One of the themes ever present in Christian Muslim debate circles and discussions revolve around the allegation that the Gospel accounts developed overtime. Muslim Dawah preachers and skeptics of the Bible theorize this before turning it into a hardcore argument.
For those who are not familiar with this line of argument, let me first paint a picture to help explain better. The assumption is that when the Synoptic writers – Matthew, Mark and Luke, narrate an event, one of them gets it right and the other wrong, or that one is taking the story of another and developing it into something else that is foreign to the other writers. This what Scholars in the academia refer to as the “Synoptic Problem.” However, aside what is being debated in the academia, my aim here is to examine the case against the Bible regularly posited by the Muslims on this matter.
A practical example can be seen in the Gospel of Matthew. We read Peter’s response to Jesus’ question of his identity in which Peter calls him “the Christ, the son of the God”. Conversely, in the book of Mark, he was simply referred to as the Christ by Peter, without the latter part “Son of God”. The allegation here is phrased thus; “Why did Mark and Matthew not say the same thing? Why are they adding and subtracting as the case may be?”
Most Muslims are not aware that the Gospel narratives are written with different audience and emphasis in mind. For instance, Mark might be more detailed in a particular narratives which Matthew might briefly highlight, and this makes a lot sense as this in fact is still the norm today.
If two witnesses were interviewed about a particular event and one is more detailed than the other or that he is detailed in a particular aspect than the other, is that enough reason to discount the one for the other, thereby coming up with a conspiracy theory? Of course not.
The Gospel narratives are replete with such examples and cases. We are glad to have such as this gives us a full, more detailed and complementary overview of the accounts. This ought to be virtue to be praised and appreciated instead of one used as a weapon of attack.
In their assessment of the Gospels, whenever Muslims sees a little difference in the narratives, their immediate response is to purport a fraudulent act by the Gospel writers. They claim that either words, themes or even entire story lines were deliberately changed to make a point! However, when an incident is being narrated by different eyewitnesses, we do expect differences in their choice of narrating the incident and the liberty in choosing what to emphasize.
Now, there is a problem with this position of attacking the Gospel especially when there are lots of narratives filled with such in the Qur’an. The Muslims believe the Qur’an to be a revelation from Allah, meaning it is a word for word and direct dictation of Allah’s words to the Prophet.
In this article, we shall be taking a look at the narratives in the Qur’an, using just an example of how the narratives are structured, told and re-told by just one author, namely Allah. Like I stated earlier, the Muslims believe that the words in the Qur’an are word-for-word dictation from Allah to Muhammad through the agency of Jibril. In other words, there is no freedom to express thoughts with word usage as the Biblical writers did. The implication of this is quite telling. Unlike the Gospel authors who wrote about the same event from different vantage points, the author of the Qur’an is the ONLY one narrating this event.
We shall examine the story of Lot in the Qur’an. The story was narrated by Allah in different verses of the Qur’an, but what we shall discover as we examine them is that, the stories were not told the same way and have either additional information embedded in them or some left out altogether.
We read of Lot’s experience according to the Qur’an when the Angels came visiting and the interaction Lot had with his countrymen. We are told that Lot’s people gave no response to his accusations except the following:
The response of the people of Lot – 7:82 (27:56) and 29:29
And the answer of his people was only that they said: “Drive them out of your town, these are indeed men who want to be pure (from sins)!”
In this verse of the Qur’an, we see clearly that Allah reported to Muhammad through Angel Jibril that the only response the people gave to Lot when he accused his people of their indecent acts was that he should be driven out of the Land. In fact, Allah made it clear that was the only response they gave.
Just to be sure that this is not something we are making up, here is another verse of the Qur’an, where Allah narrated the same thing, where Lot is found giving the same response. We read;
There was no other answer given by his people except that they said: “Drive out the family of Lout (Lot) from your city. Verily, these are men who want to be clean and pure!”
Again, this is an evidence that the same response was given to Lot by his people. Please note that they said nothing except this as a response. Now, let’s turn to Qur’an 29:29 and see what Lot was reported to have given as a response when he challenged his people.
Interestingly, when Allah was reporting the very same incident in another Surah of the Qur’an, some details were left out and the response of the Lot’s countrymen actually changed. Here is what they said in response to Lot:
‘Verily, you do sodomy with men, and rob the wayfarer (travellers, etc.)! And practise Al-Munkar (disbelief and polytheism and every kind of evil wicked deed) in your meetings.” But his people gave no answer except, that they said: “Bring Allah’s Torment upon us if you are one of the truthful.”’
Did you catch that? We note from this narration that the response the people gave as the only response they gave to him when he challenged them has changed from “drive them out of your town” to the new and improved “bring Allah’s torment upon us”!
Now, how in the light of the Muslim allegation and accusation against the Bible are we to reconcile these two narratives coming from just one author? If we are to go by the Muslim line of argument that the Gospel writers developed the stories from one person to the other, how are we to explain Allah giving different accounts of the same story?
That’s not all. In these same narratives, we were told that all of Lot’s family will be saved except for his wife. We read;
“Then We saved him and his family, except his wife; she was of those who remained behind (in the torment)”
While we will be examining the later part of this story, for now it might interest you to know that while one narration says Lot’s wife will be left behind, another narration from Allah indicates it was an old woman that was to be left behind. We read:
“So We saved him and his family, all, except an old woman (his wife) among those who remained behind.”
At this point, one might suggest that this is explainable, as Lot’s wife could be an old woman. However, anyone admitting this also agrees that an additional information absent in the other account has been supplied. We will grant this as a minute detail.
The same thing is re-echoed here;
“And when Our Messengers came to Lout (Lot), he was grieved because of them, and felt straitened on their account. They said: “Have no fear, and do not grieve! Truly, we shall save you and your family, except your wife, she will be of those who remain behind (i.e. she will be destroyed along with those who will be destroyed from her folk).”
We read of the same in Qur’an 37:135.
Now, it gets a bit worse when we look into more of this narratives. It is discovered that, while we are told that Lot’s wife will be left behind, meaning, she refuses to go with Lot and his daughters, another narratives indicates that Lot’s wife did not willingly stay behind, but it was Allah’s decree that forced her to be destroyed alongside the people of Lot. We read:
“Except his wife, of whom We have decreed that she shall be of those who remain behind (i.e. she will be destroyed).”
According to the narration here, we are made to understand that Lot’s wife did not stay behind on her own will, but was forced to remain behind according to Allah’s decree. While some might not see anything serious in these two narrations, this however means that the readers will have to decide on which of the narration to accept. Either Lot’s wife decided to stay behind on her own volition or it was Allah who made her stayed behind to be destroyed.
Just as you assumed that we have gotten to the root of all of these conflicting narrations, we are hit with another problem in the narratives that suggests that Lot’s wife actually left the town with Lot and his daughter only to be destroyed on the way when she looked back! We read;
They (Messengers) said: “O Lout (Lot)! Verily, we are the Messengers from your Lord! They shall not reach you! So travel with your family in a part of the night, and let not any of you look back, but your wife (will remain behind), verily, the punishment which will afflict them, will afflict her. Indeed, morning is their appointed time. Is not the morning near?”
Reading through this narration, it suggests contrary to what we read in the previous account that Lot’s wife stayed behind. Here we are told that she actually went on the journey with them, but turned back and got punished for doing so. When the Muslim translators noticed this obvious problem and its potential to change the narratives, they decided to put in bracket a note to harmonize it with the previous quotations.
Interestingly, this did not escape the notice and attention of the Muffasirun. Here is Al Jalalayn’s tafsir on this verse of the Qur’an;
“They said ‘O Lot truly we are messengers of your Lord. They shall not reach you with any harm so travel with your family during a part of the night and let not one of you turn round lest they see the terrible predicament that will befall them except for your wife read illā imra’atuka in the nominative as a substitute for ahadun; a variant reading has illā imra’ataka in the accusative as her being an exception among his ‘family’ in other words do no take her along when you travel lo! she shall be smitten by that which smites them it is said that he did not take her along with him; it is also said that she did set out with them and turned round and so exclaimed ‘Woe is my people!’ at which point a stone struck her and killed her. When he Lot asked them about the time of their destruction they replied Truly their tryst is for the morning and when he said ‘I want it to be sooner’ they said is the morning not nigh enough?’”
Ibn Kathir also express this amongst other views;
“(but your wife,) Most of the scholars said that this means that she would not travel at night and she did not go with Lut. Rather, she stayed in her house and was destroyed. Others said that it means that she looked back (during the travel). This later group says that she left with them and when she heard the inevitable destruction, she turned and looked back. When she looked she said, “O my people!” Thus, a stone came down from the sky and killed her. Then they (the angels) brought close to him the destruction of his people as good news for him, because he said to them, “Destroy them in this very hour.”…
Tafsir of Ibn Kathir on Qur’an 11:81
If we are to go by the Muslim’s methodology of attacking the Gospel narratives, how then do we reconcile this obvious contradictions reporting of the same story by the same author in the Qur’an?
The Gospel narratives have been attacked by the Muslims because they chose to emphasize things that are important to them based on an individual interest and audience. Conversely, we see a narrative that comes from just one author, namely Allah, filled with inconsistencies and confusion, yet the Muslims have no issues with it. This is just one of out the numerous narratives in the Quranic stories with conflicting composition.
If we apply the same standard of attacks the Muslims use to critic the Bible, especially on the Gospel narratives, on the Qur’an, the whole of the Quranic concept of inspiration will be thrown out of the window.
We allow the scripture to speak for itself and interpret itself. The Gospels are complementary and give more details concerning a particular event, and this we consider a blessing. We shall be looking at more examples of narratives of this nature in the subsequent post.