Textual Variants in the Quran

When I debate with Muslims, they often claim that Islam is superior to Christianity because the Quran that they read is identical to the Quran that Muhammad received, while the bible is corrupted and changed and we are uncertain of the original. This discussion often comes down to a discussion of textual variants: differences between biblical manuscripts. And certainly there are textual variants in the Bible, we make no secret of that. And my Muslim friends will claim that since there are textual variants, the bible cannot be trusted.

However my Muslim friends often overlook the fact that there are textual variants in the history of the Quran as well. And if we apply the same standards to the Quran that we do to the Bible, then we must conclude that the Quran is also unreliable. I don’t make any claims here about whether textual variants make a text unreliable, I only want to point out the double standards.

I won’t examine many textual variants today, perhaps I will in future posts. But for now, here is an interesting example: the Sana’a manuscript. This is a Quranic manuscript, but really it is two Quranic manuscripts. It is an 80 folio collection of Quran manuscripts from 578 CE to 669 CE (radiocarbon dating), which was then erased and rewritten in the late 7th or early 8th century. The lower text has been partially recovered, and while it is a Quranic text it contains significant textual variants. A list of some of these can be found here. Not only does it add or remove or change words in some cases, there is at least one case in which an entire verse is missing. There are textual variants here, no-one would deny that.

So if the Muslim tries to undermine Christianity through use of textual variants in scripture, they undermine themselves. Now it is true that the Bible has more variants than the Quran does. But that is the result of two differences in the transmission of the texts. First, the bible was never controlled by a central authority who enforced a particular textual tradition, as the Quran was. Uthman, as is well known, attempted to destroy any copies of the Quran that differed from his own. And after him, an Islamic authority was always policing these other traditions. That doesn’t mean the tradition that they used as a standard was the accurate one, as we’ve seen there existed other traditions pre-Uthman. But they did attempt to standardize it.

Furthermore, there were simply fewer copies made of the Quran. There exist orders of magnitude more New Testament manuscripts than Quranic manuscripts, and so we would expect there to be orders of magnitude more textual variants within the New Testament textual tradition.

But as James White regularly points out, these facts actually make the Biblical text more reliable, not less. Because no central authority controlled the transmission of the Biblical text, there was no opportunity for anyone to deliberately change it. And because there were many copies made, we can compare a greater number of manuscripts in order to reconstruct the originals. The factors that lead to the Bible having more textual variants actually make the Bible more reliable in general.