Some thoughts on “allusions” in the Qur’an common to Syriac (and other pre-islamic) tradition.

I am currently enjoying reading through Joseph Witztum’s thesis on the Qur’an and the Syriac tradition. Witztum’s aim is rather simple; he wishes to show that there is a background of Syriac tradition present in the Qur’an. Syriac Christians were quite prolific preceding and continuous with the Islamic period, producing thousands of works (many of which are unpublished); from homilies to legal texts and stories intended to encourage and warn. Witztum accepts the general notion that the Qur’an then appropriates and uses what is found in this body of tradition to present its own message.

I do not want to do any sort of exhaustive review on this topic, nor would a blog post be sufficient. The “problem” (I put these in quotes for a reason) of historicity and the Qur’an needs its own volumes of books to answer. I would just like to reflect on one line of thinking that was proposed in discussion with good friends of mine: Muslims that are also students in fields directly relevant to apologetics.

For this brief discussion I focus on the presence of a “Syriac (and Aramaic) allusion” in the Qur’an. The story in discussion here is the building of the ka’ba by Abraham and Ishmael. Witztum attempts to draw parallels between this story and the sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis. First, I will give an overview of some “common themes” presented by Witztum, and then share my thoughts on their relevance followed by what I wished to point out through this article.

There is no great resemblance between the story of Ishmael and Abraham building the Ka’ba, and the binding of Isaac in the bible, however if we turn to Judeo-Christian tradition we are able to locate the following themes:

Abraham as builder of a house and a temple

The altar of Isaac’s sacrifice is described in the following way; turning to the relevant homily of Jacob of Serugh (d.521AD) as quoted by Witztum:

Abraham approached and put down the fire with the knife / and began to build an altar for the Lord on the top of the mountain. The master-builder of faith approached and ngad dumsā (/ in order to build there a house for the mysteries which would take place. And when Isaac gazed and saw what his father was doing, / he himself lifted stones in order to bring them forth to build the altar.

Note that “ngad dumsācould possibly translate to “draw the foundation”, thus being similar to the Qur’an wherein Abraham and Ishmael are building the House (يَرْفَعُ إِبْرَاهِيمُ الْقَوَاعِدَ مِنَ الْبَيْتِ) (though it is not clear what “raising the foundation” means); furthermore, unlike the biblical story, and in common with the Qur’an (if we wish to accept that there is a common tradition here), in the quoted homily we see that Isaac takes a willing participation in the building process. This process, let alone Isaac’s participation, is not mentioned in Genesis.

The prayer of Abraham
Another key feature of the Qur’anic story of the building of the Ka’ba is the prayer of Abraham for the descendants of Ishmael:

“Our Lord, make us devoted to You; make our descendants into a community devoted to You. Show us how to worship and accept our repentance, for You are the Ever Relenting, the Most Merciful. (Qur’an 2:128)

In Genesis Rabbah, an early Jewish commentary on Genesis written in Aramaic, Abraham is also depicted to be praying for Isaac’s descendants:

In the same manner, may it be pleasing to you, O lord our God, that when the children of Isaac are in distress, you should remember in their favor that binding and be filled with compassion for them.

On the validity of these “allusions”

Witztum provides several more examples of what he considers affinities between this particular Qur’anic story and Judaeo-Christian tradition. Of these, I mentioned the strongest two. However, I do not think that either case is convincing enough to affirm that these are indeed the background texts to the Qur’anic story of Ishmael and Abraham. First and most obviously, the Qur’anic story features Ishmael and not Isaac. Ofcourse, one would naturally argue in response to this, that the Qur’an is developing these traditions to Muhammad (ص)’s own ancestor, or at the very least, away from a Jewish patriarch (Isaac) and to his brother, also of Abrahamic lineage – an important Qur’anic theme – as the forefather of the holy Mosque. However, the differences are far more numerous than this. The Qur’anic story does not have a context of sacrifice while biblical one does, the sites that are being built are obviously completely unrelated. Moreover, Abraham’s prayer in Genesis Rabbah are different in content to the Qur’anic one, asking rather for God fulfilling the “favour” of Israel in his descendants, while the Qur’anic prayer is distinctly one that asks for the children of Ishmael to be guided believers. We do not need to mention that the transmission of Jacob’s works and of Genesis Rabbah is far less sound than that of the Qur’an, and it is theoretically also possible that the influence goes the other way (ie. From the Qur’an to these)

However, let us grant that there is an affinity in this particular case, for the sake of my next point. Let us suppose the Qur’anic author was Muhammad (ص); a self-described “gentile” Arab with no background study in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Is it possible for someone of such a background to be able to make meaningful references to Syriac and Aramaic literature belonging to entirely separate faith traditions? The most obvious reply by a skeptic would be to point to a popular, oral medium. This is not immediately clear. The homily presented in the first example has literal affinity (ngad dumsa = yarfa3u … qawaa’id) and the second example is from a specialized work not intended for the lay Jewish audience. Neither works are in Arabic, nor do we know whether Arab Jews or Christians knew about the information presented. Nevertheless, there is no certain evidence leading us to conclude that Muhammad couldn’t have been informed orally.

However, I think for these two examples, there are hundreds more present in the Qur’an where the author clearly engages with Judaeo-Christian tradition, in some of which there is no doubt a direct reference to existing texts rather than vague allusions possible through an oral informant. One was mentioned in a recent post. The presence of this special knowledge in the Qur’an greatly surprised opponents of the Prophet such that they blamed him for taking informants or having stories recited to him, but these charges did not stick. If it were the case that the Prophet would have spent his whole lifetime especially studying the traditions of those outside his pagan community, people would have noticed. These are simply my preliminary thoughts.

I think that if the following two points can be thoroughly discussed and proven:

  1. The Qur’an shows a very high degree of knowledge of Judaeo-Christian tradition
  2. The Prophet does not fit the profile that could have acquired (1)

Then we have the beginnings of a case that the Qur’an is divinely inspired. Such an undertaking would require a lot of work many years down the line; culminating to a large book or several. However I think that following this logic would be fruitful and it would be Qur’anic too; given that in several places there are appeals to the Prophet’s own ignorance before God had revealed the Qur’an to him.

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8 thoughts on “Some thoughts on “allusions” in the Qur’an common to Syriac (and other pre-islamic) tradition.

  1. […] I am currently enjoying reading through Joseph Witztum’s thesis on the Qur’an and the Syriac tradition. Witztum’s aim is rather simple; he wishes to show that there is a background of Syriac tradition present in the Qur’an. Syriac Christians were quite prolific preceding and continuous with the Islamic period, producing thousands of works (many of… — Read on ponderingislam.com/2018/07/12/some-thoughts-on-allusions-in-the-quran-common-to-syriac-and-other-pre… […]

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  2. Great read Taha! I’ve spent the better part of last 2 years studying Witztum’s thesis and I feel like I’ll also comment on it after my current project, because although he exaggerates quite a bit, overall his cumulative case is persuasive. I feel his last case of Joseph in Syriac tradition is particular is the strongest overall, especially the motif of Jacob warning Joseph about his dreams. That said some of the same provisions you’ve mentioned here apply there as well (transmission issues, solitary sources, late manuscripts, also how Syriac poetry in general flourished under Muslim culture, how some motifs can be arrived at independently and aren’t necessarily connected, how the Quran uses phraseology from previous traditions to show its familiarity, also how (Sunni) Islam allows for independent reasoning to be revelation etc) I think overall it is a must to start building a firm methodological base for understanding the Quran’s background in a Late Antique context and also to build a methodology where we can separate “history” from “fiction” from a Quranic perspective.

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    • Great comment, I agree.

      Sharif and I actually discussed this with Ghali a few days back, who mentioned he had been studying the thesis with you for a while.

      I do sense a bit of a tension between wanting to historicise all Qur’anic stories and wanting to show that the Qur’an alludes to judeo-christian tradition (which may not be historical)… this isn’t to say there is no solution, I just think it will require a lot of intricacy (and many books!) to hammer out a theory on historicity and the Qur’an.

      You should share your notes on witztum when you are done! I would greatly appreciate them, I haven’t been studying his thesis as you and ghali have.

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  3. Peace.

    Well, there are some scholars who think that the pagan Arabs indeed had some kind of genuine tradition regarding Abraham, Hagar, Ishmael and Mecca. Even the hardcore revisionist Robert M. Kerr, who believes that Mecca was founded around 7th/8th AD, thinks the reason the Arabs choose the some barren place in the deep southern Hejaz was because there existed an old tradition about this area, i.e. the ‘Hagarenes’ resurrected old folktales. Of course his arguments are not convincing at all, but it still shows that someone who actually denies the complete Islamic historiography admits the very old core of Abraham (and co.) and Mecca. Too bad we (still?) do not know much about pre-islamic Mecca:
    http://www.iandavidmorris.com/mecca-before-islam-1-diodorus-and-the-kaaba/
    http://www.iandavidmorris.com/mecca-before-islam-2-makoraba-macoraba/
    http://www.iandavidmorris.com/mecca-before-islam-3-dabanegoris-regio/

    See however: https://twitter.com/shahanSean/status/936259614676570112

    Recently, a preislamic inscription was found mentioning Yathrib. Also, some short inscritpions in Mecca were made public, their meanings aren’t deciphered yet, though. We can prepare for some surprises, indeed…

    God knows best…

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