Injīl (Gospel) In The Time Of Moses?

M S M Saifullah & ʿAbdullah David

© Islamic Awareness, All Rights Reserved.

First Composed: 20th May 2006

Last Updated: 16th August 2007

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Assalamu-ʿalaykum wa rahamatullahi wa barakatuhu:

1. Introduction

The Christian missionaries claimed that in Qur'an 7:155-160 the mention of the Gospel in the time of Moses is a "strong" anachronism. They say:

Many verses in the Qur'an make clear that the Gospel is given to Jesus - but Jesus was born over a thousand years [about 1400] after Moses. For Allah to speak to Moses and say that the people can find the unlettered prophet mentioned in the Gospel is a strong anachronism since the Gospel is not available to Moses and will not be available for another 1400 years.

If many verses in the Qur'an have clarified that the Gospel was indeed given to Jesus, one wonders why the missionaries did not take the opportunity to investigate the matter more closely instead of dismissing the whole issue as a "strong" anachronism. Much of the Christian missionaries' claims concerning the "anachronisms" in the Qur'an comes from reading the Qur'an just like the Bible, irrespective of the fact that these two sources are written in a different language, with a different audience in a different context. It must be emphasized that the Qur'an is not like the Bible. It has its own style, form and dynamics of discourse. In the Christian apologetical literature, it can be said with almost complete certainty that the stylistic features of the Qur'an are never taken into account while discussing the issues surrounding the Qur'an. This in itself is unsurprising and readily explainable. A quick perusal of the critics’ objections makes it clear that no attempt has been made to engage the Qur'an in the language it was originally revealed in; sadly, this is a matter of concern amongst the occidental missionaries which remains to be addressed. In this paper, we will discuss a stylistic feature of the Qur'an called idraj or "insertion" of a comment in the Qur'an and its interesting implications on the Qur'anic discourse, especially the Qur'anic verses 7:155-160 where the missionaries have allegedly found the mention of the Gospel during the time of Moses.

2. Idraj ("Comment") - A Stylistic Feature Of The Qur'an

The implied speaker of the Qur'an is God. Why does He employ both ‘We’ and ‘He’ as self-designations? Moreover, when He employs the first-person-plural mode, why does He sometimes refer to Himself as ‘thy Lord’ rather than simply as ‘Us’? A few decades ago, Roman Jakobson wrote essays on linguistics and poetics which, although it does not mention the Qur'an, throws some light on these questions.[1] Jakobson states that verbal communication may be primarily expressive, conative or cognitive.[2]

The Qur'anic discourse moves to and fro between these three functions. The cognitive function is vital in a Scripture which is intended to be a message for humankind. If God had restricted Himself to expressive or conative communication, there would have been no universal message, no statements about Him which human beings could reiterate.

Perhaps the best way in which the three above-mentioned communications are highlighted is in the stylistic feature of the Qur'an called idraj or "insertion" of a comment in the narration. Al-Zarkashi has briefly dealt with idraj in his Al-Burhān Fī-ʿUlūm al-Qur'ān.[3] In idraj a few verses are inserted between a group of verses as a comment to send a message to the addressee. This results in the Qur'anic discourse moving between cognitive, expressive and conative functions; thus enhancing the interactive nature of its style.[4]

The idraj in a Qur'anic narrative is used for various purposes. For example, it could be used to draw a moral from a story, as an advice, as a command, as a threat to those who commit evil, as a reward to the good-doers, to relate the past history of the people before the advent of Islam and the relevance of certain historical events, to comfort the believers or to even set up fitting prelude to a story. Let us consider a few examples before we touch upon the Christian missionaries' claim about the alleged mention of the Gospel in the time of Moses in the Qur'an in the verses Qur'an 7:155-160. The verses which are "insertion" of a comment or idraj are depicted in bold.

I. Consider the last two verses from Sūrah al-Baqarah.

The Messenger believeth in what hath been revealed to him from his Lord, as do the men of faith. Each one (of them) believeth in Allah, His angels, His books, and His messengers. "We make no distinction (they say) between one and another of His messengers." And they say: "We hear, and we obey: (We seek) Thy forgiveness, our Lord, and to Thee is the end of all journeys." On no soul doth Allah place a burden greater than it can bear. It gets every good that it earns, and it suffers every ill that it earns. (Pray:) "Our Lord! Condemn us not if we forget or fall into error; Our Lord! Lay not on us a burden Like that which Thou didst lay on those before us; Our Lord! Lay not on us a burden greater than we have strength to bear. Blot out our sins, and grant us forgiveness. Have mercy on us. Thou art our Protector; Help us against those who stand against faith." [Qur'an 2:285-286]

Here the believers are affirming their faith and earnestly asking Allah to forgive them, perhaps worried that they were not good enough. Allah interrupts their prayer by reassuring them, "On no soul doth Allah place a burden greater than it can bear. It gets every good that it earns, and it suffers every ill that it earns." Then the prayers of the believers continue.

II. An interesting example of idraj in a Qur'anic narrative comes from the story of Luqman and his son.

Behold, Luqman said to his son by way of instruction: "O my son! join not in worship (others) with Allah: for false worship is indeed the highest wrong-doing." And We have enjoined on man (to be good) to his parents: in travail upon travail did his mother bear him, and in years twain was his weaning: (hear the command), "Show gratitude to Me and to thy parents: to Me is (thy final) Goal. "But if they strive to make thee join in worship with Me things of which thou hast no knowledge, obey them not; yet bear them company in this life with justice (and consideration), and follow the way of those who turn to me (in love): in the end the return of you all is to Me, and I will tell you the truth (and meaning) of all that ye did." "O my son!" (said Luqman), "If there be (but) the weight of a mustard-seed and it were (hidden) in a rock, or (anywhere) in the heavens or on earth, Allah will bring it forth: for Allah understands the finest mysteries, (and) is well-acquainted (with them). "O my son! establish regular prayer, enjoin what is just, and forbid what is wrong: and bear with patient constancy whatever betide thee; for this is firmness (of purpose) in (the conduct of) affairs. "And swell not thy cheek (for pride) at men, nor walk in insolence through the earth; for Allah loveth not any arrogant boaster. "And be moderate in thy pace, and lower thy voice; for the harshest of sounds without doubt is the braying of the ass." [Qur'an 31:13-19]

Here Luqman is advising his son not to join partners with Allah. An "insertion" of a comment (idraj) happens immediately after this in which Allah commands the people to be good to their parents and to show gratitude to Him and to their parents [verse 14]. But if the parents command to join worship other gods with Allah, then the command is not to obey them but be kind to them in this world and to Allah is the final return [verse 15]. After this comment Luqman's advice to his son resumes. Here the idraj has served as an advice, as a command and as a threat to those who join partners with Allah and also as a reminder of the Day of Judgment. One will also notice that the Qur'anic discourse moved between conative, cognitive and expressive functions and thereby enhancing the interactive nature of its style. The reader senses that the advice of Luqman to his son is also addressed personally to him.

III. Let us now consider the verses stated by the Christian missionaries whereby the Gospel was allegedly mentioned in the time of Moses.

And Moses chose seventy of his people for Our place of meeting: when they were seized with violent quaking, he prayed: "O my Lord! if it had been Thy will Thou couldst have destroyed, long before, both them and me: wouldst Thou destroy us for the deeds of the foolish ones among us? this is no more than Thy trial: by it Thou causest whom Thou wilt to stray, and Thou leadest whom Thou wilt into the right path. Thou art our Protector: so forgive us and give us Thy mercy; for Thou art the best of those who forgive. "And ordain for us that which is good, in this life and in the Hereafter: for we have turned unto Thee." He said: "With My punishment I visit whom I will; but My mercy extendeth to all things. That (mercy) I shall ordain for those who do right, and practise regular charity, and those who believe in Our signs;- "Those who follow the messenger, the unlettered Prophet, whom they find mentioned in their own (scriptures),- in the law and the Gospel;- for he commands them what is just and forbids them what is evil; he allows them as lawful what is good (and pure) and prohibits them from what is bad (and impure); He releases them from their heavy burdens and from the yokes that are upon them. So it is those who believe in him, honour him, help him, and follow the light which is sent down with him,- it is they who will prosper." Say: "O men! I am sent unto you all, as the Messenger of Allah, to Whom belongeth the dominion of the heavens and the earth: there is no god but He: it is He That giveth both life and death. So believe in Allah and His Messenger, the Unlettered Prophet, who believeth in Allah and His words: follow him that (so) ye may be guided." Of the people of Moses there is a section who guide and do justice in the light of truth. We divided them into twelve tribes or nations. We directed Moses by inspiration, when his (thirsty) people asked him for water: "Strike the rock with thy staff": out of it there gushed forth twelve springs: Each group knew its own place for water. We gave them the shade of clouds, and sent down to them manna and quails, (saying): "Eat of the good things We have provided for you": (but they rebelled); to Us they did no harm, but they harmed their own souls. [Qur'an 7:155-160]

Here the story of Moses is mentioned with verses 157-159 as an "insertion" of comment by Allah. The comment in 157-159 relates to the tale of Moses and its implications to the addressees of the Qur'an when it was revealed. The second part of verse 156 deals with the answering of Moses' prayer by Allah. This verse says that Allah's mercy will be on those who would do good, pay zakāt and believe in the signs of Allah (i.e., the Torah). The "insertion" of comment (idraj) after this verse shifts the focus on the present addressees [verses 157-159]. Allah mercy would also be on the present addressees only if they follow the unlettered Prophet mentioned in their scriptures, i.e., the Torah and the Gospel, obey his commands, believe in him, help him and follow the Qur'an. They would be the successful ones. The focus is then shifted to Prophet Muhammad who is exhorted to say to the addressees: "O men! I am sent unto you all, as the Messenger of Allah, to Whom belongeth the dominion of the heavens and the earth: there is no god but He...." In the subsequent verse [i.e., verse 159] it reminds the addressees that when Moses preached his people there was only a section of his community who lead with truth and established justice therewith. People have rejected the Prophets of Allah in the past and it may well be that such a thing could also happen with Prophet Muhammad. After this "insertion", the Qur'anic narrative shifts back to the story of Moses [verse 160] taking its cue from verse 156.

The Christian missionaries' claim of the alleged mention of Gospel during the time of Moses turns out to a source of their own ignorance about various styles of the Qur'anic narrative, especially idraj.

IV. Our last example comes from Sūrah Yūsuf. This sūrah has some very interesting examples of idraj. We will consider only one for the sake of brevity.

The man in Egypt who bought him, said to his wife: "Make his stay (among us) honourable: may be he will bring us much good, or we shall adopt him as a son." Thus did We establish Joseph in the land, that We might teach him the interpretation of stories (and events). And Allah hath full power and control over His affairs; but most among mankind know it not. When Joseph attained His full manhood, We gave him power and knowledge: thus do We reward those who do right. But she in whose house he was, sought to seduce him from his (true) self: she fastened the doors, and said: "Now come, thou (dear one)!" He said: "Allah forbid! truly (thy husband) is my lord! he made my sojourn agreeable! truly to no good come those who do wrong!" [Qur'an 12:21-23]

When Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt, al-ʿAziz bought him and his wife suggested that they should adopt Joseph as a son. Immediately after this there is an "insertion" of a comment by Allah reminding the readers of how Joseph was placed in the most hopeless situation that one can imagine. Severed from his family, he is sold into slavery with odds are stacked up against him and all hope is cut off. In these utterly bleak circumstances comes into play divine power and, all of a sudden, Joseph finds himself established in the land [verse 21]. Thus the dominance of Allah has been established. Allah reminds the readers that He is in perfect control of His affairs, but most of mankind are unaware of it. This statement sets up a fitting prelude to the rest of the story. Also mentioned is the reward for the believers who do good. The concept of reward is universalized even though the example mentioned is that of Joseph [verse 22]. After this the story of Joseph continues.

3. Conclusions

Unaware of the stylistic features of the Qur'an, the Christian missionaries claimed that in Qur'an 7:155-160 the mention of the Gospel in the time of Moses is a "strong" anachronism. Much of their claims concerning "anachronisms" in the Qur'an comes from reading the Bible in the Qur'an. The Qur'an is not like the Bible in form as well as content. It has its own style, form and dynamics of discourse. A story in the Qur'an is told for a particular purpose. The addition of idraj or an "insertion" of a comment enhances the interactive nature of Qur'anic stories to keep the reader ever attentive to its message.

In this article, we have discussed Qur'an 7:155-160 which allegedly mentions the Gospel during the time of Moses. It was shown that the mention of the Gospel in Qur'an 7:157 is an idraj in the story of Moses to remind the present addressees that Allah's mercy will also be on them if they follow the unlettered Prophet mentioned in their scriptures, i.e., the Torah and the Gospel, obey his commands, believe in him, help him and follow the Qur'an; just like in Moses' time Allah's mercy was on those who did good, paid zakāt and believed in the Torah.

And Allah knows best!

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References & Notes

[1] R. Jakobson, "Linguistics And Poetics" in S. Rudy (Ed.), Roman Jakobson Selected Writings - Poetry Of Grammar And Grammar Of Poetry, 1981, Volume III, Mouton Publishers: The Hague, pp. 21-23.

[2] N. Robinson, Discovering The Qur'an: A Contemporary Approach To A Veiled Text, 1996, SCM Press Ltd., p. 229. Our text is adapted from Robinson's book.

[3] Badr al-Din Muḥammad b. ʿAbdullāh Al-Zarkashī, Al-Burhān Fī-ʿUlūm al-Qur'ān, 1958 / 1377, Volume III, Dār Ihya al-Kutub al-ʿArabiyyah: Al-Qahirah, pp. 294-295.

[4] M. Abdel Haleem, Understanding The Qur'an: Themes And Style, 1999, I. B. Tauris & Co. Ltd: London, p. 208.

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