- The Scriptures of Islam
What we will call “Islamic Scripture” is somewhat different from what Christians and Jews would define as scripture.
The body of Islamic “scripture” is not found in a single book. Instead, it is a poorly-defined collection of three or four types of documents (I have used the term “poorly-defined” because there appears to be a great deal of disagreement between the various Islamic sects as to which of the documents are legitimate or appropriate for use in addition to the Koran). First, there was the Bible. Then came the Koran. Finally, there was the sunnah which is composed of a number of works called either hadith or sira. The sunnah documents were compiled or written by various authors in the decades or centuries after Mohammad’s death.
The Bible in Islam
It comes as a surprize to many Jews and Christians and even to some Muslims that Mohammad, in the Koran, endorsed the Bible and repeatedly pointed to it as a source of good guidance. Thus, the Bible can be called Islamic scripture! Actually, a lot of the rules that Mohammad implemented for actions and relationships between Muslims are based on those found in the first five books of the Old Testament – particularly in Deuteronomy. A number of additional pronouncements by Mohammad echoed the pharisaical commandments found in the orthodox Jewish “Takanot”.
Mohammad used distorted versions of many Bible stories in an apparent attempt to make it appear that the Koran was built on the Jewish and Christian scripture.
To be sure, current Islamic teachers say that the Bible has been corrupted since the time of Mohammad. This became necessary because readers discovered that the Koran contradicts the Bible in numerous issues. But at the time that the Koran was actually delivered, Mohammad’s comments in the Koran about these scriptures seemed to mostly be confined to saying that Jews and Christians went wrong because they did not follow the teachings of these scriptures. Of course, most Jewish and Christian clerics and teachers would agree that this is the case. However, as related to saying the Bible was corrupted, we could find no Koranic verse that clearly said that any specific parts of the bible had been corrupted. That dogma came later. Nor is there anything from Islam that tells us what the “correct” bible says.
To refute any accusation that the Bible was corrupted, there is a wealth of scientific and documentary evidence that proves that the Bible that Mohammad endorsed is essentially the same as the Bible used today. Archeological discoveries such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and many other existing documents have been proven to pre-date Mohammad by several centuries. All of these discoveries and documents confirm the essential agreement of the currently-used Old and New testaments with the Bible that was used in Mohammad’s day.
Mohammad’s references to biblical characters consistently contradict and misrepresent the biblical versions. Apparently, then, Mohammad didn’t know what was written in the Bible when he endorsed it then contradicted it. The Islamic accusation that the Bible has been corrupted is not accurate and cannot be substantiated with facts.
In fact, few Muslims today seem to pay much attention to the Bible but instead concentrate on the Koran and the sunnah.
First, a brief comment about the spelling of the name of this most revered Islamic book. Arabic script cannot be easily translated into English. We find a wide variety in how many Arabic names and words are spelled in English. Even very common names like “Mohammad” and words like “Koran” are spelled a variety of different ways in English. This is not due to any disrespect or contempt. It is simply due to the fact that there is no standardized English spelling for these words. Some may object to the fact that we are not using their preferred spelling in the English. However, we have chosen to use one common spelling of each of these words and we regret any discomfort this may cause anyone.
Now, on to the Koran! Surprisingly to many of us, the Koran provides less than about 20% of Islamic scripture.
The Koran, which is the best-known book of Islamic scripture, is a document that was accumulated over more than 20 years from the "revelations" Mohammad claimed to have received from Allah through the angel Gabriel. It is claimed that Mohammad was illiterate (though some argue this interpretation of the documentary references). The story is that Mohammad recited the revealed Koranic verses to scribes who then recorded the verses on whatever writing materials they could find. The Koran was compiled into its current form by later generations of Muslims. There have been questions raised about the present-day Koran’s accuracy and its provenance, but these issues are beyond the scope of this site. For our purposes here, we will proceed on the assumption which is generally accepted within Islam that the current Koran is both complete and accurate. Within Islam it is also generally accepted that every verse in the Koran was first spoken aloud by Mohammad. Muslims must go on faith that the words he spoke came from Allah through the angel Gabriel because there is no evidence to support this claim other than the words of Mohammad. As non-Muslims, you need to decide if you can believe that this is true or if these verses came from some other source such as Mohammad, himself. If you believe that they are from god, you really should become a Muslim!
Mohammad claimed that the verses he delivered from the Koran were from an eternal book that exists in Heaven. He claimed to be “unlettered” or illiterate. He said that Gabriel told him the verses and he “recited” them to the scribes who memorized or recorded them in writing. After Mohammad’s death, the Koran was compiled into a single book of 114 chapters which are called surahs. Surprisingly to some of us, the surahs are not arranged in chronological order as they were spoken. Instead they are listed in order (roughly) from the longest to the shortest. As a result, the bulk of the earliest verses in the Koran are grouped toward the end of the book. Elsewhere on this site, we will provide a cross-reference between the order of the surahs in the Koran compared to the order in which they were actually delivered.
It is also a good exercise to examine the tone of the Meccan surahs as compared to the ones that were spoken in Medina. If you do so, you will find that the Medina surahs are generally much more violent and uncompromising – possibly reflecting the degree of control Mohammad exercised over the society in which he found himself at the time of the delivery. Non-Muslims should also be very aware of an Islamic concept called “abrogation” which says that verses delivered earlier can be abrogated or nullified by verses spoken later. We will talk more about abrogation later. For now, we should realize that when we read or hear a specific passage from the Koran we should always demand to know when it was spoken and we should realize that it was quite possibly abrogated by a later verse. We are told that, within Islam, the Koran is often recited with a preferred pronunciation and in a unique cadence in ancient Arabic (research Tajwid). Muslims often memorize the Koran in this manner. As a result, because they memorize the Koran in the original Arabic some Muslims claim they do not actually understand the words they are memorizing and thus they cannot actually understand what the Koran teaches.
Many people are surprised to learn that the Koran is only a small part of the body of scripture that is used by Islam to guide and control its followers. The major part of Islamic scripture is found in a body of documentation called the sunnah. The sunnah is a body of many independent works by several authors that is divided into two major subsets. The “siras” are biographies or records of Mohammad’s life or actions. The hadith are various reports describing the words, actions, or habits of Mohammad. These documents were used as guidance for the implementation of Islam in the early centuries following the death of Mohammad and they are still considered by many to be applicable today. However, there seems to be little agreement within the various sects of Islam about which sunnah documents are accepted as “scriptural” and which are not. Non-Muslims should also understand that there is no generally-accepted “Canon of Scripture” for Islam as there is in Christianity for example. The Christian Bible is the single acknowledged source of Christian scripture. To be sure, it is supplemented with a wealth of commentary but it remains the primary go-to document for Christians. For many Muslims, it is different. In Islam, it is true that the only commonly-accepted scriptures are the Bible and the Koran. But, unlike the Bible for Jews and Christians, the Koran does not contain the bulk of the guidance on the belief-system of Islam. On the contrary, the bulk of Mohammad’s teachings and practices are recorded in the hadith and the siras. Islamic clerics and Muslims themselves, based on their sect, their inclination or their opinion, will choose which of these documents they want to teach, accept and implement.
There are four critical points we should remember about Islamic scripture.
First; although the Koran is accepted by all Muslims, it does not contain the majority of instruction about how a Muslim should behave. This instruction is found in the hadith and siras and there is a lot of variation among Islamic sects about which hadith and siras are considered most reliable.
Second; since Mohammad is endorsed so often in the Koran, if an action or proclamation of Mohammad is found in a hadith or in a sira, we must realize and accept that at least some Muslims will believe that it was the best guidance for their own action and that it was endorsed by Allah. Both the hadith and siras provide a lot of instruction about jihad, including the beheadings, murders, amputations and other violence we see organizations like ISIS committing today.
Third; there is a good possibility that any benign-sounding Koranic passage that you see or read has been abrogated or superseded by subsequent Koranic verses.
Finally; we should be aware that the bulk of Mohammad’s instruction about violence against non-Muslims is found in the hadith and siras rather than in the Koran. Islamic apologists will usually point non-Muslims to the more benign-sounding Koran verses (which were written in the early days of Mohammad’s career in Mecca) to prove that Islam is a peaceful religion but if we research the hadith and siras, we find that the opposite is easily proven.