A few years ago, Muslim groups in the UK sponsored some billboards with a rather bold claim about the Qur’an. This book, so it was proclaimed, in bold letters has: ‘Never Been Changed, Never Been Altered’. What this statement lacks in historical accuracy is perhaps partially redeemed by the fact that it is a rather elegant summary of the beliefs of contemporary Muslim beliefs about the Qur’an. Most modern Muslims firmly believe that there is an unbroken line from the Qur’an as supposedly revealed to Muhammad and what they hear read and recited today.
If only things were so simple! As with comparable ancient texts we can show that the Qur’an is the result of a complicated process of merging a variety of sources. We can even point out how disagreements about the end product made their way into the historical record. One of the most startling instances of this happening dealt with a disagreement about the appropriate punishment for adultery. Some Muslims clearly wanted the harshest penalty possible (i.e. stoning) while others advocated more lenient punishments (e.g. flogging or house arrest).
In the Qur’an that Muslims read today the lenient position won out in the sense that the Qur’an does not mention stoning as the punishment for any crime. Yet, all schools of Shari’a maintain that adulterers should be stoned. What is going on here?
It is clearly the case that many in the early Muslim community never made their peace with the more lenient position. Thus, they inserted their convictions into the mouths of two of the most respected members of the early Muslim community the Khalif Umar and Muhammad’s favorite wife Aisha in the form of supposedly ‘sound’ historical traditions.
Umar is made to say that people will come to corrupt the text later on but that the faithful have to remember that the ‘Verse of the Stoning’ was once part of the Qur’an: “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. Lo! I confirm that the penalty of Rajam is to be inflicted on him who commits illegal sexual intercourse ” (Sahih Bukhari 8:816)
So how was this verse lost? The answer, is supposedly provided by Aisha, is rather comical: “The verse of stoning and of suckling an adult ten times were revealed, and they were (written) on a paper and kept under my bed. When the Messenger of Allah expired and we were preoccupied with his death a goat entered and ate away the paper.” (Sunan Ibn Majah, Book of Nikah, Hadith Number 1934)
So, there you have it Allah’s eternal word was ‘edited’ by a goat. This tradition raises all sorts of questions. These include:
1) How could Allah have been so spectacularly careless to let part of his perfect guidance to humanity get lost in this way. Especially after declaring: “It is We Who sent down the Qur’an and indeed we will be its guardian” (Qur’an 15:9)
2) How were these verses removed from the Qur’an and the memory of those who memorised it?
3) If this verse was abrogated (replaced) as claimed by some Muslims even more questions are raised: a) Where is the ‘something better’ that it was replaced by? (Qur’an 2:1 06) b) Why do the hadiths (traditions) and shari’a rulings based on it still call for the stoning of adulterers despite the Qur’an being silent on the subject? c) Why was it not left in the Qur’an like other abrogated verses?
A goat chomping away at the Qur’an is a rather funny image but this should not take away from the serious point. Far from being the product of a single mind (human or divine) the pages of the Qur’an is clearly contested territory as is shown in the incontrovertible historical evidence of serious conflict over what should ‘make the cut’.
For more about the process through which the Qur’an came into being see Chapter 6 of my book ‘The Mecca Mystery – Probing the Black Hole at the Heart of Muslim History’