What Does Islam Teach About the Bible?

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What Does Islam Teach About the Bible?
from 
40 Questions About Islam
by Matthew Aaron Bennett

“People of the Book! Why do you mix the truth with falsehood, and conceal the truth, when you know (better)? . . .

Surely (there is) indeed a group of them who twist their tongues with the Book, so that you will think it is from the Book, when it is not from the Book. And they say, “It is from God,” when it is not from God. They speak lies against God, and they know (it).”~Qur’an 3:71, 78

The previous question demonstrated that the Qur’an endorses the Torah, Psalms, and Gospel as authentic revelation, descended from the same heavenly source as the Qur’an. However, it does not take long for a Christian in conversation with most Muslims to discover that Islamic confidence in the Bible’s authority is lacking. How is it that the Qur’an can commend these books as authentic revelation, yet most Muslims reject the Bible out of hand?

The answer to this question comes in the form of a later Islamic teaching known as tahrif. The doctrine of tahrif is the teaching that the Jews and Christians have corrupted and changed their scriptures such that they can no longer be trusted. This chapter will discuss what the Qur’an says about the Jews and the Christians as they interpret and explain their holy books. It will then consider how later Islamic theology developed the doctrine of tahrif.[1] Finally, it will consider the tension that such a doctrine introduces between the Qur’an and later Islamic teaching.

The Qur’an’s Accusation against the Jews and Christians

In various places throughout the Qur’an, one finds Jews and Christians being chastised for misusing or misinterpreting their scripture. Gabriel Said Reynolds has done the work to demonstrate that the Qur’an itself uses eight verbs to discuss such accusations of Jewish and Christian impropriety.[2] Only one of these words is etymologically related to the extra-qur’anic term tahrif, which has been adopted by later Islamic theology and commentary to mean that Christians and Jews have altered, changed, or corrupted the texts they were given.

The rest of the verbs used to chastise Jews and Christians focus mainly on improper interpretation, wrenching verses out of context, and obscuring parts of the scripture they have received. Likewise, in Qur’an 2:79, one reads, “So woe to those who write the Book with their (own) hands, (and) then say, ‘This is from God,’ in order to sell it for a small price.” However, even this criticism does not indicate that the actual text of the Bible has been altered. Rather it merely emphasizes the fact that human words cannot serve as a substitute for divine words.

Having presented an exhaustive survey of this type of accusation throughout the Qur’an, Reynolds convincingly concludes, “There is no compelling reason to think the Qur’anic idea of tahrif involves textual alteration.”[3] Instead, the Qur’an makes a far more modest appeal to Christians and Jews to read, interpret, and apply their scriptures appropriately and with sufficient integrity as to take the whole revelation into account. Yet, the vast majority of Islamic literature written from the Medieval period through to the present maintains the conviction that the Jews and Christians have so corrupted their scripture as to no longer be able to trust it. An investigation of the origins of such an argument is appropriate at this point.

Islamic Commentary and the Development of Tahrif

Turning from the Qur’an to the later texts collected in the Sunnah, one finds the posture toward previously revealed scripture to be much more antagonistic. For example, in a hadith classified as authentic, one reads,

Why do you ask the people of the scripture about anything while your Book (Qur’an) which has been revealed to Allah’s Messenger is newer and the latest? You read it pure, undistorted and unchanged, and Allah has told you that the people of the scripture (Jews and Christians) changed their scripture and distorted it, and wrote the scripture with their own hands and said, “It is from Allah,” to sell it for a little gain. Does not the knowledge which has come to you prevent you from asking them about anything? No, by Allah, we have never seen any man from them asking you regarding what has been revealed to you![4]

Following this trajectory, the Sunnah and later commentaries often embellish the Qur’an’s complaint against the Jews and Christians by accusing them of corrupting the actual text of their sacred books.

Presenting a more charitable version of this Islamic understanding of the contemporary unreliability of the Bible, Badru Kateregga writes of the Jewish and Christian scriptures, “Muslims are aware that human imperfections seem to be included in the Bible. For example, the personalities of the biblical Prophets form part of the content of biblical Scriptures. Moreover, the biblical Scriptures include both history and the Word of God.”[5] In other words, rather than contending that the Bible has been overtly corrupted, Jewish and Christian tampering allowed human additions into the text of the Bible and have rendered it unreliable.

Though the Qur’an refers positively to the Torah, Psalms, and Gospel, popular Muslim opinion derives from the Islamic tradition that teaches that the Bible is unreliable because its text has been altered. In light of this tradition of biblical corruption—and since the Qur’an purports to be the complete, final, and summative revelation from God—few Muslims see reason to personally read or consult the Bible.

Introducing a Tension

Popular understanding about the reliability of the Bible relies solely upon extra-qur’anic traditions rather than the teaching of the Qur’an. In fact, most Muslims take the corruption of the Bible as established fact.6 [6]However, such traditions present an irreconcilable tension. The Qur’an not only recognizes the Torah, the Psalms, and the Gospel as authentic revelation; it also indicates that these very books, in uncorrupted form, were present and available to its audience.[7]

That the Gospel was understood to be accessible to the audience of the Qur’an is apparent, as Qur’an 5:47 instructs, “So let the People of the Gospel judge by what God has sent down in it.” Corroborating this understanding, Reynolds notes, “If the Qur’an speaks against certain Christians, it speaks in support of the Gospel, and moreover assumes that the valid Christian rev- elation is still at hand in its day.”[8] Anderson concurs with this conclusion, saying, “Clearly, both the Jewish and Christian scriptures were still extant in Muhammad’s day, which is why the Qur’an calls Muslims to believe them (Qur’an 3:84; 4:136).”[9]

Furthermore, it appears that while the Qur’an specifically names the Torah, Psalms, and Gospel, early Muslims understood these citations to function as a reference to the entirety of the Old and New Testaments.[10] The Qur’an even instructs its readers to consult with those who have been given previous scriptures if they lack understanding. For instance, Qur’an 10:94 encourages the reader to seek understanding among the Jews and Christians: “If you are in doubt about what We have sent down to you, ask those who have been reciting the Book before you.”[11]

If the Qur’an endorses the previous revelation that is apparently still available to the reader of the Qur’an, it views the Bible as reliable and uncorrupted as of the seventh century CE. For the later Islamic accusation of corruption to be true, then, such corruption would have had to have occurred after Muhammad’s death. However, the many and widely disbursed extant manuscripts demonstrate the consistency of the biblical text from at least two centuries before Muhammad’s birth. As Anderson concludes, “The Christians in Muhammad’s day had the selfsame scripture we have today.”[12]

This evidence introduces a tension that makes the doctrine of tahrif untenable. If one is to maintain that the Bible is corrupt, it would then imply that the Qur’an was mistaken to commend it and to recommend that those in doubt consult with the people who are informed by it. Either the Bible is as the Qur’an says it is—and as such should be taken as true divine revelation by the Muslim community—or the Qur’an and its author were mistaken to so highly praise it.

Summary

Many Muslims are raised with the assumption that the Qur’an, Muhammad’s teaching, and early Islamic tradition reinforce the claim that Jews and Christians have altered and corrupted the revelation that came to them from God. This doctrine is known as tahrif, and though it does not appear in the Qur’an, it has become standard Islamic belief through the writings of Muslim authors from Ibn Hizam in the eleventh century to Ahmed Deedat in the twentieth.[13] A more critical inspection of the Qur’an’s claims about the Bible and appeal to biblical manuscript evidence, however, shows that the later idea actually complicates central Islamic claims regarding the total accuracy of the Qur’an. Neither the Qur’an nor any prior history lends credibility to the popular Islamic idea of tahrif.

 

[1] For much of the material found in this chapter, I am indebted to the article by Gabriel Said Reynolds, “On the Qur’anic Accusation of Scriptural Falsification (Tahrif) and Christian Anti-Jewish Polemic,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 130, no. 2 (2010): 189–202.

[2] Reynolds, “Scriptural Falsification,” 192–93. Those eight verbs used to accuse Jews and Christians of falsifying their scriptures are: (1) cover up (Qur’an 2:42); (2) conceal (Qur’an 2:42); (3) exchange (Qur’an 2:59); (4) write (Qur’an 2:79); (5) twist their tongues (Qur’an 3:78); (6) shift words out of their contexts (Qur’an 4:46); (7) forget (Qur’an 5:13–14); (8) hide (Qur’an 5:15).

[3] Reynolds, “Scriptural Falsification,” 194. For others who reach the same conclusions, see Gordon Nickel, Narratives of Tampering in the Earliest Commentaries on the Qur’an (Leiden: Brill, 2011); and Mark Anderson, The Qur’an in Context: A Christian Exploration (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016), 257–69.

[4] Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, https://sunnah.com/bukhari/96/90, book 96 (§90).

[5] Badru Kateregga and David Shenk, A Muslim and a Christian in Dialogue (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1997), 55.

[6] Anderson, Qur’an in Context, 260n11.

[7] Occasionally Muslims contend that Moses, David, and Jesus were given books—now lost to history—that are distinct from the Torah, Psalms, and Gospels of the Bible. However, as Anderson, Qur’an in Context, 260–69, convincingly demonstrates, this position is historically and theologically untenable, and the earliest witnesses in Islamic history contradict it. Furthermore, no earlier source recognizes this claim, which bears obvious Islamic bias.

[8] Reynolds, “Scriptural Falsification,” 195.

[9] Anderson, Qur’an in Context, 265.

[10] Anderson, Qur’an in Context, 266-67.

[11] Cf. Qur’an 21:7. Commenting on Qur’an 10:94, A. J. Droge, trans., The Qur’an: A New Annotated Translation (Bristol, CT: Equinox, 2015), 131n197, notes that the phrase “those who have been reciting the Book before you” is a reference to Jews and Christians.

[12] Anderson, Qur’an in Context, 267.

[13] Anderson, Qur’an in Context, 261n11.

 


This post is adapted from 40 Questions About Islam by Matthew Aaron Bennett. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

A much anticipated new addition to the very popular and practical book series that answers real questions on key topics in contemporary Christianity

Islam is one of the most significant forces shaping the world today, but most Christians are confused about its key beliefs and practices. Many wonder about the apparent similarities and obvious differences between Christianity and Islam, and want to reach out to Muslim friends or neighbors with the gospel but don’t know where to begin. Having spent several years living in North Africa and the Middle East, missions professor Matthew Bennett guides readers through Islam’s key tenants and provides answers to critical questions, such as:

    • Who was Muhammad and what was his message?
    • Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?
    • What are the differences between the Qur’an and the Bible?
    • What is shariah law?
    • What is the Islamic view of salvation?
    • What happens in the mosque?
    • Is Islam inherently misogynistic?
    • How should a Christian share the gospel with Muslims?

Helpful summaries at the end of each chapter encapsulate important information, followed by discussion questions useful for personal or small-group study. Whether you want to understand Islam better or reach Muslims for Christ, 40 Questions on Islam is an indispensable primer and reference book.

 


 

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About Author

Matthew Bennett is assistant professor of Missions and Theology at Cedarville University.

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