The Unchanged(?) Qur'an
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Many Muslims like to claim the one of the reasons that the Qur'an is superior to the Bible is that there is no dispute over the details of the text. The Arabic test is completely unchanged from when Muhammad originally proclaimed the words.
In Talk Back 93 "What is Islam," we are told:
The Qur'an is a record of the exact words revealed by God through the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). It was memorized by Muhammad (pbuh) and then dictated to his Companions, handwritten down by scribes, who cross-checked it during his lifetime. Not one word of its 114 chapters, Suras, has been changed over the centuries, so that the Qur'an is in every detail the unique and miraculous text which was revealed to Muhammad (pbuh) fourteen centuries ago.
This is standard boilerplate found on many Islamic sites. But is is true?
I'm not going to argue against the idea that the words came from God via the Angel Gabriel - that's a matter of religious belief rather than fact. Not am I going to argue against the factual existence of Muhammad, or that he dictated material which was written down by scribes. But, can it be said without doubt that the Qur'an today is in every detail the text Muhammad dictated fourteen centuries ago?
The answer is unquestionably no!
If you dig a little deeper into the history of the Qur'an, you will find that knowledgable Muslims have a second tale.
By the time of the third Caliph, Uthman, multiple versions of the various Suras were in circulation. Some differences were minor, others significant. And additional material containing myths from other religious traditions was being attributed to Muhammad. Accordingly, Uthman convened a council which apparently
- collected all the various documents in circulation,
- made a determination which versions contained Muhammad's original words, and
- suppressed / destroyed any they considered contained errors, omissions, and additions.
- ordered the Suras, not by chronology, but predominantly, but not entirely by length, longest to shortest.
- published them together for the first time as a single collection.
Thus, the Qur'an did not come into existence as a single document until a quarter century after Muhammad's death, and we only have a committee decision that this version accurately reflected Muhammad's original words.
A lot of Muslims believe that this is the version which has come down to us today, unchanged. And they trust that Uthman's council, inspired by God, managed to achieve the original text.
Unfortunately, not a single version of this text has survived. No complete Qur'an exists from the first century of Islam. There is no canonical text.
What we do know is that by the western ninth century or the Islamic third century about seven different textual versions existed. (Some authorities claim 10 - it depends how major you consider the differences) Yes, most of the differences were minor, plurals for singular and vice versa, different vowels, synonyms, but differences nonetheless - enough to discredit the idea that these several versions all contain Muhammad's original words.
And these different versions continued to circulate in different Islamic communities until surprisingly recently. Another committee in 1924 took one of the versions as the baseline and after editing, fixed it as the authorized text. This is the so-called Egyptian edition, and this is the version of the Qur'an that has been adopted throughout most of the Islamic world, the exception being most of Africa which has retained a different version.
Serious Islamic scholars know this, and yet this does not seem to have reached the general Islamic community. And that's because for general consumption, they stick to the official line: The Qur'an is a record of the exact words revealed by God through the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). I guess they think believers cannot handle the truth.
Can we know for certain that today's Qur'an contains in every detail the text Muhammad dictated fourteen centuries ago? No!
Can we know for certain that today's Qur'an contains nothing but the text Muhammad dictated? No!
Can we know for certain that today's Qur'an contains no myths from other ancient sources? No!
The unchanged Qur'an? Since 1924 anyway.