Before turning to the book itself, however, it will be interesting to note some historical information regarding the prophet Mohammed.
There is readily accessible information on the internet and in general reference books regarding Mohammed (e.g., Encyclopedia Britannica articles on “Muhammad” and “Islam”; Catholic Encyclopedia on the Internet; Understanding the Koran, Mateen Elass, Zondervan, 2004, Grand Rapids, MI, etc.). A very useful Christadelphian work, The Bible and Islam, is available from its author by private enquiry to the Manchester, UK, ecclesias or by expressing interest through the various Christadelphian internet discussion sites. From what we have read, the essentials of Mohammed’s life are generally agreed to by all. Evidently biographical accounts were written shortly after his death and original texts still exist from the 8th and 9th centuries AD. So this is not an area of much dispute.
Mohammed was born about 570 AD in Mecca into a mercantile tribe which was involved in the trading activity centered in that city. Since his father died before he was born and his mother before he was six, he was raised primarily by his uncle. The uncle took Mohammed along on some of his trading journeys, thus giving the young man exposure to the wider world of the Middle East.
During this time, he came to the attention of a wealthy widow, Khadijah, who initially hired Mohammed to look after her affairs and then married him. At the time, Khadijah was 40 and Mohammed 25. From this secure position in society, Mohammed pursued his trading activity, eventually gaining a respected and prosperous position in his own right. The two lived as a faithful couple for 25 years, having only one daughter before Khadijah died. Upon her death, Mohammed was urged to secure alliances through marriage and took several wives (11 to 13). However, he had no sons and only one more daughter.
In addition to being a trading city, Mecca was the religious center of the area, catering to the worship of a host of pagan gods. Early in his life, Mohammed took a profound interest in religion and would often retire to the local countryside for periods of reflection and meditation. During one of these retreats, in 610 AD, he had a dramatic experience which he reported as a visitation from an angel. Further “revelations” were to occur until Mohammad felt he was compelled to preach the messages he was hearing.
Religious visions were not unique in Mecca, as the various priests would occasionally claim such an experience. The difference in Mohammed’s case, however, was he now believed there was only one god, Allah, and worship of any other god must stop.
Supported by his wife and a few friends, Mohammed began the public preaching of his message about 613 AD. Not unexpectedly, there was fierce opposition from the religious establishment in Mecca made wealthy by their adherents. During the next 10 years, Mohammed slowly gathered followers in spite of the vigorous opposition and eventually shifted his headquarters to Medina. Armed conflict continued until, in 630 AD, Mohammed was able to lead a force of 10,000 in conquest of Mecca. By his death in 632 AD, Mohammed and his followers were the most powerful force in the area and held dominant influence in the entire Arabian Peninsula.
No miracles or prophecies
Mohammed never claimed to be anything more than the conduit for Allah’s message to the Arab people. He did no miracles, did not make any prophecies, short-term or long-term, and claimed no defining experience such as our Lord’s resurrection from the dead. We can’t help but conclude he must have had a remarkable personality and must have been a very effective leader. Upon his death, his followers carried on the cause with great vigor, carrying Islam across North Africa and into Spain as far as France. They went north and east bringing what is today Syria, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan under Muslim rule. And eventually Islam spread throughout Turkey and Eastern Europe.
It really is quite remarkable what resulted from this one man and his visions.
Introduction to the Qur’an
The Qur’an is a somewhat shorter book than the New Testament. It is written in Arabic and based on the recitations of Mohammed over the period of 610-632 AD. Its stated purpose is to be a continuation of the Old and New Testaments:
“This Qur’an is not such as can be produced by other than Allah; on the contrary it is a confirmation of (revelations) that went before it, and a fuller explanation of the Book [the Bible] — wherein there is no doubt — from the Lord of the Worlds” (10:37).
“The same Religion He has established for you as that which He enjoined on Noah — the which We have sent by inspiration to you — and that which We enjoined on Abraham, Moses, and Jesus…” (42:13).
The target audience is the Arabs, with the message being in Arabic that they might understand:
“We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur’an, in order that you may learn wisdom” (12:2).
Prior to this revelation, the Qur’an claims Muhammad’s people did not understand the way of Allah:
“In order that you may admonish a people whose father had received no admonition, and who therefore remain heedless of (the Signs of Allah)” (36:6).
“And thus we have, by Our command, sent inspiration to you: you did not know (before) what was Revelation, and what was Faith; but We have made the (Qur’an) a Light, wherewith We guide such of our servants as We will; and verily you do guide (men) to the Straight Way“ (42:52).
While the book is primarily for Arabs, it claims its message is universal:
“This is no less than a message to (all) the worlds” (38:87; 68:52, etc.).
In addition, the Qur’an is said to be direct from Allah:
“The revelation of this book is from Allah, the exalted in Power, full of wisdom” (39:1).
“In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Allah most Gracious. It is He who has taught the Qur’an” (55:1,2).
Further, the Qur’an claims to be wholly inspired and without error:
“It is He Who sent down to you (step by step), in truth, the Book, confirming what went before it; and He sent down the Law (of Moses) and the Gospel (of Jesus) before this, as a guide to mankind… And those who are firmly grounded in knowledge say: ‘We believe in the Book; the whole of it is from our Lord:’ and none will grasp the Message except men of understanding” (3:3, 7).
“Do they not consider the Qur’an (with care)? Had it been from other than Allah, they would surely have found therein much discrepancy” (4:82).
“But truly (Revelation) is a cause of sorrow for the Unbelievers. But verily it is Truth of assured certainty” (69:51).
The Qur’an is divided into chapters (114 of them, called “Suras”) and verses. (Not all English translations use the same verse breakdowns. Ours are taken from the translation of Abdullah Ali.)
Some obvious problems
1. Order of the suras
To the Bible reader, the Qur’an is organized in a curious way. The first chapter is a short (seven verses) hymn of praise, and after that the book is organized by descending order of chapter length (in terms of word count). There is no chronological sequence and no attempt to identify the specific year in which a revelation was given. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “Various efforts have been made by Muslim writers and European scholars to arrange the Suras chronologically, but Noldeke’s (a European scholar) arrangement is generally considered the most plausible.”
Since the entire revelation is said to be given in a 22-year period, the time factor would appear to be of no great importance (cp. Jeremiah, for example, where the historical setting of the later chapters is difficult to determine). It becomes an issue, however, when we consider the “continuous improvement” aspect of the book.
2. Continuous improvement
In his day, Mohammed was accused of being a fraud because some of his later “revelations” contradicted aspects of his earlier ones. The Qur’an admits this is so, but claims that Allah continually corrected and improved Muhammad’s understanding:
“None of Our revelations do We [the ‘We’ here would be the heavenly agent revealing the material to Mohammed] abrogate or cause to be forgotten, but we substitute something better or similar: don’t you know that Allah has power over all things?” (2:106).
“Allah blots out or confirms what He pleases: with Him is the Mother of the Book” (13:39).
(Note the original of the Qur’an was kept in heaven and was gradually being revealed to Mohammed for him to recite to others.)
“When We substitute one revelation for another — and Allah knows best what He reveals (in stages) — they say, ‘You are but a forger’ but most of them do not understand” (16:101).
The Bible reader’s reaction will be: ‘If the word is truly from God, why not get it right in the first place?’ Furthermore, since there is no certain chronological order to the “revelations”, how is the reader to know which is the final word? In matters of personal behavior (jihad, or holy wars, for example), that can make a huge difference as to how one acts. Further, as we have noted, the book itself claims there is no discrepancy in it (4:82). We will see that this aspect of the Qur’an becomes a continuing problem of interpretation.
3. Literary quality
The Bible reader will immediately find the Qur’an to be jumping around in subject matter, disconnected from point to point, and staccato in its wording. Like the Bible, it is a translation from another language (Hebrew and Greek in the case of the Bible, Arabic in the case of the Qur’an). Even though it is a translation, the Bible generally reads with great power and literary flow in the English language (and, in the writer’s experience, in other languages as well). The Qur’an, however, reads in a disconcertingly choppy manner in English.
At first, we felt our reaction was biased, stemming from familiarity with and love for the Bible. Then we read the following in the Economist (a non-sectarian news magazine): “The Koran is a mere four-fifths of the length of the New Testament; but some Westerners find it an even more difficult read. Edward Gibbon (who wrote The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) complained about its ‘endless incoherent rhapsody of fable and precept’. Thomas Carlyle (a famous English author of the 19th century) said that is was ‘as toilsome reading as I ever undertook; a wearisome, confused jumble, crude, incondite [poorly constructed, unpolished]’.”
The Arabic original, however, receives high praise: “The Koran is written in Arabic, in rhymed prose, the style differing considerably in the various Suras, according to the various periods of the Prophet’s life. The language is universally acknowledged to be the most perfect form of Arab speech, and soon became the standard by which other Arabic literary compositions had to be judged…” (Catholic Encyclopedia, Internet article on Qur’an).
Of course, not knowing Arabic, we have no way of reaching a personal conclusion. That could be of incidental importance if the quality of the Arabic were not the primary reason given for believing the book is of heavenly origin.
Why believe the Qur’an is from heaven?
The only evidence the Qur’an gives to prove it is divinely inspired is the Qur’an itself:
“If the whole of mankind and Jinns [spirit beings, demons] were to gather together to produce the like of this Qur’an, they could not produce the like thereof, even if they backed up each other with help and support” (17:88).
According to the book, if Muhammad was challenged as a forger he was to respond:
” ‘Produce a sura yourself.’ Or do they say, ‘He forged it’? Say: ‘Bring then a Sura like it, and call (to your aid) anyone you can, besides Allah, if it be you speak the truth!’ “ (10:38).
Sura 11:13 speaks the same words but challenges the skeptic to produce 10 suras. This challenge runs throughout the Qur’an, for example:
“Or do they say, ‘He fabricated the (Message)’? Nay, they have no faith! Let them then produce a recital like it — if (it be) they speak the Truth!” (52:33,34).
According to the Qur’an, the miracle of Mohammed’s reciting such profound thoughts in such perfect Arabic was underscored in that he was an “unlettered” man (7:157,158). Some Muslims claim this means illiterate. Whether or not that is true, the Qur’an clearly claims it is a miracle for any person to have been the initial reciter of this book.
The Qur’an contains no prophecies and, in an awkward passage, disclaims any connection with miraculous events:
“If there were a Qur’an with which mountains were moved, or the earth were cloven asunder, or the dead were made to speak, (this would be the one!) but, truly, the Command is with Allah in all things!” (13:31).
There is reference to “signs” but these are not in connection with the authenticity of the Qur’an. They are rather proofs of the creative work of Allah and consist of the various cycles of nature (e.g., 2:164; 3:190; etc.).
Accordingly, from the standpoint of the English reader, the problem is now clearly seen. In the English translation, the Qur’an is anything but brilliant, and as we shall see the content is a mixture of Jewish fables and confused citation of Bible narratives. Therefore, the Bible-oriented English reader will inevitably come away from a survey of the Qur’an wondering how it holds credibility with over a billion people on earth.