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

Dec 062007

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

Unsurprisingly, questioning the virginal conception has led to questioning Mary’s chastity. If Mary was unmarried, did not conceive Jesus miraculously, and Joseph was not Jesus’ father, then she must have been impregnated by another man. The conclusion is that Mary must have had an illicit relationship that led to her becoming pregnant with Jesus. This is not a new allegation. The Gospel of John seems to include a reference to this accusation being made by Jews in a debate with Jesus:
I know that you are Abraham’s descendants. But you want to kill me, because my teaching makes no progress among you. I am telling you the things I have seen while with the Father; as for you, practice the things you have heard from the Father!” They answered him, “Abraham is our father!” Jesus replied, “If you are Abraham’s children, you would be doing the deeds of Abraham. But now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth I heard from God. Abraham did not do this! You people are doing the deeds of your father.” Then they said to Jesus, “We were not born as a result of immorality! We have only one Father, God himself.” (John 8:37-41)Some think that this accusation was probably merely intended as an insult and did not represent a real doubt about Jesus’ legitimacy (e.g. Miller, 2003: 214).
Strangely, there are no more references to people accusing Jesus of being an illicit son or to rebuttals of this accusation.
One old mention of accusing Jesus of being born of fornication is found in the Acts of Pilate, which records Jesus’ trial, crucifixion, and resurrection. This work is included in the Gospel of Nicodemus, which is believed to have been compiled in the beginning of the 5th century, although it probably used older materials. It is believed that the 2nd century Christian apologist Justin Martyr referred to the Acts of Pilate.
After accusing Jesus, in the presence of Pilate, of breaking the law, the Jewish elders went on to accuse Jesus of being a son of fornication:

Pilate called Jesus, and said to him: “What is it that these witness against you, and you say nothing to them?” And Jesus answered: “If they had not the power, they would not speak. Everyone has power over his own mouth to say good and evil; let them see to it.”
And the elders of the Jews answering, say to Jesus: “What shall we see? First, that you was born of fornication; second, that at your birth in Bethlehem there took place a massacre of infants; third, that your father Joseph and your mother Mary fled into Egypt, because they had no confidence in the people.”
Some of the bystanders, kind men of the Jews, say: “We say that he was not born of fornication; but we know that Mary was espoused to Joseph, and that he was not born of fornication.” Pilate says to the Jews who said that he was of fornication: “This speech of yours is not true, seeing that the betrothal took place, as these of your nation say.” Annas and Caiaphas say to Pilate: “We with all the multitude say that he was born of fornication, and that he is a magician; but these are proselytes, and his disciples.” And Pilate, calling Annas and Caiaphas, says to them: “What are proselytes?” They say to him: “They have been born sons of the Gentiles, and then have become Jews.” Then answered those who testified that Jesus was not born of fornication, Lazarus and Asterius, Antonius and James, Annes and Azaras, Samuel and Isaac, Finees and Crispus, Agrippa and Judas: “We were not born proselytes, but are sons of the Jews, and we speak the truth; for we were present at the betrothal of Mary.”
And Pilate, calling to him those twelve men who proved that Jesus had not been born of fornication, said to them: “I adjure you by the health of Caesar, tell me if it is true that Jesus was not born of fornication.” They say to Pilate: “We have a law not to swear, because it is a sin; but let them swear by the health of Caesar that it is not as we say, and we are worthy of death.” Then said Pilate to Annas and Caiaphas: “Answer you nothing to those things which these testify?” Annas and Caiaphas say to Pilate: “Those twelve believe that he is not born of fornication; we — all the people — cry out that he was born of fornication, and is a magician, and says that he himself is the Son of God and a king, and we are not believed.” (Nic. 2)

This piece of text is probably completely forged and does not have much historical value, but what interests us here is its documentation of the fact that there were Jews — possibly many of them — who considered Jesus an illicit son. Equally interesting is the fact that the dispute is not over whether Jesus was conceived miraculously by a virgin or not, but whether he was the legitimate son of Mary and Joseph or the illicit son of Mary and another, unknown man.

Celsus, a staunch 2nd century opponent of Christianity, recounts in his book The True Doctrine, which is quoted in Origen’s Against Celsus, an attack by a Jewish interlocutor on Jesus and the accusation that Jesus fabricated the story of his birth from a virgin:

He accuses Him of having “invented his birth from a virgin,” and upbraids Him with being “born in a certain Jewish village, of a poor woman of the country, who gained her subsistence by spinning, and who was turned out of doors by her husband, a carpenter by trade, because she was convicted of adultery; that after being driven away by her husband, and wandering about for a time, she disgracefully gave birth to Jesus, an illegitimate child, who having hired himself out as a servant in Egypt on account of his poverty, and having there acquired some miraculous powers, on which the Egyptians greatly pride themselves, returned to his own country, highly elated on account of them, and by means of these proclaimed himself a God.” (Origen, Against Celsus, 1.28)

Other reports have even identified and named the man who is alleged to have fathered Jesus illegitimately. Celsus cites the following claim by a Jew against Mary: “when she was pregnant she was turned out of doors by the carpenter to whom she had been betrothed, as having been guilty of adultery, and that she bore a child to a certain soldier named Panthera” (Origen, Against Celsus, 1.32).

The Jewish Talmud also has a few references attributed to rabbis from the early 2nd century that call Jesus “son of Pantera,” and appear to treat “Pantera” as a family name. Other Talmudic references call Jesus the “son of Stada.” Miller points out that the Rabbis knew that “son of Stada” was not Jesus’ real name. He suggests that this seems to have been the name of a Jew who promoted the worship of non-Roman gods and was put to death because of that, so Jewish Rabbis applied it to Jesus because they considered him also to have called to the worship of false gods. In a reference to both “son of Pantera” and “son of Stada,” one Rabbi claims that Stada was Mary’s husband and Pantera was here paramour (Miller, 2003: 217).

Commenting on linking “son of Stada” to Jesus, France accepts that “it is not unlikely that later Rabbis identified Ben Stada with Jesus,” but he voices caution of “assuming that any Ben Stada tradition originated as a historical reminiscence of Jesus” (France, 1999: 38).

One modern variation on these stories which tries to preserve Mary’s chastity yet allow for the possibility that Jesus was an illegitimate son is the suggestion that Mary was raped by a Roman soldier. Such a scenario actually requires a considerable amount of creative imagination to stitch together a number of ancient stories of unknown reliability using a good amount of convenient assumptions, as can be seen in Miller’s (2003: 220-222) version.


Copyright © 2007 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved