Louis Palme / Oct 22, 2010

There was a time in the United States when a typewriter was indispensible in business offices and typewriters were found in virtually every home.   Today typewriters are so rare that even government forms have dispensed with the requirement that they be typewritten.  There is probably no other mass-produced product in history that became obsolete so fast.


The main problem with the typewriter was that once a character was struck on the keyboard it became very difficult to change it on the typewritten paper.  A whole industry was built around erasers and white-out liquids for typewriters. Some of the later versions of typewriters used “lift-off” carbon ink ribbons which could be unwritten, one letter at a time.  But still, the inconvenience of changing a misspelled word, not to mention entire sentences, made typewriters inefficient and frustrating to use.  Word processors and computers replaced the typewriters so fast that some American typewriter manufacturers like Smith Corona actually went bankrupt before they could recover from the precipitous drop in market demand.


The entire premise of the Quran is that it is the verbal word of God, transmitted directly to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel.  “Surely this is a glorious Quran, inscribed on an imperishable tablet [in heaven].” (85:21)  The  expectation, therefore, is that it is without error.  “Will they not ponder on the Quran? If it had not come from God, they could have surely found in it many contradictions.” (Surah 4:82)  Like the conventional typewriter, once an ayah (verse) of the Quran was “handed down” it was impossible to change it or erase it.


The Quran was revealed to Muhammad incrementally from 610 AD until just weeks before his death in 632 AD.  Although ayahs were not recorded in writing, his followers would memorize the revelations as they were handed down.   While Muhammad was still in Mecca, around 620 AD, it became apparent to his followers that there were contradictions in the revealed Quran.  Various Muslim scholars have taken two possible positions – that the contradictions were relative to the previously-revealed texts of the Torah and the Gospel, or that the contradictions were internal to the Quran.  The latter argument makes more sense because the words of the Torah or the Gospel were written down hundreds of years before Muhammad, and therefore they could not possibly be “forgotten.”  In either case, the contradictions were justified by a new revelation:  “God abrogates and confirms what he pleases.” (Surah 13.39) This concept was reiterated in Surah 2:106, “If we abrogate a verse or cause it to be forgotten, We will replace it by a better one or one similar.”  See also Surah 16:100.  (Modern translations avoid translating the Arabic word “forgotten” and render it as “consign to oblivion.”) See also Surah 16:100  which  acknowledges “changing” a verse. 


The Quran thus became the only sacred book that had a “lift-off” capability similar to that of later model typewriters.  The problem for scholars was to identify which verses (or messages) were abrogated and replaced with better or similar verses.  While there is no consensus on this, most Muslim scholars contend that if two parts of the Quran contradict one another, then the latter verse takes precedence over the former.  ( See “Peace or Jihad: Abrogation in Islam,” by David Bukay at http://www.meforum.org/1754/peace-or-jihad-abrogation-in-islam)   However, as time went by, scholars uncovered numerous errors in the Quran, including mathematical errors (e.g., Surah 4:11-12), lunar system errors, (e.g., Surah 10:5), geological errors (e.g., 12:49), and historical errors (e.g., Surah 105).   These errors could not be erased and replaced with a better verse without acknowledging their imperfection.

Of course the biggest contradiction in the Quran has to do with how Muslims deal with non-Muslims.  When the number of Muslims was small in Mecca, the Quran urged the fledgling group of Muslims to be polite to non-believers: 

Call men to the path of your Lord with wisdom and kindly exhortation. Reason with them in the most courteous manner.  . . . Be patient, then: God will grant you patience.  (Surah 16:125 – circa. 622 AD) 

 Compare that with some of the final commands contained in the Quran:

Muhammad is God’s apostle. Those who follow him are ruthless to unbelievers but merciful to one another. . . Through them He seeks to enrage the unbelievers.  (Surah 48:29 – circa. 628 AD)


Believers, make war on the infidels who dwell around you. Deal firmly with them. (Surah 9:123 – circa. 630 AD)

So how do Muslims deal with the contradictions and errors in the Quran? When it comes to text of the Quran,  Muslims can be grouped into four categories: 1) Absolute Believers  -- Muslims who have studied the Quran, understand its contents, and believe absolutely that it is the verbal word of God; 2)  Conventional Believers – Muslims who know little about the Quran and merely believe and follow traditions and sayings that have been handed down by family and clergy; 3) Modernist Revisionists – Muslims who consciously or unconsciously disregard or deny portions of the Quran that do not agree with 21st Century values; 4) Charlatans and Hypocrites – Muslims who know the Quran contains contradictions and errors but selectively use its contents to advance personal or political agendas.


The Absolute Believers have lost or never developed the ability to engage in critical thinking.  The errors in the Quran don’t exist in their view, and discrepancies can resolved with the most elaborate and irrational explanations imaginable. While they are true believers, their impact on the rest of the Muslims is small because they cannot use reason to persuade others of their convictions.


The Conventional Believers constitute the vast majority of Muslims.  They know it is “haram” to question the Quran, so they go through the motions of being Muslims with neither conviction nor enthusiasm.  They are often surprised by the contradictions in the Quran, but leave those issues up to God. While they would not engage in some of the evil commands found in the Quran on their own initiative, they would probably not speak out against others who would engage in in them.


The Charlatans and Hypocrites constitute the militant leaders, clerics, and the agitators.  They may not believe in the Quran as much as they believe in the power of the militant ideas contained therein.  They will deny the errors in the Quran and try to convince critics of the Quran that the errors are just misunderstandings or words taken out of context. They are the most dangerous of Muslims, because they can recruit others to do their evil deeds.


Islam could change and adapt itself to 21st Century values if it weren’t for the idea the Quran is the verbal word of God.  It can’t be changed, or at least the final unabrogatated texts can’t be changed.  The longer it exists in its present form, however, the more obsolete and impractical it will become as a religious doctrine in today's  world – just like the long-discarded typewriter.

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