Parallelism: The Story of Abraham and the Idols

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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

The Quran contains the following story about Abraham admonishing his people for their worship of idols (see also Quran 6:74 and Quran 37:83-89). This has a strong parallel in Jewish Midrash and apocryphal literature.

Qur'anic Account

Before that, we granted Abraham his guidance and understanding, for we were fully aware of him. He said to his father and his people, "What are these statues to which you are devoting yourselves?" They said, "We found our parents worshipping them." He said, "Indeed, you and your parents have gone totally astray." They said, "Are you telling us the truth, or are you playing?" He said, "Your only Lord is the Lord of the heavens and the earth, who created them. This is the testimony to which I bear witness. "I swear by GOD, I have a plan to deal with your statues, as soon as you leave." He broke them into pieces, except for a big one, that they may refer to it. They said, "Whoever did this to our gods is really a transgressor." They said, "We heard a youth threaten them; he is called Abraham." They said, "Bring him before the eyes of all the people, that they may bear witness." They said, "Did you do this to our gods, O Abraham?" He said, "It is that big one who did it. Go ask them, if they can speak." They were taken aback, and said to themselves, "Indeed, you are the ones who have been transgressing." Yet, they reverted to their old ideas: "You know full well that these cannot speak." He said, "Do you then worship beside GOD what possesses no power to benefit you or harm you? "You have incurred shame by worshipping idols beside GOD. Do you not understand?" They said, "Burn him and support your gods, if this is what you decide to do." We said, "O fire, be cool and safe for Abraham." Thus, they schemed against him, but we made them the losers.

Midrash Account

Regarding these verses and citing Genesis Rabbah 38:13, Gabriel Said Reynolds in his 2018 academic commentary on the Quran remarks, "The Qurʾān refers here to a Midrashic tale found in several sources, including Genesis Rabbah, set during Abraham's childhood."[1]

And Haran died in front of Terach his father. R. Hiyya the grandson of R. Ada of Yafo [said]: Terach was an idolater. One day he went out somewhere, and put Avraham in charge of selling [the idols]. When a man would come who wanted to purchase, he would say to him: “How old are you”? [The customer] would answer: “Fifty or sixty years old”. [Avraham] would say: “Woe to the man who is sixty years old And desires to worship something one day old.” [The customer] would be ashamed and leave. One day a woman came, carrying in her hand a basket of fine flour. She said: “Here, offer it before them.” Abraham siezed a stick, And smashed all the idols, And placed the stick in the hand of the biggest of them. When his father came, he said to him: “Who did this to them”? [Avraham] said:, “Would I hide anything from my father? a woman came, carrying in her hand a basket of fine flour. She said: “Here, offer it before them.” When I offered it, one god said: “I will eat first,” And another said, “No, I will eat first.” Then the biggest of them rose up and smashed all the others. [His father] said:, “Are you making fun of me? Do they know anything?” [Avraham] answered: Shall your ears not hear what your mouth is saying? He took [Avraham] and handed him over to Nimrod. [Nimrod] said to him: “Let us worship the fire”. [Avraham said to him: “If so, let us worship the water which extinguishes the fire.” [Nimrod] said to him: “Let us worship the water”. [Avraham said to him: “If so, let us worship the clouds which bear the water.” [Nimrod] said to him: “Let us worship the clouds”. [Avraham said to him: “If so, let us worship the wind which scatters the clouds.” [Nimrod] said to him: “Let us worship the wind”. [Avraham said to him: “If so, let us worship man who withstands the wind.” [Nimrod] said to him: “You are speaking nonsense; I only bow to the fire. “I will throw you into it. “Let the G-d to Whom you bow come and save you from it.” Haran was there. He said [to himself] Either way; If Avraham is successful, I will say that I am with Avraham; If Nimrod is successful, I will say that I am with Nimrod. Once Avraham went into the furnace and was saved, They asked [Haran]: “With which one are you [allied]”? He said to them: “I am with Avraham.” They took him and threw him into the fire and his bowels were burned out. He came out and died in front of Terach his father. This is the meaning of the verse: And Haran died in front of Terach.
Midrash B'reishit Rabbah (Genesis Rabbah) 38:13:

Examination of both Accounts

The claim is that this parallelism originated from the Midrash as an invention of a Rabbi:

This story is a well known illustration credited to Rabbi Hiyya in the 2nd century CE at the start of the passage; it is recorded in the Midrash Rabbah Genesis and all authorities agree that it was never meant to be considered historical, even by the audience for whom it was composed (this is true of midrashic literature generally, whose story additions were not treated by the Rabbis as actual historical events, in contrast to the way Biblical stories themselves were regarded).[2]

The Quranic account of Abraham and the idols commences in Quran 6:74 where Abraham is quoted as saying "Takest thou idols for gods?" and this theme is then expanded in Sura Quran 21:51-71. It is exactly the same theme of the Midrashic legend where Abraham takes issue over the idols of his father.

The Shared Themes in the Midrashic Account

The Midrashic account is given here and the Qur'anic equivalent can be found in the verse numbers in the brackets:

  • Abraham's father accused of being an idolater: "Terah (Abraham's father) was a manufacturer of idols" ie. He was an idolater. (52)
  • "He once went away somewhere and left Abraham..." (57)
  • Abraham breaks all the idols except the biggest: "So he took a stick, broke them, (the idols) and put the the stick in the hand of the largest." (58)
  • "When his father returned he demanded, 'What have you done to them?'" (59) (In the Quranic account this demand is made by his father and the people.)
  • Abraham claims: "Thereupon the largest arose, took the stick, and broke them." (63)
  • Abraham is seized and delivered up for judgement: "Thereupon he seized him and delivered him to Nimrod." (64) (The Quran does not mention by name who was to punish Abraham.)
  • Abraham is saved from the fire: "When Abram descended into the fiery furnace and was saved..." (69)

All the above points are unique both to the Qur'anic and mythical midrashic accounts. They do not appear in the Scriptures of the Jews and Christians.

Muslim Objections

In 2002 Dr Saifullah and the Islamic-awareness team sought to disparage the above evidence.[3] These objections have in turn been addressed by others.[4] In summary:

Objection 1: Existing manuscripts of the Bereshit Rabbah (i.e. Genesis Rabbah) post-date the origin of the Quran and additions (i.e. in the parashiyyot) and alterations may have been made to the text of the Bereshit Rabbah after its redaction in the sixth century CE.

Redaction does not mean the date of origin of the text. The Abraham and the idols story is not in the parashiyyot but the Noach. This story is not in Freedman and Simon's list of chapters which do not really belong to Genesis Rabbah.
In any case it is not asserted that the Qur'an copied from the Bereshit Rabbah, rather its author heard this Judeo-Christian story from others, possibly Jews and Christians. The Bereshit Rabbah is merely evidence to date this particular Judeo-Christian story. There are other Judeo-Christian sources as listed above, so a different text may or may not have been the source of the parallel.

Objection 2: Judeo-Christian sources of the same story are different, thus the original paralleled story cannot be ascertained.

Historical evidence from various sources evidence a pre-Islamic date for most of the story elements found in Bereshit Rabbah. The Book of Jubilees (a 2nd century BCE elaboration on Genesis) mentions Abraham’s dislike of idol worship and that he burned down the house of idols (a Rabbinic interpretation of Genesis 11:28), though not that he smashed them. The Babylonian Talmud has Nimrod casting Abraham into the fire. Jerome in the 4th century CE mentions how the Rabbis interpret Genesis 11:28 as per the Book of Jubilees as well as that Abraham was cast in the fire for refusing to join the Chaldeans in worshipping it (like Genesis Rabbah).[5]

Moreover, Dr Saifullah's team (and his respondants) were apparently unaware of the Apocalypse of Abraham, a work of Jewish origin, generally dated to first or second century CE. The opening of this work has Abraham's father tasking Abraham with selling some smashed idols. Seeing them in pieces and tipped over, Abraham realises that the idols have no power of their own.

It is clear the story of Abraham disdaining idol worship, destroying idols, and being thrown into the fire pre-dates Islam in various Judeo-Christian sources. It is not necessary to come to the conclusion that the Qur'an copies out of these texts, but rather that it draws from sources with similar narratives. The Judeo-Christian sources listed are merely evidence of the antiquity of this story. Thus, a story invented by Rabbi Hiyya in the 2nd century CE managed to find its way into the Quran as a historical narrative.


  1. Gabriel Said Reynolds, "The Quran and Bible: Text and Commentary", New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2018, p. 510
  2. 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
  3. M S M Saifullah - The Story Of Abraham And Idols In The Qur'an And Midrash Genesis Rabbah
  4. Midrash and the Sword of God by Dr. Musaylimaat Sayfush-Shaytaan of Freethought Mecca, 2002 (archive)
  5. "In place of what we read as in the territory of the Chaldeans, in the Hebrew it has ur Chesdim, that is 'in the fire of the Chaldeans'. Moreover the Hebrews, taking the opportunity afforded by this verse, hand on a story of this sort to the effect that Abraham was put into the fire because he refused to worship fire, which the Chaldeans honour; and that he escaped through God's help, and fled from the fire of idolatry. What is written [in the Septuagint] in the following verses, that Thara with his offspring 'went out from the territory of the Chaldeans' stands in place of what is contained in the Hebrew, from the fire of the Chaldeans. And they maintain that this refers to what is said in this verse: Aran died before the face of Thara his father in the land of his birth in the fire of the Chaldeans; that is, because he refused to worship fire, he was consumed by fire."
    CTR Hayward (trans.), Saint Jerome's Hebrew Questions on Genesis, (Oxford, 1995), p. 43.

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