The Qur'an as Scripture, Part IV

Arthur Jeffery

[Part I] [Part II] [Part III] [Part IV]

It is not infrequently urged against Western scholarship that in its investigation of Muhammad and his message it concerns itself too closely with tracing the origins of the various elements which enter into that teaching, and does not sufficiently consider what Muhammad himself made of the material he had at his disposal as he moulded it for the service of his mission and for the use of his community after him. Shakespeare often enough took over plots from stories more or less familiar to his audiences, even themes which had already been used by his predecessors in the dramatic art, but the dramas that have become part of world literature are the fruit of Shakespeare's own handling of that material. It is doubtless true that Shakespeare had read Francis de Belleforest's version of the Hamlet story from the Historia Danica of Saxo Grammaticus, and he may have seen, perhaps even have acted in, the play about Hamlet which was popular in London in his youth. Yet the Hamlet we know and admire is what Shakespeare made out of the earlier material he found to his hand. So in discussing the Qur'an as Scripture it is not enough to show that Muhammad took over from his contemporaries a particular theory of the nature of Scripture, and one particular form of the doctrine of a prophetic order with which Scripture revelation was associated, as well as a concept of the mechanism of revelation whereby Scripture was made available to mankind, we must ask what Muhammad did with all this as he built Scripture into the religion of the community he was organizing in Arabia.

It is necessary to insist again that it was a religious mission which Muhammad came forward to undertake among his people, the Arabs. We must regard him as quite as sincerely convinced of his "call" to this mission as Martin Luther and John Wesley were to theirs, and as fully prepared as they were to give his all to the carrying through of his mission. Like them, however, he was a child of his age and environment, who thought and planned the details concerned with the working out of his mission in terms of the religious life of his contemporary world. Part of contemporary life in the more advanced religious communities of his day was the use of Scripture, and so part of what he was to do for his religious community was to provide them with a Scripture. This Scripture is in our hands as the Qur'an. What we have may not be precisely what he would have wished to leave with his community as the Kitab, for he died before he had issued it as an authoritative collection, and we cannot be absolutely sure that what his successors gathered together and issued after his death was just what he would have wished it to be. Orthodox theory insists that it is, and in any case it is all that we have as his Kitab, so to it we must look for the answers to our final questions.

The first of them is - how does Muhammad relate his Scripture to the earlier Scriptures which were in the hands of his contemporaries?

He claims that what he has proclaimed was "sent down" as a message to his contemporaries, just as earlier Scripture was "sent down" to earlier peoples (XXI.10; VI.114; II.23/21,89/83ff.; V.66/70). It is intended to give his Arab contemporaries the substance of what had been given these earlier communities in their Scriptures, so he declares that its message is substantially what was in the earlier Books (LXXXVII.18,19; XLII.13/11; XXVI.i96; IV.26/31). It is thus a confirmation of them (XII.111; X.37/38: VI.92; XXXV.31/28; IV.47/50) and their safe-guard (V.48/52). Therefore it is explicitly put on the same level as the Torah and the Injil (IX.111/112), and the members of his community are instructed that they must believe in the earlier Scripture revelations as well as in what has been "sent down" to Muhammad (II.4/3,89/83ff.,136/130; III.84/78; IV.60/63,136/135,162/160; V.59/64).

If this were all we could say that the relation of the Qur'an to other Scriptures was that it was an Arabic version of the message already given in them. The claim for it, however, goes further than this, for we find it stated that its message is intended to make clear what had been sent down to previous messengers (XVI.44/46,64/66; X.37/38) clearing up for the people of the earlier religious communities those matters about which they differ (XXVII.76/78; III.23/22). This is practically a claim to supersede previous Scripture, and Muhammad says that the people of knowledge among those earlier communities recognize in his message the promise of their Lord (XVII.108).

What promise of their Lord? Obviously Muhammad must have learned that in their Scriptures there was some promise which he could interpret his mission as fulfilling. But how had he learned such a thing as this? Certain things in our previous discussion may have suggested that perhaps Muhammad's closer contact was with Scripture in the hands of Christians, but careful examination of the matter makes it quite plain that the Book with which he had most contact was that in the possession of his Jewish contemporaries. He had seen that book in their hands (V.43/47), knew that they studied it (VII.169/168; II.76/71), and heard it recited (II.44/41). He also knew that they were accustomed to write the Torah on parchment (VI.91; II.79/73). Quite possibly it was in his earlier days that he first saw Scripture in the hands of the Ahl al-Kitab, for in early passages of the Qur'an he refers to Scripture as something in suhuf (LXXX.13; LXXIV.52; LXXXVII.18,19; LIII.36/37; XCVIII.2). That Scripture is for him always something written out (XXIX.48/47; XXXIV.44/43; VI.155/156; LII.2,3) would fit with either the Jewish or the Christian Holy Book, but the suhuf rather suggests Jewish scrolls. It is also significant that he refers more particularly to the Torah as that which preceded his own revelation (XI.17/20; XLVI.12/11; II.41/38; III.3/2), and to his teaching as the confirmation in Arabic of the Torah (XLVI.12/11; II.41/38,89/83).

Now it is evident that he was anxious to gain a closer acquaintance with this Book of the Jewish community, but was thwarted by some of their leaders. He complains that they show the parchments but conceal much (VI.91), so he challenges them to bring out the Book and read it (III.93/87). That he had learned something of the legal prescriptions of their Law appears from the statement in VI.118,119 about slaughtering for food, and he could hardly have ventured the statement that when their learned men hear the message he is setting forth in his preaching they recognize it (XXVI.197; cf. IV.162/160; XLVI.10/9), unless he knew well that he was reproducing something he had learned from their Book. It is possible that at first the Jewish leaders welcomed his inquiries about their Scriptures, and became uncooperative only when they discovered the import of his own claims to be in the prophet succession.1

Sura II.76/71 makes it plain that some of them objected to Muhammad and his followers being told what was in their Scriptures, but apparently he persisted in his attempts. He knows that among them are unlearned folk from whom it is useless to seek information since they know nothing of Scripture but its stories (II.78/73). What most curious is that he seems to have attempted to purchase from some of the Jews transcripts of matter from their Scripture, only to find after they had taken the money that they had deceived him. V.44/48, which is dealing with the Torah, reprobates the selling of Allah's verses for a small price, and this is explained by II.79/73:

"Woe to those who write out Scripture with their hands and say: "This is from Allah,' that they may buy with it some small gain. Woe to them for what their hands have written, and woe to them for the gain they make."2

In Madinan passages there are several references to the tampering with Scripture.

III.78/72: "Among them is a group who torture Scripture with their tongues that ye may suppose it to be from Scripture, though it is not from the Scriptures. They say: 'It is from Allah,' though it is not from Allah. They utter a lie against Allah, and know that they are so doing."

V.15/16: "they" change the words from their places, and have forgotten part of that of which they were reminded.3 Thou wilt not cease to come upon treachery on their part, save a few among them, but pardon them, and overlook it."

V.41/45: "they change the words from their places, and say: 'If ye are given this, accept it, but if ye are not given it, beware.' ... These are they whose hearts Allah desires not to purify."

II.75/70: "there was a group of them who would hear the word of Allah, then they would change it, after they had understood it, and would do this knowingly."

IV.44/47ff.: "Hast thou not seen those who were given a portion of the Scripture purchasing error and desiring that ye should err from the way? Allah well knows your enemies, and Allah suffices as a patron. Allah suffices as a helper. Some among those who profess Judaism change the words from their places, and say: 'We hear and we rebel.' and 'Hear' something that is not audible, and 'Shepherd us' - torturing (it) with their tongues, and violating religion. Had they said, 'We hear and we obey,' and 'hear' and 'regard us,' it had been better for them and more correct, but Allah has cursed them with their unbelief."4

The key words to the understanding of these passages are harrafa "to change," and lawa "to torture." Each radical in the root of a Semitic word is a harf, and to make play with these radicals in a word would be to do what is meant by harrafa. Thus to change an 'ain to a ghain would change ba'al, a husband, into baghl, a mule, or by metathesis kallama, "he spoke," might become kammala "he completed." Lawa is properly "to twist," so that to twist a thing with the tongue would mean much the same thing as harrafa. It would thus seem that all these passages refer to Muhammad's contact with Jewish contemporaries who knew the Scriptures, presumably in Hebrew, and translated portions for him into Arabic,5 but wittingly altered words so as to deceive him, We have already noted passages which show that certain groups among the Ahl a1-Kitab resented Muhammad's claim to have a revelation, and the continuation of II.75/70 actually shows us the change from friendliness to opposition, and anger that some among them still continued to tell him about their Scripture.

II.76/71: "When they meet those who have believed (i.e., the followers of Muhammad) they say: 'We (too) have believed'; but when they get alone with one another they say: 'Do ye converse with them about what God hath revealed to you. that they may dispute with you before your Lord? Have ye no sense?'
77/72: Know they not that Allah knows what they keep secret as well as what they let out?"

The Prophet's Arab opponents knew of these attempts to learn about Scripture from the Ahl al-Kitab. Not content with asserting that the substance of his message was but a rehash of the "tales of the ancients" (LXXXIII.13; LXVIII.15; XLVI.17/16; XXVII.68/70; XXIII.83/85; XVL24/26; VIII.31; VI.25), they even claimed to know that his message was only a devising of his in which others helped him, for he used to have copied down these "tales of the ancients," sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the evening, as they were recited to him XXV.4/5,5/6). To this his only reply is that One who knows what is secret in heaven and on earth has sent it down (XXV.6/7).6 Then when they charge that they know he is taught by a human (XVI.103/105), his reply is that the language of the person to whom they are referring is foreign whereas his message is in plain Arabic speech.7

In any case it is obvious that Muhammad did learn a good deal about the great characters of Scripture, Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Aaron, David and Solomon, Jesus and John Baptist, as well as certain elements of the religious teaching of both the Jews and the Christians. The fact that what he learned of these revered characters came more often from uncanonical than from canonical sources, and that certain elements in the teachings of these religions were sadly misunderstood, is of less moment to our discussion than the fact that this material is incorporated in his Scripture as revelation given to him in continuation and confirmation of previous Scripture. It must have been evident to any in his audience who had close acquaintance with the Old or the New Testament that his accounts of Biblical matters were far from accurate. There is evidence, indeed, in the Sira that on more than one occasion certain Jews in his audience made merry over his ignorance of Biblical matters. How then was he to justify his Scripture against them?

Could we answer that question fully we should have our final answer as to his doctrine of Scripture. Perhaps we can answer it in part, for we have a hint of the answer in the passage already mentioned where Muhammad says that the people of knowledge among these other communities recognize in his message the promise of their Lord (XVII.108). But what promise of their Lord?

Muhammad knows that the Jews disputed among themselves about the Book, and were in doubt and questioning (XLI.45; XI.110/112; X.93; XLV.17/16). He knows also that they and the Christians differed about Scriptural matters (II.113/107), so that on the Day of Resurrection Allah will have to decide between them on these matters. But if Scripture is really the same message revealed from the archetypal Book through the succession of prophets whom Allah sent, why should there be these questionings and doubts and disputes? Surely the only answer is that men have corrupted the message of the prophets. It will be remembered that this was the charge preferred against the Jews in earlier days by the Ebionites,8 those Judaeo-Christians whose communities to the east of the Jordan seem to have been still active even later than the Vth century, and to whose teachings the Qur'an presents at times such close resemblances, Their charge was that "false pericopes" had been introduced into the Old Testament in order to validate later Jewish teaching and practice,9 so that only by the removal of these "corruptions" could the teachings of the original revelation be recovered. According to the Ebionites it was the function of that angelic being whom they called the True Prophet, to care for the revelation of this original faith. This being was very closely associated with Adam, appeared as the bearer of revelation to both Abraham and Moses, and was in a way incarnated in Jesus.10 Now in Deut. XVIII.15 is the promise by Moses:

"A prophet will the Lord thy God raise up unto thee from the midst of thee, from thy brethren, like unto me. To him shall ye hearken."

and in Jno. XIV.26 is the promise by Jesus:

"But the Paraclete, which is the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things."

In LXI.6 we have the well-known passage where Muhammad identifies himself with the promised Paraclete, so that in VII.157/156 we could well see his identification of himself with the promised prophet of Deuteronomy. This then would be the "promise of their Lord" which they should have recognized. If so it could well be the point of his chiding them for concealing the truth when they know it (III.71/64; cf. II.42/39,44/41).

Possibly some contact with Ebionite teaching in North Arabia gave the pattern for Muhammad's thought in this connection. The prophetic succession from Adam to Jesus and then to himself, with its curious emphasis on the names of Adam, Noah, Abraham, the Tribes and Moses in the succession,11 the angelic figure associated with the transmission of revelation whom he equates with Gabriel and the Holy Spirit, the emphasis on the "heavenly book," the docetic Christology, and the charge of corrupting Scripture, all point in this direction.12 His own interpretation of the promise, however, would seem to be original,13 and is for us the important thing, for it gave a ground on which he might base his claim that his Scripture was the final revelation.

The Scriptures known to his contemporaries were in the hands of the Jews and the Christians. Though the Jews followed the revelation as it had been delivered to Moses in the Torah, and the Christians that delivered to Jesus in the Injil, both Jews and Christians claimed to have Abraham as their father.14 Yet as he came in contact with these groups in his milieu he found that -

"The Jews say: 'The Christians have no foundation' and the Christians say: 'The Jews have no foundation,' though both read the Book." (II.113/107)

and in particular they disputed about Abraham (III.65/58). Consequently he went back to this Abraham from whom both Jews and Christians derived, but from whose teaching both must manifestly have departed and interprets his religion as a restoration of the "faith of Abraham." The steps of the argument are plain -

1) The gift of Scripture as a revelation of "the way of Allah" was a gift peculiarly associated with the family of Abraham (XXIX.27/26; cf LVII.26; IV.54/57)

2) The message given by revelation to Muhammad is that he follow the religion (milla) of Abraham (XVI.123/124; III.95/89; cf. IV.125/124; III.68/61; VI.161/162).

3) This religion of Abraham was what had already been given to Noah (XLII.13/11; XXXVII.83/81), and was later given to Moses and Jesus (XLII.13/11; cf. LVII.27).

4) It was revealed again to Muhammad, whose message is thus essentially that revealed to these earlier prophets and founders of communities (LIII.36/37,37/38; LXXXVII.18,19).

5) This Abrahamic faith is the "right religion" (din qiyam, VI.161/162), since Abraham was a Hanif (VI.161/162; II.- 135/129; III.67/60,95/89; XVI.120/121,123/l24), was a Muslim (III.67/60; cf. XXII.78/77), and was in particular distinguished as not being "one of the associators" (VI.161/162; III.67/60,95/89; XVI.120/121,123/124; II.135/129) For this reason Allah made him a model (imam) of right religion to guide others (II.124/118), so that none but the debased of soul would mislike this faith of Abraham (II.130/124).

6) This religion Abraham bequeathed to his descendants (II.132/126), promising that those who followed him should be of him (XIV.36/39). The Jews and Christians of Muhammad's day, however, who disputed about Abraham (III.65/58) have clearly departed from that original faith, so that Muhammad can declare that it is something different from the religion of contemporary Jews and Christians (II.135/129; III.67/60).

7) Abraham had foreseen this defection of later days and had prayed that an Apostle might be raised up from his people to rehearse Allah's signs to them, teach them Scripture, and purify them (II.129/123).

That prayer had now been answered in the coming of Muhammad. He was raised up from among the Arabs whom the Jews recognized to be of the descendants of the Patriarch through Ishmael (Baba mezi'a 86b). He was sent to rehearse Allah's signs (II.151/146; LXII.2; III.164/158; LXV.11), to purify them (II.151/146; III.164/158; LXII.2), and to instruct them in Scripture and wisdom (idem, and see LIV.5; XVII.39/41), that wisdom (hikma) which is especially associated with the line of Abraham (IV.54/57). Therefore his community is the true succession to the umma of Abraham, walking in that "straight path" (as-sirat al-mustaqim) into which Allah had guided Abraham (XVI.121/122). It is they who are the "Hanifs to Allah" (XXII.31/32), the true Muslims, to whom the greatest of all sins is that of "association" (shirk), for it is this faith of Abraham which is laid upon Muhammad's followers (XXII.78/77), who are to find in him and in those who followed him their finest example (LX.4,6).

"O People of the Book. why dispute ye about Abraham, Seeing that neither the Torah nor the Injil were sent down till after him? Have ye no intelligence? Behold ye are they who have been disputing about a matter whereof ye have no knowledge. So why do ye dispute about a matter concerning which ye have no knowledge? Allah knows, but ye do not know. Abraham was not a Jew. And he was not a Christian, but he was a Hanif, a Muslim, and was not one of the associators. The nearest people to Abraham are surely those who have followed him, and this Prophet and those who believe" (III.65/58 ff.).

One consequence of this position was that Abraham had now to be brought into association with the developing cultus of Muhammad's religion, and this was secured by linking his story to that of the ancient shrine at Mecca which Muhammad, after his breach with the Jews and the Christians, had made the cult center for his community.15 In a fairly early Madinan passage which was later worked over (XIV.35/38ff.) we find Abraham represented as praying that "this land" be kept secure, aud that he and his sons be kept free from idolatry, after which prayer he states that he has caused some of his descendants to settle in the valley of the Sacred House. In XXII.26/27 it is Allah who makes the site of the Sacred House habitable for Abraham, bids him purify it and prepare it for the pilgrimage rites and then summon folk to the pilgrimage. In II.125/119ff. Ishmael is associated with Abraham in the building of the Sacred House and in the preparation of it for the rites of the pilgrimage to this place, which in III.96/90 is declared to be the first such Sacred House founded for this purpose.

This brings us face to face with a very important element in the development of Muhammad's conception of his Qur'an as Scripture. These additions to the Abraham story are given out as "revealed' in the same way as other Scripture material was revealed. The earlier material concerning the Abraham story was "Scripture" inasmuch as it was reproducing in Arabic what was told among the Ahl al-Kitab about Abraham, even though parts of it came from legendary lore rather than from the Biblical account. Now, however, "Scripture" has expanded to include Muhammad's own additions to the story made in the interests of developing the cultus for his community.

A second consequence was that it brought about a further definition of Muhammad's own position with regard to Scripture. Scripture, as he understood the matter, was always associated with the labors of Allah's messengers the Prophets, to whom revelation was mediated by an angelic minister. From early in his ministry, as we have seen, he had spoken of himself as both rasul and nabi, claiming to have been called to his mission by that angelic minister (LIII.2-18). All the various functions ascribed to the prophets in the Scriptures of the People of the Book are in his pronouncements similarly ascribed to himself. But if he is the fulfilment of the promise to the People of the Book, and the Apostle whom Abraham had prayed might be raised up, then he is the final link in the prophetic succession, and ipso facto his Scripture the final revelation for mankind. In IV.163/161 we find him spoken of as on the same level as the other members of the prophetic succession; in II.108/102 as in particular on a level with Moses, and in IX.113/114ff. as on a level with Abraham, but in XXXIII.40 he is the "seal of the prophets."

This latter may have been an expression already familiar to his contemporaries. The word itself - khatam - which is used in the Qur'an only in this passage, is a word derived from Aramaic,16 where we find "seal" used in the sense of obsignatio, finis, conclusio. The claim to be the final member of the prophetic chain, the bearer of the final revelation, had been made by others before him. It is implicit in the Christian claim that God who in earlier days had spoken through the prophets had spoken a final word in the message of Jesus.17 Explicitly, however, Mani 18 had claimed that he was the last in the succession of messengers from God, so that in the Arabic sources it is recorded that his followers called him "the Seal of the Prophets." As such Mani had issued his own Scriptures19 and had set forth a "new law" for his community. This is what Muhammad does. He will enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong (VII.157/156), will instruct his community in Scripture and in wisdom (II.151/146; III.164/158; LXII.2), will care for his community (IX.128/129; V.55/60), establishing dietary laws for them to follow (II.172/167ff.; V.3/4ff.; VII.157/156),20 and being the arbiter will decide differences that arise among them21 (IV.59/62,65/58). But more than that, it is now he who will decide also among those who still hold to former Scriptures (XLII.15/14), seeing that he has the commission to be Allah's further warner and bringer of good tidings to them also (V.19/22). Thus he can claim, as Mani had claimed, that his religion is to be victorious over all other religions (IX.33).

This naturally gives the Prophet a position of peculiar authority. What more natural, then, than that this position of authority be given confirmation by revelation. Late Madinan passages in the Qur'an have many such "revelations" with reference to the position of the Prophet in the community and the indulgences he may claim for himself in this privileged Status. The community is informed that his dignity must be guarded (XXXIII.53ff.; XLVIII.9; XLIX.1-7), that he must not be treated as on the same level with ordinary believers (XXIV.62ff.; XXXIII.36,56; IX.58ff.; LVIII.5/6). He is allowed special matrimonial privileges (XXXIII.50/49ff.), and his disposition of the spoils is not to be questioned (LIX.6,7). Most curious of all, his personal affairs, in particular his domestic difficulties with his wives, become the subject of "revelations" (LXVI.1-5; XXXIII.4-6,28-34,37-40,59; XXIV.1ff).

The charge often brought against Muhammad of having deliberately made use of the mechanism of revelation for his own ends can be, and not infrequently is, overstressed. The facts, however, are there in the Qur'an itself, and were fully recognized by the older Commentators, who apparently felt no necessity to explain them away. Our present interest in these matters is in the fact that they show what Muhammad himself is making of the concept of Scripture. He has obviously moved a long way from the idea of the heavenly archetype as that was thought of by his Jewish and Christian contemporaries. Yet the path of the development is clear. From that source of revelation, as he understood it, had come the stories of Moses, of Joseph, of David and Solomon, of Jesus and his mother, as these circulated among People of the Book, and those stories, as he was able to learn them, had in part to do with the domestic affairs of the prophets - of Joseph and Potiphar's wife, of the infancy of Moses and Pharaoh's daughter, of Moses' meeting with the daughters of Jethro, of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, of the barrenness of Zechariah's wife and the promise of John. It may thus have been a perfectly natural transition of thought for him to conclude that, since he belonged to the prophetic succession, "revelation" could concern itself with his domestic affairs as it had with theirs, without his having any realization of the enormous gulf between the way the People of the Book understood revelation in connection with these prophetic stories and the way he was using it with reference to his own circumstances. There is no need to assume insincerity in this case, any more than there is in the case of the founder of the Mormons in producing his Book. What happened in both these cases was the application to contemporary and personal circumstances of a notion of Scripture properly relevant to very different circumstances.

The important point is that Muhammad had come to think of revelation as at once the eternal and immutable word of God, and as applicable to the changing circumstances of his own situation. Both elements belonged to the concept of revelation as understood by the People of the Book. When Isaiah was commanded to write on a great scroll with a pen words concerning Maher-shelal-hash-baz (Isa. VIII), or to prophesy disaster in the year that Tartan came to Ashdod (Isa. XX); when Jeremiah had a message to give at the time king Zedekiah sent to him Pashur and Zephaniah to enquire about the war against Nebuchadrezzar (Jer. XXI), or when the word of the Lord came to Zechariah on the fourth (lay of the ninth month of the fourth year of Darius the king (Zech. VII), those were all revelations concerned with immediate circumstances. But neither Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah or any other Old Testament prophet thought of his pronouncements as destined to form part of a Book of Scripture for a community. It was the community, long after these prophets had passed away, which gathered up those among their pronouncements in which, though originally addressed to local and particular situations, they nevertheless heard a message of God which had eternal validity. it was this recognition by the community of the element of eternal validity which made them Scripture.

It was for this reason that later thought among the People of the Book tended more and more to regard the message of the divine messenger as a whole, rather than as piecemeal revelations. In Rabbinic thought it was the whole Torah, not just the Ten Commandments, that was given at Sinai.22 The compiler of IV Ezra pictures Ezra and his scribes at one session producing the twenty-four canonical and the seventy reserved books (IV Ezra. XIV.37-48), just as the writer of Slavonic Enoch represents the Patriarch dictating his visions to his sons. Thus we can understand why Muhammad's contemporaries raised the objection that if his preachments are indeed Scripture that ought to have been sent down all at once (XXV.32/34). He however knew from experience that "inspiration" seizes a man unexpectedly, and he was aware that proclamations from a religious leader are needed as circumstances arise, so he insists that his revelation is parcelled out piecemeal (XXV.32/34; XVII.106/107). The problem facing him was that of adjusting a conception of inspiration derived from one source to a concept of Scripture derived from another, without any clear perception of the nature of the problem. The parallel here with the case of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon is striking.

One inevitable consequence of such a situation, where the prophet himself is setting forth his pronouncements as Scripture for his community, is that the community finds itself bound to regard as of eternal validity pronouncements made in particular situations of limited and temporary relevance, and often made with very little understanding of what they involve when no longer connected with those local and temporary situations. A typical example in the case of the Qur'an is that of the nasi' in Sura IX.37, where the exigencies of the war with the Meccans called forth an abrogation of the custom of intercalation that had been introduced into Arabia in pre-Islamic days in order to bring the lunar months into accord with the seasons of the solar year, and by this abrogation has bound the Muslim community for all time to a lagging lunar calendar.28 The regulations concerning polygamy, the veiling of women and slave concubinage were framed similarly in terms of a local situation. But local situations are subject to change, and at times in the Prophet's own lifetime the problems involved in changing situations arose. On his theory of Scripture how were they to be solved? By reference to the archetypal Book, for since this was with Allah He could confirm or abrogate what He wishes (XIII.39).

This notion of abrogation was not itself new. Paul in his Epistles had taught a doctrine of abrogatio legis in the sense that the ordinances which had been promulgated by one messenger from God were no longer valid as a whole when a new messenger had come with a fresh revelation of "the way of God" for a new generation of men. Thus Paul declares that the numerous regulations of the Law of Moses were a paedagogus to prepare men for the new law of Jesus, but many of them were abrogated by that new law proclaimed by Jesus (Rom. II-X; Gal. III-V).24 So Montanus in Asia Minor, and Mani in Mesopotamia, though they admitted the inspiration of the Old and New Testaments, taught that they were superseded by certain of their own teachings, and so proceeded to lay down laws and ordinances for the new communities they believed they were called to found.25 If, therefore, Muhammad were a newly sent messenger from Allah, his formulation of regulations for the religious and social life of his community would be a natural consequence of his mission, and these regulations would abrogate, for those who followed him, the regulations they had previously been following. Jesus had said: "Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time ... but I say unto you" (Matt. V.21ff.), a more perfect formulation of the law being given to supersede a less perfect form. So for Muhammad to have made proclamation of new community legislation was quite in keeping with his claim to prophetic office. Those who did not believe in him might raise questions each time something new was proclaimed (IX.124/125,127/128), just as the Jews had raised questions at the new teaching of Jesus. The Meccans might even scoff at his proclamations (IX.65/66; V.57/62), telling him that he is uttering vanity (XXX.58). They might deny that he was sent from Allah (XIII.43), and say: "O Allah, if this be from Thee, rain down upon us stones from heaven" (VIII.32). But in this he was but meeting with what of revelation before him had met (III.184/181), so his teaching of an abrogatio legis was in principle no different from that of those other messengers in whose succession he claimed to stand, for Allah who did the sending of the message could abrogate or confirm as He chose (XIII.39).

In the Qur'an, however, we find a quite different application of the principle of abrogation. The two relevant passages are -

XVI.101/103: "And when We substitute a verse in place of a verse - and Allah knows best what He sends down - they say: 'Thou art only a fabricator.' Nay, but most of them have no knowledge."

II.106/100: "Whatever verse We cancel or cause (thee) to forget. We bring one better than it or its like. Dost thou not know that Allah is powerful over everything?"

The point in both passages is that an earlier proclamation is being superseded by a later one. The first passage would seem to refer to some deliberate alteration of an ordinance by Muhammad, while the other at least suggests that in issuing some injunction he had forgotten an earlier statement of his own with which this new injunction was in conflict, so that when he was reminded of this it was necessary to explain the conflict.26 In any case these verses form the basis for one section of the Masorah of the Qur'an, viz., that known as nasikh wa mansukh, which collects the various verses of the Qur'an whose statements stand in real or apparent contradiction with one another, and arranges them to show which are the abrogating and which the abrogated verses.27

Finally, in the culture of his environment, Muhammad seems to have found a further ground on which to establish the superiority of his Scripture to all other Scriptures. If he is the seal of the prophets his religion must obviously be victorious over the other religions (IX.33; cf. LVIII.22),28 and consequently his Scripture superior to theirs.

An exalted conception of the regard in which Scripture should be had seems to have been with him at an early period. We find Scripture referred to as honorable (karim, LVI.77/76), glorious (majid, L.1), sublime ('aziz, XLI.41), blessed (mubarak, VI.92,155/156), Which none should touch but the purified (LVI.79/78). It is taught by the Merciful Himself (LV.1 ff.), so that at its recital men ought to do obeisance (sujud, LXXXIV.21). It is to be recited in appropriate intonation (tartil, LXXIII.4), to which men should listen in silence (VII.204/203).

Much of this may have come to him along with his general concept of Scripture from the People of the Book, and that some of it did so come from them is clear from LIX.21:

"Had We sent down this Qur'an upon a mountain, thou wouldst have seen it humbling itself, cleaving asunder out of fear of Allah,"

which is but a reproduction of the Rabbinic legends about Sinai being humble for the reception of the Torah, not proud and disdainful like Tabor and Hermon and Carmel,29 and about how it was wrenched from its anchorage in earth when the Torah came to be delivered upon it.30 The People of the Book, however, were by no means prepared to accept Muhammad's "revelations" as on a level with those in the Books in their possession, even though he claims that Allah has put things in his message in order to convince the Ahl al-Kitab and remove their doubts (LXXIV.31 ff.). Allah desires, he tells them, that those who have "the knowledge" may know that this is the truth from their Lord, that they may believe in it and their hearts acquiesce in it (XXII.54/53). Some of them apparently did. Passages which speak of the learned among the Children of Israel recognizing his message (XXVI.197; XXVIII.52.53; XXIX.47/46; XLVI.10/9; VI.114; XIII.36) may mean no more than that they recognized the stories about various Biblical characters which he told in his preaching, but when we read in XVII.107/108ff. (cf.XIII.36) that those to whom "the knowledge" has been given fall down in obeisance when they hear it recited, fall on their faces weeping, and in V.83/86ff. that the Christians with tears hail the message, and beg Allah to write them down as those that bear witness to it, this, if it can be taken at face value, indicates a much deeper impression made by his message.31 This need not be a surprise. At a much later date the curious Messianic mission of Sabbatai Zevi in 1666 caused such a tide of emotion as "never was seen before, nor will be again till the true redemption comes,"32 and the present writer can remember from his boyhood stories of the extravagant emotions stirred in certain groups when John Dowie announced himself in Australia as the Elijah whose coming was promised. A less stirring work than Millennial Dawn would be hard to imagine, yet in our own generation Russellite propagandists tell of folk so overcome at hearing it read that they fall on their faces weeping.

As a whole, however, the People of the Book were unresponsive (X.15/16; IV.61/64; II.89/83ff.,176/171; XLI.13/12,26/25; IX.124/125), indeed were rather contemptuous of its claims to be Scriptural (X.15/16; VII.203/202; XLI.26/25; XIII.43; IX.129/130) or to be anything more than his own invention (XXV.4/5; XXI.5; X.38/39; XI.13/16,35/37; XXXII.3/2; XLVI.8/7); calling it a medley of dreams (XXI.5), a vain babbling (XXV.30/32), the uttering of vanity (XXX.58). Since it but increases them in unbelief (V.64/69,68/72), he concludes that Allah has placed a veil between him and them when he recites it (XVII.45/47; XVIII.57/55; cf. XLI.5/4; VI.25),33 and is encouraged by the assurance that the time will come when men will recognize its message (XXXVIII.88). Indeed, though men reject it the Jinn turn aside to hearken to it (XLVI.29/28), recognizing that it is a marvellous discourse (LXXII.1; cf. XLVI.-30/29).

On this latter point, that of its marvellousness, Islam has built a claim to the Qur'an's uniqueness among books of Scripture. The Merciful Himself taught it (LV.1ff.), but so did He teach Scripture to Moses (VII.145/142)34 and to Jesus (III.48/43). It is true pages, in which are true Scriptures (XCVIII.2ff.), but that was the claim they also made. It was "sent down," but so were the other Scriptures. It recited the "signs" of Allah, but so did they. In it Allah set forth every kind of similitude (XVII.89/91), but the mathal was characteristic also of the Scriptures of the Jews and the Christians. If he can claim that it is something that could not have been devised save by Allah (X.37/38), as the same was true of them, for Amos long before had explained how God reveals His secret to His servants the prophets (Amos III.7) If the statements that "it clears up every-thing" (XVI.89/91), and is "an explanation of everything" (XII.111), mean that it contains all knowledge necessary to salvation, the same claim was made for the earlier Scriptures. If angels are its witnesses (IV.166/164), so, according to the Rabbis, were they witnesses to the Torah.35

Wherein then lies this marvellousness which makes it unique? The Arabs claimed that they could produce the like (VIII.31), and so they are challenged on this point.

XI.13/16: "Do they say: 'He has invented it'? Say: 'Then produce ten Suras like it that have been invented, and call upon whom ye will apart from Allah, if ye be truth-speakers.'"

X.38/39: is the same wording save that they are challenged to produce only one Sura.

II.23/21: "If ye are in doubt about what We have sent down to Our servant, then produce a Sura like it, and call upon your witnesses other than Allah, if ye are truth-speakers."

Then in XVII.88/90 his critics are told that if Jinn and men were to combine their efforts they could not produce its like. When we ask precisely what it was they could not imitate we have two hints as to the answer. In LII.34, which is a much earlier challenge than those just given, they are challenged to produce a discourse (hadith) like it. Then in XXVIII.49, where Muhammad's message is being compared by his audience to that of Moses, he says:

"Produce then a Book from Allah which guides better than the two of them (and) I will follow it, if ye be truth-speakers."

This would seem to mean that its uniqueness lies in the fact that it brings the message giving guidance to the way of Allah, the story of Allah's dealings with men and plans for men, in an Arabic medium that they could understand (XLIII.3/2; XII.2). The revelation formerly given to Abraham and confirmed again and again in the messages brought by the succession of prophets, had been corrupted by the Jews and the Christians, and even what they had in their hands was available only in a strange tongue.37 But now to the last of the prophets Allah had made the message easy in his own tongue (XLIV.58; XIX.97), confirming in Arabic earlier Scripture (XLVI.12/11), that they might be able to take warning (XLII.7/5; VI.92). So it is a Book whose verses are made plain (fassala, XLI.3/2; XI.1; VII.114), whose signs are clear (XXII.16), and which will make plain those matters about which the people ask (V.101). This is why it was a marvellous discourse, and inimitable.

"Is it then not enough for them that We have sent down to thee the Book to be recited to them? Verily in that there is a mercy and a reminder for a community which believes" (XXIX.51/50).

There is no statement in the Qur'an that this has anything miraculous about it, beyond the fact that all revelation is in itself miraculous. Yet it is called a "clear sign" (aya, XXIX.49/48) and aya is the word for "miracle," so that at an early date Islamic orthodoxy developed a theory that the uniqueness of the Qur'an lay in the miraculousness of its matchless perfection as an Arabic composition. The outstanding cultural accomplishment of the pagan Arabs had been their poetry. The Qur'an is not poetry (XXXVI.69). It is in the rhymed prose of rythmic structure in which the ancient soothsayers used to set forth their gnomic wisdom and which perhaps was a survival of a very ancient Semitic form for the proclamation of religious utterances.38 As Muhammad used it to set forth the final restatement of the original faith of Abraham, however, it reached perfection, which not Jinn and men combined could emulate. This is the famous doctrine of i'jaz al-Qur'an, which to the present day has been the strongest factor working against any real critical approach among Muslim peoples to the study of the Qur'an as Scripture.


Columbia University,
New York City


1 cf. II.90/84 which states that they were envious that Allah should have sent down His grace to Muhammad; and II.109/103 which suggests that in their envy hey tried to win back some of his converts.

2 Bell in his note on this passage suggests that it refers to the oral law which the Jews wished to place on the same level as Scripture. That, however, hardly fits the words indicating some gain made by selling what they had written. This gain is referred to again in III.187/184.

3 i.e. they forget that there are injunctions forbidding such tampering with Scripture.

4 These seem to be three examples of what he means by making changes in the text, with what he regarded as the correct text in the latter part of the verse. The first of them sami'na wa asaina is given in II.93/87 as what the Children of Israel said when the covenant was made with them at Sinai, and in that passage Muhammad interprets the episode of the golden calf as their punishment for having said "We hear and disobey," when they should have said "We hear and obey." He later learned that these latter words are what they actually did say, and speaks of it with approval (V.7/50; IV.46/49), as it was the phrase he recommended members of his community to use (XXIV.51/50; cf. II.285). Thus it would seem that when he first learned the phrase from the Jews his informants deliberately misled him as to the words "we will do and be obedient" in Ex. XXIV.7, a deception about which he afterwards found out. The second wasma' ghaira musma'in Bell takes to be a reference to the Shema' which the Jews around him pronounced so indistinctly that he could not catch it. Possibly all three words are what they said, i.e., when he wanted to learn the Shema' they would commence correctly with the "Hear," but then instead of completing it as he expected, they would make it run: "Hear! - what you are not going to hear." The third ra'ina is mentioned also in II.104/98, where he urges them to say unzurna, instead of ra'ina. It apparently refers to some passage containing "behold," "look," "regard" or some such word in Hebrew, which instead of translating by ra'a = nazara, they perverted into ra'a with an 'ain, which gave the wrong meaning. So he chides them that they did not use the verb nazara when rendering it into Arabic so that he would have understood it properly. A different explanation of these passages is given by J. Obermann in an article "Koran and Agada" in AJSL, LVIII, (1941), pp. 53-48.

5 There is a well-known tradition, which al-Baidiwi quotes in his comment on III.23/22, relating how Muhammad used to visit the Jewish Beth Hammidrash, and one may assume that in his day they were accustomed to do as they did in 'Umar's day, read their Scriptures in Hebrew and give the meaning in Arabic. See the Sahih of al-Bukhari III.198.

6 This is the same kind of answer as was made by the founder of the Mormons when his unfriendly critics pointed out that the speeches of Nephi in his Book contained quotations from the Westminster Catechism.

7 Tradition has preserved the names of a number of foreigners with whom Muhammad was said to have been in contact in Mecca, any one or whom may have been the person referred to in the verse. At-Tabari assembles these traditions in his Commentary on this verse, and the various references to them are given in the volume From the Pyramids to Paul, New York, 1935. pp. 98-100.

8 This has been recently discussed again by H. J. Schoeps in his Aus frühchristlicher Zeit, Tübingen. 1950, p. 88.

9 See on this Schoeps, Theologie und Geschichte des Judenchristentums, Tübingen, 1949.

10 See Schoeps, Aus frühchristlicher Zeit, pp. 32, 33.

11 In later Muslim writings Adam, Noah, Abraham and Moses are associated with Jesus and Muhammad as a special group set apart among the prophets and distinguished hy the title ulu'l-azm.

12 These connections were pointed out by A. Schlatter in a paper, "Die Entwicklung des jüdischen Christentums zum Islam," in Evang. Miss. Mag. for 1918, pp. 251-264. and have had attention called to them more recently by H. J. Schoeps in a section "Ebionitische Elemente im Islam" in his Theo. U. Gesch. pp. 334-345.

13 K. Ahrens, Muhammad als Religionsstifter, p. 186, thinks we can see how Muhammad from what he learned of Jewish and Christian teaching was led to fix his attention on Abraham whose religion was anterior to both.

14 cf. Matt. III.9; Jon. VIII.33-39 (with Strack-Billerbeck's Kommentar, I.116 ff.); Gal. III.29, it is noteworthy that the writer of the genealogy of Jesus in Matt. I.1 begins his line of descent of Jesus as Saviour with Abraham.

15 On this matter or the change of the qibla see Bell, Origin of Islam, p. 144. It was Snouck Hurgronje is his Het Mekaansche Feest, pp. 28ff, who drew particular attention to this sudden change in the Qur'anic picture of Abraham, who in the early Suras is mentioned, as also Ishmael, merely as one of the vague religious figures of the past, but after the breach with the Jews suddenly becomes associated with Arabia and the Arabs, built the Ka'ba and is the first of the Muslims.

16 See my Foreign Vocabulary of the Qur'an, pp. 120, 121.

17 Heb. I.1. The same notion lies behind the narrative of the Transfiguration in Matt. XVII, and in Paul's statement in Rom. X.4 that Christ is the "end of the Law," in a somewhat different sense the Talmud states (Baba mezi'a 85b, 86a) that R. Yehuda ha-Nasi and R. Nathan are the end of the Mishna (sof mishna) and Rab Ashi and Rabina b. Huna are the end of the teaching (sof hora'a), meaning that after their teaching there was nothing to be added. On the idea of see now Schoeps Aus frühchristlicher Zeit, pp. 551-559.

18 In actual Manichaean texts this appears clearly in both the Coptic documents, e.g., Manichäische Homilien, ed. Polotsky, p. 11 line 25, and in the Chinese text published in the Journal asiatique for 1913, p. 125. and is implicit in the statement of the Armenian writer Eznik of Kolb that Mani preached his religion as the final religion and superior to all others. Abu'l-Ma'ali in Kessler's Mani, p. 375 says; "they call Mani the Seal of the Prophets," and Ibn al-Murtadi (ibid, p. 355), says that in Yazdanbakht's book Mani was set forth as the Seal of the Prophets, (see also al-Biruni, Chronologie, p. 190). The wording of these Arabic writers, however, may have been drawn from the Qur'anic phrase which was familiar to them, and which they recognized was expressing the same idea.

19 The material in the Coptic Kephalaia makes it quite clear that Mani was constructing a tripartite Canon of Scripture in the style of the Jewish and Christian Canons known in the area of his upbringing. See Schmidt in Ein Mani-Fund in Aegypten, Berlin, 1933, pp. 35, 36.

20 It is somewhat curious to notice what importance seems to be given to this matter of dietary regulation. One remembers that among the injunctions to the Gentile Christians from the Apostolic gathering in Jerusalem was abstinence from certain foods (Acts XV.20). More to the point, however, are the food restrictions which Mani placed on his community, and which aroused the interest of their contemporaries both in the East and in the West. The Chinese text printed in Journal asiatique for 1913. pp. 264ff., comments on this, as does Augustine in his anti-Manichaean writings. e.g., de moribus Manich, xiii § 59. 30; xlv § 31-35: x § 36, 37: de Haer. xlvi. Similarly among the ordinances of the Montanists were some which enjoined abstinence from certain kinds of food.

21 cf. also IV.105/106; XXIV.48/47 ff.

22 Ex Rabba, xxviii, 6 goes even further and suggests that all the messages of the later prophets were also given there.

23 See Ibn Hisham, Sira, p. 30; al-Biruni, Chronologie, pp. 12 and 62, and the Commentaries on IX.37. There are critical discussions of the matter by C.A. Nallino 'Ilm al-Falak 'ind at-Arab, Rome, 1911, pp. 85-90; Axel Moberg, An-Nasi' in der islamischen Tradition, Lund, 1931; J. Fück in OLZ, 1933, col. 280 ff., and M. Plessner in Der Islam XXI, (1933), pp. 226-228.

24 How this is both a confirmation of God's law and an abrogation of the Mosaic law is discussed in the Apostolic Constitutions, Bk. VI. § 22 and 23.

25 For Montanus see Lawlor in ERE, VIII,828; for Mani see Alexander of Lycopolis. cap. v and Acta Archalai cap. xii.

26 al-Wahidi, Asbab an-Nuzul, Cairo, 1315 A.H., pp. 211, 212 says that the tradition with regard to the first passage was that unbelievers objected that Muhammad at one time bade his followers do such and such, but later forbade it, or eased the regulations for them, and on p. 23 says with regard to the second passage that unbelievers used to point out how Muhammad would say one thing on one day and then go back on it another day, which to them proved that he was only producing things out of his own head not giving revelation material that he had received from Allah.

27 There were works being written on this subject before the middle of the second Islamic century, if we can trust the lists in Fihrist p. 37. The subject occupied the attention of no less distinguished authorities than Ibn al-Kalbi (c.180) and Abu 'Ubaid al-Qasim b. Sallam (d.224). One of the best known treatises is that by Ibn Salama printed on the margin of al-Wahidi's Asbab an-Nuzul, and often quoted in Nöldeke-Schwally under the name of Hibatallah.

28 So in the Turfan fragment S 9 d 15 ff. Mani's religion is to rule over all others and in the fragment T II D 126 (Andreas-Henning.II.415) Mani enumerates the points in which his religion is superior to previous religions.

29 cf. the Targum to Judges V.5 in de Lagarde Prophetae chaldaice (1872), p. 39; Praetorius Targum zum Buch der Richter (1900), p. 11.

30 Friedmann's Nishpahim to Seder Eliyahu zuta (Wien, 1904), p. 55.

31 cf. XXXIX.23/24: "Allah has sent down the best of discourses, a Book in harmony with itself, a mathani at which the skins of those who fear the Lord do creep. But then their skins and hearts soften at the remembrance of Allah. That is Allah's guidance whereby He guides whom He chooses."

32 de Botton quoted in Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, p. 284.

33 Paul's words in II Cor. iii,14-16 come immediately to mind, but the coincidence in the use of this image is probably fortuitous.

34 This was already familiar teaching. Ex. Rabba ii,6 states that God Himself taught Moses the Torah. Jesus said: "I have not spoken of myself. but the Father which sent me, he gave me a commandment, what I should say, and what I should speak" (Jno. XII.49). Later Montanus claimed that the phrases he uttered in his preaching were the ipsissima verba of the Almighty.

35 Sura IV.82/84 argues that were it from other than Allah it would contain contradictions. In view of the many contradictions it does contain this seems to us strange, but perhaps it was meant to say that the stories etc., which Muhammad was using in his preaching, were not different from those known to and repeated by the Jews and Christians.

36 See the Orehot Zaddikim quoted in Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, V, 417.

37 It is certain that no Arabic version of either the Old or the New Testament was current in Muhammad's day, though it is not impossible that in North Arabia some attempts at rendering portions of it into Arabic had been made. Perhaps Sura XLI.44 reflects the fact that his audiences were accustomed to Scripture in a non-Arabic form.

38 This was argued with great learning by D. H. Müller in his Die Propheten in ihrer ursprünglichen Form; die Grundgesetze der Ursemitischen Poesie erschlosse und nachgewiesen in Bibel, Keilinschriften und Koran, Wien, 1896.

The Muslim World, Volume 42 (1950), pp. 257-275.

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