The Challenge to find Discrepancy in the Quran
Over the years, a number of Muslims and some non-Muslims have asked me why I had problems defending my Islamic faith. While a Muslim in the late 1980’s, and seeking the truth within Islam, I was faced with a number of issues in defending my faith. One such issue was finding discrepancies in the Quran. The purpose of writing this response has been to provide an answer to my fellow Muslim brothers and sisters regarding the challenges I faced at that point in my faith. In studying the Quran I was faced with many areas of faith and practice that seemed to be discrepant. During this time I was not seeking to put down or reject the Quran or Islam, on the contrary, my goal was to invite others to Islam and use the Quran as my standard for the perfect, uncorrupted truth revealed from Allah. I, therefore spent much time studying this topic, armed primarily with the Quran, Hadith and other supporting works by Muslims and some non-Muslim authors. Please note that the purpose of this response is similar to my earlier response on Abrogation. It is not to publish an academic work with a thorough and critical evaluation on the entire topic of discrepancies in the Quran, but mostly a reflection on some key points as I was contending with my Islamic faith.
As a Muslim I believed that the Quran was the universal and eternal word from God and had no error or discrepancies – in fact the Quran makes this claim for itself. It declares that no part of it is at variance with another. Note for example what Surah 4:82 claims.
Note, for example, what Yusuf Ali says in his commentary regarding this ayah, that if the Quran were not from God, there would be much discrepancy. Unfortunately, I was saddened that, as I studied the Quran more, I found what I believed to be real discrepancies and problems within it. For example, fornication and adultery are considered sin, but a man can have sex with many slave women with no legal marriage status. Another example is found with the messages regarding the Qibla, the direction one faces while praying, which was changed from Jerusalem to Mecca. Also there is the tolerance and peace message of earlier revelation, but the command to fight all unbelievers in later revelation. Was I misunderstanding the Quran? Was I not studying it "with care" (a phrase Yusuf Ali adds in his English translation for Surah 4:82)? Was it perfect at the time of revelation, and somehow corrupted over time? How could that be? The integrity of textual transmission is one of the strongest claims made by Muslim scholars. Unlike other scriptures of Isa and Musa, which Muslim scholars claim have become corrupted, the Quran, they claim, has been guarded perfectly. So I was left with accepting, for the moment, that what was in the Quran was revealed to Mohammad, the Messenger of Allah.
An area that was very disturbing to me as a father of three daughters and one son was that under special circumstances men having sex with women outside the bounds of marriage was perfectly legal and acceptable in Islam. How could Allah who rightfully dealt with punishing adultery and fornication allow such a thing? This was a question that challenged me. To my shock and dismay I found these ayahs in the Quran that said that it was perfectly acceptable to Allah that a man could have wives for sexual partners and also have women "who his right hand possessed".
Now I understand from ancient history that during war, barbarians and others of like mind would pillage the enemy property, kill the men and rape their women. But this was the Quran, a teaching and mandate for all time and all people. So I checked into other parts of the Quran to make sure I understood this topic of sexual relations with someone other than a spouse correctly.
This ayah in the Quran did not help at all. It confirmed to the Prophet of Islam that the practice of taking captives as sexual partners is blessed by Allah. To get a better understanding and the context of taking sexual partners outside the bounds of marriage, I started looking into the Sahih Hadith from Bukhari for details.
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To my sadness, the Hadith confirmed what I did not want to believe. That it was not only acceptable to have sexual relations with captives, but that it was not necessary to take precautions if the sexual act would result in a child. It seemed very uncharacteristic that Allah would allow sexual relations in these circumstances, which would normally be fornication or adultery and require punishment by 100 lashes or death by stoning respectively. (For a more in-depth discussion on this topic please refer to the earlier link to the abrogation response).
As I reviewed works by Muslim scholars to explain this I found many different answers. Some consider this practice of rape to be humane compared to what some barbarians would do and hence better than the alternatives. While others considered that slaves were property or spoils of war and did not have the same rights as free women, and hence there was no issue regarding the having of sexual relations with property. They focused rather how wonderful Islam is since it recommends that it is better to free slaves. To me, the issue was a very simple and practical man/woman relational issue - was sex outside of marriage right or wrong? Unfortunately none of the scholars addressed it to my satisfaction. Hence to my dismay I discovered the discrepancy that men who had sexual relations with slave women were not charged with fornication or adultery. It seemed to me that this was a special favor offered to men who went to war. I felt embarrassed that this was in Allah’s Holy Book and that Allah would allow, what is considered a barbaric practice to be delivered to the Seal of the Prophets, and cast it for all eternity as acceptable.
The topic of the Qibla, the direction of prayer was another sticky point with me. The consistency of facing a certain direction was not uncommon during the time of Mohammad. The Jews faced Jerusalem, and pagan Arabs faced the Kaaba in Mecca. When Mohammad and his followers migrated to Medina, the direction of prayer that was established for the community was Jerusalem. However, within a short time the direction was changed to the Kaaba in Mecca. This caused quite a stir as the concern was that this change could not be one that was from Allah. How could Allah, within a short span of a few months change his mind – men change their minds when they learn from their mistakes, God does not make mistakes. To that end, Allah revealed these ayahs that say it was done so as to test the faith of the Muslims.
It is clear from the above ayahs that Allah says he did this to test people. But the challenge for me was that it was not consistent with Surah 2:115 where it is said that God is everywhere and there should be no concern for the direction we face when we pray.
The fact is that some Muslims were concerned as to the affect of this change had on others who had died before this change of direction. Hence the question is does the direction matter or not? The answer comes in Surah 2:143 which says that for those who faced Jerusalem before this ayah, their prayers are valid by the Mercy of Allah. Note the background on the change in the Sahih Bukhari Hadith below.
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We know that all communal prayers by Muslims are offered facing the Kaaba. In fact, there are Hadith that say that if certain unclean people or animals are directly in front of the person praying, their prayers are interrupted and they have to start over. For that to be the case, then, that would mean that the direction is crucially important. Because, if God was truly everywhere and it did not matter which direction we turned, it would not matter who was directly in front of us, our prayers would not be interrupted. Now some Muslim scholars such as Yusuf Ali point out to consider this ayah to be "abrogated" by the ayahs above. Note what Surah 2:145 adds about facing another Qibla:
If one considers and supports that this is not abrogated, then the only option left is that the Quran in inconsistent regarding this matter – either it should not matter the direction we pray facing, or it does. Clearly from Surah 2:145 which is a continuation makes it clear that if we Muslims were to follow any other Qibla, we would indeed be in the wrong. Other Muslim scholars, however, take the position that it is preferred to pray facing the Kaaba, but not obligatory. They quote Sahih Hadith that clearly show when the Prophet Mohammad was traveling he would say his prayers while facing in the direction he was riding and not the Kaaba. Unfortunately, what is not known is the time of the events reported in some of these Hadith. Was it before or after Surah 2:145 was revealed? Hence we have what I considered a discrepancy, as both set of ayahs cannot be true. Thus the integrity and reliability of the Quran as we have it today was further cast in doubt.
Probably the biggest challenge regarding the issue of discrepancies was the treatment of non-Muslims in the community. This was a difficult task to traverse, as the Quranic Surahs are not chronological and this requires some careful analysis to help us know which came first and the probable reasons behind them and the end result regarding tolerance of other faiths. So, please bear with me as I take it step-by-step. In the early Meccan ayahs it seems that the message of toleration is taught and Prophet Mohammad is sent to warn – making the point that there is no compulsion in religion – sort of ‘to each his own’, but the one who rejects evil and believes in God has got hold of the most trustworthy hand that never breaks. For example let’s take note of some of these ayahs.
These ayahs are all regarded as having been revealed to Mohammad before the Hijra while the Muslim community was small and the Prophet lived in Mecca. If this was the complete Quranic teaching, then one could say simply that the Quran teaches tolerance and supports that each person under Islam may choose to worship who they want and there is clearly no coercion or persecution of other faiths under Islam. However we find other ayahs that say that something very different. Note below, what has happened now that the community of Muslims has got larger and stronger in Medina after Hijra.
In these ayahs the commands imply that one must fight in the cause of Allah if Muslims are not given their opportunity to freely practice their faith. Some Muslim scholars like Yusuf Ali call these defensive wars as it states in the Surah "those who fight you". Hence making a point that if the Muslims community is oppressed in the expression of their faith, then slaughter is the lesser of the evils. Note the expression "for tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter". Note what Yusuf Ali writes in his commentary for this ayah: "If they want forcibly to prevent you from exercising your sacred rites, they have declared war on your religion, and it would be cowardice to ignore the challenge or to fail in rooting out the tyranny." Hence it becomes clear that if the Muslims are not given rights to freely exercise their faith, then the command to fight is given as a defensive measure until this right to worship becomes available to Muslims. But note that while in Mecca the Muslim community was under the same situation, yet there was no command to fight then. That is why a small band of Muslims had fled Mecca to friendly neighbors where they were free to worship Allah. Later, all of the Muslim community, including the Prophet fled Mecca to Medina marking the Hijra. Up to that point in the stream of Quranic revelation, there were no such ayahs of fighting. Taking a look at the same topic in another Surah.
Let’s take note of two key items that are new in this above Surah not covered earlier. First, there was the custom in the Arab land that there was to be no war during the sacred months. This was the common honor system in the Arab lands at this time. However, these ayahs clearly call for war, even during the sacred months. A number of Muslims complained against this and these ayahs clearly address their complaint as if they do not like something that is good for them. Second, note that now there is the additional stipulation that if one denies God that may be construed as another criterion under which one could go to war. At this point one may now extend the position from "defensive" to pre-emptive wars also. Let’s take a look to see if that is supported in the early history of Islam as verified in Sahih Hadith of Bukhari.
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Notice in both of these Hadith, it is not defense that is being discussed, but invasion. Hence it became clear that as far as I could tell, the Quran in its chronologically early ayahs makes the case for tolerance for all faiths. Then the time progresses, ayahs allow defensive wars. Finally the ayahs support fighting pre-emptive battles. Note where the Hadith says invade, not defend. Troops were sent to great countries to fight the pagans, not to defend the local community of Muslims. If these pre-emptive wars were isolated cases, one could say it was an aberration. However, it is clear from the early history of Islam from Muslim sources that this was not the case.
Hence I was left perplexed. Was this truly a discrepancy in the Quran as there are many ayahs on tolerance, or were those ayahs truly abrogated and there is no discrepancy but the ayahs about tolerance have been abrogated? Perhaps worse, one is left with a set of ayahs and supporting Hadith that state when the community of Islam is small and weak, tolerance for other religions should be the way of life. However, at the appropriate time as Allah has made the community of Muslims strong, then it is the duty of the Muslim, as an act of great charity to fight in the way of Allah and his rightly guided Imams so that the truth may prevail and all other religions are subdued. At this point I started evaluating in depth what Muslim Scholars have said. I discovered that I was not far off in my analysis and understanding. Muslim scholars have studied this at length and their classifications can be divided in three groupings.
As I studied which of the positions above had the most credibility, I could come to no truthful conclusion other than to side with the Muslim scholars during the ages of great Islamic expansion. It is truly the one that is based on the most scholarly work and is honest to the Quran and Hadith, the principal authorities in Islam. Since the Quran does not always give the context, it is important to interpret the Quran with the Sahih Hadith as applicable. Hence, with the added study, much clarity was brought to mind. I was satisfied, that in this case there was no discrepancy, but very dismayed at learning that the Quran does teach intolerance against those countries and people who deny Allah and his Prophet.
As I studied more of the Quran and its teachings, I found many other areas to be discrepant or problematic. Some of these include:
However to keep this article to a reasonable length, I have chosen to stop here.
For many Muslims, the fact that the Quran makes the claim that there are no discrepancies in it is the final word. Others, like myself, who have investigated these and are seeking the truth wherever it leads, find the discrepancies and problems regarding faith and practice real and unacceptable. As a result there was no other option, but to conclude, based on the evidence in the Quran and the Sahih Hadith, that these discrepancies and problems in the teachings of the Quran could not come from an all-knowing, all-wise, and loving God.
At this point I was very distraught. Throughout my Muslim life I was taught that the Arabic Quran was the perfect and uncorrupted words of Allah and perfectly preserved by him through the centuries with no variations. It was the truth and Allah himself would protect it. It was supposed to be perfect in every way. So what was I to do now that I had discovered otherwise? My desire had been to use the Quran as my standard, to live by it and also to invite others to seek guidance from it. I also desired very much to prove to the Christians I was in contact with that Bible was corrupted and they needed to study and seek guidance from the Glorious Quran. But now I had reached a place in my life of faith where I was unable to defend the Quran as the true words of God. I was now convinced and reluctantly came to accept that the Quran as we have it today is not the eternal and in-errant truth from God.
For those of you who are interested in further study on the Quran please refer to the references found at www.answering-islam.org/Quran/index.html and other websites and books. If you would like to send me your comments or questions, please use this email address.
** This article was first posted at the Answering-Islam website by the author Farooq Ibrahim. Copyrighted by Farooq Ibrahim and used by permission. For comments or feedback, please contact him or The Abraham Connection.