Corruption of Previous Scriptures (Qur'an 2:79)
While early Islamic scholars such as Ibn al-Layth, Ibn Rabban, Ibn Qutayba, Al-Ya'qubi, Al-Tabari, Al-Baqillani, Al-Mas'udi, and Al-Bukhari would disagree, today it is a common belief among Muslims that the Qur'an states that the previous scriptures (the Taurat and Injil) have been physically corrupted by those who were charged with safeguarding it (the Jews and Christians). Thus, the Qur'an is the 'return' to the true message of the God of the Bible. When asked to provide evidence that the Qur'an says the previous scriptures have been corrupted, apologists will present Quran 2:79 as evidence.
Yusuf Ali: Then woe to those who write the Book with their own hands, and then say:"This is from Allah," to traffic with it for miserable price!- Woe to them for what their hands do write, and for the gain they make thereby.
Pickthal: Therefore woe be unto those who write the Scripture with their hands and then say, "This is from Allah," that they may purchase a small gain therewith. Woe unto them for that their hands have written, and woe unto them for that they earn thereby.Shakir: Woe, then, to those who write the book with their hands and then say: This is from Allah, so that they may take for it a small price; therefore woe to them for what their hands have written and woe to them for what they earn.
Does this verse alone prove the corruption of previous scriptures? Let us examine what the Qur'an really says about the Taurat and Injil; and examine Quran 2:79 in its own context, as well as against the aforementioned verses to see if the belief of physical scriptural corruption is valid.
What the Qur'an says about corruption
We will start by looking at verses of the Qur'an that talk about the corruption of the previous scriptures
The first thing to note when reading through these verses is the wording used. Nowhere in the above verses does it say that the Jews or Christians wrote down, in their holy books, what was not revealed from Allah:
- Quran 2:59 They "Changed it for a saying other than had been spoken to them."
- Quran 2:77 Allah "knows what they keep secret and what they make known."
- Quran 2:140 They "Conceal a testimony they have from Allah."
- Quran 3:78 A "Party among them" (Jews) '"distort the book with their tongues and say it is from Allah."
- Quran 3:79 The Jews "teach the book and read it themselves."
- Quran 3:187 The Jews "cast it (Allah's book) "behind their backs"
- Quran 4:46 The Jews "alter the words from their places" and "distort the book with their tongues."
- Quran 5:13 The Jews "altered the words from their places" and "forgot a good part of the message."
- Quran 5:15 The Jews "concealed that which Muhammad had made clear" and Muhammad made clear much which they had "passed over" (in their book)
- Quran 5:41 The Jews "alter the words from their places."
So far, we see that the Qur'an does charge that the Jews and Christian's corrupted their scriptures; but only in their oral recitations. Qur'an 2:77 charges that the Jews deliberately "keep secret" parts of their Taurat from the people who do not know the Jewish scriptures. If the physical scriptures have been corrupted, how would the Jews know what was supposed to be in it? Are we to believe that there are 'original' Taurat's lying around somewhere for the Jews to compare to; or is there a special Jewish school or class where they learn about what was 'omitted' from the Taurat? Who were the Jews keeping 'secrets' about their texts from? Other Jews? Why? We know the Jews are literate people because they 'knew what their book said but hid it behind their backs.' Were they keeping the information from the illiterate people (like Muhammad)? This would fit with the Qur'an's charge that the Jews 'distorted the book with their tongues.'
The Jews 'altered the words from their places' and 'forgot a good part of the message'; this also does not speak to physical scriptural corruption, but (alleged) corruption in their recitations to those who did not know the Jewish scriptures. Consider the claims made in Qur'an 5:15. it alleges that Muhammad 'made clear' what the Jews had 'concealed'; Muhammad also made clear that which they had 'passed over.' If the actual text was corrupt, how could the Jews have 'passed over' it? Surely if the physical corruption claim is true, the Qur'an should be using words like "the parts that the Jews removed from their books" or "the parts which have been omitted."
We see no such wording in the language of the Qur'an; only evidence that Muhammad thought the Jews were lying about what was written in their Taurat, in order to reject him as a prophet of their God.
What does the Qur'an confirm?
Next we will look at what the Qur'an claims to confirm and verify:
The Qur'an claims to be the continuation of the message from Allah. We note in the verses above that it claims to confirm the message in the previous books that the Jews and Christians have with them.
- Quran 2:89 "...a book from Allah verifying that which they have."
- Quran 2:91 "...verifying that which they have."
- Quran 2:101 "..threw the book of Allah behind their backs as if they knew nothing."
- Quran 2:101 "..a messenger from Allah verifying that which they have."
- Quran 2:140 "he who conceals a testimony that he has from Allah."
- Quran 3:81 "...verifying that which is with you."
- Quran 4:47 "...verifying what you have."
- Quran 5:43 "They have the Taurat wherein is Allah's Judgment."
- Quran 20:133 "...has there not come clear evidence of what is in the previous books?"
From the above verses we can see that the Qur'an confirms that the Jews and Christians had intact scriptures at the time of Muhammad. They have the book with Allah's judgment in it (the Taurat). Some Muslims claim that parts of it are Allah's book and parts are not.
- If you write a thesis and someone copies it; omitting parts and adding other parts in there. It is no longer your thesis but a bastardization of your thesis. Would you then say "yes, that's my thesis!" or would you say "parts of that are mine but these parts are not"? Certainly if you were talking about it, you would state that it was no longer your thesis because the words are changed.
- Another example: If someone asks you to write down 10 numbers (which they then dictate to you). You write down 5 of them, but cannot remember the other five so you write 5 of your own to make it up to 10 numbers. They come to check the numbers you have written down. Do they say "yes, those are the numbers I gave you (they verify) or do they say "no, you only have five of the numbers I gave you?"
The bottom line is this: if the physical scriptures were corrupted, Allah would not say he "verifies that which you have" he would have said that he "verifies parts of which you have" and then indicate that the texts are no longer intact. The only conclusions we can draw from these statements of Allah, are that:
(a) The Jews were literate - they knew their scriptures; they 'threw the book of Allah behind their backs as if they knew nothing." How could they know the book of Allah if it was corrupted?
(b) That The Jews and Christians both had intact (alleged) revelations from Allah when the Qur'an was revealed. Since we have manuscripts that pre-date Muhammad's time, that are the same as the Bible we have today, then we can conclude that the scriptures that we have today are the same as they were in Muhammad's time.
Was Allah referring to both the Taurat and Injil?
We have thus far, given a lot of examples where the Jews were mentioned specifically, or just 'people of the book'. Was Allah referring to the previous scriptures (and corruption) as being just the Taurat, or does he include the Injil?
Confirmed in the above Qur'an verses is the fact that Allah claims to have revealed both the Taurat (to Musa) and Injil (to Isa). Qur'an 5:47 confirms also that the Injil was intact during Muhammad's time, when it says "and the followers of the Injeel should have judged by what Allah revealed in it". This shows, that, in order to judge Muhammad's truthfulness on his prophetic claim, the Christians should have gone to the Injil which they had with them in order to 'confirm' his claim. Allah is inferring that their scripture, as well as that of the Jews, is uncorrupted.
Qur'an 2:79 in Context
Many apologists accuse critics of taking the Qur'an 'out of context' in order to make Islam look bad. However in the case of Quran 2:79, apologists need to take it out of context in order to 'prove' that the Qur'an says the 'previous scriptures' were physically corrupted. Here it is in context:
So if we were to look at verse 2:79 which is given to us by some as evidence, then it would appear that the Qur'an does charge some (unknown) people with writing a book without knowledge and claiming it is a revelation from Allah. However if we look at the preceding verse, we note that it says that the people who do this are illiterate. This means that have not read Allah's previous revelations.
Are the Jews and Christians the illiterate?
- Quran 2:101 "...a party of those who were given the book threw the book of Allah behind their backs as if they knew nothing."
- Quran 2:140 "Nay! do you say that Ibrahim and Ismail and Yaqoub and the tribes were Jews or Christians?....who is more unjust than he who conceals a testimony that he has from Allah?"
- Quran 3:78 "..most surely there is a party amongst those who distort the book with their tongue....and they say it is from Allah; and they tell a lie against Allah while they know."
- Quran 3:78 "...because of your teaching the Book and your reading (it yourselves)."
- Quran 3:187 "And Allah made a covenant with those who were given the book...but they hid it behind their backs."
- Quran 4:46 "...distorting the word with their tongues."
- Quran 5:13 "...much for what you concealed of the Book and passing over much."
- Quran 5:47 "And the followers of the Injeel should have judged by what was revealed in it."
- Quran 5:48 "...therefore judge between them by what Allah has revealed."
The quotes from the verses above establish that the Jews and Christians were literate people who knew their scriptures.
- Jews are accused of knowing the book, but when Muhammad claimed to be a prophet of Allah, the Qur'an asserts that they 'threw the book' (Taurat) 'behind their back as if they knew nothing.'
- Allah confirms that they Jews teach from the book and 'read it themselves'
- The Christians are told that they should have consulted their books and 'confirmed' what Muhammad was saying before rejecting him.
- Both Jews and Christians are told to judge between their respective books and the Qur'an to judge whether Muhammad was truthful.
The only verse that slightly resembles Qur'an 2:78-79 is 3:79. However it charges that the Jews knew what their scriptures said, but corrupted it with their tongues. How are the Jews and Christians supposed to know that the Qur'an verifies their books if they cannot read their own books? Why would Jews hide the book behind their backs if they did not know what it said? All the verses above show that the Qur'an never charges that the Jews and Christians are illiterate; quite the opposite, therefore Qur'an 2:79 cannot be referring to them 'writing the book with their hands.
Who are the Illiterate and what 'Book' did they write?
The Qur'an does not elaborate on exactly what scripture was being written by these 'illiterates', but looking at the evidence above, we know that it is not the people of the Book. There are three possible explanations for who these illiterate people manufacturing scripture were:
- If the People of the Book truly were changing the scripture in their recitations of it to the illiterate people, it is not unreasonable to surmise that an illiterate person (who could not read the original documents) then wrote down (or elaborated on) what they heard in the recitation.
- Allah was originally a pagan moon god; thus these verses could mean that pagans were writing scripture and claiming it was from Allah "The God".
- The Qur'an makes the "Surah Like It" Challenge:
It is most likely that Qur'an 2:78-79 is referring to the people who took up this challenge to produce a surah like it. However, since the Qur'an does not elaborate, we can only say for certainty that it is not referring to the Jews and Christians.
On review of the evidence, we have learned thus far:
- The Qur'an never charges that the Jews and Christians have physically corrupted their scriptures. It states that they have 'changed words from their right places (with their mouths)' and 'concealed parts of the message given to them'.
- The Qur'an claims to verify the books that they have with them. This precludes the possibility that the People of the Book had corrupted scriptures in their possession at the time of Muhammad. The language used in the Qur'an confirms that the whole texts were intact and 'verified' by the Qur'an. Since we have Biblical texts that pre-date Islam, that match what we have today, we know that today's scriptures are the same as they were in and before Muhammad's time.
- We know that Allah is 'verifying' both the Taurat and Injil; telling Christians and Jews to check their specific scriptures to 'judge by what Allah has revealed.'
- Both the Jews and Christians were literate peoples who knew their scriptures.
- Qur'an 2:79 when read in context clearly states that the illiterate people were writing the book 'with their own hands' and claiming it was from Allah. Since we know the people of the Book were literate, these verses are not referring to them.
Consider the evidence: The Qur'an never says the physical scriptures of the previous revelations are corrupt (since we have precluded 2:79). If the previous scriptures are not corrupt, what do we do if the Qur'an contradicts the message of the Bible? Let's see what the Qur'an tells you to do:
Therefore Qur'an 2:79 is not referring to the previous scriptures
- Camilla Adang (1996), Muslim Writers on Judaism & the Hebrew Bible from Ibn Rabban to Ibn Hazm, Leiden: Brill. ISBN 90-04-10034-2.
- G. Parrinder, Jesus in the Qur'an, Faber and Faber, London 1965; Dutch translation, Ten Have, Baarn 1978, p. 124.
- All verses are from Shakir's translation.