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A verse frequently quoted by Muslims in debates with the People of the Book, Qur’an 2:79 has traditionally and popularly been understood in the context of taḥrīf, that is to say in the context of the corruption of the message revealed by God to the Banī Isrāʾīl. Dr. Mustafa Khattab in his translation, The Clear Quran renders the passage as follows:

“So woe to those who distort the Scripture with their own hands then say, “This is from Allah” — seeking a fleeting gain! So woe to them for what their hands have written, and woe to them for what they have earned.”

An oft refrain to the Muslim use of this passage has been to question exactly how, who, and when the Banī Israʾīl committed taḥrīf in the first place. It is important to understand that the Qur’ān does not claim that a great number of people are guilty of this charge, rather in Qur’ān 2:75, Allāh reminds us that He is speaking of a smaller group from the whole by saying farīqun, that is to say a ‘party’ or ‘group’ in contrast to the whole. In Qur’ān 2:78 He speaks of a group minhum, that is to say, ‘among them.’

The usage of these terms falls into line with what we also find in the New Testament. The Lexham English Bible renders Matthew 5:20 as follows:

“For I say to you that unless your righteousness greatly surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

Who are the Scribes and the Pharisees? The Jewish Encyclopedia states about the Scribes and Pharisees that they were a:

“Party representing the religious views, practises, and hopes of the kernel of the Jewish people in the time of the Second Temple and in opposition to the priestly Sadducees. They were accordingly scrupulous observers of the Law as interpreted by the Soferim, or Scribes, in accordance with tradition.”

These Scribes then played a central role in the writing and in the interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, that is to say the Old Testament. As those meant to write and thereby preserve the Hebrew Bible the famous verse of Jeremiah 8:8 from the Lexham English Bible now stands out as to its importance:

“How can you say, ‘We are wise and the law of Yahweh is with us’? Look, surely the lying stylus of the scribes has made it a lie.”

Does the above passage mean that the Scribes of the Hebrew Bible edited its text, that is, they committed taḥrīf? Interestingly, we find that the Jewish tradition actually teaches that this is the case and identifies these edits as ‘Tikkun Soferim.’ The Oxford Reference citing The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions states:

“(Heb., ‘repair of the Scribes’). Changes in the text of the Heb. Bible. The rabbis attribute eighteen tikkunim (pl.) to the men of the Great Synagogue, who changed the text because it showed lack of respect to God.”

The statements in the Qur’ān about taḥrīf by a group among the Banī Isrāʾīl are then proven by both the Bible and the Rabbinic tradition. What then about the changes not documented to be from the tikkunim, but are changes, nonetheless? It is important to understand that we would not need to conjecture a scenario where open acknowledgement of widespread taḥrīf has occurred as there is a chapter within the Hebrew Bible which records such an incident. 2 Kings 22 presents us with the following information:

  • Verse 1: Josiah has reigned as King for approximately two decades
  • Verse 2: He was pious and obeyed God’s commandments to the best of his knowledge
  • Verse 8: The scroll of the law (the Torah) was found by Priest Hilkiah
  • Verses 10-11: The scroll is read out to the King and he reacts by tearing his clothes

Then we arrive at verse 13 as rendered in the Lexham English Bible, here we find the King who says:

“Go, inquire of Yahweh for me and for the people and for all of Judah concerning the words of this scroll that was found. For the wrath of Yahweh that is kindled against us is great because our ancestors did not listen to the words of this scroll to do according to all that is written concerning us!”

This narrative would not make sense if the scroll which was found had no different information to the scrolls and teachings prevalent at that time. Rather, it seems to be the case that not only were the practises and teachings different, but they were different to the point that the King feared God’s punishment for his people. If we were to compare verse 1 with verse 13 then it becomes even more apparent that what the King had been raised to follow as righteous teachings, were in fact not righteous. This therefore cannot refer to an isolated incident with one person, as verse 13 itself indicates that their ancestors similarly did not follow what God had written in that specific scroll. We can notice that the King specifies ‘this scroll’, that is, in contrast to any other scroll available and used at that time or previously.

There are a number of conclusions which can be drawn from the information above. Firstly, that the Qur’ānic tradition of taḥrīf is accurate and attested to by their own sources. Secondly, that the degree to which these changes were made managed to impact multiple generations of sincere and faithful believers. Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, that each and every individual needs to have knowledge of their dīn. It is not sufficient to hope that others are practising correctly but rather it is incumbent upon each individual to seek sincere knowledge from our authentic sources. Hence, Allāh asks in the Qur’ān:

“And We have certainly made the Quran easy to remember. So is there anyone who will be mindful?”

Ijaz Ahmad

Ijaz Ahmad has studied the Qur'an and the Bible for more than a decade.