Parallelism: The Raven and the Burial of Abel

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Parallelism Between the Qur'an
and Judeo-Christian Scriptures
Talking Baby Jesus
Sanhedrin 37a
The Raven & the Burial of Abel
The Quranic Version of Trinity‎
Jesus Christ & the Clay Birds
Mary & Zachariah
Mary, Jesus & the Palm Tree
Satan & His Refusal to Prostrate
The Queen of Sheba
Abraham & the Idols
The Wealth of Korah

For the full article with many more examples than are included in this series, see

Qur'anic Account

The Qur'an tells the story of how Allah sent a raven to show Cain how to bury Abel.

Then Allah sent a crow scratching the ground to show him how to cover the dead body of his brother. He said: Woe is me! Am I not able to be as this crow and cover the dead body of my brother? So he became of those who regret.

Jewish Folklore

This story of the raven and the burial of Abel has led many scholars to the conclusion that the Qur'an integrated Jewish folklore because this account is not in the Old Testament or the Torah, though there is uncertainty. It used to be supposed that a Jewish source known as Pirke de-Rabbi Elizer was a precursor to the story (there, it is Adam who learns from the raven how to bury his son). As Witztum notes however, Pirke de-Rabbi Elizer has been demonstrated to be a post-Islamic midrash, sometimes reflecting Islamic tradition so that it is not clear which tradition influenced the other.[1] A more likely antecendent for the Quranic story which is supported by many scholars is the Midrash Tanhuma, particularly the Tanhuma Yelammedenu, which existed in some form by the sixth century CE.[2] There, it is Cain who learns how to bury his brother, like in the Quranic version, although from two birds instead of one raven (Tanhuma Bereshit 10).

After Cain slew Abel, the body lay outstretched upon the earth, since Cain did not know how to dispose of it. Thereupon, the Holy One, blessed be He, selected two clean birds and caused one of them to kill the other. The surviving bird dug the earth with its talons and buried its victim. Cain learned from this what to do. He dug a grave and buried his brother. It is because of this that birds are privileged to cover their blood.
Tanhuma Bereshit 10 in S. A. Berman, Midrash Tanhuma-Yelammedenu: An English Translation of Genesis and Exodus from the Printed Version of Tanhuma-Yelammedenu with an Introduction, Notes, and Indexes (Hoboken, 1996), pp. 31-32

Wiztum comments that "Since the bird tradition is found in several rabbinic sources and versions it is hard to deny the possibility that ultimately its origin is indeed Jewish." Nevertheless, he argues that the Quranic version is earlier than those we find in Jewish sources, including the Tanhuma which most probably continued evolving long after the Quran appeared. While the story is present in the Tanhuma-Yelammedenu version of the Midrash Tanhuma, it is absent in its parallel version, the Buber Tanhuma. The details in the Quranic version are also simpler, and the extra details in the Tanhuma may reflect similar considerations as occured to Quranic commentators. Witztum concludes, "Is it possible that the midrashic sources reflect tafsir traditons in this instance? Perhaps."[3]


  1. Joseph Witztum (2011) The Syriac milieu of the Quran: The recasting of Biblical narratives, PhD Thesis, Princeton University, p. 116
  2. Myron B. Lerner, "The works of Aggadic Midrash and Esther Midrashim" in Eds. Sefrai et. al. (2006) The literature of the Sages: Second Part Netherlands: Royal van Gorcum and Fortress Press, p.150
  3. Joseph Witztum, Syriac Millieu pp. 117-122

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