Prophet Muhammad and Earlier Religions, Especially Judaism and
Dr. Ahmad Shafaat
It is often said that Islam is an off-shoot of the Judeo-Christian
tradition. Sometimes it is even said that Islam is a Judeo-Christian
heresy. Another form of this type of view attacks the very
person of the Prophet of Islam. It is alleged that the Prophet
Muhammad took most of his teachings from the Bible or from
other Jewish/Christian sources. In particular, he borrowed
from the Jews the central belief of his teaching – a
strict monotheism and rejection of idol worship. The implication
is that if most of what the Prophet taught, including the
central proclamation of Islam, was found in earlier Judeo-Christian
tradition, his teachings could not be from direct divine revelation.
The fact that Qur`anic versions of older Jewish or Christian
traditions can often have radically different elements is
attributed to ignorance or misunderstanding or distortion
of earlier sources on the part of the Prophet Muhammad or
A closer look at Islam and the Judeo-Christian traditions
shows such views to be grossly mistaken. Both the Biblical
and Islamic traditions agree that Abraham had two sons, Ishmael
and Isaac and that both became ancestors of nations. If so,
then it is to be expected that both nations possessed some
of Abraham's heritage without any one of them being a borrower
from the other. For while one brother may in some ways influence
the other they both independently inherit knowledge and some
character traits from their father and then pass these on
to their descendants.
Independent forms of the Abrahamic heritage
This is confirmed by the fact that as the descendants of
Ishmael and Isaac moved to different lands they gave independent
forms to the Abrahamic heritage. Among the Ishmaelites the
Abrahamic heritage was preserved mainly in the form of some
system of regular prayer and charity and some hajj rites which
commemorate stories connected with Abraham, Ishmael and Hagar.
These rites which predate the writing of the Torah as we have
it today have no parallel in the Israelite tradition. Also,
most of the traditions enacted in the hajj rites are not told
in the Bible, e.g., the running of Hagar between the hills
of Safa and Marwa, the (re)building or purification of the
shrine in Makkah, the stoning of the devil as he tries to
tempt Abraham from doing the will of God, and the sacrifice
of an animal to commemorate Abraham's sacrifice of his son
for whom God provided a ransom. This establishes that the
Ishmaelites preserved the Abrahamic heritage quite independently
of the Israelites and makes it probable that at least some
elements common to Islam and Judaism may also be the result
of the two nations separately preserving that heritage without
anyone borrowing from the other. This is probably the case
with monotheism. The Qur`an traces its monotheistic message
first and foremost to Abrahamic religion (millah; 2:135, 3:95,
4:126, 6:161, 19:123, 22:78) and not to any Israelite prophet.
Other evidence of independence
Monotheism and hajj are two of the five famous pillars of
Islam and we have seen that they have roots earlier than the
Biblical tradition. The other three pillars – prayer,
fasting, and zakah – in their Islamic form have either
non-Jewish roots or were introduced by the Prophet. To be
sure, the practices of prayer, fasting and charity are indeed
found in Judaism as they are found in almost every other tradition,
but the forms of these practices in Islam show no influence
There are also other cases, where Islamic version of a tradition
is independently in touch with an earlier tradition. Thus
both the Qur`an and the Bible mention that the universe was
created in six days, but there is this important difference:
while in the Bible God rests on the seventh day, the Qur`an
explicitly states that God did not get tired after the work
of creation and therefore did not need any rest. In the Qur`an,
what happens after the six days of creation is that God establishes
himself on the throne (‘arsh) of sovereignty over the
universe, presumably on the seventh day. This difference can
be better understood if we go to the earlier Babylonian creation
stories found in Enuma Elish. These stories are written on
seven tablets. The creation is completed on six tablets while
on the seventh tablet the names of the gods are given and
these gods at the end of the tablet declare Marduk supreme:
"With the title ‘Fifty’
the great gods
Proclaimed him whose names are fifty and made his way supreme"
(Translation by N. K. Sanders).
Just as the Qur`anic statement that God did not get tired
with the work of creation is a correction of the Biblical
tradition, the statement that after the work of creation God
established himself on the throne is a correction of the above
polytheistic tradition: the Qur`an is saying that it is not
any gods that established one of them in a position of supremacy
but the one true God possesses by himself absolute sovereignty
and supremacy over everything. Clearly, then the Qur`an is
independently in touch with the pre-Biblical tradition.
Finally we note that at least some of the laws or practices
that do have a strong probability of being borrowed from Judaism
were likely borrowed after the departure of the Prophet
from this world. Thus the stoning for adultery probably comes
from Judaism but critical research shows the ahadith prescibing
it to be unauthentic.
All prophets use earlier traditions
The discrediting of Islam and its Prophet by explaining it
in terms of simple borrowing from Judeo-Christian tradition
also ignores the fact that extensive use of earlier traditions
has also been established by critical scholarship in case
of Judaism and Christianity and their founding figures. Thus:
- Many of the stories in the Old Testament,
other than some of those that deal specifically with Israeli
history, have been traced to Sumerian, Babylonian and Canaanite
traditions. For example, the story of Adam and his expulsion
from the Garden has been linked to similar Sumerian stories
later adopted in the story of Gilgamesh in the Babylonian
tradition. The Biblical story of Noah’s flood is also
very similar, both in structure and details, to earlier
Sumerian and Babylonian traditions. The story about Abraham
and earlier ancient ancestors of humanity are also probably
of non-Israelite non-Biblical origin.The Law of Moses has
close precedents in the Code of Hammurabi (the king of Babylon
from 1792 to 1750 BCE, about five centuries before Moses,
who lived in the 13th century BCE). The first recorded monotheistic
system arose in Egypt during the rule of Akhenaten, also
called Amenhotep IV (1353-1337 BCE) who promulaged his monotheistic
system a generation before Moses (died 1245 BCE?). There
is a possibility that while Akhenaten’s reform failed
in the Egyptian society due to a rebellion led by the priests
of the various gods, they took roots among the Jews under
the leadership of Moses. Even if we accept a more tradtional
dating of Moses that places him before Akhenaten, the fact
remains that Akhenaten’s monotheism is documented
many centuries before that of Moses.
- The institution of kingship, which later
became the basis of influential messianic prophecy, was
borrowed from other nations. According to 1 Sam 8:20, when
people ask Samuel to appoint a king over them, they do so
in order that they “also may be like other nations”.
There are many parallels that have been pointed out by scholars
between the kingship ideology of the Israelites and those
of the nations around them . This should hardly be surprising,
since if the Israelites wanted a king to be like other nations,
they could hardly have done otherwise than to pattern their
kingdom on those that existed around them.
- Some beliefs found in the Biblical and
other influential Jewish books such as the Apocrypha have
also been traced to non-Jewish origins. For example, the
belief in the resurrection, later affirmed by both Christianity
and Islam, has been traced to Persia.
- The Talmud contains many ideas taken from
Greek and Christian sources.
- As for Christianity, there is hardly anything
that Jesus said which the Jewish prophets and rabbis or
cynic sages had not said before, including the golden rule
and the saying about the love of enemy, of which Christians
are so proud.
- Paul, after declaring that the Jewish law
was nailed to the cross, had to give to his Churches some
rules of conduct and ethical principles of his own. But
many of these principles have close parallels to the lists
of vices and virtues found in Greek tradition, not to talk
of the parallels that Paul’s central proclamation
of a dying and rising Lord has with the dying and rising
gods of the pagan mystery cults.
To be sure that there are many differences between the Judeo-Christian
traditions and their earlier Sumerian, Babylonian, Canaanite,
Persian, and Greek forms, but why should these differences
be not explained by ignorance or misunderstanding or distortion
on the part of Biblical and other Jewish and Christian writers
or their “informers”?
It is better to admit the fact that every religion has adopted
ideas and traditions found earlier and then turn to the question:
Must we conclude that a religion cannot be of divine origin
simply because the ideas and traditions it contains existed
earlier? The answer to this question is in the negative. For,
there are two possibilities:
earlier ideas and traditions used by the religion are
revealed by God himself. In this case, God himself may
be using his earlier revelations in a new communication,
e.g. to make them more effective and relevant in a new
situation. This is hardly problematic.
The earlier ideas and traditions are of human origin.
Again there is no problem, for, if divine revelation can
use human language, why can’t it also use some human
The truth is that prophets of God like other leaders who
want to change people’s thinking and conduct must build
on what is already there. They cannot bring completely unfamiliar
ideas and achieve much with people. Moreover, since the prophetic
revelation deals with basic issues of human existence and
salvation, it is only to be expected that people everywhere
have thought about these issues and come up with answers,
of which some are similar or even identical.
Thus despite some very close parallels between what Moses,
Jesus, Muhammad (God bless them all) had to say and what was
said before them, they can be true prophets of God bringing
genuine divine revelation.
It should be noted that even if no new ideas are introduced
by a prophet there may be something very new in his words.
This something new may be a new expression of the older ideas,
an expression that makes it more effective and relevant to
a new situation. It may consist of decisions as to which of
several interpretations of earlier ideas and traditions are
the correct ones. Or, it may be new emphases put on the various
ideas and a new way of fitting them into the whole. The post-Mosaic
biblical prophets all say very similar things and yet each
one of them has something very new.
Sometimes something new can be added without any change in
the outward form of an existing idea. Take a joke. Two people
tell the joke in exactly the same words. One produces yawns
and the other laughter. Two conductors conduct the same musical
piece with exactly the same notes in exactly the same sequence.
One delights the audience, the other disappoints them. In
case of the Biblical prophets, the mere freshness of their
experience with the divine adds something new to their words,
even if the intellectual content of those words may seem very
The unique role of the Prophet of Islam
The Qur`an by being based on a fresh experience with the
divine, by transforming earlier stories and/or telling them
in a new spirit, and by stating earlier ideas differently
and changing their relative value in the overall system has
created something very new and powerful which first transformed
the Arab nation and subsequently started a process of transforming
the whole world which still continues and, according to Islamic
belief, will continue till the end of history.
It is interesting that the Qur`an itself addresses in many
verses the relationship of Islam with earlier religious traditions.
Thus it tells us that the Prophet of Islam did not come to
introduce any innovation in religion (46:9) but teaches the
same religion that was taught by earlier prophets (42:13)
and that is based on unchanging fitrah or true nature of human
beings (30:30). In earlier times prophets were raised among
all nations (16:36).
The similarity of the teachings of the true prophets of God
concerns its essence but not all the details. The essence
of all true religions is a relationship with the one transcendent
and holy God, a moral life, and good deeds, with implicit
or explicit belief in the hereafter and future judgment (5:69,
98:5). This does not change, but details of ritual procedures
and regulations/conventions for organizing community life
may differ from religion to religion (5:48, 22:67, 45:17).
The true prophets of God also differ in the roles they perform
in history. Some play a more foundational role, others more
reforming or supporting role.
The role of the Prophet Muhammad is mainly defined
by the following functions:
- Providing a universal expression to the
religious truth. In many different chapters of the Qur`an,
coming from different periods, the Prophet is presented
as a messenger of God to all humankind and all people of
the world are explicitly addressed (6:90, 7:158, 10:57,
12:104, 21:107, 25:1, 38:87, 68:52, 81:27, 98:1-3).
- Providing resolutions of important differences
that existed earlier. Thus in reference to the Jews the
This Qur`an indeed relates to the children of Israel most
of what they differ in. And it is surely guidance and mercy
to the believers (27:76-77)
Many ideas in Judaism and Christianity oppose each other
and while some diversity is positive and inevitably exists
in all traditions, in other cases we want to know the truth.
One may say that we should simply leave people to choose which
of the opposing ideas are true. But if people were so smart
why is there any need of divine revelation at all? If there
is God and he communicates with humanity through revelation,
then we should expect that at least in some important matters
such as whether there is resurrection or not, he would provide
It is noteworthy that, as shown by the word “most”
in the above verse, the Qur`an does not aim to settle all
differences. Elsewhere it says that some differences between
people will only be settled in the hereafter (22:17).
- Providing complete and balanced teaching.
Human beings can come up with very good ideas but they often
get carried away with their good ideas and cannot hold them
in balance with other good ideas. Mercy and compassion are
a very good idea but so are justice and law of retaliation.
How to hold the two in balance? Having a law is a very good
idea but so is the idea that there is a spirituality that
transcends the law and without which law can indeed cease
to be a life giving force. How to balance the two ideas
so that the law is not rejected as a curse nor does it become
a curse? Pluralism is good but so is making a distinction
between truth and falsehood, right and wrong. How to see
truth and goodness in other traditions and at the same time
take these distinctions seriously? Universal view of religious
truth is a great idea but for religious truth to be manifested
and advanced, it has to be experienced by some individuals
and communities at particular times and places. How to maintain
a universal outlook on religious truth without reducing
it to a set of abstract, intellectually satisfying ideas
and how to define it in terms of the individuals, communities
or circumstances in relation to which its manifestation
takes place without getting lost in those individuals, communities,
or circumstances? Muslims believe that the Qur`an strikes
the necessary balance, even if they themselves cannot often
maintain it. One Christian who converted to Islam gave his
reason for conversion as follows: Islam is like a perfect
building, where there is everything and everything is where
it should be.
- Providing more focus on what is really
important and necessary.
Jewish tradition, being the work of many individuals over
many centuries, is so vast that you can find almost every
religious idea somewhere in the Bible, the apocrypha, and
the rabbinical writings in the Talmud etc. This has one advantage:
anything a follower of another religion says, the Jews can
point to some of their sources and say: “the idea is
found in our religion and so we do not have to listen to you,
much less follow you.” The situation is somewhat similar
in Christianity, although in that religion a few trinitarian
and redemptive dogmas and talk (but not so much the practice)
of love tend to push everything else aside. But the vast and
tremendous diversity of ideas also has a disadvantage: important
religious ideas and spiritual and moral principles get diluted
and confused, if not buried under the massive weight of tradition.
The emphasis then shifts towards something other than the
essential religious, spiritual, and moral principles. In Judaism
the emphasis gets put on nation while in Christianity focus
is on the person of Christ. Neither Moses nor Jesus taught
any such emphasis.
From another angle the situation can be described thus: In
his/her spiritual and moral journey a Jew travels with a lot
of heavy baggage while a Christian (by concentrating on the
messianic prophecy and doing away with other elements of earlier
traditions including the law) travels with an insufficient
amount of luggage. God Most High in his mercy sent the Prophet
Muhammad to provide spiritual and moral seekers just the right
amount and type of baggage for their important
journey of life.
1. Here one may raise two objections:
Abraham was not a monotheist, since the Torah suggests that
his grandson Jacob had figurines of gods in his house (Gen
31:30-35). But, since the writing of Torah was not completed
until around 450 BCE, almost 15 centuries after Abraham, we
cannot reject Abraham’s monotheism on the basis of polytheistic
tendencies in the existing Torah. Just think of the case of
another figure who is known to be a monotheist: Jesus. Most
of the traditions about Jesus were formed and written down
within about 150 years after his departure. Yet, on the basis
of those traditions Jesus himself has become God the Son,
separate in person from God the Father. Imagine if those traditions
were written a thousand years after him!!! A strong argument
in favor of Abraham’s monotheism or at least very strong
monotheistic tendency is that two religious traditions that
adopted monotheism with the greatest seriousness and persistence
--- Islam and Judaism – both trace their origin to Abraham.
That is, Islam and Judaism are like two independent and hence
reliable witnesses to the monotheism of Abraham.
b) By the time Islam came on the scene the descendents of
Ishmael had become pagans, so Islam’s monotheistic teachings
must have been derived from Judaism and Christianity. In connection
with this objection, it may be admitted that paganism was
indeed the dominant religion in Arabia at the time of the
Prophet Muhammad. But this does not mean that monotheistic
ideas had ceased to exist. Once again the example of Christianity
illustrates the point. Although in Christianity trinitarian
view of God became dominant in the fourth century, a strict
monotheism had always existed within Christianity, sometimes
as an undercurrent and sometimes as separate organized churches.
When the Qur`an calls the pagan Arabs to the monotheistic
heritage of Abraham, they do not object by saying that Abraham
was not a monotheist. They do not tell Muhammad that the idols
they worshipped were also worshipped by Abraham and Ishmael.
2. Connected with the fact that the creation is completed
on six tablets is the tradition that a god completes instruction
of man in six days. Thus a Babylonian account said of Oannes,
the original instructor of humanity, that "for six days
he instructed Alorus (the first man who reigned) and when
the sun went down he withdrew till next morning ".
3. Thus Babylonian, Assyrian, and Egyptian kings are said
to be sons of God or gods who bring comfort and joy to the
downtrodden, defeat the oppressors, and bring blessings, peace
and prosperity; they are chosen by the gods to make right
shine in the country; they defeat the enemies and rule from
sea to sea and are lords of the whole world (Helmut Ringgren,
The Messiah in the Old Testament, SCM Press, London, 1956).
Very similar things are said of the Israelite kings in the
Old Testament (Psalms 72: 1-9, 89:27, 110: 1-2, 132:10-12,
1 Chronicles 22:10).