Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

The Anatomy of Qur'an’s Mistakes

Masud Masihiyyen

“Do they not know that We have made the Qur’an a book full of mistakes?”

A comparative reading of the Biblical accounts with the ones of the Qur’an reveals that Mohammad distorted the genuine word of God for the sake of his innovated religion and ideology. Mohammad’s tampering with the original narratives of the Bible is mostly manifest in the form of absurdities that stem from the confusion of certain biblical events and figures as well as their misplacement in history. Being addicted to hasty generalizations and faulty conclusions, Mohammad generally took the path of assimilation when he saw that two originally distinct accounts bore remarkable similarities. Mohammad’s misleading strategy of combining different pairs of accounts having thematic associations and the problems caused by this strategy are best exemplified in his devisal of the 19th chapter of the Qur’an, which I previously discussed at length in the article entitled “Surah Maryam: The Curse of the Apocrypha”.

Although closely related, not all mistakes of the Islamic scripture are of the same nature. Some of the anomalies in the Qur’an, which correspond to Mohammad’s intentional or accidental deviation from the original accounts of the Bible, are derived from the blatant confusion of biblical figures through the misinterpretation of a great number of thematic analogies. In the same category falls the confusion of two separate biblical events that are erroneously considered one and same because of their occurrence in the same period and environment. Some other anomalies, on the other hand, illustrate Mohammad’s unfamiliarity with the concept of anachronism, which makes frequent appearances in the Qur’an through Mohammad’s fallacious location of particular future figures and events in the past. In some cases, the mistakes of the Qur’an are composed of both confusions and misplacements in history. The aim of this paper is to analyze these different sorts of mistakes in the Islamic scripture through prominent examples and explain what basic motives and inferences led Mohammad to faulty conclusions. A list of other stories in the Qur’an that exhibit similar mistakes and can be included in the same categories are provided in footnotes.

Combination of Biblical Figures: MIRIAM and MARY

Mohammad’s confusion of Jesus’ mother Mary (New Testament) with Moses and Aaron’s sister Miriam1 (Old Testament) is undoubtedly the biggest historical blunder of the Qur’an, which has caused much trouble for Islamic scholars and prompted them to make up several inconsistent arguments in response to critical question on this point. Even though it may sound like a joke to the readers who are not acquainted with this issue yet, the Qur’an designates Jesus’ mother Mary as Aaron’s sister:

Then she brought him to her own folk, carrying him. They said: O Mary! Thou hast come with an amazing thing. O sister of Aaron! Thy father was not a wicked man nor was thy mother a harlot. (Surah 19:27-28 Pickthall)

This identification brings to mind the following biblical verse:

Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a hand-drum in her hand, and all the women went out after her with hand-drums and with dances. (Exodus 15:20 NET Bible)

To make things even more baffling, in two other chapters the Qur’an teaches that Jesus’ mother Mary was Imran’s (Amram) daughter:

(Remember) when the wife of 'Imran said: My Lord! I have vowed unto Thee that which is in my belly as a consecrated (offering). Accept it from me. Lo! Thou, only Thou, art the Hearer, the Knower! And when she was delivered she said: My Lord! Lo! I am delivered of a female - Allah knew best of what she was delivered - the male is not as the female; and lo! I have named her Mary, and lo! I crave Thy protection for her and for her offspring from Satan the outcast. (Surah 3:35-36 Pickthall)

And Mary, daughter of 'Imran, whose body was chaste, therefore We breathed therein something of Our Spirit. And she put faith in the words of her Lord and His scriptures, and was of the obedient. (Surah 66:12 Pickthall)

According to the biblical data, Miriam, Aaron’s sister, was Amram’s daughter:

Now the name of Amram’s wife was Jochebed, daughter of Levi, who was born to Levi in Egypt. And to Amram she bore Aaron, Moses, and Miriam their sister. (Numbers 26:59 NET Bible)

These verses suffice to convince many readers that Mohammad mistook Jesus’ mother Mary as the Miriam of the Old Testament, combining these two distinct women bearing the same name. Undoubtedly, this gross mistake did not solely stem from the fact that these two women had identical names or that they were Israelites. There appeared a few other similarities between the Miriam of the Old Testament and the Virgin Mary of the New Testament that drove Mohammad to his faulty conclusion and combination of these two female figures. Strikingly, the set of parallelisms between Aaron’s sister and Jesus’ mother were not essentially of biblical origin, but rather the product of Mohammad’s misunderstandings and weird reasoning, which was good at overstating superficial similarities to the point of assimilation.

At this point, it is noteworthy that Islamic scholars and commentators think and act like Mohammad while trying to provide a good answer for the question why Mary is said to have been addressed by her folk as Aaron’s sister in the 19th Surah. In order to stave off this gross mistake, they base their arguments on mere assumptions that are alien to the Bible and Jewish culture. The metaphorical interpretation of Mary’s relation to Aaron gives birth to two allegations, none of which is supported by the main text of Islam. The contention that Mary was called Aaron’s sister because of her similarity to Aaron in terms of piety and devotion2 not only fails to answer the basic question why Mary was likened to Aaron of all the other male and female biblical figures of piety, but also disregards the fact that the 3rd chapter of the Qur’an perfectly consolidated Mary’s supposed biological relation to Aaron when it taught that the wife of Aaron’s biological father Imran (Amram in Hebrew) gave birth to Jesus’ mother Mary in verses 35-36.

Further, as if to resist and debunk the metaphorical interpretation of Mary’s affiliation with Aaron, Mary’s folk in Surah 19 addresses her as Aaron’s sister so as to imply the identity of her biological parents. The sentence below leaves no place for a symbolic reading of the word “sister”, for in it Aaron’s brotherhood cannot be considered independent of the two members of Mary’s biological family: her father and mother.

O sister of Aaron! Thy father was not a wicked man nor was thy mother a harlot. (Surah 19:28 Pickthall)

Thus, Aaron’s implicit inclusion into Mary’s biological family in the Meccan period subsequently impelled Mohammad to name Mary’s father “Imran” in the Medina period of the Qur’an.

The Islamic attempt to construe Mary’s relation to Aaron symbolically through the supposition that Aaron was the father of the tribe that Jesus’ mother descended from is similarly rebutted by two facts. First, there is nothing in the Qur’an even to suggest Mary’s being a distant member of Aaron’s progeny. Although the 3rd chapter narrates Mary’s dedication to the Temple after her birth, Mary’s service in the Temple does not necessitate her being a descendant of Aaron. As if being aware of this fact, the Qur’an draws no parallelism between Mary’s dedication and Aaron’s progeny as the phrase “Aaron’s sister” is missing from its 3rd chapter. Second, Mary’s people would have called her “Aaron’s daughter” instead of “Aaron’s sister” if they had really aimed to point at her descent from Aaron’s tribe.

Now that we know Mohammad made a mistake when he thought of Jesus’ mother Mary as Aaron’s sister and Imran’s daughter, we can start analyzing the anatomy of this embarrassing confusion. In order to figure out the major factors contributing to Mohammad’s confusion of the two women named Mary, it is necessary to check the sources he used in the devisal of the 19th chapter, which is the first and only place where Jesus’ mother is identified as Aaron’s sister. As I previously stated in my article concerning Mohammad’s plagiarism from the non-canonical Gospels of Jesus’ Infancy in the invention of the first 35 verses of Surah 19, Mohammad focused on the apocryphal literature of Christianity and drew heavily from the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew(*). Expectedly, Mohammad did not keep faithful to the original version of the stories in Pseudo-Matthew and tampered with the chronology of events, which contributed to his confusions as these illicit modifications augmented the number of pseudo-similarities between the two biblical women having the same name.

It is by no means surprising to see that Mohammad’s embarrassing confusion showed up in the account of Virgin Mary’s accusation by her folk. According to the account in Pseudo-Matthew, Mary’s pregnancy became known to her folk and she was brought to the temple for interrogation:

After these things there arose a great report that Mary was with child. … Then was assembled a multitude of people which could not be numbered, and Mary was brought to the temple. And the priests, and her relatives, and her parents wept, and said to Mary: Confess to the priests thy sin, thou that wast like a dove in the temple of God, and didst receive food from the hands of an angel. (Pseudo-Matthew chapter 12)

This is how Mohammad inserted the account above into his scripture:

Then she brought him to her own folk, carrying him. They said: O Mary! Thou hast come with an amazing thing. O sister of Aaron! Thy father was not a wicked man nor was thy mother a harlot. (Surah 19:27-28 Pickthall)

Mohammad’s distortion of the original narrative is obvious. Specifically, he misplaced the account of Mary’s accusation as an incident occurring after Jesus’ birth although in the apocryphal Gospel the accusation and interrogation took place long before Jesus’ birth. One of the probable reasons for this misplacement is the misinterpretation of the phrase “be with child” in the original narrative. The writer of Pseudo-Matthew used this phrase to indicate Mary’s pregnancy (her carrying the child in her womb), but Mohammad thought that this phrase actually pertained to Mary’s carrying the baby in her arms after the delivery. The second discrepancy came into existence because Mohammad, unlike the author of Pseudo-Matthew, preferred using a vague and general term (her folk) while explaining who Mary was accused and questioned by instead of repeating the specific group of people (priests, relatives, parents) in the non-canonical Gospel. As a result, in Mohammad’s version Mary’s family (parents and relatives) was removed from the group of the accusers, but maintained in the narrative through her folk’s reference to them. This detail also strengthens the idea that Aaron’s brotherhood of Mary in the 19th Surah was meant to be purely biological, being in the same context as Mary’s relation to her biological parents. Obviously, the greatest discrepancy between the original narrative in Pseudo-Matthew and Mohammad’s version in chapter 19 of the Qur’an remains to be Mary’s stunning identification as Aaron’s sister by Mohammad. Where did Mohammad get this idea from if not from a misunderstanding/misreading of the non-canonical Gospel?

In order to answer this vital question, we must remember that Mohammad’s weird reasoning necessitated the combination of two people through a number of parallelisms between them. Blatantly, Mohammad needed another source in addition to the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew to combine Miriam and Mary with the help of unintended analogies. It is not difficult to guess that Mohammad made use of the Old Testament data about Miriam on the way to his great mistake as he needed two distinct narratives for a combination, and Mary’s designation as Aaron’s sister in Surah 19 reveals which particular section of the Old Testament opened the door to Mohammad’s process of assimilation:

Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a hand-drum in her hand, and all the women went out after her with hand-drums and with dances. (Exodus 15:20 NET Bible)

This verse mirrors the only overt link in the Qur’an between the Miriam of the Old Testament and Jesus’ mother Mary. As Miriam was called “the sister of Aaron”, in Mohammad’s fantasy Mary’s folk called her “sister of Aaron”. The comparative study of the single verse above with the account of Mary’s accusation by her folk in Pseudo-Matthew amazingly enables us to detect the source of Mohammad’s mistake, helping us see through Mohammad’s eyes the far-fetched parallelisms between Miriam in Exodus 15:20 and the account of Mary’s accusation with regard to her pregnancy in Pseudo-Matthew. To analyze the components of the Old Testament verse:

The prophetess
Sister of Aaron
Dancing to praise God

To compare these with the basic components of the Qur’an verse:

Mary (Mariam in Arabic)
Sister of Aaron

Interestingly, the word “prophetess” is missing from the verse in Surah 19:28, which is rather normal because Mary’s folk do not identify her as a prophetess in Pseudo-Matthew. However, Pseudo-Matthew nowhere calls Mary “Aaron’s sister” throughout his Gospel either. Where did Mohammad derive this from and why did he locate it in the account of Mary’s interrogation by her people then? The answer to this significant question is embedded in the narrative below:

After these things there arose a great report that Mary was with child. … Then was assembled a multitude of people which could not be numbered, and Mary was brought to the temple. And the priests, and her relatives, and her parents wept, and said to Mary: Confess to the priests thy sin, thou that wast like a dove in the temple of God, and didst receive food from the hands of an angel. (Pseudo Matthew chapter 12)

It was quite natural for Mohammad to hear these things stated about Jesus’ mother Mary and bind them to Miriam’s designation as a prophetess in the Old Testament verse. This major link proves that Mohammad combined the components of the verse identifying Miriam in the Old Testament with the statements used by Mary’s folk during her interrogation in Pseudo-Matthew before incorporating this fictitious parallelism into the Qur’an in the shortest form possible.

Being a man dedicated to harmonizing different accounts for the credibility of his fabricated analogies, Mohammad could easily harmonize the account of Mary’s interrogation in Pseudo-Matthew with the similar narrative in the Gospel of James (*), another popular non-canonical Gospel of Jesus’ infancy. The following verses in the Infancy Gospel of James convinced Mohammad that Miriam, the dancing prophetess” in Exodus 15:20 and Jesus’ mother Mary were one and same:

And the priest said: Mary, wherefore hast thou done this, and wherefore hast thou humbled thy soul and forgotten the Lord thy God, thou that wast nurtured in the Holy of Holies and didst receive food at the hand of an angel and didst hear the hymns and didst dance before the Lord, wherefore hast thou done this? (Gospel of James chapter XV:1)

Mohammad perfectly demonstrated his talents for inventing extreme cases of false parallelism between two biblical figures with the help of his perversion of the original accounts when he combined Exodus with the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew through another analogy. The last so-called similarity concocted by him concerned the time of the reference to Miriam (the dancing prophetess) in the book of Exodus and the distorted version of the time of Mary’s interrogation by her people in Pseudo-Matthew. According to the narrative in the Bible, Miriam praised God and danced in thanksgiving for Israel’s exodus from Egypt through the crossing of the Red Sea:

Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a hand-drum in her hand, and all the women went out after her with hand-drums and with dances. Miriam sang in response to them, “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and its rider he has thrown into the sea.” (Exodus 15:20-21 NET Bible)

In the light of these verses, it is easy to see that Mohammad associated Miriam’s designation as the sister of Aaron and the dancing prophetess with her departure from Egypt. Keeping this in mind, Mohammad turned to the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew in search of a reference to Mary’s relation with Egypt and found out that Mary had been to Egypt after Jesus’ birth and the visitation by the magi:

Now the day before this was done Joseph was warned in his sleep by the angel of the Lord, who said to him: Take Mary and the child, and go into Egypt by the way of the desert. And Joseph went according to the saying of the angel. (Pseudo-Matthew chapter 17)

More to the point, Pseudo-Matthew referred to a miraculous incident that occurred on the third day of the holy family’s journey to Egypt:

And it came to pass on the third day of their journey, while they were walking, that the blessed Mary was fatigued by the excessive heat of the sun in the desert; and seeing a palm tree, she said to Joseph: Let me rest a little under the shade of this tree. … Then the child Jesus, with a joyful countenance, reposing in the bosom of His mother, said to the palm: O tree, bend thy branches, and refresh my mother with thy fruit. And immediately at these words the palm bent its top down to the very feet of the blessed Mary; and they gathered from it fruit, with which they were all refreshed…. And it rose up immediately, and at its root there began to come forth a spring of water exceedingly clear and cool and sparkling. And when they saw the spring of water, they rejoiced with great joy, and were satisfied, themselves and all their cattle and their beasts. Wherefore they gave thanks to God. (Pseudo-Matthew chapter 20)

Mohammad copied the story of Mary’s miraculous provision with fruit and water into his Qur’an:

And the pangs of childbirth drove her unto the trunk of the palm-tree. She said: Oh, would that I had died ere this and had become a thing of naught, forgotten! Then (one) cried unto her from below her, saying: Grieve not! Thy Lord hath placed a rivulet beneath thee, And shake the trunk of the palm-tree toward thee, thou wilt cause ripe dates to fall upon thee. (Surah 19:23-25 Pickthall)

The major discrepancy between the narrative in Pseudo-Matthew and the one in the Qur’an is related to the time of this miraculous incident. According to the original account, the miraculous feeding occurred on Joseph and Mary’s way into exile in Egypt after Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem and His visitation by the Magi. Mohammad changed the chronology of this event by locating it just before Jesus’ birth and associating it with Mary’s return to her folk with the baby. This very alteration and faulty association resulted in the presumption that Jesus’ mother Mary returned to Israel from Egypt3 and faced the accusations of her folk for having an illegitimate affair.

To summarize, below are given all of the factors that contributed to Mohammad’s combination and confusion of Miriam with Jesus’ mother Mary:

Miriam in Exodus 15:20-21: This verse identified Miriam, the sister of Aaron, as a prophetess dancing to praise God after her departure from Egypt after a miraculous incident.

Mary in Pseudo-Matthew (chapter 12) (combined with the Gospel of James chapter XV:1) On account of her pregnancy, Mary was brought to the temple and questioned by her people. Mary’s folk’s charges referred to her being a holy person living in the temple of God, receiving food from the hand of angels, and dancing before the Lord. All these statements pointed to her having the characteristics of a prophetess. Mary also went to Egypt and returned to Israel.

After harmonizing all these elements drawn from the book of Exodus and the non-canonical Gospels of Infancy, Mohammad inserted them into his Qur’an, but he did not mention any of them explicitly. Instead, he chose a perfect phrase that would represent all the thematic associations he himself made up between Miriam of the Old Testament and Mary, Jesus’ mother: “Sister of Aaron”. This phrase was copied by Mohammad along with the name Miriam from Exodus 15:20 into Surah 19 as it referred to Miriam’s being a prophetess, her dancing to praise God, and her leaving Egypt after a miracle, all of which were identically valid for Jesus’ mother Mary in Mohammad’s imagination.

Combination of Events: The Rescue of Infant Moses

The Qur’an endorses and repeats the biblical teaching that Pharaoh persecuted the Israelites at the time of Moses’ birth and that Moses was saved from being slain by the Egyptians because his mother hid him for some time and then put him into an ark so that he could be safe on the Nile:

And indeed, another time, already We have shown thee favour, When we inspired in thy mother that which is inspired, Saying: Throw him into the ark, and throw it into the river, then the river shall throw it on to the bank, and there an enemy to Me and an enemy to him shall take him. And I endued thee with love from Me that thou mightest be trained according to My will. (Surah 20:37-39 Pickthall)

This is the first of the two references to Moses’ infancy in the Qur’an. Mohammad heard this story and copied it from the following narrative in the book of Exodus:

A man from the household of Levi married a woman who was a descendant of Levi. The woman became pregnant and gave birth to a son. When she saw that he was a healthy child, she hid him for three months. But when she was no longer able to hide him, she took a papyrus basket for him and sealed it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child in it and set it among the reeds along the edge of the Nile. His sister stationed herself at a distance to find out what would happen to him. (Exodus 2:1-4 NET Bible)

Mohammad’s new version of the story is different from its original form in that it is shorter, lacking most of the biblical details. It must also be noted that Mohammad presented the story as being recounted to Moses directly by God. This technique relevantly made Moses’ mother’s actions divinely guided, binding them to the alleged inspiration that fulfilled God’s plans for saving infant Moses and the Israelites. The use of this technique in the Qur’an is not surprising or praiseworthy, but significant as it illustrates how Mohammad re-wrote most of the biblical stories by adding commentaries to them. The claim that Moses’ mother was inspired by God to “put baby Moses into an ark and cast the ark into the river” does not contradict the Bible or sound awkward.

However, the second reference to the same event in the Qur’an, which occurs in Surah 28, does not only show textual variation with the reference in Surah 20, but also consists of a weird and absurd statement:

And We inspired the mother of Moses, saying: Suckle him and, when thou fearest for him, then cast him into the river and fear not nor grieve. Lo! We shall bring him back unto thee and shall make him (one) of Our messengers. (Surah 28:7 Pickthall)

In this narrative we are said that God instructed Moses’ mother to cast her baby directly into the river without putting him into a chest or an ark! If we do not read the parallel verse in Surah 20, we can suppose that God asked Moses’ mother to drown her baby by casting him into the Nile so as to make her obey Pharaoh’s commandment first. In that case we would have to believe that God was torn between granting Pharaoh his wish and saving baby Moses from him. Why or how did Mohammad allow this absurdity to sneak into his Qur’an? Was it the product of a careless scribe who forgot to add the phrase “into the ark” because he mistakenly considered it a useless detail or an accidental duplicate?

A more interesting question is why this kind of a textual variation in the form of a blunder occurred in Surah 28, which was formed later than Surah 20, which contained the more accurate formulation? In order to find a satisfactory answer to this question, it is crucial to remember that Surah 28 claims to be a detailed form of Moses and Pharaoh’s story, and follows an ordered narrative – from the beginning of Pharaoh’s administration – unlike the account embedded into God’s speech to Moses in Surah 20:

These are revelations of the Scripture that maketh plain. We narrate unto thee (somewhat) of the story of Moses and Pharaoh with truth, for folk who believe. Lo! Pharaoh exalted himself in the earth and made its people castes. A tribe among them he oppressed, killing their sons and sparing their women. Lo! he was of those who work corruption. And We desired to show favour unto those who were oppressed in the earth, and to make them examples and to make them the inheritors, And to establish them in the earth, and to show Pharaoh and Haman and their hosts that which they feared from them. (Surah 28:2-6 Pickthall)

Excluding the historical blunder concerning Haman’s co-existence with Pharaoh in Moses’ time, Mohammad’s account seems to have been taken from the biblical data in the book of Exodus. To compare and contrast:

Then a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power over Egypt. He said to his people, “Look at the Israelite people, more numerous and stronger than we are! Come, let’s deal wisely with them. Otherwise they will continue to multiply, and if a war breaks out, they will ally themselves with our enemies and fight against us and leave the country.” So they put foremen over the Israelites to oppress them with hard labor. As a result they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh. But the more the Egyptians oppressed them, the more they multiplied and spread. As a result the Egyptians loathed the Israelites, and they made the Israelites serve rigorously. They made their lives bitter by hard service with mortar and bricks and by all kinds of service in the fields. Every kind of service the Israelites were required to give was rigorous. The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you assist the Hebrew women in childbirth, observe at the delivery: If it is a son, kill him, but if it is a daughter, she may live.” But the midwives feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live. Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this and let the boys live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women – for the Hebrew women are vigorous; they give birth before the midwife gets to them!” So God treated the midwives well, and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he made households for them. Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “All sons that are born you must throw into the river, but all daughters you may let live.” (Exodus 1:8-22 NET Bible)

The final verse of the biblical quotation above teaches that Pharaoh commanded his people to kill male children of the Israelites by “throwing them into the river”. Although this biblical information seems to be missing from the Qur’an, it is actually present there in the 28th chapter in a twisted form. Apparently, Mohammad failed to understand that Pharaoh’s commanding the Egyptians to cast male infants of the Israelites into the river was different from baby Moses’ placement by his mother in an ark among the reeds of the Nile.

We can reckon the ascription of Joseph and the virgins’ utterances in Pseudo-Matthew to Mary in the account of the angelic annunciation in Surah 19 (*), the implication that David served Saul in Saul’s first battle, and the relevant teaching that Saul's first battle involved the Philistines and Goliath (*) as further examples for this particular category of mistake in the Qur’an.4

Anachronism/Misplacement of future figures in the past: Haman as the vizier of Pharaoh in Moses’ time

One of the prominent examples for the historic misplacements and blunders5 in the Qur’an is Haman’s appearance in Egypt along with the Pharaoh of Moses’ time. The ordered and detailed narrative in Surah 28 explicitly refers to Haman as an evil man complying with Pharaoh’s plans for the persecution of the Israelites, affiliating him directly with Pharaoh’s administration:

And We desired to show favour unto those who were oppressed in the earth, and to make them examples and to make them the inheritors. And to establish them in the earth, and to show Pharaoh and Haman and their hosts that which they feared from them. (Surah 28:5-6 Pickthall)

And the family of Pharaoh took him up, that he might become for them an enemy and a sorrow, Lo! Pharaoh and Haman and their hosts were ever sinning. (Surah 28:8 Pickthall)

The Qur’an also implies that Haman, as one of the few characters called by his personal name, was second to none in terms of helping Pharaoh when it claims that Pharaoh asked for Haman’s assistance in order to deride and defy Moses:

And Pharaoh said: O chiefs! I know not that ye have a god other than me, so kindle for me (a fire), O Haman, to bake the mud; and set up for me a lofty tower in order that I may survey the God of Moses; and lo! I deem him of the liars. (Surah 28:38 Pickthall)

And Pharaoh said: O Haman! Build for me a tower that haply I may reach the roads, The roads of the heavens, and may look upon the God of Moses, though verily I think him a liar. Thus was the evil that he did made fairseeming unto Pharaoh, and he was debarred from the (right) way. The plot of Pharaoh ended but in ruin. (Surah 40:36-37 Pickthall)

Actually, Haman was the name of the Persian King Ahasuerus’ vizier, who lived many centuries after the Exodus. The book of Esther in the Bible relates Haman’s story and designates him as a bitter enemy that plotted to exterminate the Jews:

Some time later King Ahasuerus promoted Haman the son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, exalting him and setting his position above that of all the officials who were with him. As a result, all the king’s servants who were at the king’s gate were bowing and paying homage to Haman, for the king had so commanded. However, Mordecai did not bow, nor did he pay him homage. Then the servants of the king who were at the king’s gate asked Mordecai, “Why are you violating the king’s commandment?” And after they had spoken to him day after day without his paying any attention to them, they informed Haman to see whether this attitude on Mordecai’s part would be permitted. Furthermore, he had disclosed to them that he was a Jew. When Haman saw that Mordecai was not bowing or paying homage to him, he was filled with rage. But the thought of striking out against Mordecai alone was repugnant to him, for he had been informed of the identity of Mordecai’s people. So Haman sought to destroy all the Jews (that is, the people of Mordecai) who were in all the kingdom of Ahasuerus. (Esther 3:1-5 NET Bible)

However, when Esther, the daughter of Mordecai’s uncle, was chosen by the King to be the new queen of his reign, Haman’s evil plots to conduct genocide on the Jews were destroyed. As a result of the twist of his fortune, Haman was murdered by the King’s command (Esther 7:1-10), and the Jews were thus delivered from his plans of massacre (Esther 8 and 9). Mohammad picked up Haman the Agagite from the book of Esther and pushed him backward in time so as to make him Pharaoh’s greatest assistant and ally in hostility towards the Jews living in Egypt.

Haman’s erroneous placement in history was the natural outcome of Mohammad’s desire to harmonize the story of Israel’s deliverance from Pharaoh in the book of Exodus and that of the Jews’ deliverance from Haman in the book of Esther. Certainly, the major factor contributing to the combination of these two independent narratives was Haman’s identification as the second greatest enemy of the Jews in history, the first being the Pharaoh of the Exodus. This sequence gave Mohammad the wrong impression that Haman was the second enemy of the Jews along with Pharaoh, which naturally made Haman Pharaoh’s vizier in the Qur’an. Additionally, Mohammad’s eyes caught a significant thematic similarity between the first chapter of Exodus and the third chapter of Esther. In the former account Pharaoh was said to plan the slaughter of the Jews right after his coming to power whilst in the latter Haman was said to have the same hideous plan right after gaining his high administrative position. This parallelism also explains why Haman was overtly inserted into the same verse with Pharaoh in the 28th chapter of the Qur’an, which is a chapter following the order of the story in the first chapter of Exodus.6

Rather interestingly, the Qur’an refers to Haman along with Pharaoh in two other instances where biblical Korah (Qarun in the original language of the Islamic scripture) makes a mysterious appearance as the third person included into the group of Pharaoh and Haman:

(Remember also) Qarun, Pharaoh, and Haman: there came to them Moses with Clear Signs, but they behaved with insolence on the earth; yet they could not overreach (Us). (Surah 29:39 Yusuf Ali)

Of old We sent Moses, with Our Signs and an authority manifest, To Pharaoh, Haman, and Qarun; but they called (him)" a sorcerer telling lies!" (Surah 40:23-24 Yusuf Ali)

In order to decipher this mysterious reference, it is crucial to analyze what Mohammad taught about the biblical Korah and whether he made any additions to Korah’s story in the Bible.

Qarun (Korah) in Mohammad’s Scripture and Another Case of Confusion

A reader checking the biblical figures in the Islamic scripture is surprised to see there a certain notorious man named Qarun, which is later understood to be the distorted version of the biblical name Korah. The single and most detailed reference to Qarun in the Qur’an occurs in the 28th chapter:

Qarun was doubtless, of the people of Moses; but he acted insolently towards them: such were the treasures We had bestowed on him that their very keys would have been a burden to a body of strong men, behold, his people said to him: "Exult not, for Allah loveth not those who exult (in riches). But seek, with the (wealth) which Allah has bestowed on thee, the Home of the Hereafter, nor forget thy portion in this world: but do thou good, as Allah has been good to thee, and seek not (occasions for) mischief in the land: for Allah loves not those who do mischief." He said: "This has been given to me because of a certain knowledge which I have." Did he not know that Allah had destroyed, before him, (whole) generations,--which were superior to him in strength and greater in the amount (of riches) they had collected? but the wicked are not called (immediately) to account for their sins. So he went forth among his people in the (pride of his wordly) glitter. Said those whose aim is the Life of this World: "Oh! that we had the like of what Qarun has got! for he is truly a lord of mighty good fortune!" But those who had been granted (true) knowledge said: "Alas for you! The reward of Allah (in the Hereafter) is best for those who believe and work righteousness: but this none shall attain, save those who steadfastly persevere (in good)." Then We caused the earth to swallow up him and his house; and he had not (the least little) party to help him against Allah, nor could he defend himself. And those who had envied his position the day before began to say on the morrow: "Ah! it is indeed Allah Who enlarges the provision or restricts it, to any of His servants He pleases! had it not been that Allah was gracious to us, He could have caused the earth to swallow us up! Ah! those who reject Allah will assuredly never prosper." (Surah 28:76-82 Yusuf Ali)

From this account we find out that

  1. Qarun was an Israelite, being from Moses’ folk.
  2. Qarun was a notorious character because he was arrogant and rebellious.
  3. Qarun was haughty because he was an extremely rich person. (His tremendous wealth is expressed through a hyperbole.)
  4. Qarun was also a wise man, which was associated with his arrogance. (He claimed he was rich because of his knowledge of things.)
  5. Qarun’s pride was punished by Allah when the earth swallowed him and his house.

Apart from the name Qarun, none of these teachings or elements is peculiar to the Qur’an as the Old Testament designates Korah in almost identical terms. Below are the major biblical references to Korah:

Now Korah son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, and Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth, who were Reubenites, took men and rebelled against Moses, along with some of the Israelites, 250 leaders of the community, chosen from the assembly, famous men. And they assembled against Moses and Aaron, saying to them, “You take too much upon yourselves, seeing that the whole community is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the community of the Lord?” (Number 16:1-3 NET Bible)

Then Moses said, “This is how you will know that the Lord has sent me to do all these works, for I have not done them of my own will. If these men die a natural death, or if they share the fate of all men, then the Lord has not sent me. But if the Lord does something entirely new, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them up along with all that they have, and they go down alive to the grave, then you will know that these men have despised the Lord!” When he had finished speaking all these words, the ground that was under them split open, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them, along with their households, and all Korah’s men, and all their goods. They and all that they had went down alive into the pit, and the earth closed over them. So they perished from among the community. All the Israelites who were around them fled at their cry, for they said, “What if the earth swallows us too?” (Numbers 16:28-34 NET Bible)

The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and Korah at the time that company died, when the fire consumed 250 men. So they became a warning. (Numbers 26:10 NET Bible)

Apparently, these biblical accounts about Korah do not have the information in the Qur’an that Qarun was an extremely wealthy man and that his arrogance resulted from both his wealth and wisdom, but it will not be right to blame Mohammad for inventing the additional elements in Qarun’s story. This is because Qarun’s depiction as a very rich and knowledgeable man in the 28th chapter of the Qur’an is taken from rabbinical literature, which gives us the right to blame Mohammad for plagiarizing from the Talmud and mixing biblical data with commentaries made on them. The Jewish Encyclopedia contains the following information about the references to Korah in rabbinical literature:

The name "Korah" [...] is explained by the Rabbis as meaning "baldness." It was given to Korah on account of the gap or blank which he made in Israel by his revolt (Sanh. 109b). Korah is represented as the possessor of extraordinary wealth, he having discovered one of the treasures which Joseph had hidden in Egypt. The keys of Korah's treasuries alone formed a load for three hundred mules (Pes. 119a; Sanh. 110a). He and Haman were the two richest men in the world, and both perished on account of their rapacity, and because their riches were not the gift of Heaven (Num. R. xxii. 7; comp. Ex. R. li. 1). On the other hand, Korah is represented as a wise man, chief of his family and as one of the Kohathites who carried the Ark of the Covenant on their shoulders (Tan., ed. Buber, Korah, Supplement, 5; Num. R. xviii. 2). (Source)

This information contains a remarkable parallelism between Haman and Korah on the basis of their extraordinary riches, which may have played an important role in Mohammad’s presentation of Haman as a contemporary of Korah and, through him, of the Israelites at the time of the exodus from Egypt.

Still, not even the rabbinical literature confirms or explains the probable reasons for Korah’s awkward and mysterious inclusion by Mohammad into the same group as Pharaoh and Haman in two verses of the Qur’an. The answer to this question and the relevant solution to this mystery of the Qur’an can be found if the following biblical verses are read carefully and compared to the two verses of the Qur’an:

“Tell the community: ‘Get away from around the homes of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.’” (Numbers 16:24 NET Bible)

So they got away from the homes of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram on every side, and Dathan and Abiram came out and stationed themselves in the entrances of their tents with their wives, their children, and their toddlers. (Numbers 16:27 NET Bible)

It was Dathan and Abiram who as leaders of the community rebelled against Moses and Aaron with the followers of Korah when they rebelled against the Lord. (Numbers 26:9 NET Bible)

All these verses talk of Korah as the third of the three rebellious and notorious characters that opposed Moses and Aaron in the desert after the exodus from Egypt. Actually, this triplet is composed of Korah’s insertion into the same group with Dathan and Abiram although in some other verses of the Bible Abiram and Dathan form an independent couple because of Korah’s separation from them:

Then Moses summoned Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, but they said, “We will not come up”. (Numbers 16:12 NET Bible)

Then Moses got up and went to Dathan and Abiram; and the elders of Israel went after him. (Numbers 16:25 NET Bible)

Or what he did to Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab the Reubenite, when the earth opened its mouth in the middle of the Israelite camp and swallowed them, their families, their tents, and all the property they brought with them. (Deuteronomy 11:6 NET Bible)

The earth opened up and swallowed Dathan; it engulfed the group led by Abiram. (Psalm 106:17 NET Bible)

Likewise, it is stated in Numbers 16 that Moses addressed and warned Korah and his community separately from Dathan and Abiram:

When Moses heard it he fell down with his face to the ground. Then he said to Korah and to all his company, “In the morning the Lord will make known who are his, and who is holy. He will cause that person to approach him; the person he has chosen he will cause to approach him. (Numbers 16:4-5 NET Bible)

Then Moses said to Korah, “You and all your company present yourselves before the Lord – you and they, and Aaron – tomorrow. And each of you take his censer, put incense in it, and then each of you present his censer before the Lord: 250 censers, along with you, and Aaron – each of you with his censer.” So everyone took his censer, put fire in it, and set incense on it, and stood at the entrance of the tent of meeting, with Moses and Aaron. When Korah assembled the whole community against them at the entrance of the tent of meeting, then the glory of the Lord appeared to the whole community. (Numbers 16:16-19 NET Bible)

Nevertheless, in Numbers 16:24 and 27 Korah, Dathan, and Abiram were mentioned in the same sentence as a triplet because they had rebelled against Moses and Aaron in the same place and at the same time, getting the same kind of instant punishment. Thanks to this thematic parallelism, the appearance of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram’s name in the same sentence in biblical verses turned into a traditional form of reference used in remembrance of the opposition of certain Israelites in the desert. Accordingly, even non-canonical Christian scriptures employed this usage. For instance, in the Gospel of James we read that the priest reminded Joseph of this triplet while urging him to obey God’s commandments and take Virgin Mary into his house from the temple:

And the priest said unto Joseph: Fear the Lord thy God, and remember what things God did unto Dathan and Abiram and Korah, how the earth clave and they were swallowed up because of their gainsaying. And now fear thou, Joseph, lest it be so in thine house. And Joseph was afraid, and took her to keep her for himself. (Gospel of James IX:1)

Mohammad was certainly aware of this triplet and decided to incorporate it into his Qur’an. However, he ignored the fact that there were two separate occasions of arrogant opposition against Moses (one from Pharaoh in Egypt and the other from his own folk in the desert) and concluded that Qarun (Korah) had rebelled against Moses together with Pharaoh and Haman! This rough combination of the two independent incidents prompted Mohammad to replace biblical Abiram with Pharaoh and biblical Dathan with Haman in his Qur’an.

Korah’s misplacement7 into the same group with Pharaoh and Haman in the Qur’an was not only related to thematic similarities between two occasions of rebellious acts that Moses faced. The names of the arrogant actors of these rebellions also sounded similar to Mohammad. Although the name Abiram and the Arabic word for Pharaoh are not so similar, the case changes in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. In the Septuagint (LXX) the name “Abiram” is surprisingly modified to “Abiron”, which is pronounced “Aviron” (Avir’on) as Greek language stipulates the pronunciation of the phoneme “B” as “V”:8

And they stood aloof from the tent of Core round about; and Dathan and Abiron went forth and stood by the doors of their tents, and their wives and their children and their store.

καὶ ἀπέστησαν ἀπὸ τῆς σκηνῆς Κορὲ κύκλῳ· καὶ Δαθὰν καὶ ᾿Αβειρὼν ἐξῆλθον καὶ εἱστήκεισαν παρὰ τὰς θύρας τῶν σκηνῶν αὐτῶν καὶ αἱ γυναῖκες αὐτῶν καὶ τὰ τέκνα αὐτῶν καὶ ἡ ἀποσκευὴ αὐτῶν. (Numbers 16:27 Septuagint)

“Aviron” is obviously much closer to Fir’on, that is, “Fir’avn” of the Qur’an. Mohammad, who was more familiar with the Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures, most likely heard the name “Aviron” and concluded on the basis of its phonological similarity to the word Pharaoh in Arabic that rebellious and haughty “Abiron”, who had been punished by God through a disastrous death, was the same person as Pharaoh. Biblical Dathan’s replacement with Haman was also quite smooth, for these two names had similar sounds. However, the primary reason for this easy alteration was Mohammad’s previous misplacement of Haman into Pharaoh’s story.

Now that we know Mohammad distorted the original triplet (Dathan, Abiram, and Korah) in the Bible by replacing Abiram with Pharaoh and Dathan with Haman, things start to get clear for us as we can find answers to the following questions:

Q: Why did Mohammad talk of Korah always in association with Pharaoh and Haman?

A: Because the biblical account did so with regard to Dathan, Abiram, and Korah in Numbers 16 and a few other places.

Q: Why did Mohammad locate Korah’s story in Surah 28, which referred to Pharaoh and Haman as a couple?

A: Because Mohammad knew that in some verses of the Bible Korah was separated from the couple of Dathan and Abiram, but still appeared in the same chapter with them.

Q: Why did Mohammad claim in Surah 40:24 that Moses had been sent to Korah in addition to Pharaoh and Haman?

A: Because the Bible (Numbers 16) said that Moses went and talked to Dathan and Abiram, and Korah in order to warn them.

Q: Why did Mohammad maintain the names Pharaoh, Haman, and Qarun in Surah 29:39?

A: Because in that verse Mohammad emphasized these three characters’ arrogance, which had been one of the factors contributing to his confusion of the two distinct rebellions against Moses and his misplacement of Korah in the Qur’an.

Finally, we can ask the question why Mohammad changed the biblical name “Korah” into “Qarun”. The reason for this modification was most likely Mohammad’s wish to imply Korah’s affiliation with Levi with the help of a name that sounded almost identical to Aaron in Arabic (Haroun), for Aaron also descended from Levi (Numbers 16:1).


The analysis of all these different types of mistakes and confusions in the Qur’an proves that Mohammad was rather good at fabricating things with the help of a few casual similarities he himself drew from the sources he abused. It is no wonder that he became the founder of a world religion that is but a faulty harmonization of various distorted beliefs. Unlike Mohammad’s followers, who consider him the seal of the prophets, his mistakes in the Qur’an compel us to consider him a great blunderer who betrayed the notions of “peculiarity” and “distinction” through rough harmonization of the biblical events and figures.


1 Other examples for this particular category of mistake in the Qur’an are the replacement of Mary’s infancy in Pseudo-Matthew with John’s in Surah 19 (*), Jacob’s replacement with Moses in Surah 28 (Mohammad taught that Moses worked for his father-in-law in order to marry one of his daughters) (*), and Gideon’s confusion with Saul in Surah 2 (1, 2, 3).

2 Ibn Kathir has the following comment on this particular designation in the Qur'an: (O Sister of Harun!) This means, "O one resembling Harun (Aaron) in worship" (source).

3 In Pseudo-Matthew Mary journeys to Egypt to escape Herod's plans after Jesus' birth in Bethlehem and the magi's arrival from the East. In the Qur'an, however, Mary goes in a rush to a distant place after the angel's arrival in the East. This is why it is possible to say that the distant place Mary heads for in Surah 19 corresponds to Egypt in Pseudo-Matthew, the time of the miraculous provision of fruit and water forming a link between these destinations.

4 A variation of the "combination of events" is the duplication of events, repeating it at another time, or distributing a certain aspect to several distinct events, for example: The Qur’an argues that Pharaoh threatened to slaughter the sons of the Israelites twice (*). Likewise, it contends that Potiphar wanted to adopt Joseph in the same way as Pharaoh's wife supposedly wanted to adopt Moses (*).

5 The assertion that God made an explicit reference to the Gospel (Injil) in Moses' time (Surah 7:157) (*), the presentation of crucifixion as a means of capital punishment practiced in both Joseph and Moses’ era (*), and the Israelites’ alleged encounter with a Samaritan in the desert (*) are further examples illustrating Qur’an’s historical mistakes related to anachronism.

6 For further information on biblical Haman’s incorporation into the Qur’an, we recommend Jochen Katz’ article that analyzes the similarities between Haman in the Bible and in the Qur’an.

7 Ishmael’s occurrence in Abraham's progeny as the father of Isaac and Jacob (*) is another example for misplacement of figures in the Qur’an.

8 The pronunciation of the Greek phonemes can be checked from this chart.

Articles by Masud Masihiyyen
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