Evaluating Islamic Apologetics: The ‘Perfect Preservation’ of the Qur’an

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Disclaimer: Part of this blog is dedicated to examining apologetic arguments forwarded in favour of the purported truths of specific religious traditions. While we lend a critical eye to some of these claims we do not advocate in favour of any one religion or worldview, and neither is it our goal to refute the purported truths of a religion or worldview. We limit ourselves to looking at common (and problematic) claims and examine them in light of the available evidence. This article focuses on the argument from perfect preservation of the Qur’an, a common contemporary Muslim apologetic.

The Argument from Perfect Preservation

Some Muslim apologists, theologians, and commentators maintain that the Qur’an has been perfectly preserved and that this is evidence of its miraculous and divine nature. Apologist Mazhar Kazi states that,

“Muslims and non-Muslims both agree that no change has ever occurred in the text of the Quran… it is a miracle of the Quran that no change has occurred in a single word, a single [letter of the] alphabet, a single punctuation mark, or a single diacritical mark in the text of the Quran during the last fourteen centuries” (1).

The website Why Islam, an organization which claims to disseminate accurate information on the Islamic religion and the Qur’an, claims that,

“The Glorious Quran is the pure word of God. There is not a single word therein that is not divine. Divine verses therefore, have not been mingled with the history of the Arabs or the events that occurred during the period its revelation. The Book that God revealed to him for the guidance of mankind exists today in its original language without the slightest alteration in its vocabulary” (2).

Muslim Turkish scholar Muhammed Fethullah Gülen asserts that “The Qur’an’s text is entirely reliable. It has not been altered, edited, or tampered with since it was revealed… all Muslims know only one Qur’an, perfectly preserved in its original words since the Prophet’s death, when Revelation ended” (3).

While personally undertaking work in a particular qualitative discourse of Christian and Muslim apologetic debates, I witnessed the argument presented by the reputable Ahmed Deedat, also claiming that the Qur’an is God’s authoritative word that has been perfectly preserved down to the very letter.

Deedat, Kazi, and Fethullah Gülen essentially make the argument that the perfect preservation of the Qur’an is itself miraculous and evidence that God must have been involved in preserving it. A verse these apologists might appeal to from the Qur’an is sura 15, ayah 9, which reads that: “We have, without doubt, sent down the Message; and We will assuredly guard it (from corruption).” Allah promised Muslims that he would guard the accuracy and preservation of his revelation.

However, it is maintained here that this argument is undermined on a number of grounds. Muslim sources from biographies and the Hadith used by scholars to construct early Islamic history and the sayings and deeds of Muhammad suggest that this view cannot be true. These sources, as it should become clear as we proceeded, provide us with important clues as to the origin and evolution of the Qur’an itself.

Parts of the Qur’an Lost After the Battle of Yamama

The classical account of the Prophet Muhammad (b. 570) says that from around the year 610 until his death in 632 CE he received revelations from Allah and communicated them to his scribes and companions. These scribes would take to memorizing verses and sometimes recorded them on items such as stalks, palm leaves, animal bones, and stones. As we noted in our article on the classical account of Muhammad’s life and ministry, the revelations from Allah stopped when the Prophet died unexpectedly.

However, at the end of the same year of Muhammad’s death, there was a rebellion across the Muslim community. The first caliph who had immediately taken control of the ummah (Muslim community) after the death of Muhammad, Abu Bakr, had to squelch a rebellion emanating from the ranks of apostates across several tribes. These tribes had declared independence from the Muslim community, which prompted Abu Bakr to send an army to engage them in battle. We learn from Abu Dawood, a collector of Hadith (sayings and deeds of Muhammad), a rather interesting plan of Abu Bakr’s. Abu Bakr was aware that Allah had promised to preserve the Qur’an (cf. 15:9) and so reasoned that if he could bring together all the Muslims who had memorized the Prophet’s revelations (those who have memorized the Qur’an are known as a hafiz) and send them into battle it would almost certainly guarantee victory. Essentially their enemy would be fighting a futile battle against God himself, which they surely would not win. The Muslims were the eventual winners but many of the hafiz had died, resulting in the loss of parts of the Qur’an. Ibn Abi Dawud, a compiler of Hadith, in Kitab al-Masahif says that portions of the Qur’an had been lost during this battle:

“Many (of the passages) of the Qur’an that were sent down were known by those who died on the day of Yamama… but they were not known (by those who) survived them, nor were they written down, nor had Abu Bakr, Umar or Uthman (by that time) collected the Qur’an, nor were they found with even one (person) after them.

Certain parts of the Qur’an had died with their memorizers in battle and were not known by anyone afterwards. Consequently, Sahih al-Bukhari, widely regarded as the most authoritative collectors of Hadith tradition, recounts concern rising within the leadership over the possibility that the Qur’an could be lost because of this. So Abu Bakr sends for Zaid ibn Thabit and commissions him to collect the remaining pieces of the Qur’an (emphasis added):

“Abu Bakr As-Siddiq sent for me when the people of Yamama had been killed (i.e., a number of the Prophet’s Companions who fought against Musailima). (I went to him) and found `Umar bin Al- Khattab sitting with him. Abu Bakr then said (to me), “`Umar has come to me and said: “Casualties were heavy among the Qurra’ of the Qur’an (i.e. those who knew the Qur’an by heart) on the day of the Battle of Yamama, and I am afraid that more heavy casualties may take place among the Qurra’ on other battlefields, whereby a large part of the Qur’an may be lost’. “Therefore I suggest, you (Abu Bakr) order that the Qur’an be collected.” I said to `Umar, “How can you do something which Allah’s Apostle did not do?” `Umar said, “By Allah, that is a good project.” `Umar kept on urging me to accept his proposal till Allah opened my chest for it and I began to realize the good in the idea which `Umar had realized.” Then Abu Bakr said (to me). ‘You are a wise young man and we do not have any suspicion about you, and you used to write the Divine Inspiration for Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ). So you should search for (the fragmentary scripts of) the Qur’an and collect it in one book.” (4986).

We also read that there was questioning between these men over whether or not producing God’s revelation in the form of a single book was appropriate, for the Prophet had not thought it necessary to do so. Nonetheless, Abu Bakr asserts that “By Allah, it is a good project” and so commits Zaid ibn Thabit to go about collecting and looking for pieces of the Qur’an from palm stalks, thin white stones, and from those who had memorized it. Zaid ibn Thabit then completed his manuscript around 634 CE and it was given to Abu Bakr in whose possession it remained until his death. It was then given to caliph Umar and then to Hafsa, a widow of Muhammad.

Variations Throughout the Muslim Empire

Fast-forwarding to the reign of Uthman (after the assassination of Umar by a Persian slave) around twenty years post the Prophet’s death, we learn from Muslim sources that there was a lack of uniformity pertaining to the Qur’an across the growing Muslim empire. Evidently, this was because other memorizers had also begun compiling and communicating their own versions of the text. Sahih al-Bukhari recounts how one of Muhammad’s companions, Hudhaifa bin al-Yaman, approached Uthman to report that the Qur’an was being recited with extensive variations throughout the empire,

“Hudhaifa bin Al-Yaman came to `Uthman at the time when the people of Sham and the people of Iraq were Waging war to conquer Arminya and Adharbijan. Hudhaifa was afraid of their (the people of Sham and Iraq) differences in the recitation of the Qur’an, so he said to `Uthman, “O chief of the Believers! Save this nation before they differ about the Book (Qur’an) as Jews and the Christians did before.” 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, Sa`id bin Al-As and `AbdurRahman 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” (4987, emphasis added).

This they did and when they had completed writing copies, “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” (4987).

One might speculate as to why Uthman wanted to “standardize” the Qur’an across the empire by producing one copy and burning all the other ones he disagreed with. As is the case with any expanding empire, centralized rule becomes difficult. In Islam’s case, as it grew the newly subjugated and conquered peoples would have known little about the religion’s core, defining beliefs and practices. They might have felt little loyalty to Muhammad’s successors ruling them from all the way in Medina. By the time Uthman was in power, the empire owned territories across the Middle East, Azerbaijan, Anatolia, Egypt, and northern Africa (there were twelve provinces in all when Uthman was the caliph). It was in some of these far outlying areas and in several major cities that the Qur’an was being recited with variation. Uthman thought that by standardizing the Qur’an it would unite all the people under the sole rule of the caliphate. The Qur’an that Muslim’s believe they have today is this standardized one produced by Uthman.

However, that Uthman burnt all the rival texts is very unfortunate because it has prevented scholars from the disciplines of literary and historical criticism producing a critical edition of the Qur’an based on a comparison of the earliest manuscripts. We simply cannot have as much confidence in the Qur’an today as we could have if, say, the Islamic sources informed of a reasoned process of manuscript collection by Muhammad’s companions who produced a single Qur’anic manuscript. If that was the case then we could have greater confidence. After all, imagine having in one’s possession extant manuscripts dating to just twenty years of the Prophet. That would be any textual critics’ dream. We further will never know if Uthman’s edition of the Qur’an is the same as the Prophet’s, because we cannot compare them. Muslims who believe that God supernaturally preserved the Qur’an might take confidence in Uthman’s edition as accurate and unchanged from the Prophet’s revelation, but for anyone who does not share these theological convictions this will be unsatisfactory.

Competition to Uthman

Uthman’s standardizing of the Qur’an wasn’t left unchallenged by fellow Muslims. Another companion of Muhammad, Abdullah Ibn Masud, claimed that his version was most reliable and authoritative. Abdullah Ibn Masud had been a close companion to the Prophet and was even credited by Muhammad for his memorization skills. Sahih al-Bukhari records his earnest contestation:

“Shaqiq bin Salama narrates: Once ‘Abdullah bin Mas’ud delivered a sermon before us and said, “By Allah, I learnt over seventy Suras direct from Allah’s Apostle. By Allah, the companions of the Prophet came to know that I am one of those who know Allah’s Book best of all of them, yet I am not the best of them” (6:522).

He further challenged anyone to match his memory regarding the Prophet’s revelations:

“By Allah other than Whom none has the right to be worshipped! There is no Sura revealed in Allah’s Book but I know at what place it was revealed; and there is no Verse revealed in Allah’s Book but I know about whom it was revealed. And if I know that there is somebody who knows Allah’s Book better than I, and he is at a place that camels can reach, I would go to him” (al-Bukhari 6:524).

According to al-Bukhari, Abdullah Ibn Masud’s testimony was not opposed by anyone (6:522). If al-Bukhari‘s account can be trust, which is the view of most Muslims, then it suggests that there were disputes pertaining to the content of Uthman’s account. Indeed Abdullah Ibn Masud, by virtue of being a close companion of the Prophet, would certainly have a legitimate stake in this discussion.

Some Parts of the Qur’an Were Forgotten

According to Abu Ubaid Kitab Fada’il-al-Qur’an, Umar, the second caliph, heard people declaring that they knew the entire Qur’an. He then said to them: “Let none of you say, ‘I have learned the whole of the Koran,’ for how does he know what the whole of it is, when much of it has disappeared? Let him rather say, ‘I have learned what is extant thereof.’”

According to Umar much of the Qur’an had disappeared and his role as caliph certainly put him in a position to know if such was the case. Further, the authoritative Hadith Sahih Muslim, Abu Musa al-Ash’ari, a companion of the Prophet, said that the Muslims forgot two suras,

“Abu Musa al-Ash’ari sent for the reciters of Basra. They came to him and they were three hundred in number. They recited the Qur’an and he said: You are the best among the inhabitants of Basra, for you are the reciters among them. So continue to recite it. (But bear in mind) that your reciting for a long time may not harden your hearts as were hardened the hearts of those before you. We used to recite a surah which resembled in length and severity to (Surah) Bara’at. I have, however, forgotten it with the exception of this which I remember out of it: “If there were two valleys full of riches, for the son of Adam, he would long for a third valley, and nothing would fill the stomach of the son of Adam but dust.” And we used to recite a surah which resembled one of the surahs of Musabbihat, and I have forgotten it (2286, emphasis added).

The Implications

As stated in the opening to this critique of a popular Muslim apologetic, none of what has been noted above is intended to undermine the truth of the Islamic religion. We are simply not interested in that question in this article although one could see how this data would cause pause for Muslims.

What the above does cast doubt upon is the notion of perfect preservation of the Qur’an as it has been claimed by Muslim apologists such as Deedat, Kazi, and others. As the historical Islamic sources themselves attest, the Qur’an’s preservation was not as simple as they claim, as if it was simply revealed by the Prophet and uncontested. On the contrary, the Qur’an as it was composed appears to have transitioned through a tumultuous and contested evolution before reaching its apparent final form. Up until Uthman’s burning of different versions, there was no standardized Qur’an but several variations throughout the empire. This is not what we would expect if the Qur’an had been perfectly preserved to the very letter. Further, in light of some forgotten and lost verses, due to conditions of battle or simply bad memory, it is unlikely that we have the full Qur’anic text in today’s Qur’an read by most Muslims. What makes the case against perfect preservation compelling is that it is undermined by Muslim sources, not sources authored by enemies of the movement or those who wished to see its demise.

References

1. Kazi, Mazhar. 1997. Evident Miracles in the Qur’an. Richmond Hill: Crescent Publishing House. p. 42-43.

2. Why Islam. The Preservation of the Glorious Quran. Available.

3. Fethullah Gülen, Muhammad. 2007. Questions And Answers About Islam. New Jersey: Tughra Books.

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