Sources of the Quran

by Luke Wayne
5/31/2016

Muslims claim that the Quran is a perfect and eternal revelation from God that an angel dictated directly to Muhammad word for word. It is thus said to be independent of all human sources. The reality is, however, that the Quran clearly drew on ancient myths, legends, and other human traditions, mistakenly accepting them as true. The Quran actually anticipates this objection and frequently denies it. For example, it says:

"But the misbelievers say: 'Naught is this but a lie which he has forged, and others have helped him at it.' In truth it is they who have put forward an iniquity and a falsehood. And they say: “Tales of the ancients, which he has caused to be written: and they are dictated to him morning and evening,” (Quran, Surah 25:4-5).

There are similar statements in many places throughout the Quran. Yet, in spite of the Quran's insistence to the contrary, it can be clearly shown that these early accusers it was addressing were actually quite right. The Quran does in many places record ancient legends that were circulating during Muhammad's day as if they were fact. These myths, however, have no basis in fact or history. It is not surprising that Muhammad or any other Arab merchant of his day would have mistaken these stories for truth, but the Quran is supposed to be the dictated Word of God. Surely God would know the difference between history and myth! This poses a serious problem for the Quran.

Brief Summary of Some Key Examples

  • Surah 2:34 recounts the casting out of Satan from heaven for refusing to bow down to Adam. It alludes to this story as if it is a fact of history with which the reader is expected to already be familiar. As it turns out, it was indeed a known story of the day, but not from the Bible or history. Rather, it can be found in the entirely mythical book, "The Life of Adam and Eve."1
     
  • Surah 5:31 reports a story of Cain learning to bury Abel's body by watching a raven scratch the ground. This story is found in several places in the highly legendary and imaginative Jewish Midrash literature, like Midrash Tanhuma2 and Pirḳe de-R. Eliezer.3
     
  • Surah 5:32 gives a specific moral and legal application to the story of Cain and Abel. This application is not only drawn directly from the 3rd-century Jewish legal tradition of the Mishnah; it practically quotes a portion of Sanhedrin 4:54 verbatim.
     
  • Surah 21 tells a story of Abraham destroying idols in his homeland. He is then cast into a fire by the people but miraculously delivered by God. This story is a Jewish legend recorded in the second-century Midrash Rabbah.5
     
  • Surah 7:171 tells of God holding a mountain over the Israelites like a canopy so that they are terrified it will fall on them. He then warns them to fear God and remember the revelation they've been given. This story is taken directly from a Rabbinic tradition recorded in the Babylonian Talmud.6
     
  • Surah 19:27-34 reports Jesus speaking as a newborn babe. This is rooted in an unbiblical and completely fictional legend that we know existed in Arabic speaking “Christian” communities, as it is written in the apocryphal "Arabic Infancy Gospel."7 dated to the 5th or early 6th century AD.
     
  • Surah 3:49 and 5:110 both tell of Jesus making clay birds and bringing them to life. This myth was earlier recorded in the gnostic "Infancy Gospel of Thomas,"8 yet the Quran reports it right alongside his biblical miracles as if this were historical and in the true Gospels.
     
  • Surah 19:22-26 tells of Mary, still pregnant with Jesus, traveling and being driven by the pains of childbirth to sit under a tree. She expects to die there, but a voice speaks to her from beneath her (perhaps the preborn Jesus?) and tells her to shake the tree and she will be given both food and drink by the tree and will live. This odd story is paralleled by an earlier legend in the mythical "Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew," except that in Pseudo-Matthew Jesus is a two-year-old boy at the time, and He commands the tree to bend down and feed Mary its fruit.9
     
  • Surah 18:9-26 tells of a small group of young men who fell asleep in a cave and miraculously were preserved in slumber for 300 years before God awoke them. This story was part of a family of legends popular among Jews and Christians of the day. It borrowed most directly from the Christian fable of the "seven sleepers" who hid in a cave during Roman persecution and whom God preserved for centuries to awake at a later time when persecution had ceased, and Christians could worship freely.10

Concluding Remarks

No one is suggesting that Muhammad had a library of all of these documents and copied them all into the Quran. There is no evidence that the author of the Quran ever actually read the Bible, much less these other sources. Instead, these documents are merely records of the kinds of myths and stories that were being passed around among Jews, Christians, and their heretical offshoots during this period. The Quran tells these stories right alongside stories similar to those in the Bible without making any distinction and with details slightly changed, in just the way you would expect from someone who was gleaning stories through a primarily oral tradition. The author of the Quran did not know the difference between the true and biblical events of history and the mythical tales of later men's imaginations. He did not know truth from error or what was biblical or unbiblical. The Quran, therefore, was clearly authored by a man and is not the word of an all-knowing God.

  • 1. R.H. Charles, The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament,  Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913,  http://www.ccel.org/c/charles/otpseudepig/adamnev.htm (Accessed 5/31/2016)
  • 2. Samuel A. Berman, Midrash Tanhuma-Yelammedenu (KTAV Publishing house, 1996) 31-32
  • 3. Gerald Friedlander, Pirḳe de-R. Eliezer, (The Bloch Publishing Company, 1916) 156
  • 4. Herbert Danby, The Mishnah: Translated from the Hebrew with Introduction and Brief Notes (Hendrickson Publishing, 2011) 388
  • 5. Rabbi H. Freedman and Maurice Simon, Midrash Rabbah: Translated into English with Notes, Glossary, and Indices: Volume 1 - Rabba Genesis (Stephen Austin and Sons, LTD 1939) 310-311. http://archive.org/stream/RabbaGenesis/midrashrabbahgen027557mbp#page/n357/mode/2up (accessed 5/31/2016)
  • 6. Jacob Neusner, The Babylonian Talmud: A Translation and Commentary (Hendrickson, 2011) as cited in James White, What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Quran (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishing, 2013), 232-233
  • 7. The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Volume 8, (Eerdmans, 1951) 405
  • 8. Bart Ehrman, Lost Scriptures (Oxford University Press, 2003) 58
  • 9. The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Volume 8, (Eerdmans, 1951) 376-377
  • 10. Pieter W. Van der Horst, Pious Long Sleepers in Greek, Jewish, and Christian Antiquity, http://orion.mscc.huji.ac.il/symposiums/13th/papers/Horst.pdf, (Accessed 11/24/2014) 14-15