Dec 142014

One observation that is often made by critics of the Qur’an is that at times its historical account of a story, such as the story of Prophet Moses or Jesus, has similarities with Jewish and Christian scriptures and other writings. This observation is then used to claim that Prophet Muhammad must have copied at least parts of the Qur’an from those sources, so he could not have received it from God.

When the Qur’anic historical account has similarities with details that are not in the accepted scriptures but in apocryphal sources, i.e. writings that did not become part of the canonical books that the Jewish and Christian authorities adopted, a second claim is made. In this case, it is claimed that the copied information in the Qur’an is incorrect or inaccurate because it was taken from inauthentic or at least questionable sources.

Let’s analyse the logic behind these two claims closely.

Similarity Between the Qur’an and Supposed Authentic Scriptures

If Muhammad’s claim that he received the Qur’an from God is true, and if some of the historical accounts in other scriptures or books had truly come from God, then any similarity should only be expected. For instance, the Jewish scripture — the Old Testament — says that Moses split the sea with his staff when he and the Israelites escaped form Pharaoh and his troops. Now, if this Old Testament claim was indeed revealed by God, meaning it is historical, and if the Qur’an was also revealed by God, then mentioning this miracle in the Qur’anic story of Moses would be exactly what one should expect. The mere existence of similarities between the Qur’an and the Old Testament does not prove that the Qur’an was copied from the Old Testament, because if both books were revealed by God, then this similarity “must” be there.

Claiming that the Qur’an was copied from the Old Testament in such a case, therefore, can only be based on the “prior assumption” that it was not revealed by God. In other words, this claim is “not a conclusion” based on observing the similarity. It is simply an assumption about the Qur’an, so it was “not derived” from this similarity. Using the similarity between the two scriptures to present that critical claim about the Qur’an as a conclusion is either due to misunderstanding or deliberate misrepresentation.

There are other very critical facts here that are always ignored in such a discussion about similarities between the Qur’anic stories and their counterparts in scriptures that are supposed to be genuine:

1) The Qur’anic account has also differences with the other scriptural version.
2) The differences are always more than the similarities.
3) The differences are profoundly significant.

The first two points are obvious, but let me say a little more about the third. Often the Qur’anic historical account would differ with details in the Jewish or Christian scriptures that have been proved to be wrong. For instance, the Old Testament claims that the Israelites were more than 2-3 millions when they escaped ancient Egypt. This claim has been known to be unhistorical for a few centuries now. The Qur’an, on the other hand, while confirming the escape of the Israelites, it does not repeat the unhistorical claim about the huge number of the Israelites. In fact, it states that they were small in number. Now, if Muhammad or someone helping him copied the story of Exodus from the Old Testament 14 centuries ago, how come that the copyist managed to leave that unhistorical piece of information out? Let’s take another example. Why would Muhammad make the claim that the body of the Pharaoh who chased Moses and the Israelites would be saved and would remain available for people to view, which is what happened to the mummy of Ramesses II, when the Old Testament makes it clear that the body was swallowed by the sea? I cover in detail many examples such as these in my books on the stories of Prophets Jesus, Moses, and Joseph.

There is another type of difference between the Qur’an and the Jewish and Christian scriptures where a character, event, or statement appears in one context in the Qur’an and in a different, wrong context in the other scriptures. For instance, there is a character called Haman in the Book of Esther of the Old Testament who was supposed to be a prime minster in Persia centuries after the exodus. Scholars have shown that this story is unhistorical. On the other hand, the Qur’an also has a character called Haman but he is a high ranking figure in the Egyptian court in the story of Moses. Haman is clearly an Egyptian name. What seems to have happened here is that changes by the editors of the Old Testament have resulted in moving the historical Egyptian Haman from the story of the Exodus to the completely different and unhistorical story of the Book of Esther. This is a completely different interpretation of this phenomenon from the tired and flawed explanation that the Qur’an copied information from the other scriptures. There is more on the concept of Contextual Displacement here.

Similarity Between the Qur’an and Supposed Inauthentic Scriptures

As I mentioned earlier, when a Qur’anic account has similarity with a story in an uncanonical books, the Qur’an is accused not only of copying its information from those sources, but also of copying the wrong information. For instance, the Qur’an says that one of Jesus’ miracles is that he spoke in the cradle. This miracle is not mentioned in any of the four Gospels in the New Testament, which Christians consider to be the authoritative sources on the life of Jesus. But this miracle is mentioned in apocryphal sources, such as The Arabic Gospel of Infancy. The above accusation against the Qur’an is based on the assumption that this miracle cannot be historical because it is not mentioned in the four Gospels in the New Testament but appears only in apocryphal gospels. But this argument rests completely on the assumption that the four Gospels are more historical than the apocryphal sources. The reality is that the four Gospels have numerous historical mistakes so they cannot be considered reliable anyway. For example, as I have explained in my book on The Mystery of the Crucifixion, the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion has many historically incorrect claims. Furthermore, these four books became the adopted Gospels of the Church after centuries of battles between conflicting opinions and dogmas, not because they are truly historical or the information they contain is always more reliable than information found in alternative sources.


The similarities and differences between the Qur’an and other scriptural and non-scriptural Jewish and Christian writings cannot be used to draw any conclusion about the originality, reliability, and credibility of the Qur’an or the other sources. When the issues in question can be examined in the light of historical knowledge, then history has to be the judge. Such issues can be found in the story of the Exodus, for example. When the information is impossible to ascertain historically, such as accounts of miracles, then faith in any version has to be supported by the general credibility and reliability of the source making the claim. In other words, when the Qur’an and Jewish and Christian scriptures disagree on claims that are not possible to verify independently, one has to take into consideration which of sources is more reliable.

It has been known for a long time now that while the Old and New Testaments contain correct historical information, they also have numerous inaccurate and wrong claims. Whenever a reliability comparison is possible between a historical account in the Qur’an and its counterpart in the Jewish or Christian sources, the Qur’an’s version of events always turns out to be superior.

Copyright © 2014 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved

May 232013

I received by email a thoughtful review of my book Jesus the Muslim Prophet: History Speaks of a Human Messiah Not a Divine Christ. The review was also circulated by the reviewer to others, who have interest in Christian theology or may be even qualified in the subject, whom the reviewer at times addresses in his review. The reviewer has welcomed my reply to the review, so I am publishing his review followed by my reply.

This is how the reviewer Juan A. Ayala-Carmona introduced himself:

This writer (yours truly) is an ordained Christian minister and theologian who has degrees in Comparative Religions and Theology. I received my D. Min. in Theology from the Colgate Rochester Divinity School, 1982 and have served as professor of church history, religion, and theology at various colleges and theological schools. I retired as a prison chaplain with the New York State Department of Correctional Services in 2009.

This is the text of the review:

My intention is to evaluate Dr. Fatoohi’s book relative to both its strengths and weaknesses. Dr. Fatoohi is receiving a copy of this critique and his response is welcome. Your comments and responses are also welcome, and I think that they would be helpful to both Dr. Fatoohi, myself, and to all others who are interested in examining the beliefs and practices of the both the Christian and Islamic communities with the greatest degree possible of impartiality, objectivity, and open-mindedness, bearing in mind that pure “objectivity” does not exist. Dr. Fatoohi’s biases are reflected in his book, and my biases are reflected in this response. Absolutely none of us has a 100% handle of the truth. As one of my professors of theology (Dr. Paul Fries) used to say, “All theology is partial and tentative.” The Apostle Paul says “We see dimly through a mirror.” All of our positions are subject to correction and any necessary revision.

I will begin by stating my appreciation for Dr. Fatoohi’s approach to this subject from the standpoints of both faith and scholarship. Contrary to the notion that many believers (both Christian and Muslim) have about scholarship diminishing and eroding faith and spirituality, Dr. Fatoohi makes it very clear that if anything, scholarship strengthens faith. The book calls for a faith which is informed by history, science, and other branches of human knowledge as well as by experience and tradition, both oral and written. This fact, in and of itself, makes Dr. Fatoohi’s book a “must read” type of document. I strongly recommend the reading of this book to all of you. By reading his book, you will be in a much stronger position to evaluate both the book and my critique of it. Dr. Fatoohi makes it clear that he accepts reader responses.

The major strengths of Dr. Fatoohi’s book are:

1. His familiarity with the history, scriptures, and traditions of the Christian, Islamic, and Jewish faiths. Dr. Fatoohi is very conversant with the Torah, New Testament, and Qur’an, as well as with the experiences and traditions which gave rise to and generated those sacred books.

2. His familiarity with the historical-critical approach to the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), Christian Scriptures (New Testament), and the Qur’an. He demonstrates knowledge of authorship, intended audience, reasons for writing, and the variety of literary styles in each of the sacred books.

3. His familiarity with the historical development of Christian theology, especially relative to the issue of the Christian doctrine of Jesus being God-in the flesh. He points out in a very succinct manner the views of Jesus in the Gospels as contrasted with the views of Jesus in the Pauline writings.

4. Dr. Fatoohi clearly points out the distinction between the doctrines of the early Church (1st century), and the teaching of the Church in the post-Apostolic era. He specifically points out that the doctrine of the Trinity in systematic form was a later development.

5. His clarification about the words “Islam” and “Muslim” meaning submission and one who submits respectively. Thus, it opens the door for Christians to avoid being offended by his use of the word “Islam” and “Muslim” in relation to Jesus and other Bible figures.

The major weaknesses of Dr. Fatoohi’s book are the following:

1. His unstated but clear assumption that divine revelation in the Bible (especially the New Testament) is superseded by divine revelation in the Qur’an. Dr. Fatoohi, like most Muslims that I know, is of the persuasion that the Qur’an is a correction to and revision of the “corruptions” of the New Testament.

2. Subsequently, Dr. Fatoohi assumes and believes that the contents and teachings of the New Testament are true only to the extent that they concur with the contents and teachings of the Qur’an. In a sense, Dr. Fatoohi commits the same mistake that many Christians commit. In the same manner that many Christians are guilty of “Christianizing” the Old Testament by reading it in the light of the New Testament, Dr. Fatoohi “Islamicizes” the New Testament by reading it in the light of the Qur’an.

3. Dr. Fatoohi readily accepts the statements supposedly made by Jesus about Himself relative to His being “the Son of Man,” but when he encounters statements about Jesus referring to Himself as being something other than human, he attributes these sayings not to Jesus, but to Paul, John, and others who wanted to make Jesus equal to God, and/or being “God in the flesh.” Consistent with his Islamic beliefs, Dr. Fatoohi thus endorses the notion that the Bible is true only to the extent that it is in harmony with the Qur’an.

4. By constantly (and consistently) stating throughout the book that it was Paul and subsequently John who introduced the notion of the God-man into Christian theology in order to accommodate to pagans of non-Jewish and non-Christian origins, Dr. Fatoohi is thus making the Apostle Paul and other writers of the New Testament to be false teachers because they have elevated Jesus to the status of divinity. Because the teachings of Paul and others are found in the book which we Christians believe to be divinely inspired. Dr. Fatoohi is in essence saying that certain parts of the Bible are humanly concocted and constructed. I know that many Muslims would be offended if any one were to suggest anything similar about the Holy Qur’an. This reminds me of an experience that I had in 1972 in New York. A Muslim neighbor of mine (in the Bronx) invited me to attend his Masjid. Out of curiosity to know more about what other people believe and practice, I accompanied the brother to the Masjid. After the congregation completed their prayers, he directed me to the Imam with whom I sat and conversed for a short time. The Imam explained the basic tenents of Islam to me. I asked him if Muslims believe in the Bible. He responded by stating that they do, but mostly the Old Testament Scriptures. I asked him if they believe in the New Testament Scriptures. He stated that they do, but only parts of the New Testament, because the New Testament has been “corrupted.” When I asked him for evidence that the New Testament has been “corrupted,” he said to me “It says so in the Qur’an.” I asked him “how do you know that the Qur’an hasn’t been corrupted?” He asked me to leave.

In essence, Dr. Fatoohi is taking the same approach as the Imam. The Bible, in his view, is to be evaluated in the light of the “truths” of the Qur’an and not the other way around, even though the Bible was written many years and centuries prior to the Qur’an. To sustain this position is to invalidate the divine inspiration of the Bible, and in essence making the writers of the Bible (especially the New Testament) false teachers while claiming total divine inspiration for the Qur’an. Sorry Brother Fatoohi, but with all due respect to you, your faith, and the Qur’an, “no can do.” Only a historical act, such as the Incarnation of God in Christ can help us to make sense out of human history. To you as a fellow scholar and as a sincere believer, I say Asalaam-alaikum. To all others I say to God in Christ be the glory now and forever more. Amen!

I would end this piece by saying that since I am not infallible or perfect, and since I do not have a monopoly on God’s truth, I welcome comments, reactions, responses, and any suggestions that any of you may deem necessary.

Grace and peace,

Juan A. Ayala-Carmona

This is the end of the review. 

Thank you Dr Ayala-Carmona for your interest in reading my book, reviewing it, and sharing the review with me. I would also like to thank you for the scholarly tone of your review.

I like to start by saying that I fully respect your views. I would also like to thank you for your generosity in highlighting strengths of the book. As you have kindly invited my reply, I would like to say a few things about the four weaknesses you identified in my book.

Points 1 & 2. I should clarify that this book and two other smaller books (The Mystery of the Crucifixion and The Mystery of the Messiah) were derived from my major and detailed study The Mystery of the Historical Jesus. In the latter, I covered all aspects of Jesus’ life. I later took specific materials from that comprehensive book and revised and extended them into the focused book you have read. The book on the historical Jesus starts with a chapter called “Approaches to the Study of History in the Qur’an and the Bible.” As its title suggests, this chapter reviews the relevant methodologies which I categorize into four approaches: secular, Biblical, secular-Biblical, and Qur’anic. It discusses the assumptions of each approach and the weaknesses of the first three approaches, and presents the Qur’anic approach as the most reliable methodology. The book makes it clear that it advocates the Qur’anic approach. In fact, the last section in that chapter starts with the following:

Having introduced the main approaches to the study of history in the Bible and the Qur’an and explained why it is important to understand what approach a study takes, I need to make it clear that this book follows the Qur’anic approach. Any information in the canon, apocrypha, and history that is relevant to the subject of this book will first be presented and then explained from the Qur’an’s point of view. Presuming that the Qur’an is the Word of God, this book seeks to show the consistency of the Qur’anic story of Jesus and its alignment with historical facts. It also compares the Qur’an’s consistent account of Jesus’ life with the problems that the same story has in Christian sources.

That section and chapter then conclude with the following:

As it follows the Qur’anic approach, this book will argue that the historical Jesus is that of the Qur’an, and that his real role in history is accurately explained by the Qur’an’s view of the world, not the view of the Bible or any secular approach. However, it will consider in detail the arguments of the other approaches and any counter argument to the Qur’anic approach. 

I will make every effort to differentiate between bare facts and their interpretations according to the Qur’anic approach. These facts can then be looked at by others to examine the validity of the given interpretations and test whether a different approach gives better interpretations of these facts. I will point out the similarities and differences between the Qur’an and relevant Jewish and Christian sources, and I will explain and relate them to established historical facts, using the Qur’anic perceptive. It is then to the reader to decide whether this Qur’anic interpretation of history is more consistent, convincing, and in line with established facts, or other alternatives, including the Bible’s. 

Let me repeat again, this book does not claim to be a dispassionate, neutral study of Jesus’ history. I am not sure that such an attempt is possible at all anyway. Nevertheless, I will ensure that I make my assumptions clear and differentiate between facts and their interpretations, allowing the reader to decide whether the arguments of the book are likely or unlikely, credible or absurd.

I think this is fair to say that I could not be clearer about the approach that the book takes.

This substantial chapter is not something that I could have added to the three smaller books that I derived from the source book. However, the “Preface” of the current book still says enough to make clear what the book tries to achieve:

Like my other writings, this book tries to bring the Qur’an to the study of the historical Jesus which Western scholarship has mainly restricted to the Old and New Testaments, along with historical writings. My other, related goal is to get Islamic scholarship to show more interest in historical sources and to also look at the Old and New Testaments and other Jewish and Christian sources from a historical perspective. 

This book focuses on contrasting the human Jesus of the Qur’an with the divine Jesus of Christian sources. Admittedly, this subject has been examined by Christian, Muslim, and other scholars considerably more than other topics of the historical Jesus. However, one new contribution to the literature that my book makes is to show that the human Jesus as presented in the Qur’an is the one that fits in history. The concept of a divine Jesus can only be an invention from the post-Jesus era.

Nevertheless, I appreciate how the absence of the original introductory chapter might have given the impression that I have not stated my assumptions explicitly.

Point 3. You are right in your observation that I use the Qur’an to differentiate between which statements attributed to Jesus that are likely to be historical and which are not. This is consistent with the approach of the book, as explained in detail above.

Point 4. I should make it clear that I do not intend to offend anybody by any claim I make in my writings. I respect the right of every person to take whatever view they want. It is not my intention to insult or demean anybody or faith in the past or present. But I also have to accept the obvious fact that some beliefs are contradictory and cannot be reconciled with each other. Furthermore, in the same way I do not believe that a reading of history that is different from mine is intrinsically offensive to me, I do not consider my reading of history to be offensive to anybody.

But I also know that offense can be read into things. Let me give a relevant example. The Qur’an claims that all people, including Christians should believe in Muhammad and the Qur’an. Most Christians do not, meaning they do not believe in the message of the Qur’an. This means that they do not believe that the Qur’an is a divine book, which implies that either Muhammad deliberately lied or, at best, was himself deluded. These two conclusions, which mean that Muhammad was a false prophet, are easily seen as offensive by Muslims. You can see then how easy for a Muslim to take offense from the very fact that someone does not believe in the message of the Qur’an. But that should not be the case. If we accept that people have the right to hold different beliefs, then we have to accept that at times these beliefs might contradict and reject each other. If we consider this to be offensive in anyway, then talking about the right to freedom of belief and expression becomes meaningless.

I disagree with the Imam who asked you to leave the mosque because you questioned his belief about the Qur’an, but I equally reject any assumption that a serious work that questions one version of history in favour of another is offensive to those who believe in the former, not least because the former can be equally accused of being offensive! This is particularly so when the Muslim reading of history immensely venerates Jesus, albeit not as God. Can the same be said about the Christian reading of history regarding Prophet Muhammad? I do not think so. Still, no offense should be taken by Muslims.

You likened my approach in the book to the behaviour of that Imam. Unlike the Imam who only made a statement about his faith and refused to discuss it, I have written extensively to show that this statement is not a matter of faith only. I also encourage and respect serious dialogue and debate. I often say that I learn a lot more from those I do not agree with than those I agree with, because challenge and the need to work harder comes from the former not the latter. I hope that publishing your review on my website further confirms that my approach differs completely from the Imam’s. .

There is one last important point I should add. Muslim scholars have always written about Jesus using Islamic sources only. While I write about Jesus from a Qur’anic perspective, my writings are not based on the Qur’an only. The genuinely new contribution I try to make to the literature is bringing in historical facts and sources. My writings attempt to start a study of the historical Jesus from a Qur’anic perspective. The historical Jesus has been studied extensively by Christian and Western scholars, and I try to encourage the development of a similar discipline in Islamic scholarship.

Thank you again for your thoughts about the book and for sharing them with me. I also welcome any further thoughts you may like to share.

Copyright © 2013 Louay Fatoohi
The review is copyright by Juan A. Ayala-Carmona
All Rights Reserved

Aug 232009
On the 13th of August 2009, I was in Kuala Lumpur for the launch of the Malaysian edition of my book The Mystery of the Historical Jesus: The Messiah in the Qur’an, the Bible, and Historical Sources.

The book is launched by Yg. Bhg. Datuk Haji Mohd Nakhaie Hj Ahmad(Chairman of YADIM), Professor Muhammad Hashim Kamali (Chairman of IAIS), and Professor Osman Bakar (IAIS)

 My Malaysian publisher, the Islamic Book Trust (IBT), partnered with the International Institute of Advanced Islam Studies (IAIS), and the Islamic Da’wah Foundation Malaysia (Yadim) to celebrate the book launch by organizing a seminar on “Islam and Christology.” I gave a presentation about Jesus in the Qur’an which is based on my book on the historical Jesus, and then Dr Ng Kam Weng, Director of the Kairos Research Centre, responded with a critical discussion of my findings from a Christian perspective. The talks were followed by a Q&A session.

The Seminar was moderated by Professor Osman Bakar

 The gist of the conclusion of my book is that it is the Qur’anic Jesus, not that of the New Testament, that represents the historical Jesus. More broadly, all my writings attempt to show that the Qur’an’s various historical accounts are more accurate than their Biblical counterparts. For instance, in our book on the exodus of the Israelites from ancient Egypt under the leadership of Moses we argue that the details of this event in the Qur’an are more historical than those given in the Old Testament. Dr Kam Weng questioned my conclusions about the historical Jesus because I approached the story of this great prophet from an Islamic perspective. This general point is often made by believers of different faiths about each other’s findings and views when these conflict with what their own.

But does setting the goal of showing that history in the Qur’an is factual undermine the objectivity of the research? Also, can faith-driven studies that are based on different scriptures — specifically, the Qur’an or the Bible — operate at or achieve the same level of objectivity and reliability? My answer to both questions is a definite no. These questions, which are often ignored, are critical to understanding the value of any research, and their negative answers are equally essential to understand, which is what article attempts to do.

1. Four Approaches

Almost any study of history in the Bible and the Qur’an follows one of four main and distinct approaches, which I have called “secular,” “Biblical,” “secular-Biblical,” and “Qur’anic.” In my book on the historical Jesus, I explained in detail these four approaches, but I will introduce them briefly here. Although each one of the four approaches employs fundamentally different assumptions and methods, it is not uncommon for researchers not to make clear what approach they adopt. It is also not uncommon for studies to show a mix of approaches and confused methodology, which is what the secular-Biblical approach is. Understanding these different approaches and clarifying what approach a researcher takes is critical to properly understand and evaluate their arguments.

1.1 The Secular Approach

The secular approach does not give the Bible or the Qur’an, or for that matter any other religious text, any special credibility because of its religious nature. Any scriptural text is treated like any other ancient sources whose accounts may or may not be accurate, and the credibility of any account is considered on its merits. On the face of it, the secular approach may very much sound like an objective approach and one that impartial scholars would take, as the other three approaches are faith-driven, even though the secular-Biblical approach is less so than the Biblical or Qur’anic approaches. But not to base a study on religious beliefs is no guarantee of genuine objectivity. While a secular researcher would not start off with a fundamental religious assumption, he may well use a variety of assumptionswhen dealing with various questions. The objectivity of any secular research is thus equally susceptible to the researcher’s non-religious biases and assumptions, and these can translate into flawed methodology and unbalanced arguments and conclusions. This is why, for instance, physicist and founder of the Quantum theory Max Planck once said that “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” The history of science is replete with examples supporting Planck’s observation. Those who conduct research in science share with those who do research in humanities and other non-science disciplines one serious frailty: human nature!

1.2 The Biblical Approach

The faith-driven Biblical approach considers the Bible to be the literal Word of God or at least inspired by God. Consequently, the Bible’s account of history is considered to be completely factual. The researcher who adopts this approach seeks to understand any extra-Biblical historical fact in line with what the Bible says. This reconciliation process may require coming up with a particular reading or interpretation of the Biblical text or the fact.

Setting out from the assumption that the Bible is a divine book, Biblicists who follow this approach clearly disagree with secularists who claim that the Bible contains inaccurate and wrong information and internal inconsistencies. Such claims are dismissed or explained away one way or another. Biblicists share with secular researchers the view that the Qur’an is based on the Bible and other Jewish and Christian sources and is not an independent source. I have addressed the fundamental flaw in this assumption through the introduction of concept of “contextual displacement” in Jewish and Christian religious writings.

There are four major problems with the fundamental assumption of the Biblical approach. First, there are internal discrepancies in the Bible. Second, the book contains unfactual Statements. Third, the term “Bible” is actually indefinable, as different groups of believers disagree on what books form the “Bible” and which books are non-canonical or “apocryphal.” The Bible of the Jews and the Bible according to the Christians are not one and the same. For instance, the Jews do not believe that the New Testament belongs to the Bible or that it is divinely inspired in any way. Similarly, as many as seven books in the canon of the Catholic and Orthodox churches — Tobias, Judith, Baruch, Ecclesiasticus, Wisdom, First and Second Maccabees — as well as certain parts to the Books of Esther and Daniel are considered apocryphal by the Protestants. Fourth, the superiority given to the canonical books of the Bible over apocryphal writings is untenable given the political history of the compilation of the Biblical text.

1.3 The Secular-Biblical Approach

The secular-Biblical approach is a hybrid methodology which is the result of rejecting the inerrancy of the Bible but accepting the historical accuracy of parts of it — although researchers disagree on which Biblical statements are historical — while retaining some form of faith in the Bible as scripture. A typical researcher who follows this approach may concede that little or much of the historical information in the Bible is wrong, just like a secularist does, but they still subscribe to some Biblical theology. The reason that I have distinguished this approach from the secular one is that the retained faith in the Bible can influence how the text is dealt with by the researcher.

Unlike the Biblical approach, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this approach. But, like any approach, it is open to abuse by the individual researcher’s prejudices and/or various forms of incompetence.

1.4 The Qur’anic Approach

Finally, the Qur’anic approach, which I use in my writings, is based on accepting the Qur’an’s claim to be the Word of God which Muhammad received and communicated without any change to people. It presumes the absolute verity of the Qur’an. It seeks to understand history and everything that the Qur’an addresses in line with what this book says.

There are many who argue against the assumption that the Qur’an is the Word of God and claim that it was copied from Jewish and Christian sources. There are a number of theories as to how the Qur’an could have borrowed from other sources, but there is no shred of material evidence that this happened. Additionally, the fundamental assumption that the Qur’an is the Word of God cannot be rejected on the basis of the history of the text in the same way that the equivalent assumption of the Biblical approach can. The history of the Bible and that of the Qur’an are very different. The Qur’an was revealed over 22 years (610-632 CE) and the revealed text did not go through any development or change. Also, none of the four fundamental problems that undermine the basic assumption of the Biblical approach applies to the Qur’an.

The ultimate test for the assumption that a book is the Word of God is that it must be free of inconsistencies, inaccuracies, or mistakes. If the book is found to contain any of these flaws, then it cannot be attributed in its entirety to the all-knowing, unerring God.

Verifying the accuracy of some Qur’anic statements by comparing it with established facts, say historical or scientific, is not an approach that can be applied to every statement in the Qur’an. In fact, it can be used with a relatively small number of verses only, because most of the Qur’an talks about unverifiable metaphysical and theological issues. For instance, the Day of Resurrection and the afterlife are major themes in the Qur’an, with numerous verses dedicated to them. Yet there is no way to verify these future events. Similarly, statements about God and spiritual beings, such as the angels, are also unverifiable. This is why the belief in the Qur’an, or the Bible for that matter, cannot be completely justified rationally and would always involve accepting claims that cannot be attested, i.e. an element of faith. The Qur’an stresses in many verses that faith involves belief in the ghayb, a term that may be translated as “the unseen” or “the unknown.” Words that share the same root with ghayb include ghaba (became absent; disappeared) and gha’ib (absent). One quality of the pious is that they “believe in the unseen” (2.3). Statements about the “unseen” cannot be verified, but others can.

While it is not possible to found the belief in the Qur’an completely on reason and material evidence, because of the statements about the unseen, examining the accuracy of verifiable statements can be used to check the reliability of the book. If verifiable statements are found to be wrong or inaccurate, then clearly the Qur’an cannot be the divine or accurate book it claims to be. At best, it would be a text based on revelation, but which has been edited by man — something similar to what happened to the Bible. In this case, the unverifiable statements in the Qur’an also might well be wrong or inaccurate. This situation would undermine the Qur’anic approach completely. On the other hand, if the verifiable statements pass every test, then one can justifiably conclude that there is increasing probability that the Qur’an is the Word of the unerring God.

2. The Biblical Approach or the Qur’anic One?

Books such as the Bible and the Qur’an are far more than historical records of events and characters. Each book provides a panoramic view of this world and its history, and specific events it mentions are used to develop that overall picture. Each book sets out to answer questions about the meaning of life and the main forces behind this continually changing world — covering its past, present, and future. So in addition to the smaller historical and scientific details that can be tested against external evidence, the global view of each of these books is also something that must be considered. The secular approach also produces global views. The question is then which of the competing views makes more sense of this world, its history, and its various phenomena. For instance, the followers of the Biblical and Qur’anic approaches find the atheistic view that the universe has developed and life has emerged on their own less credible than the view of the Bible and the Qur’an that there is a Creator who created this universe and all forms of life. In the case of Jesus, for example, following the Qur’anic approach, I argue that his real role in history is accurately explained by the Qur’an’s view of the world, not the view of the Bible or any theory driven by the secular approach.

The Qur’anic approach is, of course, open to abuse like any other approach. The researcher needs to do all they can to guard themselves against such failures. In my writings, I try my best to consider in detail the arguments of the other approaches and any counter argument to the Qur’anic approach. I also make every effort to differentiate between bare facts and their interpretations according to the Qur’anic approach. These facts can then be looked at by others to examine the validity of the given interpretations and test whether a different approach gives better interpretations of these facts. I point out the similarities and differences between the Qur’an and relevant Jewish and Christian sources, and I explain and relate them to established historical facts, using the Qur’anic perceptive.

My writings are not dispassionate, neutral studies of history. I am not sure that such an attempt is possible at all anyway. There is always bound to be an element of “faith,” represented by at least one unproven or unprovable assumption, somewhere even in our most rational argument. I do, however, ensure that I make my assumptions clear and differentiate between facts and their interpretations, allowing the reader to decide whether the arguments of the book are likely or unlikely, credible or absurd. More broadly, it is ultimately to the reader to decide whether this Qur’anic interpretation of history is more consistent, convincing, and in line with established facts, or other alternatives, including the Bible’s.

I hope it has become clear now why I have answered in the negative to the questions whether using the Qur’anic approach undermines the objectivity of any research and whether studies that are based on different religious approaches can achieve the same level of objectivity and reliability.

Copyright © 2009 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved

Mar 132009

This article is extracted from chapter “The Exodus in the Qur’an” of the book The Mystery of Israel in Ancient Egypt: The Exodus in the Qur’an, the Old Testament, Archaeological Finds, and Historical Sources


The Qur’an significantly disagrees with the Bible in its account of how Moses introduced God to Pharaoh. But this disagreement underlines an even more fundamental and broader difference between the two scriptures. This important difference goes beyond the story of the exodus. This is the relevant Biblical account: 

Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Release my people so that they may hold a pilgrim feast to me in the desert.’” But Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord that I should obey him by releasing Israel? I do not know the Lord, and I will not release Israel!” And they said, “The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Let us go a three-day journey into the desert so that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God, so that he does not strike us with plague or the sword.” (Exo. 5:1-3)

The exclusive expressions “the God of Israel” and “the God of the Hebrews” are in complete contrast to how Moses described God to the Egyptian monarch in the Qur’an, calling Him the Lord of everything and everyone and the Lord of all peoples, including Pharaoh and his people

Pharaoh said: “Who is the Lord of all peoples” (26.23)? [Moses] said: “The Lord of the heavens and the earth and all that is between them, if you would be sure” (26.24). [Pharaoh] said to those around him: “Do you not hear” (26.25)? [Moses] said: “Your Lord and the Lord of your forefathers” (26.26). [Pharaoh] said: “Your messenger who has been sent to you is a madman” (26.27). [Moses] said: “The Lord of the East and the West and what is between them, if you would understand” (26.28).

[God said:] “So go you both to him and say: ‘We are two messengers of your Lord; therefore send the Children of Israel with us and do not torment them; we have brought to you a sign from your Lord; peace be upon him who follows right guidance (20.47). It has been revealed to us that the torture will come upon him who rejects and turns back’” (20.48). He (Pharaoh) said: “So who is your Lord, O Moses” (20.49)? He said: “Our Lord is He Who created everything, then guided it [to its course]” (20.50). He said: “Then what about the past generations” (20.51)? He said: “The knowledge of them is with my Lord, in a book; my Lord neither errs nor forgets” (20.52).

Pharaoh said: “Let me kill Moses and let him call on his Lord. I fear that he will change your religion or cause corruption in the land” (40.26). Moses said: “I take refuge in my and your Lord from every arrogant person who does not believe in the Day of Reckoning” (40.27).

We tried the people of Pharaoh before them and there came to them a noble messenger (44.17), [saying]: “Deliver to me Allah’s servant; I am a trustworthy messenger to you (44.18). Do not exult yourselves above Allah; I have come to you with a manifest authority (44.19). I seek refuge in my and your Lord that you do not stone me” (44.20).

Moses said: “O Pharaoh! I am a messenger from the Lord of all peoples (7.104). It is a duty on me to say nothing about Allah but the truth; I have come to you with clear proof from your Lord, therefore send with me the Children of Israel” (7.105).

Moses went out of his way to stress that his God was Pharaoh’s also. This difference between the image of God in the Qur’an and the Bible is also reflected in the different objectives of Moses’ mission in the two books. The Bible confines Moses’ mission to taking his fellow Israelites out of Egypt. The Qur’an adds to that the attempt to convert Pharaoh, and by implication his people, and make them accept God as their Lord. The second objective is hinted to in Moses words to Pharaoh “peace be upon him who follows right guidance” (from 20.47), but it is explicitly stressed in these verses: 

“Go you and your brother with My signs and do not slacken in remembering Me (20.42). Go both to Pharaoh; he has transgressed all bounds (20.43). Speak to him gentle words that he may remember or fear” (20.44).

Has the story of Moses reached you (79.15)? When his Lord called him in the holy valley of Tuwa (79.16): “Go to Pharaoh; he has transgressed (79.17). Say to him: ‘Do you have the will to purify yourself (79.18) and to let me guide you to your Lord so that you become pious to Him’’” (79.19)?

The exclusiveness of the God of the Old Testament as the Lord of Israel is one aspect of what may be called the “Israelization of religion.” The religion of the Old Testament is tightly and inseparably linked to the Israelites’ ethnic group. Israel is portrayed as God’s chosen people and God is said to be exclusively theirs.

This ethnic and exclusive identification of God belongs to the realms of polytheism rather than monotheism. What the Biblical Moses said to Pharaoh is in line with the polytheistic view that each people has their own god, each city has its own deity, and so on. The polytheistic Pharaoh was not surprised to hear that the Israelites had their own God, as this was what he would expect anyway, so he was only asking for more information on this new God. The Qur’an also shows Pharaoh asking Moses about his God (20.49; 28.38; 40.26, 37; 43.49), but, significantly, Moses’ answers correct the wrong implications of Pharaoh’s question, stressing that his God is Pharaoh’s and everyone else’s. Being completely focused on presenting their religion and God as theirs only, the Biblical writers seem to be completely unaware of the polytheistic implications of their claims or unbothered by them.

The Qur’an confirms that God conferred special favors on the Israelites: 

O Children of Israel! Remember My favor to you and that I preferred you above all peoples (2.47). He said: “What, shall I seek a god for you other than God and He has preferred you above all peoples” (7.140)?

This preference of the Israelites over other peoples does not imply that there was anything special about the Israelites as an ethnic group, as the Bible presents it. It refers to the fact that they were privileged for a long time with being the hosts of many prophets: 

We gave the Children of Israel the Book, Wisdom, and prophethood; We provided them with good things; and we preferred them over all peoples (45.16).

The Israelites cannot claim credit for the appearance of many prophets among them for the simple reason that any prophet, including those who descended from Jacob, is not the product of his people and society but rather the making of God. This is why, for instance, the Qur’an does not praise the people of Arabia for producing Prophet Muhammad or indicate explicitly or implicitly that the Arabs or the tribe of Quraysh, to which the Prophet belonged, had any role in his being chosen as prophet. Every prophet was a revolutionary figure with values that were not accepted by the majority of his own people who, invariably, joined forces to undermine his mission. In their response to their prophets, the Israelites were no better than other peoples. This history is confirmed in both the Bible and the Qur’an. The latter states that they went as far as killing some prophets (e.g. 2.87; 5.70). Not even their deliverer from slavery, Moses, was spared their disobedience, arguing, and grumbling. The history of the Israelites even according to the Bible shows that they acted sinfully like any other nation. It may be argued that they were even worse, given that they had so many prophets sent to them.

One verse that stresses that God preferred Israel over other nations by sending more prophets to it also shows that the Israelite prophets were as outsiders to the Israelites as any prophet to his people: 

When Moses said to his people: “O my people! Remember the favor of Allah on you when He made prophets among you and made you kings and gave you what He has not given to any of the other peoples” (5.20).

The verse makes a fine but significant distinction between how the Israelite prophets related to the Israelite people and the how their kings related to them. It describes the prophets as individuals who were made to appear “among” the Israelites, whereas it makes no distinction between the Israelites and their kings, with Moses reminding the Israelites that God made them kings. This verse calls all the Israelites “kings” because one of them, Joseph, was a king or second to the king, but it does not call them prophets though there were a number of prophets among them, including Jacob, his sons, Moses, and Aaron. This distinction between prophet and king applies even when an individual combined prophethood and kingship. In his secular function as king he is one of the Israelites, but in his religious mission as prophet he is one of the nation of prophets not an Israelite. It is the overlooking of this important distinction between a prophet and his people, even if they were his offspring, that turned the name of prophet “Israel” into a name of the nation of his descendants. In contrast, the Qur’an never uses the name “Israel” for the Israelites, only calling them the “Children of Israel,” in the same way it calls Adam’s offspring the “Children of Adam.”

It may also be argued that even if the many prophets who were sent to the Israelites were looked at primarily as prophets of God rather than Israelites, then their appearance in a relatively large number among the Israelites would still indicate the latter’s special status. This is also a false argument. God confers favors on people for various reasons, foremost among which is His mercy and bounty. Whether a favor from God is deserved by its recipient or not can only be measured by that person’s response to that favor. God favors many nations, groups, and individuals with wealth, power, good health…etc, but many of them abuse those favors. It would be ridiculous to suggest that the rich who spend their wealth on wrong causes or those with power who abuse it received these favors because they deserved them. Similarly, in the case of the Israelites, being the recipients of the great favor of having many prophets sent to them does not mean they were any better than other peoples until their handling of the favor is examined. The fact of the matter is that the Israelites killed many of their prophets and rejected many others, the most famous among them is Jesus, hence they have no claim to any preference over other peoples.

There is another critical point. The prophets with whom the Israelites were preferred over other peoples have long since gone. The Qur’an says that even their divine books have been lost. Later Israelite generations have no claim to the favor that God conferred on their forefathers! The Israelite generations that came after the prophets and after the loss of their teachings were not included in God’s special favor to their ancestors. The fact that the later Israelites were denied being the hosts of prophets or the keepers of their heritage means that this favor was not an ethnic issue in the first place, otherwise prophets would have continued to appear among them.

Also, if the Israelites were better than other peoples in the Biblical sense of this concept, then the last prophet, Muhammad, would also have appeared among them. Contrary to the Bible, the Qur’an differentiates between people only in terms of their “faith and good works” (e.g. 2.62; 5.69; 16.97).


Copyright © 2009 Louay Fatoohi and Shetha Al-Dargazelli
All Rights Reserved

Feb 082009
In my book The Mystery of The Historical Jesus: The Messiah in the Qur’an, the Bible, and Historical Sources I coined the term “contextual displacement.” This term denotes a very important concept that is critical to understanding a certain class of differences between the Qur’an and Jewish and Christian writings. In this article, which is largely based on a section from my book on the historical Jesus, I explain the concept of “contextual displacement.”

The Qur’an attributes the inauthenticity of the Bible to two forms of textual manipulation by the latter’s authors, editors, and copyists: textual addition and textual corruption. These two explain the differences between the Qur’an and Jewish and Christian sources.

Textual addition denotes the practice of introducing passages that were never part of the revealed divine book, so they are completely the creation of their respective authors. These are also likely to have been modified, deliberately or inadvertently, by later editors and copyists. One Qur’anic verse criticizes “those who write the book with their hands and then say ‘This is from Allah’ to get a small price for it” (2.79). Examples of added texts include the passages that promote Jesus’ divinity. These were never part of the Injil — the book that God revealed to Jesus — and were added by their respective authors and editors to Christian sources.

Textual corruption, on the other hand, signifies the practice of changing original divine texts. Any passage that was developed from one that was in the original divine book is an instance of textual corruption. This may involve deleting parts of the original passage or adding to it. This is one verse that confirms that the Biblical authors altered the divine text: 

Do you [O you who believe!] hope that they (Children of Israel) would believe with you when a party from among them used to hear the Word of Allah and then alter it after they had understood it, knowingly? (2.75).

 One example of textual corruption in the Bible is its description of the image in which God created man. This is what the Old Testament says: 

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Gen. 1:26-27)

The Qur’an only says that God gave man a good image, without relating it to the image of God. The image of God is a concept that does not make sense in the Qur’an, because “there is nothing like Him” (42.11): 

It is Allah who has made for you the earth as a resting place, and the sky as a canopy, and has shaped you, making your shapes good, and has provided for you sustenance, of things pure and good. Such is Allah your Lord. So blessed is Allah, the Lord of the peoples (40.64).

The statement that God made man look good which was in the original Torah was changed by the authors of the Book of Genesis to another that states that God created man in His own image.

There is one form of textual corruption that is particularly relevant to any comparative study of history in the Qur’an and the Bible. This type of textual corruption denotes the instances where a character, event, or statement appears in one context in the Qur’an and in a different context in other sources. I will call this form of textual corruption “contextual displacement.”

The Qur’an uses the Arabic verb harrafa — which means “alter,” “change,” or “move away from” — when talking about the tampering that the Torah and Injil were subjected to. Interestingly, in three of these verses, the verb is used in combination with the Arabic word mawadi‘ which means “contexts” or “places”: 

Allah best knows your [O you who believe!] enemies. Allah is sufficient as a Guardian, and Allah is sufficient as a Supporter (4.45). [Your enemies] from among the Jews who alter words from their contexts (4.46).

Because of their breaking of their covenant, We have cursed them and made their hearts grow hard, altering words from their contexts and forgetting a part of what they were reminded of. You [O Muhammad!] will not cease to discover treachery from them except a few. So forgive them and overlook [their misdeeds]. Allah loves the good-doers (5.13).

O Messenger! Let not them grieve you, those who vie one with another in the race to disbelief, among those who say with their mouths: “We believe,” but their hearts did not believe, and of the Jews who listen to falsehood, listen to other folk who have not come to you [who] alter words from their contexts (5.41).

Displacing words and changing their contexts or “contextual displacement” is what these verses talk about. Contextual displacements are seen by those who consider the Bible as the word of God and even secular scholars as proofs that the Qur’an has copied inaccurately from the older sources. The Qur’an’s explanation is that it reports the true contexts, and that any different contexts in Jewish and Christian writings resulted from changes made to the Torah, Injil, or other divine revelations by man. In other words, these are the result of Jewish and Christian authors moving figures, events, and statements from their correct, original contexts. In some cases, there is no external information or internal consistency problem that can allow an independent observer to tell which of the two contradictory accounts is the correct one and which one represents a contextual displacement. But in many cases, this is perfectly possible and at times even clearly obvious. My argument is that every time this is possible, it is the Qur’anic account that proves to be internally consistent and in line with external evidence, whereas the corresponding account in the Jewish or Christian sources has an inconsistency problem and/or is in conflict with external information.

One example of contextual displacement is found in the Biblical book of Esther. The story of Esther is known to be unhistorical, so it must have been invented by its authors, i.e. it is a textual addition. But the story has a Haman who is described as the prime minister in the court of the Persian king Ahasuerus. A character with the same name appears in the Qur’an as a high ranking minister in Pharaoh’s court. This is an instance of contextual displacement where a character has been moved by the Biblical authors from one context to another. I have dedicated a chapter in my book The Mystery of Israel in Ancient Egypt: The Exodus in the Qur’an, the Old Testament, Archaeological Finds, and Historical Sources to explain in detail why Haman must have been an Egyptian rather than Persian figure.

In the case of Haman’s identity, for example, the Qur’an’s story was revealed by God and is therefore true, whereas the identification of the Old Testament resulted from moving Haman from the story of Moses, which was part of the Torah, to a completely different story.

Let me cite another contextual displacement, but this time from Christian sources. The Qur’an describes the birth of Jesus and following events as follows: 

And the pangs of childbirth drove her (Mary) to the trunk of a palm tree. She said: “I wish I had died before this and had become someone totally forgotten!” (19.23). Then he (Jesus) called her from beneath her: “Do not grieve! Your Lord has placed a rivulet beneath you (19.24). And shake the trunk of the palm tree toward you, and it will let fall fresh dates upon you (19.25). So eat, drink, and be consoled. If you meet any human being, say: ‘I have vowed a fast to God, so I will not speak today to any person’” (19.26). Then she brought him to her people, carrying him. They said: “O Mary! You have come up with a grave thing (19.27). O sister of Aaron! Your father was not a bad man, and your mother was not an unchaste woman” (19.28). Then she pointed to him. They said: “How can we talk to one who is a child in the cradle?” (19.29). He said: “I am Allah’s servant. He has given me the Book and has appointed me a prophet (19.30). He has made me blessed wherever I may be. He has enjoined upon me prayer and almsgiving so long as I remain alive (19.31). And [He has made me] kind to my mother and has not made me arrogant or wretched (19.32). Peace is on me the day I was born, the day I shall die, and the day I shall be raised alive” (19.33).

Jesus spoke immediately after his birth to his mother to console her, mention the miraculous appearance of food and drink, and ask her not to talk to people. He then spoke in the cradle to his mother’s people to defend her against their accusations. So the miracle is placed in a logical and understandable context.

But we find in the apocryphal Arabic Gospel of the Infancy this different account: 

Jesus spoke even when he was in the cradle, and said to his mother: “Mary, I am Jesus the Son of God, that word, which you did bring forth according to the declaration of the angel Gabriel to you, and my father has sent me for the salvation of the world.” (AraIn. 1:2-3)

Jesus is shown here telling his mother that he was Jesus her son whom she gave birth to according to the news that she received from Gabriel.  But Mary already knew this, so there was no reason for him to say it! The miracle is poorly weaved into the fabric of the story. This is another example of a miracle that the apocryphal writer, or his source, was aware of but did not know correctly its context so the report is poorly integrated into the story. It is a contextual displacement. The Injil, which God revealed to Jesus, is certain to have included a lot of details about Jesus’ life and miracles. The miracle of speaking in the cradle to defend his mother was one of them.

There are many differences between the Qur’an and Jewish and Christian sources, including the Old and New Testaments, that can be convincingly explained as contextual displacements in these sources.

Copyright © 2009 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved

Dec 312005
Should Muslims have knowledge of Jewish and Christian scriptures? This important question was the subject of a recent poll on this website. The voter was asked to choose whether “for the Muslim, knowledge of Jewish and Christian scriptures is”: “Necessary,” “Useful,” “Useless,” or “Bad,” or that he “did not know”. In total, 394 people cast their votes, and the results were as follows:


Number of Votes
Percentage of Votes
I do no know


Diagram of the results


A clear majority of 87% has voted in favor of the Muslim learning about Jewish and Christian scriptures. A minority of around 10.5% disapproved of that and thought that this knowledge is either useless or bad for the Muslim. Only a very small minority could not make their minds up.

I have no doubt that the Muslim “must” learn about Jewish and Christian scriptures. In fact, while Judaism and Christianity and their literature are the closest to Islam and its literature, other religions and their scriptures should also be studied by the Muslim. There are a number of reasons as to why I agree with the 44% of the voters who reckoned that knowledge of non-Islamic scriptures is “necessary” for the Muslim.

1) Many of the holy figures in Judaism, such as Abraham and Moses, and the main figure of Christianity, Jesus, are accepted by the Qur’an as prophets and messengers who were sent by the one and only God who later sent Prophet Muhammad. Their message, in essence, is considered as one and the same message that God sent the last Prophet with. At the same time, the Qur’an gives a different account of the teachings of those Biblical figures from what the Bible attributes to them. The Qur’an states that the books that He revealed to the Jews and Christians were tampered with by some of them: 

Do you [O you who believe!] hope that they would believe with you when a party from among them used to hear the Word of Allah and then alter it after they had understood it, knowingly? (2.75).

And among them are illiterates who know not the Book but only imagine it in line with their wishes, and they only guess (2.78). Woe, then, to those who write the book with their hands and then say “This is from Allah” to get a small price for it; therefore woe to them for what their hands have written and woe to them for what they earn (2.79).

And surely there is amongst them a party who distorts the Book with their tongue that you may consider it to be [part] of the Book, when it is not [part] of the Book, and they say: “It is from Allah”, while it is not from Allah, and they tell lies about Allah whilst they know (3.78).

O Messenger! Let not them grieve you, those who vie one with another in the race to disbelief, among those who say with their mouths “We believe,” but their hearts did not believe, and of the Jews who listen to falsehood, listen to other folk who have not come to you [who] alter words from their contexts (from 5.41).

 Now, it is not possible to say that the Jewish and Christian scriptures that have survived are simply heavily edited versions of the Torah of Moses or the Injil of Jesus, but some parts of them may have been originally based on authentic revelation and teachings. Studying these scriptures and the differences between them and the Qur’an would be very useful for learning about the changes that could have been made to the original teachings.

Moreover, the Qur’an actually mentions specific changes that were made by man to the divine revelation and names particular Jewish and Christian beliefs that it rejects. In order to fully understand these changes and beliefs, the Jewish and Christian scriptures have to be studied. For instance, the Qur’an condemns the deification of Jesus, whom the Qur’an considers as a human prophet like any other prophet God sent: 

They have indeed disbelieved those who say: “Allah is the Messiah, son of Mary”. Say [O Muhammad!]: “Who then can do anything against Allah if He had willed to destroy the Messiah, son of Mary, his mother, and everyone on earth? Allah’s is the kingdom of the heavens and the earth and all that is between them. He creates what He wills. Allah is able to do all things (5.17).

 It also denies that Jesus was crucified:

And because of their saying: “We killed the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, Allah’s messenger”. They did not kill or crucify him, but it was made to appear so to them. Those who disagree concerning it are in doubt thereof; they have no knowledge thereof, but a conjecture they follow; they did not kill him for certain (4.157). Allah rather raised him up to Himself. Allah is invincible, wise (4.158).

 The Muslim believes that the Qur’an is the word of God which must be studied extensively. Surely, when the Qur’an highlights specific wrong concepts in other religions then studying those concepts in their original sources is part of studying and understanding the Qur’an itself.

Those who think that Muslims should not learn about the scriptures of other religions are clearly ignorant of a very simple fact: just about every Muslim scholar has studied Jewish and Christian scriptures! They are unaware that the most famous scholars of the exegesis of the Qur’an – such as al-Qurtubi, Ibn Kathir, and At-Tabataba’i – all quote and discuss Jewish and Christian scriptures in their works. These scholars clearly believed that studying these scriptures is essential to understanding certain parts of the Qur’an.

Even the earliest biographer of Prophet Muhammad studied non-Islamic scriptures. Ibn Ishaq (ca. 704 – ca. 769), whose biography of Prophet Muhammad became the basis for the more accessible biography by Ibn Hisham (died 833 CE), has clearly studied at least a version of the Gospel of John. This is a quotation from Ibn Hisham’s biography of Prophet Muhammad: 

Ibn Ishaq said: “Among the things that have reached me of what Jesus son of Mary had stated in the Injil (Gospel) – which was revealed to him by Allah for the people of the Injil – about the signs of the Messenger of Allah, which was set down by John the disciple for the people of the Injil, when he wrote for them the Injil about the covenant of Jesus son of Mary with them regarding the Messenger of Allah that he said: ‘He who hates me, hates the Lord. Had I not performed in front of them works that no one before me had done, they would not have had any sin. But they showed conceit and thought that they would overpower me and the Lord. But the word of the Law has to be fulfilled: ‘they hated me for no reason’, i.e. unjustly. And when the munhamanna who is sent by Allah to you comes, and the holy spirit that is with the Lord comes out, he will testify to me, and so you. Because you had been with me from the beginning. I said to you: ‘so that you do not complain'”.
The munhamanna in Syriac means “Muhammad” (praised one), and in Greek it is “faraklete”.

2) This quotation from Ibn Ishaq reveals a second reason for studying the scriptures of other religions: the possibility that they may contain references to Prophet Muhammad, and thus attest to the verity of his message. This is exactly what Ibn Ishaq has done in the passage above. Professor David Benjamin Keldani (whose revert name is ‘Abdul ‘L-Ahad Dawud) compiled in his book Muhammad in the Bible, which can be downloaded from this website, a list of prophecies about the Prophet in the Old and New Testaments, and Abdul Haq Vidyarthi highlighted prophecies in other scriptures in his book Muhammad in World Scriptures. Whether one agrees or not with these findings is a different issue, but searching for references to Prophet Muhammad in other scriptures is certainly a valid quest and religious research. In fact, there is a Qur’anic verse that states that prophet Muhammad is mentioned in the both the Torah and the Injil:

Those (the believers) who follow the Messenger, the unlettered Prophet, whom they find mentioned in the Torah and the Injil which they have: He will enjoin on them that which is right and forbid them that which is evil; he will make lawful for them all good things and prohibit for them only the foul; and he will relieve them of their burden and the yokes that are upon them. Those who believe in him, honor him, help him, and follow the light which is sent down with him – those are the successful (7.157).

 It was so clear to the Jews and the Christians that Muhammad was the Prophet they were promised and commanded to follow that they could recognize him as they recognize their offspring:

Those to whom We have given the Book recognize him as they recognize their sons, and a party of them conceal the truth which they themselves know (2.146).

 There is no question that looking for any references to the message of Prophet Muhammad in non-Islamic scripture is valid and worthy effort.

3) The scriptures and religion of any people form a major part of their culture and values. In order to understand and communicate with any people, one needs to understand their culture, tradition, and set of values. This is another reason why Muslims need to study other religions. See, for instance, this verse: 

Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and goodly exhortation, and argue with them in the best manner (from 16.125).

 How can a Muslim have a meaningful and respectful discussions with people about Islam when he does not know what these people believe and how they think?

Whether they would like to introduce their religion to people of other faiths or simply seek to live in harmony with non-Muslims, Muslims need to have a good understanding of those other faiths.

In these times of much misunderstanding of Islam and its followers, Muslims have been asking the West to get rid of its prejudice and try to properly understand Islam. Muslims have the right to ask for this understanding, but they are also under obligation to reciprocate this understanding and try and understand the faiths of others. This is specially necessary for Muslims who live in non-Islamic countries in general and the West in particular, but it is required of Muslims everywhere. The growing power and spread of communication technologies is making this world smaller and its distant parts closer. This increasing communication and contact between very different cultures and traditions must be associated with serious attempts to understand the other and help them understand you, because the alternative is misunderstanding and conflict.

I have already pointed out one major problem with the position of Muslims who object to learning about other religions: ignorance. They are unaware that the scholars of their religion have always shown keen interest in studying other faiths. These people are not ignorant only of other faiths, but they are also ignorant of their own religion. I have highlighted other aspects of this unfortunate ignorance in my article about The Evolving Nature of Qur’anic Exegesis.

But these isolationists have another, equally significant problem – particularly those who think that studying religions other than their own is “bad”. They think it is detrimental because they believe it would negatively affect their faith in their religion. They are apprehensive that their attachment to or confidence in their religion might be weakened by the different and contradictory concepts and dogmas of other religions. The problem here is not really knowledge. Knowledge can never be bad. The real problem is unwillingness to face and deal honestly with lingering doubts and shaken confidence in Islam that this Muslim has. The Muslim who believes that Islam is the true religion should not fear being exposed to other religions. Indeed, he should expect his faith in his religion to increase as a result of such exposure. This, in fact, is a real opportunity to consciously choose Islam, if Islam only happened to be the religion of the family one was born to.

Anyone who is not brave and honest enough to face his doubts would never have real, strong faith. He may succeed in protecting the hypocritical life he has chosen for himself, but that is not the life of a believer. Additionally, he may be able to suppress those doubts, but he is bound to be reminded of them much more often that he likes. What these people have failed to realize is that knowledge is never an enemy, but ignorance is.

Copyright © 2005 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved