The Bible and the Quran
Raymond P. Scheindlin, Professor Emeritus, Jewish Theological Seminary of America
We do not know how Saint Francis approached the challenge of preaching to al-Malik al-Kamil, the sultan of Egypt, when he was granted the opportunity in 1219, as the Crusaders were besieging Damietta. The sources that inform us of the encounter do not tell us of the contents of his sermon or report on any discussion that may have followed it. In preparing his sermon, Saint Francis might have considered trying to draw his Muslim audience into his specifically Christian message by emphasizing themes and principles that are common to Christianity and Islam, employing religious motifs that would be familiar to his listeners. He might have considered drawing particularly on the Quran’s stories of the prophets as a way to gain a sympathetic hearing.
The many references to biblical figures in the Quran and the Islamic tradition are a significant area of common ground between Islam, on the one hand, and Judaism and Christianity, on the other. Even a superficial look at the Quran shows that it is closely related to the Bible. Chapter headings include Jonah, Joseph, Abraham, Mary, and Noah; other biblical characters appear throughout the book, especially Moses, whose story is told from different viewpoints several times. New Testament figures such as Jesus, John the Baptist, and Mary are also mentioned, and stories of them are told or alluded to.
The stories in the Quran that are related to biblical stories are told somewhat differently in the Quran from the way they are told in the Bible, in three ways:
1. The Quran usually refers to biblical stories in a telescoped manner, as if the listeners already knew them; only the stories of Abraham, Joseph, and Moses are told in detail. Here, for example, is Jonah in Quran 21:87–88: “Remember Him-of-the-Fish who went away in anger, supposing We were powerless concerning him. He cried out in the darkness, ‘There is no God but you; glory be to you. I have been an evil-doer.’ And so we hearkened to him and rescued him from anguish. Even so do we save those who believe” (trans. Kenneth Cragg, Readings in the Qur’an [London: Collins, 1988], 162). For the Arabs of Mecca to have understood this speech, they must have known the story already because Muhammad had told it before in full or because they had heard it from Christians or Jews.
2. The Quran’s versions of these stories are sometimes told differently, abridging, expanding, and even contradicting the biblical account. The Quran represents Abraham as a natural theologian who works out the idea of monotheism by reflection: the sun is mighty, but it cannot be God because it sets and is replaced by the moon; nor can the moon or the stars be God, for the same reason. Ergo, an all-powerful God must be their creator. In the Bible, God addresses Abraham at the very beginning of the story; the question of whether a supreme God exists or who he is never arises. The only mention of celestial bodies in the Abraham stories is in the covenant story of Genesis 15, where God tells Abraham to go out and count the stars and promises that his descendants will be equally numerous.
Abraham’s argument for an all-powerful monotheistic God from a chain of less powerful to more powerful natural phenomena is, however, present in postbiblical literature. In a midrash, Abraham argues with the fire-worshiping king Nimrod. Abraham argues that fire cannot be God because water extinguishes it; clouds are more powerful than water, for they carry it; wind is more powerful than clouds because it pushes them; and so forth. Nimrod declares that he is not interested in arguments. He will go on worshiping fire, anyway; and to prove his point, he will throw Abraham into a fiery furnace: if his god is more powerful than fire, let him save Abraham! It seems reasonable to assume that the passage in the Quran has some relationship with the midrash (especially since elsewhere, the Quran speaks of pagans threatening to throw Abraham into fire), but the Quran has used the motif in its own way. In the Quran’s version, Abraham is presented not as a polemicist but as a solitary religious thinker who knows how to draw correct conclusions about religion on his own; he is neither a Jew nor a Christian but a natural monotheist. This is a very important point for the Quran, which presents Islam not as a new religion but as a continuation of God’s authentic revelation that has come to many earlier peoples and is now being bestowed upon the Arabs in their language.
Many more examples could be cited to show that the biblical stories in the Quran are often closer to postbiblical versions of the stories than to the Bible itself.
3. Even when close to the biblical account, the Quran’s versions of the biblical stories are usually focused differently. The story of Joseph, the longest extended narrative of any kind in the Quran, is particularly beautifully told. As in the Bible, Joseph is sold as a slave to an Egyptian master, and he proves an excellent administrator of the master’s household. The master’s wife tries to seduce him, but, loyal to his master, Joseph resists her. She accuses him of trying to rape her, and he ends up spending two years in prison.
The Quran’s version adds many colorful details to the biblical account. The friends of Potiphar’s wife tease her about her passion for this slave. She turns the tables on them by inviting them to a banquet. When they arrive, they find a knife at each place-setting. Then she summons Joseph; when he enters, they are so stunned by his beauty that they all cut their fingers! She can then argue that if they had been alone with him day after day—as she had been—they, too, would have become obsessed with him.
The episode of the banquet and the knives is found in a midrash, further indication that the biblical stories in the Quran relate more to postbiblical materials that were circulating in Arabia in the seventh century, possibly orally, than they do to the Bible. But even apart from this colorful episode within the story, the focus of the Quran’s version is different from that of the Bible.
Joseph’s story in the Bible is part of the message that Israel’s history has been predetermined by God; Joseph’s being sold into slavery in Egypt, the accusation against him, and his imprisonment were all providential—for through them, Joseph attains a position of power in Egypt, which enables him to save his father, Jacob, and his brothers from famine and preserves them to fulfill their divinely ordered destiny. The story is a link in the Pentateuch’s larger narrative about the divinely ordained history of Jacob’s descendants.
The Quran is a collection of sermons; it does not have an analogous narrative framework. In each chapter, the speaker, now God, now Muhammad, states his message, and sometimes cites a story to win the listener’s conviction. In telling the story of Joseph, the Quran’s focus is on Joseph as the model of a religious man. The story is told so as to emphasize Joseph’s innocence of any lust for his master’s wife; on his patience in enduring the accusation and imprisonment; and his trust in God. Thus, in the Bible, the test of the shirt is used by the wife as evidence of Joseph’s guilt and serves to convict him; but in the Quran, it serves ultimately to prove his innocence. In the Bible, Joseph is sent to prison because he is presumed guilty; in the Quran, he goes to prison voluntarily in order to evade further attempts on his virtue by his master’s wife. Once Joseph is imprisoned, even the master’s wife confesses to Pharaoh that she was the guilty party, so that Joseph is decisively vindicated not only in the eyes of the the reader but in the eyes of the characters in the story. His innocence, his patient endurance of suffering, and his trust in God emerge not only implicitly from the way the story is told but explicitly in an epilogue which says that Joseph underwent hardships but that God had chosen him and revealed things to him in dreams. Joseph trusted in God, his dreams turned out to be true, and he was eventually vindicated. Those who believe in God should be like Joseph, trusting God to fulfill his promises, believing in revelation, enduring momentary setbacks with patience, and awaiting the final reward.
This pattern is repeated with the stories of Moses in the Quran. In the Bible, he is the leader who brings the Israelites out of Egypt and through the wilderness to the border of the Land of Israel; he is the dominant individual in their sacred history. And he is the lawgiver who received the revelation of the law on Mount Sinai, taught it to the people, and governed them through their forty years of wandering in the desert.
In the Quran, too, Moses is a major presence; besides being mentioned, often in brief, he is also the subject of three long narrative passages that are closely related to the biblical accounts.
Chapter 28 of the Quran tells how Pharaoh oppressed a people (they are not identified with the Israelites in the Quran). The baby Moses was hidden in the Nile so that he would not be killed along with the other children of this oppressed people. He was taken up by Pharaoh’s family, who unknowingly gave him to his own mother to nurse, all very similar to the biblical account. As a young man, Moses intervened in a quarrel and killed the aggressor, and then fled to Midian and married the daughter of a Midianite, again more or less in accordance with the biblical account. Traveling with his family, Moses encounters a burning bush from which God speaks to him and orders him to go with his brother, Aaron, to confront Pharaoh. Again, despite differences in detail and important omissions, the sequence of events is very similar to the biblical account. The account ends with Pharaoh and his troops being thrown into the sea. Some of the omissions in this version of the story are filled in when Moses is taken up in other chapters of the Quran.
Like the Bible, the Quran has two points in telling the Moses stories, but they are completely different.
First, the Israelites, who are frequently named elsewhere in the Quran, are not named here; their place is taken by an unnamed oppressed group, who could well be part of the Egyptian populace. As told in the Quran, the story is not about the sacred history of the Israelites but about the championing of the oppressed, which is one of the main theme of the Quran’s preaching: the fundamental religious obligation to care for the poor, the orphan, and the widow; the rewards in the afterlife for those who live up to these duties; and the punishment in the afterlife for those who abuse the weak or even neglect them in their plight. Pharaoh is the very model of the oppressive ruler who inflicts suffering on people, and Moses is made into the model champion of the downtrodden.
Second, in the background of the story of Moses in the Quran is Muhammad’s struggle to win over the people of Mecca to God’s message. For years, Muhammad had been preaching to his fellow Meccans, trying to win them over to his message of monotheism, social justice, and the last judgment; but they had refused to listen, so that he eventually had to take his followers into exile in Medina. In telling the story of Moses, he is informing the Meccans that their refusal to heed God’s message is not new: Pharaoh refused to heed Moses’ preaching—and look what happened to him! In the epilogue, God addresses Muhammad, saying: Do not be discouraged—for you, too, have been sent to a people (the Meccans) with an authentic revelation from God that they reject; but, like Moses, you will be vindicated. The stories of Moses and, to a lesser extent, the stories of the other prophets are told partly to chastise his listeners and partly to encourage Muhammad himself to persevere in his preaching in the face of opposition, even persecution.
The Bible stories that are retold or alluded to in the Quran usually shift the focus of the story from whatever it was in the Bible to the message, frequently repeated, that the Quran is not the revelation of a new system of religious thought or way of life but is, rather, part of the long history of divine revelation going back to Adam. As it says in 4:163–66:
We have granted revelation to you [i.e., Muhammad] as we gave revelation to Noah and the prophets who came after him. To Abraham also we gave revelation, and to Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and the tribes, to Jesus and to Job, to Jonah, Aaron, and Solomon. To David we brought the Psalms. There are messengers whose story we have already made known to you and there are others whose history we have not told you. With Moses God spoke face to face. These were all bearers of good tidings and of warning. (Cragg, Readings, 113–14)
The stories of the prophets as told in the Quran reflect the Islamic understanding of Muhammad’s own mission. Muhammad was opposed by the powerful men of Mecca who were his townspeople, as was Abraham by Nimrod, Moses by Pharaoh, Noah by his contemporaries, and so on. The revelation that he brought to the Arabs is essentially the same as that of the earlier prophets; the resistance to the message that he encountered is similar to the resistance encountered by the earlier prophets; and the prophet’s vindication will come as surely as it came in the past to the prophets of old.
Raymond P. Scheindlin is Professor of Medieval Hebrew Literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a former Guggenheim Fellow. Dr. Scheindlin’s main field of research is the encounter of Hebrew and Arabic cultures in Spain, especially as embodied in the poetry of the two traditions. Visit his personal website: http://www.raymondscheindlin.com.