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Can the Qur'an be altered?

Just recently, on March 11, 2021, a Muslim bureaucrat petitioned India's Supreme Court to delete 26 verses from the Qur'an. The petition says that these verses "promote terrorism, violence, jihad" and were not part of the original Qur'an but inserted at a later stage. Wasim Rizvi, former chief of the Shia Central Waqf Board, writes in his petition, "These verses were added to the Quran, by the first three Caliphs, to aid the expansion of Islam by war."


I bring this incident up for discussion because of its semblance in the United States. Here in the U.S., we are experiencing a "cancel culture" upheaval. Individuals and organizations are going around tearing down statues, citing books as promoting the wrong values, burning, rioting, and razing population centers because of wrongful court decisions, and demanding reparations for wrongs done hundreds of years ago. What Mr. Rizvi is doing would be comparable to someone in the United States petitioning the Supreme Court to ban the Bible. People would be upset here under those circumstances. People in India are upset under the circumstances caused by Mr. Rizvi.


You can argue that all Mr. Rizvi is doing is altering the Qur'an. Someone has already done that with our Bible, but it had only minimal effect. Thomas Jefferson, our third President, 1801-1809, rewrote his version of the Bible without the miracles of Christ. The Jefferson Bible was finished in 1819 and is now considered a religious novelty. The fact is, Christians cannot be deterred just by deleting a few lines of content. There are already numerous variations of the Bible. What's impact would another change have. However, Muslims perceive the Qur'an as the spoken word of Allah. Any modification is a big deal. My prognosis, there may be a few riots, but in the end, the Qur'an will not change in India.


As I describe in my upcoming publication, Muslim Mechanics, it was not until about 50 years after Muhammad's death that Muslim scholars collected the bulk of the Qur'an's suras. It is possible that some verses could have been added, some changed, and some not included. When scholars started collecting the hadiths 200 years after their occurrence, they found that to be the case. This form of collection made it incredibly hard to place the Qur'an's verses into historical context, much less chronological order. But how would Mr. Rizvi know what was incorrectly added after the Prophet's death?


The Qur'an has 114 chapters (suras), of which 86 originated in Mecca, followed by 28 in Medina. Almost all the serenity and tolerance verses of the Qur'an come from the earlier period of Muhammad's life in Mecca. At that time, the Prophet still hoped to convince the Christian and Jewish tribes in Arabia that his religion had compatibility with their beliefs. When Muhammad's efforts to persuade the Jews and Christians that he was the final and authoritative Prophet of God failed, the verses of the sword, fire and destruction, and oppressive slavery for those who do not convert to Islam became unleashed. These verses, which emphasized force and violence, originated during his time in Medina. While the news article in the Times of India about Mr. Rizvi did not specifically indicate which verses he was petitioning to remove, there are several verses with similarities to the well-known "Sword" verse:


"When the (four) forbidden months are over, wherever you encounter the idolaters, kill them, seize them, besiege them, wait for them at every lookout post, but if they repent, maintain the prayer, and pay the prescribed alms, let them go their way, for God is most forgiving and merciful" (9:5).


This verse comes from a chapter that is considered the most militant, violent, anti-Jewish, and anti-Christian chapter in the Qur'an. The Prophet reveals this chapter when he is in Medina, and it is one of the last revelations from the angel Gabriel. Thus, it has a final word status in the Qur'an and would abrogate any earlier chapters.


The Doctrine of Abrogation


Abrogation is the act of canceling, nullifying, or repealing something, almost always in a legal context. A new law can repeal an old rule. Muslims believe the Qur'an abrogates all the holy books which precede it. Also, Muslim theologians use abrogation as a way of explaining the inconsistencies of the Qur'an. If verses seem to contradict each other, the scripture's chronology determines their significance and proper interpretation. Later verses abrogate earlier contradictory verses. Abrogation has evolved to become a legal principle, and Islamic legal scholars are required to master the science of understanding and which verses cancel earlier scripture before they can be appointed a judge (qadi). If Mr. Rizvi should somehow win his legal battle and the verses of militancy and violence are removed, the newly altered Qur'an would indeed be a book of toleration and acceptance. But no one would buy it.


The Doctrine of Innovation


Innovation originates from the Latin "innovates," meaning "introducing something new" or "to bring in new things, or to alter established practices." When technical developments or brand-new inventions surface within the realm of science, we describe them as innovation.In Islam, innovation refers to an alteration in religious thinking. Muslim theology interprets innovational change as a novelty, heretical doctrine, or heresy. References to change are frequent in hadith. One hadith spoken by the Prophet comes from Muslim's Hadith collection: "He who innovates things in our affairs for which there is no valid (reason) (commits sin) and these are to be rejected."


So how does this concept of innovation affect Muslims and non-Muslim scholars who study Islamic theology? In a nutshell, it means Islam will not mutate or undergo a reformation like the Christian theology did in the Middle Ages. Islamic theology will stay as originally intended; there cannot be a middle ground where beliefs and rituals will change as society changes. Islamic innovation forbids changes in the place of worship, the time or number of prayers, the ceremony's manner, the type of devotion, and the cause or reason for the celebration. If these ritualistic changes are prohibited, it would be challenging for the underlying beliefs and doctrines to change. If innovation is brought about by good intentions to achieve closeness to God, it does not have support from the Qur'an or any authentic Hadith. This idea about innovation is not to say that some reform will never happen, but it is unlikely.


Both the top ulama (religious scholar) and imam are denouncing the petition and the man. Shias and Sunnis have come together to condemn this action claiming the petition is nothing but a publicity stunt. Numerous police complaints have been made against Mr. Rizvi. People from the West would wonder why the police would be involved when the action is just a petition to the Supreme Court. In the U.S., this would be equivalent to a hate crime, and in India, it is prosecutable. Some individuals have put up rewards for Mr. Rizvi's beheading, and some religious groups are demanding his ex-communication. When an individual is convicted of apostasy or blasphemy, they can be ex-communicated, and in some countries, that can mean fines, prison, or execution.


Muslims believe that the Qur'an is the word of God and God will preserve the Qur'an till the Day of Judgment. With all of the millions of Muslims who have memorized the verses of the Qur'an, I guess that Mr. Rivzi's petition will be trashed, and his life will be in danger. Any country with 200 million Muslims in its population will be cautious in changing their religious book.

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