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Are There Historical Mistakes in the Qur’an?
During the time of Muhammad, lots of stories were circulating in Arabia. Some of these stories were true, and some were false. Historians can often separate true stories from false stories by examining the evidence. They use the historical method. They ask, “What are our earliest sources for this story? Do we have multiple sources or just one? How reliable are these sources?” Things like that. But Muhammad didn’t know anything about historical investigation, and so he just couldn’t tell the difference between true stories and false stories. Let me give you a few examples to show you what I mean.
In Surah 18, Allah tells us that Alexander the Great traveled so far West, he found the place where the sun sets. Not only can I guarantee you that Alexander the Great never found the place where the sun sets, we know that this story was a popular story during Muhammad’s lifetime. The story was even circulating in a Syriac work titled “The Glorious Deeds of Alexander” towards the end of Muhammad’s life.
Earlier in Surah 18, we read about the “Companions of the Cave”—a group of people who supposedly went to sleep in a cave and woke up three hundred years later. This myth goes back to Bishop Stephen of Ephesus around the middle of the fifth century.
According to Surah 19, Jesus began preaching as soon as he came out of Mary’s womb. This story comes from the sixth-century Arabic Infancy Gospel.
The story of a bird teaching Cain how to bury his brother in Surah 5 comes from Mishnah Sanhedrin. The legend of Mary giving birth under a palm tree in Surah 19 comes from an apocryphal work called the History of the Nativity of Mary and the Savior’s Infancy, written in the early 600s. The account of Jesus giving life to clay birds in Surah 5 comes from a second-century work called the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.
It seems that Muhammad simply took the stories that were popular during his lifetime, gave them an Islamic twist, and included them in the Qur’an. What’s interesting is that even the pagans of Mecca were better at recognizing fiction than Muhammad was. Surah 6, verse 25 of the Qur’an says:
When they come to you to argue with you, the unbelievers say: These are nothing but fables of the men of old.So according to the Qur’an itself, pagans were telling Muhammad that the stories in the Qur’an were known fables. They were myths. They were fairy tales.
From a Christian perspective, the most important historical error in the Qur’an is the claim that Jesus wasn’t killed and wasn’t crucified. In Surah 4, verses 157 to 158 we read:
They [“they” here are the Jews] said (in boast), “We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah”—but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not. Nay, Allah raised him up unto Himself; and Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise.Now there are multiple historical problems with this passage.
According to the Qur’an, Jews were boasting that they had killed “the Christ.” “Christ” means “Messiah.” I’ve never heard a Jew boast about killing the Messiah. The only people who would boast about killing Jesus were people who regarded him as a false Messiah.
The verse also says that Jews were boasting about killing “the Messenger of Allah.” Here again, the only people who would boast about killing Jesus were people who regarded him as a false prophet, not people who regarded him as a messenger of God.
Then we have the claim that Jesus wasn’t killed and wasn’t crucified. This is an amazingly inaccurate claim, because historians and New Testament scholars agree that Jesus’ death by crucifixion is one of the best-established facts of ancient history. And I don’t just mean Christian scholars. Even atheist and agnostic historians are certain that Jesus died by crucifixion.
Atheist New Testament scholar Gerd Lüdemann declares that “Jesus’ death as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable.” John Dominic Crossan, of the infamous Jesus Seminar, says that there is not the “slightest doubt about the fact of Jesus’ crucifixion under Pontius Pilate.” There are lots of Muslims nowadays who like to quote Bart Ehrman, because he criticizes the New Testament. But Ehrman writes: “One of the most certain facts of history is that Jesus was crucified on orders of the Roman prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate.”
These scholars aren’t simply saying that Jesus may have died or that he probably died. They’re saying that Jesus’ death by crucifixion is indisputable, that there’s not the slightest doubt about the crucifixion, that it’s one of the most certain facts of history. And again, these aren’t even Christian scholars.
So the Qur’an clearly contains historical errors, not only because it denies Jesus’ death by crucifixion, but also because it contains numerous fables, even stories that were recognized as fables by the pagans of Muhammad’s time. This makes it very difficult to accept what the Qur’an says about history.