It is well-known that the Quran as dictated by Muhammad was written on palm leaves, stones, bones of camels and other such places. One basic question that will be asked is this- “Why did Allah choose Muhammad as a vehicle or medium to record the Quran when Allah knew that Muhammad was illiterate? Or at least, why did Allah not turn Muhammad into a great scholar overnight and provide him with good stationery to record the Quran?”
In the translation of the Quran by Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, (Pickthall’s translation is considered as very authentic) the following things are mentioned in the “Introduction” before the Quran’s first chapter:
“All the surahs of the Koran had been recorded in writing before the Prophet’s death, and many Muslims had committed the whole Koran to memory. But the written surahs were dispersed among the people; and when, in a battle which took place during the Caliphate of Abu Bakr- that is to say, within two years of the Prophet’s death-a large number of those who knew the whole Koran by heart were killed, a collection of the whole Koran was made and put in writing. In the Caliphate of Othman, all existing copies of surahs were called in, and an authoritative version, based on Abu Bakr’s collection and the testimony of those who had the whole Koran by heart, was compiled exactly in the present form and order, which is regarded as traditional and as the arrangement of the Prophet himself, the Caliph Othman and his helpers being Comrades of the Prophet and the most devout students of the Revelation. The Koran has thus been very carefully preserved.” (Page xxviii of Pickthall’s translation of Quran, Madhur Sandesh Sangam, New Delhi, India, 1995)
Sadly for them, the information given in this translation by British Muslim Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall clearly proves exactly the opposite. Carefully read the sentences written in bold by us. “But written Surahs were dispersed among the people”. What is the guarantee that all Surahs were compiled and none were lost? Or that no extra Surahs were added which were not there? Arabic is a language where the whole meaning of the sentence can change with the slightest change in shape of the alphabet. In this translation of the Quran, Pickthall also admits “Within 2 years of the Prophet’s death a large number of people who knew the whole Koran by heart were killed”. Here he is talking of the Battle of Riddah (Apostasy) in Arabia in late 632- early 633 AD when Arabia rose in revolt against Islam and gallantly fought Muslims .
Though the non-Muslims lost, a large number of Muslims were killed in this battle, many of whom had learnt the Quran by heart, which has been admitted by Pickthall. “In the Caliphate of Othman, all existing copies of surahs were called in, and an authoritative version, based on Abu Bakr’s collection and the testimony of those who had the whole Koran by heart, was compiled…” This shows that there were many different versions of the Quran in use by that time, during Othman’s rule (644-656 AD). Othman ordered all other versions to be destroyed. Now the very fact that within so few as 20 years of Muhammad’s death there were different versions of the Quran and there was no one to check or guarantee that Othman’s version was exactly as Muhammad said shows the reality! That is, Othman had to do the job of compiling the Quran which should have ideally been done properly by Muhammad. If God sent Muhammad down to the people with His Message and His book of guidance viz the Quran would he have made it so difficult for the humans? He would have first made Muhammad a scholar capable of reading and writing overnight, being the Almighty and then provided Muhammad and all Muslims good stationery to record the Quran instead of relying on Muhammad’s companions to write on palm leaves, on shoulder-blade bones of camels and on stones and memorize it, and then have a large number of those who had memorized it killed in the Battle of Riddah.
Firstly, Muhammad dictated the Quran to his followers, who noted it down in many places. According to Islamic tradition, the Quran was originally written on palm leaves, on shoulder-blade bones of camels and on stones. There was no single copy of the Quran existing during Muhammad’s own lifetime in a written form! Muhammad was asked many times by Meccans to perform any miracles to prove that he was a Messenger of God, such as making his God flow rivers of milk, and Muhammad used to say “I cannot perform any miracles, I am only a mortal messenger. My only miracle is the Quran.” (Muhammad need not have had to perform any miracles, couldn't GOD have flown rivers of milk to prove Muhammad’s Prophethood to the people?) But this ‘only miracle’ of Muhammad also was not present in his own life-time in a proper book form! Would a true God have left a very important task of recording the Quran and making only one (and correct) version to humans, that too some 20 years after Muhammad's death? He would have made sure that only one version of the Quran remains, and that it is carefully recorded and available easily to everyone.
As a matter of fact, even this tradition, that Othman ended everything and finalized the Quran before AD 656 and that nothing has changed in the Quran ever since, is also wrong. Wansbrough (“Quranic Studies” Wansbrough, J. Oxford, 1977) showed that far from being fixed in the seventh century, the definitive text of the Koran had still not been achieved even as late as the later part of the ninth century.Thus, a statement of Muslim creed, Fiqh Akbar I, dated to the middle of the eighth century, does not refer to the Koran at all, which is quite surprising. The ninth century also saw the first collections of the ancient Arab poetry seeing the light of day, in which too there are instances of manipulation, as alleged by some scholars. In fact, there is a strong opinion among many scholars that the Quran was actually finalized in AD 933. This is also shown by the missing and added verses in the Quran.
Missing and Added Verses
It also appears that there are some missing verses and some added verses. For example, there is a tradition from the Prophet’s wife, Aisha, that there once existed a ‘verse of stoning’ where stoning to death was prescribed as punishment for fornication. This is no longer to be found in the accepted texts of the Koran and instead the Koranic punishment for this crime only prescribes one hundred lashes. But the early prophets carried out stoning for adultery, and Islamic law still prescribes it. According to the above tradition, more than one hundred verses from the original, are missing. Shiites (i.e. Shia Muslims) of course claim that Uthman left out a great many verses favourable to Ali, for political reasons. Muhammad himself, as we know, is said to have suppressed the now famous Satanic Verses. The authenticity of many verses has been called into question not only by modern Western scholars, but even by Muslims themselves. On the other hand, most scholars believe that there are many interpolations making the Koranic style uneven. Some of them are of a political and dogmatic character, such as 42:36-38, which seems to have been added to justify the elevation of Uthman as Caliph to the detriment of Ali. Of course, any interpolation, however trivial, is fatal to the Muslim dogma that the Koran is literally the eternal, uncreated word of God revealed to Muhammad and thereafter unalterable and unchanged.
The traditional Muslim accounts of the life of Muhammad and the story of the origin and rise of Islam are based exclusively on Muslim sources, namely, (1) the Koran (2) the Muslim biographies of Muhammad and (3) the Hadith. We shall briefly examine their content and authenticity.
The first biography known to us of the Prophet was written one hundred and twenty years after his death, by Ibn Ishaq (d. 768 AD). The original is lost and is only available in parts in a later biography by Ibn Hisharm (and an even later biography by Al-Tabari) who died in 834 AD, two hundred years after the death of the Prophet. The other popular biographies have been written only after the first two hundred years. This long interval along with the other factors discussed below throws doubts on the authenticity of the material available from these biographies. A recent book, ‘The Quest for the Historical Muhammad’ edited by Ibn Warraq (Prometheus Books, March 2000) has dealt with precisely this issue of historicity.
The Hadith or Hadis is greatly revered in the Islamic world and consists of a collection of sayings and doings attributed to the Prophet and traced back to him through a chain of supposedly trustworthy witnesses called ‘isnad’. Six authentic collections written in the ninth century are available, and an encyclopedia of 29000 traditions called Musnad has been compiled by Ahmad Ibn Hanbal (d. 855 AD). Since the Koran does not cover all aspects of the religion and law, and since the Muslims consider the life of the Prophet as the Divine force in action, the sayings and doings of the Prophet compiled in the Hadith along with the Koran guide the jurisprudence of Islam.
CLAIMS OF HISTORICITY
It has been generally held that among the world’s major religions, only the historicity of Muhammad and Koran are undisputed and that the details of his life are more historically verifiable than the founders of other major religions. Recent findings suggest that this claim is not true and in fact, there is now a strong view that there has been a large scale fabrication of the prophet’s life and scriptures and that there has been a considerable influence of neighbouring religions and rituals as well as traditional pagan Arabian faiths and rituals. The present position has been neatly summed up by Ibn Warraq in his book, ‘Why I am not a Muslim?’2. Unfortunately this book has been banned in India and therefore we can only list the original sources to which the reader is requested to refer for detailed information. The reviews of this book have been collected and summarized in ‘Time for Stock Taking.3
Towards the end of nineteenth century, Western scholars began the process of sifting all available information and data on Islam since there was some suspicion that some of the traditions were deliberately forged in order to further the interests of certain groups and families. Wellhausen divided the historical traditions into two categories – the apparently authentic primitive traditions, which have been recorded in the late eighth century, and second, a parallel tradition that was deliberately forged to rebut the first. The second version was found to be full of tendentious fiction. Goldziher, another reputed scholar of the era, studied the Hadith extensively and demonstrated that a vast number of hadiths accepted even in the most rigorously critical Muslim collections were outright forgeries compiled from around the late 8th and 9th centuries.5 The reason for this parallel tradition can be traced to the politics of competition among the early successors of the Prophet, who had often assumed his mantle after eliminating their predecessors with great blood shed; and had hence to humiliate their memory and that of their forefathers through their version of the tradition, apart from proving their own legitimacy (see chronology of early Islam in Appendix B). Under the Abbasids (progeny of the Prophet’s uncle), the fabrication of hadiths greatly multiplied, with the explicit purpose of proving the legitimacy of their own clan as against that of the Alids (progeny of Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet). The storytellers also excelled in inventing entertaining hadiths in order to make a fortune by drawing large crowds. Of course Muslim scholars were aware that forgeries abounded and attempted to eliminate many of them in the six authentic collections. But even these were not free from later interpolations and therefore there are several texts of the Hadith in use.
A true God would have simply given only one and correct version of the Hadith so that people would have no doubt about Muhammad and his life. Would he have allowed so many different Hadiths to crop up, many unauthentic, and leave so much confusion on which is correct and not? Without the Hadith, Islam doesn't stand at all since we don't know anything at all about Muhammad and who he was, or anything about the Quran. A true God would have made sure that a full, proper description of Muhammad is available to humanity without any confusion, and a true and only version of the Quran is available.
Since the biographies on the Prophet appeared much after his death and were based on these traditions, the early twentieth century scholars working at that time considered them suspect.6 Their conclusions were subsequently investigated by a group of Soviet Islamologists7 who concluded that the life of Muhammad and that of his immediate successors are as ‘mythical’ as the accounts of Christ and the Apostles (discussed later) and that Islam was merely an offshoot of Arianism (a Greek Christian doctrine) and that the Arian Islamites were indistinguishable from the Jews until the impact of the Crusades made them assume a separate identity. In fact some of them wondered if Muhammad was not a necessary fiction since every ‘historical’ religion must need to have a founder.
From the 1950s, Islamic studies received a further impetus under Schacht8. His conclusions were even more radical and disturbing. He proved that many Islamic traditions did not exist at a particular time by showing, for example, that they were not used as a legal argument in a discussion that would have made reference to them imperative, had these traditions existed. He in fact concluded that every tradition allegedly traced back in time to the Prophet must be considered inauthentic and the Fictitious expression of a legal doctrine formulated at a later date! Traditions introduced from around the time of the Successors (to the Prophet) were offered as traditions from the time of the Companions (contemporaries of the Prophet), and traditions from the time of the Companions to the Prophet were offered as traditions practiced by the Prophet himself. Details from the life of the Prophet were invented to support legal doctrines. He also showed that the beginnings of the Islamic law cannot be traced further back in the Islamic tradition, than to about a century after the Prophet’s death. Thus it did not directly derive from the Koran, but developed out of popular and administrative practices under the Urnmayads which diverged often from the intentions and even the explicit wording of the Koran. The integration of the two was done at a later stage.
Many scholars were convinced of the essential soundness of Schacht’s analysis and developed his thesis further. Wansbrough9 argued that the Koran and the Hadith grew out of sectarian controversies over the course of a long period and then were projected back in time onto an invented Arabian point of origin. He felt that Islam emerged only when it came into contact with rabbinical Judaism.
Doubts over the authenticity of the Hadith prompted scholars to take a critical look at the Koran too. As we have seen earlier, Muslims claim the Koran to be a historically verifiable scripture, which is the collection of the revelations of Allah through the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet. These revelations were communicated by the Prophet to various persons in his lifetime and many others were taken down by Muhammad’s scribes. According to one tradition, after Muhammad’s death, the first Caliph, Abu Bakr, appointed the former secretary and scribe of the Prophet, Zayd ibn Thabit, to undertake the task of collecting all available material and compile it together. He collected them ‘from pieces of papyrus, flat stones, palm leaves, shoulder blades and ribs of animals, pieces of leather and wooden boards, as well as from the hearts of men’. He compiled all the material in the amazingly short span of two years and handed it over to the Caliph. The Suras or chapters in the Koran have been so arranged that the longest suras find place in the beginning and the shortest in the end. Thus there is no way of knowing when, exactly the Prophet received a particular revelation. This becomes important since the message of a particular revelation, as we shall see later, is often contradicted by the message of a 'later’ revelation. Scholars, both Muslim and Western have generally been able to separate the revelations received in Mecca and those in Medina since the message of Allah is conciliatory in the former and aggressive in the latter.
According to traditions many versions of the book began to be circulated and serious disputes arose. According to the traditions, the third Caliph, Uthman (650-656 AD) approached Zayd again to edit and prepare the official text. This was prepared and circulated widely and the other versions were destroyed. According to orthodoxy, this text has not undergone any change since then and is the standard version followed all over the world.
Historical research, however, indicates otherwise. Wansbrough showed that far from being fixed in the seventh century, the definitive text of Koran had still not been achieved even as late as the later part of the ninth century. Thus, a statement of Muslim creed, Fiqh Akbar I, dated to the middle of eighth century, does not refer to the Koran at all, which is quite surprising. The ninth century also saw the first collections of the ancient Arab poetry seeing the light of day, in which too there are instances of manipulation, as alleged by some scholars. Both have perhaps gone hand in hand with an attempt to prove the antiquity and sacredness of the Arabic language and culture so that God could hand over the Koran in pure Arabic. Very much influenced by rabbinic Judaism outside Arabia, the early Muslim community took Moses as a model and Muhammad’s credentials as a prophet were gradually established in Moses’ likeness. The aim was to have a swadeshi prophet and a scripture in competition with the Jews and Christians!
Far worse is the matter of abrogation or cancellation of passages in the Koran. The Koran abounds in contradictions and hence Muslim theologians have a rather convenient strategy by which they abrogate or replace certain passages and verses with other verses and passages with a contrary meaning, and which, they claim, was subsequently revealed by Allah to Muhammad. This problem of contradiction would never have arisen had there been a specific chronology of the revelations, which would have enabled us to determine which verse was given earlier and which later. In the absence of it, there is obviously a lot of arbitrariness in determining the time of the replaced verse. There has been some unanimity in determining the Meccan i.e. early suras and Medinan i.e. later suras. While the former has many passages preaching tolerance when Muhammad’s faith and supporters were still in a minority, the later Medinan suras, when Muhammad was already a winner, abound in intolerance like the famous verse of sura 9.5, ‘Slay the idolaters wherever you find them'. This verse, along with others given in Appendix A, obviously nullifies the earlier 124 verses that exhorted tolerance and patience, and which are quoted extensively by the Indian Muslim scholars to deny accusations that the Koran and Islam are inherently violent and intolerant.
As an example let us take the often quoted short sura 109, ‘The Unbelievers’, thought to be a Meccan sura, which says, “Say: Unbelievers I do not worship what you worship, nor do you worship what I worship. I shall never worship what you worship, nor will you ever worship what I worship. You have your own religion, and I have mine. ‘ How can this be reconciled with the numerous examples given in Appendix A (sections on Idolaters and Instructions to Believers) which are mostly Medinan verses and preach hatred and intolerance? A reading of these directives from Allah leaves no doubt that so far as non- Muslims are concerned, the Koran is not a religious book at all but a war manual and a penal code!
We also have strange incidences of an earlier verse cancelling a later one in the same sura. Thus verse 2.234 replaces verse 2.240 (dealing with maintenance of widows). In all, over 200 verses (some scholars estimate the figure to be 500, i.e. about 8% of Koran), have been cancelled or abrogated by later ones.
The doctrine of abrogation makes a mockery of the Muslim dogma that the Koran is a faithful and unalterable reproduction of the original scriptures that are preserved in heaven. If God’s words are eternal, uncreated and absolute, then how can we talk of God’s words being superseded or becoming obsolete? Are some words of God to be preferred to others? And who is to judge this? The doctrine of abrogation has indeed been very convenient to bale out Muslim scholars and politicians out of the difficulties that such questions create!
The above things are sufficient to conclude that the text of the Quran had not been finalized in AD 656 when Othman ordered all other versions to be destroyed. This shows that the scholars' view that the Quran was altered and amended till AD 933 may well be correct.
Both Islam and Christianity, in comparing themselves with pagan faiths to establish their superiority, claim historicity for their founders. But Western scholars have also questioned the historicity of Jesus Christ. They have shown that the gospels were written towards the end of the first century, some forty to eighty years after the supposed crucifixion of Christ, and that there was considerable interpolation afterwards. Thus the letters of Paul do not mention many extraordinary details of Jesus’ life. Even the post-Pauline letters written before 90 AD do not contain any convincing historical details. It now seems highly unlikely that any of the sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels was ever spoken by a historical figure. Hoffman10 concludes, ‘scholars now count it a certainty that the Gospels are compilations of “traditions” cherished by the early Christians rather than historical annals’.
The Koran extensively quotes from Pentateuch (called Taurat after Torah in Hebrew) i.e. the first five books of the Old Testament. Now the present opinion of the western scholars is that instead of being written by or revealed to Moses by God, it is a work of four different writers and edited by a fifth person around 400 BC. Hence the early prophets are probably not historic figures, but only legends.11
We have already seen that the same applies to Jesus. It is even doubted that they existed at all. Now the question arises that if the Biblical Prophets and their history is itself doubtful, what veracity does the Koran have as an eternal truth revealed by God himself, considering the fact that the Koran too acknowledges the Old Testament to be an intrinsic part of the history of Islam.
The Last Prophet
A group of scholars, Cook, Crone and Hinds12 continuing the work of Wansbrough took an even more radical stand. They regarded the entire traditional Islamic history down at least to the time of Abd al Malik (685-705 AD) as a later fabrication. As a counter check, they studied the contemporary, neighbouring non-Muslim sources like the Greek, Syrian and Armenian. A totally unexpected picture emerged, as a result. The only facts they could confirm were that a merchant called Muhammad existed, that something significant happened to him in 622 (the year of Hijra), and that Abraham was central to his teachings. But there is no mention of Mecca, no indication that Muhammad’s career unfolded in inner Arabia and no reference to the Koran until the last years of the seventh century. Also, the Muslims prayed in a direction much further north than Mecca; hence their sanctuary could not have been in Mecca. Also when the first Koranic quotations appeared on coins and inscriptions towards the end of the seventh century, they showed divergence from the canonical texts. The earliest Greek source speaks of Muhammad being alive in 634 AD, two years after his death as per the accepted version of Islamic traditions. An Armenian chronicler of the 660s describes Muhammad as establishing a community which comprised both Arabs and Jews with the aim of conquering Palestine. The break with the Jews is placed immediately after the Arab conquest of Jerusalem. The oldest Greek source makes the sensational statement that the prophet who had appeared among the Arabs (Saracens) was proclaiming the coming of the (Jewish) messiah, and speaks of the Jews who mix with the Arabs, and the danger to life and limb by falling into the hands of these Jews and Arabs.
On the basis of available non Muslim evidence, Cook and Crone13 give a new account of the rise of Islam. Muhammad told his Arab followers that as descendants of Abraham through his first son, Ishmael they too had a claim to the land God had promised to Abraham and his seed. His message appeared as Judaic messianism which lead to intimacy with Jews and marked hostility towards Christians. The Arabs soon quarreled with the Jews and their attitude softened towards Christians. But they yet had to develop a religious identity and religious structures. Here they were influenced by Samaritan philosophy. The latter were an offshoot of the Jews but they had a separate identity. They only accepted Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament and had a high regard for Moses. Under their influence, the Arabs proceeded to pattern their faith after Moses as follows
Moses Exodus Pentateuch Mt. Sinai Shechem
Muhammad Hijra Koran Mt. Hira Mecca
Evidence Of Fabrication
1. There is no reference to Mecca in early non- Muslim references. Mecca was supposed to be a very flourishing trading centre as it was on the trade route from South to North Arabia (i.e. from India to Europe) when Muhammad was born, but Crone has shown that geographically it does not fall on this natural trade route. In fact, the alignment of early mosques and literary evidence of Christian sources, suggests that the direction in which the early Muslims prayed was northwest Arabia. Mecca was chosen as a Muslim sanctuary much later in order to relocate their history within Arabia, to complete their break with Judaism and finally to establish their separate religious identity.
2. According to the traditions, Koran had many versions and Uthman destroyed all but one. Similarly Hajja (661-714 AD), the governor of Iraq, had collected and destroyed all the writings of the early Muslims.
3. The Koran is strikingly lacking in overall structure. It appears to be a product of hasty and imperfect editing of materials from a plurality of traditions.
4. Many traditions in the Hadith appear to have been invented to explain the presence of some passages in Koran. Seemingly precise data seems to have been cooked up to provide authenticity. Thus the early historian, lbn Ishaq (d. 768) was vague about many events, whereas Waqidi (d. 823) gave precise dates and other details for the same events! If so much spurious information had accumulated in two generations, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that even more must have accumulated in the three generations between the Prophet and Ibn Ishaq.
1. Twenty-three Years. A Study of the Prophetic Career of Mohammed. All Dashti, London, 1985
2. Why I am not a Muslim, lbn Warraq. Prometheus Books, New York, 1995 .
3. Time for Stock Taking. Whither Sangh Pariwar, Ed. Sits Ram Goel, Voice Of India, New Delhi, 1997
4. Some Blunders of Indian Historica! Research, Oak, P. N. Bharati Sahitya Sadan. New Delhi.
5. Muslim Studies, 2 vols. Translated by C.R. Barber and S.M. Stern, Goidziher Ignaz, London, 1967-71
6. Islamic History. A Framework for inquiry, Humphreys, R. S., Princeton, 1991
Mohammedanism. Hurgronje Snouck, C, New York, 1916
7. Russia and Islam, Smimov, N.A., London, 1934
8. An Introduction to Islamic Law, Schacht Joseph, Oxford, 1964
9. Quranic Studies Wansbrough, J. Oxford, 1977
10. The Origins of Chistianity. Hoffman R. Joseph Amherst, N Y., 1985. p. 177
11. The Unauthorised Version, Fox R L., London, 1991, p. 176
12. Muhammad. Cook. M ., Oxford, 1983
God’s Caliph. Crone P., and Hinds M., Cambridge, 1986
13. Hagarism. The Making of the Muslim World, Crone P., and Cook, M., Cambridge, 1977
14. Quran : The Text and its History, Adams C.E., in Encyclopedia of Religion, pp 157-76.
15. Mohammed and the rise of Islam, Margoliouth D.S.. London, 1914, p 149.
16. Meccan Trade and Rise of Islam. Crone P., Oxford, 1987, pp 234-45
17. Understanding Islam through Hadis, Ram Swarup, Voice of India. New Delhii, 1987