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The Problem of Infinite Regressionin the Quranic Revelation

It Just Keeps Going, and Going, and Going….

Buried within Surah 26 of the Qur’an, we find a passage dealing with the Qur’an and its relation to prior revelation. In this passage, the Qur’an tries to build for itself a basis of authority founded upon its continuity with the earlier Scriptures. However, in the process, a logical problem arises. Let us begin by looking at the ayat in question:”And most surely this is a revelation from the Lord of the worlds. The Faithful Spirit has descended with it, Upon your heart that you may be of the warners. In plain Arabic language. And most surely the same is in the scriptures of the ancients. (26:192-196, Shakir)

Traditional Muslim interpretation of this passage has been that it is saying that the earlier revelations1 contained the Quranic revelation. The object is to show that the revelation given to Mohammed was not new, but rather was something previously understood and received by man, but lost or corrupted, and thus making necessary the Quranic revelation to the Arabs through their prophet Mohammed.

The postmortem editors of Yusuf Ali’s commentary comment on the previous revelation to which the Qur’an is making reference,”The word Zubur, used here, is plural of Zabur, which is mentioned in the Qur’an as the Book revealed to the Prophet Dawud. It has also been used in the Qur’an in the generic sense of “Book” (54:52). Here the word refers to the earlier revelations.”2

Some who contest the Qur’an attempt to argue that this passage is saying that these earlier revelations were themselves revealed in Arabic, and thus the Qur’an is in error since, obviously, the earlier Biblical material was in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. I personally do not believe this argument can be made, as the Quranic passage can just as easily be understood to say that the “faithful spirit” gave Mohammed a revelation in Arabic to bring to the Arabs, so that they could understand the revelation this particular time around. In fact, given the wider context of the surah, this seems the most likely interpretation. It does not necessarily have to be understood as saying that these prior revelations were IN Arabic, and hence I find the claim to error on this point tenuous at best.

However, this being said, it must be noted that there is a much more fundamental logical problem with this passage. We must note again that 26:196 says that the Quranic revelation was in the Scriptures of the earlier revelation. Essentially, this would mean that the entirety of the information presented in the Qur’an would be found in these earlier works, and Muslims would argue that the reason it does not now appear there is because of alterations to the earlier Books made by the Jews and Christians, and they would claim that where the Bible DOES agree with the Qur’an, it is because the earlier revelation was not corrupted at that point.

However, looking aside to any issue of corruption, it should be noted that what ayah 196 is claiming leads to an infinitely regressive loop, a serious logical problem. Let us assume that the “original” earlier revelations did indeed contain the Quranic revelation in sum total. This would therefore include the information contained in 26:196, about the true revelation being revealed in former books. These former books then, containing the statement referring to their true revelation being revealed in former books, would point backwards to a more previous Book. Thus, the revelation immediately previous to the Qur’an would refer back to the previous, which would refer to the previous…..and so on ad infinitum. There would be no place for this series of revelations to ever begin, since even the first revelation from Allah would contain information referring backwards to a prior revelation. Essentially, there could be no beginning to Allah’s revelation to mankind, since any particular instance of Allah revealing his perspicuous truth is always referring back to a previous Book. There is logically no place for the cycle of revelation and corruption to ever begin!

Hence, we see an example of a logical flaw which argues against a divine authorship of the Qur’an.

End Notes

(1) – Traditionally held by Islam to be the Torah, the other Hebrew scriptures, and the Gospels (Injeel, usually though not always referring to the entirety of the New Testament)]
(2) – ‘Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an, p. 931, note #3226, on 26:196

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