I have just finished a new leaflet for Christians to give to their Muslim friends about the preservation of the Qur’an (see next post) and while writing it I considering the following familiar hadith:

Abu Harb b. Abu al-Aswad reported on the authority of his father that 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 (sura 9). 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 so recite a slirah which resembled one of the surahs of Musabbihat, and I have forgotten it, but remember (this much) out of it:” Oh people who believe, why do you say that which you do not practise” (lxi 2.) and” that is recorded in your necks as a witness (against you) and you would be asked about it on the Day of Resurrection” (xvii. 13). (Sahih Muslim: bk. 5, no. 2286)

This hadith mentions suras that were once recited but are now not part of the Qur’an. However, what I had not noticed before were the surrounding hadiths to the above hadith:

Anas b. Malik reported: I heard the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) as saying this, but I do not know whether this thing was revealed to him or not, but he said to. (Sahih Muslim: bk. 5, no. 2283)

Ibn Abbas reported Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: If there were for the son of Adam a valley full of riches, he would long to possess another one like it. and Ibn Adam does not feel satiated but with dust. 1413 And Allah returns to him who returns (to HiM). 1414 Ibn Abbas said: I do not know whether it is from the Qur’an or not; and in the narration transmitted by Zuhair it was said: I do not know whether it is from the Qur’an, and he made no mention of Ibn Abbas. (Sahih Muslim: bk. 5, no. 2285)

What struck me with these hadiths is the open way in which they say that major companions like Anas b. Malik and Ibn Abbas did not know whether this was part of the Qur’an. These hadiths lend support to the other hadiths which say the Qur’an was gathered together from different sources; it was not that the major companions had memorized the entire Qur’an and simply wrote it out.

A point of application for this is that sometimes Muslims attack the Bible by saying there were some books in the New Testament that the early Christians discussed as whether or not they were authentic while all of the Qur’an was universally accepted by all Muslims. Most of the New Testament was homologoumena, that is, accepted by all the churches without exception. However there were a few documents that were antilegomena, that is, spoken against by some but received by the majority. However, these hadiths show that Islam too had its homologoumena and antilegomena material.

Debate: Can God become a man?

Sydney University, Old Geology Lecture Theatre

Tuesday May 6, 6pm.

Speakers: Sheikh Wesam Charkawi and Samuel Green


It is orthodox Muslim belief that Muhammad is the final prophet – but it took many years for this belief to become orthodox as there were other people claiming to prophets around this time. It was through the actions of Muhammad’s close companions that the belief that he was the final prophet was enforced and made orthodox. 

Muhammad in Context

The following people claimed to be prophets at the same time Muhammad was claiming to be a prophet:

  • Talhah bin Khuwailid Al-Asadi
  • Malik bin Nuwairah
  • Al-Mundhir bin An-Numan
  • Al-Yamamah Musailamah
  • Dhu At-Taj
  • Muhammad bin Abdullah
  • Laqit bin Malik Al-Azdi
  • Iyas bin Abdullah bin Abd Yalil
  • Al-Ashath bin Qais Al-Kindy
  • Qais bin Makshuh
  • Al-Aswad Al-Ansi (Dr. Shawqi Abu Khalil, Atlas on the Prophet’s Biography, Riyadh: Darussalam, 2003, p. 254)


These prophets were monotheists and some were known to have their own words from God which they taught to their followers. This is the Arabian context in which Muhammad was doing his activity; he was not alone.

When some of the Arabian tribes accepted Islam they accepted Muhammad as a prophet along with their own prophet. They had at least two prophets. Muhammad was certainly not viewed as the final prophet by these early Muslims.

How did the belief that Muhammad was the final prophet become the orthodox view?

(Immediately after the death of Muhammad) The situation that Abu Bakr faced on assuming the caliphate was very grim. Many tribes apostatised from Islam and refused to pay Zakat. Many false prophets rose throughout the length and breadth of Arabia, and many people offered allegiance to them. The argument that weighed with them was that a living prophet was to be preferred to one who was dead. (Prof. Masud ul Hasan, History of Islam, 2002, vol. 1, p. 97)

And so we see that after Muhammad’s death these other prophets continued their activity. Abu Bakr’s response to this situation was to declare war on these Muslims and unify them around Muhammad alone. To the north of Medina was the tribe of Asad. They followed their prophet Talhah. Muhammad’s followers marched against them and defeated them at Buzakha. The tribe of Hanifa was led by the prophet Musailamah. Muhammad’s followers fought hard against this tribe and finally killed Musailamah. In Oman Laquit b Malik was the prophet. An army was sent against him. Laquit and ten thousand of his followers were killed. In Yemen there was a prophet called Aswad Ansi. He had a large following. Muhammad’s army defeated them and killed Aswad.

This is how Muhammad became the final prophet; his close companions killed all the other prophets and forced their version of Islam upon these Arab tribes. Muhammad’s Qur’an was to be preserved but any Qur’an-like material from these other prophets was not preserved.

Reflections and Applications

1. It was not universally acknowledged among the early Muslims that Muhammad was the final prophet. This belief took time to be established and was enforced violently on the early Islamic community. If these different early Islamic communities had been allowed to continue to follow their own prophet then their belief that Muhammad was not the final prophet would continue today and Islam would look very different.

2. Muhammad and his companions did not introduce monotheism into Arabia but by killing the other prophets they introduced Muhammadism. The Islam of these early Muslim communities who had other prophets along with Muhammad now had to conform to Muhammadism.

3. The killing of these prophets and stopping the transmission of any Qur’an-like material they may have had destroyed important evidence for the context of Muhammad’s Qur’an. How did what Muhammad recite relate to what these other prophets recited? Was there common material between them? Did any of their material get included in Muhammad’s Qur’an or was Muhammad’s completely different to them? It is an assumption to say there was no connection between them and Muhammad. To claim that what Muhammad recited was completely unique is an argument from silence, a silence created by killing these prophets and their words. Therefore when we think about the history of the Qur’an we need to consider this context. Even if we cannot answer certain questions about these prophets and their words we can at least know that modern Islamic claims are just assumptions and arguments from silence.

4. “How Muhammad became the final prophet” would be a good title for a book and there is plenty of material in the Islamic sources to work with. I say this because there are a few books with titles like “How Jesus Became God” and Muslims seem to like these books. However, Muslims cannot say that because early Christians wrestled to understand the divinity of Jesus this means his divinity is a later invention. Would Muslims say the same about Muhammad being the final prophet? Some issues take a while to sort out. The main issue for Christians and Muslims in this area is to make sure we learn our history properly and not rely on cliches and exaggeration.

Muslim leaders tell us that Jesus’ description of the coming Spirit/Comforter in John 14-16 is a description of Muhammad and not the Biblical Holy Spirit, and therefore Jesus predicted the coming of Muhammad in John 14-16. As a result Christians and Muslims may think that this is the only possible Islamic interpretation of John 14-16, however this is not the case, there is a better Islamic interpretation of John 14-16.

The Qur’an speaks about Muhammad but it also speaks about the Spirit of God and the Qur’an’s description of the Spirit is far more similar to John 14-16 than Muhammad is. The following table is a simple comparison between the Spirit/Comforter in John 14-16, the Spirit in the Qur’an, and Muhammad.

The Description of the Comforter in John 14-16 The Description of the Spirit of God in the Qur’an The Description of Muhammad in the Qur’an
He is called the Holy Spirit: John 14:26. He is called the Holy Spirit: Qur’an 2:87, 2:253, 5:110, 16:102. No
He is the Spirit of Truth: John 14:17, 16:13. He is the Spirit of Truth: Qur’an 16:102, 26:193. No
He brings revelation from God to the apostles: John 16:13. He brings revelation from God to the apostles: Qur’an 16:102, 26:193, 97:4. No
He can be in you: John 14:17. He can be in you: Qur’an 15:29, 58:22. No
He opens people’s hearts to God: John 16:8-11. He opens people’s hearts to God: Qur’an 58:22. No
He is sent by God and Jesus, John 14:26, 15:26, 16:7. He is sent by God and Jesus: Qur’an 16:102, 15:29, 5:110. No


The Qur’an’s description of God’s Spirit is very close to that found in John 14-16, however, Muhammad is not close at all. This means there is stronger evidence from the Qur’an that John 14-16 is about the Holy Spirit rather than Muhammad. To say that Muhammad is the fulfilment of John 14-16 is a weak Qur’anic argument. The much stronger Qur’anic argument is to say that John 14-16 is fulfilled by the Holy Spirit.

The Qur’an never quotes any part of John 14-16 and claims that it is refers to Muhammad. This means that Muslims are not compelled to say that John 14-16 is about Muhammad. It is a perfectly legitimate Qur’anic argument to say that John 14-16 is referring to the Holy Spirit, in fact it is a stronger Qur’anic argument to do so.


When Muslims say to Christians that John 14-16 is about Muhammad the Christian can answer that this is not the only Islamic option for how to understand this scripture; Islam has at least two options. Then, the Christian can ask the Muslim why they believe the weaker Islamic argument, that it refers to Muhammad, over the stronger Islamic argument, that it refers to the Holy Spirit, when there is no necessity for them to do so? According to the Qur’an John 14-16 is about the Holy Spirit.

Anthony Rogers has recently posted several excellent articles 12, in reply to Paul Williams’ article in which Paul claims that the synoptic Gospels portray a different and developing view of Jesus and Mary the mother of Jesus.

I wish to engage with one point that Paul raised in his article:

As we have seen there are four gospels, and each has a different picture of Jesus and his teaching.

Firstly I want to consider how the four Gospels portray Jesus. Secondly I want to suggest that there were synoptic Qur’ans and that these synoptic Qur’ans functioned in a similar way to the synoptic Gospels and that this needs to be taken into account in Christian-Muslim discussions of textual integrity.

The Portrayal of Jesus in the Four Gospels

Paul’s comments about the four Gospels having a different picture of Jesus is one that I have heard from a number of Muslims. The conclusion that is intended by such a statement is that these different portrayals of Jesus are in fact different and not consistent, thus the witness of the NT cannot be trusted because it does not have a consistent message about Jesus. The proof for this claim is to compare similar passages in the Gospels and focus on any differences and from these differences conclude a different Jesus.

The problem I have with this approach is that it ignores the overwhelming majority of Gospel material, instead focusing on small sections. Consider the following table: 

  Matthew Mark Luke John
Jesus is God coming to us in fulfilment of Isaiah 40:2-3. 3:3 1:1-3 3:4-6 1:23
Jesus was crucified, died & raised. 16:21, 17:22-23, 20:17-19, 27:45-28:10 8:31, 10:32-34, 15:1-16:8 9:20-22, 18:31-34, 23:44-24:12 3:14, 10:11-18, 12:24, 19:17-20:23
Son of God 3:17, 4:3-6, 8:29, 11:27, 14:33, 16:16, 17:5, 21:37, 22:2, 24:36, 26:63-64, 27:40, 43, 54, 28:19. 1:1? 1:11, 3:11, 5:7, 9:7, 12:6, 13:32, 14:60-62, 15:39 1:32, 1:35, 3:22, 4:3-9, 4:41, 8:28, 9:35, 20:13, 22:70-71 1:34, 1:49, 3:16-18, 3:35-36, 5:16-30, 6:40, 8:35-36, 10:36, 11:4, 11:27, 13:32, 14:13, 17:1, 19:7, 20:31
Son of Man 8:20, 9:6, 10:23, 11:19, 12:8, 12:32, 12:40, 13:37, 13:41, 16:13, 16:27-28, 17:9, 17:12-14, 17:22, 19:22, 20:18, 20:28, 24:27, 24:30, 24:37-39, 24:44, 25:31, 26:2, 26:24, 26:45, 26:64 2:10, 2:28, 8:31, 8:38, 9:9, 9:12, 9:31, 10:33, 10:45, 13:26, 14:21, 14:41, 14:62 5:24, 6:5, 6:22, 7:34, 9:22, 9:26, 9:44, 9:58, 11:30, 12:8-10, 12:40, 17:22-30, 18:8, 18:31, 19:10, 21:27, 21:36, 22:22, 22:48, 22:69, 24:7 1:51, 3:13-14, 5:16-30, 6:27, 6:53, 6:62, 8:28, 9:35, 12:23, 12:34, 13:31
Son of David 1:1, 9:27, 12:23, 15:22, 20:30-31, 21:9-15, 22:41-46 10:47-48, 11:10, 12:35-37 1:27, 1:32, 1:69, 2:4, 2:11, 3:31, 18:38-39, 20:41-44 7:42
Teacher 8:19, 9:11, 10:24-25, 12:38, 17:24, 19:16, 22:16, 22:24, 22:36, 26:18 4:38, 5:35, 9:17, 9:38, 10:17, 10:20, 10:35, 12:14, 12:19, 12:32, 13:1, 14:14 6:40, 7:40, 8:49, 9:38, 10:25, 11:45, 12:13, 18:18, 19:39, 20:21, 20:28, 21:7, 22:11 1:38, 3:2, 8:4, 11:28, 13:13-14, 20:16
Rabbi 26:25, 26:49 9:5, 11:21, 14:45   1:38, 1:49, 3:2, 4:31, 6:25, 9:2, 11:8
Lord 3:3, 7:21-22, 8:2, 8:6, 8:21, 8:25, 9:28, 12:8, 14:28-30, 15:22, 15:25-27, 16:22, 17:4, 17:15, 18:21, 20:30-33, 21:3, 22:43-45, 24:42, 25:37, 25:44, 26:22 1:3, 2:28, 5:19, 7:28, 11:3, 12:36-37 2:11, 3:4, 5:8, 5:12, 6:5, 6:46, 7:6, 7:13, 7:19, 9:54, 9:59-61, 10:1-2, 10:17, 10:39-41, 11:1, 11:39, 12:41-42, 13:15, 13:23-25, 17:5-6, 17:37, 18:6, 18:41, 19:8, 19:31, 19:34, 20:42-44, 22:33, 22:38, 22:49, 22:61, 24:3, 24:34 1:23, 6:23, 6:68, 8:11, 9:38, 11:2-3, 11:12, 11:21, 11:27, 11:32-34, 11:39, 13:6, 13:9, 13:13-14, 13:25, 13:36-37, 14:5-8, 14:22, 20:2, 20:13, 20:18-20, 20:25-28, 21:7, 21:12, 21:15-21
Messiah/Christ 1:1, 1:16-18, 11:2, 16:16, 16:20, 22:42, 23:10, 26:63, 27:17, 27:22 1:1, 8:29, 9:41, 12:35, 14:61, 15:32 2:11, 2:26, 4:41, 9:20, 20:41, 22:67, 23:2, 23:35, 23:39, 24:26, 24:46 1:17, 1:41, 3:28, 4:25-26, 7:25-44, 9:22, 10:24-25, 11:27, 17:3, 20:31
A Sacrifice 20:26-28, 26:26-28 10:45, 14:22-24 22:17-20 1:29, 1:35-36


As you can see all four Gospels proclaim that Jesus is the coming of God foretold in Isaiah 40:2-3, he is the Christ/Messiah, the Son of God, the Son of Man, he lived, died and was raised again, his death was a sacrifice for salvation, and in all the Gospels he is called teacher and lord. You could also consider the fact that in all four Gospels Jesus did miracles which showed he had authority over all things, called God Father, John the Baptist prepared the way for him, he had disciples who are named, his area of activity, and more could be said.

This overwhelming agreement shows that all four Gospels are presenting the same Jesus. This overwhelming agreement is the context for any discussion about the differences in the portrayal of Jesus in the Gospels; yet this agreement and context are commonly ignored by those who want to focus on the differences. If this is done then the differences between the Gospels are being examined out of context and a new meaning is being imposed upon them that is not intended by that Gospel.

The four Gospels are not simply repeats. Each presents Jesus with its own emphasis. Matthew emphasizes certain things in a way that Mark does not and the same can be said between all the Gospels.

Paul says: “As we have seen there are four gospels” as if it is a bad thing. Having four Gospel accounts is not a problem but an advantage; it provides multiple testimonies and a richness and depth to our understanding of Jesus; they are all authentic. Imagine for a moment if the church had only kept the Gospel according to Matthew? This situation would be adequate but we would be poorer for it. It may make things simpler, and Paul Williams would not have the material to compare and contrast, but we would be poorer for it. The church never did this, but Islam did with the Qur’an.

The Synoptic Qur’ans

The Hadith is clear that Muhammad never made a collection of the Qur’an himself but it was his companions who did this. (Sahih al-Bukhari: vol. 6, bk. 61, no. 509)

And Muhammad allowed variation in the way the Qur’an was recited.

Narrated Ibn Mas’ud: I heard a person reciting a (Quranic) verse in a certain way, and I had heard the Prophet reciting the same Verse in a different way. So I took him to the Prophet and informed him of that but I noticed the sign of disapproval on his face, and then he said, “Both of you are correct, so don’t differ, for the nations before you differed, so they were destroyed.” (Sahih al-Bukhari: vol. 4, bk. 56, no. 682)

Muhammad’s companions made their different collections from their own material and by gathering together material from others sources which were preserved on pages, bones, leaves, stones and the memories of men. (Sahih al-Bukhari: vol. 6, bk. 61, no. 509)

These Qur’ans were highly similar yet different. For instance the Qur’an according to Abdullah ibn Mas’ud had 111 suras, the Qur’an according to Ubayy ibn Ka’b had 116 and the Qur’an according to Zayd bin Thabit 114. And the suras were also arranged differently within these collections. (al-Nadim, The Fihrist of al-Nadim – A Tenth Century survey of Muslim Culture, New York: Columbia University Press. 1970, pp. 53, 58-61)

There were also differences between the words in the same verse. The follow hadith shows how the Muslims who had learned the Qur’an from Abdullah ibn Mas’ud recited it differently to other Muslims:

Narrated Ibrahim: The companions of ‘Abdullah (bin Mas’ud) came to Abu Darda’, (and before they arrived at his home), he looked for them and found them. Then he asked them,: “Who among you can recite (Qur’an) as ‘Abdullah recites it?” They replied, “All of us.” He asked, “Who among you knows it by heart?” They pointed at ‘Alqama. Then he asked Alqama. “How did you hear ‘Abdullah bin Mas’ud reciting Surat Al-Lail (The Night)?“ Alqama recited:
‘By the male and the female.’ (Qur’an 92:3) 
Abu Darda said, “I testify that I heard the Prophet reciting it likewise, but these people want me to recite it:-
‘And by Him Who created male and female.‘ (Qur’an 92:3) 
But by Allah, I will not follow them.” (Bukhari: vol. 6, bk. 60, no. 468; also narrated Alqama vol. 6, bk. 60, no. 467, Khan. Agreed Muslim: bk. 4, no. 1799-1802, Siddique)

As this hadith shows, these different collections of the Qur’an were not for private use but were used by Muhammad’s companions to teach their students.

What is the effect of such differences?

1. Different Number of Suras. The Qur’an according to Abdullah did not have sura 1, 113 and 114, that is the du’a/prayers were not included. This leads to quite a different experience of reading the Qur’an. In the Qur’an according to Zayd bin Thabit (the modern Qur’an) the Muslim begins and ends with prayer as directed by God but in the Qur’an according to Abdullah this was not the case; it was simply hearing from God.

2. Sura Order. Firstly, changing the sura order changes how the Qur’an is presented. Secondly, each sura has its own theme, topics and questions and these are what a reader has in mind when they proceed from one sura to the next. Changing the sura order changes this context. Thus changing the sura order changes your experience of the Qur’an.

3. Different Words. As we have seen Abdullah said 92:3 as: By the male and the female.’ (Qur’an 92:3) But in the Qur’an according to Zayd it is recorded as: ‘And by Him Who created male and female.‘ (Qur’an 92:3) Abdullah’s version is shorter while Zayd’s version is more explicitly monotheistic, not having the animistic connotations of Allah swearing by his creation. We can see a theological development here.

These three types of differences are significant and make each of these Qur’ans unique and with its own emphasis. These different Qur’ans would still be consistent but each would have its own unique character. In the early history of Islam there were synoptic Qur’ans.

If the Qur’an according to Abdullah and the Qur’an according to Ubayy and the several other collections that we are told about had been preserved they would have provided us with a wealth of material for the study of the Qur’an. The different sura orders would have shown how each of these companions understood how the Qur’an was to be ordered and presented. The parallel passages could have been compared to see what emphasis each had. The parallel passages would also have provided the grounds for better understanding the original sources and how they were shared by the different companions. There would be a whole area of study with these authentic synoptic Qur’ans.

However, these synoptic Qur’ans were not preserved. Uthman made the Qur’an according to Zayd and his committee the standard version (Sahih al-Bukhari: vol. 6, bk. 61., no. 510). It is as if the church got rid of Mark, Luke and John and just kept Matthew.

Abdullah and other companions did not accept this action of Uthman but maintained that their collections were authentic. (Sahih Muslim: bk. 31, no. 6022; Tirmidhi: 3104; Ibn sa’d vol. 2 p. 444)

Zayd’s version of the Qur’an did not somehow include all the other versions which is why Abdullah protested. Zayd’s version was the collection he had supervised and not an Islamic form of the Diateserron. Uthman’s actions were to remove these other synoptic Qur’ans and not to preserve and consolidate them but to remove them and just have one text, and this is the Qur’an we have today.

Some Reflections

1. Muslims accept this concept of the synoptic Qur’ans when they say that the variants from the different companions are authentic. When Christians quote a hadith, as I have done, which shows a variant in the Qur’an between two companions, Muslim leaders say that both of these variants are authentic because Muhammad allowed the Qur’an to be recited in different ways (ahurf). It is like saying there is a difference between the way Matthew and Mark record the same event, for the Christian both Matthew and Mark are authentic, so it is for the Muslim; Abdullah’s reading and Zayd’s reading are both authentic. However, Muslim leaders need to acknowledge that they are using this synoptic reasoning as a defence. The question to then ask is why were these authentic synoptic Qur’ans not preserved?

2. If Christians want to show variants in transmission then they must be variants within a Qur’an according to one companion. For example, variants within the Qur’an according to Zayd are not synoptic variants but variants in transmission. The differences between the Samarqand manuscript and the modern Qur’an are an example of this.

3. Uthman’s actions may have made Islam simpler, one Qur’an, but it has made it all the poorer. Not preserving all these other authentic synoptic Qur’ans removes the testimony of significant companions and how they understood the content and presentation of the Qur’an. Again, imagine how much poorer Christianity would be if it had only preserved the Gospel according to Matthew? The whole area of synoptic studies that exists within Christianity and is so helpful and enriching can never exist in Islam because these authentic synoptic Qur’ans were destroyed.

4. The more evidence you destroy the less confident you can be. Removing the testimony of the other authentic synoptic Qur’ans means we have less material to work with and this can only lead to less confidence. Uthman’s actions were catastrophic for the preservation of the Qur’an.

5. Muslims have said to me, “There were 30 Gospels and Christians only kept four. What about the others?” Leaving the numbers aside for now, Christians had good reasons for keeping the Gospels they did; these were the authentic Gospels, but this question can equally be asked of Muslims. There are over a dozen different Qur’ans from which only one was selected; what about the others? But the situation is actually worse for Islam. Christians preserved what was authentic, four Gospels, while Muslims destroyed what was authentic and just kept one version of the Qur’an.

6. Finally, speaking about the Qur’an in these synoptic categories is advantageous because it provides a common category that Christians and Muslims can use in dialogue.