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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Discussed: Variant Readings within the Bible and the Quran


by Yahya Snow

Some internet Christian apologists have been shifting the goal posts in their conspiratorial attempts to attack Caliph Uthman’s control of the Quranic text as well as the variant readings of the Quran.

As usual, our Christian counterparts operate an unwitting double standard due to their ignorance of Old Testament (as well as New Testament) textual criticism as well as Quranic preservation

Variant readings in the Gospels

Previously, we have seen the New Testament (Gospel) variants arose due to dishonest scribes or incompetent scribes – so much so that our Christian friends, now, do not know which variants represent the original wording of the Gospel writers and which were due to scribal errors/forgeries.Christian apologists are now beginning to admit this difficult situation [1]

Christians misrepresent the Dead Sea Scrolls

At times, our Christian friends do misrepresent the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls as a wholesale confirmation of the Old Testament text – it is not!

Geza Vermes writes:

The Dead Sea finds partly confirm and partly question the reliability of the wording of the Bible handed down by Jewish tradition. On the one hand, as was shown in chapter VI, the Qumran Scripture is substantially identical with that passed on by the synagogue from the time of Jesus to the present age. [2]

Note: Vermes is not confirming the Dead Sea finds corroborate entirely with the present day OT (substantially). More importantly, he is not denying any OT corruptions prior to the first/second century CE either. Jeremiah 8:8 gives us an indication of the depth of corruption in the earlier days of the OT:

"'How can you say, "We are wise, for we have the law of the LORD," when actually the lying pen of the scribes has handled it falsely? [NIV, Jeremiah 8:]

Variant Readings in the Old Testament

Geza Vermes confirms “the Dead Sea Scrolls furnish documentary proof of what has been surmised before, namely that, prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, unity was not achieved and different forms of the Hebrew text coexisted, showing verbal and stylistic variations, additions, omissions and changes in the order of the textual arrangement.” [2]

Vermes does suggest the OT variants may not be due to corruptions:

Before the Qumran discoveries, we presumed the Samaritan Bible (restricted to the five books of the Law of Moses), the form of the Hebrew Bible from which the ancient Greek version, known as the Septuagint, was translated, and the type of the text that was to evolve into the traditional (Masoretic) Hebrew Old Testament, existed side by side in different social groups.

Qumran has corroborated this theory and has demonstrated the diversity could obtain in one and the same groups. This phenomenon implies that the variant readings in the biblical text do not necessarily represent corruptions or deliberate alterations, but can just as well, if not better, echo earlier discrete written traditions. [2]

Of course, this theory is more than a little sketchy – partly due to there being no tradition informing us of such being the case as well as to the limitations of Vermes’ conjecture-based argument.

Nevertheless, it is food for thought for our Christian and Jewish friends. Do they want to faith-shatteringly admit the Old Testament variants are proof of corruptions or will they run with the idea of the variants echoing “earlier discrete written traditions”?

I would imagine they would prefer the latter – otherwise they will have to admit the Old Testament’s unreliability is on par with the New Testament.

Variant Readings in the Quran

The variant readings of the Quran are not due to scribal errors or forgeries – unlike the New Testament. The variants of the Quran are meant to exist as supporting tradition teaches us this – unlike the Old Testament.

The hadith reports tell us that the Quran was actually revealed in seven modes (al-ahruf al sab’a). This has been narrated by more than ten of the Prophet’s companions, among them Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, Ibn Masud, Ibn Abbas and others [3].

Dr M.M. Al Azami counts the companions who have narrated hadiths confirming the Quran was revealed in seven dialects as over twenty [4] So, these variants were known to exist during the lifetime of the Prophet and did not arise due to scribal errors.

In fact, the very nature of the variant Quranic readings being sanctioned by the Prophet [see Bukhari VI, No. 513] has led the renowned authority, Dr M. M. Al-Azami, to favour the word “multiple” reading rather than “variant” reading:

…the Quran’s case differs distinctly because the Prophet Muhammad, Allah’s sole vicegerent for the wahy’s reception and transmission, himself taught certain verses in multiple ways. There is no principle of doubt here, no fog or confusion, and the word ‘variant’ fails to convey thisMultiple is a far more accurate description….” [4]

As you can notice, the Quranic variants (multiple readings) are indeed sanctioned and meant to have existed whilst the variants of the NT and OT are unsanctioned and should not exist. We urge our Christian apologist friends to understand these points of difference and teach them to their respective Christian congregations – let the truth prevail.


Our Christian apologist friends attempt to make a big conspiratorial deal out Uthman’s control and preparation of a standard copy of the Quranic text but they fail to recognise the inconsistency (as well as the holes in their knowledge) they are operating from as the rabbis controlled the OT text and even unified it.

Unity, produced by Jewish religious authority, was usually sought in times of crisis, and was achieved by the selection of one of the existing text forms and the simultaneous rejection of all other competing versions. Such a deliberate unification is assumed to have been part of the general restructuring of Judaism by the rabbis during the years following the catastrophe of 70 CE, which entailed the loss of the temple and the supreme council of the Sanhedrin as well as the replacement of the aristocratic high priestly leadership of Jewry by rabbis largely of plebeian origin. [2]

Sadly our Christian apologist friends are either unaware of the unification of the OT text and of the strict control the rabbis had over the text or are knowingly operating an inconsistent standard in their attempts to throw conspiratorial mud at the Uthmanic control of the Quranic text – a control which was agreed upon by all the companions of the Prophet.


Simply put, the New Testament variants are the most problematic; not only due to them being borne out of scribal dishonesty and negligence but because the Christian is unable to recognise the forgeries/scribal errors within the text. The text was not controlled and those who were tasked with the preservation of the Gospel accounts never met Jesus.

In addition there could well be future Dr Tischendorf style (Codex Sinaiticus) finds, where whole passages within the Gospels were discovered to be forgeries. Prior to this 19th century find our Christian friends believed those passages to be inspired – now we know they were forgeries [5]. It says something about the Christian belief in the Holy Spirit dwelling within Christians; did the Christians before the 19th century not have the Holy Spirit as they believed what we now know as forgeries to be words inspired by God. Food for thought…

The Old Testament was strictly controlled by the Jewish authorities and does contain variants. The accusations of these variants arising from scribal forgeries/errors are indeed somewhat tempered by Geza Vermes’ theorising so the criticism is less vocal.

Those who “preserved” and “selected” OT texts never met Moses or any of the Prophets. “what constitutes the bible is nowhere strictly defined in the ancient literary sources of Judaism. It was the privilege of the successive religious authorities (Sadducee chief priests, Pharisee leaders and rabbis) to determine the list of books [6]

The Quran has variants – Muslims have known this whilst the Quran was being revealed as the Prophet taught this. The Quran was strictly controlled by authorities, like the Old Testament. However, unlike the OT and NT, the controlling authorities of the Quran were indeed the companions of the Prophet. The statement of the fourth Caliph, Ali (ra), confirms all were in agreement with Uthman’s actions to control the transmission of the Text. [7]

Sadly, Christian apologists overlook these points and inconsistently attempt to present conspiracy theories as to the Uthmanic control of the Quran. The inconsistency comes into play as the OT was “preserved” in a “controlled” environment too. The irony comes into play as the nature of the variants (proven forgeries and errors) within the NT suggests the uncontrolled mode of its “preservation” was disastrous and a controlled mode (which they desperately criticise via conspiracy theories) is superior!

The written text of the Quran was used as an aid for the memory and teaching purposes, thus the Quran was preserved via two modes in a controlled fashion – oral and written – by numerous people who met the Prophet.

May God send his peace and blessings upon all the Prophets referred to above. Ameen

Further reading:

Sexism: A reason to change the Bible?


[1] Debate Review – Does the bible Misquote Jesus (James White – Bart Ehrman)

[2] The Story of the Scrolls, Geza Vermes, Penguin Books, 2010, p214

[3] Ulum Al Quran, Ahmad Von Denffer, The Islamic Foundation, 2003, p112

[4] The History of The Quranic Text from Revelation to Compilation - A Comparative Study with the Old and New Testaments, M.M.Al-Azami, UK Islamic Academy, 2003, p154

[5] Dr Von Tischendorf discovered the Codex Sinaiticus (from Saint Catherine’s monastery), this codex does NOT contain the last 12 verses in the gospel of Mark (Mark 16:9-20) as well as John 7:53-8:11 amongst other discrepancies. These are believed to be forgeries. Sadder still, Christians, prior to this find believed those words to be faithful to the New Testament.

[6] The Story of the Scrolls, Geza Vermes, Penguin Books, 2010, p99

[7] Ibn Abi Dawud, al Masahif, p22; see also pp 12, 23 (sourced from Sheikh Al Azami, The History of the Quranic Text, UK Islamic Academy, 2003, p94


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