The case of Judeo-Christian legends in the early Islamic literature is very important for any objective student of the Islamic sciences. In this one needs to find out the reason and results of their getting into Islamic literature. Moreover we also need to find out some objective criteria to sort them out.
Muslims were allowed to narrate from the Jews and Christians:
While Islam did instill the believers with the understanding of and pride in the fact that Islamic sources are perfect manual to guidance and there is no need to look anywhere else in this regard, it did not bar them from listening to the narratives of the People of the Book. The Prophet, may Allah bless him, gave comprehensive directives in the following words
Narrated 'Abdullah bin 'Amr: The Prophet said, "Convey (my teachings) to the people even if it were a single sentence, and tell others the stories of People of Israel (which have been taught to you), for it is not sinful to do so. And whoever tells a lie on me intentionally, will surely take his place in the (Hell) Fire." (Sahih Bukhari. Hadith 3202)
Narrated Abu Huraira: The people of the Scripture (Jews) used to recite the Torah in Hebrew and they used to explain it in Arabic to the Muslims. On that Allah's Messenger said, "Do not believe the people of the Scripture or disbelieve them, but say:-- "We believe in Allah and what is revealed to us." (2.136) (Sahih Bukhari, Hadith 4125)
Thus even though it is lawful to narrate the stories of the People of the Book, they are not to be testified for themselves. Instead Muslims are asked to affirm their belief in what has been revealed to the Holy Prophet Muhammad and other prophets before him, may Allah bless all of them. While the revelation unto earlier prophets are not fully preserved the criteria of has to be the Holy Qur’an and Ahadith of the Holy Prophet, may Allah bless him.
Muslim attitude with regard to such narrations:
In the light of this, Muslim position comes out to be very clear on these narrations. Those of them which are in consonance with the Islamic sources, they will be accepted. Those, which contradict, shall be rejected and about the rest, we are ordained to remain quite.
Hafiz Ibn Kathir, in his Muqaddimah i.e. preface, to the commentary tells us that Allah has taught us how to react to the narrations of this kind, i.e. which neither conform to nor contradict with the Islamic sources. This is in the Surah 18, about the people of the Cave.
“(Some) say they were three, the dog being the fourth among them; (others) say they were five, the dog being the sixth,- doubtfully guessing at the unknown; (yet others) say they were seven, the dog being the eighth. Say thou: "My Lord knoweth best their number; It is but few that know their (real case)." Enter not, therefore, into controversies concerning them, except on a matter that is clear, nor consult any of them about (the affair of) the Sleepers.“ (Qur’an 18: 22)
Here Allah has taught us the etiquette of dealing with useless details. Infact if we consider the narrations which are well known to have come from the Judeo-Christian legend, we will note the same characteristic of them going into unnecessary details relegating the lessons from it to the backwaters.
Characteristic of Judeo-Christian traditions:
Generally the Judeo-Christian traditions found in the early Islamic literature follow the following patterns.
1- They invariably aim at hair-splitting and venture into unnecessary details with no real lesson or point of reproof e.g. the dimensions of Noah’s Ark.
2- Quite often they go against reason and venture into realms of fiction and thus we find a startling similarity between them and the Biblical or Apocryphal narratives e.g. details of the episode of David, may Allah bless him, killing Goliath (Jalut).
3- Many of them constitute blasphemy against the great Prophets, at least by Islamic standards. Infact no reasonable person will dare to attribute that kind of things to the Messengers of the Almighty e.g. Prophet David, may Allah bless him, going after Uriah’s wife.
4- Almost invariably within the Islamic rubric their sources are the people who reverted to Islam from Jewish or Christian religions and then narrated what they had heard from the popular legends of their ancestors, like Ka’b Ahbar, Wahab bin Munabbih etc. There were others who were themselves not reverts but had much contact with reverts or even the People of the Book e.g. Ibn Abbas, may Allah be pleased with him.
Why were Judeo-Christian traditions narrated by early Muslims?
Before we get into a few more details about the status and origins of these narrations in the Islamic literature, let us see as to how and why these reports found currency among early Muslims.
Ibn Khaldun, the genius that he was, made a psychological analysis of this issue as well. Talking about the Islamic commentaries he said;
“The early scholars had already made complete compilations on the subject. However, their works and the information they transmit contain side by side important and unimportant matters, accepted and rejected statements. The reason is that the Arabs had no books or scholarship. The desert attitude and illiteracy prevailed among them. When they wanted to know certain things that human beings are usually curious to know, such as the reasons for the existing things, the beginning of creation, and the secrets of existence, they consulted the earlier People of the Book about it and got their information from them. The People of the Book were the Jews who had the Torah, and the Christians who followed the religion of (the Jews). Now, the people of the Torah who lived among the Arabs at that time were themselves Bedouins. They knew only as much about these matters as is known to ordinary People of the Book (in contrast to learned rabbis). The majority of those Jews were Himyarites who had adopted Judaism. When they became Muslims, they clung to the (information) they possessed, such as information about the beginning of creation and information of the type of forecasts and predictions. That information had no connection with the (Jewish or Christian) religious laws they were preserving as theirs. Such men were Ka'b al-ahbar, Wahb b. Munabbih, 'Abdallah b. Salim, and similar people. The Qur'an commentaries were filled with material of such tendencies transmitted on their authority. It is information that entirely depends on them. It has no relation to (religious) laws, such that one might claim for it the soundness that would make it necessary to act (in accordance with it). The Qur'an interpreters were not very rigorous in this respect. They filled the Qur'an commentaries with such material, which originated, as we have stated, with the people of the Torah who lived in the desert and were not capable of verifying the information they transmitted. However, they were famous and highly esteemed, because they were people of rank in (their) religion and religious group. Therefore, their interpretation has been accepted from that time onwards.” (Al-Muqadimah Chapter 6, Section 10, Translated by Franz Rosenthal)
I am confident; there can be no concise and comprehensive analysis than this one. Ibn Khaldun summed it up very well, may Allah have mercy on him.
Frequent narrators of such narrations:
Among those who frequently narrated such narrations were, Ka’b al-Ahbar, Ibn Abbas, Abdullah bin Amr, Ka'b al-Qurazi, Mujahid, ‘Ikarma, Sa’id bin Jubayr etc. may Allah be pleased with them all.
Status and reality of such narrations:
1- Many times these narrations are unauthentic according to rules of reporting especially when reports of Jewish origins are cunningly attributed to the Holy Prophet, may Allah bless him, even.
Al-Tabari, for instance, gives us a narration that the Messenger of Allah, may he be blessed, said, “One offered for sacrifice was Isaac.” (Tafsir al-Tabari under Qur’an 37: 107)
Besides being in contradiction with Qur’an and authentic Ahadith, its chain has some grave issues too. One of the narrators is Hassan bin Dinar who has been much criticized by scholars cf. Ibn Sa’d’s Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir. Another narrator ‘Ali bin Zaid bin Jad’an is rejected among scholars cf. Ibn Hajr’s Tahdhib al-Tahdhib
For anyone who knows the issue well, it is quite simple to understand that origins of this and similar reports are among the Jews and Christians.
2- Many times multiple reports of the same subject come through one narrator and they are contradictory, clearly implying that either he did not narrate them or just quoted them as such not attaching any value to them. As an example we can see the case of narrations giving the dimensions of Noah’s Ark.
Suyuti quotes that Ishaq bin Bishr and Ibn Asakir has narrated through Ibn Abbas and this narration gives the dimensions as, “600 cubits length, 60 cubits depth and 333 cubits width.” (Durr Manthur under Qur’an 11: 37)
Another narration through Ibn Abbas gives the dimensions greatly different. It says, “1200 cubits length, 600 cubits width and it had 3 stories.” (Tafsir al-Tabari under Qur’an 11: 37 Narration 18136)
Firstly, the question is, how did Ibn Abbas, may Allah be pleased with him, come to know of these dimensions? They are neither recorded in Qur’an nor in any authentic saying of the Prophet, may Allah bless him.
Obviously the dimensions must have come from the Judeo-Christian legend some of which is preserved in the Bible even today.
Secondly, the fact that Ibn Abbas reported both the widely differing narrations the conclusion is simply that each time he simply narrated what reached him and as a competent Muslim scholar he did not attached any value to either of them and knew well that these were ‘wild guesses’ only (Just like Allah Himself makes a mention of some wild guesses of the people about the companions of the Cave). He must have narrated it only to marvel his students or to emphasize their useless nature.
3- Then we have some amazing narrations e.g. the killing of Goliath at the hands of David, may Allah bless him and what happened thereafter. The story is quite similar to the one found in the Bible, 1-Samuel, thus we have no difficulty in finding the reality of such narrations.
Same is true for clearly blasphemous narrations regarding David, may Allah bless him, arranging for Uriah to get killed in the battlefield and then have his wife Bathsheba. There is hardly any doubt that such narrations are inspired from the Biblical narratives in Book of 2-Samuel.
4- There may be some narrations authentically traceable back to some companion like Ibn Abbas, may Allah be pleased with him, or ‘Abdullah bin ‘Amr or some of the successors like Ka’b Ahbar, Wahab bin Munabbih etc but this does not, in the least, mean that they are valid reports. This is so because, as said earlier as well, they narrated them as stories of no real significance. Abdullah bin ‘Amr, may Allah be pleased with him, found two camel-loads of the books of the Jews and Christians at the eve of Battle of Yarmuk cf. Tafsir Ibn Kathir.
5- There are some narrations that are undoubtedly of the Jewish origin but they have been cunningly maneuvered and shaped to look Islamic and reasonable e.g. Under Qur’an 12:24, “he saw the evidence of his Lord.” Suyuti quotes some narrations. One from Ka’b al-Qurazi says, he saw three verses from the Holy Qur’an (Durr Manthur). Obviously with no such detail given in the Qur’an or sayings of the Prophet, may Allah bless him, the source must have been Jewish tales. But on this narration there can be logical question as to how come a Hebrew speaking person was shown the Arabic verses? So in the narration from Wahab bin Munabbih, we are told that he was shown the verses in Hebrew language (Durr Manthur). Clearly this is shaping of the narration to do away with an objection. But obviously we have the right to ask, as to what is the source of this information? Knowing that both the narrators are from the Jewish background, we have ample reason to maintain that they learnt it from the Jewish people.
It is not that they would have concocted. Perhaps after embracing Islam when they learnt of the Qur’anic passages about the incidents well known to Jews as well, they enquired their ex-coreligionists and they related to them such things which they passed on to Muslims.
People of the Book used to fabricate ideas to spread among Muslims:
Moreover, we have evidence of the People of Book concocting ideas and reports to spread among Muslims and thus to undermine the unity and intellectual sobriety of Islam.
Calling Qur’an a creation, and not just the word, of Allah was one heresy that created a lot of trouble in early centuries of Islam. Ibn Athir gives us a trace back to the origins of this idea. He tells us that Abu Abdullah Ahmad bin Abi Dawud who believed in Qur’an being a creation and other such things from the beliefs of Mu’tazila took these ideas from Bishr al-Muraysi, Bishr learn these from Jahm bin Safwan, Jahm from Ja’d bin Darham, Ja’d took it from Aban bin Sam’an, Aban got this virus from Talut, the nephew and son-in-law of Labid bin A’sam, and he took it from Labid bin A’sam who was the very Jew who did magic on the Holy Prophet, may Allah bless him (al-Kamil fil Tarikh 3/231)
Abdullah bin Saba spreading the ideas about Ali, may Allah be pleased with him, on the lines he held views about Joshua, may Allah bless him, before his declaration of Islam is well known.
Summary and Conclusion:
1- Qur’an and authentic Ahadith are free from useless details and senseless fine-tuning. Islamic sources emphasize on the lessons and not story-type narratives. Useless details relegating the essence of the narration are a hallmark of Judeo-Christian traditions. Bible readers know it well.
2- Judaica, the Israeliyat, are often against reason and have no relation to what Muir calls, ‘sober rationalism of the Coran.’ (The Life of Mahomet, vol. 2 p. 306) There are not even required for valid understanding and exegesis of the Qur’an.
3- Even if they come through valid chains of narrators, they are not acceptable as evidence for we have enough reason to maintain that they come from sources other than Qur’an and Hadith. The narrators narrated them because in essence Islam allowed reporting the stories of the people of the Book but later writers noted them down and gave them undue importance. Scrupulous scholars could sort these legends out and they did clarify about their actual status.
4- We accept those of such narrations that go with the Qur’an and authentic Ahadith, we reject those which contradict them and do not follow the pattern of divine narrations by talking about useless things and going against reason. We stay quite about the rest.
I hope the above detail will give one enough insight into the actual value of these narrations. May Allah give us all the due knowledge of the relevant sciences to justly understand the Qur’an.
Indeed Allah knows the best!