Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Chapter Four

The Origins and Sources
of the Qur'an



The Qur'an on numerous occasions proclaims that it has been sent down as an Arabic Qur'an (Surah 12:2, 13:37, 42:7) so that its teaching would be plain to those who heard it. Throughout the Muslim world the Arabic language is revered as the speech of the Book of Allah and all translations of the Qur'an into whatever language are regarded as inferior to the Arabic original. Islamic legend goes so far as to declare that Arabic must be the language of heaven. Furthermore, because the book is said to have been revealed by Allah to Muhammad, it is presumed that it is a perfect Scripture dependent on nothing other than his omniscient will and knowledge. Nothing could have come from a human source or have been learnt by the Prophet from other backgrounds.

There are telling evidences, however, that much of the Qur'an has been derived from Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian and Buddhist origins. To begin with it seems appropriate to mention that numerous words in the book, some of which have become the most sacred of expressions to Muslims, are not of a truly Arabic origin but are derived from other languages. In a way this is to be expected as the Qur'an, being a text which declares its association with the Judeo-Christian prophetic heritage rather than the pagan idolatry of 7th-century Arabia, is likely to contain a number of words more familiar to foreigners than to Arabs.

The very word qur'an, which occurs some seventy times in the book and means "a recitation", is not derived from an original Arabic word. Indeed it is significant to note that there are only four occasions where a form of the word qaraa` is not used for the revelation of the Qur'an text to Muhammad. On one of these it refers to the reading of the Scripture that came before the Qur'an (Surah 10:94), on another to a book his opponents demanded he should send down to them which they could read (Surah 17:93) and on two others to books of fate which believers and unbelievers will be made to read on the Last Day (Surah 17:71, 69:19). It is clear that every use of the word is in a religious context, in particular with the reading of heavenly books.

The word qaraa` is not an original Arabic word with the simple meaning "to read". The verbal noun qur'an itself is not found in Arabic writings prior to the Qur'an itself and it must be presumed that the word, if not original to the book, is at least contemporary with it. The most probable origin of the word is the Syriac Christian word qiryani meaning the "reading" of a scripture lesson from a lectern in a Church. This is very much the sense in which the word is used in the Qur'an and there can be little doubt that it is derived from Christian sources.

Numerous other words and names in the Qur'an are derived from alien sources. Elijah is mentioned three times by name in the book, as Ilyas in Surahs 6:85 and 37:123, and as Ilyasin in Surah 37:130. The latter form was apparently used to rhyme his name with the last word of the next verse, al-muhsiniin. It is very interesting to note that the word has no connection with the original Hebrew name for the prophet but is the same as the Greek and Syriac translation of his name from which it is clearly derived. The same can be said for the prophet Jonah who is called Yunus four times in the Qur'an (Surah 4:163, etc). He is called Yonah in the original Hebrew and Yunas in the Greek Septuagint and New Testament. The Qur'anic form would appear to have been derived from the Syriac form which is exactly the same and is obtained originally from the Greek. Although Hebrew and Arabic are very similar semitic languages it is intriguing to find Qur'anic names for Hebrew prophets being derived from Greek and Syriac sources and not from the Hebrew originals.

There are numerous other similar instances of alien words being found in the "pure Arabic" Qur'an but these should suffice as an example of the presence of borrowed words and names in the book.


It may surprise Muslims to find that the name Allah is likewise derived from a foreign word. The common Arabic word for a "god" is `ilah but Allah is a unique term used a proper name for the Lord of the Universe. It has been suggested that it is a contraction of al-`ilah, "the god", an expression which does occur in some early Arabic texts. There is no evidence, however, that it was ever combined into a proper name. What is known for certain is that the name appears in other Arabic works such as the seven famous poems known as the Mu`allaqat composed shortly before Muhammad's time. It has a direct parallel in the Syriac Alaha from which its Arabic form is almost certainly derived. Being the name of the Christian God, a monotheistic being in contrast with the pagan Arabian deities, it is not surprising that it became Arabicised when the concept of one Supreme Being began to permeate Arabic belief just prior to Muhammad's emphasis on it to the exclusion of all other gods.

There are two words for a "balance" in the Qur'an, mizan and qistas. Both are mentioned on only a few occasions. The latter word qistas refers to a balance in the sense of a just and equitable measure which a merchant should give after weighing it honestly and correctly (Surah 17:35). It was recognised very early on by Muslim commentators as a loan-word and one that is not of genuine Arabic origin. Scholars such as as-Suyuti, ath-Tha`alabi and as-Sijistani all regarded it as borrowed from Greek though its immediate origin is not easy to determine. It would seem that it is obtained from the very similar Aramaic or Syriac words for "a measure". That it has a foreign origin, however, is not seriously doubted.

The mizan in the Qur'an, however, is said to be an actual scale, "the Balance" upon which the deeds of men will be placed to determine their final destiny on the Last Day. It is said to be sent down from heaven just as the Qur'an had been sent down to Muhammad:

Allah it is who has sent down the Scripture in Truth and the Balance – and what will make you realise that the Hour may well be at hand? Surah 42:17

Those whose scales are found to be heavy are the prosperous who are destined to enter the bliss of Paradise but those whose scales are light will have lost their souls in the lowest hell (Surah 7:8-9). In this case the word for balance, mizan, is a genuine Arabic word but the concept of a large Scale on the Last Day is apparently borrowed from foreign sources. In an old Persian Pahlavi book predating the Qur'an known as the Rashnu it is taught that the Angel of Justice and one of three judges of the dead holds the "Balance" in which the deeds of men are to be weighed after death. There would be no favouring or excusing of any one in deciding the destiny of each individual.

A similar theme is found in an early apocryphal book known as the Testament of Abraham which was known to Origen, a famous early Church father and theologian, and which was probably written in Egypt by a Jewish convert to Christianity about two centuries after Christ. It exists in two Greek recensions and also in an early Arabic version. There are obvious parallels between the concept of the Balance in this book and the Qur'an. Abraham is said to have seen an angel with a Balance in his hand with two angels on either side of it recording each man's good and evil deeds. The narrative adds that Abraham saw a group whose good and evil deeds were equal standing between them both, neither among the saved nor the lost. The Qur'an also mentions such a group between the righteous and the wicked who will not have entered al-Jannat ("The Garden") but who will have an assurance of it (Surah 7:46). A similar account of the Balance is found in the famous Egyptian Book of the Dead. It seems that the concept of a large Scale on the Last Day to weigh the deeds of men to decide their fate is based on a popular legend recorded in various apocryphal and mythological works predating the Qur'an.

Lastly mention should be made of the common Qur'anic word Rabb meaning "Lord" used as an impersonal title for God throughout the book. In pre-Islamic times the word rabb was used in Aramaic to define market-chieftains, army captains and camp masters. Its use in connection with deities was rare. Leaders of the Jews, in particular their religious teachers, were regularly called rabbis for the same reason. They were the "great" men in their communities and this is the common meaning of the word rabb in Hebrew and Aramaic. By the time of Muhammad, however, the sense of "greatness" had come to be applied to Allah himself and so the title Rabb al-`alamiin, "Lord of the Worlds" (Surah 1:2), arose.

It seems, however, that Muhammad was unaware of the lesser use of the word and so, when he heard that Jews honoured their rabbis whom the Qur'an calls their ahbarahum (priests), he accused them of taking these leaders as arbabaan, "lords", in derogation of Allah (Surah 9:31). The word is the plural form of rabb. He obviously did not know that the original meaning of the word was a "great" man among his people, such as a master or chief, and that it was only later that it also became a common title for God as well. In confusion therefore he thought the Jews were deifying their priests by calling them "rabbis".

There is much evidence of foreign elements in the Qur'an. These weigh heavily against the book's claim to be a revelation from Allah alone in pure Arabic speech. It is to obvious parallels between Qur'anic stories and Jewish and Christian apocryphal works, however, that one should turn for the best proofs that much of the text of the Qur'an is based on legendary and mythical material in writings predating it.





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A folio from a Qur'an written at the end of the 8th century AD and thus one of the oldest in existence. Written with black ink on parchment its script differs somewhat from the more traditional kufi script of the time.



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The opening frontispiece of an Ottoman Qur'an from a much later period. It was compiled in 1494 AD in Turkey by the scribe Abdullah el-Amasi in naskhi script. The illumination is thought to have been added later.




By far the greatest number of portions of the Qur'an that can be shown to have pre-Islamic origins are those that relate to Jewish folklore and other fables that were woven around Biblical narratives in the Old Testament. The Qur'an has been described as "a compendium of Talmudic Judaism" as a result of the wealth of Midrashic and Mishnaic material that has been repeated in it. It is well-known that Muhammad could read neither the Scripture of the Jews nor their folklore and, as he heard stories of Jewish antiquity repeated in market-places and elsewhere, he was unable to distinguish fact from fable and both appear side-by-side in his holy book. The evidences appear to disprove the claim that the Qur'an was revealed to him from above and the conclusion can hardly be resisted that it represents various materials that came to him from conversations, story-telling and other sources in day-to-day contact with the Jews in Arabia.

The Qur'anic account of the murder of Abel by his unrighteous brother Cain is a typical mixture of elements from the Bible, Midrash and Mishnah. It is set out in Surah 5:30-35 and begins with a statement that when they each presented an offering to God only the sacrifice of one of them was accepted. Thus far it records Biblical material (Genesis 4:4) but it then records a dialogue between the two brothers (who are not named) in which the one whose offering was rejected threatens to slay the other. The righteous brother responds by reaffirming his faith in God and states he will not attempt to slay him in turn (Surah 5:30-32). There is no parallel for this in Genesis but it is typical of the Qur'anic tendency to record conversations between unbelievers and the righteous, particularly where the former threaten the latter (an experience Muhammad himself endured regularly during his years in Mecca). Despite the faithful brother's response his wicked brother killed him. The passage then proceeds to add this incident which also has no parallel in the Biblical narrative:

Then Allah sent a raven who scratched in the ground to show him how to hide the shame of his brother. Surah 5:34

There is an analogy, however, to this statement in a rabbinical work of Jewish fables and myths known as the Pirke Rabbi Eliezer contained in the section of Talmudic writings known as the Midrash. It predates the Qur'an by many centuries. In this book it is said that Adam and Eve wept when they found Abel's body and did not know what to do with it as burial was unknown to them. Then came a raven, whose companion had died, and it took its body, scratched in the earth, and buried it before their eyes. Adam then decided to do likewise and he buried Abel's body in the earth.

The only difference between the incident in the Qur'an and the story in the Midrash is that Cain is recorded as burying Abel's body in the former and Adam in the latter. Otherwise the sequel is the same. The slight variation is typical of what might be expected in the record of a man who was relying exclusively on hearsay and secondary sources because he could not read the books his Jewish storytellers were quoting. That he has borrowed from a fable in Jewish folklore, however, seems obvious. The next verse, however, also can be shown to have been derived from Talmudic material, in this case the Mishnah. It reads:

For that reason we inscribed for the Children of Israel that if anyone slew another person, other than for murder or spreading corruption in the earth, it would be as if he slew all mankind; and if anyone saved the life of one it would be as if he had saved all mankind. Surah 5:35

This verse appears to have no connection with the story preceding it. Why the life or death of one person whould be as the salvation or destruction of all mankind is not clear. The Mishnah, however, has an interesting passage indicating its source and the connection between them:

We find it said in the case of Cain who murdered his brother, "The voice of thy brother's bloods crieth" (Genesis 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

This passage shows exactly where the principle of destroying or saving the whole race comes from. Because the word for "blood" is in the plural in Genesis 4:10 an ingenious rabbi invented the supposition that all Abel's offspring had been killed off with him signifying that any murderous or life-saving act had universal implications. Clearly Muhammad had no knowledge of the source of the theory but, hearing it related, he simply set out the rabbi's suppositions as the eternal decree of Allah himself!


Another narrative in the Qur'an which can be traced to a Jewish fable based on a rabbi's interpretation of a Biblical text is the story of Abraham and the Idols. The Qur'anic passages state that the patriarch one day challenged his people about the errors of their idolatry and, as soon as they left him, he confronted their images, asking why they did not eat the offerings before them or answer him intelligently (Surah 37:91-92). He thereupon broke them all except the biggest one. When his people called him to account and asked if he had done this, he stated it was done by the biggest one, challenging them to ask the idols who had done it. When they replied that he knew well their idols did not speak, he confronted them with worshipping apart from Allah things that could do them neither harm nor good. They were infuraited and decided to throw him into a blazing fire (Surah 21:62-68). Allah responded, however:

We said "O Fire! Be cooled and peaceful for Ibrahim". And when they devised a stratagem against him we made them the losers. Surah 21:69-70

Abraham was duly delivered from the flames unhurt. The story has no counterpart in the Bible but it is a remarkable reproduction of a story found in the Midrash Rabbah, yet another example of Jewish fables and folklore in the Qur'an. In this book, also predating the time of the Qur'an by many centuries, the narrative runs once again very similarly. Terah, Abraham's father, was a maker of idols and, while Abraham was deputed to watch over them, a woman came in with a plate of flour and told him to place it before them. He took a staff, broke them all except the largest one, and placed the staff in its hand. When he was challenged by his father he said that, when he set the food before them, each one demanded to eat it first at which the largest one arose, took the staff, and broke them all with it. When his father declared that they had no such understanding Abraham replied "Do your ears hear what your mouth is saying?"

It takes very little imagination to again see that Muhammad has derived a portion of his Qur'an not from divine revelation but from materials obtained from Judaic folklore literature. Yet again, however, it can be shown from a Biblical text where the fable came from and how it was ignorantly introduced into the Qur'an as a story true to history.

A Jewish scribe, Jonathan Ben Uzziel, in his Targum, misquoted Genesis 15:7 which reads "I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldees". The word Ur is a Babylonian word for the city from which Abraham came out and is again mentioned by name in Genesis 11:31. The word was also used for Israel's holy city Jerusalem. It was originally called Ur-Shalim, the "City of Peace". The scribe, however, mistook the word to be Or, a Hebrew word meaning "Fire", and took the verse to mean "I am the Lord who brought you from the fire of the Chaldees". Commenting on this verse he said that this happened at the time when Nimrod cast Abraham into the oven of fire because he would not worship their idols and the fire was prevented from harming him.

It is most unlikely that the scribe invented the story and he is in all probability merely repeating a tradition that had been popular in Jewish folklore for some time. It can hardly be suggested, in defence of the appearance of the story in the Qur'an, that the Jews had taken a true story from the original Torah and turned it into folklore. The Qur'an accuses them of declaring their traditional writings to be scripture revealed from Allah (Surah 2:79) – it nowhere charges them with turning their Holy Scripture into folklore. In this case, as has been seen already, the origin of the story can be clearly traced to a mistranslation of the original Biblical text. The conclusion can hardly be resisted that, once again, the Qur'an repeats stories from Jewish legends and folklore.

That Muhammad was in error in many instances about Jewish history is proved again by the name he gives to Abraham's father in the Qur'an. His true name was Terah but in the Qur'an he is called Azar. This is evidently derived from el-Azar, the name of Abraham's servant in the Bible. He appears in Abraham's complaint that, having no son, his servant Eliezer will be his heir (Genesis 15:2). The Qur'an confuses the name of Abraham's father with his servant. These examples all indicate that the Prophet of Islam was often confused about the information he was obtaining secondhand from the Jews and was unable to prevent historical and other errors from finding their way into the Qur'an.


There are evidences of numerous other Rabbinic legends in the Qur'an. The following verse has a Jewish parallel outside the Bible:

Had we sent down this Qur'an upon a mountain you would have seen it humble itself and cleave asunder from fear of Allah. Surah 59:21

In the Targum to Judges 5:5 ("The Mountains quaked before the Lord, yon Sinai before the Lord, the God of Israel") the rabbinical legend states that Mount Sinai humbled itself in preparation for the reception of the Torah, unlike Tabor, Hermon and Carmel which were too proud for it. The tradition adds that it was also wrenched from its place when the Torah was delivered upon it.

The Qur'an repeats the occasion when Moses remained up on the mountain for several days while his people, impatient below, forged a golden calf and worshipped it. Allah is recorded as saying to him:

We have tested the people in your absence and as-Samiri has led them astray. Surah 20:85

A few verses further on it is said that "the Samiri" (as-Samiri) had brought out an image of a calf from the fire before the people which they promptly worshipped when it seemed to low like a real calf. In the same Midrashic work quoted earlier, Pirke Rabbi Eliezer, it is said that the Israelites saw the calf come forth, lowing as it did. Rabbi Jehuda stated that Samael, the Jewish Angel of Death according to tradition, entered into it and lowed to deceive the people. Quite clearly the Qur'anic story is again founded on a Jewish legend, but it must be asked why the angel is not mentioned but rather one of the people called as-Samiri. The use of the article in the ascription shows clearly it was not a man's personal name. Most Muslim commentators interpret it to mean "the Samaritan" and, as will be seen, they are probably unwittingly right in doing so. The problem, however, is that the Samaritans only came into existence as a separate people long after the exodus of the Israelites when the incident of the golden calf occurred.

The confusion obviously arises from the time when Jeroboam took away a number of the tribes of Israel from the worship of the one true God of Israel in Jerusalem at the time when Rehoboam became king on the death of Solomon. Jeroboam set up two golden calves in Samaria in Dan and Bethel as places of worship in opposition to the Temple-worship in Judea. During a later period God spoke against this practice through one of his prophets:

I have spurned your calf, O Samaria. My anger burns against them. How long will it be till they are pure in Israel? A workman made it, it is not of God. The calf of Samaria shall be broken to pieces. Hosea 8:5-6

It is highly probable that the Jews, who in those days regularly made the Samaritans a scapegoat for their problems, had deliberately confused this passage with the story of the golden calf in the wilderness and had blamed them for this sin as well. Alternatively Muhammad had heard a story of the golden calves of Samaria from the Jews in Arabia and had confused it with the golden calf which Moses destroyed in the wilderness. He may also have confused the name of the Angel of Death, Samael, with as-Samiri whom he names as the forger of the idol in the Qur'an. He would have been ignorant of the fact that the Samaritans had only become a separate people many centuries after the exodus.

These evidences appear to be conclusive in proof that the Qur'an can not be regarded as a divine revelation to Muhammad. It contains too many of the sort of plagiarisms from local Jewish folklore that would have been expected if his material was coming instead from what he heard and learnt in conversation with those around him. Another typical anachronism of the same kind is found in the Qur'an's citing of Haman as Pharaoh's chief at a time when God acted to establish the Jews in the land against their attempts to drive them out. Haman's role is well-stated except for the fact that he lived many centuries later and attempted to wipe out the Jews when he was chief minister to Ahasuerus, the King of Persia (Esther 3:1).

The Qur'an contains a fabulous story about the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon not found in the Biblical record of the event. Among other details it states that when Solomon was angry that he could not see the Hoopoe among his birds he threatened to punish it severely. The Hoopoe, on arriving however, declared it had been abroad and had seen a woman ruling over Saba with a magnificent throne but worshipping the sun. Solomon sent the bird off with a letter to her and, once she had read it, she determined to send him a gift and thereafter to visit him (Surah 27:20-42). An almost identical story appears in the Second Targum to the Book of Esther in the legendary Jewish Talmudic literature, the only real difference being that there the bird was a redcock rather than a hoopoe. What is most significant, however, is that despite the lengthy narrative in the Qur'an the text misses the whole thrust of the purpose of the story – "she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon" (Luke 11:31). This fact is not even touched on in the Qur'an even though it is emphasised in the Targum narrative as much as in the Bible.

There is abundant evidence that much of the Qur'an is not derived from a revelation from above but from a multitude of legendary stories in Jewish folklore and tradition and that, in each case, it is obvious from minor discrepancies that Muhammad was relying on secondary sources for his information.





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Part of the text of Surat al-Ma`idah in a bold script from a Qur'an dating from the mid-ninth century. Its origin is unknown. There is no vocalisation but red diacritics have been customarily used to distinguish the consonants. 



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An unusual manuscript probably written in Iran in the 12th century AD. It employs the thuluth script and is written alternately in gold and black ink. The pages are from the eighteenth part of a sixty-volume Qur'an text.




One of the unique features of the Qur'an is the attention it pays to Mary, the mother of Jesus, who is called Maryam. The nineteenth Surah is named after her. She is the only woman mentioned by name in the book and is said to have been chosen by Allah and purified above all the women of the nations (Surah 3:42). As with many of the Jewish sources of the Qur'an here too one finds a mixture of Biblical truth mingled with apocryphal Christian material derived from legends of later centuries. Once again there are also evidences of confusion on Muhammad's part about her life and role as well as some glaring anachronisms.

The Bible says nothing of her childhood but the Qur'an has a short narrative about her birth and a prayer which her mother offered to God just before she was born. It is recorded in the following verse:

Behold! A woman of `Imran said: "Lord! I dedicate to you what is in my womb for your special service. So accept this of me, for you are the Hearer, the Knower." Surah 3:35

The next verse states that she was most surprised to find herself delivered of a female child but nonetheless named her Mary and pledged herself to God for his protection. The passage goes on to say Mary was committed to the care of the priest Zakariyya and, whenever he entered her mihrab to see her, he found her supplied with food. He asked her whence it came to which she replied that it was from Allah who gives sustenance to whom he wills without measure (Surah 3:37). A mihrab today is the niche of every mosque which gives the direction of Mecca. In this case it must refer to a chamber in the very heart of the Jewish Temple (the mihrab in the mosque of Cordoba in Spain is in the form of a small chamber), particularly as Zakariyya is alone said to have access to her.

Although Mary's mother is not named both ancient and modern Muslim commentaries say that her name was Hannah. The reason is that the story in the Qur'an has a parallel in the Protevangelium of James the Less, an apocryphal Christian work composed some time after the Gospels of the New Testament. In this book there is a passage which states that Anna prayed to God, promising to dedicate her child, whether male or female, as a gift to God and for his service all the days of its life. When the child was born she named it Mary and it stayed in the Temple, being fed from above by an angel's hand. The similarity between this story and the Qur'anic narrative cannot be missed and it is clear where it originated.

The story is also found in other heretical works such as the Coptic History of the Virgin. This book states that she was nourished in the Temple like doves and that food was brought to her by the angels of God. She would remain constantly in the service of God in the Temple while the angels brought her fruits from the Tree of Life in heaven. There are many anachronisms in the story that invite further inquiry.

To begin with Mary has clearly been confused with Elijah for he was the prophet confined to solitude while ravens fed him with food from above (1 Kings 17:6). Nevertheless it is the name of Mary's mother in this story, Hannah, which indicates where its original composers obtained their material. For many centuries earlier a Hannah had indeed prayed for a child, promising to dedicate it to God all the days of its life (1 Samuel 1:11). This Hannah, however, was the mother of Samuel who, when he was born, was duly committed to the service of the Lord (1 Samuel 1:28) and it was he who anointed David King over Israel. It is obvious where the story came from but how did the anachronism arise? In turning to another passage the answer can be found:

And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher; she was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years from her virginity, and as a widow till she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshipping with fasting and prayer night and day. Luke 2:36-37

It is quite clear now how the anachronism came about. Once again a woman whose Hebrew name was Hannah appears but it is this woman who remained constantly in the Temple, significantly worshipping and fasting night and day. Mary has clearly been confused, not only with Elijah and Hannah, the mother of Samuel, but also with Anna the prophetess. There is a further obvious similarity between the praises of both Hannah and Mary after they had been blessed with the conception of their holy sons through the power of God. Each begins with an expression of delight in the Lord and continues with an expression of praise to him who puts down the mighty and exalts the lowly, who fills the hungry with good things but turns the rich empty away (1 Samuel 2:1-5; Luke 1:46-53). The perceptive reader will immediately see that Hannah was a type of Mary just as her son Samuel was a type of Jesus Christ, Mary's son.

Some less perceptive minds, however, confused the two stories and compounded the confusion by mixing up the two Hannahs in the Old and New Testaments respectively, adding an anachronism from Elijah's life, thus creating a marvellous story of purely apocryphal origins. What is most surprising, however, is that its essentials have found their way into the Qur'an as a story alleged to be true to history. It is clear, once again, that Muhammad was heavily dependent on legends from former times and that he could not distinguish between Biblical truth and apocryphal myths.

Another anachronism appears in the story of Mary in the Qur'an. She has also been confused with Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron! In the Surah that bears her name it is said that, when she bore her child Jesus apparently out of wedlock, her neighbours said to her:

O Mary! Truly you have brought an amazing thing! O sister of Aaron! Your father was not an evil man nor was your mother an impure woman! Surah 19:27-28

In this verse she is called ukhta Harun, the "sister of Aaron", and there can be no doubt that the Aaron referred to is the brother of Moses as he himself is specifically recorded as speaking of Harun akhi, "Aaron my brother" (Surah 20:30). Furthermore he is the only Aaron mentioned by name in the Qur'an so there can be no question at all about his identity. In this case Muhammad's error cannot be attributed to an apocryphal writing as in the case of Hannah and Samuel. This time the confusion is entirely his own. It is also interesting to find that Miriam, the real sister of Aaron and Moses, is expressly called the "sister of Aaron" in the Bible (Exodus 15:20). The name of both these women would have been the same in Hebrew, namely Miriam (as they are in Arabic, Maryam). It is intriguing to find that even during his own lifetime certain Christians confronted Muhammad himself with this obvious error in his Qur'an:

Mughira b. Shu`ba reported: When I came to Najran, they (the Christians of Najran) asked me: You read "O sister of Harun" (i.e. Hadrat Maryam) in the Qur'an, whereas Moses was born much before Jesus. When I came back to Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) I asked him about that, whereupon he said: The people (of the old age) used to give names (to their persons) after the names of Apostles and pious persons who had gone before them. (Sahih Muslim, Vol.3, p.1169)

With respect to the Prophet of Islam his reasoning is hard to follow. There is no other occasion in the Qur'an where anyone else is so called. In any event the word ukhtun, on the few occasions it appears in the Qur'an, is always used of a man's immediate blood-sister (Surah 4:12,23,176). Muslim commentators, endeavouring to justify Muhammad's reasoning, say the expression means "one who is related to Aaron", yet even here there is no substance in the argument. Moses and Aaron were descended from Levi and thus were eligible to assume the Levitical line of priesthood. Mary, on the other hand, was descended from Judah through the line of David (Luke 1:32). Accordingly she was not related to Aaron at all, other than as an Israelite, like him, descended from Abraham. She was not even of his tribe. In fact it is very interesting to find that the Bible clearly declares that Jesus (and therefore his mother Mary) were not descended from Levi at all. The Book of Hebrews states that Jesus has become an eternal high priest after the order of Melchisedec rather than one after the order of Aaron because he belonged to another tribe, being descended from Judah. His priesthood was "not according to a legal requirement concerning bodily descent" (Hebrews 7:11-16). The title given to Mary is therefore seen to be ill-founded and out of place.

That Muhammad indeed confused Mary with the real sister of Aaron is clear from the name he gives to Mary's father. In the Bible it is said that Jochebed "bore to Amran, Aaron and Moses and Miriam their sister" (Numbers 26:59). Yet the name given to the father of the mother of Jesus in the Qur'an is `Imran, the Arabic form of Amran (as Ibrahim is the Arabic form of Abraham). She is expressly called Maryamabnata `Imraan "Mary, daughter of `Imran" (Surah 66:12). So she is not only called the sister of Aaron but also the daughter of `Imran. This is a double-proof that she has been confused with Miriam, the true sister of Moses and Aaron. There appears to be no good reason, otherwise, why she should have been given this title anyway and the passage quoted from Hebrews shows that it is, on the other hand, entirely inappropriate.


A number of other legends and fables from heretical Christian works have been repeated in the Qur'an. In Surah 18:9-26 the Qur'an contains a strange tale about a few youths, true believers in God, who took refuge from persecution in a cave where they fell asleep for a number of years. They are called ashabal-kahf, "Companions of the Cave" (Surah 18:9) and it is said that when they awoke they were amazed to find they had slept for so long. The story has many parallels in apocryphal Christian works, such as the Acta Sanctorum compiled by the Syriac writer Jacob of Sarug shortly before his death in 521 AD. In fact the earliest record of this legend dates no earlier than four centuries after Christ. It was mentioned by Theodosius and by Dionysius of Tell Mahra in a Syriac work of the fifth century. It has become popularly known as the story of the "seven Sleepers" as the records generally agree that there were seven of them.

The cave was said to have been near Ephesus and the sleepers were Christians fleeing from persecution during the reign of Decius the Emperor who died in 251 AD. The cave was sealed over them after they had hidden in it but during the reign of Theodosius the Second nearly two hundred years later it was opened and one of the refugees awoke and went through the city amazed to find Christianity triumphant. They then told the Emperor God had preserved them as a witness whereupon they expired. There is no obvious source for the story itself and if it was in any way built as a legend around Biblical material it could only be from Matthew 27:52-53.

Its inclusion in the Qur'an again proves that much of the teaching of the book is founded on mythical origins. This conclusion is strengthened by the paucity of details in the Qur'anic narrative. It does not say when or where it occurred nor that the men were Christians. Muhammad also did not know their number for the Qur'an says that some say three, others five, yet others seven, without giving its own decision on the matter (Surah 18:22) and he also did not know how long it was, saying three hundred years plus a possible nine (Surah 18:25). This ambiguity argues against the claim that the Qur'an came from al-`Alim, "the All-Knowing" Lord of the Universe, and suggests rather that it was simply Muhammad's own version of it according to the limited knowledge he possessed.

There is another legend which cannot be traced to any particular source. The disciples of Jesus are recorded as saying to him:

O Jesus son of Mary! Can your Lord send down to us a table set from heaven? Surah 5:115

After Jesus had prayed for such a miracle Allah is said to have sent one down with dire warnings against any unbelief on their part thereafter. It is interesting to discover that the word used here for table, ma`idah, is derived from a similar Ethiopic word used by the Abyssinian Christians for the Lord's Table, the main sacrament of the Christian Church. The story is probably derived from a perversion of the story of the Last Supper and the challenge of the disciples for a table to be sent down from heaven is also most likely derived from these words of the Israelites during the exodus which are recorded in very similar terms:

They spoke against God, saying, "Can God spread a table in the wilderness?" Psalm 78:19

Just as Mary, the mother of Jesus, has been confused with Miriam, the sister of Moses in the Qur'an, so here likewise we find Jesus confused with Moses to whom the words were originally addressed.

Clearly Muhammad obtained much of his material for the Qur'an from apocryphal Christian sources even though these were obviously secondary and unreliable. Right from the start of his mission he had discoursed with Christians. Even his first wife Khadija had a Christian cousin and this record about him is most informative:

Waraqa had been converted to Christianity in the pre-Islamic period and used to write Arabic and write of the Gospel in Arabic as much as Allah wished him to write. (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol.6, p.452)

It is far more probable that much of what he wrote was not the New Testament but mythical records retained in apocryphal Christian works circulating around Arabia. Muhammad shows only too often that his materials were identical to those floating around Arabia at his time, a coincidence which shows that the Qur'an is not the composition of the omniscient God but rather of a man who was restricted to the limited sources of information available to him.





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One of the few pages remaining from a Qur'an written in a script similar to the traditional kufi of its time but with a style of its own. It dates from the end of the 8th century and is one of the earliest to be partly vocalised.


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A folio from a late ninth-century Qur'an in a gentle kufi style. It does not reflect the rectangular format of the script usually seen in other Qur'ans from the same period but has a mildly cursive style. Its origin is unknown.




Muhammad is known to have had contact with many Persians and one of his converts, Salman the Persian, is known to have come from a village in the region of Isfahan. It is not surprising, therefore, to find a number of Qur'anic concepts coinciding with Zoroastrian theories, in particular ideas derived from the Avesta, one of the great works of ancient Zoroastrian legend and lore. Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion of Persia prior to the Muslim conquest of the country and still survives in some remote areas of Iran to this day.

The ninety-nine names of Allah in Islam, most of which are derived from Qur'anic titles given to him, are very similar to the seventy-five names of Ahura Mazda, the Supreme Being of the Avesta, recorded in the section known as Ormazd Yast. For example both Allah and Ahura Mazda are, in the Qur'an and Avesta respectively, called "The Seeing" (Al-Basir, Surah 22:75, Ormazd Yast 8,12); "The Wise" (Al-Hakim, Surah 4:158, Ormazd Yast 15); "The Knowing" (Al-`Alim, Surah 15:25, Ormazd Yast 12); "The Strong" (Al-Qawi, Surah 22:40, Ormazd Yast 7); "The Creator" (Al-Khaliq, Surah 6:102, Ormazd Yast 8,13); "The Praiseworthy" (al-Hamid, Surah 34:6, Ormazd Yast 12); and "The Reckoner" (Al-Hisab, Surah 5:5, Ormazd Yast 8). These are only a selection of similar titles found in both books and it does appear that they have been incorporated from the Avesta into the Qur'an.

The Bismillah, the formula with which every Surah of the Qur'an commences (except the ninth), also has a parallel formula in a Zoroastrian work known as Dasatir i Asmani which has fifteen tractates, each of which contains this formula in its second vese: "In the name of God, the Giver, the Forgiver, the Merciful, the Just". A similar formula, "In the name of Ormazd, the Creator" occurs in the Bundahishnih.

A common Qur'anic word is sirat. It occurs forty-five times and usually means the "path" of Allah and is often found linked with the word mustaqim meaning the "straight path" of true religion (Surah 1:6). The word is not an original Arabic word and Muslim scholars such as as-Suyuti concluded that it was of Greek origin, there being derived from the Latin strata. It may also have been derived from the Persian chinvat meaning "a bridge". The probability of this origin is strengthened by a popular Islamic tradition that definitely has its origins in a Zoroastrian doctrine. There is a lengthy story in the Hadith literature about a Bridge (As-Sirat) that will be laid over Hell on the Last Day which all mankind will have to cross. Only true believers will succeed in crossing it while unbelievers will fall from it into hell. It is introduced as follows into the tradition:

"Then a Bridge will be laid over the (Hell) Fire". Allah's Apostle (may the peace of Allah be upon him) added, "I will be the first to cross it. And the invocation of the Apostles on that Day will be: ‘Allahumma Sallim, Sallim (O Allah, save us, save us!)’, and over that Bridge there will be hooks similar to the thorns of of as-Sa`dan (a thorny tree)". (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 8, p.375)

This idea is borrowed from the Mazdean belief in the Chinvat, the great Bridge over which the dead will eventually have to walk, known in the Avesta as Chinvato-peretus, "the Bridge of him that reckons up" good and bad deeds. It is said in the Avesta that it extends from Mount Alburz to Chakat Daitih, reaching over the whole of hell. The righteous will enter Paradise but the unrighteous will fall from it into Hell.

In the ancient Pahlavi book known as the Dinkart there is a prayer of a righteous man in which he prays "that I may not arrive at the severe punishment of hell, but may cross over Chinvat and may attain to that blessed abode which is full of perfume, wholly pleasant, always brilliant" (Dinkart, Part 2, Cap. 81). In the Avesta Ormazd promises to good men and women "With all blessings shall I guide them to the bridge of Chinvat" (Avesta Yasna, 46:10). There are numerous other references to the Bridge in old Persian writings and it is from these that the Muslim concept of as-Sirat is clearly derived.

Another Qur'anic concept that has a striking parallel in Zoroastrian works is that of the beautiful, wide-eyed "houris" or maidens of Paradise who will delight the faithful in heaven:

And We shall join them to wide-eyed Companions (Huwri) ... Companions confined to pavilions – O which of the favours of your Lord will you deny? – untouched before them by any man or jinn. Surah 52:20, 55:72-74

The concept is very similar to the Arabian harem where a sheik has a large number of beautiful, dark-eyed concubines confined to their quarters for his pleasure at any time. There can be very little doubt that this idea is derived from Zoroastrian origins. It is interesting to discover that the Arabic word huwr most probably has its origins in the ancient Pahlavi word hurust which means "beautiful" and is used in Pahlavi books to describe the beautiful damsels of Paradise (Arda Viraf, 4:18). In one particular work the word is used to describe a graceful maiden of heaven, white-armed, strong with a striking face and well-formed breasts (Hadost Nask, 2.23). These maidens were believed by Zoroastrians to be female spirits, living in the air and connected with the stars and light.

Just as it is obvious that much of the Qur'an has been derived from Jewish folklore and apocryphal Christian literature, so it is clear that it also has many origins in the legends of Zoroastrianism.


There are two passages in the Qur'an where certain things are said about Jesus which have no parallels in the Bible but which are obviously derived from Buddhist sources. The first relates to the actual birth of Jesus which is described in the Qur'an as follows:

So she conceived him and withdrew with him to a remote place. The pangs of childbirth came over her at the trunk of the palm-tree. She said: "Would that I had died before this and become something forgotten". One cried to her from below it: "Do not grieve, for your Lord has provided a stream below you. Shake also towards you the palm-trunk, it will let fresh ripe dates fall upon you. Eat, drink and be comforted". Surah 19:22-26

In the twentieth chapter of the Historia Nativitat Mariae, another apocryphal Christian work, there is a legend very similar to this story in the Qur'an, except that in this case the incident happened during the flight of Mary and Joseph to Egypt with the infant Jesus. Mary became tired and exhausted from the journey and suggested they rest a while under a palm-tree. Seeing it full of fruit she told him she would like to eat of it but he replied that it was far too high to reach the fruit. Suddenly the infant Jesus called out to the tree to lower its branches so that she could be refreshed. Instantly the tree bowed its canopy at her feet and she joyfully ate of its fruit. Because they were also very thirsty the infant Jesus then commanded the tree to use its roots to open a spring that was hidden in the ground so that they could also drink. Immediately streams of clear, cool water came forth from between its roots. The whole party then gave thanks to God.

Apart from the placing of this incident on the road to Egypt the story is very similar to the nativity story in the Qur'an. This is oviously one of the direct sources of the Qur'anic narrative but one has to go further back to find its original derivation as it has no Biblical counterpart.

In the Buddhist Pali Canon there are two stories that are remarkably similar to the nativity story and, as Buddhist monks were known to have penetrated Persia and what is today Afghanistan (statues of Buddha, usually defaced, still exist there), the transfer of the story into Christian heretical sources is easily explained. The Buddhist Maha-Vamso states that these Pali books were reduced to writing during the reign of King Vattagamani of Ceylon about 80 BC.

The first story occurs in the Nidanakatha Jatakam (Chapter 1, pp. 50-53). It is there said that when Maya, about to become the mother of Gautama Buddha, knew the time of her labour and delivery was near she obtained her husband's permission to visit her father's home.  On the way she and her handmaidens entered a beautiful forest. She saw some beautiful flowers on a sal-tree and wished to pluck them. Suddenly the tree bent down before her and came within reach of her hand. Just as she reached out to take hold of a branch and pluck its flowers the pain of childbirth suddenly came upon her. In this case the link with the Qur'anic narrative is confirmed by the fact that, unlike the nativity story on the road to Egypt, the actual birth of the child took place below the tree. In the Qur'an, however, it is Jesus rather than Buddha who was delivered below it. Nonetheless the Qur'an seems to confuse the two stories by including the details of the palm-fruit and stream which Jesus commanded to come forth for his mother to ease her anguish.

The second story is found in the Cariya-Pitakam (Chapter 1, Poem 9) which states that, in a former life, Gautama Buddha was a prince called Vessantaro who, while going into exile, sought nourishment for the hungry children travelling with him. Once again trees were made to bow down to them to offer them their fruit. The Qur'anic narrative is clearly a blend of details from all these sources.

Further on in the same story of the birth of Jesus in the Qur'an there appears the second passage which is based on an apocryphal Christian work derived originally from Buddhist sources. When Mary's companions expressed their amazement that she should have a child while she was still unmarried she responded by pointing to the baby Jesus in the cradle. When they asked how they could talk with one who was still but a baby he gave them a statement to the effect that he was a servant of Allah called to be a prophet upon whom prayer and charity had been enjoined and who would be kind to his mother (Surah 19:29-32). The incident of Jesus speaking from the cradle is repeated in this text where Allah says:

O Jesus! Remember my favour to you and your mother, how I strengthened you with the Holy Spirit so that you preached to mankind both in the cradle and in maturity. Surah 5:113

The immediate source of this story is the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy, a typical apocryphal Christian work known only from an Arabic text and probably of Coptic origin. Right at the beginning there is the declaration mentioned in the last chapter that Jesus spoke from the cradle to the effect that he was the Son of God whom his Father had sent for the salvation of the nations. It is well-known that during his lifetime Muhammad was sent two girls as a present from the governor of Egypt one of whom, Miriam, became his close companion and is said to have become one of his wives. She bore him a son, Ibrahim, who died in infancy. Such connections with the land of Egypt would have given Muhammad access to such legendary Christian material.

The ultimate source of the story, however, is a similar story about Buddha told in the Buddha Carita (Book 1, passage 34), as well as in the Lalita Vistara. Buddha is said immediately after his birth to have walked seven steps towards each quarter of the horizon and at each point a lotus flower sprung from beneath his feet. As he looked at each of them he exclaimed "In all the world I am chief". In another Chinese Sanskrit work a similar story of the baby Buddha speaking at his birth appears. In this narrative he declares that he has reached the last stage of reincarnation and was finished with renewed births, declaring he had been born just this once more for the purpose of saving the world.

There is abundant evidence that the Qur'an is dependent on a number of different legendary and fabulous sources for many of its stories and this fact seriously undermines its claim to have been a revelation from God as the final Scripture for all mankind.





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Pages from one of the earliest Qur'ans written in a fully vocalised naskhi script. It was inscribed in Iraq or Iran in the 11th century AD. It is similar to the famous Qur'an written by Ibn al-Bawwab but its origin is unknown.



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A Qur'an without vocalisation but with red diacritics in kufi script. It reveals one of the very earliest types of illumination, namely a gold inscription set alongside a marginal medallion. The script is in black ink.