Is The Bible Really The Source Of The Qur’ân?
Mohamad Mostafa Nassar
The pre-Islamic Arabia was famous for its poetry which had reached its pinnacle during the time of the Prophet(P). Louis Cheikho’s aim for collecting the poetry was to show that the Qur’ân had the origins in Jahiliyyah (Pre-Islamic) poetry. But what is remarkable is that the poetry which he collected resulted in the opposite conclusion!
At the beginning of this century, the Jesuit fathers of Beirut did extensive research on this (the Christian influence in Jahiliyyah) subject order to determine the role of “Christian Poets of Jahiliyya”. The research resulted only in a literary composition, which has had the remarkable and unexpected result of proving the contrary of what the authors intended. Neither in pre-Islamic Mecca nor in its surrounding area, was there any record of a monotheistic cultural centre which could have disseminated the Biblical thought that we find expressed in the Holy Qur’ân.
An observation from the point of view of Islamic traditions had been made by Richard Bell quite a long time ago. He says:
…in spite of traditions to the effect that the picture of Jesus was found on one of the pillars of Ka’aba, there is no good evidence of any seats of Christianity in the Hijaz or in the near neighbourhood of Makkah or even of Madina.
The New Catholic Encyclopaedia confirms that during the time of the Muhammad(P)
The Hijaz [Arabian peninsula] had not been touched by Christian preaching. Hence organisation of the Christian church was neither to be expected nor found.
This is also mentioned in the books dealing with Christianity among Arabs in pre-Islamic times from the point of view of poets.
The testimony of poets to the influence of Christianity in a spiritual and a sociological sense is negative.
And in the footnotes we read:
Louis Cheikho collected a great mass of poetical material related in some way to the Christian Arab theme, but the greater part of it is regarded as spurious.
Louis Cheikho’s work has come under a lot of criticism because he has labeled all the jahiliyyah poets as Christians. His book is surprisingly devoid of references. Camille has reviewed his work and found the following: 
|Less probably Christian||2|
|No evidence that Christian||20|
Dr. Christopher Heger has informed us in a post on soc.religion.islam, dated 02/09/1997 that Camille also published a book in 1970 called
Al-Ab Luwis Shaiho wa Shu’ara’ an-Nasraniyah fi l-Jahiliya: 1970, Camille Hechaime (Kamil Hushaima), Dâr al-Mashriq (Beirut) where he again distributes the 61 poets into four categories: [pp. 298-322]
|Less probably Christian||8|
|No evidence that Christian||41|
Unfortunately, this reference is not available in our library.
Now it is clear why Cheikho’s book has attracted a lot of criticism. Most of the poetry contained in it is also considered to be spurious because of the sources which he uses.
It is interesting to see what the Christian missionaries who read the Qur’ân say about the book itself. St. Claire Tisdall states that:
From the careful examination of the whole subject dealt with in this chapter (i.e., The Influence Of Christianity & Christian Apocryphal Books) we therefore conclude that the influence of true and genuine Christian teaching upon the Qur’ân and upon Islam in general has been very slight indeed, while on the other hand apocryphal traditions and in certain respects heretical doctrines have a claim to be considered as forming one of the original sources of Muhammadan faith. 
Regarding one of the apocryphal books he states:
The style of the Arabic of this apocryphal Gospel, (Gospel Of The Infancy) however, is so bad that it is hardly possible to believe that it dates from Muhammad’s time. As, however, Arabic has never been supposed to be the language in which the work was composed, this is a matter of little or no consequence. From a study of the book there seems little room for doubt that it has been translated into Arabic from the Coptic, in which language it may have been composed. 
Tisdall did not bother to show that the first Arabic Gospel appeared a few hundred years after the advent of Islam. St. Claire Tisdall’s book, The Original Sources Of The Qur’ân, once upon a time hailed as one of the most original works on the sources of Islam, is now considered as one of most speculative. The reason is because the author assumes that the Prophet(P) knew of all the sources before he could compile the Qur’ân.
The sources being Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian, Hanif and ancient Arab beliefs. This directly contradicts the evidence that we have of what the Prophet(P) was. He was considered to be ummî, i.e., an illiterate. This is the reason why it is not quoted by the scholars today, except of course, Christian missionaries who still believe in living in the past.
Secondly, Tisdall brushes aside the issue of the date of the composition of the Gospel Of The Infancy as ‘a matter of little or no consequence’. Well, what if the composition of the Gospel Of The Infancy postdates the advent of Islam?
Now we turn to the fact whether an Arabic Bible was present in the hands of the people during the time of the Prophet(P). Malik Ben Nabi narrates an interesting story:
Moreover, if Judeo-Christian thought had really made inroads into Jahiliyyan society and culture, the absence of an Arabic translation of the Bible could not be explained. As for the New Testament, it is certain that no Arabic translation of it existed in the fourth century of Hijrah. This is evident from the reference by Ghazzali, who had to resort to a Coptic manuscript to write his Rad, a respectable refutation of the divinity of Jesus according to the Gospel.
In translating the work of the Arab philosopher, Rev. Fr. Chidiac searched everywhere for Gospel sources which could have served at the time of the composition of Rad. He finally found a manuscript in the library of Leningrad written about 1060 by a certain Ibn al-Assal as the first edition of a Christian text in Arabic. Thus, there did not exist an Arabic edition of the Gospels at the time of Ghazzali, and, a fortiori, it did not exist during the Pre-Islamic period.
Constance E Padwick in his article “al-Ghazali & The Arabic Versions Of The Gospels: An Unsolved Problem” mentions this perplexity even though he shows evidence of the earliest Gospel in Arabic dated around 897 CE, a few years before al-Ghazali wrote his Rad.
It is to be noted that the above statement of Malik Ben Nabi concerning the lack of existence of an Arabic Gospel before the fourth century after Hijrah. does not prove that there were no Arabic Gospels at all before this period. Rather, it shows the scarcity of the Gospels in Arabic which made al-Ghazali go for a Coptic Gospel.
It is interesting to know that the Gospels were first translated in Arabic during the first Abbasid century. This was mainly due to the debates between Muslims and Christians concerning the status of Gospels, as well as the concept of God, and the defense of icons in the Church.
Sidney H Griffith has done extensive research on the appearance of Arabic Gospel. Regarding the manuscript evidence, he says:
The oldest known, dated manuscripts containing Arabic translations of the New Testament are in the collections of St. Catherine’s monastery at Mt. Sinai. Sinai Arabic MS 151 contains an Arabic version of the Epistles of Paul, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Catholic Epistles. It is the oldest dated New Testament manuscripts. The colophon of this MS informs us that one Bisr Ibn as-Sirri made the translation from Syriac in Damascus during Ramadan of the Higrah year 253, i.e., 867 AD.
The author went on to say:
The oldest, dated manuscript containing the Gospels in Arabic is Sinai Arabic MS 72. Here the text of the four canonical Gospels is marked off according to the lessons of the temporal cycle of the Greek liturgical calendar of the Jerusalem Church. A colophon informs us that the MS was written by Stephen of Ramleh in the year 284 of the Arabs, i.e., 897 AD.
Below is the MS of the Gospel in Arabic written by Stephen of Ramleh.
Colophon of MS. Sin. Arab, No. 72, dated 896 A.D. photograph supplied by Mr. Taufiq Iskarous of Cairo, late curator of Christian books at the Sultanieh Library. The photograph, hitherto unpublished, was taken by Dr. Moritz. Mr. Taufiq Iskarous also supplies the following information from an unpublished report in Arabic by Dr. Moritz, to the Egyptian government on the Arabic MSS. in the library of St. Catherine at Mt. Sinai:
“The oldest of the Christian Arabic MSS. under the heading Biblica is The book of the four Gospels, arranged according to the divisions of the liturgical year of the Greeks. It was written in late Kufic hand by Istipana, known as al-Ramli, A. Mond. 6389=A. H. Muharram, 284. On parchment, 119 pp. of 26 lines, 13×19 cmm.”
Concerning the presence of Arabic Gospels in the pre-Islamic period, Sidney Griffith, after extensive study, concludes that:
All one can say about the possibility of a pre-Islamic, Christian version of the Gospel in Arabic is that no sure sign of it’s actual existence has yet emerged. Furthermore, even if some unambiguous evidence of it should turn up as a result of more recent investigations, it is clear that after the Islamic conquest of the territories of the oriental patriarchates, and once Arabic has become the official and de facto public language of the caliphate, the church faced a much different pastoral problem than was the case with the earlier missions among the pre-Islamic Arabs.
Further, what about the Old Testament in Arabic? Ernst Würthwein informs us in his book The Text Of The Old Testament that:
With the victory of Islam the use of Arabic spread widely, and for Jews and Christians in the conquered lands it became the language of daily life. This gave rise to the need of Arabic versions of the Bible, which need was met by a number of versions mainly independent and concerned primarily for interpretation.
Thus the first translations of the Hebrew Bible in Arabic appeared after the advent of Islam. In fact, the oldest dated manuscript of the Old Testament in Arabic as shown below dates from first half of the ninth century.
The Oldest Arabic Manuscript of the Old Testament (British Museum arab. 1475 [Add. 26116]).
The variety of Arabic versions of Job, of which a page of the oldest is shown here, is representative of Arabic versions of the Bible as a whole.
There are at least four different versions of Job, one of which is among the earliest documents of Christian Arabic literature. The manuscript Brit. Mus. arab. 1475, which contains extensive portions of it, was written in the first half of the ninth century, probably at the monastery of St. Sabas. The version itself is from a Syro-Hexaplar base.
The author of another version of Job is known: Pethion (Fatyun ibn Aiyub), who was active as a translator in Baghdad probably about the middle of the ninth century; he is also credited with translations of Sirach and the Prophets. Pethion’s text of Job is divided into fifteen chapters and (according to the London manuscript) claims to be translated from the Hebrew; actually the translator worked from a Syriac exemplar. Other versions of Job go back to the Peshitta and to the Coptic (G. Graf 1944: 126).
Saadiah b. Joseph Gaon (882-942), known for his encyclopedic knowledge, is also known for his works including one of the first translations of the Bible into Arabic, a long and a short commentary on the Pentateuch, and comments on and introductions to other books of the Bible.
It is quite clear from the above discussion that the influence of Christian Jahiliyyah poets as well as the lack of presence of the Bible, either the Old Testament or New Testament in Arabic, suggests that the Qur’ân is not borrowed from the Bible. This point, although not directly, is also mentioned in the Qur’ân. The Qur’ân defends itself from such accusations.
Related Articles On The Borrowing Theories Of The Qur’ân
The Qur’ânic Phenomenon,
1983, American Trust Publications, pp. 153-154.
The Origin of Islam in its Christian Environment
, The Gunning Lectures Edinburgh University, 1925, London: Frank Cass and Company Limited, 1968 (Reprinted), p.42.
New Catholic Encyclopaedia
Vol. 1, pp. 721-722.
J S Trimingham,
Christianity Among the Arabs in Pre-Islamic Times,
1971, Longman Publishers, pp.247
J S Trimingham, Op.Cit, p.247.
Louis Cheikho et son livre le Christianisme et la Littrature Chretienne en Arabie avant l’Islam: Etude Critique,
1967, Dar el-Machreq, Beirut, pp. 183.
Rev. W. St. Clair Tisdall,
The Original Sources Of The Qur’ân,
1905, Society For The Promotion Of Christian Knowledge, London, pp. 210-21.
Rev. W. St. Clair Tisdall, Op.Cit, p.42.
Malik BenNabi, Op.Cit, p.154.
Constance E Padwick, “
al-Ghazali & The Arabic Versions Of The Gospels: An Unsolved Problem
The Moslem World
, 1939, pp. 130-140.
Sidney H Griffith,
The Gospel In Arabic: An Enquiry Into Its Appearance In The First Abbasid Century
, Volume 69, p. 131-132.
Sidney H Griffith, Op.Cit, p.132.
Constance E Padwick, Op.Cit, p.133-134.
Sidney H Griffith, Op.Cit, p.166.
The Text Of The Old Testament
, 1988, William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, pp. 104.
Ernst Würthwein, Op.Cit, p. 224-225.