The Cain and Abel account and the Quran's human origins

The Quran recounts the story of Cain and Abel but ends with a detail not found in the Bible. It explains:

"Then Allah sent a raven, who scratched the ground, to show him how to hide the shame of his brother. 'Woe is me!' said he; 'Was I not even able to be as this raven, and to hide the shame of my brother?' Then he became full of regrets," (Quran, Surah 5:31).

Where did this story come from? It is an old Jewish legend; an oral story that was written down in a variety of forms in different Jewish sources. Midrash Tanhuma records:

"After Cain slew Abel, the body laid outstretched upon the earth, since Cain did not know how to dispose of it. Thereupon the Holy One, blessed be he, selected two clean birds and caused one of them to kill the other. The surviving bird dug the earth with its talons and buried its victim. Cain learned from this what to do. He dug a grave and buried Abel. It is because of this that birds are privileged to cover their blood."1

And in Pirḳe de-R. Eliezer, Chapter 21, we find:

"The dog which was guarding Abel's flock also guarded his corpse from all the beasts of the field and all the fowl of the heavens. Adam and his helpmate were sitting and weeping and mourning for him, and they did not know what to do (with Abel), for they were unaccustomed to burial. A raven (came), one of its fellow birds was dead (at its side). (The raven) said, 'I will teach this man what to do.' It took its fellow and dug in the earth, hid it and buried it before them. Adam said 'Like this raven will I act.' He took the corpse of Abel and dug in the earth and buried it."2

Illustrative stories that expand on biblical narratives are common throughout the Jewish Midrash literature. Such stories are legends that developed over time, particularly in the early centuries after Christ. They are exactly the kind of stories we would expect a man of Muhammad's day to hear among the Jews of his time. This legend about the raven and the body of Abel is a perfect example, and it is interesting that we find this Midrash fable in the Quran. Confusion of mythical material with history makes sense if a mere man wrote the Quran, but obviously, an all-knowing God would know the difference between biblical history and legendary Jewish fables. This fact alone is strong evidence that the Quran is not the word of God dictated to Muhammad by an angel but instead is a human document that borrowed from existing oral traditions. The parallels in this Quranic passage, however, don't stop there. The Quran goes on, in the very next verse, to draw a specific application from the Cain and Abel narrative. It says:

"On that account: We ordained for the Children of Israel that if anyone slew a person - unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land - it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people. Then although there came to them Our apostles with clear signs, yet, even after that, many of them continued to commit excesses in the land," (Quran, Surah 5:32)

The Mishnah, a code of Jewish law and interpretation that was written down by the early 3rd century AD (hundreds of years before Muhammad was born) records its own application of the Cain and Abel story:

"For so we have found it with Cain that slew his brother, for it is written, the bloods of thy brother cry. It says not 'the blood of thy brother,' but the bloods of thy brother. - his blood and the blood of his posterity. (Another saying is: Bloods of thy brother - because his blood was cast over the trees and stones.) Therefore, but a single man was created in the world, to teach that if any man has caused a single soul to perish from Israel scripture imputes to him as if he had caused a whole world to perish; and if any man saves alive a single soul from Israel scripture imputes it to him as if he had saved alive a whole world," (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5b).3

The Mishnah is clear. This application was not a prophetic revelation given down by God. It is an inventive interpretation that plays on the fact that the Hebrew word for "blood" used in the Genesis account of Cain and Abel is in the plural form. This tradition in Jewish law was well established by Muhammad's time, and the Quran quotes this tradition as its own conclusion to the story. Again, this is what we expect from a man repeating or writing down things he commonly heard from the Jews of his day and that he assumed to be biblical, but these stories and applications are not divine revelations. They are much later human traditions. The all-knowing God would obviously know the difference. The author of the Quran did not know the difference because the Quran is not the word of God.

  • 1. Samuel A. Berman, Midrash Tanhuma-Yelammedenu (KTAV Publishing House, 1996) 31-32
  • 2. Gerald Fiedlander, Pirḳe de-R. Eliezer (The Bloch Publishing Company, 1916) 156
  • 3. Herbert Danby, The Mishnah: Translated from the Hebrew with Introduction and Brief Notes (Hendrickson Publishing, 2011) 388