Muslims Challenge the Authenticity of the Quran
Last week the Israeli Middle East Media Research Institute published an article entitled “Articles In Saudi Press Call To Amend Thousands Of Scribal Errors In The Quran, Reexamine Islamic Texts In Light Of Modern Perceptions.” In it, two Saudi journalists, Ahmad Hashem and Jarjis Gulizada, publicly called for—the former on January 10, 2020; the latter on July 22, 2020—an amendment of scribal errors in the Quran, as well as a reexamination of religious texts in light of modern perceptions, so as to make them more readable and adaptable to the present age.
What tends to be revolutionary as Tsvi Sadan of Israel Today points out is that in a country like Saudi Arabia, which still operates under strict sharia law, the Saudi websites that published the pieces were not taken down, nor were the authors arrested. This is not, however, the first time that Muslims have made a public appeal to reexamine the Quran in its present-day form.
On December 28, 2014, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi attempted to confront teachings that incite violence and the violation of human rights when he addressed the members of the al-Azhar University in Cairo. The institution is the oldest and most prestigious Sunni university for Islamic learning; its influential teaching forms over one thousand imams per year coming from 106 countries.
In his effort to fight the destruction of society as a result of the Islamic doctrines, el-Sisi called for a rethinking of Islam, which incorporates a re-interpretation of the Quran:
“All this that I am telling you, you cannot feel it if you remain trapped within this mindset. You need to step outside of yourselves to be able to observe it and reflect on it from a more enlightened perspective. I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution. You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world, I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move … because this umma [the community] is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost—and it is being lost by our own hands.”
While many Muslim intellectuals applauded the Egyptian leader’s proposition, al-Azhar’s grand imam and former president, Ahmed el-Tayeb, opposed it. He and his colleagues upheld a thousand-year position that since the Quran was “sent down” by Allah, there is no possibility of any historical interpretation of it, not even for those aspects that are incontestably related to the customs of a particular historical time and culture.
What does the Quran Mean to Muslims?
Muslims believe that Allah promised to guard the holy book from any possible alterations, revisions, deletions or redactions. Therefore, while they may disagree about the meaning and importance of the revelation, there is a broad consensus on the integrity and infallibility of the text:
- “Do they not contemplate the Quran? Had it been from other than Allah, they would surely have found much discrepancy therein.” —Sura 4, 82
- “Indeed, it is We who sent down the Quran and indeed, We will be its guardian [free from error].” —Sura 15, 9
Every single word, every single letter in the Quran, remains exactly as it was made known from Allah to Muhammad over a twenty-three-year period (609–632) down to our present day. The Quran is Allah’s unchangeable and eternal expression. Therefore, because Muslims hold that the Quran was sent down by Allah, there is not the slightest possibility for any critical or historical interpretation, not even for those elements that are indisputably related to the traditions of a specific historical period and culture.
An Islamic scholar details, shortly after the Prophet’s death in 632, the Caliph Abu Bakr—recognized as Muhammad’s successor by the Sunnis—needed to suppress a rebellion, historically known as the ridda (apostasy) wars (632-33). Bakr sent many huffaz—people who had memorized portions of the Quran—to fight at the Battle of Yamama. Many of these huffaz died, and Muslim sources tell us that portions of the Quran were lost as told to us by Ibn Abi Dawud:
“Many of the companions of the Prophet of Allah had their own readings of the Quran, but they died and their readings disappeared soon afterwards.”
Abu Bakr decided that it was time to gather what remained of the Quran in order to prevent more from being lost, and he appointed Zaid Ibn Thabit to this task. After Zaid completed his codex around 634, it remained in Abu Bakr’s possession until his death, when it was passed on to Caliph Umar. When Umar died, it was given to Hafsa, a widow of Muhammad. Subsequently, the “revelations” were inherited by the Caliph Uthman (644-656).
Uthman acknowledged that there would be contradictions in his codex based on the original dialect of the Quran:
Uthman said to the three Qurayshi men, “In case you disagree with Zaid Ibn Thabit on any point in the Quran, then write it in the dialect of Quraysh, the Quran was revealed in their tongue.” —Sahih al-Bukhari, Book 61, hadith510
The Muslim scholar, Abu Muhammad Ali bin Ahmed Ibn Hazm al-Andalusi (c. 994-1064), stated that Uthman introduced changes and mistakes into the Quran:
Abu Muhammad said: “This is the description of Uthman’s work that (was compiled) in the presence of the companions. While copying the masahif (codices) he burnt what he burnt from them from what he had changed intentionally or by mistake.” —Al-Ahkam fi usul Al-Ahkam, Volume 1, 528
As a result, around 653, Caliph Uthman destroyed the Quranic copies extant during his time and commissioned a standard and universal version (also known as Uthman’s Codex), which is generally considered the archetype of the Quran known today:
So Uthman sent a message to Hafsa saying, “Send us the manuscripts of the Quran so that we may compile the Quranic materials in perfect copies and return the manuscripts to you.” Hafsa sent it to Uthman. Uthman then ordered Zaid Ibn Thabit, Abdullah bin Azubair, Said bin Al-As and Abdur Rahman bin Harith bin Hisham to rewrite the manuscripts in perfect copies.… Uthman sent to every Muslim province one copy of what they had copied, and ordered that all the other Quranic materials, whether written in fragmentary manuscripts or whole copies, be burnt. —Sahih al-Bukhari, Book 61, hadith510
Denying the Infallibility of the Quran
The most important point to be drawn from the Saudi journalists Hashem and Gulizada, and for that matter President el-Sisi, is that the Quran cannot be an infallible and divinely revealed book since it was composed after the Prophet Muhammad’s death and suffered alterations.
Hashem points out that the Quran, at least “in its present form contains errors of spelling, syntax and grammar; it is estimated that there are about 2,500 such mistakes. They were made by the committee tasked with compiling the Quran, and include the addition or omission of letters in some words or the substitution of one letter for another.”
With all due respect to peaceful Muslims, as a Catholic priest, notwithstanding Pope Francis identifying the Quran “a prophetic book of peace,” I naturally cannot accept the Quran as a divinely revealed book from God—nor should anyone—in light of the verses that call for unwarranted violence and the subjugation of women.
It is true that the Hebrew Scriptures, referred to as the Old Testament by Christians, is filled with looting, killings and wars, sometimes at the behest of God. The inadvertent, and at times compulsive, divine orders to kill even innocent people cannot be accepted as the divine will of a “God [who] is love.” (1 John 4, 8). Such events, instead, are limited to historical events and allegorical interpretation—completely distinct from the teachings of Jesus on love and forgiveness as recorded in the gospels.
In any case, perhaps the recent courageous efforts of Ahmad Hashem and Jarjis Gulizada will encourage many other Muslims who share the same constructive criticisms that will essentially help disavow the call for violence in the Quranic verses.
Mario Alexis Portella is a priest of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Florence, Italy. He has a doctorate in canon law and civil law from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome; he also holds a M. A. in Medieval History from Fordham University, as well as a B.A. in Government & Politics from St. John’s University.
Sources not cited may be found in my book Islam: Religion of Peace? – The Violation of Natural Rights and Western Cover-Up. Book available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or WestBow Press.