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Answers to Alleged Contradictions in the Qur'an

A Christian missionary web-site has a list of what are claimed to be internal contradictions in the Qur’an. The list contains forty-nine numbered items authored by Jochen Katz. Readers may access this list at Here is a reply to each item of Katz’s list. We will see that not a single item on the list is a genuine contradiction in the Qur’an. On some items Katz simply misunderstood the Qur’an. Sometimes he has taken verses out of context to support that misunderstanding. Often he simply did not exercise the thought necessary in reading a work to distinguish between a real contradiction and a resolvable difference.

In preparation for this response I have benefitted from reading the responses offered by Ishak Mermerci, Misha’al Al-Kadhi, Randy Desmond, and Khalid.

Answers to Islam’s Critics
Vol. 1, Issue 1.

Now we move on to consider and demolish Katz’s claims one by one.

PRIMARY CLAIM #1: Inheritance shares totaling more than 100%
Katz claims that there is a contradiction in the matter of inheritance. He says that the shares allotted to individual heirs in a particular case would add up to more than 100% of the available estate. If a man dies leaving behind three daughters, his parents, and his wife the allotments total one and one-eighth. Surah 4, verses 4:11-12 shows that in this case the three daughters together will receive 2/3, the parents together will receive 1/3, and the wife will receive 1/8. Hence a numerical discrepancy.

REPLY: Adding two unknowns
Katz misunderstood what he read in the Qur’an. The verses he refers to do not say what the parents will receive in this case. Nor does it say what the wife will receive in this case. To arrive at his understanding, Katz insists that he must take the Qur’anic statements in the most literal sense. Yet the text even when taken in a literal manner does not support his misunderstanding. The Qur’an does not literally prescribe what the parents will receive in the case which Katz proposes. It is true that the Qur’an literally prescribes that the parents will share 1/3 when a man dies leaving one child (4:11). But the case which Katz proposes is different. Katz’s case involves three daughters, and the literal Qur’anic prescription involves only one child. Hence Katz’ proposed numerical discrepancy is built on his confusing one case for another.

If we were to follow the Qur’anic prescriptions literally, in Katz’s case the wife’s share is also not specified. The Quran literally prescribes a 1/8 share for the wife if the husband leaves only one child. But Katz’s case involves three daughters. And the number three happens to be more than the number one.

Katz thinks that the stated shares in this case would be 2/3 + 1/3 + 1/8, whereas in fact since two of these shares are not actually stated in the Quran, the shares are 2/3 + ? + ? = ? Since the Qur’an does not make a statement on this specific case, it is impossible for the Qur’an to be wrong. The details of this case is left to the comprehensive nature of the Islamic Shariah which does not depend on the Qur’an alone.

A note about the Islamic Law
My answer here does not enter into the details of the Islamic rules governing inheritance for that is not what the objection is about. Katz explains that his objection is only that if the Qur’anic statements about inheritance are taken literally then they yield numerical discrepancies. All we had to do here was to show that his objections are baseless. Even if we take the Qur’anic statements literally we find that the numerical discrepancies that Katz speaks of are not in the Qur’an but only in Katz’s mind.

The source of Katz's confusion
Katz’s confusion apparently springs from his reliance here on the translation of the Qur’an by Arthur Arberry. But Arberry in his translation of these passages mistakenly renders walad as "children" whereas walad is singular: "a child"(4:11, 12).

CLAIM #1b: The man with no direct heirs
Katz claims that there is a further discrepancy in this matter in the case of a man who leaves a mother, a wife, and two sisters. If the allotted shares are added up the total exceeds the total estate. In this case the mother gets 1/3 (4:11) the wife gets 1/4 ( 4:12) and the two sisters together receive 2/3 (4:176). These shares altogether total 15/12, more than the available estate.

REPLY: Dead mother gets no share
Katz is again mistaken. To arrive at the said allotted shares Katz refers to the shares allotted in Surah 4, Ayah 176 of the Qur’an. But that ayah refers to a man who leaves neither parent nor child. At the time of his death his mother already lays in her own grave and as such can lay no claim to a share of inheritance.

Katz’s misunderstanding is again due to Arberry’s translation. In the Qur’an in 4:176 the case described is that of a man who is called in Arabic "kalalah" which is correctly translated by Yusuf Ali as one who leaves "no descendants or ascendants."

More Objections Answered

Wasting Words
Many of Katz’s subsidiary objections fault the Qur’an for not providing a complete list of all possible cases and every detail. Then, after wasting many words on this, he concludes: "But since these cases are just not stated, let us not speculate about it and only look at the cases for which we are explicitly given instructions . . . ." What then was the point of raising such an issue?

Islamic Law Not Based on the Qur’an Alone
Katz objects that in many cases the Qur’an does not allot the entire estate to designated recipients. He thinks that the Qur’an ought to have given more detailed instructions. But here he misses a key point about the Qur’an. The book was sent along with its interpreter, the prophet, sallallahu alayhi wa sallam. He came to teach us the details of what the Qur’an lays out in general principles. After much discussion of his need for details in the Qur’an, however, Katz concludes: "Anyway, as long as the shares add up to less than one, things can be settled still ‘relatively easily.’" Again, why the wasted discussion?

The Question is not About Islamic Law
His persistent question in a number of cases is, "Who gets the rest?" The text itself and the Shariah on the whole has ways of dealing with this. In his response to Randy Desmond, Katz himself admits: "I want to repeat again. Experts on Islamic law are just as intelligent as everybody else and they have found ways to distribute inheritance to the heirs in generally accepted ways."

The Rulings of Muslim Scholars
Often Katz objects that the Muslim scholars rule differently than what the Qur’an prescribes. This is a different objection that proving a contradiction or numerical discrepancy in the Qur’an itself. This matter he should take up with the said Muslim scholars themselves. Then such scholars will either have to correct themselves or teach Katz the details of Qur’anic interpretation. To deal with this is not my expertise. Nor is it required here.

Keeping to a Consistent Frame of Reference
Katz failed to remain consistent on his basic frame of reference. On the one hand he thinks of the prophet Muhammad as an intelligent man who wrote the Qur’an; on the other hand he cannot assume a basic level of intelligence for the prophet. Katz writes:

"Even if one would not put standards of perfection on these rules as is fitting for a revelation from God but only think it to be from Muhammad, it is strange that this successful business man, in charge of whole caravans for a number of years, was not able to correctly add up a few fractions."

Contrary to Katz’s ambivalence between attributing intelligence and ignorance to the prophet, it is established practice that as we read a work we assume for the author a reasonable degree of intelligence consistent with our knowledge of the author’s biography. Since we know from history that the prophet was a successful business man in charge of whole caravans for a number of years we have to assume that he had more than a child’s intelligence.

Yet in order to attribute error to the Qur’an, Katz pretends that its author has not even a child’s intelligence. On this basis Katz objects to 4:11 which prescribes that a daughter will get half of the entire estate available for inheritance. Since the same verse also prescribes that a son gets twice the share of a daughter, Katz thinks that in the case of one son and one daughter the shares of inheritance would be 50% for the daughter and 100% for the son thus totaling 150% of the available estate. Then he wonders how the parents and spouse will inherit when more than the whole is already allotted. He does not here allow for the author of he Quran to know that if a daughter gets half of the whole thing only the other half will remain for a son. Yet every child knows that if they have to share a cake and one person gets half the other person cannot get twice as much from the same cake. If Katz is to assume that the prophet is the author of the Qur’an and Katz admits at least a basic level of intelligence for him, how does Katz imagine such an idiotic explanation for the Qur’an? Does Katz want to have his cake and eat it? Here Katz’s method has gone beyond even his admitted intention to approach the Quran with hostility.

"Daughters Only" Implies "No Sons"
Actually, again, there is no problem in the scripture itself, only in Katz’s approach. The passage (4:11) first mentions the general principle that a son gets twice what the daughter gets. Then it goes on to prescribe in cases when only daughters remain. Only when there is no son, and only one daughter, does the verse prescribe half the estate for the daughter. So Katz’s goings on about the double share for the son is mistaken. In this case there exists by definition a total number of zero sons and one daughter, and no other children.

The fact that this is a case of no son can be immediately seen from the Quranic text. Speaking of the children, the Qur’an moves over to a use of the feminine plural pronoun "kunna" which by definition cannot include males. Arberry’s translation again did not sufficiently emphasize this reference to females alone. Yet the translation is not alone to blame here. The problem rests with Katz. On the one hand he calls the prophet a successful businessman and the author of the Qur’an. Surely such a man would know that if you put half of the camels on one side the other side cannot have twice the number. Or, that if he already paid for half his merchandise he should not again pay for the remainder twice what he paid for the first half. Such a man would know that if he gave half his wealth to his daughter he cannot also give twice as much to his son.

The Author Must Have Some Intelligence
Katz ought to here align himself with the world in this matter. When we read a work we assume for the author a level of competence consistent with his biography. Those who believe that the Qur’an came from Muhammad and know anything about his biography cannot justifiably take the words of he book in the most silly meaning possible. Even a person like Katz who decided to use the approach of a hostile critic must have his limits.

It is due to his own such misunderstandings that Katz in his response to Al-Kadhi repugnantly states that "the author of the Qur’an shows incompetence at a very basic level." On the other hand, both Katz and I have to recognize our own incompetence. I cannot claim competence in fully understanding either the Bible or the Qur’an, and I am willing to be corrected if I overstep my competence in dealing with both books. Similarly, if Katz does not know the Arabic language, and if he is dependent only on English translations he should judge whether or not he is competent to be a justifiable hostile critic of the book. Hostile critic yes -- but justifiable?

Katz’s Excessive Diligence in the Wrong Direction
Credit goes to Katz for his excessive diligence in searching for errors in the Qur’an. The allotment of inheritance shares involves a very detailed system. It itself is an area of specialization within Islamic studies. To sort through all the prescriptions in the Qur’anic text and decide individual cases based on the general Qur’anic principles takes much careful study. To invent hypothetical cases which would result in the apparent numerical discrepancies as Katz has done requires tremendous zeal. Yet Katz did not stop at that. He generally uses Yusuf Ali’s translation of the Qur’an to analyze the difficulties he deals with. But in the matter of inheritance he turned to Arthur Arberry’s translation. Why? Katz explains: "because Yusuf Ali was even more difficult to follow." Yet my review of the two translations convinced me that whereas the inheritance law is itself complex, the two translations were roughly similar in their level of persistence needed to comprehend the subject.

Why Arberry’s Translation?
The key difference between the translations, however, was that whereas the discrepancies Katz sought could be pressed on with the help of Arberry’s translation, this often was not true for Yusuf Ali’s translation. Though not itself perfect, Yusuf Ali’s translation is in the relevant verses closer to the original Arabic. Katz may have turned to Arberry’s translation not only because he found it easier to follow, but because he also found it easier to use in support of claimed contradictions. What Katz needed to do was to channel his diligence in the search not for error but for truth. He should have compared the translations to make sure that the one translation on which he relies should not itself prove erroneous on this issue. This way he would have avoided skewering his results in the erroneous direction he took. But, then again, perhaps here again Katz did not put a reasonable limit on his diligence for locating internal Qur’anic errors.

Comparing Translations
Normally in Biblical studies it is demanded that studies be based on the texts in the original languages. Students who have no access to the original languages are advised to compare translations so as to ensure that a particular mistaken slant of one translation does not affect the general understanding. Moreover, a particular emphasis may be captured well in one translation but not in another.

If Katz had used this principle in studying the Qur’an he would have suspected that some of the discrepancies he points to are found in Arberry’s translation but not in Yusuf Ali’s. Then he might have sought clarification from the original text to find out the source of the apparent discrepancy. But Katz’s excessive diligence was apparently not in the direction of establishing truth.

Even a Hostile Critic Needs Limits
We do not expect Katz to take an overly friendly approach to the Qur’anic text. Yet he ought not to take such a hostile approach either. Surely there is a happy medium between these extremes. How about an unbiased reading of the Qur’an? Apparently Katz abandoned Yusuf Ali’s translation precisely because in this case Arberry’s translation was more useful to the extreme hostile approach.

Katz Knew the Solution
In fact, Katz was aware that Yusuf Ali’s translation and notes if followed would remove one of the problems cited above. We have already shown how Katz in one case due to his misunderstanding counted a share for an already dead mother. His misunderstanding depended on Arberry’s translation which did not make sufficiently clear that the prescription in 4:176 dealt with a person who left neither a parent nor a child. While Katz was busy establishing that the total share including the mother’s share would exceed the available inheritance, he showed no awareness of the possibility that the mother is no longer around. Only later, when Katz was dealing with a different problem, did he show that he had this knowledge. He wrote that 4:176 deals with the situation when "there are no direct heirs (i.e. parents or children according to Muslim understanding – see Yusuf Ali’s translation and footnote)." If Katz knew of this understanding why did he not suggests that if the Muslim understanding is based on the Arabic reading then the claimed discrepancy disappears?

CLAIM: Brothers can inherit if only no direct heirs remain
Katz thinks that "according 4:12 and 4:176 the siblings of the person who died only then share in the inheritance if there are no direct heirs (i.e. parents or children . . . ). Thus he concluded that a brother cannot inherit if a mother is alive. But he finds this conclusion to contradict 4:11 which seems to allot a brother a share along with the mother.

REPLY: Searching for the word "only"
Here Katz misunderstands both 4:12 and 4:176. Neither of these verses state that a sibling can inherit "only" if there are no parents or children. Hence Katz’s contention is without basis. This time his contention is not even based on Arberry’s translation.