Muhammad, the Jews, and the Composition of the Qur’an: Sacred History and Counter-History
|iqra’ bismirabbikalladhi khalaq||Recite! [or call out!] in the name of your Lord who created|
|khalaqal-insān min `alaq||created humankind from a clinging mass|
|iqra’ warabbukal-akram||Recite! your Lord is most generous|
|alladhi `allama bil-qalam||who taught by the pen|
|`allamal-insān malam ya`lam2||taught what humankind does not know|
2. Islamic Narrative on the Jews of Muhammad’s Time
3. Point and Counterpoint
|And these are the forms of the verses transcribed||והדֹה הˈיˈאˈתˈהˈא|
|ˈכ Be obedient to God who has chosen the prophet, the apostle, upon whom be peace.||·כֹ כונו סא[מ]עין ללה אלדי אכתאר אלנבי61 אלר[ס]ול עליה אלסלˈ|
|ˈך Such, if you listen and obey, will be your reward.||ךֹ כדלך אן סמעתם ואטעתם כאן לכם תואב דלך· ואלעי|
|ˈי O you who flee from the unity of God, engrossed with heresy, draw near and observe the people of peace.||·יֹ יא גאפלין ען אלתוחיד מנהמכון פי אלכפר תקרבו ואנטֹרו אהל אלסלˈ|
|ˈע Upon the unbelievers is the wrath of God and His displeasure.||.עֹ עלי אלכאפרין נֹצֹב אללה וסכטא|
|ˈצ Prayer of the apostle purifies the believing men and women.||·צֹ צלאת אלרסול תכלץ אלמומנין ואלמומנאת|
|ˈו And between us and those who join other [deities] with God is a veil and a curtain on the day of standing up for reckoning.||·וֹ וביננא ובין אלמשרכין באללה סתר וחגאב יום אל וקוף פי אלחסאב|
|ˈח Turning from false worship by the unbelievers is return to repentance.||·חֹ חילה אלכפאר אלרגֹוע אלי אלתובה|
|ˈכ Speech of the Apostle or prayer is deliverance from the Fire.||·כֹ כלאם אלרסול או צלת הו אלכלאץ מן אלנאר|
|ˈמ Return to the House is the journey to the manifest.||·מֹ מרגע אלי אלבית מסירה אלשהוד|
|ˈי O God! O God! Receive those returning to beginnings.||·י יאלה יאלה תקבל מן אלראגֹעין אלי אלמהד|
|ˈי The Day of Resurrection will be intercessor for all who do good.||·י יכונו יום אלקיאמה מתשפעי לכל פאעלי אלכיר|
|ˈס Pray for peace for those close to God; return to the Fire O unbelievers!||·סֹ62 סאל סלאם סלאם לאוליא אללהשר’63 רגועא אלי אלנאר יא כפאר|
|ˈאל God has already cursed you. Cursed is he who curses God!||·אלֹ אללה קד לענכם מלעון מן לענה אללה|
|ˈל There is no intercession for those with whom [God] is angry.60||·לֹ לא שפאעה פי אלמגֹדוב עליהם|
|ˈא The errant are sent to Hell; but for purification, the Prophet is intercessor.||·אֹ אלצֹאלין מבעותין אלי גהנם לילתהאר אלנבי שפיע|
|ˈל To the guilty is forgiveness for all their sins.||·לֹ ללמדנבין מן כל דנובהם גֹופרא|
|ˈם What is with you, O unbeliever, [that] you are [so] ignorant!||·םֹ מא לק יא כאפר תכון גאהלא|
|ˈה They easily believe in the dust of the Prophet.||·הֹ הונא בתורבת אלנבי יאמנון|
|ˈר Those allied with God surpass slaves!||·רֹ רבת רבך סאבקה עלי אלעבאד|
|ˈש Wormwood of Hell flames over the unbelievers.||·שֹ שיח גֹהנם מלהבה עלי אלכפאר|
|ˈע It is the duty for all worshippers among the worshippers of God to hearken to the Apostle and pray for him three times a day;||עֹ עלי כל עאבד מן עביד אללה סאמע ללרסולו אלצלאה עליה פי אלנהאר ג’ מראר|
|They are depicted in the sūra The Cow Forbearance of teaching for the unbelievers, the believing men and women…||והם איצֹא מוצופין פי סורה אלבקרה· הוד אקואל ללכפאר ללמומנין ולמומנאת 65|
This facsimile of the verso of the original Arabic document was graciously provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary and catalogued as ENA 2541.1 Verso. JTS. Friedberg Jewish Ms. Society.
Conflicts of Interest
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Q96:1–4. The Arabic here is rendered in transliteration meant to convey something of the sound as it might have been heard (i.e., it does not separate the words as found in printed Qur’ans, but rather as it would be heard in recitation).
On Muhammad’s position within the genealogy of biblical prophets, see (Newby 1989, pp. 21–25; Powers 2007, pp. 3–10, esp. p. 8). On Muḥammad’s purported reluctance, see continuation of Al-Sīra al-Nabawiyya (op cit), and also continuation of Ibn Sa’d (op cit); On ethical monotheism, see (Vogel 2007, vol. 14, p. 449).
Q.17:105–6; 25:5–6; 33:39–46; Khan, (ed.) n.d., Ṣaḥīḥ Bukhāri Revelation 2 (vol. 1, p. 2), Knowledge 127 (1:94); Merits of the Anṣār 190 (5:120), etc. For a recent overview regarding the Islamic tradition literature known as Ḥadith, see (Roberto Tottoli 2014) Hadith, Muhammad in History, Thought and Culture, 231–36. On the nature and historical reliability of Ḥadith, see (Joseph Schacht 1964), An Introduction to Islamic Law; (G. H. A. Juynboll 1983), Muslim Tradition; (Harald Motzki 2002), The Origins of Islamic Jurisprudence.
John Wansbrough (1977) applied the term Heilsgeschichte to the Qur’an and its interpretation. On the notion of history and metanarrative (or sometimes, master narrative), see (Carr 1991).
Ibn Hisham himself admits to censoring the most authoritative source (Ibn Isḥāq) for the history of Muhammad in Islamic sources (Lecker 2010, p. 62). Earlier attempts to decipher the sources by scholars such as Montgomery Watt (1953, 1956) have been highly criticized in recent decades for lack of an adequately critical methodology. Revisionist scholars such as Patricia Crone argue that the classic sources cannot be trusted for reconstructing the actual events, while more positive historians recently, such as Schoeler (2003) and Motzki (2003) take a more optimistic view.
The early project of Patricia Crone and Michael Cook to reconstruct the early history of Islam through extra-Islamic sources is well-known (Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World [Cambridge: Cambridge University, (Crone and Cook 1977)]). This, too, has been highly criticized while simultaneously praised it for its innovative approach. See also (Hoyland 1997).
For recent and comprehensive representations of the state of the question, see (Rose 2001, pp. 1–7; Schoemaker 2012).
Al-Saqā (ed. Sīra) 1:242.
Saqā (ed. Sīra) 1:264: ḥattā dhakara ālihatihim wa`ābahum … (“until he mentioned their gods disparagingly. When he did that, most of the rejected him and came together to brand him as an enemy, except those God protected from that through Islam, but they were few and concealed themselves.”).
Sometimes translated as “associaters” who associate other powers with God. Further, see (Hawting 2002; Schöller 2002).
Jews are generally thought of as challenging Muhammad after his arrival in Medina, but they are portrayed in the Sīra as coming to Mecca to test him when his fame first reached them in their settlement of Yathrib/Medina (Al-Saqā (Sīra) 1: pp. 191–92).
On the various roles and commonalities of prophetic representations, see Beinhauer-Köhler, Bärbel, Jörg Jeremias, Rebecca Gray, Maurice-Ruben Hayoun, David Aune, Frieder Ludwig, and Uri Rubin, “Prophets and Prophecy.” (Beinhauer-Köhler et al. 2011, vol. 10, pp. 441–50).
On medieval polemics between Judaism and Islam, see (Stroumsa 1997; Jacobs 2005).
Abdullah is identified as a ḥabr in the Arabic, which equals the position of the Talmudic ḥavēr (Baba Batra 75a).
All scriptural material is rendered in italics to distinguish it from the interpretative material included in the commentaries’ paraphrases.
Maḥallī (Jalalayn) s.v. Q.2:146. See also Ibn `Abbās (1992) (Tafsīr) sv. Q.2:146, etc. Similar readings are made of 46:10, … washahida shāhidun min banī isrā’īl `alā mithlihi (“someone from the Children of Israel witnessed to its like”), referring to the previous verse in which God says presumably to Muhammad, “Say: I am not a novelty among Messengers. I know not what is to be done to me or you. I merely follow what is inspired to me. I am nothing but a manifest warner.” “Ibn Salām and his followers” are often mentioned in the commentaries as those Jews who do right, while most Jews do wrong.
See (Lecker 2012, p. 178) & notes 4 and 5 for the various versions of the tradition: lawi ttaba`anī `ashara mina l-yahūd lam yabqa fī l-arḍ yahūdi illā ttaba`anī. In another version, it is 10 learned Jews: law āmana bī `ashara min aḥbāri l-yahūd la-āmana bī kull yahūdī `alā wajḥi l-arḍ.
See, for example, Q. 2:63–66, 89; 3:70, 98; 4:154–55, etc. Cf. (Rose 2001). Some verses note that a few Jews remained loyal to God, such as 2:83, 159–60; 4:46, but the language can be quite telling even with its exception, as in the last reference: walākin la`anahum Allahu bikufrihim falā yu’minūn illa qalīlan (“But God has cursed them for their disbelief, and so they do not believe, except for a few.”
There were a few occasions in which Jews lived outside the reach of Christian and Muslim power, and in such situations they sometimes became politically dominant. One example is the relatively well-known medieval Khazar state, though we still remain uncertain about the extent of its Jewish nature (Brook 2002). Another was the pre-Islamic Jewish Ḥimyar kingdom in South Arabia (Bowersock 2013), about which we similarly know very little. And if we are to draw historical conclusions from Islamic sources, the Jews of Yathrib/Medina held power before and to a certain extent during the beginning of Muhammad’s residence there (Lecker 1995; Rose 2001, pp. 10–29). There exists no Jewish record from any of these three communities, and the norm was that Jews lived as weak minorities under foreign domination. This situation profoundly influenced the manner and substance of Jewish polemics.
(Lewis 1950, pp. 308–38) (in the various versions of the apocalyptic tale, Edom or Rome represents Christianity and Ishmael represents Islam).
(Firestone 2018, pp. 1–2 and sources there; Eph’al 1976, esp. p. 234).
For references to Jewish assessments of Muhammad’s success as political leader but not as prophet, see (Schlossberg 1990a, p. 50; Zawanowska 2012, pp. 106–7).
The claim of scriptural distortion is usually referred to as taḥrīf (“distortion”) in Islamic tradition. See (Gaudeul and Caspar 1980; Adang 1996, pp. 223–47; Lazarus-Yafeh 1992, pp. 19–48; Nickel 2011).
These are known as a`lām (signs) or dalā’il (proofs) of prophecy. Further, see (Stroumsa 1985; Lazarus-Yafeh 1992, pp. 75–109; Schmidtke 2011; Roggema 2014).
The claim of abrogation is referred to as naskh. Further, see (Lazarus-Yafeh 1992, pp. 35–41; Adang 1996, pp. 192–222; Wansbrough 1977, pp. 192–202; Wansbrough 1978, pp. 109–13).
See, for example, (Ben-Shammai 1984; Schlossberg 1990b; Sklare 1999).
(Cahen 1983; Astren 2010); Adang and Schmidtke (2010), especially pp. 85–86. Adang and Schmidtke point out correctly that Jews did indeed write negative polemics against Islam in the Muslim world, but the output was meagre, and the paucity of Jewish polemical writings was influenced by the danger that negative rhetoric against Muhammad and the Qur’an naturally precipitated.
The oral nature of any discourse is difficult to prove, but the work of Milman Parry and Albert Lord have shown the oral underpinning of important classic literatures (Parry 1971). My work on the story of the ten Jewish sages who infiltrate the early entourage of Muhammad has led me to (unwritten) oral versions of this thousand-year-old story that continue to circulate among Jewish communities in the Muslim world to this day.
On history and counter-history, see (Funkenstein 1993, especially chp. 2; Biale 1999). See also (Strauss 1952).
A similar Jewish story retells the Gospel in a manner that refutes the Christian perspective. See further, (Schäfer et al. 2011). Christian thinkers also developed their own counter-narratives of the early history of Muhammad. Further, see (Roggema 2009).
One example will be examined below. On the Cairo Geniza, see (Goitein [1967–1973] 1993) and an abridgment in one volume by Lassner (1999). For a compelling story of its discovery, value, and the scholarship that continues to be produced, see (Hoffman and Peter 2011).
(Mann 1921/1922; Leveen 1925/1926; Gil 1993; Shtober 2011; Firestone 2014). I am currently preparing a monograph that will include a full study of the theme from its earliest attestation to the present and which will include all extant versions of the story, including versions continuing to circulate in oral form among Jews in the Muslim world. It is beyond the scope of this article to provide details here.
Literally “sign of disgrace.” Just as Jews rarely referred to Muhammad by name, they rarely referred to the Qur’an by name. It was common to use pejoratives as a kind of code. See further, (Avishur 1997).
The word “Israel” in traditional Jewish literature does not refer to a nation-state but to a people that believes it derives from twelve ancient tribes representing the twelve sons of the biblical Jacob. Jacob’s name was changed to Israel when he received a blessing at the Jabok River after struggling with an unidentified being (Gen.32:28), after which it became common for Jews to refer to the entire community as the “Children of Israel” or simply “Israel”
The original ms. is located in the Taylor-Schechter Collection in Cambridge: T-S 8 K202, embedded in what Mann (1921–1922) called “a polemical treatise by a Rabbanite Jew directed against Karaite and other sectaries [and which accuses them] of eclecticism, borrowing alike from Samaritans, Christians, Muhammedans, and Brahmans.” (p. 125). For the early history of scholarship on the episode, see Schwabe (1931, p. 77). Hoyland (1997) comments on it, pp. 505–8, as did Gil (1993, 2004) and Shtober (2011).
On chapter titles of the Qur’an, see (Welch 1997).
Cf. Isaiah 56:10; Jer.6:17; Ezekiel 3:17; Hosea 9:8.
Generally termed gezerah shavah, by which a common word found in to passages links them and offers an analogy between them.
(Welch 1986; Massey 1996, 2003).
Hebrew letters are commonly used in pre-modern texts to indicate numbers, dates and acronyms. They are usually indicated as such through a variety of notations, including the writing of bars over the letters in manuscripts.
(Leveen 1925/1926, pp. 399–406). Like the Hebrew version, the manuscript derives from Elkan Adler’s personal collection and is listed in CHM under historical works as #2554 קצה¨ אצחב מחמד, with the following explanation: “An account of the alleged Suras in the Koran with a list of Jewish followers of Mahomet.”
Judeo-Arabic can refer to a variety of Jewish dialects of Arabic, usually written in Hebrew letters as in this case.
The purpose of an acrostic is to insert a message within a series of phrases or sentences by coding it into the first, last or other letters within a line. When the letters are read independently of the words in which they are found, they reveal a new message, an aesthetic pattern, or provide mystical meaning. The technique is quite old and is found repeatedly in the Hebrew Bible, often as alphabetical constructions (Proverbs 31, Psalms 9, 10, 25, 34, 111, 112, 119 and 145). Acrostics or acrostic-like techniques also occur in other ancient Near Eastern literatures, but they are much more common in post-biblical literature, especially in Jewish liturgical poetry. See further, (Landsberger 1936).
This might seem to relate directly to the use of the negative reading of an acronym for the mysterious letters prefixing sura 19: כה יעצו = כ.ה.י.ע.צ. = ك ه ي ع ص = “thus they advised” [Muhammad]. See (Baneth 1932, p. 114; Hoyland 1997, p. 508, n. 193), but all of our texts have כך יעצו, not כה יעצו.
Readers with Hebrew or Arabic language background will recognize that while the right column is written in Hebrew letters, the language is not Hebrew but Arabic. The dots over the letters replicate the way they appear in both the Hebrew and Arabic manuscripts. The purpose of dots, as noted above, is to mark particular letters as having meaning that transcends the usual purpose of alphabetic symbols in articulating sound.
Cf. Qur’an 1:7.
אלנבי occurs above the line, added or corrected after the line was complete.
Note the use of ס rather than ש.
שרי occurs above the line.
The ר appears to have been added later between line ס and line אל to complete the acrostic, but without a verse associated with it.
Another unintelligible word or marking appears here to signify the end of the set of verses.
On the whole, Jews lived better under Muslim rule than under Christian rule, but Jewish writings note the scorn and derision that they often experienced. On the complex issue of the status of Jews under Muslim rule, see (M. Cohen 1994; Stillman 1979). For specific locales and periods, see (Stillman 2010).
See (Firestone 2014).
See (Assman 2010; Jaffee 2001; Firestone 2005).
Further, see (Cronin 2008).
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Firestone, R. Muhammad, the Jews, and the Composition of the Qur’an: Sacred History and Counter-History. Religions 2019, 10, 63. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel10010063
Firestone R. Muhammad, the Jews, and the Composition of the Qur’an: Sacred History and Counter-History. Religions. 2019; 10(1):63. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel10010063Chicago/Turabian Style
Firestone, Reuven. 2019. "Muhammad, the Jews, and the Composition of the Qur’an: Sacred History and Counter-History" Religions 10, no. 1: 63. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel10010063