Fifty Common Misconceptions about Islam – Part 1
By Dr. Shehzad Saleem
26 August 2015
I. The Qur’an
1. The Qur’an is an Incoherent Book1
It is generally believed that the Qur’an is an incoherent book with haphazardly arranged verses.
The works of the Farahi School in the last century have served to remove this misconception. Farahi’s Majmu‘ah-i Tafasir 2, Islahi’s Tadabbur-i Qur’an 3 and Ghamidi’s on-going exegesis al-Bayan have shown that each surah is a coherent collection of verses. These verses are not disjoined and haphazardly placed in a surah. In fact, each surah has a theme and all the verses are aptly placed with regard to this theme. When a surah is studied while keeping in consideration its theme and when its coherence becomes evident as a result of this study, it comes out as a well-knit unit.
Imam Amin Ahsan Islahi writes:
Every person knows that it is the strong rope of the Qur’an that holds together the fabric of this Ummah, and all Muslims have been directed to hold steadfast to this rope and not divide themselves into factions. An obvious requirement of this directive is that we must turn to the Qur’an to resolve all differences which arise among us; however, it is very unfortunate that all of us have different opinions regarding the Qur’an. There are so many views in the interpretation of every verse, and most of these views are contradictory to one another and we do not have any reference point to decide which view is the correct one. If a difference of opinion arises in the interpretation of a discourse, the most satisfactory thing which can resolve this is the context and coherence of the discourse. Unfortunately, most people do not regard the Qur’an to be a coherent book having a definite context. The result is that differences of opinions have become permanent. A lot of differences of opinion which have arisen in Fiqh are because of disregarding the context of a verse. If this context is kept in consideration, one will find that at most occasions only one interpretation is possible.4
It is evident from the foregoing discussion that what makes the Qur’an a document having one definite meaning and which resolves all differences of interpretation and thus verifies Imam Farahi’s words الْقُرْآنُ لاَ يَحْتَمِلُ إِلاَّ تَاْوِيْلاً وَاحِداً 5 about it is the coherence it possesses.
The way the exponents of the Farahi school of thought have revealed the coherence in the Qur’an does not require any further discussion to prove that it does exist; however, what is the nature of this coherence? The following points will help in understanding it:
1. Each surah has a theme round which its contents revolve and make it into a unified whole. It is the most comprehensive statement of its contents and what the soul is to a body, the theme is to a surah.
2. Together with the main text of a surah, there is an introduction and a conclusion. Surahs have distinct sections to mark thematic shifts, and every section is paragraphed to mark smaller shifts. Some Surahs may be without sections. The verses of the introduction and of the conclusion also may at times be divided into paragraphs.
3. These paragraphs and these sections relate to each other not through a verse to verse linear connection but through various literary devices like similes, comments, conditional statements, parenthetical statements, principle statements, warning statements, parallelism, conclusion of a theme, questions and their answers, and statements or passages which return to what is said in the beginning. This of course is not an exhaustive list.
4. The text of a surah progresses through these paragraphs and sections and gradually reaches its culmination. As a result, the surah assumes a distinct and unique form and shape, and becomes a complete and independent whole.
2. The Qur’an has Variant Readings
It alleged that the Qur’an has variant readings. Typically a verse may have more than variations. It is generally believed that these variations have been divinely revealed. The first person to record these readings in the form of a book was Abu ‘Ubayd Qasim Ibn Salam (d. 224 AH). He recorded twenty five readings; Abu Ja‘far Tabari (d. 310 AH) recorded over twenty readings, while it was Abu Bakr Ibn Mujahid (d. 324 AH) who selected the seven famous ones6. These seven readings became famous through their readers. They are:
1. Madinah Nafi‘(169/785)
2. Makkah Ibn Kathir (120/737)
3. Damascus Ibn ‘Amir (118/736)
4. Basrah Abu ‘Amr (148/770)
5. Kufah ‘Asim (127/744)
6. Kufah Hamzah (156/772)
7. Kufah Kisa’i (189/804)
These readings cannot be accepted in any manner as having the same status as the Qur’an because of the following reasons.
(i) The whole of the Muslim Ummah today, except for a few North African countries, is united in reading the Qur’an in just one way. It is historically known that the reading of Nafi ‘was officially promulgated in the third century Hijrah in North Africa after the rise of Malikite Fiqh in this area.7 The only complete reading of the Qur’an which is in vogue from the time of the Prophet (sws) is theQir‘at Al-‘Ammah (the universal reading) – the very reading read out to the Prophet (sws) once the revelation of the Qur’an had been completed. It was this very reading which existed among the companions of the Prophet (sws). Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman Sulami (d. 105 AH) 8 narrates:
قال أبو عبد الر حمن السلميّ : كانت قراءة أبى بكر وَعمر و عثمان و زيد بن ثابت و المهاجرين وَالأنصار وَاحدة ’ كانوا بقرءون القراءة العامة ’ وَهى القراءة التى قرأها رسول الله صلي الله عليه وسلم على جبريل مرتين في العام الذى قبض فيه’ وكان زيد قد شهد العرْضَة الأخيرة ’ وَكان يقرئ الناس بها حتى مات.
The reading of Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthman and Zayd Ibn Thabit and that of all the Muhajirun and the ansar was one. They would read the Qur’an according to the Qir’at al-‘Ammah. This is the same reading which was read out to the Prophet (sws) in the year of his death by Gabriel. Zayd Ibn Thabit was also present in this reading [called] the ‘Ardah Akhirah9. It was this very reading that he taught the Qur’an to people till his death.10
(ii) There exists a consensus of opinion among the scholars of our ummah on the fact that the Qur’an is Mutawatir (ie such a large number of people have transmitted the Qur’an that the existence of any error in the transmitted text is impossible).
Now, if the chains of narrators of these variant readings are examined, none of them can be claimed as Mutawatir. They may be Mutawatir from their famous originators but they are certainly not Mutawatir all the way from these originators up to the Prophet (sws). At best, they can be classified as Ahad (isolate reports). Thus Zarkashi writes:
أحدها أن القراءات السبع متواترة عند الجمهور’ وقيل مشهورة… والتحقيق أنها متواترة عن الأئمة السبعة ’ أمَّا تواترها عن النبى صلى الله عليه وسلم ففيه نظر فإنّ إسنَاد الأئمة السبعة بهذه القراءات موجود في كتب القراءات ’ وهي نقل الواحد عن الواحد لم تكمل شروط التواتر في استواء الطرقين والواسطة : وهذا شىء موجود فى كتبهم ‘.
The opinion of the majority is that these readings are Mutawatir. However, one opinion is that they are mashhur11…. The truth in this regard is that they are Mutawatir from these seven [Qurr’a]. As far as their tawatur from the Prophet (sws) is concerned, this is debatable. For the chain of narrators of these seven are found in the books of Qir’at. These chains are transmission from a single person to another and do not fulfill the condition of Tawatur neither from the first narrator to the last nor in between.12
(iii) Not only are these readings isolate reports (Ahad), but also many of the narrators of these readings are not regarded as trustworthy by the scholars of ‘Ilm al-Rijal as far as accepting Ahadith from them is concerned. As an example, this is what is written about Hafs Ibn Sulayman, perhaps the most famous and most widely acclaimed of all the disciples of the major Qurr’a’:
‘Abd al-Rahman Ibn Abi Hatim says that he is Matruk Al-Hadith. Nasa’i says that he is not trustworthy. In the opinion of Yahya Ibn Mu‘in as quoted by Abu Qudamah Sarakhsi and ‘Uthman Ibn Sa‘id he is not trustworthy. ‘Ali Ibn Madini says: he is weak in matters of Hadith and I have forsaken him voluntarily. Abu Zur‘ah also says that he is weak in matters of Hadith ….. S~alih Muhammad al-Baghdadi says the Ahadith narrated by him are not worth writing and all of them mention unfamiliar things in religion. Zakariyyah Ibn Yahya al-Saji narrates from Sammak and ‘Alqamah Ibn Marthad and Qays Ibn Muslim that his Ahadith are not reliable. ‘Abd al-Rahman Ibn Abi Hatim says that he asked his father about Hafs. His father said that his Ahadith are not even worth writing. He is weak in matters of Hadith, cannot be attested to and his Ahadith are not acceptable. ‘Abd al-Rahman Ibn Yusuf says that he is a great liar, worthy of being forsaken and forges Ahadith.13
It seems quite strange that a person so widely regarded as unreliable (even called a liar) in accepting Hadith from be regarded as a very dependable person as far the Qur’an is concerned.
It is clear from this analysis that these extant readings which are found in books of tafsir and read and taught in religious schools can in no way be accepted. Whether they originated from insistence by some to cling to the first recital of the Qur’an, or were mere explanations of the actual verses written down by the companions in their own codices or were concocted to disparage the Qur’an is a mystery which perhaps may never be solved. However, this much is certain that they have nothing to do with the text of the Qur’an.
3. The Qur’an was revealed on Seven Ahruf14
There are certain narratives which say that the Qur’an was revealed on sevenAhruf. A typical narrative reads:
حَدَّثَنِي يَحْيَى عَنْ مَالِك عَنْ ابْنِ شِهَابٍ عَنْ عُرْوَةَ بْنِ الزُّبَيْرِ عَنْ عَبْدِ الرَّحْمَنِ بْنِ عَبْدٍ الْقَارِيِّ أَنَّهُ قَالَ سَمِعْتُ عُمَرَ بْنَ الْخَطَّابِ يَقُولُ سَمِعْتُ هِشَامَ بْنَ حَكِيمِ بْنِ حِزَامٍ يَقْرَأُ سُورَةَ الْفُرْقَانِ عَلَى غَيْرِ مَا أَقْرَؤُهَا وَكَانَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ أَقْرَأَنِيهَا فَكِدْتُ أَنْ أَعْجَلَ عَلَيْهِ ثُمَّ أَمْهَلْتُهُ حَتَّى انْصَرَفَ ثُمَّ لَبَّبْتُهُ بِرِدَائِهِ فَجِئْتُ بِهِ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ فَقُلْتُ يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ إِنِّي سَمِعْتُ هَذَا يَقْرَأُ سُورَةَ الْفُرْقَانِ عَلَى غَيْرِ مَا أَقْرَأْتَنِيهَا فَقَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ أَرْسِلْهُ ثُمَّ قَالَ اقْرَأْ يَا هِشَامُ فَقَرَأَ الْقِرَاءَةَ الَّتِي سَمِعْتُهُ يَقْرَأُ فَقَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ هَكَذَا أُنْزِلَتْ ثُمَّ قَالَ لِي اقْرَأْ فَقَرَأْتُهَا فَقَالَ هَكَذَا أُنْزِلَتْ إِنَّ هَذَا الْقُرْآنَ أُنْزِلَ عَلَى سَبْعَةِ أَحْرُفٍ فَاقْرَءُوا مَا تَيَسَّرَ مِنْهُ
‘Abd al-Rahman Ibn ‘Abd al-Qari narrated: “ ‘Umar Ibn Khattab said before me: ‘I heard Hisham Ibn Hakim Ibn Hizam reading Surah Furqan in a different way from the one I used to read it, and the Prophet (sws) himself had read out this surah to me. Consequently, as soon as I heard him, I wanted to get hold of him. However, I gave him respite until he had finished the prayer. Then I got hold of his cloak and dragged him to the Prophet (sws). I said to him: “I have heard this person [Hisham Ibn Hakim Ibn Hizam] reading Surah Furqan in a different way from the one you had read it out to me.” The Prophet (sws) said: “Leave him alone [O ‘Umar].” Then he said to Hisham: “Read [it].” [‘Umar said:] “He read it out in the same way as he had done before me.” [At this,] the Prophet (sws) said: “It was revealed thus.” Then the Prophet (sws) asked me to read it out. So I read it out. [At this], he said: “It was revealed thus; this Qur’an has been revealed on Seven Ahruf. You can read it in any of them you find easy from among them.” ’ ”.15
If the following points about this narrative are kept in contemplation, it becomes evident that it is an absolutely meaningless narrative which should not be considered of any worth in this regard:
Firstly, even though this narrative has been recorded in the basic books of Hadith literature, no one in history has ever been able to offer a convincing explanation of it rendering it totally ambiguous. Suyuti16 has recorded about forty interpretations of this narrative, and then while acknowledging the weakness of each of these has confessed that this narrative should be regarded among the Mutashabihat, whose meaning is only known to God:
وأرجحها عندي قول من قال : إن هذا من المتشابه الذي لايدري تأويله
And to me the best opinion in this regard is that of the people who say that this Hadith is from among matters of Mutashabihat, the meaning of which cannot be understood.17
Secondly, the only plausible of interpretation of the word ahruf is that it connotes pronunciation of words the Arabs were used to. However, in this case, the text of the Hadith itself negates this meaning. It is known that both ‘Umar (rta) and Hisham (rta) belonged to the same tribe: the Quraysh. Obviously, people of the same tribe could not have had different pronunciations.
Thirdly, even if it is accepted that this difference was of pronunciation between various tribes and as a result they were allowed to read it variously, the verb unzila (was revealed) is very inappropriate. The Qur’an has specified that it was revealed in the language of the Prophet’s tribe: the Quraysh (See for example: 19:97, 44:58). After this, it can be accepted that the various tribes were allowed to read it according to their own accents, but how can this be accepted that the Almighty Himself revealed the various dialects and pronunciations.
Fourthly, it is known that Hisham had accepted Islam on the day Makkah was conquered. If this Hadith is accepted, it would mean that even after the conquest of Makkah senior Companions and even a close associate like ‘Umar (rta) was unaware of the fact that the Prophet (sws) secretly taught the Qur’an in some other form and reading from the one openly heard from the Prophet (sws) and preserved in writing and in memory. Every person can realize how grave this claim is and how far reaching are its effects.
4. Only God knows the Meanings of Certain Qur’anic Verses
It is generally thought that there are certain verses of the Qur’an whose meaning is only known to God and that no man is able to understand them. They are called the Mutashabihat verses of the Qur’an.
It needs to be clarified that the Mutashabihat of the Qur’an are verses in which things that are beyond human observation or comprehension are mentioned in the form of comparison (Tashbih) to things which we know in our own language and through our own experience. The actual purport conveyed by these verses is clear. However, human intellect is not equipped to grasp the reality to which they refer. For example, it is said in Surah H~aqqah that the Almighty’s throne shall be lifted by eight angels on the Day of Judgement. Now we cannot know what the throne will be like, though we may have a slight idea since the word throne is also a common word in our language. Similarly, Surah Muddaththir says that there will be 19 sentinels guarding Hell. Again we cannot say why there will be 19 and what they will be like, though we know that the word 19 mentions a definite number. Consequently, verses which mention the blowing of spirit in Adam18, the birth of Jesus (sws) without a father19, nature of God’s actions like His sitting on a throne20, the blessings of Paradise like the nature of its milk and honey21, the torments of Hell like the tree of Zaqqum growing in fire22 are examples of the Mutashabihat. The real purpose of such verses is that they become a trial and test for people since they must profess faith in them, without going after their reality. The Qur’an says:
هُوَ الَّذِيَ أَنزَلَ عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ مِنْهُ آيَاتٌ مُّحْكَمَاتٌ هُنَّ أُمُّ الْكِتَابِ وَأُخَرُ مُتَشَابِهَاتٌ فَأَمَّا الَّذِينَ في قُلُوبِهِمْ زَيْغٌ فَيَتَّبِعُونَ مَا تَشَابَهَ مِنْهُ ابْتِغَاء الْفِتْنَةِ وَابْتِغَاء تَأْوِيلِهِ وَمَا يَعْلَمُ تَأْوِيلَهُ إِلاَّ اللّهُ وَالرَّاسِخُونَ فِي الْعِلْمِ يَقُولُونَ آمَنَّا بِهِ كُلٌّ مِّنْ عِندِ رَبِّنَا وَمَا يَذَّكَّرُ إِلاَّ أُوْلُواْ الألْبَابِ (٧:٣)
He it is Who has sent down to you the Book; in it are verses fundamental; they are the foundation of the book: others are Mutashabihat. But those in whose hearts is a twist follow the Mutashabihat seeking discord, and searching for its hidden meanings, but no one knows their true reality except Allah. And those who are firmly grounded in knowledge say: “We believe in the Book; the whole of it is from our Lord;” and none will grasp the Message except men of understanding. (3:7)
An important point worth noting in the above mentioned verses is that it has not been said that the meaning of the Mutashabihat is only known to Allah. Rather it has been declared that their reality is only known to Him. The actual word used is ta’wil which is used in the same sense here as in the following verse:
وَرَفَعَ أَبَوَيْهِ عَلَى الْعَرْشِ وَخَرُّواْ لَهُ سُجَّدًا وَقَالَ يَا أَبَتِ هَـذَا تَأْوِيلُ رُؤْيَايَ مِن قَبْلُ قَدْ جَعَلَهَا رَبِّي حَقًّا (١٠٠:١٢)
He [Joseph] said: This is the reality [in the interpretation] of my dream which I had seen before. (12:100)
Consequently, the meaning of the words in which the dream of Joseph has been mentioned in the Qur’an is clear to everyone who knows Arabic. However, the reality denoted by the various elements of the dream like the sun, the moon and the eleven stars (12:4) was only known once the dream was fulfilled.
It is evident from these details that the Mutashabihat of the Qur’an are verses the true reality of which human intellect is not capable of knowing since there can be no words in a language which can describe things yet to come in human observation. Consequently, words which may be similar to the concepts conveyed by these things of the unknown world are used to portray these details. It is incorrect to regard them as verses whose meaning is unclear or doubtful.
5. The Qur’an is a Manual of Complete Knowledge
Some people are of the view that the Qur’an contains knowledge of everything and in it is found the answer to every question which comes to our mind. The following verse is generally presented to substantiate this view.
َما فَرَّطْنَا فِي الكِتَابِ مِن شَيْءٍ ثُمَّ إِلَى رَبِّهِمْ يُحْشَرُونَ (٦: ٣٨)
We did not leave anything out of this Book. Then all will be gathered before their Lord [for judgement]. (6:38)
A little deliberation on the context of the verse shows that the verse has a specific connotation and it is incorrect to draw this conclusion from it.
6:37 says that the disbelievers demand that they be shown some sign so that they may profess belief. It is evident from later verses that the word “sign” actually refers to the punishment the disbelievers were threatened with by the Prophet (sws) if they rejected him.
قُلْ أَرَأَيْتُكُم إِنْ أَتَاكُمْ عَذَابُ اللّهِ أَوْ أَتَتْكُمُ السَّاعَةُ أَغَيْرَ اللّهِ تَدْعُونَ إِن كُنتُمْ صَادِقِينَ بَلْ إِيَّاهُ تَدْعُونَ فَيَكْشِفُ مَا تَدْعُونَ إِلَيْهِ إِنْ شَاء وَتَنسَوْنَ مَا تُشْرِكُونَ (٦: ٤٠-٤١)
Say: “What do you think, if there come upon you the punishment of God, or the Hour [that you dread]. Would you then call upon other than God? – [Answer] if you are truthful! Nay, – On Him would you call, and if it be His Will, He would remove [the distress] which occasioned your call upon Him, and you would forget [the false gods] which you join with Him!” (6:40-41)
Consequently, the disbelievers have been quoted by the Qur’an at many instances saying that they would like to see the punishment they are being threatened with in order to see whether Muhammad (sws) was a true messenger of God. At all such places, they are answered that if this sign is shown to them, then they would not be given any further respite – they would be destroyed. So it is better that instead of demanding this ultimate sign, they pay heed to the numerous other signs found in abundance around them and within their own being.
This is precisely what has been stated in 6:37 and at the beginning of 6:38:
وَقَالُواْ لَوْلاَ نُزِّلَ عَلَيْهِ آيَةٌ مِّن رَّبِّهِ قُلْ إِنَّ اللّهَ قَادِرٌ عَلَى أَن يُنَزِّلٍ آيَةً وَلَـكِنَّ أَكْثَرَهُمْ لاَ يَعْلَمُونَ وَمَا مِن دَآبَّةٍ فِي الأَرْضِ وَلاَ طَائِرٍ يَطِيرُ بِجَنَاحَيْهِ إِلاَّ أُمَمٌ أَمْثَالُكُم (٦: ٣٧-٣٨)
And they say: “Why is not a Sign sent down to him from his Lord?” Say: “God has certainly power to send down a Sign: but most of them understand not. There is not an animal [that lives] on the earth, or a being that flies on its wings, but [forms part of] communities like you (6:37-8)
The disbelievers are told that God has all the power to send down such a sign, but most of them do not know its implications. For when such a sign is sent, it is a signal of destruction for the people. So instead of demanding such a sign, they should look around and they will find plenty of signs. If they contemplate even on the animals around them and on the birds above them they will find many lessons. They will find in the individual and collective lives of these species the manifestations of the Almighty’s mercy, power, providence and wisdom. These manifestations show that this world has been made for a specific purpose by the Almighty.
In other words the expression: “We did not leave anything out of this book” if taken in context means that as far as signs to profess belief are concerned, this Book has plenty and that nothing has been left out of it. The verse does not imply that the Qur’an contains guidance on everything.
Moreover, it needs to be appreciated that man has been blessed with innate guidance which in most cases is able to guide him in various affairs of life. It is only at certain cross roads where man has the data but is not equipped to decide the right line of action or in certain other spheres where he has no data at all to make decisions that divine revelation comes to his rescue.
Shehzad Saleem has been under the tutelage of Javed Ahmad Ghamidi since 1988 and is currently a Research Fellow of Al-Mawrid. He has Bachelors in Electrical Engineering from U.E.T Lahore, Pakistan and holds a PhD on the History of the Qur’an from the University of Wales, UK. He is the Editor of the Monthly Renaissance (1991-1995; 1998- to date).