Historical Errors in the Quran

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One of the major criticisms brought to bear against the Quran, as well as the Hadith, by both serious scholars and critics is that it reinforces historical misconceptions common among the Arab contemporaries of its 7th century author. While much effort has been exerted by modern Islamic scholars towards reconciling what appear to modern readers as blatant historical errors with the Islamic belief in the inerrancy of the Quran, their arguments have not yet won any assent outside their circles and are generally regarded as lacking rigor. It is important to note that modern Islamic scholars are not the first to note the contradictions between historical statements found in the Quran and the views of contemporary historians — in fact, even some classical Islamic scholars noted that there were certain historical claims in the Quran and hadith which, taken literally (as Islamic orthodoxy holds they should be), could not easily be reconciled with what they held to be basic and incontrovertible facts about history.

Regarding ancient religious doctrine

Mary as part of the Trinity

Mainstream Christian doctrine has never held Mary to be a part of the Trinity. The Qur'an, however, plainly states as much, leading some to conclude that Muhammad misunderstood Christian doctrine.

And behold! Allah will say: "O Jesus the son of Mary! Didst thou say unto men, worship me and my mother as gods in derogation of Allah'?" He will say: "Glory to Thee! never could I say what I had no right (to say). Had I said such a thing, thou wouldst indeed have known it. Thou knowest what is in my heart, Thou I know not what is in Thine. For Thou knowest in full all that is hidden

This alternative formulation of the trinity is present even more clearly in Quran 5:72-75, which makes no mention of the holy spirit and takes measure to disprove the divinity of Jesus and his mother by pointing out that they, like normal human beings, also ate food.

They surely disbelieve who say: Lo! Allah is the Messiah, son of Mary. The Messiah (himself) said: O Children of Israel, worship Allah, my Lord and your Lord. Lo! whoso ascribeth partners unto Allah, for him Allah hath forbidden paradise. His abode is the Fire. For evil-doers there will be no helpers. They surely disbelieve who say: Lo! Allah is the third of three; when there is no Allah save the One Allah. If they desist not from so saying a painful doom will fall on those of them who disbelieve. Will they not rather turn unto Allah and seek forgiveness of Him? For Allah is Forgiving, Merciful. The Messiah, son of Mary, was no other than a messenger, messengers (the like of whom) had passed away before him. And his mother was a saintly woman. And they both used to eat (earthly) food. See how We make the revelations clear for them, and see how they are turned away!

Regarding ancient religious doctrine

Mary as Miriam

Mary the mother of Jesus was born in the first century BCE and was not related to Moses and his family whose story is set 1500 years earlier. Miriam was the sister of Moses and Aaron and daughter of Amram (Imran). The Quran appears to confuse these two characters, as it describes Mary, the mother of Jesus, as the "Sister of Aaron" and her mother as the "wife of Imran" in context where the "Imran" being discussed is evidently Miriam's father. A possible source of this confusion is the fact that both Miriam and Mary had the same name in Arabic, or were at least similar enough sounding for the original distinction to have been lost or neglected (the word used in either case in the Quran is the same and is pronounced maryam).

Then she brought him to her own folk, carrying him. They said: O Mary! Thou hast come with an amazing thing. O sister of Aaron! Thy father was not a wicked man nor was thy mother a harlot.
And Mary, daughter of 'Imran, whose body was chaste, therefor We breathed therein something of Our Spirit. And she put faith in the words of her Lord and His scriptures, and was of the obedient.
Lo! Allah preferred Adam and Noah and the Family of Abraham and the Family of 'Imran above (all His) creatures. They were descendants one of another. Allah is Hearer, Knower. (Remember) when the wife of 'Imran said: My Lord! I have vowed unto Thee that which is in my belly as a consecrated (offering). Accept it from me. Lo! Thou, only Thou, art the Hearer, the Knower! And when she was delivered she said: My Lord! Lo! I am delivered of a female - Allah knew best of what she was delivered - the male is not as the female; and lo! I have named her Mary, and lo! I crave Thy protection for her and for her offspring from Satan the outcast.

Ezra as the son of God in Jewish doctrine

Historically, Judaism has been a strict form of monotheism. The Quran, by contrast, describes the Jews as practitioners of polytheism by stating that they hold Uzair (Ezra) to be the son of God. This is compared directly with the Christian doctrine which hold Jesus to be the son of God. This appears to be a confusion resulting from conflating the alternative senses in which Jewish and Christian theologians have employed and understood the word "son".

The Jews call 'Uzair a son of Allah, and the Christians call Christ the son of Allah. That is a saying from their mouth; (in this) they but imitate what the unbelievers of old used to say. Allah's curse be on them: how they are deluded away from the Truth!

Regarding general history

Massive wall of iron

The Qur'an presents a version of the Syrian legend of Alexander the Great as a great king who helps a tribe of people build a massive wall of iron between two mountains. The Quran then states, along with the hadith, that this wall and the tribes it traps will remain in place until the Day of Judgement. Modern satellites and near comprehensive exploration of the Earth's surface, however, have yet to reveal any trace of such massive structure.

"Bring me blocks of iron." At length, when he had filled up the space between the two steep mountain-sides, He said, "Blow (with your bellows)" Then, when he had made it (red) as fire, he said: "Bring me, that I may pour over it, molten lead." Thus were they made powerless to scale it or to dig through it.

Until the Gog and Magog (people) are let through (their barrier), and they swiftly swarm from every hill.

David invented coats of mail

Historians commonly credited the invention of coat mail (not to be confused with scale armor) to the Celts in the 3rd century BCE.[1]. Mail has also been found in a 5th century BCE Scythian grave, and there is a cumbersome Etruscan pattern mail artifact from the 4th century BCE.[2] The nature of coat mail is such that it should persist for several millennia, and such advantageous military technologies would spread rapidly, so it is unlikely that coat mail would have originated much earlier, undiscovered by archaeologists. While, older translations of the Bible mention Goliath and David wearing a "coat of mail" in 1 Samuel 17:5 and 17:38 respectively, this is a well known mistranslation for a word meaning armor in general.

In the Qur'an, by contrast, David in the 10th century BCE is taught by Allah how to make coats of iron chainmail (sabighatin سَٰبِغَٰتٍ) and to measure the chainmail links (as-sardi ٱلسَّرْدِ) thereof.[3] Another passage adds that people should be thankful for this knowledge which has since passed down from David.

And assuredly We gave David grace from Us, (saying): O ye hills and birds, echo his psalms of praise! And We made the iron supple unto him, Saying: Make thou long coats of mail and measure the links (thereof). And do ye right. Lo! I am Seer of what ye do.
And We made Solomon to understand (the case); and unto each of them We gave judgment and knowledge. And we subdued the hills and the birds to hymn (His) praise along with David. We were the doers (thereof). And We taught him the art of making garments (of mail) to protect you in your daring. Are ye then thankful?

Crucifixions in ancient Egypt

The first historical reference to crucifixion as a method of execution is from 500 BCE, when the technique began being used in several middle eastern cultures. The Qur'an, by contrast, tells of crucifixions at the time of Moses (approximately 1500 BCE) as well as Joseph (approximately 2000 BCE).

Ancient Egypt has been subjected to extensive study by archaeologists. While there exists hieroglyphic evidence of people impaled through upright stakes in ancient Egypt, this remains distinct from the Palm-tree crucifixions described in the Quran, as Palm trees are of too great girth to be used to vertically impale an individual.

O two companions of prison, as for one of you, he will give drink to his master of wine; but as for the other, he will be crucified, and the birds will eat from his head. The matter has been decreed about which you both inquire."
(Pharaoh) said: Ye put faith in him before I give you leave. Lo! he is your chief who taught you magic. Now surely I shall cut off your hands and your feet alternately, and I shall crucify you on the trunks of palm trees, and ye shall know for certain which of us hath sterner and more lasting punishment.

Samaritans in ancient Egypt

The Qu'ran states that Moses dealt with a Samaritan during his time, however the Samaritans did not exist until well over half a millennium after Moses is supposed to have existed. The term samari itself comes from the city of Samaria, an archaeologically evidenced city built by King Omri around 870BC, nearly 700 years after Moses is supposed to have existed.

The likely source of this confusion is the story in the Bible in Hosea 8:5-6 where there is mentioned another golden calf worshipped by Samaritans after the time of Solomon. One modern perspective holds that the Qur'an might be referring to Zimri, son of Salu (Numbers 25:14). However, the Quranic character is referred to three times in Quran 20:85-88 as l-sāmiriyu with the definite article, "the Samiri", so this is a descriptive title rather than a proper name.

“( Allah) said; ‘We have tested thy people in thy absence: the Samiri has led them astray’.”
“( Moses) said, ‘What then is thy case, O Samiri?’”

The singular Pharaoh

Geographically, the Coptic land of Egypt is adjacent to Arabia. Thus, most Arabs were aware of the preservation method applied by the ancient Egyptian to their pharaohs. Pharaohs were preserved intact using methods such as salt to dry the body (hence, salt in the body of Ramesses II does not suggest that he drowned in the dead sea). There were many pharaohs from numerous dynasties who were preserved in this way. The Qur'an, by contrast, only speaks of "Pharaoh" (Firaun) singularly, as a proper noun without the definite article, suggesting that its author was unaware of the multiplicity of pharaohs.

This day shall We save thee in the body, that thou mayest be a sign to those who come after thee! but verily, many among mankind are heedless of Our Signs!"

Nabatean rock monuments at the time of Pharaoh

The Qur'an frequently lists destroyed peoples of the past, particularly the peoples of Noah, Lot, Pharaoh's army, Midian, Aad and its successor, Thamud. The destruction of Thamud is mentioned many times, either by an earthquake Quran 7:78 or a thunderous blast (for example Quran 54:31).

Its destruction is also alluded to by a believer from the family of Pharaoh:

And a believing man from the family of Pharaoh who concealed his faith said [...] And he who believed said, "O my people, indeed I fear for you [a fate] like the day of the companies - Like the custom of the people of Noah and of 'Aad and Thamud and those after them. And Allah wants no injustice for [His] servants.

The companies / factions (l-aḥzābu) is a term used collectively for the list of destroyed cities also in Quran 38:12-14.

The problem is that while Thamud is a term used for a people or peoples of a particular region over a number of centuries (8th century BCE to the 4th century CE), the Qur'an speaks only of a particular destruction of Thamud after the warnings of their prophet Salih went unheeded. It describes them as the builders of well known palaces and homes, skillfully carved from rock and identified in hadiths as a place in Arabia known as al Hijr (the rocky tract), or Mada'in Salih today. Al-Hijr is also mentioned once by name in Quran 15:80-83 ("the companions of al-Hijr") and its destruction matches the description for Thamud. These were actually elaborately carved tombs (not homes or palaces), now known to have been built by the Nabateans from the 2nd century BCE to the 2nd century AD, long after the time of the Pharaohs[4]. Petra in Jordan was their more famous city before al Hijr.

Al-Hijr is widely accepted as Thamud of the Qur'an. It says Thamud carved palaces from its plains, and homes from its mountains.

And to the Thamud [We sent] their brother Salih. He said, "O my people, worship Allah; you have no deity other than Him. There has come to you clear evidence from your Lord. This is the she-camel of Allah [sent] to you as a sign. So leave her to eat within Allah 's land and do not touch her with harm, lest there seize you a painful punishment. And remember when He made you successors after the 'Aad and settled you in the land, [and] you take for yourselves palaces from its plains and carve from the mountains, homes. Then remember the favors of Allah and do not commit abuse on the earth, spreading corruption."
And you carve out of the mountains, homes, with skill.

These ruins were well known to Muhammad's listeners:

And [We destroyed] 'Aad and Thamud, and it has become clear to you from their [ruined] dwellings. And Satan had made pleasing to them their deeds and averted them from the path, and they were endowed with perception.
And [with] Thamud, who carved out the rocks in the valley?

Al-Hijr is also identified in hadiths as the "al Hijr land of Thamud" (al hijr ardi Thamudi الْحِجْرِ أَرْضِ ثَمُودَ):

Narrated `Abdullah bin `Umar: The people landed at the land of Thamud called Al-Hijr along with Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) and they took water from its well for drinking and kneading the dough with it as well. (When Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) heard about it) he ordered them to pour out the water they had taken from its wells and feed the camels with the dough, and ordered them to take water from the well whence the she-camel (of Prophet Salih) used to drink.

Countable currency in ancient Egypt

Surah Yusuf mentions that the caravan that rescued the eponymous prophet from the pit sold him to an Egyptian "for a low price, a few dirhams". Leaving aside the fact that dirham coins did not exist in ancient Egypt, a more fundamental problem is that the price is indicated as having been some kind of discreetly countable currency: darāhima maʿdūdatin ("dirhams counted"). The word maʿdūdatin occurs throughout the Quran denoting something discreetly numbered, for example "[Fasting for] a limited number of days" in Quran 2:184. Thus, it is not describing a weight of valuable material, but a countable currency. Such a thing did not exist in ancient Egypt. Rather, there were stone weights, particularly the denben, for measuring amounts of precious metals and to price other goods that could be barter traded, but not itself nor units of metal used as a means of exchange.[5]

And they sold him for a reduced price - a few dirhams - and they were, concerning him, of those content with little.

The Children of Israel in Egypt

In various passages the Quran narrates at length the story of Moses and the plagues striking Egypt, the captivity of the children of Israel, and their escape in the Exodus. There is even a glorious pre-history alluded to such that they were kings (mulūkan, compare with mulūka in Quran 27:34) and had extraordinary possessions (Quran 5:20). Historians consider that there is no historical evidence in support of the Exodus events as described, though some theorize that a historical kernal of the Egyptian control over Canaan in the late Bronze age and early Iron age served as an inspiration for the stories. The academic view on the history of ancient Israel and Judah is converging on their emergence within the central hill country of Canaan in the early Iron age, a time of small settlements and lacking signs of violent takeover, but rather a revolution in lifestyle.

Remember Moses said to his people: "O my people! Call in remembrance the favour of Allah unto you, when He produced prophets among you, made you kings, and gave you what He had not given to any other among the peoples.
We recite to you from the news of Moses and Pharaoh in truth for a people who believe.

Noah's worldwide flood

The Quran contains a version of the worldwide-flood story widespread in ancient near-Eastern mythology and most famously found in the Bible. Since geological evidence suggests such a flood never took place, some modern Muslim scholars have reinterpreted the account in the Quran as referring to a more limited, local flood. Several elements in the tale, however, militate against this rereading. Elsewhere in the Quran whenever the heavens and earth are mentioned together, it means in their entirety. In this story waters are released from both of them. Another such detail is the storage of "two of each kind" of animal aboard the ship, since it is not clear what purpose this would serve if the flood were local. Similarly, the purpose of the boat itself appears unclear in this reading - as with the ample warning time that Noah was given, he and his family could have simply evacuated the area that was to be flooded. The relevant passage also states plainly that nothing, not even a tall mountain, could save an individual from drowning on that day except for Allah - this seems to contradict the idea that individuals and animals could have escaped the flood simply by evacuating the flooded area. Noah is recorded praying to God, "O my Lord! Leave not of the Unbelievers [kuffar], a single one on Earth!" - the flood is an answer to this prayer, which likewise suggests that the flood described is a global flood that drowns all those not chosen by Allah to persist aboard the ark.

Then opened We the gates of heaven with pouring water And caused the earth to gush forth springs, so that the waters met for a predestined purpose.
At length, behold! there came Our command, and the fountains of the earth gushed forth! We said: "Embark therein, of each kind two, male and female, and your family - except those against whom the word has already gone forth,- and the Believers." but only a few believed with him.
The son replied: "I will betake myself to some mountain: it will save me from the water." Noah said: "This day nothing can save, from the command of Allah, any but those on whom He hath mercy! "And the waves came between them, and the son was among those overwhelmed in the Flood.
And Noah, said: "O my Lord! Leave not of the Unbelievers, a single one on earth!

Flood waters boiled from an oven

The Qur'an further describes the flood waters as boiling from an oven. There is no scientific nor historical evidence for a large flood of this nature. This element is not found even in more ancient versions of the story (Epic of Gilgamesh, Atra hasis, and Ziusudra). Its ultimate origin appears to be a highly tenuous rabbinical exergisis in the Babylonian Talmud, based on a word in an unrelated verse that means heat or wrath.[6]

The Gemara answers: Even according to Rabbi Eliezer a change was made, in accordance with the statement of Rav Ḥisda, as Rav Ḥisda said: They sinned with boiling heat, and they were punished with boiling heat; they sinned with the boiling heat of the sin of forbidden sexual relations, and they were punished with the boiling heat of scalding waters. This is derived from a verbal analogy. It is written here, with regard to the flood: “And the waters abated” (Genesis 8:1), and it is written elsewhere, with regard to King Ahasuerus: “And the heated anger of the king abated” (Esther 7:10), which implies that the word “abated” means cooled. This indicates that at first the waters of the flood had been scalding hot.

Note that in his translation, Yusuf Ali mistranslates the Aramaic loan word for the oven (alttannooru ٱلتَّنُّورُ)[7] as "fountains". The Arabic verb translated "gushed forth" (fara فَارَ) means "boiled" in the context of water in a cooking pot[8], as well as in the other verse where it is used, Quran 67:7.

(Thus it was) till, when Our commandment came to pass and the oven gushed forth water, We said: Load therein two of every kind, a pair (the male and female), and thy household, save him against whom the word hath gone forth already, and those who believe. And but a few were they who believed with him.
Then We inspired in him, saying: Make the ship under Our eyes and Our inspiration. Then, when Our command cometh and the oven gusheth water, introduce therein of every (kind) two spouses, and thy household save him thereof against whom the Word hath already gone forth. And plead not with Me on behalf of those who have done wrong. Lo! they will be drowned.

Noah's ark holding every species

Part of the legend of Noah's Ark is that a pair of every living species was stored on board. Modern science has revealed, however, that there are over a hundred thousand species of animals including penguins, polar bears, koala bears, and kangaroos that live spread across the entire planet and each of which require different climates, habitats, and diets. These discoveries appear to render the idea that all animals could have been kept on board a single ship impossible.

(Thus it was) till, when Our commandment came to pass and the oven gushed forth water, We said: Load therein two of every kind, a pair (the male and female), and thy household, save him against whom the word hath gone forth already, and those who believe. And but a few were they who believed with him.

Arabian idols from the time of Noah

Five gods from the time of Noah are mentioned in one verse. Strangely, according to Ibn Abbas these happened to be idols worshipped by Arab tribes at the time of Muhammad. It is far fetched even on the Quran's own terms to place Arab idols back in the time of Noah, not least since all the disbelievers of Noah's time were supposedly destroyed by the flood.

Noah said, "My Lord, indeed they have disobeyed me and followed him whose wealth and children will not increase him except in loss. And they conspired an immense conspiracy. And said, 'Never leave your gods and never leave Wadd or Suwa' or Yaghuth and Ya'uq and Nasr.
Narrated Ibn `Abbas: All the idols which were worshiped by the people of Noah were worshiped by the Arabs later on. As for the idol Wadd, it was worshiped by the tribe of Kalb at Daumat-al-Jandal; Suwa` was the idol of (the tribe of) Hudhail; Yaghouth was worshiped by (the tribe of) Murad and then by Bani Ghutaif at Al-Jurf near Saba; Ya`uq was the idol of Hamdan, and Nasr was the idol of Himyar, the branch of Dhi-al-Kala`. The names (of the idols) formerly belonged to some pious men of the people of Noah, and when they died Satan inspired their people to (prepare and place idols at the places where they used to sit, and to call those idols by their names. The people did so, but the idols were not worshiped till those people (who initiated them) had died and the origin of the idols had become obscure, whereupon people began worshiping them.

John the Baptist's original name

The name "John" comes from the Hebrew name Yohanan. Several figures in the Old Testament bore this name. The name has also appeared throughout history. There existed a high priest named Johanan in the 3rd century BCE and a ruler named John Hyrcanus who died in 104 BC. These people existed before John the Baptist, who was a contemporary of Jesus. The Qur'an, by contrast, asserts that nobody before John the Baptist (Yahya in Arabic) bore his name.

(It was said unto him): O Zachariah! Lo! We bring thee tidings of a son whose name is John; we have given the same name to none before (him).

Supernatural destruction of cities

The Quran state that outside the vicinity of Arabia there existed cities and tribes destroyed by Allah for rejecting his messengers and Islam. In each specific example presented in the Qur'an (the people of A'ad, Thamud, Midian, Lut (Lot), and the Pharoah's army), the destruction of the disbelievers is sudden and total. Archeological research, by contrast, has revealed that historical cities and tribes were only gradually ruined by natural disasters, famine, wars, migration, or neglect, often taking years or decades to unfold. In this respect, the Quran appears to have adopted and adapted contemporary Arabian myths regarding the destruction of neighboring cities, some of which may not have existed.

In the Qur'an, the people of Thamud are killed instantly by an earthquake Quran 7:78 or thunderous blast Quran 11:67, Quran 41:13-17, Quran 51:44, Quran 69:5. The people of A'ad are killed by a fierce wind that blew for 7 days Quran 41:13-16,Quran 46:24-35,Quran 51:41, Quran 69:6-7. The people of Midian (Midyan) are killed overnight by an earthquake Quran 7:91, Quran 29:36. The towns of Lot (Lut) are destroyed by a storm of stones from the sky Quran 54:32, Quran 29:34. The actual locations of these towns or tribes is unknown. Midian in particular was a wide geographical desert region rather than a particular location or city, which makes archeological investigation difficult.

Critics have also asked why it is that various other polytheistic cultures worldwide dis not encounter similar fates as those outlined in the Quran.

And how many a township have We destroyed because it had been immersed in evildoing - and now they [all] lie deserted, with their roofs caved in! And how many a well lies abandoned, and how many a castle that [once] stood high!

The suddenness of Allah's punishment is stressed repeatedly in Surah al-A'raf:

How many a township have We destroyed! As a raid by night, or while they slept at noon, Our terror came unto them.
And every nation hath its term, and when its term cometh, they cannot put it off an hour nor yet advance (it).
Are the people of the townships then secure from the coming of Our wrath upon them as a night-raid while they sleep? Or are the people of the townships then secure from the coming of Our wrath upon them in the daytime while they play?

Humans lived for hundreds of years

The oldest verified human life was a little over 120 years. Based on fossil records and testing on human remains, anthropologists have concluded that human life spans are increasing rather than decreasing in both the long- and short- run. By contrast, the Qur'an states that Noah lived for almost 1,000 years. The idea of humans living for hundreds of years in the past is accompanied by the many hadiths, including accounts in Sahih Bukhari, which describe Adam as being 90 feet tall. The general doctrine appears to be that ancient humans were both gigantic as well as long-living.

We (once) sent Noah to his people, and he tarried among them a thousand years less fifty: but the Deluge overwhelmed them while they (persisted in) sin.

Ancient Mosque in Jerusalem

Muslim scholars maintain that a long extant, ancient mosque was present in Jerusalem during Muhammad's life time. Historical research has, however, found this not to be the case.

Glory to (Allah) Who did take His servant for a Journey by night from the Sacred Mosque to the farthest Mosque, whose precincts We did bless,- in order that We might show him some of Our Signs: for He is the One Who heareth and seeth (all things).