The following is a review of an English translation of the Qur’an. My purpose in reading it was twofold: 1) to provide myself (and potentially other Christians) a better understanding of the book with the purpose of 2) engaging Muslims in their beliefs with the intent on witnessing to them of Christ.
Of course it would be impossible for me to not read it in a critical fashion. I am a believer in Christ and that conviction must inform everything I do. Furthermore I do not believe that the Qur’an is, in any way, inspired, and therefore has little spiritual value for humanity. Nevertheless I tried not to read it censoriously and so wherever an alternative interpretation could be considered or understood I set my objections aside. Primarily I wanted to understand the contents of the book and present them here.
The Qur’an is divided into 114 division or Surahs. As the translator notes Surah “means a Degree or Step, by which we mount up” (page 15, footnote 13). This reminded the reader of the Songs of Ascents in the book of Psalms. However, I take the Qur’an to mean (more generally) an ascent up to the god of Islam or paradise as envisioned by Muslims. Conversely, the Qur’an acknowledges that it was “sent down… by stages.” (Surah 76.23 – page 1575).
Interestingly, the Surahs get progressively shorter as the book proceeds. For example, Surah 2 is over 100 pages and but by the time we get to the last ten, they are only 2 pages or less. The meatier or heavier part of the Qur’an is at the beginning whereas the last part consists of several praise or short poems encouraging worship and warning about the final judgment. The genre of the entire Qur’an, or at least the English rendering of it, is poetic.
In essence, the Qur’an is a series of diatribes against unbelievers, so it is no surprise that the day of judgment figures prominently throughout the book. Also permeating the book are references to the god of Islam, his attributes and reasons given to praise him. In particular the oneness and absoluteness of the deity is strongly emphasised.
As the book progresses, one feels as if they are simply reading Muhammad’s daily journal recounting how the unbelievers around him are either oppressing him, resisting or ignoring his message. Due to this polemic nature of the Qur’an, it tends to be more reactive than instructive.
Finally, the Qur’an is extremely repetitive, even to the point of redundancy. It did not appear to this reader that there was justification for the same stories to be brought up again and again. For example, virtually each time Moses and Pharaoh were mentioned it was to emphasise Allah’s rejection of and judgment on unbelievers.
Similarities with the Bible and Christian Teaching
Many of the biblical persons are recast as Muslims (i.e. believers in Allah). Adam, Noah, Abraham, David and Jesus are all mentioned throughout the book. Several Old Testament stories, such as the creation of man, the flood, Exodus are addressed or referenced.
Of interest to Christians is the presentation of Jesus in the Qur’an. Jesus is the son of Mary, virginally conceived. He also performed many miracles (such as the healing of the blind, lepers and bringing forth the dead – Surah 5.110 – page 284) Depending on the school of interpretation, the Qur’an may also teach that Jesus was risen from the dead (Surah 4.158 – page 236 f.664).
Additionally, the Qur’an and the Bible both teach: 1) that there is one God. God is eternal, omniscient and all powerful 2) God made all things from nothing in six days; he made man from the earth and man was made male and female 3) Man (or at least Adam) fell from God by being deceived of Satan; he is estranged from God 4) God therefore judges sins on earth and on the final, day of judgment 5) The repentant and believing receive mercy (forgiveness) from God 6) God has revealed his truth in a holy book 7) Heaven and hell are real and eternal 8) Satan is a real, spiritual being 9) There is a universal resurrection and there will be a new creation.
Regarding Adam and Eve, they were told not to eat of one kind of tree (Surah 7.20 – page 349). They were deceived by Satan, fell, covered themselves with leaves and were confronted by Allah (Surah 7.21 – page 349). There is really no developed doctrine of original sin however a hint remains in Surah 2.36: “Then did Satan make them slip from the (Garden), and get them out of the state (of felicity) in which they had been. We said: “Get yet down, all (ye people), with enmity between yourselves” (page 25-26). cf. Surah 12.53 – “the soul is certainly prone to evil” (page 564). The Qur’an also understands Adam’s fall to be from heaven not on earth (Surah 7.24 – page 349).
With respect to ethics and morality, the Qur’an and the Bible both teach: 1) marriage is between one man and one woman (ideally for the Qur’an and requisite for scripture) 2) Sodomy is condemned 3) Murder and the taking of innocent life is condemned 4) Stealing is condemned 5) Respect towards others is encouraged 6) Women (especially wives) are to be loved and revered 7) The poor are to be cared for.
Differences between the Qur’an and the Bible
The most significant difference between the Qur’an and the Bible is their (respective) presentation of the Holy Trinity, Christ and the nature of salvation.
The Qur’an explicitly rejects the teaching of the Trinity (Surah 5.73). It states many times that Allah has no partners. I take this to mean no equals or rivals to his divinity, with especial rejection of any persons in the Godhead. And though the Qur’an acknowledges that the “Holy Spirit” strengthened Jesus (Surah 2.87 – page 40 cf. Surah 2.253) the translator remarks that commentators believe this was the angel Gabriel (page 104 f. 292-A).
The Jesus of the Qur’an is not God’s eternal son, nor the Saviour of his people. In fact, the Qur’an explicitly rejects any mediators between God and men: “Give this warning to those in who (hearts) is the fear that they will be brought (To Judgement) before their Lord: except for Him they will have no protector nor intercessor that they may guard (against evil)” (Surah 6.51 – page 306-307). “Who is there that can intercede in his presence except as he permitteth?” (Surah 2.255 – page 105)
The Qur’an asserts Jesus was not killed by the Jews, or crucified (Surah 4.157 – page 236-237). Therefore the gospel of the Bible must be, according to the Qur’an, false (see 1 Corinthians 1:23-24; Galatians 3:13).
There is no substitutionary atonement in Islam: “No bearer of burdens can bear the burden of another” (Surah 17.15 – page 678) “man can have nothing but what he strives for” (Surah 53.39 – page 1382). Note, however, that this assumes that the bearer of the burdens of others has his own burdens, which Christianity does not teach: rather Christ has taken on the sins of his people.
Grace is free and freely given: “That the People of the Book may know that they have no power whatever over the Grace of Allah, that (His) Grace is (entirely) in His Hand, to bestow it on whomsoever He wills. For Allah is the Lord of Grace abounding.” (Surah 57.29 – page 1430). However, weighed against other teachings, the grace of the Qur’an is not the grace of scripture. For example, though faith is commended, Islam is ultimately a religion of works: “those who balance (of good deeds) is heavy – they will attain salvation: but those whose balance is light, will be those who have lost their souls; in hell will they abide.” (Surah 23.102&103 – page 861)
Additionally, charity seems to remove sin (Surah 2.271 – page 113 cf. Tobit 12:9). Forgiveness is spoken of quite frequently in the Qur’an but there seems to be no way to receive it outside of the will of God and (perhaps) one’s performance.
There are some distinctions between the biblical account of creation and that as retold in the Qur’an. For example, it is said that “Allah has created every animal from water” (Surah 24.45 – page 880). The translator relates this to evolution. The Bible, on the other hand, only relates water to the creation of fish and, in addition, the stress is on domain(s) and dominion rather than origin (Genesis 1:20-23).
In particular the notion of man being made in “our” image is entirely absent in the Qur’an (Surah 2.30 – page 24). This likely is related to the fact that the Qur’an insists that Allah is said to have no sons or generations. This would mean that the biblical teaching of adoption is also absent in the Qur’an.
The conception of heaven or paradise is fairly carnal in the Qur’an. The faithful are promised by Allah: “We shall join them to companions, with beautiful big and lustrous eyes” (Surah 52.20 – page 1370) These companions are those “[w]hom no man or Jinn before them has touched” (Surah 55.56 – page 1404) Hence virgins (“virgin-pure” Surah 56.36 – page 1411). Perhaps this is where the concept of 40 virgins originated.
The Muslim holy day is Friday, though it is really just a day of prayer. The Muslim may do business on this day and only puts it off for the appointed time of prayer (Surah 62.9-10 – pages 1468-1469) so, essentially, there is no Sabbath (weekly) rest in the Muslim religion.
Finally, the restrictions on eating closely parallel that of the Old Testament (Surah 2.173 – page 68) but as Muhammad wrote after the completion of the New Testament canon, this would be a retrogression, not a progression of religion (cf. Colossians 2:16ff. & 1 Timothy 4:3-5).
I want to address two matters that I did not write about in the body of this review. I include them here because they are an important part of the Christian-Muslim discussion and are often promoted by Muslims as integral to their faith or essential to their apologetic. I left them out of the main part of the review because, in my reading of the Qur’an, I did not (directly) encounter them.
The first is in reference to the oft repeated argument against the Bible by Muslims: the scriptures of Christians and Jews are corrupted and therefore cannot be trusted. For example, the translator of the English version of the Qur’an notes: “The Muslim position has always been that the Jewish (and Christian) scriptures as they stand cannot be traced direct to Moses or Jesus, but are later compilations.” (page 29 f.67). The Qur’an, on the other hand, is the correct presentation of the original(s). This would account for the many biblical stories that are repeated (read: altered) in the Qur’an.
However, I did not come across any statement in the Qur’an that actually stated this. Though it often speaks about “people of the book,” nowhere does it appear that the holy book of Muslims is referring to a corrupted book (text). In places it it suggested that the Qur’an functions more as an addition to the Bible, then a replacement: “Believe in Allah and His Messenger and the scripture which he hath sent to His messenger and the scripture which He sent to those (before) him. Any who denieth Allah, His angels, His Books, His Messengers, and the Day of Judgement, hath gone far, far astray.” (emphasis mine – Surah 4.136 – page 229). Note specifically of the scripture (“Books” plural) before Muhammad. It is difficult to reconcile this statement with the idea that the scriptures are so inherently corrupt as to be untrustworthy.
The Qur’an also states: “If thou were in doubt as to what we have revealed unto thee, then ask those who have been reading the book from before thee: the truth hath indeed come to thee from thy Lord: so be in nowise of those in doubt.” (Surah 10.94 – page 504) It is not likely that this refers to the Qur’an itself since from the standpoint of Surah 10, the Qur’an would not (at this time) have been completed. Rather, as the translator notes, the book is general revelation(s), including those that came before Islam (page 504 f. 1475).
In the end, it is difficult to say where this belief originated. Perhaps it has developed from tradition or is simply an convenient argument against the Bible. Either way, it is problematic from the perspective of Islam and the Qur’an itself. If the god of Islam allowed his (previous) revelation to be so corrupted as to be unverifiable, what assurance do we have that the Qur’an has not suffered the same fate? Is it not possible that we are (once again) awaiting yet another revelation that will supersede the Qur’an?
Additionally, one typically encounters in Christian-Muslim dialogue a claim about the text of the Qur’an itself: namely that the Qur’an is virtually indecipherable in any form of translation but must be read in Arabic to be properly understood: “A. Yusuf Ali was quick to point out that there can be no absolute or perfect translation of the Qur’an and, at best, only an interpretation of its understood meaning can be offered.” (Preface, ix).
But once again, this is not explicitly stated in the Qur’an. Rather, in a number of places, the Qur’an states that it is easy to understand: Surah 19.97 “So have we made the Qur’an easy in thine own tongue, that with it thou mayest give glad tidings to the righteous, and warnings to people given to contention.” (page 763). “These are verses of the Qur’an -a book that makes (things) clear” (Surah 27.1 – page 938) “We have indeed made the Qur’an easy to understand and remember…” (Surah 54.17 -page 1389)
However, Surah 20.113 reads: “Thus have we sent this down – an Arabic Qur’an – and explained therein in detail some of the warnings in order that they may fear Allah, or that it may cause their remembrance (of Him)” (emphasis mine – page 787-788). It may be inferred from the fact that the Qur’an mentions it is Arabic that it can only be properly understood in that language. But this creates a problem, even from the perspective of that text itself: if our understanding of the final judgment depends on the Arabic Qur’an, then how can anyone who does not know Arabic be saved?
This belief also undermines the perspicuity of the Qur’an and impacts the ability of Muslims to effectively (if it all) communicate the truth of the Islamic faith to unbelievers. Undoubtedly some level or form of interpretation is always needed to explain any text, but here we have an intractable difficulty: the interpretation obscures the meaning of the text when it is most crucial to have the right meaning.
Again, it would be helpful to know the origin of this belief, particularly due to the challenge it makes for the faith itself. It doesn’t seem, however, to originate directly from the Qur’an.
1. The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an. Revised Translation and Commentary by ‘Abdullah Yusuf ‘Ali. Brentwood, Maryland: Amana Corporation, 1991. All the page numbers referenced in this review are from this translation.
2. Phrases such as partner(s), Gardens flowing with rivers & signs are also repeated ad nauseam etc.
3. This is contested by the Qur’an as it condemns the Trinitarian belief as essentially polytheistic, but true with respect to the creeds of the Christian faith.
4. The Qur’an allows for polygamy: “Marry women of your choice, two, or three, or four” but also encourages monogamy (Surah 4.1.3 – page 184)
5. Note however, depending on the translation, a man may beat his wife: “As to those women on whose part ye fear, disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (next), refuse to share their beds, (and last) beat them (lightly)…” (Surah 4.34 – page 195. Note that the words in parentheses are added by the interpreter).
The Qu’ran is clearly patriarchal: “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means” (ibid.).
The Qur’an forbids marriage with unbelievers (Surah 2.221 – page 89). But Surah 5.5 allows for marriage with “People of the Book” (i.e. Christians and Jews – page 246)
6. It should be noted that there are serious problems in the way the Qur’an promotes ill treatment of unbelievers (see Surahs 5.33, 8.12-13, 8.38-39 & 9.39). Furthermore, it cannot be overlooked that Islam remains one of the greatest threats to Christianity throughout the world. But it is also worth noting that there seems to be some inconsistency as well in the Qur’an as well. Many passages speak highly of Christians (“people of the book”) and the Qur’an requires of Muslims that unbelievers are to be treated with fairness and justice (see Surah 8.61 where the enemy is inclined to peace).
7. It is possible to see the angels as a kind of mediator though: “And the angels celebrate the praises of their Lord, and pray for forgiveness for all beings on earth.” (Surah 42.1. – page 1246)