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

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

Nov 172007

Source: The Mystery Of The Historical Jesus: The Messiah in the Qur’an, the Bible, and Historical Sources

It has been claimed by some that the Qur’an does not confirm explicitly the virginal conception of Jesus. Geoffrey Parrinder states that while the Qur’an makes it clear that the conception involved divine intervention, it does not say whether it was natural or not. He also points out that in the past, commentators considered Jesus to have been born without a father, but that some modern Muslim writers deny, on scientific and historical grounds, that the Qur’an teaches the virginal conception (Parrinder, 1995:70-74).
This is probably one of the most obvious misreadings of a Qur’anic text. The Qur’an can hardly be any clearer in stating that Mary conceived Jesus without having a relation with a man. This is clear in the story of annunciation, which we have already studied; the story of the birth of Jesus (§10.4); and some other verses. This is a list of explicit and implicit confirmations in the Qur’an that Mary did not have a sexual relationship and that her conception was caused miraculously:
1) After hearing the good news about Jesus, Mary replied to Gabriel: “How can I have a son when no man has touched me, neither have I been unchaste?” (19.20), and “How can I have a child when no human being has touched me?” (3.47). Gabriel did not reply with something such as “yes, but you will get married,” but he rather responded with a statement emphasizing that the conception was going to happen miraculously: “Thus Your Lord has said: ‘It is easy for Me. And so that We may make of him a sign for people and a mercy from Us, and it is a matter that has been ordained’” (19.21), and, “Thus Allah creates what He wills. When He decrees a matter, He only says to it ‘Be!’ and it is” (3.47).
2) These are two verses that refer to Mary guarding her private parts, emphasizing that she was made to conceive miraculously while a virgin: “And [Allah set forth an example] Mary, daughter of ‘Imran, who guarded her private parts, then We breathed therein of Our spirit. And she believed in the words of her Lord and His Book, and was one of the obedient” (66.12), and, “And she who guarded her chastity, so We breathed into her of Our spirit and made her and her son a sign for the peoples” (21.91). The Qur’an keeps stressing Mary’s chastity to make it clear that the conception of this unmarried woman did not involve a sexual relationship.
3) Gabriel’s words to Mary that he was sent to bestow on her a pure son mean that he was directly involved in causing the conception of Jesus. This does not mean that Gabriel had a relationship with Mary, because in his reply to her question about how she could get pregnant without having a sexual relationship with a man he still maintained that the pregnancy was going to happen through a miracle. In a subtle way, Gabriel’s presence in that room caused Mary’s ovum to be fertilized. In another verse, Mary’s conception is also described as happening by the breathing of God’s Spirit into Mary, confirming Gabriel’s involvement and the non-sexual nature of his role: “And she who guarded her chastity, so We breathed into her of Our spirit and made her and her son a sign for the peoples” (21.91).
4) God stresses in another verse that He “made the son of Mary and his mother a sign” (23.50). While Jesus being a “sign” for people may be understood in terms of the many miracles he performed from his birth, calling Mary also a “sign,” which is a term associated with miracles in such a context, can only denote her virginal conception of Jesus. There is nothing else in Mary’s story to make her a sign for people. The miracle of having food brought to her in the sanctuary was probably witnessed by Zechariah only, as she was living in isolation. This conclusion is also confirmed by the significant observation that the mention of Mary being a sign is made in the context of calling her with her son a sign.
We may also note that the word “sign” is used in the singular, i.e. the speech is not about two signs but one, so it must be about the virginal conception. Additionally, verses 21.91 and 23.50 talk about making Mary and her son themselves a sign, which suggests a miracle that happens to them as opposed to miracles that they perform. Probably even Jesus’ ability to perform miracles was related to his paranormal conception.
5) Mary’s words during the pangs of birth, “I wish I had died before this and had become someone totally forgotten” (19.23) — which reflect distress, despair, a deep sense of shame, and utmost apprehension — indicate that the childbirth was not going to be seen favorably by people, because they would not recognize the legitimacy of the child.
6) When Mary went back to her people with baby Jesus they said to her: “O Mary! You have come up with a grave thing. O sister of Aaron! Your father was not a bad man, and your mother was not an unchaste woman” (19.27-28). The accusation means that she was known not to have been married.
7) When baby Jesus spoke to defend his mother against her people’ accusation, he did not say that he was the legitimate son of Mary and her husband. He spoke instead about his status as a prophet and showed that he was indeed a miraculous boy: “I am Allah’s servant. He has given me the Book and has appointed me a prophet. He has made me blessed wherever I may be. He has enjoined upon me prayer and almsgiving so long as I remain alive. And [He has made me] kind to my mother, and has not made me arrogant or wretched” (19.30-32). He is clearly telling people to believe in his miraculous origin on the basis of his miraculous nature.
8) In his words above, Jesus states that God made him kind to his mother, but he does not mention his father, because he did not have one.
9) The Qur’an calls Jesus “son of Mary” 23 times — 13 times as “Jesus son of Mary,” 5 times as “the Messiah son of Mary,” 3 times as “the Messiah Jesus son of Mary,” and 2 times with no other name or title. Jesus is also referred to once as “her son,” i.e. Mary’s son (21.91). The title “son of Mary” is clearly intended to emphasize the fact that Jesus had no father. It cannot mean that Jesus had an unknown father, because it is a title that God Himself used for Jesus, not simply one used by people who did not know Jesus’ father. God is described as omniscient in the Qur’an, so it cannot be claimed that this title implies that Jesus’ father was unknown.
10) The Qur’an identifies people after their fathers, so its identification of Jesus after his mother is a unique case. People in general are referred to as “the sons of Adam” (e.g. 7.26, 17.70), the Israelites are called “the Children of Israel” (e.g. 5.72, 20.80), Adam’s two sons are called “the sons of Adam” (5.27), and Mary herself is called “the daughter of ‘Imran” (66.12). Note that Mary’s father died before her birth (p. 49), but she is still called after him. Even if Jesus’ father was no more around after his birth, he would have still been called after his father, had he had one.
I do not think these arguments leave any room to doubt that the Qur’an emphasizes that Mary was virgin when she conceived Jesus and that this conception was not through a sexual relationship with a man. It was a miraculous, virginal conception.
We discussed in the previous section the insinuation that started at least as early as the 2nd century that Jesus was the fruit of an illicit relationship between Mary and someone other than Joseph. We also saw that this defamatory allegation was used by opponents of Christianity, including Jews. The Qur’an also mentions the Jewish accusation to Mary of unchastity. This occurs in the context of criticizing Jews for misbehaviors, including breaking their covenant and killing prophets:

And because of their disbelief and of their speaking against Mary a tremendous calumny. (4.156)

 The Qur’an stresses that Mary was virgin when she conceived Jesus miraculously and strongly criticizes those who accused her of unchastity. There is no mention in the Qur’an of Mary’s getting married or having other children.  


Copyright © 2007 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved