Historical Errors in the Quran
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, apparently implies as much, leading some to conclude that Muhammad misunderstood Christian doctrine.
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.
A common interpretation advocated by Muslim scholars today is that this refers to a fringe Arab Christian sect known as the Collyridians. However, this sect were only mentioned in a 4th century CE book on heresies. The most plausible alternative interpretation proposed so far relates these verses to a Byzantine theological dispute and contemporary war propaganda (for details, see the Qur'anic Trinity section of the article Parallels Between the Qur'an and Late Antique Judeo-Christian Literature).
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).
Some modern academic scholars cite evidence that this could be a case of typology (deliberate literary allusion between characters - see main article). This may be the best explanation, although the verses would still be misleading as historical statements. Sahih Muslim 25:5326 seeks to explain the coincidence based on alleged customary forms of address (to explain "sister of Aaron") or naming customs (to explain why Imran named his daughter Mary), depending on interpretation of the hadith. Either interpretation only reduces part of the coincidence. Even if a naming custom could increase the odds that this father-daughter pair would share names with some earlier biblical family, a further coincidence would still be required if her father happened to be named the same as the father (Imran) in the particular biblical family alluded to when his daughter is addressed as "sister of Aaron". Another attempted explanation is that simply by coincidence this Imran actually had a son called Aaron as well as a daughter named Mary.
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".
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.
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.. 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. 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 long coats of mail (sabighatin سَٰبِغَٰتٍ) after Allah made the iron (al hadid ٱلْحَدِيدَ) malleable for him and told him to measure the chainmail links (as-sardi ٱلسَّرْدِ) thereof. A second passage adds that people should be thankful for this knowledge which has been passed down since David and protects them today.
Chainmail seems to have been familiar to the early Muslims. Muhammad is narrated as using a metaphor of two coats of iron (junnataani min hadeedin جُنَّتَانِ مِنْ حَدِيدٍ), one owned by a generous person and the other by a miser in whose coat every ring (halqat حَلْقَةٍ) becomes close together (Sahih Muslim 5:2229). Ibn Kathir in his tafsir for 34:11 has narrations in which Mujahid and Ibn Abbas use that same arabic word meaning rings (الحلقة) to explain the Quranic verse.
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.
The same verb for crucifixion is used in Quran 4:157 regarding Jesus. Two other verses, Quran 38:12 and Quran 89:8, use another word to call Pharaoh "owner of the pegs" or "stakes". Sometimes this is claimed to refer to impalement and even mistranslated as such. However, the context in Quran 89:6-11 shows that it refers to unspecified rock-hewn monuments (most likely columned temples, obelisks or possibly even the pyramids).
Moreover, there is no ancient Egyptian evidence of cross amputation (punitive removal of a single hand and foot on alternate sides). It seems that here again a contemporary punitive practice has been transferred in the Quran to ancient Egypt. A parallel using the same Arabic words occurs in Quran 5:33, which commands crucifixion or cross amputation among a range of punishment options (both of which became part of Islamic jurisprudence). In the exceptionally cruel combination of both punishments put in the mouth of Pharaoh (see also Quran 7:124 and Quran 26:49), the victim would need to be fastened to the palm tree and / or nailed through the remaining two extremities.
Samarians in ancient Egypt
The Qu'ran states that Moses dealt with a Samarian during his time. However the Samarians did not exist until well over half a millennium after Moses is supposed to have existed.
Oxford Bibliographies (an academic website) says the following:
The likely root of the Quranic confusion is the story in the Bible, Hosea 8:5-8 or 1 Kings 12:25-29 where there is mentioned a golden calf (or two of them) created in Samaria 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.
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.
Nabatean rock tombs at al-Hijr as homes and palaces from before 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 after they disbelieved their prophet Salih 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:
The companies / factions (l-aḥzābu) is a term used collectively for the list of destroyed cities also in Quran 38:12-14.
Thamud is a term used by experts for a people or peoples of a particular region over a number of centuries (8th century BCE to the 4th century CE), but 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 the mountains, clarified in the Quran and hadith as a place in Arabia known as al Hijr (the rocky tract), or Mada'in Salih today.
The errors in the Quran here are two-fold: It is now known that these were actually elaborately carved tombs, not homes or palaces, and that they were made by the Nabateans from the 2nd century BCE to the 2nd century AD, not before the time of the Pharaohs. Petra in Jordan was the Nabateans' more famous city before al Hijr. There are over 100 tombs at al-Hijr, some very large, and many of them small, believed even by a 14th Century CE Arab traveller to contain the bones of the people of Thamud in their houses.. Nabatean inscriptions forbid opening the tombs, reusing them or moving the bodies. The town of al-Hegra where the people lived some distance from the surrounding rock tombs was built of mud-brick and stone.
The Quran says Thamud carved palaces from its plains, and homes from its mountains:
These ruins were well known to Muhammad's listeners:
Al-Hijr is widely accepted as this location. It is also mentioned once by name in Quran 15:80-83 ("the companions of al-Hijr") and its description and destruction matches that for Thamud.
Al-Hijr is also identified in hadiths as the "al Hijr, land of Thamud" (al hijr ardi Thamudi الْحِجْرِ أَرْضِ ثَمُودَ):
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.
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.
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.
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 exegesis in the Babylonian Talmud, based on a word in an unrelated verse that means heat or wrath.
Note that in his translation, Yusuf Ali mistranslates the Aramaic loan word for the oven (alttannooru ٱلتَّنُّورُ) as "fountains". The Arabic verb translated "gushed forth" (fara فَارَ) means "boiled" in the context of water in a cooking pot, as well as in the other verse where it is used, Quran 67:7.
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.
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.
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.
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 did not encounter similar fates as those outlined in the Quran.
The suddenness of Allah's punishment is stressed repeatedly in Surah al-A'raf:
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.
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.
- Richard A. Gabriel, The ancient world, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007 P.79
- Robinson, H. R., Oriental Armour, New York:Dover Publications, 1995, pp.10-12
- Lane's Lexicon p. 1298 سبغ
- Lane's Lexicon p. 1298 سَٰبِغَٰتٍ, Lane's Lexicon p. 1347 ٱلسَّرْدِ
- Lane's Lexicon p. 629 حلقة
- Tafsir of Ibn Kathir for 34:11 (Arabic)
- Hegra Archaeological Site (al-Hijr / Madā ͐ in Ṣāliḥ) - unesco.org (includes many photographs of the tombs)
- al-Hijr UNESCO nomination document p.36 (includes detailed site description)
- History and mystery of Al-Hijr, ancient capital of the Nabateans in Arabia - Arabnews.com
- Lane's Lexicon p. 280 بيوت
- Lane's Lexicon p. 1394 مسكن
- Trade in ancient Egypt - World History Encyclopedia
- Lane's Lexicon p. 318 تَّنُّورُ
- Lane's Lexicon p. 2457 فور