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Koranic Allusions: The Biblical, Qumranian, and Pre-Islamic Background to the Koran

Koranic Allusions: The Biblical, Qumranian, and Pre-Islamic Background to the Koran

by Ibn Warraq

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For anyone with an interest in the early history of Islam, this erudite anthology will prove to be informative and enlightening.

Scholars have long known that the text of the Koran shows evidence of many influences from religious sources outside Islam. For example, stories in the Koran about Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and other characters from the Bible


For anyone with an interest in the early history of Islam, this erudite anthology will prove to be informative and enlightening.

Scholars have long known that the text of the Koran shows evidence of many influences from religious sources outside Islam. For example, stories in the Koran about Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and other characters from the Bible obviously come from the Jewish Torah and the Christian Gospels. But there is also evidence of borrowing in the Koran from more obscure literature.

In this anthology, the acclaimed critic of Islam Ibn Warraq has assembled scholarly articles that delve into these unusual, little-known sources. The contributors examine the connections between pre-Islamic poetry and the text of the Koran; and they explore similarities between various Muslim doctrines and ideas found in the writings of the Ebionites, a Jewish Christian sect that existed from the second to the fourth centuries. Also considered is the influence of Coptic Christian literature on the writing of the traditional biography of Muhammad.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“With this anthology, Ibn Warraq makes accessible to the public a collection of classic and modern articles—many of which have not previously been available in English—that examine Koranic source materials. This volume renders a great service to Islamic studies today.”
—Pierre Larcher, professor of Arabic linguistics, Aix-Marseille University

“Ibn Warraq’s anthologies have helped me and many of my colleagues considerably in our work. They have helped advance Koranic Studies for the last fifteen years, and are indispensable research tools for a new generation of scholars. Warraq’s diligence has resulted in the recovery of the works of the great nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Semiticists and Arabists—especially German and French, almost forgotten, and certainly neglected. His probing questions and general skepticism of sources expressed in his lengthy introductions are worth pondering, and should help refine our methodological principles.”
—Christoph Luxenberg, author of The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran

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The Biblical, Qumranian, and Pre-Islamic Background to the Koran


Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2013 Ibn Warraq
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61614-760-0


1.1 The Consequences of Authenticity Ibn Warraq

David Margoliouth warned us not to be too credulous about the authenticity of so-called pre-Islamic poetry. Two of his principal arguments were the probity, or rather the lack of probity, of the earliest compilers and editors of pre-Islamic poetry, and the fact that many putative pre-Islamic poems contained words, phrases, and religious concepts derived from the Koran, even though the authors had died long before the Koran can have been said to exist.

Margoliouth patiently hacks away at the certainties of the credulous by asking awkward questions. How was this pre-Islamic literature preserved? Orally? In written form? Did the profession of rawi really exist? Was the so-called oral tradition of the Bedouins genuine or reliable? Is there any evidence for the existence of any written pre-Islamic literature? The history of Latin literature reveals a gradual organic development. Should we not expect the same in Arabic literature?

Hammad al-Rawiya (694/5–772 CE) was responsible for the collection of the seven famous poems of the Mu'allaqat, and the poetry of Imru' l-Qays ibn Hujr. By all accounts he was a charming rogue, given to carousing, drinking wine, but with a genuine delight in poetry, and he also professed to know the lore, rituals, and poetry of the Bedouins. Hammad remained a dilettante rather than a scholar, and he was somewhat cavalier in his attitude toward the question of authenticity and authorship. His contemporaries and later Arab scholars denounced him vehemently. The Basran Yunus b. Habib attacked Hammad for not knowing grammar, prosody, or correct speech; and the Kufan Mufaddal b. Muhammad al-Dabbi "accused him of having ruined the tradition of Bedouin poetry beyond repair by his clever forgeries." Abu Hatim al-Sijistani quotes poems of al-Hutay'a from the kitab of Hammad only to blame him for allowing spurious poems into the collection.

Other unreliable witnesses include Jannad, Barzakh, and Khalaf al-Ahmar. The latter confesssed that he had circulated forgeries of his own in Kufa as ancient poems. Abu 'Amr b. al-'Ala (died AH 154) also owned up to having added at least one line of his own to a poem by al-A'sha. Al-Asma'i (died 828 CE) on his tour to Medina said he could not find a single sound poem. Abu 'Amr Shaybani (died AH 205) was unable to find many genuine poems for his collection, and even those that got selected were said to be forgeries. The scholars took a dim view of each others' abilities; Ibn al-A'rabi did not think much of al-Asma'i nor of Abu 'Ubaydah. Antiquaries of the third Islamic century are equally unreliable. Mubarrad (826–900 CE) was known to fabricate verses on demand practically. Doubts, uncertainties, suspicions, and improbabilities seem to plague all collections of putative pre-Islamic material.

In such a situation, we would do well to heed the caution advocated by Margoliouth, and repeated by M. Lecomte, who says, "the personality of the transmitters such as Hammad the presumed originator of the Mu'allaqat and the uncertainties which surround their actions lead one to think that the attribution of these poems to persons duly classified and identified should be strongly regarded with caution. The faculties of adaptation, even of imagination, by these intermediaries—themselves poets—do not authorize us to see in the 'official' anthologies anything more than the reflection of an ancient poetical situation expressing itself by poems more or less arbitrarily taken from a much greater and more varied production, at least as representative in any case of the ancient poetic genius." We now have an intermediate position on the Mu'allaqat, but which perhaps can be extended to cover all pre-Islamic poetry, whereby "in their form and content and given that they comprise in part elements almost certainly apocryphal, the Mu'allaqat [and perhaps all pre-Islamic poetry] must be considered as fixed, if not stereotyped, specimens of a poetic tradition—already very old—vigorously flourishing in different parts of the Arabian peninsula."

We also know from the work of John Wansbrough that so-called pre-Islamic poetry was often invented for polemical purposes:

Whatever may have been the original motives for collecting and recording the ancient poetry of the Arabs, the earliest evidence of such activity belongs, not unexpectedly, to the third/ninth century and the work of the classical philologists. The manner in which this material was manipulated by its collectors to support almost any argument appears never to have been very successfully concealed. The procedure, moreover, was common to all fields of scholarly activity: e.g., the early dating of a verse ascribed to the mukhadrami poet Nabigha Ja'di in order to provide a pre-Islamic proof text for a common Quranic construction (finite verb form preceded by direct object), Mubarrad's admitted invention of a Jahili [pre-Islamic] verse as a gloss to a lexical item in the hadith, and Abu 'Amr b. 'Ala's candid admission that save for a single verse of 'Amr b. Kulthum, knowledge of Yawm Khazaz would have been lost to posterity. The three examples share at least one common motive: recognition of pre-Islamic poetry as authority in linguistic matters, even where such contained non-linguistic implications. Also common to all three is another, perhaps equally significant feature: Ibn Qutayba, who adduced the verse of Nabigha to explain/ justify Quranic syntax, lived at the end of the third/ninth century, as did Mubarrad; Abu 'Amr, of whom no written works were preserved, lived in the second half of the second/eighth century, but this particular dictum was alluded to only in Jahiz (third/ninth century) and explicitly in Ibn 'Abd Rabbih (fourth/tenth century). Now, that pre-Islamic poetry should have achieved a kind of status as linguistic canon some time in the third/ninth century may provoke no quarrel. That it had achieved any such status earlier must, I think, be demonstrated. The fact that it had not, in one field at least, can be shown: the absence of poetic shawahid in the earliest form of scriptural exegesis might be thought to indicate that appeal to the authority of Jahili (and other) poetry was not standard practice before the third/ninth century. Assertions to the contrary may be understood as witness to the extraordinary influence exercised by the concept of fasahat al-jahiliyya.

In other words, the putative eloquence of pre-Islamic poetry became commonplace only in the third/ninth century; there are no references to pre-Islamic poetry in the early, pre-third century, works of Koranic exegesis.

Margoliouth's second part of his argument is, I believe, fallacious, oft-repeated, and rests on a priori assumptions about the rise of Islam, the collection of the Koran, and the life of the Prophet. Margoliouth automatically dismisses any poem that echoes words, phrases, and even sentiments of the Koran as inauthentic. If a poem resembles a Koranic verse, then it must have been influenced by the Koran, and not vice versa. The Koran stands alone, heaven forbid that it should be inspired by profane poems!

For instance, Ibn Hisham gives the following lines as examples of Umayya b. Abi as-Salt's poetry:

    kullu dinin yawma l-qiyamati 'inda l-lahi illa dina l-hanifati buru
    In God's sight at the resurrection every religion
    but that of the hanif is doomed to perdition.

Montgomery Watt immediately describes it as "presumably of Islamic inspiration." And even Hamilton Gibb, who seems to accept, on the whole, the authenticity of Umayya's poems, confesses that he agrees with the view "that the poems ascribed to Umayya cannot be regarded as a source of Qur'anic materials or doctrine." Carl Brockelmann tells us that "many passages of [Labid b. Rabi'a's] Diwan seem to owe their inspiration to the Qur'an." We know that Labid b. Rabi'a died around about 660–661 CE. Can we truly say that the Koran as we know it today existed in 661 CE? The authenticity of any poem written at the beginning of the seventh century CE (i.e., by the so-called mukha?ramun poets, constituting the class of pagan poets who died after the proclamation of Islam, e.g., al-A'sha Maymun, Labid, Abu Dhu'ayb, and al-Hutay'a) poses grave problems for those who insist on following the traditional Muslim account of the collection of the Koran. If, for example, Umayya's poetry is authentic, and it does resemble verses from the Koran, then we must account for these resemblances by the normal mechanisms of human history, literary influence, and so forth. If we then combine the authenticity of the poems with a revisionist account of the rise of Islam and the collection of the Koran we arrive at a more plausible version of the similarities between the Koran, and certain poems by Umayya, but, of course, at the expense of everything that we have come to accept as the traditional account.

The revisionist position is very boldly set out by Nevo and Koran in their important but unjustly neglected work, Crossroads to Islam: "The Qur'an is a late compilation; it was not canonized until the end of the 2nd century A.H. or perhaps early in the 3rd. This conclusion, reached by Schacht and Wansbrough, is supported by an analysis of extant rock inscriptions and an examination of the references to the Arab religion in the works of the peoples with whom they came into contact." Wansbrough's achievement was to lay bare the canonization process. "Such a process differentiates between the composition of a text and its recognition as scripture, with all the implications of that term. In fact, the process is sometimes spoken of as having five stages: composition, circulation, revision, collection, and recognition.... [W]e cannot meaningfully talk about the Qur'an as we know it today until that point of authority, acceptance, and stability has been achieved."

But can we maintain the authenticity of the poems of Umayya while rejecting the authenticity of the Qur'an? Do they stand or fall together? Uri Rubin writes, "As a rule, if one does not suspect the authenticity of the Qur'an one does not have any immediate reason for rejecting the authenticity of other utterances containing a similar religious or ethical meassage." Of course, they are independent issues, they do not fall or stand inexorably together. This is precisely why scholars like Tor Andrae dismiss the poems of Umayya; their authenticity has consequences they do not wish to contemplate.

Certain eminent scholars have indeed accepted these consequences. R. A. Nicholson writes, for example, "Umayya's verses ... are chiefly on religious topics, and show many points of resemblance with the doctrines set forth in the early Suras of the Koran. With one exception, all the Hanifs whose names are recorded belonged to the Hijaz and the West of the Arabian peninsula. No doubt Muhammad, with whom most of them were contemporary, came under their influence, and he may have received his first stimulus from this quarter." Nicholson was still, of course, working with the assumptions of and within the framework constructed by Muslim tradition. H. H. Bräu makes similar points: "The agreement between Umayya's poems and the Qur'an may more easily be explained from the undoubted fact that about the time of Muhammad's mission, and probably for some time before, currents of thought of a Hanifi nature had attracted wide circles of the Hadaris, especially in Mecca and Ta'if, stimulated and nourished by Jewish haggadas and Christian legends, which were in circulation there and over South Arabia in many recensions—and this explains the occasional divergences between the Qur'an and Umayya. Muhammad and Umayya like other homines religiosi (Zayd b. 'Amr, Waraqa, Maslama, etc.) drew upon common sources, whether written as Schulthess thinks or oral as Nöldeke holds."

Christoph Luxenberg's work has further complicated the picture. If his conclusions are anywhere near correct, then we have to revise our ideas of the collection of the Koran totally and radically. He is not simply making the obvious point that there is some Syriac in the Koran. Luxenberg further argues that we must look at some Palestinian Syriac liturgical works as the source of the Koran, or at the sacred scriptures of some heretical Judeo-Christian sect influenced by Ebionite and Elkesaite doctrines. He thinks that the Arabic Koran we know today must have existed as a Syriac text that was badly translated into Arabic, possibly going through a stage when it was in Karshuni (i.e., written in Syriac letters but in the Arabic language), before its conversion into its final form as the Arabic Koran. Thus, in a sense, he is arguing that parts of the Koran must have existed before Muhammad, something that Günter Lüling also argues for, and which Wansbrough, too, allowed for, as some sort of a proto-Koran: "Indeed, the text must have a prehistory for such a process to take place, a prehistory that brings strands of the earlier biblical and Arabian traditions together through the person of Muhammad." In that case, if pre-Islamic poetry were authentic, we would also expect it to manifest Syriac elements in its vocabulary, imagery, and ideas. In the case of Umayya, this is exactly what Professor Borg has found.

Excerpted from KORANIC ALLUSIONS by IBN WARRAQ. Copyright © 2013 Ibn Warraq. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
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Meet the Author

Ibn Warraq is the highly acclaimed author of Why I Am Not a Muslim; Defending the West; and Virgins, What Virgins? and Other Essays. He is also the editor of Which Koran?, Leaving Islam, What the Koran Really Says, The Quest for the Historical Muhammad, and The Origins of the Koran.

From the Hardcover edition.

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