The Source Of Qur’an 18:65-82: Arent Wensinck’s Jewish Source?

The Source Of Qur’an 18:65-82: Arent Wensinck’s Jewish Source?

Mohamad Mostafa Nassar


1. Introduction

18.65 So they found one of Our servants, on whom We had bestowed Mercy from Ourselves and whom We had taught knowledge from Our own Presence.

18.66 Moses said to him: “May I follow thee, on the footing that thou teach me something of the (Higher) Truth which thou hast been taught?”

18.67 (The other) said: “Verily thou wilt not be able to have patience with me!”

18.68 “And how canst thou have patience about things about which thy understanding is not complete?”

18.69 Moses said: “Thou wilt find me, if God so will, (truly) patient: nor shall I disobey thee in aught.”

18.70 The other said: “If then thou wouldst follow me, ask me no questions about anything until I myself speak to thee concerning it.”

18.71 So they both proceeded: until, when they were in the boat, he scuttled it. Said Moses: “Hast thou scuttled it in order to drown those in it? Truly a strange thing  hast thou done!”

18.72 He answered: “Did I not tell thee that thou canst have no patience with me?”

18.73 Moses said: “Rebuke me not for forgetting, nor grieve me by raising  difficulties in my case.”

18.74 Then they proceeded: until, when they met a young man, he slew him. Moses said: “Hast thou slain an innocent person who had slain none? Truly a foul (unheard of) thing hast thou done!”

18.75 He answered: “Did I not tell thee that thou canst have no patience with me?”

18.76 (Moses) said: “If ever I ask thee about anything after this, keep me not in thy company: then wouldst thou have received (full) excuse from my side.”

18.77 Then they proceeded: until, when they came to the inhabitants of a town, they asked them for food, but they refused them hospitality. They found there a wall on the point of falling down, but he set it up straight. (Moses) said: “If thou hadst wished, surely thou couldst have exacted some recompense for it!”

18.78 He answered: “This is the parting between me and thee: now will I tell thee the interpretation of (those things) over which thou wast unable to hold patience.

18.79 “As for the boat, it belonged to certain men in dire want: they plied on the water: I but wished to render it unserviceable, for there was after them a certain king  who seized on every boat by force.

18.80 “As for the youth, his parents were people of Faith, and we feared that he would grieve them by obstinate rebellion and ingratitude (to God and man).

18.81 “So we desired that their Lord would give them in exchange (a son) better in purity (of conduct) and closer in affection.

18.82 “As for the wall, it belonged to two youths, orphans, in the Town; there was, beneath it, a buried treasure, to which they were entitled: their father had been a  righteous man: So thy Lord desired that they should attain their age of full strength and get out their treasure – a mercy (and favour) from thy Lord. I did it not of my own  accord. Such is the interpretation of (those things) over which thou wast unable to hold patience.”

The Holy Qur’an 18:65-82

The story of Moses and the anonymous ‘servant of God’ in Qur’an 18:65-82, identified as al-Khidr, has been a source of much commentary by the Orientalists. The story in Qur’an 18:65-82 describes how Moses, after claiming to be the most knowledgeable of people, is sent by God to find al-Khidr, who has a greater and more esoteric knowledge than anyone else.

Moses can’t fathom the justice of the actions until al-Khidr explains the unseen circumstances and reasons for what he has done. The story is understood as an indictment of the human claim of divine knowledge.

The Orientalists, less bothered about the message, concerned themselves with identifying the sources of the Qur’anic narration. The alleged sources of Qur’an 18:65-82 were identified as Ibn Shahin’s Hibbūr Yāfeh me-ha-Yeshū`athe Alexander Romances and the Gilgamesh Epic. We will be dealing with Ibn Shahin’s Hibbūr Yāfeh me-ha-Yeshū`a as an alleged Qur’anic source in this chapter.

2. The ‘Source’ Of Qur’an 18:65-82

Among others, Ginzberg,[1] Friedländer[2] and Obermann[3] claimed that the source of Qur’an 18:65-82 was the “Jewish legend” of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi and Elijah as mentioned in Hibbūr Yāfeh me-ha-Yeshū`a. The Jewish legend tells how Rabbi Levi goes on a journey with Elijah. Like al-Khidr, Elijah lays down a number of conditions. Elijah did a number of outrageous things that affected the Rabbi in the same way that Moses was affected.

The most influential explanation of the source of this story is found in the Encyclopaedia Of Islam under “al-Khadir” written by Arent Jan Wensinck. Wensinck argues that Qur’an 18:65-82 is taken from the “Jewish legend” of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi and Elijah. He writes:

The Jewish legend (printed in Jellinek, Bet ha-Midrasch, V, 133-5) tells how Rabbi Joshua ben Levi goes on a journey with Elijah under conditions laid down by Elijah, like those above of the servant of God in the Kur’an. Like the latter, Elijah does a number of outrageous things, which affects Joshua as it did Mūsā. Zunz, Gesammelte Vorträge, X, 130, first pointed out the similarity of this story to the Kur’anic legend.[4]

Wensinck’s claim of borrowing is partly based on the assumption that Muhammad(P) imperfectly borrowed this story while at the same time confusing the names of the characters. A similar endorsement has been made by Arthur Jeffery who says:

Wensinck has pointed out that here in this Sura the Jewish legends of Elijah and Rabbi Joshua ben Levi have become mixed up with the al-Khidr and Alexander story.[5]

Ibn Warraq endorses Wensinck’s claim without criticism.[6] However, none of these scholars has proved this thesis, since seemingly none of them has thoroughly examined the component parts and particular elements of the two stories.

3. A Case Of Confused Chronologies

Neither Ginzberg, Friedländer and Obermann (among others!) nor Wensinck were aware that this story, given under the title Hibbūr Yāfeh me-ha-Yeshū`a, is a Hebrew paraphrase of an earlier Arabic work attributed to the eleventh century Nissim bin Shahin of Qayrawan.

The existence of the Arabic original of Ibn Shahin’s Al-Faraj Ba`d al-Shiddah was first noted by Abraham Harkavy in Festschrift zum Achtzigsten Geburtstage Moritz Steinschneiders [Leipzig, 1896].[7] This manuscript was further studied by Obermann.[8] He published the Arabic manuscript discovered by Harkavy in 1933.[9] 

Interestingly enough, even before the discovery of the original Arabic text of Ibn Shahin’s collection of stories, entitiled Hibbūr Yāfeh me-ha-Yeshū`a containing the tale of Elijah and Rabbi Joshua b. Levi, Israel Lévi in 1884 had ingeniously perceived that Ibn Shahin’s theodicy story was nothing else than a

… remaniement du Coran.[10]

Noting this ingenious insight of Lévi, Schwarzbaum says:

Levi had studied one of those old and rather deficient Hebrew translations or paraphrases of R. Nissim’s [Ibn Shahin] work which do not faithfully reflect the original spirit and wording of Arabic text. A close scrutiny of our Theodicy legend clearly testifies to the fact that R. Nissim is utterly dependent upon the Koranic text of the story.[11]

Even after the Arabic original of Hibbūr Yāfeh me-ha-Yeshū`a was discovered scholars like Wensinck and Obermann maintained that the Qur’an was dependent upon the story of Elijah and Rabbi Joshua b. Levi. Wheeler says:

Even after the Arabic original was discovered, however, scholars continued to maintain that the Qur’an depended upon this story despite the fact that it is not attested in Jewish sources before this eleventh century text.[12]

The claim of originality of the Jewish story was held fast the by the very person who edited and published Ibn Shahin’s Arabic original work: Julian Obermann! According to him the existence of the story in the Qur’an proves that Ibn Shahin derived his story from an earlier, but not extant rabbinic source.[13] Obermann argues, first, that the two stories are similar enough to suggest a genetic relationship but not too similar so as to indicate that one borrowed from the other.[14] 

Second, “as a rule” the Qur’an draws upon “early post-Biblical religious lore, most frequently of Jewish , less frequently of Christian origin.”[15] Third, since Ibn Shahin’s claims his book to be collection of materials that have been transmitted by “our masters and the most excellent authorities from our sages”[16] it is unthinkable that he would have included an apocryphal, oral tale.

Apart from most of Obermann’s arguments being a fallacy of irrelevant conclusions, there are certain points which need further attention. Ibn Shahin does not claim to have collected the stories from Jewish sages, but rather he writes that he has included stories about the sages:

You mentioned in your letter that it is your desire to read a book which might relieve you, cheer your heart, and remove your grief and the distress of your sorrow. You reminded me that the Gentiles have a book composed on the subject of relief after adversity and distress. Because of your esteem and favor [toward me], which are chesrished by me, and your great worth [in my estimation],

and owing to your desire for such a book because of [your] misfortune, you have requested me to compose a book on the subject for you, dealing with the accounts of the most eminent and virtuous of our Sages, so that you would need to read no other book.[17]

Further, he adds:

I will recount to you in this book of mine also such other sayings of the Sages as I know of or have discovered, in the way of traditions, tales, and anecdotes about those of them who were in distress and found relief, and were in anguish and were granted easement.[18]

In the earlier passage, Ibn Shahin says that he is writing a book along the lines of the Muslim genre of Al-Faraj Ba`d al-Shiddah, but that his stories will feature Jewish rather than Islamic characters and themes. This does not mean that Ibn Shahin largely borrows the material from other Faraj works, but rather the stories he had gathered would constitute a Jewish work of same genre. Wheeler also notes that

… while many of the stories in Ibn Shahin’s work have rabbinic precedents, not all of them do. The Elijah and Joshua story is not unique in not seeming to have been based on an earlier rabbinic source. Seven of the stories, apart from the Elijah and Joshua story, have no clear rabbinic precedent.[19] Three more have Islamic parallels.[20] 

In two places, Ibn Shahin quotes passages with close parallels to verses from the Qur’an.[21] The language of these stories without rabbinic parallels also supports the claim that they were borrowed from Arabic and Islam rather than Jewish sources. It has been noted that the stories that have no rabbinic parallels are closer in language to classical Arabic than those derived from rabbinic sources in Hebrew and Aramaic.[22]

Obermann claims that the Qur’anic stories as “a rule” can be traced to “early post-biblical religious lore, most frequently of Jewish, less frequently of Christian, origin.”[23] Given the above mentioned facts concerning the origins of Ibn Shahin’s book, it is:

unclear whether, today, one should accept Obermann’s statement that the Qur’an “as a rule” is dependent upon the earlier Jewish and Christian sources. A more wide-ranging and discerning study, with particular attention to the dates of the so-called “sources,” is needed before concluding that all Jewish or Christian sources, especially those posterior to the Islamic sources they are supposed to have informed, are prior to and therefore influence, but are not influenced, by Islam.[24]

The maintenance of status quo was only due to the absurd reasoning of these scholars: that the Qur’an “as a rule” is dependent upon the Judeo-Christian sources.

After a detailed analysis of the issue, Wheeler concludes that:

The available evidence shows that Q 18:65-82 is not dependent upon the Elijah and Joshua b. Levi story in Ibn Shahin. It remains an issue whether Ibn Shahin’s story is dependent upon the commentaries on Q 18:65-82, especially the Ubayy Ibn Ka`b story and its later elaboration. 

Ibn Shahin’s work is relatively late compared to the Qur’an and the redaction of the Ubayy Ibn Ka`b story, and it includes many parallels to earlier Islamic sources.

The story of Elijah and Joshua b. Levi, in particular, reflects elements not found in Q 18:65-82 but prominent in the commentaries on these verses. Ibn Shahin’s use of Elijah instead of al-Khidr can be explained by the close association of the two characters in Islamic sources.

There is also an existence of the story of the three men and the purse, associated with Moses and Q 18:65-82, which occurs in many rabbinic sources, suggesting that Ibn Shahin was aware of Moses’ association with a theodicy story taken from Q 18:65-82.[25]

It should be pointed out that Obermann also overlooked an important study of Bernhard Heller who had concluded in 1937 that the Hebrew versions of this story are late and are loaned from Islamic sources.[26]

4. Conclusions

The evidence shows that the Jewish story of Joshua ben Levi and Elijah is not the source of Qur’an 18:65-82; in fact the reverse is true. The Jewish story has more in common perhaps with the commentaries of the Qur’an, suggesting that the Jewish story is linked to Qur’an 18:65-82 through the medium of commentaries.


[1] L. Ginzberg,The Legend Of The Jews, 1965 (reprint), Volume VI, The Jewish Publication Society Of America: Philadelphia, p. 334; L. Ginzberg,On Jewish Law And Lore, 1981, Atheneum: New York, pp. 72-73.

[2] I. Friedländer, “Zur Geschichte Der Chadhirlegende”,Archiv Für Religionswissenschaft, 1910, Volume 13, pp. 92-110; I. Friedländer, “Alexanders Zug Nach Dem Lebensquell Und Die Chadhirlegende”, Archiv Für Religionswissenschaft, 1910, Volume 13, pp. 161-246; Much of the argument from these two articles is in I. Friedländer’s,Die Chadhirlegende Und Der Alexanderroman, 1913, Druck Und Verlag Von B. G. Teubner: Leipzig. See p. 257.

[3] J. Obermann, “The Two Elijah Stories In Judeo-Arabic Transmission”,Hebrew Union College Annual, 1950-1951, Volume XXIII (Part I), pp. 387-404.

[4] “Al-Khadir”, Encyclopaedia Of Islam, 1978, Volume IV, E. J. Brill (Leiden) & Luzac & Co. (London), p. 903.

[5] A. Jeffery,The Koran: Selected Suras, 1958, The Heritage Press: New York, NY, p. 220, n. 6.

[6] Ibn Warraq,Why I Am Not A Muslim, 1995, Prometheus Books: Amherst, NY, p. 61.

It must be added that a very confusing view is presented by Newman. It is not clear from Newman’s writings what exactly is the alleged source of the Qur’anic story. For more details see N. A. Newman, Muhammad, The Qur’an & Islam, 1996, Interdisciplinary Biblical Research Institute: Hatfield (PA), p. 377.

[7] B. M. Wheeler, “The Jewish Origins Of Qur’an 18:65-82? Re-examining Arent Jan Wensinck’s Theory”, Journal Of The American Oriental Society, 1998, Volume 118, p. 155.

[8] J. Obermann, “Ein Werk Agadisch-Islamischen Synkretismus”, Zeitschrift Für Semitistik Und Verwandte Gebiete, 1927, Volume 5, pp. 43-68.

[9] J. Obermann,Studies In Islam And Judaism: The Arabic Original Of Ibn Shahin’s Book Of Comfort Known As The Hibbûr Yâphe Of R. Nissim B. Ya`aqobh, 1933, Yale University Press: New Haven.

[10] I. Lévi, “La Légende De L’ange et L’ermite Dans Les Écrits Juifs”, Revue Des Études Juives, 1884, Volume 8, p. 71.

[11] H. Schwarzbaum, “The Jewish And Moslem Versions Of Some Theodicy Legends”, Fabula, 1960, Volume 3, p. 159.

[12] B. M. Wheeler, “The Jewish Origins Of Qur’an 18:65-82? Re-examining Arent Jan Wensinck’s Theory”,Journal Of The American Oriental Societyop cit., pp. 155-156.

[13] The arguments against Obermann are taken from Wheeler’s, “The Jewish Origins Of Qur’an 18:65-82? Re-examining Arent Jan Wensinck’s Theory” Journal Of The American Oriental Society, 1998. He has argued concisely and precisely and we reproduce them here with some of our comments.

[14] J. Obermann, “The Two Elijah Stories In Judeo-Arabic Transmission”,Hebrew Union College Annualop cit., p. 400.

[15] ibid., pp. 399-400.

[16] ibid., p. 399.

[17] W. M. Brinner,An Elegant Composition Concerning Relief After Adversity By Nissim Ben Jacob Ibn Shahin, 1977, Yale University Press: New Haven & London, p. 3.

[18] ibid., p. 6.

[19] ibid., pp. 48-52, 54-57, 96-98, 99, 102, 116-117, 168-171, 175-176. The story in pp. 99-102 is discussed by J. Obermann in “The Two Elijah Stories In Judeo-Arabic Transmission”,Hebrew Union College Annualop cit., pp. 401-404.

[20] W. M. Brinner,An Elegant Composition Concerning Relief After Adversity By Nissim Ben Jacob Ibn Shahinop cit., pp. 90-91, 114-115, 127-131.

[21] ibid., pp. 162, 163.

[22] B. M. Wheeler, “The Jewish Origins Of Qur’an 18:65-82? Re-examining Arent Jan Wensinck’s Theory”,Journal Of The American Oriental Society, 1998, op cit., p. 156.

[23] J. Obermann, “The Two Elijah Stories In Judeo-Arabic Transmission”,Hebrew Union College Annualop cit., p. 400.

[24] B. M. Wheeler, “The Jewish Origins Of Qur’an 18:65-82? Re-examining Arent Jan Wensinck’s Theory”,Journal Of The American Oriental Society, 1998, op cit., p. 157.

[25] ibid., pp. 170-171.

[26] B. Heller, “Chadir Und Der Prophet Elijahu Als Wundertätige Baumeister”, Monatsschrift Für Geschichte Und Wissenschaft Des Judentums, 1937, Volume 81, pp. 76-80.