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By David Wood
One of the most popular arguments for Islam is what we might call the
“Argument from Perfect Preservation,” which claims that, since the Qur’an has
been perfectly preserved for nearly fourteen centuries, God must have been
miraculously preserving it. This argument is based on a verse of the Qur’an:
“We have, without doubt, sent down the Message; and We will assuredly guard it
After quoting this verse, Muslim apologist Mazhar Kazi
Muslims and non-Muslims both agree that no change has ever occurred in
the text of the Qur’an. The above prophecy for the eternal preservation and
purity of the Qur’an came true not only for the text of the Qur’an, but also
for the most minute details of its punctuation marks as well. . . . It is a
miracle of the Qur’an that no change has occurred in a single word, a single
[letter of the] alphabet, a single punctuation mark, or a single diacritical
mark in the text of the Qur’an during the last fourteen
centuries.iiKazi’s claim is odd for two reasons. First, it’s certainly
no miracle for a book to be preserved for fourteen centuries. The Dead Sea
Scrolls, copies of the Bible, and other writings have survived longer than
fourteen centuries, so Muslims can hardly appeal to preservation as proof of
divine inspiration. Second, it’s simply false to say that the Qur’an has been
perfectly preserved. When we turn to the early Muslim sources, we find that
entire chapters of the Qur’an have been lost, that large sections of chapters
are missing, that individual verses were forgotten, and that words and phrases
were changed. Indeed, we know from Muslim reports that Muhammad’s most trusted
teachers couldn’t even agree on which chapters were to be included in the
I. A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE QUR’AN
The first Qur’anic revelation came to Muhammad around the year 610.
Muhammad delivered many more verses to his scribes and companions for
memorization and recording over the next two decades. These verses were written
on stalks of palm leaves, bones of dead animals, flat stones, and whatever else
Muslims could find. There was no complete manuscript of the Qur’an during this
Qur’anic revelation ceased when Muhammad died. Shortly after
Muhammad’s death, Caliph Abu Bakr needed to suppress a rebellion, and he sent
many huffaz (people who had memorized portions of the Qur’an) to fight
at the Battle of Yamama. Many of these huffaz died, and Muslim sources
tell us that portions of the Qur’an were lost:
Many (of the passages) of the Qur’an that were sent down were known by
those who died on the day of Yamama . . . but they were not known (by those
who) survived them, nor were they written down, nor had Abu Bakr, Umar or
Uthman (by that time) collected the Qur’an, nor were they found with even one
Abu Bakr decided that it was time to gather what remained of the
Qur’an in order to prevent more from being lost, and he appointed Zaid ibn
Thabit to this task. After Zaid completed his codex around 634 AD, it remained
in Abu Bakr’s possession until his death, when it was passed on to Caliph Umar.
When Umar died, it was given to Hafsa, a widow of Muhammad.
During Caliph Uthman’s reign, approximately 19 years after the death
of Muhammad, disputes arose concerning the correct recitation of the Qur’an.
Uthman ordered that Hafsa’s copy of the Qur’an, along with all known textual
materials, should be gathered together so that an official version might be
compiled. Zaid ibn Thabit, Abdullah bin Az-Zubair, Sa’id bin Al-As, and
Abdur-Rahman bin Harith worked diligently to construct a revised text of the
Qur’an. When it was finished, “Uthman sent to every Muslim province one copy of
what they had copied, and ordered that all the other Qur’anic materials,
whether written in fragmentary manuscripts or whole copies, be
Qur’an we have today is descended from this codex.
II. DISPUTES AMONG MUHAMMAD’S
Not all Muslims approved of the new Qur’an. Indeed, some of Muhammad’s
top teachers rejected Zaid’s version.
Muhammad once told his followers to “Learn the recitation of the
Qur’an from four: from Abdullah bin Masud—he started with him—Salim, the freed
slave of Abu Hudhaifa, Mu’adh bin Jabal and Ubai bin
Interestingly, Ibn Masud (first on Muhammad’s list) held that the Qur’an should
only have 111 chapters (today’s version has 114 chapters), and that chapters 1,
113, and 114 shouldn’t have been included in the Qur’an.
Because of this (along with hundreds of other differences), Ibn Masud
went so far as to call the final edition of the Qur’an a deception! He said,
“The people have been guilty of deceit in the reading of the
Qur’an. I like it better to read according to the recitation of him [i.e.
Muhammad] whom I love more than that of Zayd Ibn
Should Muslims submit to this “deceit”? Not surprisingly, Ibn Masud
advised Muslims to reject Zaid’s Qur’an and to keep their own versions—even to
hide them so that they wouldn’t be confiscated by the government! He
“O you Muslim people! Avoid copying the
Mushaf and recitation of this man. By Allah! When I
accepted Islam he was but in the loins of a disbelieving man”—meaning Zaid bin
Thabit—and it was regarding this that Abdullah bin Mas’ud said: “O people of
Al-Iraq! Keep the Musahif that are with you, and
But Ibn Masud wasn’t the only one of Muhammad’s trusted teachers who
disagreed with Zaid’s Qur’an. Ubayy ibn Ka’b was Muhammad’s best reciter and
one of the only Muslims to collect the materials of the Qur’an during
Muhammad’s lifetime. Yet Ibn Ka’b believed that Zaid’s Qur’an was missing two
chapters! Later Muslims were therefore forced to reject some of Ibn Ka’b’s
Umar said, “Ubayy was the best of us in the recitation (of the
Qur’an), yet we leave some of what he recites.” Ubayy says, “I have taken it
from the mouth of Allah’s Messenger and will not leave it for anything
Due to these disputes among Muhammad’s hand-picked reciters, Muslims
are faced with a dilemma. If Muslims say that the Qur’an we have today has been
perfectly preserved, they must say that Muhammad was horrible at choosing
scholars, since he selected men who disagreed with today’s text. If, on the
other hand, Muslims say that their prophet would know whom to pick when it
comes to Islam’s holiest book, they must conclude that the Qur’an we have today
III. MISSING CHAPTERS
Simply knowing the facts about such disputes is enough to dismiss the
claim that the Qur’an has been perfectly preserved. Nevertheless, we may go
further by briefly considering certain other problems.
When Ibn Umar—son of the second Muslim caliph—heard people declaring
that they knew the entire Qur’an, he said to them: “Let none of you say, ‘I
have learned the whole of the Koran,’ for how does he know what the whole of it
is, when much of it has disappeared? Let him rather say, ‘I have learned what
One of Muhammad’s companions, Abu Musa, supported this claim when he
said that the early Muslims forgot two surahs (chapters) due to
Abu Musa al-Ash’ari sent for the reciters of Basra. They came to him
and they were three hundred in number. They recited the Qur’an and he said: You
are the best among the inhabitants of Basra, for you are the reciters among
them. So continue to recite it. (But bear in mind) that your reciting for a
long time may not harden your hearts as were hardened the hearts of those
before you. We used to recite a surah which resembled in length and severity to
(Surah) Bara’at. I have, however, forgotten it with the exception of this which
I remember out of it: “If there were two valleys full of riches, for the son of
Adam, he would long for a third valley, and nothing would fill the stomach of
the son of Adam but dust.” And we used to recite a surah which resembled one of
the surahs of Musabbihat, and I have forgotten it . .
This shows that entire chapters of the Qur’an were
IV. MISSING PASSAGES
We know further that large sections of certain chapters came up
missing. For instance, Muhammad’s wife Aisha said that roughly two-thirds of
Surah 33 was lost:
A’isha . . . said, “Surat al-Ahzab (xxxiii) used to be recited in the
time of the Prophet with two hundred verses, but when Uthman wrote out the
codices he was unable to procure more of it than there is in it today [i.e. 73
According to Aisha, the collectors simply couldn’t find all of Surah
33. Why not? As we’ve seen, many huffaz were killed at the Battle of
Yamamah. Apparently, no one who knew the entire chapter
V. MISSING VERSES
Aisha also tells us that individual verses of the Qur’an disappeared,
sometimes in quite comical ways:
It was narrated that Aishah said: “The Verse of stoning and of
breastfeeding an adult ten times was revealed, and the paper was with me under
my pillow. When the Messenger of Allah died, we were preoccupied with his
death, and a tame sheep came in and ate
The verses on stoning and breastfeeding an adult ten times are not in
the Qur’an today. Why? Aisha’s sheep ate them.
VI. MISSING PHRASES
Since entire chapters, large portions of chapters, and individual
verses of the Qur’an were lost, it should come as no surprise that short
phrases were forgotten as well. Let’s consider two examples.
First, Surah 33:6 declares that “The Prophet is closer to the
Believers than their own selves, and his wives are their mothers.” However,
Ubayy ibn Ka’b and other early Muslims held that a phrase (“and he is a father
of them”) is missing from this verse. Even the great translator Yusuf Ali
admits this in his commentary. Ali writes: “In some Qira’ahs, like that of
Ubayy ibn Ka’ab, occur also the words ‘and he is a father of them,’ which imply
his spiritual relationship and connection with the words ‘and his wives are
It seems that Muslims have been left with an incomplete verse.
Second, if we open a modern edition of the Qur’an, we find that Surah
2:238 commands Muslims to “Guard strictly your (habit) of prayers, especially
the Middle Prayer; and stand before Allah in a devout (frame of mind).”
According to Aisha, however, Muhammad recited this verse as follows: “Guard
strictly (the five obligatory) prayers, and the middle
Salat, and Salat Al-Asr.
And stand before Allah with obedience.” Hence, the phrase “and Salat Al-Asr” is
missing from modern editions.
Obviously, the Qur’an has changed significantly over the years. The
evidence shows that entire chapters were lost, that large sections of chapters
came up missing, that individual verses were forgotten, and that phrases have
been left out. Muhammad’s best teachers and reciters couldn’t even agree on
which chapters were supposed to be in the Qur’an.
This raises an obvious question. What’s the difference between a book
that’s been perfectly preserved, and one that hasn’t been perfectly preserved?
If Muslims are right, there’s no difference at all. The typical characteristics
of a book that hasn’t been perfectly preserved are (1) missing phrases, (2)
missing passages, (3) missing chapters, (4) disagreements about what goes back
to the original, etc. But the Qur’an has all of these characteristics. Thus,
Muslims who are aware of the evidence but who also want to maintain perfect
perseveration of the Qur’an must say something like this: “Yes, the Qur’an has
all the characteristics of a book that hasn’t been perfectly preserved, but
it’s been perfectly preserved anyway.” Can anyone make sense of such a
It’s clear, then, that the Argument from Perfect Preservation fails,
and that Muslims who want evidence for their faith will have to look somewhere
other than the preservation of the Qur’an.
i All Qur’an
quotations are taken from Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Meaning of the Holy
Qur’an (Beltsville: Amana Publications, 1989).
iiMazhar Kazi, 130 Evident Miracles in the Qur’an (Richmond Hill:
Crescent Publishing House, 1997), pp. 42-43.
Abi Dawud, Kitab al-Masahif.
ivSahih al-Bukhari 4987.
viIbn Sa’d, Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir, Vol. 2, p.
viiJami At-Tirmidhi 3104.
viiiSahih al-Bukhari 5005.
Ubaid, Kitab Fada’il-al-Qur’an.
Ubaid, Kitab Fada’il-al-Qur’an.
xiiSunan Ibn Majah 1944.
Yusuf Ali, The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an, Note 3674.
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