Well, Did Muhammad Not Copy Some Verses Of The Qur'an From Imru'l Qais?

Islamic Awareness

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First Composed: 14th June 1999

Last Updated: 7th December 2005

Assalamu-`alaykum wa rahamatullahi wa barakatuhu:

1. Introduction

One must ponder over the reasons why the pagan poet Imru'l Qais has been included in the Bible borrowing theories of the Qur'an. Quite apart from the historical and theological reasons adduced for this argument, equally impressive are the methodological considerations. Here we can observe one of the classic orientalist, missionary and apologist stratagems: that of advancing a preconceived theological understanding of history and then manufacturing supporting evidence to lend verisimilitude to their conclusions, irrespective of how much this contradicts all of the available and well-established historical evidence. Is this type of argumentation indicative of serious scholarship? Let us begin by looking at the foundations of this claim. The first one being the claim of Louis Cheikho, who, in order to show the Christian sources of Qur'an and Islam, claimed that Imru'l Qais was a Christian poet. The second one is the age old polemic that Muhammad borrowed parts of the Qur'anic verses from Imru'l Qais' poetry. We will deal with these "theories" one after the other.

2. Cheikho & The "Christian" Imru'l Qais

Louis Cheikho wrote a book called Shu`ara' al-Nasraniyah where he considered Imru'l Qais to be a Christian.[1] He clubbed together almost all the poets of jahiliyyah as Christians to show that the Qur'an has got 'Christian' origins. However, many contemporary scholars have criticized his poor scholarship. Hechame Camille wrote a complete book called Louis Cheikho et son livre le Christianisme et la Littérature Chrétienne en Arabie avant l'Islam: Etude Critique that critiques the claims found in Louis Cheikho's work.[2] Under the discussion about Imru'l Qais and his Christian origins, Camille says:

None of the ten arguments put forward by Cheikho enables us to conclude Christianity of the great poet of Kinda. If we take into account the distinction we made between U. al-Qays and the king with whom he was mixed up in the tradition, several of the author's arguments will vanish; it is no more in the question for the poet to travel to Bysance nor become king of Kinda or governor over Palestine. The only things that remain are evidence which we have used and suffice them to be scanned quickly. The poetry of U. al-Qais being devoid of marks of polytheism, so be it. But, it is not a sufficient proof of Christianity. The expression in several verses of the poet's monotheism and his belief in resurrection [on the judgement day] is extremely hypothetic. Only, one single verse mentions God in a very edifying way, similar to all the dubious passages of the like that we picked up concerning other poets; and this tone is all the more surprising in the poet's mouth that he has a loose behaviour:

What can we say about the poet's tribe? Is belonging to Kinda an evidence of Christianity? Not in the least, all the less that Christianity was far from having dug deep roots in that tribe. As for the Christian kinship of U. al-Qais, it does not constitute a constraining proof; had only the genealogies been sure![3]

And needless to says, Imru'l Qais has been categorized as a pagan poet.[4]

3. Imru'l Qais As A Source Of Qur'anic Verses?

As far as this polemic is concerned Rev. W. St. Clair Tisdall, at least, understood the anachronic explanation and was brave enough to acknowledge that Muhammad was not involved in plagiarism. Obviously unfamiliar with the works of Tisdall, but more than happy to utilise his material when required, Christian missionaries like Steven Masood, Anis Shorrosh and Robert Morey have not lost hope in the idea of Imru'l Qais being a source of the Qur'anic verses. Masood, quoting Tisdall's Yanab`iu'l Islam, says:

Four verses from one of his [i.e., Imraul Qais'] poems also appear in the Qur'an (Surah 54:1,29,31,46). It is said that when Imraul Qais' grandaughter heard the Surah recited aloud, she immediately recognised the poem and demanded to know how these verses had become part of Muhammad's revelation.[5]

The case of Anis Shorrosh is even more interesting. He quotes Tisdall's The Original Sources Of The Qur'an to claim that:

Imraul Qais, some of whose poems were among the famed Muallaqat (Suspended Poems) at Ka`bah, was one of the most expressive of the ancient Arab poets before Muhammad. In one of his poems, which was not part of the Muallaqat collection, appear four verses which were "borrowed" and inserted by Muhammad into the Quran (Surat al-Qamar [The Moon] 54:1, 29, 31, and 46).

Imraul Qais's daughter once heard this Surat recited aloud. She immediately recognized her father's poem and demanded to know how her father's verses had become part of a divine revelation, supposedly preserved on stone tablets in heaven![6]

According to Robert Morey:

It is also clear that Muhammad used such pre-Islamic literature as the Saba Moallaqat of Imra'ul Cays in his composition of Suras 21:96; 29:31,46; 37:59; 54:1, and 93:1.[7]

Similar claim was made by `Abdallah `Abd al-Fadi but he did not cite any source of information.[8]

Contrary to what Masood, Shorrosh and Morey have claimed let us see what Tisdall says in his book The Original Sources Of The Qur'an. The material below is taken from "Appendix To Chapter II" of this book.

It is sometimes said in the East at the present day that Muhammad not only adopted many of the ancient habits and religious rites of the heathen Arabs and incorporated them into Islam, but that he was also guilty of plagiarism in borrowing parts of certain verses of Imrau'l Qais, an ancient Arabic poet. These, it is asserted, may still be found in the Qur'an. I have even heard a story to the effect that one day when Fatimah, Muhammad's daughter, was reciting thc verse 'The Hour has come near and the Moon has split asunder" (Surah LIV., al-Qamar, 1), a daughter of the poet was present and said to her, "That is a verse from one of my father's poems, and your father has stolen it and pretended that he received it from God." This tale is probably false, for Imrau'l Qais died about the year 540 of the Christian era, while Muhammad was not born till A.D. 570, "the year of the Elephant."

In a lithographed edition of the Mu'allaqat, which I obtained in Persia, however, I found at the end of the whole volume certain Odes there attributed to Imrau'l Qais, though not recognized as his in any other edition of his poems which I have seen. In these pieces of doubtful authorship I found the verses quoted below.

Though they contain some obvious blunders, I think it best to give them without correction. The passages marked with a line above them occur also in the Qur'an (Surah LIV., Al Qamar, 1, 29, 31, 46; Surah XCIII., Ad duha', 1; Surah XXI., Al Anbiya 96; Surah XXXVII., As Saffat, 59), except that in some of the words there is a slight difference, though the meaning is the same. It is clear therefore that there is some connexion between these lines and the similar verses of the Qur'an.

There seems good reason to doubt whether Imrau'l Qais is the author of the lines in question. They may have been borrowed from the Qur'an instead of having been inserted therein from an author who lived before Muhammad's time. On the one hand it is difficult to suppose that at any time after the establishment of Islam any one would have the daring to parody the Qur'an by taking passages from it and applying them to the subject to which these lines of poetry refer. On the other hand, it is very customary even in comparatively modern times to quote verses of the Qur'an and work them into later compositions of a philosophical or religious character, to which class, however, these Odes do not belong. It would be difficult to imagine Muhammad returning to plagiarize from such a well-known author as Imrau'l Qais (even though, as we shall see later; he did so from less known foreign sources); though this may be in part met by supposing that, as these Odes formed no part of the Mu'allaqat, they were not as generally current as poems contained in the latter collection were. Thc account generally given of the Mu'allaqat is that, whenever any one had composed an especially eloquent poem, it was suspended on the wall of the Ka'bah, and that the poems in this celebrated collection owe their name, which means "The Suspended Poems", to this custom. Good authorities,1 however, deny that this was the origin of the name, but that is perhaps a matter of little importance. In spite of the Eastern story which I have quoted, the balance of probability certainly inclines to the supposition that Muhammad was not2 guilty of the daring plagiarism of which he has been accused.3

1. Regarding the Mu'allaqat it may be well to quote the following from Abu Ja'far Ahmad ibn Isma'il an nahhas (died A.H. 338) He says:-


As-Suyuti says very much the same, though he also refers to the story that the verses were hung up in the Ka'bah as possible (Mudhkir, II., 240).

2. This is the opinion of Sir C. J. Lyall, than whom it would be difficult to find any one better qualified to speak on the subject of ancient Arabic poetry. In a letter which he has kindly sent me regarding the authorship of the lines in question attributed to Imrau'l Qais, he expresses his conviction that they are not his, giving reasons founded principally upon the style and the metre. I have incorporated some of his observations into this Appendix, and I owe to him also the preceding note. His arguments have caused me to modify the opinion on the subject expressed in my Persian work, Yanabi'u'l Islam.

3. The Rev. Dr. Zwemer, of Bahrain, however, informs me that he has found the words Danati 'ssa'atu wa'nshaqqa 'lqamaru (cf. Surah LIV., 1, Iqtarabati 'ssa`atu wa'nshaqqa 'lqamaru) in the last section of the last poem of Imrau'l Qais in an edition which he possesses. He adds: "A Shaikh taught in Al Azhar tells me that this evident quotation perplexes learned Muslims."[10]

On the basis of such an admission, the Christian missionaries put forward a bizarre request that Muslims should read Tisdall's book and "seriously think about the questions raised" by his research. The mistakes in Tisdall's books are just too many to even consider it as a work of serious scholarship. It is the Christians who should "seriously think about the questions raised" by Tisdall's change of opinion. Steven Masood and Anis Shorrosh used Tisdall's The Original Sources Of The Qur'an as a reference in their books and yet fail to mention that Imru'l Qais was not responsible for some of the verses of the Qur'an.[11] As we have seen, Tisdall had said that he had modified the opinions mentioned in his book Yanab`iu'l Islam concerning Imru'l Qais' poetry being used in the Qur'an. It is not surprising that the missionaries who talk about "integrity" show few signs of it in their written material.

5. Conclusions

The claim that Imru'l Qais was a Christian poet and responsible for the origins of some verses in the Qur'an can't be maintained. As Camille has shown, this claim of Cheikho is based on an improper understanding of pre-Islamic Arabic poetry. As for the claim of the Prophet borrowing parts of Qur'anic verses from Imru'l Qais' poetry, Tisdall consulted someone better qualified than himself on the subject of ancient Arabic poetry and, as a result, he retracted his original statement. One can only speculate as to whether this sensible approach adopted by Tisdall in this particular instance, would have also benefited him elsewhere.

It is worth adding that the poetry of Imru'l Qais pre-dominantly falls in the meter of al-Tawil (~41%) followed by al-Wafir (~10%). The rest is shared by al-Muttakarib, al-Basit, al-Kamil, al-Munsarih, al-Rajs, al-Saria', al-Madid and al-Ramal.[12] The rhythm of the Qur'an, on the other hand, does not follow any of the meters.[13]

References & Notes

[1] L. Cheikho, Kitab Shu`ara' al-Nasraniyah, 1890, Matba`atu l-Aba'i l-Mursalina l-Yasu`iyyun: Beirut. pp. 6-69 discusses the poetry and the "religion" of Imru'l Qais. Most of his poetry seems to have a penchant for al-Tawil meter followed by al-Wafir.

[2] H. Camille, Louis Cheikho et son livre le Christianisme et la Littérature Chrétienne en Arabie avant l'Islam: Etude Critique, 1967, Dar el-Machreq: Beirut.

[3] ibid., pp. 180-181. Since ours is not an official translation, we reproduce the French original.

Aucun des dix arguments avancés par Cheikho ne permet de conclure au christianisme du grand poète kindite. Si nous tenons compte de la distinction que nous avons opérée entre le poète U. al-Qays et le roi avec lequel la tradition l'a confondu, nous voyons disparaitre plusieurs des arguments sur lesquels notre auteur s'appuyait; il n'est donc plus question pour le poète de voyage à Byzance, de royauté sur Kinda ou de phylarcat sur la Palestine. Tout ce qu'il nous reste, ce sont des preuves du genre qui nous est devenu habituel; qu'il suffise de les parcourir rapidement. Que la poésie d'U. al-Qays soit indemne des traces de polythéisme, soit. Mais ce n'est pas encore une preuve positive de christianisme. Que plusieurs des vers du poète disent son monothéisme et sa foi en la résurrection, c'est on ne peut plus hypothétique.  Seul, un vers, mentionne Dieu d'un ton des plus (édifiants), pareil en cela à tous les passages douteux de cette espece que nous avons relevés chez les autres poètes; et ce ton étonne d'autant plus dans la bouche de notre poète qu'il est de moeurs quelque peu légères:

"Dieu est celui par lequel ce que tu demandes obtient le meilleur succès; la piété est le meilleur sac de voyage"

Que dire maintenant de la tribu du poète? Appartenir à Kinda, est-ce une preuve de christianisme? Nullement, d'autant plus que la religion chrétienne était loin d'avoir plongé de profondes racines dans cette tribu (1) - Quant à la parenté chrétienne d'U. al-Qays, elle ne constitue pas une preuve contraignante; si encore les généalogies étaient sures!

[4] ibid, p. 183.

[5] S. Masood, The Bible And The Qur'an: A Question Of Integrity, 2001, OM Publication: Carlisle (UK), p. 185.

[6] Dr. A. A. Shorrosh, Islam Revealed: A Christian Arab's View Of Islam, 1988, Thomas Nelson Publishers: Nashville, p. 193.

[7] R. Morey, The Islamic Invasion: Confronting The World's Fastest Growing Religion, 1992, Harvest House Publishers: Eugene (OR), p. 148.

[8] `Abdallah `Abd al-Fadi, Is The Qur'an Infallible?, 1995, Light of Life: Villach (Austria), pp. 312-313.

[9] Rev. W. St. Clair Tisdall, The Original Sources Of The Qur'an, 1905, Society For The Promotion Of Christian Knowledge: London, pp. 49-50. The translation of this Arabic is as follows:

They differed on the one who collected those seven poems [the Mu'allaqaat]. It was said that most of the Arabs used to gather in 'Ukaadh and best each other with poetry and when the King valued a poem he ordered that it was suspended and stored [in written form] in his closet. As for the one who claimed that it was suspended on the Ka'bah, he is unknown by the narrators. The most reliable account in this respect is that Hammaad - the narrator, when he noticed that the people lost interest in poetry, he compiled those seven [poems] and prompted them [to care about those poems]. He said that they were the most famous [mash'huraat] and thus they were called al-Qasâ'id al-Mash'hurah [the famous poems].

[10] ibid, pp. 47-50.

[11] S. Masood, The Bible And The Qur'an: A Question Of Integrity, 2001, op cit., p. 228 in the "Bibliography" section.

[12] L. Cheikho, Kitab Shu`ara' Al-Nasraniyah, op cit., pp. 6-69 for complete section on Imru'l Qais' poetry with the type of meter in the beginning of each.

[13] A. Jones, "Narrative Technique In The Qur'an And In Early Arabic Poetry", Journal Of Arabic Literature, 1994, Volume 25, p. 186. He says:

The dogma that the Qur'an is not poetry is usually stated in a fairly simplistic, though accurate, way. The Qur'an does not exhibit the meters of the poetry nor does it use rhyme in the way that poetry does. It is rhythmic and uses assonance, but this not poetry. Entirely true!

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