By: Dr. Ahmad Shafaat
Summary of Historical Results
When some very significant events such as inspired speeches or actions of a charismatic religious figure occur, their reports are transmitted across time and space. In the ancient world this transmission first took place orally. Then, if people found continued significance in the reports, small documents were written which gradually gave rise to larger, more comprehensive documents. During this whole process reports suffered all kinds of distortions due to forgetting, misunderstanding, influence of prior assumptions, need to adopt the reports for particular uses etc. Once, however, written reports gained widespread and continuous acceptability and use, intentional changes in the texts reduced considerably. We may refer to this stage as the stage of stability. Whatever changes did occur after the texts reached this stage can be examined by textual criticism and usually the original texts can be recovered with reasonable certainty. The discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls has shown how relatively unchanged the texts of at least some of the Biblical books have remained over the centuries. These are the books that had reached the stage of stability prior to the writing of the Dead Sea scrolls and have enjoyed continuous and widespread use and authority among the Jews ever since.
If the conditions that ensured the integrity of a text – strong, continuous, and authoritative presence in the community that received it -- prevailed from the very beginning, the text could completely escape alterations and be preserved with complete faithfulness to the original. This is the case with the Qur`an. By all historical reports the Qur`an had a very strong presence in the Muslim community from the very beginning. It was constantly used and its authority was universally recognized. Moreover, this strong presence and universal recognition of authority has been continuous. Hence its text has been preserved faithfully in the sense that whatever variants are found in it can be easily recognized as errors or are seen to be extremely insignificant.
It is natural to think that the faithful preservation of the text of the Qur`an required some precautionary actions on the part of people in responsibility. For example, as the Muslim world expanded, `Uthman might have decided wisely to send to various regions of the Islamic world standard copies of the text. If so, the standard text was received with an exceptionally high degree of agreement, as is proved by the fact that we have substantially the same Qur`an no matter how far and wide we travel and how far back in time we go. ‘Uthman could not have achieved this level of agreement unless the copies he sent to various cities were completely faithful to the original. No exercise of his authority could have imposed this agreement on such an important matter as the text of the Qur`an, the founding document of the Muslim community, in such a large and varied community as the Muslim world at that time. This is because disagreements and divisions come easy to human beings and have a way of asserting themselves and surviving in the face of the most powerful standardizing authority.
The Prophet, of course, said and did things other than those mentioned in the Qur`an. The reports of these extra-Qur`anic words and actions of the Prophet were also found significant enough to be transmitted. Their transmission, however, was not as faithful. In fact, these reports suffered all types of alterations at the oral stage and then at the written stage. They ceased only when some comprehensive Hadith collections gained widespread use and acceptability.
Like the reports in the Hadith, the Gospel traditions were first transmitted orally. Then small documents were produced which were later combined into bigger gospels. All kinds of alterations, distortions, and fabrications took place until some of the documents produced in this way were collected into the canonical New Testament and widely accepted. Between the writing of the books of the New Testament and this stage of stability there occurred many significant and serious alternations in the texts. Thus distortions and fabrications of the words and acts of Jesus took place first during the making of the Christian books, including those of the New Testament, and then in the texts of those of books. When many Muslims say that the message of Jesus or the Injil given to him suffered alteration or tahrif they do not refer only to the changes that the texts of the New Testament books have suffered, but, more importantly, to all the changes that took place before and during the making of those books, some of which we can even now see when we compare various gospels.
Sometimes the Gospels are compared with the Qur'an. Often Jesus himself is compared with the Qur'an. But actually neither comparison is adequate. The Gospels should be compared with the Hadith and Jesus should be compared with Muhammad. The Qur'an should be compared, if at all, with the revelatory sayings and deeds of Jesus, had they been written down under his supervision and then passed on to us without substantial change.
Although in many ways the Hadith and the Gospels are similar, there are also two important differences between them:
1) Both the Muslims and the Christians admit that there were alterations and fabrications of reports about Jesus and Muhammad. But Christians separated the authentic and the unauthentic by declaring some documents as canonical while others as apocryphal. This declaration, while in reality was based on the degree of popularity of the documents, was given the authority of the Holy Spirit. Muslims, however, considered the process of separation of the authentic from the unauthentic to be largely a scientific process and so they developed a whole science of Hadith to achieve this separation. As a result there is no absolute division between the “canonical” and “apocryphal”. There are to be sure six books (Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Da`ud, Tirmidhi, Nasa`i, and Ibn Majah) that have come to achieve a special status among many Muslims but there is no condemnation of the other collections and among many Muslims there is no hesitation to use them. Many popular Hadith collections such as Mishkat al-Masabih contain many traditions from books other than these six.
In the last two centuries critical Christian scholarship has developed a “science of the Gospels” corresponding to the Muslim “science of Hadith” but its valuable results are found only in the university lectures, academic publications, and some popular books read by a very limited number of liberal Christians or non-Christians such as atheists. Its results have barely reached the Sunday church services. While Muslims need to develop “the science of Hadith” still further, Christians need to respect and use the results of “the science of the Gospels” by reflecting them in their beliefs and practices.
2) When Muslims produced collections of traditions they kept them as separate traditions. In contrast, Christians put the traditions about Jesus together into connected accounts of his life and ministry. Muslims also produced some biographical literature but this was kept separate from the collections of traditions that acquired some authority. This difference is significant because when individual traditions are put together into connected accounts, they often suffer yet more distortions because the context given to them is often different from the original context, thus changing the meaning of the traditions. Sometimes new stories need to be created just to fit the existing stories into a connected account.
When Western, non-Muslim scholars started to study Islam with some measure of objectivity, most of them reached the conclusion that the Qur`anic text is preserved in its very original form. However, later, some of them started to insinuate alterations in the text of the Qur`an. This may be due to the polemic between Muslims and Christians which creates a strong need among some Christians to counter the Muslim allegation of tahrif in the Bible by a similar allegation of tahrif in the Qur`an.
Some basis for such insinuations is provided by Muslim’s own traditions which allege that the Qur`anic text underwent some changes. These traditions, rather late in comparison to the Qur’an, have a simple explanation: The impulse and temptation to change an authoritative text is always there in some people. In case of many other ancient texts this impulse resulted in actual alterations of the text. But in case of the Qur’an it could only be satisfied by insinuations or claims that such and such a statement was once found in the Qur`an. For example, the proponents of the stoning penalty for adultery wanted the Qur’an to mention this penalty and some Shi‘ah Muslims wanted it to say that ‘Ali was the lawful successor to the Prophet. But they could not bring themselves to actually producing and promoting separate Qur’anic texts containing their ideas. They could only allege that at some point in time the Qur’an had material to support them.
After the period of creation of tradition gradually came to an end and the Hadith reached a stage of stability, say by the third century, it was not even possible to allege alterations in the Qur’an. Now the impulse to alter the text and to bring it in line with what one wants it to say is satisfied in another way: by giving it interpretations that suits us.
Some Theological Comments
This book is primarily a historical work. However, some brief theological comments seem to be in order here.
Revelation in the form of the Hadith and the Gospel tradition
Revelation is a divine act of grace upon human beings. It aims to help them on the way to their salvation. In order to be effective, revelation must be interpreted and transmitted by human beings and sometimes these human interpretations are to be given authority.
The interpretive process starts with the prophet who receives the revelation and continues after him. At the prophetic stage the process can be trusted as infallible in the sense that if followed the prophet’s interpretation will lead to salvation. If this were not so, revelation itself will become useless.
But the interpretation and transmission process after the prophet is not free of serious errors. This statement was made above from a historical point of view. But it can also be made from a theological point of view. For, Islam -- as also some other religions -- recognizes that human beings have a certain propensity towards error and sin, which God has decided not to eliminate by using his special divine power. No area of human activity, not even the interpretation and transmission of divine revelation is immune from human error and sin. According to the Qur`an human beings are quite capable of inventing lies about God and falsely ascribing to God what they write with their own hands (2:42, 75, 79, 5:15), not to talk of innocent errors. Hence the process of interpreting and transmitting revelation by the people is subject to error, even sinful distortion and corruption.
Broadly speaking, these errors consist of one or both of the following types of errors, which could be innocent or sinful: 1) the interpretation is not distinguished from what is interpreted. This leads to the wrong attribution of one’s interpretation to the prophet himself; 2) the interpretation is invalid.
Up to a point, the interpreted revelation continues to be effective for salvation despite some errors. We can understand this by means of the following analogy: Almost every glass of water has some impurities. Up to a certain level of impurities, water retains a life-giving quality, while beyond that level it can become a source of sickness or even death. The case with the revelation interpreted by the community of believers is similar, at least from an Islamic religious point of view. Thus the Gospels, even though they contain many errors in interpreting the revelation received by Jesus, are still effective to some degree for guiding people and leading them to salvation (2:62, 5:69). The same is true of the Torah. This is why the Qur`an can say that the Torah and Injil have suffered tahrif while at the same time say that the Torah and Injil contain light and can save people.
But the Christians continued to commit new errors of interpretation even after the New Testament was completed so much so that by the fourth century their mainstream tradition departed even from the central principle of tawhid preached by all the prophets. This finally made the Christian teachings not only ineffective for salvation but a means of eternal damnation, except for a small fraction of Unitarian Christians (5:69-73). At this stage Christianity becomes like a glass of water with impurities of the type that leads to death.
The Hadith is like the Torah and the Gospels. It starts with the prophetic interpretation of revelation, which is then elaborated by other more fallible interpretations by the Muslim community. Now even the most trusted collections of Hadith have some errors. Yet the Hadith has light of revelation and salvation.
But in Islam there is something distinctive: In the form of the Qur`an, revelation has been completely separated from the interpretation, even prophetic interpretation, which is a revelation of another category. This clear division of the revelation into two parts -- one part regarded the word of God and its preservation promised by him (see below) while the other part called the word or deed of the Prophet and its preservation entrusted to human processes --- is not found in earlier traditions. There is no evidence that a certain part of the teachings of any earlier prophet was believed to be verbatim the word of God and to be entrusted to special divine care for faithful preservation. The books attributed to various Israelite prophets do contain some statements purported to be verbatim words of God but they are also full of statements not purported to be statements of God. These books are sometimes described as the word of God but not always. Thus the Torah could be called the word of God but it is also often called the Book (or Law) of Moses. The same is true of all the other books in the Old Testament. They are sometimes considered the word of God in a loose way but when it comes to naming them they are attributed to the prophets who wrote them – the Psalms of David, the Book of Jeremiah etc. In case of the gospels even the attribution to the Prophet Jesus is not direct. They are attributed to the evangelists who wrote them - the Gospel of Jesus according to Mark, the Gospel of Jesus according to Matthew and so on. Moreover, whether an earlier book is described as the word of God or the book of a prophet no distinction is made between the parts that are attributed to God and the parts attributed to human beings. In contrast the Qur’an describes itself and is described by every Muslim as the word or book of God in a consistent way. On the other hand, the ahadith, although considered revelatory are not considered, with the possible exception of the ahadith qudsiyyah, as words of God but are described as ahadith nabawiyyah (prophetic traditions).
The unique character of the Qur’an makes the Prophet Muhammad the prophet for all times. In earlier times, as already noted, the revelation was sooner or later corrupted by the human process of interpretation and transmission, becoming too ineffective for salvation and necessitating the coming of another prophet with another revelation. If there were no Qur’an, the case with the Islamic revelation would have been the same. The revelation brought by the Prophet Muhammad would have existed in the form of the Hadith only, suffering evermore corruption, finally becoming too ineffective and in need of being replaced by another revelation. But because of the Qur’an the main part of the Islamic revelation has been preserved faithfully and even corruption in the remaining part contained in the Hadith can be combated on the basis of the Qur'an. Hence the Qur'an calls itself a muhaymin over all revelation or book:
And unto you (O Muhammad) We have sent down the book in truth confirming whatever of the book is before it, and as a watcher (muhaymin) over it. So judge between them by what God has sent down …. (5:48)
In 59:23 al-muhaymin is one of the names of God. The word means one who watches over something and exercises control over it. The “book” here means the essential content of all authentic revelation, the main message behind all the revealed books. The Qur’an acts as a control over all revelations in the sense that serious excesses committed by human beings during the interpretation and transmission of those revelations can be corrected by reference to it. This is as true of the earlier revelations as of the Islamic revelation in its Hadith form in the sense that excesses committed during the Hadith transmission can also be corrected by reference to the Qur’an. In this way through the Qur`an God has perfected his mercy on humanity. People will still commit mistakes and sins in interpreting and transmitting revelation just as they did before the advent of the Prophet Muhammad. But now they have the Qur`an to which they can turn to correct their errors, if they care and dare to.
The promise of preservation of the Qur`anic revelation
Qur`an 15:9 states the promise of God:
Surely, We have revealed the Reminder (al-dhikr) and surely We will be its protecting guardian.
It is clear that this promise does not mean that no Muslim scribe or reciter can ever make a mistake. What it means is that such mistakes will not get established. We have seen above that provable variants in the text or recitation of the Qur`an are due to random accidents and therefore can be identified with a simple method. It should also be noted that the promise here is not for the preservation of every dot and title but for the preservation of the message or dhikr. There can be little doubt that this promise has been fulfilled. For provable variants of the Qur`an, even if they remain unresolved do not in any way affect the message and their effect on specific details of Islamic teachings is unimportant.
We may nevertheless ask why God allowed some variants to remain unresolved for so many centuries. We now consider this question for the two main types of variants – those without any textual support from the manuscripts of the Qur`an and those that do have such a textual support.
The function of traditions alleging alterations in the Qur`an without textual support
Our examination of Muslim traditions implying changes in the Qur`an, without textual support, has shown that they constitute a confused mass. Clearly there were some highly irresponsible men in the early history of Islam who neither knew what they were talking about nor learned how to shut up. Worse still, they succeeded in making their babbling a part of the Muslim tradition so that our scholars despite their hard work were unable to separate it from authentic historical reports. This proves that the devil is ever busy in confusing the truth and misleading sons of Adam.
Yet as the Qur`an teaches the devil is ultimately helpless against those who are devoted to truth. Despite the mass of confusing traditions and continued efforts to add to the confusion by the missionaries, the truth that the Qur`anic revelation has been preserved with amazing faithfulness can be seen clearly by all those who seek to know the truth.
The confusing Muslim traditions serve the same function in the history of revelation as any other handiwork of the devil: to test the sincerity of men. They test the non-Muslim people of the book to see whether they will use the contradictory and fabricated Muslim traditions to hold on to their contradictory and fabricated Judeo-Christian traditions or whether they will seek God with the help of the authentic words and deeds of his true prophets. They test the Muslims in the same way: to see whether they will keep defending the traditions found in their ancient books or whether they will address the contradictions in them and draw the necessary conclusions from them.
The function of variants of the Qur`an with textual support
Like the traditions alleging changes in the Qur`an, unproved by direct textual evidence, some extremely minor provable textual variants of the Qur`an also serve some purpose in the ongoing work of revelation.
First, the minor variants serve as a reminder that the preservation of the revelation means preservation of the teachings and one should not be too concerned with perfectionist expectation that every dot and title has to be preserved. In other words, they are meant to teach us to focus on what is essential.
Second, they test the non-Muslim readers of the Qur`an to see if they can distinguish between such changes in the Qur`an as an addition or omission of an unimportant “and” and the wholesale hadith-like changes that the revelation given to earlier prophets of God such as Moses and Jesus have suffered. The variants in the Qur`an distinguish the superficial and biased ones from those who have a sense of fairness, proportionality and balance.
Third, they show limits of standardization by human authorities and thus show that the extremely high degree of agreement between the different types of manuscripts from different periods of history could not have been the result of human imposition, say, by ‘Uthman. It must be the result of the inherent credibility of the process of transmission, the strength of the text, and devotion of the majority of Muslims.