WE noted in the previous chapter, when discussing the Muslim doctrine of Allah, that Allah always remains inaccessible. Man can know nothing of Allah Himself. How then does Allah present His revelation to man, and what kind of revelation does He provide? We read in Surah 42 v. 50: ‘It is not for any mortal that Allah should speak to him except by revelation (wahy), or from behind a veil, or by sending an apostle.’ The Quran itself is an example of Allah’s direction, communicated in Arabic through the medium of a prophet. The written guidance and dispensation communicated to men by this method is the form of revelation which we shall consider in this chapter.

‘To every age its book,’ declares the Quran (Surah 13 v. 39). ‘What He pleases Allah will abrogate or confirm.’ Allah, we are informed, thus abrogates or confirms His decrees as the ages go by, such decrees being given in the form of writings. Where do these writings come from? One Muslim Tradition informs us that the first thing which Allah created was the Pen, and with the Pen Allah caused all the decrees to be written, so disposing of all things until the Last Judgment. The Books of Allah were also written (Surah 3 v. 181), and they, with the decrees, are preserved on the Preserved Tablet (al lawh al mahfuz, cf. Surah 85 v. 21) in heaven. One hundred and four of these writings have been given to prophets; four in the form of ‘books’ (kutub) and one hundred in the form of ‘leaves’ (suhuf). The four books are:

the Tawrat (Law) which was given to Moses (Surah 3 v. 44);
the Zabur (Psalms) given to David (Surah 4 v. 161);
the Injil (Gospel) given to Jesus (Surah 5 v. 50); and
the Quran, given to Muhammad, which the Muslims believe to be the final and most perfect revelation. The Quran is a transcript of the archetypal Book kept by Allah (Surah 43 v. 3). It was produced in Arabic for the Arabs (Surah 12 v. 2) and given to Muhammad, who is the ‘seal of the prophets’.

That is an account of the origin of the Quran reported in the Quran itself, and in Muslim Traditions. When we use the word ‘origin’, however, we must remember that the Muslim does not believe that the Quran had a beginning in time. As part of the speech of Allah it is held to be eternal. Muslims believe that Allah has seven attributes — Power, Life, Knowledge, Will, Hearing, Seeing and Speech. They are all eternal attributes, and part of Allah’s speech — His eternal speech — was communicated to the Prophets. The speech was sent down by Allah upon the Prophets in the form of ‘leaves’ (suhuf) and ‘books’ (kutub); and orthodoxy declares that the belief in the Books means ‘belief that they exist and that they are the speech of Allah’. Revelation may thus be given to man through an angel and the prophets, while Allah Himself remains inaccessible.

Before we proceed further there are certain things which should be noted in connection with the prophetic office itself. There are two categories, apostleship and prophethood, and most Muslim theologians distinguish between an apostle (rasul) and a prophet (nabi) in this way: An apostle (rasul) is one who not only receives a message but is commanded to communicate it to mankind. A nabi receives a message, but is not commanded to communicate it. Whether such a one be an apostle or a prophet, he must be a free man (not a slave), and some declare that a prophet or apostle must be a male of the children of Adam. He cannot be a male jinn. Others, however, declare that there are apostles among the jinn; and others, in connection with the condition that an apostle or prophet must be a male, say that an exception must be made in the case of the Virgin Mary. She, although a woman, was a prophetess, in that she heard a message of the angel, but was not entrusted with any dispensation. Most orthodox Muslims hold that the sign of apostleship and prophethood is that such a one should perform miracles. Since Muslims also believe that a magician may perform wonders, they have added that Allah would not allow a magician to substantiate a false claim to apostleship or prophethood in this way! Shibli Numani, the modern (unorthodox) Muslim author, declares however in his book al Kalam that this condition of miracle-working cannot be supported from the Quran itself. Muhammad brought no signs but only came to warn, declares Shibli, and he quotes Surahs 13 vv. 8, 27, and 29 v. 49 in support of this statement.[1]

Islam believes that, before Muhammad was called to his apostleship, the Quran was brought down to the lowest heaven and stored in the House of Honour (Bait ul Izza). We are informed that, before he had his vision of the angel Gabriel and heard the words of the Quran, Muhammad used to retire to Mount Hira in Arabia, and spend his time in contemplation. While there, he was first called to warn his idolatrous people of the judgment of Allah, the angel Gabriel appeared to him in a terrifying vision, and held before Muhammad a scroll on which was written the 96th Surah. Gabriel read the Surah to Muhammad, and thus the apostle of Allah received his mission. Then followed an interval (fatra) of three years, during which time Muhammad received no more revelations. He feared that he was mad, ‘jinn-possessed’, but his wife Khadijah encouraged him to believe that he was indeed the apostle of Allah. At length he again saw the terrifying vision of the angel, standing between heaven and earth. He ran to his wife and asked her to wrap him up his mantle, and the words of Surah 74 were communicated to him. The fatra was broken and his mission had begun.

After that time the verses of the Quran were given to him as occasion required. In the form in which we have it today no attempt has been made to present those verses according to the order in which they were given to Muhammad. There are one hundred and fourteen Surahs in all, and they are, on the whole, arranged according to their length. The long Surahs are found at the beginning of the book and the short ones at the end.

The Quran is, therefore, speech which Muhammad heard. He saw the angel and heard Gabriel’s voice. Tradition informs us that the angel sometimes appeared in a shape and form similar to that of Dihya, one of Muhammad’s companions. It was an audio-visual revelation, external and concrete, and was not Muhammad’s own device (Surah 11 vv. 15 f.), nor did Muhammad speak from his own will (Surah 53 v. 3). Muslim tradition asserts that there was a careful checking of the verses, when, at the end of every year of his Mission, the prophet Muhammad and the angel Gabriel would collate the material given up to that date. Once the material had to be corrected earlier, when Satan misled Muhammad into declaring that the goddesses of Mecca were worthy of worship. The revised reading is to be found in Surah 53, vv. 19-21. On one occasion another man, the amanuensis of the prophet, added a verse, and Muhammad told him to put it in the Quran. The words of Surah 23 v. 14: ‘Blessed be Allah, the best of creators,’ were, so Muslim tradition declares, added in this way. We are told that in the last year of Muhammad’s life all the material was collated twice by him and the angel Gabriel. Thus we are led to believe that, before Muhammad died, everything was arranged in an orderly form, although not in the form of a book.

For the histories of the collection of the Quran in book form we may turn to the famous and authoritative book of Traditions called the Sahih of Bukhari.[2] We are informed that, in the time of the first Khalifa, Abu Bakr, there was a fierce and critical battle fought at Yemama (about A.D. 634). At this battle many of the reciters of the Quran who had learned it by heart were killed, and Abu Bakr was eventually persuaded by Umar (who later became the second Khalifa) that the Quran should be collected, lest, through the death of the reciters, it should be lost. He reluctantly consented to this, and called an amanuensis of Muhammad, a young man named Zaid ibn Thabit, to perform this task. This young man expressed his reluctance, but at length he was persuaded, and proceeded to collect the Quran from ‘palm leaves, shoulder bones of animals, pieces of white stone, and from the hearts of men’. After collection, the material was placed in Hafsa’s keeping, who was one of the prophet Muhammad’s widows. Then Bukhari goes on to inform us that in the time of the third Khalifa, Uthman, there arose a bitter controversy among Muslims about the text of the Quran. Uthman was persuaded by the Muslim general Hudhaifa to give orders for the establishing of the Quranic text, ‘lest the believers begin to differ about their Scriptures as do the Jews and Christians.’ Uthman called Zaid ibn Thabit to do this, and, with a select committee he established the text as we have it today. Uthman gave orders that all other copies should be burned. One may wonder why Zaid did not content himself with reproducing his original work. Where there was an ambiguity the Quraish dialect was followed. This was the speech of Muhammad, and, presumably, the Arabic spoken by Allah.

Orthodox Muslim opinion holds that the Quran, in the form in which we have it today, is identical in all respects with that which was given to Muhammad, the apostle of Allah. It is therefore identical in every respect with that which is written on the Preserved Tablet. Nevertheless Muslim historians inform us that, for nearly one hundred years after the death of Muhammad, there was a good deal of confusion. The vowels of the Quranic text had not been written in when Uthman’s edition was established, and in fact the Arabic vowel signs were not invented until the end of the 8th century A.D. We are told that they were invented by the great grammarian, Khalid bin Ahmad.[3] Moreover, the diacritical points also had to be written, and Muslim historians, such as Maqrizi, ibn al Athir and ibn Khallikan, connect the fixing of diacritical points with the name of the tyrannical general al Hajjaj (8th century A.D.) and add that some accused him of making changes in the Quran.[4] There was certainly confusion, and, when vowels and diacritical points came to be written, there would be a good deal of reliance placed on human memory and human judgement. When Muslims became concerned about the meaning of the Quran, and the science of Commentary (Tafsir) was developed, then, at certain points, the Muslim scholars had to admit that they could not come to definite conclusions about certain words. An Arabic word may have several meanings. In some cases the meaning is settled by reference to the context, and such words were called mushtarak. In other cases, it was impossible to come to a definite conclusion and, as in the case of Surah 108 v. 2, both meanings were accepted. One word in this verse may be translated either ‘slay the victims’ or ‘place the hands on the breast in prayer’. Both interpretations are accepted and such words are called mu’awwal words.

Not only was there confusion over the meaning of the text, but it is also evident that not all the Quran was collected. There are Traditions which mention verses which are ‘not within the covers’, and there is also the famous Tradition in which Muhammad is reported to have said: ‘Let no man say, I have learned the whole of the Quran! How can he have learned the whole of it when much of it has been lost? Let him say, I have learned what is extant of it!’[5] Dr A. Jeffrey, in his book Materials for the history of the text of the Quran, has also collected a great number of variant readings from Muslim sources. He also quotes two Surahs from the codices of Ubai and Abu Musa al Ashari[6] which are not to be found in the standard edition that we have today. Moreover, for over a thousand years Muslims have recognised seven systems of text of the Quran. These seven systems were accorded recognition, not without opposition, about A.D. 934, after ibn Mujahid had proposed that the recognized systems be limited to this number. They are connected with the names of Nafi of Medinah (died 169 A.H.), ibn Kathir of Mecca (died 120 A.H.), Hamza of Kufa (died 158 A.H.), ibn Amir of Damascus (died 118 A.H.), Abu Amr of Basra (died 154 A.H.), Asim of Kufa (died 128 A.H.), and al Kisa’i of Kufa (died 189 A.H.). The generally accepted standard Egyptian edition of 1923 is based on the text of the followers of Asim of Kufa. At one time the variant readings followed by the different schools were printed in the margins of the Quran, but that practice has been discontinued. There are old copies of the Quran existing in India — in the State library of Rampur, for example — where these variants are to be seen, written in the margin.[7]

Thus, as we have noted before, this eternal Quran has had to be referred to human judgement at a great many points in its earthly history. This book, which the Muslim claims to be uncorrupted and identical with the heavenly original, has been given its definitive form by men. There are also matters of interpretation and punctuation, over which Muslims do not agree. But those details, however interesting, do not in any way affect the main distinction between the Biblical and Islamic doctrines of Revelation. The vital fact that the Christian must recognise is not that Muslims have had difficulty in establishing the text, and still differ on many points connected with the study of the text, but that they do not think of Allah as revealing or giving Himself. Allah merely provides dispensations, and, in the Christian sense of the term, those dispensations are not ‘revelation’ at all. The Quran states that Allah is as ‘near to man as the jugular vein’, but He is nevertheless unknown, and His Books do not reveal Him. Allah is the great mystery, and man does not participate in Him in any way. When one meets the Muslim one should not waste time in fruitless controversy concerning the comparative merits of the Quran as opposed to the Bible, although ultimately the Muslim enquirer has to admit the integrity of the Christian Church and the authority of its Bible. When we speak of the revelation we have received, we should remember that it is a revelation of God Himself, of His nature and His grace. In the Old Testament that revelation is connected with events, and in the New Testament it is connected with an event of cosmic importance in the self-giving of God in His Son and Holy Spirit. ‘God is with us.’ On the one hand the Muslim has the words of Allah, supposedly uncorrupted and eternal; on the other hand, the Christian believes that God has revealed Himself in History and in the Person of Christ in order to fulfil His gracious purpose of redemption, and that this revelation is recorded in the Bible and continued in the experience of the Church.

The Muslim doctrine of revelation is consistent with the Islamic doctrine of Allah, just as the Christian’s belief is consistent with his knowledge of God. Allah does not make a personal self-revealing approach to man, nor does He seek fellowship with man. Islam knows nothing of the self-revealing and self-bestowing of God as He, through His Son and the Holy Spirit, seeks to reconcile men and bring them into fellowship with Himself. The glory of the Gospel is this message of God’s unspeakable gift; for in Christ He has given Himself and sacrificed Himself, in order that we might become partakers in the Divine nature. God’s activity is this activity of gracious sacrifice, and that is our good news to Islam.


1 al Kalam, 4th edition (Azamgarh), pp. 71 ff.

2 See also Goldsack, Selections from Muhammadan Traditions (Allahabad, 1923), pp. 106 ff.

3 Sell, Faith of Islam (Madras, 1907), p. 63.

4 Muir, al Kindi (S.P.C.K., London, 1911), p. 29.

5 See J. W. Sweetman, Islam and Christian Theology, Vol. I, Pt. 1 (London, 1947), p. 135.

6 These two Surahs are:

The Surah of ‘Casting Off’.

O Allah, verily we call to Thee for help and ask Thy forgiveness. We praise Thee and are not ungrateful to Thee. We castoff and forsake whoever disobeys Thee.

The Surah of ‘Speedy Service’.

O Allah, Thee do we worship, to Thee do we pray and make obeisance. We quickly work for Thee and Thee do we speedily serve. We hope for Thy mercy and fear Thy punishment. Verily Thy punishment overtakes the infidels.

See Jeffrey, op. cit., (Leyden, 1937); also Noeldeke and Schwally, Geschichte des Qorans (Leipzig), pp. 34 ff.

For the contemporary use of these two Surahs (in a slightly conflated form) as a single prayer, see T. P. Hughes, Dictionary of Islam (London, 1885), article ‘Du‘a u’l-Qunut’.

7 That a certain amount of liberty was once allowed in making use of the variant readings of the Quran may be seen from the opinion of Muhammad al Jazari (died A.D. 1429). He held that every reading (of the Quran) which is consonant with the Arabiclanguage — although only in some respects —, and with the Uthmanic manuscript of the Quran — although only as a possibility —, and whose chain of Tradition is faultless, may be considered a correct reading. (This is so) whether it comes from the Seven or Ten (systems of text) or from other recognized Imams. The great Jalal al Din al Suyuti follows him in this. (See the Encyclopedia of Islam, Article on Koran, pp. 1073 f., and Articles on the above names; see also A. Jeffrey, op. cit., Introduction.)

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