This post intends to explain the basis of the position that the Qurʾān teaches that previous scripture is corrupt. We attempt to prove this position using implicit and explicit evidence, while also utilizing the findings of modern western scholarship to supplement our interpretation. We will then provide an explanation for particular verses (such as Q5:44-47) that have somehow been taken to suggest that the Qurʾānic author does not teach that biblical scripture is corrupt.
Implied Textual Corruption in the Qurʾān
Let us firstly suppose that the Qurʾān does not teach that previous scripture is corrupt. If this is the case, it is fair to say the following would be the implication—
If the Qurʾānic author really believed that the biblical scriptures extant with the Jews and Christians were wholly authentic, and had better access to these scriptures, the Qurʾān would have been more faithful to them.
This position stands poorly in light of recent scholarly work on the Qurʾān: In fact, many scholars affirm that the Qurʾānic author had enough awareness of Jewish and Christian tradition to dialogue with their communities in informed and rather specific ways (Zellentin, 2017). Through this interaction, the Qurʾān establishes itself as ‘correcting’ earlier tradition. The departure from biblical tradition is conscious and deliberate.
For the purposes of this post, providing several examples as follows shall suffice —
1. Aaron and the calf: In Sūrah 2, al-Baqara, verse 93, the formulation of the covenant at Mount Sinai between God and the Israelites is alluded to. God commands the Israelites to “take what is given to [them] with determination”, to which the Israelites reply, “We hear and we disobey”, or samiʿnā wa ʿaṣaynā in Arabic. This is a deliberate Arabic wordplay on the Hebrew text of Deuteronomy 5:27, where the Israelite response in the same context is actually shamaʿnū w-asīnū — “we hear and we shall do”.The Qurʾānic author goes on to make a point in the same verse: that they disobeyed God’s command to stay fast to the covenant by worshipping the golden calf.
Yet elsewhere, the Qurʾān, in detailing the same episode, does something interesting: It clears Aaron of any sort of wrongdoing associated with the making of the calf, insisting that instead it was some other Israelite named as-Sāmiri (Q20:85 – 97). This seems to be a conscious and deliberate departure from the known biblical tradition: The Qurʾānic author knew the story well enough to engage in interlinguistic wordplay, and so probably also knew that Aaron was responsible for the worship of the calf in the biblical episode. In departing from the biblical story in sūrah Ṭaha, the Qurʾān has performed a corrective retelling. This is in line with the general (though not absolute) sinlessness of Qurʾānic Prophets.
2. The promise of John the Baptist: When describing the promise to Zechariah for the birth of John the Baptist, both the Qurʾān (Q19:7-11) and the Gospel of Luke (Luke 1:17) relate that Zechariah asked for a ‘sign’ so he may know when God shall cause Elizabeth to conceive. What follows in the Lukan tradition is that God afflicts him with muteness for his disbelief in God’s power (Luke 1:20). Here, again, the Qurʾān departs from the Bible in a specific and meaningful way: Instead of cursing Zechariah, God affirms his request for a sign — and tells him that it shall be that he stays silent for three days “while being sound” (sawiyyan). It is as though the author is conscious of the biblical tradition and wishes to rebut it. Zechariah, the Qurʾān insists, voluntarily stayed mute by the order of God, and not cursed to do so, as it is told in the Lukan tradition. The Qurʾān author has correctively retold the story, transforming it from one where a prophet’s prayer for a sign is rejected, to one where it is affirmed, following the example of Abraham’s prayer in Q2:260.
3. The Dream of Joseph: Various corrections on the story of Joseph characterize the Qurʾānic retelling of his life in the 12th Sūrah. Broadly speaking, the story of Joseph generally follows the outline of the biblical one, except for these particular corrections. For example, both Genesis (Gen 37:9-10) and the Qurʾān (Q12:4) feature Joseph’s dream of both his parents and brothers bowing to him. Yet in the Genesis account, Joseph’s mother is dead (Gen 35:19), and only his brothers bow to him (Gen 42:6). The Qurʾān smooths this out this story by omitting the death of Joseph’s mother, and depicting the dream as being fulfilled completely, with both of Joseph’s parents joining his brothers in bowing to him (Q12:99-100). Here, again, the Qurʾānic author is conscious of the story, having known the promise made to Joseph in his youth, and adds an additional component to the biblical fulfilment of the promise in order to make it complete.
We have provided only three examples of a consistent attitude of the Qurʾān towards biblical traditions. This general trend is best summarized by Holger Zellentin’s terminology of “corrective retelling” by which the Qurʾān “partially fulfils” and “partially frustrates” (2017, p. 17) Jewish and Christian tradition. More examples are provided by Khan and Randhawa (2016, chapters 9-10).
In each of these above instances, the Qurʾānic author knows well enough the stories it is retelling – but we see a conscious divergence in relating the details in contrast with the biblical accounts. If the author really thinks these traditions are canonical, why not repeat them faithfully? Let us advocate for some hypothetical scenarios. Firstly, that the Qurʾānic author knew of these stories, but did not know they were from the bible. But then, where would the Qurʾānic author have imagined these stories to be coming from when retelling them? Clearly, he is conscious of the fact that Jews and Christians were given a scripture, which is presented to be similar to his own and confirmed by it to some degree (Q2:41). The Qurʾān tells these stories, and its author would naturally expect this previous scripture to contain such stories too. Secondarily, we need to presume some level of knowledge and agency to the Qurʾān. It simply strains credulity to say the Qurʾānic author is totally ignorant of the ‘basic facts’ of biblical tradition while being able engage in wordplay with the Hebrew of Deuteronomy. How can we affirm this, yet somehow maintain that the author does not even know that the passage he is interacting with is from the bible? This position is too simple, and raises more problems than it solves.
A modification on this objection goes as follows: That the Qurʾānic author heard these stories through Jewish and Christian intermediaries, and corrected their distorted readings of the bible. As such, the Qurʾān depicts itself as attempting to go back to the extant text of the Biblical books, circumventing the distortion of the oral traditions transmitted through the Jews and Christians to the Prophet. This argument is essentially the accusation of taḥrīf al-maʿna (distortion of meaning), a charge that does indeed exist in the Qurʾān.
In this case, however, we must question whether it is expedient for the Qurʾānic author to only resort to ‘distortion of meaning’ and not the text. Insisting that the Jews and Christians are simply ‘reading their scripture wrong’ where it does not agree with the Qurʾān does not seem like a convincing move; it is wholly falsifiable by the Jewish and Christian audience that the Prophet seeks to convince. On the other hand, holding that the scripture in their hands is in itself defective is, at least in the time of the Prophet, non-falsifiable, and serves the Qurʾānic author better (similarly, see Saleh, 2016). It merely makes sense for the Qurʾān to make the claim of textual corruption in addition to accusations of distortion of meaning, and this is exactly what we see, as shown in the following section.
Explicit textual corruption in the Qurʾān
Q2:79 — ‘Woe to those who write the Scripture…’
With the implied evidence in mind, we shall turn to key passages about textual falsification present in the Qurʾān. The first is Q2:79, which explicitly lays the charge of scriptural forgery on the Prophet’s Jewish interlocutors:
فَوَيْلٌ لِلَّذِينَ يَكْتُبُونَ الْكِتَابَ بِأَيْدِيهِمْ ثُمَّ يَقُولُونَ هَٰذَا مِنْ عِنْدِ اللَّهِ لِيَشْتَرُوا بِهِ ثَمَنًا قَلِيلًا ۖ فَوَيْلٌ لَهُمْ مِمَّا كَتَبَتْ أَيْدِيهِمْ وَوَيْلٌ لَهُمْ مِمَّا يَكْسِبُونَ
‘So woe to those who write the Book (al-kitāb) with their hands, then say that ‘this is from God’ so that they may gain a poor sum. So woe to them for what their hands have written, and woe to them from what they earn.’
This key passage is probably the most explicit charge of textual corruption present in the Qurʾān. The wording here for “the Book” is al-kitāb, a term with fairly definite biblical connotations throughout the Qurʾān, and certainly so in the same Sūrah (see 2:101, 2:87 and 2:44 for some of many examples). Can those who argue against scriptural falsification provide a reasonable alternative interpretation for what ‘al-kitāb’ could mean in this context? There have been attempts. White (2013) writes that “the ayah does not speak at all of altering what Allah has sent down or given. It refers to wholesale fraudulent creation of works that the authors say come “from Allah” that seemingly they attempt to sell to others.” This, with respect, seems to be an attempt to avoid the obvious meaning of the verse given what al-kitāb is supposed to imply throughout the Qurʾān. White’s reading requires us to presuppose more than what the verse is saying, i.e. that the concrete noun ‘the Book’ refers to some previously unmentioned forged scripture. Reynolds (2010) faces similar issues with his interpretation of Q2:79.
Furthermore, White arbitrarily differentiates wholesale book forgery and partial textual corruption, writing that 2:79 “is not about inserting foreign material or excising other material from the Torah or Injil, but manufacturing counterfeit Scripture for profit.” Yet in verse Q3:78, we see that the Qurʾān accuses the Jews of ‘distorting al-kitāb’ in order that one would think it is ‘from al-kitāb’ when it is ‘not from al-kitāb’. This verse unambiguously refers to existing biblical scripture, and Q2:79 follows the construction: Just as the Jews distort ‘al-kitāb’ in Q3:78 and falsely claim it is from God, they also ‘write al-kitāb’ and falsely claim it is from God. There is no cause to argue that Q2:79 could not be referring to biblical scripture when Q3:78 uses the same pattern of language to refer to it. Clearly, ‘al-kitāb’ can and does include portions of biblical verses. This is a plain reading of the verse.
Thus, the best interpretation of this verse is one that of taḥrīf an-naṣṣ (textual corruption). The Qurʾān, in its supercessionist polemic with the Jews, is laying the serious charge of scriptural corruption, a charge that follows the same pattern of changing the words which God had told them to say in Q7:162. Both the misinterpretation and intentional distortion of God’s words form a piece of the bigger criticism of the Qurʾān towards the People of Scripture for failing to keep faithful to God and their covenant with him. In particular, it accuses them with not keeping fast to the revelation that they were told to follow (Q62:5), misinterpreting it (5:14), distorting it (5:75) and hiding it (6:91). Deliberate tampering with the text of the scripture they were given is a natural part and the culmination of this ‘scriptural abuse’ around which the Qurʾān constructs its polemic against the Jewish (and even Christian) opponents of the Prophet. Thus, that the Qurʾān would accuse them of corrupting scripture is neither controversial nor hard to believe.
Q5:13-14: Distorting and Forgetting
Another important verse on textual corruption is Q5:13-14, where the People of Scripture are accused of ‘distorting words’ and ‘forgetting what they were reminded of’:
فَبِمَا نَقْضِهِمْ مِيثَاقَهُمْ لَعَنَّاهُمْ وَجَعَلْنَا قُلُوبَهُمْ قَاسِيَةً ۖ يُحَرِّفُونَ الْكَلِمَ عَنْ مَوَاضِعِهِ ۙ وَنَسُوا حَظًّا مِمَّا ذُكِّرُوا بِهِ ۚ وَلَا تَزَالُ تَطَّلِعُ عَلَىٰ خَائِنَةٍ مِنْهُمْ إِلَّا قَلِيلًا مِنْهُمْ ۖ فَاعْفُ عَنْهُمْ وَاصْفَحْ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ يُحِبُّ الْمُحْسِنِينَ. وَمِنَ الَّذِينَ قَالُوا إِنَّا نَصَارَىٰ أَخَذْنَا مِيثَاقَهُمْ فَنَسُوا حَظًّا مِمَّا ذُكِّرُوا بِهِ فَأَغْرَيْنَا بَيْنَهُمُ الْعَدَاوَةَ وَالْبَغْضَاءَ إِلَىٰ يَوْمِ الْقِيَامَةِ ۚ وَسَوْفَ يُنَبِّئُهُمُ اللَّهُ بِمَا كَانُوا يَصْنَعُونَ
‘And for their breaking of the covenant we cursed them, and we made their hearts hard. They distort words from their places, and they forgot a part of what they were reminded. You [Prophet] will always find treachery in all but a few of them. Overlook this and pardon them: God loves those who do good.
And from those who say, ‘We are Christians’ we took a pledge, but they forgot a part of what they were reminded, so we stirred enmity between them until the day of resurrection, when God shall imform them of what they did.’
The interpretation of these verses seem to preponderate towards some form of scriptural loss. The proximity of distorting words from their places (yuḥarrifūna al-kalima ʿan mawāḍiʿihi), clearly a reference to scripture, with ‘forgetting a part of what they were reminded of’ (wa nasū ḥaẓẓan mimmā dhukkirū) seems to support the idea that their ‘forgetting’ is a scriptural one, too. The verse intends to say that their scriptures are incomplete, because they have failed to remember them faithfully. One does not ‘forget’ something which is already present with them: This is why the charge of intentional distortion of scripture is additional to the charge of forgetfulness in Q5:13. Interestingly, we note that this forgetfulness extends towards Christians in the following verse.
The aforementioned verses are probably the most explicit concerning textual corruption of scripture. There are, of course, other verses that may suggest this, but vary on the seriousness of the charge (see Keating, 2014, for a longer list).
Finally, we shall discuss certain verses that feature prominently against the idea of textual corruption.
Arguments against textual corruption
This following section takes a closer look at a group of verses that are used to prove that the Qurʾān maintains that the scriptures of the People of Scripture are wholly extant during the time of the Prophet.
Q5:44-47 – ‘Judging’ by previous scripture:
One of the more prominent arguments against the idea of textual corruption is based on the verse Q5:47 and its contextualizing passage. We shall read the plain meaning of this passage, and show that they do not suggest any sort of absolute scriptural approval as suggested by White (2013).
Let us begin with noting that the literary context of the verses, and indeed one of the themes of sūrah al-māʾidah, is legislative in nature. The Prophet is providing legal injunctions to the community he oversees: This is clear from the initial passages of the sūrah. Importantly, the Prophet is not only legislating over Muslims but also the People of Scripture: for example, Q5:5 legislates that the food of the Muslims is lawful for the Jews and Christians, and that women from the Jewish and Christian community may take Muslim men as husbands. Later in the sūrah, we are shown that the Jews themselves were coming to the Prophet for legal injunctions (Q5:42-43).
Thus, the verses Q5:44 – 5:47 are providing a fuller account of how Jews and Christians ought to legislate among themselves while living along the Muslim community under the legislative authority of the Prophet. Evidently, the Qurʾān expected these two scriptural groups to continue following the legal regulations of their scripture to some degree, insofar as they remain Jews and Christians. Again, the legislative language is clear from the repeated use of “judge” (yaḥkum – Q5:47) and “judgment” (ḥukm – Q5:44).
But which legislations, specifically, does the Qurʾān compel them to follow from the Torah and the Gospel? For the Jews, we see that after prescribing that they follow the judgment of the Torah (Q5:43), it alludes to the lex talionis (the Biblical law of retribution) in Q:5:45. It is possible that there was a historical incident among the Jewish community where the law was supposed to be implemented, but they were hesitant to apply it, and so went to the Prophet to gain an alternative ruling (Q5:41). The Qurʾān responds to this by stating that it is the Prophet’s choice to give them a ruling, but that they should not be seeking a ruling anyway given that the law of retribution (Q5:45) is already present in the Torah (Q5:43). Finally, it encourages the Jews to stick to the same law that they are trying to avoid following, because the Prophets and the Rabbis of the past held fast to “what they were entrusted to preserve from the scripture — bimā ʾustuḥfiẓū min al-kitābi (Q5:44)”. Thus far, there is nothing in the passage that suggests a universal approval: If we assume that the Qurʾān teaches that contemporaneous scripture is corrupt, this passage can be understood coherently.
Similarly, Q5:47 need not be read in a way that suggests a universal approval of the contents of the Gospel. Just as the Jews ought to follow the legal injunctions of the Torah, the Christians, too, ought to judge (yaḥkum) by the legal injunctions of the scripture which they were given. To stress, this is not a total approval of their scriptures, but at most an approval of Christian ritual purity and food laws (see footnote 4), given that the Qurʾān is specifically speaking about legal injunctions. Again, this reading is congruent with the idea that previous scripture is not wholly sound.
This interpretation is both natural from the context and the legislative wording of the passage. Even if we suppose the approval of Jewish and Christian scriptural legislation is wholesale, and not qualified as we have argued here, this affirmation does not go beyond anything but legislative material according to the plain reading of this passage. But why does the Prophet require these scriptural communities to continue to live by these legislations? These verses are less to do with affirming the shared truth of the three scriptural communities – indeed, throughout the Qurʾān we see a critique of the People of Scripture – but rather, acknowledge a practical reality. The Prophet had to legislate to the scriptural communities he was overseeing. While the Qurʾān plainly required them to convert to the nascent faith of Islam and recognize him as a prophet, it is clear that they did not all do so. So, what then? What were these communities to do? The following verse (Q5:48) gives the answer: they should continue to follow their individual legislative codes, whether in particular instances (as argued here) or universally, or otherwise they may also come to the Prophet for judgment as an alternative.
This argument is not controversial, as one of the critiques of the Qurʾān towards the Jews is that they are not even living by their books even as it is extant with them (Q2:44, Q3:23). Elsewhere the Qurʾān acknowledges the respective differences between Christians and Jews communities (Q2:113), and tells them that God shall inform them of their individual errors, just as in Q5:48.
Thus, to summarize, the passages Q5:44-48 do not imply some sort of absolute scriptural approval as some have argued. Instead, they approve of particular legal regulations that are apparently still operative for Jews and Christians under the Prophet’s rule. These practical consideration arise from the simple fact that they were living alongside the early Muslim community over whom Muḥammad was the legislator. These verses are neither pro- nor anti-taḥrīf, and can be read coherently in light of the verses of textual corruption clearly taught by the Qurʾān as argued earlier.
With this in mind, the problems with previous readings such as White’s (2013) are apparent. He has simply misunderstood the wording of the passage and seems to think that scriptural confirmation is an all-or-nothing affair. He writes:
[This verse] means “the gospel” had to exist in the days of Muhammad. If it was corrupted and lost before the seventh century, how could the People of the (already lost) Gospel judge by what Allah had revealed (but then had let disappear)? It makes no sense to command Christians to judge by a lost or corrupted document. So the Qur’an’s author believed the gospel was still in Christian possession.
White ignores the legislative nature of the verses as evident by their language and context, and ignores the practical reality behind them. Telling Christians to ‘judge’ by the Injīl was meaningful to the audience and not contradictory to Qurʾānic teachings on scriptural corruption. Certainly, the ‘Gospel’ was still in possession with the Christian community – as was the ‘Torah’ – but this has no bearing on whether the Qurʾānic author thought they were wholly sound.
Similarly, Q5:68 shall be read in light of clear accusations of textual corruption that occur elsewhere in the Qurʾān. Given that a part of the critique against the People of Scripture is that they corrupted and forgot their books, ‘upholding’ these books naturally means not corrupting and not forgetting them. How, then, shall they undo this? As the Qurʾān claims to present the same teachings of Jesus and Moses, then naturally, following the Qurʾān is to follow these previous books. The verse is stressing a continuity between previous scripture in their idealized, uncorrupted forms, while encouraging the People of Scripture not to reject it, precisely because of this continuity.
As a concluding remark, we should note that Muslim commentators such as Al-Razi interpret Q5:47 as saying that the Christians ought to follow from the Gospel that which does not contradict the Qurʾān. This raises the question as to why the passage does not simply ask them to follow the Qurʾān instead, and why it, in the following verse, seems to encourage the three scriptural communities of the Torah, Gospel and the Qurʾān to ‘race towards good’ according to “which they had been given”. The alternative interpretation provided here, and similarly by Keating (2010) seems more plausible.
‘None can change the words of God’
Another set of verses utilized to ‘prove’ that the extant scriptures are verses that suggest that none can “Change the words of God”. Among these are Q6:115, Q18:27 and Q10:64, featuring the formula: ‘Lā tabdīla li-kalimāt illāh’ (No change to the words of God), and ‘Lā mubaddila li-kalimātihi’ (there is no changer of His words). This argument is plainly amateurish, and is only addressed here because it is so frequently made. The term “words of God” has several meanings, and it is not clear in any of these contexts that it is referring to previous revelation. What is clear, however, is that those who received revelation can ‘change’ God’s revealed word in Q7:161 and Q2:59, where God had told the Jews to say a certain statement – qawl – but they consciously changed it (baddalahū).
Thus, these verses do not apply to the Bible as revealed. This barely needs pointing out, of course, as the rather frequent term “God’s word” generally refers to God’s decree and intent: Examples being Q40:6, Q17:16, and Q36:7 among many others.
The charge of textual corruption and loss of previous scripture are clearly taught in the Qurʾān. The evidences for this are two-fold: Firstly, there is an approach to Biblical traditions within the Qurʾān that implies a conscious disagreement and departure. Secondly, there is also explicit evidence, most particularly but not limited to Q2:79 and Q5:13-14. These verses clearly teach textual corruption, and this idea fits neatly into Qurʾānic polemic against the Jewish and Christian audience of the Prophet. Finally, the key verses such as Q5:44-48 that have been taken by some to show the Qurʾān affirms in totality the extant scripture of the Jews and Christians are actually qualified and function under legislative realities of the Prophetic communities. They can easily be read to be congruent with the explicit teaching of the Qurʾān.
Goudarzi, M., 2018. The Second Coming of the Book: Rethinking Qur’anic Scripturology and Prophetology. Harvard University.
Keating, S.T., 2014. Revisiting the Charge of Taḥrīf: The Question of Supersessionism in Early Islam and the Qurʾān, in: Nicholas of Cusa and Islam. BRILL, pp. 202–217.
Khan, N.A., Randhawa, S., 2016. Divine Speech: Exploring Quran As Literature. Bayyinah.
Reynolds, G.S., 2010. On the Qurʾanic accusation of scriptural falsification (taḥrīf) and Christian Anti-Jewish polemic. Journal of the American Oriental Society 130, 189–202.
Saleh, W.A., 2016. Narratives of Tampering in the Earliest Commentaries on the Qurʾān.
White, J.R., 2013. What Every Christian Needs to Know about the Qur’an. Baker Books.
Zellentin, H., 2017. Trialogical Anthropology: The Qur’ān on Adam and Iblis in View of Rabbinic and Christian Discourse. The Quest for Humanity–Contemporary Approaches to Human Dignity in the Context of the Qurʾānic Anthropology 61–131.
Zellentin, H.M., 2013. The Qur’ān’s legal culture: the Didascalia Apostolorum as a point of departure. Mohr Siebeck.
 Who as-Sāmiri is supposed to be is a contested question. It seems probable, given the similarity to the biblical Samaria, that the Qurʾān is alluding to the future calf worship of the Northern Kingdom. This is fitting, given that the Qurʾānic as-Sāmiri’s sin is also calf worship. Thus, the title is typological.
 Some translators take sawiyyan to describe the “three nights” and not “Zechariah”. Thus, the text is saying ‘three whole nights’. But even then, Zechariah’s health is implied as he is not cursed, and the point made here still holds: The Qurʾān is transforming a story about a prophet being cursed to one where his prayer to God is affirmed. Commentators such as az-Zamakhshari and al-Razi interpret sawiyyan as describing Zechariah, thus accepting the Lukan intertext.
 Interestingly, recent studies by Goudarzi (2018) have uncovered the decidedly Mosaic connotations of the term: Moses, just like Muḥammad, was given ‘the Book’ (Goudarzi, 2018, p. 96).
 From the wider context of the passage as we have encountered thus far, the Jews are the primary audience, while the proscription to the Christians is made secondarily. No Gospel law is appealed to in the immediate context. However, recent work by Zellentin (2013) has uncovered a good degree of overlap between the food laws of the Qurʾān (Q5:3 as an example in this context) and that of certain contemporary Christian communities, laws which ultimately have their source in Acts of the Apostles (Acts 15:20). The Christian communities following these laws and the Qurʾān both ascribe them to Jesus (Zellentin, p. 179). In sum, the Qurʾānic injunction to follow the legal regulations of the Gospel would have been understandable by the Christian audience whom the Prophet is legislating over, and these injunctions have overlap with Qurʾānic law: Thus, the Qurʾān stresses that Christians follow what ‘God has revealed therein’ (bimā anzala Allāhu) of the Injīl (Q5:47).
 Hence, the Qurʾān is muhaymin (Q5:48) – ‘authoritative’ over previous scripture in contrast to merely muṣaddiq (confirming) which is said of both the Qurʾān and the Injīl in Q5:46-48.