From the beginnings of Islam in the 1st century AH/ 7th century CE there has been interaction with various forms of Biblical literature, both canonical and non-canonical. The Qur’an itself contains connections with such literature. In the early centuries of Islam Biblical texts were, contrary to widespread views today, more widely used for the benefit of Islam than criticised as corrupted. Various dimensions of this use can be illustrated, though the issue of corruption clearly circulated too. In the eleventh century a much greater emphasis on the corruption of the Bible took hold, primarily through Ibn Ḥazm (d. 456/1064), though views of both the utility and corruption of the Bible continued into the ensuing centuries.
See Also: A History of Muslim Views of the Bible (De Gruyter, 2020).
By Martin Whittingham
Director, The Centre for Muslim-Christian Studies Oxford
Research Fellow, Regent’s Park College, Oxford
Associate Member, Theology and Religion Faculty, University of Oxford
Why have Muslims written about or drawn on the Bible during every century of Islam? Two points help to shed light on this. First, if it is assumed that when Islam emerged in the 1st/7th century it was to supplant Judaism and Christianity, this engagement with the Bible might seem puzzling at first sight. However, the Qur’an regularly presents itself as confirming, not altering, the original revelation of these faiths, for example when describing revelation to Muhammad as ‘the truth confirming what is with them’ [here, the Jews] (Q2:91). Most prominent among these original revelations are what God sent down to Moses, the Torah (Tawrāt in Arabic), and to Jesus, the Gospel (Injīl, singular). So in the Qur’anic perspective God sent down an original, pristine version of the scriptures of Jews and Christians, but Muslim writers differ widely over how far the extant scriptures of these faiths preserve that original revelation.
Secondly, the relationship of Muslims with the Bible does not parallel the relationship of Jews or Christians with the Qur’an. This asymmetry arises from the Qur’an’s significant engagement in repeating, adapting, or self-consciously refuting various aspects of Biblical literature and early Jewish and Christian non-canonical literature. So any Muslim would affirm the Qur’an’s engagement with Biblical texts, whereas while Muslims find reference to Muhammad in the Bible (see below), this is not accepted, to my knowledge, by Jews and Christians.
The focus here is not on the Qur’anic text itself, but with early Muslim treatment of various issues related to Biblical texts. While it is important not to exaggerate the level of this engagement, it is one of the various threads running through Islamic history.
Early Qur’an Commentaries
One example of Muslim thinking about the previous scriptures is early Qur’an commentators’ discussion of verses relating to the previous scriptures. Such Qur’anic verses can be critical, alleging some kind of corruption, or more affirmative, as already noted. Regarding corruption, which can cover concealment, corrupt interpretation, or alteration of the actual text of their scripture, the Qur’an refers to Jewish (not Christian) corruption or concealment of their scripture (e.g. Q2:75, 4:46, 5:13, 5:41). These and other passages are often interpreted as referring specifically to Jewish desire to conceal Biblical references to Muhammad.
There are far more Qur’anic verses affirming some concept of previous scripture. Yet early commentators can limit the application of these verses, so as likewise to limit the relevance of Biblical faith traditions now that Islam has come. Q2:4 describes believers as people ‘who believe in what has been sent down to you, and what was sent down before you’. The prominent commentator al-Ṭabarī (d. 310/923) emphasises that the key point here is to believe in the Qur’ān as well as previous scriptures, otherwise faith is inadequate. The stress is on a glass half-empty without belief in the Qur’an, not half-full because of belief in at least some of God’s revelation.
The second key textual source for Muslims, after the Qur’an, is Hadith literature. This comprises thousands of reports (one translation of the term hadith) of what Muhammad said, did, and implicitly condoned, along with a smaller number of reports concerning his companions (and for Twelver or Imami Shī‘īs, reports from the Imams). Debate continues over how many of these reports actually date back to Muhammad, but they certainly reflect thinking from the first two centuries of the Muslim community. While Sunnī and Shī‘ī Muslims each have their own revered collections of these reports, both are more positive about the Bible as a concept than might be expected.
Criticism of Biblical literature occurs in general terms, such as in a famous report of Muhammad finding ‘Umar, a future caliph, reading a section of the Torah. Muhammad grows angry, his face colouring, as if this act of reading is highly undesirable. But there are also positive appeals to some concept of previous scripture. One report states that the Torah indicates that Jesus will be buried next to Muhammad. In a Shī‘ī report the Caliph ‘Alī, a central figure for Shī‘ī Muslims, swears an oath on the Torah before a Jew.
Why is there sometimes acceptance of the previous scriptures as a supporting authority, at least at a very broad level? Reasons could include the fact that early Muslims were either converts from Judaism or Christianity, or were surrounded by communities of these faiths. Relatedly, for early Muslim communities, often widely non-literate, sharp distinctions between these texts and the Qur’an could be unnecessary or irrelevant. In addition, of course, the Qur’an backs up a positive attitude to the previous scriptures, at least in principle.
Some hadiths allege textual corruption, but these are few in number. Interestingly, some hadiths also reflect Biblical content, often reshaped. One report has God rebuking people since ‘I fell sick and you did not visit me’. This happened, God says, when an ordinary person was not visited. This recalls Matthew 25:36, except for the exclusion of any mention of Jesus. At other times, there is more of an echo than a rewriting, such as when a prayer resembling the passage known as the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6: 9–13) is found as a healing incantation in ‘The Book of Medicine’ in the hadith collection of Abū Da’ūd.
Muhammad in the Bible
Turning to more specific use of the Bible, Biblical texts can be used in a variety of genres of Muslim writings to buttress the truth of Islam. One aspect of this is finding references to Muhammad in the Bible, a practice dating from at least the 2nd/8th century and still popular in books and on websites today. The most well-known of these references are verses from Deuteronomy 18, and the Paraclete verses from the Gospel of John. Deuteronomy 18:15 and 18 refer to God raising up a prophet like Moses from among the Israelites’ brothers. Muslim writers have taken this to be a prediction of Muhammad, arguing that the reference to brothers indicates the Ishmaelites, not the Israelites themselves. The Paraclete verses (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7) are sometimes interpreted as Jesus predicting the coming of Muhammad, and thereby fulfilling Q61:6, where Jesus states that he is ‘bringing good news of a messenger who will come after me, whose name will be Aḥmad’. The final name here is taken as a variant of Muhammad.
Muhammad is also seen as the obvious fulfilment of verses promising the forceful subjugation of idolaters, such as in Psalm 149. Ibn Qutayba (d. 276/889), a Baghdad judge and prominent writer, quotes Psalm 149 in his Proofs of Prophethood. He points out how it must be Muhammad and the Arabs who fulfil the references to the use of swords and unbelieving kings being chained.
Use, Criticism and Response
Other themes run through Muslim encounters with Biblical tradition. These include linking Muhammad and the Arabs to God’s purposes in Abraham, and thus to the unfolding of Biblical history. Information is also gleaned to add to the pre-Islamic parts of universal histories, or to give background on a Qur’anic passage with clear connections to Biblical narrative. One account is the Qur’anic passage relating to David and Bathsheba (Q38: 21-25, cf. 2 Samuel 12:1-15).
But despite the way in which Muslim use of the Bible seems to outweigh criticism in the early centuries, non-Muslim sources in those early centuries regularly reject the accusation of textual corruption of the Bible. This shows that the charge circulated, presumably often orally, sufficiently to bother these writers and prompt response. The most detailed rebuttal comes from a Christian theologian from modern-day Iraq, ‘Ammār al-Baṣrī, active in the mid-ninth century CE. This type of indirect evidence seems to indicate more criticism of a corrupted Bible than Muslim written sources themselves reveal.
A Time of Change
The balance of use and criticism of the Bible shifts in the long eleventh century. This is partly through ‘Abd al-Jabbār (d. 415/1025), one time judge of Rayy, on the outskirts of modern Tehran. He elaborates on existing accounts of how the apostle Paul corrupted the original and pure teachings of Jesus, which he considers must have been in line with the revelation to Muhammad. This view of Paul has become widespread amongst Muslims who are aware of him. But the most significant figure for intensifying criticism of the Bible as textually corrupted proved to be Abū Muḥammad Ibn Ḥazm (d. 456/1064). This controversialist, who spent all his life in the Iberian peninsula – al-Andalus, as Muslims termed the conquered areas of the peninsula – poured scorn on the Bible, as he also did on many Muslim groups with whom he disagreed. He regarded the gospels as written by people whom he describes as ‘the most deceitful people of creation and the most wicked among them’. He found the Hebrew Bible riddled with errors of fact and inconsistencies. He was also shocked by accounts of leading Biblical figures behaving apparently sinfully, taking this as sure evidence of textual corruption. The Muslim doctrine of the infallibility (‘iṣma) of prophets (developed gradually in the early centuries of Islam) ruled out the possibility of episodes such as Noah and his daughters (Genesis 9:20ff), or David committing adultery with Bathsheba.
Early Muslims have varied and multi-faceted responses to the Bible, both as a concept or principle invoked in the abstract, or to actual texts quoted or discussed. The Bible is useful but it is also suspect. Different writers illustrate different aspects of this division, sometimes incorporating both in a single work. This overview might present a surprising picture, if a more consistently negative view of the Biblical texts is expected. But a number of factors help to explain the more complex situation. These include the intertwining of varied engagements with the Bible from the Qur’an onwards, and the complex social situation of a Muslim minority initially surrounded by non-Muslim populations. The conversion over time of many from Jewish and Christian backgrounds into Islam also adds to the complexities. For those wishing to reflect on modern interfaith engagement and encounter, the early centuries of Islam provide much food for thought in revealing highly varied responses to Biblical texts.
‘Abd al-Jabbār, Critique of Christian Origins, trans. Gabriel Said Reynolds and Samir Khalil Samir (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 2010).
Adang, Camilla. Muslim Writers on Judaism and the Hebrew Bible. Leiden: Brill, 1996.
Beaumont, Mark, ‘ ‘Ammār al-Baṣrī on the Alleged Corruption of the Gospels’ in David Thomas (ed.), The Bible in Arab Christianity (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 241-55.
Cooper, John, The Commentary on the Qur’an by Abū Ja‘far Muḥammad bin Jarīr al-Ṭabarī, vol. 1 (Oxford: OUP, 1987).
Droge, A.J. The Qur’ān: A New Annotated Translation (Sheffield: Equinox, 2013, reprinted 2017 with corrections).
Hakim, Avraham, ‘Muḥammad’s Authority and Leadership Reestablished: The Prophet and ‘Umar b. al-khaṭṭāb’, Revue de l’histoire de religions 226 (2009), 189-92.
Ibn Isḥāq (d. c. 155/767), The Life of Muhammad, trans. Alfred Guillaume (New Delhi: OUP, 1955).
Nickel, Gordon, Narratives of Tampering in the Earliest Commentaries on the Qur’ān (Leiden: Brill, 2011).
Reynolds, Gabriel Said, A Muslim Theologian in the Sectarian Milieu: ‘Abd al-Jabbār and the Critique of Christian Origins (Leiden: Brill, 2004).
Reynolds, Gabriel Said The Qur’an and Its Biblical Subtext (London: Routledge, 2010).
Reynolds, Gabriel Said and Ali Quli Qarai, The Qur’ān and the Bible: text and commentary (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018).
Sweetman, James, Islam and Christian Theology, Part 2, vol. I (London: Lutterworth Press, 1955).
Al-Ṭabarī, Jāmī‘ al-bayān ‘an ta’wīl al-Qur’ān (Collected Explanations for the Interpretation of the Qur’an), ed. M. and A. Shākir, 16 vols. (Cairo: Dār al-ma‘ārif, 1955).
Tannous, Jack, The Making of the Medieval Middle East: Religion, Society and Simple Believers (Princeton: PUP, 2018).
Whittingham, Martin, A History of Muslim Views of the Bible: The First Four Centuries (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2021).
For Zakir Naik, see https://www.institutealislam.com/prophet-muhammad-in-the-bible-by-dr-zakir-naik/
For Hadith literature, see www.sunnah.com
 Qur’an translations are taken from A.J. Droge, The Qur’ān: A New Annotated Translation (Sheffield: Equinox, 2013, reprinted 2017 with corrections).
 The significance of this engagement with Biblical and other literature is contested, and literature is vast. For Muslims the echoes of Biblical and post-Biblical material indicate divine wisdom preserving the true parts of the earlier texts. For critics they expose the Qur’an as borrowing from previous literature, such as the Syriac Cave of Treasures or the Protevangelium of James. Others see the Qur’an’s engagement with such traditions not as passive dependence, but as part of a rhetorical strategy, on which see Gabriel Said Reynolds, The Qur’an and Its Biblical Subtext (London: Routledge 2010), and various articles. For many relevant cross-references, see Reynolds and Ali Quli Qarai, The Qur’an and the Bible: Text and Commentary (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018).
 See discussion of early Qur’an commentators in Gordon Nickel, Narratives of Tampering in the Earliest Commentaries on the Qur’ān (Leiden: Brill, 2011).
 For a full listing of both sets of verses, see the Appendix in Martin Whittingham, A History of Muslim Views of the Bible: the First Four Centuries (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2021), 172–80.
 See al-Ṭabarī, Jāmī’ al-bayān ‘an ta’wīl al-Qur’ān (Collected Explanation on Interpretation of the Qur’an), ed. M. and A. Shākir, 16 vols. (Cairo: Dār al-ma‘ārif, 1955), I: 244-45. Most of al-Ṭabarī’s commentary remains untranslated into English, but this passage can be found in John Cooper, The Commentary on the Qur’an by Abū Ja‘far Muḥammad bin Jarīr al-Ṭabarī, vol. 1 (Oxford: OUP, 1987), 101. No further volumes were produced.
 Sunni Hadith collections can easily be accessed, in English and Arabic, at www.sunnah.com
 For references see Avraham Hakim, ‘Muḥammad’s Authority and Leadership Reestablished: The Prophet and ‘Umar b. al-khaṭṭāb’, Revue de l’histoire de religions 226 (2009): 189-92. Or search ‘torah’ on www.sunnah.com to find this and other reports.
 References in Whittingham, A History, 55-56.
 On the religiously mixed context of early Islam, see Jack Tannous, The Making of the Medieval Middle East: Religion, Society and Simple Believers (Princeton: PUP, 2018).
 Whittingham, A History, 56-60.
 Whittingham, A History, 82.
 The identification of the Paraclete with Muhammad is found in the earliest extant biography of Muhammad, by Ibn Isḥāq (d. c. 155/767), The Life of Muhammad, trans. Alfred Guillaume (New Delhi: OUP, 1955), 103-04. The well-known contemporary apologist Zakir Naik illustrates contemporary use of the passages from Deuteronomy and John here.
 The relevant passage from Ibn Qutayba is translated in Camilla Adang, Muslim Writers on Judaism and the Hebrew Bible (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 271.
 See Mark Beaumont, ‘ ‘Ammār al-Baṣrī on the Alleged Corruption of the Gospels’ in David Thomas (ed.), The Bible in Arab Christianity (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 241-55. Note in passing that the work of al-Baṣrī and others is a reminder that informed Christian engagement with Islam emerged in various forms in the Middle East well before medieval European writings on Islam reached a comparable level.
 See Gabriel Said Reynolds, A Muslim Theologian in the Sectarian Milieu: ‘Abd al-Jabbār and the Critique of Christian Origins (Leiden: Brill, 2004); and for a translation with Arabic text see ‘Abd al-Jabbār, Critique of Christian Origins, trans. Gabriel Said Reynolds and Samir Khalil Samir (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 2010).
 See Whittingham, A History, 155, for reference. No complete English translation exists of Ibn Ḥazm’s vilification of the Bible, though an extensive summary can be found in James Sweetman, Islam and Christian Theology, Part 2, vol. I, 178-262 (London: Lutterworth Press, 1955).