Confusion and/or Errors in the Qur'an?

Were Believers Really Called Muslims Before the Time of Muhammad?

The following article is a work in progress. My thoughts are not yet finalized on every issue that I am going to raise. I want to invite the feedback and thoughts of the readers in regard to the meaning of Surah 22:78 and the observations that I am presenting here.

The Qur'an makes the following claim:

And strive in His cause as ye ought to strive, (with sincerity and under discipline). He has chosen you, and has imposed no difficulties on you in religion; it is the cult of your father Abraham. It is He Who has named you Muslims, both before and in this (Revelation); that the Messenger may be a witness for you, and ye be witnesses for mankind! So establish regular Prayer, give regular Charity, and hold fast to Allah! He is your Protector - the Best to protect and the Best to help! S. 22:78 Yusuf Ali

and struggle for God as is His due, for He has chosen you, and has laid on you no impediment in your religion, being the creed of your father Abraham; He named you Muslims aforetime and in this, that the Messenger might be a witness against you, and that you might be witnesses against mankind. So perform the prayer, and pay the alms, and hold you fast to God; He is your Protector -- an excellent Protector, an excellent Helper. S. 22:78 Arberry

The topic of this discussion is the part that I underlined in the above quotations. First, we need to recognize that there is a certain amount of ambiguity in the formulation of the statement. Reading it with the statement that comes before, the first question is, "Who named you Muslims?" Most interpreters believe it is Allah, and in my opinion this is probably the intended meaning, but there are other Muslims who think the pronoun "he" refers to Abraham, the nearest antecedent to the pronoun, i.e. "it is the cult of your father Abraham. It is he (Abraham) who has named you Muslims, both before and in this (Revelation)". At least one Muslim translator of the Qur'an, Rashad Khalifa, understood it in this way. The following is Khalifa's translation of S. 22:78 together with his interpretation given in a footnote:

Abraham: Original Messenger of Islam*

78. You shall strive for the cause of GOD as you should strive for His cause. He has chosen you and has placed no hardship on you in practicing your religion-the religion of your father Abraham. He is the one who named you "Submitters" originally. Thus, the messenger shall serve as a witness among you, and you shall serve as witnesses among the people. Therefore, you shall observe the Contact Prayers (Salat) and give the obligatory charity (Zakat), and hold fast to GOD; He is your Lord, the best Lord and the best Supporter.

*22:78 Although all messengers preached one and the same message, ``Worship God alone,'' Abraham was the first messenger to coin the terms "Submission" (Islam) and "Submitter" (Muslim) (2:128). What did Abraham contribute to Submission? We learn from 16:123 that all religious duties in Submission were revealed through Abraham (see Appendices 9 & 26). (Source)

Other Muslims have followed this interpretation and teach it in their publications, e.g. in this article by A. Muhammed:

The misunderstanding and poor interpretation here stems from their lack of understanding of the word Islam (Submission). In spite of the fact that God tells us in the Quran that Islam (Submission to God Alone) is as old as Abraham who was the first Muslim (see 2:128, 2:131, 2:133) and who was the first to name us Muslims (22:78), still the Muslim scholars today insist that Islam is confined to being the religion of the Quran !!!

By creating such a false statement, the Muslim scholars claim to be the custodians of the message! In 3:67 God specifically tells us that Abraham was neither Jewish nor Christian, but a monotheist Muslim. God also tells us in 5:111 that Jesus and the Disciples were Muslim. In 27:44 tells us that Solomon was Muslim and in 5:44 we are told of all the prophets who were given the Torah and who were all Muslim.

What all these verses are confirming is that there are Muslims who followed the Torah and the Bible and who knew nothing of the Quran. These Muslims were submitters to God Alone, Lord of the universe. (Source; underline emphasis mine)

For contrast, here is Ibn Kathir's classical interpretation:

(He has named you Muslims both before and in this (Qur'an),) Imam `Abdullah bin Al-Mubarak said, narrating from Ibn Jurayj, from `Ata', from Ibn `Abbas: concerning Allah's saying, (He has named you Muslims before) "This refers to Allah, may He be glorified." This was also the view of Mujahid, `Ata', Ad-Dahhak, As-Suddi, Muqatil bin Hayyan and Qatadah. Mujahid said, "Allah named you Muslims before, in the PREVIOUS BOOKS and in Adh-Dhikr, (and in this) means, the Qur'an." This was also the view of others, because Allah says: (He has chosen you, and has not laid upon you in religion any hardship) Then He urged them to follow the Message which His Messenger brought, by reminding them that this was the religion of their father Ibrahim. Then He mentioned His blessings to this Ummah, whereby He mentioned them and praised them long ago in the Books of the Prophets which were recited to the rabbis and monks. Allah says: (He has named you Muslims both before) meaning, before the Qur'an, (and in this.) Under the explanation of this Ayah, An-Nasa'i recorded from Al-Harith Al-Ash`ari from the Messenger of Allah , who said: (Whoever adopts the call of Jahiliyyah, will be one of those who will crawl on their knees in Hell.) A man said, "O Messenger of Allah, even if he fasts and performs Salah" He said, (Yes, even if he fasts and performs Salah. So adopt the call of Allah whereby He called you Muslims and believers and servants of Allah.) (Source; bold, capital and underline emphasis mine)

Implicitly, Ibn Kathir testifies to the fact that it is not immediately clear whom the pronoun "he" refers to, since otherwise, he would not have had to explain and cite various authorities in support of his interpretation that "he" refers to Allah.

To summarize the first issue connected with this verse, the formulation in the Arabic is such that it could be Allah or Abraham who named the believers "Muslims". Allah is probably the intended subject in the naming process, but the Qur'an is ambiguous. Had the Qur'an said "WE named you Muslims ..." or "ALLAH named you Muslims ..." instead of "he named you Muslims ...", the confusion could have been avoided. Since clarity is always better than confusion, either one would be a definite improvement compared to the current formulation.

The second issue with the statement, "He named you Muslims before and in this", is this: Whom exactly does the pronoun "you" refers to?

There is no question that the Qur'an gives the name "Muslims" to those who believe in it and obey its message. It certainly includes the companions of Muhammad and all believers in his message from then on. Does it also include monotheist believers before Muhammad's time? The Qur'an considers earlier prophets and believers to be Muslims — and it actually makes several statements to that effect (cf. the article, Who Was the First Muslim?, for a detailed discussion). The author of the Qur'an exerts great efforts to connect Islam with Abraham, claiming that Muhammad brings the same message and practice of religion that was preached and observed by Abraham and all the prophets of God. In fact, the first part of S. 22:78, the verse under discussion, claims exactly that: "And strive hard in Allah's cause as you ought to strive. He has chosen you, and has not laid upon you in religion any hardship. It is the religion of your father Ibrahim." (Ibn Kathir) Thus, those who were Muslims before Muhammad — according to the understanding of Islam — seem to be included in the "you" of this statement. Somehow one has to account for the word "before" in the phrase, "He named you Muslims before and in this". The natural understanding is that this refers at least to those believers in Allah who are called Muslims in the Qur'an, even though they lived a long time before Muhammad.

Would it not be fair to understand the statement, "He named you Muslims before and in this", in a corporate sense, i.e. saying that Allah named YOU Muslims BEFORE (meaning all believers past) and IN THIS (all believers present)? The YOU, although referring first of all to the Muslims in Muhammad's time, those directly addressed, includes all believers past and present, the YOU being viewed much the same way that the author of the Qur'an used it in reference to the Jews of Muhammad's time when he accused them of killing the prophets before their time and of making the golden calf during the Exodus etc. (cf. these articles: *, *), i.e. the YOU is used in a corporate sense which includes both the past, present and perhaps the future members of a particular religious or secular group.

We need to reflect a bit on the term "Muslim" as well. Literally it simply means "one who submits" and it is at times used in a very generic sense. It should not be a surprise that all religions which teach the existence of one God or even of multiple gods, also call the believers to worship the deity or deities and submit to his or their will. The concept of submitting to God is nothing that is distinctive of Islam. It is an essential part in nearly every religion. Buddhism is an exception in some sense, since original Buddhism does not have a deity, but it still has rules/laws/principles that a true believer is supposed to follow, i.e. to submit to.

The New Testament explicitly calls believers to submit to God. In the Epistle of James we read:

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,
To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings. ...
SUBMIT yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.
Come near to God and he will come near to you.   James 1:1, 4:7-8

Christians are clearly called to "submit to God". Should Christians therefore call themselves Muslims, even though they worship Jesus as God and call him the Lord? In the generic sense of the word Muslim, one who submits to God, that would certainly be justified. Nevertheless, Muslims will usually not be comfortable with the thought that the word Muslim should be used in such a general way that somebody in submission to the old Egytian gods Isis and Osiris, to the Greek gods Zeus and Poseidon, to the Hindu goddess Shiva, or to any other god that is clearly not the Allah of Islam, could or should be called "a Muslim". If everyone who is religious in some sense and submits to the will of some kind of god, i.e. the god of any religion, should therefore be called a Muslim, then the term loses all its distinctiveness and therefore its meaning. If everyone is a Muslim, what point is there to call myself a Muslim?

With that said, we turn to the verb in the statement, "He named you Muslims before and in this". Names are always given for the purpose of distinguishing and identifying. Allah is said to have named the believers in his message "Muslims", he did not merely call them Muslims, but this term was given them as a name to distinguish them from disbelievers, those who reject his message, and from believers in other gods. In fact, the Arabic does not simply say "Muslims" but "THE Muslims (AL-muslimeen)" with the definite article. Therefore, the word cannot be understood in the generic sense as "submitted ones" but must be taken as the definite name, MUSLIMS. Apart from asking some Arab friends, I looked at about a dozen different English translations of the Qur'an and every single one of them translated the Arabic verb, sammÔ, as "named".

What is the difference between calling and naming? A husband may call his wife "darling" or "honey" (very common in America), but that is not her name, and it does not become her name by calling her this way. On the other hand, many people are fond of using insults against others. They may be calling people "idiot", "dirt bag", or use even worse terms that the readers will no doubt be familiar with. Yet, gladly, those terms of insult do not therefore become their recognized name.

Naming has a legal aspect. A person is usually named after his birth, and then this is his recognized name, it is part of his legal identity. The procedure of naming establishes a legal fact, your name. When a person is born, he enters a new realm. He is given a name that identifies him.

It appears to me that in Islam it is understood in a similar way, that if a person decides to believe in Allah, his message and his messenger(s), and speaks the Shahada as an expression of his faith, this establishes a new "relationship" to Allah, so it would be appropriate that someone who enters Islam would get a new name or identity, i.e. being from then on called "a Muslim". After all, being a Muslim or not being a Muslim has a lot of consequences in terms of rights and obligations as specified in Shariah. In many Islamic countries, one's religion is printed on the identity card! Whether it states "Muslim" or "Christian" will often make quite a difference in these countries. It is a legal issue. Allah did not call everyone Muslim in a generic sense, simply because he submitted to whatever god or gods, but he named those Muslim who believed in Allah and his very distinctive message of Islam.

In Islam, it is understood that everyone who worships (the true) God without associating anyone else with him is a Muslim, even those who did not know of Muhammad yet, because they lived before his time. However, there is an important historical difference between "being something" and "being called something". People or other entities can already be something before they are called by that name.

I want to illustrate this last point. For example, the Bible reports the creation of the animals before they are later given their names by Adam. The existence and essential identity is not dependent on whether the name that we have today was already known in earlier times. (The horse was a horse even before anyone gave it the name horse.) Some people first appear in public under a pseudonym and only later reveal their real name. Yet, their true identity, what and who they really were, does not change by the fact that they are only given their real or final name at a later time. A Biblical example would be the identity of the Angel of the Lord, a figure that appears several times in the Hebrew Scriptures. Christians believe that those were appearances of Jesus, the eternal Son of God, but before his incarnation, and before he was given the name Jesus which happened after his birth. Therefore, assuming this identification to be correct, it is acceptable to say that Jesus appeared to Abraham and to Gideon (even though he did not bear this name at that time), since he is the same person. However, it would be wrong to say that the Angel of the Lord was named or known under the name of Jesus in the Hebrew Scriptures. The name Jesus only appears in the New Testament.

Similarly, the author of the Qur'an may claim that the believers and prophets of earlier times, e.g. Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, and others were truly Muslims, i.e. that from the later Islamic perspective they are considered Muslims in a generic sense — though they have not been called that way in their lifetime. This would be a theological or religious claim which people may agree or disagree with, and it could not easily be proven or disproven. People will believe it if they consider Islam and the Qur'an as a whole to be trustworthy, but will probably reject this claim, if they do not believe in Islam. Such a claim would basically be a matter of faith.

However, the statement that they were called and even named Muslims already before the time of Muhammad, is a historical claim. That can be checked against the known historical facts. It is not a matter of faith, it is a question of history, and it is either true or false based on objective reality.

At this point, we have arrived at the main problem with Sura 22:78. To say, "He named you Muslims before and in this", contains a historical claim and is therefore subject to historical evaluation.

The above quoted tafsir (commentary) by Ibn Kathir explains what "before" and "in this" refers to when it states: "Allah named you Muslims before, in the previous Books and in Adh-Dhikr, (and in this) means, the Qur'an" and "... whereby He mentioned them and praised them long ago in the Books of the Prophets which were recited to the rabbis and monks." There is no question that the books studied by the Jewish rabbis and Christian monks are the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.

When we turn to the previous books, when we examine the Bible, we see that it never uses the term Muslims, neither the Arabic word nor its Hebrew or Greek equivalent. Given that Abraham, Solomon, Jesus, and summarily all the prophets and even all believers of biblical times are called Muslims in the Qur'an, and it is explicitly stated that they were named Muslims not only in the Qur'an but also before, this appears to be a rather glaring and a quite considerable historical error in the Qur'an.

As explained above, there is a considerable difference between calling somebody something and naming somebody something. Yet, there is not even one case of God addressing the believers as "submitters", "Oh ye who submit", or similar.

The command or expectation that believers should submit to the will and laws of God is found in every religion. That is not the issue. The claim of the Qur'an is more specific. It claims that already before the time of Muhammad, Allah had named the believers "Muslims". This is false. There is not a trace of it found anywhere in the Bible.

This is particularly interesting when we realize that (re)naming is a very important feature in the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments. God actually does give new names to key figures at decisive moments, particularly at the time when they take a major step in their journey of faith. Even more interestingly, it is reported that God gave a new name to Abraham and to Jacob.

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, "I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers." Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, "As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God." Genesis 17:1-8

"You are the LORD God, who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and named him Abraham. You found his heart faithful to you, and you made a covenant with him to give to his descendants the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Jebusites and Girgashites. You have kept your promise because you are righteous." Nehemia 9:7-8

Abram is given his new name Abraham at the time when God makes his covenant with him, a covenant that will change the history of mankind, an everlasting covenant that is not only about Abraham personally, but also about his descendants. It is explicitly connected with the issue of who will be the God of Abraham's descendants. This is the context of Abram receiving his new name, Abraham. His new name is an important feature of this event, but he was not called a Muslim.

The Qur'an also claims that Abraham is first called a Muslim when he prays for himself and for his descendants to be in the right faith (S. 2:127-133). The Qur'an, however, knows nothing of God's covenant with Abraham, nor that Abraham was a name given to him by God himself. The Qur'an tells a completely different story without any historical basis. It stands it stark contradiction to the Torah.

God also gives a new name to Jacob:

... But Jacob replied, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." The man asked him, "What is your name?" "Jacob," he answered. Then the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome." Jacob said, "Please tell me your name." But he replied, "Why do you ask my name?" Then he blessed him there. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared." Genesis 32:26-30

Based on this event, the descendants of Jacob are called "the children of Israel". Interestingly, the Qur'an regularly uses this name, Bani Israil, but does not provide any clue as to where this name comes from. Based on the Qur'an, one would not be able to know why the descendants of Jacob are called the children of Israel.

Here is an example from the New Testament, where Jesus gives a new name to Simon, who will later become one of the most important apostles of Christ:

Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve—designating them apostles—that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons. These are the twelve he appointed: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter), James son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means Sons of Thunder) ... Mark 3:13-17

And he brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, "You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas" (which, when translated, is Peter). John 1:42

Obviously, the Bible puts quite an emphasis on God's acts of re-naming important men of faith. This makes it all the more glaring that they are never called Muslims. Driven by the desire to connect his message with that of the earlier prophets of the Jews and the Christians, and particularly with Abraham, the author of the Qur'an made the claim that these earlier prophets were not only considered to be Muslims, but that they were actually called Muslims. This is an obvious historical error. If the Qur'an is wrong on such an essential issue, it has therefore to be rejected as a revelation from God.

As mentioned in the introductory paragraph, I welcome feedback, be it in confirmation of or in opposition to the thoughts presented above. All correction, clarification, etc. will be appreciated.

Jochen Katz


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