A Comparison of Prophethood in the Qur’an and Bible
Mohamad Mostafa Nassar
There is much more to revelation than giving insight into the unseen; it also serves as a practical guide for how to live our lives in a way that is pleasing to God and brings the most benefit to mankind. When it comes to the means by which God has delivered revelation to mankind, throughout history God’s guidance has always been imparted to us through His Prophets, may God’s peace and blessings be upon them all.
This shows us that Prophethood plays an important role in revelation. Having revelation, or knowledge, is one thing. We also need a teacher to provide its correct interpretation, in order for mankind to make use of the knowledge and implement it properly.
Not only did the Prophets act as teachers, but by embodying the message and values conveyed by the Divine text they also served as a practical and spiritual example for us to follow. From this perspective, the Divine revelation is what to do and the Prophets’ lives show us how to do it.
CONCEPT OF PROPHETHOOD
Prophethood is a concept that is common to all three Abrahamic faiths. Significant portions of both the Qur’an and Bible are dedicated to the lives of the Prophets. Throughout the Qur’an, Prophethood is described in highly noble terms:
There has certainly been for you in the Messenger of God [Prophet Muhammad] an excellent example for anyone whose hope is in God and the Last Day and [who] remembers God often. [33:21]
Likewise the Bible also describes Prophethood in highly noble terms:
“…Have faith in the Lord your God and you will be upheld; have faith in his prophets and you will be successful.” [2 Chronicles 20:20]
“Although the Lord sent prophets to the people to bring them back to him, and though they testified against them, they would not listen.” [2 Chronicles 24:19]
Bringing people back to God doesn’t just mean believing in God, “for even the devils believe” [James 2:19]. It also involves righteous actions, and avoiding sin. From that point of view, God chose the best of mankind to be his representatives.
Prophets were role models of holiness and closeness to God; they set the standards for the entire community. This is why it was essential that the Prophets God chose had good characters and behaviour so that they could be successful in their missions of calling people back to God.
We can conclude that both the Qur’an and Bible define Prophets as those who were sent in order to bring mankind closer to God. Both the Qur’an and Bible paint a very noble and honourable picture for the concept of Prophethood. So we should expect God’s Prophets to embody these ideals by being the best people in character, with their behaviour and lives representing a practical example for us to follow in order to come closer to God.
COMPARISON BETWEEN THE QUR’AN AND BIBLE
There is a lot of overlap between the Qur’an and Bible when it comes to the stories of the Prophets, with both scriptures sharing many similar events and themes. Unfortunately when it comes to the character and conduct of the Prophets, the scriptures are radically different:
Prophet Aaron and the golden calf
The Bible tarnishes Aaron with involvement in the worst of sins, idolatry:So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” [Exodus 32:3-4]
This is a violation of the most important of the Ten Commandments, “You shall have no other gods before me.” Monotheism was the very essence of the message that God tasked Moses and Aaron to impart on the Israelites, so from this point of view a Prophet of God failed in their most basic of duties.
The Bible goes on to tell us that God punished the Israelites who worshipped the calf idol with a plague: “And the Lord struck the people with a plague because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made.” [Exodus 32:35] Prophet Aaron, however, was spared any such punishment, even though he was the individual that made the idol.
This is very strange, shouldn’t Prophets be more accountable before God than common people due to the greater knowledge that they possess and their higher positions of responsibility? From this point of view, if anyone was to be punished then Aaron should have been the first person to be punished by God. This is because he was the chief instigator and actually encouraged and supported the people worshipping the idol he made.
What makes matters even worse is that when Moses confronted Aaron about the golden calf incident, he was unrepentant and even put forward excuses: “Do not be angry, my lord,” Aaron answered. “You know how prone these people are to evil.” [Exodus 32:22]
This story is told quite differently in the Qur’an. In the story that the Qur’an narrates to us, we can see that Aaron is free of the major sin of idolatry, he in fact orders the Israelites not to worship the golden calf:Aaron did say to them, ‘My people, this calf is a test for you. Your true Lord is the Lord of Mercy, so follow me and obey my orders,’ but they replied, ‘We shall not give up our devotion to it until Moses returns to us.’ [20:90-91]
However Aaron is only one man, and without Moses he was not in a position to physically restrain such a large number of people from worshipping the calf idol (the Qur’an does not give a number, but the Bible narrates that there were around three thousand people who were involved in the incident).
Moreover the Qur’an points out that it was not Prophet Aaron, but rather an individual called Samiri who made the golden calf: Moses said, ‘And what was the matter with you, Samiri?’
He replied, ‘I saw something they did not; I took in some of the teachings of the Messenger but tossed them aside: my soul prompted me to do what I did.’ [20:95-96] The Qur’anic account not only presents Aaron in a manner that is befitting of a great Prophet of God, but it also does not contain any of the inconsistencies present in the Biblical narrative.
Prophet David and the accusation of adultery
The Bible relates a story about David in which he passes judgement on a case involving a dispute between two parties. After passing judgement David is accused of some very serious sins:The Lord sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said,
“There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.
“Now a traveller came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveller who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”
David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”
Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you all Israel and Judah.
And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. Why did you despise the word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own…’” [2 Samuel 12:1-9]
These sins relate to an earlier story in which David is said to have committed the acts of adultery and murder:One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful, and David sent someone to find out about her. The man said, “Isn’t this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite?”
Then David sent messengers to get her. She came to him, and he slept with her. (She had purified herself from her uncleanness.) Then she went back home. The woman conceived and sent word to David, saying, “I am pregnant.”… In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab and sent it with Uriah. In it he wrote,
“Put Uriah in the front line where the fighting is fiercest. Then withdraw from him so he will be struck down and die.”… When Uriah’s wife heard that her husband was dead, she mourned for him. [2 Samuel 11:2-26]
Aside from the obvious problem that a Prophet failed to keep some of the most fundamental commandments such as “You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife”, “You shall not commit adultery” and “You shall not murder”, another issue emerges if we consider that these sins are so detestable in the sight of God that they carry the death penalty under Jewish law:
“If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die. You must purge the evil from Israel.” [Deuteronomy 22:22]
Hence according to Jewish law, both David and Bathsheba should have been stoned to death for adultery. However they weren’t, as the Bible says that David was spared death and forgiven by God when he repented by confessing his sin: “Then David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the Lord.’” Nathan replied, “The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die.” [2 Samuel 12:13]
Perhaps even more strangely, according to the same story, God struck the child that was born from the adulterous relationship with a lethal illness, which claimed his life after seven days: “But because by doing this you have shown utter contempt for the Lord, the son born to you will die.” [2 Samuel 12:14]
So instead of the adulterer and adulteress being punished, their innocent child was. This situation contradicts a basic principle of justice laid out in Deuteronomy:
“Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin.” [Deuteronomy 24:16] So according to Jewish law, it was David and Bathsheba that both deserved death for their sins, not their son.
From this perspective the entire incident was a miscarriage of justice. Such stories don’t just reflect badly on David, they also portray God as being unjust, applying the punishments for adultery selectively when the laws were binding on the whole of Israel, commoner and Prophet alike.
Contrast the Biblical account with the Qur’an. Like the Biblical account, the Qur’an also relates a story about David in which he passes judgement on a case involving a dispute between two parties:Have you heard the story of the two litigants who climbed into his private quarters?
When they reached David, he took fright, but they said, ‘Do not be afraid. We are two litigants, one of whom has wronged the other: judge between us fairly– do not be unjust– and guide us to the right path.
This is my brother. He had ninety-nine ewes and I just the one, and he said, “Let me take charge of her,” and overpowered me with his words.’
David said, ‘He has done you wrong by demanding to add your ewe to his flock. Many partners treat each other unfairly. Those who sincerely believe and do good deeds do not do this, but these are very few…’ [38:21-24]
However, the Qur’an has David repenting to God for having made a mistake in judging the dispute that was brought before him. The Qur’anic account tells us that the two disputants were in fact angels sent by God to test how fairly he would judge between them:…
[Then] David realized that We had been testing him, so he asked his Lord for forgiveness, fell down on his knees, and repented: We forgave him [his misdeed]. His reward will be nearness to Us, a good place to return to. [38:24-25]
David’s mistake was to be hasty in judging the case; he passed judgement without hearing both parties in the dispute. As soon as David realised this he immediately repented. There is no mention of adultery and murder, so the Qur’an exonerates David of such an accusation.
Thus the Qur’anic account is consistent, David is portrayed as a Prophet endowed by God with wisdom, one whom had gratitude for all he was given.
The Qur’an makes no mention of David committing major sins, in fact the opposite is the case; he shows righteous conduct throughout the Qur’an. This is the conduct that we would expect of someone whom God had personally handpicked to lead Israel, not a selfish man who is enslaved to their lowly desires like the Bible claims.
Prophet Noah and the accusation of drunkenness
The Bible tells us that after the great flood, one of the first things Noah did was to plant a vineyard and fall into a state of naked drunkenness:Noah, a man of the soil, proceeded to plant a vineyard. When he drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered inside his tent. [Genesis 9:20-21]
We are led to believe that this is the same great Prophet that had the self-discipline to build an ark by hand. Moreover, after claiming that Noah was lying on the floor in a naked, drunken state, the Bible goes on to tell us that his youngest son, Ham, walks in on him:
“Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father naked and told his two brothers outside.” [Genesis 9:22] Ham immediately notifies his two older brothers and they come to Noah and cover up his nakedness. When Noah wakes up, he proceeds to curse Canaan, the son of Ham:
“When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what his youngest son [Ham] had done to him, he said, ‘Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.’” [Genesis 9:24] Ham’s only crime seems to be that he told his older brothers about the state of their father.
Even if we assume that Ham had committed a sin, and it certainly seems that Noah was angry with him, one can’t help questioning Noah’s conduct. Even if cursing was justified, then wouldn’t it make more sense, and be more just, for Noah to curse Ham, rather than Ham’s son Canaan, Noah’s own grandson, who was an innocent party?
The Qur’an paints a very different picture of Noah. He is portrayed throughout the Qur’an as man of righteous conduct:He said, ‘My Lord, I have called my people night and day, but the more I call them, the further they run away: every time I call them, so that You may forgive them, they thrust their fingers into their ears, cover their heads with their garments, persist in their rejection, and grow more insolent and arrogant. [71:5-7]
Noah warned his people day and night; he announced his message in public and he spoke quietly to people privately; yet all, but a few, denied his words. Noah called his people back to God for 950 years: “We sent Noah out to his people. He lived among them for fifty years short of a thousand but when the Flood overwhelmed them they were still doing evil.” [29:14]
From a Muslim perspective it is unthinkable that a man of such discipline, who had the patience to preach to his rebellious people for 950 years, would lose all self-control by getting into a state of naked drunkenness soon after he set foot off the ark, which is what the Bible states.
So what does the Qur’anic portrayal have Noah doing when the waters subsided and the ark came to rest? He enquires about his son who refused to board the ark:It sailed with them on waves like mountains, and Noah called out to his son, who stayed behind, ‘Come aboard with us, my son, do not stay with the disbelievers.’
But he replied, ‘I will seek refuge on a mountain to save me from the water.’ Noah said, ‘Today there is no refuge from God’s command, except for those on whom He has mercy.’ The waves cut them off from each other and he was among the drowned.
Then it was said, ‘Earth, swallow up your water, and sky, hold back,’ and the water subsided, the command was fulfilled. The Ark settled on Mount Judi, and it was said, ‘Gone are those evildoing people!’ Noah called out to his Lord, saying, ‘My Lord, my son was one of my family, though Your promise is true, and You are the most just of all judges.’ [11:42-45]
Again notice the stark contrast with the Biblical portrayal. Rather than getting drunk and cursing his family, the Qur’an shows Noah’s concern for his family. The Qur’an tells us that Noah, a great Prophet and leader of men, but also a father, turned to God with sadness for his dead son.
Prophet Job and his many alleged blasphemies
The Story of Job in the Bible is one of a Prophet being severely tested. The story begins with God highly praising Job for his righteousness. God says to Satan: “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.” [Job 1:8] Satan proceeds to challenge God, stating that the only reason Job is upright is because Job has a good life, with a large family and plenty of wealth. Satan predicts that if God were to test Job ‘properly’ then Job would “curse God”:
“But now stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face.” [Job 2:4] God allows Satan to test Job by afflicting his health: The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, he is in your hands; but you must spare his life.” [Job 2:6] Once the trials commence, Job fails to remain patient and proceeds to complain about his sorry state, even going so far as to blaspheme against God numerous times:
I will say to God: Do not condemn me, but tell me what charges you have against me. Does it please you to oppress me, to spurn the work of your hands, while you smile on the schemes of the wicked? [Job 10:2-3]
then know that God has wronged me and drawn his net around me. “Though I cry, ‘I’ve been wronged!’ I get no response; though I call for help, there is no justice.” [Job 19:6-7]
Job says, ‘I am innocent, but God denies me justice.’ [Job 34:5]
For he [Job] says, ‘It profits a man nothing when he tries to please God.’ [Job 34:9]
We are told that a man called Elihu, who had witnessed Job’s tirade against God, is angered by Job’s blasphemy:So these three men stopped answering Job, because he was righteous in his own eyes. But Elihu son of Barakel the Buzite, of the family of Ram, became very angry with Job for justifying himself rather than God. [Job 32:1-2]
Elihu asks Job to listen to him so that he might impart some wisdom: “But if not, then listen to me; be silent, and I will teach you wisdom.” [Job 33:33] Elihu defends God against Job’s accusations:So listen to me, you men of understanding. Far be it from God to do evil, from the Almighty to do wrong. He repays everyone for what they have done; he brings on them what their conduct deserves. It is unthinkable that God would do wrong, that the Almighty would pervert justice. [Job 34:10-12]
Elihu is very direct with Job, he accuses him of speaking without knowledge, lacking wisdom and that his conduct has been like that of a wicked man:“Men of understanding declare, wise men who hear me say to me, ‘Job speaks without knowledge; his words lack insight.’ Oh, that Job might be tested to the utmost for answering like a wicked man! To his sin he adds rebellion; scornfully he claps his hands among us and multiplies his words against God.” [Job 34:34-37]
After chastising Job, Elihu proceeds to give him the correct insight into his condition:Then Elihu said: “Do you think this is just? You say, ‘I am in the right, not God.’ Yet you ask him, ‘What profit is it to me, and what do I gain by not sinning?’ I would like to reply to you and to your friends with you.” [35:1-4]
The Bible goes on to tell us that God eventually intervenes and Job repents from his sins. He is forgiven by God and has his full heath restored. Now the way that the story unfolds is highly problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, the Bible describes Job as a righteous man, that he is “blameless and upright”. Now, it’s very easy to be happy with God when times are good.
True piety, however, is being happy with God when one has nothing. Showing gratitude to God and remaining steadfast in the face of trials is a sign of strong faith. So from this point of view hasn’t Satan effectively “one-upped” God – Satan challenged God when he predicted that Job would curse God, and so hasn’t Job’s blasphemies proven Satan to be correct?
Secondly, how is it that the young man Elihu, who unlike Job is not a Prophet, demonstrates more wisdom in religious matters than a Prophet of God? Recall that the Bible stated that there was “no one on earth” like Job, yet this young man seems to possess more insight into Job’s situation than Job himself.
The Qur’an resolves all of these inconsistencies and issues in just a few short verses. Rather than complaining about his situation to other people, Job calls on God for help. Notice that Job doesn’t blaspheme against God, rather he blames Satan for his hardship: “Bring to mind Our servant Job who cried to his Lord, ‘Satan has afflicted me with weariness and suffering.’” [38:41]
God rewards Job’s unwavering faith by healing him and replacing everything that Satan took away from him:‘Stamp your foot! Here is cool water for you to wash in and drink,’ and We restored his family to him, with many more like them: a sign of Our mercy and a lesson to all who understand. [38:42-43]
God compliments Job for his patience in the face of such trials: “We found him patient in adversity; an excellent servant! He, too, always turned to God.” [38:44] Job’s righteous conduct in the Qur’an is exactly what we would expect of a Prophet of God. Moreover we learn a great lesson, that no matter what trials we face, no matter how severe an affliction we are tested with, we should always remain patient, for in the end the righteous are rewarded.
ANALYSIS OF THE STORIES OF THE PROPHETS
We’ve seen that both the Qur’an and Bible paint a very noble and honourable concept of Prophethood. However after analysing the stories of the Prophets, it is only the Qur’an that presents the Prophets in such a way that satisfies this ideal. By contrast the Bible shows the Prophets in an extremely negative light, it seems that no sin is too great for them to commit. Here are some reasons why the negative picture of the Prophets painted by the Bible is problematic:
- It goes against the very nature and purpose of Prophethood as stated in the Bible itself. The word used for Prophet in Hebrew in the Bible, navi, means “spokesperson” which emphasises the prophet’s role as a speaker. So Prophets to committing the worst of sins (idolatry, murder, adultery etc.) contradicts the very concept of Prophethood. How can a Prophet ever be an effective spokesperson if his community can turn his calling to God around on him by pointing out that he himself can’t even keep the most important of God’s commands?
- As human beings we learn by example and naturally aspire after role models, so in order to encourage piety the examples set before us should be positive. Anyone with children will recognise this. So this makes a mockery of God’s wisdom, since His intention is to bring us closer to Him but the bad examples of His Prophets achieve the opposite of what God intended
- Phenomenon of “junk in, junk out”: if you are saturated with negative imagery and ideas, over time you will become desensitised and be more likely to fall into sin yourself. Again, this defeats the purpose of guidance in the first place, as it leads a person closer to sin and further away from God.
- The Bible states that all scripture is good for training in righteousness: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” [2 Timothy 3:16] But what morals can be derived from stories that are filled with Prophets committing idolatry, murder, adultery and blasphemy against God?
Prophets of Allah are role-models to humanity and cannot be involved in adultery, getting intoxicated or making idols – The current Part- Corrupt Bible insults many Prophets of Allah.
Please note that this does not mean that Prophets are supposed to be infallible. Only God Almighty is perfect and free of error. A distinction has to be made, though, between making honest mistakes, which all human beings fall into, Prophets included, and the committing of the worst of sins as portrayed in the Bible.
One of the reasons that God revealed the Qur’an is to defend His righteous Prophets against the slander and falsehood attributed to them in the Bible. This is why one of the names of the Qur’an is Al Furqan, meaning “the Criterion between truth and falsehood”.
So the Qur’an not only confirms the scriptures that came before it, but also corrects the fabrications that have entered them:We sent to you [Muhammad] the Scripture with the truth, confirming the Scriptures that came before it, and with final authority over them: so judge between them according to what God has sent down… [5:48]
It is clear that the Qur’an provides the best guidance for those who want good examples to follow in order to be successful in the hereafter:There is a lesson in the stories of such people for those who understand… [12:111][5:48]
Allah knows Best