Would a true God have allowed different versions of the Quran to crop up within 20 years of Muhammad’s death in AD 632 ?

   It is well known that the Quran as dictated by Muhammad (570-632 AD) was written on palm leaves, stones, bones of camels and other such places. One basic question that will be asked is this- “Why did Allah choose Muhammad as a vehicle or medium to record the Quran when Allah knew that Muhammad was illiterate? Or at least, why did Allah not turn Muhammad into a great scholar overnight and provide him with good stationery to record the Quran?

   In the translation of the Quran by Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall (Pickthall’s translation is considered as very authentic), the following things are mentioned in the “Introduction” before the Quran’s first chapter:

  “All the surahs of the Koran had been recorded in writing before the Prophet’s death, and many Muslims had committed the whole Koran to memory. But the written surahs were dispersed among the people; and when, in a battle which took place during the Caliphate of Abu Bakr- that is to say, within two years of the Prophet’s death-a large number of those who knew the whole Koran by heart were killed, a collection of the whole Koran was made and put in writing. In the Caliphate of Othman, all existing copies of surahs were called in, and an authoritative version, based on Abu Bakr’s collection and the testimony of those who had the whole Koran by heart, was compiled exactly in the present form and order, which is regarded as traditional and as the arrangement of the Prophet himself, the Caliph Othman and his helpers being Comrades of the Prophet and the most devout students of the Revelation. The Koran has thus been very carefully preserved.” (Page xxviii of Pickthall’s translation of Quran, Madhur Sandesh Sangam, New Delhi, India, 1995)

   Sadly for them, the information given in this translation by British Muslim Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall clearly proves exactly the opposite. Carefully read the sentences written in bold by us. “But written Surahs were dispersed among the people”. What is the guarantee that all Surahs were compiled and none were lost? Or that no extra Surahs were added which were not there?

  According to authentic Hadith, after Muhammad’s death, the first Caliph, Abu Bakr, appointed the former secretary and scribe of the Prophet, Zayd ibn Thabit, to undertake the task of collecting all available material and compile it together. He collected them ‘from pieces of papyrus, flat stones, palm leaves, shoulder blades and ribs of animals, pieces of leather and wooden boards, as well as from the hearts of men’. He compiled all the material in the amazingly short span of two years and handed it over to the Caliph Abu Bakr (who ruled from 632-634 AD).

   According to traditions, many versions of the book began to be circulated and serious disputes arose. The third Caliph, Uthman (ruled 644-656 AD) approached Zayd again to edit and prepare the official text. This was prepared and circulated widely and the other versions were destroyed.

   In this translation of the Quran, British Muslim Muhammad Pickthall also admits “Within 2 years of the Prophet’s death a large number of people who knew the whole Koran by heart were killed”. Here he is talking of the Battle of Riddah (Apostasy) in Arabia in late 632- early 633 AD when Arabia rose in revolt against Islam and gallantly fought Muslims .

  Though the non-Muslims lost, a large number of Muslims were killed in this battle, many of whom had learnt the Quran by heart, which has been admitted by Pickthall. “In the Caliphate of Othman, all existing copies of surahs were called in, and an authoritative version, based on Abu Bakr’s collection and the testimony of those who had the whole Koran by heart, was compiled…” This shows that there were many different versions of the Quran in use by that time, during Othman’s rule (644-656 AD).

   During the reign of Uthman (also called Othman) word was brought from the out-lying provinces that the Muslims in these areas were reciting the Qur’an in different ways. The sequel is set out in the following tradition:

          • “Hudhaifa was afraid of their (the people of Sha’m and Iraq) differences in the recitation of the Qur’an, so he said to Uthman, ‘O Chief of the Believers! Save this nation before they differ about the Book (Quran) as Jews and the Christians did before’. So Uthman sent a message to Hafsa, saying, ‘Send us the manuscripts of the Qur’an so that we may compile the Qur’anic materials in perfect copies and return the manuscripts to you’. Hafsa sent it to Uthman. Uthman then ordered Zaid bin Thabit, Abdullah bin az-Zubair, Sa’id bin al-As, and Abdur-Rahman bin Harith bin Hisham to rewrite the manuscripts in perfect copies. Uthman said to the three Quraishi men, ‘In case you disagree with Zaid bin Thabit on any point in the – Qur’an, then write it in the dialect of Quraish as the Qur’an was revealed in their tongue’. They did so, and when they had written many copies, Uthman returned the original manuscripts to Hafsa. Uthman sent to every Muslim province one copy of what they had copied, and ordered that all the other Qur’anic materials, whether written in fragmentary manuscripts or whole copies, be burnt.”
          • (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 6, p 479).

   This tradition informs us quite clearly that other manuscripts of the Qur’an, some in sections, others complete, had been written out and that they were in use elsewhere in the conquered territories. Uthman’s order that they should be burnt shows that there were serious textual differences between them and the manuscript in Hafsah’s possession.

      • “The traditional account of what led to the next step in the fixing of the form of the Qur’an implies that serious differences of reading existed in the copies of the Qur’an current in the various districts.” (Watt, “Bell’s Introduction to the Qur’an”, p 42)

   Othman ordered all other versions to be destroyed. Now within so few as 20 years of Muhammad’s death there were different versions of the Quran and Muhammad was not there to check or guarantee that Othman’s version was exactly as he (Muhammad) said! That is, first Abu Bakr and then Othman had to do the job of compiling the Quran which would have been done properly by Muhammad, if God sent Muhammad as the messenger.

  If God sent Muhammad down to the people with His Message and his book of guidance viz the Quran would he have made it so difficult for the humans? He would have first made Muhammad a scholar capable of reading and writing overnight, being the Almighty and then provided Muhammad and all Muslims good stationery to record the Quran instead of relying on Muhammad’s companions to write on palm leaves, on shoulder-blade bones of camels and on stones and memorize it, and then have a large number of those who had memorized it killed in the Battle of Riddah.

  The authentic Hadith [Sahih Al Bukhari Volume 6, book 61, number 509] records that after this battle, the close companions of Muhammad were concerned that portions of the Quran could be entirely lost if they didn’t collect all of the Quran into one written volume. The first Caliph Abu Bakr (ruled from 632-634 AD) sent Zaid to gather all of the Quran together, saying: “You should search for (the fragmentary scripts of) the Qur’an and collect it in one book.” Zaid replied: “By Allah! If they had ordered me to shift one of the mountains, it would not have been heavier for me than this ordering me to collect the Qur’an. How will you do something which Allah’s Messenger did not do?”

  This shows that compiling the Quran into one book was more difficult than shifting mountains for the man who was the scribe of Muhammad, within so few as 2 years of Muhammad’s death! What was the guarantee that nothing was lost and nothing was added? It also shows that Muhammad was not able to compile it in the form of a book all together in his life.

  Zaid continued: “So I started looking for the Qur’an and collecting it from (what was written on) palm stalks, thin white stones and also from the men who knew it by heart, till I found the last Verse of Surat at-Tauba (Repentance) with Abi Khuzaima Al-Ansari, and I did not find it with anybody other than him. The Verse is: ‘Verily there has come unto you an Apostle (Muhammad) from amongst yourselves. It grieves him that you should receive any injury or difficulty…'(till the end of Surat-Baraa) (9:128-129).”

[Sahih Al-Bukhari Volume 6, book 61, number 509]

   It is worth noting that if there was one verse by this point that was only remembered by one person and not by anyone else, it is very obvious that there were other verses lost by those who had died in the battle or had otherwise forgotten. There are authentic Hadiths which say so too (which is what made Abu Bakr the first Caliph compile the Quran, the fact that the verses of the Quran were lost due to Muslims being killed in the Battle of Riddah). Besides, it is conclusively proven that many verses were lost, as we will see below.

  The Suras or chapters in the Koran have been so arranged that the longest suras find place in the beginning and the shortest in the end. Thus there is no way of knowing when, exactly the Prophet received a particular revelation. This becomes important since the message of a particular revelation, as we shall see later, is often contradicted by the message of a later revelation. Scholars, both Muslim and Western have generally been able to separate the revelations received in Mecca and those in Medina since the message of Allah is conciliatory in the former and aggressive in the latter. A true God would have ensured that a record of exactly when Muhammad received a verse remains!

   There was no single copy of the Quran existing during Muhammad’s own lifetime in a written form! Muhammad was asked many times by Meccans to perform any miracles to prove that He was a Messenger of God, such as making his God flow rivers of milk, and Muhammad used to say “I cannot perform any miracles, I am only a mortal messenger. My only miracle is the Quran.” (Muhammad need not have had to perform any miracles, couldn’t GOD have flown rivers of milk to prove Muhammad’s Prophethood to the people?)

   But this ‘only miracle’ of Muhammad also was not present in his own life-time in a proper book form! Would a true God have left a very important task of recording the Quran and making only one (and correct) version to humans, that too some 20 years after Muhammad’s death? He would have made sure that only one version of the Quran remains, and that it is carefully recorded and available easily to everyone.

   As a matter of fact, even this tradition, that Othman ended everything and finalized the Quran before AD 656 and that nothing has changed in the Quran ever since, is also wrong. Wansbrough (“Quranic Studies” Wansbrough, J. Oxford, 1977) showed that far from being fixed in the seventh century, the definitive text of Koran had still not been achieved even as late as the later part of the ninth century. Thus, a statement of Muslim creed, Fiqh Akbar I, dated to the middle of eighth century, does not refer to the Koran at all, which is quite surprising. The ninth century also saw the first collections of the ancient Arab poetry seeing the light of day, in which too there are instances of manipulation, as alleged by some scholars. [In fact, there is a strong opinion among many scholars that the Quran was actually finalized in AD 933.] This is also shown by the missing and added verses in the Quran.

Missing and Added Verses

   It is conclusively proven there are some missing verses (and it appears that there are some added verses too) in the Quran. For example, there is a tradition from the Prophet’s wife, Aisha, that there once existed a ‘verse of stoning’ where stoning to death was prescribed as punishment for fornication. This is no longer to be found in the accepted texts of the Koran and instead the Koranic punishment for this crime only prescribes one hundred lashes. But the early prophets carried out stoning for adultery, and Islamic law still prescribes it.

It was narrated that ‘Aishah said: “The Verse of stoning and of breastfeeding an adult ten times was revealed, and the paper was with me under my pillow. When the Messenger of Allah died, we were preoccupied with his death, and a tame sheep came in and ate it.” (Hasan) Sunan Ibn Majah 3:9:1944

   There are other Hadiths which prove that this Verse of Stoning (Rajm) was indeed a part of the Quran once, and is now lost. Sahih Al-Bukhari Volume 8, Book 82, Number 816 reports Umar lamenting the absence of the verse in the written Quran:

“God sent Muhammad and sent down the Scripture to him. Part of what he sent down was the passage on stoning; we read it, we were taught it, and we heeded it. The apostle stoned and we stoned them after him. I (Umar) fear that in time to come men will say that they find no mention of stoning in God’s book and thereby go astray in neglecting an ordinance which God has sent down. Verily stoning in the book of God is a penalty laid on married men and women who commit adultery.”

(Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasulullah, p. 684).

In Sahih Muslim, Book 017, Number 4194, Umar is quoted as saying:

“Verily Allah sent Muhammad (may peace be upon him) with truth and He sent down the Book upon him, and the verse of stoning was included in what was sent down to him. We recited it, retained it in our memory and understood it.”

When Ibn Umar—son of the second Muslim caliph—heard people declaring that they knew the entire Qur’an, he said to them [Abu Ubaid, Kitab Fada’il-al-Qur’an]:

“Let none of you say, ‘I have learned the whole of the Koran,’ for how does he know what the whole of it is, when much of it has disappeared? Let him rather say, ‘I have learned what is extant thereof.’”

See two passages in which Ubayy ibn Ka’b (one of Muhammad’s most trusted reciters of the Qur’an) and Aisha (the “Mother of the Faithful”) declare that approximately two-thirds of Surah 33 is missing. Both passages are taken from Abu Ubaid’s Kitab Fada’il-al-Qur’an.

Ibn Abi Maryam related to us from Ibn Luhai’a from Abu’l-Aswad from Urwa b. az-Zubair from A’isha who said, “Surat al-Ahzab (xxxiii i.e. Surah 33) used to be recited in the time of the Prophet with two hundred verses, but when Uthman wrote out the codices he was unable to procure more of it than there is in it today.”

Isma’il b. Ibrahim and Isma’i b. Ja’far related to us from al-Mubarak b. Fadala from Asim b. Abi’n-Nujud from Zirr b. Hubaish who said–Ubai b. Ka’b said to me, “O Zirr, how many verses did you count (or how many verses did you read) in Surat al-Ahzab?” “Seventy-two or seventy-three,” I answered. Said he, “Yet it used to be equal to Surat al-Baqara (ii) [Which is ‘The Cow’ with 286 verses], and we used to read in it the verse of Stoning.”

   This shows that Surah 33 had at least 200 verses once, and only 73 are left now. When a scholar brought up Aisha’s claim in a debate with a Muslim, the Muslim proclaimed that the passage had been “fabricated” without providing any evidence that the Muslims in the chains presented were inventing false claims about the Qur’an. Abu Ubaid, who was called “the ocean of knowledge” by his fellow Muslims, could not have been ignorant and sloppy in his investigation of these passages.

   About the “Verse of Stoning,” which was supposed to be part of the Qur’an but instead came up missing, Ubayy ibn Ka’b says above that it fell out with the other 100+ missing verses of Surah 33.

  According to the above tradition, more than one hundred verses from the original, are missing, since Surah 33 now has only 73 verses, while Aisha said it had 200 verses, and The Cow has 286 verses, so it could have lost more than 200 verses. Shiaites of course claim that Uthman left out a great many verses favourable to Ali, for political reasons. Muhammad himself, as we know, is said to have suppressed the now famous Satanic Verses. The authenticity of many verses has been called into question not only by modern Western scholars, but even by Muslims themselves.

   On the other hand, most scholars believe that there are many interpolations making the Koranic style uneven. Some of them are of a political and dogmatic character, such as 42:36-38, which seems to have been added to justify the elevation of Uthman as Caliph to the detriment of Ali. Of course, any interpolation, however trivial, is fatal to the Muslim dogma that the Koran is literally the eternal, uncreated word of God revealed to Muhammad and thereafter unalterable and unchanged.

Contradictions And Abrogations

   Far worse is the matter of abrogation or cancellation of passages in the Koran. The Koran abounds in contradictions and hence Muslim theologians have a rather convenient strategy by which they abrogate or replace certain passages and verses with other verses and passages with a contrary meaning, and which, they claim, was subsequently revealed by Allah to Muhammad. This problem of contradiction would never have arisen had there been a specific chronology of the revelations, which would have enabled us to determine which verse was given earlier and which later.

   In the absence of it, there is obviously a lot of arbitrariness in determining the time of the replaced verse. There has been some unanimity in determining the Meccan i.e. early suras and Medinan i.e. later suras. While the former has many passages preaching tolerance when Muhammad’s faith and supporters were still in a minority, the later Medinan suras, when Muhammad was already a winner, abound in intolerance like the famous verse of sura 9.5, ‘Slay the idolaters wherever you find them’.

   We also have strange incidences of an earlier verse cancelling a later one in the same sura. Thus verse 2.234 replaces verse 2.240 (dealing with maintenance of widows). In all, over 200 verses (some scholars estimate the figure to be 500, i.e. about 8% of Koran), have been cancelled or abrogated by later ones.

   The doctrine of abrogation makes a mockery of the Muslim dogma that the Koran is a faithful and unalterable reproduction of the original scriptures that are preserved in heaven. If God’s words are eternal, uncreated and absolute, then how can we talk of God’s words being superseded or becoming obsolete? Are some words of God to be preferred to others? And who is to judge this?

   The traditional Muslim accounts of the life of Muhammad and the story of the origin and rise of Islam are based exclusively on Muslim sources, namely, (1) the Koran (2) the Muslim biographies of Muhammad and (3) the Hadith. We shall briefly examine their content and authenticity.

   The first biography known to us of the Prophet was written one hundred and twenty years after his death, by Ibn Ishaq (d. 768 AD). The original is lost and is only available in parts in a later biography by Ibn Hisharm (and an even later biography by Al-Tabari) who died in 834 AD, two hundred years after the death of Muhammad. The other popular biographies have been written only after the first two hundred years. This long interval along with the other factors discussed below throws doubts on the authenticity of the material available from these biographies. A recent book, ‘The Quest for the Historical Muhammad’ edited by Ibn Warraq (Prometheus Books, March 2000) has dealt with precisely this issue of historicity.

   The Hadith or Hadis is greatly revered in the Islamic world and consists of a collection of saying.and doings attributed to the Prophet and traced back to him through a chain of supposedly trustworthy witnesses called ‘isnad’. Six authentic collections written in the ninth century are available, and an encyclopedia of 29000 traditions called Musnad has been compiled by Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855 AD). Since the Koran does not cover all aspects of the religion and law, and since the Muslims consider the life of the Prophet as the Divine force in action, the sayings and doings of the Prophet compiled in the Hadith along with the Koran guide the jurisprudence of Islam.


   It has been generally held that amongst the world’s major religions, only the historicity of Muhammad and Koran are undisputed and that the details of his life are more historically verifiable than the founders of other major religions. Findings suggest that this claim is not true and in fact, there is now a strong view that there has been a large scale fabrication of the prophet’s life and scriptures and that there has been a considerable influence of neighbouring religions and rituals as well as traditional pagan Arabian faiths and rituals. The present position has been neatly summed up by Ibn Warraq in his book, ‘Why I am not a Muslim?2.

   Towards the end of nineteenth century, Western scholars began the process of sifting all available information and data on Islam since there was some suspicion that some of the traditions were deliberately forged in order to further the interests of certain groups and families. Wellhausen divided the historical traditions into two categories – the apparently authentic primitive traditions, which have been recorded in the late eighth century, and second, a parallel tradition that was deliberately forged to rebut the first. The second version was found to be full of tendentious fiction.

   Goldziher, another reputed scholar of the era, studied the Hadith extensively and demonstrated that a vast number of hadiths accepted even in the most rigorously critical Muslim collections were outright forgeries compiled from around the late 8th and 9th centuries.3 The reason for this parallel tradition can be traced to the politics of competition among the early successors of the Prophet, who had often assumed his mantle after eliminating their predecessors with great blood shed; and had hence to humiliate their memory and that of their forefathers through their version of the tradition, apart from proving their own legitimacy.

   Under the Abbasids (progeny of the Prophet’s uncle), the fabrication of hadiths greatly multiplied, with the explicit purpose of proving the legitimacy of their own clan as against that of the Alids (progeny of Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet). The storytellers also excelled in inventing entertaining hadiths in order to make a fortune by drawing large crowds. Of course Muslims scholars were aware that forgeries abounded and attempted to eliminate many of them in the six authentic collections. But even these were not free from later interpolations an therefore there are several texts of the Hadith in use.

   A true God would have simply given only one and correct version of the Hadith so that people would have no doubt about Muhammad and his life. Would he allowed so many different Hadiths to crop up, many unauthentic, and leave so much confusion on which is correct and not? Without the Hadith, Islam doesn’t stand at all since we dont know anything at all about Muhammad and who he was, or anything about the Quran. A true God would have made sure that a full, proper description of Muhammad is available to humanity without any confusion, and a true and only version of the Quran is available.

   Since the biographies on the Prophet appeared much after his death and were based on these traditions, the early twentieth century scholars working at that time considered them suspect.4 Their conclusions were subsequently investigated by a group of Soviet Islamologists5 who concluded that the life of Muhammad and that of his immediate successors are as ‘mythical’ as the accounts of Christ and the Apostles (discussed later) and that Islam was merely an offshoot of Arianism (a Greek Christian doctrine) and that the Arian Islamites were indistinguishable from the Jews until the impact of the Crusades made them assume a separate identity. In fact some of them wondered if Muhammad was not a necessary fiction since every ‘historical’ religion must needs have a founder.

   From the 1950s, Islamic studies received a further impetus under Schacht6 His conclusions were even more radical and disturbing. He proved that many Islamic traditions did not exist at a particular time by showing, for example, that they were not used as a legal argument in a discussion that would have made reference to them imperative, had these traditions existed. He in fact concluded that every tradition allegedly traced back in time to the Prophet must be considered inauthentic and the Fictitious expression of a legal doctrine formulated at a later date!

   Traditions introduced from around the time of the Successors (to the Prophet) were offered as traditions from the time of the Companions (contemporaries of the Prophet), and traditions from the time of the Companions to the Prophet were offered as traditions practiced by the Prophet himself. Details from the life of the Prophet were invented to support legal doctrines. He also showed that the beginnings of the Islamic law cannot be traced further back in the Islamic tradition, than to about a century after the Prophet’s death. Thus it did not directly derive from the Koran, but developed out of popular and administrative practices under the Urnmayads which diverged often from the intentions and even the explicit wording of the Koran. The integration of the two was done at a later stage.

   Many scholars were convinced of the essential soundness of Schacht’s analysis and developed his thesis further. Wansbrough7 argued that the Koran and the Hadith grew out of sectarian controversies over the course of a long period and then were projected back in time onto an invented Arabian point of origin.

Evidence Of Fabrication

1. According to the traditions, Koran had many versions and Uthman destroyed all but one. Similarly Hajja (661-714 AD), the governor of Iraq, had collected and destroyed all the writings of the early Muslims.

2. The Koran is strikingly lacking in overall structure. It appears to be a product of hasty and imperfect editing of materials from a plurality of traditions.

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3. Many traditions in the Hadith appear to have been invented to explain the presence of some passages in Koran. Seemingly precise data seems to have been cooked up to provide authenticity. Thus the early historian, Ibn Ishaq (d. 768) was vague about many events, whereas Waqidi (d. 823) gave precise dates and other details for the same events! If so much spurious information had accumulated in two generations, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that even more must have accumulated in the three generations between the Prophet and Ibn Ishaq.


1. Twenty-three Years, A Study of the Prophetic Career of Mohammed, Ali Dashti, London, 1985

2. Why I am not a Muslim, Ibn Warraq. Prometheus Books, New York, 1995.

3. Muslim Studies, 2 vols. Translated by C.R. Barber and S.M. Stern, Goidziher Ignaz, London, 1967-71

4. Islamic History. A Framework for inquiry, Humphreys, R. S., Princeton, 1991

Mohammedanism. Hurgronje Snouck, C, New York, 1916

5. Russia and Islam, Smimov, N.A., London, 1934

6. An Introduction to Islamic Law, Schacht Joseph, Oxford, 1964

7. Quranic Studies Wansbrough, J. Oxford, 1977

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