Does the Qur’an intend to ‘correct’ the previous scriptures?

I have by this point written a number of articles on different words and verses in the Qur’an that relate to the topic of whether or not the Qur’an affirms the textual reliability of the previous scriptures. The interested reader can find them here, under the heading ‘The Qur’an affirms the Torah and Gospel’s reliability.

As well as appealing to particular words or verses to demonstrate that the Qur’an teaches the textual corruption of the previous scriptures, there is a broader argument that is also made; the Qur’an does not affirm the textual reliability of the previous scriptures, because it intentionally corrects their accounts and teachings. The Qur’an is aware of those scriptures, yet consciously disagrees with or ‘corrects’ them, and hence it cannot be affirming their textual reliability.

Shabir Ally

Shabir Ally, in a 2016 debate with David Wood on the topic ‘What is the Qur’an’s view of the Christian scriptures’, makes an interesting statement:

[26:52] I move on now to an interesting book which I believe to be a game-changer in Islamic studies. For a long time many academic scholars had said very much [as] what David had said today, and in fact so many of them have said it that even Abdullah Saeed has been persuaded by it and for a time I myself was being inclined to that position as well, to think that it looks like the Qurʾan is actually affirming as the Torah and the Gospel as it existed at the time when the Qurʾan was being revealed, in all its totality.

I include references in the bibliography to Abdullah Saeed’s work for those interested. So, what stopped Shabir Ally from adopting such a position, a position that this website has argued for at length?

However, this book by Sidney H. Griffith…The Bible in Arabic… says two things: one, is that the Bible, according to the Qurʾan has been changed, and two, according to the Qurʾan again, that the Qurʾan’s view is that the Qurʾan is restoring the original Bible stories. The Qurʾan is telling us the way it should be understood…

Sidney Griffith (2013)

This is indeed what Sidney Griffith teaches in his 2013 book The Bible in Arabic: The Scriptures of the “People of the Book” in the Language of Islam. For example, shortly after saying (58) that ‘the Qurʾān presents itself as confirming the truth that is in the previous scriptures and as safeguarding it’, he cautions that

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[5] al-Māʾidah 46; LVII[57] al-Ḥadīd 27).

Griffith speaks much of the ‘prophetology’ of the Qur’an (pp. 62ff.), whereby the Qur’an’s own conception of prophethood influences how previous narratives in prophetic history are recalled. Griffith (62-63) helpfully and rightfully summarises the difference between biblical and Qur’anic patterns of prophethood; Qur’anic prophets all preach the same message of monotheism and punishment and reward at the end of time. By contrast, Old Testament prophets were

to speak God’s word in particular historical situations and to summon God’s chosen people to fidelity to their divine vocation and to covenant obligations in service of a distinctive eschatology, in which the coming of the Messiah would be the culmination of salvation history. … In the Qurʾān’s view the prophets and messengers reiterate an unchanging message, which their subsequent communities inevitably distort. In the biblical view, the prophets bear an often judgemental witness to current events in salvation history, often with a Messianic anticipation attached. (63)

To add my own perspective and (hopefully not over?)simplification: Qur’anic prophetology is cyclical, Biblical prophetology has a linear direction. The Qur’anic prophets effectively all have the same message, with some minor caveats, such as Jesus lightening the burden of the Law (Q 3:50), and pointing to the final messenger Muhammad (Q 61:6). But the core message stays the same: worship one God, and do good in light of the day of judgement. By contrast, biblical history (and the accompanying prophetic revelation) gradually reveals more over time; the doctrine of the Messiah either develops or becomes more detailed (depending on your perspective) over time, as does the doctrine of eschatological reward and punishment. The Qur’an, however, has Abraham already fearing the day of judgement (Q 14:41) and preaching the resurrection of the dead (Q 2:260).

Muslims may prefer the simplicity of the Islamic model; all prophets have effectively the same message, right from the start. Christians may prefer the peaks and troughs of the biblical narrative, the gradual revelation of himself and his future plans over time, and may see the Islamic model as ahistorical and anachronistic. This is an important discussion, but not one we can pursue further. The point is that Sidney Griffith is right; the Bible and the Qur’an do have fundamentally different models of prophethood.

Implicit vs. explicit

The major reason why I disagree with Griffith’s approach is that I think it prioritises an implicit inference over the explicit statements of the Qur’an. The Qur’an repeatedly says it is ‘confirming’ (muṣaddiqan/taṣdīq) the previous scriptures (Q 2:97; 3:3; 5:48; 6:92; 35:31; 46:12; 46:30; 10:37; 12:111; cf. also the next set of references). These scriptures being ‘confirmed’ are still said to be ‘with you’/’with them’ (maʿakum/maʿahum) – i.e. still with Muhammad’s contemporaries (Q 2:41, 2:89, 2:91, 2:101; 3:81; 4:47). Jews and Christians are instructed to judge by the Torah and Gospel respectively (Q 5:43, 47). And lest anyone thinks the Qur’an speaks only of an oral tradition and not a written text, Q 7:157 says that Jews and Christians find Muhammad ‘inscribed [or ‘written’ maktūban] in the Torah and the Gospel that is with them’ (The Study Qur’an translation). Other supplementary points could be made, such as that the Qur’an frequently chastises Jews and Christians for ‘concealing’ the truth, suggesting that they still have the truth to conceal. Again, the interested reader can find articles here, under the heading ‘The Qur’an affirms the Torah and Gospel’s reliability.

Accounting for the differences

Having explained that my starting point is the explicit and positive statements of the Qur’an, rather than what one might infer from its retellings of biblical stories, let us now consider how to respond to Griffith’s approach. I see four major possibilities:

  1. Oral sources
  2. Flexibility in an oral-milieu
  3. The ‘prophetic assumption’
  4. Chronological development
1. Oral sources

It is typically thought in Western scholarship that any human author of the Qur’an, if one postulates such, would not have been reading Arabic written copies of the previous scripture. Sidney Griffith (2013, 43) is perceived as an expert on this matter:

Given the level of writing in Arabic in pre-Islamic times, and the lack of surviving, written texts of translations of the Bible or of the Christian homiletic literature, or, for that matter, of any kind of literature, including pre-Islamic Arabic poetry, one is left to conclude that knowledge of their contents normally spread orally among Arabic-speaking peoples. Originally Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, or Syriac-speaking rabbis, monks, and Christian clergy must have transmitted the biblical and homiletic literature orally in Arabic, perhaps even functioning within traditions of oral translation.

This oral milieu explains why the Qur’an ‘virtually never actually quotes the Bible’ (55), at least in a literal manner, and tends to evoke and remind the reader of stories and accounts that, at least some in the milieu, are already presumed to know (57ff.).

If Muhammad’s interaction with the previous scriptures was oral/aural, rather than by having Arabic copies of the scripture to read himself, then it becomes easier to imagine mistakes being made (though mistakes of interpretation or memory can strike even a person with access to written texts!). Accordingly, certain variations between the Qur’an and the Bible may be unintentional variations; Muhammad meant to recall the biblical account, but got some details slightly wrong, as he didn’t have a text to read in front of him. Potential errors of this kind might be:

  1. Historically conflating different enemies of the Jewish people from radically different times periods, Pharoah and Haman (Q 28:6; 29:39; 40:24)
  2. Confusing two different Maryams – the Maryam sister of Aaron, and the Maryam mother of Jesus (Q 19:28; cf. how she is also the ‘daughter of Imrān’ in Q 66:12, as pointed out by Reynolds, 2018, 478).
  3. Placing a Samaritan at the time of Moses (Q 20:95)
  4. Confusing Gideon for Saul in the account of the testing of the troops at the water (Q 2:249, cf. Judges 7:5-7. Reynolds, 2018, 96, citing Speyer, 1961[1931], 368; Bell, 1:52).

These are examples off the top of my head, there may well be others. I am aware that there are counter-arguments to these points; I do not have the time to respond to those here, and some may be correct. But my point is that some or all of the above could be instances fitting the paradigm of mistakes made even more possible in an oral milieu (though they could occur in a written milieu too).

2. Flexibility in an oral-milieu

As Richard Bauckham (2006, 256) writes, summarising the work of Kenneth Bailey, in an oral culture ‘some flexibility is allowed in the case of parables and historical accounts of people and events “important to the identity of the community.”’ (emphasis original. Latter quotation is Bailey, 1991, ‘Informal controlled oral tradition and the synoptic gospels’, 7).

As Griffith (2013, 71) notes, the purpose of the Qurʾan is ‘not to retell the biblical stories but to recall them’. In recounting a story to an audience already familiar with the narratives, I argue, it was perhaps implicit that the recalling should be subject to correction in minor details to the narrative being recalled.

It is of course a matter of debate just how far this principle might apply. It could perhaps account for variations in wording and small matters of detail, e.g. the mention of nine signs given to Moses (Q 17:101; 27:12) and the ten plagues spoken of in the Bible. The discrepancy is slighter greater even as the Qur’an seems to include within the number nine the non-plague signs of Moses’ rod becoming a snake, and Moses’ hand becoming white (Q 27:10-12), so the number of Qur’anic plagues is even less. Indeed, only five are explicitly listed in Q 7:133, though Reynolds (2018, 447) thinks the death of the firstborn may be alluded to in Q 7:134. He also notes the drought in Q 7:130. But even with these suggestions, there is still a discrepancy between the Qur’an and the Bible on the total number, though the Qur’an shows no awareness of this fact (Q 17:101; 27:12), and even refers the reader to the Jews for confirmation (Q 17:101).

3. The ‘prophetic assumption’

Sidney Griffith (2013, 62-89), Mark Durie (2018, 123-154), and quite possibly others, have noted that the Qur’an recasts earlier prophets in the light of Muhammad. Is this therefore implying that these previous scriptures, which accordingly will differ from the Qur’an in certain respects, are therefore corrupted?

This is not a conclusion that need be drawn, or that the Qur’an itself draws. One possibility is that Muhammad is aware that he is deviating from the Old Testament accounts in order to portray those prophets as more like him, but that he hides this fact from his mostly-pagan audience in Mecca who will not notice (though the composition of Muhammad’s audience is a topic for another day).

Another, more innocuous possibility, is what I call ‘the prophetic assumption’. Muhammad may well have sincerely followed the ensuing logic:

  1. I am a prophet.
  2. There is a pattern in God’s dealings with mankind, and in the treatment of prophets.
  3. Conclusion – Therefore, even if I have not explicitly heard of X being said, done by or done to Prophet Y, if it has been said/done by/done to me, it must have in fact been thus with the former prophets, because of premise 2.

That premise 1 is claimed needs no substantiation.

God’s sunnah – the destruction of opposition

As for premise 2, Griffith (2013, 71) himself speaks of the sunnah of God’s prophetology in the Qur’an, and gives Q 17:77 as an example (see below), as well as Q 35:43. Mark Durie (2018, 135-138), in introducing his notion of ‘messenger uniformitarianism’, speaks of the sunnah of Allah, borrowing the phrase from Aziz al-Azmeh (2014, The emergence of Islam in late antiquity: Allāh and his people, 320). Durie notes that Allah in the Qurʾan is said to have a customary way of acting, such as in Q 17:76-77:

76 They almost frightened you out of the land, but they would not have lasted for more than a little while after you. 77 Such was Our way with the messengers We sent before you [lit: the sunnah of whom we sent before you of our messengers], and you will find no change in our ways [sunnatinā].

Durie appeals to a number of other passages which speak of sunnah (Q 33:38, 33:62, 35:43, 48:22-23). A number of these also relate to God’s destruction of those who oppose his messenger:

60 If the hypocrites, the sick at heart, and those who spread lies in the city do not desist, We shall rouse you [Prophet] against them, and then they will only be your neighbours in this city for a short while. 61 They will be rejected. Wherever they are found, they will be arrested and put to death. 62 This has been God’s practice [sunnata allāhi] with those who went before. You will find no change in God’s practices. (Q 33:60-62. Cf. similarly God’s destruction of the disbeliever’s as ‘God’s practice’ in Q 35:43, 48:22-23)

Perhaps the most striking outworking of this principle is Q 9:111, also provided by Durie (138):

God has purchased the persons and possessions of the believers in return for the Garden – they fight in God’s way: they kill and are killed – this is a true promise given by Him in the Torah, the Gospel, and the Qurʾan… (Q 9:111)

There is little mention in the Old Testament of a post-mortem enjoyment of the garden in exchange for military combat, and while the paradeisos (‘paradise’) of Luke 23:43 does refer to a ‘garden’ (Grimm, Wilke, and Thayer 1889), this is promised to a repentant thief dying in faith rather than a follower fighting in God’s path (Reynolds 2018, 322 makes the same point). The teaching in this verse is likely shaped by Muhammad’s own experiences, and may have been retroactively assumed to have been in the previous scriptures. This may therefore be an example of “the prophetic assumption” in action.

At the very least, the teachings of those previous scriptures are selectively harmonised to fit with the Qur’an’s own doctrine. This may be a legitimate practice, but the point remains that Muhammad’s own experience shapes the retelling of the past.

Prophetic assumption – marks of prostration and enraging the disbelievers

Muhammad is the Messenger of God. Those who are with him are harsh against the disbelievers, merciful to one another. You see them bowing, prostrating, seeking bounty from God and contentment; their mark upon their faces is from the effect of prostration. That is their likeness in the Torah. And their likeness in the Gospel is a sapling that puts forth its shoot and strengthens it, such that it grows stout and rises firmly upon its stalk, impressing the sowers, that through them He may enrage the disbelievers. God has promised forgiveness and a great reward to those among them who believe and perform righteous deeds. (Q 48:29. The Study Qur’an translation, emphasis added)

Depending on punctuation and how one divides Q 48:29 (e.g. the Study Qur’an above and commentary in Droge 2013, 349, contra Haleem 2010, 516), this passage can be understood as claiming that in the Torah, as in Muḥammad’s own community, the believers are identifiable by ‘the marks of their prostrations’ on their faces. This might be a retrojection of the ritual norms of Muḥammad’s own community onto a previous generation, in line with the Prophetic assumption. Droge (2013, 349) does suggest an allusion here to Deuteronomy 6:8 and 11:18, which speak of God’s words and commandments being bound to the Israelites hands and foreheads. While this is possible, there is no contextual reason not to understand Q 48:29 as quite literally suggesting that the mark of prostration can also be found described in the Torah.

As Reynolds (2018, 767) notes, the description attributed to the Gospel here is similar to a parable of a growing seed in Mark 4:26-32, though he notes that ‘the Qurʾān’s declaration that God seeks to “enrage the faithless” has no precedent in the Markan parable.’ Again, this may be the ‘prophetic assumption at work’.

Alternatively, rather than a retrojection, it is possible that the Torah and Gospel in Q 48:29 are said to be predicting details of Muhammad’s community; this is how our earliest complete commentator Muqātil ibn Suleymān (d. 150/767 CE) understood the verse. This would not naturally be my understanding of ‘their likeness’ (mathal), which is often used to compare between different things (e.g. between Jesus and Adam, Q 3:59, or in the parable of Q 10:24). I therefore prefer to see here a likeness between different communities, rather than a prediction of Muhammad’s community, though I cannot be dogmatic on the point. But even if it is a direct prediction of Muhammad in the Torah, this prediction (which is not found in the Torah) is created in light of Muhammad’s own reality.

God’s sunnah – following what God ordains

When Zayd no longer wanted her, We gave her to you in marriage so that there might be no fault in believers marrying the wives of their adopted sons after they no longer wanted them. God’s command must be carried out: 38 the Prophet is not at fault for what God has ordained for him. This was God’s practice [sunnata allāhi] with those who went before— God’s command must be fulfilled— (Q 33:37-38, Abdel Haleem translation)

If we understand ‘God’s practice’ here to be specifically allowing previous prophets to marry the wives of their adopted sons, this would seem to be a case of the ‘prophetic assumption’; there is no scriptural warrant for this that I am aware of, instead it is a retrojection of the Qur’anic exemption.

Alternatively, Muqatil sees here an allusion to David and Bathsheba, noting that ‘God brought together David and the woman’. This is an interesting reading given that Muqatil is aware that she was the wife of Uriah. The point seems to be that just as God brought together Muhammad and a married woman, so too had he done for David. While it is factually correct that Bathsheba and David did come together in the Old Testament, this is presented as a great sin (2 Samuel 11-12), and is certainly not making the point that Muqatil makes here.

Alternatively we might simply see the Prophetic assumption here as being that Prophets should do whatever God has ordained for them. It just happens to be, in this case, the Prophet’s marriage to Zayd that provides the occasion.

Prophetic assumption – eschatological judgement in the Torah

9 So remind, if reminding is useful. 10 Those who stand in awe of God will heed the reminder, 11 but it will be ignored by the most wicked, 12 who will enter the Great Fire, 13where they will neither die nor live. 14 Prosperous are those who purify themselves, 15remember the name of their Lord, and pray. 16 Yet you [people] prefer the life of this world, 17even though the Hereafter is better and more lasting. 18 All this is in the earlier scriptures, 19 the scriptures of Abraham and Moses. (Q 87:9-19, emphasis added)

There is only a little teaching in the scripture of Moses, the Torah, about the afterlife. Abraham in Genesis 15:15 is told he will ‘go to your fathers in peace; you will be buried in a good old age’, and in Genesis 25:8 we are told he lived to an old age and ‘was gathered to his people’. Whether these expressions are literal (as preferred by Hamilton, 1995, 167-168; Steinmann, 2019, 244, and Wenham, 1994, 160), or symbolic expressions derived from the custom of being buried in the tomb of one’s ancestors (cf. Genesis 47:30; though Abraham was not literally buried in the tomb of his ancestors), I do not know.

Mark 12:26-27 does record Jesus appealing to the statement in the Torah, in Exodus 3:6, says ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.’ This is understood by Jesus as indicating that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob must still exist, after death, for God to still be their God at the time of Moses. Might the Qur’an be doing something similar in Q 87:18-19? That might depend on whether we think the Qur’an is engaging in the same form of exegesis (Midrash) as was practiced by Jews around and after the time of Jesus. We have ample evidence from Jewish texts of the kinds of exegesis practiced by Jesus in Mark 12; I am not aware of such evidence that the Qur’an too might be employing such forms of exegesis. Instead, it seems to cite specific details (Q 17:101) and clear teachings (Q 2:146; 6:20).

But even if we allow that the Qur’an might have such passages above in mind, it is not clear what Torah verses the Qur’an might envisage as teaching the doctrine of hell (cf. Q 87:12-13). The eschatology of Q 87 is quite different from that of the Torah; not necessarily contradictory, as the Torah is largely silent on such matters (with a couple of possible exceptions above). But the appeal to the scripture of Moses to support the framework in Q 87 of eschatological reward and punishment seems to be the ‘prophetic assumption’ at work. The same point applies also to the appeal to the ‘Scriptures of Moses and of Abraham’ in Q 53:36-37, where eschatological punishment is taught (Q 53:38-43, 47) (discovered via Reynolds, 2018, 903).

4. Chronological development

Another possibility is inspired by the ideas of Frants Buhl (1934). We discussed in a previous post how he saw an evolution in the Qur’an in how it relates to the previous scriptures. He writes:

This accusation [of falsification] was really the only way of escape for Muḥammad out of a dangerous situation, when he came into closer contact with the Jews in Medina. He had from the beginning appealed to the evidence of the “peoples of a scripture”, i. e. the Jews and the Christians, as he was firmly convinced that the contents of the Old and New Testament coincided with what he preached on the basis of his revelations. But his ideas of incidents and laws in the Old Testament contained such misunderstandings that they naturally provoked criticism and ridicule from the Jews and thus he was put in a false position. … there was only one thing for him to do, namely to declare that the Jews had maliciously corrupted their sacred books while he himself had given their true content. It was a bold assertion but was made easier for him by the fact that these scriptures were sealed books to his followers, while they believed firmly in the truth of his words.

A similar scenario may be envisaged by Hava Lazarus-Yafeh (2000):

The contradictions between the Ḳurʾānic and Biblical stories, and the denial of both Jews and Christians that Muḥammad was predicted in their Holy Scriptures, gave rise to the Ḳurʾānic accusation of the falsification of these last by Jews and Christians respectively [see TAḤRĪF]

The same may also be found in Nöldeke (2013 [1860/1909]), for which see the discussion in my previous post.

Stage 1: appeal to the former scriptures

As Buhl (1934) says, it is plausible that the earlier chapters of the Qur’an may have appealed to the former scriptures in the sincere belief that they preached the same message. We see such appeals in a number of Meccan surahs below.

I follow Abdel Haleem and the majority opinion indicated by the Study Qur’an for determining what verses are Meccan, but some Muslim scholars have disagreed about some of the surahs below; others are not disputed. Study Qur’an references can be found in the introduction to the appropriate surahs. The translations are Abdel Haleem:

17 even though the Hereafter is better and more lasting. 18 All this is in the earlier scriptures, 19 the scriptures of Abraham and Moses. (Q 87:18-19. Abdel Haleem translation, here and below. The Study Qur’an notes that some consider Q 87 to be Medinan, and that some consider just the last part, and vv. 18-19 are the final verses, to be Medinan)

36 Has he not been told what was written in the Scriptures of Moses 37 and of Abraham, who fulfilled his duty: (Q 53:36-37. The Study Qur’an notes that some consider vv. 32 and/or 33 to be Medinan)

Yet the scripture of Moses was revealed before it as a guide and a mercy, and this is a scripture confirming it in the Arabic language to warn those who do evil and bring good news for those who do good. (Q 46:12. The Study Qur’an notes that most believe v. 10 to be Medinan, and some believe v. 15 is Medinan).

‘No: he brought the truth and confirmed the earlier messengers; (Q 37:37)

The disbelievers say, ‘We will believe neither this Qur’an nor the Scriptures that came before it.’ (Q 34:31)

48 Even now that Our truth has come to them, they say, ‘Why has he not been given signs like those given to Moses?’ Did they not also deny the truth that was given to Moses before? They say, ‘Two kinds of sorcery, helping each other,’ and, ‘We refuse to accept either of them.’ 49 Say [Muhammad], ‘Then produce a book from God that gives better guidance than these two and I will follow it, if you are telling the truth.’ … 52 Those to whom We gave the Scripture before believe in it, 53 and, when it is recited to them, say, ‘We believe in it, it is the truth from our Lord. (Q 28:48-49, 52-53. The Study Qur’an notes that a minority consider vv. 52-55 Medinan)

196 This was foretold in the scriptures of earlier religions. 197 Is it not proof enough for them that the learned men of the Children of Israel have recognized it? 198 If We had sent it down to someone who was not an Arab, 199 and he had recited it to them, they still would not have believed in it. (Q 26:196-199. The Study Qur’an, 922, notes the opinion that the ‘learned’ refer to those such asʿAbd Allāh ibn Salām, and that even though most consider the surah Meccan, some think v. 197 is Medinan, 906).

And even before your time [Prophet], all the messengers We sent were only men We inspired— if you [disbelievers] do not know, ask people who know the Scripture— (Q 21:7)

In the past, We gave Moses nine clear signs— ask the Children of Israel. (Q 17:101. The Study Qur’an notes that it has been suggested that v. 107 may be Medinan)

[Prophet], all the messengers We sent before you were simply men to whom We had given the Revelation: you [people] can ask those who have knowledge [lit: ahl al-dhikr, ‘people of the reminder’] if you do not know. (Q 16:43. According to the Study Qur’an, some consider v. 41 to be Medinan)

Stage 2: accuse the People of the Book of mishandling their scriptures

If, however, the author of the Qur’an discovered that the Qur’anic message had begun to differ from those previous scriptures, either accidentally or because of the Qur’an’s own theology and perspective (see above), the question then becomes what to do?

Buhl thinks the tension was resolved by turning to an accusation of textual corruption. In my articles, I have instead understood most Qur’anic verses (for the meaning of Q 2:79 see here) to be alleging oral corruption or concealing of the truth. The former scriptures could not be accused of widespread textual corruption, because earlier revelations had appealed to them as reliable; anyone who made such a claim of contradiction between those scriptures and the Qur’an must instead be accused of concealing the truth (Q 2:42, 77, 140, 146, 159, 174; 3:71, 93, 187; 5:15; 6:91) or twisting God’s revelation verbally (Q 3:78; 4:46).

As evidence of this shift, notice how the accusations against the People of the Book overwhelmingly occur in the Medinan, rather than Meccan, period. A Muslim may fairly reply that the Qur’an turns its attention to the misdeeds of the People of the Book once they are a part of Muhammad’s audience. But it also fits the paradigm laid out above; that accusations against the People of the Book only becomes necessary once their opposition is encountered.

Evolution in the Qur’an

One’s receptivity to the previous argument may partly be influenced by whether one is initially open to the idea of evolution within the Qur’an. This is a much larger topic that cannot be discussed here in detail, but I refer the reader to the article here.

An analogy

Finally, allow me to provide an analogy, mundane but I hope not offensive, as to why I do not buy the idea that the Qur’an intends to implicitly critique the textual reliability of the previous scriptures:

Tom and Luke are standing by the coffee machine in the office, talking about how they watched Shrek on television last night. Their friend Jake comes by and joins the conversation: ‘I love Shrek! I’m a huge fan, I’m so excited you are too; I’m so glad you saw it on TV last night, I watched it too. Wasn’t it great when Shrek and the evil king had that epic sword fight! And remember when Princess Fiona and Donkey bake that vanilla cake to cheer up Shrek…[For those who don’t know Shrek, these scenes do not happen]’

Tom and Luke look at each other, puzzled. ‘Erm, we don’t remember those scenes in Shrek…’ Jake replies: ‘You’re concealing the truth about what is in Shrek, and you’re misreading the words when you quote from the movie! And that quote from the film you have framed on your cubicle wall, that’s not actually from Shrek, you wrote that yourself!’

It is possible that Jake is implicitly claiming to have seen the original, uncut version of Shrek, before the movie studio made its final edits, and is claiming that this original version did have such scenes. After all, Jake does claim to be a big Shrek fan; perhaps he is in an even better position to know than Tom and Luke?

But if so, Jake is doing a very bad job at communicating how he knows these ‘original’ details; his manner of speaking inevitably leaves them very confused, particularly as he doesn’t make any negative accusation at the start of the conversation. Furthermore, he confirms the reliability of the TV version which is the one they had watched. But despite confirming the version they had watched, Jake discusses different details, but doesn’t acknowledge the differences.

From their perspective, is it not more natural to conclude that Jake is mistaken? Perhaps he is confusing Shrek with a different movie, and has got some of the details wrong. Perhaps he only has heard second hand the story of Shrek, and is misremembering some of what he was told. Maybe his memory isn’t perfect, and in the retelling he naturally fills in some of the gaps, with how he expects the story should have happened. Especially when some of these details seem to fit well with Jake’s own interests (vanilla cake is his favourite, and he is a keen swordsman).

Now Jake does also say that people don’t handle Shrek very well – he says they forget parts, misrepresent bits, and don’t pronounce parts of it correctly. But he never says the film itself has been corrupted, indeed he started off by saying that he loves the film, and is glad that Tom and Luke watched it, and affirms that the TV version is the one he’s speaking of. He also only seems to make such accusations once Tom and Luke have rejected Jake’s understanding of the film, causing one to suspect that this is a defensive position he has been forced into, rather than an initial belief.


In conclusion, I disagree with the argument that the Qur’an is implicitly intending to ‘correct’ the previous scriptures. To begin with, I prefer looking at the explicit statements of the Qur’an on the previous scriptures, rather than drawing inferences from how the Qur’an interacts with the previous scriptures. The latter is important, but it is preferable to understand the implicit in light of the explicit.

And as I have argued, the idea that the Qur’an is ‘correcting’ the previous scriptures, and therefore accusing them of textual corruption, is not the only implicit conclusion one can draw. I have explained alternative factors that could explain discrepancies between the Qur’an and previous scriptures: (1) the Qur’an’s dependence on oral sources, (2) flexibility in an oral-milieu, (3) the ‘prophetic assumption’, and (4) potential chronological development. These scenarios are more compatible with the explicit statements of the Qur’an, that it confirms the scriptures existing at the time of Muhammad.

Finally, I provided an analogy to explain why I find the ‘implicit critique’ theory to be unpersuasive; if correct, it is an unclear mode of communication. I would prefer to view the Qur’an, and indeed any text I am reading, as clear unless its content prohibits me from doing so.


Abdel Haleem, M. A. S. The Qurʾan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Ally, Shabir, and David Wood. “Debate: “What Is the Quran’s View of the Christian Scriptures?” (David Wood Vs. Shabir Ally).” Youtube. 2016.

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2 thoughts on “Does the Qur’an intend to ‘correct’ the previous scriptures?

  1. Keith

    Great article.
    I love the Shrek analogy.
    You have the heading “God’s sunnah – marks of prostration and enraging the disbelievers” twice. The second time is before the section on Zaid’s wife.

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