Islam depends on two fundamental assertions for its claim to be the true faith which every human being must adopt: 1) Muhammad is the final and greatest prophet sent into the world by God; 2) the Qur’an is God’s final and perfect revelation to the human race. How does one go about testing these assertions? How do we know that Muhammad is a true prophet, and that the Qur’an is truly God’s perfect Word of revelation?
The standard Muslim argument is that we can be sure that Muhammad is Allah’s final prophet because the Qur’an tells us that he is. But when we ask how we can know that the Qur’an is trustworthy in this regard, the answer is that Muhammad, as God’s true prophet, brought the Qur’an directly from the lips of the angel Gabriel. Does this strike you as circular reasoning? It should, because that’s what it is.
If we look for objective evidence to support either of these assertions, we are left high and dry. In fact, as I showed briefly in a recent post, the life of Muhammad (according to early Muslim sources exclusively) hardly leads one to conclude that the man was reasonably good by pagan Arab standards of the day, much less that he was God’s final prophet to the world and the exemplar of moral perfection.
Today I want to examine briefly the claim that the Qur’an is God’s perfect revelation to the world. For Muslims, the Qur’an is written in “clear, pure Arabic,” because the Qur’an itself makes this claim (16:101-103; see also 3:7; 11:1; 13:37; 41:44; 42:7). Yet this lofty language was originally the dialect of Arabic spoken by Muhammad and his tribe, the Quraish. It was a rather obscure dialect with nothing special to commend itself other than that was what Muhammad spoke, and so that was how the “revelations” of the Qur’an came to the world. We are left to suppose that this Quraishi dialect, as opposed to any other language, is what the angel Gabriel used while revealing Allah’s eternal truth to Muhammad, and that indeed the “Mother of all books” which has existed from eternity and from which the revealed Qur’an was fashioned, was itself composed in Arabic. Arabic, then, is the language of heaven, the very language of Allah. For this reason, the Qur’an cannot be translated into any other tongue and retain the fullness of its revelatory quality. To rightly and fully understand God’s final revelation, one must read it in Arabic.
Perhaps you find it strange that God would package his final revelation to the world in a language that is native to less than 4% of today’s global population (the percentage would have been even lower in 610 AD, when Muhammad purportedly received his first installment of the Qur’an). Even among the contemporary Muslim world, roughly 16% are native Arabic speakers. The rest are left to flounder in the attempt to master a difficult second language, or to depend on others to interpret their holy book. It seems Allah is saying, “Here’s my revelation, which you must know. But to know it, you must spend your life learning a language that is both difficult and full of nuances. See how many hoops you can jump through to make the grade….” On top of that, Qur’anic Arabic is very different from today’s Arabic dialects – it is ancient, with a vocabulary and structure of its own. Most native speakers find the Qur’an very difficult to understand, much less master. According to Dr. Gerd Puin, one of today’s greatest Qur’anic scholars specializing in early Arabic orthography,
“The Koran claims for itself that it is ‘mubeen,’ or ‘clear,’ but if you look at it, you will notice that every fifth sentence or so simply doesn’t make sense. Many Muslims—and Orientalists—will tell you otherwise, of course, but the fact is that a fifth of the Koranic text is just incomprehensible. This is what has caused the traditional anxiety regarding translation. If the Koran is not comprehensible—if it can’t even be understood in Arabic—then it’s not translatable. People fear that. And since the Koran claims repeatedly to be clear but obviously is not—as even speakers of Arabic will tell you—there is a contradiction. Something else must be going on” (found in Toby Lester’s article “What Is the Quran?” in the Jan. 1999 issue of the Atlantic Monthly).
Given all these impediments, one may be justified in asking why Allah would want to make it so difficult for all but a few human beings to understand his communication. How different from the God of the Bible, who on the Day of Pentecost miraculously caused those listening to the preaching and praises of Galilean disciples to hear these matters in their own native tongues. The event of Pentecost demonstrated that the biblical God was intent on breaking down barriers, not putting up hurdles, so all human beings could know Him. That, after all, was the central message of the Incarnation itself – God with us, as one of us.
The Qur’an claim is that it was composed in pure, clear Arabic, and that this was done before the foundation of the world. Yet according to Arabic scholars, both Muslim and not, this book contains a number of foreign terms (not found in the Arabic language). One Western scholar, Arthur Jeffery, details some 275 such terms and shows their origin in other languages. How strange that Allah would need to turn to words from other languages to express his thoughts, especially since those languages had not yet been composed prior to the creation of humanity. Was not the original Arabic of heaven sufficient to express his revelation? Or might this be evidence instead that the Qur’an is not in reality a heavenly book but rather one composed in the mix of cultural and religious interaction found in the Arabian peninsula during Muhammad’s life….
Since Muslims believe that Allah composed this book and filled it with timeless wisdom for all peoples, we might be forgiven for wondering why significant portions of the Qur’an deal with Muhammad’s own domestic problems. For example, one day Muhammad stops in to visit his son-in-law, Zaid, who is not at home. In the process, the prophet gets an eyeful of his very beautiful daughter-in-law, Zainab, and is aroused, but flees. Zaid deduces that his adopted father would like Zainab as a wife, and he proposes to divorce her for Muhammad, but the prophet declines, citing common law that daughter-in-laws were off limits for marriage to their father-in-laws. Shortly thereafter, Allah gently rebukes Muhammad, for apparently it has been divinely appointed for the prophet to marry Zainab, in order to show to all the world that this is now proper in Allah’s sight:
O Prophet, remember when you said to the one (Zaid, his adopted son) whom Allah as well as you had favored: “Keep your wife in wedlock and fear Allah”. You sought to hide in your heart what Allah intended to reveal; you were afraid of the people whereas it would have been more appropriate to fear Allah. So when Zaid divorced his wife, We gave her to you in marriage, so that there remains no hindrance for the believers to wed the wives of their adopted sons if they divorced them. And Allah’s Command had to be carried out. (Sura 33:37)
On another occasion, one of Muhammad’s older wives, Sauda, has become fat and rather unattractive, and he decides to divorce her so he can spend more time frolicking with his younger, attractive wives. Sauda gets wind of this and pleads with Muhammad to keep her as a wife with the stipulation that she will cede her “bed time” to Muhammad’s youngest (and favorite) wife, Aisha. That pleases Muhammad, and he agrees. Allah backs this up with a revelation (Sura 4:128), exonerating Muhammad’s lust.
Muhammad was apparently an introvert, and did not like people hanging around his house. On the other hand, his followers were eager to spend as much time as possible with him, especially over meals in his home. The prophet is too kind to tell people to scram, so Allah, the God of the universe, acts as a personal bouncer and enshrines in his eternal word a warning that people are not to arrive early for meals, nor are they to hang around after the meal is finished – Muhammad needs his “down time” with his wives. (You can read this whole message in Sura 33:53).
Finally, on this subject of convenient divine revelations, Allah steps in when Muhammad is in hot water with his wives. While one of his wives, Hafsa, is out, Muhammad grabs one of his favorite slave girls, Mary (who was a Coptic Christian), and proceeds to have sex with her on Hafsa’s bed, on the day when his “dalliances” were reserved for Hafsa. She returns to discover this betrayal (in her eyes) and scolds the prophet, who in an attempt to do damage control, takes an oath before Hafsa that he will never do such a thing again, instead following the harem rules that each wife would get her own inviolable day with the prophet. Hafsa, though, spreads the story among the wives and they express their anger to Muhammad. In turn, he boycotts them all for a month, and beds Mary the Copt exclusively. At the end of this time, Allah intervenes on the prophet’s behalf with Sura 66:1-2, in which he reprimands Muhammad for taking an oath in the first place, assuring him that he had done nothing wrong to his wives. In the following verses 3-5, Allah sharply rebukes Muhammad’s wives for their treatment of him, and warns them that if he divorces them, Allah will find for him better replacement wives.
It’s no surprise, then, that Muhammad’s youngest wife, Aisha, is recorded at one point saying to the prophet, ““I feel that your Lord hastens in fulfilling your wishes and desires” (Bukhari,6:60:311). Does a book containing such “convenient revelations” seem worthy of the title “eternal counsel of the God of the universe”?
Muslims claim perfection in all respects for this book – indeed, that is the natural conclusion for a book composed completely by Allah. Imperfections would cast doubt this claim. And yet, objective students have found reams of errors, not only in the Arabic syntax and grammar of the Qur’anic text, but as well in factual claims pertaining to history, prophecy, science, alignment with the previous revelation of Old and New Testaments (to which the Qur’an appeals as its precursors). In addition, there are numerous internal contradictions within the Qur’an, where one revelation is given and at a later time another revelation comes which clearly conflicts with prior teaching. There are many books and websites which detail all these errors, so in the interest of space I will not reduplicate their efforts. Let me just share a few with you:
- In Arabic, the names Mary and Miriam are one and the same. This apparently led Muhammad to confuse Mary the mother of Jesus with Miriam the sister of Moses and Aaron. The Qur’an describes the mother of Jesus the sister of Aaron, which has led Muslim scholars to all sorts of mental gymnastics in claiming that Muhammad was not wrong.
- Likewise, the biblical figure Haman, a villain in the book of Esther who lived during the reign of King Xerxes (circa early 5th BC), is transported in time by Muhammad to become a villain in the court of Pharaoh who opposes Moses (circa 16th C. BC). Haman is mentioned in this role six times in the Qur’an. Muhammad is only off by a millennium and multiple world empires.
- According to Suras 37:6-10 and 67:5, what we would call “shooting stars” (meteors which enter the earth’s atmosphere and burn up upon entry) are in reality true stars which Allah snatches from their set places to hurl at the jinn (demons) who get too close to heaven in their attempts to overhear Allah’s conversations with his angels.
- According to Sura 18:83-86, a believer named Dhu-l Qarnain (often identified by Muslims as Alexander the Great) travels so far west that he finds the place where the sun sets at night. We are told authoritatively that he saw it set in a pool of warm, muddy water.
- One famous incident in Muhammad’s life as a prophet has been nicknamed “the Satanic verses.” He claimed to have received a revelation from Gabriel which brought approval from his pagan tribe, the Quraish, because it acknowledged three goddesses (daughters of Allah) who were protectors of Mecca. A few days later, after Muhammad’s early followers take him to task for this aberrant teaching, Muhammad comes back to the Meccan elders with a revised revelation which denies what he had said at first. His explanation was that Satan had whispered in his ear, and he had mistaken Satan’s voice for that of Gabriel. The Meccans are not amused, and Muhammad is embarrassed, but Allah comes to his rescue with another revelation: “Never have We sent an apostle or a prophet before you, O Muhammad, with whose wishes Satan did not tamper; but Allah abrogates the interjections of Satan and confirms His own revelations, for Allah is All-Knowing, All-Wise” (Sura 22:52). In other words, “Buck up, Muhammad. This same kind of thing has happened to all my prophets in the past. Don’t be ashamed. I’ve got your back!”
On top of all these things, when a book claims that the righteous God is its author, we are justified in investigating its moral teachings to see whether they align with what we expect concerning moral perfection. The Qur’an legitimizes slavery, rape, forced conversions and/or extortion (the jizya is Islam’s equivalent to the Mafia’s protection money: “Pay us a yearly tax and we’ll make sure you are protected.” “Protected from whom?” you ask. “Protected from us,” is the response.) It is likewise rife with anti-Semitic vitriol and incentivizes Muhammad’s followers to murder those who refuse to bow before him. It permits marriages to young, pre-pubescent girls (following Muhammad’s own example), and enshrines the second class status of woman as Allah’s eternal will. How could such a book come from the mind of the true God?
This is just a sampling of all that could be said of the Qur’an’s failings, but should be more than enough to put to rest the lofty claim that the holy book of Islam is the most perfect book of revelation ever given to the world.