Parallelism: The Story of Abraham and the Idols
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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.
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."
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).
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.
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).
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.
- Gabriel Said Reynolds, "The Quran and Bible: Text and Commentary", New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2018, p. 510
- 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
- M S M Saifullah - The Story Of Abraham And Idols In The Qur'an And Midrash Genesis Rabbah islamic-awareness.org
- Midrash and the Sword of God by Dr. Musaylimaat Sayfush-Shaytaan of Freethought Mecca, 2002 (archive)
- "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.