BOOKS | An effective challenge to Islam’s claims about the Quran
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For about 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide, the Quran is Islam’s most revered book—but a different book is raising questions: Creating the Qur’an: A Historical-Critical Study (University of California Press 2022) by University of Oregon professor Stephen J. Shoemaker.
The book adds to the growing scientific debate—and controversy—over the authenticity, historicity, and canonization of the Quran. Relying on a plethora of primary Muslim sources and engaging numerous academic studies, Shoemaker masterfully questions many conventional claims about the Quran—claims even some scholars have naïvely accepted.
Most Muslims consider the Quran, as we have it today, to be divinely inspired and totally trustworthy. They say it’s the exact written document of an original heavenly tablet containing the speech of Allah. Muslims insist that from 610 to 632, Allah revealed his words to Muhammad, between Mecca and Medina in Western Arabia, and that these words are exactly what we find in today’s Quran.
While Muslims believe the same deity revealed the Quran and the Bible, they insist that only the Quran is perfectly preserved from error while the inspired Bible is now lost as Jews and Christians have corrupted it over time. But such claims are just that, and they shatter once one examines the available evidence—even that of the Muslim primary sources themselves.
This is precisely why Shoemaker’s book is a remarkable addition to the scientific discussion on the Quran and its origins. He examines every significant controversy about the text and its history and provides convincing conclusions that effectively challenge traditional claims often adopted by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
For example, Muslims say that their trusted sources are absolutely clear and unanimous concerning how the Quran came into existence as the sacred text among Muhammad’s believers. Once Muhammad received Allah’s revelations, Muslims say, he proclaimed them and his companions wrote down the divine words accurately and precisely on various materials, including palm tree leaves and bones from camels’ shoulders.
After Muhammad’s death, the conventional history goes, Caliph Uthman—Muhammad’s third political successor—gathered these scattered fragments carefully and perfectly, thus compiling the Quranic text and ensuring that it is precisely as Muhammad proclaimed it.
Shoemaker challenges the core of these claims and demonstrates that even the two major Muslim sects—Sunni and Shiite—have completely different stories about the canonization process. He relies on Muslim primary sources and shows that, during Muhammad’s life and after his death, there were many competing variants of the Quran.
In fact, among many of Muhammad’s companions, each claimed to have his own copy of a distinct Quran. Engaging scientific research, Shoemaker argues that the canonical text of the Quran took decades to form and the final stage occurred around 700 under political influence and a highly controversial process, supervised by a ruthless governor in Iraq.
Shoemaker’s book is remarkably accessible. (The publisher has in fact made the book open access to all at https://doi.org/js93.) It is crucial for anyone who seeks to understand the authenticity and historicity of Islam’s scripture. Shoemaker’s research challenges scholarly trends that tend to accept Islamic claims uncritically. This is a highly recommended read.
—A.S. Ibrahim is director of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
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