THE ORIGINAL SOURCESOF THE QUR'AN by Rev Dr Tisdall, CHAPTER III.
INFLUENCE OF SABIAN AND JEWISH IDEAS AND PRACTICES.
WHEN Muhammad appeared as a prophet, although the Arabs had many religious ideas and practices in which they were agreed, they possessed no volume which could pretend to contain a Divine revelation, and to which Muhammad could appeal when he claimed to be commissioned to lead them back to the purer faith of their fathers. Yet in Arabia there dwelt certain communities which possessed what they regarded as inspired books, and it was natural that Muhammad and his followers should therefore feel no little interest in and respect for the ideas and rites of these different religious sects. The title "People of the Book," given more especially perhaps to the Jews, but also to the Christians, in the Qur'an is an evidence of this. The four communities who then possessed book-religions in Arabia were the Jews, the Christians, the Magians or Zoroastrians, and the Sabians, These are all mentioned together in Surah XXII. Al Hajj, 17. We shall see that each of these exercised a considerable influence over nascent Islam, but that of the Sabians was by no means the slightest. Hence we begin by stating what is known of these sectaries, who are mentioned again in Surah II., Al Baqarah, 59.
Our knowledge of the Sabians is slight, but sufficient for our purpose. An early Arabic writer, Abu Isa'l Maghribi, is quoted by Abu Fida as giving the following account of them. "The Syrians are the most ancient of nations, and Adam and his sons spoke their language. Their religious community is that of the Sabians, and they relate that they received their religion from Seth and Idris (Enoch). They have a book which they ascribe to Seth, and they style it ‘The Book of Seth.' In it good ethical precepts are recorded, such as enjoin truth-speaking and courage and giving protection to the stranger and such like: and evil practices are mentioned and command given to abstain from them. The Sabians had certain religious rites, among which are seven fixed times of prayer, five of which correspond with that of the Muslims. The sixth is the prayer at dawn, and the seventh a prayer, the time for which is at the end of the sixth hour of the night. Their prayer, like that of Muslims, is one which requires real earnestness and that the worshiper should not let his attention wander to anything else when offering it. They prayed over the dead without either bowing down or prostration, and fasted thirty days; and if the month of the new moon were a short one, then they kept the fast for twenty-nine days. The connexion with their fast they observed the festivals of Fitr ” (breaking the fast at the end of the month) "and Hilal” (new moon), in such a way that the festival of Fitr occurred when the sun entered Aries. And they used to fast from the fourth quarter of the night until the setting of the disk of the sun. And they had festivals at the time of the descending of the five planets to the mansions of their dignity. The five planets are Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and Mercury. And they used to honour the House of Mecca" (the Kabab) 1.
From this account we see clearly that the Muslims have borrowed from this obscure sect not a few of their religious practices all of which they believe were taught them by Muhammad at the command of God through the Angel Gabriel. For example, the Ramadan fast of the Muslims lasts 2 a month, from sunrise to sunset, though the rule as to the exact moment when each day begins and ends is, as we shall see 3, derived from the Jews. In Persia and some other countries a gun is fired at dawn and sunset to announce the beginning and end of each day's fast during the holy month. The Fitr feast at the end of the month is still celebrated by the Muhammadans. They have, as is we known, five stated times of prayer each day, at which prayer is optional, thus having exactly the same number as the Sabians had. Bowing down (raku) and prostration (sujud) are enjoined in Muhammadan worship, but not during the prayers offered at burials. Finally we have seen that the Muslims still most highly honour the Ka'bah. Of course it is possible that all these practices were common to the Qurash tribe as well as to the Sabians. Some of them certainly were; but, if all had been, it would be difficult to account for the observations made by the Arabic writer whom we have quoted. The supposition that many of these religious customs were borrowed by Muhammad from the Sabians, and that their religion in general (owing perhaps in a measure to its supposed antiquity) had great influence on Islam at its foundation is confirmed by the fact that, when the Banu Jadhimah of Taif and Mecca announced to Khalid their conversion to Muhammadanism, they did so by crying out, "We have become Sabians."
The Sabians are supposed to have been a semi-Christian sect. Others have identifled them with the Mandaeans, whose religion represents a strange medley of Gnosticism and ancient Babylonian heathenism, but has nevertheless borrowed certain elements from Magism, Judaism, and Christianity, though largely anti-Christian as a system. The Mandaeans derive their name from Manda, the most important of the Emanations or Aeons in whom they believe. He is said in their sacred book, the Sidra Rabba, to have manifested himself in a series of incarnations, the first three of which were Abel, Seth, and Enoch, and the last John the Baptist. The latter conferred baptism on Jesus Messiah, who finally returned to the Kingdom of Light after a seeming crucifixion. This latter idea is repeated in the Qur'an (Surah IV., An Nisa, 159) and will require notice later.4
Our very limited knowledge of the Sabians and the doubt whether the Mandaeans can be identified with them renders it impossible to say whether their influence on Islam has or has not been still more important and extensive.5
We now turn to the Jews from whom Muhammad borrowed so very much that his religion might almost be described as a heretical form of later Judaism. In Muhammad's time the Jews were not only very numerous but also very powerful in various parts of Arabia. No doubt many of them had settled in that country at different times, when fleeing from the various conquerors - Nebuchadnezzar, the successors of Alexander the Great, Pompey. Titus, Hadrian, and others who had overrun and desolated Palestine. They were especially numerous in the neighbourhood of Medina, which city they at one time held by the sword. Muhammad's time the three large Jewish tribes called Banu Quraiddhah, Banu Nadhir, and Banu Qainuqa', settled in the neighbourhood of Medina, were so powerful that Muhammad, not long after his arrival there ~n A.D. 622, made an offensive and defensive alliance with them. Other Jewish settlements were to be found in the neighbourhood of Khaibar and the Wadi u'l Qura and on the shores of the Gulf of 'Aqabah. The fact that the Jews possessed inspired books and were undoubtedly descended from Abraham, whom the Quraish and other tribes claimed as their ancestor also, gave the Israelites great weight and influence. Native legends would naturally therefore undergo a process of assimilation with the history and traditions of the Jews. By 6 a summary adjustment, the story of Palestine became the story of the Hijaz. The precincts of the Ka'bah were hallowed as the scene of Hagar's distress, and the sacred well Zamzam as the source of her relief. The pilgrims hastened to and fro between Safa and Marwa in memory of her hurried steps in search of water. It was Abraham and Ishmael who built the temple, imbedded in it the Black Stone, and established for all Arabia the pilgrimage to 'Arafat. In imitation of him it was that stones were flung by the pilgrims as if at Satan, and sacrifices offered at Mina in remembrance of the vicarious sacrifice by Abraham. And so, although the indigenous rites may have been little, if at all, altered by the adoption of Israelitish legends, they came to be received in a totally different light, and to be connected in Arab imagination with something of the sanctity of Abraham the Friend of God 7....It was upon this common ground Muhammad took his stand, and proclaimed to his people a new and a spiritual system, in accents to which the whole Peninsula could respond. The rites of the Ka'bah were retained, but, stripped of all idolatrous tendency, they still hang, a strange unmeaning shroud, around the living theism of Islam.
Familiarity with the Abrahamic races also introduced the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, and the resurrection from the dead; but these were held with many fantastic ideas of Arabian growth. Revenge pictured the murdered soul as a bird chirping for retribution against the murderer; and a camel was sometimes left to starve at the grave of his master, that he might be ready at the resurrection again to carry him. A vast variety of Biblical language was also in common use, or at least sufficiently in use to be commonly understood. Faith, Repentance, Heaven and Hell, the Devil and his Angels, the heavenly Angels, Gabriel the Messenger of God, are specimens acquired from some Jewish source, either current or ready for adoption. Similarly familiar were the stories of the Fall of Man, the Flood, the destruction of the Cities of the Plain, &c.- so that there was an extensive substratum of crude ideas bordering upon the spiritual, ready to the hand of Muhammad."
Early Arabian writers inform us that when Muhammad appeared the Jews were expecting the advent of the Messiah, and used frequently to threaten their enemies with the vengeance which the coming Prophet would take upon them. This no doubt had its influence in leading some among the Arabs, especially the Banu Khazraj of Medina (as Ibn Ishaq says), to accept Muhammad as the Prophet whose advent was predicted.
Muhammad declared that he was Divinely commissioned not to found a new religion but to recall men to the "Faith of Abraham." It was natural for him, therefore, to endeavour to gain the Jews over to his side. This he attempted to do at Medina, and for some time it seemed as if he had a fair prospect of success. One step which he took at this time shows very clearly this purpose. He adopted Jerusalem as the Qiblah of his Faith - that is to say, he directed his followers to imitate the Jewish practice by turning their faces towards Jerusalem when praying. At a later period, when he had broken with the Jews and found it more useful to conciliate the Arabs, he adopted Mecca 8 as the Qiblah, and this it has ever since continued to be amongst Muslims. But soon after his arrival in Medina, observing the Jews engaged in the observances of the Day of Atonement, he enjoined upon his own followers the same observance, adopting even the same name (in Arabic 'Ashura) by which it was known among the Jews. 9 The sacrifices offered on this occasion were doubtless intended to supersede those which the heathen Arabs used to offer in the Valley of Mina during the pilgrimage to Mecca. It was not until April, A..D. 624, after his quarrel with the Jews, that Muhammad instituted the 'ldu'd Duha which festival is supposed to commemorate Abraham's sacrifice of Ishmael (as the Muslims assert). Even thus we perceive the influence of Judaism on Islam. This festival is still observed by the Muslims. Muhammad initiated the Jewish practice in offering two 10 sacrifices on the day of the 'Id, inasmuch as he slew two kids, one for his people and the other for himself, though he reversed the Jewish order in accordance with which the High Priest on the Day of Atonement offers first for 11 himself and then for the nation at large. In these matters we see Jewish influence at work both in Muhammad's adoption of their rites when he wished to gain the Jews, and in his altering them when no longer hoping to do so. In the latter case he generally reverted more or less - to the customs of the heathen Arabs. On the Muhammadan theory of the Divine authority of the Qur'an, this phenomenon is absolutely inexplicable. It is to the period shortly before, and especially to that which immediately followed, the Hijrah, according to Tradition (in this respect no doubt reliable), that most of those verses of the Qur'an belong, in which it is asserted that the Qur'an is in accord 12 with the teaching of the Prophets of Israel, and that this constitutes a decisive proof that it is from God. At that time Muhammad introduced into the Surahs which he delivered a particularly large measure of Jewish legends, as the perusal of the later Meccan and earlier Medinan Surahs will show. He soon, however, found that the Jews were not prepared to believe in him, though it might suit their purpose to pretend for a time to be favourably impressed and likely to admit his claim. A rupture was bound to come sooner or later, since no true Israelite could really believe that either the Messiah (which Muhammad did not claim to he, for he accepted that as the title of Jesus) or any other great Prophet was predicted as about to arise from among the descendants of Ishmael. We know how the quarrel did come, and how, finding persuasion useless, Muhammad finally turned upon the Jews with the irresistible logic of the sword, and either slaughtered them or expelled them from the country. But before that time he had borrowed very extensively from them. Even if we do not grant, with some writers, that the doctrine of the Unity of God was derived by Islam from Jewish teaching, there can he no doubt that Muhammad's maintenance of that doctrine received great support from what he learnt from the Israelites. We proceed to show that very much of the Qur'an is directly derived from Jewish books, not so much from the Old Testament Scriptures as from the Talmud and other post-Biblical writings. Although the Arabian Jews doubtless possessed copies of their Holy Books, they were not distinguished for learning, and then as now for the most part, they practically gave greater heed to their Rabbinical traditions than to the Word of God. It is not surprising therefore to find little real knowledge of the Old Testament in the Qur'an, though, as we shall see, it contains a great deal of Jewish legend. It is impossible to quote all the passages that prove this, but we shall now adduce a few out of many.13
The Story Of Cain and Abel
The Qur'an does not mention the names of these "two sons of Adam," though commentators call them Qabil and Habil. But we find in Surah V., Al Maidah, 30-35, the following account of them.
"Recite unto them truly the narrative of Adam's two sons, when they both offered sacrifice: then it was accepted from one of them, and from the other it was not accepted. [The latter] said, 'Verily I shall assuredly slay thee.' [The other] said, 'Truly God accepteth from the pious. Verily if thou stretch forth thine hand upon me to slay me, I shall not stretch forth mine hand upon thee to slay thee: indeed I fear God, the Lord of the worlds. I indeed choose rather that thou~ shouldst bear my sin and thine own sin, then shalt thou be of the companions of the Fire, and that is the recompense of the unjust.' Then his soul permitted to him [Cain] the murder of his brother: accordingly he slew him: thus he became one of the lost. Then God sent a raven, which scratcheth in the ground, that it might show him how to hide his brother's corpse. He said, 'Ah! woe unto me! cannot I be as this raven and hide my brother's corpse?' Then did he become one of the penitent. On that account have We written for the Children of Israel that whoso slayeth a soul, except for a life or for evildoing in the land, then truly shall it be as though he had slain all men; and whoso saveth it alive, then truly it shall be as though he had saved all men alive."
A conversation, or rather argument, between Cain and Abel is mentioned in Jewish legend both in the Targum of Jonathan 14 and in the Targum of Jerusalem. Cain, we are told, said, "There is no punishment for sin, nor is there any reward for good conduct." In reply to this, Abel asserted that good was rewarded by God and evil punished. Angered at this, Cain took up a stone and with it smote his brother and slew him. The resemblance between this narrative and that given in the beginning of the foregoing quotation from the Qur'an is not striking. But the source of the rest of the Qur'anic account of the murder is the legend related in the Pirqey Rabbi Eli'ezer, chapter xxi, which may be thus rendered:-
"Adam and his helpmeet were sitting weeping and lamenting over him (Abel), and they did not know what to do with Abel, for they were not acquainted with burial. A raven, one of whose companions had died, came. He took him and dug in the earth and buried him before their eyes Adam said, 'I shall do as this raven. Immediately (lit. out of hand) "he took Abel's corpse and dug in the earth and buried it." When we compare the Jewish legend with the one given in the Qur'an, we see that the only difference is that in the former the raven taught Adam how to bury the body, whereas in the Qur'an it is Cain who is said to have been thus taught. It is clear also that the passage in the Qur'an is not a literal translation from one or more Jewish books, but is rather, as we might expect, a free reproduction of the story as told to Muhammad by some of his Jewish friends, of whom early Arabian accounts mention the names 15 of Several. This explains the mistake that the Qur'an makes in attributing the burial to Cain instead of to Adam. We shall notice similar phenomena throughout the whole series of these excerpts. It is hardly probable that these slight divergences were purposely made by Muhammad, though it is quite possible that the Jews who related the legends to him had learnt them orally themselves, and that they and not the Arabian prophet made the mistake. That is a matter of small moment. What is certain is that we can here, and in very many other instances, trace the account which Muhammad gives to earlier Jewish written sources.
What is recorded in the thirty-fifth verse of the Surah quoted above seems to have no immediate relation to the preceding part of the passage. A link is evidently missing If, however, we turn to Mishnah Sanhedrin (chapter iv. § 5), we find the whole matter fully stated, so that the connexion which exists between the verse above mentioned and the narrative of the murder of Abel becomes clear. For the Jewish commentator, in commenting on the words which the Pentateuch tells us God spoke to Cain, "What 16 hast thou done? The voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me front the ground;' - in which passage the word blood is in the plural in Hebrew because it denotes blood shed by violence, - writes thus "Concerning Cain who slew his brother, we have found that it is said concerning him, 'The voice of thy brother's bloods crieth.' He saith not, 'Thy brother's blood' but 'Thy brother's bloods',- his blood and the blood of his descendants. On this account was Adam created alone, to teach thee that everyone who destroyeth one soul out of Israel, the Scripture reckoneth it unto him as if he had destroyed the whole world; and everyone who preserveth alive one soul out of Israel, the Scripture reckoneth it unto him as if he had preserved alive the whole world." We are not concerned with the correctness or otherwise of this fanciful exposition of the sacred text, but it is of importance to notice that the thirty-fifth verse or Surah Al Maidah is an almost literal translation of part of this extract. The former part of the passage as it stands in the Mishnah is omitted in the Qur'an, possibly because it was not fully understood by Muhammad or his informant. But when it is supplied, the connexion between verse thirty-five and the preceding verses becomes clear 17,
2, Story of Abraham's deliverance from the fire
which Nimrod made to destroy him.
This narrative is not found detailed in one consecutive passage of the Qur'an, but it is related in a fragmentary manner in a number of different Surahs 18. Hence Muhammadans have found it useful to collect these passages and to form them into a consecutive whole by supplying connecting passages in the way that we find it done in such books as the 'Araisu'l Majalis or the Qisasu'l Anbiya. Such connecting links are supplied from the Traditions of Muhammad. When we compare the narrative thus current among and accepted by all Muslims with the account of the same legendary occurrence which is contained in the Midrash Rabba of the Jews, it becomes clear that the latter is the source of the Muhammadan account. That the reader may perceive this, we translate first the story as related by Muhammadan writers, and then turn to the shorter and simpler narrative of Jewish traditionists. Passages from the Qur'an which are incorporated into the Arabic account are here put in italics. We begin with an extract from Abu'l Fida: -
"Azar, Abraham's father," he says 19 , "used to make idols, and he used to give them to Abraham that he might sell them, Abraham, however, need to say, 'Who will buy what will injure him and will not benefit him?' Afterwards, when God Most High commanded Abraham to summon his people to Monotheism, he invited his father; however, he refused. And he invited his people. Accordingly, when the matter got abroad concerning him and reached Nimrod, son of Gush, who was king of that country,... Nimrod accordingly took Abraham, the Friend [of God], and threw him into a great fire. Then the fire became cool and safe unto him, and Abraham came forth from the fire after some days. Then certain men of his people believed on him.”
This is the shortest Arabic account we have. We proceed to translate the most important part of the narrative given in the Araisu'l Mojalis. There we read that Abraham was brought up in a cave without any knowledge of the true God. One night he came forth and beheld the glory of the stars, and was so impressed that he resolved to acknowledge them as his gods. The account then proceeds as follows, incorporating as many as possible of the passages of the Qur'an which deal with the subject: -
When therefore the night overshadowed him he saw a star. He said, this is my Lord.' Then when it set, he said, 'I love not those that set.' Then when he saw the moon rising, he said, 'This is my Lord.' And when it set, he said, 'Verily if my Lord guide me not I shall assuredly be of the people who go astray. Then when he saw the sun rising, he said, ' This is my Lord, this is greater; for he saw that its light was grander. When therefore it set, he said, O my people! verily I am guiltless of the polytheism which you hold, verily I turn my face to him who hath formed the heavens and the earth, as a Hanif 20, and I am not one of the polytheists 21 .' They say his father used to make idols. When therefore, he associated Abraham with himself, he began to make the idols and to give them over to Abraham to sell. Abraham (Peace be upon him!) therefore goes off with them and cries aloud, 'Who will buy what injures and does not benefit?' Hence no one purchases from him. When therefore they proved unsaleable to him, he took them to a river. Then he smote them on the head and said to them, 'Drink, my bad bargain!' in mockery of his people and of their false religion and ignorance, to such an extent that his reviling and mocking them became notorious among his people and the inhabitants of his town Therefore his people disputed with him in regard to his religion. Then he said to them, ' Do ye dispute with me about God? and He hath guided me,' &c. . . And that was Our reasoning which We brought to Abraham against his people: We raise (many) steps whomsoever We will; verily thy Lord is all-wise and all-knowing 22 . So that he vanquished and overcame them. Then verily Abraham invited his father Azar to embrace his religion. Accordingly he said, 'O my father, why dost thou worship. that which heareth not nor seeth nor doth profit thee at a1l?23 2 &c. Then his father refused assent to that to which Abraham invited him. Thereupon verily Abraham proclaimed aloud to his people his abjuration of their worship, and declared his own religion. He said therefore, 'Have ye then seen that which ye worship, ye and your fathers the ancients? for verily they are hostile to me, except the Lord of the worlds.'24 They said, 'Whom then dost thou worship ? ' He said, 'The Lord of the worlds ' They said, 'Thou meanest Nimrod.' Then said he, No! Him who has created me, and who therefore guideth me,' &C. That matter accordingly was spread abroad until it reached the tyrant Nimrod. Then he called him and said to him, 'O Abraham, last thou seen thy Cod, who hath sent thee, and to whose worship thou dost invite men, and whose lower thou recordest and on account thereof dost magnify Him above all other? What is He?' Abraham said 'My Lord is He who preserveth alive and causeth to die.' Nimrod said, I preserve alive and cause to die.' Abraham said 'How dost thou preserve alive and cause to die?' He said, 'I take two men to whom death is due in my jurisdiction, then I slay one of them, thus I have caused him to die; next I pardon the other and let him go, thus I have preserved him alive.' Accordingly Abraham said unto him thereupon, Verily God bringeth the sun from the East, do thou therefore bring it front the West' 25 Thereupon Nimrod was confounded and gave him no answer"
The story goes on to inform us that the custom of the tribe to which Abraham belonged was to hold a great festival once every year, during which everyone for a time went out of the city. (This may contain a confused reference to the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, for the forte of the Qur'an is undoubtedly the number of its anachronisms, and Muhammadan tales regarding the patriarchs and prophets are in general distinguished by the same characteristic.) Before leaving the city, we are told, the citizens "had made some food ready. Accordingly they placed it before the gods, and said, ‘When it shall be time for us to return, we shall return, and the gods will have blessed our food and we shall eat.' When therefore Abraham 26 beheld the idols and the food which was before them, he said unto them in mockery, 'Will ye not eat?' And when they did not answer him, he said, What is the matter with you? will ye not speak?' Then he turned upon them, striking a blow with his right hand,? 27 and he began to dash them in pieces with an axe which he held in his hand, until there remained none but the biggest idol, on the neck of which he hung the axe. Then he went out. Such then is the statement of the Honoured and Glorified One: 'So he broke them into pieces, except the largest of them, that perchance they might come back to it', (and find what it had done 28). When therefore the people came from their festival to the house of their gods, and saw them in that condition, they said, Who hath done this to our Gods verity he is one of the unjust.' They said, 'We heard a youth who is called Abraham make mention of them. It is he, we think, that hath done this.' Then that matter reached Nimrod the tyrant and the nobles of his people. They said therefore, 'Bring him then to the eyes of men, that perchance they may bear witness against him that it is he that hath done this. And they disliked to arrest him without poof......When therefore they had brought him forward, they said unto him, 'Hast thou done this unto our gods, O Abraham?' Abraham said, 'On the contrary, the biggest of them did it: he was angry at your worshipping these little idols along with him, since he is bigger than them, therefore he dashed them in pieces. Do ye then inquire of them, if they can speak.' The prophet - may God bless and preserve him!- hath said, 'Abraham told only three lies, all of them on behalf of God Most High: when he said, "I am sick," and when he said, "On the contrary, this is the biggest of them did it," and when to the king who purposed to take Surah, he said, "She it my sister”.
"When therefore Abraham said this unto them, they returned to themselves; then they said, Verily ye are the unjust persons. Here is this man of whom you are inquiring, and these your gods are present to whom he has done what he has done; therefore inquire of them.' And that was what Abraham had said ' Do ye then inquire if them, if they can speak.' Therefore his people said, 'We do not find it otherwise than as he bath said'29 and it was said, Verily ye are the unjust persons', since ye worship the small images along with this big one.' Then they were turned upside down in their astonishment at this matter of his, and they knew that (the idols) do not speak and do not take by violence. Therefore they said, ' Truly thou knowest that these do not speak.' When therefore the argument which Abraham had brought against them hail confuted them, he said to them, 'Do ye then worship instead if God that which doth not profit you at all and doth not harm you? Shame on you and on that which ye worship instead if God! Do ye not then understand?' When therefore this argument overcame them and they could not answer it, they said, ' Burn ye 30 him and aid your gods, if ye are active men.' 'Abdu'llah ibn 'Umar has said that the person who urged them to burn Abraham in the fire was a Kurd. Shu'aibu'l Jabai says that his name was Dainun, and accordingly God Most High caused the earth to split open for him, and he was swallowed 31 up therein until Resurrection Day. Accordingly when Nimrod and his people assembled to burn Abraham, they shut him up in a house and erected for him an edifice like a sheepfold. This is the statement of God : They said, 'Build an edifice for him, then hurl him into the flames 32.' Then they collected for him some of the hardest wood and different kinds of fuel." The writer whom we are quoting goes on to relate how Abraham was cast into the fire but came forth safe and well. He concludes his narrative thus: And it is recorded in Tradition that Abraham was preserved through saying, 'God is sufficient for me 33 ,' and ‘Hie is an excellent Guardian'34 God said, O fire, become cool and safe unto Abraham .'35"
We now proceed to compare with this narrative that which, is contained in the Midrash Rabba of the Jews There the tale runs thus 36 : -
Terah was a maker of idols. Once he went out somewhere, and seated Abraham as salesman in place of himself. A person would come, wishing to purchase, and Abraham would say to him, 'How old art thou?' and he (the other) would say to him, 'Fifty' or 'Sixty years'? And he (Abraham) would say unto him, 'Woe to that man who is sixty years of age, and wisheth to worship a thing a few days old!' And he (the other) would become ashamed and would go his way. Once a woman came, carrying in her hand a plate of wheaten flour. She said to him, ‘Here! set this before them.' He arose, took a staff in his hand, and broke them all in pieces; then he gave the staff into the hand of the one that was biggest among them. When his father came, he said to him, 'Who has done this unto them? He (Abraham) said to him, 'What is hidden from thee? A woman came, bringing with her a plate of wheaten flour, and said to me, " Here set this before them." I set it before them This one said, "I shall eat first," and that one said, "I shall eat first," This one, which is the biggest among them, arose, took a staff, and broke them.' He (the father) said to him, 'Why dont thou tell me fable? Do these understand?' He (Abraham) said to him, 'And do not thine ears hear what thy lip speaketh?' He (Terah) seized him and delivered him over to Nimrod. He (Nimrod) said to him ‘Let us worship the fire.' Abraham said unto him 'And let us worship the waters which extinguish the fire.' Nimrod said to him, 'Let us worship the waters.' He (Abraham) said to him, 'If so, let us worship the cloud which brings the waters.' He (Nimrod) said to him, ' Let us worship the cloud.' He (Abraham) said to him,' If so, let us worship the wind that drives away the cloud. 'He (Nimrod) said unto him, 'let us worship the wind.' He (Abraham) said to him, 'And let us worship man who resisteth the wind.' 'If thou bandiest words with me, lo! I worship naught but the fire; lo I cast thee into the midst of it, and let the God whom thou worshippest come and deliver thee from it!' Abraham went down into the furnace of fire and was delivered."
It is perfectly clear that the Muhammadan fable is directly borrowed from the Jewish though expanded by the addition of particulars due to Muhammad's vivid and poetical imagination But here again we see that Muhammad does not reproduce an account which he had read, but a story which he had heard related orally by the Jews. The hold which the narrative took upon his mind is clear not only from his having expanded the tale, but also from the large number of times that he recurs to it in different parts of the Qur'an. That the tale was well known in its main outline in his time is evident from the fact that Muhammad has nowhere thought it necessary to narrate the story at full length. His words in the Qur'an show that he believed it to be perfectly well known to and accepted by all his followers. It was probably current in Arabia long before his time, as so many other tales about Abraham were. Our object in quoting the story as it is contained in the Midrash Rabba is not to prove that Muhammad plagiarized from that work in this matter, but to show that the story in its main details was current among the Jews at an earlier time still, and that either this or some similar form of the fable must have been the source from which the Arabs derived their knowledge of it It is hardly likely that Muhammad omitted to verify the tale by consulting his Jewish friends, who would tell him that it was contained in certain of their books, and thus confirm his faith in its truth
We notice, however, that in the Qur'an the name of Abraham's father is stated to have been Azar and not Terah, as in Genesis. But Eastern Jews sometimes call him Zarah, from which the Arabic form may have been corrupted. Or, again, Muhammad may have learnt the name in Syria, whence Eusebius probably derived the form of the name, , which he uses. Modern Persian Muhammadans often write the name , pronouncing it, however, just as it is pronounced in Arabic, though the original Persian pronunciation was Adhar, nearly the same as the form used by Eusebius. This word in Persian meant "fire," and was the title of the angel who was supposed to preside over that element, one of the good creatures of Ormazd. There may in fact have been some attempt made to win reverence for Abraham among the Magians by identifying his father with this good Genius (Izad) of Fire. However this may be, we are able to trace the origin of the legend of Abraham's being cast into the fire to a simple blunder made by certain Jewish commentators, as will be pointed out in due course.
Before doing so, however, it may be well to indicate the line of argument commonly used by Muslims in refutation of the statement that the detection of the source of this and other similar legends in the Qur'an effectually disposes of its claim to be a Divine revelation. They urge in reply that such facts as those we have adduced form a clear proof of the truth of their religion. "For," they say, "although Muhammad did not borrow this narrative from the Jews, but on the contrary received it by inspiration through the angel Gabriel, yet. since the Jews, who are Abraham's descendants, have accepted this narrative on the authority of their own traditions, it must be confessed that their testimony forms a strong confirmation of the teaching of the Qur'an on the subject'.37 "
In reply it is sufficient to state that only ignorant Jews now place any reliance upon such fables, since they do not rest upon anything worthy of the name of tradition. The only reliable traditions of the Jews which relate to the time of Abraham are to be found in the Pentateuch, and it is hardly necessary to say that this childish tale is not found there. On the contrary, it is evident from Genesis that Nimrod lived many generations before Abraham's time. It is true that Nimrod is not mentioned by name in the Qur'an, but his name occurs, as we have seen, in this tale about Abraham's being cast into the fire both in Muhammadan tradition and in their commentaries on the Qur'an, as well as in the Jewish narrative in the Midrash Rabba. The anachronism here is as great as if some ignorant person were to state that Alexander the Great had cast the Turkish Sultan' 'Uthman into the fire, not knowing what a long period had elapsed between Alexander and Uthman and being unaware that Uthman had never experienced such an adventure!
Moreover the whole story of Abraham's being delivered from the fire is founded upon an ignorant blunder made by an ancient Jewish commentator. To explain this we must refer to the Targum of Jonathan ben Uzziel. This writer found Ur of the Chaldees mentioned as the place 38 where Abraham dwelt when God first called him to leave home and country and to remove into the land of Canaan. Now this city is the place that is at the present time known by the name of Muqayyar. The word ur or uru in ancient Babylonian meant a city. It occurs again in the name Jerusalem (still in Arabic called Urushalim), "the city of the God of Peace." But Jonathan had no knowledge of Babylonian, and he imagined that Ur must have a meaning similar to that of the Hebrew word Or, "light," which in Aramaic means "Fire." Hence he rendered Gen. xv. 7 thus, "I am the LORD, who brought thee out of the furnace of fire of the Chaldees!" So also in his comment on Gen. xi. 28, he writes thus "When Nimrod cast Abraham into the furnace of fire because he would not worship his idols, it came to pass that the fire was not given permission to injure him.' We see that the whole story rose from a wrong explanation of a single word, and has no foundation in fact. Whether Jonathan was the first person to make the mistake is very doubtful; he may, very probably, have accepted the idea from others. In any case the result is the same. The story puts us in mind of Cinderella's glass slipper. Doubtless it was originally "un soulier de vair," not "un soulier de verre," the latter substance not being so very suitable for making slippers!
It is not to be wondered at that Jonathan ben Uzziel should make such a mistake as we have pointed out. But it is indeed strange that one claiming Divine inspiration should have accepted the fable based upon such a blunder as literally true, should in many different places introduce portions of the tale into a book which he professed to have received from God Himself through Gabriel, and should have taught his followers to believe it, and to consider that the agreement between the Qur'an and the Jewish Scriptures (in which he erroneously supposed that the tale was to be found) in this and similar matters was a proof that he was Divinely commissioned as a prophet