The Collection and Sources of the Qur'an


1. The Story of the "Seven Sleepers".

In a previous chapter we saw that, apart from the prevalence of Jewish materials in the Qur'an, Muhammad also made use of apocryphal Christian works as well. In this chapter we shall consider a further example of this kind and will then close with a story which appears to be a combination of various New Testament elements.

The Qur'an contains a strange tale in Surah 18.9-26 to the effect that a few youths, true believers in God, took refuge in a cave where they fell asleep for a number of years. They accordingly became known as ashabal-kahf - "Companions of the Cave" (Surah 18.9) - and when they awoke, they were amazed to find that they had slept for so long.

The story has many parallels in apocryphal Christian works, such as the Acta Sanctorum by the Syriac writer Jacob of Sarug compiled before his death in 521 AD. "The oldest mention of the legend in the east we find made by Dionysius of Tell Mahra in a Syrian work of the fifth century AD; in the west by Theodosius in his book on the Holy Land" (Gibb and Kramers, Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam, p. 45). The story has become known as that of the "Seven Sleepers" because it is generally agreed that there were seven of them, though some say eight. The cave was allegedly in Ephesus and the story in these works states that they were Christians fleeing from persecution during the reign of Decius the Emperor who died in 251 AD. It is said that after they had hidden in the cave it was sealed, but that during the reign of Theodosius the Second nearly two hundred years later, the cave was opened and the refugees duly awoke and, when one went through the city, he was astonished to find Christianity triumphant. Then they all met the Emperor at the cave, told him God had presented them as a witness, and duly expired. If this story was in any way founded on Biblical narratives like the myths in the Midrash, it could only be from Matthew 27.52-53.

The story in the Qur'an is clearly yet another of those pre-Islamic fables that found its way into the Qur'an alongside true Biblical narratives. This conclusion is strengthened by the fact that the Qur'anic story is extremely limited and uncertain at times. There is no mention of the time or place when it occurred, nor does the Qur'an reveal that the men involved were Christians. Muhammad also did not know their number-- the Qur'an says that some say three, others five, and yet others seven, without giving its own decision on the matter (Surah 18.22) - and he likewise did not know how long it was, saying three hundred years with perhaps an additional nine (Surah 18.25).

The ambiguity about the number of sleepers and the years they slumbered, coupled with the omission of vital details in the story, shows that the passage in Surah 28 did not come from al-'Alim, "the All-Knowing" Lord of the Universe, but was simply Muhammad's own version of it according to the limited knowledge he possessed.

2. The Table Sent Down from Heaven.

There is one story in the Qur'an which appears to have been compiled either by Muhammad himself through a misunderstanding of various New Testament narratives, or by Christians of pre-Islamic times whose record of the story has not been preserved. The story begins:

After Jesus had allegedly prayed that such a table might be sent down, God duly furnished one fully prepared from heaven but warned those who sat at it that no further unbelief would be tolerated (Surah 5. 116-118). A very interesting feature in this passage is the word for table - ma'idah - which is derived from a similar Ethiopian word used by the Abyssinian Christians for the "Lord's Table", that is, the communion sacrament of the Christian Church. It is used only in verses 115 and 117 of this passage and appears nowhere else in the Qur'an. How did this strange story come about? One writer says: "Its origin is no doubt to be found in the Supper which Jesus partook of with his disciples the night before his death" (Tisdall, The Sources of Islam, p. 60). Others suggest another possible source. One says that it is "a confused echo either of the Eucharist or the feeding of the 5000 or an amalgam of both" (Stanton, The Teaching of the Qur'an, p. 44) and another comments: "It has been demonstrated several times that the passage v.112-15 is a confusion of the Gospel story of the feeding of the multitude with that of the Lord supper" (Jeffery, The Foreign Vocabulary of the Qur'an, p. 178). There is yet another New Testament story from which elements may have been borrowed, namely Peter's vision:

It may well be that all these passages influenced the fabrication of the story in one way or another but in our view it is probably only a perversion of the story of the Last Supper and the suggestion in the Qur'an that the table came from heaven does not have its origin in the story of Peter's vision in Acts but rather these words of the Israelites during the exodus which are remarkably similar to those attributed to Jesus' disciples in Surah 5.115:

As we have already seen that the mother of Jesus was confused with Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron in the Qur'an, it is not surprising to find Jesus himself here confounded with Moses to whom the words were originally spoken.

Clearly Muhammad obtained much of his material for the Qur'an from Christian sources even though these were obviously secondary and unreliable. Right from the start of his prophetic mission he had discourses with Christians. Even his first wife Khadija had a Christian cousin and we read of him: "Waraqa had been converted to Christianity in the Pre-Islamlc Period and used to write Arabic and write of the Gospel in Arabic as much as Allah wished him to write" (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 6, p. 452).

It is far more probable that much of what he wrote was not the New Testament but mythical records retained in apocryphal Christian works circulating throughout Arabia. Muhammad shows only too often that his materials were identical to those floating around the Arabian Peninsula at his time a coincidence which implies that the Qur'an is not a revelation from God who is omniscient but the composition of a man who was restricted to the limited sources of information available to him. And this implication can lead to only one possible conclusion:

As said already, Muslim writers generally avoid the issue of the sources of the Qur'an in their writings, apparently because the evidences are incontrovertible. One writer laments their attitude and says of the extra-Islamic sources of the Qur'an:

In this case, however, such an acknowledgement of the true facts by the Muslims must result in a denial of their belief in Islam altogether for if the divine origin of the Qur'an is disproved, the whole carpet is pulled out from under Islam. We credit Muhammad with a degree of sincerity by allowing that he did not deliberately or consciously play the part of a forger and that he was subjectively convinced that the manner in which he reproduced his materials took the form of a divine revelation, but an objective study of the mythical Jewish and apocryphal Christian sources of the Qur'an shows convincingly that however sincere he was, he was just so much sincerely wrong.

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