To Moo Or Not To Moo, That Is The Question!

Islamic Awareness

© Islamic Awareness, All Rights Reserved.

First Composed: 21st October 2001

Last Updated: 21st January 2006

Assalamu-`alaykum wa rahamatullahi wa barakatuhu:

1. Introduction

Christian missionaries have claimed that the Qur'an contains a historically impossible narration when it mentions the name al-Samiri which some translate as the "Samaritan" (Qur'an 20:85, 87 and 95). They claim that:

The Qur'an says that the calf worshipped by the Israelites at mount Horeb was molded by a Samaritan (Sura 20:85-87, 95-97). Yet the term 'Samaritan' was not coined until 722 B.C., which is several hundred years after the events recorded in Exodus. Thus, the Samaritan people could not have existed during the life of Moses, and therefore, could not have been responsible for molding the calf.

We have already discussed the origins of the Samaritans in the paper The "Samaritan" Error in the Qur'an. We had mentioned that until the middle of the 20th century it was commonly believed that the Samaritans originated from a mixed race people living in Samaria at the time of the Assyrian conquest (722 BCE). In recent years however, new research based on a more careful study of the Samaritan Chronicle has led to a re-evaluation of their origins. The Samaritans are the direct descendants of the Joseph tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh, and until the 17th century C.E. they possessed a high priesthood descending directly from Aaron through Eleazar and Phinehas.

The Qur'anic mention of the name al-Samiri sometimes translated as the "Samaritan" (Qur'an 20:85, 87 and 95) is entirely consistent with modern investigations into the origin of the Samaritan sect.

This paper responds to a different allegation, that the Qur'anic story mentioned in surah 20: 85-95 was in fact based on Jewish myths and fables.

The Christian missionary Tisdall attempts to explain the origin of the "Samaritan" story in his book The Original Sources Of The Qur'an:

This legend also comes from the Jews, as is evident from the following extract which we translate from Pirqêy Rabbi Eli'ezer, § 45, "And this calf came out lowing [the sound uttered by cattle; moo], and the Israelites saw it. Rabbi Yehûdah says that Sammaêl was hidden in its interior, and was lowing in order that he might deceive Israel." The idea that the calf was able to low must come from the supposition that, though made of gold (Exodus 32. 4), it was alive, since it "came out" (5. 24) of the fire. Here, again, we see that the figurative expression, when taken literally, led to the growth of a myth to explain it. The Muhammadan commentator in explaining the words "a calf in body" in the Qur'an as signifying that it had "flesh and blood" has only gone a step further, and he does this to explain how it was that the animal could low. Muhammad seems to have understood most of the Jewish legend correctly, but the word Sammaêl puzzled him. Not understanding that this is the Jewish name of the Angel of Death, and perhaps misled as to the pronunciation, he mistook the word for the somewhat similar "Samiri", which means "Samaritan." Of course he made this mistake because he knew that the Jews were enemies of Samaritans, and he fancied that they attributed the making of the calf to one of the latter. He was doubtless confirmed in his belief by some indistinct recollection of having heard that Jeroboam, king of what was afterwards called Samaria, had "made Israel to sin" by leading them to worship the calves which he made and placed in Dan and Beth-el (I Kings 12. 28, 29). But since the city of Samaria was not built, or at least called by that name, until several hundred years later after Moses' death, the anachronism is at least amusing, and would be startling in any other book than the Qur'an, in which far more stupendous ones frequently occur.[1]

He believes that the story is entirely Jewish in origin, and furthermore, he also mentions the "amusing anachronism" in the Qur'an concerning the mistaken usage of the term "Samaritan". This "amusing anachronism" has already been refuted.

Now, concerning the Jewish origins of the story, Tisdall would like us to believe that Muhammad lifted this material from a Rabbinical source called Pirke De-Rabbi Eli'ezer. Tisdall presumably used Abraham Geiger's book, Was hat Mohammed aus dem Judenthume aufgenommen? as his source.[2] Concerning the golden calf Abraham Geiger writes:

Muhammad says that the calf lowed as it come forth. With this is to be compared the Rabbinical statement: "There came forth this calf lowing and the Israelites saw it. Rabbi Jehuda says that Samael entered into it and lowed in order to mislead Israel." In the Qur'an it is said that among the people of Moses there was a tribe which kept the truth. This seems to refer to the tribe of Levi and especially to their behaviour about the calf, although possibly it may refer also to their belief in Moses' mission to Pharaoh of which we have spoken before. In the biblical accounts a statement is made, which is explained by the Rabbis as follows: "From Exodus 32. 26, it is clear that the tribe of Levi was not implicated in the matter of the golden calf."[3]

Not surprisingly, Geiger also uses the rabbinical source called Pirke De-Rabbi Eli'ezer[4] to support his theory that Muhammad copied this story (or 'legend' as Tisdall prefers to call it) from Jewish sources. Similar claims have been made by Robert Morey,[5] `Abdallah `Abd al-Fadi[6] and N. A. Newman.[7]

Thus, Tisdall proposes that Muhammad used the source Pirke De-Rabbi Eli'ezer to compose the account found in surah 20:85-95.

2. The Case Against Pirke De-Rabbi Eli'ezer

But Tisdall's explanation is probably the most inaccurate and inexcusable suggestion he has yet put forward. An examination of the another contemporary source of Tisdall's time reveals the answer. The Jewish Encyclopaedia published in 1905, in the same year as the publication of Tisdall's book, states  under "Pirke De-Rabbi Eli'ezer":

Josh was the first to point out that in the thirtieth chapter, in which at the end the author distinctly alludes to the three stages of the Mohammadan conquest, that of Arabia, of Spain, and of Rome, the names of Fatima and Ayesha occur beside that of Ishmael, leading to the conclusion that the book originated in the time when Islam was predominant in Asia Minor. As in ch. 36, two brothers reigning simultaneously are mentioned, after whose reign the Messiah shall come, the work might be ascribed to the beginning of the ninth century, for about that time the two sons of Harun al-Rasid, El-Amin and El-Mamun, were ruling over Islamic realm.[8]

Thus, according to Tisdall, Muhammad composed the account found in surah 20: 85-95 using a source that had not yet been compiled until hundreds of years after his death! Long before Tisdall wrote The Original Sources Of The Qur'an, Jewish scholars had already mentioned that Pirke De-Rabbi Eli'ezer post-dated Islam. But surprisingly the famous Rev. W. St. Clair Tisdall was oblivious to this fact!

Abraham Geiger's book Was hat Mohammed aus dem Judenthume aufgenommen? has also been subject to recent criticisms by scholars such as Norman Stillman:

... it did tend to give exaggerated view of the Jewish contribution to the Qur'an. Many of the traditions that he cites are in oriental Christian as well as talmudic and haggadic literature. Our chronology of rabbanic literature is better today than in Geiger's, and many more texts - Muslim, Jewish, and Christian - have since being published. In the light of this we know now that in some instances what was thought to be a Jewish haggadic influence in an Islamic text might well be quite the reverse. The Pirqe de Rabbi Eli'ezer, for example, would seem to have been finally redacted after the advent of Islam.[9]

This view of late compilation of Pirke De-Rabbi Eli'ezer (as well as Midrash Tanhuma!) is also echoed in Encyclopaedia Of Islam:

Regardless of how the story [of al-Samiri] came about, the Kur'an appears to present the earliest record of this midrashic development; aspects of it which are found in the Jewish sources (e.g., Pirke De-Rabbi Eli'ezer and Tanhuma) would seem to date from after the rise of Islam.[10]

A detailed analysis of the dating and composition of Pirke De-Rabbi Eli'ezer is available here.

Since Tisdall lifted most of his material from his master Abraham Geiger, it is not at all surprising to find that Tisdall's sense of poor chronology matches greatly with Geiger's. Other examples of  Tisdall's poor and embarrassing scholarship are exposed in his discussions concerning the Prophet's wives teaching him stories from the Bible, Salman the Persian and the story of Cain & Abel as possible Judeo-Christian sources of the Qur'an.

Finally, Stillman advises us in his conclusion:

In conclusion, it should be emphasized that one should be extremely cautious about assigning specific origins to the story discussed here - or for that matter, any other story in the Qur'an.[11]

Christian missionaries would of course choose to ignore this advice as "The Promotion Of Christian Knowledge" by any means is sometimes more important than accuracy and truth!

3. To Moo Or Not To Moo?

The Christian missionaries seem to also have a problem with the golden calf: Did the golden calf moo? They write:

Has Allah given a miracle to this false idol even though idolatery is so detested by him?

We will simply reply by saying that Christians themselves report the idols or statues of Virgin Mary performing "miracles" for believers. This has been reported in both Europe and Latin America. Does that now mean that their (Trinitarian) god has given these idols the power to perform miracles, even though idolatry is so much detested by God?

It is quite clear in the Qur'an that God will test people:

Do men think that they will be left alone on saying, "We believe", and that they will not be tested? We did test those before them, and Allah will certainly know those who are true from those who are false. [Qur'an 29:2-3]

Some of these trials will expose the hypocrisy and falsehoods in the hearts of those who claim to believe; and for others it will strengthen their faith and resolve - for they are indeed the true believers. This whole life is but a test for the true believer. Just as the Children of Israel were tested, other nations were also tested. The people of Thamud for example were tested by the she-camel.

There's no such thing as a free ticket to Paradise!

And Allah knows best!

Related Articles

A related article is on the 'historical' error in the Qur'an.

The "Samaritan" Error In The Qur'an


[1] Rev. W. St. Clair Tisdall, The Original Sources Of The Qur'an, 1905, Society For The Promotion Of Christian Knowledge, London, pp. 112-113.

[2] ibid., pp. 7.

[3] A. Geiger, Judaism And Islam (English Translation Of Was hat Mohammed aus dem Judenthume aufgenommen?), 1970, Ktav Publishing House Inc., New York, pp. 132.

[4] ibid., See footnotes on p. 132.

[5] R. Morey, The Islamic Invasion: Confronting The World's Fastest Growing Religion, 1992, Harvest House Publishers: Eugene (OR), p. 150.

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

[7] N. A. Newman, Muhammad, The Qur'an & Islam, 1996, Interdisciplinary Biblical Research Institute: Hatfield (PA), p. 367.

[8] "Pirke De-Rabbi Eli'ezer", The Jewish Encyclopaedia, 1905, Volume X, Funk & Wagnalls Company, p. 59.

[9] N. A. Stillman, "The Story Of Cain & Abel In The Qur'an And The Muslim Commentators: Some Observations", Journal Of Semitic Studies, 1974, Volume 19, p. 231.

[10] "Al-Samiri", Encyclopaedia Of Islam, 1993, Volume VIII, E. J. Brill: Leiden, p. 1046.

[11] ibid., p. 239.

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