Evidence and New Research
By Keith Thompson
According to the Koran Muhammad was accused of stealing various stories. For example, Koran 25:5 says, “And they say, ‘Legends of the former peoples which he has written down, and they are dictated to him morning and afternoon’” (Koran 25:5). The fact of the matter is many stories of the Koran have been traced back to various uninspired texts.
That much of the Koran was plagiarized from earlier uninspired Jewish, Christian and Gnostic texts, has been proven in W. St. Clair Tisdall’s book The Original Sources of the Qur’an and other works. Such uninspired original texts include apocryphal works, midrashim, targumim, and apocryphal Gnostic works, etc. The Koran mentions various biblical figures. Yet many of its stories about these figures are not found in the inspired Jewish and Christian scriptures. Well, where then do they come from?
Abraham Being Delivered from Fire
The story of Abraham being delivered from fire which Nimrod created to destroy him, is found in numerous passages of the Koran (Koran 2:260; 6:74-84; 30:52-72; 19:42-50; 26:69-79; 29:15-16; 38:81-95; 43:25-27; 60:4). According to this story Abraham’s father used to make idols and Abraham sold them. Abraham disliked this and mocked the purchase of such idols. Abraham then preached monotheism and tried to convert his father and the people. His father refused. Then news spread about Abraham’s preaching and it reached Nimrod. Nimrod then put Abraham in a fire from which Abraham escaped.
This Koranic story comes from Midrash Genesis Rabba which is a fifth century uninspired Jewish homiletical interpretation of the Bible. As Jewish literature experts Paul V. M. Flesher and Bruce Chilton note, “midrash Genesis Rabba came to completion during the fifth century” (Paul V. M. Flesher, Bruce Chilton, The Targums: A Critical Introduction, [BRILL, 2011], p. 450). It states,
“Terah was a maker of idols. Once he went out somewhere, and seated Abraham as salesman in place of himself. A person would come, wishing to purchase, and Abraham would say to him, ‘How old art thou?’ and he [the other] would say to him, Fifty’ or ‘Sixty years.’ And he [Abraham] would say unto him, ‘Woe to that man who is sixty years of age, and wisheth to worship a thing a few days old!’. . . . He [Terah] delivered him over to Nimrod. He [Nimrod] said to him, ‘Let us worship the fire.’ . . . . If thou bandiest words with me, lo! I worship naught but the fire; lo I cast thee into the midst of it, and let the God whom thou worshippest come and deliver thee from it!’ Abraham went down into the furnace of fire and was delivered” (Midrash Genesis Rabba Ch. 17, on Gen. 15:7).
This is the same story we find in the Koran. Now, the interesting thing which proves this story is false, and how it reached Muhammad, is that when translating Genesis 15:7 from Hebrew to Aramaic, which says Abraham was brought from Ur of the Chaldeans, Jonathan Ben Uzziel in his targum wrongly rendered the Babylonian word “Ur” into the Aramaic word “fire.” This is because he did not know the meaning of the Babylonian word “Ur” which means “city,” and he confused it with the Hebrew word “Or” which can mean “light” or “fire.” Thus, in his Targum Jonathan Ben Uzziel he falsely rendered Genesis 15:7’s mention “the Lord who brought Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldeans” as “the Lord who brought Abraham out of the fire.” Then Jewish writers ran with this error and the idea of Abraham being delivered from fire ended up in the Midrash. Then, as we showed, this story with the error found its way orally into the Koran.
Thus, Muhammad taught Abraham was delivered from fire because of an earlier Jewish mistranslation of Genesis 15:7:
“Nimrod . . . commanded Abram to be cast into the furnace. . . . I am the Lord who brought thee out of the fiery furnace of the Kasdai” (Targum Jonathan Ben Uzziel, Genesis 14:1; 15:7).“And he said to him, ‘I am the LORD who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess’” (Genesis 15:7).
Solomon and Bathsheba
In Koran 27:17-44 there is the Story of Solomon and Bathsheba. Here the Koran says Solomon trained birds in battle to drop stones on enemies. Then Solomon could not find his Hoopoe bird and got upset. But the Hoopoe bird then came to Solomon talking to him and told him about this woman named Queen Bathsheba. Then Solomon sent the Hoopoe bird with a letter to give Bathsheba. After a quarrel Bathsheba ended up at Solomon’s palace and when entering Solomon’s court she lifted up her dress uncovering her legs because she thought the floor was full of water when really it was made of glass.
Now, this exact tale comes from the earlier uninspired Jewish Second Targum of Esther (a.k.a “Targum Sheni”) which says,
“One day, the king [Solomon], observing that the mountain-cock or hoopoe was absent, ordered that the bird be summoned forthwith. When it arrived it declared that it had for three months been flying hither and thither seeking to discover some country not yet subjected to Solomon, and had at length found a land in the East, exceedingly rich in gold, silver, and plants, whose capital was called "Kitor" and whose ruler was a woman, known as 'the Queen of Saba [Sheba].' The bird suggested that it should fly to the queen and bring her to Solomon. The king approved this proposal; and Solomon, accordingly, caused a letter to be tied to the hoopoe's wing. . . . On being informed of her arrival, Solomon sent his chief minister, Benaiah, to meet her, and then seated himself in a glass pavillon. The queen, thinking that the king was sitting in water, lifted her dress, which caused Solomon to smile” (Second Targum of Esther, quoted in The Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. 11, eds. Isidore Singer, Cyrus Adler, [Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1907], p. 443).
This is the exact story found in the Koran. Because of this Targum’s reflection of persecution from Byzantine Catholics and due to linguistic reasons, the Targum expert Bernard Grossfield dates it to the early 7th century at the end of the Byzantine period, before the rise of Islam (Bernard Grossfield, Two Targums of Esther, pp. 7-8, 19-24). This dating is confirmed by the German scholar Beate Ego (Beate Ego, Targum Sheni, pp. 21-25). In fact, the Encyclopedia of Religious and Philosophical Writings in Late Antiquity edited by Jacob Neusner and Alan Jeffery Avery-Peck notes most scholars today agree with this dating (Encyclopedia of Religious and Philosophical Writings in Late Antiquity, eds. Jacob Neusner, Alan Jeffery Avery-Peck [Brill, 2007], p. 112). Since this Targum was composed prior to the rise of Islam and later spreading of the Koran, it could not have borrowed the story from the Koran. The Koran borrowed the uninspired, silly tale from the Targum, orally.
Mary, Jesus and the Palm Tree
Now, in Koran 19:22-26 a story is told of Mary being pregnant with Jesus and then traveling to a far place to give birth where she then rests under a palm tree. God tells her to shake the trunk of the tree so dates would drop from it. Then she ate and drank becoming refreshed. This tale is found in the uninspired apocryphal book The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (a.k.a. “History of the Nativity of Mary and the Infancy of the Savior”). It says,
“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. . . . she looked up to the foliage of the palm, and saw it full of fruit, and said to Joseph: I wish it were possible to get some of the fruit of this palm. And Joseph said to her . . . I am thinking more of the want of water, because the skins are now empty, and we have none wherewith to refresh ourselves and our cattle. Then the child Jesus . . . 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” (The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, Ch. 20).
As to the dating of this apocryphal book, Bart Ehrman argues for a date of composition in the first quarter of the seventh century which is prior to the rise of Islam and the spread of the Koran. He notes,
“M. Berthold has argued that Pseudo-Matthew shows evidence of literary dependence on the Vita Agnetis of Pseudo-Ambrose, which itself was used in the De Virginitate of Aldhelm of Malmesbury in 690 CE. On these grounds, Psuedo-Matthew must obviously date to some time in the mid seventh-century at the earliest. In the most thorough analysis to date, Gijsel has maintained that even though direct literary dependence on the Rule of Benedict cannot be demonstrated, there are enough general similarities to suggest that the book was written when monastic orders were beginning to expand in the West, by someone invested in them. Largely on these grounds he makes a convincing argument that the text was produced in the first quarter of the seventh century, by a monk in the Latin-speaking West. . .” (Bart Ehrman, The Other Gospels, [Oxford University Press, 2014], p. 39).
Thus, again we have the Koran orally borrowing fables from uninspired, earlier books.
Jesus Speaking from the Cradle
Next, in various Koranic verses (e.g. Koran 3:41-42; 5:109-110; 19:29-31) we see Jesus speaking in his cradle. For example, Koran 19:29-30 says, “But she pointed to him. They said: How should we speak to one who is a child in the cradle? He said: I am indeed a servant of Allah. He has given me the Book and made me a prophet. And He has made me blessed wherever I may be, and He has enjoined on me prayer and poor-rate so long as I live” (Koran 19:29-30).
This idea of Jesus speaking to his mother from the cradle comes from The Arabic Gospel of the Infancy of the Saviour. In that document we read, “. . . Jesus spoke, and, indeed, when He was lying in His cradle said to Mary His mother: I am Jesus, the Son of God, the Logos, whom thou hast brought forth, as the Angel Gabriel announced to thee; and my Father has sent me for the salvation of the world” (The Arabic Gospel of the Infancy of the Saviour, 1). Muhammad simply altered the wording to fit his theology. This document is dated from the fifth to sixth century (Bart Ehrman, The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot, [Oxford University Press, 2006], p. 47).
The same idea of Jesus speaking from the cradle can also be found in the earlier Infancy Gospel of Thomas which the aforementioned Arabic Gospel of the Infancy utilized. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas says, “being an infant he [Jesus] uttered such things” (Infancy Gospel of Thomas, 15). This document is dated to the end of the second century (Fred Lapham, An Introduction to the New Testament Apocrypha, [A&C Black, 2003], p. 131). It is a Gnostic text and its story of Jesus speaking as an infant with wisdom was made up or invented to promote the Gnostic idea of Jesus’ extraordinary Gnosis or wisdom as well as him not being of this physical world but instead being spiritual. This is because, according to Gnostics, matter is evil and spirit is good (Fred Lapham, An Introduction to the New Testament Apocrypha, [A&C Black, 2003], p. 130).
Thus, Muhammad incorrectly assumed these uninspired, apocryphal, invented Gnostic tales he heard orally were reliable and included them into the Koran. What a disaster. Muhammad did not have the Bible translated into Arabic, so he could not check if such stories were reliable and canonical.
Jesus Creating Birds from Dust
Now, in Koran 3:49 and 5:109-110 we are told about Jesus creating birds out of dust and then breathing life into them. This idea comes from the same sources just mentioned, the fifth to sixth century Arabic Gospel of the Infancy of the Saviour and the late second century Gnostic Infancy Gospel of Thomas. The accounts state:
“He [Jesus] had made figures of birds and sparrows, which flew when He told them to fly. . .” (The Arabic Gospel of the Infancy of the Saviour, 36).
“Then he took from the bank of the stream some soft clay and formed out of it twelve sparrows; and there were other boys playing with him. . . . Then Jesus clapping together the palms of his hands, called to the sparrows, and said to them: Go, fly away; and while you live remember me” (Infancy Gospel of Thomas, 1).
Here again, Muhammad incorrectly assumed these uninspired, apocryphal, invented Gnostic tales he heard orally were reliable and canonical, and thus included them into the Koran because he did not have the Bible translated into Arabic.
Companions of the Cave
In Koran 18:8-25 we are told about a legend of companions of the cave. In this story a group of seven youths and their dog take refuge in a cave from danger and miraculously they are able to sleep in it for about three-hundred years, after which they wake up and leave.
This legend of seven sleepers or companions in a cave actually comes from two uninspired Syriac homilies of Jacob of Sarug in the early 6th century as well as Gregory of Tours’ Latin version from the late 6th century (Gabriel, Said, Reynolds, Seven Sleepers, ed. Josef W. Meri, Medieval Islamic Civilization: An Encyclopedia, [Routledge, 2006], p. 720). The story spread rapidly into other languages after its composition showing how attractive the silly legend was (Gabriel, Said, Reynolds, Seven Sleepers, ed. Josef W. Meri, Medieval Islamic Civilization: An Encyclopedia, [Routledge, 2006], p. 720).
Satan and Adam
The story of Iblis (i.e., Satan) and Adam is found in various texts of the Koran (e. g. Koran 2:30, 34; 7:11-18; 15:28-44; 17:61-65; 18:50; 20:116-117; 38:71-85). In this tale God commands the angels to prostrate before Adam but Satan refuses because he said he is better than Adam since Adam was only created from clay. Then Satan is expelled from heaven.
The expert on Koranic origins and oral composition, Andrew Bannister, tell us which uninspired pre-Islamic texts this story comes from:
“The oldest extant version of the story is that found in Vita Adae et Evae 13:1-16:3 which some scholars argue could originally be as old as 100BC, although the current Latin text dates to circa AD 400. In this version, the story is told in the first person, with Satan explaining to Adam why he was cast out of heaven. Satan reports that it was Michael who had brought Adam before the angels and commanded them to worship him; Satan refused, protesting that Adam was younger and inferior, so Adam should be worshipped by him! Michael continued to insist upon obedience but Satan and many angels refused, following which God cast them out of heaven. There are many Jewish versions of Iblis and Adam, including allusions to the tale in both 2 Enoch and a myariad rabbinic uses of the story. Ginzeberg discusses these, several of which combine it and the account of Adam naming the animals (as does sura 2). . . . Satan protests to God that he and the angels had been created from Shekinah glory itself and were now being asked to prostrate to a thing made from dust! It is at this point that God asks Satan to demonstrate his superiority by naming the animals; he fails, Adam succeeds, and Satan is cast out of heaven” (Andrew Bannister, An Oral-Formulaic Study of the Qur'an, [Lexington Books, 2014], p. 6).
Bannister also notes the story is found in some uninspired Christian documents like third century The Gospel of Bartholomew 4:51-55 and the sixth century The Book of the Cave of Treasure. Bannister concludes,
“Thus it is clear that various forms of the Iblis and Adam story enjoyed a wide provenance in the centuries preceding Islam and were well known within both Jewish and Christian communities. When the Qur’an emerged in the seventh-century, it did so in an oral culture in which Biblicist traditions were freely circulating and thus there existed a large pool of commonly known stories and traditions to fish from” (Andrew Bannister, An Oral-Formulaic Study of the Qur'an, [Lexington Books, 2014], p. 7).
This Koranic story does not come from God. It came from the minds of earlier uninspired men writing much too long after the alleged events for the story to even be considered to be true. In fact, to seal the deal, Bannister has shown there are three common elements that appear in all seven Koranic versions of the story, are the same three common elements present in the pre-Islamic sources which tell this story (Andrew Bannister, An Oral-Formulaic Study of the Qur'an, [Lexington Books, 2014], pp. 11-12). This proves the Koran lifted the story from those earlier sources.
Alexander the Great in Surah 18
Muhammad taught Alexander the Great was a righteous Muslim who believed in and obeyed Allah. In Surah 18 of the Koran Dhu'l-Qarnayn, which means “two horns,” is said to be a man who had Allah’s support (Koran 18:84-86), was holy and righteous (Koran 18:87-88), and believed in, worked with, and obeyed Allah (Koran 18:87, 95, 98).
That the author of the Koran viewed this Dhu'l-Qarnayn as Alexander the Great is greatly evidenced. First, many of Islam’s greatest commentators of the Koran affirm these verses are about Alexander the Great: Tafsir al-Jalalayn, al-Razi, al-Kindi, al-Farabi, Daryabadi, Yusuf Ali, etc. Second, on ancient coins there are drawings of Alexander the Great with “two horns” on his head (Vincent Barletta, Death in Babylon: Alexander the Great and Iberian Empire in the Muslim Orient, [University of Chicago Press, 2010], pp. 183-184) which is significant since, again, the Koranic character's name, Dhu'l-Qarnayn, means “two horns.” Third, Arabs like Al-Asha who was a poet living shortly prior to Muhammad and Hassan Ibn Thabit who was contemporary with Muhammad called Alexander the Great Dhu'l-Qarnayn (Richard Stoneman, Alexander the Great, eds. Stelios Panayotakis, Maaike Zimmerman, Wytse Hette Keulen, The Ancient Novel and Beyond, [BRILL, 2003], p. 8).
Thus, the expert on Alexander the Great, Richard Stoneman, affirms “. . .the two names [Alexander the Great and Dhu'l-Qarnayn] were already synonymous when Muhammad came to compose this sura of the Qur’an” (Richard Stoneman, Alexander the Great, eds. Stelios Panayotakis, Maaike Zimmerman, Wytse Hette Keulen, The Ancient Novel and Beyond, [BRILL, 2003], p. 8 parenthesis mine).
Modern scholars have shown the Koranic story of this Dhu'l-Qarnayn in Surah 18 actually comes from the pre-Islamic, mythical Syriac source called A Christian Legend Concerning Alexander translated into English by Sir Ernest Alfred Wallis Budge in 1889. When one compares the Koranic story in Surah 18 to this Syriac story of Alexander the Great side by side, there is no question this is where the Koran got the Alexander fable. There are more than eleven similar features between the two stories such as Alexander having two horns, being given power, the sun rising on people with no cover, punishment of the unrighteous, Gog and Magog spoiling the land, and the building of a wall as a defense, etc (A Christian Legend Concerning Alexander in Sir Ernest Alfred Wallis Budge, The History of Alexander the Great, [The University Press, 1889], pp. 144-158).
As Stoneman notes,
“The commentators on the Qur’an universally assumed that Dhu'l-Qarnain here [in Surah 18] is a name of Alexander. . . . Their assumption was clearly correct, since the two stories here [in Surah 18] associated with Dhu'l-Qarnain are precisely those two [stories] associated with Alexander in the Syriac Legend of Alexander, current shortly before the composition of the Qur’an” (Richard Stoneman, Alexander the Great, eds. Stelios Panayotakis, Maaike Zimmerman, Wytse Hette Keulen, The Ancient Novel and Beyond, [BRILL, 2003], p. 8 parenthesis mine).
This proves unequivocally the Koran is not of divine origin but instead stole earlier uninspired, mythical stories or legends.
Andrew Bannister’s Oral-Formulaic Work
The only difficulty is that although all these various stories we mentioned are the same, there is no textual overlap when you examine the Koran and the stories in these pre-Islamic documents side-by-side. In other words Muhammad, or someone he knew, did not copy from these original documents word for word.
This is where Andrew Bannister’s new research comes into play. In his groundbreaking book An Oral-Formulaic Study of the Qur'an, which is based on his PhD work, he proves not only that the Koran was recited and transmitted orally, but that it was actually composed orally in live performance with formulaic diction, i.e., short, repeated phrases or groups of words that can be reused to express a key idea (Andrew Bannister, An Oral-Formulaic Study of the Qur'an, [Lexington Books, 2014], p. 30). This shows Muhammad was an oral performer or preacher fishing from a pool of oral material in his culture which can be traced back to these uninspired Jewish, Christian and Gnostic documents. With the help of computerized linguistic analysis, Bannister has proven this. He notes, “. . . oral-formulaic analysis proceeds by analyzing a text looking for the presence of repeated, formulaic phrases in a text. Formulaic diction is a tool frequently used by oral performers to facilitate composition at speed, live in performance” (Andrew Bannister, An Oral-Formulaic Study of the Qur'an, [Lexington Books, 2014], p. 30).
To further support this, Bannister also established the oral culture surrounding the Koran and the existence of “folk memory” in the Islamic sources, i.e., Muhammad’s ability to produce Koranic sayings as necessity demanded it, often in response to a question or challenge from an audience.
His conclusion based on his study is that large portions of the Koran were constructed live, in oral performance, based on earlier oral legends. Some features in the Koranic stories he brought out proving this are performance features, multiple versions of the same story exhibiting flexibility and fluidity in their telling, frequent audience asides scattered throughout the Koran, and also highly elusive referencing.
He found the Koran’s overall formulaic density ranges from 52.18% to 23.55%. A density comfortably beyond 20% is often considered to indicate formulaic borrowing or that a text was composed orally from stock phrases or elements. “Formulaic density” refers to the percentage of a given text that consists of these short, repeated phrases indicating oral composition. He found there are ninety-nine surahs in the Koran with a formulaic density of 20% or higher. Sixty-nine of these have a formulaic density of 40% or higher. Forty-five of these have a formulaic density of 50% or higher. Fourteen of these have a formulaic density of 60% or higher. And one surah, surah 61, has a formulaic density of 77% or higher.