How the author of the Qur'an messed up Abraham's family tree
After recounting how Abraham became a believer and a prophet to his own people (S. 6:74-82; cf. this article), the Qur'an states how Allah rewarded Abraham by giving him righteous progeny (cf. Abraham's prayer in S. 14:39-40). In Sura 6, we find the following "list of descendants":
83 That is Our argument, which We bestowed upon Abraham as against his people. We raise up in degrees whom We will; surely thy Lord is All-wise, All-knowing. 84 And We gave to him Isaac and Jacob each one We guided, And Noah We guided before; and of his seed David and Solomon and Job and Joseph and Moses and Aaron even so We recompense the good-doers 85 Zachariah and John and Jesus and Elias; each was of the righteous; 86 Ishmael and Elisha and Jonah and Lot each one We preferred above all beings; 87 and of their fathers, and of their seed, and of their brethren; and We elected them, and We guided them to a straight path.
First observation: The sequence of names is rather strange, erratically jumping back and forth on the timeline.
Verse 83 concludes the story of Abraham (6:74-82) and this establishes that the pronoun "him" in verse 84 refers back to Abraham.
Verse 84 mentions first Isaac and Jacob, Abraham's immediate descendants (his son and grandson). Then comes a parenthetical remark, "and Noah We guided before", referring to Abraham's most famous ancestor. After that, the list of Abraham's famous progeny continues, but without any apparent system. The correct chronological sequence, together with a very rough estimates of their date of birth, would be this: Ishmael and Isaac (1900 BC), Jacob (1800), Joseph (1700), Aaron and Moses (1500 BC), David (1040), Solomon (1000 BC), Elias and Elisha (850), Jonah (800 BC), Zachariah (70 BC), John and Jesus (0 AD). Some of the dates are debated (e.g. whether Moses was rather around 1300 instead of 1500), but their relative sequence is not in question.
Side note: Some Muslims may raise the objection that the names are sorted in topical groups, groups of prophets that have something in common. That is why there is a comment after each group. Fair enough. However, even within those groups, their sequence is wrong. To put David before Moses is wrong. To put Elias after Jesus is wrong, and Lot and Ishmael are much older than Elisha and Jonah as well.
Without question, the given list is seriously confused, but confusion is not yet error since the Qur'an does not claim that this list is supposed to be chronological.
However, apart from the issue of chronology, there are two problematic entries in this list which I have left out of my re-ordered list of names with dates. Job is usually not considered a descendant of Abraham. However, we do not have enough information about him to conclude that this is definitely an error. Still, the Qur'an simply includes him among Abraham's descendants without any positive evidence. The other name is Lot. We know that Lot was Abraham's nephew, the son of his brother Haran (Genesis 11:27). Abraham and Lot travelled and entered the land of Canaan together and they lived in close proximity for some time. Later, they went into different directions (Genesis 13) before Abraham's first son was born (Genesis 15). Lot is a contemporary of Abraham, but he is not his son. This can also be seen in Sura 15:51-66 and 29:26 of the Qur'an.
Thus, the inclusion of Lot in the "seed of Abraham" in S. 6:86 is an error, even according to the Qur'an.
A thorough discussion of further errors of this kind is found in the article The Quran's Mistakes regarding the Biblical Patriarchs.
Considering a possible objection
No doubt, in order to escape from this mistake, many Muslims will claim that in the middle of verse 86 the list switches from the descendants of Abraham to the descendants of Noah when it says: "... and Noah We guided before; and of his seed David and Solomon ...", and in this line the pronoun "his" refers back to Noah, not to Abraham. Therefore, all the names listed from David onwards are to be understood as the seed of Noah.
There are several reasons why I do not believe that this is a satisfactory answer.
I agree, Arabic grammar allows to read the text this way. And this interpretation would remove the error discussed above. However, the correct question for any text has to be: "What is the meaning that was intended by the author?" Many statements, when taken out of context, could potentially have several different meanings. That is the nature of human language. Intellectual integrity demands not to ask: "Which understanding of this statement suits me best? (perhaps because it would save the Qur'an from a historical error), but: "What was the intended meaning of the statement it its context?" — even if it is uncomfortable because the intended meaning is factually wrong.
Here are my reasons why I believe this is supposed to be a list of Abraham's descendants.
The story is about Abraham. The passage from 6:74-87 belongs together. Apart from the small remark in verse 84, Noah is not mentioned anywhere in that whole long sura of 165 verses. The natural reading is to consider the short statement about Noah to be a parenthetical remark, not the beginning of a new section and a switch of focus from Abraham to Noah.
This is supported also by verse 87, which is the concluding statement to this section. There it is said that Allah's favor (guidance and preferment) was not only restricted to the people named in the list, but extended also to some "of their fathers, and of their seed ...", i.e. if somebody lives a life pleasing to God, then God will also bless his family. Not necessarily every one of these fathers (ancestors) and descendants but whenever possible (after all, Abraham's father was an idolater as the Qur'an states several times). It would be strange if this principle given at the conclusion of the section would not in some sense also hold true for Abraham himself. Thus, not only descendants of Abraham are listed, but also one of his pious fathers: Noah. Nevertheless, the passage is about Abraham, and the rest of the names are there because the author considered them to be Abraham's seed — and nearly all of them are.
Moreover, the Qur'an has similar statements in a number of passages:
And We gave him Isaac and Jacob, and We appointed the Prophecy and the Book to be among his seed; We gave him his wage in this world, and in the world to come he shall be among the righteous. S. 29:27 Arberry
And We bestowed on him [Ibrahim (Abraham)], Ishaque (Isaac) and Yaqoob (Jacob), and ordained among his offspring Prophethood and the Book [i.e. the Taurat (Torah) (to Moosa Moses), the Injeel (Gospel) (to Iesa Jesus), the Quran (to Muhammad SAW), all from the offspring of Ibrahim (Abraham)], and We granted him his reward in this world, and verily, in the Hereafter he is indeed among the righteous. S. 29:27 Al-Hilali & Khan
Indeed, We gave the Children of Israel the Book, the Judgment, and the Prophethood, and We provided them with good things, and We preferred them above all beings. S. 45:16 Arberry
When he had turned away from them and from those whom they worshipped besides Allah, We bestowed on him Isaac and Jacob, and each one of them We made a prophet. S. 19:49 Yusuf Ali
These passages always refer to the descendants of Abraham. It would be rather strange if it were to be understood differently in Sura 6.
Ishmael and Lot, mentioned in verse 86, are intimately connected with Abraham in several passages of the Qur'an. No such obvious connection to Noah exists.
Finally, Noah's family were the only survivors of the Flood. If all human beings are descendants of Noah, what is the point of making a special list of descendants of Noah?
In summary: Yes, it is grammatically possible that "his seed" in verse 86 refers to Noah instead of Abraham, but the context demands that it refers back to Abraham. The context is all about Abraham. A switch from Abraham to Noah would be completely unmotivated and is therefore unlikely to be the intention of the author.
1. Maulana Muhammad Ali suggests this as one possible understanding, but also has a curious comment on the inclusion of Lot into this list of descendants. He writes:
All the prophets named are the descendants of Abraham, who was a descendant of Noah, and therefore "his descendants" might mean either Abraham's or Noah's descendants. The only difficulty in the former case is with reference to Lot, who was a nephew and not an actual descendant of Abraham, but as in 2:133 an uncle is called a father, a nephew might be included among descendants. (The Holy Qur'an, Arabic Text, English Translation and Commentary by Maulana Muhammad Ali, 1995, footnote 793; bold emphasis mine)
Two wrongs do not make a right. One error is not justified by the existence of a second error. Pointing to another, similar error does not turn the first error into a correct statement. Lot is not a descendant of Abraham, and the statement in S. 2:133 is simply yet another error of a similar kind, when it "reports" that the sons of Jacob allegedly said to Jacob: "We shall worship your God, the God of your fathers, Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac". Ishmael is not a father (ancestor) of Jacob. (S. 2:133 is discussed in more detail in this article.)
2. Those who want to insist that pronouns like "his" or "him" must refer back to the nearest antecedent (i.e. the last name that was mentioned in the text before the occurrence of such a pronoun), should carefully ponder what implications such a "principle of interpretation" would have for S. 29:26-27. It is only the wider context of S. 29:16-35 that saves S. 29:26-27 from becoming a fatally wrong statement if those two verses are taken in isolation. Here they are:
But Lot believed him; and he said, 'I will flee to my Lord; He is the All-mighty, the All-wise.' And We gave him Isaac and Jacob, and We appointed the Prophethood and the Book to be among his seed; We gave him his wage in this world, and in the world to come he shall be among the righteous.
In fact, with that argument Muslims would reap two serious problems. First, it would make Isaac and Jacob the sons of Lot, a clear historical error. Second, "his seed" would then refer back to Jacob only, not to Abraham whose name was mentioned the last time in S. 29:16, a distance of 11 verses away. Yusuf Ali comments on 29:27 in a footnote:
3447. Isaac was Abraham's son and Jacob his grandson, and among his progeny was included Isma'il the eldest son of Abraham. Each of these became a fountain-head of Prophecy and Revelation, Isaac and Jacob through Moses, and Isma'il through the holy Prophet Muhammad. ...
Yusuf Ali insists that "his seed" refers to Abraham and not to Jacob (although he is the last antecedent) because he clearly saw that Muhammad would otherwise be excluded from the prophethood.
If Muslims want to argue here that based on the wider context, "his seed" should be understood to refer to Abraham's seed, then they need to be consistent and permit the argument from context also in regard to S. 6:84. However, if the context is taken into account, then all evidence points to the conclusion that "his seed" refers to Abraham's seed in that case (as well).
Contradictions in the Qur'an
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