Do Western scholars think the Qur’an teaches the textual corruption of the previous scriptures? – Part 1

This article is a response to a couple of Youtube videos (here and here) released a while ago (apologies for the slow rate of reply!) by Blogging Theology. In those videos Paul at Blogging Theology portrays the majority of Western scholarship as accepting that the Qur’an teaches that the previous scriptures are textually corrupted. But is this accurate?

The claims of the video

Do feel free to have a watch, but I will highlight the key scholarly passages cited by Paul. Paul (0:59) says that he is ‘interested now in what western scholars say about this question and I’ve got a couple of representative examples from very distinguished scholars’. He (3:46) quotes Walid Saleh’s entry ‘The Hebrew Bible in Islam’ in The Cambridge Companion to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament:

Second, there are contradictory, though not irreconcilable, positions expressed in the Qur’an vis-a-vis the authority and authenticity of the Scriptures of Judaism and Christianity. There are many instances where these Scriptures are called upon to vindicate Muhammad; they are called ‘light and guidance’, and their truth is such that they make manifest the truth of the Qur’an. Muhammad pleads with his people to query the ‘People of the Book’, a phrase invented by the Qur’an. The People of the Book are in a position to vouchsafe for the truth of the prophecy of Muhammad. Yet there are verses where the authenticity of these very Scriptures is called into doubt. The Jews are accused of tampering with their Scripture, corrupting it and violating God’s will. How do we understand these statements, and more importantly, how were they understood by successive generations of Muslims? (p. 408)

First of all I commend Paul for citing this passage, and indeed recognising it as ‘quite nuanced’. I would encourage those Muslims who think the Qur’an does teach the Torah and Gospel have been textually corrupted, to nonetheless recognise those verses which might paint a more positive picture. But despite these more positive verses, Saleh does indeed claim that ‘there are verses where the authenticity of these very Scriptures is called into doubt.’

Paul (5:24) quotes from another passage which clarifies further what Walid Saleh is talking about:

The Jews are accused of mispronouncing, hiding, and fabricating new Scripture. This accusation of falsification, known in Arabic as taḥrīf, in truth became the prism through which later Muslims understood the status of the Bible. In many ways, the Qur’an poses an almost impossible dilemma here: the Torah is divine; the Torah is corrupted. The status of the Hebrew Bible is ever suspended, and the tension between its divinity and its corruption is never resolved. In this sense, the Qur’an sets the stage for the sustained ambivalence towards the Bible that characterises all subsequent Islamic literatures. Indeed, a Muslim could never be sure what to think of the Bible in so far as any judgement was always fraught with uncertainties. (p. 413)

Paul (6:27) then moves on to discuss Sidney H. Griffith’s The Bible in Arabic: the scriptures of the “People of the Book” in the language of Islam.

Succinctly put, the Qurʾān presents itself as confirming the truth that is in the previous scriptures and as safeguarding it. After speaking of the Torah, “in which there is guidance and light,” and of Jesus, “as confirming the veracity of the Torah before him,” and of the Gospel, “in which there is guidance and light,” God says to Muḥammad regarding the Qurʾān: “We have sent down to you the scripture in truth, as a confirmation of the scripture before it, and as a safeguard for it” (V al-Māʾidah 44, 46, 48). The previous scriptures were, of course, in the Qurʾān’s telling, principally the Torah and the Gospel, as is clear here and in other places, where the Qurʾān says to Muḥammad, “He has sent down to you the scripture in truth, as a confirmation of what was before it, and He sent down the Torah and the Gospel” (III Āl ʿImrān 3). In these and other passages one might cite, the position of the Qurʾān vis-à-vis the Jewish and Christian Bible is clear: the Qurʾān confirms the veracity of the earlier scriptures. In other words, the Qurʾān not only recognizes the Torah and the Gospel, and the Psalms too, as we shall see, as authentic scripture sent down earlier by God, but it now stands as the warrant for the truth they contain. But the matter does not rest here. For while the Qurʾān, following both the then-current Jewish and Christian view, recognizes the Torah as the scripture God sent down to Moses—“We wrote for him in the Tablets about everything” (VII al-Aʿrāf 145)—the Gospel that the Qurʾān confirms is not the Gospel as Christians recognized it in the Qurʾān’s own day. Rather, following the model of its own distinctive prophetology, the Qurʾān speaks of the Gospel as a scripture God gave to Jesus: “We gave him the Gospel, wherein is guidance and light, confirming what he had before him of the Torah” (V al-Māʾidah 46; LVII al-Ḥadīd 27). Here, as in other instances we have noted in the previous chapter, the Qurʾān apparently intends to criticize and correct what it regards as a mistaken Christian view of the Christians’ own principal scripture. What is more, by the time of its collection, and principally in criticism of the behavior of the ‘People of the Book’ in regard to their scriptures, the Qurʾān is already speaking of the ‘distortion’ and ‘alteration’ of scriptural texts. This is to be found in the very passages (e.g., in II al-Baqarah 75–79; III Āl ʿImrān 78; IV an-Nisā 46; V al-Māʾidah 12–19) that in subsequent Islamic tradition will undergird the doctrine of the corruption of the earlier scriptures, a development that would effectively discount the testimonies drawn by Jews or Christians from their scriptures in behalf of the verisimilitude of their teachings. (pp. 58-59)

Paul and Sidney Griffith are to be commended for noting the tension between positive and negative verses regarding the previous scriptures and how they are handled.

In Paul’s second video (6:12) he quotes from Muhammad Asad’s translation of and commentary on the Qur’an, Q 5:48:

[Qur’an text] And unto thee [O Prophet] have We vouchsafed this divine writ, setting forth the truth, confirming the truth of whatever there still remains of earlier revelations and determining what is true [muhayminan] therein. Judge, then, between the followers of earlier revelation in accordance with what God has bestowed from on high, and do not follow their errant views, forsaking the truth that has come unto thee.

[Commentary] The participle muhaymin is derived from the quadriliteral verb haymana, “he watched[over a thing]” or “controlled [it]”, and is used here to describe the Qur’an as the determinant factor in deciding what is genuine and what is false in the earlier scriptures (see Manar VI, 410 ff.). (pp. 223-224)

Paul also quotes from the Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān (henceforth EQ). In the first video Paul (0:59) claimed that he is ‘interested now in what western scholars say about this question and I’ve got a couple of representative examples from very distinguished scholars’. Here in this second video Paul (8:08) says he wants to ‘find out what top western scholars, who are specialists in the field, say about the Qur’ans view of the previous revelations given to the Jews and the Christians.’ Paul (8:44) rightly notes that the EQ ‘is the standard academic reference work on the Qur’an in the English language.’ He (9:54) says that ‘having read a number of these articles now they pretty much say the same thing, it’s not as if they disagree, there’s pretty much a consensus view’. He (10:28) quotes from the article ‘Scripture and the Qur’an’ by William A. Graham:

In qurʾānic perspective, the fundamental pattern of history is God’s sending a messenger or prophet with revelatory guidance to nation after nation. The revealed scriptures that embody this guidance include the “pages” revealed to Abraham, the Psalms (q.v.) given to David (q.v.), the Torah (q.v.) vouchsafed Moses (q.v.), and the Gospel (q.v.) sent to Jesus (q.v.), as well as the Qurʾān revealed to Muḥammad. What followed each of these prophetic or apostolic missions was the creation of a new community of those who heard and responded in obedience (q.v.) to God’s. The Qurʾān, however, seems to hold that while the earlier, successively revealed kutub represent scriptures derived from these earlier divine revelations, the communities who preserved them did not succeed in doing so scrupulously enough. Each community that had received revelation previously let its scriptural text be partially lost or changed and thus debased over time [I have generally omitted cross-references, but here Paul highlights ‘see CORRUPTION; FORGERY; REVISION AND ALTERATION; POLEMIC AND POLEMICAL LANGUAGE’]– hence the need for the qurʾānic revelations in “clear Arabic” to rectify such lapses. The Qurʾān portrays itself as a renewed and presumably final revelation of God’s word in the scriptural series. It was revealed through the “seal of the prophets,” Muḥammad, and is intended to reiterate what has been lost or corrupted in the previous revelations to other prophets or messengers: “This is a blessed scripture ( kitāb) that we sent down to you, confirming that which came before it…” ( Q 6:92).

He (13:28) also cites Camilla Adang’s article on ‘Torah’, from under the subsection ‘Tampering with the Torah’:

The Qurʾān more than once accuses the Israelites, the Jews, and the People of the Book in general, of having deliberately changed the word of God as revealed in the Torah and of passing off as God’s revelation something they themselves wrote ( Q 2:75-79; 4:46; 5:13). They are charged with confounding the truth (q.v.) with falsehood ( Q 2:42; 3:71), concealing the truth (e.g. Q 3:187), hiding part of the book ( Q 6:91), or twisting their tongues when reciting the book ( Q 3:78). In some verses we find a combination of allegations (e.g. Q 2:32; 3:71; 4:46). What may be at the root of these allegations is that the Jews denied that Muḥammad was mentioned in their scripture.

He also cites ‘Forgery’ by Gordon Darnell Newby; he mentions it without reading it out, but refers the reader to view the article.

At 15:35 Paul does speak of the view of ‘many Western scholars’. Given his previous words I assume that he still maintains that the view is ‘pretty much the consensus view’ and that this is another way of stating this.

What do we mean by ‘corrupted’?

As I discuss in my recent article (Does Q 2:79 claim that the previous scriptures have been textually corrupted?), we must be careful by what we mean when describing ‘corruption’/’alteration’ or even ‘textual corruption’. Some kind of textual corruption is clearly described in the Qur’an: Q 2:79 proclaims ‘So woe to those who write something down [lit: ‘the book’] with their own hands…’ (Abdel Haleem translation). However, as I highlight in the article just mentioned (where I make reference to both the Qur’an and some of the tafsīr literature), there is a large difference between textual corruption by SOME Jews, at the time of Muhammad, on specific matters, or alternatively not even in the Torah itself (it may be a reference to writing the Mishnah or Talmud), and the more popular modern Muslim view that the Qur’an speaks of extensive corruption of both Torah and Gospel, centuries before Muhammad. There is a spectrum between these two positions, all of which can be called a belief in ‘textual corruption’. The question in this article is exactly where scholars line up (of course, the more important topic, to be discussed elsewhere, is what the Qur’an itself says).

In what follows I will try to determine whether these scholars think the Qur’an teaches:

  1. The Torah manuscripts themselves have been corrupted.
  2. False copy(s) of scripture have been produced.
  3. False interpretations (e.g. Mishnah or Talmud) have been written down.
  4. The manuscript tradition has been corrupted over a wide area.
  5. This corruption took place before the time of Muhammad.
  6. The Gospel (and not just the Torah) has been textually corrupted in some way.

Assessing the scholarly statements appealed to by Blogging Theology

Walid Saleh (2016) ‘The Hebrew Bible in Islam’ (pp. 407-425) in Stephen B. Chapman & Marvin A. Sweeney (eds.) The Cambridge companion to The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Cambridge University Press: New York.

Let us begin with Walid Saleh’s (2016, 407-425) book entry ‘The Hebrew Bible in Islam’. Saleh (407) states that ‘Attempting to characterise the position of the Qur’an towards the Hebrew Bible is anything but simple.’, a helpful reminder to be careful in how we formulate our statements on this matter. He (407-408) begins by noting it is not clear just how much of what we call the Hebrew Bible/OT is included in the Qur’anic concept of Torah. This is an interesting topic, but we will leave it aside in this discussion; whatever the Qur’an envisages, the question is whether it considers it as having been textually corrupted. Saleh (408) says:

there are verses where the authenticity of these very Scriptures is called into doubt. The Jews are accused of tampering with their Scripture, corrupting it and violating God’s will. How do we understand these statements, and more importantly, how were they understood by successive generations of Muslims?’

The word ‘tampering’ and ‘corrupting’ can have a wide semantic domain, including both written and oral corruption (see below). But his words ‘the authenticity of these very Scriptures is called into doubt’ does prima facie seem that the textual reliability of these texts is called into doubt. This sounds like positions 1 and/or 2 above. His other words which are more positive about the previous scriptures, which I needn’t go into in detail, make it seem like position 1 rather than 2 is in view (as this would explain the mixture of both doubts about authenticity but then positive features).

Saleh (411) goes on to write: ‘The Qur’an, however, regards itself as more than just a vindication of the Torah; it is also a judge and an arbitrator of its authenticity.’ He then cites Q 5:48. He translates the key word muhayminan as ‘with final authority over them.’ Much of his ensuing comments sound like they are about abrogation, rather than an accusation of corruption. But he (412) also writes:

The Qur’an can issue a damning judgement if the issue is the denial of Muhammad’s prophecy or the truthfulness of the Qur’an. To the degree that the Jews are claiming their Torah is not in agreement with the Qur’an, then either they are hiding the true Scripture or the Scripture they claim to quote is falsified. Repeatedly, the Qur’an claims that Muhammad was foretold in the Scriptures, and the Jews’ denial of such a foretelling is a clear sign of the corruption they have brought to God’s word. (Emphasis added)

Is this a case of ‘either/or’ in the sense of perhaps one but not the other, or of ‘both/and’, in some case(s) one charge and in some case(s) the other? I don’t know. ‘[H]iding the true scripture’ could mean they only have one scripture, the true one, but they hide it (neither positions 1-2), or it could mean they have both a true one and a false one(s), but hide the former (position 2). As for ‘the Scripture they claim to quote is falsified’, this sounds like position 1 (see below). 

Note that with all this ambiguity I have highlighted, he ends this section by saying ‘…the Jews’ denial of such a foretelling is a clear sign of the corruption they have brought to God’s word.’ So when we earlier read the word ‘corruption’ on p. 408, we should be aware of the ambiguity of the term. While Saleh had described there how ‘the authenticity of these very Scriptures is called into doubt’, did that refer to textual corruption (as one might prima facie suspect), or does this later part of his article clarify what he meant?

Perhaps the clearest answer will come in the section titled ‘The charge of falsification’. (pp. 412-415). He begins by saying that ‘A major dent in the authority of the Bible is thus the Qur’an’s accusation that the Jews have tampered with it.’ As with the word ‘corruption’, we need to inquire what ‘tampering’ means. Let us read on. On p. 413 he notes both Q 2:79 and its charge against those ‘who write the Scripture with their own hands…’ (position 1, or 2, or 3), as well as how ‘his Jewish opponents are said to twist God’s word, deliberately changing its meaning’. He writes: ‘The Jews are accused of mispronouncing, hiding, and fabricating new Scripture.’ This last action sounds most naturally like position 2.

Saleh repeatedly states in his book chapter the complexity of the Qur’an, and Islam’s, relationships to the previous scriptures. Even so, his comment that ‘[t]he Jews are accused of…fabricating new Scripture’ does sound like position 2. Perhaps Saleh envisages this alongside an uncorrupted Torah, perhaps not (it is not clear whether he also holds to position 1, see above).

As for the Gospel, Saleh (408) does claim that ‘there are contradictory, though not irreconcilable, positions expressed in the Qur’an vis-à-vis the authority and authenticity of the Scriptures of Judaism and Christianity.’ (emphasis added). However, it is possible that only the ‘authority’ and not ‘authenticity’ of the scripture of Christianity is challenged. Later in the paragraph when he speaks of challenges to ‘the authenticity of these very Scriptures’, he speaks only of the Jews. However given that he speaks in the plural of ‘Scriptures’, this may just mean that he is focusing on Jewish corruption of the scriptures, even though the Christian scriptures are corrupted also. This is a common pattern in this book chapter. We remind the reader, however, that Saleh later (411-12) speaks of ‘authenticity’ it is not clear whether he has in mind position 1 or 2 or neither.

Saleh (412-413) notices the ‘marked differences between the retelling of biblical stories in the Qur’an and their counterparts in the Bible.’ This would apply to the Gospels accounts of Jesus, as well as the Old Testament prophets. However, it is not clear if Saleh has this in mind here, as he goes on to speak of how ‘The Jews were eager to point these out’, and continues to refer to the Jews and not the Christians.

Saleh (413) attributes Q 2:77-79, which includes some charge of textual corruption (position 1, or 2, or 3), to ‘the enemies of Muhammad’. In context this would seem to be a group of Jews but given that immediately after Saleh he speaks of ‘his Jewish opponents’, perhaps the first category is seen as the broader ‘People of the Book’ (including Christians). But it may just be stylistic variation.

It is not entirely clear in this book chapter what Walid Saleh believes the Qur’an says about the Gospel, whether it has been textually corrupted. This is understandable; his entry is about the Hebrew Bible, not the Gospel!

Walid Saleh (2016), review of Gordon Nickel’s Narratives of tampering in the earliest commentaries on the Qurʾān, Al-Masāq, 28:1, 101-104.

Although Paul did not mention this review, I introduce it to help us determine Walid Saleh’s perspective. Saleh (102) writes:

However, Nickel states his objectives in a roundabout way. He is thus too dismissive of the position of the majority of scholars who have worked on the verses in the Qurʾān that discuss tampering (taḥrīf). The majority view is that these verses do imply an accusation of textual tampering, and not merely corruption of meaning or other lesser forms of tampering. He is unwilling to provide these scholars’ views the same airing as contrary views held by others. Thus, after giving full citations of those who oppose the view that these verses refer to textual tampering, he summarily dismisses the opposing view as if it were blatantly wrong (p.11). In a footnote, he accuses Lazarus-Yafeh of almost being wantonly uncritical – stating that she “continued, again with unusual freedom” (p. 12 note 35). Contrary to what Nickel suggests, the scholarly consensus is that the Qurʾān does indeed make the charge that Jewish and Christian scriptures have been textually corrupted. One only needs to look at footnote 40 on page 13 of the book, which provides a list of the names of major scholars who hold this view. Referencing them in a footnote unfortunately relegates them to insignificance, although it seems that every major scholar who has dealt with taḥrīf has held such a position. … Unfortunately, no complete review of the literature on the issue is provided, nor is there a weighing of the evidence for different positions or even a complete analysis of the positions of the scholars who have argued that textual corruption is a Qurʾānic notion. In fact, when the author reviews the Qurʾanic material, it becomes clear that the possibility of textual corruption is too evident to dismiss (see especially discussion of ḥarrafa, pp. 57–9). [Emphasis added]

Given what Saleh has written elsewhere (see the comments on his book chapter above above) and given his emphasis upon this point, we may assume that Saleh is amongst this ‘scholarly consensus…that the Qurʾān does indeed make the charge that Jewish and Christian scriptures have been textually corrupted.’ This is position 1 and/or 2, probably 1 (see below for why). Note that the Christian scriptures are also in view here (position 6).

In Chapter 3, Nickel makes the odd claim that it is impossible to understand the Qurʾān properly without early commentary, yet the whole chapter attempts to do just that. Thus footnote 106 on page 59 takes direct issue with the way scholars have come to understand the verb ‘ḥarrafa’ in the Qurʾān – which leaves no doubt that textual corruption was a charge laid in the Qurʾān – by casting doubt on our ability to fathom the meaning of the Qurʾān from a millennial distance, along with the claim that Nickel’s study is not about the original meaning of the Qurʾān. … All of a sudden, we are informed by Nickel that one of the most oft-cited verses in discussions about taḥrīf [Saleh just previously cited Q 2:79] is not part of the semantic field of tampering in the Qurʾān (p. 100)! This sidelining of a verse that has direct bearing on the notion of textual falsification is inexplicable, for the verse is accusing a group of writing a book only to claim that it is from God. If this is not textual tampering, then what is? [Emphasis added]

The ‘ḥarrafa’ verses (2:75, 4:46, 5:13, 5:41), unlike Q 2:79, are probably not speaking of a secondary text, and so in identifying this as ‘textual corruption’ Saleh probably is envisaging corruption of the scriptural manuscripts themselves (position 1). Interestingly, though, his citation of Q 4:46 and Q 5:13 in his book chapter spoke one of those who ‘twist God’s word, deliberately changing its meaning.’ (emphasis added). But from the tone of his book review one would assume he agrees with ‘the way scholars have come to understand the verb ‘ḥarrafa”’ in referring to textual corruption. His appeal to Q 2:79 could suggest either position 1 or 2.

It is not entirely clear whether Saleh thinks the Qur’an envisages textual corruption over a wide area (position 4), and taking place even before the time of Muhammad (position 5). The focus at one point on the corruption of prophecy(s) of Muhammad in his book chapter (pp. 412-413) might more naturally suggest a geographically limited (i.e. in Arabia) corruption at the time of Muhammad, as we have discussed here. But Saleh (pp. 412-413) does also note the ‘marked differences between the retelling of biblical stories in the Qur’an and their counterparts in the Bible’, and he notes the ‘backward projection in the Qur’an, such as Moses being portrayed in ways reminiscent of Muhammad (p. 411). Combining these comments with his review article, we might see here a suggestion of an extensive degree of corruption. While this could have been produced by one community, perhaps we should envisage an ongoing trend over a broader area (position 4) and commencing even before the time of Muhammad (position 5).

Summary of Walid Saleh

In summary, on the basis of both his book chapter and his review article, it would appear that Walid Saleh does hold that the Torah itself has been corrupted (position 1), and also that entirely false copies have been written (position 2). He probably envisages the textual corruption of the Torah over a broader area (position 4) and even starting prior to the time of Muhammad (position 5), though this is not clear. Saleh also speaks of textual corruption of the Gospel in his review article (position 6).

It is interesting that his book chapter taken alone is far less clear on most of these matters, most clearly suggesting that certain false copy(s) of the Torah have been produced (position 2). Position 1 is raised, but it’s not clear whether he affirms it definitively or raises it as a possibility. But reading his book chapter in light of his review article may help to give us an interpretative lens.

Griffith, Sidney H. The Bible in Arabic: The Scriptures of the “People of the Book” in the Language of Islam. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2013.

I will spare the reader a detailed analysis of Sidney Griffith, as my results are not controversial – from my reading he affirms at least positions 1, 4, 5 and 6. That is, he seems to envisage the Qur’an as suggesting that the Torah and Gospel manuscripts themselves have been corrupted; this is because the Qur’an repeatedly sets out to correct the accounts found in those scriptures, in large part its ‘prophetology’. Presumably, this widespread pattern of error suggests these texts were corrupted over a wide area (position 4) and before the time of Muhammad (position 5). As well as his broad argument that the Qur’an corrects the ‘prophetology’ of the former scriptures, Griffiths (58-59, 95) also makes brief references to Qur’an verses often understood to imply or state textual corruption (Q 2:75-79; 3:78; 4:46; 5:12-19, 41; 5:46; 57:27).

Asad, Muhammad. “The Message of the Quran.” http://www.muhammad-asad.com/Message-of-Quran.pdf.

Muhammad Asad does indeed seem to envisage at least position 1, that the previous scriptures have been textually corrupted (the reference to ‘scriptures’ probably includes the Gospel, position 6). I do not know how extensively or when he considers this to have taken place. Given that the Gospel as well as the Torah is likely in view, we may be dealing here with more than just a corruption of the prophecies of Muhammad (though that is possible). Accordingly, it is plausible that Muhammad Asad is imagining a widespread corruption before the time of Muhammad (positions 4 and 5). I am happy to learn more from someone more familiar with Asad’s commentary.

Graham, William A. “Scripture and the Qurʾān.” In Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān, edited by Jane Dammen McAuliffe, online version.

As Paul cited:

The Qurʾān, however, seems to hold that while the earlier, successively revealed kutub represent scriptures derived from these earlier divine revelations, the communities who preserved them did not succeed in doing so scrupulously enough. Each community that had received revelation previously let its scriptural text be partially lost or changed and thus debased over time…

The scriptures themselves seem to be corrupted (positions 1 and 6), and Graham is nice and clear in specifying that this is not just a problem of some Jews during Muhammad’s time but of the communities (of Jews and Christians) as a whole (position 4) in the time period before the Qur’an (position 5).

Adang, Camilla. “Torah.” In Encyclopedia of the Qur’an, edited by Jane Dammen McAuliffe, online version.

Paul cites:

The Qurʾān more than once accuses the Israelites, the Jews, and the People of the Book in general, of having deliberately changed the word of God as revealed in the Torah and of passing off as God’s revelation something they themselves wrote ( Q 2:75-79; 4:46; 5:13). They are charged with confounding the truth (q.v.) with falsehood ( Q 2:42; 3:71), concealing the truth (e.g. Q 3:187), hiding part of the book ( Q 6:91), or twisting their tongues when reciting the book ( Q 3:78). In some verses, we find a combination of allegations (e.g. Q 2:32; 3:71; 4:46). What may be at the root of these allegations is that the Jews denied that Muḥammad was mentioned in their scripture.

Note that ‘the People of the Book in general’ may well include the Christians (potentially position 6), even though at the end of the sentence she goes on to cite verses that would seem prima facie in context to speak only of the Jews. Perhaps she thinks the Christians are in fact also in view here (e.g. Q 2:79 could be read in light of Q 3:78, Q 4:46 in light of Q 4:47, and Q 5:13 in light of Q 5:14). Or perhaps she accuses the ‘People of the Book’ of only the first part of the accusation, ‘having deliberately changed the word of God’, and by this envisages some of the actions she is about to mention: ‘confounding the truth (q.v.) with falsehood (Q 2:42; 3:71;[This verse explicitly addresses the ‘People of the Book’] see LIE )…concealing…hiding…twisting their tongues ( Q 3:78 [a few verses before in v. 75 the ‘People of the Book’ in general are addressed])’. If Christians are, however, accused of textual corruption, this could plausibly be extensive (position 4) and before the time of Muhammad (position 5).

‘…deliberately changed the word of God as revealed in the Torah and of passing off as God’s revelation something they themselves wrote (Q 2:75-79; 4:46; 5:13).’ The idea of ‘changing the word of God’ and the appeal to Q 4:46 and Q 5:13 might seem like position 1; whereas the appeal to Q 2:75-79 and the idea of ‘passing off as God’s revelation something they themselves wrote’ might more naturally sound like position 2 or 3. Camilla Adang is aware of the idea of a separate book being written alongside the Torah; elsewhere she (1996, 228) commented on al-Ṭabarī’s understanding of Q 2:79, ‘With their own hands, they wrote something other than what had been revealed – which probably means; a separate book, alongside the Torah – and the ignorant people among them actually believed this to be part of God’s revelation.’ (Cited via the original, but discovered via Nickel, 2015, 85). Adang’s EQ entry ‘Torah’ cites Q 4:46 as having ‘a combination of allegations’, which may suggest she views some kind of written alteration alongside a verbal alteration (though she may be thinking of two different types of oral corruption – dislocation of words and the pronouncement of different words). While I myself would say that if Q 4:46 was understood as including textual corruption then this would be of the Torah itself (position 1), her linking this verse with Q 2:75-79 and her language about ‘passing off as God’s revelation something they themselves wrote’ (see above) make me wonder if she has positions 2 or 3 in mind. Perhaps both? The ambiguity is not surprising; she speaks of how ‘the Qurʾān does not always explicitly state how, when, and by whom this misrepresentation (known as taḥrīf) was effected’.

Alternatively, it is possible that the verses listed (Q 2:75-79, 4:46, 5:13) are split between both of the actions of the sentence ‘changed the word of God…passing off as God’s revelation something they themselves wrote’. It would therefore be possible that they are not all envisaging forms of textual corruption.

To add further complexity, in her 1996 book (p. 222) she introduces the ‘taḥrīf’-verses’ of Q 2:75-79; 4:46; 5:13; 5:41, by speaking of ‘the Jews of having deliberately misrepresented the word of God as revealed in the Torah.’ (emphasis added). On the one hand, the combination of these verses (i.e. the textual charge of Q 2:79 and the ḥarrafa verses) might seem to suggest textual alteration, but she introduces these verses by speaking of misrepresentation.

To return to earlier on in the EQ article she notes that the term furqān ‘is ordinarily translated as criterion, and glossed as what distinguishes between true and false, right and wrong, allowed and prohibited.’ One might therefore think that Adang considers the Qur’an as distinguishing ‘between true and false in the previous scriptures’. However, she is explicitly commenting on how the Torah is called a furqān! Furthermore, she notes multiple meanings and how it is ‘ordinarily translated’. For these reasons, it would therefore be too much from this for me to think that she has a notion of the Qur’an acting as a determinant of what is textually true and false in the previous scriptures.

I wonder if we can get a hint of Adang’s perspective by her comments on the interpretative history of the Qur’an:

Since the Qurʾān does not always explicitly state how, when, and by whom this misrepresentation (known as taḥrīf) was effected – some authors ascribe a major role to Ezra (q.v.) – different interpretations of the relevant verses soon arose. According to one, the Jews did not corrupt the text of their scripture, but merely misrepresented its contents. The other view, which developed somewhat later and seems to be held by the majority of Muslims, asserts that the Israelites and later the Jews changed the written text of the Torah, adding to and deleting from it as they pleased. (Emphasis added)

Adang seems to suggest that the earlier interpretation is that of non-textual corruption, with textual corruption of the Torah itself (position 1) coming later. Now it is possible that Adang thinks the Qur’an teaches textual corruption, but this correct interpretation was (for whatever reason) not followed in the early period, but came back again later on. But it is also possible that Adang thinks the interpretation of the earlier period is closer to the meaning of the Qur’an before the view of textual corruption ‘developed somewhat later’ (my emphasis). Perhaps Adang herself argues that the Qur’an teaches position 2 or 3, but is suggesting that position 1 developed later (the idea of ‘chang[ing] the written text of the Torah, adding to and deleting from it’ is a good summary of position 1). All of this should be handled tentatively, however; in her 1996 book she (223) notes that ‘[t]these two views existed side by side, as we may infer from al-Ṭabarī’s Tafsīr, which records the opinions of earlier generations of commentators.’

Adang seems to clearly hold some position, or combination of positions, within 1-3. When she states ‘What may be at the root of these allegations [Adang has just listed all the different types] is that the Jews denied that Muḥammad was mentioned in their scripture’, this may well be envisaging a localised corruption (of whatever kind) by those Jews who encountered Muhammad, during his lifetime. This would make sense in the immediate polemical context. However, it is also possible that the rejection of Muhammad by the Jews prompted accusations that the Jews had previously changed their texts. It is not clear whether she envisages some form of textual corruption of the Gospel (position 6), which in turn might suggest positions 4 or 5.

Newby, Gordon Darnell. “Forgery.” In Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an, edited by Jane Dammen McAuliffe, 2002.

Newby writes:

Forgery is connoted in several qurʾānic concepts. Rewriting sacred scripture, either the Qurʾān or the scriptures of the Jews and Christians, is covered by two Arabic terms ( taḥrīf, tabdīl).

Note that the Gospel is also in view here (potentially position 6). This sounds like it’s talking about textual corruption, right? But read on to the next paragraph:

Forgery by the alteration of sacred text, either by letter substitution (taḥrīf), mispronunciation (taḥrīf) or other forms of substitution (tabdīl), contributes to some Muslims’ understanding of the relationship of the Qurʾān to the scriptures of Jews and Christians.

While the first paragraph on its own may have sounded like ‘forgery’=’rewriting sacred scripture’, this second paragraph clarifies that ‘forgery’=’letter substitution’ or ‘mispronunciation‘ (emphasis added) or ‘other forms of substitution’. ‘Forgery’ and the Arabic word taḥrīf can have nothing to do with textual corruption. In light of the second paragraph, if we read the first paragraph closely, what Newby is perhaps communicating is that if one does hold to textual corruption (‘Rewriting sacred scripture’), then this would be expressed (‘is covered by’) through the words taḥrīf and tabdīl. Why might Newby be expressing things this way? The English dictionary entry ‘Forgery’ does more naturally suggest written corruption, and Newby rightly notes that an expression of this would utilise the words taḥrīf and tabdīl. But he goes on to clarify that, in fact, ‘Forgery’ is a broader concept, and can even include ‘mispronunciation’.

Immediately after the above quotation, Newby continues:

In Q 2:59 and 7:162 a group of Jews is said to have “exchanged the word that was told to them for another saying (fa-baddala lladhīna ẓalamū qawlan ghayra lladhī qīla lahum),” thereby falsifying scripture (cf. Q 2:75; 5:13, 41, yuḥarrifūna). In Q 4:46, the falsification is said to derive from deliberate mispronunciation…Forgery or falsification by omission was also charged (Q 2:146; 3:71), whereby parts of the original sacred text were purposely omitted.

It is not clear what Newby envisages regarding Q 2:59 and Q 7:162 (though these verses in their context can easily be seen as oral corruption). He goes on to discuss Jewish commentary and gematria, but it is not clear to me there whether he envisages oral or textual corruption.

He describes Q 2:75 as alleging ‘that a party of the People of the Book (q.v.) would change scripture even after they had understood it’. Note that ‘People of the Book’ might, or might not, include Christians (position 6). This statement may simply be referring to a verbal ‘changing’ (he has already connected Q 2:75 to Q 2:59 and Q 7:156). However, if he has in mind merely verbal corruption, why not list it above with those verses? Additionally, ‘change scripture’ does more naturally suggest textual corruption (position 1). Perhaps he has in mind an initial oral corruption which then led to a written corruption (position 1), causing widespread textual corruption (position 4) before the time of Muhammad (position 5). But how much weight should we put upon Newby connecting Q 2:75 to Q 2:59 and Q 7:156, and does he consider those verses to refer to oral corruption? Additionally, Newby can perhaps have strong language without suggesting textual alteration; he refers to ‘falsifying scripture’, and immediately after (clarifying this?) speaks of how in Q 4:46 ‘the falsification is said to derive from deliberate mispronunciation of scripture’. We noted how, for Newby, ‘forgery’ can include ‘mispronunciation’. It is not clear to me therefore what Newby means by ‘change’ in Q 2:75. Especially as Newby then continues:

From the qurʾānic evidence about taḥrīf and tabdīl, the Qurʾān rejects a common feature of the midrashic way of reading scripture, namely the toleration of multiple, simultaneous interpretations of the text, which was, however, allowed for. (Emphasis added)

Notice the references to how scripture was read and interpreted. And finally:

Post-qurʾānic commentators understood the Qurʾān to regard all scripture of Jews and Christians as corrupted and thereby to be either rejected or understood only through the filter of the Qurʾān itself.

This position would be either position 1 (perhaps requiring it to be ‘understood only through the filter of the Qurʾān itself’) or position 2 (and hence rejected entirely). But notice that this is the view of the ‘Post-qurʾānic commentators’. This may implicitly be suggesting a disjunction between the Qur’an and later commentators on this point. But even if not, it is notable that Newby is capable of expressing such an idea so clearly, but doesn’t attribute it to the Qur’an itself.

Summary of Newby

We have learnt from this text that we cannot just see a word like ‘Forgery’ and draw conclusions from it without seeing how the author then uses it (I am not accusing Paul of this, but making a general point); we see that Newby goes on to define ‘Forgery’ as including ‘letter substitution’, ‘mispronunciation’ or ‘others forms of substitution’. Similarly, taḥrīf can just refer to mispronunciation. It is not clear how Newby understood some elements (e.g. Jewish commentary and gematria, or particularly Q 2:75). But he does clearly speak of mispronunciation and (Q 4:46) and omission (Q 2:146; 3:71). And he is able to clearly express the ‘Post-qurʾānic commentators’ understanding of ‘corrupted’ texts, either to be ‘rejected’ or read in light of the Qur’an as a filter. But he does not clearly attribute this view to the Qur’an itself.

I hope I have highlighted the ambiguity in Newby’s entry. Perhaps he does intend to speak of textual corruption in commenting on Q 2:75, or on Q 2:59 and Q 7:162 and the verses Newby sees as related (Q 2:75; 5:13, 41). But if so, it is not clear to me at least (and the ideal proof text Q 2:79 is never mentioned in this entry!). To apply our categories, while it is quite plausible, I find no clear evidence that he holds to positions 1, 2, 4, 5 or 6.

Conclusion

In this article we have asked what is really meant by words like ‘corruption’ or even ‘textual corruption’. We decided to list six different specific positions that can be held (including multiple at the same time), and I will reproduce these and attempt to list scholars who seem to and probably hold to them or who might hold to them (indicated by ?):

  1. The Torah manuscripts themselves have been corrupted (Walid Saleh, Sidney Griffith, Muhammad Asad, William Graham, Camilla Adang?, Gordon Newby?)
  2. False copy(s) of scripture have been produced (Walid Saleh, Camilla Adang?, Gordon Newby?)
  3. False interpretations (e.g. Mishnah or Talmud) have been written down (Camilla Adang?)
  4. The manuscript tradition has been corrupted over a wide area (Walid Saleh, Sidney Griffith, William Graham, Muhammad Asad, Camilla Adang?, Gordon Newby?)
  5. This corruption took place before the time of Muhammad (Walid Saleh, Sidney Griffith, William Graham, Muhammad Asad, Camilla Adang?, Gordon Newby?)
  6. The Gospel has been textually corrupted in some way (Walid Saleh, Sidney Griffith, Muhammad Asad, William Graham, Camilla Adang?, Gordon Newby?)

My main word of caution to viewers of Paul’s video would be to note the ambiguity of what some of these authors are actually saying, and how this relates to the modern Muslim conception of textual corruption. More specifically, it is not clear whether or not Adang and Newby believe that Torah manuscripts themselves have been corrupted (position 1) or false copies produced (2). Nor is it clear how they view the Gospel (6). Paul should therefore be cautious in representing such brief statements in the EQ as representing a consensus view of Western scholarship on the Qur’an’s view of textual corruption. I will deal with this more in my next article. Additionally, even if Adang does believe that the Qur’an teaches that the Torah itself has been corrupted (1), or false copies (2) made, it is not clear whether this took place on a widespread scale (4) or before the time of Muhammad (5).

It is interesting that Walid Saleh seems more cautious in his own book chapter than in his review of Gordon Nickel’s book. Paul is on the best ground when he appeals either to clear statements (e.g. Muhammad Asad, William Graham), or to authors who argue for textual corruption in detail (Sidney Griffith). The tortuous discussion above about exactly what Adang and Newby are and are not saying highlights the dangers of appealing to brief introductory statements as authoritative.

Those readers of this article who feel I have made mountains out of molehills by trying to analyse in detail how certain authors use certain words are making precisely my point; we should be cautious in taking brief references in introductory works (EQ) and the usage of certain words to establish a narrative of what the ‘scholarly consensus’ is.

In my next article I will challenge the notion that the voices above, particularly of authors like Walid Saleh and Sidney Griffith, are representing any form of consensus. I will highlight the numerous Western scholars who take the opposite position and try to determine whether or not there is any majority or consensus position. I will also give further examples of scholars who do think the Qur’an alleges textual corruption, and so even those who are firm in that position will find it of interest.

Bibliography

Adang, Camilla. Muslim Writers on Judaism and the Hebrew Bible: From Ibn Rabban to Ibn Hazm. Leiden: Brill, 1996.

Adang, Camilla. “Torah.” In Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān, edited by Jane Dammen McAuliffe, online version. Available here.

Asad, Muhammad. The Message of the Quran. http://www.muhammad-asad.com/Message-of-Quran.pdf.

Graham, William A. “Scripture and the Qurʾān.” In Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān, edited by Jane Dammen McAuliffe, online version. Available here.

Griffith, Sidney H. The Bible in Arabic: The Scriptures of the “People of the Book” in the Language of Islam. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2013.

Newby, Gordon Darnell. “Forgery.” In Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān, edited by Jane Dammen McAuliffe, available online. Available here.

Nickel, Gordon. The Gentle Answer: To the Muslim Accusation of Falsification. Calgary: Bruton Gate, 2015.

Saleh, Walid A. “The Hebrew Bible in Islam.” In The Cambridge Companion to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, edited by Stephen B. Chapman and Marvin A. Sweeney, 407-25. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Saleh, Walid A. “Narratives of Tampering in the Earliest Commentaries on the Qurʾān (Review).” Al-Masāq 28, no. 1 (2016): 101-04.

2 thoughts on “Do Western scholars think the Qur’an teaches the textual corruption of the previous scriptures? – Part 1

  1. Purple Rain

    Alhumdulilah, Richard May Allah, the Most compassionate, All Wise guide you to Islam, Ameen! 🙂

    Reply

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