The Garbled Up Quran Pt. 3

What the Scholars Say

In this part of our response we are going to see what the scholars have to say about the coherence and structure of the Quran.

Thomas Carlyle, whose comments on Muhammad in Heroes and Hero Worship (1841) are often quoted with approval by Muslims, states in reference to the Quran:

A wearisome confused jumble, crude, incondite, endless iterations, longwindedness, entanglement; most crude incondite-insupportable STUPIDITY, in short! Nothing but a sense of duty could carry any European through the Koran.” (Carlyle, Sartor Resartus: On Heroes and Hero Worship [London, 1973], p. 299; bold and capital emphasis ours)

“His Koran has become A STUPID PIECE of prolix absurdity; we do not believe, like him, that God wrote that!” (Ibid, p. 344; bold and capital emphasis ours)

Author Salomon Reinach writes:

“From the literary point of view, the Koran has little merit. Declamation, repetition, puerility, a lack of logic and coherence strike the unprepared reader at every turn. It is little humiliating to the human intellect to think that this mediocre literature has been the subject of innumerable commentaries, and that millions of men are still wasting time in absorbing it.” (Reinach, Orpheus: A History of Religion [Liveright, Inc., New York 1932], p. 176)

John McClintock and James Strong’s Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature notes:

“The matter of the Koran is exceedingly incoherent and sententious, the book evidently being without any logical order of thought either as a whole or in its parts. This agrees with the desultory and incidental manner in which it is said to have been delivered.” (Volume V, p. 151, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids MI, reprint 1982)

Noted historian Edward Gibbon describes the Quran as,

“incoherent rhapsody of fable, and precept, and declamation, which sometimes is lost in the clouds.” (Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire [Milman Co., London], Volume I, p. 365)

The following citations are taken from the book, Twenty-Three Years: A study of the Prophetic Career of Mohammad (Allen and Unwin, London, 1985), which was written by the late Iranian Muslim Scholar Ali Dashti. All bold and capital emphasis ours:

“Unfortunately the Qor’an was badly edited and its content are very obtusely arranged. All students of the Qor’an wonder why the editors did not use the natural and logical method of ordering by date of revelation, as in ‘Ali b. Abi Taleb’s copy of the text.” (P. 28)

“Among the Moslem scholars of the early period, before bigotry and hyperbole prevailed, were some such as Ebrahim on-Nazzam who openly acknowledged that the arrangement and syntax of the Qor’an are not miraculous and that work of equal or greater value could be produced by other God-fearing persons.

“Pupils and later admirers of on-Nazzam, such as Ebn Hazm and ol-Khayyat, wrote in his defence, and several other leading exponents of the Mo’tazelite school shared his opinion. They saw no conflict between the theses of on-Nazzam and the statements in the Qor’an. One of their arguments is that the Qor’an is miraculous because God deprived the Prophet Mohammad’s contemporaries of the ability to produce the like of it; in other times and places the production of phrases resembling Qor’anic verses IS POSSIBLE AND INDEED EASY.

“It is widely held that the blind Syrian poet Abu’l-‘Ala ol-Ma’arri (368/979-450/1058) wrote his Ketab ol-fosul wa’ l-ghayat, of which a part survives, in imitation of the Qor’an.

“The Qor’an contains sentences which are incomplete and not fully intelligible without the aid of commentaries; foreign words, unfamiliar Arabic words, and words used with other than the normal meaning; adjectives and verbs inflected without observance of the concords of gender and number; illogically and ungrammatically applied pronouns which sometimes have no referent; and predicates which in rhymed passages are often remote from the subjects. These and other such aberrations in the language have given scope to critics who deny the Qor’an’s eloquence. The problem also occupied the minds of devout Moslems. It forced the commentators to search for explanations and was probably one of the causes of disagreement over readings.” (Pp. 48-49)

“To sum up, more than one hundred Qor’anic aberrations from the normal rules and structure of Arabic have been noted. Needless to say, THE COMMENTATORS STROVE TO FIND EXPLANATIONS AND JUSTIFICATIONS FOR THESE IRREGULARITIES. Among them was the great commentator and philologist MAHMUD OZ-ZAMAKHSHARI (467/1075-538/1144), of whom a Moorish author wrote: ‘This grammar-obsessed pedant has committed a shocking error. Our task IS NOT TO MAKE THE READINGS CONFORM TO ARABIC GRAMMAR, but to take the whole of the Qor’an as it is AND MAKE THE ARABIC GRAMMAR CONFORM TO THE QOR’AN.’

“Up to a point this argument is justifiable. A nation’s great speakers and writers respect the rules of its language in so far as they avoid modes of expression which are not generally understood and popularly accepted, though they may occasionally find themselves obliged to take liberties. Among the pre-Islamic Arabs, rhetoric and poetry WERE WELL DEVELOPED and grammatical conventions WERE ALREADY ESTABLISHED. The Qor’an, being in the belief of Moslems superior to all previous products of the rhetorical genius, must contain the fewest irregularities.

“Yet the Moorish author’s censure of Zamakhshari is open to criticism on the ground that it reverses the usual argument. This is that the Qor’an is God’s word because it has a sublime eloquence which no human being can match, and that the man who uttered it was therefore a prophet. The Moorish author maintained that the Qor’an is faultless because it is God’s word and that the problem of the grammatical errors in it MUST BE SOLVED BY CHANGING THE RULES OF ARABIC GRAMMAR. In other words, while most Moslems answer deniers by citing the Qor’an’s eloquence as proof of Mohammad’s prophethood, the Moorish author, having taken the Qor’an’s divine origin and Mohammad’s prophethood for granted, held all discussion of the Qor’an’s wording and contents to be inadmissible.” (Pp. 50-51)

Neither the Qor’an’s eloquence nor its moral and legal precepts are miraculous. The Qor’an is miraculous because it enabled Mohammad, single-handedly and despite poverty and illiteracy, to overcome his people’s resistance and found a lasting religion because it moved wild men to obedience and imposed its bringer’s will on them.” (P. 57)

Dashti further stated that,

“The Qor’an contains many instances of confusion between the two speakers, God and Mohammad, in the same verse… Among these many passages are some, like the above, which can be easily explained, but also others which present great difficulty… The presence of confusions between God and the Prophet in the Qor’an cannot objectively be disputed. Sometimes God speaks, giving to the Prophet the command ‘say’ (i.e. to the people). Sometimes the sentence structure proves that it is the Prophet who speaks, expressing devotion to God. The impression conveyed by the Qor’an is that a hidden voice in Mohammad’s soul or subconscious mind was continually impelling him to guide the people, restraining him from lapses, and providing him with solutions to problems.” (Pp. 150-151)


“Confusion between God’s and Mohammad’s words is again apparent in two verses of sura 10 (Yunos). ‘And if your Lord so wished, all the dwellers on the earth would believe together. Are you going to compel the people to be believers?’ (verse 99). ‘It is only (possible) for a soul to believe with God’s permission. And He inflicts vileness on those who are intelligent’ (verse 100). In verse 99 the words are from God and addressed to the Prophet, but in verse 100 the words appear to be Mohammad’s, a sort of self-consolation followed by an explanation of the obduracy of the polytheists who would not heed his teaching.” (P. 152)

It gets a lot worse. According to another renowned Islamist every fifth sentence of the Quran makes no sense whatsoever!

“The Koran claims for itself that it is ‘mubeen,’ or ‘clear.’ But if you look at it, you will notice that every fifth sentence or so simply doesn’t make sense. Many Muslims—and Orientalists—will tell you otherwise, of course, but the fact is that a fifth of the Koranic text is just incomprehensible. This is what has caused the traditional anxiety regarding translation. If the Koran is not comprehensible—if it can’t even be understood in Arabic—then it’s not translatable. People fear that. And since the Koran claims repeatedly to be clear but obviously is not—as even speakers of Arabic will tell you—there is a contradiction. Something else must be going on.” (Gerd Puin, quoted by Toby Lester in “What Is the Koran?,” The Atlantic, January 1999; underline emphasis ours)

The great scholar Noldeke claims:

“On the whole, while many parts of the Koran undoubtedly have considerable rhetorical power, even over an unbelieving reader, the book aesthetically considered, is by no means a first rate performance… Let us look at some of the more extended narratives. It has already been noticed how vehement and abrupt they are where they ought to be characterised by epic repose. Indispensable links, both in expression and in the sequence of events, are often omitted, so that to understand these histories is sometimes far easier for us than for those who heard them first, because we know most of them from better sources. Along with this, there is a good deal of superfluous verbiage; and nowhere do we find a steady advance in the narration. Contrast in these respects the history of Joseph (xii) and its glaring improprieties with the admirably conceived and admirably executed story in Genesis. Similar faults are found in the non narrative portions of the Koran. The connexion of ideas is extremely loose, and even the syntax betrays great awkwardness. Anacolutha [want of syntactical sequence; when the latter part of the sentence does not grammatically fit the earlier] are of frequent occurrence, and cannot be explained as conscious literary devices. Many sentences begin with a ‘when’ or ‘on the day when’ which seems to hover in the air, so that commentators are driven to supply a ‘think of this’ or some such ellipsis. Again, there is no great literary skill evinced in the frequent and needless harping on the same words and phrases; in xviii, for example ‘till that’ occurs no fewer than eight times. Mahomet, in short, is not in any sense a master of style.” (Ibn Warraq, Why I am not a Muslim [Prometheus Books; Amherst NY, 1995], pp. 110-111; bold emphasis ours)

Richard Bell and W. M. Watt believe that the uneasiness of the Quranic structure is actual proof that the text has been altered:

“There are indeed many roughnesses of this kind, and these, it is here claimed, are fundamental evidence for revision. Besides the points already noticed—hidden rhymes, and rhyme-phrases not woven into the texture of the passage—there are the following: abrupt changes of rhyme; repetition of the same rhyme word or rhyme phrase in adjoining verses; the intrusion of an extraneous subject into a passage otherwise homogeneous; a differing treatment of the same subject in neighboring verses, often with repetition of words and phrases; breaks in grammatical construction which raise difficulties in exegesis; abrupt changes in the length of verses; sudden changes of the dramatic situation, with changes of pronoun from singular to plural, from second to third person, and so on; the juxtaposition of apparently contradictory statements; the juxtaposition of passages of different date, with the intrusion of late phrases into early verses.

“In many cases a passage has alternative continuations which follow one another in the present text. The second of the alternatives is marked by a break in sense and by a break in grammatical construction, since the connection is not with what immediately precedes, but with what stands some distance back.” (Bell & Watt, Introduction to the Quran [Edinburgh, 1977], p. 93; as cited by Ibn Warraq in Why I am not a Muslim [Prometheus Books; Amherst NY, 1995], pp. 112-113; bold emphasis ours)

The late Thomas Patrick Hughes wrote:

“… The Qur’an is, however, generally held to be a standing miracle, indeed, the one miracle which bears witness to the truth of Muhammad’s mission, an assumption based on the Prophet’s own statements in the Qur’an (Surah x. 39, xi. 16, liii. 34), where he calls upon the people who charge him with having invented it to procure a single chapter like it. But the Mu’tazalites have asserted that THERE IS NOTHING MIRACULOUS IN ITS STYLE AND COMPOSITION (vide Sharhu’l-Muwaqif)…” (Hughes, Dictionary of Islam [Kazi Publications, Inc. (USA) 3023-27 West Belmont Ave., Chicago Il. 60618], p. 521; bold and capital emphasis mine)

And a Muslim author whom we already cited, Farid Esack, admits,

“The current arrangement of the Qur’an is neither chronological nor thematic. To those accustomed to reading in a linear or sequential fashion, this can prove tedious and frustrating. The Qur’an also does not have a clear narrative pattern where the stories neatly unfold. The story of Joseph is the only exception TO THE RULE of narratives appearing in different accounts and various bits of the same account being interspersed throughout the Qur’an. The DISJOINTED appearance of these narratives in the Qur’an have been the subject of vigorous scholarly debate, much of it losing sight of its objectivity. “Even where the narrative predominates, the story is hardly ever told in a straightforward manner but tends to fall into a series of short-word pictures; the action advances incident by incident, DISCONTINOUSLY, and the intervening links ARE LEFT TO THE IMAGINATION OF THE HEARERS” (Bell, 1970, 81). This seeming “disjointedness” is also characteristic of the rest of the Qur’an, comprised of exhortations, injunctions, or liturgical pieces.

After a short prayer, the Qur’an begins with the longest and one of the most complex chapters, one from Muhammad’s later career, which engages the full array of legal, historical, polemical, and religious issues in a fashion bewildering for the reader not immersed in the history and law of early Islam. For those familiar with the Bible, it would be as if the second page opened with a combination of the legal discussions in Leviticus, the historical polemic of the Book of Judges and the apocalyptic allusions from Revelation, with various topics mixed in together and beginning in mid-topic (Sells, 1999, xi).

“While there is unanimity around the placement of the ayat within a surah, traditional scholars have differed as to whether the sequence of all the surahs have also been divinely ordained or only some. Most Muslims have accepted this ‘disjointedness’ although there have been a number of attempts to offer structural explanations for the way the surahs are set out in the Qur’an… The overall ‘disjointedness’ of the surahs is accepted by most traditional scholars. (The Qur’an A Short Introduction, Oneworld Publications, Oxford 2002, pp. 64-65; bold and capital emphasis mine)


“… The apparent unanimity around the doctrine of uniqueness is not always well-founded in early Qur’anic scholarship and what exactly formed the core or basis of its inimitability was never really resolved… Some Mu’tazilite scholars, the pioneers of scholastic theology in Islam, argued that the Qur’an was not unique by itself but that any actual attempt to imitate it is rendered futile by God. This concept of deflection, sarfa (lit. ‘turning away’), described by Wansbrough as a ‘slightly unrealistic” and “unsatisfactory’ argument ‘whose very terms were self-defeating’ (1977, 80), was rejected by the majority consensus which insisted that the intrinsic linguistic, stylistic, and meaning supremacy of the Qur’an was an inseparable component of the idea of uniqueness. Dissent, however, loomed for a long while to come. ‘Ali ibn Hazm (d. 1064), the famous Spanish-Arab theologian, for example, refused to acknowledge the aesthetic qualities of the Qur’an as proof of its uniqueness and denied that the word of God could in any way be compared to human speech (Ibn Hazm, n.d., 3:15ff.), while ‘Abd al-Malik al-Juwayni (d. 1085), who served as an iman of both the sacred mosques in Mecca and Medina and was a teacher of Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, arguably the most acclaimed Islamic scholar since the medieval period, refused to recognize its unqualified aesthetic superiority altogether (al-Juwayni, 1948, 54-55).” (Pp. 103-104; bold emphasis mine)

Esack says that the Quran’s incoherent and unintelligible grammatical structure,

“… poses difficulties for those engaged in critical scholarship and these texts have been invoked in support of the notion that the Qur’an is not entirely the product if [sic] a single entity. There are also several cases where the speaker alternates between singular and plural forms adding to the notion that the Qur’an was compiled in an incoherent manner… Besides God, though, numerous ayat suggest that the Angels or the Prophet himself are the direct speakers and it is only the interpolations of translators or the comments of the exegetes that suggest otherwise. Ayat such as 19:64-65, for example, if read without interpolation of the translator, clearly suggest that the Angels are the speakers… In a few ayat, such as 27:91, the obvious speaker seems to be the Prophet and then a sudden switch occurs when he becomes the one being addressed… The fact that these ayat are often characterized by a later addition of ‘say’ (qul) suggests that the entire section may have been preceded by the unarticulated instruction ‘say’. Muslims have always understood it in this manner. In other words, the fact that they are the direct words of the Prophet or of the Angels does not detract [sic] from the other-worldliness of the Qur’an. They were merely repeating words that in the first instance came from God.” (Pp. 74-75; bold emphasis ours)

After presenting Muslim author Mustansir Mir’s summary of Amin Ahsan Islahi’s defense of the Quran’s alleged impeccable structure in his book “Tadabbur-i-Qur’an“, Esack rightly notes:

“The divisions proposed above, while certainly innovative, COME ACROSS AS ABRITRARY AND DEPEND RATHER UNDULY ON WHAT THE READER CHOOSES TO SEE. It is also somewhat difficult to imagine the Prophet and the Companions working their way through an elaborate system of textual division as presented above. Because the Qur’an is the recited word in addition to being the written word, this seeming DISJUNCTURE is of little consequence to most Muslims…” (P. 66; bold and capital emphasis mine)

Even the Concise Encyclopedia of Islam has to acknowledge that the Quran is disjointed and chaotic, but then tries to explain it away:

“The revelations are identified as having been revealed at Mecca, or at Medina. The earlier, Mecca revelations, have A MORE POETIC and enthusiastic character, throwing forth powerful images of the world’s end and existence’s reabsorption into the Divine uncreatedness. The Medinan revelations are, on the other hand, like the calm after the storm, and deal mainly with the giving of laws. However, in the canonic recension of the Caliph ‘Uthman, some Meccan chapters contain verses revealed at Medina and vice versa, so that THE TEXT’S DISJOINTED AND IRREGULAR CHARACTER has tempted Western scholars to try to rearrange it in a more apparent order.

“These attempts are ill-advised, however, for the Koran’s sudden shifts in meaning, points of view, and depth are in the very nature of the text. The Koran is heaven’s sense compressed or refracted into human intelligibility, and it is inevitable that the vicissitudes the Koran has undergone in the world, namely, its first limitation into human language, memory, understanding, and dialect, and then its historic assembly into a written text, reflect the disparity between the human order as it is- not in an ideal world- and the Divine order. Jalal ad-Din ar-Rumi suggested that it is THIS VERY NATURE, OUTWARDLY CHAOTIC, that is a ‘ruse’ of the Koran TO APPROXIMATE THE CHAOTIC NATURE of the human soul, in order then to catch it, as a net catches fish, and to bring it back to absorption in the Divine from which the soul has wandered…” (Cyril Glassé, Harper & Row, San Francisco, a division of Harper Collins Publishers, second edition 1999, p. 231; bold and capital emphasis ours)

Note here that this is not referring to a translation, BUT TO THE ARABIC TEXT ITSELF!

It seems that the Quran’s real miracle is that it has convinced Muslims like this neophyte actually believe that it is actually miraculous, when in reality it is one of the most incoherent, unintelligible religious works ever produced.

The greenhorn’s woes are far from over, as we are about to see in the next part


One thought on “The Garbled Up Quran Pt. 3

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