Our good brother Sam Shamoun over at answering-islam.org sent me a link to a new article, updated on 12/7/2004, at www.islamic-awareness.org, written by M S M Saifullah & Hesham Azmy. As with the mass of Islamic apologetic material being produced today, the article seeks to undermine the authority and accuracy of the Bible while assuming the perfection of the Qur’ân. The thesis is that the Bible we have today is not what existed at the time of Mohammed, hence, the foundation upon which the Christian stands in seeking to proclaim Christ to Muslims is not sound.
As the article is rather lengthy (16 pages printed), I will respond to it over time. Few people these days have the time to sit down and read the main article, and then an equally (and probably longer) response. But posting shorter pieces may actually help communicate a proper response to a wider audience. Also, thanks to the new blog software, the entirety of the material can be easily obtained by displaying by topic (Islam).
To begin our response, I note the fundamental issue that must be kept in mind when considering the textual history of the Bible in contrast with that of the Qur’ân. The Qur’ân is half a millennium younger than the New Testament documents. Islam, as an organized religion with a strong central body of leaders and support systems (even including armed forces), came into existence very quickly, even during the lifetime of Mohammed. This resulted in a very early interference in the textual history of the Qur’ân known as the Uthmanian Revision. While some precious few fragments exist that give us a tantalizingly small window through which to see the variety of readings and organization in the Qur’ân prior to Uthman’s revision, in essence his creation of a “standard text” at a very early period establishes the end-point of any textual examination of the Qur’ân. This means his revision fixes the earliest text we can establish only a little over 1300 years in the past. This places the Qur’ân in a completely different category in many ways than the text being compared, that being (normally) the New Testament.
There simply is no parallel in the history of the New Testament to the early establishment of an authoritative regime and structure that could bring about the textual uniformity of the Uthmanian Revision. Early Christianity was not militaristic. It was, instead, persecuted by the governmental authorities of the day. There was no central authority that ever had the power to produce something similar to the Uthmanian Revision, and that for a number of reasons. Christians wanted their texts to be shared as widely as possible from the beginning. Their purpose was conquest through the changing of hearts by the power of the gospel: Islam chose the sword instead, and hence the textual history of their respective Scriptures is vastly different. From one perspective, Islam has the advantage, for its history allows it to create its own singular scriptural tradition, free from all the issues raised by the transmission of the Christian Scriptures through widely distributed hand-written copies, most often, in the most primitive period, written by non-specialists. This is the perspective of the Islamic apologist. But we should note that this “advantage” is only an apparent one. In reality, all Islam can claim is to have sought to faithfully preserve the reading of the Qur’ân for a significantly shorter period of time and that back only to the revision of Uthman, not to Mohammed himself. But having an “official” version is, in fact, the death-knell to any attempt to actually be able to reproduce the original inspired writings (both groups claiming inspiration in somewhat different forms for the actual written text of their Scriptures). The very need for the revision demonstrates the textual corruption that existed early on, and by producing the revision, you effectively end the transmission stream at that point. So unless Islam wants to invest in Uthman some form of divine inspiration (like Mormons give Joseph Smith and his “Inspired Version”), they have to admit that they cannot press their textual history past that point. So the “advantage” is no advantage at all, at least for those who wish to seriously engage the history of the transmission of the text over time.
When we keep this in mind, we will see that the information Islamic apologists focus upon is that which speaks to the existence of textual variation between manuscripts of the New Testament. This is the result of the means by which the NT documents were disseminated. The Muslim views this as destroying the accuracy of the biblical text. He doesn’t have to worry about it, at least post-Uthman (the Sana’a discoveries in Yemen prove the pre-Uthmanian text did contain such variants, but Uthman’s work, ironically, destroyed the very means by which those variants could be examined and decided). But, in reality, the Muslim is holding a mortally wounded text, transmissionally speaking, while the Christian welcomes ever deeper examination into the primitive text of the New Testament. The article to which we now are responding follows this pattern perfectly, seeking to inculcate doubt as to the transmission of the text of the NT, while failing, utterly, to see the corresponding problems with the Qur’ân. We will note this as we continue our examination in the future.