Chapter 11: What Every Christian Needs to Know about the Qur’an

Several weeks ago I invited to a read along in Let’s Read About the Qur’an Together! The plan is to read together – What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Qur’an by James R. White.

Feel free to grab a copy of the book and join in at anytime! So far, we’ve covered:

Chapter 11: The Perfection of the Qur’an? Transmission and Text

Chapter 11 is the final chapter dealing with the Qur’an before the book’s conclusion. In this chapter, White examines the accuracy of the transmission of the Qur’anic text over time. In order to establish Islam’s beliefs about the Qur’an, White cites I. A. Ibrahim’s strong claims about the Qur’an. One of Ibrahim’s claims noted is that “Not one letter of the Qur’an has been changed over the centuries.”

White continues the chapter challenging Islam’s claims of perfection about the Qur’an. He lays the groundwork for textual criticism of the Qur’an beginning with considering the transmission of the New Testament for comparison.

Two Kinds of Transmission: Controlled and Uncontrolled

Ancient texts were distributed in various ways. Uncontrolled transmission is where people were free to copy and distribute texts however they saw fit without restrictions. Whereas controlled transmission generally meant texts were copied and distributed via government sources. Governments may only release official text copies while restricting all others, hence, controlled distribution.

White describes first century New Testament distribution as “not only an uncontrolled, but almost a chaotic distribution.” He gives more history on the New Testament text through the ages with the main point being: despite multiple human authors in an uncontrolled environment with few copyist errors, the New Testament texts are theologically consistent with each other. The transmission of the Qur’an is compared to the New Testament in the next section.

A Startling Set of Ahadith

White begins this section looking at volume 6, numbers 509 and 510 of the Sahih Al-Bukhari ahadith collection. This collection provides the “earliest Islamic version of the story of the Qur’an’s collection, who was involved, and what motivated the project.” Using ahadith citations, White shows that Muhammad relied on those who memorized the Qur’an because there was no written Qur’anic text. There were also division very soon after Muhammad’s death and some feared portions of the Qur’an would be lost due to those dying in battle who had parts of the book memorized.

White continues throughout this long, helpful section explaining the history of the transmission of the Qur’an using early Muslim sources. The reader will discover, for example, that the Qur’an was only written down in pieces and early Muslims after Muhammad’s death decided to collect existing fragments. Once the fragments were gathered, this allowed the Qur’an to basically move from a somewhat uncontrolled to a controlled transmission.

Among the Qur’an’s texual history, White covers the Uthmanic Revision (~AD 650). This revision was a major step in compiling and controlling the Qur’an and its transmission. Read the following keeping in mind that the Qur’an is alleged to have come to Muhammad in both perfect and unchanging form.

So ’Uthman sent a message to Hafsa saying, “Send us the manuscripts of the Qur’an so that we may compile the Qur’anic materials in perfect copies and return the manuscripts to you.” Hafsa sent it to ’Uthman. ’Uthman then ordered Zaid bin Thabit, ’Abdullah bin AzZubair, Said bin Al-As and ’Abdur-Rahman bin Harith bin Hisham to rewrite the manuscripts in perfect copies. ’Uthman said to the three Quraishi men, “In case you disagree with Zaid bin Thabit on any point in the Qur’an, then write it in the dialect of Quraish, the Qur’an was revealed in their tongue.” (Kindle Locations 3444-3448).

They did so, and when they had written many copies, ’Uthman returned the original manuscripts to Hafsa. ’Uthman sent to every Muslim province one copy of what they had copied, and ordered that all the other Qur’anic materials, whether written in fragmentary manuscripts or whole copies, be burnt. (Kindle Locations 3451-3453).

Even in these historical samples White cites it is easy to see the Qur’an does not live up to its claims of perfection.

The Earliest Christian Commentary on Qur’anic Corruption

This section focuses on early Christian apologist who responded to Muslims, Al-Kindi. This early Christian apologist shows great knowledge of early Islamic history. White gives an extended look at Al-Kindi’s apology breaking down key portions pointing out important aspects of the apology.

Readers would do well to read Al-Kindi’s apology for themselves and White’s interactions will help on the apologetic front. I’ll provide one example from this lengthy section before moving on.

[Quoting Al-Kindi] The result was that in the Caliphate of ’Uthman it was discovered that there was no consent as to the true text. Meantime ’Ali was conspiring against ’Uthman and aiming at his overthrow. Undoubtedly it was his purpose to kill him. One man, then, read one version of the Qur’an, his neighbor another, and differed. One man said to his neighbor: “My text is better than yours,” while his neighbor defended his own. So additions and losses came about and falsification of the text.

[White responds] Clearly the issues went far beyond matters of vowel pointing or pronunciation. These touched upon what is called the rasm, the actual wording of the consonantal text. And the divisions between versions were related not just to theology but to politics as well. (Kindle Locations 3530-3536).

A Few Other Voices From History

In this short section, White provides examples of other historical records that show the purity of the Qur’an was not possible.

One example from Sunan Ibn Majah illustrates the point.

It is well known that Aisha, Muhammad’s youthful and favorite wife, told a story about an ayah that was lost because  .  .  . it was eaten by a sheep. Yes, that happened. It was narrated that Aishah said: “The Verse of stoning and of breastfeeding an adult ten times was revealed, and the paper was with me under my pillow. When the Messenger of Allah died, we were preoccupied with his death, and a tame sheep came in and ate   it.” (Kindle Locations 3620-3623).

A Few Specific Examples

  • First Contrast: Text
    • Ibn Mas´ud and Surah 2: 222 and the Fogg’s Palimpsest Manuscript

The book includes a graphic to show manuscript editing by comparing Surah 2:222 from Fogg’s Palimpsest manuscript and the Uthmanic reading. White puts one text on top of the other with lines drawn to show where the words in each manuscript have been moved by copyists.

Another helpful chapter which concludes with the following questions.

In the compilation of a work and in its transmission over time, was the process free or controlled? If free, is there sufficient evidence upon which to re-create the original text? If controlled, can we know that those who controlled it handled the text in a trustworthy manner? (Kindle Locations 3686-3688).

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