Is The Qur'anic Surah Of Joseph Borrowed From Jewish Midrashic Sources?

M S M Saifullah

© Islamic Awareness, All Rights Reserved.

First Composed: 27th July 2002

Last Updated: 8th January 2006


Assalamu-`alaykum wa rahamatullahi wa barakatuhu:

1. Introduction

The story of Prophet Joseph in Surah 12 of the Qur'an has been dealt with extensively in the Western literature from various angles. It has been compared with the story in the Book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible.[1] The story of Joseph in the Qur'an is also discussed on the basis of dramatic dialogue and the themes which it presents.[2] Mustansir Mir has shown that this story is neatly structured on the analogy of the literary-rhetorical device of al-laff wa 'l-nashr `alā 'l-`aks (involution and evolution in reverse).[3] This is to say that the plot begins to unravel, but the tensions are resolved in reverse order.

The story of Joseph in the Qur'an was also subjected to polemics by Torrey[4] and Macdonald[5]. It is their claim that the Qur'anic story, in certain parts, can only be "understood" using the Jewish Midrashic literature mainly Midrash Yalkut, Midrash Genesis Rabbah and Tanhuma. It appears that most of the cases of alleged "understanding" had been dealt with by Geiger with nothing much left on the plate of Torrey and Macdonald except that they repeated most of the earlier allegations and supplemented them with other Midrashic sources such as Midrash Ha-Gadol. Geiger also provided Sefer Ha-Yashar as another source to "understand" parts of the story of Joseph in the Qur'an.[6] Christian apologists such as J. W. Sweetman[7] and N. A. Newman[8] and polemicists such as Ibn Warraq[9] have also jumped onto this bandwagon of the "incoherency" of the Qur'anic account.

The implicit assumption of this "understanding" the "incoherent" Qur'anic account by using the Midrashic sources such as Midrash Yalkut, Midrash Genesis Rabbah, Tanhuma, Midrash Ha-Gadol and Sefer Ha-Yashar is that these sources existed before the advent of Islam and that the Prophet Muhammad misread, misunderstood or misheard the story of Joseph. No effort has been made by any of these scholars to even check the time of redaction and dating of the Jewish sources. In this paper we would like to examine what the dates of compilation or redaction of the sources are and then see how well they fit into our "understanding" of the "incoherent" arguments of Geiger and his likes.

2. The List Of Alleged "Incoherencies"

The principal claims of alleged "incoherency" of Qur'anic account and its "coherent" understanding using the Jewish Midrashic sources can be listed as follows:

  1. The Qur'anic story does not give the reason why al-Aziz's wife provided knives to the women whom she had invited for feast so that they could see Joseph's beauty for themselves. The Midrash Yalkut and Midrash Ha-Gadol give the reason that the knives were given to them so that they could eat fruit.

  2. In the Qur'an, Jacob advises his sons to enter the city by different gates and not from one gate. This can be "coherently" understood only if we read Midrash Genesis Rabbah, Tanhuma and Midrash Ha-Gadol as they provide the "reason" for it.

  3. When the cup is found in Benjamin's sack and he is proclaimed a thief, his brothers said, "If he stole, there was a brother of his who did steal before" [12:77]. According to Torrey, the Muslim commentators are at their wits' end to explain how Joseph could have been accused of stealing. The Qur'anic story can be explained only by referring to Midrash Genesis Rabbah, Tanhuma and Midrash Ha-Gadol. What is amusing is that Torrey, instead of showing how Joseph stole, instead states that the Midrashim refer to Benjamin's mother before him who had stolen, not Joseph!
3. Dating The Jewish Sources

1. Midrash Yalkut Shimeoni: More than a century ago, Zunz pointed out that the Midrash Yalkut Shimeoni had been compiled in the 13th century CE by Simeon ha-Darshan.[10] This dating is still accepted today. The Encyclopaedia Judaica says:

Yalkut Shimoni, the best known and most comprehensive midrashic anthology, covering the whole Bible. Some scholars (S. J. Rapoport, etc.) claimed that its author and compiler was Simeon Kara, the father of Joseph Kara and a contemporary of Rashi, but A. Epstein showed that there is no basis for this view. He proved that the Simeon mentioned by Rashi is not the compiler of Yalkut and attributed it to a Simeon ha-Darshan, who lived in 13th century.... Zunz dated the Midrash to the 13th century based on the facts that Nathan b. Jehiel of Rome, Rashi, and other 12th century scholars did not know the Yalkut, its use of sources which date at the earliest from the end of the 11th century.... Not all of Zunz's arguments are valid.... but Zunz's view as to its date prevails...[11]

Similarly Epstein inclines to agree

... with Zunz that the author of the Yalkut flourished in the early part of the thirteenth century.[12]

2. Midrash Ha-Gadol: It is the largest of all the midrashic collections. Concerning the dating and the nature of composition The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia says:

Midrash Hagadol ("The Great Midrash") a midrashic compilation to the entire Torah... was apparently completed in 14th cent.... Unlike the compiler of the Midrash collection Yalkut Shimeoni, the editor of Midrash Hagadol does not gives his sources.... In many instances the legends and expositions in the text are very similar to those recorded in Mohammedan sources.[13]

It is universally regarded that David b. Amram of Aden (Yemen) was the author of Midrash Ha-Gadol. David b. Amram is usually dated in the 13th century.[14]

3. Sefer Ha-Yashar: According to the Encyclopaedia Judaica Sefer Ha-Yashar was

... probably written in the 13th century.[15]

Some scholars like J. Dan have suspected that this work was composed only at the beginning of the 16th century in Naples. In support of this idea J. Genot cites the description of Joseph as a Jewish astronomer at a Gentile court, the use of the astrolabe, and contemporary influences on biblical narratives. The Venice edition of Sefer Ha-Yashar appeals to a 1552 printed edition of Naples, which, however, apparently never existed.[16] Concerning the contemporary influences on Sefer Ha-Yashar, Zunz points out the existence of various Arab names in it.[17]

4. Midrash Tanhuma: A detailed discussion about the dating of this book is given elsewhere. It is sufficient to say that this Midrash is dated to the 9th century CE.[18]

5. Midrash Genesis Rabbah: Very briefly, although scholars had claimed that this Midrash was edited in the 6th century CE, it has now been shown that the text of this Midrash was horribly unstable even when in the Middle Ages.[19] Hence, there is no way of identifying what actually constituted the "original" text. There are chapters of Vayishlach, Vayigash, Vayechi etc. that have gone through extensive changes and have been drawn from Tanhuma homilies. Tanhuma homilies themselves were complied in the ninth century CE as stated above.

4. Conclusions

Geiger and others claimed that the Qur'anic story of Joseph, in certain parts, can only be "understood" using the Jewish Midrashic literature. It is clear from the above discussion that Midrash Yalkut, Midrash Ha-Gadol, Sefer Ha-Yashar, Tanhuma and Midrash Genesis Rabbah are either late compilations or are textually unstable. They all reached their final form a few hundred years after the advent of Islam. The implicit assumption of the "understanding" of "incoherent" Qur'anic account by using the Midrashic sources is that these Midrashic sources existed before the advent of Islam and that the Prophet did not the comprehend the story of Joseph properly is untenable. What is interesting is that the Muslim commentaries had crystallised much earlier than much of the Jewish Midrashic literature. Further, there is at least one Midrash (Ha-Gadol) that had incorporated the Islamic sources in its material. It is quite obvious that one cannot use sources that came a few hundred years after the advent of Islam to explain the Qur'anic narrative. The textual instability as well as the absence of pre-Islamic manuscripts of the Midrashic sources make it impossible to determine the precise nature of the text itself. Furthermore, after a detailed discussion about the Midrashim used to "understand" the Qur'an, Macdonald says that:

Moreover we cannot say with certainty. Nor is it wholly convincing to maintain that his [i.e., the Prophet's] information was derived from Jewish traders.[20]

And that speaks quite well of the whole "understanding".


References & Notes

[1] M. A. S. Abdel Haleem, "The Story Of Joseph In The Qur'an And The Old Testament", Islam & Christian Muslim Relations, 1990, Volume I, pp. 171-191.

[2] A. H. Johns, "Joseph In The Qur'an: Dramatic Dialogue, Human Emotion And Prophetic Wisdom", Islamochristiana, 1981, Volume 7, pp. 29-55.

[3] M. Mir, "The Qur'anic Story Of Joseph: Plot, Themes And Characters", The Muslim World, 1986, Volume LXXVI, pp. 1-15. See also a similar observation by Marilyn Robinson Waldman in "New Approaches To 'Biblical' Materials In The Qur'an", The Muslim World, 1985, Volume LXXV, p. 9.

[4] C. C. Torrey, The Jewish Foundation Of Islam, 1967, Ktav Publishing House, Inc.: New York, pp. 109-113.

[5] J. Macdonald, "Joseph In The Qur'an And Muslim Commentary - I", The Muslim World, 1956, Volume 46, pp. 113-131; idem., "Joseph In The Qur'an And Muslim Commentary - II", The Muslim World, 1956, Volume 46, pp. 207-224.

[6] A. Geiger, Judaism And Islam (English Translation Of Was hat Mohammed aus dem Judenthume aufgenommen?), 1970, Ktav Publishing House Inc.: New York, pp. 110-118.

[7] 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, pp. 10-11.

[8] N. A. Newman, Muhammad, The Qur'an & Islam, 1996, Interdisciplinary Biblical Research Institute: Hatfield (PA), pp. 378-380.

[9] Ibn Warraq, Why I Am Not A Muslim, 1995, Prometheus Books: Amherst, NY, pp. 58-59.

[10] L. Zunz, Die Gottesdienstlichen Vorträge der Juden: Historisch Entwickelt, 1892, Verlag von J. Kauffmann: Frankfurt, pp. 308-315. The dating is discussed in pp. 312-315.

[11] "Yalkut Shimoni", Encyclopaedia Judaica, Volume 16, Encyclopaedia Judaica Jerusalem, col. 707.

[12] "Yalkut", The Jewish Encyclopedia, 1905, Volume XII, Funk And Wagnells Company: London & New York, p. 586; Also see for similar dating "Yalkut Shimeoni", The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, 1969, Volume 10, Ktav Publishing House, Inc.: New York, p. 586; H. L. Strack & G. Stemberger (Trans. Markus Bockmuehl), Introduction To The Talmud And Midrash, 1991, T & T Clark: Edinburgh (Scotland), p. 384.

[13] "Midrash Hagadol", The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, 1969, Volume 7, Ktav Publishing House, Inc.: New York, pp. 539-540.

[14] H. L. Strack & G. Stemberger (Trans. Markus Bockmuehl), Introduction To The Talmud And Midrash, 1991, op cit., p. 386; See also "Midrash Ha-Gadol", Encyclopaedia Judaica, Volume 11, Encyclopaedia Judaica Jerusalem, col. 1515-1516.

[15] "Sefer Ha-Yashar", Encyclopaedia Judaica, Volume 14, Encyclopaedia Judaica Jerusalem, col. 1099.

[16] H. L. Strack & G. Stemberger (Trans. Markus Bockmuehl), Introduction To The Talmud And Midrash, 1991, op cit., p. 359. It appears that the author of the English translation of Sefer Ha-Yashar was unaware of the the non-existence of the Naples edition, see Sefer Hayashar: The Book Of Generation Of Adam, 1993, Ktav Publishing House, Inc.: Holboken (New Jersey), p. v.

[17] L. Zunz, Die Gottesdienstlichen Vorträge der Juden: Historisch Entwickelt, 1892, op cit., p. 164.

[18] L. Zunz, Die Gottesdienstlichen Vorträge der Juden: Historisch Entwickelt, 1892, op cit., 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, op cit., p. 332. Also see "Tanhuma Yelammedenu", Encyclopaedia Judaica, Volume 15, col. 795; Berman, who translated Midrash Tanhuma-Yelammedenu from a manuscript, says that the earliest form of the text 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. Waxman differentiates between Tanhuma and Yelammedenu, which is in contrary to the modern scholarship.

[19] 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 Rabbinic Literature, 2000, Brown Judaic Studies: Providence (RI), pp. 145-158.

[20] J. Macdonald, "Joseph In The Qur'an And Muslim Commentary - II", The Muslim World, 1956, op cit., p. 224.

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