Tal’at Radwan

Islamists frequently make use of the term Isrā’īliyāt when responding to those who differ with them in interpreting a Qur’ānic verse or the circumstances concerning its revelation. An example of one of these commentaries is the reference to verse 44 of the sūrat al-Naml contained in the Jalālayn[1] commentary: It was said unto her: Enter the hall. And when she saw it she deemed it a pool and bared her legs. [Qur’ān XXVI,44] and since Sulayman was on his bed in the centre of the palace he saw her fair legs and feet.

But since the editor of the Al-Jalālayn commentary did not take to this, he wrote in the margin:

Al-Qurtubī relates that [Sulayman] told her this after having turned away from her. This accords with the dignity of our lord Sulayman. But the accounts which affirm that he gazed intently upon her legs in admiration, these may be one of these ‘Israeli’ tales that have infiltrated into the commentary books.

The purpose of the Isrā’īliyāt was 'to besmirch Islam'

Amin al-Khūlī wrote that ‘Islam is best rid of the Isrā’īliyāt which have been interpolated into it’.[2] But an unfettered mind can set the phrase ‘best rid of the Isrā’īliyāt which have been interpolated into Islam’ alongside the Qur’ānic text in many sūras that glorifies the Israelites:

O Children of Israel! Remember My favour wherewith I favoured you [Qur’ān II,40]

O Children of Israel! Remember My favour wherewith I favoured you and how I preferred you to (all) creatures [Qur’ān II,47 and again at 122]

And verily we gave the Children of Israel the Scripture and the Command and the Prophethood, and provided them with good things and favoured them above (all) peoples [Qur’ān XLV,16]

'The Creation of the Sun and the Moon' by Michaelangelo in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel (1511)

The purpose of the Isrā’īliyāt (from the point of view of those employing the term) was to besmirch Islam, but how can this be true if the Qur’ān itself glorifies the Israelites? How can this be true when the Qur’ān agrees with the Old Testament (with but a few differences in some details) in the account of Creation?:

Lo! your Lord is Allah Who created the heavens and the earth in six Days, then mounted He the Throne. He covereth the night with the day, which is in haste to follow it, and hath made the sun and the moon and the stars subservient by His command. His verily is all creation and commandment. Blessed be Allah, the Lord of the Worlds! [Qur’ān VII,54]

Lo! your Lord is Allah Who created the heavens and the earth in six Days, then He established Himself upon the Throne, directing all things. There is no intercessor (with Him) save after His permission. That is Allah, your Lord, so worship Him. Oh, will ye not remind? [Qur’ān X,3]

And He it is Who created the heavens and the earth in six Days - and His Throne was upon the water - that He might try you, which of you is best in conduct. [Qur’ān XI,7]

According to this, the creation of the heavens and the earth took place over six days, and corresponds with the Book of Genesis which records how the creation of the heavens and the earth took six days. The single difference between the Qur’ān and the Old Testament is that the latter records how

On the seventh day God finished His work which He had made; and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had made [Genesis II,2]

Man was created from earth:

Disbelievest thou in Him Who created thee of dust, then of a drop (of seed), and then fashioned thee a man? [Qur’ān XVIII,37]

Then the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul [Genesis II,7]

and was expelled from paradise:

Adam and Eve expelled by Masaccio (c.1426l)

And (unto man): O Adam! Dwell thou and thy wife in the Garden and eat from whence ye will, but come not nigh this tree lest ye become wrong-doers. Then Satan whispered to them that he might manifest unto them that which was hidden from them of their shame, and he said: Your Lord forbade you from this tree only lest ye should become angels or become of the immortals. And he swore unto them (saying): Lo! I am a sincere adviser unto you. Thus did he lead them on with guile. And when they tasted of the tree their shame was manifest to them and they began to hide (by heaping) on themselves some of the leaves of the Garden. And their Lord called them, (saying): Did I not forbid you from that tree and tell you: Lo! Satan is an open enemy to you? They said: Our Lord! We have wronged ourselves. If thou forgive us not and have not mercy on us, surely we are of the lost! He said: Go down (from hence), one of you a foe unto the other. There will be for you on earth a habitation and provision for a while. He said: There shall ye live, and there shall ye die, and thence shall ye be brought forth. [Qur’ān VII, 19-25, and similarly, Qur’ān XX, 116-125]

All of which accords with the account in Genesis, barring a few details. In the Old Testament (Genesis IV) Cain slew Abel, and the same account is repeated in the Qur’ān:

But recite unto them with truth the tale of the two sons of Adam, how they offered each a sacrifice, and it was accepted from the one of them and it was not accepted from the other. (The one) said: I will surely kill thee. (The other) answered: Allah accepteth only from those who ward off (evil). Even if thou stretch out thy hand against me to kill me, I shall not stretch out my hand against thee to kill thee, lo! I fear Allah, the Lord of the Worlds. Lo! I would rather thou shouldst bear the punishment of the sin against me and thine own sin and become one of the owners of the fire. That is the reward of evil-doers. But (the other's) mind imposed on him the killing of his brother, so he slew him and became one of the losers. Then Allah sent a raven scratching up the ground, to show him how to hide his brother's naked corpse. He said: Woe unto me! Am I not able to be as this raven and so hide my brother's naked corpse? And he became repentant.  [Qur’ān V, 27-31]

The level of similarity attains to complete congruence

In both accounts the divinity accepts the offering of Abel (the first-born of his flock) and refuses the offering of the agriculturalist. Similarities also occur in the account of Noah and the Flood (Genesis VI – IX and Qur’ān VII, 59-64; X, 71-2; XI, 25-46; XXIII, 23-29; XXVI, 105-120; XXXVII, 75-82 and the entire sūra entitled Nūh – ‘Noah’.) If we move from events and personalities to a general view of mankind, we also find a correspondent. For instance, in the Old Testament the woman is under the thumb of the man and the Book admonishes her that “he shall rule over thee” (Genesis III,16). The Qur’ān speaks comparably:

And men are a degree above them [Qur’ān II,228]

Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other [Qur’ān IV,34]

The man in the Old Testament is ‘lord over the woman’ (see Exodus XXI) and this is repeated in the Qur’ān over several sūras:

If a woman feareth ill treatment from her baʽal ... [Qur’ān IV,128].

The word baʽal[3] in Arabic is the name of one of the pre-Islamic gods, as the Qur’ān confirms in the following passage:

Will ye cry unto Baʽal and forsake the best of creators, Allah, your Lord and Lord of your forefathers? [Qur’ān XXXVII, 125-6].

The struggle of Cain & Abel by Titian (between 1542 and 1544)

In the Old Testament the system of slavery is institutionalised (Exodus XXI) and the Qur’ān duly confirms ‘what thy right hand possesses’:

And all married women (are forbidden? unto you) save those (captives) whom your right hands possess. It is a decree of Allah for you  [Qur’ān IV,24]

And whoso is not able to afford to marry free, believing women, let them marry from the believing maids whom your right hands possess  [Qur’ān IV,25]

(Show) kindness unto ... the wayfarer and (the slaves) whom your right hands possess [Qur’ān IV,36]

And Allah hath favoured some of you above others in provision. Now those who are more favoured will by no means hand over their provision to those (slaves) whom their right hands possess [Qur’ān XVI,71]

O ye who believe! Let your slaves, and those of you who have not come to puberty, ask leave of you at three times (before they come into your presence) [Qur’ān XXIV,58; see also XXIV,31 and XXX,28]

O Prophet! Lo! We have made lawful unto thee thy wives unto whom thou hast paid their dowries, and those whom thy right hand possesseth of those whom Allah hath given thee as spoils of war [Qur’ān XXXIII,50; see also XXXIII,52,55 and LXX,30].

Mary the mother of Christ is at the same time the sister of Aaron the brother of Moses, despite the over 1,000 year time gap between the era of Moses and the era of Jesus. This similarity exists in the Old Testament (Exodus XV) and the Qur’ān:

O sister of Aaron! Thy father was not a wicked man nor was thy mother a harlot [Qur’ān XIX,28 and III,35-45]

Enmity in the Old Testament  is also found in the Qur’ān

The level of similarity attains to complete congruence (with the exception of a few details) on the subject of the Prophets such as Abraham and Joseph and so on – consider the scenario of Joseph’s being beguiled, his imprisonment and his interpretation of the dream of Pharaoh who subsequently appointed him Minister (Genesis 27-42). In the Old Testament Moses slays an Egyptian (Exodus XV, II Samuel XXIII, Chronicles XI) and in the Qur’ān we have:

Moses struck him with his fist and killed him. He said: This is of the devil's doing. Lo! he is an enemy, a mere misleader. He said: My Lord! Lo! I have wronged my soul, so forgive me. Then He forgave him. Lo! He is the Forgiving, the Merciful  [Qur’ān XXVIII,15,16]

And thou didst kill a man and We delivered thee from great distress, and tried thee with a heavy trial. And thou didst tarry years among the folk of Midian. Then camest thou (hither) by (My) providence, O Moses [Qur’ān XX,40]

Moses goes forth to meet his Lord who tells him:

Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground [Exodus III,5]

And in the Qur’ān we have:

And Allah spake directly unto Moses [Qur’ān IV,164]

While in sūrat Tāhā the meaning is made even clearer:

And when he reached it, he was called by name: O Moses! (11) Lo! I, even I, am thy Lord, So take off thy shoes, for lo! thou art in the holy valley [Qur’ān XX,11].

In the Old Testament Moses’ staff is transformed into a snake which swallows up the staff of the Egyptians that had been transformed into serpents (Exodus VII, 8-11]

And throw down thy staff! But when he saw it writhing as it were a demon, he turned to flee headlong; (but it was said unto him): O Moses! Fear not! the emissaries fear not in My presence [Qur’ān XXVII,10]

And what is that in thy right hand, O Moses? He said: This is my staff whereon I lean, and wherewith I beat down branches for my sheep, and wherein I find other uses. He said: Cast it down, O Moses! So he cast it down, and lo! it was a serpent, gliding [Qur’ān XX,17-20; and ff to XX,23]

And when the wizards came, Moses said unto them: Cast your cast! (80) And when they had cast, Moses said: That which ye have brought is magic. Lo! Allah will make it vain. Lo! Allah upholdeth not the work of mischief-makers [Qur’ān X, 81]

Moses said unto them: Throw what ye are going to throw! Then they threw down their cords and their staves and said: By Pharaoh's might, lo! we verily are the winners. Then Moses threw his staff and lo! it swallowed that which they did falsely show. (45) And the wizards were flung prostrate, Crying: We believe in the Lord of the Worlds, The Lord of Moses and Aaron [Qur’ān XXVI, 41-48]

By comparing the material contained in the Old Testament and in the Qur’ān concerning ancient Egypt, complete congruence manifests itself in the partiality towards the children of Israel and enmity towards the Egyptians. In the Old Testament the Hebrew Lord says:

'Moses changing Aaron's rod into a snake' by Nicholas Poussin (c.1645)

Thus saith the LORD: In this thou shalt know that I am the LORD--behold, I will smite with the rod that is in my hand upon the waters which are in the river, and they shall be turned to blood. And the fish that are in the river shall die, and the river shall become foul; and the Egyptians shall be loathe to drink water from the river. And the LORD said unto Moses: “Say unto Aaron: Take thy rod, and stretch out thy hand over the waters of Egypt, over their rivers, over their streams, and over their pools, and over all their ponds of water, that they may become blood; and there shall be blood throughout all the land of Egypt, both in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone” ... and all the waters that were in the river were turned to blood. [Exodus VII, 17-20]

I hope the reader will turn to all of the Book of Exodus and the Books of Deuteronomy, Numbers, Isaiah, I Samuel, Hosea and Ezekiel so as to ascertain the level of unjustified enmity, on the historical and humanitarian levels, against the ancient Egyptians. A corresponding enmity is found in the Qur’ān, not only in meaning but also at times in the very same expression. In the Old Testament we have:

That day the Lord saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the shore [Exodus XIV,30]

And Moses said unto the people: 'Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the LORD, which He will work for you to-day; for whereas ye have seen the Egyptians to-day, ye shall see them again no more for ever. The LORD will fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace [Exodus XIV, 13-14]

And the Qur’ān has this corresponding to it:

And when We brought you through the sea and rescued you, and drowned the folk of Pharaoh in your sight [Qur’ān II,50].

Where the Old Testament has many verses detailing the anger of the Lord against Egypt, afflicting them with frogs, locusts and flies, the Qur’ān has the same:

So We sent against them the flood and the locusts and the vermin and the frogs and the blood - a succession of clear signs. But they were arrogant and became a guilty folk [Qur’ān VII,133]

Therefore We took retribution from them; therefore We drowned them in the sea: because they denied Our revelations and were heedless of them.  And We caused the folk who were despised to inherit the eastern parts of the land and the western parts thereof which We had blessed. And the fair word of thy Lord was fulfilled for the Children of Israel because of their endurance; and We annihilated (all) that Pharaoh and his folk had done and that they had contrived.  [Qur’ān VII,136-7].

The Qur’ān is an extension of the Hebrew works which preceded it

In view of this correspondence between the Old Testament and the Qur’ān, the unfettered mind can only wonder as to the reasons why the term Isrā’īliyāt has been coined by the Islamists (both moderate and hard-line). I think the answer lies in this one possibility: the Islamists’ impotence to respond to anything they see as in opposition to Arabism and Islam. For instance, most commentators bypass verse 59 of the Sūrat al-Shuʽarā’ which speaks of Egypt being allotted to the Israelites as their inheritance:

Thus did We take them away from gardens and watersprings, And treasures and a fair estate. Thus (were those things taken from them) and We caused the Children of Israel to inherit them. [Qur’ān XXVI, 57-8]

while the committee that prepared the book Al-Muntakhab fī Tafsīr al-Qur’ān al-Karīm (‘Selected Commentaries on the Qur’ān’) were bold enough to interpret verse 57 as:

We expelled Pharaoh and his host from their land that was like unto gardens with rivers flowing beneath

and verse 58 as:

Thus we expelled them from their treasures of gold and silver

and verse 59 as:

We expelled them and after they were annihilated passed this kingdom and all its delights over to the Israelites.[4]

'A Depiction of Plagues upon Egypt' by J.M.W. Turner (1800)

Despite the fact that verse 59 of the Sūrat al-Shuʽarā’ clearly speaks of the Israelites inheriting Egypt (particularly in connection with the verses that are seen this) some either keep quiet about this (such as Ibn Kathīr and others), or dismiss these as Isrā’īliyāt interpolations. The same goes for the imposition of the hijab in the Sūrat al-Ahzāb where al-Tabarī and Ibn Kathīr state that the purpose was to make a distinction between a slave woman and a freeborn woman. The same also applies with Ibn Kathīr’s reference in his commentary to the Sūrat al-Aʽrāf when he writes:

As for the locusts, it is well-known that this was a foodstuff, as is affirmed in the Sahīhayn (Hadith collections) concerning ‘Abd Allāh ibn Abī: “We went on seven raids with the Messenger of God and ate locusts. As for lizards, ‘Umar ibn al-Khatāb enjoyed eating them. Anas ibn Mālik heard someone say that “the wives of the Prophet would exchange presents of locusts on a platter.”[5]

The term Isrā’īliyāt is exposed by the Qur’ān, whose text in several sūras demonstrates that it is an extension of the Hebrew works which preceded it (Qur’ān II, 4,41,87,97,136; Qur’ān III, 3,81,84,184; Qur’ān IV, 47,136,163; Qur’ān V, 43-4). In the last of these the statement is overtly made:

Lo! We did reveal the Torah, wherein is guidance and a light, by which the prophets who surrendered (unto Allah) judged the Jews, and the rabbis and the priests (judged) by such of Allah's Scripture as they were bidden to observe, and thereunto were they witnesses. So fear not mankind, but fear Me. And barter not My revelations for a little gain. Whoso judgeth not by that which Allah hath revealed: such are disbelievers [Qur’ān V, 44].

The same sense is repeated in Qur’ān VI,91; Qur’ān IX,111; Qur’ān XII,111; Qur’ān XVI,44. The Qur’ān declares that it is God who bestowed the Psalms upon David (Qur’ān XVII,55) and confirms this when it states:

And We verily gave Moses and Aaron the Criterion (of right and wrong) [Qur’ān XXI,48]

One should note here that the word ‘criterion’ (furqān) is held to refer to the Qur’ān, according to the Al-Jalālayn commentary on the Sūrat al-Furqān. Indeed, in the Qur’ān it is God Himself who actually authored the Psalms:

And We have written in Psalms after the advice that the land will be inherited by My righteous slaves [ Qur’ān XXI,105]

Meanwhile the continuity with the Hebrew scriptures is made all the more patent and direct when the Qur’ān states:

Lo! This is in the former scrolls. The Books of Abraham and Moses [Qur’ān LXXXVII,18-19].

After citing the Qur’ān like this as evidence for the way it glorifies the Israelites (and I have passed over many other instances to avoid repetitiousness), and for its evidence that the One who caused the Qur’ān to descend also caused the Hebrew scriptures to descend, can the term Isrā’īliyāt stand its ground against an unfettered mind?

 


[1] Tafsīr al-Jalālayn (‘Tafsir of the two Jalāls’) is a classical Sunni commentary of the Qur'an, composed first by Jalāl ad-Dīn al-Mahallī in 1459 and then completed by his student Jalāl ad-Dīn as-Suyūtī in 1505. (Ed.)

[2] المجدون فى الإسلام- مكتبة الأسرة عام 2001ص 47

[3] Baʿal is a Semitic word signifying "lord, master, owner (male), keeper, husband", which became the usual designation of the great weather-god of the Western Semites. The word has cognates in the Hebrew  בַּעַל / בָּעַל, Báʿal, Akkadian Bēl and Arabic baʽal. بعل.  (Ed.)

[4] The Higher Council for Islamic Affairs, 73rd year, p.548.

[5] Tafsīr Ibn Kathīr, Dar al-Haytham, Cairo 2005, vol.2, pp.1213-4.