Parallels Between the Qur'an and Late Antique Judeo-Christian Literature

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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 article, 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 article.[1] 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 article.[2] The Jewish story additions were for exegetical purposes (sometimes derived from a single word in the Hebrew Bible) and were not treated by the Rabbis as actual historical events, in contrast to the way Biblical stories themselves were regarded.[3]

Allegations Recorded in the Quran

The Qur'an famously records that doubters dismissed its verses as "tales of the ancients", and 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. Modern academic scholars "virtually unanimously" agree that the Quran does not describe the Prophet as illiterate, contrary to the Islamic tradition.[4] The idea that Muhammad was illiterate was a later reinterpretation of a word in certain verses in order to negate charges of borrowing (see Muhammad and illiteracy).

And those who disbelieve say, "This [Qur'an] is not except a falsehood he invented, and another people assisted him in it." But they have committed an injustice and a lie. And they say, "Legends of the former peoples which he has written down, and they are dictated to him morning and afternoon." Say, [O Muhammad], "It has been revealed by He who knows [every] secret within the heavens and the earth. Indeed, He is ever Forgiving and Merciful."
Some of them listen to you. But We have cast veils over their hearts lest they understand it and in their ears heaviness; and if they see every sign they do not believe in it. When they come to you they argue, the unbelievers say: 'This is nothing but the tales of the ancient ones.'
Whenever Our verses are recited to them, they say: 'We have heard them, if we wished, we could speak its like. They are but tales of the ancients'.

Similar verses are Quran 16:24, Quran 26:137, Quran 68:15 and Quran 83:13. Sometimes such remarks are attributed to those who doubted resurrection (Similarly Quran 27:67-68 and Quran 46:17):

'When we are dead and become dust and bones shall we be resurrected? We and our fathers have been promised this before. It is but of the ancients' fictitious tales.'

The Qur'an itself records allegations of influence by a non-Arab:

When We exchange a verse for another and Allah knows best what He is sending down they say: 'You are but a forger. 'No, most of them do not know. Say: 'The Holy Spirit (Gabriel) brought it down from your Lord in truth to confirm those who believe, and to give guidance and glad tidings to those who surrender. 'We know very well that they say: 'A mortal teaches him. 'The tongue of him at whom they hint is a nonArab; and this is a clear Arabic tongue. Those who disbelieve in the verses of Allah, Allah does not guide them for them is a painful punishment.

The evidence is that Quranic tales were already familiar to its critics. That at least some of these tales of the ancients were Judeo-Christian tales and not 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. This is also evident from 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 and Circulation of Stories

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. There is also a hadith narrated from Abu Huraira that the Jews used to explain the Torah in Arabic to the Muslims (Sahih Bukhari 6:60:12).

Syriac Christian missionary activity

Julien Decharneux, an academic scholar who specialises in Syriac traditions and the Quran, proposes that the Quranic author(s) came into contact with East Syriac Christian preachers or missionaries rather than direct accessing Christian texts. In his book Creation and Contemplation: The Cosmology of the Qur'ān and Its Late Antique Background, he notes that the Christian lore in the Quran is "always periphrastic, never detailed, and often approximative". Decharneux further explains that the repetoire of texts that would have contributed to the thought of a "standard Christian preacher" at the turn of the 7th century would vary depending on church affiliation, "but it involves among other things the Bible, apocryphal texts, exegetical commentaries, and ascetic literature. These types of texts were not occasionally read. The sources attest that they were omnipresent in the Christian scholastic and monastic life from where a 'standard preacher' would have come". Indeed, he adds, "both Syriac and Greek exegetes were extremely popular".[5]

Decharneux further writes regarding missionary activity in the vicinity of Arabia:

The Church of the East was particarly active from this point of view with far-reaching missionary activites in the south-eastern part of the Asian world. At the time of the emergence of the Qurʾān, both the Syro-Orthodox Church and the Church of the East were already exerting their influence on the south of the Arabian Peninsula, as the records show. Most importantly, the Church of the East was established on both sides of the Persian Gulf. From the end of the 4th century at least, Christian communities had settled in the region called Beth Qatraye, covering a large zone of the eastern part of the Arabian Peninsula. Recent archaeology shows that several monasteries existed along the coast and in the islands of the Persian Gulf. We know that these communities were connected with the regions of Sinai and the Byzantine world particularly. Some of the writings emanating from these circles were also translated in Sogdian, Ethiopic, and Arabic from the 7th century onwards.
Julien Decharneux (2023) "Creation and Contemplation", p. 252

Zaid bin 'Amr

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.[6]

Narrated 'Abdullah: Allah's Apostle said that he met Zaid bin 'Amr Nufail at a place near Baldah and this had happened before Allah's Apostle received the Divine Inspiration. Allah's Apostle presented a dish of meat (that had been offered to him by the pagans) to Zaid bin 'Amr, but Zaid refused to eat of it and then said (to the pagans), "I do not eat of what you slaughter on your stonealtars (Ansabs) nor do I eat except that on which Allah's Name has been mentioned on slaughtering."
Narrated 'Abdullah bin 'Umar: The Prophet met Zaid bin 'Amr bin Nufail in the bottom of (the valley of) Baldah before any Divine Inspiration came to the Prophet. A meal was presented to the Prophet but he refused to eat from it. (Then it was presented to Zaid) who said, "I do not eat anything which you slaughter in the name of your stone idols. I eat none but those things on which Allah's Name has been mentioned at the time of slaughtering." Zaid bin 'Amr used to criticize the way Quraish used to slaughter their animals, and used to say, "Allah has created the sheep and He has sent the water for it from the sky, and He has grown the grass for it from the earth; yet you slaughter it in other than the Name of Allah. He used to say so, for he rejected that practice and considered it as something abominable.

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:

Narrated Ibn 'Umar: Zaid bin 'Amr bin Nufail went to Sham, inquiring about a true religion to follow. He met a Jewish religious scholar and asked him about their religion. He said, "I intend to embrace your religion, so tell me some thing about it." The Jew said, "You will not embrace our religion unless you receive your share of Allah's Anger." Zaid said, "'I do not run except from Allah's Anger, and I will never bear a bit of it if I have the power to avoid it. Can you tell me of some other religion?" He said, "I do not know any other religion except the Hanif." Zaid enquired, "What is Hanif?" He said, "Hanif is the religion of (the prophet) Abraham who was neither a Jew nor a Christian, and he used to worship None but Allah (Alone)" Then Zaid went out and met a Christian religious scholar and told him the same as before. The Christian said, "You will not embrace our religion unless you get a share of Allah's Curse." Zaid replied, "I do not run except from Allah's Curse, and I will never bear any of Allah's Curse and His Anger if I have the power to avoid them. Will you tell me of some other religion?" He replied, "I do not know any other religion except Hanif." Zaid enquired, "What is Hanif?" He replied, Hanif is the religion of (the prophet) Abraham who was neither a Jew nor a Christian and he used to worship None but Allah (Alone)" When Zaid heard their Statement about (the religion of) Abraham, he left that place, and when he came out, he raised both his hands and said, "O Allah! I make You my Witness that I am on the religion of Abraham."

Even the prohibition of female infanticide was inspired by Zaid according to the tradition below.

Narrated Asma bint Abi Bakr: I saw Zaid bin Amr bin Nufail standing with his back against the Ka'ba and saying, "O people of Quraish! By Allah, none amongst you is on the religion of Abraham except me." He used to preserve the lives of little girls: If somebody wanted to kill his daughter he would say to him, "Do not kill her for I will feed her on your behalf." So he would take her, and when she grew up nicely, he would say to her father, "Now if you want her, I will give her to you, and if you wish, I will feed her on your behalf."

Zaid’s religious principles adopted by Muhammad

In Ibn Ishaq's Sirah, Zaid is said to have composed a poem after leaving Mecca. The poem mentions among other things: .

  1. the acknowledgment of the Unity of God.
  2. the rejection of idolatry and the worship of Al-Lat, AI-'Uzza' and the other deities of the people.
  3. the promise of future happiness in Paradise or the "Garden".
  4. the warning of the punishment reserved in hell for the wicked.
  5. the denunciation of God's wrath upon the "Unbelievers".
  6. 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."[7] 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 wrote that he prayed by prostration on the palm of his hands.[8]

The alleged informant mentioned in Quran 16:101-4

The non-Arab who was accused of teaching Muhammad the Qur'an (Quran 16:101-104, quoted above) 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.[9]

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:

"According to my information the apostle used often to sit at al-Marwa at the booth of a young Christian called Jabr, a slave of B. al-Hadrami and they used to say "The one who teaches Muhammad most of what he brings is Jabr the Christian, slave of the B. al-Hadrami." Then God revealed in reference to their words "We well know that they say, "Only a mortal teaches him"." The tongue of him at whom they hint is foreign, and this is a clear Arabic tongue.[10]
Ibn Ishaq (d. 768); Ibn Hisham (d. 833), A. Guillaume, ed, The Life of Muhammad [Sirat Rasul Allah], Oxford UP, p. 180, ISBN 0-19-636033-1, 1955, 

This source specifically names the foreigner to be Jabr, slave of Ibn al-Hadrami. This report and a number of similar versions are also recorded by al-Tabari in his tafsir (Quranic commentary). Professor Sean Anthony considers them just another set of exegetical stories from the tafsir literature, and that none of the versions are particularly credible, noting that they seem to build upon and contradict each other.[11] There is some commonality between them in that some of the stories state that Muhammad's alleged informant was a slave or slaves of Ibn al-Hadrami. The slave is said to have been learned in the scriptures. The slave or slaves in the different versions are named as Ya'ish' or Yasar, and / or Jabr. They were sword sharpeners according to one version, while another story mentions a metal-smith called Balaam as Muhammad's informant.

Then there is this sahih hadith recording an allegation that Muhammad learned from a Christian:

Narrated Anas: There was a Christian who embraced Islam and read Surat-al-Baqara and Al-Imran, and he used to write (the revelations) for the Prophet. Later on he returned to Christianity again and he used to say: "Muhammad knows nothing but what I have written for him." …

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.'"[12]

Another hadith mentions a Christian called Waraqa b. Naufal b. Asad b. 'Abd al-'Uzza, who used to write the Christian scriptures in Arabic:

Khadija then took him to Waraqa b. Naufal b. Asad b. 'Abd al-'Uzza, and he was the son of Khadija's uncle, i. e., the brother of her father. And he was the man who had embraced Christianity in the Days of Ignorance (i. e. before Islam) and he used to write books in Arabic and, therefore, wrote Injil in Arabic as God willed that he should write. He was very old and had become blind Khadija said to him: O uncle! listen to the son of your brother.

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.

Muslim Views

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.[13]

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.[14]

It is even possible that the Ka’ba contained a biblical quote:

"Layth Abu Sulaym alleged that they found a stone in the Kaba forty years before the prophet's mission, if what they say is true, containing the inscription "He that soweth good shall reap joy; he that soweth evil shall reap sorrow; can you do evil and be rewarded with good? Nay, as grapes cannot be gathered from thorns"
Ibn Ishaq (d. 768); Ibn Hisham (d. 833), A. Guillaume, ed, The Life of Muhammad [Sirat Rasul Allah], Oxford UP, p. 86, ISBN 0-19-636033-1, 1955, 

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.[15] Even according to a hadith, the Ka’aba may have contained pictures of Abraham and Mary (similarly, see Sahih Bukhari 4:55:571):

Narrated Ibn Abbas: The Prophet entered the Ka'ba and found in it the pictures of (Prophet) Abraham and Mary. On that he said' "What is the matter with them ( i.e. Quraish)? They have already heard that angels do not enter a house in which there are pictures; yet this is the picture of Abraham. And why is he depicted as practicing divination by arrows?"

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.[16]

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 article, a great number of non-Biblical stories in the Quran are now known to have antecedents 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.

Flood waters boiled from an oven

Qur'anic Account

The Qur'anic version of the Noah's flood story describes the flood waters as boiling from an oven. This element is not found even in more ancient versions of the story (Epic of Gilgamesh, Atra hasis, and Ziusudra).

Note that in his translation, Yusuf Ali mistranslates the Aramaic loan word for the oven (alttannooru ٱلتَّنُّورُ)[17] as "fountains". The Arabic verb translated "gushed forth" (fara فَارَ) means "boiled" in the context of water in a cooking pot[18], as well as in the other verse where it is used, Quran 67:7. Here is Pickthall's more accurate translation:

(Thus it was) till, when Our commandment came to pass and the oven gushed forth water, We said: Load therein two of every kind, a pair (the male and female), and thy household, save him against whom the word hath gone forth already, and those who believe. And but a few were they who believed with him.
Then We inspired in him, saying: Make the ship under Our eyes and Our inspiration. Then, when Our command cometh and the oven gusheth water, introduce therein of every (kind) two spouses, and thy household save him thereof against whom the Word hath already gone forth. And plead not with Me on behalf of those who have done wrong. Lo! they will be drowned.

Midrash Account

The ultimate origin of this story element appears to be a highly tenuous rabbinical exegesis of Genesis 8:1 in the Babylonian Talmud, based on a word in an unrelated verse that means heat or wrath (Esther 7:10).

This exegesis seems to have become a cemented part of the story in Talmudic accounts. Regarding Quran 23:23-50, Reynolds observes, "This may reflect midrashic tradition - for example, in Leviticus Rabbah (which dates from around the period of Islam's origins) - mentioned by Speyer (BEQ, 103) that the flood waters were hot: 'R. Johannan said, "Every single drop [of rain] which the Holy one, blessed be He, brought down on the generation of the Flood, He made to boil in Gehinnom" (Leviticus Rabbah 7:6). Similar is a tradition in the Talmud: 'With hot passion they sinned, and by hot water they were punished.' (b. Sanhedrin 108b; see Geiger, Judaism and Islam, 86)."[19] The midrash in Sanhedrin 108b is also found elsewhere in the Talmud, such as Tracate Rosh Hashanah as follows:

The Gemara answers: Even according to Rabbi Eliezer a change was made, in accordance with the statement of Rav Ḥisda, as Rav Ḥisda said: They sinned with boiling heat, and they were punished with boiling heat; they sinned with the boiling heat of the sin of forbidden sexual relations, and they were punished with the boiling heat of scalding waters. This is derived from a verbal analogy. It is written here, with regard to the flood: “And the waters abated” (Genesis 8:1), and it is written elsewhere, with regard to King Ahasuerus: “And the heated anger of the king abated” (Esther 7:10), which implies that the word “abated” means cooled. This indicates that at first the waters of the flood had been scalding hot.

Whoever kills a soul it is as if he has slain mankind

The Qur'an parallels a passage in the Talmud, specifically a rabbinical commentary in the Book of Sanhedrin.

Talmudic Mishnah

For thus we find in the case of Cain, who killed his brother, that it is written: the bloods of thy brother cry unto me: not the blood of thy brother, but the bloods of thy brother, is said — i.e., his blood and the blood of his [potential] descendants. (alternatively, the bloods of thy brother, teaches that his blood was splashed over trees and stones.) For this reason was man created alone, to teach thee that whosoever destroys a single soul of israel, scripture imputes [guilt] to him as though he had destroyed a complete world; and whosoever preserves a single soul of israel, scripture ascribes [merit] to him as though he had preserved a complete world. Furthermore, [he was created alone] for the sake of peace among men, that one might not say to his fellow, 'my father was greater than thine, and that the minim might not say, there are many ruling powers in heaven;

Qur'anic Verse

“Because of this, we decreed for the Children of Israel that anyone who murders any person who had not committed murder or horrendous crimes, it shall be as if he murdered all the people. And anyone who spares a life, it shall be as if he spared the lives of all the people.

The salient points are:

  • a. The Qur'an itself admits to Judeao-Christian origin of this story with the phrase, 'We decreed (katabnā) for the Children of Israel…’

    This word katabnā كَتَبْنَا is from the same Arabic root as kitāb, meaning book, as in 'People of the Book', and the verb kataba literally means he wrote. It is used a few verses later (wakatabnā) in Quran 5:45 regarding some things that are certainly in the written Torah, and in another example Quran 7:145 it is used for Allah writing on the stone tablets. Lane's Lexicon includes 'prescribed', 'ordained' among its definitions for this verb [20], though it is likely that this usage arose from royal decrees and legal rulings being written down. In some other verses exactly the same word is translated 'We have written'. It is quite obvious that the author believed that this 'decree' was in the law book of the Jews, the written Torah.

  • b. The Sanhedrin parallel is not in the Torah as it is merely a rabbinical commentary on Cain’s murder of Abel, derived from the use of the plural, "bloods", in Genesis 4:10. It is a Mishnayot – a teaching of a Jewish sage, and not from the biblical tradition as such but rather an extension of it.
  • c. The Qur'anic verse relates to the story of Cain's murder of Abel Quran 5:27-31, as does the Sanhedrin parallel.

Muslim Objections

Some Muslims (e.g. Dr Saifullah) claim that the parallelism is inexact, as the Sanhedrin 37a should be limited to ‘whoever destroys a single soul of Israel’. They claim that since the Qur'an lacks this reference to the 'single soul of Israel' but instead, generalizes the injunction to any soul, then the charge of parallelism has failed.

Problems with this argument

  1. Dr Saifullah's argument that the two stories are not exact copies doesn't hold water, since stories usually change in transmission.
  2. "of Israel" is absent in some manuscripts of this passage in the Babylonian Talmud, and we don't know which version Muhammad might have heard.
  3. The commentary also appears in the Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 4/5, which omits the phrase, ‘of Israel’. There is no evidence that Muhammad had to rely on the Babylonian Talmud and not the Jerusalem Talmud, even though the former is considered more authoritative. Joseph Witztum is even more emphatic that "of Israel" is merely a secondary reading.[21]

Prima facie - this is a clear-cut case of the Qur'an taking a story from apocryphal literature as scripture, since Sanhedrin 37a is from the "oral" Torah and therefore not part of the original biblical canon. There is no other explanation for the phrase, ‘We decreed / have written’ (katabna) in the verse-- it appears the Qur'an considers this apocryphal tradition to be on the same level as the biblical canon. The claim that it is lost because the Torah is corrupted stretches credulity because the parallelism exists in the Talmud, and it is unlikely that something lost from the Torah should find its way almost unchanged into the Talmud as a commentary of a narrative (i.e. a mishnayot). If the Rabbi had in mind a verse in the Torah that has since been lost, he would not have quoted verbatim from Genesis 4:10 ('it is written...'), but then when making his main point not quoted directly this hypothetical lost verse. It is not a law, despite being in the Talmud (Oral Law) but a commentary by a Jewish sage, who explains his reasoning.

Thus the use of the word "katabna" / decreed / ordain / prescribe / write something was used for a commentary written by a Jewish Rabbi. The conclusion seems to be that the Qur'an sees this tradition as being on the same level as the Bible, or else is not aware that it does not in fact stem from the Bible.

The Raven and the Burial of Abel

Qur'anic Account

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.

Jewish Folklore

This story of the raven and the burial of Abel has led many scholars to the conclusion that the Qur'an integrated Jewish folklore because this account is not in the Old Testament or the Torah, though there is uncertainty. It used to be supposed that a Jewish source known as Pirke de-Rabbi Elizer was a precursor to the story (there, it is Adam who learns from the raven how to bury his son). As Witztum notes however, Pirke de-Rabbi Elizer has been demonstrated to be a post-Islamic midrash, sometimes reflecting Islamic tradition so that it is not clear which tradition influenced the other.[22] A more likely antecedent for the Quranic story which is supported by many scholars is the Midrash Tanhuma, particularly the Tanhuma Yelammedenu, which existed in some form by the sixth century CE.[23] There, it is Cain who learns how to bury his brother, like in the Quranic version, although from two birds instead of one raven (Tanhuma Bereshit 10).

After Cain slew Abel, the body lay outstretched upon the earth, since Cain did not know how to dispose of it. Thereupon, the Holy One, blessed be He, selected two clean birds and caused one of them to kill the other. The surviving bird dug the earth with its talons and buried its victim. Cain learned from this what to do. He dug a grave and buried his brother. It is because of this that birds are privileged to cover their blood.
Tanhuma Bereshit 10 in S. A. Berman, Midrash Tanhuma-Yelammedenu: An English Translation of Genesis and Exodus from the Printed Version of Tanhuma-Yelammedenu with an Introduction, Notes, and Indexes (Hoboken, 1996), pp. 31-32

Wiztum comments that "Since the bird tradition is found in several rabbinic sources and versions it is hard to deny the possibility that ultimately its origin is indeed Jewish." Nevertheless, he argues that the Quranic version is earlier than those we find in Jewish sources, including the Tanhuma which most probably continued evolving long after the Quran appeared. While the story is present in the Tanhuma-Yelammedenu version of the Midrash Tanhuma, it is absent in its parallel version, the Buber Tanhuma. The details in the Quranic version are also simpler, and the extra details in the Tanhuma may reflect similar considerations as occured to Quranic commentators. Witztum concludes, "Is it possible that the midrashic sources reflect tafsir traditons in this instance? Perhaps."[24]

Abel's words to Cain

On a more concrete connection regarding the Cain and Abel verses, Reynolds remarks, "In Genesis the two brothers do not speak to each other at all [...] The conversation between Cain and Abel is close to that found in the Palestinian Targums, such as Targum Neofiti.[25]

And recite to them the story of Adam's two sons, in truth, when they both offered a sacrifice [to Allah], and it was accepted from one of them but was not accepted from the other. Said [the latter], "I will surely kill you." Said [the former], "Indeed, Allah only accepts from the righteous [who fear Him].

If you should raise your hand against me to kill me - I shall not raise my hand against you to kill you. Indeed, I fear Allah, Lord of the worlds. Indeed I want you to obtain [thereby] my sin and your sin so you will be among the companions of the Fire. And that is the recompense of wrongdoers."

And his soul permitted to him the murder of his brother, so he killed him and became among the losers.

Reynolds points the reader to Witztum, who notes how early Jewish sources supposed that Cain invited his brother to an open plain, some even speculating on possible arguments they may have had there. Witztum quotes such a developed dialogue found in Targum Neofiti, noting that similar dialogues are preserved in other targums of which we have surviving fragments. Scholars have noticed how Q. 5:27 may reflect Targum Neofiti where Abel replies to Cain that his sacrifice was accepted because his deeds were better. Similarites between certain Arabic words in the Quranic version and the Targum have also been noted.[26] Targum Neofiti has received datings ranging from the 2nd century BCE to the 2nd century CE.[27]

However, there are also differences: In the Targum, Cain does not announce his intention to kill his brother (he just kills him after they argue), and it lacks Abel's passivity to the threat.

Witztum fills this gap using certain Syriac sources. As Reynolds summarises, Witztum shows that "the Qurʾānic dialogue is related to a series of Syriac texts which describe the dialogue between Cain and Abel". These include a "'Syriac Dialogue Poem on Abel and Cain' (dated by S. Brock to 'no later than the fifth century'", "an unpublished Homily on Cain and Abel by Isaac of Antioch (d. late fifth century)", and the "Life of Abel of Symmachus (fl. late fifth to early sixth century)". Interestingly, Abel's passivity in the Quran to the threat from his brother reflects the latter two Syriac sources, in which Abel's arms are outstretched and explicitly described as a depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus on the cross.[28]

In the Syriac Dialogue Poem, we see Cain's direct murder threat to his brother, as in the Quran:

(Cain) Says Cain: Since the Lord has taken delight

in your sacrifice, but rejected mine,
I will kill you (qāṭelnā lāk): because He has preferred you.
I will take vengeance on His friend.

Syriac Dialogue Poem on Abel and Cain, stanza 13[29]

Witztum quotes further stanzas from the poem about the acceptability of offerings, which are reflected in the end of verse 27 of the Quranic passage ("Indeed, Allah only accepts from the righteous [who fear Him].":

(Abel) Abel replies: What wrong have I done

if the lord has been pleased with me?
He searches out hearts and so has the right.
to choose or reject as He likes.
(Abel) in all offerings that are made
it is love that He wants to see,
and if good intention is not mingled in,

then the sacrifice is ugly and rejected.
Syriac Dialogue Poem on Abel and Cain, stanzas 14 and 16[30]

Witztum cites other stanzas from the same poem which are somewhat reflective of Abel's passivity in verses 28-29 of the Quranic passage. He finds closer parallels on this point in the other Syriac sources mentioned above.[31] Also very important is that there are various lexical correspondances between the Arabic and Syriac vocabulary used in the Quranic passage and its Syriac precursors.[32]

Abraham Becomes a Monotheist

The Quran tells a story in which Abraham converts to monotheism after pondering the heavenly bodies and realising that Allah has power over them all. This is in fact a development of a Judeo-Christian exegetical tradition inspired by a couple of Biblical verses.

And [mention, O Muhammad], when Abraham said to his father Azar, "Do you take idols as deities? Indeed, I see you and your people to be in manifest error." And thus did We show Abraham the realm of the heavens and the earth that he would be among the certain [in faith] So when the night covered him [with darkness], he saw a star. He said, "This is my lord." But when it set, he said, "I like not those that disappear." And when he saw the moon rising, he said, "This is my lord." But when it set, he said, "Unless my Lord guides me, I will surely be among the people gone astray." And when he saw the sun rising, he said, "This is my lord; this is greater." But when it set, he said, "O my people, indeed I am free from what you associate with Allah. Indeed, I have turned my face toward He who created the heavens and the earth, inclining toward truth, and I am not of those who associate others with Allah." And his people argued with him. He said, "Do you argue with me concerning Allah while He has guided me? And I fear not what you associate with Him [and will not be harmed] unless my Lord should will something. My Lord encompasses all things in knowledge; then will you not remember? And how should I fear what you associate while you do not fear that you have associated with Allah that for which He has not sent down to you any authority? So which of the two parties has more right to security, if you should know? They who believe and do not mix their belief with injustice - those will have security, and they are [rightly] guided. And that was Our [conclusive] argument which We gave Abraham against his people. We raise by degrees whom We will. Indeed, your Lord is Wise and Knowing.

Reynolds notes that this passage develops a Jewish and Christian exegetical tradition, in turn inspired by Genesis 15:4-5 where God tells Abraham that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars, and Deuteronomy 4:19 where the people of Israel are told not to worship the heavenly bodies.[33] An early form of the story is found in the Book of Jubilees (generally dated not long before the Dead Sea Scrolls, c. 100 BCE, among which fragments of the book are found, and contains contemporary ex-eventu prophecies). Here, Abraham had turned to the stars, moon and sun, seeking in them signs of rainfall for the coming year:

16. And in the sixth week, in the fifth year thereof, Abram sat up throughout the night on the new moon of the seventh month to observe the stars from the evening to the morning, in order to see what would be the character of the year with regard to the rains, and he was alone as he sat and observed. 17. And a word came into his heart and he said: "All the signs of the stars, and the signs of the moon and of the sun are all in the hand of the Lord. Why do I search (them) out? 18. If He desireth, He causeth it to rain, morning and evening; And if He desireth, He withholdeth it, And all things are in His hand."

In the Apocalypse of Abraham, which Reynolds describes as "a work of Jewish origin, generally dated to first or second century AD", Abraham narrates in his own voice that he thought these heavenly bodies were gods but changed his mind because they set at night or could be obscured by clouds. This is noticably closer to the Quranic version.

7:8 [So] I would call the sun nobler than the earth, since with its rays it illumines the inhabited world and the various airs. 7:9 But I would not make it into a god either, since its course is obscured [both] at night [and] by the clouds. 7:10 Nor, again, would I call the moon and the stars gods, since they too in their times at night can darken their light.
Apocalypse of Abraham 7:8-9[34]

Reynolds also cites the Apocalypse of Abraham 4:3-6 in relation to Quran 26:69-93, a passage where Abraham tries to convince his father to forsake idols.

4:3 And I declared and said to him, “Hear, Terah, [my] father! It is the gods who are blessed by you, since you are a god to them, since you have made them; since their blessing is perdition, and their power is vain. 4:4 They could not help themselves, how [then] will they help you or bless me? 4:5 [In fact] I was for you a kind god of this gain, since it was through my cleverness that I brought you the money for the smashed [gods].” 4:6 And when he heard my word, his anger was kindled against me, since I had spoken harsh words against his gods.
Apocalypse of Abraham 4:3-6[35]

Abraham and the Idols

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, Reynolds remarks, "The Qurʾān refers here to a Midrashic tale found in several sources, including Genesis Rabbah, set during Abraham's childhood."[36]

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).[3]

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 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.[37] These objections have in turn been addressed by others.[38] 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 below, 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).[39] See the next section for more discussion on the fire element of the story.

Moreover, Dr Saifullah's team (and his respondants) were apparently unaware of the Apocalypse of Abraham, a work of Jewish origin, generally dated to the 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 (for more on the fire element of this story, see the next section below). 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.

Abraham saved from the fire

Qur'anic Account

At the end of the Quranic passage quoted in the previous section above, Quran 21:68-71, Allah saves Abraham from the fire. Similarly, see Quran 29:24 and Quran 37:97-98.

They said, "Burn him and support your gods - if you are to act." Allah said, "O fire, be coolness and safety upon Abraham." And they intended for him harm, but We made them the greatest losers. And We delivered him and Lot to the land which We had blessed for the worlds.

Midrash Account

This is believed by academic scholars to derive from a Rabbinic reinterpretation of the city named "Ur of the Chaldeans" in the biblical book of Genesis. In the centuries before Islam, Jewish Rabbis began to interpret "Ur of the Chaldeans" in Genesis 15:7 as "fire" of the Chaldeans (for example, Reynolds cites Genesis Rabbah 38:13 (quoted in the previous section above) as well as the Babylonian Talmud, Peshahim 118a).[40] This Jewish reinterpretation is also mentioned by Jerome in the 4th century CE.[39] "Ur" has the same consonantal structure as the Hebrew word for fire. Various elaborate legends subsequently arose, building on this idea that Abraham was saved from a fire. The Book of Jubilees (a 2nd century BCE elaboration on Genesis) from the biblical apocrypha contains the earliest form of the legend, in which Haran is burned to death trying to save the idols set on fire by his brother Abraham (a Rabbinic interpretation of Genesis 11:28).[41].

However, "Ur of the Chaldeans" is mentioned four times in the Hebrew Bible, and in some of those verses it is unambiguously clear that the phrase refers to a place: Genesis 11:28, Genesis 11:31, Genesis 15:7, and Nehimiah 9:7. Indeed, Ur was a real Sumerian city that has been excavated by archaeologists, although it was ruled by the Chaldeans only from the 7th century BCE. The biblical anachronism may be explained if the majority of Biblical scholars are correct to believe that the written books of the Torah were a product of the Babylonian captivity (c. 6th century BCE), based on earlier written sources and oral traditions, and that it was completed with final revisions during the post-Exilic period (c. 5th century BCE).

The House built by Abraham and Ishmael

In the Bible Abraham is told by God to sacrifice his son Isaac and is stopped at the last moment. The Quran mentions that Abraham and his son Ishmael raised the foundations of a house (elsewhere described as an inviolable sanctuary) where the attempted sacrifice of the latter was to take place.

And [mention] when Abraham was raising the foundations of the House and [with him] Ishmael, [saying], "Our Lord, accept [this] from us. Indeed You are the Hearing, the Knowing.

The origin of this story has been discussed by Joseph Witztum in his article The foundations of the house. He argues that the Quranic scene reflects a number of post-Biblical traditions building on Genesis 22 where Abraham goes to sacrifice Isaac. In later exegetical traditions, Abraham builds an altar for the sacrifice and Isaac willingly offers himself for slaughter. By the time of Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews 1:227 (1st century CE), Isaac even helps in its construction. In the 4th to 5th centuries several (mostly Syriac) Christian homilies take up this motif. Then a 6th century CE Syriac homily by Jacob of Serugh on Genesis 22 describes them as building not just an altar but a "house" (Syriac: bayta), like in the Quran (Arabic: bayt), which replaces Isaac here with Ishmael. Witztum also argues that the Quran transfers this imagery, originally associated with Jerusalem, to Mecca.[42] The clearly late development of the idea that Abraham build a sacred house together with his son in order to sacrifice him there undermines the idea that there is any history to the story.

Joseph's blood-stained tunic

And they came to their father at night, weeping. They said, "O our father, indeed we went racing each other and left Joseph with our possessions, and a wolf ate him. But you would not believe us, even if we were truthful." And they brought upon his shirt false blood. [Jacob] said, "Rather, your souls have enticed you to something, so patience is most fitting. And Allah is the one sought for help against that which you describe."

Unlike in Genesis 37:31-34, Jacob is not fooled by the fake blood on Joseph's tunic presented by his brothers. Citing Pseudo Narsai and Balai (fl. early fifth century), Reynolds observes that "Jacob's prescience in the Qurʾān reflects traditions in a number of Syriac texts."[43] He refers the reader to Joseph Witzum, Syriac Milleu p. 209, who details the various theories of the Syriac authors as to how Jacob knew it was not Joseph's blood. Witzum surmises the reason why the Syriac tradition did not follow Genesis: "it seems likely that this was intended to redeem Jacob’s honor. Instead of being a gullible old man, he is sharp as ever".[44]

Joseph's torn tunic

And she, in whose house he was, sought to seduce him. She closed the doors and said, "Come, you." He said, "[I seek] the refuge of Allah. Indeed, he is my master, who has made good my residence. Indeed, wrongdoers will not succeed." And she certainly determined [to seduce] him, and he would have inclined to her had he not seen the proof of his Lord. And thus [it was] that We should avert from him evil and immorality. Indeed, he was of Our chosen servants. And they both raced to the door, and she tore his shirt from the back, and they found her husband at the door. She said, "What is the recompense of one who intended evil for your wife but that he be imprisoned or a painful punishment?" [Joseph] said, "It was she who sought to seduce me." And a witness from her family testified. "If his shirt is torn from the front, then she has told the truth, and he is of the liars. But if his shirt is torn from the back, then she has lied, and he is of the truthful." So when her husband saw his shirt torn from the back, he said, "Indeed, it is of the women's plan. Indeed, your plan is great. Joseph, ignore this. And, [my wife], ask forgiveness for your sin. Indeed, you were of the sinful."

Unlike in Genesis 39:11-20 where Potiphar believes Joseph is guilty of seducing his wife, the Quranic Joseph in vindicated as Potiphar accepts the torn shirt as proof that Joseph did not try to do so. The idea that Potiphar in fact knew Joseph was innocent was apparently created by Jewish and Christian exegetes (e.g. Genesis Rabbah 87:9) in order to explain what they thought to be a light punishment, imprisonment. The manner in which Joseph's innocence is proven (his torn tunic) is in Syriac Christian sources e.g. Narsai (Homily on Joseph 2:279) and Pseudo Narsai (541-42).[45] Significantly, Reynolds notes that "This element is missing from Jewish sources."[46]

One day he went into the house to attend to his duties, and none of the household servants was inside. She caught him by his cloak and said, “Come to bed with me!” But he left his cloak in her hand and ran out of the house. When she saw that he had left his cloak in her hand and had run out of the house, she called her household servants. “Look,” she said to them, “this Hebrew has been brought to us to make sport of us! He came in here to sleep with me, but I screamed. When he heard me scream for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house.” She kept his cloak beside her until his master came home. Then she told him this story: “That Hebrew slave you brought us came to me to make sport of me. 18 But as soon as I screamed for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house.” When his master heard the story his wife told him, saying, “This is how your slave treated me,” he burned with anger. Joseph’s master took him and put him in prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined.

The origin of the motif seems to be commentary on the story. Witztum quotes as an example, Philo (d. 50 CE). It can be seen that this is just Philo's own reasoning, not put in the mouth of Potiphar:

Joseph’s master, believing this to be true, ordered him to be carried away to prison, and in this he committed two great errors. First he gave him no opportunity of defence, and convicted unheard this entirely innocent person as guilty of the greatest misconduct. Secondly, the raiment which his wife produced as left by the youth was a proof of violence not employed by him but suffered at her hands. For if force were used by him, he would retain his mistress’s robe, if against him, he would lose his own.
Philo, On Joseph 52[47]

Iblis and his refusal to prostrate

Qur'anic Account

The Qur'anic story that Satan was expelled from Heaven for defying Allah’s command that the angels prostrate to Adam has an antecedent in a pre-Islamic Jewish tale which itself was an elaboration of a Rabbinic exegesis. The Quran is closest to the Syriac Christian versions from which it takes numerous details. The Bible does not contain this tale.

And We have certainly created you, [O Mankind], and given you [human] form. Then We said to the angels, "Prostrate to Adam"; so they prostrated, except for Iblees. He was not of those who prostrated.

‏[Allah] said, "What prevented you from prostrating when I commanded you?" [Satan] said, "I am better than him. You created me from fire and created him from clay." [Allah] said, "Descend from Paradise, for it is not for you to be arrogant therein. So get out; indeed, you are of the debased. [Satan] said, "Reprieve me until the Day they are resurrected." [Allah] said, "Indeed, you are of those reprieved." [Satan] said, "Because You have put me in error, I will surely sit in wait for them on Your straight path. Then I will come to them from before them and from behind them and on their right and on their left, and You will not find most of them grateful [to You]."

[Allah] said, "Get out of Paradise, reproached and expelled. Whoever follows you among them - I will surely fill Hell with you, all together."

This story recurs several times in the Qur'an, for instance:

And [mention] when We said to the angels, "Prostrate before Adam"; so they prostrated, except for Iblees. He refused and was arrogant and became of the disbelievers. And We said, "O Adam, dwell, you and your wife, in Paradise and eat therefrom in [ease and] abundance from wherever you will. But do not approach this tree, lest you be among the wrongdoers." But Satan caused them to slip out of it and removed them from that [condition] in which they had been. And We said, "Go down, [all of you], as enemies to one another, and you will have upon the earth a place of settlement and provision for a time.
Remember when your Lord said to the angels, "I am going to create a man (Adam) from sounding clay of altered black smooth mud. So when I have fashioned him completely and breathed into him (Adam) the soul which I created for him then fall you down prostrating yourselves unto him." SO the angels prostrated themselves all of them together, except Iblis, he refused to be among the prostrators. Allah said: "O Iblis! What is your reason for not being among the prostrators?" Iblis said: "I am not the one to prostrate myself to a human being, whom You created from sounding clay of altered black smooth mud." Allah said: "Then get out from here for verily you are Rajim (an outcast or cursed one). Verily the curse shall be upon you till Day of Recompense (Day of Resurrection).
"Shall I prostrate to one whom You created from clay?" Iblis said: "See? those whom You have honored above me, if You give me respite (keep me alive) to the Day of Resurrection, I will surely seize and mislead his offspring (by sending them astray) all but a few!"
Remember when your Lord said to the angels: "Truly I am going to create man from clay. So when I have fashioned him and breathed into him (his) soul created by me, then you fall down prostrate to him." So the angels prostrated themselves all of them; except Iblis, he was proud and was one of the disbelievers. Allah said: "The truth is, and the truth I say, that I will fill Hell with you and those of them (mankind) that follow you together."

Apocryphal Account

Regarding Quran 7:11-12, Reynolds comments that the story of angels prostrating before Adam, which is not in the Bible, emerged from Rabbinic speculation on Psalms 8:4-6 ("what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet"). He cites as an example the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 38b:[48]

Rab Judah said in Rab's name: When the Holy One, blessed be He, wished to create man, He [first] created a company of ministering angels and said to them: Is it your desire that we make a man in our image? They answered: Sovereign of the Universe, what will be his deeds? Such and such will be his deeds, He replied. Thereupon they exclaimed: Sovereign of the Universe, What is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou thinkest of him?

The story of Satan refusing to prostate/worship (sajada) Adam is found in the apocryphal ‘Life of Adam and Eve’, a first to fourth century Jewish Hellenistic work. Some authorities date it to the first century CE based on the absence of the Christian concept of original sin and the influence of the story on the Ebionites.[49]

“And with a heavy sigh, the devil spake: ‘O Adam! all my hostility, envy, and sorrow is for thee, since it is for thee that I have been expelled from my glory, which I possessed in the heavens in the midst of the angels and for thee was I cast out in the earth.’ Adam answered, ‘What dost thou tell me? What have I done to thee or what is my fault against thee? Seeing that thou hast received no harm or injury from us, why dost thou pursue us?’

“The devil replied, ‘Adam, what dost thou tell me? It is for thy sake that I have been hurled from that place. When thou wast formed, I was hurled out of the presence of God and banished from the company of angels. When God blew into thee the breath of life and thy face and likeness was made in the image of God, Michael also brought thee and made (us) worship thee in the sight of God; and God the Lord spake: “Here is Adam. I have made him in our image and likeness.”

“‘And Michael went out and called all the angels saying: “Worship the image of God as the Lord hath commanded.”

“‘And Michael himself worshipped first; then he called me and said: “Worship the image of God the Lord.” And I answered, “I have no (need) to worship Adam.” And since Michael kept urging me to worship, I said to him, “Why dost thou urge me? I will not worship an inferior and younger being (than I). I am his senior in the Creation, before he was made was I already made. It is his duty to worship me.”

“‘When the angels, who were under me, heard this, they refused to worship him. And Michael saith, “Worship the image of God, but if thou wilt not worship him, the Lord God will be wroth with thee.” And I said, “If He be wroth with me, I will set my seat above the stars of heaven and will be like the Highest.”

“‘And God the Lord was wroth with me and banished me and my angels from our glory; and on thy account were we expelled from our abodes into this world and hurled n the earth. And straightway we were overcome with grief, since we had been spoiled of so great glory. And we were grieved when we saw thee in such joy and luxury. And with guile I cheated thy wife and caused thee to be expelled through her (doing) from thy joy and luxury, as I have been driven out of my glory.’

“When Adam heard the devil say this, he cried out and wept and spake: ‘O Lord my God, my life is in thy hands. Banish this Adversary far from me, who seeketh to destroy my soul, and give me his glory which he himself hath lost.’ And at that moment, the devil vanished before him. But Adam endured in his penance, standing for forty days (on end) in the water of Jordan.”

Reynolds notes that Satan's desire to plot against Adam in the above passage is because he was cast out for refusing to worship him. Reynolds cites a parallel in Quran 2:34-36, though a stronger parallel is Quran 7:13-18 (especially v. 16 where Satan expresses his motivation).[50]

Regarding Quran 7:23-25 where Adam pleads for forgiveness and mercy, Reynolds comments on another parallel with this apocryphal work: "The idea that God forgave Adam is found in the Life of Adam and Eve". He cites Life of Adam and Eve Armenian version, trans. Anderson and Stone, 28:2-4. Note that in Quran 2:37 and Quran 20:122 it is clearer that Allah forgives Adam after his plea.

28.2 Adam said again to God, 'My Lord, I beseech you, give me of the tree of life, so that I may eat before I shall have gone forth from the Garden'.

28.3 God said to Adam, 'You cannot take of it in your lifetime, because I have given an order to the Seraphs to guard it round about with weapons because of you, lest you should eat more of it and become immortal and say, 'Behold, I shall not die"; and you will be boastful of it and be victorious in the war which the enemy has made with you.

28.4 Rather, when you go out of the Garden, guard yourself from slander, from harlotry, from adultery, from sorcery, from the love of money, from avarice and from all sins. Then, you shall arise from death, in the resurrection which is going to take place. At that time, I will give you of the tree of life and you will be eternally undying'.

Another important set of parallels is found in the Cave of treasures, dating to the sixth century CE.[51][52] It was written in Syriac by Christians from earlier Jewish sources and contains another version of the prostration story which is even closer to the Quranic version. The sequence of events in the Quran and many details are as found in this work.

Reynolds observes: "In the Syriac Christian work Cave of Treasures - as in the Qurʾān (v. 12) - the angels prostrate before Adam, but the devil refuses to do so, with the explanation that he is made from fire while Adam is made from dirt". Reynolds here cites "Cave of Treasures [Oc.], 2:12-13, 22-25, and 3:1-2". Reynolds notes in one of his other books that this "marks a distinct development in the narrative of the devil's rebellion. According to the Life of Adam and Eve, the devil's excuse for not worshipping Adam is that he was created first. In the Cave of Treasures, however, the devil's excuse is that he was created from fire, while Adam was created from dirt. It is this tradition that is reflected in the Qurʾān: 'I am better than he is. You created me from fire. You created him from clay.' (Q 7.12; cf. 15.33; 17.61; 38.76)."[53] An earlier source for this element, known as the Questions of Bartholomew, was originally written in Greek by a Christian and has been variously dated from the 2nd to 6th century CE (Sergey Minov's opinion is 2nd-3rd century). It closely follows the Life of Adam narrative, but after Michael tells Satan to worship Adam, Satan replies, "I am fire of fire, I was the first angel to be formed, and shall I worship clay and matter?".[54]

God formed Adam in his holy hands, in His image and in His likeness. When the angels saw the image and the glorious appearance of Adam, they trembled at the beauty of his figure...Moreover, the angels and celestial powers heard the voice of God saying to Adam, "See, I have made you a king, priest and prophet, Lord, leader and director of all those made and created. To you alone have I given these and I give to you authority over everything I have created." When the angels and archangels, the thrones and dominions, the cherubims and seraphins, that is when all of the celestial powers heard this voice, all of the orders bent their knees and prostrated before him.


When the leader of the lesser order saw the greatness given to Adam, he became jealous of him and did not want to prostrate before him with the angels. He said to his hosts, 'Do not worship him and do not praise him with the angels. It is proper that you should worship me, for I am fire and spirit, not that I worship something made from dirt.
Cave of Treasures (Western recension) 2:12-13, 22-25, and 3:1-2[55]

Witztum (crediting Beck) notes that Quran 7:13-18 has the same sequence of events as Cave of Treasures 3:3-9, with Adam and his mate placed in the garden and told not to approach the tree immediately after Iblis is banished.[56]).

Regarding Quran 7:19-22 where Adam and Eve eat from the tree, Reynolds notes that "Syriac texts including Cave of treasures and Ephrem's Hymns on Paradise (following Rev 12:9), and unlike most Jewish texts, puts Satan there" (in Jewish tradition, Satan is not identified with the serpent in Genesis[57]). Furthermore, "Like the Qurʾān , the 'Oriental' version of the Cave of Treasures makes no mention of the 'tree of the knowledge of good and evil' but rather connects the sin of Adam and Eve with the 'tree of life'. It does so to make a parallel between the one tree of life and the one cross of salvation (Cave of Treasures [Or], 4:2-5; on this see Witztum, Syriac Milieu, 81-83[...]"[58]

According to Reynolds, Allah's command to "Go down" in the Quranic verses "reflects the cosmological vistas of Syriac Christian sources in which paradise is on top of a cosmic mountain, above the earth, and thus has God cry out 'Go down'."[59] See also Tommaso Tesei's article Some Cosmological Notions from Late Antiquity in Q 18:60–65 for a probably more accurate interpretation of the cosmography, such that Syriac authors like Ephrem, who refers to paradise as being at a great height, had in mind that paradise was beyond the world-encircling ocean, and was the source of the great rivers on earth, as reflected also in for example Quran 88:10 and the common Quranic phrase "gardens from beneath which the rivers flow".[60]

The Qur'anic story of Satan refusing to worship or prostate before Adam has distinct antecedents in pre-Islamic Jewish and Christian sources including elements that were added in stages over the centuries. It would appear that this post-biblical legend has been extensively incorporated into the Islamic scriptures, without an apparent understanding of its origin.

Jinn created from fire

And the jinn We created before from scorching fire.

According to Reynolds, "The idea that God first created the Jinn from fire (v. 27) reflects Christian texts such as the Cave of Treasures that speak of the creation of the devil from fire (and have him already present at the creation of Adam)."[61] See the discussion in the previous section above on the prostration of Iblis, which quotes the Cave of Treasures where he states that he was created from fire and spirit.

The angels could not name animals when Adam was created

In the Quran, the angels are at first wary of the creation of Adam. Allah then teaches Adam "the names" (in the Biblical book of Genesis God brings the animals to Adam so he can name them) and challenges the angels to match this knowledge. They are reminded of their place when they are unable to answer, whereas Adam is able to do so.

They said, "Exalted are You; we have no knowledge except what You have taught us. Indeed, it is You who is the Knowing, the Wise." And [mention, O Muhammad], when your Lord said to the angels, "Indeed, I will make upon the earth a successive authority." They said, "Will You place upon it one who causes corruption therein and sheds blood, while we declare Your praise and sanctify You?" Allah said, "Indeed, I know that which you do not know." He said, "O Adam, inform them of their names." And when he had informed them of their names, He said, "Did I not tell you that I know the unseen [aspects] of the heavens and the earth? And I know what you reveal and what you have concealed."

In the Bible, Genesis 2:19-20, God allows Adam to name all the animals and there is nothing more to that part of the story. The angelic element of the Quranic narrative derives from a similar account originating in the exegesis of a Rabbi:

Said R’ Acha: In the hour that the Holy One came to create the human, He ruled [together] with the ministering angels. He said to them: “Let us make a human [in our image]”. They said to him: This one, what good is he? He said: His wisdom is greater than yours. He (God) brought before them beast and animal and bird. He said to them: This one, what is his name? and they didn’t know. He made them pass before Adam. He said to him: This one, what is his name? [Adam] said: This is ox/shor, and this is donkey/chamor and this is horse/sus and this is camel/gamal.

The four stories in Surah al-Kahf

The Quran contains four short stories from the Christian lore of late antiquity, some of which seem to have been popular in the Syriac speaking region. The traditional account about the revelation of Surah al-Kahf in the sira literature is somewhat at odds with this context. According to Ibn Ishaq's biography of Muhammad, he was challenged by Jews from Medina to answer three questions about the young men who disappeared in ancient days, the mighty traveller who reached the eastern and western ends of the world, and the spirit (a question about the spirit is actually answered in Quran 17:85-87, not Surah al-Kahf).[62]

The seven sleepers of Ephesus

Academic scholars consider the story of the sleepers of the cave in Quran 18:9-26 to be derived from a famous Christian legend, known as The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus. In 2023, Thomas Eich published his finding that the specific version of the tale found in the Quran overlaps significantly with the version taught by Theodore of Tarsus which can be situated in a 7th century Palestinian context. For a detailed discussion, see the main article.

Moses, his servant and the fish

The story of Moses and his journey to the end of the world, with his servant and a miraculously escaped fish in Quran 18:60-64 is almost unanimously considered by academic scholars to be derived from a legend about Alexander the Great in the Alexander Romance tradition (Pseudo-Callisthenes), an episode known as the search for the water of life. This tale is also found in the Jewish Talmud and the early 7th century CE Syriac metrical homily (memre) about Alexander (also known as the Song of Alexander, or Alexander Poem).

The Syriac metrical homily also features the episode of Alexander enclosing Gog and Magog behind a wall, derived from the slightly earlier Syriac Alexander Legend, and which occurs in the Dhu'l Qarnayn pericope, discussed below. It cannot be a coincidence that, like surah al-Kahf, the Syriac homily has both stories, perhaps providing a clue to the content of their ultimate common source. See the Water of Life section in the main article for a more detailed discussion, including relevant quotes from the Syriac homily.

Moses and al Khidr

The story of Moses and al-Khidr occurs in Quran 18:65-82. A J Weinsink (d. 1939) proposed that it was derived from the story of Elijah and Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, though more recent scholarship has shown that the latter is late and heavily influenced by the Islamic tradition. More successfully, Roger Paret identified a significant Christian parallel that may predate the Quran.[63] It is an example of a genre of literature known as "theodicy" (dealing with the theological problem of evil).

Paret identified this parallel in a popular (though not authoritative) version of a late sixth or early seventh century CE collection of middle eastern monastic tales, the Leimon (in its original Greek, or Pratum Spirituale in Latin, which translates to Spiritual Meadow) of John Moschos (d. 619 CE). This version includes a set of supplementary stories, published by Elpidio Mioni, which are now generally considered not to have been penned by Moschus and include the Quranic parallel. They do nevertheless appear to originate from Palestinian monastics of the 7th century according to Sean Anthony, likely added by one of Moschus' Palestinian disciples.[64] The basic structure of the story is identical to the Quranic passage, and has many similarities of detail though also differences.

A wandering ascetic is upset by notions of divine justice demonstrated to him by an angel before the events are explained to him. Like the Quran, the story involves three perplexing acts by the divine servant followed by an explanation to his exasperated companion, the second and third of which have obvious similarities to the Quranic pericope: In order to spare his father's salvation, a boy is killed who would have grown up commiting evil; and in a town where no-one would offer them hospitality, a wall containing hidden treasure on the verge of collapsing is repaired without asking for payment.

Quran 18:65-82 (Moses and al Khidr):

And they found a servant from among Our servants to whom we had given mercy from us and had taught him from Us a [certain] knowledge.

Moses said to him, "May I follow you on [the condition] that you teach me from what you have been taught of sound judgement?" He said, "Indeed, with me you will never be able to have patience. And how can you have patience for what you do not encompass in knowledge?" [Moses] said, "You will find me, if Allah wills, patient, and I will not disobey you in [any] order." He said, "Then if you follow me, do not ask me about anything until I make to you about it mention." So they set out, until when they had embarked on the ship, al-Khidh r tore it open. [Moses] said, "Have you torn it open to drown its people? You have certainly done a grave thing." [Al-Khidh r] said, "Did I not say that with me you would never be able to have patience?" [Moses] said, "Do not blame me for what I forgot and do not cover me in my matter with difficulty." So they set out, until when they met a boy, al-Khidh r killed him. [Moses] said, "Have you killed a pure soul for other than [having killed] a soul? You have certainly done a deplorable thing." [Al-Khidh r] said, "Did I not tell you that with me you would never be able to have patience?" [Moses] said, "If I should ask you about anything after this, then do not keep me as a companion. You have obtained from me an excuse." So they set out, until when they came to the people of a town, they asked its people for food, but they refused to offer them hospitality. And they found therein a wall about to collapse, so al-Khidh r restored it. [Moses] said, "If you wished, you could have taken for it a payment." [Al-Khidh r] said, "This is parting between me and you. I will inform you of the interpretation of that about which you could not have patience. As for the ship, it belonged to poor people working at sea. So I intended to cause defect in it as there was after them a king who seized every [good] ship by force. And as for the boy, his parents were believers, and we feared that he would overburden them by transgression and disbelief. So we intended that their Lord should substitute for them one better than him in purity and nearer to mercy.

And as for the wall, it belonged to two orphan boys in the city, and there was beneath it a treasure for them, and their father had been righteous. So your Lord intended that they reach maturity and extract their treasure, as a mercy from your Lord. And I did it not of my own accord. That is the interpretation of that about which you could not have patience."

The Spiritual Meadow of John Moscus (d. 619 CE), Mioni 6 (for images of the translation see footnote[65]):

There was a virtuous anchorite who called upon God saying: 'Lord, make known to me what your judgements are'. He demonstrated frequent <acts of> asceticism in support of this prayer, but God made it known to him that, for men, this was not possible. He still continued beseeching God by an ascetic mode of life; and as God wished to inform the elder, he allowed the idea to come to him to go visit an anchorite who was settled not a few miles away. He got his sheepskin coat ready and set off. God sent an angel disguised as a monk who met the elder and said to him: 'Where are you going, good elder?' The elder said 'To so-and-so the anchorite'. The angel who was pretending to be a monk said: 'I am going to <see> him too; we will travel together'. When they had travelled the first day, they came to a place in which there dwelt a man who loved Christ. He received them <as guests> and put them up. Whilst they were eating, the man produced a silver dish <patella> and when they had eaten, the angel took the dish and made it disappear into thin air. The elder was disturbed when he saw this. Then going out together, they travelled the next day and in due course encountered another man who loved Christ and monks, in the place where he dwelt. He received them as his guests, washed their feet and embraced them. Early next morning, he brought his son, the only child he had, to be blessed by them. The angel seized it by the throat and strangled it. The elder was flabbergasted, but he said not a word. The third day, although they travelled a great distance, they found nobody who would offer them hospitality. Then they found a long-deserted dwelling where, sitting down in the shade of a wall, they partook of the dried-out crusts the elder had. And, as they were eating, the angel saw a wall about to collapse. Leaping up to safety, he began to take down the masonry and to rebuild <it>. The elder could bear it no longer; he swore at him, saying: 'Are you an angel? Are you a demon? Tell me what you are; the things you do are not the sort of things a man does'. The angel said: 'What did I do?' The elder said: 'Yesterday and the day before, those friends of Christ put us up. You not only made the first one's dish disappear; you also strangled the son of the other. And yet here, where we have found no rest, you stand doing the work of a labourer'. Then the angel said to him: 'Listen, and I will tell you. The first man who received us is one who loves God and manages his possessions in a godly way. That dish was left to him as the inheritance of an unjust man. I made that dish disappear, you see, so that he would not lose the reward of his other good <deeds> on account of it, and <now> his record is clean. And the other man who made us his guests, he is virtuous. Had that small child lived, it would have <grown up> to be an instrument of Satan, so that the good works of his father would pass into oblivion. So I strangled him whilst he was tender to ensure the salvation of the father, and that his record remain unassailable before God'. The elder said: 'And what about here?' The angel said: 'The owner of this dwelling is a plague who seeks to harm many people; it grieves him that he cannot succeed in doing so. When his grandfather built this house, he put money into the masonry he was building. I restored the masonry, you see, so that he would not be able to harm those he intended to harm by means of the cash he would have found when the building collapsed; I deprived him of the means. Now go to <your> cell, for as the Holy Spirit says: Your judgements are like the great deep <Ps 35:6>.' Having said this to him, the angel of God disappeared. Then the elder returned to his senses; he went back to his cell, glorifying God.
The spiritual meadow by John Moschos (also known as John Eviratus): introduction, translation, and notes by John Wortley (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cisternian Publications, 1992) pp. 220-222

Dhu'l Qarnayn

The Quranic story of Dhu'l Qarnayn is narrated in Quran 18:83-101, and is perhaps the most famous example of an intertextual relationship between the Quran and a non-biblical legend. Academic scholars consider the Quranic pericope to be closely connected to the Syriac Alexander Legend, which has Alexander the Great voyaging to the ends of the earth to see where the sun goes, before securing the Huns (including Gog and Magog) behind an iron wall. The story seems to have received a final redaction between 629-636 CE, though there are reasons to believe an original version was composed in the sixth century CE. The legend of Alexander enclosing Gog and Magog behind a iron barrier is first found several centuries earlier in the works of the Jewish historian Josephus. For a detailed discussion, see the main article.

Jesus, Mary, and the Palm Tree

Qur'anic Account

The Bible canon does not contain the episode of Mary, Jesus and the palm tree, which first appears in the apocrypha and later in the Qur'an.

Then she conceived him; and withdrew with him to a remote place. ‏And the throes of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm-tree. She said: Oh, would that I had died before this, and had been a thing quite forgotten! ‏So a voice came to her from beneath her: Grieve not, surely thy Lord has provided a stream beneath thee. ‏ And shake towards thee the trunk of the palm-tree, it will drop on thee fresh ripe dates. ‏So eat and drink and cool the eye. Then if thou seest any mortal, say: Surely I have vowed a fast to the Beneficent, so I will not speak to any man to-day.

Gospel of Pseudo-Mathew

Quranic verse 19:22-26 is a clear parallel of the account found in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. In this account Jesus has already been born, but he is still a baby during the flight to Egypt. The family are hungry and thirsty, resting under a palm tree. As in the Quran, Jesus performs the miracles of making the palm tree drop fruit and a stream appear beneath it.

And it came to pass on the third day of their journey, while they were walking, that the blessed Mary was fatigued by the excessive heat of the sun in the desert; and seeing a palm tree, she said to Joseph: Let me rest a little under the shade of this tree. Joseph therefore made haste, and led her to the palm, and made her come down from her beast. And as the blessed Mary was sitting there, she looked up to the foliage of the palm, and saw it full of fruit, and said to Joseph: I wish it were possible to get some of the fruit of this palm. And Joseph said to her: I wonder that thou sayest this, when thou seest how high the palm tree is; and that thou thinkest of eating of its fruit. I am thinking more of the want of water, because the skins are now empty, and we have none wherewith to refresh ourselves and our cattle. Then the child Jesus, with a joyful countenance, reposing in the bosom of His mother, said to the palm: O tree, bend thy branches, and refresh my mother with thy fruit. And immediately at these words the palm bent its top down to the very feet of the blessed Mary; and they gathered from it fruit, with which they were all refreshed. And after they had gathered all its fruit, it remained bent down, waiting the order to rise from Him who bad commanded it to stoop. Then Jesus said to it: Raise thyself, O palm tree, and be strong, and be the companion of my trees, which are in the paradise of my Father; and open from thy roots a vein of water which has been hid in the earth, and let the waters flow, so that we may be satisfied from thee. And it rose up immediately, and at its root there began to come forth a spring of water exceedingly clear and cool and sparkling. And when they saw the spring of water, they rejoiced with great joy, and were satisfied, themselves and all their cattle and their beasts. Wherefore they gave thanks to God.”

Dating issues and an earlier Syriac source

The dating of this Latin apocrypha is of uncertain date, with the oldest surving manuscript dating to around 820 CE. In 2011, Michael Berthold identified that one of its sources is the Pseudo-Ambrosian Life of Saint Agnes, which is used by another work around 690 CE so this source is earlier than that. St. Agnes is thought to have lived some time from the 5th to 7th century. Other more speculative arguments suggest an earliest date of the mid sixth century for Pseudo Matthew. Considering all these insights from other scholars, Brandon Hawk gives it a date range of 550 - 800 CE.[66]

Fortunately, Stephen Shoemaker has identified a precursor of the Mary palm tree story in a set of early 5th century CE texts (at the latest) known as the Dormition of the Virgin, for which we have later fifth century CE Syriac manuscript fragments as the earliest textual witnesses. This version was widespread throughout the Byzantine Near East by the end of the sixth century CE.[67] In this version, the infant Jesus commands the palm tree to bow down and provide fruit, as in Pseudo-Matthew, but it is already located by a stream rather than the stream being a second miracle as in Pseudo-Matthew and the Quran. Nevertheless, this is proof enough that the story was developing in the region well before the 7th century CE.

Leto in Greek mythology

Suleiman Mourad has traced the development of this story in the Qur'an and Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew through Greek and Latin literature. He writes:

All the various Hellenistic and Latin variants of the original myth of Leto giving birth to Apollo by a palm tree reflect the borrowing and adaptation by groups who reshaped it for their own objectives and needs. Appropriations of ancient myths were common in the ancient world, and the early Christians were no exception. The palm-tree story that found its way to sura Maryam is a reworking of Leto's labor. It is about a distressed pregnant woman (Leto/Mary) who seeks an isolated place (Delos/a remote spot), sits by the trunk of a palm tree next to a stream (Inopos/a brook), and delivers a holy child (Apollo/Jesus).
‏It is nevertheless unlikely that the myth of Leto was the direct source for sura Maryam. As was aforementioned, the concise version found in the latter has two parts: Mary's labor and delivery, and the miracle. We might therefore suspect that there was a stage when Leto's myth was borrowed and applied to Mary.[68]

Jesus speaking from the cradle

The story of the baby Jesus speaking is found in Q 19:29-31 and Q 3:46 (similarly Q 5:110).

So she pointed to him. They said, "How can we speak to one who is in the cradle a child?"? [Jesus] said, "Indeed, I am the servant of Allah. He has given me the Scripture and made me a prophet. And He has made me blessed wherever I am and has enjoined upon me prayer and zakah as long as I remain alive
He will speak to the people in the cradle and in maturity and will be of the righteous."

Reynolds remarks, "The reference in verse 46 to Jesus' speaking 'to the people in the cradle' (cf. 5:110, 19:29) refers to a tradition found in the Latin Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (likely written in the early seventh century".[69]

Then the child Jesus, with a joyful countenance, reposing in the bosom of His mother, said to the palm: O tree, bend thy branches, and refresh my mother with thy fruit. And immediately at these words the palm bent its top down to the very feet of the blessed Mary; and they gathered from it fruit, with which they were all refreshed. And after they had gathered all its fruit, it remained bent down, waiting the order to rise from Him who bad commanded it to stoop. Then Jesus said to it: Raise thyself, O palm tree, and be strong, and be the companion of my trees, which are in the paradise of my Father; and open from thy roots a vein of water which has been hid in the earth, and let the waters flow, so that we may be satisfied from thee. And it rose up immediately, and at its root there began to come forth a spring of water exceedingly clear and cool and sparkling.

For a discussion of the dating for Pseudo-Matthew, and an earlier 5th century CE source with much the same story, see the section on Jesus, Mary and the Palm Tree above. That 5th century source (at the latest) is the Dormition of Mary, which relates that Jesus miraculously spoke to his father at the age of 5 months when the family were thirsty:

And the child stopped [nursing from] your breast, this one who is greater than all things, and he said to Joseph, ‘My father, why don’t you climb this date-palm and bring it to her, so that my mother might eat from it, as was said about it. And I will feed you: not only you, but also the fruit that comes forth from it. I will not be hungry even for one day.’ And the child turned and said to the date-palm, ‘Incline your head with your fruit, and satisfy my mother and father.’ And it inclined immediately.
Dormition of Mary[70]

A different story found in the Arabic Infancy Gospel (also known as the Syriac Infancy Gospel), is sometimes cited as a possible antecedent of the Quranic tale that Jesus spoke in infancy. However, academic scholars tend to doubt that it is pre-Islamic. The Arabic Infancy Gospel combines elements from the Childhood of the Saviour, Protoevangelium of James, and Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew.

See also the sirah passage quoted in the section below about Jesus and the Clay Birds, in which three Christians are narrated as having informed Muhammad that Jesus spoke in the cradle as well as other miracles.

Jesus and the Clay Birds

Qur'anic Account

According to the Qur'an, Jesus (with the permission of Allah) created a clay bird which he blew into and brought to life.

And (make him) a messenger to the Children of Israel (saying): I have come to you with a sign from your Lord, that I determine for you out of dust the form of a bird, then I breathe into it and it becomes a bird with Allah’s permission, and I heal the blind and the leprous, and bring the dead to life with Allah’s permission; and I inform you of what you should eat and what you should store in your houses. Surely there is a sign in this for you, if you are believers.
When Allah will say: O Jesus, son of Mary, remember My favour to thee and to thy mother, when I strengthened thee with the Holy Spirit; thou spokest to people in the cradle and in old age, and when I taught thee the Book and the Wisdom and the Torah and the Gospel, and when thou didst determine out of clay a thing like the form of a bird by My permission, then thou didst breathe into it and it became a bird by My permission; and thou didst heal the blind and the leprous by My permission; and when thou didst raise the dead by My permission; and when I withheld the Children of Israel from thee when thou camest to them with clear arguments -- but those of them who disbelieved said: This is nothing but clear enchantment.

Apocryphal Account

Reynolds remarks on this parallel: "The miracle of Jesus' creating a bird (or birds) from clay, and his bringing it to life with his breath (cf. 5:110) is known from the apocryphal Childhood of the Saviour (second century AD; commonly, and erroneously, referred to as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas). In the Christian context, the point is to have Jesus create a living being in the way God creates Adam (Gen 2:7)"[71] The Childhood of the Saviour survives primarily through a few Greek manuscripts, but was also translated at an early time into other languages including Syriac. The following is from a critical edition of the Childhood of the Saviour based on the best manuscripts by Tony Burke, Professor of Early Christianity, York University, Toronto (the opening attribution to the apostle Thomas is ommitted in his translation because the earliest textual witnesses are anonymous).

When the boy Jesus was five years old, he was playing at the ford of a rushing stream. And he gathered the disturbed water into pools and made them pure and excellent, commanding them by the character of his word alone and not by means of a deed. Then, taking soft clay from the mud, he formed twelve sparrows. It was the Sabbath when he did these things, and many children were with him. And a certain Jew, seeing the boy Jesus with the other children doing these things, went to his father Joseph and falsely accused the boy Jesus, saying that, on the Sabbath he made clay, which is not lawful, and fashioned twelve sparrows. And Joseph came and rebuked him, saying, “Why are you doing these things on the Sabbath?” But Jesus, clapping his hands, commanded the birds with a shout in front of everyone and said, “Go, take flight, and remember me, living ones.” And the sparrows, taking flight, went away squawking. When the Pharisee saw this he was amazed and reported it to all his friends.
Childhood of the Saviour 1:1-5 Critical edition translated by Tony Burke, 2009 The Childhood of the Saviour (Infancy Gospel of Thomas): A New Translation (archive)

A similar story appears in the Arabic Infancy Gospel (also known as the Syriac Infancy Gospel), combining elements from the Childhood of the Saviour, Protoevangelium of James, and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. However, the dating of that version is disputed and academic scholars tend to doubt that it is pre-Islamic.

Muslim Apologetics

This parallelism has never been explained by Muslim apologists except to use it to perversely claim that the Bible is corrupted. They argue that the original Bible contained the apocryphal story of Jesus making and animating clay birds, and that the Qur'an was merely correcting a wrongful exclusion of these apocrypha from the canon.[72]

Interestingly, the sirah itself narrates how Muhammad, far from receiving these stories from Allah (via the angel Jibreel/Gabriel), heard it from three Christians. Saifullah & Azmy of Islamic-awareness write more on this here. While the narrative seems to serve a mixture of apologetic and polemical purposes, as well as a kind of "occasion of revelation", it could possibly reflect some historical memory of Muhammad learning from regional Christians about their religious traditions.

“The names of the fourteen principal men among the sixty riders were: `Abdul-Masih the `Aqib, al-Ayham the Sayyid; Abu Haritha b. `Alqama brother of B. Bakr b. Wa`il; Aus; al-Harith; Zayd; Qays; Yazid; Nubayh; Khuwaylid; `Amr; Khalid; `Abdullah; Johannes; of these the first three named above spoke to the Apostle. They were Christians according to the Byzantine rite, though they differed among themselves in some points, saying He is God; and He is the son of God; and He is the third person of the Trinity, which is the doctrine of Christianity. They argue that he is God because he used to raise the dead, and heal the sick, and declare the unseen; and make clay birds and then breathe into them so that they flew away; and all this was by the command of God Almighty, 'We will make him a sign to men.' They argue that he is the son of God in that they say he had no known father; and he spoke in the cradle and this is something that no child of Adam has ever done. They argue that he is the third of the three in that God says: We have done, We have commanded, We have created and We have decreed, and they say, If He were one he would have said I have done, I have created, and soon, but He is He and Jesus and Mary. Concerning all these assertions the Qur'an came down.”
A. Guillaume, The Life Of Muhammad: A Translation Of Ishaq's Sirat Rasul Allah, 1998, Oxford University Press: Karachi (Pakistan), p 271-272.

The parallelism between the Qur'an’s ‘Jesus animating clay birds’ verses and the apocryphal story is strong, suggesting a very mundane and earthly source of the Qur'an's revelation here. As to the historical reliability of the document itself, there are various reasons why the apocryphal stories in the Childhood of the Saviour are not included in the canon; These apocrypha contain verses that contradict the canonical Gospels and their late date reveals itself both in style and substance.

The Qur'anic Trinity

God, Jesus and Mary: The Trinity?

In Surah 5 al-Ma'idah, the Qur'an apparently responds to a strange version of the Christian Trinity:

They indeed have disbelieved who say: Lo! Allah is the Messiah, son of Mary. Say: Who then can do aught against Allah, if He had willed to destroy the Messiah son of Mary, and his mother and everyone on earth? Allah's is the Sovereignty of the heavens and the earth and all that is between them. He createth what He will. And Allah is Able to do all things.
And behold! Allah will say: "O Jesus the son of Mary! Didst thou say unto men, worship me and my mother as gods in derogation of Allah'?" He will say: "Glory to Thee! never could I say what I had no right (to say). Had I said such a thing, thou wouldst indeed have known it. Thou knowest what is in my heart, Thou I know not what is in Thine. For Thou knowest in full all that is hidden

This alternative formulation of the trinity is present even more clearly in Quran 5:72-75, which makes no mention of the holy spirit and takes measure to disprove the divinity of Jesus and his mother by pointing out that they, like normal human beings, also ate food.

They have certainly disbelieved who say, "Allah is the Messiah, the son of Mary" while the Messiah has said, "O Children of Israel, worship Allah, my Lord and your Lord." Indeed, he who associates others with Allah - Allah has forbidden him Paradise, and his refuge is the Fire. And there are not for the wrongdoers any helpers. They have certainly disbelieved who say, "Allah is the third of three." And there is no god except one God. And if they do not desist from what they are saying, there will surely afflict the disbelievers among them a painful punishment. So will they not repent to Allah and seek His forgiveness? And Allah is Forgiving and Merciful. The Messiah, son of Mary, was not but a messenger; [other] messengers have passed on before him. And his mother was a supporter of truth. They both used to eat food. Look how We make clear to them the signs; then look how they are deluded. Say, "Do you worship besides Allah that which holds for you no [power of] harm or benefit while it is Allah who is the Hearing, the Knowing?" Say, "O People of the Scripture, do not exceed limits in your religion beyond the truth and do not follow the inclinations of a people who had gone astray before and misled many and have strayed from the soundness of the way."

This seeming mistake about the Christian trinity, a well established doctrine for centuries by this point, has long been one of the great riddles of the Qur'an (though in 2022 an interesting solution was proposed by Klaus von Stosch, discussed further below).

Muslim Apologetics about the Collyridians

Orthodox Muslim scholars tend to explain these verses by appearling to the heretical Arab Christian sect of the Collyridians, which were described in the 4th century CE and possibly may have survived into Muhammad’s time, so the Quran was specifically addressing their understanding of the Trinity.

Reynolds notes that Epiphanius (d. 403 CE) in his Panerion refers briefly to a group of women in the Arabian desert who worship Mary as a godess and offer her cakes (in Greek, collyrida; hence they were known as Collyridians).[73] Epiphanius of Salamis (a saint in both the Nicaean Orthodox churches and the Catholic Church) was a 4th-century Christian arch-heresy hunter and defender of Christian orthodoxy. This is what he has to say about them:

1,1 < Another > sect has come to public notice after this, and I have already mentioned a few things about it in the Sect preceding, in the letter about Mary which I wrote to Arabia. (2) This one, again, was also brought to Arabia from Thrace and upper Scythia, and word of it has reached me; it too is ridiculous and, in the opinion of the wise, wholly absurd...For as, long ago, those who, from an insolent attitude towards Mary, have seen fit to suspect these things were sowing damaging suspicions in people’s minds, so these persons who lean in the other direction are guilty of doing the worst sort of harm. In them too the maxim of certain pagan philosophers, “Extremes are equal,” will be exemplified. (5) For the harm done by both of these sects is equal, since one belittles the holy Virgin while the other, in its turn, glorifies her to excess. For certain women decorate a barber’s chair or a square seat, spread a cloth on it, set out bread and offer it in Mary’s name on a certain day of the year, and all partake of the bread–as I partially discussed in my same letter to Arabia. Now, however, I shall speak plainly of it and, with prayer to God, give the best refutations of it that I can, so as to grub out the roots of this idolatrous sect and with God’s help, be able to cure certain people of this madness...As Maker and Master of the thing [to be made] he formed himself from a virgin as though from earth—God come from heaven, the Word who had assumed flesh from a holy Virgin. But certainly not from a virgin who is worshiped, or to make her God, or to have us make offerings in her name, or, again, to make women priestesses after so many generations. (3) It was not God’s pleasure that this be done with Salome, or with Mary herself. He did not permit her to administer baptism or bless disciples, or tell her to rule on earth, but only to be a sacred shrine and be deemed worthy of his kingdom. (4) He did not order the woman called the mother of Rufus to advance < to* > this rank22 or the women who followed Christ from Galilee, or Martha the sister of Lazarus and [her sister] Mary, or any of the holy women who were privileged to be saved by his advent < and > who assisted him with their own possessions—or the woman of Canaan, or the woman who was healed of the issue of blood, or any woman on earth.

According to Epiphanius, the Collyridians seem to merge pagan goddess-worship with Christian Mariolatry. They had female priests and, interestingly for purposes of this study, seem to have been found in Arabia. It's important to remember that this is one of dozens of heresies mentioned by Epiphanius, and this is the only mention extant of them. Epiphanius doesn't give any indication of how many people actually followed this heresy, and it's not possible to know how long after his time they lasted exactly. It's also not possible for us to know how accurately this section actually describes their beliefs, since we have no extant writings from them; it is possible that Epiphanius is exaggerating here and they did not actually worship Mary as a god.

Edward Gibbon in 'the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire' [Chapter 50] states that they were still in existence in the seventh century (without providing any corroborating evidence). One explanation is that Gibbon's simply took the clear parallelism of verse 5:116 with Collyridianism to mean they were present during Muhammad’s day.

As to the purpose of verse 5:116, the most plausible explanation is clearly that it was a polemic against real or imagined Christian belief in the trinity. Whether or not the Collyridians still existed at Muhammad's time or before is not knowable from the extant evidence, but if it is a reference to this sect, either by mistake or over-generalization the Qur'an does seem to apply this polemic to all Christians as a whole, whereas at most this belief was extremely marginal within Chrisitanity.

See also the sirah quoted in the section about Jesus and the Clay birds below.

Byzantine theological debates and war propaganda

Klaus von Stosch proposed at the 2022 conference "Unlocking the Byzantine Qur'an" an explanation for the hitherto unexplained and unusual Quranic phrases regarding Mary and the Christian trinity in Surah 5 al-Ma'idah, which are not found in earlier surahs but make a late appearance here in the Quran. Regarding the perculiar formulation "They have certainly disbelieved who say, 'Allah is the Messiah, the son of Mary'" (verses 17 and 72), Stosch points out that a hot theological debate in 6th century CE Byzantine Christianity was whether it was correct to not only say Christ is God, but also that God is Christ.

Regarding "They surely disbelieve who say: Lo! Allah is the third of three" (verse 73), Stosch points out that a liturgy propogated across the empire by the emperor Justinian had introduced the phrase "One of the Holy Trinity" (albeit applied to Jesus, not God) in order to smooth over the differences in the above mentioned debate, and was in use as a creedal formula in Alexandria even during Muhammad's prophetic career.

Regarding the argument that he and his mother "both used to eat (earthly) food" (verse 75), some Byzantine theologians had proposed that because Christ was without sin, his body was incorruptible and he had no need for food. Moreover, relics relating to Jesus and Mary had recently been credited as saving Constantinople from a seige by Khosrow in 626 CE and were therefore considered indestructable (surah al Ma'idah dates to 630 CE or after the conquest of Mecca). Another phrase in verse 17 also appears to be a response to this imperial propaganda: "Say, 'Then who could prevent Allah at all if He had intended to destroy Christ, the son of Mary, or his mother or everyone on the earth?'". A letter had been sent throughout the empire by the Byzantine emperor Heraclius blaming Khosrow's defeat on his opposition to Christ and Mary. Stosch argues that "O Jesus the son of Mary! Didst thou say unto men, worship me and my mother as gods in derogation of Allah'?" (verse 116) is a Quranic critique of what it sees as the Byzantines turning Mary into a Godess of war.[74]

However, this last proposal seems somewhat insufficient since the verses (especially 5:72-75) very much read as though the author believed Mary was being worshipped as part of the Christian trinity, not a godess alongside it. It could be that the imperial news and propaganda had become corrupted by the time it penetrated Arabia, giving the impression that Mary was now being worshipped as part of the trinity by the Byzantine Christians.

Mary and Zechariah

Qur'anic Account

The Bible, unlike the Qur'an, is silent on Mary’s birth, upbringing and relationship with Zachariah. The following is what one finds in the Qur'an:

[Mention, O Muhammad], when the wife of 'Imran said, "My Lord, indeed I have pledged to You what is in my womb, consecrated [for Your service], so accept this from me. Indeed, You are the Hearing, the Knowing."

‏But when she delivered her, she said, "My Lord, I have delivered a female." And Allah was most knowing of what she delivered, "And the male is not like the female. And I have named her Mary, and I seek refuge for her in You and [for] her descendants from Satan, the expelled [from the mercy of Allah]."

So her Lord accepted her with good acceptance and caused her to grow in a good manner and put her in the care of Zechariah. Every time Zechariah entered upon her in the prayer chamber, he found with her provision. He said, "O Mary, from where is this [coming] to you?" She said, "It is from Allah. Indeed, Allah provides for whom He wills without account."

‏At that, Zechariah called upon his Lord, saying, "My Lord, grant me from Yourself a good offspring. Indeed, You are the Hearer of supplication."

‏So the angels called him while he was standing in prayer in the chamber, "Indeed, Allah gives you good tidings of John, confirming a word from Allah and [who will be] honorable, abstaining [from women], and a prophet from among the righteous."

‏He said, "My Lord, how will I have a boy when I have reached old age and my wife is barren?" The angel said, "Such is Allah; He does what He wills."

‏He said, "My Lord, make for me a sign." He Said, "Your sign is that you will not [be able to] speak to the people for three days except by gesture. And remember your Lord much and exalt [Him with praise] in the evening and the morning."

And [mention] when the angels said, "O Mary, indeed Allah has chosen you and purified you and chosen you above the women of the worlds.

O Mary, be devoutly obedient to your Lord and prostrate and bow with those who bow [in prayer]."

That is from the news of the unseen which We reveal to you, [O Muhammad]. And you were not with them when they cast their pens as to which of them should be responsible for Mary. Nor were you with them when they disputed.

The salient points are:

  • The child Mary was given into Zachariah’s care by her mother, and kept in a sanctuary (possibly in dedication to God).
  • Zachariah was astonished that she did not need human help in feeding herself. Some supernatural occurrence explained her daily sustenance.
  • Zachariah speaks to God who told him of John. Zachariah is incredulous due to the physical condition of him and his wife.
  • Mary’s husband was decided by the drawing of lots.

Apocryphal Accounts

Reynolds observes, "The Qurʾān follows closely here the Protoevangelium of James, a Greek Christian work written in the late second century and translated into Syriac in the fifth century". He further notes, "The manner in which the Qurʾān has Mary's mother commend Mary and her 'descendents' (i.e. Jesus) to God's protection from the devil may allude to the Christian doctrine that Mary and Jesus were free from sin."[75] Regarding verse 37 in which Mary has a miraculous source of food, Reynolds notes that the Qurʾān also here follows a tradition found in the Protoevangelium of James 7:2 to 8:1.[76].

Regarding verse 44 in which things were cast to determine who would look after Mary, Reynolds notes that Islamic tradition related this as casting pens (Quills). However, citing the Protoevangelium 9:1, Reynolds remarks, "In fact the Qurʾān is following the chronology of Mary's life as found in the Protoevangelium. The contest is over who will marry Mary, and it involves not pens but rods, or reeds. The Arabic aqlām comes from the Greek kalamos (and it is a kalamos, "reed," that soldiers put in the right hand of Christ in Mat 27:29"[77]

Various later apocrypha partly based on the Protoevangelium also contain the relevant story elements.[78]

Excerpts from the Protevangelium of James

(1) She cared for the child for months. When the child turned two years old, Joachim said, "Let's take her to the temple of the Lord so we can relate the message we were given." (2) And Anna said, "Let's wait until the third year, so that she will not seek her father or mother." (3) And Joachim said, "Let's wait." [...]
(1) And her parents went down, marveling at and praising and glorifying the Lord God because the child had not turned back to look at them. (2) While Mary was in the temple of the Lord, she was fed like a dove and received food from the hand of an angel. (3) When she turned twelve, a group of priests took counsel together, saying, "Look, Mary has been in the temple of the Lord twelve years. (4) What should we do about her now, so that she does not defile the sanctuary of the Lord our God?" (5) And they said to the high priest, "You have stood at the altar of the Lord. Go in and pray about her. And if the Lord God reveals anything to you, we will do it." (6) And the priest went in taking the vestment with twelve bells into the holy of holies and prayed about her. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord stood before him, saying, "Zachariah, Zachariah, depart from here and gather the widowers of the people

and let each one carry a staff. (8) And the one whom the Lord God points out with a sign, she will be his wife." (9) So the heralds went out to the

whole surrounding area of Judea and the trumpet of the Lord rang out and all the men rushed in.
(1) Throwing down his ax, Joseph went out to meet them. (2) And after they had gathered together with their rods, they went to the high priest. (3) After receiving everyone's rod, the high priest went into the temple and prayed. (4) When he was finished with the prayer, he took the rods and went out and gave them to each man, (5) but there was no sign among them. Finally, Joseph took his rod. (6) Suddenly, a dove came out of the rod and stood on Joseph's head. (7) And the high priest said, "Joseph! Joseph! You have been chosen by lot to take the virgin into your own keeping. [...]"

The story of Mary’s upbringing in the Temple under the supervision of the High Priest Zachariah, and the choice of Joseph as Mary’s husband by the drawing of lots, is not told in the Bible but in various apocrypha. The Qur'an’s parallelism of this story casts suspicion as to its provenance. These apocrypha are clearly later Christian writings pre-dating Islam, and the oldest, the pseudepigraphal Protevangelium, dates to the second century CE. On stylistic and theological grounds, the Protevangelium has long been considered apocrypha. Thus, these details of the Qur'anic story should not be taken as historical detail but rather as Christian legend which, by merit of its wide circulation, entered into the Qur'an.

The Wealth of Korah

Qur'anic Verse

The Torah tells the story of Korah (or Korach) and his rebellion against Moses (Numbers 16:1-35). This story was later embellished by Rabbinic exegetes and replicated in the Qur'an where Korah is transliterated to Qaaroon.

Indeed, Qarun was from the people of Moses, but he tyrannized them. And We gave him of treasures whose keys would burden a band of strong men; thereupon his people said to him, "Do not exult. Indeed, Allah does not like the exultant.

Talmudic Account

Reynolds comments regarding this passage, "The reference to Korah's possessions (Num 16:32-33) was taken by Jewish exegetes as a sign that he had grown rich: 'the keys of Korah's treasure house were a load for three hundred white mules' (b. Sanhedrin 110a). One tradition in the Babylonian Talmud (b. Peshahim 119a) attributes Korah's riches to a treasure left by Joseph."[79]

“Riches kept for the owners thereof to their hurt: Resh Lakish said: This refers to Korah's wealth. And all the substance that was at their feet: R. Eleazar said: This refers to a man's wealth, which puts him on his feet. R. Levi said: The keys of Korah's treasure house were a load for three hundred white mules, though all the keys and locks were of leather. R. Hama son of R. Hanina said: Three treasures did Joseph hide in Egypt: one was revealed to Korah; one to Antoninus the son of Severus, and the third is stored up for the righteous for the future time.”

Jewish scholars have noted that the story of Korah’s wealth is not told in the Torah or Mishnah but by sages. Professor Avigdor Shenan says that the Sages present Korach, among others things, as an extremely wealthy man and the phrase “as wealthy as Korach” is used even today.

Professor Shenan also noted that the Jewish sages had two theories about how Korah acquired his wealth.

“According to the first: “Joseph hid three treasures in Egypt. One was revealed to Korach, one was revealed to Antoninus son of Asviros, and one is hidden away for the righteous in the end of days” (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 119a).

Joseph’s great wealth, from when he gathered “all the money which was in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan” (Bereishit 47:14)”

“According to the other opinion, Pharaoh’s wealth reached Korach since he was Pharaoh’s finance minister, “and he had in his hands the keys to his treasures” (Bamidbar Rabba 18:15).”

Here is Professor Shenan’s conclusion about the wealthy Korah story:

“Why do the Sages wish to present Korach as extremely wealthy? It is difficult to find a basis for this in the biblical story. There it is written that the mouth of the earth opened in order to swallow Korach and his followers, their homes “and every man that was for Korach and all the property” (Bamidbar 16:32) and there is not enough in these words to find a basis for the assertion that he was extremely wealthy.”[80]

Thus, it can be seen that there is little or no basis in the Bible for Korah to be assumed a wealthy man, especially since he fled with Moses during the Exodus. It is unlikely, although Jewish tradition has it, that the Hebrews would have fled in haste from a vengeful Pharaoh and his army carrying a load of treasure. Rather this idea, included in the Quran, about Korah being so wealthy that the keys to his treasure house themselves were so heavy that they required a large number of bearers is credited in the Talmud to Rabbi Levi; a third century Haggadist who lived in Palestine.

Mountain raised above the Children of Israel

Qur'anic Account

In four passages, the Quran says that the mountain was raised over the Children of Israel when they were given the covenant.

And [recall] when We took your covenant, [O Children of Israel, to abide by the Torah] and We raised over you the mount, [saying], "Take what We have given you with determination and remember what is in it that perhaps you may become righteous."
And [mention] when We raised the mountain above them as if it was a dark cloud and they were certain that it would fall upon them, [and Allah said], "Take what We have given you with determination and remember what is in it that you might fear Allah."

See similarly Quran 2:93 and Quran 4:154.

Midrash Account

Michael Graves has argued in a detailed article on the theology of these passages that the Quran deploys the motif that the mountain was literally raised over the Israelites for its own theological purposes, to destabilize Judeo-Christian concepts of divine election and to emphasise the need for all people to show reverant awareness of Allah. Moreover, he explains why academic scholars understand the idea to have come about from Rabbinic exegesis of a verse in the biblical book of Genesis.[81]

Graves explains that in Exodus 19:17 Moses brings the people out of the camp to meet God, and the people take their place beṯaḥtîṯ hāhār, which is usually taken to mean, “at the foot of the mountain.”

17 And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet with God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount.
18 And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly.
Exodus 19:17-18 (KJV)

He notes that beṯaḥtîṯ is an unusual way to say "at the foot of", the root word typically meaning "under", and this particular form of the word is unique in the Hebrew Bible. Graves observes that:

If one were to press the language of the text in a literalistic fashion, one could construe this verse as saying that the people took their place “below” or “underneath” the mountain. It is precisely this kind of unusual expression in the biblical text that regularly served as a jumping off point for midrashic exegesis (see Zetterholm 2012, 70–71; Wylen 2005, 97–98; Stern 1987, 613–620; Sarason 1998, 133–154). In fact, the picture of Israel situated literally underneath the uplifted mountain supports a theological reflection on Israel’s meeting with God at Sinai in the earliest rabbinic midrash on Exodus, Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael. That God raised up Mt. Sinai over Israel became a standard interpretation of Exodus 19:17 in rabbinic sources. It is notable, although not unusual, that an exegetical motif such as this should find its way into the Qurʾan.

Graves notes that the Talmud ascribes the interpretation to R. Abdimi b. Hama, a fourth century Rabbi. He quotes the tradition as reported in the Babylonian Talmud, Tracates Shabbat 88a and Abodah Zarah 2b:

And they stood under the mountain”: R. Abdimi b. Ḥama said: This teaches that the Holy Blessed One overturned the mountain upon them like a cask, and said to them, “If you accept the Torah, well and good; but if not, there shall be your burial.
Tracates Shabbat 88a and Abodah Zarah 2b

Reynolds notes an additional point regarding Quran 7:171-174: "On the term translated here as 'canopy' (Ar: zulla), Yahuda (284) argues that it means something closer to a jar (inverted)."[82] If correct, that would suggest an even closer fit to the talmud quote above.

The body on Solomon's throne

And We certainly tried Solomon and placed on his throne a body; then he returned. He said, "My Lord, forgive me and grant me a kingdom such as will not belong to anyone after me. Indeed, You are the Bestower."

Citing and quoting the Babylonian Talmud, Gitten 68, Reynolds notes, "Behind this passage is a midrashic tale found in the Babylonian Talmud according to which the demon Ashmedai, who had been subdued by Solomon, tricks Solomon into removing his chains and handing over his ring. Ashmedai swallows Solomon, casts him far away, takes Solomon's likeness, and takes his place on the throne (eventually Ashmedai is recognized because of his stockings which he wore to cover his roosterlike feet). Solomon returns to Jerusalem in the guise of a beggar, which may explain the humility ascribed to him in these two Qur'ānic verses."[83]

Jinn help Solomon build temples

And to Solomon [We subjected] the wind - its morning [journey was that of] a month - and its afternoon [journey was that of] a month, and We made flow for him a spring of [liquid] copper. And among the jinn were those who worked for him by the permission of his Lord. And whoever deviated among them from Our command - We will make him taste of the punishment of the Blaze. They made for him what he willed of elevated chambers, statues, bowls like reservoirs, and stationary kettles. [We said], "Work, O family of David, in gratitude." And few of My servants are grateful.

Reynolds notes that behind these verses is a legend found in the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud Gittin 68a-b) about demons who help Solomon build the Jerusalem temple (the Arabic word for elevated chamber in v. 13 is the same as is used for the Jerusalem temple sanctury in Quran 3:37-39). [84] It appears to stem from an idosyncratic exegesis on Solomon's words in Ecclesiastes 2:8.

I gat me sharim and sharoth, and the delights of the sons of men, Shidah and shidoth. 'Sharim and Sharoth', means diverse kinds of music; 'the delights of the sons of men' are ornamental pools and baths. 'Shidah and shidoth': Here [in Babylon] they translate as male and female demons. In the West [Palestine] they say [it means] carriages. R. Johanan said: There were three hundred kinds of demons in Shihin, but what a shidah is I do not know.

The Master said: Here they translate 'male and female demons'. For what did Solomon want them? — As indicated in the verse, And the house when it was in building was made of stone made ready at the quarry, [there was neither hammer nor axe nor any tool of iron heard in the house while it was in building]; He said to the Rabbis, How shall I manage [without iron tools]? — They replied, There is the shamir which Moses brought for the stones of the ephod.
What I want is to build the Temple and I require the shamir.

Solomon kept him with him until he had built the Temple.

The Queen of Sheba

Qur'anic Account

The story of the Queen of Sheba is an ancient one, dating back to the Old Testament (1 Kgs. 10:1-10 and 2 Chr. 9:1-12). Josephus also makes mention of the Queen of Sheba, as does the Qur'an, which interestingly embellishes the Old Testament account with the episodes of the hoopoe and the Queen of Sheba exposing her legs.

Below is the Quranic account of the story:

And he took attendance of the birds and said, "Why do I not see the hoopoe - or is he among the absent? I will surely punish him with a severe punishment or slaughter him unless he brings me clear authorization." But the hoopoe stayed not long and said, "I have encompassed [in knowledge] that which you have not encompassed, and I have come to you from Sheba with certain news. Indeed, I found [there] a woman ruling them, and she has been given of all things, and she has a great throne. I found her and her people prostrating to the sun instead of Allah, and Satan has made their deeds pleasing to them and averted them from [His] way, so they are not guided, [And] so they do not prostrate to Allah, who brings forth what is hidden within the heavens and the earth and knows what you conceal and what you declare - Allah - there is no deity except Him, Lord of the Great Throne." [Solomon] said, "We will see whether you were truthful or were of the liars. Take this letter of mine and deliver it to them. Then leave them and see what [answer] they will return." She said, "O eminent ones, indeed, to me has been delivered a noble letter. Indeed, it is from Solomon, and indeed, it reads: 'In the name of Allah, the Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful, Be not haughty with me but come to me in submission [as Muslims].' " She said, "O eminent ones, advise me in my affair. I would not decide a matter until you witness [for] me." They said, "We are men of strength and of great military might, but the command is yours, so see what you will command." She said, "Indeed kings - when they enter a city, they ruin it and render the honored of its people humbled. And thus do they do. But indeed, I will send to them a gift and see with what [reply] the messengers will return." So when they came to Solomon, he said, "Do you provide me with wealth? But what Allah has given me is better than what He has given you. Rather, it is you who rejoice in your gift. Return to them, for we will surely come to them with soldiers that they will be powerless to encounter, and we will surely expel them therefrom in humiliation, and they will be debased." [Solomon] said, "O assembly [of jinn], which of you will bring me her throne before they come to me in submission?" A powerful one from among the jinn said, "I will bring it to you before you rise from your place, and indeed, I am for this [task] strong and trustworthy." Said one who had knowledge from the Scripture, "I will bring it to you before your glance returns to you." And when [Solomon] saw it placed before him, he said, "This is from the favor of my Lord to test me whether I will be grateful or ungrateful. And whoever is grateful - his gratitude is only for [the benefit of] himself. And whoever is ungrateful - then indeed, my Lord is Free of need and Generous." He said, "Disguise for her her throne; we will see whether she will be guided [to truth] or will be of those who is not guided." So when she arrived, it was said [to her], "Is your throne like this?" She said, "[It is] as though it was it." [Solomon said], "And we were given knowledge before her, and we have been Muslims [in submission to Allah]. And that which she was worshipping other than Allah had averted her [from submission to Him]. Indeed, she was from a disbelieving people." She was told, "Enter the palace." But when she saw it, she thought it was a body of water and uncovered her shins [to wade through]. He said, "Indeed, it is a palace [whose floor is] made smooth with glass." She said, "My Lord, indeed I have wronged myself, and I submit with Solomon to Allah, Lord of the worlds."

Targum Sheni

Regarding the above passage, Reynolds cites the Targum Sheni 1:1-3 (also known as The Second Targum of Esther).[85] The Targums were translations (in this case, Aramaic) of the Hebrew scriptures, often with significant exegesis, paraphrase, or additional tales interwoven with the text.

A few verses earlier, Quran 27:16-17 also has a parallel at the start of the same Targum Sheni passage. Reynolds remarks that "The Qurʾān's declaration that Solomon was taught the 'speech of the birds' (v. 16) and that his army included 'jinn, humans and birds' (v. 17) reflects the Second Targum of Esther (the date of which is disputed, but may date originally from the fourth century AD; On its relationship with the Qurʾān see BEQ, 390-91; 393-98)."[86] However, it must be cautioned that the date of the Targum Sheni (Second Targum of Esther) is extremely uncertain. It has received various datings from the 4th to 11th centuries AD (as Reynolds also mentions), though certainly in its final redaction includes material which post-dates the lower end of that range.[87]

Dozens of details correspond between this passage and the Quranic verses when they are compared:

At another time, when the heart of Solomon was gladdened with wine, he gave orders for the beasts of the land, the birds of the air, the creeping things of the earth, the demons from above and the Genii, to be brought, that they might dance around him, in order that all the kings waiting upon him might behold his grandeur. And all the royal scribes summoned by their names before him; in fact, all were there except the captives and prisoners and those in charge of them. Just then the Red-cock, enjoying itself, could not be found; and King Solomon said that they should seize and bring it by force, and indeed he sought to kill it. But just then the cock appeared in presence of the King, and said: O Lord, King of the earth! having applied thine ear, listen to my words. It is hardly three months since I made a firm resolution within me that I would not eat a crumb of bread, nor drink a drop of water until I had seen the whole world, and over it make my flight, saying to myself, I must know the city and the kingdom which is not subject to thee, my Lord King. Then I found the fortified city Qîtôr in the Eastern lands, and around it are stones of gold and silver in the streets plentiful as rubbish, and trees planted from the beginning of the world, and rivers to water it, flowing out of the garden of Eden. Many men are there wearing garlands from the garden close by. They shoot arrows, but cannot use the bow. They are ruled by a woman, called Queen of Sheba. Now if it please my Lord King, thy servant, having bound up my girdle, will set out for the fort Qîtôr in Sheba; and having "bound their Kings with chains and their Nobles with links of iron," will bring them into thy presence. The proposal pleased the King, and the scribes prepared a despatch, which was placed under the bird's wing, and away it flew high up in the sky. It grew strong surrounded by a crowd of birds, and reached the Fort of Sheba. By chance the Queen of Sheba was out in the morning worshipping the sea; and the air being darkened by the multitude of birds, she became so alarmed as to rend her clothes in trouble and distress. Just then the Cock alighted by her, and she seeing the letter under its wing opened and read it as follows: "King Solomon sendeth to thee his salaam, and saith, The high and holy One hath set me over the beasts of the field, etc.; and the kings of the four Quarters send to ask after my welfare. Now if it please thee to come and ask after my welfare, I will set thee high above them all. But if it please thee not, I will send kings and armies against thee; — the beasts of the field are my people, the birds of the air my riders, the demons and genii thine enemies, — to imprison you, to slay and to feed upon you." When the Queen of Sheba heard it, she again rent her garments, and sending for her Nobles asked their advice. They knew not Solomon, but advised her to send vessels by the sea, full of beautiful ornaments and gems, together with 6000 boys and girls in purple garments, who had all been born at the same moment; also to send a letter promising to visit him by the end of the year. It was a journey of seven years but she promised to come in three. When at last she came, Solomon sent a messenger shining in brilliant attire, like the morning dawn, to meet her. As they came together, she stepped from her carriage. "Why dost thou thus?" he asked. "Art thou not Solomon?" she said. "Nay, I am but a servant that standeth in his presence." The queen at once addressed a parable to her followers in compliment to him, and then was led by him to the Court. Solomon hearing she had come, arose and sat down in the Palace of glass. When the Queen of Sheba saw it, she thought that the glass floor was water, and so in crossing over lifted up her garments. When Solomon seeing the hair about her legs, cried out to her: Thy beauty is the beauty of women, but thy hair is as the hair of men; hair is good in man, but in woman it is not becoming. On this she said: My Lord, I have three enigmas to put to thee. If thou canst answer them, I shall know that thou art a wise man: but if not thou art like all around thee. When he had answered all three, she replied, astonished: Blessed be the Lord thy God, who hath placed thee on the throne that thou mightest rule with right and justice. And she gave to Solomon much gold and silver; and he to her whatsoever she desired.
Targum Sheni 1:1-3[88]

One cannot be too dogmatic about this parallelism, as the dating of Targum Sheni is not beyond doubt. Nevertheless, it is likely that the story of the Queen of Sheba pre-dates the Qur'an as the Targum is mentioned in the Jerusalem Talmud. It is also clear that the post-Quranic dates often ascribed to Targum Sheni are that of the final redaction and not necessarily that of the Queen of Sheba myths.

The Drowning of Pharaoh

And We took the Children of Israel across the sea, and Pharaoh and his soldiers pursued them in tyranny and enmity until, when drowning overtook him, he said, "I believe that there is no deity except that in whom the Children of Israel believe, and I am of the Muslims." Now? And you had disobeyed [Him] before and were of the corrupters? So today We will save you in body that you may be to those who succeed you a sign. And indeed, many among the people, of Our signs, are heedless

Reynolds comments, "The question of Pharaoh's survival appears in an opinion found in the (late fourth century AD) Mekilta de-Rabbi Ishmael (cr. Gavin McDowell):

"And the waters returned and covered the chariot etc. [Exo 14:27]. Even Pharaoh, according to the words of R. Judah, as it is said, 'The chariots of Pharaoh and his force, etc.' [Exo 15:4]. R. Nehimiah says: Except for Pharaoh. About him it says, 'However, for this purpose I have let you live' [Exo 9:16]. Others say that in the end Pharaoh went down and drowned, as it is said, 'Then went the horse of Pharaoh, etc.' [Exo 15:19]. (Beshallah 7)"[89]

Jacob tells his sons to not enter through one gate

And he said, "O my sons, do not enter from one gate but enter from different gates; and I cannot avail you against [the decree of] Allah at all. The decision is only for Allah; upon Him I have relied, and upon Him let those who would rely [indeed] rely."

According to Reynolds, Jacob's instruction to his sons to enter through different gates rather than one is a Midrashic tale found in Genesis Rabbah 91:6 "Do not enter through one gate."[90]

Every living thing from water

In two verses the Quran states that Allah created every living thing from water:

Have those who disbelieved not considered that the heavens and the earth were a joined entity, and We separated them and made from water every living thing? Then will they not believe?
Allah has created every [living] creature from water. And of them are those that move on their bellies, and of them are those that walk on two legs, and of them are those that walk on four. Allah creates what He wills. Indeed, Allah is over all things competent.

It is significant that the first of the two verses, 21:30, is explicitly about the creation of the world. Reynolds notes an earlier parallel taught by the Syriac church father Ephrem (d. 373 CE). He writes, "[...] Ephrem, who explains that God created everything through water: 'Thus, through light and water the earth brought forth everything.' Ephrem, Commentary on Genesis, 1:1-10)."[91] Ephrem's comment is in the context of the Genesis creation story, much like the first Quranic verse, 21:30. Ephrem says that when heaven and earth were created there were no trees or vegetation as it had not yet rained, so a fountain irrigated the earth. Tafsirs say that when the heaven and earth were separated rain fell so that plants could grow. There is also a similarity with Ephrem in the other verse (24:45), which mentions creatures that move on two, four or no legs. Ephrem explains that as well as the "trees, vegetation and plants", the "Scripture wishes to indicate that all animals, reptiles, cattle and birds came into being as a result of the combining of earth and water".[92]

The preaching of Noah

Surah 71 consists entirely of the preaching of Noah and his supplications to Allah.

Indeed, We sent Noah to his people, [saying], "Warn your people before there comes to them a painful punishment." He said, "O my people, indeed I am to you a clear warner, [Saying], 'Worship Allah, fear Him and obey me. Allah will forgive you of your sins and delay you for a specified term. Indeed, the time [set by] Allah, when it comes, will not be delayed, if you only knew.' "


And Noah said, "My Lord, do not leave upon the earth from among the disbelievers an inhabitant. Indeed, if You leave them, they will mislead Your servants and not beget except [every] wicked one and [confirmed] disbeliever. My Lord, forgive me and my parents and whoever enters my house a believer and the believing men and believing women. And do not increase the wrongdoers except in destruction."

Reynolds remarks that "The Qur'ānic character of Noah is quite unlike that of the Noah in Genesis, who does not speak a word until after the flood." Citing the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 108a, he observes that "[his preaching] is also suggested by a passage in the Talmud:

"The righteous Noah rebuked them, urging, 'Repent; for if not, the Holy One, blessed be He, will bring a deluge upon you and cause your bodies to float upon the water like gourds, as it is written, He is light [i.e., floats] upon the waters. Moreover, ye shall be taken as a curse for all future generations.' (b. Sanhedrin 108a)"

Reynolds further notes, "It is also prominent in the Syriac fathers, several of whom report that Noah preached to his people for a hundred years before God finally sent the flood." citing for example the Syriac authors Nasai, "On the Flood", 33, II. 227-30 and Jacob of Serugh, Homilies contre les juifs, 70, homily 2, II. 37-40.[93]

Noah's disbelieving wife

Allah presents an example of those who disbelieved: the wife of Noah and the wife of Lot. They were under two of Our righteous servants but betrayed them, so those prophets did not avail them from Allah at all, and it was said, "Enter the Fire with those who enter."

The Bible briefly mentions Noah's wife in one verse without further comment (Genesis 7:7), "And Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives entered the ark to escape the waters of the flood." Regarding the Quranic verse which speaks of her negatively, Reynolds briefly considers the possibility that the Quran has extended to their wives the parallelism between Noah (though not his wife) and Lot found in the New Testament (2 Peter 2), but then comments, "However, it is important to note that already in the pre-Islamic period certain groups had developed hostile legends about Noah's wife." He cites Epiphanius (d. 403 CE), Panarion 2:26, which relates the Gnostic belief that she was not allowed onto the ark, having burned it down three times before the flood.[94]

Moses not suckled by Egyptians

And We had prevented from him [all] wet nurses before, so she said, "Shall I direct you to a household that will be responsible for him for you while they are to him [for his upbringing] sincere?" So We restored him to his mother that she might be content and not grieve and that she would know that the promise of Allah is true. But most of the people do not know.

Reynolds comments, "On this passage cf. Exodus 2:7-9. The Qurʾān's declaration (v. 12) 'We had forbidden him to be suckled by any nurse' (v. 12) reflects a tradition in the Babylonian Talmud that Moses (from whose mouth would come forth the word of God) refused the impure breasts of the Egyptian women:

Then said his sister to Pharaoh's daughter, Shall I go and call thee a nurse of the Hebrew women? Why just 'of the Hebrew women'? - It teaches that they handed about to all the Egyptian women but he would not suck. He said: Shall a mouth which will speak with [God] suck what is unclean! (b. Sotah 12b)"[95]

Allah keeps the heavens and the birds from falling

Do they not see the birds above them with wings outspread and [sometimes] folded in? None holds them [aloft] except the Most Merciful. Indeed He is, of all things, Seeing.
Do they not look at the birds, held poised in the midst of (the air and) the sky? Nothing holds them up but (the power of) Allah. Verily in this are signs for those who believe

The same verb for holding (amsaka) appears in Quran 22:65 and Quran 35:41 with regard to Allah holding the sky from falling to earth.

Do you not see that Allah has subjected to you whatever is on the earth and the ships which run through the sea by His command? And He restrains the sky from falling upon the earth, unless by His permission. Indeed Allah, to the people, is Kind and Merciful.
Indeed, Allah holds the heavens and the earth, lest they cease. And if they should cease, no one could hold them [in place] after Him. Indeed, He is Forbearing and Forgiving.

In his 2023 academic book on Quranic cosmology, Julien Decharneux observes that the 6th century CE Syriac Christian writer Jacob of Serugh repeatedly used birdflight as an illustration of the concept of remzā ("[The remzā] is, both in Narsai and Jacob, the medium through which God’s power operates."[96])

A very close similarity with Q. 16:79 can be seen in this homily:

See! They are suspended and stand like a bird who is suspended in the air with nothing on which it rests except the remzā.
Jacob of Sarugh, Homily on the Chariot that Ezekiel saw, Homilies 4:551, translated by Julien Decharneux[97]

A more elaborat passage makes the parallel with the Quranic concept clearer:

Look at the bird when it is standing erect and relaxed and its feathers are spread out and it is standing on nothing, and it is not heavy for that nothing on which it is set, but its wing is stable and rests as if on something, and its feet and wings are spread to and it stands there and that empty space where it is please is like the earth for it, and when it is not leaning nor resting, hanging in the air and imagining the earth hanging on nothing. The hidden force [ḥaylā kasyā] of the Divinity, that is that something on which all the creation hangs and with which it is held.
Jacob of Sarugh, Homily on the fifth day of Creation, Homilies 3:96, translated by Julien Dechaneux[98]

Just as the Quran uses the same verb to say that Allah holds up the birds and the heavens (as noted above), Jacob uses the concept of remzā (God's action in the world) also for the firmament.

[The firmament] became like an arch hanging and standing without foundation [d-lā šatīsē], borne not by columns [law ʿamūdē], but by the remzā.
Jacob of Sarugh, Homilies 3:35 quoted by Julien Decharneux[99]

See Also


  1. Witztum, Joseph (2011) The Syriac milieu of the Quran: The recasting of Biblical narratives, PhD Thesis, Princeton University
  2. Reynolds, Gabriel Said, "The Quran and Bible: Text and Commentary", New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2018
  3. 3.0 3.1 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
  4. Mehdy Shaddel, Qurʾānic ummī: Genealogy, Ethnicity, and the Foundation of a New Community (Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 43, 2016, pp. 1-60)
  5. Julien Decharneux (2023) "Creation and Contemplation: The Cosmology of the Qur'ān and Its Late Antique Background", Berlin/Boston: DeGruyter, pp. 10-11
  6. 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
  7. Guillaume, A., The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq's Sirat Rasul Allah. Oxford University Press, London: Oxford University Press, 1955, pp. 98-100
  8. Guillaume, A., The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq's Sirat Rasul Allah. Oxford University Press, London: Oxford University Press, 1955, p. 100
  9. Sean Anthony, Muhammad and the Empires of Faith: The making of the Prophet of Islam, Oakland CA: University of California, 2020, pp. 76-78
  10. Muhammad the borrower – Debate 2 with Saifullah
  11. See this thread by Professor Sean Anthony - 21 August 2023
  12. 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)
  13. Ahmad al-Jallad (2020) Chapter 7: The Linguistic Landscape of pre-Islamic Arabia - Context for the Qur’an in Mustafa Shah (ed.), Muhammad Abdel Haleem (ed.), "The Oxford Handbook of Qur'anic Studies", Oxford: Oxford University Press
  14. 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
  15. See this Twitter thread by Professor Sean Anthony - 11 July 2022 (archive)
  16. See this thread involving Professor Sean Anthony - 11 July 2022
  17. Lane's Lexicon p. 318 تَّنُّورُ
  18. Lane's Lexicon p. 2457 فور
  19. Gabriel Said Reynolds, The Qurʾān and Bible pp. 537-8
  20. katabā Lane's Lexicon book 1 page 2590
  21. Joseph Witztum, Syriac Millieu footnote on p. 123
  22. Joseph Witztum, Syriac Millieu, p. 116
  23. Myron B. Lerner, "The works of Aggadic Midrash and Esther Midrashim" in Eds. Sefrai et. al. (2006) The literature of the Sages: Second Part Netherlands: Royal van Gorcum and Fortress Press, p.150
  24. Joseph Witztum, Syriac Millieu pp. 117-122
  25. Gabriel Said Reynolds, The Qurʾān and Bible pp. 197-198.
  26. Joseph Witztum, Syriac Millieu pp. 125-28
  27. Shepherd, Michael B. (2008) Targums, the New Testament, and Biblical Theology of the Messiah Biblical and Theological Studies Faculty Publications. 294.
  28. Reynolds citing Joseph Witztum, Syriac Millieu, pp. 125-152
  29. Joseph Witztum, Syriac Millieu p. 129
  30. Joseph Witztum, Syriac Millieu p. 31
  31. Joseph Witztum, Syriac Millieu pp. 132-33
  32. Joseph Witztum, Syriac Millieu pp. 143-44
  33. Gabriel Said Reynolds, The Qurʾān and Bible pp. 231-2
  34. "The Apocalypse of Abraham" translated by Alexander Kulik, 2005, (archive)
  35. "The Apocalypse of Abraham" translated by Alexander Kulik, 2005, (archive)
  36. Gabriel Said Reynolds, The Qurʾān and Bible p. 510
  37. M S M Saifullah - The Story Of Abraham And Idols In The Qur'an And Midrash Genesis Rabbah
  38. Midrash and the Sword of God by Dr. Musaylimaat Sayfush-Shaytaan of Freethought Mecca, 2002 (archive)
  39. 39.0 39.1 "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.
  40. Gabriel Said Reynolds, The Qurʾān and Bible pp. 512-13
  41. Dr. Rabbi Yishai Kiel Why the Midrash Has Abraham Thrown into Nimrod's Furnace -
  42. Joseph Witztum, The Foundations of the House (Q 2: 127), Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, vol. 72, no. 1, 2009, pp. 25–40 ]
  43. Gabriel Said Reynolds, The Qurʾān and Bible p. 365
  44. Joseph Witztum, Syriac Millieu pp. 208-209
  45. See Joseph Witztum Syriac Millieu p. 211-17, translation on p. 215.
  46. Gabriel Said Reynolds, The Qurʾān and Bible p. 368
  47. Colson's translation quoted in Joseph Witztum, Syriac Millieu p. 214
  48. Gabriel Said Reynolds (2018) The Qurʾān and Bible: Text and Commentary pp. 251-2
  49. Encyclopædia Britannica - biblical literature
  50. Gabriel Said Reynolds (2018) The Qurʾān and Bible: Text and Commentary pp. 38-39
  51. Witztum says it has been dated to the fifth or sixth century: Joseph Witztum, Syriac Millieu pp. 80-81
  52. In a detailed analysis, Sergey Minov concludes that "the most likely date for this work's composition is the span of time between the middle of the sixth century and the first decades of the seventh century." Minov, S. (2017) Date and Provenance of the Syriac Cave of Treasures: A Reappraisal Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies 20:1 (2017), 129-229.
  53. Gabriel Said Reynolds, "The Qurʾān and its Biblical subtext", London and New York: Routledge, 2010, p.51, ISBN 9780415524247
  54. Sergey Minov, “Satan’s Refusal to Worship Adam: A Jewish Motif and Its Reception in Syriac Christian Tradition,” in: M. Kister et alii (eds.), Tradition, Transmission, and Transformation from Second Temple Literature through Judaism and Christianity in Late Antiquity (STDJ 113; Leiden: Brill, 2015), 230-271. (see pp. 247-9)
  55. Gabriel Said Reynolds, "The Qurʾān and its Biblical subtext", p.50
  56. Joseph Witztum, Syriac Millieu p. 81
  57. Joseph Witztum, Syriac Millieu pp. 88-93
  58. Gabriel Said Reynolds (2018) The Qurʾān and Bible: Text and Commentary pp. 254-5
  59. Gabriel Said Reynolds (2018) The Qurʾān and Bible: Text and Commentary p. 256
  60. Tommaso Tesei (2015) Some Cosmological Notions from Late Antiquity in Q 18:60–65: The Quran in Light of Its Cultural Context Journal of the American Oriental Society 135.1
  61. Gabriel Said Reynolds, The Qurʾān and Bible p. 407
  62. Guillaume, Alfred (1955) The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq's Sirat Rasul Allah. Oxford University Press. pp. 136–139. ISBN 978-0-19-636033-1
    "The rabbis said, ‘Ask him about three things of which we will instruct you; if he gives you the right answer then he is an authentic prophet, but if he does not, then the man is a rogue, so form your own opinion about him. Ask him what happened to the young men who disappeared in ancient days, for they have a marvellous story. Ask him about the mighty traveller who reached the confines of both East and West. Ask him what the spirit is."
  63. Gabriel Said Reynolds,"The Quran and Bible:Text and Commentary", New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018 p. 465
  64. See this tweet by Professor Sean Anthony and the preceding discussion - 2 April 2022 (archive)
  65. For screenshots of Wortley's english translation of the relevant passage in the Spiritual Meadow see this tweet by Professor Sean Anthony - 31 Dec 2021 archive
  66. Brandon Hawk, 2020 The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and the Nativity of Mary Cambridge, UK: James Clark & Co, pp.25-26
  67. Stephen Shoemaker, Christmas in the Qur’an: the Qur’anic Account of Jesus’ Nativity and Palestinian Local Tradition Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 28, 11-39 (2003) pp. 19-21
  68. Suleiman Mourad, “Mary in the Qur'an″, in The Qur’ān in Its Historical Context, Ed. Gabriel Said Reynolds, p.169, New York: Routledge, 2007
  69. Reynolds, Gabriel Said Reynolds, The Quran and Bible, p. 120
  70. Stephen Shoemaker, Christmas in the Qur’an: the Qur’anic Account of Jesus’ Nativity and Palestinian Local Tradition Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 28, 11-39 (2003) pp. 19-21
  71. Gabriel Said Reynolds, The Qurʾān and Bible p. 121
  72. M S M Saifullah & Hesham Azmy - Is The Bible In Our Hands The Same As During The Time Of Muhammad(P)? Islamic Awareness
  73. Gabriel Said Reynolds, The Qurʾān and Bible p. 218
  74. Klaus von Stosch, Jesus and Mary in Q5 - An anti-imperial discourse in the Qur'an as a critique of Byzantine misuse of Christology at the 2022 conference "Unlocking the Byzantine Qur'an"
  75. Gabriel Said Reynolds, The Qurʾān and Bible p. 115
  76. Gabriel Said Reynolds (2018) The Qurʾān and Bible: Text and Commentary p. 116
  77. Gabriel Said Reynolds (2018) The Qurʾān and Bible: Text and Commentary p. 119
  78. These include The History of Joseph the Carpenter (probably composed in Byzantine Egypt in Greek in the late sixth or early seventh centuries), and The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (its date is uncertain, as discussed elsewhere in this article).
  79. Gabriel Said Reynolds, The Qurʾān and Bible p. 610
  80. The Jewish Agency for Israel - Nehar Deah: The Sages’ Korach
  81. Graves, M. W. (2018). The Upraised Mountain and Israel’s Election in the Qur’an and Talmud Comparative Islamic Studies, 11(2), 141–177.
  82. Gabriel Said Reynolds, The Qurʾān and Bible p. 286
    "Yahuda" refers to Abraham Yahuda, "A contribution to Quran and Hadith interpretation" in S. Lowinger and J. Somogyi (eds.) Ignace Goldziher Memorial Volume. Budapest: Globus, 1948
  83. Gabriel Said Reynolds, The Qurʾān and Bible pp. 692-3
  84. Gabriel Said Reynolds (2018) The Qurʾān and Bible: Text and Commentary p. 654
  85. Gabriel Said Reynolds, The Qurʾān and Bible pp. 585-6
  86. Gabriel Said Reynolds, The Qurʾān and Bible p. 524
    The BEQ reference in the quote is to H. Speyer Die biblischen Erzahtungen im Qoran 1931, reprint 1961
  87. Targum Sheni - (originally from the Encyclopaedia Judaica)
  88. William St. Clair Tisdall, The Sources of Islam translated and abridged by William Muir, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1901, pp. 26-27
  89. Gabriel Said Reynolds, The Qurʾān and Bible p. 339
  90. Gabriel Said Reynolds, The Qurʾān and Bible p. 377
  91. Gabriel Said Reynolds, "The Quran and Bible:Text and Commentary", New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2018 p. 553. This is regarding Quran 24:45, though on p. 508 Reynolds cross references the same parallel regarding the other verse, Quran 21:30, which is more clearly a statement in the context of the Genesis creation story, like Ephrem's comment.
  92. Ephrem's commentary on Genesis - Faber
  93. Gabriel Said Reynolds, The Qurʾān and Bible p. 858
  94. Gabriel Said Reynolds, The Qurʾān and Bible p. 841
  95. Gabriel Said Reynolds, The Qurʾān and Bible p. 598
  96. Julien Decharneux (2023), Creation and Contemplation: The Cosmology of the Qur’ān and Its Late Antique Background, Berlin: De Gruyter, p. 149
  97. Ibid. p. 160
  98. Ibid. p. 160
  99. Ibd. p. 146