A Biblical Quotation in Qur’anic verses 7:157-158?

A few years ago, when I was attempting to understand what the Qurʾān means when it says that the previous scripture somehow speaks of the Prophet Muḥammad, I naturally turned towards Isaiah 42 which has been one of the go-to portions of the bible for many Muslims. Now, this post is not here to make the argument that this chapter is about the Prophet himself – instead, I’ll be pointing out something that (in my opinion) is more interesting: That the Qurʾān itself is alluding to Isaiah 42. If I’m correct here (and I think there are compelling reasons), then this is probably another one to add to the growing list of direct references to the biblical text within the Qurʾān.

So, let us turn to sūra 7, verses 157-158 (Abdel Haleem translation, with modifications) —

[…] The gentile prophet they find described in the Torah that is with them, and in the Gospel–– who commands them to do right and forbids them to do wrong, who makes good things lawful to them and bad things unlawful, and relieves them of their burdens, and the iron collars that were on them. So it is those who believe him, honour and help him, and who follow the light which has been sent down with him, who will succeed.’

Say [Muhammad], ‘People, I am the Messenger of God to you all, from Him who has control over the heavens and the earth. There is no God but Him; He gives life and death, so believe in God and His Messenger, the gentile prophet who believes in God and His words, and follow him so that you may find guidance.’.

Note here that I’ve consciously chosen to translate ʾummiyy as ‘gentile’ over ‘unlettered’ (see Lane’s Lexicon).

If we compare each of the statements in these two ayāt to the chapter of Isaiah 42, we see that there is a high degree of correspondence as I’ve tabulated below:

Qur’an 7:157-158

Isaiah 42 (NRSV)

Gentile Prophet (al-nabiyy al-ʾummiyy)

Universal calling – “oh people, I am a messenger to you all”

“A covenant to the peoples, a light to the gentiles” (42:6)

“I have put my spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations” (42:1)

Prophet bringing light – “al-nur aladhī ʾunzila maʿahu”

The servant described as light (42:6); God bringing light to the blind (42:16)

The Prophet as an ethical teacher — “who commands them to do right and forbids them to do wrong

The servant brings God’s justice (mishpāṭ); this typically refers to ethical justice.

The Prophet as liberating from chains: “he relieves them of their burdens, and the iron collars”

The servant liberating from prisons: “to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,” (42:7)

God praised for His life and death giving power: “ He gives life and death”

YHWH praised for giving life-giving power: It is he “who gives breath to the people upon [the Earth]” (42:5)

God as possessor of the heavens and the earth “Him who has control over the heavens and the earth”

God, “created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it,” (42:5)

God is one: “There is no God but Him

“I am YHWH, that is my name… I give glory to no other, nor my praise to idols” (42:8)

There seem to be a total of 7 points of correspondence between the Qurʾānic verses here and Isaiah 42. Combining this with the explicit framing that the Qurʾān itself is claiming that it is referencing Jewish scripture (7:157 – maktūban ʿindahum fī al-tawrāti…), affirming that this is a deliberate allusion seems to have the best explanatory power (the alternative is that this is a coincidence). While some of the Qur’anic statements are rather formulaic and occur frequently in the Qurʾān, this is not true in all instances, such as the Prophet being al-ʾummiyy (gentile) sent to all nations (yā ayyuha an-nās, innī rasūlu -llahi ʾilaykum jamīʿan); the prison imagery of ‘shackles’ is also rather rare. The rest of the terminology found in these verses is formulaic, but it is the clustering of them together, combined with the explicit reference to previous scripture, makes this an obvious textual allusion for me.

This brings us to some interesting observations. Firstly, the Qurʾānic language, when it comes to the very words, does not reflect the Hebrew of Isaiah except in the most common words (e.g. hashamayim – heavens, and ha-aretz – earth), at least from my very cursory gloss. The Syriac Old Testament seems to fair a little better here; in addition to the aforementioned shmaya and arʿa (heaven and earth), we also have ʾummiyy (gentile), which may correspond to ʿamme (nations – Isa 42:1,6) and nūr is simply nhūra (light) in Isa 42:61. Yet mostly the correspondences, while specific enough to be meaningful, are not exact, even with respect to translation. For example, both texts deliberately use prison imagery, but the Qurʾān speaks of shackles where Isaiah speaks of prisons.

This is unsurprising, as the Qurʾān typically does not share incidental linguistic similarity with texts and traditions it alludes to, at least from my intuition. Zellentin has remarked similarly when discussing the Syriac Cave of Treasures and corresponding Rabbinic traditions. Where the Qurʾān takes the choice to mimic the subtext, it is deliberate, such as in wordplay (as in Q2:93 and Q5:73). All this points to a oral discourse: The Qurʾān is saying enough to flag these verses in Isaiah to the Prophet’s interlocutors, but does not need to quote the literal text of the verse to do so.

The second interesting thing is that there seems to have been various ḥadīth that also connect the Prophet Muḥammad to Isaiah, but they do so in very different ways. I have bolded what I think are near-verbatim quotes of Isaiah 42:

حَدَّثَنَا عَبْدُ اللَّهِ، حَدَّثَنَا عَبْدُ الْعَزِيزِ بْنُ أَبِي سَلَمَةَ، عَنْ هِلاَلِ بْنِ أَبِي هِلاَلٍ، عَنْ عَطَاءِ بْنِ يَسَارٍ، عَنْ عَبْدِ اللَّهِ بْنِ عَمْرِو بْنِ الْعَاصِ ـ رضى الله عنهما ـ أَنَّ هَذِهِ، الآيَةَ الَّتِي فِي الْقُرْآنِ ‏{‏يَا أَيُّهَا النَّبِيُّ إِنَّا أَرْسَلْنَاكَ شَاهِدًا وَمُبَشِّرًا وَنَذِيرًا‏}‏ قَالَ فِي التَّوْرَاةِ يَا أَيُّهَا النَّبِيُّ إِنَّا أَرْسَلْنَاكَ شَاهِدًا وَمُبَشِّرًا وَحِرْزًا لِلأُمِّيِّينَ، أَنْتَ عَبْدِي وَرَسُولِي سَمَّيْتُكَ الْمُتَوَكِّلَ لَيْسَ بِفَظٍّ وَلاَ غَلِيظٍ وَلاَ سَخَّابٍ بِالأَسْوَاقِ وَلاَ يَدْفَعُ السَّيِّئَةَ بِالسَّيِّئَةِ وَلَكِنْ يَعْفُو وَيَصْفَحُ وَلَنْ يَقْبِضَهُ اللَّهُ حَتَّى يُقِيمَ بِهِ الْمِلَّةَ الْعَوْجَاءَ بِأَنْ يَقُولُوا لاَ إِلَهَ إِلاَّ اللَّهُ فَيَفْتَحَ بِهَا أَعْيُنًا عُمْيًا وَآذَانًا صُمًّا وَقُلُوبًا غُلْفًا‏.‏

Abdullah Ibn Amr reports: This Verse: ‘Verily We have sent you (O Muhammad) as a witness, as a bringer of glad tidings and as a warner.’ which is in the Qur’an, appears in the Torah thus: ‘Verily We have sent you (O Muhammad) as a witness, as a bringer of glad tidings and as a warner, and as a protector for the illiterates (i.e., the Arabs.) You are my slave and My Apostle (Isaiah 42:19; 42:1), and I have named you Al-Mutawakkil (one who depends upon Allah). You are neither hard-hearted nor of fierce character, nor one who shouts in the markets (Isaiah 42:2). You do not return evil for evil, but excuse and forgive. Allah will not take you unto Him till He guides through you a crocked (curved) nation on the right path by causing them to say: “None has the right to be worshipped but Allah.” With such a statement He will cause to open blind eyes, deaf ears (Isaiah 42:18) and hardened hearts.’

While some of the ḥadīth is precise enough to affirm a textual allusion, most of the text may be the companion’s own interpretation of Isaiah – yet some of it does not seem to have any correspondence at all. Nevertheless, it is interesting that Abdullah’s usage of the biblical text is rather different to how the Qurʾān uses Isaiah 42.

All this aside, what I’ve written here does still leave a few questions. The Qurʾān also includes “the injīl” in this discussion. What does this refer to? Is this a New Testament tradition? Or an apocryphal text? Or merely a stand-in for “previous scripture”? Or something else? I have not yet done any study on this topic, but I’d be very interested in seeing what would turn up. Another interesting question is the interpretive context of Isaiah 42. How were the Jews and Christians around the Prophet reading this chapter? We know, for example, that the Hijazi Jews were awaiting some sort of prophetic (messianic?) figure. Whether, and if so, how the Qurʾān positions the Prophet as that figure is an interesting question.

Footnotes.

1 Interestingly, mishpāṭ was rendered namūsa in the Syriac of 42:7, which reminds me of another particular narration of the Prophet being given al-nāmūs, though that is tangential.

27 thoughts on “A Biblical Quotation in Qur’anic verses 7:157-158?

  1. Be aware that the Servant Songs are the core whereas the rest of the verses are later redactional expansions. In this case (1st song) verses 1-4 are the oldest layer. -slm

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    • BTW so you can read German I assume. Is there still a lot of good scholarship in Islamic Studies coming out in German? Had I infinite time I would learn to read German just to read certain Syriac scholarship (on the Alexander Legend(s))…

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      • Recent Islamic Studies scholarship is publishing mainly in English and French unlike the past scholarship (Nöldecke etc.). Well, Inarah revisionists write often in German :). Regarding the Alexander Legends the most recent works come from Bladel and Tesei (who works on a mongograph as well) as you know, no German work I know of yet…

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      • Interesting. I am waiting for Tesei’s monograph…

        re/ german – I mainly wanted to read Reinink for his dating; also his work on the Alexander Poem would be helpful to read.

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      • Too bad I didn’t read Reinink works on this topic. Didn’t he really publish anything in English?

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    • @ Taha

      As much as I’m hesitant to ever use their material this was a really unique way of looking at the ayah. So this brings me to a question, in your studies so far have you seen any other ayah that is similar to this of semi quoting Biblical text?

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      • I’ve posted a couple of other examples on my blog (e.g. word play). Though keep in mind that the Qur’an will also do the same with Syriac and Rabbinic traditions. A recent example I learned is at the end of surah al kahf (v. 18:109) where it says God’s words would never be exhausted were the seas ink and we added more seas to support it. This is actually a rabbinic theme: there is a rabbinic tradition where a *rabbi* says that if the seas were ink, nobody could match his own knowledge of the Torah. So here the Qur’an is taking their own words and deliberately ascribing it to God – as though to slap them in the face with it – because they’re testing the Prophet Muhammad’s knowledge of scriptural tradition. Surah al-kahf answers them with full knowledge of their stories, and then this concluding verse is a cherry on top of sorts, where it then quotes another rabbinic tradition back at them. It’s rhetorically quite excellent and meaningful.

        Gabriel Said Reynolds published a recent article on this with biblical traditions in particular. I didn’t agree for his overall thesis though, and tbh I think the example I provided here (and others he omits) are a lot more direct than the examples he gave. I think the manyprophets website has a few examples (I have not read the article in full btw):

        https://www.manyprophetsonemessage.com/2018/02/26/the-bible-tawrah-and-injeel-in-light-of-islam/

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  2. Assalamualaikum akhi can you determine the grading of this report? :

    When `Umar ibn al-Khattab (r.a) was on Hajj, he came to stand before the Black Stone of the Ka`bah and he spoke to it, ‘O Hajar al-Aswad, you are but a stone. You do no good and no harm, but the Holy Prophet (s.a.w) gave you great honor so I will honor you too.’ `Ali (r.a) coming up to him said, ‘Oh `Umar, why do you speak thus? The Lord of the Worlds has informed us that the Black Stone was an angel before this time, and he has consciousness. On the Day of Judgment he will testify. He witnesses all the pilgrims who step before him during the Hajj, and their names are written before him in a book. In it, he records their name and reports them on the Day of Judgment, for the Hajar al-Aswad also has a mouth with which he, then, will speak.’” [Appears in Lore of Lights, Volume I]

    Is the stone alive? Was it an angel?

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  3. To find the arabic text is to find the Hadith book. Unfortunately, there’s no online access for Kanz al-Ummal nor the other one.

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    • I haven’t looked for the first hadith you linked. I’m going to assume both of these are anomalous additions to an actual sahih hadith. No need to affirm historicity. If you find the actual reference I could have a look but I highly doubt they are authentic.

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