Quran Difficulty

Examining the inherent problems with the descent of the Quran

Sam Shamoun

According to the traditional, orthodox Sunni view the Quran was "sent down" in its entirety in the month of Ramadan:

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)… S. 2:185

Behold, We sent IT down on the Night of Power; And what shall teach thee what is the Night of Power? The Night of Power is better than a thousand months; in it the angels and the Spirit descend, by the leave of their Lord, upon every command. Peace it is, till the rising of dawn. S. 97:1-5 Arberry

Lo! We revealed it, that is, the Qur’an, IN ITS ENTIRETY, [sending it down] from the Preserved Tablet to the heaven of this world, on the Night of Ordainment, that is, [the Night] of great eminence. (Tafsir al-Jalalayn; source; capital emphasis ours)

At the same time, however, the Muslim scripture claims that the Quran was "revealed" to Muhammad in stages or segments over time:

(It is) a Qur'an which We have divided (into parts from time to time), in order that thou mightest recite it to men at intervals: We have revealed it by stages. S. 17:106

Those who reject Faith say: "Why is not the Qur'an revealed to him all at once? Thus (is it revealed), that We may strengthen thy heart thereby, and We have rehearsed it to thee in slow, well-arranged stages, gradually. S. 25:32

The way that Muslims have traditionally explained this contradiction is to assume that the Quran was "sent down" in its entirety to the lowest heaven, and then from there it was "revealed" to Muhammad over a 23 year period.

In light of this teaching we would like to ask the following pertinent questions.

- If the Quran was "revealed" in its entirety then how do Muslims explain all of the events and conversations recorded therein? For example, how do Muslims understand these verses which were composed in reference to Muhammad’s adopted son Zayd and Zayd’s wife Zaynab?

It is not for a believer, man or woman, when Allah and His Messenger have decreed a matter that they should have any option in their decision. And whoever disobeys Allah and His Messenger, he has indeed strayed in a plain error. And (remember) when you said to him (Zaid bin Harithah the freedslave of the Prophet) on whom Allah has bestowed Grace (by guiding him to Islam) and you (O Muhammad too) have done favour (by manumitting him) "Keep your wife to yourself, and fear Allah." But you did hide in yourself (i.e. what Allah has already made known to you that He will give her to you in marriage) that which Allah will make manifest, you did fear the people (i.e., Muhammad married the divorced wife of his manumitted slave) whereas Allah had a better right that you should fear Him. So when Zaid had accomplished his desire from her (i.e. divorced her), We gave her to you in marriage, so that (in future) there may be no difficulty to the believers in respect of (the marriage of) the wives of their adopted sons when the latter have no desire to keep them (i.e. they have divorced them). And Allah's Command must be fulfilled. S. 33:36-37 Hilali-Khan

The classical commentators explained that Q. 33:36 was "revealed" in connection with Zaynab’s initial refusal and hesitance to obey Muhammad’s orders to marry his adopted son Zayd, and that Q. 33:37 gave Muhammad the justification he needed to marry Zaynab after his adopted son had divorced her.

And what do Muslims do with Q. 24:1-22 which the expositors stated was "sent down" to address the scandal surrounding Aisha when she was left behind by the Muslims and subsequently found by Safwan bin Mu'attal As-Sulami Adh-Dhakwania who then brought her to the camp of the Muslims. According to the "sound" narrations and exegetes these verses were given to absolve Aisha of the charge of adultery since some of Muhammad’s followers started to spread rumors that she and Safwan had done something illicit.

Are we assume that these incidents and episodes were already preordained and that all of the participants had no other choice but to do exactly what was written for them? In other words, did Allah predestine that Aisha would fall into a scandal and have her integrity questioned? Did Allah foreordain that Zayd would marry Zaynab so that he would later be forced to divorce her so that Muhammad could have her and abolish adoption altogether because of it?

And if predestination is true then how does this leave any room for the belief in human free will? Could these individuals have chosen to act in a manner contrary to the Quran, thereby falsifying what Allah "revealed"? If not then doesn’t this mean that they are not truly free but programmed to do exactly what is recorded within Allah’s uncreated revelation? If they could then what does this do to Allah’s perfect knowledge and sovereignty? If the future could unfold in a manner that is contrary to what is found in the Quran then Allah’s knowledge is imperfect and fallible, and he does not have complete control over all events that occur within creation.

More importantly, why did Muhammad’s god command his hordes to strive hard against the infidels? Didn’t Muhammad realize that it would be pointless to force people to embrace Islam if Allah hadn’t predestined it? And if they were chosen to become Muslims then the use of force would be completely unnecessary since preaching the message of Islam would be sufficient since Allah could have simply used this method to bring them into the religion as opposed to having countless number of people degraded, murdered, raped, pillaged and enslaved.

– And what of abrogation?

And for whatever verse We abrogate or cast into oblivion, We bring a better or the like of it; knowest thou not that God is powerful over everything? Q. 2:106 Arberry

When We substitute one revelation for another, - and God knows best what He reveals (in stages), - they say, "Thou art but a forger": but most of them understand not. S. 16:101

If the Quran was "revealed" all at once then both the abrogated and the abrogating texts were also "sent down" together. Moreover, since the Muslim scripture is supposed to be a replica of what is written in the heavenly tablet,

We verily, have made it a Qur'an in Arabic, that you may be able to understand (its meanings and its admonitions). And Verily, it (this Qur'an) is in the Mother of the Book (i.e. Al-Lauh Al-Mahfuz), before Us, indeed Exalted, full of Wisdom. S. 43:3-4 Hilali-Khan

Nay! This is a Glorious Qur'an, (Inscribed) in Al-Lauh Al-Mahfuz (The Preserved Tablet)! S. 85:21-22 Hilali-Khan

And since Allah promises to protect his revelation,(1)

then they would not be respited. It is We who have sent down the Remembrance, and We watch over it. S. 15:9 Arberry

We would therefore expect to find that all of the abrogating and abrogated verses have been preserved in the Quran.

Yet this is not the case at all since there are abrogated texts which were expunged from the Muslim scripture and abrogating ones which are not found in the Quran that Muslims currently possess, such as the verse on stoning:

'Abdullah b. 'Abbas reported that 'Umar b. Khattab sat on the pulpit of Allah's Messenger and said: Verily Allah sent Muhammad with truth and He sent down the Book upon him, and the verse of stoning was included in what was sent down to him. We recited it, retained it in our memory and understood it. Allah's Messenger awarded the punishment of stoning to death (to the married adulterer and adulteress) and, after him, we also awarded the punishment of stoning, I am afraid that with the lapse of time, the people (may forget it) and may say: We do not find the punishment of stoning in the Book of Allah, and thus go astray by abandoning this duty prescribed by Allah. Stoning is a duty laid down IN ALLAH’S BOOK for married men and women who commit adultery when proof is established, or it there is pregnancy, or a confession. (Sahih Muslim, Book 017, Number 4194)

And according to the so-called authentic narratives Muslims left out references which men whom Muhammad had commanded his followers to turn to in order to learn the Quran had memorized and recorded:

Narrated Masriq:
‘Abdullah bin ‘Amr mentioned ‘Abdullah bin Masud and said, "I shall ever love that man, for I heard the Prophet saying, ‘Take (learn) the Qur'an from four: ‘Abdullah bin Masud, Salim, Mu’adh and Ubai bin Ka'b.’" (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 6, Book 61, Number 521)


IX: His words, "Whenever We abrogate an ayat or cause it to be forgotten, We bring one better than it or equal to it." (2:106)

4211. It is related from Ibn 'Abbas that 'Umar said, "Our best reciter is Ubayy and the one of us with the most knowledge of judgement is 'Ali. However, we leave some of what Ubayy says because Ubayy says, 'I do not leave anything that I said from the Messenger of Allah, while Allah Almighty says, ‘Whenever We abrogate an ayat or cause it to be forgotten.’" (Aisha Bewley, The Sahih Collection of al-Bukhari, Chapter 68. Book of Tafsir; source; underline emphasis ours)

How could these passages be expunged when the Quran which Allah sent down all at once contained both the abrogated and abrogating texts? Doesn’t this prove that Allah failed to preserve the earthly replica of the Quran completely? And wouldn’t this mean that the Quran which Muslims wrote down and preserved is not a perfect reproduction of what Allah sent down since it doesn’t contain everything that is found in the heavenly exemplar?

Or should we assume that the reason why the earthly version of the Quran omits some of the abrogating and/or abrogated verses found in the heavenly exemplar is because Allah made sure to only "send down" to Muhammad those references which addressed the specific needs of the community, while holding back those passages which didn’t do so? And in some occasions Allah "sent down" the wrong verses! Allah "revealed" the abrogated passages without bothering to "send" the abrogating references, leaving his followers in mass confusion.

Or could it be that abrogation proves that Allah’s knowledge is fallible and therefore subject to change, which accounts for why the original heavenly scripture contained both the abrogating and abrogated texts? It may have never been Allah’s intention to come up with the doctrine of abrogation since the verses which later came to be classified as abrogated or abrogating were actually written down to address all the possible situations that could have come to pass. In other words, Allah may have been guessing beforehand as to every possible situation which could occur, and wrote down specific texts addressing each of these possibilities. And when a particular situation arose Allah then "revealed" the relevant verses to his prophet.

Yet not only does this explanation imply that Allah is an imperfect being but it further suggests that he didn’t really predestine all the events which were written down in the Quran, and that man must therefore have free will to affect his circumstances and also determine how Allah will act in his creation.

But Allah didn’t do a good job in controlling what went in the earthly copy. It must have slipped Allah’s mind since he didn’t simply "send down" only those texts which addressed the specific situations of the people but also mistakenly "revealed" the verses which were of no use to the community. This now meant that Allah had to come up with an excuse for this oversight and so composed certain passages explaining why he was forced to abrogate himself and his scripture.

Whatever the case or explanation, this point stands out clearly. The Quran is a book of mass confusion and chaos. We will leave it to the Muslims to sort out all of this mess.

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(1) One wonders why Abu Bakr and Umar were so afraid and in such a panic that they would lose the "revelations" if they didn’t take measures to collect it in a single volume,

Narrated Zaid bin Thabit:

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 Musailama). (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 Quran 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 Apostle. So you should search for (the fragmentary scripts of) the Qur'an and collect it in one book)." By Allah! If they had ordered me to shift one of the mountains, it would not have been heavier for me than this ordering me to collect the Qur'an. Then I said to Abu Bakr, "How will you do something which Allah's Apostle did not do?" Abu Bakr replied, "By Allah, it is a good project." Abu Bakr kept on urging me to accept his idea until Allah opened my chest for what He had opened the chests of Abu Bakr and 'Umar. So I started looking for the Qur'an and collecting it from (what was written on) palmed stalks, thin white stones and also from the men who knew it by heart, till I found the last Verse of Surat At-Tauba (Repentance) with Abi Khuzaima Al-Ansari, and I did not find it with anybody other than him. The Verse is:

‘Verily there has come unto you an Apostle (Muhammad) from amongst yourselves. It grieves him that you should receive any injury or difficulty…’ till the end of Surat-Baraa' (At-Tauba) (9.128-129) Then the complete manuscripts (copy) of the Qur'an remained with Abu Bakr till he died, then with 'Umar till the end of his life, and then with Hafsa, the daughter of 'Umar. (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 6, Book 61, Number 509)

If in fact Allah was actually referring to the preservation of the Quran in Q. 15:9?

The above narrative from al-Bukhari either suggests that passages such as this one were only added later on, much like Q. 17:1 must have been inserted into the codices at some later point (1, 2). Or this particular text doesn’t refer to the protection of the Quran but to the other Scriptures such as the Torah and the Gospel (1).

This seems to be the likely interpretation when we consider that in this very same chapter the author(s) refer(s) to individuals corrupting the Quran:

Like as We sent down on the dividers Those who made the Quran into shreds. S. 15:90-91 Shakir

Islamic scholar Alphonse Mingana noted,

"Finally, if we understand correctly the following verse of Suratul-Hijr (xv. 90-91): 'As we sent down upon (punished) the dividers (of the Scripture?) who broke up the Koran into parts,' we are tempted to state that even when the Prophet was alive, some changes were noticed in the recital of certain verses of his sacred book. There is nothing very surprising in this fact, since Muhammad could not read or write, and was at the mercy of friends for the writing of his revelations, or, more frequently, of some mercenary amanuenses." (Mingana, "Three Ancient Korans", The Origins of the Koran - Classic Essays on Islam's Holy Book, edited by Ibn Warraq [Prometheus Books, Amherst NY, 1998], p. 84; bold emphasis ours)

Mingana records the Muslim reaction to Uthman b. Affan's burning and wholesale destruction of primary, competing Quranic codices produced by Muhammad’s companions:

"The book, drawn up by this method, continued to be authoritative and the standard text till 29-30 A.H. under the caliphate of 'Uthman. At this time the wonderful faithfulness of Arab memory was defective, and according to a general weakness of human nature, the Believers have been heard reciting the verses of the Koran in a different way. This fact was due specially, it is said, to the hundreds of dialects used in Arabia. Zaid was again asked to put an end to these variations which had begun to scandalize the votaries of the Prophet. That indefatigable compiler, assisted by three men from the tribe of Quraish, started to do what he had already done more than fifteen years before. The previous copies made from the first one written under Abu Bakr were all destroyed by special order of the caliph: the revelation sent down from heaven was one, and the book containing this revelation must be one. The critic remarks that the only guarantee of the authenticity of the Koran is the testimony of Zaid; and for this reason, a scholar who doubts whether a given word has been really used by Muhammad, or whether it has been only employed by Zaid on his own authority, or on the meagre testimony of some Arab reciters, does not transgress the strict laws of high criticism. If the memory of the followers of the Prophet has been found defective from the year 15 to 30 A.H. when Islam was proclaimed over all Arabia, why may it not have been defective from 612 to 632 C.E. when the Prophet was often obliged to defend his own life against terrible aggressors? And if the first recension of Zaid contained always the actual words of Muhammad, why was this compiler not content with re-establishing it in its entirety, and why was the want of a new recension felt by 'Uthman? How can it be that in the short space of fifteen years such wonderful variants could have crept into the few copies preceding the reign of the third caliph that he found himself bound to destroy all those he could find? If 'Uthman was certainly inspired only by religious purposes, why did his enemies call him ‘THE TEARER OF THE BOOKS’ and why did they fasten on him the following stigma: 'He found the Korans many and left one; HE TORE UP THE BOOK’?…" (Ibn Warraq, p. 84-85; bold and capital emphasis ours)

In his article, The Transmission of the Koran, Mingana cites Muslim historian al-Tabari who wrote that:

"… ‘Ali b. Abi Talib, and ‘Uthman b. Affan wrote the Revelation to the Prophet; but in their absence it was Ubai b. Ka'b and Zaid b. Thabit who wrote it.' He informs us, too, that the people said to 'Uthman: ‘The Koran was in many books, and thou discreditedst them all but one’; and after the Prophet's death, ‘People gave him as successor Abu Bakr, who in turn was succeeded by ‘Umar; and both of them acted according to the Book and the Sunnah of the Apostle of God - and praise be to God the Lord of the worlds; then people elected ‘Uthman b. ‘Affan WHO… TORE UP THE BOOK.’" (Ibn Warraq, p. 102; bold and capital emphasis ours)

In the same article Mingana sources another ancient writer regarding the compilation of the Quran. The author, a Christian apologist named Abd al-Masih al-Kindi, wrote an apology titled The Apology of Al-Kindi at the Court of al-Mamun circa A.D. 830 (*), approximately forty years before al-Bukhari compiled his hadith collection. Al-Kindi mentions the Muslim reaction to the conflicting readings that existed amongst the different Quranic codices that circulated shortly after Muhammad's death:

"… Then the people fell to variance in their reading; some read according to the version of 'Ali, which they follow to the present day; some read according to the collection of which we have made mention; one party read according to the text of ibn Mas'ud, and another according to that of Ubai ibn Ka'b. When 'Uthman came to power, and people everywhere differed in their reading, 'Ali sought grounds of accusation against him. One man would read verse one way, and another man another way; and there was change and interpolation, some copies having more and some less. When this was represented to 'Uthman, and the danger urged of division, strife, and apostasy, he thereupon caused to be collected together all the leaves and scraps that he could, together with the copy that was written out at the first. But they did not interfere with that which was in the hands of 'Ali, or of those who followed his reading. Ubai was dead by this time, as for Ibn Mas'ud, they demanded his exemplar, but he refused to give it up. Then they commanded Zaid ibn Thabit, and with him 'Abdallah ibn 'Abbas, to revise and correct the text, eliminating all that was corrupt; they were instructed, when they differed on any reading, word, or name, or to follow the dialect of the Quraish.

"When the recension was completed, four exemplars were written out in large text; one was sent to Mecca, and another to Medina; the third was dispatched to Syria, and is to this day at Malatya; the fourth was deposited in Kufa. People say that this last copy is still extant at Kufa, but this is not case, for it was lost in the insurrection of Mukhtar (A.H. 67). The copy of Mecca remained there till the city was stormed by Abu Sarayah (A.H. 200); he did not carry it away; but it is supposed to have been burned in the conflagration. The Medina exemplar was lost in the reign of terror, that is, in the days of Yazid b. Mu'awiah (A.H. 60-64).

"After what we have related above, 'Uthman called in all the former leaves and copies, and destroyed them, threatening those held any portion back; and so only some scattered remains, concealed here and there, survived. Ibn Mas'ud, however, retained his exemplar in his own hands, and it was inherited by his posterity, as it is this day; and likewise the collection of 'Ali has descended in his family.

"Then followed the business of Hajjaj b. Yusuf, who gathered together every single copy he could lay hold of, and caused to be omitted from the text a great many passages. Among these, they say, were verses revealed concerning the House of the Umayyah with names of certain persons, and concerning the House of 'Abbas also with names. Six copies of the text thus revised were distributed to Egypt, Syria, Medina, Mecca, Kufa, and Basra. After that he called in and destroyed all the preceding copies, even as 'Uthman had done before him. The enmity subsisting between 'Ali and Abu Bakr, 'Umar and 'Uthman is well known; how each of these entered in the text whatever favored his own claims, and left out what was otherwise. How, then, can we distinguish between the genuine and the counterfeit? And what about the losses caused by Hajjaj? The kind of faith that this tyrant held in other matters is well-known; how can we make an arbiter as to the Book of God a man who never ceased play into the hands of the Umayyads whenever he found opportunity?" (Ibn Warraq, pp. 108-109; bold emphasis ours)

Mingana concludes:

"Then al-Kindi, addressing his Muslim friend, says: ‘All that I have said is drawn from your own authorities, and no single argument has been advanced but what is based on evidence accepted by yourselves; in proof thereof, we have the Kur'an itself, which is a confused heap, with neither system nor order.’" (Ibn Warraq, pp. 109-110; bold emphasis ours)

Hence, the above citations simply provide further evidence that the Quran has not been preserved completely and perfectly, contrary to the assertions of both the Quran and Muslim dawagandists.

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