Shared Prophets

An Unfair Comparison

Shared ProphetsThere is no god besides me.

Isaiah 45:21

We have not sent before you any Messenger, but We revealed to him that there is no god but I; so worship Me.

Allah 21:25

Like most non-Muslims who are familiar with the Bible but not the Koran, I assumed it was like the Bible; I was wrong. I never expected the Koran to be so different, not only in the way it presented its message but the difference in the message itself. Both the Bible and the Koran claim God as the author; nonetheless, the two books are poles apart. Virgil Gheorghiu, in his insightful, admiring biography of the Prophet Muhammad and his time, La vie de Mahomet, explained the contrast this way (my translation):

The Christian Bible, the Old Testament portion, is mainly about hope; the New Testament is about love – the Koran is about neither! The Koran is all about loyalty, absolute, unquestioning, blind loyalty to one God.

This unequivocal demand for absolute, blind, unquestioning loyalty would not, in and of itself, be a problem if the God of the Koran did not come across to the layperson as such a vain, cruel, controlling, and vengeful deity who damns the unbelievers at every turn. Nobody holds a grudge like Allah holds a grudge. With such a god, it should not have come as a surprise that instead of finding the Koran edifying, uplifting, and full of noble sentiments for the ages, I found mostly what I consider to be petty obsessions with organizing every aspect of a believer’s life. Of course, what I consider petty, a believer might see as befitting the preoccupations of a deity, even if such worldly concerns and attention to the minutia of daily life leave very little room for spiritual or intellectual growth.

The Bible covers a period of over a thousand years with a cast of thousands, yet for such a monumental work it is surprisingly well ordered. The Koran is the inspiration of just one man, derived from revelations he maintained having received from God over a period of just twenty-three years, from 610 to 632 A.D. Despite its brevity, the Koran is somewhat disorganized: there is no timeline and the only allowance given to any kind of order is the sequencing of most of the 114 chapters from longest to shortest.

Because no attention appears to have been given to arranging the chapters and verses in some kind of chronological order, readers often receive answers to questions that have yet to be asked. For example, in Chapter 9, Verse 114 we are told that Allah refused Abraham’s plea to forgive his father for not believing.

9:114 Abraham asked forgiveness for his father, only because of a promise he had made to him; but when it became clear to him that he was an enemy of Allah, he disowned him. Indeed Abraham was compassionate, forbearing.

The actual request made by Abraham, and the promise made, is revealed ten chapters later:

19:47 [Abraham] said: “Peace be upon you. I will seek forgiveness for you from my Lord. He has, indeed, been gracious to me.”

This lack of chronology and the apparent haphazard manner in which many of the revelations appear to have been collected and compiled mean the layperson has to read the entire Koran carefully just to get the gist of what Allah has to say on any given subject. More than a cursory reading of the book requires patience and dedication. This prerequisite commitment in time and effort may explain why the Koran remains a mystery for the vast majority of non-Muslims. Adding to a layperson’s woes, chapter headings, which appear to be based on catchwords within the text, are almost useless as an indication of the content. The longer chapters in particular are a challenge, with Allah—in the words of Justin Wintle, author of History of Islam—“jumping from one subject to another in a sort of unfurling stream of supra-consciousness,” i.e., a consciousness or awareness that is beyond our understanding.

Another difficulty in interpreting some revelations is that different subjects are often addressed in the same verse, such as in Revelation 2:189 where God instructed Muhammad on what to say when asked about the timing of the pilgrimage to Mecca, ending with a warning about entering houses via the back door.

2:189 They ask you about the crescents (the new moons) say: “They are times fixed for mankind and for the pilgrimage.” It is not righteousness to enter houses from the back; but the righteous is he who fears Allah. Enter then the houses by their front doors; and fear Allah that you may prosper.

There is the not insignificant irritant of Allah, like the child who wants to always be the centre of attention, interrupting every narrative to shout “Look at me, look at me, see how great I am!” God, in His Koran, gives new meaning to the term omnipresence.

Those who are familiar with the Bible, both the Old and New Testament, have a small advantage when it comes to getting a handle on the Koran because the foremost stories from the Bible have found their way into the text. Biblical epics are a favourite of Allah’s; He obviously enjoys repeating parts that capture the imagination over and over, with small but significant differences. These variations may be due to the way the verses were collected, with different sources having different recollections of what God allegedly revealed to Muhammad.

For the believers, however, each recollection of what was conveyed to Muhammad is accurate to the letter, the many contradictions notwithstanding. Every revealed truth communicated by God’s Messenger to the Messenger, the angel Gabriel stands on its own, perfectly rendered word for word by the Prophet who forbade its writing down, only memorized, word for word, by his followers and later impeccably compiled, word for word, by the transcribers of the Koran. To question this perfection is to challenge dogma, a capital offence. One man’s perfection is another’s jumble.

British historian Thomas Carlyle: “a confused, jumble, crude, incondite, endless iteration…”;

Edward Gibbon: “as toilsome a reading as I ever undertook; a wearisome confused jumble.”

Richard Wright, author of The Evolution of God, offers a more circumspect appraisal of the Koran when comparing it to the Bible.

There is no denying the Koran is unlike the religious text westerners are most familiar with, the Bible. For one thing, it is more monotonous. The Bible, is a cornucopia of genres: the cosmic mythology of Genesis, the legal and ritual code of Leviticus, a multibook national history of Israel, the plaints and alarms of the prophets, the pithy self-help and deep reflection of the wisdom literature, the poetry of the Psalms, the gospel profiles of Jesus, the mystical theology of John, the early church history Acts, the apocalyptic visions of Revelation and Daniel and so on.

As to the violence in the Koran compared to the Bible, Wright writes:

The Koran is a shorter book than the Bible; pound for pound, it no doubt features more exhortations to violence. So if you ask which book is “worse” in terms of belligerence, you might say that qualitatively the Hebrew Bible (and hence the Christian Bible) takes the trophy—thanks to that unrivalled embrace of genocide in Deuteronomy—but that quantitatively the winner is the Koran, at least in terms of the frequency of belligerent passages, if not in absolute numbers. And if, on top of the verses espousing violence in the terrestrial world, you add verses gleefully envisioning the suffering of infidels in the afterlife, the Koran wins the quantitative competition more decisively.

How the Bible Came To Be

The oral histories that comprise the first books of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) were probably written more than a thousand years after the events described took place. How do we know this?

According to Thomas Cahill, author of The Gifts of the Jews, “There is no reliable record of written Hebrew before the tenth century B.C. That is well after the resettlement of the Israelis in Canaan after their escape from Egypt … this means that the supposedly historical stories of at least the first books of the Bible were preserved originally not as written text but as oral tradition, beginning with the wonderings of Abraham and ending with the resettlement of Canaan under Joshua. What we are reading are oral tales, collected and edited for the first (but not the last time) in the tenth century [BCE] during and after the kingship of David.”

How the Koran Came To Be

10:37 This Qur’an could never have been produced except by Allah. It is a confirmation of that [which was revealed] before it and an exposition of the Book. There is no doubt about it. It is from the Lord of the Worlds.

God communicated with His Messengers via revelations, i.e., immutable facts communicated to a mortal by a god.

42:51 It is not given to any mortal that Allah should speak to him, except by Revelation or from behind a veil. Otherwise, He sends forth a Messenger who reveals by His Permission whatever He wishes. He is, indeed, All-High, All-Wise.

42:52 That is how We revealed to you (Muhammad) a Spirit by Our Command. You did not know what the Book is nor what is Belief; but We made it a light, by which We guide whomever We wish of Our Servants. You will surely guide unto a Straight Path;

Gabriel – Messenger to the Messenger

The contents of the Koran, according to the Book itself, were delivered by Gabriel, God’s Messenger to the Messenger, during often impressive private meetings, two of which are described below.

53:1 By the star when it goes down,

53:2 Your Companion (Muhammad) has not gone astray or erred,

53:3 And he does not talk capriciously.

53:4 It (the Qur’an) is only a Revelation being revealed,

53:5 Taught him by a mighty one (the angel Gabriel),

53:6 Possessed of steadfastness. And so he arose,

53:7 While he was on the highest horizon;

53:8 Then, he came closer and hovered around;

53:9 Coming thus within two bows’ length or closer.

53:10 Then (Allah) revealed to His servant what He revealed.

53:11 The heart did not deny what it saw.

53:12 Do you then dispute with him (Muhammad) concerning what he saw;

53:13 He has indeed seen him (Gabriel) a second time;

53:14 By the Lotus Tree of the outermost limit.

53:15 Close by it is the Garden of Refuge.

53:16 As the Lotus Tree was covered by that which covers it;

53:17 His gaze did not shift nor did he exceed the bound.

53:18 He saw some of the Great Signs of his Lord.


Moududi writes that during the second meeting, “Gabriel (upon whom be peace) … appeared before him (Muhammad) in his real shape and nature.” The place in which this meeting took place can only have been heaven. In support of his opinion, Moududi cites an unattributed 11th-century text describing the Garden of Refuge:

There are seven gardens. The first of them is the abode of majesty and it is of white pearl. The second is the abode of peace and it is of red sapphire. The third is the garden of refuge and it is of green chrysolite (sic). The fourth of them is the garden of eternity and it is of yellow coral. The fifth is the garden of bliss and it is of white silver. The sixth is the garden of paradise and it is red gold. And the seventh is the garden of Eden and is of white pearl. This is the capital of the Garden and it is elevated over all the gardens.


At the beginning of Surah 44, The Smoke, Allah intimates that He sent the whole of the Koran in just one night.

44:1 Ha – Mim.

44:2 By the Manifest Book.

44:3 We have sent it down on a blessed night. We were then admonishing.

44:4 Therein, every wise matter is determined,

44:5 As a Command from Us. We have been sending forth revelations,

44:6 As a Mercy from your Lord. He is indeed the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing.

44:7 The Lord of the heavens and the earth and what is in between them; if you only believe with certainty.

That “blessed night” in Verse 44:3 is “the night of Power”; if only we knew what that was.

97:1 We have sent it (the Qur’an) down on the night of Power.

97:2 If only you knew what is the Night of Power.

97:3 The Night of Power is better than a thousand months.

97:4 The angels and the Spirit (Gabriel) descend thereon by the Leave of their Lord with every Command.

97:5 It is peace, till the break of dawn.

Then again, the following revelation refers to the process as having taken a month.

2:185 The month of Ramadan is the month in which the Qur’an was revealed, providing guidance for mankind, with clear verses to guide and to distinguish right from wrong. He who witnesses that month should fast it. But if anyone is sick or on a journey, [he ought to fast] a number of other days. Allah desires ease and does not desire hardship for you, that you may complete the total number [of fasting days]; glorify Allah for His Guidance, and that you may be thankful.

And still in another revelation, Verse 17:106 clearly states that the Koran was sent piecemeal. Based on what we know, this is the most accurate representation.

17:105 We have revealed it in truth, and in truth it came down; and We have sent you (Muhammad) only as a bearer of good news and a warner.

17:106 It is a Qur’an which we have divided into parts that you may recite it with deliberation, and We revealed it piecemeal.

17:107 Say: “Believe or do not believe in it. Surely when it was recited those, who were given the knowledge (the People of the Book) before it, fall down prostrate on their faces.”

17:108 And they say: “Glory be to our Lord. Certainly the Promise of our Lord is fulfilled.”

17:109 And they fall down upon their faces weeping, and it adds to their humility.

In response to an unbeliever who thought Allah should have sent the Koran all at once, God explains why He revealed it in stages, and that whoever asks that it be delivered all at once risk being dragged on their faces into Hell.

25:32 The unbelievers say: “If only this Qur’an had been sent down on him all at once.” That is how We wanted to strengthen your heart with it and We have revealed it in stages.

25:33 They never bring you any simile but We bring the truth and a better exposition.

25:34 Those who are mustered on their faces in Hell; those are in a worse position and are more wayward.

Some surahs were transmitted whole on certain occasions, such as during a homily that some listeners did not care to remain to hear until the very end.

9:124 Whenever a Surah is revealed, some of them would say: “Who of you has this one increased in faith?” It has increased the faith of those who believe, and they rejoice.

9:125 But for those in whose heart there is a sickness, it will add disbelief to their disbelief, and they will die while they are unbelievers.

9:126 Do they not see that that they are tried once or twice every year? Yet they neither repent nor take heed.

9:127 And whenever a Surah is revealed, they look at each other [saying]: “Does anyone see you?” Then they turn away. Allah has turned away their hearts, because they are a people who do not understand. 

The First Written Version

The first written version of the Koran was undertaken during the reign of the first Caliph (first successor to the Prophet Muhammad) Abu Bakr. He was prevailed upon to create a written record of what had been revealed by God to Muhammad after seventy of the most prominent memorizers were killed during a rebellion against Islamic rule in southern Arabia. Until that time, it was felt there was no need to put anything in writing because of the tradition established by the Prophet that the Koran should be committed to memory and not written down, a tradition that endures to this day.

A former scribe of Muhammad by the name of Zayd ibn Thabit, on Bakr’s insistence, gathered the recollections of what Muhammad had claimed were revelations from God. Paper, a Chinese invention, had just made its appearance in Arabia and may have been used for the first time in ibn Thabit’s transcription. He gave his pages (there is some disagreement as to whether it was paper or parchment), in no particular order, to Umar (Bakr’s successor) who gave them to his daughter and widow of the Prophet, Hafsa, for safekeeping.

Umar was assassinated and succeeded by Uthman [644-656], who, upon hearing that his armies were reading from different versions of the Koran, ordered that all collections of verses, except for the version kept under Hafsa’s bed—which he asked Thabit, with the help of three men from Muhammad’s tribe, to revise—be burnt (see Appendix The First Korans for the relevant hadiths).

The version commissioned by Uthman was completed during the reign of his successor Ali [656-661], many years after Muhammad’s death, is referred to as the Uthman Codex. A fragment of the earliest copy of the Codex, dated approximately 150 years after Uthman’s death, can be found in the library of the 16th century Khast-Imam Madrassa in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.


What is believed to be an earlier version of the Koran, the Sana'a Manuscripts, was found in 1972 during renovations of the Great Mosque of Sana'a in Yemen. When Yemeni authorities were informed that this earlier Koran contained minor but significant differences from the version that orthodox Islam maintains is the perfect unchanging Word of God, they restricted access to the more than 40,000 pieces of parchment, of which only an estimated 15,000 had been reviewed by Islamic and Western scholars.


Despite the human origins of the written Koran, the Book, as aforementioned, is regarded by believers as beyond reproach and every word, God’s definitive last words. The Koran is meant to correct errors in and reiterate God’s messages from the Torah; to validate or repudiate, writes Justin Wintle, “Christo-Judaic beliefs and experience.” The Koran came after the Bible and for believers, this alongside God’s claim to have created a book without defects is all the proof they need that the Koran is the most accurate record of the events and personalities that both books purport to describe.


Needless to say, Thabit’s first attempt at compiling the Koran from the recollections of surviving memorizers was bound to elicit different recollections of the same event[5] , such as the more than a dozen accounts of the Moses and Pharaoh encounter. He may simply have included them all in the pile of papers stashed under Hafsa’s bed to be sorted out later.

It was obviously not sorted out during the review commissioned by Uthman. In any event, it would have been next to impossible for Thabit’s committee of four to ascertain which recollection was the most accurate and may explain why many different account of what was said remained in the final version. Also, if you are a believer, it is quite possible that for God, varying recollections of what Muhammad revealed was in the Koran are all true and just His way of making a point. Better for all concerned to include all variations and let future scholars sort it.

Revelations in duplicate, triplicate, quadruplicate, and so on, are possibly the strongest evidence that Muhammad was indeed illiterate; that in the twenty years or so in which he delivered God’s Revelations, he had only his memory to depend on.

29:48 You did not recite before it any book or write it down with your right hand. Then the negators (sic) would have been in doubt.

If Muhammad could not refer to previous written orations to avoid repeating himself or telling a different version, then it was not only the believers remembering the same events differently; the preacher himself was adding to the confusion.


At the end of the Surah Al-Ahzâb (The Confederates), Allah reveals that He first offered the Koran—my understanding of “the Trust”[6] in Revelation 33:72—“to the heavens, the earth, and the mountains” but that only humans were “ignorant” enough to accept it; a Freudian slip, perhaps?

33:70 O believers, fear Allah and speak in a straightforward way.

33:71 He will set right your deeds and forgive you your sins. Whoever obeys Allah and His Messenger has won a great victory.

33:72 We offered the Trust to the heavens, the earth, and the mountains, but they refuse to carry it and were afraid of it, but man carried it. He has indeed been unjust and ignorant.

Punishment would be dealt for babbling while reading the Koran:

41:26 The unbelievers said: “Do not listen to this Qur’an, but babble in reading it, that perchance you might win.”

41:27 Truly, We shall make the unbelievers taste a terrible punishment, and We shall reward them for the worst of what they used to do.

41:28 That is the reward of Allah’s enemies, the Fire wherein they shall have an eternal abode, as a reward for that they used to repudiate Our Signs.

Biblical vs. Koranic Accounts

Some Bible stories in the Koran tend to become Mecca-centric, with biblical heroes such as Abraham making near impossible treks across the length of the Arabian Peninsula to pay homage to God at Mecca, as well as visit with his wife’s former servant Hagar and their son Isma`il. None of these visits are mentioned in the Bible, and there is no historical or archaeological evidence of major biblical figures crossing the deserts of Arabia to spend time in Mecca which, at the time of Abraham, if it even existed, would have been nothing more than a nomadic settlement.

In the 1st century, the Romans maintained a garrison at the port of Jeddah about 50 miles from Mecca and catalogued much of the area without reference to Mecca, though they did take notice of Medina.


[5] The same thing happened at least once in the compilation of the first books of the Hebrew Bible, which has two versions of Creation. In Genesis I, God created plants before animals and humans; in Genesis II, God created Adam, then plants and animals, and last but perhaps not least, Eve.

[6] Moududi, explaining why Allah would call man ignorant for accepting the ‘Trust’, claims that it means caliphate. Dr. Mohsin Khan, on the other hand, refers to “the trust or moral responsibility or honesty and all the duties which Allah has ordained”—indeed, is that not the Koran?