In Sura 34:50, Muhammad is commanded to say the following:
Say: ‘If I go astray, I go astray only to my own loss; if I am guided, it is by what my Lord reveals to me. He is All-hearing, Ever-nigh.’ Arberry
Say: "If (even) I go astray, I shall stray only to my own loss. But if I remain guided, it is because of the Inspiration of my Lord to me. Truly, He is AllHearer, Ever Near (to all things)." Hilali & Khan
The error in this verse should be obvious to anyone pondering this statement for a little bit. The issue here is not whether, objectively, Muhammad went astray or was guided; Muslims and non-Muslims will continue to disagree about that. This verse is logically wrong, independent of whether Muhammad was guided or not.
Who suffered and still suffers loss if Muhammad was wrong?
The first point is somewhat trivial. Muslims are commanded in the Qur'an to take Muhammad as their model, and therefore many Muslims imitate him in the smallest details of life. They dress like Muhammad, they use a miswak to brush their teeth like Muhammad did, etc. If Muhammad was wrong, then this would mean a life of unnecessary inconvenience for millions of Muslims.
There are, however, a lot of not so trivial aspects. If Muhammad's message and regulations were wrong, he has subjected millions of Muslim women to a life of misery (see the various articles on Women in Islam) without any reward in return! Moreover, not only those who followed Muhammad have lost, but millions of the so-called "unbelievers" have suffered because Muslims have either killed them for their lack of faith, or forced Muhammad's regulations on them and subjected them to live as second-class citizens (see the section on Non-Muslims under Islamic Rule).
Ironically, these people have suffered loss even if Muhammad had been a true prophet. Whether Muhammad was astray or guided, many lives have been destroyed by Muslim attacks on unbelievers, so that this statement is not only logically false, but false also in factual history.
Putting aside all the atrocities and suffering in this earthly life that resulted from Muhammad's teachings, the intention of this verse was certainly to make a statement about the loss suffered in eternity, i.e. whether people will be punished or rewarded in the Last Judgement based on their acceptance or rejection of God's message.
Under the assumption that Muhammad was a true messenger, those who were killed as unbelievers because they did not accept his message on the spot have lost not only their lives but also the opportunity to become convinced by the truth of Islam by having the time to study the message of Islam in-depth. [Had Islam restricted its method of expansion to peaceful proclamation and intellectual persuasion instead of using (also and much too quickly) violence and force, the situation would be vastly different.] As it is, these people have lost their lives on earth, and they will suffer eternal punishment because they died in rejection of God's message. Thus, many unbelievers will suffer eternal loss even if Muhammad was right. Though Muslims may argue that in the quranic view this may be justified, it is unquestionable that they did suffer temporal and eternal loss due to the violent nature of Islam.
If, on the other hand, the Bible is true and Muhammad was a false prophet then the number of those who suffer eternal loss increases vastly: (1) The unbelievers (idolaters, atheists, ...) who were killed for rightly rejecting Islam still lost their opportunity to hear, understand and accept the true message of God. (2) Millions and millions of Muslims who have rejected the authentic Gospel of Jesus based on Muhammad's message will be lost forever because they rejected the salvation from sin offered by God through Jesus' death on the Cross.
Thus, an enormous number of people will suffer both earthly and eternal loss if Muhammad was wrong, in stark contradiction to Sura 34:50.
After pondering these facts there can hardly be any doubt that Sura 34:50 is an objectively wrong statement. It is a plain error in the Qur'an.
Does God make errors? Would God inspire a statement as wrong as this one?
This verse exposes the very human nature of the Qur'an. It obviously did not come from God, but from Muhammad himself, and it can easily be explained why Muhammad would add such a statement into his revelation. If time permits, I may later write an appendix to this article dealing with the psychological aspect of this error.
Finally, there is one more crucial observation to be made in this section. Simply looking at how Muhammad dealt with those who propagated a different message than Islam, or voiced critique of Islam (cf. these articles), exposes that Muhammad did not even believe this statement himself. In particular, Muhammad's instruction is: Whoever leaves Islam, kill him (e.g. Sahih Al-Bukhari 4.260; for detailed discussions on the issue of apostasy in Islam consult the links at the bottom of this page). Obviously, Muhammad considered apostasy, and publically speaking of a belief other than Islam such a grave danger to the Islamic community that the harshest possible measures had to be instituted against it. Nowhere in an Islamic society is open preaching of another religion permitted. Why not, if those who do so will "only go astray to their own loss"? The laws in the Shariah, and the reactions of Muslims towards those who want to publically invite (Muslims) to another faith prove that they do not believe Sura 34:50 to be true.
Yet, there is more. Sura 34:50 is not only a factual error (i.e. contradicting objective reality) as outlined above, it is also part of an internal contradiction in the Qur'an which will be the topic for the remainder of this article.
Though the statement "If I go astray, I go astray only to my own loss" is hypothetical (i.e. the assumption is that Muhammad is not astray but on the right path), it stands in obvious tension to a multitude of verses in the Qur'an that demand that believers should obey and follow the messenger (Muhammad), i.e. Muhammad's words and example are supposed to directly impact those who believe in Allah. Some examples:
Say: Obey Allah and the messenger. But if they turn away, lo! Allah loveth not the disbelievers (in His guidance). S. 3:32 Pickthall
And obey Allah and the messenger, that ye may find mercy. S. 3:132 Pickthall
These are the limits (imposed by) Allah. Whoso obeyeth Allah and His messenger, He will make him enter Gardens underneath which rivers flow, where such will dwell for ever. That will be the great success. S. 4:13 Pickthall
They ask thee (O Muhammad) of the spoils of war. Say: The spoils of war belong to Allah and the messenger, so keep your duty to Allah, and adjust the matter of your difference, and obey Allah and His messenger, if ye are (true) believers. S. 8:1 Pickthall
It is not for any believer, man or woman, when God and His Messenger have decreed a matter, to have the choice in the affair. Whosoever disobeys God and His Messenger has gone astray into manifest error. S. 33:36 Arberry
O believers, obey God, and obey the Messenger, and do not make your own works vain. S. 47:33 Arberry
There is no blame for the blind, nor is there blame for the lame, nor is there blame for the sick (that they go not forth to war). And whoso obeyeth Allah and His messenger, He will make him enter Gardens underneath which rivers flow; and whoso turneth back, him will He punish with a painful doom. S. 48:17 Pickthall
Whoso obeyeth the messenger hath obeyed Allah, ... S. 4:80 Pickthall
Establish worship and pay the poor-due and obey the messenger, that haply ye may find mercy. S. 24:56 Pickthall
Those who swear fealty to thee [Muhammad] swear fealty in truth to God; God's hand is over their hands. Then whosoever breaks his oath breaks it but to his own hurt; and whoso fulfils his covenant made with God, God will give him a mighty wage. S. 48:10 Arberry
Whatsoever spoils of war God has given to His Messenger from the people of the cities belongs to God, and His Messenger, and the near kinsman, orphans, the needy and the traveller, so that it be not a thing taken in turns among the rich of you. Whatever the Messenger gives you, take; whatever he forbids you, give over. And fear God; surely God is terrible in retribution. S. 59:7 Arberry
And there are many more like these, see S. 4:59, 69; 5:92; 8:20, 24, 46; 9:71; 24:51-52, 54; 33:33, 71; 49:14; 58:13; 64:12, etc.
The Qur'an does not only make it mandatory to obey Muhammad's explicit commands (whether they are verses found in the Qur'an or Muhammad's own words, see S. 24:45, 57:9), it makes everything Muhammad does and says the standard to emulate:
Your Companion is neither astray nor being misled. Nor does he say (aught) of (his own) desire. It is no less than inspiration sent down to him: He was taught by one Mighty in Power, ... S. 53:2-5 Yusuf Ali
And verily, you (O Muhammad) are on an exalted standard of character. S. 68:4 Hilali & Khan
Indeed in the Messenger of Allah (Muhammad) you have a good example to follow for him who hopes in (the Meeting with) Allah and the Last Day and remembers Allah much. S. 33:21 Hilali & Khan
Based on verses like these, Muhammad is considered the perfect and divinely endorsed role model, and he is followed in the minutest details of life. To claim, therefore, that if he goes astray it will still not result in any harm to those who follow him in everything (S. 34:50), is hardly coherent.
As stated above, these verses do not yet posit a clear-cut contradiction to S. 34:50, but they are in considerable tension. The plain contradiction arises when we add the following verses into the equation:
And those who disbelieve say to those who believe: Follow our path and we will bear your wrongs. And never shall they be the bearers of any of their wrongs; most surely they are liars. S. 29:12 Shakir
That they may bear their burdens entirely on the day of resurrection and also of the burdens of those whom they lead astray without knowledge; now surely evil is what they bear. S. 16:25 Shakir
These verses make it clear that "following those who lead you astray" does not absolve you from your own responsibility. On Judgement Day, those leaders will not bear the punishment (burden) for your going astray. Nobody will be able to excuse himself completely with "but I only followed this or that false prophet or teacher". S. 16:25 seems to indicate that some part of the burdens of those who were led astray may be put on the one who had misled them, but it still shows that the remainder has to be shouldered by the person who followed the false prophet into transgression and disobedience to God. Thus, those who lead astray cause their followers to suffer divine punishment and eternal loss.
Therefore, Sura 34:50 ("If I go astray, I go astray only to my own loss"), together with the many verses that command believers to follow and obey Muhammad, strongly and obviously contradicts Sura 16:25 and 29:12.
[ Side remark: This is not a trivial contradiction of whether Allah's day equals 1000 or 50000 years, or whether Allah created the universe in six or eight days. This is a contradiction at the very core of the religion, i.e. what happens to those who follow a false prophet! ]
Suras 16:25 and 29:12 also play a significant role in a somewhat different but closely related contradiction which is discussed in the article Who Suffers the Consequence of Sins according to the Qur'an? Another relevant detail in the formulation of 16:25 is examined in Who are those "without knowledge"?
There are a considerable number of additional verses which state that those who follow others who are astray (the reference is usually to the ancestors) are not therefore excused as being only victims, but are condemned by Allah for following them into falshood:
When it is said to them: "Follow what God hath revealed:" They say: "Nay! we shall follow the ways of our fathers." What! even though their fathers were void of wisdom and guidance? S. 2:170; cf. 5:104
They said: "Comest thou to us, that we may worship God alone, and give up the cult of our fathers? bring us what thou threatenest us with, if so be that thou tellest the truth!" He said: "Punishment and wrath have already come upon you from your Lord: dispute ye with me over names which ye have devised - ye and your fathers, - without authority from God? then wait: I am amongst you, also waiting." S. 7:70-71
And when they commit an indecency they say: We found our fathers doing this, and Allah has enjoined it on us. Say: Surely Allah does not enjoin indecency; do you say against Allah what you do not know? S. 7:28
So be not thou in doubt concerning that which these (folk) worship. They worship only as their fathers worshipped aforetime. Lo! we shall pay them their whole due unabated. S. 11:109
We bestowed aforetime on Abraham his rectitude of conduct, and well were We acquainted with him. Behold! he said to his father and his people, "What are these images, to which ye are (so assiduously) devoted?" They said, "We found our fathers worshipping them." He said, "Indeed ye have been in manifest error - ye and your fathers." S. 21:51-54
Lo! We have appointed it a torment for wrong-doers. Lo! it is a tree that springeth in the heart of hell. Its crop is as it were the heads of devils And lo! they verily must eat thereof, and fill (their) bellies therewith. And afterward, lo! thereupon they have a drink of boiling water. And afterward, lo! their return is surely unto hell. They indeed found their fathers astray, But they make haste (to follow) in their footsteps. And verily most of the men of old went astray before them, And verily We sent among them warners. Then see the nature of the consequence for those warned, S. 37:63-73 Pickthall
Here, these people are following the religion taught to them by their fathers, and some even doing shameful acts passed on to them by their forebears, so they have been misled. Yet, Allah still condemns them for these beliefs and practices, and they will still have to bear their full punishment (S. 11:109). It does not even help them to claim that it was Allah who enjoined it on them (S. 7:28), perhaps through some prophet in the past who claimed to bring commands from Allah, but who was actually a false prophet.
People who follow false teachers or prophets will suffer loss and punishment caused at least in part by those who led them astray. This is a common sense principle which is contradicted by Sura 34:50, a severe error and a glaring contradiction in the Qur'an.
Contradictions in the Qur'an
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