The Qur'an: A Divine Guidance or a Historical Document
By Dr. Aslam Abdullah
[Dr. Aslam Abdullah is editor of the weekly Muslim Observer, the monthly Minaret and director of the Islamic Society of Nevada in Las Vegas, Nevada.]
Some four years ago the Atlanta Journal published an article challenging the authenticity of the Qur'an. While Muslim intellectuals and activists dismissed the attack as naive and inauthentic, the Minaret and the Muslim Observer published several lengthy articles analyzing the Atlanta Journal article point by point. The papers concluded that the attacks on the legitimacy of the Qur'an were part of a long-term strategy crafted in the politically charged western academic environment of empirical sciences. Several Muslim intellectuals scoffed at the hypothesis, arguing that Muslims should not get involved in this debate.
Since then, over 50 articles have appeared in American newspapers and journals describing the Qur'an as a fake religious document. The latest article in the Newsweek's is one of them. The argument presented in the article is also advanced in Fables of the Ancients?; Folklore in the Qur'an and Holy Writ As Oral Lit: The Bible As Folklore Written by Alan Dundes (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.). The argument of the Newsweek's article, entitled “Challenging the Qur’an”, revolves around a single premise that promotes the idea that the Qur'an was a historical document and not a revealed scripture--as asserted by the Qur'an.
The reason for this argument is simple; if the idea of the divine origin of the Qur'an is demolished, the whole foundation of Islam is demolished. Thus, Muslims would become skeptical about their source of guidance and would no longer revere their holy text as they had for centuries. In the earlier times, the so-called non-Muslim scholars of the Qur'an made several arguments challenging its authenticity. Among the chief accusations were that it was a book written by Prophet Muhammad, or a scripture copied from the Old and New Testament as dictated by Khadeeja bint Khawlid, (the wife of the Prophet), or a document compiled by Muslim scholars over a period of 300 years, or a scripture that was secretly compiled at the Vatican to be delivered to the Prophet through Christian missionaries in Arabia, or a book that was compiled at the time of the third Caliph Uthman.
The latest attack surpasses all the previous fabrications and skepticism. The Newsweek in an article argues quoting a German scholar that the Qur'an was not revealed in Arabic, rather it was written in a language closer to Aramaic. It is a bizarre argument that cannot be taken seriously by those who value objectivity and fairness. There are several reasons for rejecting the point of view promoted by the Newsweek.
The authenticity of a book depends on its verification by the one that either authored it or narrated it. For example, some 15 years ago, a German scholar claimed to have made an earth-shaking discovery when he published what he called ‘The Diaries of Adolph Hitler’. The London Times published excerpts of the diary, describing it as the most sensational story of the century. A few months later, it was conclusively proven that the diary was fake and was written by anonymous authors. The major argument advanced to disprove the book was that no one knew about it, not even the closest of Hitler's supporters. Above all, he never approved it or delivered it to anyone.
If the book or scriptures attributed to an individual--as an author or a source of narration--is compiled and verified in the lifetime of that narrator or author, then its authenticity can be taken as face value. Otherwise, doubt will remain in the minds of readers regarding the true origin of the book or of the contents of the book.
Among all the religious books that exist today, the Qur'an is the only one that has the privilege of being compiled and approved by the Prophet who received it. Azvesta, the book of Zoroastrian, was compiled 1,500 years after the death of its author. Hindu Vedas were written hundreds of years after the death of sages who were described as the authors. The Ramayana was orally transmitted until it was written down 1,600 hundreds of years after the event. The Bhagvad Gita was in the memories of people for hundreds of years before it was committed to writing. The Old Testament was compiled by more than 40 authors. A cursory look at some basic facts suggests that it took a while for the Bible to appear as a final version of scriptures.
The Bible contains 66 books, divided among the Old and New Testaments. However, some Christian denominations believe that it has 73 chapters. Over 40 different authors from all walks of life wrote the Bible: shepherds, farmers, tent-makers, physicians, fishermen, priests, philosophers and kings. Prophet Moses reportedly wrote the first five books of the Bible, referred to as the Pentateuch; the foundation of the Bible. The Apostle Paul wrote 14 books (over half) of the New Testament. It took almost 1500 years to complete the scriptures. The Bible was written over a period of 1,500 years, from around 1,450 B.C. (the time of Moses) to about 100 A.D. Many scholars agree that ‘Job’ is the oldest book in the Bible, written by an unknown Israelite about 1,500 B.C. Others hold that the ‘Pentateuch’ (the first five books of the Bible) are the oldest books in the Bible, written between 1,446 and 1,406 B.C. The book of Malachi, was written in about 400 B.C.
The Book of Revelation is the youngest book of the New Testament, written about 95 A.D. The Bible was written in three languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek. The entire New Testament as we know it today was accepted in the year 375 A.D. The Old Testament had previously been accepted as a sacred text long before the advent of Christ. The oldest almost-complete manuscript of the Bible now in existence is the Codex Vaticanus, which dates from the first half of the fourth century. It is located in the library of the Vatican in Rome. Older fragments of the Bible do exist, however -- a tiny scrap of the Gospel of John was found in Egypt, dating back to the beginning of the second century. (It is currently in the Rayland's Library in Manchester, England.) These facts about the Bible provide an authentic proof of its written format several hundred years after the departure of their authors.
On the other hand, the Qur'an is the only divine scripture that was compiled during the lifetime of the Prophet who, according to the Qur'an, received it. There were only three who knew the message of the Qur'an before it was pronounced to the people: God, angel Gabriel and Prophet Muhammad. In the historically accepted Muslim sources, angel Gabriel was the link between the Divine and the Prophet. The Prophet would receive the revelation and repeat it back to the Angel, who would commit it to his memory and then pronounce it to the people and instruct them to write it down, since he was unable to read or write himself.
From the day he received the first revelation until he departed, all Prophet Muhammad received in revelation was pronounced to the People who committed it to their memories and also wrote on the available writing material. By the time the Prophet departed, the Qur'an was already written in the form of a book from cover to cover. The Prophet is reported to have approved the Qur'an after listening to it from men and women who had memorized it and written it. A copy of this Qur'an was with his wife Hafsa bint Omar. Consequently, this was used as the master copy when duplications were made during the time of Caliphs Abu Bakr, Omar, Uthman and Ali. (See the chapter on the Qur'an in Sahih el-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim).
Some Muslim accounts of the history of the compilation as mentioned in Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim provide the information that the Qur'an was compiled in the form and format we see today, at the time of Caliphs Abu Bakr and Uthman. In fact, one such account says that when Omar asked the first caliph to commission the compilation of the Qur'an, he refused saying why would he do something that the Prophet did not do (Sahih el-Bukhari). Similarly, another account claims that the third Caliph Uthman appointed a commission of six people to compile the Qur'an as there were different copies of the Qur'an present in different parts of the world.
These two accounts require closer examination on the basis of several other narrations that are mentioned in several books of hadith. First, the two accounts never say that the Prophet didn't compile the Qur'an. Second, the two accounts do not refer to other narrations in the books of hadith including the Bukhari and Muslim that conclusively prove that the entire Qur'an as is present today, was compiled at the time of the Prophet. What is often confused in these narrations is the difference between ‘compilation’ and ‘copying’. While the Qur'an was compiled at the time of the Prophet, the mass scale copying of the Qur'an began officially at the time of Caliph Abu Bakr. During the lifetime of the Prophet, several of his companions had complete sets of the Qur'anic verses, which they had arranged according to their reading schedule with their own notes. Some were complete and others were not.
However, it was at the time of Caliph Abu Bakr that an official copy of the Qur'an was made from the master copy that was with Hafsa bint Omar. Most books of ‘hadith’ (traditions and sayings of the Prophet) mention that those who were responsible for copying the Qur'an from the master returned the original to Hafsa after ensuring the authenticity of the latest duplicated scriptures. Several early Muslim historians and writers even tried to count the number of copies of the Qur'an that were distributed to different parts of the world where Islam had reached. For instance, according to Ibn Hazm, a famous Muslim scholar, there were several hundred copies of the Qur'an circulating in different parts of the world at the time of second Caliph Umar. It is possible that several people may have made copies from the copies during that time. Hence when the third Caliph Uthman asked a group of Qur'an scholars to review the existing copies of the scriptures, it is not surprising that he may have found discrepancies. Consequently, he asked people to destroy the inauthentic copies that were in circulation, and use only the ones that matched the original Qur'an.
Thus the Qur'an remains the only scripture that was compiled during the lifetime of a prophet who had received it directly from the divine source. It is this fact that many scholars seek to challenge. Skeptical about the divine origin of the Qur'an, they resist the premise that God spoke to humanity and sent His trusted angel to communicate His message to His messengers including the last of the messengers, Prophet Muhammad.
They don't accept it because this cannot be proved empirically. They cannot empirically verify the location of God and Angel Gabriel. Hence they argue that the whole story about the origins Qur'an is fabricated. But the attack on the Qur'an does not come only from secularists or empiricists. It also comes from Christian and Jewish scholars whose religions depend on the notion of the existence of God and His revealed message to His chosen messengers. While they acknowledge the divine origin of the Old and New Testaments, they are not willing to grant the Qur'an the same status. Suffice it to say that their argument is not religious, historical, or academic. It can best be described as biased and fabricated.
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