Is The Qur'anic Story Of Solomon & Sheba From The Targum Sheni?

Nisar Muhammad, M S M Saifullah & Elias Karim

© Islamic Awareness, All Rights Reserved.

First Composed: 23rd November 1999

Last Updated: 5th March 2006


Assalamu-`alaykum wa rahamatullahi wa barakatuhu:

1. Introduction

In the infamous tradition of Orientalism, attempts at deconstructing the religion of Islam have been chiefly characterized by an implacable desire to locate the "sources" of the Qur'an. The foundations for this scholastic tradition have been laid down by Abraham Geiger, whose discipleship includes two Jewish writers, Abraham Katsch and C. C. Torrey. Indeed, this same desire has become an almost roguish obsession of a group of holy men we may refer to as the Christian missionaries. The most noteworthy name in this line of missionary bigotry is that of the Rev. W. St. Clair Tisdall. However, unlike Geiger, Katsch, and Torrey, the missionaries have failed to conduct any original research of their own, choosing instead to rely quite heavily upon the work of others. This intellectual dependency is actually the source of their own weakness, for we have already borne witness to their bungling attempts to invalidate the Qur'an.

The theme to be derived from various articles is that the "sources" identified by the missionaries actually post-date Islam when they had reached the final form. Therefore, the underlying conclusion is that these could not possibly be sources of the Qur'an. In this paper, we will examine the claims by Abraham Geiger and Rev. W. St. Clair Tisdall, which hold that the Qur'anic story of Solomon and Sheba as narrated in Sura 27:20-46 is actually based on Jewish myths and fables. And as we shall see, the same theme pervades the discussion of this article as well.

In addition we would also like to discuss some of the writings of one Mr. Jameel who had claimed to have "refuted" our arguments on the current issue. In a detailed discussion in soc.religion.islam newsgroup, he simply admitted that he was unable to offer any proof that the Qur'anic story of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba is a legend borrowed from the Targum Sheni. In his own words:

The object of my paper was not to offer any proof.

2. The Source Of The Qur'anic Story

Concerning the story of Solomon in the Qur'an, Geiger says:

Muhammad speaks of his [i.e., Solomon's] wisdom and especially brings forward the fact that Solomon understood the language of the birds. This is also asserted by the Rabbis, and is found in the Biblical statement: "He spake of trees .... and birds." The winds also performed his will, and the Genii were also found in his following; this is also related, e.g., in the Second Targum on the Book of Esther, thus: "To him were obedient demons of the most diverse sorts, and the evil spirits were given into his hand."[1]

In Sura 27:20-46, we find the story of the conversion of the Queen of Sheba. Initially, the Queen had ruled over a small, disbelieving nation in the Arabian Peninsula. After being summoned by a hoopoe (in Arabic, hudhud) to the powerful court of Solomon, the Queen of Sheba entered his magnificent palace whose floors were adorned with glass. The beautiful quality of the glass was such that it had the illusory effect of sparkling water. Therefore, thinking that she might step into water, the Queen tucked up her dress, exposing a portion of her legs in turn. Such a gesture was truly beneath the dignity of a woman of her royalty. At once, Solomon proclaimed the actual substance of the floor. Impressed by his chivalrous honesty, the Queen was instantly enlightened by the spiritual truth of Solomon's palace and the sins of her past and became a believer on the spot. Concerning this story, Geiger comments:

This same story is to be found in the Targum already referred to, together with some other circumstances which I shall omit here.[2]

Rev. W. St. Clair Tisdall offers a similar conclusion:

Regarding the origin of this tale as narrated in the Qur'an there cannot be the slightest doubt. It is taken with only slight alterations from the Second Targum on Esther, which is printed in the Mirqraôth Gedôlôth. Muhammad no doubt believed it to form part of the Jewish Scriptures, and its absurdities were so much to his taste and that of the Arabs that he introduced it into the Qur'an (Surah XXVII, an-Naml, v. 17 and vv. 20-45)....[3]

Fueled with the burning desire to denigrate Islam, Tisdall spent a full seven pages commenting on the story.[4] He firmly held the position that the story was entirely Jewish in origin. Furthermore, in his Victorian arrogance, he insisted that the Qur'an's inclusion of such "absurdities" could only be intended to appease the taste of Muhammad and that of the Arabs. Tisdall should have lived longer to see who it was that embodied the absurdity in the end.

Not surprisingly the modern day Christian missionaries arrogantly claim the existence of such "absurdities" in the Qur'an. The Qur'anic story of Solomon and Sheba and its alleged source is also featured in many of the missionary polemical literature such as those written by J. W. Sweetman,[5] Dr. Anis Shorrosh,[6] Abdiyah Akbar Abdul-Haqq,[7] Robert Morey,[8] `Abdallah `Abd al-Fadi,[9] F. S. Coplestone,[10] Emir Fethi Caner and Ergun Mehmet Caner[11] and Geisler and Abdul Saleeb.[12] They have used Geiger's and Tisdall's arguments to claim that the Second Targum of Esther was the alleged source of the Qur'anic story. Closely following the footsteps of Geiger and Tisdall is Ibn Warraq who makes a similar argument.[13] Jacques Jomier, not mentioning Targum Sheni, briefly alludes that the story of Solomon and Sheba was borrowed from "rabbanical" sources.[14] N. A. Newman, on the other hand doubts whether the tradition of Targum Sheni predates the Qur'an.[15]

3. The Absurdity Of Tisdall's Argument

The dating of the Targum (which means in its final form as we see today) is done on the basis of internal evidence. It would seem as though anyone who entertained a theory of scriptural borrowing would at least confirm the date of compilation of alleged source materials in their final form. However, Geiger and Tisdall seemed not to have been in the least bit concerned about adopting such a basic methodology, maintaining as a rule that the Qur'an had borrowed entirely from Judeo-Christian sources, be they canonical or extra-canonical. Geiger may be partially excused for his erroneous theories, as the field of rabbinic criticism had been rather nascent in his day. It may be argued that Tisdall was also innocent of any dishonest scholarship on his part, because of the seemingly limited research in the field conducted up to his time. However, this excuse is not acceptable. During the same year that Tisdall published his The Original Sources Of The Qur'an, The Jewish Encyclopedia produced some material elaborating on this very issue. Regarding the dating of the Targums of Esther (i.e., their redaction into the final form), it reads:

  1. The First Targum, The Antwerp and Paris polyglots give a different and longer text than the London. The best edition is by De Lagarde (reprinted from the first Venice Bible) in "Hagiographa Chaldaice," Leipsic, 1873. The date of the first Targum is about 700.

  2. Targum Sheni (the second [Targum]: date about 800), containing material not germane to the Esther story. This may be characterized as a genuine and exuberant midrash.[16]

In the case of the Targum Sheni, the internal evidence is used to date the final redaction which is put in end of the seventh century or the beginning of the eighth century:

The date of the work cannot be determined exactly. The view of S. Gelbhaus that it belongs to the amoraic period, in the fourth century, is disproved by the fact that it contains later material. P. Cassel dates it in the sixth century and explains its mention of Edom to be the rule of Justinian (527-565). However, this view of Edom can also apply to other periods. A basis for dating was also found among the accusations made by Haman: "They come to the synagogue... and curse our king and our ministers." This statement is regarded as an allusion to the suspicion that Jews combine a curse with the prayer said in the synagogue for the welfare of the kingdom. Since this prayer is thought to have been composed in the eighth century it is conjectured that the Targum Sheni postdates that century. L. Munk puts its date still later, in the 11th century, but he gives no proof. It seems that the most acceptable view is that which places its composition at the end of the seventh or the beginning of the eighth century, a view that is strengthened by its relationship to the Pirkei de-R. Eliezer. Regarding its relationship to the Targum Rishon, there are features common to both Targums, but there are also many differences, and there are many aggadot in the Targum Rishon not included in the Targum Sheni. The view of P. Churgin may be accepted that they are two independent compositions.[17]

Therefore, the "source" of the Qur'an had actually been dated to a post-Islamic period when they appeared in their final form. As was stated earlier, the theme is consistent with other missionary efforts - a poor job of examining the sources results in the shooting of one's own foot, and Tisdall's had the word "absurdity" written all over it. A brief observation may be offered on the question of the Pirke De-Rabbi Eli'ezer. This work was redacted in its final form after the advent of Islam.

It should be mentioned that Munk in his book Targum Scheni Zun Buche Esther (1876, Berlin) argued for a late 11th century dating of the Targum Sheni by pointing out that one-fourth of the Targum Sheni contains Aggadic material which is present in the folklore of earlier nations such as Solomon's throne, Solomon's dominance over the spirits and animals and the Queen of Sheba's visit to the Solomon. Gelbhaus (Das Targum Scheni Zum Buch Esther, 1893, Frankfurt a. M.), who on the other hand dated the Targum Sheni to the fourth century, attributes these stories originally to a the "larger" and the non-existent (?) Targum Rabbah (?), since they are no longer extant in the rabbanic literature.[18] There is a clear contradiction in the positions of Munk and Gelbhaus on the issues of the stories of Solomon and Sheba. The common theme appears to be that the stories of Solomon and Sheba as mentioned in the Targum Sheni are not to be seen in the rabbanic literature. The writer of the article in Encyclopaedia Judaica points that:

Outstanding among the stories interwoven into the Targum Sheni is the variegated description of Solomon's throne (1:2)..... Some of these motifs are also found in the Koran (27:20-40), and it has been suggested that the author [of Targum Sheni] also made use of Arabic sources.[19]

Similarly Edward Ullendorff says:

In the Jewish sources the combined narrative of Kur'an and Muslim commentators can first be traced in the 8th (?) century Targum Sheni to Esther where we find a most elaborate version of this story. This is further embellished in the 11th (?) century Alphabet of Ben Sira...[20]

Edward Ullendorff argues that even though the Qur'an and its commentators have preserved the earliest literary reflection of the Queen of Sheba story, there is a little doubt that the narrative in the Qur'an is derived from a Jewish midrash. This assumption is based on another assumption that the Qur'an, by default, adopted the midrashic stories. As expected, the name of (non-existent?) Jewish midrash is conspicuously absent. Now that we have dealt with the issues of compilation of the sources, let us now move over to other relevant arguments.

4. Differences In The Stories

Upon comparing and contrasting the story in the Qur'an and the Targum Sheni, it becomes quite obvious that any fabulous borrowing theory becomes untenable, especially in light of the admission from Tisdall himself:

This narrative omits some details that are mentioned in the Targum and differs from the latter in a few points. The Targum states that the throne belonged to Solomon, and that twenty four eagles, stationed above the throne, cast their shadow upon the king's head as he sat down. Whenever Solomon desired to go anywhere, these eagles would transport him and his throne thither. Hence we see that the Targum represents the eagles as the bearers of the throne, whereas the Qur'an states that 'Ifrit did Solomon such a service once only, and then when the throne was empty.[21]

To fill up some gaps in the explanation of the difference between the Qur'an and the Targum Sheni, Haim Z'ew Hirschberg writing in Encyclopaedia Judaica speculates:

In later Arabic literature, under the influence of her name given by Josephus as Nikaulis, the name of the queen of Sheba (Saba) is given as Bilqis. The story in the Koran (Sura 27, 17-45) closely follows that given in the Targum Sheni, including the story of the hoopoe (hudhud) and the shining floor of the palace which she mistook for a pool of water (see above) though some details probably derive from Christian legends.[22]

Rather Hirschberg should have said that the story of Solomon and Sheba in Targum Sheni closely follows the Qur'an. One can notice the nice explanation given for the differences in the stories is that they were probably derived from Christian legends. Everything can be explained if one has circular arguments handy where the premise is same as the conclusion. That is, start with a premise that the Qur'an was borrowed from Judeo-Christian sources and then reach the same conclusion.

5. Circular Arguments

Circular argumentation is one of the fortes of Tisdall. According to his missionary standards, any story in the Qur'an apart from that of the Bible is to be dismissed as a legend. On the other hand, any story in the Bible should unquestionably be regarded as 'historical.' Concerning the story of Solomon and Queen of Sheba, Tisdall asserts:

The historical basis for the whole tale is afforded by the record given in the I Kings X. 1-10 (and repeated in II Chron. IX. 1-9), which tells us nothing whatever marvellous about Solomon, nothing about Jinns and Ifrits and crystal palaces, but is a simple narrative of a visit paid to Solomon by the Queen of Sheba, a well known part of Arabia.[23]

Perhaps we should ask on what basis is the tale given in the Bible is historical? Has anyone unearthed the evidence that the story in the Bible is true and that in the Qur'an is false?

The bedrock of Tisdall methodological reasoning lies in the staunch belief that the Bible is the word of God. As such, the de facto position regards the Biblical account of the story in question as entirely historical. And to justify this claim, they return to their default answer - the Bible is the word of God. One can clearly see the hypocrisy and the circularity of their logic, for it can be abused by holy men of any faith. The insincere nature of their criticisms against the Qur'an is exemplified in their, and indeed the entire band of holy missionaries, refusal to allow the same type of criticism to be levelled against their Bible. If there ever was a display of a double standard, the missionaries have offered one with exceptional quality.

6. Conclusions

It is a very dangerous idea to propose a fabulous theory, whose very antithesis can be eventually proven instead. Tisdall had mislead himself and others into believing that he had discovered the "source" for the Qur'anic account of Queen of Sheba's conversion, while making the hateful accusation that it was only included because it appealed to the "taste" of Muhammad and "that of the Arabs".

Quite the contrary, the very "source" he had identified has been acknowledged by Western scholarship as redacted in its final form after the advent of Islam, and it is most likely that the Qur'an and its commentaries served as its sources. The revelation of the Qur'an arrived long before the final compilation of the Second Targum of Esther. And if it is argued that these Jewish sources may have existed in some form before redaction, and before the advent of Islam, then one has to prove the evidence. The manuscript evidence is certainly very hopeless. The earliest manuscript dates from 12th century CE, some 500 years after the advent of Islam (See the Appendix below). There are some Cairo Genizah fragments of Targum to Esther that contains unattested witnesses. If the Targum Sheni was so popular among the Jews why is there such a dearth of early manuscripts?

Furthermore, Tisdall did not even bother to establish the existence of such a Targum in Arabia, in particular Makkah. Nor did he present any evidence of the rabbis who might have taught Muhammad this story. Tisdall  uses a circular argument to claim that the story in the Bible is historical and true, whereas the Qur'an is merely a legend (but without any evidence to show the establish both cases). From the perspective of academic integrity, such results establish the absurdity not only in Tisdall's theory, but his holy mission as well.

And Allah knows best!

7. Appendix: The Manuscripts of Targum Sheni To Esther

Following are the dated manuscripts of Targum Sheni to Esther.[24] They date from 12th century CE onwards.

MS. Sassoon 282: The manuscript was completed in 1189 CE according to the colophon in the end. It is written in square German script. The text is vocalized in Tiberian,, the Targum written interlined with the Hebrew text.

MS. Nürnberg, Municipal Library, Solg. MS 1.7.20: It is dated to the year 1291 CE and written in Ashkenazic script, fully vocalized with complete Hebrew text interlined.

MS. Breslau Stadts Bibliothek 1106: Dated to the year 1238 CE, written in partially vocalized Ashkenazic script. It has Hebrew text alternating with the Aramaic.

MS. Copenhagen 10, 3 (5, 11): This manuscript is dated to 1290 CE and is written in Ashkenazic script, fully vocalized with occasional Hebrew lemma consisting of the lead-off word in the verse.

There are some Cairo Genizah fragments of Targum to Esther that contains unattested witnesses.[25] There are several other undated manuscripts of Targum Sheni that are dated from 14th century CE onwards.


References

[1] A. Geiger, Judaism And Islam (English Translation Of Was hat Mohammed aus dem Judenthume aufgenommen?), 1970, Ktav Publishing House Inc., New York, pp. 146-147. Torrey has diligently followed Geiger's arguments. See C. C. Torrey, The Jewish Foundation Of Islam, 1967, Ktav Publishing House, Inc.: New York, pp. 113-115.

[2] ibid., p. 147.

[3] Rev. W. St. Clair Tisdall, The Original Sources Of The Qur'an, 1905, Society For The Promotion Of Christian Knowledge, London, pp. 80-81.

[4] ibid., see the discussion from pp. 83-89.

[5] 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. 12.

[6] Dr. A. A. Shorrosh, Islam Revealed: A Christian Arab's View Of Islam, 1988, Thomas Nelson Publishers: Nashville, pp. 146-148.

[7] A. A. Abdul-Haqq, Sharing Your Faith With A Muslim, 1980, Bethany House Publications: Minneapolis, p. 44.

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

[9] `Abdallah `Abd al-Fadi, Is The Qur'an Infallible?, 1995, Light of Life: Villach (Austria), pp. 315-316.

[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. 81.

[11] E. F. Caner & E. M. Caner, More Than A Prophet: An Insider's Response To Muslim Beliefs About Jesus & Christianity, 2003, Kregal Publications: Grand Rapids (MI), p. 73.

[12] 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.

[13] Ibn Warraq, Why I Am Not A Muslim, 1995, Prometheus Books: Amherst (NY), pp. 59-60.

[14] J. Jomier, The Bible And The Qur'an, 2002, Ignatius Press: San Francisco, p. 48.

[15] N. A. Newman, Muhammad, The Qur'an & Islam, 1996, Interdisciplinary Biblical Research Institute: Hatfield (PA), p. 376.

[16] "Esther", The Jewish Encyclopedia, 1905, Volume V, Funk & Wagnalls Company, p. 234.

[17] "Targum Sheni", Encyclopaedia Judaica (CD-ROM Edition), 1997, Judaica Multimedia (Israel) Limited.

[18] B. Grossfeld, The Two Targums Of Esther: Translated With Apparatus And Notes, 1991, T. & T. Clark Ltd.: Edinburgh, pp. 15.

[19] "Targum Sheni", Encyclopaedia Judaica (CD-ROM Edition).

[20] E. Ullendorff, "Bilkis" in Encyclopaedia Of Islam, 1960, Volume I, E. J. Brill (Leiden) & Luzac & Co. (London), p. 1220.

[21] Rev. W. St. Clair Tisdall, The Original Sources Of The Qur'an, 1905, op cit., pp. 83-84.

[22] "Sheba, Queen Of", Encyclopaedia Judaica (CD-ROM Edition).

[23] Rev. W. St. Clair Tisdall, The Original Sources Of The Qur'an, 1905, op cit., pp. 91.

[24] B. Grossfeld, The Two Targums Of Esther: Translated With Apparatus And Notes, 1991, op cit., pp. 3-5.

[25] R. Kasher & M. L. Klein, "New Fragments Of Targum To Esther From The Cairo Genizah", Hebrew Union College Annual, 1990, Volume 61, pp. 89-124.

Refutation Of The Sources Of The Qur'an