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The Collection and Sources of the Qu'ran


1. Muhammad's Debt to Judaism.

We have already seen that many of the narratives in the Qur'an and Hadith have extra-Islamic origins. In this section we shall briefly examine the substantial presence of Jewish historical and mythical material in the Qur'an. Indeed there is so much of it that whole books have been written on the subject and it is striking to find how heavily Muhammad relied on his Jewish contacts for the passages and teachings he ultimately set forth as part of the divine revelation.

One finds many of the Old Testament stories of the prophets reproduced in the Qur'an, sometimes in a precis form where the Qur'anic record is a faithful, though often vague, summary of the original Biblical narrative (e.g. the story of Jonah in Surah 37.139-148). On other occasions the Qur'anic narratives contain elements of Biblical truths confounded with folklore and fables extracted from the Talmud and in some cases (such as the story of Abraham and the idols which we shall presently consider) the sources are entirely Midrashic/Haggadic and are accordingly purely fictitious.

Virtually all the Qur'anic records which are reliant on Jewish sources can be traced either to the Bible or to Talmudic records such as the Midrash, Mishnah, etc. There are, however, a few occasions where one finds narratives obviously reliant on Jewish historical sources which are today unknown to us (for example the story of the sacrifice of Abraham's son which has elements not found in the preserved works of Judaism as it is recorded in Surah 37.100-113). It seems indeed that Muhammad was reliant on Jewish materials but we must ask how he came by them in the course of his mission.

Whether Muhammad was illiterate or not cannot be truly established - what is certain, however, is that he could read neither the scriptures of the Jews nor their folklore as contained in the Midrash and other Talmudic records. If he had been able to do so he would hardly have confused the two as often as he did. (Our earlier study of the expression an-nabiyyul-ummi also confirms this impression). There were, as we have seen, a host of Jewish communities settled in Medina and other parts of the Hijaz from which he almost certainly obtained his knowledge through direct conversation or from other secondary sources.

The somewhat disjointed nature of many of the Jewish narratives in the Qur'an, such as the story of Lot already considered in an earlier section, strongly supports the suggestion that much of the information that Muhammad was receiving was coming to him piecemeal. Not being able to distinguish between the assortment of materials reaching him, he allowed them indiscriminately to be formulated in his thoughts until they assumed the form of all the other "revelations" coming to him and were then duly proclaimed as such.

Let us proceed to briefly examine a few of these stories in the Qur'an where Biblical truth has been marvellously confused with Talmudic folklore.

2. The Story of Abraham and the Idols.

The Qur'an has a story about Abraham which is not found in the Bible. He is said to have challenged his father and his people about their error in worshipping the idols they had made. When they resisted his approaches, he waited until they had gone and then broke all the idols except the biggest one. Afterwards he was summoned to answer for his deed. The sequel is set out in this passage of the Qur'an:

After they had thrown him into a fire, Allah is said to have spoken to it, saying: "O Fire! Be thou cool, and (a means of) safety for Abraham" (Surah 21.69) and so he was delivered unharmed from the flames. A somewhat briefer record of the whole story is found in Surah 37. 91-98 and there are many other passages in the Qur'an referring to it. Although it has no parallel in the Bible, it is a remarkable reproduction of a story found in the Midrash Rabbah, an old Jewish book containing much folklore embellishing Biblical material. The narrative in this work is quoted in full in one of St. Clair Tisdall's books and a relevant part of it reads:

It takes very little imagination to see that this fable is practically identical in both the Qur'an and the book of Jewish commentary.

We have deliberately chosen this story, as well as the one about the slaying of Abel by Cain which follows, because there is clear evidence to show, not only that the Qur'anic narratives have parallels in Jewish folklore, but also how the fable came about. We are able to trace the Qur'anic passages to sources which reveal how they came to be composed in the first place. The whole story of Abraham and the idols i^ founded upon a mistranslation of a Biblical verse.

A Jewish scribe, Jonathan Ben Uzziel, in his Targum misquotes Genesis 15.7 which reads "I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldees". The word Ur is a Babylonian word for the city from which Abraham came out and is again mentioned by name in Genesis 11.31. So also Jerusalem's original name was Ur-Shalim, the "City of Peace". The scribe, however, took the word to be Or, a Hebrew word meaning "fire", and interpreted the verse to mean "I am the Lord who brought you from the fire of the Chaldees" and comments accordingly on Genesis 15.7:

It is most unlikely that this scribe invented the whole story. It is probable that he is merely repeating a tradition that had been current in Jewish folklore for some time. We can see quite clearly how it came about, nonetheless.

Muslim writers most significantly generally avoid the issue of the sources of the Qur'an in their writings. Even an apologist like Khalifa, who alludes to this subject in his book The Sublime Qur'an and OrientaIism (p. 13), nevertheless leaves the evidences entirely uncontested. This is hardly surprising as they are quite clear and prove conclusively that much of the Qur'an is derived from Jewish fables.

That Muhammad was in error in many instances about Jewish history is proved all the more by the name he gives to Abraham's father in the Qur'an. His true Jewish name was Terah but in the Qur'an he is called Azar (Surah 6.74) - "evidently el-Azar, derived from the Eliezer of Genesis 15.2" (Torrey, The Jewish Foundation of Islam, p. 68). The verse tells us that Abraham had prayed for a eon lest his slave, Eliezer, be his heir. Muhammad clearly confounded the name of Abraham's father with that of his servant! Another writer refers to an article by one S. Fraenkel in a European journal and says that "he argues convincingly that the Qur'anic form is due to a confusion on Muhammad's part of the details of the Abraham story as it came to him, so that instead of his father Terah he has given the name of Abraham's faithful servant Eliezer" (Jeffery, The Foreign Vocabulary of the Qur'an, p. 55). The anachronism does appear to be fairly obvious.

It cannot be suggested that the Jews had taken a true story from the original Torah and turned it into folklore. The Qur'an accuses them of declaring their traditional writings to be scripture revealed from God (Surah 2.79) - it nowhere charges them with turning their Holy Scripture into folklore. What we would like to know, however, is how that same folklore came to be Holy Scripture in the Qur'an - especially when, as in a case such as this, its origin can be traced to a misconception about the meaning of a word in the true Torah!

3. The Story of Cain and Abel in the Qur'an.

The Qur'anic account of the murder of Abel by his unrighteous brother Cain is a typical mixture of elements from the Bible, Midrash and Mishnah. In fact the brief narrative in Surah 5.30-35 gives us a fine example of the manner in which Jewish material was reaching Muhammad. It begins with a record of the sacrifices offered by the two sons of Adam, states that one was accepted and the other rejected, and duly sets out the sequel in which Cain, in his jealousy, slew Abel. Thus far the record agrees with the story of the incident in Genesis 4 except that the Qur'an gives no indication why only one of the sacrifices was accepted. The distinction between the two was probably not known to Muhammad. Alternatively he could not perceive the significance of Abel's sacrifice of a lamb - a symbol of atonement and self-abasement - as opposed to Cain's offering of cakes he had made which symbolised a spirit of unwarranted self-righteousness before God.

Thereafter, however, the story in the Qur'an has a sequel not found in the Biblical narrative. When Cain had killed Abel he did not know what to do with his body, but God is said to have intervened in a strange way.

Once again one finds a striking parallel between the Qur'an and a Jewish book of myths and fables. The Pirke Rabbi Eliezer, a typical rabbinical writing from the Midrash, contains this story:

The similarity between this story and the verse quoted from the Qur'an is as obvious as the case of Abraham and the idols already considered.

One cannot help drawing the conclusion that Muhammad had derived this story from his contacts with the Jews of the Hijaz and that the slight differences between the Jewish narrative and the form it obtains in the Qur'an are typical of those one would expect to find in the record of a man relying exclusively on hearsay and secondary sources because he could not read the books from which the Jews were quoting. "The story of the world's first murderer affords a most informing example of the influence of a Jew behind the scenes" (Guillaume, op. cit., p. 139).

In the next verse in the Qur'an we find a quote from the Mishnah, a phenomenon proving all the more that the revelations were hardly coming from above but were a strange assortment of passages culled from Biblical, Midrashic and Mishnaic sources compiled by a man who could not distinguish between them. The verse begins:

At first sight this verse seems to have no connection with the preceding narrative. Why the life or death of one should be as the salvation or destruction of all mankind is not at all clear. When we turn to another Jewish record, however, we find the link between the story and what follows. Once again we find that it derives from a strange interpretation of a Biblical verse. We read:

Once again, as in the case of the misunderstanding about the statement in Genesis 15.7 which led to the story of Abraham being brought out of "the fire" of the Chaldees, we find that the passage in the Mishnah, repeated in the Qur'an, is derived from an interpretation of a Biblical verse. Because the word for blood is in the plural in Genesis 4.10, an ingenious rabbi invented the supposition that all Abel's offspring had been killed with him which signified that any murder or life-saving act had universal implications. Clearly Muhammad had no knowledge of the source of the theory set out in the Mishnah but, hearing it related, simply set out the rabbi's suppositions as the eternal decree of God himself!

This brief passage in the Qur'an, when analysed in the light of parallel passages in the Bible and the Talmud, shows quite clearly to what extent Muhammad's revelations were really nothing more than a repetition of information coming to his ears, some of it Biblical and true to history, the rest predominantly mythical and fictitious. In conclusion it needs to be pointed out once again that the parallels between the Qur'anic narratives and Jewish folklore cannot give support to the fancy that the Jewish records contain remnants of genuine historical events. As in the case of the story of Abraham and the idols, we have been able to trace the coincidental passages to an original source - once again a rabbi's imaginative suppositions about a verse in the Bible.

4. The Qur'anic Account of the Golden Calf.

Muhammad's limited knowledge of Jewish history led him into much confusion in his thoughts, evidence of which appears again in this passage which records a statement supposedly made by God to Moses at the time of the idolatry of the Israelites in the wilderness:

A little further down (v.88) we read that "the Samiri" had brought out of the fire before the people the image of a calf which they promptly worshipped when it seemed to low like a real calf! In the same Midrashic work Pirke Rabbi Eliezer we read:

Samael, according to Jewish tradition, is the Angel of Death. Quite clearly the Qur'anic narrative is again founded on a Jewish tradition, but one must ask why Muhammad does not mention the angel but speaks rather of one of the people, the "Samiri"? The use of the article in the ascription as-Samiri shows clearly that this was not a man's personal name. Muslim commentators seem to be unwittingly hitting the mark when they interpret it, as they generally do, to mean the "Samaritan". The obvious problem is that the Samaritans, as a people, only arose some centuries after the exodus of the Israelites!

How then did Muhammad come to confuse the Samaritans with the story of the golden calf worshipped by the Israelites at the beginning of the exodus? One writer says "As the city of Samaria did not arise till some four hundred years after Moses, it is difficult to imagine how it came to be entered in this story" (Tisdall, The Sources of Islam, p. 38). Actually the difficulty can be resolved quite easily. Another writer suggests the likely origin of this anachronism:

When Israel seceded from Judah during the reign of Rehoboam, the king they chose, Jeroboam, set up two golden calves in Samaria so as to turn the Israelites away from going up to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem (1 Kings 12.28-29). During a later period God spoke against this practice of theirs through one of his prophets:

It is highly probable that the Jews, who revelled in making the Samaritans a scapegoat for their problems, had deliberately confused this passage with the story of the golden calf in the wilderness and had blamed them for the latter sin as well. Alternatively Muhammad had heard the passage from the Book of Hosea and had himself confused the two occasions, not knowing that the Samaritans only became a nation after the people of Israel had settled in Samaria. Either way one is still forced to conclude that this is yet another proof that the Qur'an is not a divine revelation but rather a composition of the stories Muhammad obtained from various sources during his mission.

These examples of borrowed elements from Judaism in the Qur'an are merely a selection of a great number that could be given. One is dismayed, however, to find that Muhammad often does what the Jewish composers of folklore were inclined to do at times. Stories are extracted from the Bible which are embellished with marvellous fables but the moral of the story is invariably lost in the process:

We have seen how the Qur'anic account of the sacrifices of Cain and Abel misses the whole ethic behind the acceptance of the one and rejection of the other. So likewise the Qur'an follows Jewish tradition in adding fabulous details to the story of the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon but misses the whole thrust of the purpose of her journey - "she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon" (Luke 11.31).

It seems fair to conclude that much of the Qur'an conveys the imaginative fables of the Jewish rabbis of pre-Islamic times rather than the revealed will and purposes of God. Let us now press on to a very brief selection of similar teachings from non-Jewish sources.

Muhammad and The Religion of Islam: Table of Contents

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