For a scripture that claims to be perfect, the Koran presents as remarkably full of both errors and contradictions. In the last section on Abrogation the most famous contradiction has been discussed, namely that between tolerance and Jihad. Scientific errors are considered in a chapter specific to that subject. This chapter considers a range of examples of the appearance of other contradictions, errors and of incoherence. Perhaps the word appearance is key because often these difficulties can be better understood as pointing to interesting information about the origins and development of the Koran.
The prohibition against drinking wine is contained in 2.219, but 16.67 refers to wine as some of the blessings of Allah. Different translators have translated this as wine (Rodwell), inebriating liquor (Sale), intoxicants (Dawood), strong drink (Pickthall), while Yusuf Ali claims the word means wholesome drink, and in a footnote concedes that if fermented liquor is meant then the later verse is a Meccan Sura which is abrogated by 2.219, a Medinan Sura.
Maulana Wahiduddin Khan explains the inconsistent statements about alcohol in various passages in the Koran, as a gradual process designed to prepare the minds of the people for the eventual prohibition of alcohol. He refers to 4.43 (which prohibits prayer when intoxicated) and 5.90 (which urges his followers to shun intoxicants and games of chance) as part of this process.
Maulana Wahiduddin Khan’s explanation reflects the Koran as a kind of work in progress in which, he implies, God felt he had to bring a reluctant people forward step by step. Could this not equally or better reveal a human ruler’s approach to trying to solve a social problem of drunkenness? Indeed would not one expect a divine revelation to reveal the truth in one clear revelation?
The inconsistencies on this point may actually be related to the genesis of the Koran from earlier material created before the injunction against alcohol was finally introduced. There are indications that the Encratites (regarded as heretics by Basil the Great who died in 379) were opposed to wine (and other things). The problem of drunkenness was therefore not just a social problem, but it had also had a place within religious controversy, and we know that religious controversy between different sects was strong in the birth area of Islam. These Koranic verses could reflect the way this controversy was handled within early Islam.
(b) Free Will and Predestination
There are contradictory statements on free will and predestination. In 87.2-3 it is written: “The lord has created and balanced all things and has fixed their destinies and guided them”. See also 2.142: Allah guides whoever He will he wants on a straight path. Other examples of predestination are found in 54.49, 3.145, 8.17, 9.51, 13.31, 14.4, 18.101, 22.13, 45.26 and 57.22.
However there are passages that suggest that humans have free will. 76.29 states “Surely this is a reminder: so whoever will, let him take a way to the Lord”. Other examples are found in 74.54-5, 76.3, 12.17 and 18.29.
These different verses are reflected in debates in modern Islam about predestination and free will. Those who know Muslims will note how frequently they say ‘Insh’Allah’ which means ‘If God Wills’, impliedly suggesting that whatever happens will only happen because of God’s will. In the light of what we have seen about the probable development and creation of the Koran, the range of its apparently contradictory verses on this topic look like a reflection of religious controversies raging at the time. If God had revealed the Koran however, we might have expected a more authoritative and clear statement concerning the matter.
(c) Merciful or Severe?
Throughout the Koran, Allah is described as merciful, for example in the second verse of the first Surah, and at the end of 2.173 and of 2.182 “Allah is forgiving, merciful.” However there are plenty of verses where Allah shows himself unforgiving. An example is 4.168-9: “Those who disbelieve and deal wrong, Allah will never forgive them, neither will He guide them unto a road, except the road of hell, wherein they will abide for ever. And that is ever easy for Allah.” Other examples can be found in 2.7, 2.17, 4.56, 5.33.
“Sura 5.98 shows this contradiction within the same sentence:
Know that Allah is severe in punishment and that Allah is oft-forgiving, most merciful.
Mercy is normally understood as giving punishment less than deserved while severe in punishment means at least not giving punishment less that deserved, and may mean giving greater punishment than is deserved. The claim ‘he is oft-forgiving and severe in punishment’ tries to have it both ways and is both unclear and incoherent.
Politicians often try to present their policies with different elements combined and presented in such a way as to appear both balanced and to appeal to different constituencies. But on a close analysis there are contradictions – something more human than divine.
(d) What can Allah do or not do?
The Koran is inconsistent about whether Allah can do anything he wishes or not. For example: Can Allah have a child? Compare 35.1 “Praise be to Allah, the Creator of the heavens and the earth, Who appointeth the angels messengers having wings two, three and four. He multiplieth in creation what He will. Lo! Allah is able to do all things” with 6.100-101 “Yet they … impute falsely, without knowledge, sons and daughters unto Him. … The Originator of the heavens and the earth! How can He have a child?”
This is on the face of it a straight contradiction. Muslims commentators confirm that Allah can do anything and point out that he is not subject to the physical laws of his creation. But the more likely explanation for this discrepancy lies in the religious controversies between the different Christian sects present in Islam’s ‘birth room’. Byzantine Christians believed in the Trinity and that Christ was the son of God while other sects denied this and saw Christ as just a prophet, who had been born of Mary but whose father was not God. Hence the polemic: How can he have a Child? The obvious contradiction is not noticed (by God?) in the heat of the polemic.
(e) How Long did it Take Allah to Create the Universe?
In 32.4 it is six days, but in 41.9-12 the total is eight days.
Allah it is who created the heavens and the earth and that which is between them, in six days…
41.9-12 however reads:
9. Say (O Muhammad to the idolaters): Do you disbelieve in Him who created the earth in two days, and you ascribe rivals to Him? He (and none else) is the Lord of the Worlds.
10. He placed it in firm hills rising above it, and blessed it and measured in it its sustenance in four days, alike for all who ask.
11.Then he turned to the heavens when it was smoke, and said to it and to the earth: Come both of you willingly or reluctantly. They said: We come , obedient.
12. The he ordained them seven heavens in two days and inspired in each heaven its mandate; and we adorned the nearer heaven with lamps and rendered it inviolable. That is the measuring of the Mighty, the Knower.
This is a total of eight days. Readers will note references to the earth and heaven also talking and to the stars being lamps.
Maulana Wahiduddin Khan explains that days mean stages, which is the standard Muslim way of trying to explain these inconsistencies, and some modern Muslims think that stages might not be inconsistent with the history of the cosmos and evolution.
A simpler explanation might be that the Koran was gathered together from different scriptures or legends, which were not harmonious, and not harmonised – there has not been the editing necessary.
(f) Was Earth or Heaven Created First?
The Koran contains inconsistent statements about this. 79.27-30 states the earth came after the heavens
“Are ye the harder to create, or is the heaven that He built? He raised the height thereof and ordered it; And He made dark the night thereof, and He brought forth the morn thereof. And after that He spread the earth….
But in 2.29 the Koran states the earth came first
“He it is Who created for you all that is in the earth. Then turned He to the heaven, and fashioned it as seven heavens.”
And similarly 41.9-12 the Koran states
“Say (O Muhammad, unto the idolaters): Disbelieve ye verily in Him Who created the earth in two Days … Then turned He to the heaven … Then He ordained them seven heavens in two Days ….”
Maulana Wahiduddin Khan in his commentary on 79.27-30 confirms that the Koran is clear that Allah made the heavens first, but fails to deal with the discrepancy in his commentaries on 2.29 or on 41.9-12.
Again another explanation might be that we are encountering disparate traditions being welded together during the creation of the Koran by humans, in a way similar to the impression that there are two accounts of the Creation at the beginning of the book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible.
 One of the sources for this chapter is Ibn Warraq’s Introduction to ‘What the Koran really says’
 The State of the New Testament Canon in the second Century: Putting Tatian’s Diatessaron in Perspective in the Bulletin for Biblical Research (9) p5
 Eg at http://www.islamtomorrow.com/allah.asp#3