What, Indeed, Is the Quran?

Most people know that the Quran (Qur’an, Koran) is the holy book of the Muslim religion, hence of about a fifth of the world’s population. But knowing this much, we still must grasp the peculiar nature of this famous book, if, indeed, because of its origins, it can be called precisely a “book.” If we ask just when this book was written, or even, who exactly wrote it, we soon run into difficult issues.

First, we have to ask: “What do Muslims think the book is?” Then we have to ask: “What does it look like considering the empirical and historical analyses of its origins and content?” The effort to understand what the Quran is becomes doubly difficult because Muslims themselves will not allow any investigation into, or questioning of, its original sources if it contradicts what the religion insists that it is, namely, a direct revelation from Allah, the Muslim name for what it calls “God.” Any significant divergence from the classic Quranic text will be met with the accusation of blasphemy, which can result in serious legal and even penal repercussions.

“As for the way in which Islam considers itself, two consequences follow,” the French historian Rémi Brague has written:

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(1) No religion preceded Islam, which is the religion of Abraham, of Noah, and even of Adam. Islam has therefore inherited nothing and owes nothing to anyone. (2) … The holy books of the other religions (the Torah, the Gospels) are not the prefigurations of the Quran, but, on the contrary, they are distorted versions of an original message that essentially coincides with it.

The only way Islamic scholars could account for the obvious antiquity of the Old Testament—whose stories are constantly rewritten into the Quran—was to claim that the Quran was already written by Allah before the writing of the Old Testament. Indeed, it was “written” in the mind of Allah before creation itself. With no evidence to support such claims, however, the Old and New Testaments in Islamic thought were presumed to have been mysteriously rewritten by Jews and Christians to exclude Muhammad’s name and teachings that were said to be in the original text from Allah.

A second problem arises because the text of the Quran, as we know it, was not written or put together as a single opus until decades after Muhammad’s death (632 A.D.). In addition, the organization of the text has no internal logic. It is pasted together according to the length of the passages, not their chronology or meaning. Here is how Samir Khalil Samir, S.J. put the matter:

Once the official version (of the Quran) was published and disseminated, the khalif Uthmän (d. 656 A.D.) ordered the destruction of all other versions. Hence, the ‘uthmana’ version realized on the khalif’s initiative is the Qur’än we have today. It is a result of a compromise between the seven huffäz, who often differed one from another. Therefore, it is impossible to assert with any degree of certainty that a particular section of the Qur’än is the authentic statement truly pronounced by Muhammad. The original revelations were made over a period of eight thousand days between the years 610 and 632, and no human being could pretend to have such a perfect memory to recall, after many years, the exact words heard only once.

In other words, the text of the Quran, which is said to have come directly from Allah through Mohammed, was put together in such a way that it could not be verified. Most of the original texts on which it was based were destroyed so that the final text could not be re-examined in the light of its composition. However, at least some of these cast-away texts have been located and are under study.

The Quran is said to have been written in pure Arabic. Its literal origin, so it is said, was in the mind of Allah who passed it unchanged directly through Muhammad to mankind. Technically, Muhammad had nothing to do with the basic content of the Quran. That belonged to Allah. Hence, it was considered unchangeable. The book contained Allah’s detailed instructions about what to believe and about how men are to live. It includes promises of rewards for so doing and punishments in Hell for not following Allah.

But “What sort of a ‘book’ is the Quran?” It turns out to be something that is not so easily explained. On request, anyone can obtain a free copy of the Quran from several easily found on-line Muslim sources in just about any language. It is found in most libraries. It can be purchased on Amazon or in bookstores. But once we have a copy of the Quran in our hands, what is it that we actually have?

Many claim that, if we do not know Arabic, we will not really get its true meaning. The Quran itself says that we have to be properly disposed to read it even in Arabic. If we do not understand it, it is our fault. The book is intended to be the final revelation of Allah to mankind.

As we noted, the Quran is said to predate all other scriptures, including the Old and New Testaments, even though it came in time after them. Just how and why this predating is possible constitutes one of the dubious aspects of the claim of the Quran to be what it says it is. If Muhammad lived in the seventh century A.D., how on earth could he have known Abraham, Isaac, and David?

If we ask a research scholar “What is the Bible?” he will give us a long explication of the available sources from which the Bible was fashioned. He will not so much care about what it says or means. He will want to know how it was put together from these fragments and texts that we still possess. The Bible, in this sense, has been and continues to be meticulously worked over so that we know as best we can the authentic “text” of Scripture. This textual work is conceived as supportive of, basic to, a valid reading and understanding of the content of Jewish or Christian revelation.

When it comes to the Quran, we run into the fact that it was not put together in its present form until decades after Muhammad’s death. There seems to have been many full and partial versions of Muhammad’s words floating about the Arabic world in his time. This variety of texts could cause trouble for a revelation that was, in its own wording, final and unchanging. The khalif Uthman, as Samir Khalil Samir pointed out, decided to produce a “definitive” edition. After conflating into one all the texts deemed authentic, the khalif ordered all other copies of the Quran to be destroyed.

Evidently, however, some of these earlier versions have survived in Yemen and other places. A group of German scholars for a number of decades now have struggled, against the bitter opposition of many in Islam, to produce a definitive critical edition of the Quran, one that would take into consideration these variant texts. The fact that, up to now, a critical edition of the Quran does not exist is something of an academic scandal. But it is understandable when we realize that the very lives of those who come up with any questioning of the validity of the Quranic text are threatened.

What is the problem here? Basically, it is this: It may turn out that the text of the Quran is little more than a hastily gathered collection of unrelated texts put together after Muhammad’s death. This origin would mean that the Quran cannot be what it claims to be. Hence, we have the bitter opposition to having the Quran examined carefully for its unity or coherence.

But if we look on the Quran from the Muslim side, we can more easily see the problem. Here in the seventh century A.D. we suddenly have in our midst a revelation that maintains that it is the last and final revelation of Allah. The book contains dozens of stories and instances that are clearly taken from the Old Testament. We find ourselves with Adam, Abraham, Noah, David, even with Jesus, and Mary. To the normal observer, the Quran must have learned about these people and events from the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Yet, if this historical origin is shown, then the Quran was merely a confused effort to rewrite the scriptures already in existence. Besides, Muhammad is nowhere to be found in either the Old or New Testament.

Unless some thesis can be developed whereby the Jewish and Christian scriptures are wrong, we have no reason to give any credence to the Quran. The solution was supposedly found by claiming that all mention of Muhammad that originally appeared in the Old and New Testaments was later excised by Jews and Christians from their scripture. The Quran was not only older than Abraham and Adam, but older than the world itself. It was as it now exists already in the mind of Allah. The Quran thus is a re-write of the scriptures to clarify what they originally said. There is, of course, no textural or archeological evidence that anything like this rewriting ever happened. But since it is fundamental to the Muslim conviction that it must have been that way, it is defended in a way that allows no examination or opposition.

Another basic problem with the Quran has been implicitly granted by Muslim scholarship and tradition. Many basic passages in the Quran contradict each other. At one time Allah says this, at another he says the opposite. Normally, this contradiction would be enough to discredit the whole enterprise. But what happened intellectually and historically in Islam was the acceptance of the fact that Allah could contradict himself. Will (voluntarism) not reason was at the basis of everything. If Allah was not able to contradict himself, he would not be all powerful. We would blaspheme if we denied him this absolute power.

If one thing is right, say the jihad, in one time but not in another, what are we to believe? The Muslim thinkers developed a theory that the last statement in time was the one that was binding. Thus, in the Quran itself the pious Muhammad that appears early in Mecca is quite different from the warrior Muhammad who later appears in Medina. It was from the Medina Muhammad that the wars of Islam against the rest of the world originated. But the wars of Islam are not just wars.

One of the remarkable things about Islam, of course, is its holding itself steady over time to the mission that Allah sent his followers on—namely, to submit the world to Allah and his law. Islam is still true to this universal mission. If we cannot believe that this abiding purpose over time is possible or indeed in effect, we cannot understand the history of the world as it has faced Islam since Muhammad sent out troops from Medina.

The Quran cannot be changed or “reinterpreted” and remain what it is. Wherever its text is read, it will inflame not a few souls, usually young men, to take up the mission of subjecting the world to Allah. The Quran is not just a book to read. It is a book that sends men into the world with a flaming purpose. We may have a difficult time understanding this fact, but that is our problem.

The Quran is a book that tells us of the life and mission of Muhammad, the prophet. The book specifically denies that Christ was the Son of God or that there is otherness in the Godhead. Yahweh and Allah is not the same God. In the Quran, Christianity as such is simply rejected as having no validity. It need not be totally suppressed if its members accept second-class citizenship and pay a tax. We may not like to hear this teaching, but no good Muslim, unless he is trying to deceive us, has any doubt that Allah is exactly as he is described in the Quran. The Quran is a book about man’s complete submission to Allah. It will gladly overturn the world to make this submission prevail. It will only fail if it is prevented.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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