CHRISTIAN BELIEFS AND PRACTICES
INCORPORATED INTO THE QUR’AN
WE have already pointed out that Muhammad was much less indebted to Christianity for his ideas than to either Judaism or the pre-Islamic idolatry of Arabia. Yet the Qur’an reveals not a few traces of the influence of Christian thought and practice. Thus Jesus Christ is invariably spoken of with the deepest reverence as a Prophet sent from God, to whom was entrusted the Gospel, or Injil, as Muhammad described the Evangel. The many references, to Christians in the Qur’an make it clear that they must have been numerous in Arabia at that time; and Muhammad seems to have entertained no little friendship for them, as may be seen by the following advice given to his followers:—
وَلَتَجِدَنَّ أَقْرَبَهُمْ مَّوَدَّةً لِّلَّذِينَ آمَنُواْ الَّذِينَ قَالُوَاْ إِنَّا نَصَارَى
“Thou shalt surely find those to be nearest in affection to them (i.e., true believers) who say, ‘We are Christians.’“ 36 Muhammad certainly had reason to reward the followers of Christ with grateful affection, for it was in the Christian Kingdom of Abyssinia that his persecuted followers found a safe asylum when the oppression of the Meccans had become intolerable.
Muhammad had many opportunities of learning of Christianity, both during his journeys into Syria and also in Arabia itself. We have already pointed out that Waraqa, the cousin of his wife Khadija, was at one time a Christian and was well versed in the Christian scriptures; later on, not a few Christians became Muhammad’s followers, and from Mary, his Coptic wife, also he could easily learn the Scripture and especially the apocryphal stories then current amongst the Eastern Christians. Thus it would be easy for Muhammad to take these stories and give them out in his own eloquent Arabic as though revealed from heaven. Muhammad’s contemporaries had no doubt that he did so, and frequently charged him with obtaining the help of certain well-known persons. Thus, for example, in Surah an-Nahl (16:101, 103) we read:—
قَالُواْ إِنَّمَا أَنتَ مُفْتَرٍ …يَقُولُونَ إِنَّمَا يُعَلِّمُهُ بَشَرٌ لِّسَانُ الَّذِي يُلْحِدُونَ إِلَيْهِ أَعْجَمِيٌّ وَهَـذَا لِسَانٌ عَرَبِيٌّ مُّبِينٌ
“They say, ‘thou art only a forger’ ... they say, ‘verily a certain man teacheth him.’ The tongue of him at whom they hint is foreign; while this (Qur’an) is in the plain Arabic.”
Baidawi’s comment on this significant passage is worth careful notice. He says is:—
يعنونَ جبراً الرّومي غلام عامر بن الحضرمي، وقيل: جبراً ويساراً كانا يصنعان السيوف بمكة، ويقرآن التوراة والإنجيل، وكان الرسول صلى الله عليه وسلم يمر عليهما ويسمع ما يقرآنه.
“It is said that he (the person referred to) was a Greek slave belonging to ‘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 going to them and listening to what they were reading.” Imam Husain comments thus, “It is related that there was a slave belonging to ‘Amir ibnu’l-Hadrami, named Jabara (and according to some a second slave named Yasara) who used to read the Law and the Gospel, and Muhammad used, when be passed, to stand and listen.”
It is worthy of note here that in reply to the charge that he was helped in composing the Qur’an by these persons, Muhammad does not specifically deny the imputation. All he can reply is that the person or persons referred to are foreigners, and could not therefore compose so elegantly in Arabic. But we are not concerned to prove they did. What we do assert is that Muhammad learnt the main outlines of the Biblical and Apocryphal stories from Jews and Christians with whom he was frequently brought into contact, and then by his own poetic genius, fashioned them into the forms they now take in the Qur’an. We certainly have shown that he had ample opportunities for so doing.
We had occasion to point out in the last chapter that it was Talmudic perversions of holy Scripture, rather than the sacred records themselves which were current amongst the Jews of Arabia in the time of Muhammad. The reader will fail to rightly apprehend the nature of the influence which Christianity exercised upon Muhammad, unless the character of that Christianity be properly understood. Arabia has been called “The Mother of heresies.” Certain it is that from the earliest times that land had offered a refuge for the many heretical sects of Christians who had been expelled from the Roman Empire on account of their dangerous heresies. The Christianity of Arabia in the time of Muhammad was buried under a senseless mass of superstition and degradation. Saint worship and Mariolatry had taken the place of true religion, and a mass of fanciful apocryphal literature had usurped the place of the Bible. It has been well said that had Muhammad been brought into contact with a purer form of Christianity, there would probably have been one false religion the less in the world, and one Christian reformer the more. As it was, the blasphemous extravagances of the Mariamites, Collyridians and other heretical Christian sects repelled the Arabian reformer, and led him to denounce the teaching of these people as nothing less than polytheism. It was Muhammad’s misfortune that he identified this mass of superstition with true Christianity, and thus became the founder of a faith which led back to the legal bondage of Judaism. Any comparison of the Apocryphal stories which were current amongst these wanderers from the pure teaching of the Bible with the stories of the Qur’an will, at the same time, make it evident that Muhammad accepted many of their fables as a portion of the Gospel record, and thus, believing them to be true, incorporated them into the Qur’an. We give below one or two examples which will make this clear.
In Surah al-Kahf 18:9-12, 25) there is a curious story of seven youths who went to sleep in a cave and awoke again only after a period of three hundred and nine years. We there read, “Dost thou consider that the inmates of the cave, and of al-Rakim, were one of our wondrous signs. When the young men took refuge in a cave, they said, ‘O Lord! grant us mercy from before thee, and order for us our affair aright.’ Then We struck their ears with deafness in the cave for many a year; then We awaked them that We might know which of the two parties could best reckon the space of their abiding.” “And they remained in their cave three hundred years and nine years over.”
This mythical story, which is absolutely devoid of foundation, was current in Arabia long before the time of Muhammad. It is found in the writings of a Syrian, named Jacob of Sarug, 37 who died in 521 A.D., and which purports to tell the story of seven young men of Ephesus who fled from the persecution of the Roman Emperor Decius. They took refuge, it is said, in a cave where they fell asleep, and only awoke some one hundred and ninety-six years later to find Christianity everywhere triumphant. Muhammad must often have heard the legend, from the Christians of Arabia and Syria, and imagining it to be true, pretended that he had received it as a Divine revelation.
Another story of the Qur’an which has a distinctly Christian origin is that relating to the childhood of the Virgin Mary. Nothing is more striking to the thoughtful reader than the silence of the genuine Gospels concerning the person of the mother of the Lord Jesus Christ; but in a community where the pure teachings of the Gospel were hidden under a load of superstitious beliefs, and where Mariolatry had taken the place of true worship, it is not surprising to find a number of legendary stories in which, with extravagant detail, the events of the Virgin’s life are related. These Apocryphal stories were current amongst the Christians of Arabia, and were almost certainly well known to Muhammad. The latter, however, was too ignorant of the contents of the genuine Gospels to detect their spuriousness, and consequently found no difficulty in introducing them into his ‘revelations’ as a part of the message sent down to ‘confirm the previous Scriptures’.
From Surah al-i’Imran 38 we learn that, in her childhood, Mary was brought to the temple of Jerusalem which was henceforth her home until the birth of Christ. During her residence there, the Qur’an tells us, it was signified by lot who was to be her guardian. Thus we read:—
وَمَا كُنتَ لَدَيْهِمْ إِذْ يُلْقُون أَقْلاَمَهُمْ أَيُّهُمْ يَكْفُلُ مَرْيَمَ
“Thou was not present with them when they cast lots with reeds which of them should rear Mary.” This story, as every reader of the Gospels knows, is not to be found in the inspired record. It is, however, found in its entirety in the Apocryphal books of the heretical Christians who lived in Arabia in the time of Muhammad. Hence its source is clear. Thus in both the “Protevangelium of James the Less,” 39 and in the Coptic “History of the Virgin” the incident of casting lots for the guardianship or, as it is there styled, the right to become the husband of Mary is fully related. In the former we are told that when Mary reached the age of twelve a council of the priests was held to decide upon her future after which “an angel of the Lord stood by him (Zacharias) saying ‘Zacharias, Zacharias, go forth and call together the widowers of the people, and let them bring each a rod, and to whomsoever the Lord God shall show a sign, his wife shall she be.’“ 40
Another Qur’anic story connected with the Virgin Mary which Muhammad borrowed from the Apocryphal Gospels, or rather from the lips of his Christian acquaintances, is that of the palm-tree, found in Surah Maryam (19:22-25). We there read:—
فَحَمَلَتْهُ فَانتَبَذَتْ بِهِ مَكَانًا قَصِيًّا فَأَجَاءهَا الْمَخَاضُ إِلَى جِذْعِ النَّخْلَةِ قَالَتْ يَا لَيْتَنِي مِتُّ قَبْلَ هَذَا وَكُنتُ نَسْيًا مَّنسِيًّا فَنَادَاهَا مِن تَحْتِهَا أَلَّا تَحْزَنِي قَدْ جَعَلَ رَبُّكِ تَحْتَكِ سَرِيًّا وَهُزِّي إِلَيْكِ بِجِذْعِ النَّخْلَةِ تُسَاقِطْ عَلَيْكِ رُطَبًا جَنِيًّا فَكُلِي وَاشْرَبِي وَقَرِّي عَيْنًا
“And she conceived him; and retired with him to a distant place; and the pains of childbirth came upon her near the trunk of a palm-tree. She said, would to God I had died before this, and had been a thing forgotten, forgotten quite. And he who was beneath her called to her; ‘grieve not thou, thy Lord bath provided a rivulet under thee; and do thou shake the body of the palm-tree, and it shall let fall ripe dates upon thee ready gathered, and eat and drink and calm thy mind.’“
The Gospels on the contrary, tell us that Christ was born in the town of Bethlehem in or near an inn. In this case, again, the source of the story repeated by Muhammad can be clearly traced; for the Apocryphal Christian books contain similar legends and relate many fanciful stories connected with the birth of Jesus. These were popularly repeated amongst the Christians of Arabia, and must often have reached the ears of Muhammad, who doubtless imagined them to be part of the genuine Gospel record. In the Apocryphal work entitled the “History of the Nativity of Mary and the Infancy of the Saviour” 41 the whole story of the palm-tree in its main features may be clearly traced. The few variations in the details may be sufficiently accounted for by the fact that these stories were probably repeated from hearsay; but any careful comparison of the story as found in these spurious Gospels with that repeated by Muhammad in the Qur’an will make it clear that the latter is simply taken from the former, and then represented as a direct revelation from God. That the reader may see how close the resemblances are we give below a quotation from the Apocryphal work mentioned above. After recording the flight of Joseph and Mary with the child Jesus the narrative proceeds, “and Joseph hastened and brought her (Mary) to that palm-tree, and took her down off her beast. When Mary sat down she looked up to the top of the palm-tree, and seeing it full of fruit said to Joseph, ‘I desire if it be possible, to take of the fruit of this palm-tree.’ ..... Then the child Jesus, who with a joyful countenance lay in his mother, the Virgin Mary’s bosom, said to the palm-tree, ‘O, tree, lower thy branches and refresh my mother with thy fruit.’ Instantly the palm-tree at this word bowed its head to the sole of Mary’s feet; and they all plucked the fruit which it bore, and were refreshed and the palm-tree instantly stood erect, and streams of very clear, cool, and very sweet water began to come forth from amid its roots.” 42
Every reader of the Qur’an knows that it contains several references to the Lord Jesus Christ, and mentions certain stories connected with His birth, some of which are not to be found in the genuine Gospels. These stories, like that of the palm-tree, can also be traced to Apocryphal sources, and show conclusively whence Muhammad drew the materials which he afterwards recast and embodied in the Qur’an. One of these legends has reference to certain miracles said to have been performed by Christ in His infancy. One allusion to them may be found in Surah al-Ma’idah (5:110) where we read:—
إِذْ قَالَ اللّهُ يَا عِيسى ابْنَ مَرْيَمَ اذْكُرْ نِعْمَتِي عَلَيْكَ وَعَلَى وَالِدَتِكَ إِذْ أَيَّدتُّكَ بِرُوحِ الْقُدُسِ تُكَلِّمُ النَّاسَ فِي الْمَهْدِ وَكَهْلاً وَإِذْ عَلَّمْتُكَ الْكِتَابَ وَالْحِكْمَةَ وَالتَّوْرَاةَ وَالإِنجِيلَ وَإِذْ تَخْلُقُ مِنَ الطِّينِ كَهَيْئَةِ الطَّيْرِ بِإِذْنِي فَتَنفُخُ فِيهَا فَتَكُونُ طَيْرًا بِإِذْنِي
“When God shall say, O Jesus! son of Mary! remember My favour upon thee, and upon thy mother; when I strengthened thee with the Holy Spirit that thou shouldest speak unto men in the cradle and when grown up. And when I taught thee the Scripture and Wisdom and the Law and the Gospel, and when thou didst create of clay as it were the figure of a bird by my permission, and didst breathe thereon, and it became a bird by my permission.”
Now the genuine Gospels have nothing of all this; on the contrary, it is distinctly stated that the first miracle of Jesus was wrought after the beginning of His public ministry at thirty years of age. In the Injil (John 2:11) we read, “This beginning of His signs did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory.” A reference to the spurious Gospel of the Infancy,” “The Gospel of Thomas the Israelite,” and other Apocryphal works, however, makes it clear that the legend must have been current in Arabia in the time of Muhammad. The latter must often have heard it repeated by his Christian contemporaries, and, imagining it to be part of the genuine Gospels, incorporated it into his Qur’an. On no other theory can the extraordinary likeness between the two narratives be accounted for. Let the reader, for example, remembering the Qur’an version quoted above, read the following from the “Gospel of Thomas the Israelite,” a spurious and fanciful work of late date which was never regarded as inspired by any Christian sect. It is there written that “The child Jesus when five years of age was playing by the road by a dirty stream of running water and having brought it all together into ditches immediately made it pure and clean, and all this by a single word. Then having moistened some earth he made of it twelve sparrows, .... Jesus clapping his hands at the sparrows cried aloud to them ‘Go off.’ So they clucking flew away. 43
The ‘Gospel of the Infancy,’ another fanciful romance, also tells us that when Jesus was in the cradle He spoke to His mother, and acquainted her with His Divine Mission.
Much more could be written to show that Muhammad was indebted not a little to the heretical Christians of his time for the legendary tales and religious conceptions which are now found in the Qur’an; but the limits of this little book compel us to be content with one more example. The reader who desires to study the subject further should consult the learned works of Tisdall, Sell and Geiger whence most of the material for these chapters has been drawn.
We cannot conclude this chapter, however, without a reference to the “balance” so frequently referred to in the Qur’an. Islam teaches that at the Judgment Day a balance will be produced in which the actions of men will be weighed. Those whose good deeds preponderate will enter paradise, whilst those whose evil deeds out-weigh the good will be cast into hell. Thus in Surah al-’Araf (7:8, 9), we read:—
وَالْوَزْنُ يَوْمَئِذٍ الْحَقُّ فَمَن ثَقُلَتْ مَوَازِينُهُ فَأُوْلَئِكَ هُمُ الْمُفْلِحُونَ وَمَنْ خَفَّتْ مَوَازِينُهُ فَأُوْلَئِكَ الَّذِينَ خَسِرُواْ أَنفُسَهُم بِمَا كَانُواْ بِآيَاتِنَا يِظْلِمُونَ
“The weighing on that day shall be just; and they whose balances shall be heavy are those who shall be happy; but they whose balances shall be light are those who have lost their souls, for that to Our signs they were unjust.”
This conception of the Qur’an is taken from an Apocryphal work entitled the “Testament of Abraham,” 44 which was written in the second or third century of the Christian era. A mythical story is there related of the Patriarch Abraham’s ascension to heaven, where he beheld, amongst other marvels, the great throne of judgment. And, the story proceeds, “On it sat a marvellous man .... and before him stood a table like unto crystal, all of gold and fine linen. And on the table lay a book; its thickness was six cubits and its breadth ten cubits. And on the right and left of it there stood two angels holding paper and pen and ink. And in front of the table was seated a bright beaming angel holding a balance in his hand ... and the marvellous man who was seated on the throne was himself judging and proving the souls, but the two angels who were on the right and on the left were registering. The one on the right was registering the righteous acts, but the one on the left the sins. And the one in front of the table, the one who held the balance, was weighing the souls.”
We might go on to show that many other of the doctrines of the Qur’an such as the denial of the death of Christ, the resolving the Christian Trinity into a tri-theism consisting of the Father, the Son and the Virgin Mary were derived by Muhammad from the Gnostic and other heretical sects of Christians who flourished in Arabia in his time. Enough, however, has been written to show that much of the Qur’an can be traced to Apocryphal Christian sources; whilst the Christian reader will also perceive how false is the claim that the former “confirms” the preceding scriptures - the Torah and Injil.
36. Surah al-Ma’idah (5:82).
37. The account is found in a homily in the “Acta Sanctcorum” See Tisdall, “The Sources of The Qur’an,” p. 147. Also, see the story of the “Seven Sleepers”.
38. Surah al-i-’Imran (3: 44).
39. See Tisdall, “The Sources of the Qur’an”, pp. 156-8.
41. See Tisdall, “The Sources of the Qur’an”, p. 162.