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The similarities between the Qur'an and previous scriptures have been noted since the advent of Islam. The Judeo-Christian tales and their Qur'anic retellings, however, rarely match perfectly. A claim found in the Qur'an and other Islamic literature is that the Jews and Christians deliberately changed their scriptures to obscure the truth which is restored in the Qur'an. There is no documentary evidence in the textual traditions of those religions to support this claim, and since it would require a conspiracy of people across centuries and empires, speaking different languages and holding radically different beliefs, the claim itself is generally not taken seriously by modern scholars.
The more accepted theory is that the Qur'an makes use of stories from the ancient milieu in which it arose--Christianity and Judaism of the late antique period in the near east. These are often reshaped for its own purposes. In modern academic parlance, this is known as 'intertextuality' (allusion to, dialogue with, interaction with). Contrary to the Islamic tradition, most scholars today agree that the Qur'an must have been composed in an environment in which Christian and Jewish stories were very familiar, both to the person (people) writing the Qur'an and to the audience. As such borrowings are to be expected, and in a semi-literate culture before the advent of the printing press different versions of the same story as well as mistakes in transmission from one medium to the other are also to be expected.
In such an environment it is also unsurprising that many of the stories one finds in the Qur'an do not come from the canonical books of the Christian or Jewish bibles, but often from secondary apocryphal and exegetical literature which played a huge role in the spiritual life of believers in that time. It is the Quranic relationship with these secondary works which is the focus of this series, since their late appearance and evident evolution during the centuries leading up to Islam make particularly obvious their origin in human creativity and that they do not in any sense portray actual historical events. Indeed, given the overwhelming evidence, one (unpopular) Islamic modernist position is to accept this fact, and claim that the Quran makes no pretense to be recounting events or persons who actually existed.
In particular, late antique Syriac Christian influence has become increasingly apparent in Quranic scholarship of the 21st century, in significant part through the work of Dr Joseph Witztum, whose PhD thesis The Syriac milieu of the Quran: The recasting of Biblical narratives will be oft-cited in this series. Time and again, small details that were thought to be distinctive of the Quranic versions of Judeo-Christian stories have been found to closely match what is found in the works of the Syriac church fathers such as Ephrem and Narsai. Known Quranic connections with these sources, as well as with the Jewish Talmud and Midrash have been extensively noted by Professor Gabriel Said Reynolds in his 2018 book The Quran and Bible:Text and Commentary which will be referred to throughout this series. These story additions were for exegetical purposes and were not treated by the Rabbis as actual historical events, in contrast to the way Biblical stories themselves were regarded.
Charges of Borrowing from Within the Tradition
The Qur'an famously records that doubters dismissed its verses as "tales of the ancients" and even used to approach Muhammad with the allegation. These verses occur in the Meccan surahs, where his message was largely rejected by the inhabitants. One instance appears in surah 8, after the migration and battle of Badr in 2AH, though the previous verse is recalling the persecution in Mecca.
A notable example, Quran 25:5, has unbelievers accusing the Qur'an of “making ancient tales written” (iktatabaha) that were recited (i.e. dictated) to him or that people assisted him with inventing falsehood. Some academic scholars believe the idea that Muhammad was illiterate was a later reinterpretation of certain verses to negate this charge (see Muhammad and illiteracy).
The Qur'an itself records allegations of influence by a non-Arab:
The evidence is that Quranic tales were already familiar to its critics, and that at least some of these tales of the ancients were Judeo-Christian tales and not that of the fanciful Quranic “Arabic/Arabized” fairy-tales of Jinns, Houris and the like is apparent from the context of these verses, particularly those doubters who at the same time dismissed the idea of resurrection, and the charge that another nation had supplied these tales (meaning the Jews and possibly also Sabeans and Christians--nations such as the Byzantine Empire at the time were associated with certain religions such as Chalcedonian Christianity).
Possible Channels for Knowledge Transfer
There is a sahih hadith narrated from Abu Huraira that the Jews used to explain the Torah in Arabic to the Muslims Sahih Bukhari 6:60:12, and the Quran itself (especially Surah Imran) is concerned that some people of the book were trying to lead the believers astray. Many academic scholars have further noticed that the eliptical and homiletic way many of the stories are told in the Quran indicates that their basic outlines must have been in circulation already, common knowledge to its listeners. Some even suspect that the stories were already circulating in Arabic.
Attributing vectors of transmission to individuals is a somewhat speculative endeavour, though there is significant evidence from the sahih hadiths that Muhammad initially converted to Abrahamic monotheism under the influence of a Hanif known as Zaid bin 'Amr bin Nufail. Meir Jacob Kister wrote a short academic article about this tradition. He quotes Alfred Guillaume who called it "a tradition of outstanding importance" as "it is the only extant evidence of the influence of a monotheist on Muhammad by way of admonition". Kister then details several versions of the tradition through different chains of narration (including in Sahih al-Bukhari, shown below), each of which convey the same essential message that Muhammad was converted to Abrahamic monotheism by Zayd, with minor differences. Commentators were very uncomfortable with the idea that Muhammad may have at one time eaten meat sacrificed to idols of even made such an offering himself. Kister considers the version which is most explicit on that point to be the earliest layer.
Of note in another hadith is how Zaid is said to have learned of the Hanif religion (Abrahamic monotheism) in Syria from a Jew and a Christian without identifying himself as being of either confession:
Even the prohibition of female infanticide was inspired by Zaid according to the tradition below.
The hadiths do not tell us how often Muhammad met Zaid. However, one notes that the sirah recounts Zaid’s withdrawal from Meccan society (where he was allegedly persecuted) to a cave in Mount Hira. Muhammad apparently visited the same cave at Ramadan on a yearly basis, an act his wife Khadijah said was the custom of his tribe as an act of penance.
Zaid’s religious principles adopted by Muhammad
In Ibn Ishaq's Sirah, Zaid is said to have composed a poem which also mentions among other things: .
- the acknowledgment of the Unity of God.
- the rejection of idolatry and the worship of Al-Lat, AI-'Uzza' and the other deities of the people.
- the promise of future happiness in Paradise or the "Garden".
- the warning of the punishment reserved in hell for the wicked.
- the denunciation of God's wrath upon the "Unbelievers".
- And also, the application of the titles Ar Rahman (the Merciful), Ar Rabb (the Lord), and Al Ghafur (the Forgiving) to God.
Moreover, Zaid and all the other Hanifs claimed to be searching for the "Religion of Abraham." Besides all this, the Qur'an repeatedly, though indirectly, speaks of Abraham as a "Hanif", the chosen title of Zaid and his friends (for example, Quran 16:123).
Even the Muslim method of prayer may have originated from Zaid, as Ibn Ishaq (pg. 99-100) wrote that he prayed by prostration on the palm of his hands.
The non-Arab who was accused of teaching Muhammad the Qur'an (Quran 16:101-104) is not mentioned by name, but there are many candidates in the sira.
According to Professor Sean Anthony, from the ninth century Christian polemics attributed Muhammad's religious knowledge to his trading travels outside Arabia. In the eight century, Christian writers said Muhammad reputedly learned from an Arian monk (an archetypal heresy at that time), or a Syriac Christian monk known as Sergius Bḥyrʾ. The second word Bḥyrʾ was a monastic title meaning tested / elected / renowned, but in later writings was treated as a personal name, Bahira, and legends about him were subsequently picked up by Muslim writers.
The case for Sergius does not seem very convincing. Perhaps the strongest evidence of the non-Arab's identity is another name mentioned in the Sira:
This source specifically names the foreigner to be Jabr, slave of B. al-Hadrami.
Then there is this sahih hadith that specifically informs us that Muhammad learned from a Christian:
This Christian who taught Muhammad is not named in the sahih hadiths. However, Ibn Warraq, citing Waqidi, names him as ibn Qumta.
Waqidi [d. 207 AH D/823 CE] who says that a Christian slave named Ibn Qumta was the amanuensis of the prophet, along with a certain ‘Abdallah b. Sa‘ad b. Abi Sarh, who reported that "It was only a Christian slave who was teaching him [Mohammed]; I used to write to him and change whatever I wanted."
Other names are also mentioned in the sirah including Salman the Persian (who was a Christian). Regardless who this foreigner who taught Muhammad was, it is clear that this highly specific charge was leveled against the Qur'an, and the aforementioned verse is intended to answer this very specific objection. That this foreigner existed is real: the Qur'an itself alluded to him by saying, ‘the tongue of him at whom they hint is a non-Arab’. Again, this strongly indicates that there was in fact such a foreigner who may have influenced the "clear Arabic tongue" of the Qur'an.
That this foreigner is alleged to have taught Muhammad Judeo-Christian tales is alluded to when one follows the apologetic against this complaint in Surah 16. What follows Quran 16:103 is a discussion of how Allah revealed the religion of Abraham, the Resurrection, the Everlasting Life, Judgment Day, prohibition of meat of swine and non-halal slaughter, and other practices given to the Jews.
In short, verse Quran 16:103-104 is nothing more than the Qur'an's attempt to answer the charge that he learned the Jewish/Christian religion from a foreigner (very possibly Jabr). He was the Muslim who first came up with the excuse that the similarities between the Judeo-Christian religion and the Qur'an are due to the three scriptures sharing the same source, which he named as Allah.
Thus, beyond what seems to have been a general circulation of Judeo-Christian stories (and the Quran attesting the presence of and complaining about the people of the book), there are various individuals from whom Muhammad may have heard these tales, beginning with Zaid bin 'Amr bin Nufail and from Waraqa bin Naufal bin Asad bin 'Abdul 'Uzza, to Jabr and the un-named Christian of Sahih Bukhari 4:56:814.
In apologetic and theological literature, Muslim scholars generally follow the Qur'an in denying that Muhammad was influenced by the "legends of the ancients", citing some of the following points:
1. There were no Arabic copies of the Judeo-Christian literature available to Muhammad.
This argument ignores the Qur'an itself. which claims the charges were that Muhammad heard what was recited to him Quran 25:4-6 or that he learned them from a foreigner Quran 16:103-104. Thus, the existence or otherwise of Arabic translations in Muhammad’s time is an irrelevancy. Moreover, epigraphic and historical evidence from the the time points to an Arabia which was awash in Greek and Syriac literature, and in which knowledge of both the Syriac and Greek alphabets were widespread, and both of these were used to write Arabic along with the Hismaetic and Safaitic scripts .
2. There was no center of Judaism and/or Christianity in Mecca or the Hijaz in Muhammad’s time.
As the Islamic literature itself shows Muhammad was accused of repeating ‘tales of the ancients’ from individual Jews and Christians, some of whom we may know by name, there is no need for Muhammad to learn from centers of Judaism or Christianity. Surah Imran is in large part concerned with people of the book leading the believers astray. However, whether or not there were any Christians proselytizing in Mecca or other localities is irrelevant: all it takes is one Christian individual (as in Sahih Bukhari 4:56:814) for Muhammad to learn from. Moreover, modern scholarship has shown through inscriptions inter alia that the Arabian peninsula at the time of the prophet was thoroughly Christianized.
3. There is no evidence that Muhammad borrowed these tales even though there were Jews and Christians in the region.
The evidence is laid out on this page and forms a vibrant area of academic study known as source criticism. The charges of borrowing are in the Qur'an and they are easily proven. The evidence is to be found in the hadiths and sirah in addition to the Qur'an. Even according to the Islamic tradition itself, individuals who taught Muhammad the Judeo-Christian tales were named.
4. The Jews were in Medinah and the Christians were in Najran and Yemen.
There is debate among academic scholars as to the extent of Christian presence around Mecca and Medina specifically. Given the limited evidence so far available, and the internal evidence in the Quran that its audience were familiar with the stories therein and the numerous complaints about the people of the book, some academic scholars such as Stephen Shoemaker have posited that these materials first circulated in a location further to the North with a greater Christian presence. On the other hand, specific Jews and Christians do seem to have been present in Mecca, for instance Jabr the Christian slave. Waraqa, Khadijah’s cousin also lived in Mecca, and so did the Hanif Zaid bin ‘Amr.
It is even possible that the Ka’ba contained a biblical quote:
There were also eye-witness reports that figures of Mary and Jesus were in the Kaaba narrated from Muslims who died in the early 2nd century. Even according to a hadith, the Ka’aba may have contained pictures of Abraham and Mary (similarly, see Sahih Bukhari 4:55:571):
It seem to be the case that, in actuality, there were Jews elsewhere outside of Yathrib and surrounding areas of Northern Hijaz. So far, there is limited evidence of a small number of Christians present in Mecca.
5. The Qur'an contains stories absent in the Judeo-Christian scriptures, thus the charge of borrowing is erroneous.
As documented in detail in this series, a great number of non-Biblical stories in the Quran are now known to have antecendents in late antique Jewish and Christian apocrypha and exegesis. This is rather suggestive that all or almost all Quranic examples have such an origin. This conclusion would naturally extend to imply that Biblical stories were similarly circulating in the environment in which the Quranic materials were first composed.
- Witztum, Joseph (2011) The Syriac milieu of the Quran: The recasting of Biblical narratives, PhD Thesis, Princeton University
- Reynolds, Gabriel Said, "The Quran and Bible:Text and Commentary", New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2018
- Chaim Milikowsky, Midrash as Fiction and Midrash as History: What Did the Rabbis Mean? in Jo-Ann Brant, et al., eds., Ancient Fiction: The Matrix of Early Christian and Jewish Narrative (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005) 117-127
- Kister, M. J. ‘A Bag of Meat’: A Study of an Early ‘Ḥadīth.’ Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, vol. 33, no. 2, 1970, pp. 267–75
- Siratu' Rasul, vol. i, p. 79.
- Siratu' Rasul, vol. i, pp. 76, 77
- Sean Anthony, Muhammad and the Empires of Faith: The making of the Prophet of Islam, Oakland CA: University of California, 2020, pp. 76-78
- Muhammad the borrower – Debate 2 with Saifullah
- Summary by Sharon Morad, Leeds - The Origins of The Koran: Classic Essays on Islam's Holy Book, edited by Ibn Warraq (Prometheus Books: Amherst, New York. 1998)
- Al-Jallad. 2020. The Linguistic Landscape of pre-Islamic Arabia pages 117-124
- There is also a woman mentioned by Ibn Sa'd:
"..... (Muhammad's father) passed by a woman of the Kath'am (tribe) whose name was Fatimah Bint Murr and who was the prettiest of all women, in the full bloom of her youth and the most pious and had studied the scriptures;..."
Ibn Sa'd's "Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir", page 104
- See this Twitter thread by Professor Sean Anthony - 11 July 2022
- See this Twitter.com thread involving Professor Sean Anthony - 11 July 2022