A plan? A man? The Quran


A previous article [1] suggested that a suitable response to the recent influx of Islamic ideas would be to apply typically Western methods of enquiry to Islam itself. The article presented, as an example, a critical discussion of the inheritance laws as set out in the Quran and concluded that the laws were ineptly specified, thereby providing evidence that the Quran was composed by a fallible human mind. This conclusion is in direct and irreconcilable conflict with the central Islamic assertion that the Quran was composed in its entirety by an almighty, all-knowing deity: the Biblical God.

This article continues in the same vein, but discusses not the details within the Quran, but the accounts of its creation as presented in mainstream Islamic literature. These accounts, though contested elsewhere (e.g. [2]), are taken at face value in what follows as is, for the sake of the argument, the existence of the Biblical God. The purpose of the article is therefore not to cast doubt on either the history or the deity but simply to determine whether there is evidence of the claimed connection between the two.

The Islamic story of the origin and nature of the Quran

The orthodox account of the origin of the Quran has been presented in many sources. This article draws mainly on two, both of which are available on-line. The first [3] is by a Christian Missionary, Edward Sell and the second [4] is by a European convert to Islam, Ahmad von Denffer.

Islam claims that, around the year 610 in Mecca, in what is now Saudi Arabia, Muhammad ibn Abdullah was designated as God’s final Messenger, or Prophet, and began to hear divine communications, relayed to him by the Archangel Gabriel. He continued to receive these messages until his death in 632 and, subsequently, the messages were compiled into a book: The Quran. The Quran is regarded as the actual word of God and remains the primary source of guidance for Muslims.

Given the overwhelming importance of the sacred task that Muhammad had allegedly been entrusted with it is remarkable that, at the time of his death in 632, no complete, approved written Quran is believed to have existed, though there were reputedly a number of partial or private versions, either written or preserved in people’s memories (7th century Arabia being primarily an oral culture) plus a large number of fragments recorded on diverse media. In 633, the first Caliph, Abu Bakr commissioned the production of a complete written Quran, though there is no evidence that this became anything more than a personal copy kept by Abu Bakr then, after his death, by the next Caliph, Umar and then by Umar’s daughter (and one of Muhamamad’s widows) Hafsa.

The situation remained unaltered until 653 when the third Caliph, Uthman, determined that a standardised version should be created, since Muslims in Iraq and Syria (parts of the ever-growing Islamic empire) had variant versions which had given rise to quarrels. His scribes went over Abu Bakr’s version (retrieved from Hafsa), rendering it in the Meccan dialect. Uthman then commanded that all other copies (including Hafsa’s) should be burnt, leaving the revised version as the official and only representation of the Quran, and so it remains to this day.

In what follows, the locations within the Quran of selected passages are denoted by (Qa:b), where ‘a’ is the Sura (i.e. Chapter) number and ‘b’ is the verse number. As in [1], the Arberry translation [5] is used for quotes.

Collection of the Hadiths

The Quran is not the only Islamic scripture. There are also the Hadiths: a large body of anecdotes concerning the things Muhammad said (providing an interpretation of the Quran) or did (thereby providing an example of correct behaviour or ritual), which are second only to the Quran in terms of the reverence in which they are held. The Hadiths, together with biographies such as [6] are also the source of other aspects of Islamic law not covered by the Quran such as, for example, the death penalty for renouncing Islam (apostasy) or the use of stoning for adultery. The two main Hadith collections were compiled over 200 years after Muhammad’s death. Extracts from the Bukhari collection [7] are referred to by the key (Ba:b:c), referring to Bukhari, Volume ‘a’, Book ‘b’, Hadith ‘c’.

A few key features of the Quran

The detailed contents of the Quran are not the subject of this article. However, a few of its features need to be mentioned. The most basic is its purpose. At the very start of Sura 2, the Quran tells us:

That is the Book, wherein is no doubt, a guidance to the Godfearing

So the Quran is a book of guidance and the ‘Godfearing’ are Muslims (and Muslims only). What were God’s intentions in revealing the Quran? The following quotation is from [8], a manual of Islamic law available in an English translation. In Section o8.0, which deals with renouncing Islam, a number of acts which entail apostasy are listed. One of them is:

To deny that Allah intended the Prophet’s message….to be the religion followed by the entire world.

which is self-explanatory.

An important point for all non-Muslims to appreciate is that the Quran is intrinsically an Arabic text. The basis for this view is (Q12:2):

We have sent it down as an Arabic Quran; haply you will understand.

God’s word, therefore, is in Arabic and Arabic only. Any attempt to render the text in another language is not simply an act of translation, but potentially one of alteration. Therefore, translations are regarded with caution within Islam; a translated Quran is considered not to be a true Quran, but more like an interpretation or commentary.

Although it is less widely known, it is also believed that the Quran was originally revealed in seven different forms. The source of this belief is contained in the Hadiths. (B3:41:601) reports:

Narrated Umar: “I heard Hisham bin Hakim bin Hizam reciting Surat-al-Furqan [one of the chapters of the Quran] in a way different to that of mine… Allah’s Apostle [i.e. Muhammad] said…. ‘The Qur’an has been revealed in seven different ways, so recite it in the way that is easier for you’.”

One final aspect of the Quran: one which cannot be overlooked, is the question of the dependence of its rulings upon the context in which they first appeared. The situation is described by Mohamed Elmasry, national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress [9]:

For the last 1400 years, Muslims and their religious scholars have dealt — and are still dealing — with the important question of how much of the Quran is binding on Muslims at all times and how much of its teachings apply only to the age of the Prophet Muhammad and the particular circumstances in which he and his followers lived. This is a continually difficult question, but one on which impressive scholarly work has been done; more yet is needed.


According to Islam, the almighty God intended that His religion, specified in the Quran and elaborated upon in the Hadiths, should be the one followed by the entire world. One might therefore expect that His plan for revealing and spreading Islam to the world would exhibit evidence of having been conceived and executed by an intellect far superior to our own. Let us consider the evidence and see if this is so. If it is not, we may tend to favour the competing explanation: that Muhammad was one of countless individuals, past and present, who heard ‘voices’ and that the Quran was, therefore, entirely a product of his own mind.


The use of prophets

For those brought up with Christian, Jewish or Islamic beliefs, the concept of prophethood may seem so familiar as to be barely worthy of comment. Yet, as a means for an almighty being to channel His communications to humanity, it seems to be rather an odd choice, given that He must surely have the power to broadcast His message simultaneously to all the world’s peoples, if He so wished.

In addition to being extremely slow and inefficient, the use of prophets suffers from the drawback that each prophet has to establish his own credibility. In ancient times, as now, there was no way, even with the best will in the world, for a person to distinguish reliably between a real prophet and a false one and, as a result, false prophets confuse the picture even more. So the question is: why would God risk the rejection of His words by choosing a method of revelation which lacks credibility because it is so obviously open to fakery and self-delusion?

The example of Muhammad’s early attempts to spread the word to his fellow Meccans is a case in point, with the experience being a slow, frustrating and sometimes dangerous one. As a result of the general scepticism and hostility, early conversions to Islam happened slowly. It is estimated in [10] that, 13 years after he had started, Muhammad’s converts numbered only around 100. His lack of success and the persecution of the early Muslims caused him and his followers to migrate to Medina, some 200 miles to the north, after which his fortunes improved markedly. The simple fact is that most of Muhammad’s compatriots, when given the free choice (an arrangement which was not to last), did not believe him. This difficulty in getting the Message across continues to the present day.

That God was aware of the credibility problem is beyond doubt, since the Quran describes how previous prophets were challenged, mocked, taunted, accused of being frauds and sometimes attacked. Tellingly, the Quran also abounds in both defensive self-reference (e.g. Q41:44) and in tirades against the unreasonable stubbornness of unbelievers (e.g. Q15:14,15). Remarkably, God was not content with this state of affairs and contrives to make things even more difficult. In (Q31:25), God tells us that

Even so We have appointed to every Prophet an enemy among the sinners; but your Lord suffices as a guide and as a helper.

The reference to other prophets is significant. The Quran maintains that, prior to its appearance, “every nation” was sent a prophet (Q16:36), with the total number being estimated by later commentators as anything up to 200,000 ([3], p239). The perplexing use of designated ‘enemies’ to hinder the efforts of the prophets may explain the seemingly almost complete fruitlessness of God’s previous efforts. Even accepting this hindrance, one cannot help wondering how, given this saturation coverage of the Earth’s peoples, God’s word failed to survive past the Iron Age except within one tribe: the Jews. Even in their case, according to Islam, the scriptures were corrupted.

That this ‘prehistory’ is believed to have occurred is an underappreciated feature of Islam. Under normal circumstances, i.e. if the actions were being attributed to a human cause, a record of one partial success in couple of hundred thousand attempts would result in the person responsible being demoted, dismissed or executed, depending upon whom he answered to. However, in the case of a plan attributed to God, no such conclusions can be countenanced within Islam. The apparent failure has to be represented as a success or, alternatively, blamed on someone else. The ‘someone else’ is non-Muslim humanity; the ones who failed to take heed of the prophets and (in the case of the Jews) corrupted the Scriptures. However, Islam also claims that God causes and foresees everything that occurs and had therefore deliberately caused the previous difficulties. This contradiction leads directly to the perplexing Islamic stance on free will which holds that, God’s complete control notwithstanding, humans are to be punished (in the afterlife) if they fail to follow the straight path provided by Islam.

The creation of the Quran

The story of the revelation of the Quran is as puzzling as the story of the earlier prophets. Despite the latter’s almost total failure, God again selected the same method of transmission. Furthermore, although God’s message was supposedly intended for all peoples and for all time (‘the religion followed by the entire world’), Islam maintains that God has expressed it only in Arabic; this being then, as now, a minority language in world terms.

Then, there is the problem of the seven versions. There are enough Hadiths on this subject to make this conclusion unavoidable for Muslims yet, oddly, not nearly enough to reflect its significance. If the story is true, Muhammad would have had to have spoken all seven each time a passage was revealed yet, in the Hadith quoted above, Umar (the same Umar whose daughter Hafsa became one of Muhammad’s wives) was unaware that alternatives even existed.

In the absence of any evidence as to what the seven forms of the Quran might have been, Muslim scholars have, for centuries, tried to square the circle of there being seven forms originally, yet only one now, without any alteration having taken place. There is, unfortunately, no wiggle room here since the Quran predicts its own uncorrupted and complete preservation (Q15:9), so any loss or alteration cannot be acknowledged. There is no support for the contrived ‘explanation’ that these seven forms were merely different Arab dialects [4] and the idea that God would create seven separate versions in order to indulge the inhabitants of the Arabian peninsula, yet ignore the major languages of the rest of the world, is surely too implausible, even for an account in which suspension of disbelief is a prerequisite. Muhammad’s revelation concerning the existence of seven versions must surely strike the uncommitted reader as his attempt to finesse himself out of the consequences of previous occasions when he had failed to recall correctly the exact wording of a verse.

The case of the seven versions is not the only occasion where what appears to be a simple human failing is given a divine gloss. (Q2:106) refers to verses which God supposedly had ‘cast into oblivion’; caused Muhammad to forget, in other words. The same verse describes the process whereby delivered verses were supposedly abrogated, or superseded, by later ones; a strange procedure for a text which had supposedly existed in Heaven since the beginning of time and a problem for subsequent generations since the original chronology was lost. (Q22:52) relates an occasion where verses had to be retracted because ‘Satan’ had deviously slipped them into Muhammad’s mind and (Q3:7) refers to verses which are ‘allegorical’: incomprehensible, as far as the reader is concerned.

The years following Muhammad’s death

Muhammad was a mortal man and, in 632, he died as the result of the rapid worsening of an illness. Upon his death, the Quran was left in a somewhat disorganised state. Verses existed in people’s memories, in incomplete and differing compilations and on various unusual media, such as the shoulderblades of sheep [4]. Von Denffer asks us, with naïve optimism, “What arrangement could have been better…?” ([4], p33). The answer is, of course: a collected, approved copy of the kind produced later by Uthman, whose decisive though dictatorial action was responsible for the preservation of the Quran from 655 to the present day. Von Denffer also tries to maintain that the retrieval of these fragments during the initial compilation under Abu Bakr was a simple matter of visiting Muhammad’s old house, collecting the fragments and parcelling them up with string. The comment of Zaid Ibn Thabit, to whom the task fell: “By Allah, if he (Abu Bakr) had ordered me to shift one of the mountains (from its place) it would not have been harder for me than what he had ordered me concerning the collection of the Quran.” (B6:60:201) suggests otherwise.

For Muslims, the dogma of an unchanged Quran clashes uncomfortably with the fact that their own literature records that different versions of the Quran were in circulation after Muhammad’s death. One only has to contemplate the gravity of Uthman’s decision to burn copies which had existed since Muhammad was alive to appreciate that the differences must have been significant. Moreover, parts of the Quran were evidently lost forever, as described in some detail by Gilchrist [11], who cites examples recorded within early Islamic literature. The most unambiguous statement to this effect comes again from Umar (B8:82:816):

I am afraid that after a long time has passed, people may say, “We do not find the Verses of the Rajam (stoning to death) in the Holy Book,” and consequently they may go astray by leaving an obligation that Allah has revealed

Umar’s concerns were well-founded, because the stoning verse is, indeed, no longer there. This infamous Islamic punishment for adultery nevertheless remains in force because of evidence in the Hadiths that it was sanctioned (and personally carried out) by Muhammad himself. There is no way to reconcile the information in the early Islamic reports with the dogma of an unchanged Quran except with a level of wishful thinking which only the preconvinced can achieve.


Attempts by Westerners to quote the Quran back at Muslims are often met with the response that the non-Muslim has failed to take into account the context of the original ‘revelation’ and has therefore misinterpreted the text. The quotation by Elmasry [9], given above, largely gives the game away: Muslims are also bemused and have failed to resolve the problem even to their own satisfaction in nearly one and a half millennia of “impressive scholarly work”.

As with the case of the previous prophets, the implications of the above are profound, but hardly ever discussed. The difficulties that Elmasry describes imply that God jumbled together commands designed to cover temporary circumstances with those of a more general application and gave no indication how to tell the two apart, resulting in confusion which has lasted for over 1350 years. Moreover, no amount of impressive scholarly work can resolve this problem, since no further information will ever become available.

There is no more stark example of the problems that the above gives rise to than the controversy surrounding the notorious passage known as the ‘Sword Verse’ (Q9:5): “..slay the idolaters wherever you find them”. Unfortunately, ‘God’ fails to make clear whether this applies for all time, or not, with the result that some Muslims believe one thing and the rest, the other. The verse which, almost single-handedly, defines the relationship between Islam and the rest of the world, is ambiguous.

Conversion of the unbelievers

An obvious necessary step in the adoption of Islam by the entire world is that unbelievers should convert into Muslims and it is reasonable to enquire as to how this conversion was supposed to be achieved. Many features of the Quran itself and of its emergence seemed designed to promote doubt and to discourage free, rational conversion and, as far as can be determined, the overwhelming majority of Muhammad’s fellow Arabs behaved exactly as anyone would behave today if confronted by someone claiming to be a prophet. They did not convert en masse until Muhammad had gained a good deal of entirely non-spiritual power.

The obstacles to informed rational conversion for the remainder of the world’s peoples are even more severe. The Quran is in Arabic; most people do not speak Arabic. The message has to be spread throughout the earth, so the Quran has to be translated. However, the Quran cannot be translated and remain the Quran. For this to be resolved according to God’s intentions, it would appear that everyone on earth needs to learn Arabic and, in order for the contents of the Quran to be appreciated fully, it should preferably be learned as a first language. However, even in parts of the world which have been Muslim for some considerable time (e.g. Turkey, Indonesia, Pakistan and Iran), this has not taken place. This leads to the strange situation of the supposed words of God being repeated reverentially by non Arabic-speaking Muslims, even though they have no clue what they are saying. Was this God’s intention?

So what, exactly, was God’s plan for conversion of the unbelievers? We may not have been told the details but, presumably, what took place over the next 1350 years was its realisation. But it seems scarcely credible that, with all the means at His disposal, God selected, as his method of mass communication, jihad – military conquest by the Arabs and their converts. Yet that is largely how Islam has been propagated. And despite its initial brutal success, God’s method for spreading Islam has been somewhat ineffective ever since the Arab/Muslim war machine ground to a halt centuries ago. After nearly 50 generations, most of the unconquered world remains unconvinced by Islam’s message. How much simpler and more successful it could have been; how much bloodshed could have been avoided, if a more elegant method of transmission had been selected.


Anyone considering the above must surely find it a challenge to discern any evidence of divine planning in the haphazard and, at times, chaotic sequence of events leading to the creation and compilation of the Quran that we see today. Furthermore, when judged against the supposed divine goal of the adoption of Islam by the entire world, many features of the process: the futile efforts of the (alleged) previous prophets, the confusing, Arabic-only message, the failure of Muhammad to provide a written, approved copy, the absence of any effective strategy for the rational conversion of the unconvinced, are simply inexplicable. The alternative explanation; that the Quran was composed piecemeal, consciously or unconsciously, by Muhammad, fits the story perfectly. The conclusion is surely inescapable: there was no plan behind the Quran; just a man.


Muslims believe that there is direct proof of the divine origin of the Quran. It is asserted that the Quran is inimitable, that is; that its contents are such that only God could have composed it. The basis of this remarkable claim will be discussed in the next article.


1 The Islamic Rules of Inheritance in the Quran. http://www.butterfliesandwheels.com/articleprint.php?num=270

2 Ibn Warraq. The Quest for the Historical Muhammad. Prometheus Books. 2000.

3 Edward Sell. The Faith of Islam. SPCK Press, Madras, 1907. http://www.answering-islam.de/Main/Books/

4 Ahmad von Denffer. Introduction to the Quran. Studies in Islam and the Middle East ePublishing Series. http://majalla.org/books/2004/intro-to-quran/1-intoduction-to-the-quran.pdf

5 Arthur Arberry (Translator). The Koran Interpreted. Touchstone Books. 1996. http://arthursclassicnovels.com/arthurs/koran/koran-arberry10.html

6 Ibn Ishaq. The Life of Muhammad (originally Sirat Rasul Allah). Translated by A. Guillaume. Oxford University Press. 1967

7 USC-MSA Compendium of Muslim Texts. University of Southern California. http://www.usc.edu/dept/MSA/

8 Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri (d. 1368), Reliance of the Traveller: A Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law, (rev. ed., trans. Nuh Ha Mim Keller, Beltsville, Maryland: Amana, 1994)

9 Mohamed Elmasry. Does the Quran sanction violence? http://muslim-canada.org/elmasry.html

10Ali Dashti. Twenty Three Years: A Study of the Prophetic Career of Mohammad. Mazda Publishers. 1994.

11 John Gilchrist. Jam al-Qur’an: The Codification of the Quran text. http://www.answering-islam.org/Gilchrist/Jam/index.html

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