Responses to Islamic Awareness

And No One Had The Name Yahy‚ Before

Dr. Saifullah and company attempt, once again, to extricate the Qur'an from an obvious historical error - that no one was named John prior to the birth of John the Baptist. However, this new attempt by Islamic Awarenes to rescue the Qur'an from this particular error raises additional questions and problems for the Qur'an, and for the prophetic claims of Muhammad.

Sura 19:7 tells us:

(His prayer was answered): "O Zakariya! We give thee good news of a son: His name shall be Yahya: on none by that name have We conferred distinction before." Yusuf Ali

This error was, possibly, a result of Muhammad mis-quoting Luke 1:59-61 :

On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but his mother spoke up and said, "No! He is to be called John." They said to her, "There is no one among your relatives who has that name."

Although Islamic Awareness writes in direct response to the Answering Islam dictionary entry on John, they seem not to have found enough of a target to attack in our description of this historical error in the Qur'an so that they first have to create something else that makes it easier to raise some polemics about. They find a side comment by Rabbi Geiger to be a suitable straw man, when stating:

This mistake must have been obvious to the Arabic commentators, for they try to give another meaning to the clear and unmistakable words.

So, Islamic Awareness triumphs:

Geiger did not cite any Muslim commentators to support his claims, and, as will be demonstrated in the sections below, one has to wonder whether the claim that "this mistake must have been obvious to the Arabic commentators" is purely his own invention.

In spite of the usual venom directed at scholars such as Rabbi Geiger, this mistake did catch the attention of some Muslims. Yusuf Ali says:

"This was John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus. In accordance with his father's prayer he, and Jesus for whom he prepared the way, renewed the message of God, which had been corrupted and lost among the Israelites. The Arabic Yahya suggests "Life". The Hebrew form is Johanan, which means "Jehovah has been Gracious." Cf. Hananan in verse 13 below. It does not mean that the name was given for the first time, for we read of a Johanan the son of Careah in II Kings, xxv. 23, an otherwise obscure man. It means that God had, for the first time, called one of His elect by that name." (page 769, note 2461)

Shakir, also seeking to avoid the problem, translates this passage as:

O Zakariya! surely We give you good news of a boy whose name shall be Yahya: We have not made before anyone his equal.

In any case, Saifullah & Co. misrepresented Geiger's clear statement. He never claimed that there are Muslim commentators who explicitly admitted this error. Geiger only observed the same as we do today, i.e. the fact that the commentators offer various unconvincing and mutually contradictory explanations to avoid the plain meaning of the verse, and that this itself is evidence that they are struggling to explain away the obvious error they have seen, but which they as faithful Muslims cannot openly admit.

Islamic Awareness is no different in this regard. However, they are quite creative, and since they seemingly believe that being on the attack always looks better than being in the defensive, they have come up with a new idea. They have decided to press the claim, that the quranic name of John the Baptist (Yahy‚) is linguistically so different from the biblical name (Johanan), that they are actually two completely different names. Furthermore, they seek to argue that John the Baptist actually had two names and the Quran gives the true or real name of John, while the Bible only mentions his secondary (less real ?) name. Furthermore, as long as we don't find any other earlier Yahy‚, the statement of the Qur'an that nobody was called by this name before John the Baptist cannot be charged with error anymore.

Let us analyze the validity of these claims and focus on what the real issues are in this discussion.

Is The Name John Linguistically Equivalent To Yahy‚?

The Bible calls John the Baptist IŰannÍs, the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Johanan. The authors of the New Testament either knew John the Baptist, or they received information from those who did. The Apostles Andrew and John were disciples of John the Baptist before they became followers of Jesus (John 1:35-40). The Jewish historian Josephus also writes about John the Baptist, calling him by exactly the same name and using the same spelling as the Greek New Testament (see Antiquities, 18.5.2). The only reasonable historical assumption is that those who knew John the Baptist recorded his name properly and are, therefore, credible historical sources. Muhammad came out of his cave centuries after the time of John the Baptist, and cannot be trusted as an accurate source of history, especially when we have the testimony of the Apostles and the Roman historian Josephus.

It might well be that "Yahy‚" is not the same as "John". But what is the implication? John the Baptist was known by his contemporaries as IŰannÍs or Johanan, none of his friends or enemies addressed him by the Quranic name Yahy‚. If these names are linguistically not even remotely equivalent, then Muhammad once again, as in the case of Potiphar, incorrectly imposed his own terminology on Biblical characters. John's name was not Yahy‚ and the issue of whether, or not, a man had that name before is therefore irrelevant and the Qur'an is, once again, in error.

The Mandaeans to the Rescue?

The Islamic-Awareness team then turns to the Mandaeans, a group which, according to the Encyclopedia of the Orient believes:

John the Baptist is central in their teaching, as a representative for their faith. Jesus is also central, but he plays a totally different role than in religions like Christianity and Islam, and is a false prophet, almost depicted as evil. (emphasis ours)

This will not remain the only quotation to reveal how desperate an attempt the Islamic-Awareness response was; scrambling to find just about anything that could somehow serve as support for explaining away an error of the Qur'an - even if this source contradicts the Qur'an and insults a Prophet!

In order to resolve this puzzle (i.e. the presence of the name Yahia in Yahia Yuhana) Western scholars have suggested various explanations ranging from the name Yahia being inserted into the scriptures at a later date to Muslims forcing its use upon Mandaeans! None of these theories are supported by any historical evidence.

The Islamic-Awareness team quickly, and uncritically, dismisses the possibility that the Madaeans could have borrowed from Islamic sources in this case while, in other articles, they use this very same line of argument to dismiss Muhammad's borrowing from the Jewish Targum (the Qur'an instead becoming a possible source for the Jewish Targum).

The Encyclopaedia Judaica, (volume 10) - a source which is often quoted by the Islamic-Awareness team - states:

The gnostic sect of the Mandeans is connected with John, but this relationship is probably anachronistic. (emphasis ours)

Dr. Erica C.D. Hunter writes:

John the Baptist baptised both Jesus and Manda dHayye, but he was not a central figure in the Mandaean cult. John the Baptist was only accorded the status of a prophet due to pressure from Islam on the Mandaeans to centralise their faith around key figures of which Manda dHayye has become the most important. (Mandaeans, Dr. Erica C.D. Hunter, Manchester University, 1995; emphasis ours)

Arthur Jeffery states:

The Mandaeans seem to have originated in Mesopotamia about the 5th century A.D. The sect has drawn heavily on biblical, Syriac Christian and Manichean sources for its teachings, though also incorporating some more ancient Mesopotamian ideas and practices. Their technical religious vocabulary cannot be explained apart from the Peshitta (a Syriac Bible used by Nestorian and Jacobite Christians), and their scriptures show clear evidence of having been written down in Islamic times. (Source: Encyclopedia Americana, Vol 18, page 222; emphasis ours)

Another example of the Islamic influence on Mandaean beliefs is the pseudo-historical Haran Gawaitha, which allegedly predicted the "Arab age" and the coming of Muhammad, who is referred to as the "Son-of-Slaughter".

Does Islamic Awareness have any pre-Islamic manuscript evidence that the Mandaeans have used the name Yahia for John prior to the Islamic invasion and imposing the rule of Islam on all aspects of their lives?

This is perhaps the right time to discuss the significance of name Yahia in Mandaic literature. Every Mandaean has two names, his malw‚sha, or Zodaical name, and his laqab or the worldly name. E. S. Drower explains the difference between the malw‚sha and laqab names.

The latter is usually a Muhammadan name and is used for all lay purposes, the former [i.e., malw‚sha] is his real and spiritual name and is used on all religious and magic occasions.

Though apparently overlooked by the Muslim authors, it seems significant that E. S. Drower explains laqab as a Muhammadan name, i.e. the influence of Islam on the structure of naming in the Mandaean community was obvious even to the main witness called upon by the Islamic-Awareness team.

We agree that the name Yahya is rather peculiar. When a strange name or term appears in two texts and nowhere else, there is a high probability that some kind of dependency is the reason for this coincidence.

As explained above, the most likely explanation is that the use of the name Yahya for John the Baptist is the result of Muslim rule and influence on the Mandaean community. In this case, their scriptures are of no use to the case Islamic-Awareness is arguing.

If, on the other hand, the Mandaeans were first to invent this strange and historically unsupported name for John (some 100 or 200 years before Muhammad), then there is a high likelihood that this might have been the direct or indirect source from which Muhammad borrowed this name for use in the Qur'an. This scenario is even less desirable for the Muslim case.

The Islamic-Awareness writers finish their discussion of Yahia Yuhana, the Mandaean name for John the Baptist with this interesting conclusion:

So, in Yahia Yuhana, Yahia is a malw‚sha name or the real name and Yuhana is a laqab or a lay name as one can see from the entry in the Mandaic dictionary. What is interesting here is that the Qur'‚n uses only the real and spiritual name, i.e., Yahy‚; ...

It is interesting to observe how Saifullah and company attempt to super-impose relatively recent Mandaean customs on first century Jews! Is there any evidence whatsoever that the people of John the Baptist's time practiced this custom?

Even though it is historically quite irrelevant—and therefore irrelevant for the outcome of our discussion—what a different religious group in another country and culture will do to the name of John the Baptist centuries after his death, it will become a revealing observation regarding intellectual honesty to investigate the concept of a malw‚sha name and whether it really is "the real name" in the sense that Islamic-Awareness wants us to believe.

Their arguments are based mainly on selective quotations from the works of E. S. Drower:

A Mandaic Dictionary[22] throws further light on the names "iahia" and "iuhana" as used in their holy books:

Side remark: Obviously Saifullah & Co. have overlooked that the author of the dictionary disagrees with them, when stating that the original Aramaic form of iahia is iuhana, something Islamic-Awareness has labored so hard to disprove!

Following the above citation, it would have been natural to present the definition of malw‚sha from the same dictionary ... but not so Islamic-Awareness. What could have prevented them? The Mandiac Dictionary entry for Maluasa (Malwasa) is:

"... sign of the Zodiac, horoscope, destiny as indicated by stars and constellations; the astrological (malwasa) name used in religious and magical documents, distinct from the name by which a person is known." (View the complete dictionary entry)

While the same dictionary gives the definition of laqab as:

... tribal or family name. Very frequent in colophons.

The dictionary states very clearly, that the malw‚sha name is not the one a person is known under. Hardly what one would call the "real name" of a person. Understandably, this definition did not suit the purposes of the Islamic-Awareness team.

Therefore, they instead quote the following sentence from another publication of E. S. Drower:

The latter is usually a Muhammadan name and is used for all lay purposes, the former [i.e., malw‚sha] is his real and spiritual name and is used on all religious and magic occasions.

Before discussing what E. S. Drower means when calling the malw‚sha "his real and spiritual name", let us quote what else she says about the malw‚sha name. The paragraph out of which Islamic-Awareness quoted one sentence continues:

This spiritual name is linked with that of the mother instead of the father, suggesting some period at which paternity was attributed to some ancestor on the female side, or a god. The religious name is of great importance, for if a man is drowned or burnt and the body not found, a man as like him in circumstance as possible, and bearing a name falling under the same astrological influences, must impersonate him at the reading of the zidqa brikha, a ritual meal which atones for the lack of death rites and burial. ... [E. S. Drower, The Mandaeans Of Iraq And Iran, 1962, E. J. Brill, Leiden, p. 81]

The next page talks about how a malw‚sha is given to a child:

When an infant is to be named, the priest takes the Zodiacal sign of the month in which its birth occurred, counts from it round the Zodiacal circles, and calculates from it the sign of the hour. The sign of the day does not matter. From the numerical value which results, they subtract the value of the mother's name... [Ibid., p. 82]

Therefore, since a person is not known by the malw‚sha name, but by his laqab, the laqab obviously is his "real" name in the common understanding of "real".

From the various quotations given it is unambigiously clear that according to E. S. Drower the laqab is the legal or public name and the malw‚sha is a religious name, maybe even a secret name, since the person is not known by it in public. What then did the author mean with the somewhat unfortunate and easily misquotable formulation that the malw‚sha is a person's "real and spiritual name"? Maybe this can be illustrated this way: Jesus gave one of his followers by the name of Simon, Son of Jonah, the new, "spiritual" name of Peter (John 1:42). Simon was the name given to him by his parents, Peter was the name given to him by his Lord. The spiritual name might well have been more important and "more real" to Peter. And many people, even Christians, today only know him as Peter and would be hard pressed to tell you his real, or legal name. Certainly to the devoutly religious, the "spiritual" is often more real than the "natural." That is the only way to read this quotation in harmony with the rest of the statements made by the same author on this issue. Hence, it is clear that Yahya was not the "real" name in the sense of the legal name even in Mandaic understanding. (We emphasize again, however, that we do not accept that John had a malw‚sha name at all, since this would have been something clearly forbidden by God.)

Actually, following the line of thought that a spiritual name is one given by God or one of his agents, then Johanan is both the "spiritual" and the "real" name of John the Baptist. Luke 1:13 tells us:

But the angel said to him: "Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John (Greek IŰannÍs).

John is clearly his "spiritual" name since he was given this name by a command from God through an angel. John is also his "real" name because John's parents obeyed God's command (Luke 1:60). "Yahia", on the other hand, is a name that was given, or rather imposed, much later when John the Baptist was elevated by the Mandaeans to a higher position in their religion, quite likely due to pressure from an Islamic environment (see above quote).

Therefore, even though Islamic-Awareness has quoted literally, they have intentionally given a wrong impression regarding the meaning of this name by quoting very selectively and choosing a statement that could be twisted and be made to look as if it says something else than it really meant. Their choice of using as definition a sentence from the middle of an article, instead of giving the definition found in the dictionary by the same author was deliberate, and can hardly be seen as evidence of academic honesty.

More disturbing for Saifullah and company is that if they claim that John the Baptist had a malw‚sha, then they are accusing his parents of practicing astrology or divining, something strictly forbidden in the Jewish Scriptures, and clearly condemned in Islam as well!

The Bible and the Qur'an agree that Zechariah was a god-fearing man, a priest serving at the Temple of God, honored by God through a visit of the angel Gabriel, and to become the father of John the Baptist, a Prophet of God and the forerunner of Jesus, the Messiah. To connect him with any practices of magic and superstition is an outrageous insult.

Although Bible and Qur'an disagree about the exact name of John the Baptist, they agree that this name was given by God. For Islamic-Awareness to promote that Yahya was John's malw‚sha name, i.e. a name that has its source not in divine revelation but in astrology and magic practices is an insult to any true believer, whether Muslim or Christian.

In summary, the article on the name Yahya by Islamic-Awareness is an indictment on the quality of their research in many ways:

  1. Their argument that John the Baptist had the malw‚sha name Yahy‚ has no basis in credible historical sources. To promote such a claim shows either utter incompetence or deliberate disregard for historical reality.
  2. Their deliberate misrepresentation of the meaning of malw‚sha further exposes a lack of intellectual honesty. The art of distorting by selective quotation is sadly not restricted to this article; see, as one further example, our response to their article on The Story of Cain and Abel.
  3. Their use of sources which contradict Islam in various ways and even insult prophets of Islam and their parents shows how desperate the authors really are.

If Yahy‚ is linguistically equivalent to Johanan, the Qur'an is in error because several men had this name before John the Baptist. If Yahy‚ is not linguistically equivalent to Johanan, the Qur'an is in error because John the Baptist was not known as Yahy‚ by those who knew him and provided us with an historical record.

John the Baptist's name was not Yahy‚. We have the historical record of those who lived in the same time period and personally knew John the Baptist to attest to this fact. No historian would discount their testimonies in favor of an account concocted more than five centuries later by Muhammad.

Andrew Vargo

Note also: The below reproduced text is an entry from the Islamic Awareness guestbook, dated 05/Aug/2001:11:36:49. In it the Islamic-Awareness team assures their readers regarding the quality of their articles:

Assalaamu alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatu.

We are always working on new articles insha Allah.

Some articles take much longer to prepare than others, and others may
take longer than expected.

Unlike the Missionaries, we are concerned with QUALITY rather than


Elias KarÓm

Responses to Islamic Awareness
Answering Islam Home Page