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The Bible and the Qur’an


EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is the first of a five-part series exploring the differences between Christianity and Islam in the weeks leading up to the 5th anniversary of Islamic radicals’ terrorist attacks on the United States Sept. 11, 2001.

GRACEVILLE (FBW)—Each day millions of Christians read the Bible (literally ‘book’) as the authoritative, inspired revelation from God. Likewise, millions of Muslims affirm the Qur’an (literally ‘recitation’) as the authoritative, inspired revelation from God. The Bible and the Qur’an share numerous similarities; the differences, however, are noteworthy. Varied understandings of the nature, function, and authority of Islam’s respective religious books demonstrate radically disparate approaches to religion.

Understanding Islam
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The Qur’an is approximately the same length as the New Testament. The New Testament is comprised of twenty-seven books; the Qur’an is one book comprised of 114 surahs or chapters arranged by length. The Qur’an contains names with which Bible readers are familiar: Adam, Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael, David, and Jesus. Muslims ascribe inspiration to the original message of the Bible, yet they believe Jews and Christians corrupted the original message. The Qur’an fulfills the original message of the Bible, Islam says.

The differences between the Qur’an and Bible are important.

First, Christians and Muslims possess radically different understandings of the method by which God inspired their books. Christians affirm that God used various means to communicate His message to the human authors of Scripture. Hebrews 1:1 clearly expresses the varied nature of communication. ‘God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets. …’ God revealed the Bible over a period of 1,500 years to 40 different human authors through a variety of methods of revelation. In contrast, the Qur’an claims only one method of inspiration. The angel Gabriel dictated the words of the Qur’an to the prophet Muhammad over a period of 20 years.

Second, Christians and Muslims differ in their understandings of the nature of their holy books. The nature of the Bible is a divine-human book. Paul affirmed the divine nature of the Bible in 2 Timothy 3:16: ‘All Scripture is inspired by God.’ Inspiration means ‘breathed out’ indicating that God is the source of Scriptures. Peter affirmed the human element in the Bible: ‘holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit’ (2 Pet. 1:21). The verb translated ‘moved’ means directed or guided. A non-religious use of the term provides a helpful analogy. By use of the same term, Luke described the ship carrying Paul to Rome as moved or directed by the winds (Acts 27:15,17). The Holy Spirit directed an individual man, in the context of his personality, historical circumstances, and vocabulary to communicate accurately the message of God. God communicated His message through the unique personality and writing style of the individual human author. Christians affirm the Bible as the truth of God communicated through human agency.

In contrast, Muslims claim the nature of the Qur’an is a divine one only. The revelation of the Qur’an came down from heaven to one man — an illiterate Muhammad. Muslims often highlight the illiteracy of Muhammad as proof of the divine origin of the Qur’an and the lack of a human element in the production of the book. God, therefore, did not communicate the message of the Qur’an through the personality and agency of Muhammad.

Third, Christians and Muslims disagree about the historical character of the books. In a sense, the Qur’an is supra-historical, that is, the Qur’an exists outside history. Muslims believe, and the Qur’an affirms, that the Qur’an itself is eternal (Surah 43:3; 85:21-22). The written Qur’an is a copy of an eternal, archetypal book that exists in heaven. Christians, in contrast, affirm the historical character of the Bible. For example, Paul’s letters are situational correspondence. Paul wrote his letters to deal with real situations in the community of believers. Because of the historical character of biblical revelation, archaeology provides historical confirmation of the Bible whereas archaeological confirmation for the Qur’an is lacking.

Fourth, Christians and Muslims disagree about the appropriateness of translations. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew and Aramaic. The New Testament was written in Koine Greek—the language of the common man that functioned as the common language of commerce and everyday life of the first century Mediterranean world. Beginning in the second century when Christians translated the Bible into Syrian and Egyptian Coptic, the process of Bible translation began. Christians ascribe inspiration to the original autographs, yet they regard translations as appropriate for a message purposed for every tribe, tongue, and ethic group. Muslims deny that translations of the Qur’an are the word of God. They believe that one can only properly read the Qur’an in Arabic. As a consequence, the majority of non-Arabic speaking Muslims can neither read nor understand the revelation from God because they do not have a copy in their language. For many Muslims, merit consists of rote memory of the Qur’an in Arabic rather than understanding the message.

Fifth, Christians and Muslims disagree about functions of their religious books as an authority. Evangelical Christians affirm that the Bible is the sole authority for faith and practice. The Baptist Faith and Message describes the unique authority of the Bible as ‘the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried.’ In contrast, the Qur’an is one of a layer of authorities in Islam. The life of Muhammad himself as preserved in the hadith (story) is authoritative for issues not clarified by the Qur’an. Companions of Muhammad remembered and passed down through oral tradition sayings and deeds of the prophet. Later generations collected these sayings and deeds and preserved them in writing. Sincere Muslims ask the question, ‘What would Muhammad do?’ The six authorized collections of the hadith provide the answer for the Muslim.

The Shari’a (Islamic law) functions as another layer of tradition for Muslims. Four different schools of Islamic law exist and represent different ways of defining morals and practices. The authority for a Christian is one Bible. The Qur’an, six collections of deeds and sayings of Muhammad, and four schools of Islamic law function as authorities for a Muslim.

The differences between the Bible and the Qur’an demonstrate vital distinctions between Christianity and Islam. The focus of Christianity is a personal relationship with God as demonstrated by a divine-human revelation, in both inscripturated form and an incarnate Lord, Jesus Christ. The focus of Islam is God’s will as demonstrated by a revelation without a human element surrounded by layers of authority.

Mark Rathel is associate professor of theology at The Baptist College of Florida in Graceville.