The Story Of Abraham And Idols In The Qur'an And Midrash Genesis Rabbah

M S M Saifullah

© Islamic Awareness, All Rights Reserved.

First Composed: 11th June 2002

Last Updated: 8th January 2006

Assalamu-`alaykum wa rahamatullahi wa barakatuhu:

1. Introduction

And they say: 'Tales of the ancients which he has caused to be written...' (Qur'an 25:5)

The charge of borrowing ancient materials and composing the Qur'an is, contrary to popular view among the Christians, not new. It is as old as the revelation of the Qur'an. In fact the above quotation is from the Qur'an itself!

Some have claimed that a text known as Midrash Genesis Rabbah is the source of Qur'anic narrative of Abraham and idols as recounted in Surahs 6:74 and 21:51-71. This claim was first made by Abraham Geiger[1] and subsequently repeated by Tisdall[2] and other polemicists:

It has been shown by Geiger and also by Tisdall that the source of the Koranic and traditional account lies in the Jewish Midrash Rabbah. But the Midrashic and the Muslim sources are at variance with the biblical account. In Genesis we simply learn that Nimrod is the grandson of Ham, and that he founded the great empire. In the Muslim and Midrashic story, Abraham is punished for having destroyed the idols worshipped by the people of Nimrod. He is thrown into a fire but emerges unscathed.[3]

Similar claims have been by J. W. Sweetman,[4] Anis Shorrosh,[5] Robert Morey,[6] Mateen Elass,[7] Abdiyah Akbar Abdul-Haqq,[8] `Abdallah `Abd al-Fadi,[9] F. S. Coplestone,[10] Norman Geisler and Abdul Saleeb.[11] Some of them have assigned the date of Midrash Genesis Rabbah as a second century compilation.

Others have claimed that there are "striking similarities" between the Qur'an and Jerome's Quaestiones Hebraicae in Genesim (Hebrew Questions on Genesis), Catena Severi and the Book of Jubilees.[12]

2. What Are These So-Called Sources?

Midrash Genesis Rabbah

The word Midrash is from the Hebrew "to interpret, to explain". The term 'Midrash' can also refer to a book - a compilation of Midrashic teachings. Thus one can say that "Genesis Rabbah" is a book that is a compilation of Midrash readings on the book of Genesis. Midrash Genesis Rabbah is also known as Bereshit Rabbah. It is allegedly the earliest extant midrash collection and is the most important of the midrash collections. It is an exegetical midrash containing both halakha (Jewish Law) and aggadah (Folklore). It contains material from the Jewish apocrypha, Ben Sira, Philo and Josephus, and it allegedly drew upon the same sources as the Jerusalem Talmud.

Quaestiones Hebraicae in Genesim

The book Quaestiones Hebraicae in Genesim was authored by St. Jerome (d. 420 CE). It is a "collection of Hebrew questions or traditions".

Catena Severi

Catena Severi is an exegetical collection. It was composed by a monk called Severus who compiled it at the end of the ninth century in 861 CE. Catena Severi combines the early Syriac interpretation with the explanations of Jacob of Edessa and other Syrian Orthodox authors, illustrating continuity and change in biblical interpretation.

Jacob of Edessa was one of the main sources of Severus. Jacob of Edessa (died 708?) ranks among the most prolific and most original writers of Syriac literature. Belonging to the first generation of Syrian Christians who grew up under Islamic rule, he has in many respects contributed to the consolidation and further expansion of the Syriac cultural heritage. For these reasons, his writings have had a great impact on later authors. However, many of these writings have not been preserved in their entirety. Others have only reached us through a complicated process of transmission or can only be studied on the basis of later adaptations or reworkings.

Book of Jubilees

The Book of Jubilees is an "apocryphal" writing. It is also known as "Little Genesis" (he Lepte Genesis). The name "Little Genesis" due to its minor or inferior authority as compared with the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament. The narratives contained in the Book of Jubilees are arranged throughout in a chronological system of jubilee-periods of forty-nine years each; each event is recorded as having taken place in such a week of such a month of such a Jubilee year.

3. Dating Genesis Rabbah

Geiger, Tisdall, Ibn Warraq and others are eager to show that the Qur'an has some how "borrowed" stories from various sources, but they fail to establish the reliability and integrity of these textual sources. The precarious nature of the midrashic and other Jewish religious writing and their late redaction is well known among the modern scholarship and Genesis Rabbah is no exception. The Jewish Encyclopaedia notes:

It is difficult to ascertain the exact date of the actual editing of the Bereshit Rabbah (i.e. Midrash Genesis Rabbah); it was probably undertaken not much later than that of the Jerusalem Talmud. But even then the text was probably not finally closed, for longer or shorter passages could always be added, the number of prefatory passages to a parashah be increased, and those existing be enlarged by accretion. Thus, beginning with the sidra Wayishlah, extensive passages are found that bear the mark of the later Haggadah, and have points of connection with the Tanhuma homilies... In the concluding chapters the Bereshit Rabbah seems to have remained defective.[13]

Similarly, the Soncino edition of Genesis Rabbah says:

Genesis Rabbah is a Palestinian work,... its editing took place sometime after the redaction of the Jerusalem Talmud. Zunz holds that it was collected and edited in the 6th century CE. But even then the text was subject to accretions, and from Vayyishlach we find extensive passages bearing marks of the later day Haggadah. In Vayyigash the commentary is no longer verse by verse, while much of Vayechi was probably drawn from the Tanhuma homilies.[14]

In other words, the exact textual character of Genesis Rabbah as a whole is uncertain, including the story of Abraham and idols that appears in Genesis Rabbah.[15]

There are chapters in Genesis Rabbah that have undergone extensive changes. Some of the commentary found in there have been drawn from the Tanhuma homilies. Tanhuma homilies themselves had been complied in the second half of ninth century CE.[16] Given the very composite nature of the book, it is very easy to imagine how difficult it is to reconstruct the original text of Genesis Rabbah:

The task of reconstructing "a text as close as possible" to be the original Bereshit Rabba, however, is exceedingly difficult. We do not have basic information about the origin of the document. Who produced it? Was it a man or a group of men? Was this man (or men) a creative author or a mere mechanical compiler, or was he a combination of both? Without such information, statements concerning the intention of the author-compiler or the purpose of the document must remain speculative...[17]

The problem is further aggravated by the precarious nature of Jewish religious writings - where strict methods for their transmission did not existent:

The second difficulty in establishing the "original" stems from the flexibility of scribes in copying the text of Bereshit Rabba. In contrast to the rigidly prescribed rules for copying the Bible, no standards existed for copying rabbanic documents. Scribes changed or added to the text almost at will. In addition, the scribes of some manuscripts other than Vat. 30 alternated from one exemplar to another while copying (contamination). Contamination of the textual tradition makes it nearly impossible to construct a reliable pedigree for the manuscripts of Bereshit Rabba.[18]

The earliest manuscript of Genesis Rabbah is Vat. 30. which dates some 400-500 years after the advent of Islam. Although this is considered the "original" text, there is no reason to believe that the text existed in this form throughout its lifetime. Scribes could have redacted the text by adding and subtracting new material, errors could have been introduced etc:

Although Vat. 30 as a whole represents the archetype of the original Bereshit Rabba, there is no reason to expect that every letter, word, or phrase mirrors the original. Five centuries intervened between the creation of Bereshit Rabba and the composition of Vat. 30. During this period mistakes due to scribal error or ignorance entered the exemplars from which Vat. 30 itself was ultimately descended. In addition, scribes may have made some minor alterations to the text, to clarify a difficult reading, or to reword a passage to fit contemporary linguistic usage. The other manuscripts of Bereshit Rabba are needed to reconstruct the text of the original where Vat. 30 is damaged, lacking or incorrect, and to set the record straight where the reading from Vat. 30 has been questioned. The relationship of the other manuscripts to each other is useful in describing the later development of the text as a whole and in establishing the text and versions of the major additions which do not appear in Vat. 30.[19]

In other words, the earliest manuscripts available that help us reconstruct the "original text" of Genesis Rabbah are late and appear after the advent of Islam. The manuscript tradition of Genesis Rabbah is also non-uniform. To establish that Genesis Rabbah was indeed the source of the Qur'anic account of Abraham and idols, one has to clearly establish its textual stability in addition to presenting manuscripts that pre-date Islam. The absence of such evidence leaves the polemical arguments on very shaky grounds much like the text of Genesis Rabbah.

4. Genesis Rabbah & Talmud Yerushalmi

It has been speculated that Genesis Rabbah was composed not much later than Talmud Yerushalmi (the Jerusalem or Palestinian Talmud) and that they both are related. Recently, Hans-Jürgen Becker had convincingly argued that both Talmud Yerushalmi and Genesis Rabbah have an unstable and incomplete textual character and that they can be extended arbitrarily.

Applying these theoretical reflections to the significant test case of the intertextual relationship of Genesis Rabbah and Talmud Yerushalmi, we must consider, above all, the incomplete and open character of the macroforms. Genesis Rabbah and Yerushalmi are in principle incomplete because, as commentaries on another text, they can be arbitrarily extended; their orientation is external. These macroforms are also in principle open because most of the texts that are ordered in such a way can be integrated into a different literary context, regardless of their "original" formal framework. The boundaries of the texts then must be regarded as flowing and not at all rigid. Both phenomena, the incompleteness and openness, are not mere theoretical possibilities, but are in fact demonstrable factors of the text - and tradition-history of Genesis Rabbah and the Yerushalmi. Their incomplete character shows itself already on the level of the text history, partially attested to by the manuscripts and printed editions. The difference in degree between the so-called text "recensions" of Genesis Rabbah in MS Vatican 60 and MS Vatican 30, or in the case of the Yerushalmi, between the glossed and unglossed Leiden manuscript Or. 4720, cannot be explained one-sidedly as partial losses of text material; rather they are the result of extensive expansions at various stages of the text's transmission. This tendency manifests itself at a rather late stage when the Yerushalmi macroform was extended with Bavli-traditions as witnessed in the London Sirillo manuscript Or. 2822, as well as when the Genesis Rabbah macroform is extended with additions from Yerushalmi and midrash (for instance, from Tanhuma), as witnessed in the earliest printed editions.

Furthermore, it is impossible to overlook the many points of contact between the two collective works; they attest to the openness of their textures. The numerous parallel traditions demand the construction of models which would be able to explain the reciprocal dependencies and influences. It can be said with certainty that the tradition histories of both collective works were closely interwoven. In fact, they developed in such close proximity to one another that MS Vatican 30, one of the oldest and the most important of Genesis Rabbah textual witnesses, explicitly indicates in three places that text material "from the Yerushalmi" should be inserted. B. M. Bokser has shown that in one of these cases the manuscript refers to a Yerushalmi text whose redaction differs from the redactions of all Yerushalmi manuscripts and editions known to us. From this, one may conclude that the document "Yerushalmi" was still in a period of growth when, according to common opinion, it should already have undergone its final redaction long ago.[20]

Keeping in mind the unstable textual character of both Talmud Yerushalmi and Genesis Rabbah, it is not possible to assign a particular point of time when both the texts assumed their "final" form. Hence dating on the basis of allusion to historical personalities, for example, is useless. Therefore, it is meaningless to say that Genesis Rabbah was "composed" in 6th century CE.

The problem of relative chronology exist for these sources, as well as for the collective works. This is the fundamental problem because the "dating" of the documents in relation to one another assumes, theoretically, a definite point in time when one work was completed and could be used by the others. Such a moment is unascertainable, however, because the documents did not undergo a comprehensive, "once and for all" final treatment. Instead, they (or, mostly, only parts of them) materialized as texts through the independent work of many scribes and editors over a long period of time. Accordingly, the earliest text witnesses known to us (usually manuscripts and editions from the Middle Ages) are different in scope, deviate considerably from one another, and above all, do not fit into a linear redaction process. For this reason, it appears arbitrary to place Yerushalmi or Genesis Rabbah as entire edited works at, say, the end of the fourth century. Such a dating is not securable on the basis of form - or redaction - critical analysis, but only on the basis of texts' contents (i.e., through the names of the rabbis, or the allusion to historical events or personalities).

The contents of the texts, however, upon which the generally accepted dating supports itself, remains questionable criteria and are burdened by uncertain factors so long as the impression which they give cannot be verified through literary-critical observations. ... Redaction-critical research provides no basis by which to date a supposed final redaction of these tractates [i.e., Genesis Rabbah and Bavot] in relation to the final redaction of the rest of the Yerushalmi. At best, one may hypothesize that the compilation of amoraic traditions based on the Mishnah of the Bavot commenced prior to the compilation of amoraic traditions based on the other Mishnah tractates. But just as the documents Yerushalmi and Genesis Rabbah were not suddenly completed in the middle of the fourth century, so the Bavot tractates were not suddenly completed in the middle of the fourth century. Both dating which Neusner uncritically accepts from Lieberman and other, unnamed authors, do not take into consideration the dynamic of the redaction processes that formed Yerushalmi, and Neusner's own method is unable to compensate for this dynamic. Consequently, Neusner should have followed the pattern of Arnold Goldberg's form-critical studies of rabbanic literature and foregone dating attempts, thereby dispensing with the illusion of an historical analysis of the Yerushalmi as a document produced in the second half of the fourth century.[21]

Further, Hans-Jürgen Becker says that the redaction characteristics of Talmud Yerushalmi [i.e., the Jerusalem Talmud] shows that the current edition that is available today dates very late compared to the supposed "date" of redaction.

Every dating of Genesis Rabbah and the Yerushalmi implies a completion of their redaction and a beginning of the work of copyists. The differentiation between copyists and redactors in the case of rabbanic works is, however, simply not helpful. Moreover, upon more careful consideration we realize that the transition from redaction to copying proves itself to be quite fluid: the copyists are frequently also redactors, and the redactors are always simultaneously copyists. As late as the sixteenth century, the first Yerushalmi commentator, Sh. Sirillo, complains that he can't trace a single "orderly" manuscript of the Yerushalmi. Consequently, he feels compelled to produce his own Yerushalmi text on the basis of fragments, collections, and quotations. The Sirillo manuscripts attest to his own redacting of, and simultaneously commenting on, this text over a rather extended time period. Totally inadequate is the infrequently suggested sequences of events according to which it was first the redactors and then later only copyists who respectively transmitted the documents. We should rather say that revised and copied texts were later re-revised and re-copied. .. The first Venice edition of the Yerushalmi is the result of an intensive redaction by the primary glossator of the Leiden manuscript. Through extensive additions, deletions, rearrangements, and alterations, this glossator redactor worked on the manuscript which (according to the colophon by its scribe Yehi'el b. Yequti'el) was itself a revision of its draft copy. What is today available to us as the textus receptus of the Yerushalmi is a product of the Middle Ages (Venice, first edition, beginning of the sixteenth century) with a great number of further textual alterations from the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries (the editions of Cracow and Krotoshin, respectively).[22]

Comparing it with the edition of Genesis Rabbah by Theodor and Albeck, Hans-Jürgen Becker says that the text which Theodor and Albeck produced never existed in any point of time before. In other words, this itself is a redacted text.

The Genesis Rabbah text of Theodor and Albeck (1929), which is today widely used for research, is based upon the London manuscript of Genesis Rabbah and Levicticus Rabbah (probably twelfth century). This text was emended ("corrected") by the editors based on the manuscripts and was supplemented according to MS Vatican 30. The end-product is a Genesis Rabbah text which never before existed. Albeck, the redactor, clearly expressed his intention to present the final, conclusive version of Genesis Rabbah. Relevant evidence of the traditional history of Genesis Rabbah and Yerushalmi includes datable manuscripts and archaeological findings. Such evidence does not attest to "the work" Genesis Rabbah or Yerushalmi, however, but only to specific textual shapes of (mostly only parts of) these works, shapes whose redactional characteristics sometimes deviate considerable from each other. They therefore do not assist with the establishment of a literary-critical dating of the works, but rather attest to their instability.[23]

5. The Use Of Geiger's Work By Anti-Muslim Polemicists

Ibn Warraq claimed that both Geiger and Tisdall have "shown" that the Qur'anic and traditional account of Abraham and idols was borrowed from Genesis Rabbah.[24] Contrary to the claims of Ibn Warraq, Tisdall says:

Our object in quoting the story as it is contained in the Midrash Rabba is not to prove that Muhammad plagiarized from that work in this matter, but to show that the story in its main details was current among the Jews at an earlier time still, and that either this or some similar form of the fable must have been the source from which the Arabs derived their knowledge of it.[25]

Tisdall did not provide any evidence to support his claim that the story, in its main details, were "current" among the Jews of Muhammad's time.

The Qur'anic story is vastly different in theme as well as wording from Midrash Genesis Rabbah and Tisdall in unconvinced regarding the issue of plagiarism. Tisdall used a later day Qur'anic commentary called Arâisu'l Majâlis and Historia Ante-Islamica of Abû'l Fidâ (b. 672 AH / 1273 CE) and compared Qur'anic verses with Genesis Rabbah. But Tisdall failed to take into account the textual instability of Genesis Rabbah in his theories.

Moreover, it is rather hard to follow the claim of Ibn Warraq that Geiger demonstrated that the Qur'anic and traditional account of Abraham and idols were in fact borrowed from Genesis Rabbah, when Geiger's book itself received a not-so-favourable assessment from leading Arabists:

The reprinting of Geiger's essay in 1902 occasioned a less favourable assessment by leading Arabists. Both Hurbert Grimme (1864-1942) and Josef Horovitz (1874-1931) found it wanting in retrospect, and concluded that the quest for the Jewish influence on the Qur'an required a more sophisticated conceptual focus and a wider range of primary sources than those examined by Geiger, as many new sources had come to light in the seventy years since publication of Geiger's work.[26]

The scholarship of form and redactional criticism of Jewish religious texts were unavailable in the time of Geiger. However, by the end of nineteenth century, a well-developed critical scholarship on the transmission of the Jewish texts had already shown that there existed a long period of redaction of Jewish texts which extended right into the Middle ages. This fact was unknown to Geiger and as a result he has over-estimated the value of his "evidence":

As did many orientalists of the nineteenth century, he [i.e., Geiger] underestimated the elusiveness of his evidence and the complexity of recovering the remote past.[27]

Hence it is not surprising that Rudi Paret, while discussing the stories of Abraham in the Qur'an and Qur'anic commentaries states:

In some cases the Islamic legend of Abraham has even influenced the later Jewish traditions.[28]

6. The Surah About Abraham And Idols

The Qur'an 21:51-70 contains the account of Abraham and idols:

51. We bestowed a foretime on Abraham his rectitude of conduct, and well were We acquainted with him.

52. Behold! he said to his father and his people, "What are these images, to which ye are (so assiduously) devoted?"

53. They said, "We found our fathers worshipping them."

54. He said, "Indeed ye have been in manifest error - ye and your fathers."

55. They said, "Have you brought us the Truth, or are you one of those who jest?"

56. He said, "Nay, your Lord is the Lord of the heavens and the earth, He Who created them (from nothing): and I am a witness to this (Truth).

57. "And by God, I have a plan for your idols - after ye go away and turn your backs"..

58. So he broke them to pieces, (all) but the biggest of them, that they might turn (and address themselves) to it.

59. They said, "Who has done this to our gods? He must indeed be some man of impiety!"

60. They said, "We heard a youth talk of them: He is called Abraham."

61. They said, "Then bring him before the eyes of the people, that they may bear witness."

62. They said, "Art thou the one that did this with our gods, O Abraham?"

63. He said: "Nay, this was done by - this is their biggest one! ask them, if they can speak intelligently!"

64. So they turned to themselves and said, "Surely ye are the ones in the wrong!"

65. Then were they confounded with shame: (they said), "Thou knowest full well that these (idols) do not speak!"

66. (Abraham) said, "Do ye then worship, besides God, things that can neither be of any good to you nor do you harm?

67. "Fie upon you, and upon the things that ye worship besides God! Have ye no

68. They said, "Burn him and protect your gods, If ye do (anything at all)!"

69. We said, "O Fire! be thou cool, and (a means of) safety for Abraham!"

70. Then they sought a stratagem against him: but We made them the ones that lost most!

6.1 St. Jerome's Writings and The Qur'an

We now turn our attention to the writings have been circulated on internet newsgroups. The argument compared the Qur'anic account with the writings of St. Jerome: Catena Severi, the Babylonian Talmud and the Book of Jubilees.

The claim is that the Qur'anic narrative is "strikingly" similar to that of  Jerome's Quaestiones Hebraicae in Genesim:

In place of what we read as in the territory of the Chaldeans, in the Hebrew it has ur Chesdim, that is 'in the fire of the Chaldeans'. Moreover the Hebrews, taking the opportunity afforded by this verse, hand on a story of this sort to the effect that Abraham was put into the fire because he refused to worship fire, which the Chaldeans honour; and that he escaped through God's help, and fled from the fire of idolatry. What is written [in the Septuagint] in the following verses, that Thara (Abraham's father) with his offspring 'went out from the territory of the Chaldeans' stands in place of what is contained in the Hebrew, from the fire of the Chaldeans. And they maintain that this refers to what is said in this verse: Aran (Abraham's brother) died before the face of Thara his father in the land of his birth in the fire of the Chaldeans; that is, because he refused to worship fire, he was consumed by fire.[29]

According to Jerome, the Hebrews say that Abraham was put in to the fire because he refused to worship the fire and that the Chaldeans honoured the fire. Abraham's brother Haran died because he refused to worship the fire. The major points of the story may be summarized as:

  1. Jerome's sources say that according to the Hebrews, Abraham was put in to the fire because he refused to worship the fire.
  2. The Chaldeans honoured the fire.
  3. God saved Abraham from the clutches of the "fire of idolatry".
  4. Haran (or Aran, Abraham's brother) was consumed by the fire before Thara (or Terah, Abraham's father) because the former refused to worship it.

If one compares the Qur'anic narrative and Jerome's Quaestiones Hebraicae in Genesim the differences are incredibly vast. The Qur'anic narrative says that Abraham was put in the fire because he destroyed the idols which his people worshipped. Jerome's sources say that the Chaldeans put Abraham in the fire because he refused to worship the fire which the Chaldeans honoured.

Jerome's narrative does not touch upon the conversation between Abraham and his father, nor on the conversation between Abraham and his people.  And neither does Jerome's source mention the climatic incident of Abraham smashing all but the largest the idol in order to show the futility of idol worship. Jerome's narrative fails to give the reason why Abraham was put into the fire. It is difficult to believe that both accounts are "strikingly similar" when it is abundantly clear that they are very different indeed. The translator of the Jerome's Quaestiones Hebraicae in Genesim (QHG) says:

For the most part, however, Jerome does not refer to his Christian and Jewish sources for QHG either directly to indirectly he is silent about some of his possible sources for this work, the question must be asked whether the material for which he claims Jewish origin might not derive from writers like Origen and Eusebius of Emesa? It has long been known that Jerome sometimes claimed to have derived the material direct from Hebrew masters, when in fact he had probably, received it from the hands of other Christian writers.[30]

6.2 The Catena Severi and The Qur'an

Let us now move to Catena Severi. A brief discussion of Abraham and idols in Catena Severi is given by S. P. Brock.[31]  in his article "Abraham and the Ravens: A Syriac Counterpart to Jubilees 11-12 and its Implications", Journal For The Study Of Judaism In The Persian, Hellenistic And Roman Period, 1978. The major points of the story are listed below:

  1. Abraham meets his father Terah after God heard his prayer to drive the ravens off the field. Abraham related the story of God hearing his prayers to Terah.

  2. Abraham counselled his father to reject the deity Qainan, the deity of vanity of the Chaldeans and instead ask him to worship the God of Heaven and the earth.

  3. Seeing that Terah did not heed to his advice, Abraham took the fire and burnt the famous temple of Qainan, the graven image of Chaldeans. Harran  (Abraham's brother) died while trying to put out the fire.

  4. When the Chaldeans realized what Abraham had done, they asked Terah to hand over his son so that they may put him to death. Instead Terah took his family and fled from Ur (of the Chaldeans).

If we compare the Qur'anic narrative with Catena Severi, it is clear that there are again huge differences between the two.

6.3  Jacob of Edessa & The Qur'an

The writings of Jacob of Edessa are also mentioned in Brock's article. By and large, Jacob of Edessa's narrative is similar in theme to that of Catena Severi but it is more elaborate in detail. So, the claim that this narrative is "strikingly similar" to the Qur'anic narrative has once again no basis.

6.4  Babylonian Talmud & The Qur'an

There are only two places in Talmud where the story of Abraham and idols is mentioned:

1. When the wicked Nimrod cast our father Abraham into the fiery furnace, Gabriel said to the Holy One, blessed be He: "Sovereign of the Universe! Let me go down, cool it, and the deliver that righteous man from the fiery furnace.'" [Pesachim 118a]

2. Let Nimrod come and testify that Abraham did not (consent to) worship idols; [Avaodah Zarah 3a]

This is all that one reads in the Babylonian Talmud. The only similarity that one can see is that Abraham was saved from the fire, but there is no mention of the events leading unto the climax of the fire.

What is interesting is that there is no agreement between these "strikingly similar" sources concerning whether Abraham fled or was he put in to the fire.

Both Catena Severi and Jacob of Edessa's writings say that Terah and his family fled from Ur of Chaldees.

On the other hand, the Babylonian Talmud and Jerome's writings say that Abraham was put into the fire but was saved. Furthermore, what was it that Abraham refuse to worship? Was it the fire according to Jerome's version or was it the idols as mentioned in Catena Severi, the writings of Jacob of Edessa's and the Babylonian Talmud etc.?

6.5 The Book Of Jubilees & The Qur'an

Let us now discuss chapter 12 of the Book of Jubilees where the story of Abraham and idols is mentioned. The key points of the story can be summarized as:

  1. Abraham advises his father regarding the futility of idol worship and asks him to worship none but the God of heaven and earth.
  2. His father Terah says that he worships idols because of the fear of being killed by his people. Terah also advised his son Abraham to keep quiet to avoid death.
  3. Abraham rises one night to secretly burn all the idols. No-one is aware that it was Abraham who burnt the idols. Harran his brother dies while trying to save  the idols.
  4. Terah and his sons leave Ur of Chaldees.

This narrative which is claimed to be "strikingly similar" to that of the Qur'anic one is clearly false. The only similarity that one finds here is Abraham advising his father about the futility of idol worship. Abraham's father in fact agrees with Abraham regarding idol worship unlike the Qur'anic version! Abraham burns the idols unlike the Qur'anic account where we find Abraham smashing all but the largest idol. Finally, Abraham is not punished by fire because nobody knew who burnt the idols! Instead Abraham leaves Ur of Chaldees.

Clearly, the Book of Jubilees' narrative is "strikingly similar" to that of Catena Severi and Jacob of Edessa's writings. Brock is of the opinion that these stories derive from a source which Jubilees also derived from.[32]

7. Summary Of The Major Themes
  1. Abraham's advice to his father about idol worship: Jerome's work and the Babylonian Talmud are silent. Catena Severi and Jacob of Edessa's writings say that Abraham counselled his father to despise Qainan, the diety of vanity of Chaldeans and instead should worship the God of Heaven and earth. The Book of Jubilees mentions that when Abraham advised his father Terah against idol worship, his father agrees. The reason which Terah for continuing to worship idols was that he feared being killed by his people. In the Qur'an, Abraham asks his father and his people why they are so devoted to the idols. They reply that it is part of their ancient culture and their fathers and forefathers did the same thing. Abraham then says that they are in clear error to which the people replied mockingly.

  2. How were the idols dealt with by Abraham? Jerome's work and the Babylonian Talmud are silent. Catena Severi and Jacob of Edessa's writings say that Abraham destroyed the temple of Qainan, the idol of Chaldeans, secretly one night. In the Book of Jubilees, Abraham rises one night and burns the idols. His people are unable to identify the culprit. In the Qur'anic narrative Abraham smashes all the idols except the largest one. When his people were told by Abraham that the large deity was responsible for smashing the smaller ones, they were confounded with shame but continue to argue with Abraham in anger.

  3. Why was Abraham punished? According to Jerome's work, it was because Abraham did not worship the fire of Chaldeans. According to the Babylonian Talmud, it was because he did not worship idols. According to Catena Severi and Jacob of Edessa's writings, it was because he destroyed the temple of chief  Chaldean idol Qainan. According to the Book of Jubilees since nobody knew who started the fire, there was no finger-pointing at Abraham. But according to the Qur'anic narrative Abraham's people are angry because he destroyed their idols and that they could not win the argument against them.

  4. Was Abraham punished or he fled? Jerome's work says that he was put in the fire because he refused to worship the fire. Babylonian Talmud says that Abraham was put in the fire. According to Catena Severi and Jacob of Edessa's writings, Terah and his family (including Abraham) fled. According to the Book of Jubilees, Terah and sons (including Abraham) left Ur of Chaldees. In the Qur'an, Abraham is thrown in the fire but he was saved.

What is clear from the above summary is that the Judeo-Christian sources themselves do not agree on the details of the story let alone the story itself. The stories have different forms yet it has been claimed that all these stories "strikingly similar" to that of the Qur'anic narrative. The only common characters in all these stories is the character Abraham and the idol(s) and but the stories themselves differ.

8. Conclusions

It has been claimed by Geiger, Tisdall, Ibn Warraq and others that the Qur'anic story of Abraham and idols had been borrowed from the Midrash Genesis Rabbah.  Their position can not be maintained as the evidence shows that the text of Genesis Rabbah is not only uncertain but also unstable. The text was undergoing redaction long after the advent of Islam and there is no way of reconstructing the "original" text of Genesis Rabbah.

Adding to the problem is the fact that the manuscripts of Genesis Rabbah are late and divergent in their textual characteristics. Hence the grounds on which the claim that Midrash Genesis Rabbah was the source of Qur'anic story of Abraham and idols rests is not only shaky but also elusive grounds. Furthermore, it was also shown that the claim that the Qur'anic account of the story of Abraham and idols is "strikingly similar" to Jerome's Writings, Catena Severi, the Babylonian Talmud and the Book of Jubilees is entirely false. The Judeo-Christian sources themselves do not agree on the details of the story let alone the story itself. Hence the claim of "strikingly similarity" is rather a wishful fantasy.

And Allah knows best!


[1] A. Geiger, Judaism And Islam (English Translation Of Was hat Mohammed aus dem Judenthume aufgenommen?), 1970, Ktav Publishing House Inc.: New York, pp. 96-99.

[2] Rev. W. St. Clair Tisdall, The Original Sources Of The Qur'an, 1905, Society For The Promotion Of Christian Knowledge: London, pp. 66-80.

[3] Ibn Warraq, Why I Am Not A Muslim, 1995, Prometheus Books: Amherst, NY, p. 58.

[4] J. W. Sweetman, Islam And Christian Theology: A Study Of The Interpretation Of Theological Ideas In The Two Religions, 1945, Volume I, Part 1 (Preparatory History Survey of the Early Period), Lutterworth Press: London & Redhill, p. 10.

[5] Dr. A. A. Shorrosh, Islam Revealed: A Christian Arab's View Of Islam, 1988, Thomas Nelson Publishers: Nashville, p. 205.

[6] R. Morey, The Islamic Invasion: Confronting The World's Fastest Growing Religion, 1992, Harvest House Publishers: Eugene (OR), p. 149.

[7] M. Elass, Understanding the Koran: A Quick Christian Guide To The Muslim Holy Book, 2004, Zondervan: Grand Rapids (MI), p. 180.

[8] A. A. Abdul-Haqq, Sharing Your Faith With A Muslim, 1980, Bethany House Publications: Minneapolis, p. 42.

[9] `Abdallah `Abd al-Fadi, Is The Qur'an Infallible?, 1995, Light of Life: Villach (Austria), p. 314.

[10] F. S. Coplestone (Updated & Expanded by J. C. Trehern), Jesus Christ Or Mohammed? A Guide To Islam And Christianity That Helps Explain The Differences, 2001, Christian Focus Publications: Ross-shire (Scotland), p. 80.

[11] N. L. Geisler & A. Saleeb, Answering Islam: The Crescent In The Light Of The Cross, 1993, Baker Books: Grand Rapids (MI), p. 309; Also see "Qur'an, Alleged Divine Origin Of", in N. L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia Of Christian Apologetics, 2002, Baker Books: Grand Rapids (MI), p. 628.

[12]  A detailed discussion about this issue was done in soc.religion.islam newgroup. Interested readers are strongly advised to follow the whole thread point by point.

[13] "Bereshit Rabbah", The Jewish Encyclopaedia, 1905, Volume III, Funk & Wagnalls Company, p. 64.

[14] Rabbi Dr. H. Freedman & M. Simon, Midrash Rabbah, 1961, Volume I (Genesis), The Soncino Press: London (UK), p. xxix.

[15] ibid., pp. 310-311.

[16] L. Zunz, Die Gottesdienstlichen Vorträge der Juden: Historisch Entwickelt, 1892, Verlag von J. Kauffmann: Frankfurt, pp. 246-247. Full discussion on Tanhuma Yelammedenu is from pp. 237-250; H. L. Strack & G. Stemberger (Trans. Markus Bockmuehl), Introduction To The Talmud And Midrash, 1991, T&T Clark, p. 332; "Tanhuma Yelammedenu", Encyclopaedia Judaica, Volume 15, Encyclopaedia Judaica Jerusalem, col. 795; Berman, who translated Midrash Tanhuma-Yelammedenu from a manuscript, says that the final form the manuscript appeared in the late eight or the ninth century, see Midrash Tanhuma-Yelammedenu: An English Translation Of Genesis And Exodus From The Printed Version Of Tanhuma-Yelammedenu With An Introduction, Notes, And Indexes, 1996, Ktav Publishing House, Inc.: New Jersey, p. xii; M. Waxman, A History Of Jewish Literature: From The Close Of The Canon To The End Of The Twelfth Century, 1960, Volume I, Thomas Yoseloff: New York & London, p. 139.

[17] L. M. Barth, An Analysis Of Vatican 30, 1973, Monographs of the Hebrew Union College No. 1, Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute Of Religion, pp. 81-82.

[18] ibid., p. 82.

[19] ibid., pp. 88-89.

[20] Hans-Jürgen Becker, "Texts And History: The Dynamic Relationship Between Talmud Yerushalmi And Genesis Rabbah", in Shaye J. D. Cohen (ed.) The Synoptic Problem In Rabbanic Literature, 2000, Brown Judaic Studies: Providence (RI), pp. 150-151.

[21] ibid., pp. 152-154.

[22] ibid., p. 154.

[23] ibid., pp. 154-155.

[24] See ref. 3.

[25] Rev. W. St. Clair Tisdall, The Original Sources Of The Qur'an, 1905, op cit., p. 76.

[26] J. Lassner, "Abraham Geiger: A Nineteenth-Century Jewish Reformer On The Origins Of Islam", in M. Kramer (ed.), The Jewish Discovery Of Islam: Studies In Honor Of Bernard Lewis, 1999, The Moshe Dayan Center For Middle Eastern & African Studies: Tel Aviv University, p. 104.

[27] ibid., p. 121.

[28] "Ibrahim", Encyclopaedia Of Islam, 1971, Volume III, E. J. Brill (Leiden) & Luzac & Co. (London), p. 981.

[29] C. T. R. Hayward, Saint Jerome's Hebrew Questions On Genesis, 1995, Clarendon Press: Oxford, p. 43.

[30] ibid., p. 16.

[31] S. P. Brock, "Abraham and the Ravens: A Syriac Counterpart to Jubilees 11-12 and its Implications", Journal For The Study Of Judaism In The Persian, Hellenistic And Roman Period, 1978, Volume IX, No. 2, pp. 137-139.

[32] ibid., p. 151.

The Refutation Of Sources Of The Qur'an