THE BIBLE IN ISLAM
MUHAMMAD'S KNOWLEDGE OF THE BIBLE
No one who reads the Qur'an with attention can fail to be struck with its many references to the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. No less than one hundred and thirty such references may be traced, and these, together with many similar allusions in the traditions and commentaries of the Qur'an, furnish us with the material for a study of the place and influence of the Bible in Islam.
That Muhammad was largely influenced by Jewish and Christian teaching can scarcely be doubted. His relations with the Jews and Christians were, at times, of the closest description, and his allusions to them in the Qur'an make it clear that he placed them in a category entirely distinct from the heathen Arabs. They were par excellence the ‘People of the Book,’ and, as the custodians of a divine revelation, were spared the choice of Islam or the sword, which was the only alternative imposed upon the worshippers of idols.
Muhammad's attitude towards the Jews varied during the course of his career. Soon after his arrival in Madina we find him entering into a defensive alliance with certain Jewish tribes, and he even adopted Jerusalem as his Qibla, or place towards which prayer was to be made, in order to conciliate and win the Jews. When these hopes failed, however, and the Children of Israel continued to cling obstinately to their ancient faith, he denounced them in unmeasured terms, and thereafter his attitude towards them was one of uncompromising hostility. Before this breach came, however, a perusal of the Qur'an makes it evident that Muhammad was on terms of the closest intimacy with certain Jews. His references to Jewish history, and his long and oft-repeated recitals of the stories of the Patriarchs and their times could only have been learned from members of the Hebrew race. Indeed the Qur'an itself bears witness to the charge that was constantly levelled at him that he was ‘taught’ these ‘stories of the ancients’ by certain unnamed people.
If Muhammad was indebted to the Jews for Biblical accounts of the Patriarchs, he was still more indebted to them for the uncanonical, and often grossly unhistorical stories of the Talmud which figure so largely in the Qur'anic narratives. The reader must refer to the author's The Origins of the Qur'an for a detailed examination of the resemblances between the Talmud and the Qur'an; it must suffice to state here that any unprejudiced study of those resemblances can leave no doubt as to their reason and origin.
Muhammad's relationships with the Christians of Arabia were, on the whole, characterized by feelings of closer intimacy and friendship than those which subsisted between him and the Jews. At one time those relationships were of such a cordial nature that the Prophet was led to exclaim, ‘Thou shalt certainly find those to be nearest in affection to them (the believers) who say “We are Christians”. This because some of them are priests and monks, and because they are free from pride.’ 1
Muhammad's Christian concubine Mary, it is clear from the Qur'an, exercised a commanding influence over him, and was nearly the cause of a permanent estrangement between the Prophet and his wives. From Mary, therefore, he could have learnt much of the Gospel story and of that Injil of which he always spake so highly.
Khadija, the first and favourite wife of the Prophet, was also well acquainted with Christianity, and her cousin Waraqa, we are told by ibn Hisham, actually became a Christian.
From the commentators of the Qur'an we learn that Muhammad was in the habit of listening to the reading of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. Thus, commenting on the Qur'anic passage, ‘They say, verily a certain man teacheth him (Muhammad)’; 2 the great Muslim exegete Baidawi says,
يَعْنُونَ جَبْرًا الرُّومِيَّ غُلَامَ عَامِرِ بْنِ الْحَضْرَمِيِّ. وَقِيلَ جَبْرًا وَيَسَارًا كَانَا يَصْنَعَانِ السُّيُوفَ بِمَكَّةَ وَيَقْرَآنِ التَّوْرَاةَ وَالْإِنْجِيلَ، وَكَانَ الرَّسُولُ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ يَمُرُّ عَلَيْهِمَا وَيَسْمَعُ مَا يَقْرَءَانِهِ.
‘By the person referred to is meant Jabara, a Greek slave of 'Amir ibnu'l-Hadrami. It is also said that Jabara, and Yasara, two sword-makers of Mecca, used to read the Torah and Injil, and that the Prophet was in the habit of passing by them and listening to what they were reading.’ The same story is told both in the Tafsir-i-Maddrak and in the Tafsir-i-Jalalain, so that it is clear that it was the Prophet's habit to thus make himself acquainted with the Jewish and Christian Scriptures.
We know, further, that it was the Prophet's habit to question the ‘People of the Book’ concerning the teaching of their Scriptures. Thus Islam has preserved a Tradition to the effect that,
قَالَ ابْنُ عَبَّاسٍ فلما سَأَلَ النَّبِيُّ صَلعم عَنْ شَيْءٍ من أهل الكتاب فَكَتَمُوهُ إِيَّاهُ وَأَخْبَرُوهُ بِغَيْرِهِ فَخَرَجُوا قَدْ أَرَوْهُ أَنْ قَدْ أَخْبَرُوهُ بِمَا سَأَلَهُمْ عَنْهُ
‘lbn 'Abbas records that when the Prophet asked any question of the “People of the Book”, they suppressed the matter, and in place of it told him something else, and went away letting him think that they had told him what he asked.’
Muhammad probably never himself read the Bible. Indeed some Muslims affirm that he could not read; but this is doubtful. There are not a few well-authenticated instances recorded both in the Traditions and in the standard biographies of the Prophet of his both reading and writing. His knowledge of the Bible, however, was probably gained from hearsay only. He certainly had ample opportunities of thus learning the stories of the Old and New Testaments.
We have already remarked that Muhammad learned many Talmudic fables from the Jews. These he seems to have looked upon as portions of the canonical Scriptures, for many of them ultimately found a place in the Qur'an itself. In like manner the Prophet of Islam came into contact with many heterodox forms of Christianity in Arabia, from the votaries of whom he learned not a few fanciful stories of the apocryphal writings. In this way many legendary incidents recorded in such unhistorical books as the Coptic History of the Virgin, the so-called Gospel of the Infancy, The Gospel of Thomas the Israelite and others, repeated, no doubt, to the Prophet by his Christian acquaintances, were erroneously accepted by him as portions of the inspired Scriptures, and ultimately found a place in his Qur'an. The reader is referred to the author's The Origins of the Qur'an for detailed proofs of this statement; we here simply state the fact in order to show the limitations of Muhammad's knowledge of the Bible, and to suggest a reasonable explanation of the many historical errors of the Qur'an.
Muhammad's contact with heretical forms of Christianity was further responsible for his mistaken views of certain Christian doctrines. For example, some of the heretical sects of Christians inhabiting parts of Arabia in the time of the Prophet had carried the adoration of the Virgin to such lengths that the Prophet mistakenly imagined that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity conceived of a Trinity consisting of Father, Son and Virgin Mary, and this imaginary cult he combats in the following words: ‘When God shall say, O Jesus, Son of Mary, hast thou said unto mankind, “Take me and my mother as two Gods, beside God”?’ 3
Whatever may be said, however, as to the accuracy or otherwise of the Prophet's knowledge of the contents of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, there can be no doubt as to his views regarding their origin and value. His many utterances regarding them are full and explicit. Everywhere and always the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are for Muhammad a divine revelation meditated to men through the. agency of God's holy prophets, and, as such, to be revered and honoured. In the following chapter we shall endeavour to ascertain, somewhat in detail, Muhammad's views regarding those Scriptures, and the attitude which he adopted towards them.
1. Qur’an Al-Ma'idah 5:82
2. Qur’an an-Nahl 16:103
3. Qur’an al-Ma’idah 5:116