by Shlomi Tal
Originally published on the STMetaNat site.
(Copyright 2001 by Shlomi Tal. This document may be freely distributed, copied and quoted, on condition that its contents are unchanged.)
The Qur'an is not exempt from criticism; it is a book which orders to hate and oppress and kill people for thinking and believing differently, therefore it is incumbent upon any modern person to check whether all this misery is inflicted justly or wrongly. I say the latter - it is all in vain - and I aim to make a case for thinking so.
Authorship of the Official Version
The Qur'an which Muslims read today is called the Copy of 'Uthmaan (mas-haf 'uthmaan), traditionally collected and fixed in final form by the third khaliifa (deputy) of Islam, 'Uthmaan. The traditional story of how the official version has come to us is interesting, showing the same shakiness of authorship as in the Bible and the New Testament.
The tradition begins in saying that one man, Muhammad bin Abdillah, received a message from God, Allah, the Creator of the Universe, by way of the angel Jibraa'iil (Gabriel). Here lies the first difficulty: the existence of the creator-god is assumed. There is no evidence for the existence of such a being, in fact there is much evidence for the non-existence of Allah. I believe God does not exist, and I make my case for my belief all over my website. Suffice it here to say that the notion of Allah making contact with a human being implies separation of Allah from his creation, and that cannot be true for the Infinite. But leaving the philosophical objection aside, what proof have we for the allegation that Muhammad received a message from Allah? He could have been the only witness to such reception. One would think Allah would be more thorough and give the revelation to all humanity instead of trusting in a single, solitary man to pass it on.
The tradition goes on to say Muhammad dictated some of the revelation to secretaries, while other parts of it were learnt by heart, kept by the followers of Muhammad. Either way, the contents of the revelation were in a malleable state, liable to additions and omissions until their final canonization. The tradition says Zaid bin Thaabit, a secretary of Muhammad, collected the pieces of revelation "from pieces of papyrus, flat stones, palm leaves, shoulder blades and ribs of animals, pieces of leather and wooden boards, as well as from the hearts of men". The Word of Allah, then, was not given as a fixed document from the moment of revelation, but committed to writing later. It is easy enough to alter a written text in the stage of input (as opposed to hardcopy printing and computerized copy-pasting, which do not err in the output of their feeds); how much more so to alter a spoken word, which is suspended in the neurons of the brain and transmitted through interactions with air. Thomas Paine wrote about this in the second part of The Age of Reason, in late 1795 (page 165):
[footnote] The former part of The Age of Reason has not been published two years, and there is already an expression in it that is not mine. The expression is, The Book of Luke was carried by a majority of one voice only. It may be true, but it is not I that have said it. Some person, who might know of the circumstance, has added it in a note at the bottom of the page of some of the editions, printed either in England or in America; and the printers, after that, have placed it into the body of the work, and made me the author of it. If this has happened within such a short space of time, notwithstanding the aid of printing, which prevents the alteration of copies individually, what may not have happened in a much greater length of time, when there was no printing, and when any man who could write could make a written copy, and call it an original by Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John?
That is the criticism of Thomas Paine with regard to the Christian Scriptures (and how true it is: having to input it manually from the book, I typed "Th Book of Luke" at first, only to discover my mistyping on a second reading), but let not the Muslims think their book is immune to that criticism. For some reason Muslims think the methods of Bible criticism apply only to the Bible, but it is not so: the method of textual scrutiny can be applied to any text, including the Qur'an. There is no proof that the original revelation to Muhammad (itself an unproved assumption) is what we have today. Yes, I know the inevitable response of the champions of Islam: Allah says he will keep his book. And where does Allah say so? In the Qur'an! So the Qur'an is the original text of the revelation because it says so. I can only reply to this with my Argument from Personal Swedish Royalty: I am the king of Sweden because I say I am the king of Sweden, and you must believe what I say because I tell you I always tell the truth (my speech, there is no doubt in it, la raiba fiih). The Qur'an repeats, ad nauseam, the claim that it is the Word of Allah, and that he who disbelieves is destined to hell (appeal to fear, or simple bullying) - and he who disobeys me, the king of Sweden, the merciful giver of bounty to all subjects, will be tortured continuously in my dungeons.
Stylistic Challenge - the "Surah Like It" Fallacy
Authorship verification being so difficult, the propagators of Islam usually bring a challenge which makes them players in their home range: produce a single suura (chapter) like those of the Qur'an. The challenge is brought in Suuratu l-Baqara, 2:23-24:
The challenge, as explained in the Islamic Awareness site, is as follows: produce a single chapter, no matter what length, in Arabic, with a style like those of the Qur'an, and having meaning, not nonsense. Wama adraaka ma khusuusiyyatu l-Qur'aan? - and what will convey to you knowledge of what is the speciality of the Qur'an? They say the styles of Arabic poetry is divided into 16 oceans, qawaamiis (from qaamuus, which is also the Arabic word for "dictionary"). The uniqueness of all Qur'anic surahs is that they lie outside those 16 oceans, being in an ocean of itself. I will now expose the illogic of such a challenge. The Muslims make the following assumptions:
I have read a great part of the Qur'an in Arabic. Speaking of a stylistically unified Qur'an is unsupported by facts, even by what the non-native speaker of Arabic (the majority of Muslims worldwide) can gather. One the one hand, the legalistic passages of the first chapters almost had me fall asleep; on the other hand, chapters like Suuratu r-Rahman (55), with its calculated rhyming and repetition (fabi'ayyi 'aalaa'i rabbikuma tukadhdhibaan, "then which of the favours of your Lord will ye deny?"), have had me very excited. And yet, I have found no need for explaining even the most pleasing parts by attributing them to Allah. The person (or people; the Qur'an may be a work of multiple hands, as Denis Giron suggests) who wrote Suuratu r-Rahman was certainly talented, but there is no evidence for divine authorship in the style of the Qur'an. Is the Qur'an unique? I think it is - and so are the plays of Shakespeare and the music of Mozart. Leopold Mozart regarded his son's music as proof of God, but that was a personal opinion. The Muslims assume the uniqueness of the style proves the Qur'an is of divine authorship, and by challenging the disbelievers to produce a Surah Like It they are actually shifting the burden of proof, telling them to disprove the divinity of the Qur'an. But I, and most non-Muslims who know of this issue, disagree with the first assumption: the divinity of the Qur'an has not been proven by its style. Miraculous style is in the eye of the beholder, and as far as I am concerned it proves great talent, not divinity.
As for i'jaazu l-Qur'aan, the incapacity to imitate the Qur'an, the Muslims have sealed the verdict upon it. Look at the quote from Suuratu l-Baqara above, where it is written, walan taf'aluu, which is translated as "and ye can never do it" (literally, "and ye will never do"). With a sentence like this included in the divine revelation, does anyone expect Muslims to accept anything as a Surah Like It? I think this phrase "and ye can never do it" should be rendered as "and they will never accept it" instead. Let there be the most talented native-speaking Arab poet, born and bred in the desert of Arabia, grown in a house of famous shu'araa' (poets, from singular shaa'ir), and let him produce a whole chapter which seems not to be classified among the 16 oceans of Arabic poetry. It will be all for nought, for the Qur'an has spoken: walan taf'aluu, which means that all attempts necessarily fail. It is a circular argument: the Qur'an is divine because there can be no chapter made like those in it, and we know there can be no chapter made because the Qur'an says so, and we believe the Qur'an, because it is divine, because it is impossible to make...
What about the 16 oceans of Arabic poetry? Who made the categories? A devotee of Shakespeare may just as well categorize English poetry into 16 oceans and show that Shakespeare's poetry does not fall into any one of them. The believers make the rules. They have a religious axe to grind, so how can they be trusted? A court never brings testimony from the object of the sentence alone; an external verifier is needed. If the Qur'an is the only witness to its divinity, just as Muhammad was the only witness to being given a message by Jibraa'iil, then the foundations of the religion are shaky indeed. What of the claim that the Qur'an is a unique work in a time and place of outstanding poets (7th-century Arabia)? It may be true, but so are Shakespeare's works unique in a time and place of outstanding poets (15th and 16th-century London). By what authority does one deny the divinity of Shakespeare's work? How can one explain such unique, inimitable literature without recourse to divine intervention? I challenge you to produce a single scene like those of Shakespeare, and I do not hesitating in making this challenge, for I know full well that you can never do it. Yes, I have seen attempts at making scenes, even whole acts, similar to those in Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet, but they are not it - the real Shakespeare is always recognized as such, never to be imitated. His works are a massive compendium of timeless lessons for humanity, of messages to people who think, statements of future events (is not the fall of Macbeth foretold?) and scientific miracles (such as the Friar's treatise on herbs in Romeo and Juliet). If there is a shortage of explicit rules for life in those works, then we can always extract further, implicit rules by tafsiir (exegesis).
My comparison of the Qur'an to Shakespeare's literature is to the pious Muslims nothing less than blasphemy, but the hallmark of secular criticism (or Western conspiracy, depending on which side of the fence you stand) is that little is taken for granted, especially not in questions of beliefs and ways of life. A person should know if his actions towards the kuffaar (infidels) have a sound basis. The Qur'an may say they must be humiliated or killed because they are the enemies of Allah, but one must give thought to whether this is possible at all. Can anyone really be the enemy of God? More likely it is an appellation made for the specific purpose of encouraging perpetual fight. In short, it may be that the Qur'an is advocating needless enmity between potential friends, and that is a great loss. And for what? For the greedy business proposal of having one's very own eternal pleasure resort after death.
Janna, Jahannam and all that Junoon (madness)
The Qur'an offers the convenient reward and punishment system of Janna (paradise) and Jahannam (hell). There is no evidence for the existence of such places, or even just states (though they are clearly depicted in the Qur'an as places, not states), after death (in fact, there is plenty of evidence against: see the articles Matter over Mind and Death of Dualism at the Freethought Mecca). But even without proof, the very concept of Janna and Jahannam speaks very lowly of Allah. I wonder how many people would stay in deep devotion to Islam if there were no Janna and Jahannam. The Qur'an, and this applies to all Pascalian systems, makes life a mere testing place for admittance into pleasure or torture. Is this all Allah has in store for us? It is said that every man in Janna will have 72 virgins for all eternity. Now, even granting divine increase of his virility hundredfold, who can stay all eternity just making love to women? Even after half a day the most virile man would get fed up with it. How can a man develop and grow spiritually in such a pleasure palace? Admittedly there are later Islamic commentators who speak of spiritual growth and meeting Allah (liqaa'ullaah), but that is not mentioned in the Qur'an, and may amount, I suspect, to bid'a (innovation). The bribing of people by a promise of eternal pleasure, and the converse blackmail by eternal torture, is just what should be expected from a human mind, from an astute political manipulator.
The Qur'an bribes people into submission with the pleasures of Janna, and scares them into submission with the tortures of Jahannam, and instructs the believers to impose the rule of Allah's Law on the world by force. This instead of rational persuasion, of logical argumentation. When a person uses reward and punishment and force instead of charisma and logic and compassion, it is indicative of his lack of confidence. When I read at the very beginning of the second chapter of the Qur'an, "This book, there is no doubt in it" (dhaalika lkitaabu la raiba fiih), it seems as if it is warding off a commonly-held claim, like someone denying a trait which others are so quick to see. If Islam is the truth, can it not stand by itself? Instead, it has to be guarded by fataawa (religious decrees), death to apostates, jihaad and such marks of inconfidence. As opposed to that, Ilhad (atheism) never has to impose itself by force, but manages to thrive by intellectual persuasion alone, by agreement with factual evidence.
Scientific Relevance of the Qur'an
Oft-made today is the claim of scientific "miracles" in the Qur'an, meaning allusions to scientific facts only recently discovered. There is a website devoted to the exposition of the scientific miracle, called It Is The Truth. The site contains demonstrations of how verses in the Qur'an point to meteorological discoveries, space exploration, et cetera, which must then prove a human being could not have written the Qur'an. I have found similar claims to scientific miracles for the Torah and the Talmud too, and all are reinterpretations, mere forcing of verses to fit the facts. Erich von Däniken has found allusions to visitors from outer space in many of the world's scriptures, which only means scripture can be dug out to prove anything the reader so desires. More on the subject of the scientific claims of the Qur'an can be read in the Freethought Mecca's Miracle of Reinterpretation article. The verses in the Qur'an which are said to contain scientific knowledge are held so only by those who want to believe (Jews and Christians, for example, have not been impressed, just as Muslims have not been impressed by Torah codes and other such nonsense). Anyway, it is funny that the scientific discoveries of the Qur'an have waited until our day and age to be put to use. Why did the Muslims let the infidels of the West make use of all their Qur'anic miracles? And in the farther past, why is it that they based their studies on Greek materials instead of the Qur'an? And the numbering systems, with the ingenious concept of zero - we call them Arabic numerals, as opposed to the previous inefficient Roman numerals, but in Arabic they are called arqaam hindiyya, Indian numerals (أرقام هندية), testifying to their coming from non-Qur'anic sources. The Qur'an seems to have been of little help in advancing science.
As for modern natural science, the Qur'an suffers from the same man-centred, earth-centred assumptions as the Bible: creation of the world solely for mankind, who is the special, distinct creation of Allah. Any prescientific human would conceive such ideas, but modern science, which takes no anthropocentric assumptions for granted, has refuted those notions. We are not the distinct creation of God, and our planet is not the focal point of a plan. When the Qur'an, like the Bible, fails to mention biological evolution and common descent, it is giving a false account of origins. If the account of origins is in error, then the account of reward and punishment and afterlife is very much suspect.
I did not intend to portray the Qur'an, or Islam in general, as all black or white. Certainly there are many good things, such as the prohibition of killing female infants (burying them in the sand, called wa'd) and the institution of almsgiving. I do not care about people praying five times a day facing Mecca - let everyone do according to their harmless beliefs; but I do care about striving to force Islam upon me, saying I have no right to live because I disbelieve in Allah, or assigning a lower legal status to me for being a non-Muslim. It is not in my interest that everyone should believe as I do. My only interest is that no-one should be harmed because of differences of belief and thought. I do not care whether the Qur'an is of Allah or not, but if anyone wishes to harm me in the name of the Qur'an, then I shall do everything to disprove those assumptions. To quote the Qur'an, 109:106: lakum diinukum wali diini - unto you your religion, and unto me my religion. Yes, I am a kaafir. Let it be unto Allah himself to deal with me if he dislikes my unbelief; he needs no human servants to do this for him.