By Adis Duderija, New Age Islam
The purpose of this article is to briefly present the views of some Muslim scholars on the issue of Tahrif or ‘alteration’ of pre-Qur’anic Scriptures, especially those associated with the Jewish and Christian communities. The Qur’an uses the word Tahrif in several places. Here they are:
1. In 2:75 it states: Can ye (o ye men of Faith) entertain the hope that they will believe in you? - Seeing that a party of them heard the Word of Allah, and perverted it knowingly after they understood it.
2. In 2:79: Then woe to those who write the Book with their own hands, and then say:"This is from Allah," to traffic with it for miserable price!- Woe to them for what their hands do write, and for the gain they make thereby.
3. In 2:1 59; Those who conceal the clear (Signs) We have sent down, and the Guidance, after We have made it clear for the people in the Book,-on them shall be Allah's curse, and the curse of those entitled to curse.
4. In 3: 187: And remember Allah took a covenant from the People of the Book, to make it known and clear to mankind, and not to hide it; but they threw it away behind their backs, and purchased with it some miserable gain! And vile was the bargain they made!
5. In 4:46: Of the Jews there are those who displace words from their (right) places, and say: "We hear and we disobey"; and "Hear what is not Heard"; and "Ra'ina"; with a twist of their tongues and a slander to Faith. If only they had said: "What hear and we obey"; and "Do hear"; and "Do look at us"; it would have been better for them, and more proper; but Allah hath cursed them for their Unbelief; and but few of them will believe.
6. 5:13: But because of their breach of their covenant, We cursed them, and made their hearts grow hard; they change the words from their (right) places and forget a good part of the message that was sent them, nor wilt thou cease to find them- barring a few - ever bent on (new) deceits: but forgive them, and overlook (their misdeeds): for Allah loveth those who are kind.
7. 5:15: O people of the Book! There hath come to you our Messenger, revealing to you much that ye used to hide in the Book, and passing over much (that is now unnecessary): There hath come to you from Allah a (new) light and a perspicuous Book.
As it is evident from the above the word Tahrif (has been translated to) mean/s either as hiding/concealing (the true meaning of) text or altering/changing/perverting /displacing (the meaning of ) of text. The Qur’anic texts seem to be somewhat ambiguous on the precise meaning of the text and this has given rise to a number of views on what the concept of Tahrif means. We examine some of these below.
Muslim authors mainly understood the falsification as either taḥrīf al-ma’nā, distortion of the meaning of the text, or taḥrīf al-naṣṣ, falsification of the text itself or in some cases rejected it completely.
-Ibn Khaldūn, for example, rejects the idea of actual falsification of Jewish or Christian Scriptures “since custom prevents people who have a (revealed) religion from dealing with their divine Scripture in such a manner”. The more common understanding, however, of tariff among Muslim authors, especially from the 5th/11th century up to modern times, has been the one which accused Jews and Christians of having deliberately falsified the text of their own respective Scriptures. Jewish oral tradition, seen as an unauthorised addition to Scripture, is also considered to be part of this falsification. So is Christian canon and other law. In this context, Muslim authors stressed the differences between the “three Bibles”: the Hebrew Bible of the Jews; the Samaritan Bible; and the “Greek Bible” (i.e. the Septuagint) of the Christians as proof of the falsification.
Erdmann Fritch considers that for Ali Ibn Rabban Tabari (d.240 AH) and Al Jahiz the corruption of the bible is not to be found in the original text of the earlier scriptures but that they came from translators and copyists. According to Gaudeul and Caspar , Ibn Sina ( d.428 AH), Ibn Khaldun and Muhammad Abduh considered that tahrif meant false interpretations of the texts and not corruptions of the texts themselves. Al Qasim Ibn Ibrahim considered Tahrif to mean the interpretation of the Bible and not the text itself. Ibn Qutayba considered to be a pure revealed scripture and a reliable historical source. Burhan ud Din Biha'i ( d.1480 CE) also was of the view that Tahrif means alteration of sense and not of texts of the Bible. Ibn Hazm was the first to systematically argue for Tahrif of text of the Bible. Shah Walli Allah forms the view that Tahrif means corrupt interpretation, misconstruing a verse arbitrarily and deviation from straight path. Ahmad Khan conceived of Tahrif in terms of interpretation rather than corruption of text. Muhammad Tayoub, a contemporary Shi’i Muslim scholar writes the following:
Contrary to the general Islamic view, the Qur'an does not accuse Jews and Christians of altering the text of their scriptures but rather of altering the truth which those scriptures contain. The people do this by concealing some of the sacred texts, by misapplying their precepts, or buy altering words from their right position .However this refers more to interpretation rather than to actual addition or deletion of words from the sacred books.
So , in conclusion, the Qur’anic references to Tahrif are subject to different interpretations and different Muslim have understood it to either means corruption of the (part of ) the text, the meaning of the text or no corruption at all. They also differed on the sources of the falsification as either being deliberate or accidental or either coming from copyists/editors or actual religious leaders of these communities.
Dr. Adis Duderija, Visiting Senior Lecturer, Gender Department, University Malaya is the author of Constructing a Religiously Ideal Believer and Woman in Islam, (Palgrave, 2011)