven days. The Messenger of Allah said, "I think that your dreams agree about the last seven. Those who want to look for it, should look for it in the last seven."

1912. It is related that Abu Salama said, "I asked Abu Sa'id, who was a friend of mine, and he said, 'We did i'tikaf with the Prophet during the middle ten days of Ramadan. He came out on the morning of the twentieth and addressed us, saying, "I was shown the Night of Power and then I was made to forget it (or I forgot it). So look for it on the odd nights of the last ten. I dreamed that I was prostrating in water and mud. Those who did i'tikaf with me should continue." We continued and did not see the slightest wisp of a cloud in the sky. A cloud came and it rained until the roof of the mosque, which was made of palm-fronds, was soaked. The iqama for the prayer was given and I saw the Messenger of Allah prostrating in water and mud so that I could see the marks of the mud on his forehead.’" (Bewley, The Sahih Collection of al-Bukhari, Chapter 35. The Book of Tarawih Prayers; source; underline emphasis ours)

How, then, can there be a sound report which gives the exact date of the month that the Quran was "sent down" when there are other so-called authentic narrations of Muhammad where he didn’t know this date because he was made to forget and even told Muslims to look for it within the last ten days of Ramadan because of it?

Moreover, in the narration of Musnad Ahmad it is the 24th night of Ramadan, while in the second set of narrations it supposedly happened in an odd night within the last seven or last ten nights of that month. Is 24 an odd number according to Islam?

Zawadi further says:

Here we see that the Prophet (peace be upon him) stated that the Qur'an was revealed on the 24th of Ramadan. NOW OBVIOUSLY, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and his companions all knew that he received the Qur'an gradually. So OBVIOUSLY the Prophet (peace be upon him) and his companions weren't all morons to the extent that they believed that the entire Qur'an was revealed to the Prophet (peace be upon him) at one go and at the same time it was being revealed gradually.

What is obvious is that the Quran is contradicting itself since certain passages claim that it was composed piecemeal whereas other verses suggest that it was "revealed" in its entirety all at once. What is further obvious is that Muslims who saw the problem came up with the convenient explanation that the passages that speak of the entire Quran being "sent down" refer to its alleged descent to the lowest heaven, even though the Muslim scripture itself never states this. What is also obvious is that Zawadi thinks that narrations which were composed hundreds of years after Muhammad’s death are reliable enough to explain the Muslim text, but has no problem questioning the NT documents, specifically the canonical Gospels, despite the fact that these are first-century writings which were composed within the lifetime of the eyewitnesses to Christ!

I conclude by adapting Zawadi’s own words. So we once again expose both Zawadi’s ignorance and dishonest handling of his own sources, as well as his rather poor method of argumentation.

And here I would also like to adapt Zawadi’s opening remarks and apply it to him since the shoe fits better on the other foot, namely his own. Now what does Zawadi do when he realizes he has no rational, coherent response to the gross errors and contradictions of the Quran? Well, he writes another incoherent piece of babble in order to give the appearance that he is really addressing the issues, even though his "reply" actually confirms our points and helps to further highlight and bring out the gross mistakes within the Quran more clearly!

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