The debate over borrowing theories that posit Judeo-Christian folklore as a source of the Qur'anic material is one that has raged for over a century. When the FTMecca recently made a contribution to the discussion, our arguments were subjected to many heavy blows from the Sword of God (Sayf Allaah). Our article, Towards a Theory of Borrowing, became the subject of a heated discussion on usenet, with the chief defender on the Muslim side being the esteemed Dr. Muhammad Saifullah.
It recently came to our attention that the brilliant Dr. Saifullah is a professor at Cambridge University. This fact alone demonstrates that our critic posseses far more erudition than any of the current crop of FTMakkans. Dr. Saifullah is also certainly a step above the vast majority of cyber-mujahideen who exhibit their hikmah in the net's virtual battle of Badr. While in the past we have praised the exploits of Mohd Elfie Nieshaem Juferi and Shibli Zaman, we must concede that Dr. Saifullah has exhibited more intelligence even than these two. In fact, the only Muslim on the net whom we revere more than Dr. Saifullah is Imran Aijaz.
This high praise aside, we believe that the arguments Dr. Saifullah has brought against our particular borrowing theory can be properly answered. We believe that our claim, that the story of Abraham and the idols as found in the Qur'an originates with Jewish Midrash, can be soundly defended. Our interpretation of Dr. Saifullah's elaborate argument is drawn both from his writings on usenet, as well as a few snippets on his very popular Islamic Awareness website.
Our argument will come on two levels. First we will argue that Dr. Saifullah often introduced citations that were deliberately quoted out of context, and that this is not a new tactic. Then we will demonstrate that Dr. Saifullah's claim, that the Midrashic account of Abraham and the idols post dates the Qur'anic version, can be proven false. It is our hope that we can strengthen our original borrowing theory.
Dawaganda and the modern "isnaad"
The arguments that Dr. Saifullah has made public are very impressive. It is almost certainly true that his throng of supporters who witnessed his commentary on the Midrash controversy were wholly convinced that Islam had triumphed again. However, this apparent victory was, like previous achievements, built on a foundation that is at best questionable, and at worst hollow. We believe that Dr. Saifullah misrepresented what the sources were actually saying.
Accusations that Dr. Saifullah has employed curious (if not deceptive) citations in his writings are not new. There was a controversy over his use of the Encyclopedia Judaica in his article on Ezra being the son of God. Many of the truncated quotes regarding Cook and Crone's Hagarism have also been promoted on the net by Dr. Saifullah as well. In light of the many Mu'mineen who don't have library cards, this gives rise to contemporary da'eef ahaadeeth.
In this section we will examine some of the quotes that have come from Dr. Saifullah with regard to the issue of Abraham and the idols, and we will try to establish their proper context. First, however, we need to understand in what form Dr. Saifullah presented these passages.
One of Dr. Saifullah's first installments, in what has become an evolving argument, included the point that Abraham Geiger was the first to claim that the story of Ibrahim the idol-smasher originated with Jewish Midrash. Dr. Saifullah hoped to show that the Jewish scholars actually date B'reshit Rabbah to a time later than the compiling of the Qur'an, and cited the following as evidence:
It would also seem that Dr. Saifullaah is either trying to deceive readers, or is unfamiliar with the organization of B'reshit Rabbah. The work by Freedman cited by Dr. Saifullaah says that Vayyishlach and Vayyigash are from a later time; this is also mentioned in the article on B'reshit Rabbah in The Jewish Encyclopedia (1905, Vol. 3). Dr. Saifullaah gloats about Parsha Vayechi being drawn from Tanchuma homiles, which he dates to the 9th century.
All of this is irrelevant when it is pointed out that the verse covering Abraham and the idols (38:13) is NOT in the parashiyyot mentioned by Freedman and Simon (Vayyishlach, Vayyigash, and Vayechi); rather it is found in Noach. To draw an analogy, Dr. Saifullaah's argument is equivalent to giving the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark a later date due to the fact that scholars do such with the last 12 verses of the 16th chapter! Freedman and Simon do concede to later additions, but they point these additions out to the reader. Consider page 915 of the 2nd volume, which says clearly that "[c]hapters XCV-XCVI of [the current edition] do not really belong to Genesis Rabbah" (p. 977 also makes note of specific additions). So, Dr. Saifullah left out the fact that Freedman and Simon do not have our cited passage on their list of added or edited material.
The parade of curious quotes continue. Dr. Saifullah went on to try and further drive the point home by arguing that even Orientalist scholars saw the Qur'an as being written prior to the Jewish version of Abraham and the idols. He argued such as follows:
Before we give what Paret actually said within its proper context, one should examine Dr. Saifullah's quote. The discussion was specifically on the issue of Abraham and the idols, not the sacrifice of Ishmael (or Isaac in the Biblical account), or Hagar's going to Makkah, both mentioned by the doctor. So, even if all we had to work with was the sentence cited by Dr. Saifullah, one would still wonder which traditions were being referred to by Paret.
The reality is that the sentence, with its context removed, is wholly vague. Dr. Saifullah deliberately removed the context of the sentence in order to allow himself to reinterpret it as making reference to the version in the Midrash. The implication is that Paret too rejects this theory which originates with that heinous Yahood, Rabbi Abraham Geiger. On the contrary, the very first source in Paret's bibliography is Geiger's Was hat Mohammed aus dem Judenthume aufgenommen? What Paret actually wrote was the following:
So while Dr. Saifullah would like us to believe that Paret means B'reshit Rabbah, this text is never mentioned. The issue is with regard to much later traditions, and Eisenberg covered this quite well. As Eisenberg noted, the writings of al-Thalabee and al-Kisaa'ee wrote on wars between Abraham and Namrood (Nimrod), and these stories made their way into much later Jewish traditions like Sefer Hayyashar, Sefer Eliyahu Zota, and the Pirqe deRav Eleizer. This is all from the original Encyclopaedia of Islam, and nowhere is it ever implied that B'reshit Rabbah is included in these later Jewish sources.
Dr. Saifullaah also made good use of quotes from articles by Brannon Wheeler and Norman A. Stillman. The quote from Wheeler basically argued that similarities between Jewish and Muslim tales do not automatically mean the Muslim tale was copied from the Jewish one. An understanding of simple logic would force anyone to agree with Wheeler, but this obvious point does not somehow negate our particular borrowing theory. As for the quote from Stillman, this is one that has been used by Dr. Saifullaah in an article on his site, and is one that was criticized by the Answering-Islam team. Regardless, Dr. Saifullah put forth the quote as follows:
A great deal has been written about the Judeo-Christian elements in Islam and its scripture ever since Abraham Geiger's Was Hat Mohammed aus dem Judenthume aufgenommen? first appeared in 1833. Geiger's book made a profound impression in its day, although it did tend to give an exaggerated view of the Jewish contribution in the Qur'an. Many of the traditions that he cites are in oriental Christian as well as talmudic and haggadic literature. Our chronology of rabbinic literature is better today than in Geiger's, and many more texts - Muslim, Jewish, and Christian - have since been published. In the light of this we now know that in some instances what was thought to be a Jewish haggadic influence in an Islamic text might well be wuite the reverse. The Pirqe de Rabbi Eli'ezer, for example, would seem to have been finally redacted after the advent of Islam.
One of the primary reasons why so much of the non-Christological material in the Qur'an and Muslim commentators has been traced back to Jewish rather than Christian sources is the fact that oriental Christian literature is still such an overwhelmingly vast, uncharted sea.
Redaction in its final form?
The basic argument of Dr. Saifullah can be summed up in five words: redaction in its final form. The Christians who tried to dispute Dr. Saifullah's mode of argumentation waved this off as absurd. We, however, think that questions about redaction are quite serious. The "redaction in final form" argument is a deadly one. If we know that B'reshit Rabbah was edited after the Qur'an came into existence, this leaves open the very real possibility that the particular story we are touching on was added after the advent of Islam, and is thus posterior to the Qur'anic version!
The most powerful bit of evidence that Dr. Saifullah presented was a string of quotes from Hans-Jurgen Becker's article "Texts and History: The Dynamic Relationship Between Talmud Yerushalmi and Genesis Rabbah." Becker presents a powerful piece that notes that while B'reshit Rabbah first appeared in the fifth or sixth century, it was still undergoing serious editing right up until the 15th century! So, if B'reshit Rabbah was still undergoing redactions eight centuries after the Qur'an was written, the burden of proof is heavily on our shoulders to prove that our particular story was not added after the advent of Islam.
Before we try to establish a pre-Islamic date for the story of Abraham
and the smashing of the idols, we need to understand what exactly this
story is. The tale is a piece of Midrash that is anchored to a single
verse from Genesis. The entire tale represents the Rabbinic interpretation
of Gen 11:28. At this point, we should take a look at this verse in the
The English translation would seem to imply only that Haran's death preceded Terah's. The text does not seem to imply what can be can be gleaned from the Hebrew: Haran died right in front of Terah! Furthermore, the Hebrew tells us that Haran died in the "Ur" [Or] of the Chaldeans. This word can mean light, but also fire! The entire story was anchored to this verse.
With this information now before us, how can we slowly go about dating the story to a time earlier than that implied by Becker (15th century)? To begin, we can at least take four centuries off the date when we take note of Rashi's commentary on Genesis 11:28. Rashi says that the Midrash has a certain view, and from there he quotes the tale verbatim. The result is that we know the Midrash contained this tale in at least the 11th century.
Unfortunately, the 11th century is still post-Islamic, so we are going
to have to look for an earlier date to the tale. It is here that we should
heed Stillman's advice: we will stop thinking only of Jewish sources, and
consider oriental Christian tales. There is one Christian tale of Abraham
smashing idols found in a Syriac Chronicle that is quite similar:
This is quite similar to the Midrashic version in that it has Abraham's breaking of the idols, and Haran's death by fire as a result. However, while scholars agree this is a translation of a work that predates Islam, the oldest manuscript containing the exact text above actually dates to the 13th century. This fact alone will allow Dr. Saifullah to dispute its worthiness as evidence that the Midrashic tale is pre-Islamic.
So, as we chug along, we can knock at least a few centuries off when citing yet another Syriac source, the medieval Catena Severi:
The implication here is that Jacob of Edessa, a Christian, was familiar
with the Jewish treatment on Genesis 11:28. This would mean that the Jewish
source (be it once, twice, or three times removed from Jacob) is pre-Islamic.
Of course, Jacob did not say specifically that he took this from a Jewish
source, so we have to go further to demonstate that the Jews were familiar
with the tale before the advent of Islam. To do so, consider the following
passage from the Babylonian Talmud:
Of course, Dr. Saifullah has already voiced his dislike for the bringing of the Talmud into this discussion:
The point of citing the verse above from tractate Pesachim of the Babylonian Talmud is to demonstrate that the Jews were in fact familiar with the tale, hence a reference to it in this work. Amazingly, Dr. Saifullah has complained that this passage does not mention the smashing of the idols specifically. Fair enough; should we only say that the part about Abraham being rescued from the fire is pre-Islamic? It should be noted that the alternate Midrashic version that appears in Shemot Rabbah also includes Abraham being saved by an angel.
It is doubtful that Dr. Saifullah would even want to do that, but this is not important. He knows quite well that there is another Talmudic verse that mentions Abraham's aversion to idolatry and how Nimrod was connected. Dr. Saifullah himself quoted this verse from tractate Avodah Zarah, though not without commentary:
This is *all* that is mentioned about Abraham and the idols in this tractate of Babylonian Talmud.
The key point to examine would be the last word, kokhavim, which Dr. Saifullah's translation renders as "idols." If Abraham was in fact the type to worship these idols (kokhavim), we would call him an idolater, or oved kokhavim (). The word kokhavim is plural; the singular would be kokhav (). So, Abraham refused to worship even a single kokhav according to the Jewish texts. The word kokhav, however, is actually more accurately translated as "star." This is interesting in light of a similar story found in the Qur'an. In Soorat al-An'aam 6:76, Abraham briefly considered worshiping a kawkab (), but decided not to. The Hebrew kokhav and the Arabic kawkab are the same word, and are spelled exactly the same (roughly KWKB). It seems the Jewish version has made a couple of inroads into the Qur'an.
Nevertheless, this point about kokhav and kawkab is an extremely minor one. We should be trying to prove that the Jews were familiar with this tale prior to the writing of the Qur'an. To invoke the lesson taught by Stillman regarding Christian sources rather than Jewish ones. We do this because it is the Christians who can teach us a thing or two about what the Jews believed prior to the advent of Islam.
We know that the interpretation that Rashi gave is actually one that had barely changed for over seven centuries. How do we know this? Because Saint Jerome recorded the Jewish interpretations of the Bible in the fourth century. Readers are advised to compare Saint Jerome's Quaestiones Hebraicae in Genesim (Hebrew Questions on Genesis) with the commentary on the Torah by Rashi. The two are strikingly similar, showing that the Jewish view had not changed much in the seven centuries between Rashi and Jerome. Without further introduction, here is how Jerome covered Genesis 11:28:
Now, if Dr. Saifullaah and his team still wants to split hairs and dispute Saint Jerome's account, we can offer yet another source that brings the Midrashic technique back another four centuries, placing it before the start of the common era! This can be summed up in a single word: Jubilees. Of course, Dr. Saifullah does not like the citing of this work, and voiced his objection:
Not surprisingly, Dr. Saifullah is still not convinced, and had the following to say on the passage above:
When combining verses 12-14 with the first seven of the twelfth chapter, we realize that Jubilees anchors almost the same story to Genesis 11:28 (note the way the last sentence ties it all to Haran's dying before his father in Ur of Chalees, in true Midrashic fashion). This text, which predates the common era, tells us exactly how old this Midrashic interpretation is. By the time the Qur'an was written, the story in B'reshit Rabbah 38:13 about Abraham and the idols had already been among Christians and Jews in one form or another for seven centuries.
Dr. Saifullaah demanded that we show that this story was pre-Islamic, and this has in fact been shown beyond all reasonable doubt. We have also shown that the story was popular among both Jews and Christians centuries before the advent of Islam. With this in mind, we can heed Stillman's advice that the source could have been Jewish or Christian!
All that is left is a minor objection from Dr. Saifullaah. He claims that for this theory of borrowing to work, we must prove that the story existed in Makkah (Mecca) at the time Muhammad was there, as the story appears in a Makkan Soorah. This is a laughable request in that it tries to get us to accept the tendentious extracanonical traditions of Islam - why should we assume this was a story revealed in Makkah? Because history as the Muslims tell it claims such? Our multiple hands theory made note of the fact that even seeing Muhammad as a player in the revealing of the Qur'an is questionable. If we doubt Muhammad revealed the Qur'an, then surely by extension we doubt that he revealed verses in Makkah and Madina!
While we see no real reason to accept this premise, we can still play this game. Let us suppose the story was first revealed in Makkah by Muhammad. The story existed in Greek, Syriac, Hebrew, Latin and Ethiopic. It was present North of Arabia (in Syria, Palestine and Iraq), and somewhat South of Arabia (in Ethiopia). There were many Jews and Christians in Arabia. Are we to believe that the story never made its way to Makkah, a city where, according to the tendentious Ahaadeeth, pictures of Abraham and Jesus were hanging in the Kaaba? There was no Judeo-Christian influence in this city?
We do not wish to play the games liberal scholars wish to engage in when discussing the Qur'an. Let us get one thing straight: whether the verse was revealed in Makkah or Tokyo, it simply does not matter. If the story is making mention of Abraham, it is for an audience that is already familiar with the Judeo-Christian folklore! Furthermore, if we're going to talk about chapters revealed in Makkah, let us look at Soorat ash-Shu'araa 26:197 (also allegedly revealed in Makkah), which makes mention of the ulama of the Bani Isra'eel. This proves that whomever was revealing these "Makkan surahs" (assuming it was just one person) was already familiar with the learned men among the Jews.
On a last note that is a bit unrelated, we would like to dedicate this article to our brother in kufr, the Christian named Jameel who uses the nomme-de-web of "MyTajMahal." He bravely carried the bulk of the discussion with Dr. Saifullah when it was debated on usenet. Dr. Saifullaah often challenged Jameel to prove that the story was just a mere legend, and the good doctor even went so far as to say that Jewish scholarship does not see the Midrash as unhistorical. This is interesting, as while Dr. Saifullah quoted quite extensively from Hans Jurgen Becker, he failed to make mention of this passage:
(1) On a very much unrelated side note, we would like to point out that there are two reasons we rate the graduate student Aijaz higher than the PhD-holding Saifullah: First, Aijaz' arguments are much more carefully presented, and seem to almost always be free of fallacies or deception (which cannot be said about Dr. Saifullah's writings). Second, and more importantly, the net has provided us with an opportunity to watch Imran lock horns with Dr. Saifullah, particularly in a debate on the topic of embryology in the Qur'an. We believe that any objective spectator would agree with us that Aijaz got the better of Dr. Saifullah in that thrilling discussion. Also of interest would be discussions between Dr. Saifullaah and brother Aijaz on the topic of hadith criticism:       
(2) Dr. Saifullah actually quoted a passage from the Encyclopedia Judaica out of context to make it seem like that source was confirming that there were indeed Jews who said Ezra was the son of God. The reality, however, was that Dr. Saifullah cleverly forgot to mention that the EJ stated quite clearly that "no such opinion is to be found among the Jews[.]" Of course Dr. Saifullah denied any form of deception or misleading mine-quoting, but the problem became more apparent when others cited him as a reliable source. The best example would be when Osama Abdallah, webmaster of the very popular Answering Christianity site, wrote an article on Ezra and made the erroneous claim that "[a]ccording to the [Encyclopedia Judaica], the Arab Jews in Yemen did indeed consider Uzair as the 'son of God'." Mr. Abdallah had unfortunately put his trust in Dr. Saifullah's claim, and was thus subjected to embarrassing criticism when the truth came out via a discussion forum post from October of 2001
(3) This, to be fair, is not as bad as the previous example, mainly because these quotes cannot be traced back to Dr. Saifullah as the original source with any real certainty. The fact is that Abdur-Rahman Green on the Muslim Answers site, and Dr. Saifullah on usenet, both put forth a number of quotes regarding what scholars think of Cook and Crone's Hagarism. Many of these quotes were taken out of context. From there other Muslims regurgitated the passages without questioning their source, and the result is a chain of honest transmitters sincerely pushing dishonest material. This very problem came up in our defense of the multiple hands theory.
(4) That is, "weak traditions." This is a deliberate pun on the spurious "isnaad-science" that Muslims love to talk about. The standard claim is that we can trust Islamic tradition X because we can examine the extensive chain of transmitters and also know that others in the community testified to their reliability and honesty. Under such a system, it is argued, it is extremely difficult for false information to make its way into the corpus of traditions. Such a naive view fails to take into account hyperbole, and also the obvious reality that respected members of the community (like Dr. Saifullah) simply aren't questioned. It is when we are using such modern examples as analogies for the old days of hadeeth-building that we like to invoke the words of Michael Cook:
[Cook, Early Muslim Dogma, (Cambridge, 1981) p. 202]
(7) Saifullah, Midrash in the Qur'an (and Gospels)?, February 5th, 2002, post to the usenet newsgroup soc.religion.islam.
(10) These articles are Wheeler, "The Jewish Origins of Qur'an 18:65-82?", JAOS, 1998, Vol. 118, and Stillman, "The Story of Cain & Abel in the Qur'an and the Muslim Commentators," JSS, 1974, Vol. 19, respectively.
(11) Saifullah, Midrash in the Qur'an (and Gospels)?, February 10th, 2002, post to the usenet newsgroup soc.religion.islam.
(14) This is from an anonymous Syriac Chronicle found in Chabot, Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalum, (Scr. Syri 36). The Syriac (Syrian Aramaic) text is also found in James C. Vanderkam, The Book of Jubilees, (CSCO, 1989), vol. 1, p. 268. The English translation is from Vanderkam, Book of Jubilees, Vol. 2, p. 336. Vanderkam also noted the existence of a brief Greek version from Syncellus' Chronographia:
In the 3373rd year of
the world, when Abraham was 61, Abraham burned the idols of his father.
Haran was burned with them when he wished to extinguish the fire during
(18) Jacob of Edessa wrote about the spread of Islam, and saw this Arab invasion as some sort of punishment that God was heaping upon the Christians for their sins. This was mentioned in passing in Cook and Crone's Hagarism, and can also be found in G. Philips, Scholia on Passages of the Old Testament, (London, 1864).
(20) Saifullah, Midrash in the Qur'an (and Gospels)?, February 17th, 2002, post to the usenet newsgroup soc.religion.islam.
(21) Saifullah, Midrash in the Qur'an (and Gospels)?, March 21st, 2002, post to the usenet newsgroup soc.religion.islam.
(23) Saifullah, Midrash in the Qur'an (and Gospels)?, March 11th, 2002, post to the usenet newsgroup soc.religion.islam.
(24) Saifullah, Midrash in the Qur'an (and Gospels)?, March 18th, 2002, post to the usenet newsgroup soc.religion.islam.
(25) Saifullah, Midrash in the Qur'an (and Gospels)?, March 21st, 2002, post to the usenet newsgroup soc.religion.islam.
(27) For example, pictures of Biblical characters Abraham and Ishmael performing divination by arrows is mentioned in Saheeh al-Bukhaaree Vol. 4, No. 571. This is not to say we accept this hadeeth as true, but if we are going to accept the traditional history, let it be known that this traditional history does not agree with Dr. Saifullaah's insinuation that no Judeo-Christian influence existed in Makkah.