Before getting to the essence of the subject, there is a very important point which must be considered: the authenticity of the Qur’anic text.
It is known that the text of the Qur’an was both recited from memory, during the time it was revealed, by the Prophet and the believers who surrounded him, and written down by designated scribes among his followers. This process lasted for roughly twenty-three years during which many unofficial copies were made. An official copy was made within one year after the Prophet’s death at the instruction of Caliph Abu Bakr.
Here we must note a highly important point. The present text of the Qur’an benefited in its original preparation from the advantage of having its authenticity cross-checked by the text recited from memory as well as the unofficial written texts. The memorized text was of paramount importance at a time when not everyone could read and write, but everybody could memorize. Moreover, the need for a written record was included in the text of the Qur’an itself. The first five verses of chapter al-‘Alaq, which happen to constitute the first revelation made to the Prophet (S), express this quite clearly:
“Read: In the name of your Lord who created. Who created man from a clinging entity. Read! Your Lord is the most Noble, Who taught by the pen. Who taught man what he did not know.” Qur’an, 96:1-5
These are surely words in “praise of the pen as a means of human knowledge”, to use Professor Hamidullah’s expression.
Then came the Caliphate of ‘Uthman (which lasted from the twelfth to the twenty-fourth year following Muhammad’s death). Within the first two years of Caliph ‘Uthman’s rule, seven official copies were reproduced from the official text and distributed throughout a large area of the world which had already come under Islamic rule. All unofficial copies existing at that time were destroyed and all future copies were made from the official seven copies.
In my book, The Bible, the Qur’an and Science, I have quoted passages from the Qur’an which came from the period prior to the Hijrah (the Prophet’s emigration from Makkah to Madeenah in the year 622) and which allude to the writing of the Qur’an before the Prophet’s departure from Makkah.
There were, moreover, many witnesses to the immediate transcription of the Qur’anic revelation.
Professor Jacques Berque has told me of the great importance he attaches to it in comparison with the long gap separating the writing down of the Judeo-Christian revelation from the facts and events which it relates. Let us not forget that today we also have a number of manuscripts of the first written versions of the Qur’an which were from a time period very close to the time of revelation.
I shall also mention another fact of great importance. We shall examine statements in the Qur’an which today appear to merely record scientific truth, but of which men in former times were only able to grasp the apparent meaning. In some cases, these statements were totally incomprehensible. It is impossible to imagine that, if there were any alterations to the texts, these obscure passages scattered throughout the text of the Qur’an, were all able to escape human manipulation. The slightest alteration to the text would have automatically destroyed the remarkable coherence which is characteristic to them. Change in any text would have prevented us from establishing their total conformity with modern knowledge. The presence of these statements spread throughout the Qur’an looks (to the impartial observer ) like an obvious hallmark of its authenticity.
The Qur’an is a revelation made known to humans in the course of twenty-three years. It spanned two periods of almost equal length on either side of the Hijrah. In view of this, it was natural for reflections having a scientific aspect to be scattered throughout the Book. In a study, such as the one we have made, we had to regroup the verses according to subject matter, collecting them chapter by chapter.
How should they be classified? I could not find any indications in the Qur’an suggesting any particular classification, so I decided present them according to my own personal one.
It would seem to me, that the first subject to deal with is Creation. Here it is possible to compare the verses referring to this topic with the general ideas prevalent today on the formation of the Universe. Next, I divided up verses under the following general headings: Astronomy, the Earth, the Animal and Vegetable Kingdoms, Humans, and Human Reproduction in particular. Furthermore, I thought it useful to make a comparison between Qur’anic and Biblical narrations on the same topics from the point of view of modern knowledge. This has been done in the cases of Creation, the Flood and the Exodus. The reason that these topics were chosen is that knowledge acquired today can be used in the interpretation of the texts.