For many centuries Muslims have been taught to believe that the Qur'an has been preserved in its original Arabic text right from the time of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, down to this very day absolutely intact without changes, deletions or additions of any kind and with no variance in reading. At the same time they have also been taught that this suggested textual perfection of the book proves that the Qur'an must be the Word of God. No one but Allah, it is claimed, could have preserved the text so well. This sentiment has become so strongly established in the Muslim world that one will rarely find a Muslim scholar making a critical analysis of the early transmission of the text of the Qur'an and, when such analyses do appear, they are predictably unwelcome.
What happens, however, when an objective assessment is made of the facts available to us in respect of the original compilation of the Qur'an? When sentiment is gently put aside in favour of a rational evaluation of the evidences a very different conclusion must be reached. As this book will show, in the only records available to us from within the heritage of Islam itself, the Qur'an once contained a number of verses and, at times, whole passages that are no longer part of its text, in addition to an astonishingly large number of different readings in the earliest collections of the book made before the Caliph Uthman summarily consigned all but one of the manuscripts then in existence to the flames and destroyed them.
During 1981, in response to a Muslim publication challenging the divine authenticity of the Bible, I published a booklet titled The Textual History of the Qur'an and the Bible. Whereas the bulk of the material in this publication was devoted to a refutation of the arguments brought against the Bible, a portion of it was given to an assessment of the textual history of the Qur'an to show that the transmission of the Qur'an text was no more accurate than that of the Bible. During 1986 two articles appeared in Al-Balaagh, a local Muslim newspaper, in response to this booklet: one written by Dr. Kaukab Siddique, an American-based Muslim scholar, and the other by the South African Muslim scholar Abdus Samad Abdul Kader. I will refer in more detail to these articles shortly.
In 1984, after more detailed research into the original compilation of the Qur'an, I published another booklet titled Evidences for the Collection of the Qur'an. This also solicited a Muslim response in the form of a booklet published in 1987 by the Mujlisul-Ulama of South Africa. Unfortunately the author does not name himself in this publication but I have been informed that it was written by Maulana Desai of Port Elizabeth and will refer to it as his work.
This book is being written basically as a restatement of the evidences considered in my earlier publications and my conclusions therefrom, together with an assessment of the three responses from the Muslims already referred to and a refutation of their arguments. One of the difficulties faced by an author in a situation like this is the sensitiveness surrounding the subject from the Muslim side. The popular Muslim sentiment that the divine origin of the Qur'an is proved by its absolutely perfect transmission leads, perforce, to the fear that if it can be proved that the Qur'an was not so transmitted. then its supposed divine origin must immediately fall to the ground. As a result Muslim writers cannot come to this subject in a spirit of objectivity or purely factual enquiry. There is a determination, a priori, to prove the popular sentiment: the hypothesis that the text of the Qur'an has been perfectly preserved. Emotions accordingly run high and it is not surprising, therefore, to find all three writers unable to regard me in a scholarly manner or treat my writings purely at a factual level.
Dr. Kaukab Siddique, right at the beginning of his article which he titles Quran is NOT Allah's Word says Christian lay preacher (Al Balaagh, Vol. 11, No. 1, Feb./March 1986), launches into a rhetorical assault by charging: "Mr. Gilchrist tries to bring down the mighty edifice of the Qur'an by using a polemic which is pitifully inadequate to the task. The method he uses shows the poverty of his arsenal, and the brazenness of his assault shows that he is banking for survival on the possibility of a total lack of knowledge among the Muslims", while the editor of the magazine, in a heading to the article, describes me as "an avowed enemy of Islam" who "hopes to dynamite the structure of Islam".
Mr. Abdus Samad Abdul Kader's article, in the very next issue of the same magazine, was titled How the Qur'an was Compiled (Al-Balaagh, Vol. 11, No. 2, May/June 1986). At the end of the article he describes writers such as myself as "frenetic foes of the Qur'an" who are motivated solely by "jealousy, envy, enmity and venom".
Maulana Desai, in the Ulama publication titled The Quraan Unimpeachable, likewise deems it necessary to revile me and supplement his arguments with much rhetorical material and numerous vilifications. He claims I have "set out to denigrate the authenticity of the Qur'aan Majeed" instead of adopting a more balanced approach which would have stated simply that I had ventured to assess the facts about the Qur'an's compilation. He goes on to speak of my "baseless assumptions", says in one place "Gilchrist will curse himself", and elsewhere charges that I suffer from "colossal ignorance" and "bigotted thinking".
Such emotional outbursts betray the Muslims' fear of a purely historical study of the Qur'an's compilation lest it should disprove the supposition that it was both perfectly collected and preserved. In this book I will confine myself purely to a study of the extent to which the text of the Qur'an has been accurately and/or completely transcribed. The study is purely an assessment of the facts. The issue of the alleged divine origin of the Qur'an must be determined by a study of its teaching and contents, it cannot be resolved through an analysis of the manner in which the text was originally transmitted. Here the question is purely one of analysing the extent to which the Qur'an was accurately transcribed. If Muslim writers such as those I have mentioned feel that such a study simultaneously undermines their conviction that the Qur'an is the Word of God (Desai often accuses me of seeking "to refute the authenticity of the Qur'aan Shareef"), the problem is theirs for supposing that a perfect compilation and transmission of the book would prove its divine origin. I find no need to vilify these authors in terms such as they use against me as I am free to assess this subject unemotionally and do not have a hypothesis or presupposition to maintain. Furthermore I also have no doubt that, if a book never was the Word of God in the first place, no amount of proof that it had been perfectly transcribed would make it the Word of God.
That these authors are all trying to prove a supposition is obvious from a study of their approach. Each one treats the compilation of the Qur'an very differently from the others - Siddique and Desai bluntly contradict each other on numerous occasions - and yet each endeavours to come to the same conclusion, namely the Qur'an's supposed textual perfection. Such an anomaly can only be explained in one way - each one is determined to end where he began, that is, the preconceived hypothesis above-mentioned. It will be useful to record briefly the approach each author takes.
1. Dr. Kaukab Siddique. Siddique takes the traditional Muslim approach. "One Text - No Variants", a heading of one section in his article, tells it all. The assumption is that there has always been only one text of the Qur'an and that nothing has ever been added to it or omitted from it, and that there have never been any variant readings of any of its verses.
The writer has to explain the evidences in the Hadith records - the only early historical records of any kind in the heritage of Islam describing how the Qur'an was compiled - which show that the Caliph Uthman ordered all the Qur'an manuscripts of his day other than the one in Hafsah's possession to be burnt because there were differences in the reading of the Qur'an in the various provinces. Siddique claims that the differences were purely in the recitation of the text - an argument used by many Muslims at this point. In this book we shall see how inadequate and unconvincing this argument is. Very little is said by Siddique, however, of those records showing that the Qur'an, as it is today, is somewhat incomplete.
2. Abdus Samad Abdul Kader. Abdul Kader is one of those Muslim scholars who prefers to gloss over the awkward evidences in the Hadith as if they simply did not exist. There is no mention of them in his article. Instead he seeks to prove that the Qur'an itself gives sufficient testimony to its own compilation and the perfection thereof. I will give separate attention to this argument at the end of the main section of this book as it does not much affect the general study.
3. Maulana Desai. Desai, despite his emotional outbursts against me personally, nevertheless freely admits the authenticity of virtually all the facts I have recorded. He acknowledges that there were indeed textual differences in the early codices of the Qur'an and that a number of passages once forming part of the Qur'an are no longer there. In respect of the different readings he leans exclusively on one hadith which records Muhammad as saying that the Qur'an originally came from Allah in seven different forms and he claims that all these variants, therefore, were actually authorised by Allah and make up the seven different readings. He has no difficulty in conceding that Uthman eliminated authentic copies of the Qur'an and justifies his action as in the interests of obtaining uniformity in reading. This line of reasoning exposes itself to serious considerations as we shall see.
In respect of the missing passages, Desai acknowledges their existence but claims they were lawfully abrogated by Allah and correctly no longer form part of the Qur'an text. I have little doubt that this argument will be unpalatable to apologists like Siddique and Abdul Kader, as will his admission of the existence of variant readings, yet here I find myself inclined to commend the maulana as the only one of the three authors who has the sincerity to admit the authenticity of the records in the Hadith narrating how the Qur'an was originally compiled. While I do not find his arguments convincing, as I will show, I do find his frank admissions of the facts most refreshing.
This book closes with a brief study of the earliest manuscripts of the Qur'an which have survived to the present day. One of the purposes of this study is to determine whether any of the Qur'ans copied out by Uthman after the destruction of the other codices still exists. Throughout this book photographs of early Qur'an manuscripts have been included and I have sought only to include those of the greatest antiquity, mostly those which survive from the second century of Islam before a refined form of Kufic script came into general use among Qur'anic calligraphers and duly became the standard form until replaced by the Naskhi script.
I trust that this book will be a contribution towards a genuine assessment of the early compilation of the Qur'an from a study of the evidences at hand. I make no apology for the extent to which it discounts the popular Muslim sentiments I have mentioned and, in the hope that it will not occasion responses of an emotional nature such as those which came out in reply to my earlier publications, let me say once again that my purpose is solely to arrive at a proper and accurate factual conclusion regarding the Qur'an's historical compilation and that I am not an "avowed enemy of Islam" possessed with a frenzied desire to denigrate the Qur'an or disprove its textual authenticity by any means as some Muslim writers choose to assume.
29th January 1989
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