The Torah and Gospel

Surah 3 (Al-Imran/ The house of Imran): 3-4

3. Step by step has He bestowed upon thee from on high this divine writ, setting forth the truth which confirms whatever there still remains (of earlier revelations), for it is He who has bestowed from on high the Torah and the Gospel

4. Aforetime, as a guidance unto mankind, and it is He who has bestowed (upon man) the standard by which to discern the true from the false.
Behold, as for those who are bent on denying God’s messages – grievous suffering awaits them.

For God is Almighty, an Avenger of evil.

[‘The Message of the Quran’, Muhammad Asad, 1980 (an Austrian Jewish convert to Islam)]

 

The Qur’an states that a messenger or ‘warner’ has been sent to ‘every community’, {10.47}, {16.36} and {35.24}. These prophets – it is never entirely clear whether there is a technical difference between messengers, warners and prophets in the Qur’an but in this book the term ‘prophet’ will be used as an expression for all three – include ‘messengers We have recounted to thee before and messengers We have not recounted unto thee’, {4.164} and {40.78}. This clearly allows for many prophets to have been sent who were unknown to its original audience. God states that He draws no distinction between these messengers, {2.136 & 285} see 〈52.〉, {3.84} and {34.150-152}. However, despite this apparently vast array of past prophets from which to draw its examples, the Qur’an limits its allusions to prophets from the Jewish and Christian traditions, to whom it devotes a very considerable part of its text, and to just three Arab prophets, Hud, Saleh and Shwayb, see 〈26.〉

 

In addition to past prophets, it also refers frequently to two books that had been previously ‘sent down’, namely the Torah – the five books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, that are sacred to both Jews and Christians as the first five books of each of their respective bibles – and a book that it refers to as the ‘Injeel’, which is usually translated into English as ‘gospel’. The Torah and Injeel are referred to by name together in {3.3, 48 & 65}, {5.46, 66-68 & 110}, {7.157}, {9.111} and {48.29}. In addition, the Torah is mentioned on its own in {3.50 & 93}, {5.43}, {61.6} and {62.4}, and the Injeel, on its own, just twice, at {57.27} and, in reference to ‘the People of the Injeel’, at {5.47}.

 

A number of other scriptures are mentioned to although what is intended by any of these references is unclear. {53.36-37} and {87.19} each refer to ‘the scriptures of Moses and Abraham’. Since the authorship of the Torah is traditionally attributed to Moses, what is meant by the ‘scriptures of Abraham’ is a mystery. Conceivably it may refer to an apocryphal text attributed to Abraham, such as the Apocalypse of Abraham (see below), but the reference is generally assumed to be to some lost and forgotten revelation.

 

A previous revelation referred to as ‘al-Zabur’ is mentioned in three verses as having been sent down to King David 〈23.〉 Since David (along with Asaph) is traditionally credited with having composed the Psalms, the Zabur is sometimes thought to refer to these, and in the case of {21.105}:

We have indeed written in the Zabur, after the Reminder, that My righteous servants will inherit the earth’,

the Psalm connection is placed beyond doubt since the latter part of the verse closely follows the words of Psalm 37.29 :

The just shall possess the land and dwell in it forever.

Zabur’, or variants of the word, appear in several other verses, without any connection to David, such as {3.184}, in which it appears – rendered in the Yusuf Ali translation as ‘books of dark prophecy’ – juxtaposed with ‘a book of enlightenment’ or ‘illuminating book’.

 

Elsewhere the phrase ‘the Book’ (‘al-kitab’) is used as a generic reference for God’s prior revelations, especially in phrases such as well-known term ‘the People of the Book’ (‘ahl al-kitab’) and ‘those who were given the Book (alternatively ‘a portion of the Book’) before you’. Numerous verses, including {2: 40-41, 89, 91, 97 & 101}, {3.3} (above), {3.81}, {5.44 & 48}, {6.92}, {35.31} and {46.30}, ‘confirm’ these previous book or books as having been ‘sent down’ by God and {5.46 & 68} each refer to the Torah and Injeel having been ‘given’ or ‘taught’ by God to Jesus. In {5.43} the Qur’an asks:

{5.43} How is it that they come to thee for judgment, when they have the Torah wherein is God’s judgment?

In all these verses, the Qur’an depicts ‘the Book’, as consisting of direct messages authored by God and sent down verbatim to His prophets in a manner similar to the process of revelation that the Qur’an claimed for itself, see 〈4.〉 However, whilst the Torah, the Psalms and the four New Testament gospels are all written about God, none are phrased in such a way that a reader could think they were written by God. It is particularly notable that in the Qur’an, the Injeel is always expressed in the singular, whereas the author of the Qur’an could hardly have been unaware that Christianity recognises not one but four canonical gospels, each named after its supposed human author.

 

It is likely that in some places the Qur’an is using ’the Book’ – or in {3.81}, {4.54 & 113} and {5.110}: ‘a Book and Wisdom’; in {3.48}the Book, Wisdom, the Torah and the Gospel’ – as a metaphor for an abstract revelation, akin to the Christian concepts of the ’logos’: ‘the Word of God’ or ‘the Good News’. However, {6.91} envisages the Torah in a form that the Qur’an’s audience (presumably Jews) ‘display whilst hiding much.’ And in {3.93} the Qur’an instructs its speaker to say: ‘Bring the Torah and recite it…’ each unambiguously referring to the Torah, as a physical document existing at the time of the Qur’an’s revelation (as does {5.43} above, and in relation to both Torah and Injeel {7.157}).

 

In its earlier verses the Qur’an generally refers to the ‘People of the Book’ and, in the case of Jews, ‘the children of Israel’, whom of course include Jesus and the first Christians, with more or less positive connotations. However, their portrayal would become more critical over time, with some of them accused, amongst other vices (see 〈88.〉) of having distorted the scripture that had been given to them:

{4.46} Among those who are Jews are those who distort the meaning of the Word and say: ‘We hear and disobey,’ and ‘Hear as one who hears not!’ and ‘Attend to us,’ twisting their tongues and disparaging religion.

And had they said: ‘We hear and obey,’ and ‘Listen’ and ‘Regard us,’ it would have been better for them and more proper.

See similarly: {2.59 & 75-76}, {3.78}, {4.46}, {5.13 & 41}. The Christians too ‘forgot part of that whereof they were reminded’, {5.14}. Ultimately both Jews and Christians generally would be accused of having lapsed into idolatry 〈51.〉 Based upon such verses, the traditional Muslim understanding of the Qur’an’s teaching on the Torah and gospel is that whilst these terms refer to scriptures that had, like the Qur’an, been revealed as the words of God, following their revelation their text had been altered by corrupt rabbis and priests to accommodate the rebellion and disbelief of the communities that they had been sent to. In the case of the Torah, this must have occurred centuries beforehand, since the Bible includes the currently formulated Torah as its first five books. The accusation of scriptural falsification is convenient for explaining the very many inconsistencies between the Torah and the gospels on the one hand and the Qur’an on the other. However, although the fraudulent creation of religious texts is condemned at {2.79} – ’Woe unto those that who write the book with their hands then say ‘This is from God’ that they may sell it for a paltry price’, the accusation of having done this is only made against ‘some among the people of the Book’, {2.75} and {3.199}, and the alteration of the text of the Torah or Injeel is never explicitly alleged in the Qur’an, which accuses the Jews and Christians only of ‘distorting’ these scriptures ‘with their tongues’ or ‘forgetting’ it.

 

Moreover, the view that the Qur’an asserts the alteration of the Torah or Injeel leaves the Qur’an trapped in an inconsistency. If the Torah and gospels of Muhammad’s time were merely the corrupted records of an original divine revelation, why should the Qur’an ‘confirm’ these works using the names by which those corrupted forms were known, urging acceptance of them in their entirety, {2.85}, and to rely upon them as authoritative, {5.43-46 & 68}, rather than denounce them as fake? Even more perplexing, why should it have had its announcer ask for a (‘corrupted’) Torah to be brought forward to use as evidence of the Qur’an’s consistency with past revelations? Put more starkly, why should the Qur’an confirm a corrupted book, of which the uncorrupted form is no longer available to its audience? This illogical outcome is even more problematic with regard to the Injeel than it is for the Torah, since the term ‘injeel’ derives from the Greek word ‘euangelion’ – probably via the Ethiopic word ‘wangel’ – and therefore, as a term coined by the church, it could only have referred to the Church-approved scripture, and never to a proposed original book announced by Jesus. Such a ‘gospel of Jesus’ would, in reality, have been a completely separate book to any of the four canonical gospels. Finally, in {7.157}, {5.47 & 68} and {10.94}, the Qur’an refers to these former revelations as continuing to be authoritative, at least for the Jews and Christians, even in the time that it (the Qur’an) was announced. This is impossible to reconcile with the belief that the record of those revelations had had been corrupted. The paradox is not one for which there is any straightforward answer.

 

The Qur’an’s Biblical allusions

The Qur’an features dozens of biblical characters, stories and themes, and also replicates biblical phrases and imagery. About three dozen biblical turns of phrase have been identified in the Qur’an by Gabriel Said Reynolds which include the following.

 

  • A Quranic parable of the righteous prospering like crops, describes how the unrighteous man will be swept away by a downpour ‘like dust upon a smooth rock’, whereas ‘the parable of (the righteous is that of a garden upon a hill: a downpour strikes it and brings forth its fruit twofold,’ {2.261-265}; this reads remarkably like Jesus’ parable of the sower, sowing the word of God like seeds in Matthew 13.18-23 , Luke 8.15 and Mark 13.20 .

 

On the day when the hypocrites, men and women, will say to those who believe: ‘Wait for us that we may borrow your light’, it will be said: ‘Turn back and seek a light!’ Thereupon a wall with a gate will be set between them.’

seems to replicate the words of the wise bridesmaids from Matthew 25.8-9 :

The foolish ones said to the sensible: ‘Give us some of your oil. Our torches are going out.’ But the sensible ones replied: ‘No, there may not be enough for you and us. You had better go to the dealers. And buy yourselves some’ …              Then the door was barred.’

 

  • Jesus’s memorable metaphor of a camel passing through the eye of a needle to describe the unlikelihood of a rich man entering the kingdom of heaven, appears in the Qur’an at {7.40} (‘Truly those who deny our signs and wax arrogant against them … (shall not) enter the Garden till the camel pass through the eye of the needle’).

His use of a mustard seed as an example of something tiny (Matthew 13.31-32, 17.20 , Mark 4.31  and Luke 13.18-19 ) is also found in the Qur’an at {21.47} and {31.16}.

 

  • In {7.157} and {4.155}, the Jews are said to declare that their ‘hearts are uncircumcised’, an admission that would have been familiar to them through the phrase’s use in Deuteronomy (10.16 ) and Jeremiah (4.4 and 9.24-25 ); and possibly also the New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles 7.51 , Romans 2.28-29 , Philippians 3.3 and Colossians 2.1 † .

 

  • The description of God as ‘the First and the Last’, {57.3}, appears four times in the Bible (Isaiah 44.6 and 48.12 and Revelation 1.17 and 22.13 );

The equation of a day for God with a thousand years on earth appears in {22.47}, as well as the Second Letter of St Peter (3.8 ). In fact in one passage, Reynolds observes no less than three phrases that he traces to this epistle in just ten verses of Surah 24.

 

It is an interesting feature of the Qur’an that whilst its use of biblical stories is much more geared to the Old Testament than to the New, its use of language owes far more to Jesus and the early church than to Judaism. Several passages seem to consciously distort the words by which Jesus taught universal compassion so that they promote sectarian obedience. So:

  • The promise of Psalm 37, that the ‘righteous’ shall inherit the earth, with its reference to the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham, which in the gospel of Matthew (5.5 ) had become Jesus’s consolation that the ‘meek’ would inherit the earth, reverts in the Qur’an to something closer to its original meaning: ‘My righteous servants shall inherit the earth,’ and

 

  • Whereas Jesus answers St Peter’s question (Matthew 18.21-22 )  whether he must forgive his neighbour as many as seven times: ‘Not seven times. I say seventy times seven times‘,  {9.80} almost completely inverts this message: ‘If (believers) seekest forgiveness for (those who had reproached them) seventy times, God will not forgive them.

See also the one unforgiveable sin 〈11.〉 and the fate of martyrs 〈95.〉

 

Non-canonical sources

In addition to the Hebrew and Christian bibles, the Qur’an draws upon a very impressive range of non-canonical sources. Many of these allusions are identified in The Bible and the Quran, again by Gabriel Said Reynolds, and include (referred to elsewhere in this work):

 

rabbinic commentaries on the Hebrew Bible, such as:

the Pirqe de-Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus 〈16.〉,

Genesis Rabbah 〈21.〉,

Tamid 〈28.〉,

the Second Targum of Esther (a translation of Jewish scripture into Syriac, with commentary) 〈23.〉,

the Pesitka of Rav Kahana (a translation of Jewish scripture into Syriac, with commentary) 〈24.〉,

the Tosefta 〈21.〉,

Gittin 〈23.〉, and

Misnah Sanhedrin 〈71.〉 (collections of legal opinions)

 

mystical Jewish texts including:

the Books of Enoch 〈14.〉,

the Book of Jubilees,

the Testament of Solomon and the

Apocalypse of Abraham 〈21.〉;

 

The Life of Adam and Eve, a document that likely had Jewish origins but which circulated amongst Christians from the first century 〈16.〉;

 

apocryphal gospels:

the Infancy Gospel of Thomas,

the Infancy Gospel of Matthew/the Gospel of pseudo-Matthew and

the Protoevangelium of James 〈25.〉;

 

Christian, especially Syriac Christian, devotional texts including, referred to in this book:

The Questions of Bartholomew 〈17.〉,

The Cave of Treasures (fourth to sixth century),

the homlies of Narsai, and ‘pseudo-Narsai’, and the pseudo-Clementine Homilies 〈52.〉,

the Syriac History of Joseph attributed to Basil of Caesarea,

Ephrem’s Commentary on Tatian’s Diatessaron 〈21.〉,

the homilies of Jacob of Serugh (451-502) 〈21.〉, 〈27.〉 and 〈28.〉,

 

and the secular Victory of Alexander 〈29.〉

 

At several points the Qur’an comes close to replicating the precise wording of the Bible, as can be seen from the following examples:

Exodus 3.4-5

‘(God called out) ‘Moses, Moses! Come no nearer! Remove the sandals from your feet for the place where you stand is holy ground,’

 

{20.11-12}

‘(God called) ‘O Moses! Verily I am thy Lord. Take off thy sandals. Truly thou art in the holy valley of Tuwa.’

 

Exodus 4.2-4

‘The Lord therefore asked (Moses): ‘What is that in your hand?‘  A staff he replied.

The Lord then said: ‘Throw it to the ground’

When he threw it on the ground it was changed into a serpent and Moses shied away from it.

‘Now put out your hand’ the Lord said to him ‘and take hold of its tail.’ So he put out his hand and laid hold of it and it became a staff in his hand.’

 

{20.17-21}

‘(God asked) ‘And what is that in thy right hand? O Moses’

It is my staff. I lean upon it and beat down leaves for my sheep. And I have other uses for it.

He said: ‘Cast it O Moses!’

So he cast it and behold it was a serpent moving swiftly.

He said: ‘Take hold of it and fear not We shall restore it to its former way.’

 

However, at no point does the Qur’an actually replicate a complete verse from the Bible, and, as will be evident from the extracts above, often biblical phrases and imagery appear in the Qur’an with significantly different meanings to those they originally bore. Even more surprisingly, for a text that gives the initial impression of an extremely widely read author, are the Qur’an’s apparent errors in referring to Bible stories. Some of these may be regarded as fairly minor, such as:

  • the description of Saul instructing his soldiers not to lap water straight from a stream, which is a version of a biblical story that involved not Saul but Gideon 〈23.〉, and
  • the appearance of Haman as a servant of pharaoh in the time of Moses ({28.38-9} and {40.36-37} 〈22.〉) who in the Book of Esther is the servant of Ahasuerus, king of Persia.

 

Far more perplexing:

  • the Qur’an consistently presents Jacob as Isaac’s brother rather than his son 〈21.〉,
  • the story of Jacob performing years of labour to earn the right to marry Rachel becomes transferred to Moses 〈22.〉, and
  • on two occasions the Qur’an appears to confuse Mary the mother of Jesus with Miriam the elder sister of Moses and Aaron. When Mary presents the baby Jesus to her people, they address her as ‘sister of Aaron’, {19.28}, and in {3.35} her father (who is unnamed in the New Testament but traditionally given the name Joachim) is named as Imran, a name that is too similar to that of Amran, the biblical father of Miriam, Moses and Aaron, for the Maryam/Miriam confusion not to be confirmed. If this is indeed an error, it is a spectacular one since anyone with even the most rudimentary knowledge of the Bible must have realised that the lives of Jesus and Moses were separated by many centuries.

 

Finally, the Qur’an also has an occasional tendency to include details, especially from non-canonical sources, in a way that fails to convey their significance within the original version of the story being told, suggesting that the detail was copied without understanding. So, for example:

  • when the Queen of Sheba bares her legs in {27.44}, believing Solomon’s crystal floor to be a pool of water, there is no reference to Solomon’s comment on the hairiness of her legs, that in the Second Targum of Esther is the purpose of the story’s inclusion; i.e. that the role of ruler is unbecoming to a woman, see 〈23.〉;

 

  • in the apocryphal Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the reason for the child Jesus giving life to the clay model birds that he had made 〈25.〉 was to avoid being scolded for creating an artefact on the Sabbath (foreshadowing his later proclamation that he was ‘Lord of the Sabbath’, Matthew 12.8 , Mark 2.28 and Luke 6.5 ): the Qur’an refers to the clay birds episode twice, but in neither does it make any refence to the sabbath;

 

  • in the story of the sleepers in the cave, reference is made to the sleepers having money, a fact that in Jacob of Serugh’s version becomes symbolic of the transience of worldly power, but in the Qur’an serves no purpose at all (explained at 〈27.〉); and

 

  • in the Misnah Sanhedrin the words that appear in {5.32} as ‘whoever destroys a single soul is regarded as though he destroyed a complete world’ – have a specific and logical meaning (explained in 〈71.〉), which the Qur’an reduces to a mere pious-sounding platitude.

 

All of the above misapplied turns of phrase, apparent errors and inconsequential details, together with a failure to discriminate between sources that are canonical (ie ‘sent down’ from God) and those that are human reflections, combine to suggest that, notwithstanding the Qur’an author’s familiarity with a wide range of canonical and non-canonical sources, these were materials that its author had encountered aurally, and which he was reproducing for his audience from a prodigious and creative, but occasionally flawed, memory without a sound grasp of their original purpose. The concept of ‘the Book’ is strong in the Qur’an, which is, of course, itself now generally encountered as a book. However, it should be borne in mind that some of the surahs show clear signs of having been composed for oral recitation, 〈4.〉 The term ‘people of the book’ may even have been initially chosen to draw a specific contrast between the Jews and Christians, and those who listened to, memorised and recited the verbal utterances of the ‘unlettered’ prophet.