Question: Are the Torah and the Gospel Altered? Some scholars say that the Books that are confirmed by the Qur'an were the Torah and the Injeel that existed during the period of Prophet Muhammad's life, and now they are lost. Is this true?
The Arabic word tahrif = تَحْرِيف , which is mostly translated into English as “alteration” is of the root “harf = حرف”. “Harf” means “edge, verge, margin”. “Tahrif ” is “bending or pulling something to a margin” rather than locating it to its meant position. If the object of “tahrif” is a word, as in our case, it is clear that the text of a word cannot be bent or pulled to a margin. Then, “tahrif” is an act that applies to the meaning of the word. When the meaning of the word is bent or pulled to a margin, the word becomes twisted or in other words, the meaning of the word is distorted. Then, the actual literal meaning of “tahrif” is “distortion” rather than “alteration”. We conclude that “tahrif” is “distorting the meaning of a word by ascribing a marginal meaning to it, rather than assigning the true meaning it was meant to refer to”.
To be able to understand the subject of distortion vs. alteration, we must study relevant verses of the Qur’an carefully. Since the books in question are books of God, the One Who has the say on this subject is God.
The verses which tell that the earlier nations -especially the Children of Israel- used different pronunciations of words to mock or deceive Muslims, are used in traditional Islam to support the idea that the previous books were altered and we cannot talk about their existence today. When relevant verses are studied, we see that the notion of “tahrif – distortion” in the Qur’an does not refer to alteration or disappearance of the texts but to causing distortion to the meanings of words. One verse is:
فَبِمَا نَقْضِهِمْ مِيثَاقَهُمْ لَعَنَّاهُمْ وَجَعَلْنَا قُلُوبَهُمْ قَاسِيَةً ۖ يُحَرِّفُونَ الْكَلِمَ عَنْ مَوَاضِعِهِ ۙ وَنَسُوا حَظًّا مِمَّا ذُكِّرُوا بِهِ ۚ وَلَا تَزَالُ تَطَّلِعُ عَلَىٰ خَائِنَةٍ مِنْهُمْ إِلَّا قَلِيلًا مِنْهُمْ ۖ فَاعْفُ عَنْهُمْ وَاصْفَحْ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ يُحِبُّ الْمُحْسِنِينَ
“They broke their covenant, so We excluded them and hardened their hearts. They twist the words out of their meant positions (true meanings). They have forgotten some of the correct information they were told. You [Prophet] find treachery in all but a few of them. Overlook this and start with a clean slate. God loves those who do good.” (al-Maidah 5:13)
What needs to be noticed here is that “tahrif” is not altering the word, but distorting its meaning by ascribing a marginal meaning to the word. We find an example of this in the Qur’an:
مِنَ الَّذِينَ هَادُوا يُحَرِّفُونَ الْكَلِمَ عَنْ مَوَاضِعِهِ وَيَقُولُونَ سَمِعْنَا وَعَصَيْنَا وَاسْمَعْ غَيْرَ مُسْمَعٍ وَرَاعِنَا لَيًّا بِأَلْسِنَتِهِمْ وَطَعْنًا فِي الدِّينِ ۚ وَلَوْ أَنَّهُمْ قَالُوا سَمِعْنَا وَأَطَعْنَا وَاسْمَعْ وَانْظُرْنَا لَكَانَ خَيْرًا لَهُمْ وَأَقْوَمَ وَلَٰكِنْ لَعَنَهُمُ اللَّهُ بِكُفْرِهِمْ فَلَا يُؤْمِنُونَ إِلَّا قَلِيلًا
“Some Jews distort the words: they say, ‘We have listened and held to it powerfully/disobeyed,’ and ‘If I may be so bold to say listen/may you not listen, but listen!’ and ‘Shepherd us!’ They do this with their tongues twisting it abusively so as to disparage religion. If they had said, ‘We have listened and obeyed voluntarily,’ ‘Listen to us!’ and ‘Govern us!’ that would have been better and more proper for them. But God has excluded them for their insistence on ignoring (the truth); only few of them believe and trust.” (an-Nisa 4:46)
All of the quoted expressions in the verse have two meanings in Arabic which are antonymous of each other. The word “raaina = رَاعِنَا” translated as “shepherd us” in the verse means either “shepherd us” or “govern us”. Whoever says “shepherd us” would be ironically saying: “you want to shepherd us like sheep, do it if you can!” If they pronounce the letter ‘ayn = (ع)’ of “raaina” a bit longer than usual, then they happen to say: “that shepherd of ours!” which would sound as a sign of love. Had they used the word “govern us!” instead of “shepherd us” none of these abusive meanings would be possible. These Arabic expressions in the verse were chosen deliberately by those Jews so that they could be abusive while seeming utterly polite.
As you can understand by the verses, the notion of “tahrif” is not used in the Qur’an regarding a change in the text but a change in meaning. In the Qur’an verses it is also mentioned that Jews distort (do “tahrif” on) the verses of the Qur’an, too:
أَفَتَطْمَعُونَ أَن يُؤْمِنُواْ لَكُمْ وَقَدْ كَانَ فَرِيقٌ مِّنْهُمْ يَسْمَعُونَ كَلاَمَ اللّهِ ثُمَّ يُحَرِّفُونَهُ مِن بَعْدِ مَا عَقَلُوهُ وَهُمْ يَعْلَمُونَ
“Now do you expect them to believe and trust in you? A party of them listens to God’s word, and they find it reasonable, but then they distort it (do tahrif) knowingly.” (al-Baqarah 2:75)
According to the verse above, a group of the Children of Israel listen to the Qur’an and aim to create a misperception to the detriment of It by distorting the meanings of verses. They may also have aimed to break the bond of “confirmation = tasdeeq = تصديق” between the Qur’an and the Tanakh. It is clear by this verse that “tahrif” is not modifying the text but distorting the meaning.
Today, even the Qur’an is subject to utter distortion through Its translations and interpretations! Some words, which in fact do not exist in the Arabic text are presented in translations as if they are in the Qur’an. Therefore, people take them as God’s words. There are even such examples in which the translation has an exactly opposite meaning to the text. Here is an example:
أَيَّامًا مَّعْدُودَاتٍ فَمَن كَانَ مِنكُم مَّرِيضًا أَوْ عَلَى سَفَرٍ فَعِدَّةٌ مِّنْ أَيَّامٍ أُخَرَ وَعَلَى الَّذِينَ يُطِيقُونَهُ فِدْيَةٌ طَعَامُ مِسْكِينٍ فَمَن تَطَوَّعَ خَيْرًا فَهُوَ خَيْرٌ لَّهُ وَأَن تَصُومُواْ خَيْرٌ لَّكُمْ إِن كُنتُمْ تَعْلَمُونَ
“(Fasting is for) a fixed number of days. If any of you is so ill that he cannot fast, or on a journey, he must fast the same number of other days. But for those who can no longer manage to fast, there is redemption (penance) by feeding a person in destitution (for each day missed or giving him the same amount in money). Yet better it is for him who volunteers greater good (by either giving more or fasting in case of recovery), and that you should fast (when you are able to) is better for you, if you but knew (the worth of fasting).” (al-Baqarah, 2/184) [Translation: Ali Ünal]
In this verse, the expression translated as “who can no longer manage to fast” is in fact “عَلَى الَّذِينَ يُطِيقُونَهُ = upon those who are able to it”. However, the owner of the translation ascribes a totally opposite meaning to it. This is exactly what the Qur’an calls “tahrif = distortion”.
Meaning distortions that the People of the Book make in the words of the current divine books are far more dramatic than in this example. It is not appropriate to decide about the Old Testament, only by reading the contradictory expressions in Its translations. It is essential to conduct extensive research on the original text of the Tanakh by setting up research groups consisting of the experts of Hebrew.
Yet, we have to draw attention to the following fact: The Qur’an declares the existence of words that do not belong to God, in some sections of the Books that current People of the Book have. Below is an example:
وَاتَّبَعُواْ مَا تَتْلُواْ الشَّيَاطِينُ عَلَى مُلْكِ سُلَيْمَانَ وَمَا كَفَرَ سُلَيْمَانُ وَلَـكِنَّ الشَّيْاطِينَ كَفَرُواْ
“And then, they followed what the devils recounted about the reign of Solomon. Solomon was not an ignorer (disbeliever/kafir), but those devils who taught those tricks to the people became ignorers…” (al-Baqarah 2:102)
The slanders recounted about the reign of Solomon exist in the Old Testament that we have in hand today:
“As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been. 5 He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molekthe detestable god of the Ammonites. 6 So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord; he did not follow the Lord completely, as David his father had done.7 On a hill east of Jerusalem, Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the detestable god of Moab, and for Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites. 8 He did the same for all his foreign wives, who burned incense and offered sacrifices to their gods. 9 The Lord became angry with Solomon because his heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice.10 Although he had forbidden Solomon to follow other gods, Solomon did not keep the Lord’s command. 11 So the Lord said to Solomon, “Since this is your attitude and you have not kept my covenant and my decrees, which I commanded you, I will most certainly tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your subordinates.” (1 Kings, 11:4-11, New International Version)
As God says in the Qur’an that Solomon was not an ignorer, he cannot have turned away from God or followed other Gods. This is an example of the words which were inserted into the scripts of the Old Testament. Such sections do not necessarily indicate that the original Tanakh was lost. A sack of rice is not lost when a handful of stone is added into it. Everyone can discern between stone and rice. When a correct sieve is used, it would also be possible to remove the stones.
WHAT IS WRITTEN IN THE QUR’AN ABOUT OTHER DIVINE BOOKS?
The Quran confirms the previous holy Books and reserves the fundamentals of their content. For this reason, it is necessary to believe in their fundamentals:
نَزَّلَ عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ بِالْحَقِّ مُصَدِّقًا لِمَا بَيْنَ يَدَيْهِ وَأَنْزَلَ التَّوْرَاةَ وَالْإِنْجِيلَ
“He has sent down to you the Book including the whole truth and confirming the previous ones. He had also sent down the Torah and the Gospel.” (Al-e Imran 3:3)
The verses below express that some of the rulings in previous books were maintained in the Quran as they were and some rulings were sent down in an alleviated form. The almighty God decrees:
مَا نَنسَخْ مِنْ آيَةٍ أَوْ نُنسِهَا نَأْتِ بِخَيْرٍ مِّنْهَا أَوْ مِثْلِهَا أَلَمْ تَعْلَمْ أَنَّ اللّهَ عَلَىَ كُلِّ شَيْءٍ قَدِيرٌ
“If We supersede a verse or cause it to be forgotten, we bring a better one or an equivalent one. Do you not know that God is the establisher of the measure of all things?” (Al-Baqarah 2:106)
شَرَعَ لَكُمْ مِنَ الدِّينِ مَا وَصَّى بِهِ نُوحًا وَالَّذِي أَوْحَيْنَا إِلَيْكَ وَمَا وَصَّيْنَا بِهِ إِبْرَاهِيمَ وَمُوسَى وَعِيسَى أَنْ أَقِيمُوا الدِّينَ وَلَا تَتَفَرَّقُوا فِيهِ.
“He has ordained for you that religion which He commended unto Noah, and that which We sent down to you (Muhammad), and that which We commended unto Abraham and Moses and Jesus, saying: Keep up the religion, and be not divided therein. ” (Ash-Shura 42:13)
For further information on supersession and confirmation of divine books, please see:
The following verse also informs that the Qur’an includes the messages that were sent to the previous communities:
 The English word “Torah” and the Hebrew word “Tora= תּוֹרָה” refer to the first five books of the Old Testament, whereas the Arabic word “Taurat = توراة ” mentioned in the Qur’an, refers to the complete Old Testament, or in its Hebrew name: “Tanakh = תַּנַ”ךְ”.
 The Arabic word “Injeel = إنجيل” mentioned in the Qur’an refers to “Gospel” in English, or in its Greek name: “Evangelion = εὐαγγέλιον”.
 Al-Mufradat al-Fazl al-Qur’an, Raghib al Isfahani, art. حرف