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.
This story of the raven and the burial of Abel has led critics to charge that Muhammad borrowed Jewish folklore because this account is not in the Old Testament or the Torah. In the Jewish folklore it was Adam who noticed the raven burying a dead bird and that gave him the idea to bury Abel. Thus, the parallelism isn’t with the person who did the burying but with the raven providing the idea of burial in the ground.
Critics point out four sources of this Jewish folklore:
- the Targum of Jonathan ben Uzziel
- the Targum Yerushalmi I (aka Targum Jonathan or the Targum of Pseudo-Jonathan)
- the Pirke De-Rabbi Eli'ezer
Only two are true. The Targums do not carry this story and the claim that they do is a misreading of Tisdall.
It would have been more correct to claim that the raven burial story in the Qur'an has its predecessor in Jewish folklore, which has also been preserved in the Pirke De-Rabbi Eli'ezer, and the Midrash Tanhuma. This is because there is no evidence that Muhammad copied from these texts. The claim should be that he probably heard the story from Jewish folklore. It is for the dating of this Jewish folklore that critics should introduce those texts as evidence.
"Adam and his help mate were sitting weeping and lamenting over him [Abel], and they did not know what to do with Abel, for they were not acquainted with burial. A raven, one of whose companions had died, came. He took him and dug in the earth and buried him before his eyes. Adam said, 'I shall do as this raven.' Immediately, he took Abel's corpse and dug in the earth and buried it."
Jewish legend related by Pirqey Rabbi Eliezer, chapter XXI, quoted by Abdiyah Akbar Adul-Haqq, Sharing Your Faith with a Muslim.
Tisdall quotes from the same source in a slightly different translation:
"So also in the book Pirke Rabbi Eleazer, we find the source of the burying of Abel as described in the Coran, there being no difference excepting that the raven indicates the mode to Adam instead of to Cain, as follows:- Adam and Eve, sitting by the corpse, wept not knowing what to do, for they had as yet no knowledge of burial. A raven coming up, took the dead body of its fellow, and having scratched up the earth, buried it thus before their eyes. Adam said, Let us follow the example of the raven, and so taking up Abel's body buried it at once.
Saifullah, Ahmed and Karim of Islamic-Awareness claim that Jewish scholars have known for quite some time that Pirke De-Rabbi Eli'ezer is post-Islamic and that it cannot possibly be attributed to Rabbi Eliezer, quoting as evidence:
“The Jewish Encyclopedia published in 1905 (same year as the publication of Tisdall's book) under "Pirke De-Rabbi Eli'ezer" informs us that: Josh was the first to point out that in the thirtieth chapter, in which at the end the author distinctly alludes to the three stages of the Mohammadan conquest, that of Arabia, of Spain, and of Rome, the names of Fatima and Ayesha occur beside that of Ishamel, leading to the conclusion that the book originated in the time when Islam was predominant in Asia Minor. As in ch. xxxvi, two brother reigning simultaneously are mentioned, after whose reign the Messiah shall come, the work might be ascribed to the beginning of the nineth century, for about that time the two sons of Harun al-Rasid, El-Amin and El-Mamun, were ruling over Islamic realm.... In no case this work be ascribed to R. Eliezer (80-118 CE), since he was a tanna, while the book itself the Pirke Abot is quoted.”
They claim that since the final redaction occurred after the advent of Islam, it cannot be the source of the raven burial story. There are two difficulties with this claim:
- final redaction does not mean the stories contained in the Pirke were composed after the advent of Islam. Redaction means ‘making something suitable for publication – including editing, compilation etc.’ or the act of putting something in writing (i.e. that had already existed prior to the writing);
- new evidence suggests the original dating of the Pirke De-Rabbi Eli'ezer is erroneous.
According to Andrew Vargo of answering-islam:
“They (i.e. Saifullah and co) also omitted a point that was made in another response to "Islamic Awareness" - that there are at least two ancient manuscripts of the Pirke De-Rabbi Eli'ezer. The ancient Vienna manuscript, which has only in recent years been translated into English, shows every evidence of being pre-Islamic.”
The general scholastic view is that Midrash Tanhuma is also known as Tanhuma Yelamdenu, although some scholars believe they are different manuscripts.
In an effort to discredit the Pirke De-Rabbi Eli'ezer, the Islamic-awareness team introduced the work of Norman A. Stillman, published in the Journal Of Semitic Studies, 1974, Volume 19. However, Stillman proved inconvenient to Saifullah and co:
Sidersky has rightly pointed out that the qur'anic version should be traced back to Midrash Tamhuma which reads:
"When Cain killed Abel, the latter's body lay cast aside for Cain did not know what to do. Then the Holy One (Blessed be He) sent him two pure birds, and one of them killed the other. Then he dug with his claws and buried him, and from him Cain learned. So he dug and buried Abel."
Saifullah and co then challenged the dating of a version of the Midrash Tanhuma known as the Buber’s recension:
"There are a number of serious problems with the theory that Midrash Tanhuma is the source of the Qur'anic Cain and Abel narration. There is a much uncertainty concerning the first half of Midrash Tanhuma (which includes the story of Cain and Abel) coupled with the late date of its compilation in post-Islamic times (ninth century CE).
Are we to believe that a problematic text of the ninth century is the source of Qur'anic story? Such a theory is untenable. It may very well be the case that the Qur'anic story is the source of the Cain and Abel story in Midrash Tanhuma. Perhaps Stillman himself put it best:
Our chronology of rabbinic literature is better today than in Geiger's, and many more texts - Muslim, Jewish, and Christian - have since being published. In the light of this we know now that in some instances what was thought to be a Jewish haggadic influence in an Islamic text might well be quite the reverse.”
Does recension mean origin or composition? No. The date of recension is only the date of compilation of older stories. It is generally believed that the contents of Midrash Tanhuma pre-date Islam:
“The Midrash Tanhuma exists in several recensions, the most famous of which was edited by Shelomo Buber (grandfather of Martin Buber) in 1885. The date and provenance of this commentary on the Torah remains a mystery, though rabbinic authorities cited therein are mostly fourth century or earlier, and in general the scholarly community locates this compilation in southern Italy around the mid-eighth century.”
Vargo introduced the fact that there are versions of the Midrash Tanhuma older than the Buber recension.
From Meyer Waxman in “A History of Jewish Literature”:
“Besides the cycle of Rabba, i.e. Large Midrashim on the Pentateuch, there exists another Midrashic cycle on these books known as the Tanhuma-Yelamdenu-Midrashim. The first name given to it because of the numerous homiletic interpretations of verses quoted in the name of Tanhuma, the son of Abba, a famous Palestinian Agadist who lived towards the end of the fourth century. The second name of this cycle arises from the fact that a very large number of homilies open with the formula Yelamdénu Rabénu i.e. may our master teach us. It begins with a question in Halakah, and while the Halakic matter is dispensed with in a few words, the discussion turns to Agada and homiletic interpretation.
Of this kind of Midrashim, we have several versions: (1) An older Midrash which was known to the early scholars of Italy and France by the name Yelamdénu, but which is now practically lost except for a few fragments; (2) the printed Tanhuma; (3) the manuscript Tanhuma which was edited and published in 1883 by the late Solomon Buber. All three belong to one Midrashic cycle, and the Yelamdénu seems to have been the earliest, as collections of such homilies where the Halakah was joined to the Agada, inasmuch as the preacher was a teacher of both, existed in large numbers. It is these collections which served as the background and source books for the late Midrashim, the compilers of which drew upon them in abundance. For this reason, we find the homilies beginning with the formula, "May our master teach us," scattered through all Midrashic cycles such as the Tanhuma, Pesiktu (Sec. 84) and in the books of the Rabba (Sec. 82). The date of the Yelamdénu collection is, therefore, an early one and is probably contemporaneous with the Genesis Rabba, about the beginning of the sixth century C.E., and the place of origin, Palestine.”
It is likely that the raven burial story in the Midrash Tanhuma (or the Tanhuma Yelamdenu) pre-date the advent of Islam. Buber’s version of the Midrash Tanhuma, although compiled in the mid-eighth century is generally believed to have sourced material from the fourth-century or earlier, while the Tanhuma Yelamdenu dates to the beginning of the sixth century. Thus the pre-Islamic Jewish folklore of the raven burial story is paralleled in the Qur'an.