The issue in coming to a conclusion about which story is correct is that not all scholars agree. The version in Bukhari is of course authentic, but the problem is that the second and third versions do not contradict the outline provided by it. As such, there are major Islamic scholars supporting the second and even the third version.
The majority of big name scholars, including Ibn Kathir – the most famous scholar of tafsir – Al-Qadi Iyad – a specialist on Seerah – Sheikh Al-Albani – commonly considered the greatest scholar of the 20th century – and Fakhr Ad-Deed Ar-Razi all discarded the second and third versions and simply stuck with the version in Bukhari. Sheikh Al-Albani even wrote an entire booklet simply about this incident, in which he went over every single report supporting the second the third versions and academically showed that they were weak. As well as this, Ibn Khuzaymah – one of the three people to write a Sahih book – was asked about this story to which he responded, ‘This is a fabrication made by the enemies of Islam to destroy Islam.’ And even recently in 1966, in Cairo, a worldwide conference about this incident concluded that this story was fabricated, showing that this is the major consensus in our time. However one major question arises with agreeing with this view, and that where did the other versions come from? Modern historians theorize that the Quraish were so embarrassed that they had prostrated with the prophet that they made this story up. However nothing is known for certain.
Despite this being the major consensus there are other positions, and had the scholars backing them been minor they could have been left out, however they are big names. For the second version, the major scholar supporting it was Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani – a specialist on Sahih Bukhari. And his point is that although all of the sources claiming this story are weak in their isnaad, when they are all put together they give supporting evidence and it becomes acceptable - and this is a true principle of the science of hadith. However, this is refuted in Sheikh Al-Albani’s criticism, who says that although this principle is sound there are exceptions, which he applies to Ibn Hajar’s case.
Now version 3, as difficult as it is to accept, is supported by one of the greatest scholars of Islam: Ibn Taymiyyah. And he says that not only do all the reports add up and make it authentic, but the two verses of Surah Hajj are crystal clear. And his view is that they are a message to the prophet by Allah, telling him that what happened to him also happened to those before him, and that Allah will protect his revelation. Now there is an alternate interpretation of these ayat, and it all derives from the word ‘tamannah’. This word used to mean ‘to recite’ – and was used in pre-Islamic poetry as such – but later came to mean ‘to wish’, and so if the ayat is interpreted with the later definition, the entire meaning changes. Instead of referring to an incident when Shaitaan added to the prophet’s recitation, instead the ayat is talking about how he adds to the wishes and desires of the prophets, and how Allah protects their desires and solidifies his own signs for them. As well as this the argument could also be made that Surah Hajj was released when the Hijra took place, however this does not necessarily hold as certain ayats were also revealed here and there and only later added in.
Now Ibn Taymiyyah responds to this by saying that ayat 53 shows that ‘tamannah’ could not have meant wishes, as if Shaitaan had simply added to the desires of the prophet with no relation to this incident of Surah Najm then it would have been a private matter for Muhammad ﷺ, however the ayat mentions that it will become a fitna for the wrongdoers, showing that something must have been said out loud.
However there’s another issue with this version, and that is a theological issue. As we as Muslims believe the prophets to be ma’soom – meaning innocent of mistakes – to believe in this version of the story is also to believe that the prophet could not tell the difference between Jibrael and Shaitaan, and that he recited satanic verses. As well as this, it implies that the integrity of the wahi could be corrupted, as Shaitaan managed to add ayat to the prophet’s recitation. And so many scholars reject this version simply because of the honour of the prophet. However Ibn Taymiyyah counters this by having a different interpretation of ma’soom, and he says that the prophets cannot commit major or vulgar sins, nor lie, however they can commit minor sins and judgemental errors under the condition that they desist immediately and repent. And of course, a great example of this would be that of Yunus (AS), who was swallowed by the whale as punishment for abandoning his people. And Ibn Taymiyyah’s reasoning for this is that although the prophets are the best of humans, they are still humans, and had Allah wanted to send impeccable beings He would have sent the angels. Instead, he gave his revelation to human beings so that they would make mistakes and he could forgive – and indeed, the repentance is the perfection of the prophets. Ibn Taymiyyah’s defence for the wahi being corrupted is that in the end Allah abrogated what Shaitaan had added and confirmed his own verses, even mentioning this in Surah Hajj. And this shows that in fact the wahi was not vulnerable, but instead protected by Allah.
As well as these difficulties raised with the alternate versions, there is also a political angle taken by non-Muslims. They use this story to claim that the prophet attempted to change his message and pander to the mushriks, which would obviously compromise the integrity of Islam. And they claim that then the prophet received backlash from his followers, and so he reverted the message and removed the two verses and concocted this story to lay the blame on Shaitaan. However there are many counter-arguments to this, the main one being that the verses themselves don’t contextually fit into the Surah where they were supposedly placed. The ayat around the verses – 19, 20 and 21 – use a technique called istifham qari, meaning derogatory questioning. This is used to belittle and reject, and is used often in the Quran regarding pagan traditions. So the satanic verses, which praise the previously criticised idols do not naturally fit into the Surah, and so could not come from its inception.
The majority opinion about this incident follows the version in Bukhari, however it is incredibly important for us as Muslims living in Western countries to understand the other versions as well. This is one of the most sensitive stories of the Seerah, and it is our duty to gain as much knowledge of it as we can so that we may defend our religion and our prophet when they are attacked. For indeed, ignorance is not bliss, and knowledge is power.
Dr.Yasir Qadhi’s Seerah of The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) 016