The Judeo-Christian Origins of Islam
As Patricia Crone once put it, "new religions do not spring fully fledged from the heads of prophets, old civilizations are not conjured away." Islam did not somehow emerge fully developed, as the Islamic traditional accounts would have us believe, but slowly, over a long period of time, as the Arab conquerors came into contact with the far older cultures and civilizations, which pushed the Arabs to question and forge their own religious and cultural identity. Ever since the Nineteenth Century, when Western scholars, especially German, but also Italian, French, Hungarian, and British, began to examine Islam and the Koran in the same manner that they had begun examining the Old and New Testament, the debate has been as to determine whether it was Judaism or Christianity that contributed most to the creation of Islam. As Richard Bell, in his The Origin of Islam in Its Christian Environment [Edinburgh, 1925], expressed it, "That both Judaism and Christianity played a part in forming the doctrine of Islam and in preparing the spiritual soil of Arabia for its reception has long been recognised. How much influence is to be attributed to the one, and how much to the other, is difficult to decide. For much is common to both, and we have to remember that there were many forms of Christianity intermediate between the orthodox Church of the seventh century and the Judaism out of which it sprang, and it was in the East, on the confines of Arabia, that we know these Judaistic forms of Christianity to have longest maintained themselves. Some things in the Qur'an and in Islam which appear specially Jewish, may really have come through nominally Christian channels. But even with that allowance there is no doubt about the large influence exercised by Judaism."
A. CHRISTIANITY: APOCRYPHA
Adolf von Harnack [1851-1930], in his Die Mission und Ausbreitung des Christentums in den ersten drei Jahrhunderten [The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries] (1902, revised 1906, 1915, and finally 1924), wrote, "The large regions south of Palestine, Damascus, and Mesopotamia which bear the name of 'Arabia' were never civilized -- they were not even subdued -- by the Romans, with the exception of the country lying east of the Jordan and several positions south of the Dead Sea. Consequently we can look for Christians during our epoch only in the districts just mentioned, where Arabian, Greek, and Roman cities were inhabited by people of superior civilization. Immediately after his conversion Paul betook himself to 'Arabia' (Gal. 1.17), i.e., hardly to the desert, but rather to the province south of Damascus. Arabians are also mentioned in Acts 2.11…. There are no Arabic versions of the Bible previous to Islam, a fact which proves irrefragably that in its primitive period Christianity had secured no footing at all among the Arabs. Indeed it never secured such a footing, for the Arabic versions were not made for Arabs at all, but for Copts and Syrians who had become Arabians."
Nonetheless, the Christian churches on the confines of Arabia exercised a certain amount of influence, and this influence came primarily from Syria in the north-west, Mesopotamia in the north-east, and Abyssinia in the west. The latter center may have exercised its influence across the Red Sea, but more probably by way of Yemen in the south, which was under Abyssinian rule for a while. However, as ever, scholars are divided as to the extent of the Christian presence in the Hijaz, that is, that part of Saudi Arabia that accommodates the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. For example, J.S. Trimingham, in his Christianity among the Arabs in pre-Islamic Times [London, 1979], remarks that: "Christianity was non-existent among the Arabs of western Arabia south of the Judham tribes." In a chapter headed "Christians in the Hijaz," after describing the history of Mecca according to the Muslim sources, plus its geographical location, he concludes that "these factors are sufficient to explain why Christianity in any of its available forms could have no influence upon its inhabitants." Whereas another scholar, Irfan Shahid, in his Byzantium and the Arabs in the Fifth Century, observes that "Places with distinctly Christian association, such as Maqbarat al Nasara, the cemetery of the Christians, are attested in Mecca in later Islamic sources and these could not possibly have been fabricated."
I believe that it is inadvisable, fruitless and unnecessary to rely upon late sources to establish the presence of Jews or Christians in Arabia, since, if the arguments of the revisionists inspired by the work of John Wansbrough are correct, Islam developed not in Arabia but much further north in the "the Sectarian Milieu" of Palestine and Syria. Thus we need only to examine the Koran itself to see that it is full of stories and motifs derived from the Old and New Testament. But such a scrutiny also yields further surprising results: many of the stories in the Koran, especially of Mary, mother of Jesus, have been taken from the apocryphal Gospels, which in turn derived them from older Buddhist texts.
William St. Clair Tisdall [1859-1928], in his The Original Sources of the Qur'an [London, 1905], gives us several examples of the probable source of the stories in the Koran. But it must be remembered that he was, in my opinion, working from false premises, since he accepted the entire Muslim traditional fairy tale about the compilation of the Koran, Muhammad, the Hadith, and the rest of One Thousand and One Night fantasies.
Tisdall begins with Surah XIX., Maryam, 28, 29, where we are told that when Mary came to her people after the birth of our Lord, they said to her,
"O Mary, truly thou hast done a strange thing. O sister of Aaron, thy father was not a man of wickedness, and thy mother was not rebellious."
Tisdall comments, "From these words it is evident that, in Muhammad's opinion, Mary was identical with Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron! This is made still more clear by Surah LVI , At Tahrim, 12, where Mary is styled "the daughter of 'Imran," the latter being the Arabic form of Amram, who in the Pentateuch is called the father of "Aaron and Moses and Miriam their sister" (Numbers. xxvi. 59). The title "sister of Aaron" is given to Miriam in Exodus xv. 20, and it must be from this passage that Muhammad borrowed the expression. The reason of the mistake which identifies the Mother of our Saviour with a woman who lived about one thousand five hundred and seventy years before His birth is evidently the fact that in Arabic both names, Mary and Miriam, are one and the same in form, Maryam. The chronological difficulty of the identification does not seem to have occurred to Muhammad. … [Muslim] commentators have in vain attempted to disprove this charge of historical inaccuracy."
Let us now see what the Qur'an and the Traditions relate regarding the
In Surah III., Al 'Imran, 35,36 we read:--
"When 'Imran's wife said, 'My Lord, verily I have dedicated to Thee what is in my womb, as consecrated: receive it therefore from me: verily Thou art the Hearer, the Knower.' When therefore she bore her, she said, 'My Lord, verily I have borne her, a female' -- and God was well aware of what she had borne, and the male is not as the female -- 'and verily I have named her Mary, and verily I commit, her and her seed unto Thee from Satan the stoned.' Accordingly her Lord received her with fair acceptance, and He made her grow with fair growth, and Zacharias reared her. Whenever Zacharias entered the shrine unto her, he found food near her. He said, 'O Mary, whence is this to thee?' She said, 'It is from God: verily God feedeth whomsoever He willeth, without a reckoning.'"
Tisdall continues, "In addition to and explanation of this narrative, Baidawi [died 1260 C.E.] and other commentators and traditionists inform us of the following particulars. 'Imran's wife was barren and advanced in age. One day, on seeing a bird giving food to its young ones, she longed for offspring, and entreated that God would bestow on her a child. She said, 'O my God, if Thou givest me a child, whether it be a son or a daughter, I shall offer it as a gift in Thy presence in the Temple at Jerusalem." God heard and answered her prayer, and she conceived and bore a daughter, Mary. Jalalu'ddin tells us that the name of Mary's mother was Hanna. When she brought Mary to the Temple and handed her over to the priests, they accepted the offering and appointed Zacharias to guard the child. He placed her in a room, and permitted no one but himself to enter it; but an angel supplied her with her daily food."
Returning to the Qur'an (Surah III.,41-46), we learn that, when Mary was older,
"The angels said, 'O Mary, verily God hath chosen thee and purified thee, and He hath chosen thee above the women of the worlds. O Mary, be devout to thy Lord, and worship, and bow with those that bow.' That is part of the announcement of the invisible; we reveal it to thee; and thou wast not with them when they threw their reeds (to see) which of them should rear Mary: and thou wast not with them when they disagreed. When the angels said, 'O Mary, verily God giveth thee good tidings of a Word from Himself, whose name is the Messiah, Jesus Son of Mary, illustrious in the world and in the hereafter, and from among those who draw near (to God): and He shall speak to men in the cradle and when grown up, and He is of the Just Ones,' she said, 'My Lord, whence shall I have a child, since no human being hath touched me?' He said, 'Thus God createth what He willeth: when He hath decreed a matter, then indeed He saith to it, Be! -- therefore it exists.'"
Tisdall comments, "In reference to what is said in these verses about 'casting reeds' or pens, Baidawi and Jalalu'ddin state that Zacharias and twenty-six other priests were rivals to one another in their desire to be Mary's guardian. They therefore went to the bank of the Jordan and threw their reeds into the water; but all the reeds sank except that of Zacharias, and on this account the latter was appointed her guardian."
Turning to Surah XIX., Maryam, 16-35, we find there the following narrative of the birth of Christ:
And in the Book do thou.mention Mary, when she retired from her family to an Eastern place. Then apart from them she assumed a veil. Then We sent unto her Our Spirit; accordingly he showed himself to her as a well-formed human being. She said, 'Verily I take refuge in the Merciful One from thee, if thou art God-fearing.' He said, 'Truly I am a messenger of thy Lord that I should give to thee a pure man-child.' She said, 'Whence shall I have a man-child, since no human being hath touched me, and I am not rebellious.’ He said, 'Thus hath thy Lord said, It is easy for Me, and let Us make Him a sign unto men and a mercy from us, and it is a thing decided.' Accordingly she conceived Him: then she retired with him to a distant place. Then labour-pains brought her to the trunk of the palm-tree. She said, 'O would that I had died ere this and had become forgotten, forgotten!' Thereupon he called aloud to her from beneath her: 'Grieve thou not; thy lord hath made a brook beneath thee. And do thou shake towards thyself the trunk of the palm-tree: it shall let fall upon thee freshly-gathered dates. Eat therefore and drink and brighten thy eye; then, if thou seest any human being, then say, Verily I have vowed unto my Lord a fast, therefore I shall surely not speak to any man today.' Accordingly she brought Him to her people, carrying Him. They said, 'O Mary, truly thou hast done a vile thing. O sister of Aaron, thy father was not a man of wickedness, and thy mother was not rebellious.' Then she made a sign unto Him. They said, 'How shall we speak to one who is a child in the cradle?' He said, 'Verily I am God’s servant: He hath brought Me the Book and hath made Me a Prophet. And He hath made Me blessed wherever I am, and hath prescribed for Me prayer and alms, as long as I live, and to be well-behaved to My mother, and He hath not made Me violent, wretched. And peace upon Me the day I was born, and the day I shall die, and the day I shall be raised up alive.' That is Jesus, Son of Mary; a statement of the truth, concerning which they doubt.”
As Tisdall says, "We can trace every single matter here mentioned to some apocryphal source, as will be evident from the passages which we now proceed to adduce".
Tisdall then quotes the Protevangelium of James the Less [the Younger] in reference to Mary’s birth, without explaining what this text is: its authorship, date and original language, and so on. In fact, answers to these questions are exactly what is most significant and important. The Protoevangelium was accepted very early into liturgical collective manuscripts, and for that reason has survived in a large number of manuscripts and many versions. Comparatively recent discovery of a papyrus, now known as Papyrus Bodmer 5, dated to the 4th century, has helped scholar E. de Strycker to establish what is now the best edition in Greek, in which language there exist 140 manuscripts. But there are also four manuscripts o the Protoevangelium in Syriac which probably originated in the 5th century. Then there are versions in Georgian, Latin, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopic, Slavonic languages, and in Arabic from the 10th century. The Protoevangelium circulated in the eastern area of the Church. Professor Wilhelm Schneemelcher of Bonn University describes the Protoevangelium's contents, "Although it reaches the birth of Jesus and recounts it, it is really much more an account of the miraculous birth of Mary, the daughter of wealthy Joachim and his wife Anne, her upbringing in the Temple and her virginity, which is not impaired by the widower Joseph, to whom she is entrusted by lot, and by the birth of Jesus. Chapters 22-24 recount the murder of Zacharias, who is identified with the father of the Baptist".
It purports to be the testimony of James, the brother of Jesus. In reality the book was probably not written before 150 C.E., though some chapters were possibly added later.