Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Chapter Two

Basic Qur'anic Doctrines
and Teachings



Although there is no chronological sequence of events or teachings in the chapters of the Qur'an it is significant to find the creation of Adam and Eve and their fall at the beginning of the book. The narrative is very similar to the account in Genesis where God gives him dominion over the earth and places him there as his khalifah, his "representative". He likewise puts him in a bountiful garden, commanding him only to refrain from eating of one tree. Satan, however, caused him and his wife (not named in the Qur'an) to lose their blissful state and they were sent down out of it and told their dwelling place would be on al-ardth, "the earth", with enmity between their offspring. The Qur'an adds, however, that Adam learnt words of inspiration from his Lord who turned in mercy towards him (Surah 2:30-39). Because the Qur'an twice uses the word habata (to "get down") in describing the order against them Muslims have taught that the Garden was originally in heaven and that they were thrown down to the earth after their transgression. Nevertheless at the beginning of the narrative Allah is recorded as telling his angels specifically that he would create his representative fiil ardth, "on the earth" (Surah 2:30), and it appears that the fall was not from heaven but from a state of righteous bliss. It is perhaps also from the Qur'anic title Jannati `Adn in Surah 9:72 that Muslims presume it must have been in heaven as Jannat in this verse and elsewhere in the text refers to Paradise itself and this is believed to be the "Garden of Eden" where Adam and Eve were. Nevertheless the correct translation of the expression here is simply "gardens of bliss" as the definite article is missing for both words.

In another passage the Qur'an states that Satan began to whisper suggestions to them and brought about their fall by deceit. They tasted of their shame and acknowledged before Allah that they had wronged their souls and, if he would not forgive them and show mercy to them, they would assuredly be lost (Surah 7:20-23). Allah then appeals directly to mankind on no less than three occasions in the following verses as Bani Adam ("Children of Adam") who should not be ashamed like them or be seduced as they were by Satan. Muslims believe that Adam was a prophet, although he is never actually given this honour in the Qur'an, because he was taught kalimat ("words") from his Lord (Surah 2:37) implying that he was inspired by messages as other prophets were. As Muslims further believe that all prophets were sinless they endeavour to minimise his disobedience by arguing that it was just a "mistake" and that he had simply "forgotten" the command not to eat of the tree. It is very hard to see how he could have forgotten it when one reads that Satan actually reminded him of the order while tempting him to eat of it (Surah 7:20). It would also be interesting to know how sin came into the world if not through this initial rebellion and who it was who introduced it.

The Qur'an follows the Bible in setting human wrongdoing at the very beginning of creation and it sees the transgression of Adam and Eve as the prime example of sinfulness. It does not teach that men are bound in sin and need to be regenerated as the Bible does but it does view sin as the great problem in man's relationship with God. It therefore, like the Bible, regards the quest for salvation as the supreme goal of human daily living. The burden rests solely on the individual to gain his own approval from Allah, however, as no intercession can be expected from anyone on his behalf:

Then guard against a Day when one soul will not avail another, nor will intercession be accepted from it, nor will recompense be taken, nor will there be any assistance. Surah 2:48

The Qur'an uses three different words for sin. The words ithm and dhanb are usually used to define transgressions of ceremonial laws and prescribed patterns of conduct while khati`ah is used to define serious acts of defiance against Allah and failing to live up to his standards. All who persist in such behaviour will be condemned and punished both now and in the next life for their wrongdoing. Those who believe in vanities or other falsehoods will likewise be judged (Surah 47:3).

Nonetheless one of the favourite themes of the Qur'an is that Allah is Ghafuurun-Rahiim, "All-Forgiving, Most Merciful" (Surah 9:5). These two titles appear together no less than sixty-six times in the text. The only unforgivable sin in Islam is shirk, namely "associating" partners with Allah:

Allah does not forgive associating anything with him, He will forgive anything else to whom He pleases. Whoever associates anything with Allah commits a heinous sin. Surah 4:48

There will be no forgiveness for those who die in unbelief nor will it help anyone to do evil until death faces him and to then repent (Surah 4:18) but forgiveness is freely available to all who, sinning in ignorance, repent towards Allah for he will turn to them in mercy (Surah 4:17). The doctrine of salvation in the Qur'an, although no attempt is made to specifically define it anywhere, is perhaps best summed up in this text:

Those who repent, and believe, and do good works will inherit Paradise and will suffer no wrong. Surah 19:60

Men are seen to be prone to sin and to have lost Paradise. In the Qur'an, however, they do not have a sinful nature as such and are not radically estranged from Allah. Provided they repent of their wrongdoing, believe in Allah and practise works of righteousness they will be forgiven and regain Paradise. It is clear from another passage, however, that true belief is seen to be the faith of a Muslim alone who submits to Allah. It is not only those who believe and do good works but specifically those "who believe in what is sent down to Muhammad" (Surah 47:2).

The word "salvation" (najat) occurs only once in the Qur'an (Surah 40:41) and is used in the context of being delivered from the Fire of Hell (an-Nar). The theme itself is nevertheless found throughout the book as the purpose of all human existence on earth. The believer who practises his faith, who leaves his home to fight in the way of Allah to help his Prophet (Surah 8:75), who does no harm to others and does his best to keep the commandments of Allah has the best hope of acceptance. Allah will forgive his worst sins and reward the best of them and he will be pardoned and accepted at the Judgment. Although forgiveness is purely the prerogative of Allah it will be bestowed on all who truly seek his face.


Like the Bible the Qur'an sees all history moving inexorably towards one great climax when humanity will be called to account and all men will be divided into two groups, some for heaven and the rest for hell. This great Day is seen likewise to be a time when all the dead will be resurrected to be judged with the living. It is called Yaum al-Qiyamah, the "Day of Resurrection" (Surah 2:85) as well as Yaum al-Ba`th, the "Day of Awakening" (Surah 30:56). It will be a sudden event but one which is sure to come with its signs already manifest. It will be a day of doom with Allah for unbelievers when an absolutely just judgment will be exercised. Every man will give an account of himself and all good and evil deeds will be weighed in a mizan, a "balance". Those who deny the Day and who reject the signs of Allah will find their record in Sijjin, a register inscribing their actions and destiny to Hell. Believers, however, who have lived righteously and are nearest to Allah will find their records inscribed in `Illiyun, a register consigning them to the delights of Paradise (Surah 83:7-28).

Although it is described as a day, its length in one place is said to be "a thousand years" according to human reckoning (Surah 32:5). Another passage, however, says it will be "fifty thousand years" (Surah 70:4). The contradiction arises from the addition of the word khamsin in the second text. Muslim commentators have endeavoured to explain this contradiction  away by saying either that it indicates that no one really knows what time Allah intends in these passages, or that they are figurative and are not to be taken literally, or that they are used purely to emphasise the length and terribleness of the Day.

Most men and women will not live long enough to see this Day interrupting their lives. For them the awful climax that will face them is the prospect of Death, al-Maut. It is called in the Qur'an al-Yaqin, "the Certainty" (Surah 15:99). Every soul is destined to taste of it and from it there is no escape (Surah 2:185). Even though unbelievers may do their best to ignore it or hide from its reckoning, it will surely find them in due course (Surah 4:78). Believers, however, need have no fear of it.

While Hell is seen as a place of infernal fire and boiling liquids the Qur'anic concept of Paradise is one of great bliss where its inhabitants will have their thirst slaked with pure wine sealed with musk and mixed with tasnim, a nectar of the finest taste (Surah 83:25-27). Their abodes will be in enclosed gardens with well-endowed maidens and overflowing cups. These maidens will be beautiful with lustrous eyes, perpetual virgins much to be desired and of equal age with the believers (Surah 56:22,36-37). They will recline on couches while these dark-eyed damsels and servants of eternal youth will attend to their needs.

Nothing is said of the rewards for believing women in Paradise in the Qur'an and the book seems to concentrate solely on male delights and fancies. The emphasis, in any event, is on the amenable circumstances of the believer in heaven rather than on the transformation of his own character and the personal knowledge of God. It seems that one of the key needs of men which the Qur'an recognises is the need in the future life for sensual gratification and so the bliss of Paradise is shown to be the full enjoyment of delicious drinks, delightful surroundings and the attendance of gorgeous women. In the same way, unlike the Bible, the Qur'an sees the present earthly distinction between male and female perpetuated in Heaven.

Hell, on the other hand, is a consuming fire where its inhabitants will be tormented incessantly in chains and flames. It allows nothing to endure yet it leaves nothing alone to escape its horrors forever. It darkens and changes the colour of man (Surah 74:28-29). Boiling water will be the drink of its unfortunate victims at times and at others a dark, murky and icy-cold fluid (Surah 38:57). Although they will never experience life again, death too will be refused to them as they appeal to the angel in charge over them to end their despair and punishment:

They will cry: "O Malik! Let your Lord make an end of us". He will reply, "Nay, you will surely abide (herein forever)". Surah 43:77

They will likewise desire to return to earth so that they could make amends for their wrongdoing but this too will be denied and refused. The Fire will burn their faces and they will grimace with their lips displaced. They will appeal to Allah to bring them out of Hell promising never to do evil again, but he will demand that they be driven back into it (Surah 23:103-108). The unquenching desire of the Fire to consume yet more and more is graphically portrayed in this verse:

One day We will ask Jahannam (Hell), "Are you filled to the full yet?" It will reply, "Are there yet more (to come)?" Surah 50:30

In many ways the principle tenets of Qur'anic doctrine about the basic relationship between God and mankind, the quest for salvation and the destiny of believers and unbelievers to Heaven and Hell respectively are similar to the Biblical perspective. On the other hand there is no awareness of the need for a Redeemer to deliver all men, who are enemies of God by nature, from the bondage of sin and death. Heaven and Hell likewise, while being similar in some respects to the Biblical concept, are nonetheless defined principally by the physical delights and torments their inmates will experience rather than by the difference of being transformed into God's own likeness or being cast out of his presence forever. The emphasis is on the circumstances surrounding the believer and unbeliever respectively.

Ultimately the similarities between the two books are overshadowed by the contrasts. The former indicate little more than common ground upon which the doctrines of each respective book are based. The final product, however, separates Islam and Christianity into two totally different religions. The one settles into a legalistic creed based on the good works and ceremonial observances of its adherents while the other blossoms into a testimony of God's wondrous grace to be responded to in faith and obedient gratitude.




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The opening pages of the famous Qur'an written by `Ali ibn Hilal, better known as Ibn al-Bawwab, who is recognised as one of the greatest Arab calligraphers. This is the only Qur'an he wrote which has survived intact.


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Two further pages from the same Qur'an. It was compiled in Baghdad in 1001 AD and is the oldest manuscript known in naskhi script. It is also the earliest fully illuminated Arabic Qur'an to have been discovered to date.




One of the great themes of the Qur'an is the prophetic office of Allah's appointed messengers throughout history. A prophet is a nabi although the plural use of the word (anbiya or nabiyyin) is usually employed in the book. A prophet may also be called a rasul meaning a "messenger" and Jesus and Muhammad are particularly referred to by this title. Prophets are Allah's warners sent as his representatives to lead mankind into his knowledge and truth:

Mankind was a single community to whom Allah sent his prophets with his pronouncements and warnings; and with them he sent down the Scripture in truth to judge between people in matters wherein they differed. Surah 2:213

Muslims are commanded to believe in all the true prophets of Allah without making any distinction between them, the Qur'an citing Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and Jesus specifically as prophets whom he had sent in former times (Surah 3:84). Islam has taken over the whole prophetic line of the Judeo-Christian heritage, the Qur'an acknowledging that al-Kitab ("the Scripture"), al-Hukm ("the Judgment") and al-Nubuwwah ("the Prophethood") were sent particularly to the Children of Israel (Surah 45:16). Many of the stories of these prophets follow Biblical narratives to some extent while being supplemented with material from Jewish folklore. On the whole the records in the Qur'an are rather sketchy and, as has been seen, anyone reading these without a knowledge of the Bible will find it hard to ascertain precisely what the book is speaking about.

While much is said about the great patriarchs of early Israelite history none of the great writing prophets such as Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah is mentioned in the book. Significantly the sole figure spoken of from the later period is Jonah, the only prophet from this time of whom a brief biographical record appears in the Bible.

The other great omission in the Qur'anic portrayal of the Old Testament prophetic history is the lack of any reference to sacrifices as an integral part of Israelite religion. The exhaustive instructions given to Moses about sin offerings, burnt offerings and other sacrifices are glossed over in the Qur'an. The Temple of the Jews, although mentioned in the Qur'an (Surah 17:7), is not set forth as the focal point of the sacrificial rituals recorded extensively in the Old Testament. Significantly, although the Qur'an acknowledges the prophethood of Jesus Christ it does not even remotely allude to his atoning work as the one great sacrifice of all time to reconcile men to God.

It seems that Muhammad's own knowledge of Biblical prophetic history grew as he spent time in conversation with Jews and educated men of his own nation. Without firsthand access to the whole record, however, he was unable to master the subject. Nonetheless the accuracy of his accounts improves as his knowledge increases. A good example is the story of Lut, the Prophet Lot in the Qur'an. The mere fact that he should be included among the list of true prophets indicates Christian influence upon Muhammad as it is only in later Jewish documents that one finds him mentioned as such. In the Bible it is only in 2 Peter 7-8 that Lot is described (on no less than three occasions nonetheless) as a "righteous" figure on the same level as Noah, Abraham and the other early patriarchs.

The early records of his flight from Sodom in the Qur'an make no mention of the destruction of the city and simply state that he was saved with members of his family while his own people, who had opposed him, were destroyed. Furthermore reference is made only to an "old woman" who lingered behind and was also destroyed (Surahs 26:171, 37:135). In later passages, however, the visit of the angelic messengers in human form is first recorded and this time it is clearly stated that it was his wife who was the woman who lagged behind (Surah 27:57).

In another later passage Abraham is linked to the story for the first time as the first person whom the angels visited to announce their mission to him and their purpose to save his nephew. This time mention is actually made of a city where Lot and his opponents were situated but, typically, it is not named. The angels, on arriving at the city, immediately disclose their identities and intention to Lot with a command to him to be fully prepared to flee by night with his family without looking back for any reason. Allah's decree that the offenders in the city would be destroyed by the morning is then also announced to him (Surah 15:51-66).

Only after this do the inhabitants of the city command Lot to bring out the young men who had come to him. Lot duly protests that they are his guests and offers them his daughters. By the morning, however, Allah's wrath rains down upon them and they are destroyed. The story generally follows the Biblical record except that in the Bible the angels only disclose their true identities and design after Lot's altercation with the men of the city. In placing this disclosure before the event, however, an enigma appears in the Qur'an. Lot would surely have reacted more purposefully towards them had he known in advance that his guests were actually two angels from heaven with power to destroy them and their city.

In another passage, however, the story most closely approximates the Biblical account. Abraham's prayer for the deliverance of Lot's people is now mentioned and it is only after the young men in the city demand Lot's guests to be delivered to them that they finally disclose to him that they are messengers from his Lord and that he was safe from their designs and should flee the city during the night (Surah 11:74-81).

This brief analysis is not exceptional, however. If there were only one or two instances of the kind in the Qur'an they could possibly be explained away. There are so many, however, that the conclusion can hardly be resisted that, as his own personal knowledge of Biblical records increased, so his accounts of them in the Qur'an became more accurate, and that he was receiving his information not by revelation from above but from various sources of information around him.


The Qur'an mentions four New Testament personalities by name: `Isa (Jesus), Maryam (his mother Mary), Yahya (John the Baptist) and Zakariya (John's father). As mentioned earlier Mary is the only woman mentioned by name in the book and she has a place of considerable esteem. Her importance stems primarily from her status as the virgin-mother of Jesus. The narrative of his conception and birth is set out extensively in Surahs 3:42-47 and 19:16-34. Mary's honour is defined in the following passage:

And (remember) her who guarded her chastity. We breathed into her of Our spirit and appointed her and her son as a sign to all the worlds. Surah 21:91

Jesus is highly respected in the Qur'an as one of the great prophets of God. He is given unique titles, such as al-Masih ("the Messiah"), Kalimatuhu (Allah's Word) and Ruhun-minhu (a spirit from him) – all titles ascribed to him alone (Surah 4:171) although no attempt is made to explain them. Not only is his virgin-birth recorded in terms similar to those found in the Bible but his ascent to heaven at the end of his life is likewise acknowledged (Surah 4:158). An allusion appears to be made in the book to his return to earth at the end of time as a Sign of the Hour (Surah 43:61). The Qur'an also acknowledges that he was able to perform many mighty miracles by leave of Allah such as the power to give life to the clay figure of a bird, to heal lepers and those born blind, and to bring back the dead to life (Surah 5:113). Once again, although the Qur'an generally follows Biblical records it varies in many ways that again give the impression that Muhammad was not fully informed of his subject and was relying on sources around him.

On one occasion Jesus' disciples are said to have challenged him by enquiring whether his Lord could send down a table from heaven filled with food. They assured him they only wanted to witness such a miracle to confirm that all he had told them was the truth. Jesus duly prayed that God would send down such a table and, although agreeing to do so, God is said to have expressed very clearly his disapproval of their lack of faith (Surah 5:115-118). The narrative appears to confuse the demand of the Israelites in the desert at the time of Moses, "Can God spread a table in the wilderness?" (Psalm 78:19) with the story of the Last Supper in the New Testament when Jesus sat at table with his disciples and gave then bread to eat and wine to drink as symbols of his body and blood to be broken and shed for them respectively.

While the Qur'an goes a long way towards agreeing with the Bible in its records of Jesus' personality and life it categorically denies the two most important features of his course from a Christian perspective. Firstly, it categorically denies that he was crucified in these words:

They said, "We killed the Messiah Jesus the son of Mary, the messenger of Allah", but they killed him not, nor did they crucify him, but so it was made to appear to them. Those who differ therein are full of doubt without knowledge and only speculation to follow. Assuredly they did not kill him, but Allah raised him up, and Allah is the Mighty, the Wise. Surah 4:157-158

This is actually the only place where the Qur'an denies the crucifixion and it regards it solely as a slander of the Jews without any reference to Christian belief in it or its atoning purpose. Nevertheless the denial of Jesus' death on a cross is one of the emphatic points of dispute between Christianity and Islam. The explanation that it "was made to appear to them" that they had crucified him has been generally interpreted to mean that Allah made someone else look just like Jesus and that this person was then crucified in his place. Jesus is believed to have been taken up alive to heaven without dying to return at the end of time.

The deity of Jesus is even more emphatically denied. To ascribe a partner to Allah is regarded as a great blasphemy and the vehemence with which the Qur'an rejects the Christian belief that Jesus is the Son of God comes out very clearly in this passage:

The Christians say that the Messiah is the Son of God. That is but a saying with their mouth. They only imitate what the unbelievers of old used to say. God's curse be upon them! How they are deluded away from the truth! Surah 9:30

Elsewhere the Qur'an exclaims that is far from the glory of Allah that he should have a son (Surah 4:171) and that to take the Messiah as Lord is a great calumny as this ascribes a partner to Allah who is only one God (Surah 9:31). Likewise it declares that it is blasphemy to allege that Allah is the Messiah, the son of Mary, when Allah could destroy both Jesus and his mother by his power if he so willed (Surah 5:19). He is in Allah's sight just like Adam since both were created solely by the Word of Allah who simply said "Be!", and they came to be (Surah 3:59).

Jesus Christ is set forth in the Qur'an solely as a prophet like those who went before him and no different to Muhammad, the last prophet, whose coming he is alleged to have foretold (Surah 61:6). It seems that Muhammad, in denouncing the pagan Arabs of his day who believed their idols were the daughters of Allah who would intercede with him on their behalf, could not see any difference in Christian belief about Jesus when he was told that he was the Son of God who would intercede for his own people. Both beliefs are dismissed as kufr, the blasphemy of unbelief against Allah, particularly as Jesus himself called his people to worship Allah, his Lord and theirs, one God with whom no other gods could be joined (Surah 5:75).

While Christians speak freely of "Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ" (the expression occurs in 2 Peter 3:18), the Qur'an's response seems to be that, while almost every other facet of his life and character can be admitted, he is neither Lord nor Saviour. This denial, incorporated as it is into the actual Scripture of the Muslims, is the major reason why Islam is more antagonistic towards Christian belief than any other religion or philosophy in the world.





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Two pages from a typical Qur'an inscribed in the cursive maghribi script. It was inscribed in gold and blue script on vellum in the 12th century and was most probably written in Spain. The text here recorded is Surah 3:144.



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Pages from the second of a ten-volume Qur'an written in San`a' in Yemen in naskhi script. The manuscript is dated 1804 AD and was compiled in Ramadan. The text contains black script on beige within yellow margins.




Long before his prophetic mission Muhammad knew that the Jews and Christians scattered throughout Arabia possessed certain holy writings which were jealously preserved in the original languages in which they had first been written. When he began to receive revelations in his mother-tongue, Arabic, he believed that he too had been inspired to lead his own people in the right path and his scripture soon became known as al-Qur'an, "the Recitation". The scripture of the Jews he called at-Tawraat, "the Law", and the holy writings of the Christians he titled al-Injil, "the Gospel". It is not known whether these were the express names which they gave to their own texts but these are their names in the Qur'an although nothing is said to explain their meaning or significance. The adherents of both faiths are called Ahl-al-Kitab, "the People of the Scripture", on numerous occasions in the book.

Although the Ahl-al-Kitab are spoken of respectfully in the Qur'an and are usually distinguished from pagan idolaters, the attitude is usually reproachful. They are seen as having deviated from the teachings of their scriptures and of exceeding the bounds of their religion (Surah 4:171, 5:80). If only they had truly believed and been righteous Allah would have forgiven all their sins and led them into gardens of bliss (Surah 5:68). If only they had stood firm on the Tawraat and the Injil they would have enjoyed perpetual happiness (Surah 5:69). They are boldly charged:

Say: "O People of the Scripture! You have no ground to stand upon unless you stand by the Law and the Gospel and all that has been sent down to you from your Lord". Surah 5:71

It seems that Muhammad believed that these two books had a similar form to his own Qur'an, namely that each was a scripture in which Allah alone was the author and which were delivered to their recipients respectively. The Qur'an was simply an Arabic equivalent of these former books. The Injil is expressly said to have been delivered to Jesus (Surah 57:27) while the Tawraat is described as the scripture deliberately sent to the Jews so that their prophets, scribes and rabbis might judge them by it (Surah 5:47). The Kitab ("Scripture") sent to Muhammad was revealed partly to confirm these former revelations and to guard their integrity. To each people a Law (shir`at) and an open Way (Surah 5:51).

The Qur'an does talk of other scriptures and testaments revealed to the prophets, in particular the Zabur ("Psalms") which was given to David (Surah 4:163, 7:55). It also states that Jesus personally attested the Tawraat before him, adding that he, however, had been sent to make some of its prohibitions lawful to the Children of Israel (Surah 3:50). Only one actual quote from the Zabur appears in the Qur'an, namely that "the meek shall inherit the earth" (Surah 21:105 quoting Psalm 37:11). While there is no similar quotation from either the Tawraat or the Injil, much of their teaching reappears in various forms and the two books are obviously regarded as the major scriptures that preceded the Qur'an, often being mentioned together (e.g. Surah 48:29). Muhammad's own coming as a prophet from a people hitherto without a scripture is said to have been expressly foretold in these former texts:

Those who follow the Apostle, the unlettered Prophet, whom they find mentioned in their own (scriptures) which are with them, in the Tawraat and Injil, for he commands them what is just and forbids what is wrong. Surah 7:157

Over the first two centuries of Islam Muslim scholars faced an enigma. They soon discovered that the holy scriptures of the Jews and Christians were the Old and New Testaments respectively, two collections of shorter books which did not remotely resemble books like the Qur'an believed to be sent down to Moses and Jesus from Allah himself. Their consternation rose when they found that the New Testament is very Christian in content, time and again emphasising the fact that Jesus is the Son of God and that he died on the cross for the forgiveness of sins. At first they tried to reinterpret the two scriptures to make them harmonise with the Qur'an but scholars such as Ibn Hazm, who lived in the next era, began to teach that the actual Tawraat and Injil had been corrupted and that the Jewish and Christian scriptures were not reliable.

Support for this view was sought in the Qur'an itself but, although the book often charges the Jews and Christians with deviating from their teachings, they are never accused of actually perverting them. A party of them is charged with throwing away the kitaballah ("Scripture of Allah") behind their backs when Muhammad came to them (Surah 2:101). In the same way some of the Jews are accused of displacing words from their places by playing on them "with a twist of their tongues" (Surah 4:46, 5:44) while another group is blamed with knowingly perverting the Word of Allah after they had heard and understood it (Surah 2:75). In all these passages the accusation is purely one of twisting the meaning of words and never of tampering with the text itself. This gave rise to the doctrine of tahrif-i-ma`nawi, corruption of the message of the scriptures which was the common charge against the Jews and Christians in early Islamic polemics and one perpetuated many times afterwards.

It was only later scholars who raised the doctrine of tahrif-i-lafzi, corruption of the text itself. It seemed to be the only way of explaining the obvious differences between the actual scriptures in the possession of the Jews and Christians and those described in the Qur'an. A favourite text used to support this approach reads as follows:

A party of them distort the Scripture with their tongues. You might think it is a part of the Scripture when it is not from the Scripture; and they say "This is from Allah" when it is not from Allah, and they speak falsehood against Allah and do so consciously knowing it.   Surah 3:78

Once again, however, there is no direct charge of corrupting the text itself but only of reading something else in its place. Another verse often quoted in support of the argument is one which charges some of them with writing the Scripture with their own hands and claiming "This is from Allah" only to sell it for a price (Surah 2:79). Yet again there is no indictment of actually perverting the original texts.

The Qur'an, on the other hand, clearly teaches that the Tawraat and Injil were the actual scriptures which the Jews and Chrisatians had in their possession at the time of Muhammad. The Ahl-al-Injil ("People of the Gospel") are commanded to judge by what Allah has revealed in it (Surah 5:50). In the same way the Jews are asked why they come to Muhammad for judgment when they have the Tawraat which contains the plain commands of Allah (Surah 5:46). They could not seriously have been so addressed if the texts in their hands had been changed and corrupted. The Tawraat is expressly said to have been `indahum, "with them", i.e. the Jews. The same expression is used in Surah 7:157 for both the Tawraat and the Injil. There is not a hint in the Qur'an that Muhammad ever thought that the scriptures which the Jews and the Christians had among them were anything other than the original books he believed had been revealed to them by Allah himself.

In fact the Old and New Testaments cannot possibly be regarded as perverted editions of the original texts. They contain a variety of writings by different prophets and apostles including poetry, narratives, letters, biographies and prophetic texts. The Old Testament was compiled over many centuries and in no way takes the form of a book or scripture revealed to Moses. The New Testament likewise does not in any way resemble a revelation to Jesus but is a collection of writings of his immediate followers about him and the new covenant he put into effect. 

It can only be presumed that, being ignorant of the actual contents of the books in the possession of the People of the Scripture, Muhammad misidentified the Old and New Testaments as a Tawraat and Injil revealed to Moses and Jesus respectively. Nonetheless the Qur'an testifies to their divine origin and authenticity.


Although their scriptures are highly respected the general tone of the Qur'an in respect of the Jews and Christians is negative, especially the Jews. Occasionally there are positive statements about some of them who are seen to be following a path of righteousness for whom a place in heaven has been preserved, as in this verse:

And there are among the People of the Scripture those who believe in Allah, and in what has been sent down to you, and in what has been sent down to them. Humbly bowing to Allah they will not sell the Signs of Allah for a miserable price. Their reward is with their Lord and Allah is quick in rendering account. Surah 3:199

There are other similar passages but it is invariably only a group of the People of the Scripture who will be accepted on the final Day. The rest are generally regarded as having turned away from the path of Allah who are accordingly opponents of the Prophet. Collectively they are ridiculed for their claims to have a monopoly over the truth, even over and against each other as in this verse:

The Jews say "The Christians have nothing (to stand) upon", while the Christians say "The Jews have nothing (to stand) upon". Yet they read the Scripture. They speak as those who are ignorant, but Allah will judge between them on the Day of Resurrection in their dispute. Surah 2:113

In the same way they are rebuked for each saying that no one will enter Paradise unless he be a Jew or a Christian (Surah 2:111) as well as for each claiming that Abraham was an adherent of their faith when the Tawraat and Injil were only revealed sometime later (Surah 3:65). It is hard to follow the logic of the Qur'an at this point, however, for it goes on to say that Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian but an upright Muslim (Surah 3:67) – hardly possible if the Qur'an was only revealed after the Tawraat and the Injil.

The Jews are upbraided constantly in the Qur'an. They are charged with being willing to listen to any lie (Surah 5:44, 5:67) and are regarded as sworn enemies of the Muslims, determined to lead them astray from the right path. They are accused of being the most greedy of all the peoples on the earth, including idolaters, with each one clinging so much to life that he could wish to live a thousand years (Surah 2:96). Most of them are reviled as "rebellious wrongdoers" (Surah 5:84) and they are declared to be among the most persistent of Muhammad's opponents:

The most vehement of men in hostility towards the believers will you find to be the Jews and the idolaters. Surah 5:85

The Christians, on the other hand, are occasionally spoken of with more favour. In contrast to the enmity of the Jews the Qur'an says:

Nearest among them in love to the believers will you find those who say "We are Christians", that is because there are among them men devoted to learning and those who have turned away from the world, and they are not arrogant.   Surah 5:85

They are also often censured, however, particularly for their tendency to withdraw into monasticism which Allah has not prescribed for any one (Surah 57:27) and for forgetting the covenant which Allah had made with them (Surah 5:15). They are further rebuked for taking their monks, priests and the Messiah the son of Mary as their lords when they were commanded to worship Allah alone (Surah 9:31). The chief charge is of exaggerating in their religion.

As time went on and Muhammad's armies, particularly near the end of his life, came into conflict with Christian armies in the north of Arabia his attitude towards them became more hostile. They are for the first time accused of being no better than pagan idolaters for speaking blasphemy against Allah in declaring that he is one of a triad of whom Mary and Jesus are the other two (Surah 5:76). They are castigated with the Jews in the same terms as rebellious transgressors against Allah's revealed laws. Although the Qur'an commends them for being nearest in love to the Muslims the latter are forbidden to associate too closely with them or befriend them:

O you who believe! Do not take the Jews and the Christians for your friends or protectors, they are friends and protectors to each other. Whoever among you who turns to them is one of them. Indeed Allah does not guide an unjust people. Surah 5:54

As a result of his numerous altercations with Jews and battles with Christians in his last days, Muhammad now calls on his own people to fight against them as well as pagan idolaters:

Fight those who do not believe in Allah and the Last Day and do not forbid that which Allah and his Apostle have forbidden, nor believe in the religion of truth including those among the People of the Scripture until they pay the poll-tax voluntarily and feel themselves subdued. Surah 9:29

Although there is at times a spirit of tolerance towards the Jews and Christians in the Qur'an and even a declaration that the truly pious among them will be rewarded in Paradise and find favour with Allah, the general attitude is animostic. Jointly they are seen to be serious opponents of the Prophet and his message and their presence is viewed as a threat to the well-being of the Muslims whom they are determined to lead astray.




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One of five folios surviving together of a kufi Qur'an dating from the end of the ninth century. The text runs from Surah 51:59 to 52:48 and is written in black ink. It is not known where the manuscript was compiled.


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A folio from the unique Qur'an written in Kairouan, Tunisia, in the ninth century. The whole manuscript is inscribed in gold script on blue vellum and is commonly known as the "Blue Qur'an". Most of it survives intact.




Although Islam is a religion of fixed laws and regulations and has often been criticised as being legalistic in emphasis, the Qur'an itself is not a composition of rules and ordinances. Nonetheless it does deal at length with human relationships, prescribes many rituals and does legislate codes of behaviour, punishments and the like. Law in Islam has become known as the shari`ah, the "path" or way of life required to be followed to make a man a faithful Muslim, one who submits to Allah in truth. The word is not commonly used in the Qur'an but its appearance in the following text sums up its centrality to the Muslim faith:

Then We put you on the shari`ah (the right way), so follow it and do not follow the desires of those who are ignorant. Surah 45:18

The decalogue in the Christian Bible, more commonly known as the ten commandments, are the archetype of God's basic laws and while they are not set out in the Qur'an as categorically as they are in Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21, they are nevertheless all set out in various passages. The Qur'an does, however, confirm that God's laws were given to Moses on two stone tablets:

And We inscribed for him everything in the tablets, both commandments and explanations of all things, (saying): "Hold these in earnestness and command your people to comply with their excellences. Soon I will show you the abode of the wicked". Surah 7:145

One passage in the Qur'an, Surah 17:23-40, almost reads like a passage out of Leviticus and many of the ten commandments are expressly repeated in it. God's command that he alone should be worshipped is coupled with an injunction to be kind to one's parents (Surah 17:23). Adultery is forbidden as a shameful and evil deed opening the way to other evils while the taking of another's life, except for a just cause, is likewise prohibited for Allah has made life sacred (Surah 17:32-33). Amputation is prescribed as the punishment for theft (Surah 5:41). No object of worship should be taken along with Allah as this leads idolaters justifiably to hell (Surah 17:39). The third commandment is also repeated in the Qur'an, it being said that as Allah's names are the most beautiful of all, those who profane his name will be punished (Surah 7:180). The institution of the Sabbath Day for the Jewish people as a day of strict observance which they were inclined to transgress is also mentioned (Surah 7:163). Speaking falsehoods is reprobated (Surah 51:10) while the tenth commandment is repeated in similar terminology:

And do not covet those things which Allah has graciously bestowed on some of you more than on others, to men is given what they earn and to women what they earn. But ask of Allah from his goodness, for Allah has full knowledge of all things. Surah 4:32

In Muslim society today the shari`ah is generally taken to cover actual actions and prescribed rituals covering every aspect of a Muslim's behaviour. It means more than just obedience to revealed laws and comprises a standard of ethics canvassing the whole of the religious, social, political and domestic life of its adherents. Nonetheless it remains concerned primarily with outward forms and prescriptions only. The word adab, for example, is more commonly used to define the finer details of ethics and courtesies between Muslims and their co-religionists such as the need to always greet a fellow believer with the words salamu-`alaykum, "peace be upon you", and to respond in kind (Surah 4:54). It also covers the etiquette to be followed when dealing with non-Muslims.

An important distinction in Islam is made between things sacred or prohibited and those which are common and lawful. The former are known as haram, meaning "set apart" and the word can be used for things out of bounds both in the sacred and vulgar sense. For example the holy mosque of Mecca is known as masjid al-haram (the "sacred mosque"), the word here being used in a positive sense, while the flesh of swine, on the other hand, is forbidden as haram because it is unclean. All lawful meats are halaal, the word meaning "loosed", once the bismillah has been pronounced over them and other products such as dairy produce are likewise halaal once it is proved that they contain no forbidden fats or other substances.

Well-known to most people are violent prescribed punishments in Islam. A number of Islamic countries have reimposed these in recent years while Saudi Arabia has enforced them strictly for many centuries. They are known as hudud ("limits"), the penal laws of Islam. The penalty for theft, sarqa, is the amputation of a hand and is prescribed in the Qur'an:

As for the thief, whether male or female, cut off their hands as an exemplary punishment from Allah for their transgression; for Allah is the Mighty, the Wise.   Surah 5:41

In the Hadith, however, this sentence is said only to be applied in extreme cases where the thief has stolen something of real value:

Aisha reported Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: The hand of a thief should not be cut off but for a quarter of a dinar and upwards. (Sahih Muslim, Vol.3, p.907).

Other traditions say that a hand is not to be cut off where plants or fruit are stolen, where slaves steal their master's property (because the slave and all that he has remain the master's property) or where the value of the item stolen is of no real commercial value. Nonetheless the rigid enforcement of this prescription in Muhammad's own lifetime and the merciless nature of the execution of such punishments is well stated in the following record of a specific incident:

A thief was brought to the Apostle of Allah (may peace be upon him) and his hand was cut off. Thereafter he commanded for it, and it was hung on his neck. (Sunan Abu Dawud, Vol.3, p.1230).

Although adulterers are often stoned to death in Muslim lands or are beheaded (as in Arabia), the Qur'an only prescribes a hundred lashes for the offence (Surah 24:2). Muslim jurists have generally taught that this only applies to unmarrieds who cohabit unlawfully with married persons and that the latter are to be executed in terms of numerous examples from the Hadith records where this penalty was applied during Muhammad's own lifetime.


The Qur'an has laws and recommendations covering numerous aspects of relationships between Muslims in both Islamic societies and those where Muslims are in the minority. The ummah ("community") is the prevailing factor, namely the welfare of the Muslim society as a whole. The responsibility of a Muslim is towards his fellow-believer first and only thereafter to the prevailing order. This explains why Muslims, when in the minority, often tend to congregate together and form their own groups and organisations even though similar societies exist around them for all the inhabitants of any area. The last Shah of Iran during his reign did all he could to persuade his people to see themselves as Persians first and as Muslims second. When the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power, however, his attitude was that they were all Muslims first and nothing second. Although many Muslims in the West do contribute to the general welfare of the whole community and take part in the affairs of society around them it is nonetheless the rule that they form tightly-knit communities of their own to protect their own Islamic identity.

Human relationships are generally viewed from a practical rather than an idealistically sacred point of view. Thus marriage, nikah, is not regarded as a sacrament in Islam which should never be broken but rather as a contract between two parties which, where appropriate, may be dissolved by divorce. This is regarded as a necessary evil, however, and not as an option freely available to Muslims. The Qur'an calls marriage a mithaq, a "covenant" (Surah 4:21). It follows the Bible in forbidding marriages between persons within very close degrees of relationship (Surah 4:23) and it likewise makes the husband the head of the family, requiring the wife to submit to him and care for the common household. Muslim women are only permitted to marry Muslim men but the latter are allowed in the Qur'an to take wives from among the Jews and Christians:

The food of the People of the Scripture is lawful to you and yours is lawful to them. (Lawful in marriage) are chaste women who are believers as well as chaste women among the People of the Scripture. Surah 5:6

Although such wives should not be compelled to abandon their faith for Islam a tradition in Islam scorns the idea that a Muslim should take to wife a Christian woman who does not renounce her beliefs:

Narrated Nafi: Whenever Ibn Umar was asked about marrying a Christian lady or a Jewess, he would say: "Allah has made it unlawful for the believers to marry ladies who ascribe partners in worship to Allah, and I do not know of a greater thing, as regards ascribing partners in worship, etc., to Allah, than that a lady should say that Jesus is her Lord although he is just one of Allah's slaves". (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol.7, p.155).

It is well-known that the Qur'an permits polygamy but only between a man and his wives. No woman in Islam is allowed to have more than one  husband at a time. Husbands are allowed to have up to four wives but, if they fear they cannot deal equitably with them, then they are to take only one at a time (Surah 4:3). At the time of a marriage the husband should give his wife a dowry as a free gift, but if the wife voluntarily chooses to forego it or returns any part of it to him, he should respond positively and cheerfully (Surah 4:4). Although Islam is often charged with making women subordinate and inferior to men the Qur'an regularly pays them special attention. Women are indeed seen to be the weaker sex who are to be submissive to their menfolk but the book constantly commands them to care for their wives. If the wife fears cruelty or desertion on her husband's part and he agrees to separate, there is no blame on them if they should arrange an amicable settlement between themselves – an instance in the Qur'an where the wife is entitled to initiate the possibility of a divorce (Surah 4:128).

Men are warned that they will never be able to be entirely fair and just with women no matter how much they may try to be. They are never to desert a women to leave her, so to speak, hanging in the air. A friendly understanding coupled with self-restraint is far better (Surah 4:129). Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, nevertheless if they fear that their wives have been disloyal or guilty of misconduct, they are entitled to admonish them and, if they do not repent, to refuse to share their beds and, as a last resort, to beat them (Surah 4:34).

These are but a sample of typical Qur'anic laws and injunctions covering one aspect of human relationships, namely marriage. Similar laws and recommendations cover issues such as divorce, cleanliness and the like. The awareness of Allah's watchful eye is an underlying theme in all areas of human conduct. Although specific injunctions and laws often cover the daily affairs of life much of the Qur'an's teaching is given by way of advice and in the promotion of principles which make for proper living. Its intention is to give beneficial guidance rather than to forcefully regulate every facet of a man's life. Human beings were never made to be slaves of tradition but rather living creatures entitled to live their own lives as they choose subject to certain obvious restraints and principles of conduct. (This is not true of the Hadith literature, however, which contains numerous traditions prescribing rules and observances affecting virtually every aspect of a believer's life).




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The opening pages of a Qur'an written for the Sultan Sha`ban in the rare and unusual muhaqqaq script with ornamental kufi surah headings. It was awarded as a waqf, a bequest to a madressa, by the Sultan in 1369 AD.


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Surah 18:1-7 in naskhi script with surah headings in thuluth from a 15th century Qur'an written in Iraq or Persia. Across the two lower panels are inscribed the verses referring to the "Guarded Tablet" of Surah 85:21-22.