Intertwined Worlds: Medieval Islam and Bible Criticism

Intertwined Worlds: Medieval Islam and Bible Criticism

by Hava Lazarus-Yafeh


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Exploring the lively polemics among Jews, Christians, and Muslims during the Middle Ages, Hava Lazarus-Yafeh analyzes Muslim critical attitudes toward the Bible, some of which share common features with both pre-Islamic and early modern European Bible criticism. Unlike Jews and Christians, Muslims did not accept the text of the Bible as divine word, believing that it had been tampered with or falsified. This belief, she maintains, led to a critical approach to the Bible, which scrutinized its text as well as its ways of transmission. In their approach Muslim authors drew on pre-Islamic pagan, Gnostic, and other sectarian writings as well as on Rabbinic and Christian sources. Elements of this criticism may have later influenced Western thinkers and helped shape early modern Bible scholarship. Nevertheless, Muslims also took the Bible to predict the coming of Muhammad and the rise of Islam. They seem to have used mainly oral Arabic translations of the Hebrew Bible and recorded some lost Jewish interpretations. In tracing the connections between pagan, Islamic, and modern Bible criticism, Lazarus-Yafeh demonstrates the importance of Muslim mediation between the ancient world and Europe in a hitherto unknown field.

Originally published in 1992.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691607054
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #200
Pages: 194
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.50(d)

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Intertwined Worlds

Medieval Islam and Bible Criticism

By Hava Lazarus-Yafeh


Copyright © 1992 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07398-9



The first centuries of the Christian era in the Near East were marked by intensive, unique religious creativity, seldom if ever matched in the history of mankind. Christianity developed from Judaeo-Christian circles into a full-fledged system, subdividing into different denominations and giving birth to an unprecedented flourishing of theological activity, preserved, for example, in the extensive Patristic literature. At the same time, older, well-established Judaism cultivated and started to collect, at least partially, its vast body of Oral Law, the Bible having been canonized centuries before. Now the redaction of the Mishna (c. 200 C.E.) and Tosefta (c. 400 C.E.) was completed, soon to be followed by the Jerusalem (c. 400 C.E.) and Babylonian (c. 500 C.E.) Talmuds, both consisting of the elaborations and discussions of the Mishna by the later sages, called Amoraim. Several collections of Midrashic homilies were also gathered at that time, when hermeneutic literature seemed to have reached its peak. Simultaneously, a rich, variegated sectarian activity was fermenting the region and its religious traditions. Although the main Apocryphal and Pseudoepigraphic literary activity did not continue long into the Christian era, its traditions were kept alive for many generations in later Jewish and Christian literatures. In addition, Gnostic movements and ideas as well as later Neoplatonic philosophy challenged in a most serious way the established religions of the region. For hundreds of years, Judaism and Christianity, and eventually Islam, fought against the Greek, Persian, and Hellenistic pagan legacy, but were also deeply influenced by it.

Although activity in the region quieted in the last 150 years before the rise of Islam, early Islamic literature clearly echoes all the controversies. In fact, it is impossible to understand this literature properly without paying serious attention to its various predecessors, as a vast body of excellent scholarly work has shown. One should not think in terms of influences or cultural borrowing only, however. It has been said that the Near East resembles a palimpsest, layer upon layer, tradition upon tradition, intertwined to the extent that one cannot really grasp one without the other, certainly not the later without the earlier, but often also not the earlier without considering the shapes it took later.

In order to find one's way through such a labyrinth of religious traditions, even in the literary corpus of a single civilization, one needs some kind of Ariadne's thread. The one I have chosen in this small book to guide us through Islamic medieval literature has two strands: the Hebrew Bible and polemical literature. Hermeneutic literature and Bible exegesis, both literal and allegorical, constituted the most fundamental part of Jewish and Christian literature up to the Middle Ages, and in the setting of polemical literature often also included some kind of Bible criticism. The deep impact of the Bible and Midrash, both on the Qur'an and its commentaries and on early HadIth literature, has been studied especially thoroughly during the last 150 years. Later Muslim polemical literature, however, has received much less attention from this point of view, and it is this subject which I have taken up here: the role the Hebrew Bible played in Muslim medieval polemics.

Polemics, especially religious polemics, are an indispensable part of the continuous competition between great civilizations. They may include many different kinds of literature, from folktales and simple, sometimes only oral, folklore to the highest forms of philosophical and theological writings, even when no explicit mention is made of any rival civilization or religion. One may even say that the crystallization of every great civilization is based to a large extent on its contacts, clashes, and competition with rival forces, for no civilization or religion can develop or prosper on its own. This seems to be true for every age, but the religious aspect of this rivalry is especially conspicuous in the Middle Ages.

In the Middle Ages, the greater bulk of interfaith polemical activity took place between Islam and Christianity, and a vast polemical literature exists, mainly in Greek, Latin, and Arabic, sometimes containing remarkable scholarly efforts to describe the other as truly and as objectively as possible. This literature reflects, of course, the political and military rivalry between medieval Christianity and Islam, but it deals specifically with their different concepts of monotheism, prophecy, and Scripture.

Each of these great religions was also engaged in polemics with other religions, especially with Judaism, although their methods were diverse. This was an extremely important subject for Christianity, and therefore polemics with Judaism were integral to Christian theology from its very beginning and played a central role in its internal development. Hence the bitterness, the intensity, and the hatred that accompanied them, which often erupted into riots, pogroms, or the burning of Jewish holy books, such as the Talmud, as a consequence of some dramatic public disputation between representatives of both religions. In contrast, Muslim polemics against Judaism, though present in the Qur'an and early in Hadith and Sirah literature, are much less abundant and were never really considered important by Muslim authors. This may be because there was litde competition between these religions, or perhaps because of their great similarity to each other as the two strictly monotheistic religions of law. In any case, no official disputation was ever enforced upon the representatives of the Jewish (or, for that matter, Christian) community in the Islamic Empire, nor are there any records of Jewish books ever being burned as a consequence of polemical activity.

The part the Jews played in this game also varied much from the Christian West to the Muslim East. In the West, many refutations (including handy manuals of Bible exegesis) of the Christian arguments were composed, usually in Hebrew, for Jewish readers. But in the East, an almost total silence towards Muslim arguments against Judaism prevailed. We have no explicit refutations of Islamic arguments in Judaeo-Arabic literature (except for a short chapter in the tenth-century Karaite Al-Qirqisani's great compendium of Jewish law). The few other Jewish refutations of Islam are rather late and in Hebrew, such as Ma'amar Yishmael, ascribed to Solomon ibn Adret of thirteenth-century Barcelona, or Keshet u-Magen by Simeon b. Zemah Duran from fifteenth-century Algiers. We should, however, consider a great part of Judaeo-Arabic medieval literature (e.g., Saadia Gaon, Jehuda Halevi, Maimonides, and many others) to be both explicit and implicit attempts to refute Islam. Indeed, in many cases this would be the only way to understand correctly certain passages in these writings. (The same holds true for several Bible commentaries, such as those by Ibn Ezra, or the later David Kimhi, in which some references are totally unintelligible without taking into account their implicit reference to Christian or Muslim polemics against Judaism.)

There are at least three possible reasons for the lack of Jewish response to Islamic polemics. The first, practical reason is Jewish reluctance to offend the oppressor, especially while using his own (Arabic) language (though in Hebrew characters), as Jews usually did. The second reason is that Jews and Christians, according to several versions of the "Pact of 'Umar," were forbidden to study the Arabic language, and especially the Qur'an, considered by most Muslims to be not only the sacred book of Islam but also God's inimitable and uncreated speech. Although we know of rather late Hebrew transcriptions and translations of the Qur'an apparently meant to circumvent that prohibition, we hear of only one Jewish attempt in Arabic to refute the Qur'an directly. At the same time, however, Jews used arguments taken from the Qur'an (and from later Muslim theologians and philosophers) in both their Judaeo-Arabic and, later, Hebrew writings to refute Christian tenets and point out the inner contradictions between the four Gospels.

A third, less obvious reason for Jewish silence against Muslim polemics may be found in Maimonides' writings, where he prohibits the Jews from teaching Muslims the tenets of Judaism, in direct contrast to Christians (al-'Arelim), whom he allowed to be instructed in the commandments of the Torah. This, in spite of the fact that he explicidy acknowledged Islam as a true monotheistic religion, unlike Christianity. Maimonides explained his prohibition by pointing out that Muslims do not accept the text of the Torah as divine, whereas Christians do believe that the text of the Torah has not changed and "only" (innama) misinterpret it through faulty exegesis.

Indeed, Christians usually accepted the holiness of the Old Testament but accused the Jews of misunderstanding and misinterpreting it, and of reading it literally ("the letter"), whereas it should really be understood allegorically ("the spirit"). Thus exegesis became the main battlefield of Jewish–Christian polemics in the West during the Middle Ages. We have Jewish manuals of Bible exegesis containing the "wrong" Christian explanation of certain verses and the "right" explanation of the same verses with which Jews should respond. This literary activity has no parallel in Jewish–Muslim polemics, although, as we shall see in Chapter Four, some of the same controversial verses are quoted by Muslim authors who dealt with their interpretations and translations. Yet Islamic polemics were primarily directed against the Scriptures themselves (Old and New Testaments), which, in their redacted form, were never accepted as sacred by Muslims, even though their ultimate source was considered to have been a truly divine revelation. Following the Qur'an, Muslim authors tried to prove that the text of these Scriptures had been deliberately altered throughout the ages by both Jews and Christians. Here, then, seems to lie the most important difference between Christian–Jewish and Muslim–Jewish (and Muslim–Christian) polemics. In the first case, a commonly shared divine text is differently expounded; in the second, the text itself is put to polemical scrutiny. Therefore, as we shall see in Chapter Three, even Christian authors often explicitly defended the authenticity of the Old Testament Biblical text (which contains prophecies about Jesus) against Muslim arguments. For example, in an early document of Christian–Muslim polemics, a letter to the Caliph 'Umar II (717–720) attributed to the Byzantine Emperor Leo III, the Christian author states that Jews and Christians share the belief in the same text, which they consider divine, but that they bitterly discuss the meaning and correct explanations of many of its verses.

This is what Maimonides hinted at in his explanation to his prohibition. Theologically, Islam may be much closer to Judaism than Christianity is, but it lacks the one common ground Judaism shares with Christianity: the belief in the holiness of the same Scriptures. This may also explain why Muslim authors were usually not interested in the Talmud, knew very little about it, and rarely speculated about its mysteries—because they, unlike their Christian counterparts, could attack the Biblical text directly. Even when Muslims tried to reproduce the "true and uncorrupted Bible," when they quoted, as they so often did, alleged verses from the true uncorrupted "Torah," they never attributed to the Jews any hidden daemonic doctrine or practice. Their alleged Torah verses were usually sermonic lessons, proverbial sayings, and Qur'an-like verses or stories with morals (see Chapter Two), whereas their Biblical criticism was more scientific, though often couched in harsh polemical tones. Its main purpose was to point out the many contradictions, inaccuracies, or theological impossibilities of both the Old and New Testaments, which prove that these texts had been corrupted by their respective communities and, unlike the Qur'an, had no reliable and trustworthy transmission (Tawatur). In their present form, therefore, these Scriptures could not be considered truly divine revelations. Thus, Muslim attitudes toward the Bible became the central issue of Muslim medieval polemics against Judaism, and developed into an almost philological scholarly study of the Biblical text.

These polemics touch on an even deeper difference between the three religions and are connected directly with the basic attitudes of Jews, Christians, and Muslims toward their own respective Scriptures. Although Jews considered the Bible, and especially the Pentateuch, to be a divine revelation, they had no doubt that Moses wrote it, and thus gave it its final stylistic shape, just as later prophets recorded other revelations in their respective books. In spite of—or perhaps because of—the great care Jewish sages (especially the Massoretes) took to establish, preserve, and hand down the original text of the Torah, a critical approach to the text developed very early in Judaism, but was later suppressed. Thus, for example, the question is asked in the Talmud:

Is it possible that Moses whilst still alive would have written "So Moses ... died there" (Deut. 34:5)? The truth is, however, that up to this point Moses wrote, from this point Joshua, son of Nun, wrote. (Menahoth 30a)

Mistakes in calculations and contradictions between texts were often discussed (see, for example, Megillah 12a), as was the question of who composed the different books of the Bible:

Who wrote the Scriptures: Moses wrote his own book and the portion of Balaam (Num. 23–24) and Job. Joshua wrote the book which bears his name and the last eight verses of the Pentateuch. Samuel wrote the book which bears his name and the book of Judges and Ruth. David wrote the Book of Psalms.... Jeremiah wrote the Book which bears his name and Lamentations. Hezekiah and his colleagues wrote Isaiah, Proverbs, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes. The Men of the great Assembly ... wrote Ezekiel, the twelve minor prophets, Daniel, and the Scroll of Esther. Ezra wrote the book which bears his name and the genealogies of the Book of Chronicles up to his own time.... Who then finished it? Nehemiah the son of Hachaliah. (Baba Bathra 15a)

Although these and similar questions were usually answered traditionally and harmonized, and were only rarely asked again later (for example, by scholars like Abraham ibn Ezra), I believe that on the whole they made an impact on the rather relaxed Jewish attitude toward the external form of the Bible. This attitude may also explain the almost systematic dissection of the plain text of Scriptures by Midrashic exegesis—to an extent only rarely found even in Muslim allegorical exegesis of the Qur'an. Perhaps Jewish sages thought that the words and letters of the Bible as divine revelation could be used in any possible way to express everything considered to be related to that revelation—a way of reasoning that would be alien to Muslim medieval theologians.

Christian attitudes toward both Old and New Testaments went a step further. Early Christian theologians followed Augustine in adapting Cicero's rhetorical scheme to the doctrines of their new faith. Cicero mentioned three modes of style to address topics of different levels of importance: parva, the lower style for everyday life issues; magna, the highly decorated oratory style for the great issues of life; and temperate, for everything in between. Augustine accepted this threefold style in some way for Christian school rhetorics (Bible interpretation, moral education, and emotional excitement that leads to action), but he also advocated a totally different attitude toward the lower style, which may actually express the most sublime of ideas, in much the same way that God Incarnate chose to become humbly (humilis) human. In this way, the simple style of the Gospels, their inner contradictions and inconsistencies, often pointed out and ridiculed by non-Christian authors, became for Christian theologians the genus humile or eloquium humile of revelation, its humble dress, parallel to the wondrous fact that the Word of God had become flesh and died on the cross. Therefore, some Christian authors did readily admit to the imperfection of their Bible, and even found virtue in it. Others tried to explain away its faults, mainly through allegorical exegesis. Only later Christian authors adhered to the belief that the Bible was also a supreme work of art.


Excerpted from Intertwined Worlds by Hava Lazarus-Yafeh. Copyright © 1992 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents



Ch. 1 Introduction 3

Ch. 2 Muslim Arguments Against the Bible 19

Ch. 3 Ezra-Uzayr: The Metamorphosis of a Polemical Motif 50

Ch. 4 Muslim Bible Exegesis: The Prediction of Muhammad and Islam 75

Ch. 5 Muslim Authors and the Problematics of Arabic Translations of the Bible 111

Ch. 6 Conclusion: From Late Antiquity to the Beginnings of Modern Bible Criticism 130

Appendix: Jewish Knowledge of, and Attitudes Toward, the Quran 143

List of Biblical Verses Cited 161

List of Quranic Verses Cited 165

Index 167

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