It has dawned upon someone, as it dawns upon many from time to time, that the Qur’an has many contradictions. Eleven have been cited by him. The writer places an introduction to his findings. We shall, in a series of articles, take up these contradictions for answer. But in this issue we shall discuss the writer’s introduction. It runs as follows:
“The Qur’an, with its many ambiguous statements, is an ideal scripture to find contradictions. At the same time, its ambiguity provides a good opportunity for Muslims to find some explanation or the other to negate a contradiction. Some of the contradictions mentioned below might have already appeared on other Web Sites with slight variations.
Though Muslim scholars emphasize on the need to understand the CONTEXT of every verse to understand its implication better, the job is easily said than done. The innumerable repetitions and frequent appearance of irrelevant verses make the CONTEXT-finding task indeed difficult. One would expect a scripture to be organized in some logical manner to enable people to understand it better. Unfortunately the Qur’an, often projected by Muslims as the FINAL TESTAMENT from God, fails in this criterion too.
“Better than a thousand verses devoid of meaning is a single meaningful verse which can bring tranquility to the one who hears it” (Dhammapada, 101).
Our answer, point by point is as follows:
Apart from the Qur’an, take any other literature, human or Divine. What is ambiguous to one is deeply meaningful to others. Let us cite a simple example. The Prophet said, “God says, He is Time.” How many billions are not there, even in our own times, to whom this is an ambiguous statement? But when Dr. Iqbal mentioned it to Bergson, he, despite his handicapped state, almost jumped out of his chair in sheer amazement.
The mere fact of the Theory of Relativity being ambiguous to a billion, does not render it ambiguous.
What makes a statement ambiguous? It is, when it apparently sounds so to mankind, by consensus, educated and uneducated alike; and when explained by an expert, the great majority should think that it is a far-fetched explanation, or that the explanation is too philosophical, or, simply incomprehensible. When a majority thinks of a statement in these terms, then it is ambiguous.
On the other hands, so long as there is an explanation which employs reason, logic, and common sense, which explanation satisfies not the exponent himself, or a few of his followers, but an educated people, in sufficient numbers, then the statement is not ambiguous. It does not mean such a statement is true, or false. It is merely unambiguous. It could as well be false.
Someone might quickly cite as example the famous huruf al-muqatta`at of the Qur’an as ambiguous, e.g. “Alif. Lam. Meem,” “Taa. Haa.” The answer is, is there a consensus over their ambiguity? A second answer is, “Do you know something about meters in poetry?” And a third, “Have you heard them recited along with the texts that follow? Get the text recited without them and with them and note the difference.
This is a common feature in many kinds of literature, especially in poetry and oration. Since the Dhammapada (a Buddhist literature) has been cited, let us cite an example from Dhammapad istels:
“He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,” – in those
who harbor such thoughts hatred will never cease.
“He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,” – in those
who do not harbor such thoughts hatred will cease.
Far from innumerable repetitions, there is not one repetition in the Qur’an removing which will not cause damage to the text. There may be repetitive use of words forming sentence, or even verses using exactly the same words, but placed in different contexts, each sentence yields several meanings and implications, and therefore, it cannot be called a repetition.
We can take the example of so-called repetitive verse of the chapter Al-Rahman (the Most Merciful): “Then which of your Lord’s blessings you two (men and jinn) will deny?” It appears 31 times in all, out of 78 verses. Is it a meaningless repetition when we notice that every time a blessing or blessings are mentioned, this question is asked? In fact, the repetitive verse of this chapter is one of the factors that enhance its beauty, popularly chosen for public recitation.
Further, apart from the psychological effect, reasons of rhyme and rhythm, do these verses have any other function? Are they not saying, “Look! You are tired of the repetition of this verse; but We were not tired of providing you with the innumerable blessings. And these countless blessings are for a life lasting seconds. Imagine what has not your Lord prepared for the everlasting Next life?”
If a person is ‘out of context’ then, obviously, difficulties multiply.
Why a sentence? Take whole paragraphs or several of them out of context from any book, say one on String Theory in cosmology, and try to make sense.
Let us cite one or two simple examples. When the fuller implications of the Quantum Theory struck the leading scientists, Einstein remarked, “God does not play dice.” This was decades ago. But how many educated millions are not there, to whom this non-scientific statement is still ambiguous? Niels Bohr hung a sign on his door saying, “Philosophers keep out. Work in progress.” How many people understand what he meant?
If these simple sentences are “out of context” for many, it is because, they do not understand the context. Context is half the meaning. Why blame the Qur’an?
To some people, not passages, but the whole Qur’an is irrelevant. A recent work (“The Field”, Lynne McTaggart, Harper Perennial, 2002) states that when realities of the same theory (Quantum Mechanics) first dawned upon the scientists who discovered it, it led them to look into “classic philosophical texts in their attempt to grasp the deeper truth about the strange subatomic world they were observing. Pauli examined the psychoanalysis and archetypes and the Qabbala; Bohr, the Tau and Chinese philosophy; Schrodinger, Hindu philosophy; and Heisenberg the Platonic theory of ancient Greece (p. xvi).” But none, at least as reported, took the Qur’an as another candidate for study. The Qur’an was irrelevant to them. Little do people understand that they are irrelevant to universal phenomenon.
The Qur’anic Law replaced the Arab, Roman, Greek, Persian, Hindu and Hammurabi laws. It is still the legal system of several countries. On the other hand the Arab, Roman, Greek, Persian and Hammurabi laws have either become irrelevant, or are on the verge of becoming so, while the Qur’anic Laws are being increasingly cited as relevant to modern times. But of course, if a reader does not know the Law, the people, the psychology of the human race, their spiritual yearnings, and dozens of other disciplines, then, much of the Qur’an will sound irrelevant to him.
The Qur’an is primarily a Book of Guidance. It is not a book of Law, nor of science, nor philosophy. It follows the commonly applied logic only where Law or science are involved. As for its compilation (putting together of its various parts), it does not follow the methodology that the humans have adopted for themselves, especially for their writings. The Qur’an follows the sequential thought in which human mind works.
To explain, in normal circumstances, the human mind follows a system of thought that involves a logic that is different from that which they use in their writings and speeches. We can illustrate with the following example how a man’s mind works: “It starts thinking of the Qur’an and makes the inner statement that it is incomprehensible because it follows a sequence that seems illogical. The word ‘logic’ reminds him of the Greek philosophers who did the seminal work on this topic; which reminds him that one time the Greeks made huge contributions to science and fine arts, which reminds him of his father who used to say that education makes a man out of an animal. The mention of his father reminds him of Australia where his father died. Having never been into that country he wonders what kind of a place it is, which reminds him that he hasn’t traveled for a long while, which leads him to resolve that he should save enough money to be able to travel, which reminds him that the establishment he works for is not doing well, and, far from a promotion, he could face retrenchment. Then his mind reminds him that he was considering the point of the illogical proceeding of the Qur’an, and he wishes it was simpler.”
Of course, from person to person, the mind will follow a different track of thought, but the process will remain. In many of its part, the mind works largely through association of thoughts. It might sound illogical to some people, but is it so? Is there no sequence in the working as illustrated above?
Let us now take an example from the Qur’an. After Surah al-Fatiha, Surah al-Baqarah starts by saying that this is a Book of guidance (verse 2). It describes believers (v. 3-5), unbelievers (6-7) and the go-in-between (8-20). Next it invites to worship of one God (21-22); throws a challenge at those who do not believe in the Divine origin of this Scripture (23), says Allah is not ashamed of citing a mosquito as an example (26), reminds of Him who created the world (29). It moves on to describes Allah’s intention to place Adam on the earth as the vicegerent (30), prostration of angels before Adam, Shaytan’s refusal to prostrate (34), and the expulsion from Paradise (35-39). Thereafter, by verse 40 it begins to speak of the Israelites, lasting for a good length (about 65 verses).
The mind of a novice will ask, “What’s going on here? Could it not be arranged in a logical manner?” This is because of lack of familiarity and insistence upon understanding the Qur’an on one’s own conditions.
To a frequent reader, the sequence is perfectly logical, although it does require some application of the mind: “In Surah al-Fatiha, man asked for guidance. This second Surah says, ‘If you are looking for guidance, then, here is the Book of Guidance.’
Now, since this is a Book of Guidance, the verses that follow state the basic qualities of those who will draw guidance from it, and those who will not; so that, if the reader finds himself in the wrong bracket, he might change sides, or he will miss the guidance.
The go-in-between are described in greater details because (a) it is difficult to identify them, as they feign belief, (b) the like of them will always be there in every Muslim society and (c) they are more dangerous to Islam and Muslims than open unbelievers.
The above division is also to impress on the believers that mankind should not be divided on the basis of race, language or region. The only division accepted to Islam is on the basis of faith. This principle is maintained throughout the Qur’an: it ignores geographical, racial and linguistic divisions.
It is after having first informed the reader of the primary qualities of the class of people who will benefit from this Book, that the Qur’an opens up the main door to guidance: It is to worship none but Allah, Lord of the worlds.
Now, there can be skeptics. What is the proof that this is from God? The answer is simple and emphatic: If you bear any doubt, bring a chapter of similar qualities as this Book. Consider, if Muhammad wrote it, then, Muhammad was, according to your beliefs, a man, far from exemplary, no Prophet, and hence, was either lying when he said that this was a Revelation, or was hallucinated, or deluded, or suffered from some sort of hitherto unknown mental disorder under the influence of which he produced the Qur’an.
Fine, everyone has the legitimate right to doubt; and the answer is, what was possible for Muhammad is possible for any other. What was possible for one man is far more easily possible for entire mankind. What was possible during 23 years of Muhammad’s life is possible for humanity given 1500 years, and what was possible for an unlettered man, should be possible for the highly literate people. So, why should you not produce a chapter, a passage, a verse of equal beauty, diction, style and theme? After all, Arabic is not a dead language like the languages of the other well-known ancient Scriptures! After all, there is no University worth its name in Europe and America, which does not have an Arabic/Islamic department, headed by highly educated unbelieving experts in Arabic language. After all, Muhammad was, according to you, lacking in many good qualities, and endowed with several evil ones, but you ALL are of noble lineage, noble qualities, noble standing. Why do you not – O learned, O pious, O noble ones – jointly produce something equal to the Qur’an? If you cannot answer this simple challenge, then know that a Fire has been lit for you.
Having presented its Call, and answered the doubt about the Call from being other than God, the Qur’an – the Book of Guidance – next turns to the believers to reward them with the initial reward for their belief by removing questions that worry every individual, of every race, of all times: “Who am I? Where am I from? Why am I here? Where do I go after death? Am I an animal as the scientists say? Am I leading a meaningless life, to die a meaningless death?” No human ever escaped these questions, and no human escaped restlessness, unsettledness and dissatisfaction as a result. He is informed that he is not an animal, he is not incidental, he is no less than a vicegerent of God with responsibilities on him. Angels have prostrated themselves before him. He should not follow the Devil’s path. He will, if he keeps the tryst, next be proceeding to a vast place of pleasures and permanent residence. These answers release the mind of perplexity, anxiety and frustration.
But what’s the mosquito-example doing here? Well, a little thought would have done. Despite undeniable evidences in favor of this Book as a Revelation, despite the un-met challenge to produce its equal, what could be the basis for the people to disbelieve? Well, the reasons for rejecting this Revelation are no stronger than a mosquito. People disbelieve because they want to disbelieve. They will use evidences as weak and as evil as a mosquito, as pretext to disbelief.
Next, the passage informs the newly guided believers that now that you have accepted the guidance, you must realize that the same guidance was given to others in the past. Take for example the Israelites. They received the same guidance, but look, how they treated it. Be warned. If you treat this guidance in the same manner as they did, We shall treat you as we treated them: accursed.”
Now, the question is, is this sequence of ideas in this passage, illogical? Is the explanation far-fetched, or the mind accepts it as reasonable. One may go back to verses 1-104 to judge.
There is no passage of the Qur’an but which reveals, with proper application of reason, a well connected theme, story, illustration, lesson, concept, or pieces of guidance. Indeed, experts demonstrate that there isn’t any verse in the Qur’an which cannot be shown as reasonably well connected with the preceding or following texts. Yes, there are passages that require support of the Hadith literature for fuller understanding, but the primary meaning is there for the layman.
It is true that not everyone has the intellectual capacity to study, analyze and deduct while studying the Qur’an. So, what about them? Is it a Book for philosophers? The answer is that if the primary function of the Qur’an viz., guidance, is kept in mind, it becomes easier to comprehend and get over the problem of ambiguity.
As for an educated person trying to understand the Qur’an, its initial ambiguity can be removed through familiarity. That is, read it several times over. After all, merely to break the Arabs from the Turks, Lawrence of Arabia read the voluminous Arabia Deserta ten times. What ambiguity is there in the book which merely describes the Bedouin-Arabs in good detail, which led him to read it ten times over? Should not the Qur’an be given equal opportunity?
One may put it to test. Open a page, from anywhere, and write down what he understands of it. The page over, he may read his own notes. The yield will be surprising.
One may also do a simple comparative test. He may open it from any page. Take any other Scripture of the past, holy to its believers, and open a randomly selected page. Read line by line: the Qur’an and other Scriptures. Make notes of what one understand of both. If one cares, he may also make notes about the incorrect, unscientific, or questionable statements in the Qur’an and other Scriptures. One may repeat the exercise with two more randomly chosen pages. Once again, one will be surprised to find how meaningful the Qur’an is when compared to other Scriptures.
As regards the quote from the Buddhist Dharmapada, we may point out that the passage has been modified to suit the context. The original, as translated by no less than F. Max Muller, reads thus:
Even though a speech be a thousand (of words), but made up of
senseless words, one word of sense is better, which if a man hears, he
Even though a Gatha (poem) be a thousand (of words), but made up
of senseless words, one word of a Gatha is better, which if a man
hears, he becomes quiet. (100-101)
The above has been modified (e.g., from “poem” to “verse”) perhaps because “verse” sounds more Scripture-like. Secondly, the first part of the stanza was ignored perhaps to avoid contradiction within the two, and, secondly, because there is no word in human literature which will make a man quiet.
Nevertheless, although it sounds nice to hear that a single meaningful verse can bring tranquility to the one who hears it, in reality none exists in human literature, religious or secular. One might add that, given the restlessness of the human soul, and the condition of its existence, no single verse can ever be there to bestow tranquility. These nice sounding proverbial statements do not contain even half the truth. They sound nice because they demand no action, invest no responsibility, and remind of no questionability.
Interestingly, while discussing tranquility in all earnestness, none ever of the non-Muslims would quote the Qur’anic verse:
“Lo! In Allah’s remembrance do hearts find comfort.” (13: 28)
This is because of the condition that the Qur’an places in its previous verse for obtaining tranquility. It says,
“And say those who have disbelieved, ‘Why a (miraculous) sign has not been sent upon him (Muhammad) by his Lord?’ Say, ‘Allah leaves unguided whom He will and guides unto Himself anyone who turns (to Him) in penitence; those who have believed, and whose hearts find comfort in Allah’s remembrance. And lo! In Allah’s remembrance do hearts find comfort.’” (13: 27-28)
The Qur’anic verse is not given credit because it demands that the seeker turn to his Lord in penitence, and believe in Him, before seeking tranquility. Most humans decide that they would rather go without tranquility, than submit. They would rather seek tranquility in a fabricated verse, than follow a Divine commandment.
As stated earlier, the contradictions in the Qur’an shall be dealt with in future issues, Allah willing.