In his article by the same title Edward Hulmes discusses the beginnings of both the Qur’an and the Bible and compares and contrasts the two texts. He explains that the credence that God speaks through scripture he has stirred is shared by Jews, Christians and Muslims. In spite of the significant divergences among them, these three monotheistic groups of people lay claim to a widespread characteristic that relates them as “People of the Book.” Each group believes itself to be in ownership of a written document of God’s will, revealed at instants of crisis in the past, recorded for the teaching of upcoming generations and frequently reinterpreted in acts of individual and shared remembrance. Each group of people is brought into being upon a faithful response to the word it has received, employing it as its template of obedience to the godly call of the example of Abraham.

The Qur’an

The Qur’an, or sometimes spelled Koran, is the holy book of Islam. Muslims believe that God revealed it to the prophet Muhammad, through the agency of the angel Gabriel. The Qur’an, full of subtlety, wisdom and insight, is the defining proof of Muhammad’s prophetship, since he was some say either a shepherd or trader or perhaps both at various times. He could neither read nor write and the fact that the Qur’an is written in Arabic that has no literary antecedents adds weight to the claim that Muhammad was inspired by the divine will. These revelations came to Muhammad between 610 CE, the year of his call to be the messenger of God, and 632 the year he died. The Qur’an is composed of 114 surahs, or chapters. The span of the complete book is about two thirds of the New Testament. The Arabic word qur’an most likely means “ that which is to be read aloud.” The first surah to be revealed to Muhammad begins with the command “Read! (aloud) in the name of the Lord who creates.” In Arabic the imperative iqra’ (Read!) holds the identical consonantal elements that form the word Qur’an.

The surahs are named. Some of the names are recognizable to readers of the Bible: “Jonah” 1, “Joseph” 2, “Abraham” 3, “Mary” 4 , “The Prophets” 5 , “The Resurrection” 6. Some are unfamiliar: “The Cow” 7, “The Pilgrimage” 8, “The Pen” 9, “the Dawn” 10. Several are introduced in groupings of letters, the exact meaning of which is unknown. Included with its name, each surah is prefaced by an indication of the location it was revealed, either Mecca or Medina. The language of the Meccan surahs is appropriate for calling upon unbelieving people to accept Islam as an issue of urgent and vital decision. At the last day nonbelievers will be given their reward earned by their non-belief, and cast into jahannam (Gehenna), which is graphically depicted. Conversely the reward for believers on the day of reckoning will be the afterlife in paradise, a place portrayed with equivalent vividness, The Medinan surahs are longer, and mainly concerned with the organization of life in the emerging Islamic community.

Mohammad sought to speak the Qur’anic belief amongst the people of Mecca, but he was driven out seeking refuge in Medina. Both places are located in modern-day western Saudi Arabia. He persevered making converts here and there through the power of his word and example. In 622 CE, Muhammad and his small group of Muslim converts were compelled to leave Mecca because of persecution; this incident is called the hijrah (heigra). They traveled to Yathrib, about 465 km (290) miles) to the northeast. In honor of Muhammad the place was named madinat (alnabi), “City (of the Prophet)." Medina, the name by which it is still known, is the city in which Muhammad lies buried. The year 622 CE separates the Meccan from the Median interval in the life of the prophet Muhammad, and is the year, from which the Islamic community sets as the commencement of a new era, whose dates are sometimes given as the designation A.H. (Latin Anno Hejirae).

Compositions of the Qur’an and the Bible

Unlike the Bible, which materialized over a period of centuries as the work of many different , and unnamed, eyewitnesses to God's redemptive activity, the Qur’an passed from oral tradition to its written form in just over ten years after the death of Muhammad. The revelations were passed on by Muhammad orally, and individuals who listened to him wrote them down on any materials that were available-- some were dried leaves, or sun-bleached animal bones, and at times stones. This written material was at last brought together during the caliphate of ‘Uthman (644-656 CE), the third “Rightly Guided Caliph.” In Arabic it’s termed khalifah meaning “successor” of the prophets Muhammad. The purpose was to form the authoritative written manuscript of the Qur’an. No additions or removals have ever been allowed by Muslim authorities, though Western scholars have collected many textual variations in the manuscript. After the opening short surah, which is a brief exordium of praise to God, who is both creator and guide, and which is occasionally compared to the Lord’s Prayer, the other surahs follow each other in an order of diminishing length. The first surah to be revealed on numbered 96 in the finished series. Both Jews and Christians were living in parts of Arabia preceding the time of Muhammad. In Mecca and in Medina, as well as in his travels north and south over ancient caravan paths, Muhammad would have come in contact with some of them. However, the internal proof to support the Qur’an provided only slim substantiation to support the analysis that Muhammad had any express knowledge of the Jewish and Christian scriptures. According to Islamic tradition he was in any case unable to read or write. Muslims have always accepted that such an unlettered man was able to “read” the revelations as a special sign of God’s favor.

Comparing the texts

The parallels between the biblical and the Qur’anic material hint that, even had there been any express borrowing from the former to the latter, it was decidedly selective. Major prophets like Amos and Jeremiah, for instance, do not appear in the Qur’an. And the Qur’anic reading of trinitarian orthodoxy as belief in the Father, Son and the Virgin Mary, may owe less to a misunderstanding of the New Testament itself than to an acknowledgment of the part accorded by Christians to Mary as mother in a special sense.

The use of historical analysis in studying the Qur’an has been avioded by Muslims. For them, the Qur’an is the sure guide to true belief, thinking and action. The direction it furnishes is complemented by the direction about what consists of that which God has made known. The path to knowledge, and about the way knowledge is to be attained. Knowledge consists of that which God has revealed. The path to knowledge is that of submission (islam) to the revealed will of God. There are restrictions to human theory specifically because of what God has revealed. Intellect, will and reason are all to be schooled by revelation. To study the Qur’an according to methods established in a non-Muslim society is not encouraged in Islam. Dialogue about whether or not the Qur’an is “the Word of God” belongs to a different intellectual practice.

According to Islamic belief, each sacred “Book” was revealed at the right time and place by God, through the agency of human messengers. The message is all scriptural, revelation is essentially the same; it could not be otherwise, since God himself is the author. Thus, any differences between the scriptures of the “People of the Book” are to be ascribed to human distortion and not divine caprice. To Moses and his people was given the Tawrah or the Torah; to David and his people was given the Zabur or the book of Psalms); to Jesus and his people God gave the Injil or the Gospel); and finally to Muhammad was revealed the Qur’an, the restatement of the everlasting and ageless purposes of God, to which all the messengers initially bore witness. Muslims believe that the Qur’an is God’s authoritative final word, with a particular importance for Muhammad’s own people, but also a universal message for humankind.

The title “People of the Book” viewed from outside the Islamic community, is as much a hallmark of the differences as of the similarities that exists between Jews, Christians and Muslims in their understanding of what comprises scripture. Yet in spite of this there are still points of contact between the Bible and the Qur’an. Like the references to monotheism and Abraham, Moses, David and Jesus point out. In the Bible and the Qur’an, the themes of God’s creative and re-creative activities are taken up. The reader is met head-on by the one true God, besides whom there is no other. In these different scriptures are revealed the divine will and plan for humankind, the service required by God of those whom he has created, the way of salvation, and the penalty for self-imposed separation from God.

How they are alike

Other names and incidents are recorded in both the Bible and the Qur’an. Two instances can be cited to offer a start for further reading. The first is the story of Joseph in Genesis 37-50 compared with the story of Yusef or” the fairest of stories in the Qur’an,” Surah 12. Familiar to both accounts is Joseph’s rise to power and influence in Egypt after being treated viciously by his brothers, his faithfulness to God through phases of suffering, his cautious use of gifts given to him by God, and his reunion with his family following their plea for food in a time of famine. In the Qur’anic account, Joseph finds favor because of his exemplary acceptance of all that God willed for him, both in times of hardship and in times of success. His surrender to the will of God is held up to ensuing generations of Muslims as a model worthy of imitation.

How they differ

The second example is that of Mary the mother of Jesus. Surah 19, called Maryam. It may be compared with Matthew 1: 8-2:23 and Luke 1:5-2:51. To anybody familiar with the New Testament passages in which Mary appears this holds a dual significance. The first point of interest is that the Qur’anic account acknowledges the virgin birth of the child Jesus (Isa). The second is in the Qur’anic denial of the implications of the trinitarian theology. In the Qur’an Jesus is human, a messenger of God, but still a creature; he is not God incarnate. In connecting the creature with the Creator, Christians are therefore, guilty of the greatest impropriety. The belief of Muslims is expressed in Surah 4:171: “O people of the Book! Commit no excess in your religion: nor say of God (Allah) aught but truth. Christ Jesus, the son of Mary, was (no more than) an Apostle of Allah, and his (Allah’s) Word, which he bestowed on Mary. And (Jesus was) a spirit proceeding from him (Allah). So believe in Allah and his apostles. Say not ‘Trinity.’ Desist, it will be better for you. For Allah is one (Allah). Glory be to him. He is far exalted above having a son. To him belong all things in the heavens and on earth.”

End notes: mr100percent is a practicing Muslim. I would like to thank him for taking the time to review the information for accuracy and kindly offering his feedback that is relevant to the subject.
Some parts of our conversation have been edited for the benefit of the reader. With regards to The Quran and the Bible he relates:

    Interesting, and cheers for trying to tackle the issue. The Qur'an in Arabic as it /was/ unprecedented and still is written in a verse that's considered impossible to duplicate. The Arabic poets of the time and today recognize how it stands out. Qur'an /does/ mean "recitation" as it has the same root as "iqra" which translates to both "read!" or "recite!"

    (Regarding) the historical analysis of the Qur'an, because many of the verses come at opportune times, like after a battle or a debate, knowledge of them are critical to understand the text in some cases, otherwise you are dealing with pronouns or general statements in some verses. Muslims for the most part are leery of searching for the Qur'an’s supposed historical influences, as that sort of analysis often spins off into trying to search for more worldly sources of the Qur'an, which irritates many as they feel it leads to accusations that God didn't create it

    As for Mary, her lineage is defined in the Qur'an as similar to that in the Bible, I think. She's related to Zechariah and John the Baptist, and is a descendant of Aaron (peace be upon him). The place where Jesus (peace be upon him) is born is different, and Jesus does two more miracles, he speaks from the crib to defend his mother against charges of her being pregnant without being married (the NT Joseph isn't in the Qur'an), and he also turns a lump of clay into a flying bird by whispering God's name into it. The idea of the crucifixion is different as well, the Qur'an seems in line with a certain (Gospel of Barnabus) Apocrypha book, but that's not to say Muslims officially support that work as canon.

    Overall, nice job! (any chance I can get any more cookies? The roommates and I LOVED them.)


Edward Hulmes is a Spalding Professional Fellow in the World Religion Department of Theology at the University of Durham in England. This is a summary of his contribution published in the 1993 edition of The Oxford Companion to the Bible.

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