During the latter part of 1972 I was engaged in a lively discussion with a Jewish friend about religion, life and eternity. As a Christian by conviction I stood firm on what I believed to be the source of all truth, namely the Old and New Testaments. I still have that conviction. My friend, however, perhaps feeling that I had a very narrow perspective on the meaning of life, asked me "Have you ever read any of Emerson's writings?" I replied in the negative, not actually knowing who Emerson was. He then added "Have you ever read the Koran?" In all honesty I should have replied "What is that?" but, to avoid displaying too much ignorance and perhaps confirming his suspicions, I once again simply replied that I had not.
Within six months, after becoming involved in Muslim Evangelism, I purchased a copy of Sale's The Koran, one of the most well-known English translations of the original Arabic text. I read it through from cover to cover, making notes as I went along. Most of it made very little sense to me. Thomas Carlyle once said that only a sense of duty would carry an Englishman through the Koran and it was little more than that which kept me going. The sharp differences between Christianity and Islam which appear quite regularly in the book struck me forcefully, however, particularly its denials of the deity and crucifixion of Christ. It was not long before my sole purpose in reading it was to find fault with it and discredit it in favour of the Bible as the sole Word of God. Its haphazard arrangement, lack of chronological sequence and many cliches failed to awaken much interest otherwise in its contents.
In April 1976 I had the privilege of visiting the United Kingdom at the time of the World of Islam Festival, an extensive promotion of Islamic culture, arts and sciences in many of its cities. In the British Museum in London I discovered an exhibition of approximately one hundred of the finest manuscripts of the Qur'an which had been carefully assembled from Tunisia, Turkey, Iran and other Muslim countries. It was a display of calligraphy, religious devotion and historical treasures that will probably never be repeated. I could not avoid being impressed with the obvious care, devotion to detail, beauty and quality of the ancient manuscripts on display. My attitude soon changed and, while I believe to this day that the book invites critical analysis like any other, I also came to respect it very highly as a work honoured and revered as holy scripture by the Muslims of the world.
That respect has grown the more I have got to know it. Fourteen years ago I learnt how to read Arabic for the first time and since then have obtained a very limited knowledge of the Arabic language. It has been enough, however, to make the Qur'an come alive to me. Its sharp cliches, rhythmic style and deliberate choice of words have helped me to understand why it captivates those who believe it to be the final Word of God to mankind. It might be unkind to say, as many do, that there is no really good English version available as the original Arabic text does to some extent defy translation. Muslims are right when they say it cannot really be reproduced in another language.
I believe the Qur'an is a very unique book. In any age it would be so but particularly when it is remembered that it was compiled in seventh-century Arabia. In time I have come to appreciate not only its remarkable consistency but also the heartbeat of its spirit which pervades every page. In the third chapter of this book I have endeavoured to focus on its major themes and have found these a most interesting study-source. I also possess a fine handwritten Qur'an manuscript fully illuminated and copied out almost to perfection. It is one of the prized books in my library.
Nonetheless I cannot subscribe to the Muslim conviction that this book is the Word of God. The Bible overshadows it, both in its historical perspective on God's dealings with mankind and in the quality of its revelation of the divine character. In the first three chapters of this book, however, I have sought to let the Qur'an speak for itself. My aim is to transfer as far as possible to Christian readers a sense of the uniqueness that I have acquired over years of study of its form and contents.
The book's claim to divine origin, in my view, is really disproved by the numerous passages that have parallels in apocryphal and legendary works written some centuries before it. These are analysed in the fourth chapter. The aim is not to give Christians useful ammunition to attack the integrity of the book but rather to furnish definite evidences which serve to place its sanctity in serious doubt. Muslim scholars have always been well aware of these evidences but on the whole have chosen conveniently to ignore them. I am not aware of any real attempt by a Muslim writer to face them objectively and provide an explanation for their implications.
The last chapter analyses the history of the text of the Qur'an, in particular the manner in which it became standardised into a single text over many centuries. The evidences here challenge another cherished Muslim hypothesis, namely the theory that the Qur'an has been perfectly preserved to its last dot and letter. It is my opinion that this conviction has been fashioned in bold defiance of the facts. Their theory is used as an argument that the Qur'an must be the Word of God, having been so miraculously safeguarded from textual corruption. I find this reasoning even harder to comprehend as it would appear to me that a book's proposed divine origin would be proved primarily by its contents. If it never was the Word of God in the first place, no amount of careful preservation would make it the Word of God.
This last chapter is largely a precis of my book Jam` al-Qur'an: The Codification of the Qur'an Text referred to more fully in the Bibliography. In addition to the Qur'an and Hadith works quoted throughout extracts have also been taken from two classical works on the collection of the Qur'an, namely As-Suyuti's Al Itqan fii `Ulum al-Qur'an ("A Study in the Sciences of the Qur'an") and Ibn Abi Dawud's Kitab al-Masahif ("Book of the Manuscripts"). The latter work, which dates to the third century of Islam, has only been reprinted in Arabic, the text appearing in full in Jeffery's Materials for the History of the Text of the Qur'an. As-Suyuti was a great Islamic scholar of the ninth century after Muhammad.
The transliteration of Arabic words has been done as phonetically as possible, indicating the actual utterance of each word or clause in classical Arabic speech.
This book has been written primarily for Christians with little or no knowledge of the Qur'an. Those seeking to really get to know the book are recommended to obtain some learning of the Arabic language – the character of the Muslim scripture and its most prominent themes will then become far more meaningful. It is my opinion that Christians who wish to effectively witness to Muslims will need a sound knowledge of the Qur'an and I trust this book will contribute in some measure towards this end. Muslims appreciate Christians who have made an effort to seriously study Islam and who speak from knowledge rather than ignorance. I trust that Muslim readers will obtain some benefit from it as well. I do not hesitate to add that I hope they will consider the evidences set forth in the last two chapters objectively. They are derived from factual sources dating back to Pre-Islamic times and the very earliest days of Islam.
AN ILLUMINATED PAGE DECORATING AN EGYPTIAN QUR'AN
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A single illuminated page marking the end of a volume of the Qur'an. It contains the traditional seal for a Qur'an manuscript: "Truth has been affirmed by Allah the Infinite; His Noble Messenger has delivered it".