The general design of the Quran seems to be to unite the adherents of the three different religions then followed in Arabia, most of whom were idolaters, the rest Jews and Christians, into the knowledge and worship of the One Living God. For this purpose certain laws and ceremonies were sanctioned, some of them ancient, some quite new. At the head of this community stands Muhammad combining in himself the double office of pope and prince, to whom all are obliged to render obedience since he has been sent of God to establish true religion, but not a new religion, on earth.
The above statement is fully borne out by a consideration of the contents of the Quran; in particular, it can be shown how Muhammad incorporated into his system not only articles of faith, but customs and ceremonies that had for long been associated with the religions of the peoples mentioned. The Quran, indeed, testifies to the fact that his critics observed this tendency and charged him with borrowing:
“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 before him morning and evening.” (Al-Furqan 25:4,5 cp. An-Nahl 16:103; At-Tur 52:33 ; Al-Anbiya 21:5).
Muhammad rebuts the charges, declaring that the statements referred to have been “sent down” or “brought down”; that is, by Gabriel.
1. There are elements in the Quran from pagan sources. a) From the heathen Arabs Muhammad took over most of the ceremonies connected with the hajj. The perplexity felt by some at such incorporation is illustrated by a remark attributed to Umar, the second Khalifah who, in the act of kissing the Black Stone, said I know that thou art a stone ; thou dost no good or harm in the world:and if it were not that I saw the Prophet kiss thee, I would not kiss thee ! (Mishkatu’l Masabih Book 11, Ch 4, Part 3). b) From the Zoroastrians of Persia Muhammad incorporated in somewhat modified form, conceptions of heaven and hell, judgment and reward. From this source come the huris, or virgins of Paradise, and fables about the jinn.
2. A considerable amount of material comes from Jewish sources. a) In a number of passages in the Quran we find a curious likeness, and unlikeness, to narratives in the Old Testament. This is due to the fact that Muhammad had to do with Jews who had accustomed themselves to use not so much the Old Testament as the Talmud, which had been completed in the century before Muhammad. The apocryphal stories of this Talmud formed the basis of instruction in the Jewish schools of his day. Muhammad would have heard these stories rather than the Biblical narratives. There is more than one curious illustration of this fact in the Quran; e.g., the story of Cain and Abel (Al-Maidah 5:27-31), where a raven is sent which “scratched upon the ground” to show Cain how to dispose of his brother’s body. There is nothing of this in Genesis, but in the Pirke Rabbi Eliezer, chapter 31, it is to Adam that the raven shows the method of burial. b) Whole chapters are devoted to Abraham (Sura 14) and Joseph (Sura 12). With regard to the former it is repeatedly stated in the Quran that he was cast into a fire because of his refusal to worship idols (see As-Saffat 37:97; Al-Anbiya 21:60-70; Al-Ankabut 29:24). Now this curious idea is found in a Jewish book, called the Targum of Jonathan, in reference to Genesis 11: 28 and 15:7. The Jewish author took Ur (of the Chaldees), the name of a place, to be literally “fire,” which is what the word itself means. The rest of the story in the Targum about Abraham being thrown into the fire for refusing to worship idols is a pure invention on the part of the Jewish writer, yet the Quran has incorporated the whole thing!
3. There is, on the other hand, surprisingly little in the Quran from Christian sources, and most of that can be traced to apocryphal literature. This is most evident in the narratives concerning Mary, the mother of Jesus. The story that “they cast lots” as to who should be her guardian when she was a child (Al-Imran 3 35-44), is recorded at length in the Protoevangelium of James the Less, and in the Coptic work, The History of the Virgin. That the pains of childbirth came upon on her “by the trunk of a palm” (Maryam 19. 23- 26) is part of a story recorded in an apocryphal work called The History of the Nativity of Mary and the Infancy of the Saviour.
Some Special Features of the Quran
1. The Previous Scriptures: Muhammad’s acquaintance with, and early respect for, the Jews and the Christians, to whom he gave the distinctive title Ahl-I -Kitab, or “the People of the Book,” ensures a prominent place for their Scriptures in the pages of the Quran. It declares that they were “given by God.” (Al-Sajdah 32:23); to be “a light and direction to men” (Al-An’am 6:91); and “the Word of God” (Al-Baqarrah 2:70)) but, there is little to show that Muhammad had any acquaintance with these Scriptures. The fact that he proclaimed that they contained predictions concerning himself (Al-A’raf 7:157 As-Saff 6l:6) rather goes to prove this. The Jews’ stubborn repudiation of his claim led to a whole series of charges that they were in the habit of manipulating their Scriptures (Al-Baqarrah 2:42, 75-80; Al-Imran 3:71; An-Nisa: 46); by which he meant that they so furnished him with information from their book as to convey a sense different from that which its words intended.
2. Former Prophets: The Quran has much to say concerning the prophets: mention is made of some who would be unknown to “the People of the Book.” These prophets and others, thousands in number, are also mentioned in the Traditions. Muhammad’s idea was that all men need guidance in the matter of faith, and that these prophets are sent from time to time with revelations. But this guidance is essentially the same from the time of Adam to Muhammad. With wearisome repetition, legends concerning the earlier prophets are told in the Quran. They form a long line, from Adam through Noah, Abraham, Lot, Ishmael, Moses, on to Jesus, and ending in Muhammad, who is declared to be the Apostle of God, and the seal of the prophets, (Al-Ahzab 33:40).
3. The Christology of the Quran: A number of passages can be cited to show that the Quran gives a place to Jesus the like of which is not accorded to any other prophet, not even to Muhammad himself. He is Mary’s “holy son” (Maryam 19:19). He is “illustrious in this world and in the next”. He is “His (God’s) Word“ (Al Imran 3:39,45) “and a spirit proceeding from Himself.” Adam is known among Muslims as Safiu’llah, the chosen of God; Noah as Najiu‘llah, the prophet of God; Abraham as Khalilu‘llah, the friend, of God; Moses as Kalimu’llah, one who speaks with God; Muhammad as Rasulu’llah, the messenger of God but Jesus is called Kalimatullah, the Word of God. And yet the most common title given to Christ in the Quran is ‘Isa ibn-Maryam, ” Jesus, the son of Mary” as though Muhammad would popularise this name by way of protest against all that is implied in the phrase familiar to Christians “Jesus, Son of God.” The Quran denies, too, that Jesus died upon the cross. It was only an “illusion,” another was mistaken for “Him. The fact is that Muhammad either could not understand or would not admit the wondrous love displayed on Calvary. Further; Muhammad’s anxiety to be considered “the seal of the prophets” led him to recast Christ’s promise of the Paraclete so as to make it a prediction concerning himself:
“And when Jesus son of Mary said: O Children of Israel! Lo! I am the messenger of Allah unto you, confirming that which was (revealed) before me in the Torah, and bringing good tidings of a messenger who cometh after me, whose name is the Praised One.” (As-Saff 6l:6).
Extract from ‘The People of the Book’