This is the second essay in the two-part series on so-called contradictions in the Quran. This essay investigates six popular contradictions of the Quran that are widespread in Anglophone print and online domains. Special emphasis will be given to Western academic sources that provide a response to such claims of contradictions. This essay hopes to show that a thorough and adequate perusal of scholarship on Islam is imperative in order to better evaluate and respond to the misplaced claims of contradictions in the Quran that are articulated in the English language.
Does the Quran contain contradictions? The answer to this question is contentious. One party holds there are no contradictions; the other party affirms there are contradictions. To successfully and persuasively argue their case, both parties must engage in discovery of evidence. The process of discovery is contingent on accessibility to evidence. In the Anglo-American context, the most accessible evidence is that articulated in the English language. In some cases, it may be unfair to insist that the parties must include evidence from (say) the Arabic language; since, the lack of accessibility to this type of evidence by one or more of the parties will be prejudicial. The best evidence is what all sides can access easily, and understand clearly.
While accessibility may serve to limit the scope of evidence a party can utilise, it also has the benefit of providing strategic focus. It allows both sides to agree beforehand on the scope of admissible evidence; so, neither party can later on seek to exclude unfavourable evidence. It also helps to move the discussion forward without getting derailed by charges of biased sources of evidence, or claims of intentionally misrepresenting inaccessible information.
To deal with the issue of contradictions in the Quran, both parties can agree to limit themselves to English-language sources, both academic and popular, on the Quran. That way, no party can claim to be confused on the discussion, given that both parties can read and comprehend English-language sources properly.
This essay strategically limits its presentation of the matter to English-language sources. This includes Arabic-language sources that have been translated and printed into the English language. In only one instance is an Arabic-language source used without translation. That instance is merely to provide a historical background for the specific discussion. As for the specific discussion itself, English-language sources are used. The discussion is valid even when discounting the historical background.
Discovery of evidence must be adequate enough for both parties to fully present their opposing claims. If evidence is selected to present only one party’s claim, the evidence is inadequate. Without adequacy, a proper judgement on the matter cannot be fairly rendered. This was expressed clearly by A. L. Tibawi in regards to discussing Islam.
In his classic critique of Orientalism, A. L. Tibawi highlighted the distorting effect that Orientalist scholarship had in its discussion of Islam. According to Tibawi, the natural and logical way for anyone to discuss Islam is to first outline the Islamic position without neglecting important facts or ignoring essential elements. After having done this outline, academics are free to add their own insights and observations that may contrast and even contradict the Islamic position. Tibawi says this method of presentation is the fairest.1 A perusal of the Orientalist literature in the English language shows that this method is rarely ever used; instead, Orientalists usually “invert” this method by first explaining their critiques against Islam, and only later on deigning to mention the Islamic position, if at all.2
In discussing the contradictions in the Quran, all parties must adhere to the principles of fairness and objectivity. This entails that the parties must first mention the Islamic position regarding the verses under examination, in a way that comprehensively captures the important facts and essential elements in the Islamic position. Once this is done, the parties can forward their own arguments either supporting or rejecting the Islamic position. Such a discussion will be adequate; since, it has provided evidences representing both sides.
Unfortunately in the Anglophone print and online spheres this is commonly not done. It is very easy to find popular contentions on contradictions in the Quran; yet, it is harder to find an adequate presentation of the position Muslims hold in such popular contentions. Most of the time, the popular contentions will never mention the Islamic view at all regarding the contradictory verses. In the rare instances where this is actually done, only a cursory note is provided on the Islamic view that leaves out the pertinent points that Muslims accept.
In order to remedy this, adequacy of evidence must be adhered to. Any inadequate discussion on the topic only hinders a proper judgement being reached. This essay will follow A. L. Tibawi’s suggestion and attempt to provide evidences from English-language sources that explain the Quranic verses in a non-contradictory manner, which is usually ignored by the popular contentions.
This essay will investigate six popular contentions on contradictory verses in the Quran. The first popular contention regards the ‘sword verse’ overriding all other verses in the Quran that promote peace and tolerance. The second popular contention is that the Quran describes the Trinity in a way that contradicts basic Christology. The third popular contention is that the Quran says the world was created in 6 days but also says it was created in 8 days. The fourth popular contention is that the Quran mistakenly confuses Mary the mother of Jesus with being a contemporary of Moses. The fifth popular contention is that the Quran describes God asking the Devil to engage in polytheism. The sixth popular contention is that the Theory of Abrogation entails that the Quran is contradictory.
In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI gave a famous speech where he pointed out to the conflicted nature of the Quranic text. The Pope referred to Q.2:256 which states: “There is no compulsion in religion”. This verse shows the tolerance in the Quran. The Pope went on to say that this tolerant verse was later overridden by more militant verses that enjoined war. He was referring to Q.9:5, which states:
“When the [four] forbidden months are over, wherever you encounter the idolaters, kill them, seize them, besiege them, wait for them at every lookout post; but if they turn [to God], maintain the prayer, and pay the prescribed alms, let them go on their way, for God is most forgiving and merciful.”
In Western academia, Q.9:5 is known as the ‘sword verse’. It is claimed this verse abrogated Q.2:256 which preached peace and tolerance. This is further argued along the lines that Q.9:5 is the last verse revealed to Muhammad regarding war, whereas Q2:256 is amongst the earliest verses revealed. Thus, the Quranic chronology supports the view that the Quran finally rejected its initial tolerant stance towards non-Muslims, and instead embraced the violent death of non-Muslims who refuse to convert to Islam.
This popular view has been critiqued in-depth by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem. What follows is Abdel Haleem’s careful refutation of this widespread misconception.
Abdel Haleem cites Michael Cook’s treatment of the sword verse. Michael Cook wrote The Koran: A Very Short Introduction for Oxford University. In it, Cook cites Q.9:5 and then adds his interpretation of the verse:
“In other words, you should kill the polytheists unless they convert. A polytheist (mushrik) is anyone who makes anyone or anything a ‘partner’ (sharīk) with God; the term extends to Jews and Christians, indeed to unbelievers.”3
There are many problems here. Abdel Haleem points out that the Quran uses distinct terminology when it refers to different groups of disbelievers.4 The Quran calls Jews Yahūd, calls Christians Naṣāra, calls unbelievers Kuffār. The Quran calls pagan Arabs Mushrikīn. Q.9:5 does not mention Yahūd or Nasāra or Kuffār at all; rather, the verse refers to Mushrikīn only. Cook ignores the verses own terminology when he says Q9:5 applies to Jews, Christians, and unbelievers in general.5
Cook isolated Q.9:5 from the entire first section of Chapter 9 in the Quran.6 Q.9:1-25 refers to the non-stop wars the pagans of Mecca waged against Muhammad and his followers in Medina. Q9:5 must be understood in this Quranic context. The verse does not refer to non-Muslims who are unrelated to military action.
Q.9:5 has the phrase “fa’qtulū’l-mushrikīn” which means “kill the idolaters”. The al- (‘the’) in this phrase is the specific (al-‘ahdiyya) , not generic, al- that is well-known in Arabic grammar. This al- means the word ‘idolaters’ is modified to refer to a specific group of idolaters. This specific group is the pagans mentioned in Q9:1-4 who were engaged in military action against Muhammad. Based on this, Q.9:5 does not say that all the pagans must be killed; rather, it only states that one group of pagans, who were engaged in aggressive war against Muhammad, must be killed.7
Abdel Haleem says Cook did not notice these features of Q.9:5, because Cook relied upon A. J. Arberry’s translation of the Quran instead of the Arabic text of the Quran itself. Moreover, Cook did not take into consideration the verses surrounding Q.9:5 which clearly indicate that a specific group of pagans were being discussed.8
J. Arberry translates Q.9:5 as “kill the idolaters”. This is misleading. The phrase is more accurately rendered as “you may kill the idolaters”. It is well-known in Arabic linguistics that the imperative form can convey the notion of permissibility. In Islamic jurisprudence, there is an established rule that “an imperative form that comes after prohibition indicates permissibility”.9
Abdel Haleem illustrates this point from the Quran itself. In Ramadan, Muslims are prohibited from eating and drinking from sunrise to sunset. After sunset, the prohibition is returned to permissibility. The Quran expresses this in Q2:187 which says: “eat and drink until the white thread of dawn becomes distinct from the black”. This verse is not an imperative as a command, for no Muslim claimed it was an obligation and duty for every Muslim to eat and drink non-stop from sunset until sunrise. What the verse does state is the permissibility of eating and drinking any time during the night.
Q.9:5 contains the same imperative as permissibility. The verse does not make it a duty or obligation on Muslims to fight against the pagans; rather, the verse only states that the prohibition (which was a four month peace treaty) has now reverted to permissibility. This means Muslims are allowed to fight against these pagans whenever they choose. The difference between permissibility and obligation is clear-cut for those conversant with Islamic jurisprudence. Permissibility is not a command.
The latter part of Q.9:5 states: “but if they turn [to God], maintain the prayer, and pay the prescribed alms, let them go on their way, for God is most forgiving and merciful.” This has been understood to mean that Muslims must continue waging war on non-Muslims until they convert to Islam. But this understanding is wrong, as Abdel Haleem adroitly shows.
The Arabic text of Q.9:5 uses the particle in, as seen from the phrase “fa in tābū” (‘if they repent’). If the cessation of war is conditioned on non-Muslims converting to Islam, then Q.9:5 would have used the alternative particle ḥatta, which in Arabic indicates ghāya (limit). To understand the difference between in and ḥatta, Q.2:193 can be consulted. The verse states: “Fight them until there is no more persecution”. The word for ‘until’ in the verse is ḥatta. Here the verse states that the limit of war, after which war must end, is when peace is reached, and Muslims are not being militarily persecuted. Q.9:5 does not say this. It does not use the word ḥatta, which shows that conversion to Islam is not the condition for peace.10 What Q.9:5 does state is a possible outcome that the pagans may choose in their response to Muslims.
Though Q.9:5 is chronologically the last verse regarding war, its message was already stated in other verses prior to it. Q.22:39 & Q.8:56-8 are both early verses regarding war. They both explicitly state that Muhammad and his followers can wage war against those attacking them. Thus Q.9:5 doesn’t bring anything new; rather, it reaffirms a well-known legal precedent that the Quran had established long before Q.9:5 was revealed.11
Based on all the above, Abdel Haleem convincingly shows why Q.9:5 does not contradict, or supersede, Q.2:256. That is, the sword verse does not in any way impinge on the legal authority of Quranic verses that promote tolerance and peace. The very Arabic text of Q.9:5 shows that the verse was referring to a specific group of pagans who were waging war on Muhammad. The verse is not a command to fight against them; rather, the verse is a reversion from prohibition back to permissibility. The verse does not make converting non-Muslims to Islam as the limit of war or as the condition for peace. The verse does not bring a new rule, because other previous verses mention that same rule as Q.9:5 does. Michael Cook and Pope Benedict XVI held onto this misconception, because they neither analysed Q.9:5 in its proper Quranic context nor in its Arabic language.
Q.5:73 states: “Those people who say that God is the third of three are defying [the truth]: there is only One God”. This verse clearly refers to the Christian concept of the trinity.
Q.5:116 states: “When God says, ‘Jesus, son of Mary, did you say to people, “Take me and my mother as two gods alongside God”?’ he will say, ‘May You be exalted! I would never say what I had no right to say–– if I had said such a thing”. This verse describes the trinity as comprised of the Father, Jesus, and Mary.
Based on these two verses, the popular contention points out that the Quran contradicts basic Christian beliefs, which shows Muhammad was totally ignorant of Christian theology.
Multiple responses can be given regarding this matter. William Lane Craig, the famous Christian apologist, articulated this contention. Zain Ali has provided a critical response to Craig’s claim. Zain Ali points out that Q.5:116 does not mention the trinity at all.12 Ali refers to Geoffrey Parrinder who discussed the Collyridians, an Arabian sect that worshiped Mary, and whom Epiphanius had written a refutation of. Ali nicely points out that the Ka’bah at Muhammad’s time had a picture of Jesus and Mary inside it. This suggests that polytheistic practices in pre-Islamic Arabia had incorporated Jesus and Mary into its paganism. Moreover, it cannot be stated that Muhammad was ignorant of Christian theology. Angelika Neuwirth showed how Chapter 112 (Surah Al-Ikhlās) is a reverse form of the Nicene Creed. Chapter 112 provides a “negative theology” to Orthodox Christianity. Since the Nicene Creed mentions the Trinity, Chapter 112 is a direct critique of the Trinity. Taking all these facts together, Ali says it is premature for Craig to label Q.5:116 as mistaken on this matter.13
Gabriel Said Reynolds explains Qadhi ‘Abdul-Jabbār’s understanding of Q.5:116.14 A Christian challenged Qadhi ‘Abdul-Jabbār regarding the veracity of the Quran. The Christian cited Q.5:116 and stated that Muhammad lied, because Christians do not hold Mary to be God. Qadhi ‘Abdul-Jabbār’s responded in a nuanced manner.
Qadhi ‘Abdul-Jabbār points to the distinction in the Arabic language between a report and a question. A report functions by stating facts. A question does not have this function. Q.5:116 is in the form of a question and not in the form of a report. The function of the question, according to Qadhi ‘Abdul-Jabbār, is to show Jesus’ innocence of committing any form of polytheism.15
Reynolds adds to this the frequent use of rhetorical tools in the Quran. The Quran showcases many examples of sarcasm, diatribes, and hyperbole. Most of these rhetorical tools are used in the context of refuting and rejecting opposition views. Reynolds gives several examples of this. Q.9:34 is an example of sarcasm. The verse tells the Prophet to “give the good news of a painful punishment” to those who corruptly steal wealth.16 Q.44:49 is an example of hyperbole. The verse refers to how a corrupt person who held great power and prestige in the world will end up in Hell. Once inside Hell, the person is described as follows: “You are indeed the powerful and noble one”. Reynolds says Q.5:116 is an example of “rhetorical flare,” where the Quran lambasts the over-the-top veneration of Jesus and Mary amongst Christians by rhetorically posing it as deification.17
Maha Elkaisy-Friemuth studied Fakhruddin Al-Razi’s critique of the Trinity. Mafātīḥ Al-Ghayb is Al-Razi’s famous commentary on the Quran. He mentions his critique of the Trinity there. In order to understand his critique, Elkaisy-Friemuth first studied Al-Razi’s concept of God in Al-Maṭālib Al-‘Āliya. This book is Al-Razi’s final work and expresses the culmination of his philosophical investigations.18
Elkaisy-Friemuth finds that Al-Razi’s central notion in understanding God is that of Tanzīh. This negative theology plays an important role in how Al-Razi deals with the Trinity in his commentary of the Quran.19 Al-Razi held the view that God’s essence was unique, not due to God’s attributes, but due to itself. Importantly, this means that even if an entity had God’s attributes, the entity would still not be God. Based on Al-Razi’s view, such an entity would differ from God in essence, even if it has all of God’s attributes. Elkaisy-Friemuth points out how such a notion of divine essence problematizes the Trinity from the very onset.20
Coming to Mafātīḥ Al-Ghayb, Elkaisy-Friemuth elaborates on Al-Razi’s treatment of the Trinity. Most of the time when Al-Razi deals with the Trinity, it is in the context of his philosophical refutation of anthropomorphism.21 Al-Razi mentions that Q.5:73 refers explicitly to the Trinity. He then mentions that Q.5:116 refers to Jesus and Mary as gods. Al-Razi poses this question: how can the Quran mention Jesus and Mary as gods, when it is well-known that Christians did not include Mary into the Trinity? Al-Razi provides a succinct answer. He argues that Christians believe Jesus and Mary can produce miracles independent of God the Father. From the Islamic perspective, this is equal to believing that Jesus and Mary were gods in their own right.22 It is well-known in history that many Christians claimed to have witnessed miracles from the Virgin Mary. Al-Razi’s response to the question shows that Q.5:116 is criticising Christian religiosity by articulating it within the Islamic framework of Tawhid. In other words, Q.5:116 does not represent Christian religiosity as it is in itself, but as it is seen from within Islamic theology.
Elkaisy-Friemuth emphasises that Al-Razi’s major approach to dealing with the Trinity is via his concept of Tanzīh. Al-Razi was primarily interested in the philosophical aspect of negative theology, and had little interest in the particulars about the Trinity. Al-Razi’s “uncompromising philosophical methodology” led him to reject out of hand any “mystery” in relation to God; instead, Al-Razi championed a “very philosophical” conception of God that was able to deal with the Trinity as a form of anthropomorphism.23 Al-Razi’s emphasis on Tanzīh shows that no particular formulation of the Trinity mattered to him; since, Al-Razi’s critique of the Trinity applied to any conceivable formulation. By taking this stance, Al-Razi shows that the Quran’s main criticism of the Trinity is on its conception of God and not on the specific entities that comprise the Trinity itself. Thus from a Quranic perspective, it is irrelevant if the Trinity consists of the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost, or the Father, Jesus, and Mary, or even of some as-of-yet unheard of combination such as the Father, Jesus, and Mother Teresa. This makes plain that the Quran’s emphasis is not really on the particularities of the Trinity, but in its overall concept no matter its particularities.
The three responses mentioned here show that it is incorrect to claim that the Quran and Muhammad were ignorant of basic Christology. Zain Ali shows that the relevant verses refer to the polytheistic incorporation of Jesus and Mary into pagan rituals, as evident by the picture of Jesus and Mary inside the Kabah. Qadhi ‘Abdul-Jabbār shows how Q.5:116 is not a declaration but a question with a rhetorical aim of proving the innocence of Jesus from any form of Shirk. Fakhruddin Al-Razi shows how Q.5:116 represents the miracle cults surrounding the Virgin Mary as a form of deification within the Islamic framework. Al-Razi also shows that the Quran’s main critique of the Trinity is not focused on the particular formulations of the Trinity, but is a rational critique on the overall concept of the Trinity. Splitting hairs over what the correct formulation of the Trinity is betrays a lack of familiarity with the Quran’s critique of the Trinity.
A popular contention that is widespread online is about the time-span for creating the sky and earth in the Quran.
Q.10:3 says, “Your Lord is God who created the heavens and earth in six Days”. This is clear in stating that the universe was created in six days.
Q.41:9-12 says, “Say, ‘How can you disregard the One who created the earth in two Days? How can you set up other gods as His equals? He is the Lord of all the worlds!’ He placed solid mountains on it, blessed it, measured out its varied provisions for all who seek them––all in four Days. Then He turned to the sky, which was smoke––He said to it and the earth, ‘Come into being, willingly or not,’ and they said, ‘We come willingly’––and in two Days He formed seven heavens, and assigned an order to each.” Here the Quranic passage states that the earth was created in two days, and that it was formed in four days, and then the sky was made in two days. Eight days in total is mentioned in these verses.
This matter is easily clarified by consulting English translations of the Quran that contain commentary and explanatory notes. One of the most famous English translations and commentaries on the Quran was done by Yusuf Ali. Regarding Q41:9-12, Yusuf Ali provides a clarification. This Quranic passage is “difficult” because when you count the days mentioned, you find there are eight days, whereas other verses in the Quran mention six days.24 The Quranic commentators of the past understood the four days in Q41:10 to include the two days mentioned in Q41:9. Yusuf Ali says this is a “reasonable” explanation, because both Q41:9 & Q41:10 contain the same process of creation.25 The four days refers to the complete process regarding the earth, while the prior two days refers to only the first half of this process. Thus Q41:9-12 mentions four days of creation for the earth and two days of creation for the heavens, which equals six days of creation. This is in line with what other Quranic verses say.
Yusuf Ali emphasises an important point. Some people will get confused, because different Quranic verses seem to refer to different chronologies of the creation of the heavens and earth. A careful look at all the Quranic verses together clarifies the issue. Yusuf Ali tells us there is a difference between Chaos and Cosmos, as is well-known in Greek cosmology. In the Quran, the creation of heavens and earth refers both to the creation of the Chaos and the formation of the Cosmos. Different chronologies of creation only occur if a person interprets all these Quranic verses to refer to Cosmos. As soon as you recognise Chaos, and how it is a creation of God, then you cannot find any different chronologies; since, different moments of creation can have different referents, to either Chaos or Cosmos.26
Also, the issue of “days” needs clarification. Yusuf Ali points out that the six days mentioned in these verses are actually six “stages in the evolution of physical cosmogony”. This is based on how the Quran sometimes refers to “days” as including thousands of years.27
Another famous English translation and commentary was done by Muhammad Asad. In referring to Q.41:9-12, Muhammad Asad follows closely the view held by Al-Zamakhshari. The “days” referred to here is actually “aeons”. Asad understands the “six days” as “six aeons” of the “evolution” of the universe.28 The mention of a specific number is “purely allegorical” and not literal. The Quran mentions a specific number only to highlight, in a easily understood manner, how the universe has a temporal beginning and is not eternal.29 The mention of “four aeons” in Q.41:10 includes the “two aeons” mentioned in Q.41:9. Asad says “almost all the classical commentators agree” to this.30 Q41:9-12 refers, in total, to six separate aeons, not eight.31
Asad provides further clarification on the Quranic passage. Q.41:11 says, “Then (Thumma) He turned to the sky”. Asad notes that in the Arabic language, Thumma can refer to “And” as a simple conjunction between two statements, without referring in any way to a time sequence that implies “after that”.32 Based on this usage of Arabic grammar, Q41:9-12 does not refer to any chronology. What then is the message of Q41:9-12? Asad responds by quoting Al-Zamakshari. According to Al-Zamakhsari, the entire Quranic passage is an good example of Tamthil, allegory. The exact meaning of Q41:9-12 is that of a “figurative expression” that conveys God’s power of creation.33 The Quran is conveying in simple terms a cataclysmic event that is outside the scope of human experience to grasp; since, the origin of the universe predates human existence and experience. Because humans cannot grasp such an enormous event properly, the Quran describes its essential features of temporality and God’s creative power in a figurative manner.
Both Yusuf Ali and Muhammad Asad make clear that the position of Quranic commentators regarding 41:9-12 is that it refers to six days not eight, where the four days includes already within it the two days mentioned prior. Since this is the established view of Quranic commentators, it is unfair for the popular contention to refer to Q41:9-12 and pretend that Muslims have not discussed its harmony with Q.10:3, which states the universe was created in six days.
A popular contention is that the Quran contradicts itself in describing Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Q.66:12 says, “And Mary, daughter of ‘Imran. She guarded her chastity, so We breathed into her from Our spirit. She accepted the truth of her Lord’s words and Scriptures: she was truly devout.” Here Mary, the mother of Jesus, is called the daughter of ‘Imran.
Q.19:28 says, “Sister of Harun! Your father was not an evil man; your mother was not unchaste!’” Here Mary, the mother of Jesus, is called the daughter of Harun.
Harun (or ‘Aaron’ in English) was the brother and supporter of Moses. Harun faced Pharaoh and his horde. Between the time of Moses and the time of Jesus lies several hundred years. Thus, if Mary is the sister of Harun, then she must be a contemporary of Moses. But how can that be, when she is the mother of Jesus! Detractors are quick to state that the author of the Quran made an elementary error here.
Margot Badran, writing in the Encyclopaedia of the Quran, has provided a careful overview of the term ‘sister’ as it is used in the Quran. Badran notes that the Quran uses the term ‘sister’ in many ways. There is the biological sister. There is also the socially-constructed sister, as in the concept of “milk sister,” which is well-known in Islam. There are verses where the term sister is used in a legal sense, especially regarding rules of marriage. There is sister, as a symbol of defending the family and protecting people. This is especially emphasised in the Quranic narrative of the sister of Moses and how she played the pivotal role in reuniting Moses with his (and her) mother. Badran adroitly notes that this Quranic narrative points to the notion of women as protectors of the family rather than men.34 Badran also points out that the Quran uses the word sister in a metaphorical sense. She cites Q.19:28, where Mary, the mother of Jesus, is described as the “sister of Aaron”. This description is used by the Quran to emphasise Mary’s reputation for piety, as it links her to the tribe of Aaron, which was highly respected amongst her people for their religiosity. Badran highlights the nuance in the Quran calling Mary the sister and not daughter of Aaron. The word sister in the Quran amplifies the notion of a spiritual family, one that is not exclusively based on biological descent.35 This is further bolstered by the Quranic usage of the term ‘sister nation’ that emphasises the relatedness in people even without biological connections. Q.7:38 is a good example of this. The verse says:
“God will say, ‘Join the crowds of jinn and humans who have gone before you into the Fire.’ Every crowd curses its sister nation (ukhtaha) as it enters”.
The Quran also uses the word sister to refer to similarity, especially in matters of religion. Q.43:48 shows this well. The verse says:
“Even though each sign We showed them was greater than its sister (ukhtaha)”.
The word sister here refers to God’s signs and validation of God’s religion. From all this Badran concludes that the Quran uses the word sister in a “subtle and sophisticated” manner. The word refers to a spectrum of meaning in the Quran, with “siblinghood” on one end and “wider fellowship” on the other end.36
The contention is flawed, because it only recognises one meaning for the word sister in the Quran. The contention assumes the word sister in the Quran can only mean biological sister and nothing else. But as Badran’s analysis shows, the Quran contains different meanings for the word sister. Thus, the contention is a good example of how a simplistic reading of the Quran leads to the postulation of illusory problems.
Sadik Jalal Al-Azm is perhaps the most famous contemporary Arab atheist and polemicist against Islam. S. J. Al-Azm wrote a famous book where he describes the central contradiction in the Quran. According to S. J. Al-Azm, the Quran is based on the “Tragedy of Satan (Iblis)”.37 In the Quran, God orders Iblis to bow down to Adam. But Iblis loved God so much, Iblis refused to commit Shirk and instead courageously upheld Tawhid.38 Iblis rejected to bow down to Adam. The tragedy of Iblis is that God cursed him for upholding Tawhid. For S. J. Al-Azm, this is the central contradiction that undermines Islam as a rational religion. This theme is so important to S. J. Al-Azm’s critique of Islam that he provides an extensive defence of it.39
J. Al-Azm was vocal in his critique of Islam. He blamed Islam for the backwardness of the Arab world in the contemporary age. He was well-known as a Marxist Atheist. Georges Corm notes that despite rejecting Islam in a public and vocal manner, S. J. Al-Azm never faced any assassination attempt and was able to continue his career as a critic of Islam unhindered.40 He vocally supported Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and strenuously opposed Edward Said’s critique of Orientalism.41 If anything, S. J. Al-Azm is a good example of an Arab intellectual publicly castigating Islam without facing life-and-death situations, which is the opposite of what one would expect if his only source of news on the Arab world is the mainstream Western media.
What Georges Corm fails to mention is the deeply learned and sophisticated critiques that the Arab intelligentsia levelled at S. J. Al-Azm. Muhammad ‘Izzat Darwaza (d. 1984), the famous Palestinian intellectual, has provided an in-depth critique of the “Tragedy of Satan”. M. I. Darwaza labels the work as mere “sophistry.”42 There is not a single verse in the Quran supporting S. J. Al-Azm’s thesis that Iblis rejected to bow down to Adam due to his support of Tawhid.43 Indeed, the entire “Tragedy of Satan” is based on “imaginary dialogues” between Satan and others, which are not mentioned in the Quran at all.44 S. J. Al-Azm totally ignored the Quran, which never stated in any way that Iblis courageously sacrificed himself in order to protect himself from Shirk.45 M. I. Darwaza accuses S. J. Al-Azm of using the shallow Christian missionary tactics of trying to show contradictions in the Quran.46 M. I. Darwaza sent to S. J. Al-Azm a personal essay that provided an extensive refutation of the “Tragedy of Satan”. While S. J. Al-Azm dedicated lots of space in his book to defending this idea, S. J. Al-Azm kept silent on M. I. Darwaza’s essay and did not rebut it at all.47 There is no surprise here; since, S. J. Al-Azm’s claim sounds like an obvious absurdity to any Muslim. His claim is that Iblis was the greatest supporter of Tawhid and that Allah cursed Iblis to Hell for not doing Shirk!
The issue of S. J. Al-Azm and the “Tragedy of Satan” was influential in the Arab discourse. This influence has not been felt at all in the Western discourse. Despite that, many online anti-Islamic polemics provide a similar argument against the Quran as that of S. J. Al-Azm. These anti-Islamic polemics claim that there is an inherent contradiction between God asking Iblis to engage in polytheism by bowing down to Adam, and Iblis sticking to monotheism out of his love for God. This view, it must be noted, is laughable and totally foreign to both the Quran and Islam. But since online anti-Islamic polemics in the English language use it, and since S. J. Al-Azm emphasised it, a response is needed. What follows is a response that anyone who has access to an English translation of the Quran can formulate himself.
The contention claims that Satan is the greatest supporter of Tawhid and the greatest hater of Kufr (disbelief) and Shirk(polytheism). But the Quran says the opposite.
The Quran says that Satan makes himself an object of worship besides God.
Instead of making people believe in Allah, Satan makes people disbelieve in Allah.
Since the Quran describes Satan as hating Tawhid and supporting Kufr and Shirk, what evidence is there for Satan apparently sacrificing himself for the sake of Tawhid? The contention refers to Q.2:34. The verse states:
“When We told the angels, ‘Bow down before Adam,’ they all bowed. But not Iblis, who refused and was arrogant: he was one of the disbelievers”.
The strangest thing is that S. J. Al-Azam cites this verse, then after that comments as follows: “We infer from this that Satan’s attitude represents absolute insistence on Oneness in its purest sense and manifestation.”48 The difference cannot be more stark. Q.2:34 labels Satan as a Kafir, a disbeliever. S. J. Al-Azam says the verse shows that Satan has the highest Iman (belief) possible. Clearly, this argument is a farce. It is one thing to make up your own theology, based on your own imagination. It is something else to actually impute this made-up theology onto Quranic texts that say the exact opposite.
If we take S. J. Al-Azam seriously, it means that all the angels are polytheists who reject God’s greatness. The unbelievable thing is that S. J. Al-Azam wants everyone to accept that this is the Quranic view! He wants people to take him seriously when he suggests that Jibrīl (Gabriel) is the worst of polytheists, and that Iblīs (Satan) is the best of monotheists according to the Quran.
The only thing this contention holds onto is the Divine command to prostrate. It is claimed that since prostration to other than Allah is polytheism in Islam, then Allah commanded the angels and Satan to engage in polytheism by prostrating to Adam. This is absurd on two counts. Firstly, Q.12:100 states:
“And took them up to [his] throne. They all bowed down before him and he said, ‘Father, this is the fulﬁlment of that dream I had long ago. My Lord has made it come true and has been gracious to me.”
In this famous verse, Prophet Yusuf’s parents and brothers all bowed down to him out of respect. No Muslim has ever claimed that in doing this, they committed polytheism. Bowing down was a form of respect at that time.
Secondly, Muslims prostrate themselves to the Ka’ba five times a day in their daily prayers. This does not mean that Muslims worship the Ka’ba. All it means is that God chose the Ka’ba to be the direction that Muslims direct their prostrations to.
Based on these two considerations, the Divine command to prostrate to Adam becomes clear. This prostration was a form of showing respect and not worship. Just the simple fact that the angels prostrated to Adam does not entail they believed he was God, just as the simple fact that Muslims prostrate to the Ka’ba does not entail the Ka’ba is God. From all this, it shows that there is no logical let alone Quranic reason for S. J. al-Azm and anti-Islamic polemics to claim that Allah contradicted Himself by instructing the angels to do Shirk.
The shallowness of this contention can easily be vividly experienced by Muslims. For instance, when I pray, I prostrate with the sofa in front of me. No Muslim would ever think of claiming that I am engaged in polytheism by taking the sofa as a god besides Allah. It never crossed the mind of any Muslim to condemn me for bowing down to the sofa. This type of contention is what S. J. Al-Azm believes highlights the incoherence of Islam.
The claim that Allah ordered Iblis to do Shirk contradicts the Quran. The claim Iblis was punished with Hell for having Iman contradicts the Quran. The Quran lambasts Iblis as a disbeliever and a caller to polytheism. The popular contention inverts this, and makes Iblis the true paragon of Tawhid. A person is free to make up his own personal theology; he cannot, however, be justified in attributing his made-up personal theology onto the Quran, especially when it contradicts the Quran’s most obvious meaning.
A popular contention is that the Quran contradicts itself when describing itself.
6:115 says, “The word of your Lord is complete in its truth and justice. No one can change His words: He is the All Hearing, the All Knowing.” Here the verse seems to say the Quran is unchanged.
Q.2:106 says, “Any revelation We cause to be superseded or forgotten, We replace with something better or similar. Do you [Prophet] not know that God has power over everything?” Here the verse seems to say the Quran is changed.
Simply reading up on the Islamic literature in the English-language will show this popular contention to be mistaken. Q.2:106 famously refers to the Theory of Abrogation (Nāsikh Wa Mansūkh).
Ahmad Von Denffer provides a useful overview of this issue. Von Denffer identifies Q.2:106 as the verse that mentions the “principle of abrogation”.49 The root word nasakha means ‘to replace, to withdraw, to abrogate’. Von Denffer explains how this applies to the Quran. Muhammad came with a new message and new set of laws that the Arabs were not familiar with. The Quran used a gradualist approach in implementing change. The new laws of Islam were applied in a slow and piece-meal fashion so that the Arabs could gradually become familiar with the laws. Von Denffer gives the classic example of the prohibition of alcohol.50 Pre-Islamic Arabia highly esteemed drinking alcohol. Muhammad gradually prohibited alcohol in three stages, as the Quran mentions.51 Von Denffer says that abrogated verses in the Quran shed important light on legal revelation as well as the correct understanding of Islamic law.52 Von Denffer writes, “While the basic message of Islam remains always the same, the legal rulings have varied throughout the ages”.53 It should be clear by now that abrogation only occurs in legal rulings (aḥkām) and not in matters of theology. These legal changes occur due to the gradualist approach Muhammad took to reforming Arabian society. The Quran records these legal changes, because they shed important light on how Muhammad understood Islamic law and its implementation in society.
Q.6:115 refers to how the basic message of Islam is unchanged. As is well-known, the Quran portrays all the previous prophets as preaching monotheism. Q.2:106 refers to the legal laws that were changed during Muhammad’s time. There is no contradiction here.
To clarify further, a modern analogy can be used. Suppose a government implements a ten year plan to ban non-reusable plastics. It is impossible to implement the ban straight away; since, almost all consumer goods depends, in some way, on non-reusable plastics. The government takes a gradualist approach to the matter. In the first stage, the government imposes a new tax on all goods that contain non-reusable plastics. This will hike the price of products, and make reusable options more affordable. In the second stage, the government subsidises the use of reusable plastics. Companies who use reusable plastics will get tax exemptions and other benefits. This will quicken the pace of industries shifting from non-reusable plastics to reusable plastics. In the third stage, the government bans all goods with non-reusable plastics from being sold in shops. From that day onwards, all textbooks on law will mention the three stages of the prohibition in their section on manufacturing laws. No person reviewing such a section in a textbook will claim that the section is contradictory or incoherent. What the person will recognise is the development of the law on this matter. The Quran contains the same thing. Muhammad slowly implemented laws in Arabia. The Quran records the different stages of these legal developments. This in no way implies an irrationalism or incoherence or contradiction in the Quranic text itself.
The matter of abrogation in the Quran has a more complicated aspect to it. Farid Esack provides a useful summary of these complications. He cites Ismail Al-Faruqi, the famous Palestinian scholar, who rejects that abrogation is found in the Quran.54 The field of Nāsikh Wa Mansūkh is rife with confusion, because almost every verse that some scholar claimed was abrogated was said to be not abrogated by others scholars.55 Referring to Ibn Al-Qayyim’s discussion, Esack shows how the notion of Naskh was understood by the earliest Muslim scholars to mean istithna (exception), takhsis (specification), and tabyin (clarification). The word did not necessarily mean ‘abrogation’. Abu Muslim Al-Isfahani denied that abrogation occurs in the Quran. Fakhruddin Al-Razi argued that the possibility of abrogation does not entail abrogation actually occurred. It was said that there are 500 abrogated verses in the Quran. Al-Suyuti reduced this to only 21 verses. Dehlawi further reduced this to only five verses.56 As Esack notes, “It has been the trend among scholars of the Qur’an to reduce the number of abrogated verses”.57 Recently, Jasser Auda has proposed an in-depth critique of the Theory of Abrogation.58 As is well-known, Naskh is usually identified by reference to the Hadith Literature.59 Israr Ahmad Khan has analysed the hadiths used in matters of Naskh and found them to be highly problematic.60 For instance, there is the famous hadith where Umar b. Khattab says there was a verse in the Quran that enjoins stoning to death of adulterers. Amin Ahsan Islahi, the famous Mufassir, has this to say about the hadith:
“This hadith, from every angle, seems to be a fabrication of some hypocrite. The objective behind it is to render the authenticity of the Qur’an doubtful and cast suspicion into the hearts of the unsuspecting people that some verses have been excluded from the Qur’an. Consider, first of all, its linguistic dimension. Can anyone with [a] right taste of Arabic accept it as a verse of the Qur’an? This cannot be attributed even to the Prophet (saw). Where will you, then, put this patch in the velvet of the Qur’an? There is no link between this reported verse and the supernatural language and the most eloquent style of the Qur’an.”61
Based on such views, there is no abrogation in the Quran at all. The utility and importance of this position is manifest in how it responds to the popular contention. The contention argues that the concept of Naskh is an ad hoc construct that tries to explain away the contradictions in the Quran. This argument fails when it is acknowledged that some Muslim scholars and academics deny any Naskh in the Quran; hence, these scholars and academics can interpret the Quran coherently without recourse to the notion of Naskh. In other words, even without the notion of Naskh, the Quranic text is coherent. Scholars who hold this view understand Q.2:106 to refer to the Quran superseding the Bible and Torah. This is evident from the Quranic text itself, because Q.2:105 refers to the Christians and Jews wishing that Muhammad never received the Quranic revelation. Understood this way, Q.2:105 does not contradict Q.6:115.
This response has provided two different ways of understanding Q.2:105 based on the Islamic scholarly tradition. The first way is to understand Q.2:105 as referring to abrogation of legal rulings in the Quran, which is based on Muhammad’s gradualist approach to reforming Arabian society. The second way is to reject any abrogation in the Quran; so, Q.2:105 is understood as referring to the Quran superseding the past divine books that were revealed before Muhammad became a Prophet. On either understanding, Q.2:105 does not contradict Q.6:115.
An adequate discovery of evidence in the English-language sources has shown that Muslims have explanations that are non-contradictory for at least some of the major popular contentions made about the Quran. At this stage, both parties may try to either validate or invalidate these explanations. This, however, is not necessary. The discussion can be taken down another route.
In Western scholarship in Islam, there are available interpretations of Quranic verses that differ from those interpretations that portray Quranic verses as contradictory. These available interpretations cannot be denied to exist; the Western academic books and journals in the English language contain them. Since Muslims have available these interpretations, it is wrong for Muslims to be criticised for other interpretations of Quranic verses which they do not hold.
A generic argument structure can be elaborated here. Suppose Quranic verse X is contradictory on interpretation Y. But Muslims have available interpretation Z of verse X. It is wrong for anyone to criticise Muslims for interpretation Y, when they hold interpretation Z. Quranic verse X has two different interpretations available for it: X and Y. For anyone to pretend that there is only one interpretation of verse X, that of Y, is for him to purposefully ignore Z.
The matter no longer is that of validity or invalidity; rather, the matter is of availability or unavailability. If other non-contradictory interpretations of the verses are available, then ignoring these interpretations when making a popular contention is prejudiced and biased. As soon as all parties acknowledge that these interpretations are available, then the entire discussion boils down to both parties understanding the verses in different ways. One party understands the verses as contradictory; the other party understands the verses as non-contradictory. Everyone can agree that when two people understand one sentence in different ways, then none of them can reasonably charge the other with holding the view that the other does not hold. This is almost a truism: you do not need to answer for holding ideas you do not hold.
Based on this, it is clear that charges of Muslims understanding Quranic verses in a contradictive manner hold no reasonable grounds. The Argument from Availability is effective, because it need not delve into the validity or invalidity of the available interpretations. All a Muslim has to do is present the available interpretation, in an accessible format. Then any critique of the Muslim holding a different interpretation from the one he presented becomes irrelevant; since, he does not hold this different interpretation and did not present it either.
While this may not have the persuasive power to show that the Quran contains zero contradictions, it does provide persuasive power to show that Muslims understand the Quran in a way that contains zero contradictions. Before anyone can show the Quran itself is contradictory, he has to show that Muslims understand the Quran in a contradictory manner. Since the latter cannot be done, then the former is unreasonable to hold.
Western scholarship on Islam is accessible to Anglo-Americans unlike Arabic scholarship on the Quran. In the discussion on whether the Quran contains contradictions or not, everyone can agree that what Western scholarship has to say is relevant. An adequate perusal of Western scholarship will show that non-contradictory interpretations of supposedly contradictory verses exist. These interpretations are available for Muslims to use. Popular contentions in the Anglophone print and online spheres tend to be either unaware of or totally ignore these available interpretations. The popular contentions are inadequate for passing judgement on this issue.
Where an adequate discussion is held, the issue resolves itself into a simple matter. Muslims interpret the Quran in a way that is non-contradictory. Some non-Muslim and ex-Muslims interpret the Quran in a way that is contradictory. It is unreasonable for Muslims to answer for the contradictory interpretation when they do not hold it. If some non-Muslims and ex-Muslims want to show the Quran itself is contradictory, they must first show how the only interpretation available for Muslims is contradictory. Since this cannot be done, due to the availability of non-contradictory interpretations, then it is unreasonable for anyone to hold onto the strong conclusion that the Quran is in fact contradictory. The very most that can be said is that Muslims and non-Muslims/ex-Muslims understand the Quran differently. This is too weak a conclusion to support any rigorous charge of there being actually a contradiction in the Quranic text.
The most important lesson this essay hopes to convey is that even within the Western scholarship, responses to popular contentions can be found. That is why, no one arguing for these popular contentions, in the Anglo-American context, can claim to have done an adequate research on the issue, if he fails to both acknowledge and present these responses, as part of his overall contention. If a person grants that he did not do adequate research, then he must also concede that he cannot pass judgement on the matter.