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Scriptures Pointing Different Directions: Comparing the Qur’an and the Bible

For Muslims, the Qur’an is a book providing guidance—but for Christians, the Bible has more than guidance: good news.
The pluralistic spirit of our contemporary Western culture often inclines us to quickly highlight the fact that the Qur’an and the Bible seem to exhibit a number of similarities.

First of all, they are both the sacred scriptures of major world religions. Second, they are viewed as a means of moral guidance to the communities to whom they were sent. Finally, they both contain apparent references to characters that appear to be the same historical figures.

If one does not take the time to critically assess the differences between the Bible and the Qur’an, the similarities might lead to the assumption that a Muslim reads the Qur’an in the same way and for the same purposes as a Christian reads the Bible. However, noticing the ways that the Qur’an and the Bible differ is perhaps more important to understanding how and why a Muslim takes up the Qur’an. These differences can often be overlooked in dialogue between Christians and Muslims, resulting in significant misunderstanding.

In an attempt to mitigate such misunderstanding, this article will address three significant differences between the Qur’an and the Bible. First, for a reader accustomed to the structure and genre of biblical texts, the format of the Qur’an will immediately appear foreign. Second, though both books claim to be divine revelation, the content revealed by each book differs significantly. Third, in the life of a faithful Muslim, the Qur’an often functions differently than does the Bible for Christians.

The Structure of the Qur’an

Traditional Islamic accounts teach that Muhammad recited verses of the Qur’an to his followers little by little over a 22-year period.1 These followers committed the Qur’an to memory and recorded some of it in writing, using whatever materials were at hand whenever Muhammad experienced occasions of revelation. When Muhammad died, however, the Ummah lacked a written and codified version of the Qur’an. Much of it had yet to be recorded in writing, and what was written down had not been gathered into a centralized collection.

Compilation of the Qur’an

Therefore, one of the first acts of the community was to begin the process of recording the Qur’an in writing. The necessity of this task was made all the more urgent when many of the Muslims who had memorized the Qur’an were killed during the early battles in which the Muslim armies fought. In light of these deaths, Gabriel Said Reynolds comments, “Abu Bakr accordingly became concerned that some of the divine revelation might soon be lost forever, so he commissioned a council to record the entire text.”2 This council included Muhammad’s scribe, Zayd ibn Thabit, along with several Meccan scholars. The council gathered all those who had memorized the Qur’an and collectively determined the correct and authoritative reading.

Organization of the Qur’an

Islamic tradition teaches that during the occasions of revelation, Muhammad received not only verses (aya) of the Qur’an, but entire chapters (sura). Since Muhammad died before the collection of his recitations, however, the ordering of these chapters appears to have been determined by the Ummah as they compiled the Qur’an.

Since these chapters present themselves as individual literary units, many contemporary scholars argue that one must attend to the chapter-level context in order to interpret meaning.3 Such attention requires a sensitivity to ancient Semitic rhetoric and literary conventions uncommon to Western readers.4 Thus, first-time readers of the Qur’an—especially Westerners reading English translations—will almost certainly struggle to grasp or appreciate its message.5

Thus, first-time readers of the Qur’an—especially Westerners reading English translations—will almost certainly struggle to grasp or appreciate its message.

Whether or not one can establish a plausible rhetorical case for interpreting the Qur’an at the chapter level, the arrangement of the chapters themselves poses a barrier to understanding. Generally speaking, with the exception of the opening sura, the Qur’an moves from the longest chapter to the shortest.6 An implication of this arrangement is that the Qur’an is not chronological.7 In fact, it reads as an ahistorical document, admitting very little evidence of the context in which it was written, in part due to the fact that the genre of the Qur’an is poetry.

Genre of the Qur’an

One of the chief reasons that Muslims claim inspiration for the Qur’an is due to its inimitable beauty. This claim finds its foundation in Qur’an 17:88, which states, “Say: ‘If indeed humankind and the jinn joined together to produce something like this Qur’an, they would not produce anything like it, even if they were supporters of each other.’” Other verses throughout the Qur’an make the same point: its perfection cannot be imitated; thus, it is from God.8

The claim is also reinforced with accounts of those who, upon hearing the Qur’an’s beautiful poetry, experience spontaneous conversion. Raymond Farrin offers an example of such a conversion, citing the words of the second caliph, ‘Umar, writing, “When I heard the Qur’an, my heart was softened and I wept, and Islam entered into me.”9 Therefore, on the basis of the perceived perfection of the poetry of the Qur’an, read in its original Arabic, Seyyed Hossein Nasr can claim, “The greatest miracle of Islam is said to be the eloquence of the Qur’an.”10

Even more than the actual words themselves, then, the Arabic poetics that comprise the Qur’an provide proof of its inspiration for many faithful Muslims.​11 That the Qur’an is poetic, however, exacerbates the difficulty for Westerners wanting to understand its message. Such poetic use of language is often intentionally ambiguous and metaphorical. Likewise, adequately translating such culturally bound metaphor into any common language is rarely achieved. Thus, appreciation of its texture and meaning is all but impossible in translation. As seen above, the structure of the Qur’an takes a very different shape than that of the Bible. So, too, does its content differ.

The Content of the Qur’an

In Christian theology proper, the doctrine of revelation has as its object God himself. As Michael Bird puts it, revelation is “God’s self-disclosure of himself.”12 While Christians recognize that we do not know God exhaustively, we do claim to know him personally. Ultimately, we gain this knowledge most fully through the incarnation, though we view and interpret it through the lens of the Bible. For Christians, the content of revelation is God himself.

Revelation of God’s Will

Though it may initially seem an insignificant distinction, the content of the Qur’an’s revelation is not God himself but rather God’s will. The Qur’an rejects the idea that anyone can know God personally. The person of God—if one can so speak of Allah in Islam—is wholly transcendent and unknowable. Perhaps the closest thing that can be known about God’s essence is simply that God is one.13 The Qur’an instead occupies itself with revealing how human creatures are to follow God’s will.

Though it may initially seem an insignificant distinction, the content of the Qur’an’s revelation is not God himself but rather God’s will.

Revelation of Guidance

Corroborating the claim above in his influential book Major Themes in the Qur’an, Fazlur Rahman writes, “The Qur’an is no treatise about God and his nature: his existence, for the Qur’an, is strictly functional—he is Creator and Sustainer of the universe and of man, and particularly the giver of guidance for man.”14 As such, a reader approaching the Qur’an should be conscious of the fact that it does not invite personal knowledge of God, but rather it provides guidance for faith and life as a creature submitted to the creator.

The Function of the Qur’an

Since the Qur’an and Bible reveal different content, it follows that the primary reason a Christian reads the Bible is different than the reason a Muslim reads the Qur’an. Both Christians and Muslims read scripture for the purpose of conforming their lives to its commands. However, such commands in the Bible are inextricably connected to the person and character of the Triune God who has revealed himself in and through its pages. Ultimately, then, Christians read the Bible in order to know God himself. In contrast, most Muslims primarily read, memorize, and recite the poetry of the Qur’an as an act of devotion and in order to obtain blessing.15

An Act of Devotion

Among the laity throughout the Ummah, study of the Qur’an is more directed at memorization and recitation than to personal interpretation. Interpretation is a task left to scholars and clerics. Thus, though the Qur’an is read and memorized by individuals, apprehension of its meaning and application depends more upon the local imams, traditions, and commentaries.

The priority given to memorization follows from the belief that the Qur’an is not a creative work of Muhammad, but is itself a product of Muhammad’s recitation. Islamic tradition teaches that the very first instruction Muhammad was given in the cave of Hira was, “Recite!”16 Thus, in most Islamic communities, one who has memorized the Qur’an (hafiz) is viewed admirably as extremely pious.17

An Object of Blessing

Finally, many Muslims believe the Qur’an itself to be a source of blessing. One way to obtain such blessing, as noted by Carole Hillenbrand, is by developing proficiency as a reciter of the Qur’an, which “is a skill highly valued in Muslim societies and one said to bring both spiritual and material rewards.”18 The Qur’an, then, both guides the Muslim and provides a means of blessing.

Less frequently—and as is the case in certain syncretistic Christian environments—some Muslims read verses from the Qur’an as incantations or to ward off evil in certain situations. Additionally, some Muslims display copies of the Qur’an in their homes, cars, and places of business because its very presence is considered to bring luck and protection. Thus, in certain Muslim cultures, the book itself is viewed as a talisman or charm.

Summary

Though the Bible and the Qur’an are both sacred texts that offer guidance and instruction, this chapter has shown that there is a great deal of difference between the two books. The Qur’an, as a book of poetic guidance, provides the Muslim community with a window through which to view God’s will for their lives. Following its instruction, memorizing its words, and reciting its message display pious devotion and invite spiritual and material rewards.

The biggest difference, however, between the Qur’an and the Bible is that the Qur’an reveals only God’s will and instructions for how to order one’s life. It does not reveal God himself. Having investigated the essential differences between the Qur’an and the Bible, many of the similarities prove to be rather superficial in the light of such distinct purposes and functions of both books in their respective faiths. Thus while a Christian communicator of the gospel might be tempted to stand on the apparent common ground of qur’anic ethics, teachings, and characters, we must do so cautiously. Central concepts like sin, God, and forgiveness must be explored beyond the initial and superficial similarities in order to truly communicate the biblical gospel.


1. Gabriel Said Reynolds, The Emergence of Islam: Classical Traditions in Contemporary Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012), 97–98. Some traditions teach that Muhammad received the entire Qur’an in the cave. Yet, all traditions teach that Muhammad transmitted the Qur’an over an extended period of time and through occasional revelations.

2. Reynolds, Emergence of Islam, 100.

3. Raymond Farrin, Structure and Qur’anic Interpretation: A Study of Symmetry and Coherence in Islam’s Holy Text (Ashland, OR: White Cloud, 2014), xiv–xv.

4. Michel Cuypers, The Banquet: A Reading of the Fifth Sura of the Qur’an (Miami: Convivium, 2009), 1. Cf. Farrin, Structure and Qur’anic Interpretation, xv. Some interpreters labor to show that the entire canon of the Qur’an exhibits evidence of an intentional, rhetorical design, which should be considered in the process of interpretation. Farrin claims, “The whole Qur’an, including all its arranged parts, possesses a magnificent design.”

5. Farrin, Structure and Qur’anic Interpretation, xiii. Farrin quotes Voltaire as having written, “The Qur’an is a rhapsody without liaison, without order, without art; it is said nevertheless that this boring book is a very beautiful book—I am referring here to the Arabs who pretend it is written with an elegance and a purity that no one has approached.” He also quotes Thomas Carlyle’s opinion: “I must say, it is as toilsome reading as I ever undertook. A wearisome confused jumble, crude, incondite; endless iterations, long-windedness, entanglement.”

6. John Kaltner and Younus Mirza, The Bible and the Qur’an: Biblical Figures in the Islamic Tradition (New York: T&T Clark, 2018), 3.

7. Most scholars believe that Qur’an 96:5 is the first verse that was revealed, while the last verse to be revealed is often said to be Qur’an 5:3.

8. Cf. Qur’an 2:23; 10:38; 11:13; 52:33–34. One might be excused for finding such an argument less than convincing. Beauty as a subjective category cannot provide proof of the claims of divine revelation. All the more so, the claim that it cannot be imitated cannot be substantiated due to the subjective nature of the claim.

9. Farrin, Structure and Qur’anic Interpretation, xiii. Farrin also offers the reflections upon hearing the Qur’an of a poet from Muhammad’s lifetime, “It was a gentle and soulful recital. It bewitched the heart and caressed the mind. Such an attraction was in the recitation that no man of poetry and letters could resist. In it, he found a wave of tenderness and a spiritual wealth in its meaning, which he had never heard in human speech before.”

10. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity (New York: HarperOne, 2004), 24.

11. Nasr, Heart of Islam, 224. Nasr writes, “In traditional Islamic society one never hears the Word of God except in beautiful chanting, which moves the very depth of the soul of even those Muslims who do not know Arabic and do not comprehend the message of what is recited. . . . In the eyes and ears of Muslims the central theophany of their religion, namely the Qur’an, has always been associated with beauty.”

12. Michael Bird, Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 164.

13. Fazlur Rahman, Major Themes of the Qur’an (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2009), 1.

14. Rahman, Major Themes of the Qur’an, 1.

15. Carole Hillenbrand, Introduction to Islam: Beliefs and Practices in Historical Perspective (London: Thames & Hudson, 2015), 77.

16. Qur’an 96:5.

17. Hillenbrand, Introduction to Islam, 78.

18. Hillenbrand, Introduction to Islam, 77.

About the Author

Matt Bennett is an Assistant Professor of Missions and Theology at Cedarville University. Previously, Matt served as a missionary in North Africa and the Middle East. Matt holds a Ph.D. in missiology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Follow Matt on Twitter.

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