Responses to Islamic Awareness

But What About The Story Of Cain & Abel In The Qur'ân?
The Art of Selective Perception

Saifullah and his team attempt to save the Qur'an from the accusation that the story of Cain and Abel was borrowed from Jewish literature, particularly the Pirqey Rabbi Eli'zer. In this article, and in several others ([1], [2], [3], [4]) the Islamic Awareness team selectively quotes a paper written by a "recent" scholar by the name of Norman A. Stillman, published in the Journal Of Semitic Studies, 1974, Volume 19.

In an attempt to dismiss the borrowing theories of Geiger and Tisdall, the Islamic-Awareness team cites a passage from this paper:

Recent scholars like Norman Stillman have criticized Abraham Geiger's book Was hat Mohammed aus dem Judenthume aufgenommen? as:

... it did tend to give exaggerated view of the Jewish contribution to the Qur'ân. Many of the traditions that he cites are in oriental Christian as well as talmudic and haggadic literature. Our chronology of rabbinic literature is better today than in Geiger's, and many more texts - Muslim, Jewish, and Christian - have since being published. In the light of this we know now that in some instances what was thought to be a Jewish haggadic influence in an Islamic text might well be quite the reverse. The Pirqe de Rabbi Eli'ezer, for example, would seem to have been finally redacted after the advent of Islam.

Does this mean that Stillman completely dismisses the borrowing of Jewish material by Muhammad and his Qur'an - as the Islamic-Awareness team implies in so many articles? No, the paragraph previous to the one quoted above tells us:

"Scholars have long recognized Muhammad's spiritual debt to the Judeo-Christian heritage. There is hardly a line of the Qur'an which does not reflect this deep indebtedness. Of course, this in no way denies the originality of the Arabian prophet's message. To be sure, he consistently uses materials and patterns with a long and documented history in Jewish and Christian tradition, but at the same time he remolds and re-creates them. What he borrowed he assimilated, made his own, and subconsciously recast. His genius was that he could take from others what was germane to his own personality and needs." [page 231, bold emphasis ours]

Another issue is the Pirqe de Rabbi Eli'ezer. Stillman believes that its final redaction post-dates the advent of Islam:

Geiger, Tisdall, and more recently Masson take the episode of the raven teaching Cain to bury his brother's corpse (v. 30/34) as being derived from Pirqe de Rabbi Eli'ezer, where it is Adam who is taught by the raven; but as mentioned above, this midrash was redacted after the advent of Islam."

Does this prove that Jewish texts were not the source of the Qur'an account? No, Stillman continues:

Sidersky has rightly pointed out that the qur'anic version should be traced back to Midrash Tamhuma which reads:

"When Cain killed Abel, the latter's body lay cast aside for Cain did not know what to do. Then the Holy One (Blessed be He) sent him two pure birds, and one of them killed the other. Then he dug with his claws and buried him, and from him Cain learned. So he dug and buried Abel."

The qur'anic version is merely an epitome of the above midrash.

However, al-Baydawi in his commentary gives an almost verbatim translation of the original midrash. [pages 236-237]

Islamic-Awareness leaves us with a concluding quote from Stillman's paper:

In conclusion, it should be emphasized that one should be extremely cautious about assigning specific origins to the story discussed here - or for that matter, any other story in the Qur'ân.

However, this quotation is not complete because Stillman's conclusion continues:

Julian Obermann has justly pointed out that "what with the vast overlapping of Jewish and Christian lore, especially in the period and area involved... Old Testament and even rabbinical materials might have been transmitted to Arabia by the Christian channels; while seemingly New Testament matter might easily have been derived from rabbinical homilies. As stated from the outset, the parallels brought here are not necessarily to prove direct source. They are cited to emphasize a similarity of approach and demonstrate the more or less direct translocation of homiletic values. [page 239]

Finally then, the Islamic-Awareness team asks:

When will Muslims hear such a word of caution from Christian missionaries?

This is an interesting remark considering how selectively the Islamic-Awareness team quotes passages from academic articles in order to build an intellectual defense for the falsehoods of the Qur'an.

Andrew Vargo

Continue with Part 2 of this discussion.


Obermann, Julian. "Islamic Origins", in The Arab Heritage, ed. N. Faris (Princeton, 1944).

Sidersky, David. Les origines des légendes musulmanes dans le Coran et dans les vies des prophètes (Paris, P. Geuthner, 1933).

Stillman, Norman A. "The Story Of Cain & Abel In The Qur'ân And The Muslim Commentators: Some Observations", Journal Of Semitic Studies, 1974, Volume 19, pp. 231-239.

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