page 17


Could Muhammad borrow from Judaism? and if so how was such borrowing possible for him?

The possibility of borrowing from Judaism lay for Muhammad, partly in the knowledge which might be imparted to him by word of mouth through intercourse with the Jews, and partly in personal knowledge of their Scriptures; while allowing him the first source of information, we must deny him the second.

From passages already quoted - to which we might add many others - we gather that there must have been great intimacy between Muhammad and the Jews, leading at times even to mutual discussion of views but this is still more clearly shown in a passage in the Second Sura,1 where the Jews are represented as double faced, professing belief when they were with him and his followers, and then when they were alone saying: "Will ye acquaint them with what God has revealed unto you, that they may dispute with you?" This shows that the Muslims learned the Jewish views from conversation only. We shall speak later of Muhammad's intimacy with 'Abdu'llah ibn Salam, and with Waraka, the cousin of Khadija, who was for some time a Jew, a learned man and acquainted with the Hebrew

page 18

language and scriptures1 so also was Habib ben Malik, a powerful Arabian prince2, who for some time professed the Jewish religion. These all afterwards became followers of the Prophet. Thus Muhammad had ample opportunity of becoming acquainted with Judaism. That his knowledge thereof was not obtained from the Scriptures is clear, from the matter actually adopted, since there are mistakes, which cannot be regarded as intentional alterations, and which would certainly have been avoided by anyone who had the very slightest acquaintance with the sources.3 It is evident also from the low level of culture to which Muhammad himself and the Jews of his time and country had attained. The contempt in which the compilers of the Talmud held the Arabian Jews, in spite of their political power, can be attributed to only by the ignorance of the latter. Though we must not conclude from this that the Jews knew nothing of the Scriptures and, though we hear of schools among them4 and even of their reading the sacred writings in the original,5 still we must doubt, if there was any widely diffused critical knowledge of the Scriptures, and we may be quite certain that Muhammad himself possessed none. Many passages testify to this. First, we may take a passage already quoted,6 where he says he had formerly no knowledge of reading and writing, and then Sura XLII. 52,7 where he denies any previous acquaintance with "the Book" or the "Faith." Even if these are mere figures of speech to prove the divine character of his mission, still it

page 19

is evident from them that he never enjoyed any reputation for learning, such as would necessarily have been accorded to him, had he really known anything of the Jewish writings, and possessing which knowledge he would have lived in fear of being proved to be an impostor.

The order in which he gives the prophets is interesting, for immediately after the patriarchs he places first Jesus, then Job, Jonah, Aaron, Solomon, and last of all David.1 In another passage2 the order is still more ridiculous, for here we have David, Solomon, Job, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, Zacharias, John, Jesus, Elijah, Ismael, Elisha, Jonah, and Lot! The incorrect spelling of the names of these prophets, as well as the parts which he assigns to them in history, proves that he had never even looked into the Hebrew Scriptures. He actually asserts that before John the Baptist no one had borne the name of John. Had he known anything of Jewish history he would have been aware that apart from some historically unimportant people of the name mentioned in Chronicles, the father and the son of the celebrated Maccabean high priest - Mattathias, were both called John. This mistake must have been obvious to the Arabic commentators, for they try to give another meaning to the clear and unmistakable words. Muhammad himself was aware of his ignorance3 and defends himself very neatly against the possible charge. For instance in two passages he asserts that God said to him "We have not spoken to thee about all the former prophets, only about some of them, of others we said nothing to thee;" thus cleverly defending himself against the accusation of having overlooked some of the prophets. We have quite enough proofs in these passages, apart from those which will come before us fully in the second part, that Muhammad was singularly ignorant of the Jewish writings, and so we

page 20

can afford to give up one thing which is generally brought forward as specially proving our point. This is the fact that in certain passages Muhammad calls himself an "'ummiyun,"1 a word which is usually translated "unlearned", or "ignorant." Wahl takes it so, and mentions it as a proof of Muhammad's ignorance. But this word has here the same meaning that is expressed by it in other passages, viz., belonging to the Arabs. It is used like the word "jahiliyat,"2 of the Arabs in their former ignorance of Islam, and Muhammad having risen from among them, thus designates himself3 without reference to his own individual knowledge.4 But, as already stated, even without this proof our conclusion holds good, viz., that because of his own ignorance especially, but also on account of that of the Jews around him, Muhammad could

page 21

attain to no knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures, though on the other hand he had abundant opportunity to study Judaism with its wealth of tradition and legend as it lived in the mouth of the people.

In the first section we have shown that Muhammad had good reasons for incorporating much taken from Judaism in his Quran. By so doing he hoped to strengthen the opinion that he was taught by direct revelation from God he had also a strong wish to win over the Jews to his kingdom of the faithful upon earth, and then, too, the legends and fanciful sayings of the Jews harmonised with his poetic nature. In the second section we have shown that he had abundant opportunities of acquainting himself with Judaism; and now in the third section, before finally determining that a borrowing from Judaism really took place, we have to consider and answer the question: Would such a borrowing have been consistent with the other views and opinions held by Muhammad?

JUDAISM AND ISLAM [Table of Contents]
Answering Islam Home Page