Oliver Leaman * Abstract

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1 DOI: Qur Anic and Biblical Prophets: Are They Really the Same People? Oliver Leaman * Abstract It is a familiar Islamic doctrine that the prophets in the Jewish and Christian bibles are the same as those with the same name in the Qur ān. They sometimes appear to be different since the bibles are not always accurate in their representation of the divine message to humanity. It could also be argued that if the prophets appear to be very different in the bibles from the prophets in the Qur ān, then perhaps they are really not the same people. Sometimes the bibles are regarded as offering a corrupted view of the truth about the prophets and sometimes a less complete picture of them, which would explain the differences that are easy to detect. On the other hand, an argument is required to show that an apparent identity problem is only apparent, and we do not find one in the text of the Qur ān itself. Keywords: identity, New Testament, prophecy, Qur ān, Torāh It should be noted that Islam does not see itself as a new religion but as the original religion of monotheism, a religion which was obscured and perhaps corrupted by later Jewish and Christian communities and texts. Islam as a word is after all a reflection of submission to God, and the prophets (anbiyā ) in the Qur ān clearly exemplify this through their words and behaviour. They are very different from the cheating, lying, cowardly, and disobedient prophets in the Jewish Bible, for instance, or even from a Jesus who died what could easily be taken to be a disgraceful death on the cross. So in a sense those who adhered to the non-islamic Abrahamic religions linked up with those who weakened their commitment to monotheism and the original message from God. Although they received advice about how to live and what to believe through their prophets, they * University of Kentucky, USA Al-Bayān Journal. Published by Department of al-qur'an and al-hadith, Academy of Islamic Studies, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur - Malaysia. 107

2 AL-BAYĀN - VOLUME 11 - NUMBER 2 - (DECEMBER 2013) changed the message to make it more compatible with their existing lifestyle and beliefs. For the last fourteen centuries they have had the opportunity to embrace Islam, the original religion of which their faiths are merely pale imitations, and have not done so, and perhaps they should be criticized for such ill-advised behaviour. There are a variety of ways of taking this position. One is to say that those who are not Muslims, including People of the Book (ahl al-kitāb) such as Jews and Christians, are really dubious as companions, and Muslims should be prudent in their dealings with them. It does warn in the Qur ān about taking them as friends or authority figures, since they are only each other s friends (Q5:51). The context in which this verse was revealed reflects possibly a period of conflict when the enemies of the early Islamic community worked together against the Prophet and his followers. It would have been a mistake for the small band of Muslims to trust them or rely on them for help. Whether this should be broadened out to cover all relations with Jews and Christians is problematic, but perhaps nonetheless we should consider this route. After all, the Qur ān is not only a description of a message given at a certain limited time but sees itself as presenting important information for people at any time and place. This is a standard issue for all religions, of course, namely, which statements should be taken as being specific and limited in time and place, and which applies everywhere and at any time. It has arisen in every section of the Qur ān. There are also a variety of ways of regarding the Torāh and the Injil, the Gospel, the Christian Bible. The latter is not called the Gospels since the assumption is that the fact that there are four versions of it is immediately indicative of the problematic nature of the idea that there is a central Christian message. These books could be regarded as versions of the truth or as pale versions of the truth or as so corrupted by their users that they no longer contain anything of value. If they are pale versions of the truth then it might be thought that they would be worth respecting, and yet this runs the danger of suggesting that they are worthy companions of the Qur ān, and if that is true then the latter has less of an elevated status. 108

3 Qur anic and Biblical Prophets: Are They Really the Same People? The death of Jesus is a crucial aspect of the Christian Bible. Yet according to the Qur ān, Jesus did not die but was taken up to heaven to await the last judgement. God would not allow him to die a disgraceful death at the hands of his enemies, the Jews, but in fact changed the appearance of those around at the time so that a Jew was killed instead of Jesus, and God made the Jew look like Jesus (Q4:156-9). It must have come as a surprise to the putative murderer, but then as an evil person intent on murdering a prophet, he was hoist on his own petard. Most Christians are convinced of the death of Jesus, it is one of the main pillars of the religion, and on this very basic issue they are mistaken, so it is difficult to see what is worth holding onto in the rest of the New Testament. The Qur ān is a far less historical work than the bibles; although there is much in it that resembles its predecessors, scholars should be careful before they fall into the trap of thinking that all three books are rather similar and only disagree on fairly minor details. There are fewer details in the Qur ān about the biblical characters as compared with what exists in the bibles, although the same names frequently figure in the Book. The Qur ān might be seen as a far purer account of the prophets than the bibles, and rightly so, since it concentrates not so much on what happened but on why it happened and what God s role was in it all. This is not just a matter of emphasis, though, or of stressing something that was not stressed in the earlier works. The form and matter of the Qur ān is very different from the bibles. Yet surely the same characters often occur in all three books, with a few name changes of course since they are each written in a different language. It is very important for some of the religions that they refer to the same people, since otherwise the New Testament cannot represent the completion of prophecy in the Old Testament, and the Qur ān cannot be the culmination of monotheism, incorporating whatever is true in the earlier religions. The fact that the way in which they refer to the same people is different is hardly relevant, since a historical account may be linked with an account that concentrates on other features of the situation. The Qur ān tends to be more abstract and programmatic in style and this is entirely appropriate if it is seen as purifying and solidifying the ultimate 109

4 AL-BAYĀN - VOLUME 11 - NUMBER 2 - (DECEMBER 2013) meaning of the original message. In any case, it is often said that the other messages as they have come down are corrupted, so people do not perhaps have much idea of what was meant by them, and that sort of reconstructive task is unnecesary anyway since the Qur ān is available. It is often said that in the surah Mary there are more references to Mary than exist in the whole of the New Testament, and in the rest of the Qur ān there are many references to the leading characters of the Jewish Bible and several other characters identified as prophets who are not to be found there. That is what religions frequently do, they recycle the main characters of other religions, give them a new role or say something different about them. This is a way of establishing some basic continuity with the past, useful in the conversion process and very helpful also if the aim is to establish some sort of dialogue between religions, which is itself often an effective part of that process. We should be careful here and notice that the thesis that the main characters in the three main religious books are the same is very much an Islamic thesis, and need not be shared by Jews and Christians, although it is often for ecumenical or political reasons. The issue is not so much who the Qur ān is seeking to identify by mentioning the same names, but what descriptions they think are appropriate of them. Would Jesus be Jesus if he had not been crucified? For many Christians this is a vital aspect of the religion, not only his death but also subsequent resurrection, and everything that is important about Christianity is related to those facts. It is not the case that this is a story in the New Testament which could be replaced by something else and we can just go on as normal. If one had to point to something crucial about Christianity it is not the virgin birth, which the Qur ān accepts, but the death and then resurrection of Jesus, which the Qur ān rejects presumably because it is so crucial to Christianity. The Qur ān also spends a lot of time attacking the idea that Jesus was more than a man, which is also a complicated issue for many Christian believers. It is not as basic an issue to Christianity as the idea that he was revived after death. For that revival to be possible he must first of all have died, of course. This is perhaps an indication that the Book acknowledges the radical nature of what it is claiming by contrast with standard Christian belief. It is not like discovering that Jesus in fact did not carry out 110

5 Qur anic and Biblical Prophets: Are They Really the Same People? all the miracles with which he is credited, or that he had a grasp of Greek. In the Jewish Bible Job, who is never identified as Jewish, suffers and loudly complains about his suffering. 1 His friends produce standard religious explanations of his suffering and he rejects them all. Finally God appears and produces a poetic account of divine power, as a result of which Job wisely agrees not to complain any more. God then says he will forgive Job s friends for their pious speeches if Job intercedes on their behalf, which of course he does, and Job is rewarded with twice of what he lost. The Ayyūb mentioned in the Qur ān appears very briefly. Ayyūb does not make queries about the justice of his suffering; he only worries that it may lead to a weakening of his relationship with God. He prays to God that this will not happen. Similar differences could be found in the treatment of many of the other prophets who appear to be shared in the bibles and the Qur ān. It is clear that the apparent links between the three religions are not as close as often thought. Using the same name does not necessarily mean referring to the same prophet; it depends on what is said about him. The argument that corruption of texts took place would of course account for this, but unless we know it happened we need to work with the texts that we have before us now. Pointing to putative problems in the bibles is perfectly acceptable as a theological move by Muslims, and contrasting them with the Qur ān works well also. One can then argue for the superiority of some texts over others, and for one particular prophet to everyone else. Within what is often rather misleadingly called interfaith dialogue this sometimes happens, after the constant reiteration of apparent similarities between the books. But if the descriptions of the prophets are so distinct from holy book to holy book, what is the value of thinking of them as the same people? The view of the Qur ān about the Abrahamic religions is as always with religion complex. Islam is the din al-fitrah, the original religion, which before its final revelation through the Prophet Muhammad was revealed by earlier prophets such as Moses and 1 Oliver Leaman, Evil and Suffering in Jewish Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). 111

6 AL-BAYĀN - VOLUME 11 - NUMBER 2 - (DECEMBER 2013) Jesus. The original message was the authentic word of God but came to be interpreted incorrectly by their communities, and subjected to tahrif (Q2:75; Q4:46; Q 5:13), tabdil (Q 2:59;7:162) and talbis (Q2:42, Q3:71), corruption, adulteration, and alteration. This is very far from the thesis that the Abrahamic religions are just slightly different ways of presenting the same basic truth or truths. It is worth pointing out that this view of the religions being rather similar in their essentials is a very Islamic view and not one likely to be shared by the People of the Book. Jews do not regard the New Testament or the Qur ān as having any religious significance for them, and Christians feel no necessity to acknowledge the truth of Muhammad s mission as recounted in the Qur ān. Islam has to show why as the most apparently recent of the religions it is the best. It does this by suggesting that in fact it is not the most recent but the oldest religion, the original religion which Judaism and Christianity have perhaps changed and formed into their own distinct religions which preserve only a remote connection with the divine origins of faith itself. There is a tendency for a religion that comes out of other religions to stress the common factors between the new faith and the old ones. After all, this is helpful for conversion, since one can argue that there is not that much difference between the faiths and so conversion is not such a big deal. In commercial life those who are trying to get the public to buy a new product will often link it with older and more familiar products so that the public think they know what sort of thing it is and find it tempting. The Qur ān often lumps Jews and Christians together as People of the Book, and other groups are also linked with them in this respect of having a book, but then it also sometimes takes a harsher view of Jews as compared with Christians. 2 Christians at least unlike Jews believe that Jesus was a prophet, and Jews set out to kill Jesus and show a general disinclination to treat those sent to bring them messages with respect, but Christians nonetheless have many mistaken ideas about Jesus. They believe according to the Qur ān that he has a divine or semi-divine status, and this belief is wrong, and they believe that he 2 Oliver Leaman, Jewish Thought, (London: Routledge, 2006); Oliver Leaman, Judaism: an introduction (London: I B Tauris, 2011). 112

7 Qur anic and Biblical Prophets: Are They Really the Same People? was crucified, instead of taken up to heaven, and this is also wrong. They did not try to kill Jesus, this is the responsibility of the Jews, who are said to tend to try to kill their prophets (although of course they do not regard him as a prophet). There is a real issue as to whether Christians will be saved when the world comes to an end, since although their behaviour may have been virtuous and they did believe in the prophethood of Jesus, they also lacked faith in God to such an extent that they believed he could have allowed his prophet to die the sort of humiliating death that is represented by the crucifixion. They also fail to understand what specifically happened to Jesus since they do not accept the prophecy of Muhammad and the authority of the Qur ān so they are clearly only in possession of a much earlier and incomplete message. It is not that God sent them an incomplete message, but they have manipulated what he sent them, so they misunderstand its real nature, and good evidence of that is provided by their refusal to accept the last message as conveyed through Muhammad. The implication is that had they really understood the message they received from Jesus they would have embraced Islam and recognized the Prophet for what he was, the final messenger. On this subject, we return to the issue of whether the prophets who share the same name, are the same people. It is not like the Ka bah which went from being originally monotheist and constructed by Abraham and his son, to being polytheist and then finally monotheist again, and throughout this period it seems to have come under divine care and attention 3. But then it is the same physical object, so even if its use is corrupted, it itself can remain essentially as it was. If the nature of prophecy in Judaism and Christianity is corrupted, though, that concept does not remain the same, its sense changes and so it is different. Jesus cannot both have died and not have died and be the same person. The Job of the Bible could not have been as humble throughout as the Ayyūb of the Qur ān and still be the Job of the Bible. Therefore, we have to think very carefully before we just accept that the prophets in the three religions could be the same people. 3 A topic discussed in more detail in: Oliver Leaman, Controversies in Contemporary Islam (London: Routledge, 2013). 113

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