The Old Testament: What exactly does the Qur’an come to confirm?

It was nearly two years ago that I decided to pick up Qur’anic arabic. Partly due to my own laziness, and partly due to the fact that my studies were all done online or are self taught, it took me a while to get to the point where I could follow most of the Qur’anic dialogue in its original language (and yes, it’s quite a different book). I have just begun reading the Qur’an in arabic from start to finish for the first time. I am currently somewhere in the middle of Surah Baqarah (I began reading a couple of days ago).

Anyway, it’s 4AM and I can’t sleep. So I thought I’d write a little bit on something that struck me as interesting: The Qur’anic view of the Jewish (and therefore Christian) scripture. I think this realization has somewhat changed my view of the Old Testament, though the opinions in this post are very much premature as I have far more to learn from both the Qur’an and Old Testament scholarship. I would have reached these views quicker were I paying more attention to the Qur’an and reading it in sequence rather than what I used to do, which was to flip it open to a random page and start reading in translation. Following the internal coherence of the Qur’an subconsciously allows you to make links between parts of the text that you were unable to make before.

Whoever is reading this probably already holds the conclusions from this post: most of what I write is just what you get from reading the Qur’an as is, but my writing this down is less to inform and more to alleviate boredom so let’s go.

The Qur’an generally approves of the Old Testament text.

I think this point needs to be stressed, at least for myself, since before this I was far more cautious of accepting Old Testament stories and I came to it with indifference. I changed my opinion because of this verse in Surah Baqarah:

“Oh Children of Israel! Remember my blessings which I favored you with, and fulfil my covenant as I fulfil your covenant, and fear only Me.

And believe in what I have sent down, confirming what is with you (ma’akum) and do not become the first to disbelieve in it, and do not exchange My signs for a small price, and fear only Me.” (Qur’an 2:40-41)

The Qur’an does not name the Jewish Scripture, but it is clear it speaking of the Old Testament, or atleast the Old Testament copies in possession of the Medinan Jews (on a tangent, but perhaps that could be a future research topic for me: what was the arabian jewish canon?)

Some questions arise: What exactly does it come to confirm? I have not read enough to make any definite statements. I may write a follow up post as I make more progress through the Qur’an.

“Woe to those who write the book with their hands”

Next we see a series of charges against the scripture of the Jews that seem to mediate its previous approval of the book. Two certain verses of the Qur’an seem to hold this notion.

“Do you really hope that they will believe for you even though a group of from them used to hear the words of God then distorted it (yuharrifoonahu) after understanding it, while they were knowing?” (Qur’an 2:75)

What the Qur’an seems to say is that there were Jews, before the Jews of Arabia, that received scripture and distorted it intentionally. This does then obviously mean that not all of the hebrew bible is therefore to be believed in.

More intriguing is verse 79:

“So woe to those who write the book with their own hands and say, ‘This is from God’, so that they may trade it for a small gain, woe to them for what they write with their hands, and woe to them for what they earn!”

This is probably the only undeniably explicit charge against the jews of distortion or corruption of scripture through writing. This is significant because the old testament is a composition of many books of uncertain origin that, at various points in time, ended up being thought of as scripture from God.

Divine scripture, the Torah of Moses, and the authorship of the old testament

That’s really all of the Qur’an I’ve read for now in arabic. I might write some follow up posts if I find something interesting.

So what was the point of what I just wrote above? I think it’s important to find a good balance between critical scholarship on the authorship of the hebrew bible and what the Qur’an says about it. The Qur’an endorses both criticism of it and acceptance of its (perhaps broad) essentials.

As is accepted by pretty much all of scholarship by now, Moses most definitely had little to do with the current “Torah”; that is, the five books of the old testament that jews believe were given to Moses. Literary style betrays obvious anachronisms. Internal dialogue really does not run like it should had Moses delivered this same book to the Jews. It can be difficult to believe that even a fraction of it comes from God through Moses. This post is not going to prove that though, I will recommend some books however: Yale’s introduction to the Hebrew Bible, and Richard Freidman’s “Who wrote the bible?” These books must also be approached with skepticism in their own right as while they seem good for understanding who the author(s) of the books of the Old Testament are not, when it comes to determining who the authors really are (or atleast as much as we can know about them) they seem to really, really “read too much into it”. Charges of plagiarism by the authors from other creation myths are backed by extremely tenuous links that lead to very uncertain conclusions. It’s like english class in highschool again. Nevertheless, it’s up to the individual as to how much you want to believe, and some parts of the arguments presented in the books are far more convincing than others.

So what approach should we take with the Old Testament? I’m going to hold off from making any definite statements about my own beliefs until I get a lot more reading done. The Qur’an leaves open the possibility of accepting theories on the authorship of the bible, such as the documentary hypothesis, but at the same time I probably should acknowledge that there is more theological truth in the Old Testament than I was previously admitted. It’s not simply the irrecoverable Torah lost in a flood of voices. If the Qur’an comes to “confirm it”, then its general theological contents are reliable.

As for shameful and frankly disgusting stories as as Lot sleeping with his daughters and David being an adulterous murderer, obviously I won’t and can’t accept them.

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