The Murder of Abel


Muhammad used several local religious sources as information for his recital of the Quran. This paper deals with his use of Judaistic material as source material.


Muhammad synthesied Islam from several sources: Judaism, Christianity, Sabeanism, paganism, and his own changing personal theology. A quick review of the Quran shows that Muhammad was influenced by various Jewish sources. In this paper, I deal with only one Jewish topic - the murder of Abel.

Muhammad had contact with Judaism. There were Jewish settlements throughout the Hijaz. Many of these Jewish settlements were known for their crafts and agriculture. He probably came into contact with them during his youth while traveling with the caravans. Later, he came into contact with the Jews that lived around Yathrib (Medina). He eventually had Jewish converts and married two or three Jewish women. Ibn Hisham, in his biography of Muhammad, records dialogs between Muhammad and various Jews.

Over and over again, the Quran tells stories that are similar to those found in the O.T.. And as one would expect a story to change when it is told to and then repeated second or third hand, so too the Quran's stories differ from the O.T. stories. No doubt Muhammad learned much about Judaism from the Jews he came into contact with. Muhammad heard various facets from their faith, their allegories, their religious writings and teachings, (Midrash, Mishnah, etc). He remembered parts of what he heard, and some was no doubt transformed in his mind or became forgotten. Later, when he recited them as "revelation", the stories were slightly different, or had changed to suit his concepts.

These changes are typical of what one would expect to find in the record of a man relying exclusively on hearsay and secondary sources because Muhammad could not read the books from which the Jews were quoting.


One of the most compelling evidences is found in Sura 5:27-32, which is the Qur'anic story of Cain and Abel. Initially, the Torah and the Qur'an basically agree on the narrative. In verse 31, the two diverge.

Then God sent down a raven, which dug the earth to show him how to bury the naked corpse of his brother. -- Sura 5:31.

We find a striking parallel between the Quran and a Jewish book of myths and fables. (The "Pirke Rabbi Eliezer", according to the Encyclopaedia Judaica, is a pseudepigraphic work, attributed to Rabbi Eliezer b. Hyrcanus [first century], but written most probably in the 8th century. It was thought to be earlier than the Qur'an for a long time and some Christian books still reflect this assumption. The Qur'an can obviously not (directly) quote from it, since the Qur'an is older than Pirke. However, Pirke is not a work of new material, written from scratch at that later time but mainly a collection of old traditions many of which are also found in the Talmud and midrashic sources (before Muhammad). As such it is a valuable witness to the stories and legends that are the heritage of the Jewish rabbis and sages. It is a testimony to the kind of stories that were popular in these centuries among the Jews. Pirke is a midrashic "commentary" in the sense of providing allegories to illustrate specific points or principles found in the Torah or Talmud. This is different from what we understand today under a strictly exegetical commentary.) In Pirke Rabbi Eliezer we find this story:

Adam and his companion sat weeping and mourning for him (Abel) and did not know what to do with him as burial was unknown to them. Then came a raven, whose companion was dead, took its body, scratched in the earth, and hid it before their eyes; then said Adam, "I shall do as this raven has done", and at once he took Abel's corpse, dug in the earth and hid it. [Geiger, Judaism and Islam, p. 80, as quoted in Gilchrist, Muhammad and the Religion of Islam, p. 205, 206].].

The similarity is obvious. The only difference is that the Qur'an says Cain did the burying, the Pirke says Adam did the burying.

The next Qur'anic verse further illustrates the point, proving that Muhammad's "revelations", were not coming from above, but were a strange assortment of passages culled from the Bible, Jewish Midrash and Mishnah, pagan religions, and his own theology.

That is why We laid it down for the Israelites that whoever killed a human being, except as punishment for murder or other villainy in the land, shall be deemed as though he had killed all mankind; and that whoever saved a human life shall be deemed as though he had saved all mankind. -- Sura 5:32.

Initially, there appears to be no connection between verses 31 and 32. Why the life or death of one should be as the salvation or destruction of all mankind in not made clear in the Qur'an. When we turn to another Jewish record - the Mishnah Sanhedrin, we find the link between the story and what follows:

We find it said in the case of Cain who murdered his brother, "The voice of thy brother's bloods crieth" (Gen. 4:10). It is not said here blood in the singular, but bloods in the plural, that is, his own blood and the blood of his seed. Man was created single in order to show that to him who kills a single individual it shall be reckoned that he has slain the whole race, but to him who preserves the life of a single individual it is counted that he hath preserved the whole race.
Mishnah Sanhedrin, 4:5

Here is a passage from the Mishnah! The Mishnah is a Jewish commentary on the Torah. How did a Rabbi's commentary make its way into the Qur'an and be quoted as word from Allah? Simple, Muhammad had heard these teachings from the Jews, and repeated them later as he recited "revelation".

Because the word for blood is in the plural in Gen. 4:10, an ingenious Rabbi invented the supposition that all Abel's offspring had been killed with him which signified that any murder or life-saving act had universal implications. Clearly Muhammad had no knowledge of the source of the theory set out in the Mishnah but, in hearing it related, simply set out the Rabbi's suppositions as the eternal decree of God! Just think, some Jewish Rabbi's thoughts now are comprised in the Qur'an!


This short piece clearly shows, in one way at least, how Muhammad received "revelations". In this case, Muhammad's memory served him, but also slightly failed him. The Qur'an fails the test of authenticity; it owes much of it's substance to other faiths. For reasons unknown, Muhammad decided to quote a Jewish story he heard, feeling it has some important meaning, and it was placed into the Qur'an. Little did Muhammad know, or for that matter understand from what he was really quoting.

There are other similar Qur'anic passages that owe their base to Biblical and mythical stories. This one is a good one for starters. So, yes, Muhammad, the Qur'an, and Islam are indeed indebted to Judaism as a foundation.

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