William E. McLellin and the Qur’an’s “Challenge Verses”

William E. McLellin and the Qur’an’s “Challenge Verses” March 15, 2020


Hiram's most important site
The home of the John Johnson family in Hiram, Ohio, which, for a few months, served effectively as the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
(Wikimedia Commons public domain photo)


I offer, for your unlikely but possible interest, a passage from Michael Bonner, Jihad in Islamic History: Doctrines and Practice (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006):


How were people expected to know that these words of Revelation were indeed of divine origin?  One answer to the question was that the Prophet Muhammad, through whom the words came into the world, was a trustworthy man whose life and behavior conformed to established patterns of monotheist prophecy.  The books of sira [biography] and maghazi [specifically military biography, literally “raids” or “campaigns”] provided what one needed to know about this exemplary life and behavior.  Then what if someone wished to put Muhammad’s credentials as a prophet to the test?  In that case, one proof came in the Quran itself (the famous “challenge verses”): doubters were challenged to produce Arabic words of similar quality and beauty; their failure to do this confirmed the authenticity of both the Messenger and the Message.  (36-37)


Here are some of those “challenge verses”:


And if you are in doubt about what We have sent down upon Our Servant [Muhammad], then produce a surah the like thereof and call upon your witnesses other than Allah, if you should be truthful.  But if you do not — and you will never be able to — then fear the Fire, whose fuel is men and stones, prepared for the disbelievers.  (Qur’an 2:23-24)


Or do they say [about the Prophet], “He invented it?” Say, “Then bring forth a surah like it and call upon [for assistance] whomever you can besides Allah, if you should be truthful.”  (Qur’an 10:38)


Or do they say, “He invented it”? Say, “Then bring ten surahs like it that have been invented and call upon [for assistance] whomever you can besides Allah, if you should be truthful.”  (Qur’an 11:13)


Say, “If mankind and the jinn gathered in order to produce the like of this Qur’an, they could not produce the like of it, even if they were assistants to each other.”  (Qur’an 17:88)


Then let them produce a statement like it, if they should be truthful. (Qur’an 52:34)


There is an obvious parallel in Latter-day Saint history:


Shortly before publication of the Book of Commandments (the forerunner of the Doctrine and Covenants), some members of the Church evidently criticized the wording of some of Joseph Smith’s revelations.  After all, Joseph was very poorly educated and quite unsophisticated.


The revelation now known as Doctrine and Covenants 67 was given through Joseph Smith, at Hiram, Ohio, early in November 1831:


And now I, the Lord, give unto you a testimony of the truth of these commandments which are lying before you.  Your eyes have been upon my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and his language you have known, and his imperfections you have known; and you have sought in your hearts knowledge that you might express beyond his language; this you also know.  Now, seek ye out of the Book of Commandments, even the least that is among them, and appoint him that is the most wise among you; or, if there be any among you that shall make one like unto it, then ye are justified in saying that ye do not know that they are true; but if ye cannot make one like unto it, ye are under condemnation if ye do not bear record that they are true.  (Doctrine and Covenants 67:4-8)


The critics selected William E. McLellin, a schoolteacher with a very sharp mind (also a future apostle and, alas, a future apostate), to take up the challenge.  It appears, though, that McLellin failed to produce a convincing text, and the controversy soon died away.


The story is briefly treated, by the way, on pages 142-143 of Saints: The Standard of Truth: 1815-1846, the still relatively new official history of the Church.


Posted from Bountiful, Utah



Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!