Islam, which arose in the early seventh century C.E., is the last of the three monotheistic religions to join in the discussion of the nature of God and God’s requirements for human behavior. By this time, Judaism had developed several postbiblical forms, and Christianity had also divided into a number of doctrinally and regionally based communities. These Jewish and Christian communities were spread throughout the Near East, and many of them had active communities in Arabia at the time of the birth of Islam’s founder, Muhammad, in 570 C.E. As a result, Hebrew scriptures and Christian scriptures were known in Arabia through the filters and perspectives of the several Jewish and Christian communities that had, by this time, developed their own complex relationships with biblical law. It is not surprising, then, that the relationships between Islamic scripture and Islamic law and the Bible and biblical law are indirect, complex, and found in various genre locations in the Islamic traditions. For these reasons, direct comparisons between Islam and the Bible, either as Jewish scripture or as Christian scripture, are complicated and sometimes misleading; the Qur’an is not the same genre as the Bible and often stands as a commentary on the Bible. There is a substantial body of scholarly analysis comparing some parts of the Bible with the Qur’an, but most of the scholarship deals with the narrative, haggadic material and not with law as such. This article will discuss some of the issues involved in evaluating the role that biblical law plays in Islam and illustrate those issues with examples of the analytic problems.

Arabia and the Near East before Islam.

In the half millennium before the beginning of Islam in the early seventh century, Arabia was a location of religious and political contestation. Geographically, it formed a desert barrier between the Persian and Roman empires, since it extended northward beyond the Arabian Peninsula to the edges of the Fertile Crescent. Both empires tried in vain to conquer and subdue Arabia, the earliest example of which was the tragic failure of Gaius Aelius Gallus’s invasion of Arabia in the years 26 to 24 B.C.E. Both empires had to be content with limited control and influence through client tribes and mercenaries. With the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. by the Romans, Jews fled to many regions of the ancient world including Arabia, where they established communities among the native Arabs. Jews became assimilated into all aspects of Arabian society and commerce, including farming, metal work, long-distance trade, and animal husbandry. Jews proselytized among the Arabs and formed towns that were predominantly or sometimes exclusively Jewish. There were numbers of Jews who were Bedouin and were members of Arab tribes that were partly polytheistic. The economic opportunities to raise camels and become part of the camel cavalries that were clients of the Persians and the Romans were a major part of pre-Islamic Arabian economic and social life, and Jews participated fully in this life. Members of some Arab polytheistic tribes are known to have converted to Judaism, so that Judaism was part of the fabric of the social and religious life in Arabia. The continuing Roman-Jewish wars of the third and fourth centuries added to the Jewish refugees who joined the existing communities in Arabia as safe havens from the turmoil in Roman-controlled territories of the Near East. The Apostle Paul’s journey to Arabia (Gal 1:17) was probably to contact members of these Jewish communities, many of whom harbored strong messianic beliefs. From the assimilation of the Jews into Arabian society, we see the linguistic assimilation of Hebrew and Aramaic religious terms into the dialect of Arabic in which the Qur’an was written. Such Islamic Arabic religious terms as ṣawm, “fasting,” ṣadaqah, “charity,” and ḥajj, “pilgrimage,” are indigenized into Arabic through the Hebrew/Aramaic vocabulary of these assimilated Jews. Accompanying those vocabulary items were the concepts of biblical ideas and practices.

Pre-Islamic Arabia became the home to Christian communities as well. The Christological controversies that made heretics of Nestorians, Jacobites, and Monophysites drove missionaries and refugees into Arabia, all seeking safe places for their communities and the promise of more influence at the next Church Council. Although these communities that were outside the control of Constantinople and Rome were technically heretics, they were nevertheless sponsored by the two great powers, Rome and Persia, as instruments of their imperial ambitions. Monophysites, chiefly the Copts in Egypt and Abyssinia, were supported by Rome, while the Nestorians, many of whom had fled to the Persian Empire, were under Persian state sponsorship. At the beginning of the sixth century C.E., southern Arabia was under the control of Persia thanks to Nestorian Christians and Jews, who also had sought Persian sponsorship against the power of the Byzantines who had kept them from Jerusalem and under persecution. By the time of Muhammad’s birth in 570 C.E., Abyssinian Copts, fierce rivals of the Nestorians, had taken most of Yemen and were threatening Mecca and the Hijaz with the help of Byzantine naval forces and subsidies.

At the time of Muhammad’s birth, conversion to any of the forms of Christianity or Judaism found in the East Mediterranean also meant converting to the political and social control of one or another of the two great empires, Persia or Rome. Religion and politics were topics of wide public interest, and it is clear that the Bible was known to Muhammad and his Arabian audience in some form. Jewish scripture was available to Muhammad and his companions because the Jews used to read the Torah (Arabic tawrâh) in Hebrew and then interpret it (Arabic fassara, cognate to Hebrew pešer) in Arabic. It is a matter of debate about the extent of an Arabic translation at this early date. The Christian Gospels were known primarily in the form of Tatian’s Diatessaron. There is little indication that the Pauline letters were included in the Arabic version of the injîl, which is the common name for Christian scripture in the Qur’an. A number of non-canonical gospels have parallel story elements in the Qur’an, including the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the Protoevangelium of James, the Gospel of Thomas, and others, but the evidence is too scanty to ascertain a strong pre-Islamic Arabian canon or determine what books might have been included.

The Qur’an.

According to Muslim tradition, the Qur’an is a copy of a portion of God’s holy book in heaven that was brought to the Prophet Muhammad in stages by the angel Gabriel, starting when Muhammad was 40 years of age in the year 610 C.E. This revelation continued until Muhammad’s death in 632 C.E. It was later collected into a book of 114 chapters. The history of the redaction of the Qur’an indicates that the major elements of the Qur’an were known and used liturgically by the Muslim community during Muhammad’s lifetime. As discussed below, some elements of law paralleling Jewish and Christian law are found in extra-Qur’anic materials that are also part of the elements of Shari’ah, Islamic law, along with material from the Qur’an.

The Qur’an is filled with narratives about and allusions to biblical figures. Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Mary are frequently mentioned, while Muhammad is only mentioned four times. The Qur’anic narratives that parallel the narrative stories of biblical figures do not contribute to Islamic law, with one exception. Chapter 12 of the Qur’an is a full narrative of the story of Joseph found in Genesis in the Bible, although elements of the Qur’anic version parallel Jewish midrashic sources and not the Bible. Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams lent validity to dream interpretation in Islam, which became a popular genre. The famous medieval Islamic scholar Ibn Khaldun counted dream interpretation as one of the elements of the science of Islamic law, citing the Joseph story. Additionally, Joseph’s advice to save up grain in the years of plenty for lean times was adopted by many Muslim rulers as part of good practice for taking care of their subjects.

The absence of direct use of biblical figures as exempla of behavior, or, in Islamic parlance, establishing a sunnah or precedent, is partly attributable to the view that the Qur’an and the life of Muhammad are the models against which Jewish and Christian scripture should be judged. In Qur’an 5:13–16, we are told that “the Children of Israel,” usually interpreted as equivalent to all Jews past and present, changed the words of scripture and forgot parts, as did Christians, and that both Jews and Christians hid parts of scripture in their teachings. In Qur’an 5:15–16, we read, “O People of Scripture, now our messenger has come to you, expounding much of what you used to hide in the Scripture and forgiving much. Now a light from God has come to you and a plain Scripture, by which God guides him who seeks His good pleasure toward paths of peace. He brings them out of darkness into light by His decree and guides them onto a straight path.” The Qur’an uses the biblical narratives, therefore, typically as warnings or hortative tales encouraging hearers of the Qur’an to follow Qur’anic models of behavior or suffer God’s punishments as did people in the past. Just as in Rabbinic Judaism, where the narrative portions of the Bible do not always have direct bearing on Jewish Law (halakha), so in the Qur’an, the narrative portions do not always bear directly on Islamic law (Shari’ah).

The Qur’an and the Decalogue.

There are, however, a number of areas in which the Qur’an addresses issues that have biblical parallels. In two places in the Qur’an there are references to what are generally known as the Ten Commandments, three versions of which appear in the Bible in Exodus 20:1–17, Deuteronomy 5:5–21, and Exodus 34:14–28, where it states, “The Lord wrote down the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments, on the tablets.” The Qur’anic references do not spell out all of the commandments but specify those parts that fit the context of the Qur’an’s message in that chapter. In Qur’an 2:83–84, we read:

"Remember when We made a covenant with the Children of Israel: Worship none but God, and be good to parents and to kin and to orphans, and the needy and speak kindly to mankind, and establish worship and pay the alms. Then you turned away, all but a few of you, swerving aside. And when We made a covenant with you: Shed not the blood of your own people and do not turn your own people out of their dwellings. You confirmed it and you bore witness."

In the view of some Muslim commentators on the context of this passage, it refers to the Israelites breaking the Covenant as well as to the actions of some Arabian Jews contemporary with Muhammad. In Qur’an 7:141–145, we see a précis of the Exodus-Sinai story but no specific references to particular commandments:

"And remember when We delivered you from Pharaoh’s people who were afflicting you with dreadful torment, slaughtering your sons and sparing your women. That was a tremendous trial from your Lord. And when We appointed for Moses thirty nights and added to them ten, and he completed the whole time appointed by his Lord of forty nights, and Moses said to his brother: Take my place among the people. Do right and do not follow the way of the mischief-makers. And when Moses came to our appointed time and his Lord had spoken to him, he said: My Lord, show me that I may look on You. He said: You will not see me but gaze on the mountain. If it stands still in its place, then you will see me. And when his Lord revealed glory to the mountain, He sent it crashing down. And Moses fell down senseless. When he awoke, he said: Glory to You. I turn to You repentant, and I am the first of the true believers. He said: O Moses, I have preferred you above mankind by My messages and by My speaking, so hold that which I have given you and be among the thankful. And We wrote for him upon the tablets the lesson to be drawn from all things and the explanation of all things: Hold it fast and command your people saying: take the better; I will show you the abode of the evil ones."

Both of these passages are in the context of reminders of God’s covenant with the Israelites. The Qur’an then goes on to show how the covenant was broken, a narrative that is part of the Qur’an’s message that the revelation to Muhammad was God’s final chance for humankind to be obedient to God and act rightly. Later Muslim scholars commenting on these passages in the Qur’an used various sources to identify what was written on the tablets and what might have been the nature of the tablets, but for the most part concluded that what was given to Moses was for the Israelites and had little bearing for Muslims.

Some Muslim scholars identify passages in the Qur’an that are revelations to Muhammad as also being what was on the tablets given to Moses. One of these is Qur’an 6:152–154:

"Say: Come, I will recite to you that which your Lord has made a sacred duty for you: that you ascribe no thing as a partner to Him and that you do good to parents, and that you do not slay your children because of poverty—We provide for you and for them—and that you do not draw near to lewd things whether open or concealed. And that you do not slay the life that God made sacred, except in the course of justice. This He has commanded you, in order that you may discern. And do not approach the wealth of the orphan except with that which is better, until he reaches maturity. Give full measure and full weight in justice. We do not ask a soul to go beyond its capacity. And if you give our word, do justice to it even though it be against a kinsman. Fulfill the covenant of God. This He commands you so that you might remember. This is My straight path, so follow it. Do not follow other ways, lest you be parted from His way. This He has ordained for you so that you may ward off evil."

We see a similar series in Qur’an 17:22–39. Each of these has elements that parallel some parts of the Ten Commandments or other injunctions from elsewhere in the Bible, and, because of their position in the Qur’an, they become incorporated into Islamic law.

The Qur’an and other biblical law.

Biblical law is not restricted to the Decalogue, and one can find a number of correspondences between Qur’anic rules and other biblical laws. Some are easier to identify as coming fairly directly from the biblical tradition while others are not. One area where the parallelism is quite close concerns food prohibitions. In Qur’an 5:3–5, food rules are set forth:

"Forbidden for you are carrion, blood, and swine-flesh, and that that has been dedicated to any other than God, and the strangled, the dead through beating, the dead through falling from a height, that which has been killed by horns, and the devoured by wild beasts, except that which you make lawful, and that which has been immolated to idols. … Whoever is forced to sin by hunger, not by will, God is forgiving, merciful. They ask you what is made lawful for them. Say, “good things are made lawful for you. Those beasts and birds of prey that you have trained as hounds are trained, you teach them that which God has taught you, so eat of that which they catch for you and mention God’s name on it, and observe your duty to God. God is swift to take account.This day good things are made lawful for you. The food of those who have received Scripture is lawful for you, and your food is lawful for them. …”"

These three verses contain references to a number of food laws that parallel the Torah and Jewish Oral law. Carrion, for example, is prohibited in Deuteronomy 14:21 because the Israelites are “a people holy to the Lord.” In rabbinic interpretation, it is also because an animal that has died a natural death or has been slain by another animal has not been slaughtered properly. The prohibition against eating blood occurs in several places in the Torah, such as Genesis 9:4, Leviticus 17:10–14, and Deuteronomy 12:23–24. The flesh of swine is prohibited in Leviticus 11:7 and Deuteronomy 14:8.

In regard to Christian practices concerning food purity, it should be noted that in the New Testament, Acts 15:19–20, James states: “In my judgment, therefore, we should impose no irksome restrictions on those of the Gentiles who are turning to God; instead we should instruct them by letter to abstain from things polluted by contact with idols, from fornication, from anything that has been strangled, and from blood.” In both Acts 15 and in 1 Corinthians 8:1–13; 10:14–22 there is a question of commensality. While the purity laws of the Torah serve to separate the Israelites from their neighbors—a point explicitly mentioned as God’s intention in Exodus 34:10–16—in the New Testament passages, we see how early Christians confront the problem of how to maintain the possibilities of new believers not having the burden of food laws while still making it possible for Jewish Christians, who observe the Torah laws of purity, to eat with the new converts. Qur’an 5:5 attempts to solve this problem for Muslims, Jews, and Christians by declaring that “The food of those who have received Scripture is lawful for you, and your food is lawful for them.” Part of the project of Muhammad was to make a new community (Arabic ‘ummah) of Muslims and the People of Scripture: Jews and Christians.

In both Rabbinic Jewish practice and Islam, the methods of slaughter involve slitting the throat of the animal with a sharp knife and doing so in particularly prescribed ways. The blood must be drained from the animal, and parts of the animal may not be cut off to be eaten before the animal has died. The details are not spelled out in either the Torah or the Qur’an but are found in the Oral Torah in Judaism and in the prophetic traditions (sunnah) in Islam. Here, as elsewhere, we see that both Rabbinic Judaism and Islam rely on written scripture—Torah or Qur’an—and oral scripture, Talmud, or sunnah.

In Qur’an 2:183–187, fasting (Arabic ṣawm, cognate with Hebrew ṣôm) is ordained for Muslims for the 30-day month of Ramadan, the month in which the Qur’an was first revealed to Muhammad. This fast is a total abstinence fast during daylight hours only, during which time eating, drinking, washing, sexual relations, and profane activities are forbidden, although Muslims are supposed to engage in regular work, since there is no concept of a sabbath or day of rest in Islam. Muslim tradition holds that the original fast in Islam was the Fast of ʿĀshūrā, a name likely derived from Aramaic that means “ten,” and corresponds to the fast in Judaism on the tenth of the month of Tishri, the Yom Kippur fast (see Lev 23:27–32). There are a number of explanations given for the shift from a single-day fast to the entire month of Ramadan for the Muslim fast, but it should be noted that Moses engaged in a 40-day fast before receiving the Torah (see Exod 34:28), and it is reported that Muhammad regularly spent the month of Ramadan engaging in a solitary spiritual retreat in the hills above Mecca before receiving the first revelation of the Qur’an. As in Rabbinic Judaism, Muslims may fast for the expiation of sins, the cleansing of the soul, and the fulfillment of a vow, but must not fast in a manner or for a length of time that threatens health. Practices of extreme asceticism, sometimes associated with Christian monasticism, are condemned in both Judaism and Islam.

Temple sacrifice is partially reinstated in Islam in the ritual associated with the annual pilgrimage (Arabic ḥajj) to the Ka’bah in Mecca, the cube-shaped structure that is the focal point of worship for Muslims. Like the Temple in Jerusalem, the Ka’bah marks a direction for prayer and its surrounding area is the location for animal sacrifice and the eating of a group meal. According to Islamic tradition, the Ka’bah was built by Abraham (in Arabic called Ibrāhîm) on foundations originally laid by Adam when he first worshipped God after falling to earth from Paradise. When, in this Islamic version, Abraham took Hagar and Ishmael to Mecca, the Sakînah (equivalent to Hebrew šĕkînâ) guided Abraham to the spot and the angel Gabriel brought the Ka’bah’s cornerstone from heaven. This “ancient house,” as it is termed in Islamic tradition, became the direction of prayer for Muslims after Muhammad received a revelation to shift his prayers from Jerusalem to Mecca (see Qur’an 2:142–145), and Mecca became the spiritual and liturgical center for Muslims. Also in the Islamic tradition, Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of his son—Ishmael according to Muslims, not Isaac as in Genesis 22—became associated with the Ka’bah and with the Pilgrimage. Muslims regard their sacrificing an animal as a reenactment of Abraham’s sacrifice of the animal that was substituted for his son. Like the biblical šĕlāmîm (well-being) sacrifices that took place around but not in the Temple, the Pilgrimage sacrifices are made in the area around the Ka’bah. By tradition, the head of each family or group is designated as the person to perform the sacrifice for the benefit of the whole group. A meal is then eaten of a cooked portion of the sacrifice with the rest given as charity. Like the šĕlāmîm sacrifices in Jerusalem at the time of the Temple, the sacrifice does not need to be performed by a priest, is centered around a group meal, and has a purpose for bringing about well-being. Unlike the Temple sacrifices, however, there is no expectation that the smoke from the sacrifice goes to God. In Qur’an 22:37, we read: “Their [the sacrificial animals] flesh and their blood does not reach God, but the devotion from you reaches Him.” This example of reinstating a biblical practice while emphasizing its spiritual character is typical of Qur’anic passages that (re)interpret the biblical practices in a new form. From examples like this, we can see that the Qur’anic perspective on biblical law and practice should be understood through the filters of Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity in which this same process of spiritualization and interiorization of biblical practice had already begun.

Another example of a common prohibition in the Bible and the Qur’an is the banning of usury or lending money at interest. In Exodus 22:25, Leviticus 25:36–37, and Deuteronomy 23:19–20, any form of interest is banned within the community of Israel, but a loan at interest is allowed for a foreigner. In Qur’an 2:275–276, we are told that usury is associated with the devil and that God has blighted usury but blessed charity. While usury (Arabic ribâ) was forbidden, Islamic practice developed a number of approaches that allowed the use of capital without passing the risk from the lender to the borrower. In the medieval Islamic world, joint ventures were sometimes created using Muslim, Jewish, and Christian partners that had the benefit, among others, of allowing money lending across confessional lines, usually considered not to violate the prohibitions of usury common to all three religions. In modern times, non-usurious banking and money lending has become a hallmark of Islamic financial practice.

Nonbiblical Correspondences.

As mentioned above, by the time of Muhammad’s birth in 570 C.E., Rabbinic Judaism was becoming the dominant form of Judaism. One of the foundational principles of Rabbinic Judaism is that Moses received a written Torah and an oral Torah on Sinai. The oral Torah (Hebrew torah shebaʿal peh) was then transmitted to Israel through a chain of transmitters starting with Moses to Joshua to the elders to the prophets to the men of the Great Assembly, held to be the rabbis (see m. ʾAbot 1.1). This oral tradition was barred at first from being written down (b. Giṭ. 60b), but was redacted in the third century C.E. as the Mishnah. By the time of Muhammad’s birth, most modern scholars agree that the Babylonian Talmud was mostly complete in a redacted form but not fully accepted by the Diaspora Jewish communities. This acceptance was to come when Rabbinic Judaism became the dominant form of Judaism under Islam in the eighth and ninth centuries C.E., although the anti-rabbinic Qaraites, who opposed the notion of an oral Torah, also had a strong place under Islam.

By the time of Muhammad, biblical laws were understood by most Jews through the filters of the oral Torah and Midrash. From Islamic tradition, we are told that Muhammad and his companions used to listen to the Jews read the Torah in Hebrew and interpret it in Arabic. As noted above, the Arabic word used in this context (fassara) is cognate to the Hebrew word pesher, and the Aramaic peshar, which is associated with dream interpretation in the book of Daniel. From the very beginning of Islam, the form and content of biblical interpretation thus involved two sources, the written and oral Torahs. It is also important to observe that both Rabbinic Judaism and Islam share a theocratic approach to law. Divinely revealed law in both traditions can be understood and interpreted through a systematic system of analysis. The existence of an ongoing conversation between Muslims and Jews over the nature, meaning, and application of God’s Word through the formative period of Islam’s Shari’ah and Rabbinic Judaism’s implementation of halakha through the first three Islamic centuries means that we should not be surprised by a shared vision, common legal and interpretive vocabulary, and similar legal methods.

Shari’ah and Halakha.

In the formation of Islamic law, which begins toward the end of the second Islamic century, Muslim scholars commonly understand that there are four “roots” of Islamic jurisprudence: Qur’an, sunna, ijmâ`, and qiyâs. The first corresponds to Torah, which in the Talmud is termed miqrâ, a term that signifies that which is recited or proclaimed aloud, from the root √q-r-ʾ, the same as the Arabic root for Qur’an (see Qur’an 96:1 and Gen 12:8). The second, sunna, and its Hebrew cognate, mishnah, refer to the oral law. Arabic sunna refers to the traditions about the actions and words of Muhammad, reported by individual ḥadîth, while the Mishnah is the core of the oral Torah, which, in its form expanded by commentary, is known in the Talmuds. In both the rabbinic and Islamic traditions, they not only hold the same position but also are taught and learned through repetition. According to several Muslim legal scholars, the Mishnah is “Jewish ḥadîth,” which Muslims may report without objection (Abû Dâwûd, sunan, Vol. 2, p. 82 and at-Tirmidhî, Sahîh, Vol. 2, p. 111). Ijmâ’ is equated with Hebrew ha-kôl, and refers to the constructed unanimity of the legal scholars in both traditions, while Arabic qiyâs and Hebew heqqesh are the terms for analogic reasoning. There is an ample body of scholarship that shows that during this formative period for both Muslims and Jews, there was interchange across a broad spectrum of tradition and shared culture.

In an anecdote in the first biography of Muhammad, written toward the end of the first Islamic century, we find a folkloric account of a judge who is asked to determine the inheritance portion of a hermaphrodite. This is not a problem that is mentioned in any biblical text but is discussed in several places in the Talmud. The fact that this occurs as an indigenized Talmudic issue shows how closely the Jewish and Islamic legal cultures were in this formative period. Similarly, in Qur’an 5:32, in conjunction with the story of Cain and Abel, we read: “For that cause we decreed for the Children of Israel that whoever kills a human being for other than manslaughter or corruption on the earth, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind, and whosoever saves the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind.” This is not found in the Bible, but it occurs in the Mishnah (m. Sanh. 4:5) and in the Talmud (b. Sanh. 37a). In spite of the increasing distance that Islamic law and rabbinic law take from the Bible, they both retain a strong theocratic view of the law that ties them to the spirit of biblical law if not always its detail.

As we move beyond the period of the early development of Islamic law, finding clear connections between Islamic and Jewish Law becomes more complicated. Both traditions had built overlapping if not common foundational perspectives on the role of sacred law in the larger spheres of society, so determining what is influenced by the other tradition and what is developed organically is often impossible to accomplish with certainty. Additionally, as Jews, who were a minority in the Islamic societies, interacted with Muslims in daily commerce and social intercourse, rabbinic courts adopted and adapted the Islamic customs and practices into their procedures. There was great variation across the Islamic world. Spain, Egypt, and Iraq all present different social and legal ecologies that should be studied separately on their own terms. The study of the influence of biblical law in Islam has a strong beginning, but it is only a beginning, with much to be done by scholars of comparative law.




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Gordon D. Newby