An Unfair Comparison
There is no god besides me. Isaiah 45:21
21:25 We have not sent before you any Messenger, but We revealed to him that there is no god but I; so worship Me.
Like most non-Muslims who are familiar with the Christian Bible but not the Koran, I assumed it was like the Bible with stories from the past with God taking center stage occurring at a specific time and place; stories brimming with morality lessons and instruction from God about how to get along and how He should be worshipped. I never expected the Koran to be so different. Not only different in the way it presented its message, but how different the message was.
Both the Bible and the Koran claim the same authorship – God – 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 difference 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 lay reader as such a vain, cruel, controlling, vengeful deity. 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 in the Koran edifying, uplifting text full of noble sentiments for the ages, I found mostly, what I consider, petty preoccupations with organizing every aspect of a believer’s life not worthy of a god. Of course, what I consider petty preoccupations, a believer might expect no less from a deity, even if such worldly concerns and attention to the minutia of daily life leaves very little room for spiritual or intellectual growth.
The Bible, the King James Version, is about 791,328 words, more than 10 times the number of words in the Koran. It covers a period of more than a thousand years and contains a cast of thousands. For such a monumental work it is surprisingly well ordered.
Allah’s revelations of what the biblical prophets said and did must, by necessity, be much shorter than the biblical accounts, the Koran being approximately one tenth the length in words of the Bible. The Koran does, however, provide details not found in that holy book.
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 Allah at Mecca and to visit with his wife’s former servant Hagar and their son Ishmael.
Of course, 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 existed at all, would have been nothing more than a nomadic settlement.
The Koran, on the other hand, is the inspiration of just one man, from revelations he maintains he received from God over a period of just twenty-three years between 610 and 632 C.E. (C.E. for Common Era and B.C.E. for Before Common Era is used instead of the familiar A.D. and B.C. because of their overtly religious tone). Unlike the Bible, Islam's core religious text is somewhat disorganized. There is no timeline. 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, you often get 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 that he forgive his father for not believing in Allah.
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, ending with the following verse.
19:47 [Abraham] said: “Peace be upon you. I will seek forgiveness for you from my Lord. He has, indeed, been gracious to me.”
The lack of a timeline, the apparent haphazard manner in which many of the revelations appear to have been collected and compiled means a lay reader has to read the entire Koran just to get an overall idea of what Allah has to say on any given subject. This may be a part of Allah’s plan.
Allah’s plan notwithstanding, reading the Koran with a view to appreciating what this god has to say requires patience and dedication. This prerequisite commitment in time and effort may also explain why the Koran remains very much a mystery for non-Muslims.
Adding to a lay reader’s woes, chapter headings which appear to be based on catchwords within the text, for the uninitiated 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 verses is that Allah will deal with two different subjects in the same verse, or appear to do so, such as in verse 2:189. Allah begins this verse by first telling His Messenger what to say when asked about the timing of the pilgrimage to Mecca and ends it with a warning about entering a house 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.
Those who are familiar with the Bible, both the Old and New Testament, will have a small advantage when it comes to getting a handle on the Koran. This is because the foremost stories from the Bible have found their way into the Islam's holiest book.
Biblical epics are a favourite of Allah. He obviously enjoys repeating the parts which He considers important over and over again, usually with small but significant differences.
The meeting between Moses and Pharaoh is one such story that is told over and over, with many variations on what actually took place. This may also be due to the way the verses were collected, with different people having different recollections of what Allah revealed to His Messenger.
For the believers however, every memorizer’s recollection of what they heard God’s Messenger convey as being a revelation from Allah is accurate to the letter – the contradictions not withstanding. Every revelation stands on its own as having been revealed independently to the Prophet Muhammad by Allah, via the Archangel Gabriel, and repeated word for word by the Prophet and remembered word for word by his followers and later compiled word for word by the transcribers of the Koran.
The Koran, for the believers, is the literal Word of God therefore there was no mistake in its transmission or transcription. To question this perfection is to challenge dogma, a capital offence.
Western scholars have described the Koran in less than flattering terms:
British historian Thomas Carlyle: “a confused, jumble, crude, incondite, endless iteration…”;
Edward Gibbon: “as toilsome a reading a 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 (by a factor of ten); 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?
“There is no reliable record” according to Thomas Cahill, “of written Hebrew before the tenth century B.C.” the principal language of the Hebrew Bible. That is well after the “resettlement of the Israelis in Canaan after their escape from Egypt.”
Therefore, according to the author of The Gifts of the Jews, “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 during and after the kingship of David.”
How and When the Koran Was Revealed
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.
How Allah Communicates With Mortals
Allah usually communicates with mortals via revelations delivered by an angel, the Spirit in Revelation 42:52, or from "behind a veil", Revelation 42:51, as when He introduced Himself to Moses.
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 (O 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;
42:53 The Path of Allah, to Whom belongs whatever is in the heavens and or earth. Lo, unto Allah will all matters ultimately revert.
The Angel Gabriel – Messenger to the Messenger
The contents of the Koran, according to the Koran, were delivered by the Archangel Gabriel to a wealthy merchant from the Quraysh tribe of Mecca by the name of Muhammad during impressive private meetings, two of which are described here.
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.
At the beginning of surah 44, The Smoke and 97, The Power, Allah intimates that He sent the whole thing 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.
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.
While the proceeding verses do not mean the Koran was not sent piecemeal, it is not realistic to expect that a human being, even a human being as exceptional as the Prophet Muhammad, could memorize almost eighty thousand words in just one night. Perhaps the Night of Power refers to the entire month of Ramadan.
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.
A whole month of nights to memorize the Koran makes more sense. Then again, in another revelation, it was sent piecemeal.
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 would believe only if Allah would send down the Koran all at once, Allah explains why He sent it in stages, and that whoever asked that He deliver it all at once will probably be dragged faced down 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 you 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.
No matter the way He sent it, the final product did not meet with universal approval.
17:41 We have expatiated this Qur’an so that they may be mindful, but it only increases their aversion.
56:75 No! I swear by the falling of the stars;
56:76 It is indeed a mighty oath, if only you knew.
56:77 It is, indeed, a noble Qur’an.
56:78 In a hidden Book,
56:79 That only the purified shall touch.
56:80 A revelation from the Lord of the Worlds.
56:81 Are you, then, regarding this discourse, dissimulating?
56:82 And do you make it your livelihood to denounce it as lies?
The First Written Version of the Koran
The first written version of the Koran was begun during the reign of the first Caliph (first successor to the Prophet Muhammad) Abu Bakr. It was compiled by a scribe by the name of Zayd ibn Thabit after many of those who remembered Allah’s’ revelations best were killed putting down a rebellion against Muslim rule known as the War of the Apostates. 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, a tradition that endures to this day.
Narrated Zaid bin Thabit Al-Ansari who was one of those who used to write the Divine Revelation:
Abu Bakr sent for me after the (heavy) casualties among the warriors (of the battle) of Yamama (where a great number of Qurra' (reciters of the Koran) were killed).
Umar was present with Abu Bakr who said, “Umar has come to me and said, ‘The people have suffered heavy casualties on the day of (the battle of) Yamama, and I am afraid that there will be more casualties among the Qurra (those who know the Qur'an by heart) at other battlefields, whereby a large part of the Qur'an may be lost, unless you collect it. And I am of the opinion that you should collect the Qur'an.’"
Abu Bakr added, "I said to Umar, 'How can I do something which Allah's Apostle has not done?'"
Umar said (to me), "By Allah, it is (really) a good thing."
So Umar kept on pressing, trying to persuade me to accept his proposal, till Allah opened my bosom for it and I had the same opinion as Umar.
(Zaid bin Thabit added:) Umar was sitting with him, Abu Bakr, and was not speaking to me). "You are a wise young man and we do not suspect you (of telling lies or of forgetfulness): and you used to write the Divine Inspiration for Allah's Apostle. Therefore, look for the Qur'an and collect it (in one manuscript)."
By Allah, if he (Abu Bakr) had ordered me to shift one of the mountains (from its place) it would not have been harder for me than what he had ordered me concerning the collection of the Qur'an.
I said to both of them, "How dare you do a thing which the Prophet has not done?"
Abu Bakr said, "By Allah, it is (really) a good thing."
So I kept on arguing with him about it till Allah opened my bosom for that which He had opened the bosoms of Abu Bakr and Umar. So I started locating Quranic material and collecting it from parchments, scapula, leaf-stalks of date palms and from the memories of men (who knew it by heart).
I found with Khuzaima two Verses of Surat-at-Tauba which I had not found with anybody else, (and they were): "Verily there has come to you an Apostle (Muhammad) from amongst yourselves. It grieves him that you should receive any injury or difficulty He (Muhammad) is ardently anxious over you (to be rightly guided)" (9:128)
The manuscript on which the Quran was collected, remained with Abu Bakr till Allah took him unto Him, and then with 'Umar till Allah took him unto Him, and finally it remained with Hafsa, Umar's daughter.
Paper, a Chinese invention, had just made its appearance in Arabia and it was used for the first time by ibn Thabit (and perhaps others) to write down Allah’s revelations to the Prophet Muhammad. 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, and that this was a cause for concern, ordered that all collections of verses, except for the ibn Thabit collection be burnt.
The version approved by Uthman, who was also assassinate, was actually completed during the reign of his successor, Ali [656-661] many years after the Prophet’s death and is most often referred to as the Uthman Codex.
A fragmented copy of what is claimed to be the Uthman Codex, can be found in the library of the 16th century Khast-Imam Madrassa in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
The manuscript is incomplete: it begins in the middle of verse 7 of the second surah and ends at surah 43:10. The manuscript has between eight and twelve lines to the page and, showing its antiquity, the text is devoid of vocalisation.
Tashkent's hidden Islamic relic, BBC News, January 5, 2006
What may be more pages from the Uthman codex were found in the British Library.
A British university (Birmingham) said on Wednesday that fragments of a Koran manuscript found in its library were from one of the oldest surviving copies of the Islamic text in the world..."
They could well take us back to within a few years of the actual founding of Islam," said David Thomas, Professor of Christianity and Islam at the university.
Reuters, July 22, 2015
The pages are from surah 18 in which Allah reveals what happens to the Sun at sunset.
18:86 Then, when he reached the setting-place of the sun, he found that it sets in a spring of black mud and found, by it, a people. We said: “O Dhul-Qarnayn, either you punish them or show them kindness.”
Dhul-Qarnayn is believed to be Alexander the Great.
What is also believed to be an early 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.
Research into the origins of the Koran, such as that conducted in Germany by Christoph Luxenberg (pseudonym), have revealed a great number of words in Aramaic and/or Syriac which would indicate that many verses may have had a Christian or Jewish origin.
Despite the very human origins of the written Koran, the Book is regarded by believers as being beyond reproach and every word the Word of God – His definitive last words.
Large portions of the Koran are meant to correct errors or re-iterate what god said in the Bible (both the New and Old Testament portions), to validate or repudiate.
Justin Wintle, Christo-Judaic Beliefs and Experience.
The Koran came after the Bible, and for the believers this, and Allah's and His last Prophet’s assurances, is all the proof they need that the Koran is the more accurate record of the events and personalities that both books purport to describe; and that is how the last religion became the first and only truthful religion.
3:85 Whoever seeks a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted from him, and in the Hereafter he will be one of the losers.
48:28 It is He Who sent forth His Messenger with the guidance and the religion of truth, that He may exalt it above every other religion. Allah suffices as Witness.