The Orientalists, The Bible & The Qur’ân: A Brief Review of The Bible Borrowing Theories
Mohamad Mostafa Nassar
The scholarship of the Orientalists in regards to the alleged Jewish and Christian sources of the Qur’ân can be at best described as confusing. Their claims that the Qur’ân is borrowed from the Bible stems from the fact that some of the stories in the Qur’ân resemble those found in the Bible, thus the former have been borrowed from latter.
This presumption has lead the Orientalists to make diverging comments. Insha’Allah, we will deal with the comments of the Orientalists first and then discuss their flaws.
A Brief Review of Bible Borrowing Theories
In his Islam and the West: A Historical Survey, Philip K. Hitti says:
The sources of the Qur’ân are unmistakable: Christian, Jewish and Arab heathen .
He supports this assertion by pointing out that during the Prophet’s time, paintings of Jesus and Mary were on the inner wall of the Ka’aba. That the Qur’ânic material is second hand from hearsay is demonstrated by the Qur’ânic statement that Jesus spoke unto mankind in the cradle and fashioned out of clay a living bird. These statements have a parallel in the apocryphal Gospel of Infancy. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is confused with Mary, sister of Aaron. Haman, the favourite of Ahusuerus (Esth. 3:2) is mistakenly made minister of the Pharaoh (Sura 40:38). And the Qur’ânic story of the “two-horned” Alexander the Great.
…must have originated in the Romance of Alexander then current among the Syrian Christians.
However, according to Richard Bell,
…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 Mecca or even of Medina.
Hitti’s argument is that although certain Qur’ânic passages bear resemblance to Biblical passages, they do not warrant the conclusion of borrowing or quoting. They may be explained on grounds other than direct dependence . His explanation is that
…far from being a slavish imitator, Muhammad Islamised, Arabicised and nationalized the material.
On the sources of the Qur’ân, J Christy Wilson writes in Introducing Islam:
Scholars hold that a number of [Qur’ânic stories] may be traced to Jewish Talmudic sources and apocryphal gospels rather than to the Old and New Testaments.
Wilson also mentions the apparent confusion over Haman and Mary.
Richard Bell argues in his book, The Origin of Islam in its Christian Environment:
…much of the Qur’ân is directly dependent on the Bible, and stories associated with the Bible.
Allegedly, Muhammad’s(P) knowledge of the Bible was acquired gradually:
The key to a great deal both in the Qur’ân and in the career of Muhammad lies … just in his gradual acquisition of knowledge of what the Bible contained and what the Jews and Christians believed … we shall see him… consciously borrowing – he is quite frank about it.
Qur’ânic references to the People of the Cave, Moses and al-Khidr and ‘Alexander the Great’ which were never associated with the Bible are associated by Bell as proof that Muhammad(P) was not working on any real knowledge of the Bible itself but, was dependent on third hand oral sources.
Kenneth Cragg says in the Call of The Minaret:
The Biblical narratives reproduced in the Qur’ân differ considerably and suggest oral, not direct acquaintance. There is almost complete absence of what could be claimed as direct quotation from the Bible.
Cragg is convinced that the alleged Qur’ânic misconceptions of the Trinity and Jesus(P) indicate that the range and quality of Muhammad’s(P) oral contacts was insufficient to enable him to have a firm grasp of Christianity.
H A R Gibb in Muhammadism: A Historical Survey, puts forward another possibility concerning the sources of the Qur’ân:
In view of the close commercial relation between Mecca and Yemen it would be natural assume that some religious ideas were carried to Mecca with the caravans of spices and woven stuffs, and there are details of vocabulary in the Qur’ân which give colour to this assumption.
Linden P. Harries writes in his book Islam in East Africa:
Muhammad himself borrowed from the Bible, and Muslims today consciously or not, borrow much from the Christian ideology even in matters which the Qur’ân does not support.
According to R A Nicholson the Qur’ân can be traced to the Haneefs and Judeo-Christian sources:
We hear much of Christian hermits and also a few persons known as Haneefs, who had rejected idolatry for a religion of their own, ascetic and monotheistic; Muhammad appears to have been in touch with some of them before his call… his journey with the trading caravans of Mecca afforded opportunities for conversation with Jews and Christians of which the Qur’ân preserves the result.
But Nicholson could not explain how much a person would learn from occasional chats with these people as well as on his journeys. He went on to say:
Muhammad picked up all his knowledge of this kind by hearsay and he makes a brave show with such borrowed trappings- largely consisting of legends from the Haggada and Apocrypha.
Concerning the Jewish and Christian influence on the Qur’ân, the New Catholic Encyclopaedia writes:
Non-Moslem scholarship has taken a different view of the matter. It has nearly always held that the major influences on Mohammed must have been principally, but not exclusively, Jewish and Christian, and that those influences were coloured by Mohammed’s own character and made over to conform to aspects and need of the pre-Islamic Arabian mind.
It goes on to say:
Very probably Muhammad had improvised translations of the Jewish and Christian scriptures.
The problem with all the above statements is that they neither furnish any evidence for the existence of such Biblical texts in Arabia, nor any evidence of the influence of Judaism and Christianity in Mecca where the Prophet(P) spent most of his life. Consequently, this has lead to considerable confusion in pinpointing the source of the Qur’ân.
 Philip K. Hitti, Islam and the West: A Historical Cultural Survey, 1979 (Reprinted), Robert E. Krieger Publishing Company, New York, p.15.
 Philip K. Hitti, Op.Cit, p.16-17.
 Richard Bell, The Origin of Islam in its Christian Environment, 1925; 1968 (Reprinted), The Gunning Lectures Edinburgh University & London: Frank Cass and Company Limited, p.42.
 Philip K. Hitti, Op.Cit, p.17.
 Philip K. Hitti, Op.Cit, p.18.
 J. Christy Wilson, Introducing Islam, 1950, New York: Friendship Press, pp. 30-31.
 Richard Bell, Op.Cit, p.100.
 Richard Bell, Op.Cit, p.68-69.
 Kenneth Cragg, The Call of the Minaret, 1985 (2nd Edition), Orbis Books: New York, p.66.
 Kenneth Cragg, Op.Cit, p.263.
 H. A. R. Gibbs, Mohammadanism: A Historical Survey, 1961, London: Oxford University Press, Op.Cit, pp. 37-38.
 Lyndon P. Harries, Islam in East Africa, 1954, London: Universities’ Mission To Central Africa: London, p.57.
 R A Nicholson, The Koran, Introduction to E. H. Palmer’s (trans.), p.ix.
 R A Nicholson, Introduction, p.xviii.
 New Catholic Encyclopaedia, 1967, The Catholic University of America, Washington D C, Vol. VII, p.677.