The Ten Wise Jews: The Source Of The Qur'an?

M S M Saifullah & Muhammad Ghoniem

© Islamic Awareness, All Rights Reserved.

First Composed: 12th November 2000

Last Updated: 17th November 2002


Assalamu-alaikum wa rahamatullahi wa barakatuhu:

1. Introduction

It has been claimed by the Christian missionaries that there are several accounts originating from Jewish and Christians sources which claim that Muhammad(P) was instructed by Jewish scholars.

In a predictable, heedless fashion, the Christian missionaries have attempted to discredit the religion of Islam by alleging that the Prophet Muhammad(P) was actually aided by Jewish scholars in the composition of the Holy Qur'an. To support such a claim, they point to accounts by Jewish and Christian sources. The missionaries write:

The Christian account comes from Theophanes who died around AD 818. This text pre-dates Ibn Hisham's biography of Muhammad (AD 834) as well as the Traditions which date between 2 and 3 centuries after the death of Muhammad.

This claim, along with the rest of the anti-Islamic theories in the missionary treasure chest, should be brought under the light of objective analysis. In this paper, we intend to examine this claim. We will also address the question of the Jewish source of this story and a related one about the "mysterious letters" in the Qur'an, which were alleged to have been inserted by Jewish scholars.

2. Theophanes' Account: What Is The Date Of Its Composition?

The Christian missionaries' have claimed that Theophanes' account

pre-dates Ibn Hisham's biography of Muhammad (AD 834) as well as the Traditions which date between 2 and 3 centuries after the death of Muhammad.

As usual, there are no specific references supplied to support this view. The only general reference that is given as a "source" is that of a book by R. G. Hoyland, Seeing Islam As Others Saw It.[1] Let us now examine this single reference provided by the missionaries to see what it says about Theophanes' account.

Hoyland begins the section "Jewish Texts" by saying that:

Ibn Ishaq lists eight more [Jews] who "took refuge in Islam," but only "hypocritically professed it." On the basis of these and other narratives, Jewish polemicists elaborated accounts of how Muhammad had been instructed by Jewish scholars.[2]

From the very start, we can immediately see problems with the missionary theory. Rather than discovering an original source, we find that these "Jewish polemicists" took the work of Ibn Ishaq and perverted one of his accounts into a clever, anti-Islamic polemic. What then are we to make of the account by Theophanes? Hoyland informs us that:

Since the legend [of the ten rabbis] is in Theophanes, it must have arisen earlier than the ninth century, and most probably in the second half of the eight century when the biography of Muhammad has already become largely standardized.[4]

In other words, the work of Theophanes itself is dependent of Islamic sources, presumably the biography of the Prophet Muhammad(P) by Ibn Ishaq (d. 150 AH / 767 CE). Ibn Ishaq was responsible for writing a systematic the biography of Prophet(P). More significant, however, is the fact that the legend of the Jews mentioned by Theophanes clearly post-dated writing of the first biography of the Prophet Muhammad(P). Moreover, S. Shtober informs us that:

Theophanes composed his chronicles between the years A.D. 810-814.[5]

At this point, it is important to establish a very significant fact. Ibn Ishaq died in 150 AH / 767 CE, long before Theophanes was to compose his work between 810-814 CE. It is true that Ibn Ishaq's biography of the Prophet Muhammad(P)  was later transmitted by Ibn Hisham, albeit in an abridged form. However, for the missionaries to claim that because Theophanes' work preceded that of Ibn Hisham's biography of the Prophet Muhammad(P)  is to ignore the early date of Ibn Ishaq's work, an embarrassing point that easily and ultimately jerks the rug from beneath the missionaries' feet.[6] Deplorably, the missionaries have deceptively tried to hide this point, only to falsely claim that Theophanes' account "predates Ibn Hisham's biography of Muhammad" (NB: even the "source" of the missionaries, i.e., Hoyland's book Seeing Islam As Others Saw It, mentions Ibn Ishaq listing eight more Jews; see ref. 2 above).

3. The Jewish Accounts: Date Of Composition And Their Historicity

Let us now address the Jewish sources of the story of the"ten wise Jews". The first Jewish attestation to this story is found embodied within a Hebrew anti-Karaite treatise. This was published by Jacob Mann along with detailed commentary.[7,8] To the discredit of the missionaries, this Jewish text is dated to the first half of the 10th century CE.[9] Now we come to the treatise's history. We read:

The acceptance of Islam by these 10 elders is supposed to have been for "the purpose of saving God's people so that he (Muhammad) should not harm them by his false charges." But this is belied by his [i.e., the author of this polemical treatise] attacks on the Jews of Madinah and Haibar. Thus the whole episode lacks the historical basis; it is rather a later legend.[10]

As if this is not sufficient, Mann went on to say that in this polemical treatise:

There is a peculiar story of the relations of a certain Abu Bakr (perhaps a confusion with the first Caliph Abu Bakr), the son of the (Babylonian?) Exhilarch, with the prophet. Banished to Persia, this Abu Bakr converted the inhabitants of 60 cities to Islam. All such stories are apparently the reflection of a vague notion current in Jewish circles concerning the Jewish share in the evolution of the new religion and the personal contacts of some Arabian Jews with its founder.[11]

The story of the "ten wise Jews" also exists as an independent entity in Judeo-Arabic literature and is similar to the Hebrew anti-Karaite treatise. It was published by J. Leevan and the manuscript dates from the twelfth century.[12] Leevan comments along the same lines as Mann. Concerning the alleged verses produced by the "ten wise Jews" for the Qur'an, Leevan says:

Our fragment not only gives us the full number but also produces the alleged verses of these Companions of Mohammed [i.e., the "ten wise Jews"]. There is one disappointment to the record. The quotations that are alleged to come from the Koran are not actually to be found there.... The whole style of the Arabic, so awkward and cumbrous and ungrammatical, is against it [i.e., the Qur'an]. The objections of the style also militate against the probability that these verses are derived from Hadith literature. I may also add that I have not been able to trace any of the verses in the Hadiths. The evidence points very strongly to the fabrication of these verses by the author, or to so gross a distortion of the original sources that it may be considered to amount to fabrication.[13]

In short, the story of "ten wise Jews" aiding the Prophet Muhammad(P) in the composition of the Qur'an is a fabrication and lacks an historical basis.

4. The Case Of The "Mysterious Letters"

The case of the "mysterious letters", allegedly inserted by the ten "wise" Jewish rabbis, is perhaps the most amusing part of this whole affair. Mann says:

The elders are stated to have composed the Kur'an, each inserting his name in a Sura in such a manner as not to arouse suspicion. In the 2nd Sura (the Cow) they even managed to introduce a sentence: "thus did the Jewish sages counsel the wicked ALM"; the last word may be taken as a reference to a false prophet. In the Judeo-Arabic account there is given a string of verses, supposedly to be found in this Sura, the first letters of which make up the above sentence. However, we seek in vain for them in the present text of Sura II. The only connection may be found in the symbolic letters A L M at the beginning of this Sura (as well as several others) which would stand for ALM in the above sense. But altogether this stratagem, which our author designates as "a great secret", cannot of course be given any credence.[14]

It can't be given any credence even using linguistic analysis. This is because this whole stratagem is based on an arbitrary choice of consonants to fit a pre-conceived notion, thereby indicating a poor grasp of Hebrew and Arabic etymology. The letters Alif, Lam and Mim are supposed to have been included with insertion of the sentence as we read above:

"thus did the Jewish sages counsel the wicked ALM"

According to the Jewish legend, this sentence was written in the Qur'an. However, this sentence is nowhere to be found in the Qur'an! Further, in the Qur'an, when one reads "Alif. Lam. Mim" the Lam and Mim are to be read with the diacritical madda that hovers above each letter, as can be seen below 

This diacritical madda results in the prolongation of the consonants Lam and Mim as opposed to ALM where it is absent; thus preserving the status quo of "mysterious letters".

Another instance of these "mysterious letters" inserted by "Jewish wise men" are the letters "Kaf. Ha. Ya. `Ain. Sad."

"Thus did advise" (kakhah ya'asu) produces the letters khy's which is found in the beginning of Chapter xix.[15]

Kaf. Ha. Ya. `Ain. Sad is represented in Qur'anic Arabic as such:

The diacritical madda on top of Kaf, cAin and Sad complicates the case for "kakhah ya'asu". It is further complicated by the fact that there is no "kh" sound in Kaf. Ha. Ya. cAin. Sad! While such an excercise in basic Arabic pronunciation might seem rather mundane, even pointless to an Arabic-speaking schoolboy, it is nonetheless necessary to demonstrate the fallacy in the missionaries' theory. On this note, we would advise the missionaries to study basic Arabic before setting themselves up for the usual embarrassment.

Let us now move on to the case of Ha. Mim.

"the wise men" (hakhemê) gives hm of xli-xlvi.[16]

Ha. Mim is represented as:

Here again, we see the diacritical madda above of Mim. For those who are unfamiliar with the Arabic language, it might be insightful to learn that without diacritical marks, Arabic is only read with consonants. The Arabic language is based on a tri-lateral root structure. In examining the root of a word, the distracting diacritical marks are removed and only the consonant letters are left. For example, the word "hakhemê" (the Arabic equivalent is from the root h.k.m) has Ha, Kaf and Mim not Ha and Mim. The root letters simply do not match, as was the case with Kaf. Ha. Ya. `Ain. Sad, showing a clear arbitrary nature of the Jewish polemicist's hypothesis.

A most amusing example of this utter incompetence with basic Arabic can be found in the story behind Ya. Sin, written in the Qur'an as:

It is said that:

"of Israel" (yisra'êl) becomes ys of xxxvi.[17]

The word Isra'il is composed of Alif, Sin, Ra and Lam. As one can see Ya. Sin is way off the mark!

In summary, there is no linguistic or historical foundation behind the "the great secret" of the ten "wise" Jews.

This would also seem to be a good opportunity to point out the impoverished understanding of medieval Jewry in Semitic languages, both Arabic and their own Hebrew. It was the Arab grammarians who were credited for understanding the aspects of Hebrew grammar:

Jewish scholars in Arab lands for the first time in history acquired the tools for proper contextual study of the scriptures. Islam had spread the tenets of rationalism, mediating in part the philosophical teachings of classical Greece.[18]

In addition, Arab grammarians had developed a systematic method for analyzing the style and the structure of classical Arabic, the language of the Koran. This enabled them not only to interpret the Koran but also to compose new works in the strict standards of the classical idiom.[19]

Jews in Arab lands had the potential to become comparative semitic linguists.[20]

Jews who studied Arabic language and literature, as well as other academic disciplines, learned the new linguistic science and desired to exploit it in their exegesis of the Bible and the analysis of Hebrew grammar. Only those who knew Arabic grammar developed the proper understanding of the Hebrew verb as the stem built upon three consonants. Hebrew verb stems in which the letters alef, vav and yod appear for example, do not display these weak consonants in all forms. These weak consonants do appear in the various forms of Arabic verb, However, Jewish scholars with linguistic sophistication realized that the weak consonants were part of the Hebrew verb even where they are not evident. Jewish exegetes, such as those in France, who did not read Arabic, failed to comprehend the triconsonantal basis of the Hebrew verb-stem and as a result, confused certain stems and misinterpreted them. C'est la vie. Characteristic of the Spanish Jewish scholars was their superior interest and training in linguistic analysis, a benefit of having grown up in an Arabic milieu.[21]

His [Rabbi Saadiah] Arabic translation of the Bible, however continues in use as the official version of Jews from Arab lands. It is also a mine of original insight into the meaning of difficult Hebrew words and phrases in the Bible, of which the modern scholars have barely taken advantage.[22]

It is indeed amusing to learn of the medieval Jewish hostility to Islam, especially since Jewish grammarians owe their understanding of their own language to Arab grammarians and lexicographers. We are reminded of the "Golden Age" of the Jews in Muslim Spain, when the influence of Arabic literature, poetry, and grammar influenced the Jews to write their greatest works of literature.

5. Tafsir Of The Verse 16:103

And finally let us now move over to the exegesis (tafsir) of the verse 16:103.

We know indeed that they say, "It is a man that teaches him." The tongue of him they wickedly point to is notably foreign, while this is Arabic, pure and clear.

This verse was used by the missionaries in a subtle way to show that Prophet(P) was taught by someone; the "ten wise Jews" in the present case. Let us now examine the case using the tafsir of the Qur'an. Ibn Kathir says in his tafsir:

We know indeed that they say, "It is a man that teaches him." The tongue of him they wickedly point to is notably foreign, while this is Arabic, pure and clear.

The Almighty narrates the lies and false accusations made by the pagans according to whom a man taught Muhammad the Qur'an that which he is reciting to us. Saying so, they point to a foreign man who lived among them, a servant of some clan in Quraysh who used to trade near al-Safa and maybe the Prophet, peace be upon him, used to sit with him and talk to him. This person had a foreign tongue and could not speak Arabic or he knew little Arabic just enough to answer basic questions when necessary. Therefore, the Almighty said in answer to their false accusations: "The tongue of him they wickedly point to is notably foreign, while this is Arabic, pure and clear" refering to the Qur'an, i.e., "How can the one who brought this Qur'an in such a pure language and beautiful style and full of meaning whose fullness exceed every book revealed to the Children of Israel, how can such a man learn from a foreigner (who cannot speak)? No one with the slightest amount of brains could make such a claim. Muhammad Ibn Ishaq Ibn Yasar said in al-Sirah: The Prophet, peace be upon him, according to what I heard, used to sit at al-Marwah at the hut of Christian boy called Jabr who was the slave of Banu al-Hadrami. Therefore, Allah revealed "We know indeed that they say, "It is a man that teaches him." The tongue of him they wickedly point to is notably foreign, while this is Arabic, pure and clear" and so told cAbdullah Ibn Kathir, and according to `Ikrimah and Qatadah his name was Ya`ish. Ibn Jarir said: Ahmad Ibn Muhammad al-Tusi told me, Abu `Amir told us, Ibrahim Ibn Tahman narrated to us from Muslim Ibn `Abdillah al-Mila'i from Mujahid from Ibn `Abbas his saying: The Prophet, peace be upon him, used to teach a slave boy(??) in Makkah called Bil`am whose tongue was foreign. The pagans used to see the Messenger of God, peace be upon him, enter his place and leave it, so they said that Bilcam taught him. Therefore, Allah revealed the verse "We know indeed that they say, "It is a man that teaches him". The tongue of him they wickedly point to is notably foreign, while this is Arabic, pure and clear". Al-Dahhak Ibn Muzahim said: [the one meant] is Salman al-Farisi, which is a weak statement because this verse is Meccan while Salman embraced Islam in Madinah. `Ubaydullah Ibn Muslim said: We had two Roman slave boys/servants who used to read a book of theirs in their tongue, and the Prophet, peace be upon him, used to pass by them, stop by and listen to them, so the pagans said: he learns from them. Therefore, Allah revealed this verse. Al-Zuhri narrated from Sa`id Ibn al-Musayyab: The pagan who made this claim is a man who used to write the Revelation for the Messenger of God, peace be upon him, but later he quit Islam and made such a false claim, shame on him.

It is quite obvious that this verse has nothing to do with the "ten wise Jews".

To complete the argument we should also add the uninformed view held by Abraham Geiger who claimed that the man mentioned in the verse 16:103 is none but cAbdullah ibn Salam, one of the earliest Jewish converts to Islam. Jacob Lassner comments about this claim of Geiger concerning the man mentioned in verse 16:103:

Clearly, the verse begs for explication. Who, if anyone, is the alleged teacher and what is the foreign tongue referred to by the polytheists in their vain attempt to discredit Allah's chosen messenger and his divinely inspired preaching? Geiger, who in his matter sides with the polytheists in denying that Muslim scripture is God's revealed word, understood the verse as showing "plainly that this man was a Jew." The foreign tongue was presumably Hebrew and/or Jewish Aramaic. Turning then to the later Qur'an commentary, he asserts that his (own intuitive) understanding of the text is in fact supported by the Muslim commentators, who "take this view [of the polytheists] and indeed think that it was [a reference] to Abdallah ibn Salam."

But it hardly follows that the Qur'anic verse refers explicitly to such a rabbi or indeed to any other teacher of Jewish descent. Nor is there a compelling reason to believe that the traditions, which Muhammad was accused of having learned, were understood by Muslims as having originally been in Hebrew or Aramaic. Nor, for that matter, do Muslim exegetes unequivocally link the mysterious informant of Qur'an 16:105 [a clear misprint for 16:103!] with Geiger's favored candidate Abdallah ibn Salam.[23]

It is interesting to see that  nowhere is Geiger's "intuitive" understanding of the verse 16:103 supported by any Muslim commentaries. It was simply his assumption to further a pre-conceived argument.

Further Lassner says:

Nevertheless, Qur'anic evidence cited by Geiger for the historicity of Abdallah ibn Salam and, beyond that, his alleged role in instructing the Prophet, is anything but convincing.[24]

That sums up the case quite well.

Conclusions

From the time of antiquity, Jewish and Christian hostility towards Islam had resulted in some rather bitter and creative polemics. The story of "ten wise Jews" playing a role in the composition of the Holy Qur'an has a very mythical, entertaining quality to it. However amusing these legends may seem to us today, it is even more amusing to see Christian missionaries dutifully parroting these claims without any scholastic abandon. One would imagine that even mischief-making has its limitations. Whether or not these missionaries actually took such legends seriously, their allegations have been proven utterly baseless. On three accounts, that of historical, linguistic and exegetical analyses, the theories are rendered absurd.


References

[1] R. G. Hoyland, Seeing Islam As Others Saw It: A Survey And Evaluation Of Christian, Jewish And Zoroastrian Writing On Early Islam, 1997, The Darwin Press, Inc.: Princeton (New Jersey).

[2] Ibid., p. 505.

[3] H. Hirschfeld, "Historical And Legendary Controversies Between Mohammad And The Rabbis", The Jewish Quarterly Review, 1898, Volume 10, pp. 100-116. Hirschfeld relies solely on Islamic sources for the discussion.

[4] Hoyland, Seeing Islam As Others Saw It, Op.Cit, p. 508.

[5] S. Shtober, "Muhammad And The Beginning Of Islam In The Chronicle Sefer Divrey Yoseph", in M. Sharon (ed.), Studies In History And Civilization In Honour Of Professor David Ayalon, 1986, Cana: Jerusalem & E. J. Brill: Leiden, p. 349 (footnote 8).

[6] See the entry "Ibn Ishaq" in Encyclopaedia Britannica available online.

[7] J. Mann, "An Early Theologico-Polemical Work", Hebrew Union College Annual, 1937-1938, Volume XII-XIII, pp. 411-459.

[8] J. Mann, "A Polemical Work Against Karaite And Other Sectaries", The Jewish Quarterly Review (NS), 1921-1922, Volume XII, pp. 123-150.

[9] J. Mann, "An Early Theologico-Polemical Work", Hebrew Union College Annual, Op.Cit., p. 432. Hoyland puts the composition around late ninth to early tenth century; Seeing Islam As Others Saw It, Op.Cit., p. 506.

[10] Ibid., p. 421.

[11] Ibid., pp. 421-422.

[12] J. Leevan, "Mohammed And His Jewish Contemporaries", The Jewish Quarterly Review (NS), 1925-1926, Volume XVI, p. 399.

[13] Ibid., p. 400.

[14] J. Mann, "An Early Theologico-Polemical Work", Hebrew Union College Annual, Op.Cit., pp. 420-421.

[15] Hoyland, Seeing Islam As Others Saw It, Op.Cit., p. 508.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Barry W Holtz (Ed.), Back to the Sources: Reading The Classic Jewish Texts: The First Complete Modern Guide To The Great Books of Jewish Tradition: What They Are And How To Read Them, 1992, Simon and Schuster, p. 221.

[19] Ibid., p. 222.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., pp. 222-223.

[23] 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. 119.

[24] Ibid., pp. 118-119.

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