The ratio of ‘oral corruption’ to ‘textual corruption’ verses, and its significance

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

  1. Textual corruption.
  2. Verbal corruption.
  3. Concealing (explicit)
  4. Concealing (implicit)
  5. Forgetting

Textual corruption

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.

Verbal corruption

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.

Concealing (explicit)

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).

Concealing (implicit)

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!

2 thoughts on “The ratio of ‘oral corruption’ to ‘textual corruption’ verses, and its significance

  1. Paul

    Ibn Kathir on 5:48

    Allah mentioned the Tawrah that He sent down to His Prophet Musa, the one whom He spoke directly to, praising it, commanding that it should be implemented, before it was abrogated. Allah then mentioned the Injil, praised it and commanded its people to adhere to it and follow it, as we stated. He next mentioned the Glorious Qur’an that He sent down to His honorable servant and Messenger. Allah said,

    وَأَنزَلْنَآ إِلَيْكَ الْكِتَـبَ بِالْحَقِّ
    (And We have sent down to you the Book in truth…) meaning, with the truth that, no doubt, is coming from Allah,

    مُصَدِّقاً لِّمَا بَيْنَ يَدَيْهِ مِنَ الْكِتَـبِ
    (confirming the Scripture that came before it) meaning, the Divinely Revealed Books that praised the Qur’an and mentioned that it would be sent down from Allah to His servant and Messenger Muhammad . The Qur’an was revealed as was foretold in the previous Scriptures. This fact increased faith in the previous Scriptures for the sincere who have knowledge of these Scriptures, those who adhered to Allah’s commands and Laws and believed in His Messengers. Allah said,

    قُلْ ءَامِنُواْ بِهِ أَوْ لاَ تُؤْمِنُواْ إِنَّ الَّذِينَ أُوتُواْ الْعِلْمَ مِن قَبْلِهِ إِذَا يُتْلَى عَلَيْهِمْ يَخِرُّونَ لِلاٌّذْقَانِ سُجَّدًا – وَيَقُولُونَ سُبْحَانَ رَبِّنَآ إِن كَانَ وَعْدُ رَبِّنَا لَمَفْعُولاً
    (Say: “Believe in it or do not believe (in it). Verily, those who were given knowledge before it, when it is recited to them, fall down on their faces in humble prostration.” And they say: “Glory be to our Lord! Truly, the promise of our Lord must be fulfilled.”) meaning that they say, the promise of our Lord, concerning the coming of Muhammad by the words of His previous Messengers, will certainly be fulfilled. Allah’s statement,

    وَمُهَيْمِناً عَلَيْهِ
    (and Muhayminan over it) means entrusted over it, according to Sufyan Ath-Thawri who narrated it from Abu Ishaq from At-Tamimi from Ibn `Abbas. `Ali bin Abi Talhah reported that Ibn `Abbas said, “Muhaymin is, `the Trustworthy’. Allah says that the Qur’an is trustworthy over every Divine Book that preceded it.” This was reported from `Ikrimah, Sa`id bin Jubayr, Mujahid, Muhammad bin Ka`b, `Atiyyah, Al-Hasan, Qatadah, `Ata’ Al-Khurasani, As-Suddi and Ibn Zayd. Ibn Jarir said, “The Qur’an is trustworthy over the Books that preceded it. Therefore, whatever in these previous Books conforms to the Qur’an is true, and whatever disagrees with the Qur’an is false.” Al-Walibi said that Ibn `Abbas said that Muhayminan means, `Witness’. Mujahid, Qatadah and As-Suddi said the same. Al-`Awfi said that Ibn `Abbas said that Muhayminan means, `dominant over the previous Scriptures’. These meanings are similar, as the word Muhaymin includes them all. Consequently, the Qur’an is trustworthy, a witness, and dominant over every Scripture that preceded it. This Glorious Book, which Allah revealed as the Last and Final Book, is the most encompassing, glorious and perfect Book of all times. The Qur’an includes all the good aspects of previous Scriptures and even more, which no previous Scripture ever contained. This is why Allah made it trustworthy, a witness and dominant over all Scriptures.


    1. steelmanapologetics Post author

      Many thanks Paul – notice the different meanings that muhaymin can have according to Ibn Kathir – ‘trustworthy over’, in the sense of a quality control (thus Ibn Jarir); ‘Witness’ according to Ibn Abbas, whom is a personal favourite of yours and the Islamic tradition, and according to a number of others, which on the face of it could just mean affirming that its true. Ibn Abbas also says ‘dominant over’ – yes of course, but this might simply mean in terms of abrogation, which says nothing at all about textual corruption. I wonder if the majority report of this tradition is textual preservation, not textual corruption.

      But also, Ibn Kathir is 14th century. It is more helpful to try and find traditions in earlier collections where possible.

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