Responses to Islamic Awareness

What Is The Source Of The Story Of Cain & Abel In The Qur'an: Pirke De-Rabbi Eli'ezer Or Midrash Tanhuma?
More Selective Quotations and ad hominem Attacks ?

1. Introduction

In their latest effort to save the Qur'an from the charge that it contains material borrowed from other sources, Saifullah and Company employ their two favorite lines of defense: ad hominem attacks and questioning the chronology of possible Jewish sources. The "Islamic Awareness" team begins by mocking and attacking (in their words) the ‘Reverend and Saint’ Rev. W. St. Clair Tisdall who noted that the Pirke De-Rabbi Eli'ezer may have been the source of Qur'an's story of Cain and Abel.

In an earlier article, Norman Stillman's "The Story Of Cain & Abel In The Qur'an And The Muslim Commentators: Some Observations", (Journal Of Semitic Studies, 1974, Volume 19) was used to counter Rev. Tisdall's claim that the Pirke De-Rabbi Eli'ezer was the source. The "Islamic Awareness" team quoted a section of this paper which discredits the idea that the Pirke De-Rabbi Eli'ezer was the source, but did not tell us that Stillman believed that the Midrash Tanhuma was the source of the Qur'an's account of the story of Cain and Abel. They also omitted a point that was made in another response to "Islamic Awareness" - that there are at least two ancient manuscripts of the Pirke De-Rabbi Eli'ezer. The ancient Vienna manuscript, which has only in recent years been translated into English, shows every evidence of being pre-Islamic. I wonder why the "Islamic Awareness" team did not want to share this information with us?

After we brought this omission to public attention, Saifullah and Company ignored our charge of selective quotation, which is both un-professional and misleading, and went to the library to do a little more "quote-mining" in order to save the Qur'an from being exposed as the fraud that it is. After using Norman Stillman to attack Rev. Tisdall, they needed to find a quote to discredit Stillman's contention that the Midrash Tanhuma was the source of Muhammad's Qur'anic tale of Cain and Abel.

2. The Case Against Midrash Tanhuma, or another case of selective quotation?

Meyer Waxman's A History of Jewish Literature is called upon to save the Qur'an from the accusation of borrowing.

Saifullah and Company give us the following quote:

Modern scholars like Meyer Waxman agree with this dating of Midrash Tanhuma. Waxman, who provides further details, says:

... it [printed Tanhuma] could not have been the work of the author whose name it bears, as there are evidences which show definitely that the compiler was aquainted with the Karaite movement, with the works of Geonim written in the eighth century and other late events. The date of compilation is, therefore, placed by most scholars to be the second half of the ninth century.... The manuscript Tanhuma is not much younger than the printed one. It dates most likely from the end of the ninth century and is an incomplete version, as it contains new material only on the first three books of Moses; the other two are alike in both.[18]

Does this settle the issue? Not really. If we read the previous two paragraphs, which Saifullah and Company omitted (I wonder why?), we find some interesting information:

Besides the cycle of Rabba, i.e. Large Midrashim on the Pentateuch, there exists another Midrashic cycle on these books known as the Tanhuma-Yelamdenu-Midrashim. The first name given to it because of the numerous homiletic interpretations of verses quoted in the name of Tanhuma, the son of Abba, a famous Palestinian Agadist who lived towards the end of the fourth century. The second name of this cycle arises from the fact that a very large number of homilies open with the formula Yelamdénu Rabénu i.e. may our master teach us. It begins with a question in Halakah, and while the Halakic matter is dispensed with in a few words, the discussion turns to Agada and homiletic interpretation.

Waxman continues:

Of this kind of Midrashim, we have several versions: (1) An older Midrash which was known to the early scholars of Italy and France by the name Yelamdénu, but which is now practically lost except for a few fragments; (2) the printed Tanhuma; (3) the manuscript Tanhuma which was edited and published in 1883 by the late Solomon Buber. All three belong to one Midrashic cycle, and the Yelamdénu seems to have been the earliest, as collections of such homilies where the Halakah was joined to the Agada, inasmuch as the preacher was a teacher of both, existed in large numbers. It is these collections which served as the background and source books for the late Midrashim, the compilers of which drew upon them in abundance. For this reason, we find the homilies beginning with the formula, "May our master teach us," scattered through all Midrashic cycles such as the Tanhuma, Pesiktu (Sec. 84) and in the books of the Rabba (Sec. 82). The date of the Yelamdénu collection is, therefore, an early one and is probably contemporaneous with the Genesis Rabba, about the beginning of the sixth century C.E., and the place of origin, Palestine.

Please notice that Waxman tells us, in the next paragraph which was quoted by Saifullah and Company, that the compilation dates from the second half of the ninth century. The man who compiled this Midrash, most likely included material dating from his lifetime in addition to older material dating from the pre-Islamic period. This process is how the Midrashim evolved over the centuries. The compiler was not the author of the entire work, as another source quoted by "Islamic Awareness" will point out.

Saifullah and Company give us a quote from Samuel A. Berman in an attempt to cast doubt on the Midrash because Berman does not refer to Midrash Tanhuma and the Tanhuma Yelammedenu synonymously as manuscripts. Berman makes an interesting observation which was, once again, omitted by the "Islamic Awareness" team:

The name Tanhuma Yelammedenu was assigned arbitrarily to this homiletical compilation and is found in a number of manuscripts and in several printed editions. The first half of the title, Tanhuma, was adopted from the name of Tanhuma bar Abba, one of the most prolific aggadists in Jewish literature, who lived in the fourth century C.E.. Numerous sayings quoted in his name in the text account for the attribution of this work to him. The second half of the title Yelammedenu, is, in fact, part of the formula yelammedenu rabbenu, "may our master teach us," which is repeated frequently in this Midrash. Scholars are in agreement that this formula was the title of a midrashic text that existed long before our Midrash was compiled. Though that work has been lost to us, quotations using the formula are to be found in a number of other Midrashim, as well as in our Tanhuma Yelammedenu.

It is amazing how quickly the "Islamic Awareness" arguments evaporate when the quotes are read in context!

4. Conclusion: Talk Is Cheap (Especially Without Evidence)!

It is difficult to provide concrete evidence concerning events which occured many centuries ago. Proving that Muhammad borrowed directly from other sources is as difficult to prove as the claim that Gabriel, and not Muhammad's imagination, spoke to him in the cave. The case for borrowing is based on circumstantial evidence - this standard of proof is used in courts of law in cases where no witnesses exist. There is overwhelming evidence, presented to us by scholars such as Reverend Tisdall, Rabbi Geiger, Abraham Katsh, and Israel Schapiro which show striking similarities between the tales in Muhammad's Qur'an and Jewish Midrashim, Christian Apocrypha, and Pagan tales.

The "Islamic Awareness" team leaves us with an amazing accusation:

No wonder the missionaries' best tool in the time of their intellectual crisis is ad hominem attacks on us.

There is no "intellectual crisis", the weight of the evidence suggests that Muhammad created portions of his Qur'an by borrowing stories from other traditions. An ad hominem is an attack which is made on a person. We made no such attack. Our attack was on the un-professional and inaccurate misuse of academic literature through partial and selective quotation. I can understand the "Islamic Awareness" team's discomfort with criticisms of the Qur'an and Muhammad. Many Muslims have never heard such criticisms in their own countries where the state and/or mob violence would silence anyone who dares to raise such issues. Since freedom of religion and speech are guaranteed in the West, some Muslims react to criticism of Islam by attacking the character and intelligence of anyone who dares to question their beliefs. For the authors of a site which has routinely called those who ask perfectly legitimate questions about the Qur'an and Muhammad devious, deceptive, and neophyte, and then feign offense concerning alleged ad hominem attacks, which were never made, is the height of hypocrisy, and the world has seen enough Muslim hypocrisy and false piety in recent months.

Andrew Vargo

Related Articles On The Borrowing Theories Of The Qur'an

To Moo Or Not To Moo, That Is The Question!

Is The Qur'ân's Story Of Solomon & Sheba From Targum Sheni? [1], [2]

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