Muslims believe that the Qur’an is a collection of messages, virtually dictated, to Muhammad by God through the Archangel Gabriel, over about 23 years. Muslims believe this is the only miracle that can be attributed to Muhammad that a illiterate man could write such a book.
His illiteracy is questionable for a start; as he lay on his death bed he ordered writing materials to record some last instructions to his followers to prevent apostasy after his death.
It is hard to believe that his wife Khadijah, a wealthy educated women with whom Muhammad was married for 25 years would not have taught him to read and write.
The Qur’an is a book of 114 chapters (Surah), each having a number of verses (Ayahs), the numbers of which are not consistent across all editions. In addition there is considerable debate about the true number of verses in the Qur’an (from 6,000 to 6,236). One of the most frustrating things about the book is that it is not arranged chronologically or by subject matter, but according to the length of its chapters. This makes it impossible to create a chronology, historical context or even a situational context for the things that Muhammad says in the Qur’an without going to very unreliable external sources.
One of these sources are biographies of Muhammad.- the earliest being the works of Ibn Ishak some 120 years after the prophet’s death in 632 AD. Since most of this work was destroyed, we have to rely on a later biographer, Ibn Hisham, writing some 80 years later to discover what Ibn Ishak wrote or might have wrote.
Contrast this with the Christian Gospels that were all written within 30 years (or earlier) of the death of Jesus by those that were eye witnesses or close friends of the eye witnesses.
This lack of a context is particularly problematical because of the Doctrine of Abrogation which says that if one verse of the Qur’an contradicts another, something that happens all too frequently, then one must take the most chronologically recent verse.
There are also other biographical works that Muslims use which are much later and often portray a very different Muhammad than the earlier work.
Then there’s the Hadiths; these are collections of sayings based on oral traditions handed down by the ‘companions’, or companions of the companions of Muhammad. There are three main types of Hadith: the things the Prophet said, the things the prophet did and the things the prophet approved in others.
Hadiths are used to clarify and add to the Qur’an which means that many of the laws we find in Islam such as those specifying dress codes and female circumcision are only found in the Hadiths. Most of the Hadiths were assembled into book form 250-300 years after Muhammad and required considerable culling.
For example the earliest and most quoted of the Hadith collections are by Bukhari who reduced 600,000 traditional sayings down to 7,397 Hadiths some 247 years after the death of the Prophet.
The earliest date we have for a written down collection of sayings is 100 years after Muhammad’s death. It goes without saying that there is considerable inconsistency within the collections of Hadiths as well as with the things attributed to Muhammad in the Qur’an.
Contrary to what most Muslims believe, Muhammad did not leave a complete Qur’an at the end of his life but a loose collection of writings strewn over his empire.
The final product was put together about 18 years after his death by Uthman ibn Affan from all kinds of sources and writing materials including bones, leaves, portions of animal skins and the memories of the ‘companions’. One later redactor, Ali Haccac burned nearly all the versions of the Qur’an other than his own, which meant that we have very little with which to check the accuracy of his work. Its not surprising to discover a good deal of debate among Muslims as to who has the most faithful copy of the Qur’an.
In spite of the book’s chequered history, Muslems claim as an essential doctrine of their faith that the Qur’an is an exact copy of the “Qur’an in Heaven” – the book that Allah himself dictated ward for word through Gabriel to Muhammad.
This is different to the Bible which we believe was inspired by God without in anyway usurping the human writer’s style. Grammatical errors and various idiosyncrasies are expected here but not in a work that was penned by God himself.
They also claim that it was all written in the purest language of Heaven, namely Arabic. However, the work is full of spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, direct borrowings from other languages, and as I have mentioned before, incredible inconsistencies.
Many Arabic scholars agree that there are clearly two Qur’ans – meaning that the quality of the Arabic in the earlier material is much higher than that of the later. One suspects that Muhammad may have become literate later in life but still lacked the style of the earlier author who may well have been his first wife.
It is also full of very embarrassing mistakes. For example it tells us that Mary (Jesus’ mother) was Aaron’s sister and Moses’ sister in law, because the Arabic for Mary is the same as that for Miriam. That would suggest that the virgin birth was not nearly as big a miracle as a woman nearly 3,000 years old giving birth to a son.
Could God be the author of the Qur’an and the one who inspired the other religious books of Islam? I think it most unlikely.