I was recently speaking to a Muslim friend with whom I have often debated whether the Qur’an teaches the textual corruption (textual taḥrīf) of the former scriptures (the Torah and the Gospel). He believes the Qur’an does teach textual taḥrīf, whereas I do not.
As we were speaking recently he was describing the complexity of what the Qur’an teaches on this matter; the Qur’an alleges different forms of corruption in different verses. To some extent I agree, as I will explain below. But my initial thought, based on my reading on the Qur’an and on this topic, is that the different types of corruption are not mentioned evenly in the Qur’an: not even nearly. So I decided to look into this more to either confirm or refute this initial thought, and to think about what the significance might be of any conclusion. I am indebted to Gordon Nickel (2011, ‘Narratives of tampering in the earliest commentaries on the Qur’an’, Leiden: Brill, pp. 50-64) and the research tool Qur’an Gateway for the data below.
Different types of ‘corruption’ or ‘mishandling’ of the previous scriptures
- Textual corruption.
- Verbal corruption.
- Concealing (explicit)
- Concealing (implicit)
Q 2:75, 79; 4:46; 5:13; 5:41, 5:48.
Q 2:79 clearly has something to do with Jewish unfaithfulness in the writing of Scripture. Whether this is speaking of the corruption of the Torah, or perhaps the Mishnah or the Talmud, before the time of Muhammad, or some Jews writing alternative revelation at the time of Muhammad, we can put to the side for now.
It is often thought that verses with the ḥarrafa verb imply textual corruption. While this is quite debatable, let us for the sake of argument concede the point. We will therefore count these verses (Q 2:75; 4:46; 5:13; 5:41) in this category. My understanding of muhaymin (something which keeps watch or guard over) in the context of Q 5:48 is that the Qur’an protects the previous Scriptures and its commands from their followers who do not obey its teachings. However, I include this word (and therefore verse) here because many Muslims believe muhaymin refers to being something that guards and restores the truth of textually corrupted scriptures.
Q 2:59, 104; 3:78, 93; 4:46; 7:162.
I would normally understand the ḥarrafa verses (Q 2:75; 4:46; 5:13 and 5:41) in this category, taking the use of the verb in Q 4:46 (where oral corruption is clearly in view) as an interpretative key to the other verses. But I have conceded them to the ‘textual corruption’ category for the sake of argument. I do list Q 4:46 in this ‘verbal corruption’ category not because of the ḥarrafa verb but because of the rest of the verse where they are ‘twisting it abusively with their tongues’. Abdel Haleem’s helpful footnote notes that this issue also appears in Q 2:104-105.
Q 2:42, 77, 140, 146, 159, 174; 3:71, 187; 5:15; 6:28, 91.
As Nickel (2011, p. 53) notes, ‘Three verbs for concealing make up a significant part of the semantic field of tampering.’ These verbs are katama (Q 2:42, 140, 146, 159, 174; 3:71, 187), asarra (Q 2:77), and akhfā (Q 5:15; 6:91; I would add to Nickel’s list Q 6:28).
Q 2:89, 91, 101, 121; 3:81, 199; 4:47; 5:43, 47, 68, 83; 6:20; 7:157; 26:197; 28:68-69; 29:49; 34:31; 62:5.
These are verses which may not use one of the three verbs of concealing (see above), but which imply that the ‘People of the Book’ know something from their Scriptures which they will not acknowledge, and will not allow to lead them to Islam.
I have included a few of the verses that use the word muṣaddiqan (where the Qur’an is ‘confirming’ previous scriptures) (e.g. 4:47), where it says that the People of the Book should recognise the Qur’an on the basis of their scriptures. I have not included all verses that use muṣaddiqan, even though they would underline this point further.
Q 2:44; 5:13, 14.
Q 2:44 clearly envisages a wilful ‘forgetting’; the fact that the Children of Israel ‘tell people to do what is right and forget to do it yourselves, even though you recite the Scripture? Have you no sense?’ clearly suggests that they actually had the revelation that they still had in thier knowledge and possession what they were meant to do.
I break up Q 5:13 and Q 5:14 because the former addresses the Jews, the latter the Christians. While I would incline towards interpreting ‘forgetting’ here in light of Q 2:44 (where they clearly ‘forgot’ and failed to practice what was in fact still in their possession), it is also possible to interpret ‘forgetting’ in these verses as referring to having textually lost truths from their Scriptures in the past. This is also influenced by how one interprets the ḥarrafa verb in Q 5:13 (for which see the discussion above), though even there I would note that it is present tense; if it refers to textual corruption it is perhaps happening in the seventh century (though perhaps the present tense refers to this ongoing corruption throughout Jewish history). Given this uncertainty, I will exclude Q 5:13 and Q 5:14 from supporting either side of this debate.
Summary of results
Textual corruption – 6.
Verbal corruption – 6.
Concealing (explicit) – 11.
Concealing (implicit) – 18.
Forgetting – 1.
Let us imagine that, as my Muslim friends tell me, the Bible has been significantly textually corrupted, to the point that the Torah and the Gospels teach me the wrong things about the nature of God and Jesus’ saving death on the cross. Most Muslims will agree with me that at least the Gospels teach things on these topics that are incompatible with Islam, and gravely so.
Given that, why are the references to textual corruption (whose meaning is hotly disputed) so outnumbered by verses referring to non-textual forms of corruption, namely verbal corruption, implicit and explicit concealing, and forgetting? At least for Christians, the issue is surely not the interpretation of the Gospels (where Jesus is clearly more than a Prophet and dies for sins), but the text of the Gospels and how it diverges from the Qur’an. The Qur’an does not seem to be aware of this.
Perhaps the best Muslim response is a historical one; Muhammad’s main interlocutors were Jews, not Christians, and with the Jews the issue was more one of interpretation. A different and a theological problem then arises, that at the time of the Qur’an and ever since the far greater number of Christians (compared to Jews) who read the Qur’an would not receive the clear rebuke they needed that their Gospels were in error. Christians would see the focus on non-textual corruption aimed at Jews, not recognise that the Qur’an has a seperate textual critique against them, and so think that the Qur’an was in fact affirming their own texts. Interestingly the most specific accusation of some kind of textual corruption is explicitly aimed against the Jews (Q 2:78-79; the preceding context is clearly speaking of the Children of Israel). Where does the Qur’an ever allege textual corruption against the Christians?
Dear Muslim friends, I’m curious to hear your thoughts in the comments below. I’ve tried to provide what I consider the best Muslim response to be; let me know what yours is!