Friday, January 22, 2010

Referencesto Prophet Muhammad in Divine Texts

There can be no doubt about the difficulty in examining such a broad and extensive subject as the references to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in divine texts in a brief and rather limited article. For this reason, there is a need to clearly determine the limits of this study. Firstly, the efforts of Muslim scholars to establish the prophethood of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) with references to the Holy Bible will be mentioned, and their opinions and thoughts on this issue will be examined. To prevent any ambiguity that might arise by working on the subject in the framework of general history, related opinions and approaches will be mentioned through references to documents from the classical period. The first document that we will discuss is a dialogue text composed in Baghdad (in 165/781 or 166/782) between the Nestorian Patriarch Timothy I (164-208/780-823) and the Abbasid Caliph al-Mahdi (158-169/775-785). This document is of great importance, as it is one of the first examples of documents that reflect a Muslim-Christian dialogue. The text was written by the Patriarch Timothy and it is important in that it covers the reading method of the Holy Bible by the Muslims, represented by al-Mahdi. The second work that will be discussed is the Risala (treatise) of Ibnu’l-Leys. As the oldest extant Muslim work which compiles excerpts from the Holy Bible referring to the prophethood of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) it is of great importance. This work is a letter written on behalf of Harun al-Rashid (reigned between 170/786-193/809) in the year 795 or 796 to the Byzantine emperor Constantine VI (780-797). The third work that we will examine is the well-known Kitab al-Din wa al-Dawla, written in a period that is close to the first two works by Ali bin Rabban al-Tabari (240/855), who converted to Islam from Christianity. The common feature of these three works is that they include examples of Muslims reading and contemplating the holy books of the Christians to learn statements about the coming of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).

The Holy Qur’an and the Holy Bible
The Holy Quran mentions Christians in terms of their religious beliefs and their holy books. Throughout history, Muslim scholars who placed the Holy Quran in the center of their thought-system established a perspective of other religions, particularly Christianity, within the framework of the Holy Quran. Accordingly, theological debates and arguments that have resulted from Muslim-Christian encounters are Quran-centered and involve arguments based on the teachings of the Holy Quran. The opposition of several Christian beliefs, such as the Trinity, the incarnation of God, the divinity and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, which are generally seen to be in contradiction of Islamic beliefs, as well as issues that are indirectly related to the Christian point of view occur in the Quran in the context of proof that the divine message had been corrupted, and that references by Jesus Christ to the coming of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) had been changed. According to the Holy Quran, the prophethood was a continuous chain. The teachings of different prophets were not in contradiction to one another; in fact, quite the opposite, they confirmed one another. For instance, Jesus Christ confirms the validity of the Torah and mentions the prophet that would succeed him (Al-Saff 61/6). The chain of prophethood that continued in this manner was completed with Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), who was the seal of prophets (hatamu’l anbiya). As a matter of fact, his being the last prophet implies that the Holy Quran confirms the divine messages that came before it, indicating that they too are from a divine source, and accepts the veracity of their provisions; in addition, the existence of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) validates the previous books and prophets. In other words, the coming of the prophet and the holy book he brought were means for the confirmation and verification of earlier prophets. The statement by Ali bin Rabban al-Tabari: “If Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) had not come, the messages of the previous prophets would have lost their validity” is an example of such an approach. According to this author, “Allah keeps His promise and does not reverse His messages” (Kitab al-Din wa al-Dawla, p. 66).

Muslims’ Approach to the Holy Bible
Muslims started to read and analyze the Old Testament and the New Testament when they first encountered Christians. One of the main reasons behind this was the need to generate an argument against several principles of Christian faith that contradict Islamic beliefs. For instance, one important method was to prove that basic Christian beliefs, such as the Trinity or the divinity of Jesus Christ, are not supported by the Holy Bible. Another reason was the verses of the Holy Quran that gave reference to the fact that previous divine texts contained references to the coming of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Particularly, the verses of the Holy Quran which state that the coming of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was depicted in both the Torah and the Holy Bible (Al-Araf 7/157), and the statement by Prophet Jesus that mentions the prophet who will follow him, who would be called Ahmad (Al-Saff 61/6), compelled Muslims to search for corresponding statements in the Torah and the Holy Bible. It was the People of the Book (Christians and Jews) who had converted to Islam that first turned to this method due to their familiarity with the Holy Bible. These converts wrote texts that compiled the references found in the Holy Bible (al-Vafa bi-ahvali’l-Mustapha, v. I, p. 73).

As mentioned above, the Holy Quran speaks of previous divine texts in terms of confirmation. It emphasizes that the texts revealed to the prophets were divine and that there was no difference between them. For that reason, the believers are ordered to believe in all prophets “without making distinction between any of them” (Al-Baqarah 2/136, 285). Although the issue is concluded in this way for the source of the divine texts, the Quran adopts a critical approach in view of the process that these divine texts underwent over the course of history. The term “corruption” has an important place in Quranic terminology in terms of the People of the Book. In many verses of the Quran the People of the Book are accused of corrupting and altering the divine message. There are accusations directed towards the People of the Book that they “concealed the truth on purpose” (Al-Imran 3/71) and the issue of corruption of the texts is closely related to references of the advent of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). For instance, al-Tabari (310/923), a well-known interpreter of the early period, regards the term “concealing the truth” to refer to the concealment of texts from the Torah and the Holy Bible that speak of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his prophethood (Jami‘u’l-bayan, v. I, p. 189; v. II, p. 274-275, 375). Indeed, it is possible to say that this comment is based on the Holy Quran. The verses that state that the People of the Book were aware of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) (or the revelation that was to be given to him) as well as their own children, yet purposefully concealed the truth (Al-Baqarah 2/146; Al-Anaam 6/20) seem to have had an affect on this issue.

While criticizing the approaches of Jews and Christians to their sacred books, the issue of the corruption of divine texts became an important concept for new Muslims. Thus, it was emphasized that the text of the Holy Bible, which is believed to have been subjected to corruption and alterations, was not binding for Muslims. It can be seen that the concept of corruption came to be effective in this controversy after the 2nd century of the Hijra (the 8th century according to the Gregorian calendar). The Caliph al-Mahdi, in his meeting with the Nestorian Patriarch Timothy I, emphasizes that the divine texts of the Christians in fact contained numerous references to the coming of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), yet the Christians had made alterations to them and destroyed the texts concerned (Mingana, “The Apology of Timothy”, p. 35, 55). On the other hand, the Caliph provided examples from existing texts of the Holy Bible, which can be interpreted in this context. Consequently, the phrase “Your Lord will reveal among your own brothers a prophet like me,” which was attributed to Prophet Moses in the Torah (Tasniya 18:15, 18) is interpreted as referring to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). As a matter of fact, as has been stated, the prophet mentioned here was to come from among the Israelites and this was seen as evidence that this prophet was to be an Israelite. Moreover, the terms riding on a “donkey” or a “camel” (Isaiah 21:7) were conceived of as being a skill belonging to Prophet Jesus, initially, and then a skill of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). The term paraclete (Arabic form, faraklit), which refers to the coming of Jesus and heralds the divine wisdom and the bringing of people to the truth (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:7), was among the evidence put forward by the Caliph al-Mahdi to prove the prophethood of Holy Muhammad (pbuh). (Mingana, “The Apology of Timothy”, p. 33-39, 50-52).

It is possible to see the same understanding and approach within the Risala of Ibnu’l Leys. Ibnu’l Leys states that the miracles performed by Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), his extraordinary personality, his success in conveying the message, and the conquests of his Companions all support the prophethood of Muhammad (pbuh), and his advent and prophethood were foreseen in both the Torah and Holy Bible. However, the author suggests that the Jews and the Christians misinterpreted and perverted the true meanings of these texts. In this context, Deuteronomy, the Psalms, the Book of Isaiah, the Book of Habakkuk and the Gospel of John are the texts to which he referred and from which he quoted and conveyed verses. Ibnu’l Leys equates the words of Prophet Moses and the Paraclete heralded by Christ with the name “Ahmad” that appears in the Holy Quran. From these phrases; “The Lord came from Sinai, and rose up from Seir unto them; he shone forth from Mount Paran” (Deutronomy 33/2) Ibnu’l Leys sees Mount Sinai as indicating Prophet Moses, Seir Prophet Jesus and Paran Muhammad (pbuh). He defined these three locations respectively as places where the Torah, the Bible and the Quran were imparted unto the prophets (Ibnul Leys, Risala, p. 308-313).

The work of Ali bin Rabban al-Tabari (d. 240/855), Kitab al-Din wa al-Dawla, begins with references to Ishmael and his lineage, interprets and presents certain statements from Prophet Moses, Isaiah, Hosea, Mika, Habakkuk, Jeremiah and Daniel as references to the advent of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). This work, just like the two previous texts, interprets the prophet who is heralded by Prophet Moses as being Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) (Deutronomy 18/15, 18) and the term “Mount Paran” (Deutronomy 33/2) to refer to Mecca. He also assessed the terms derived from the word hamd in the Psalms and the book of Isaiah as indicating the names “Ahmad” and “Muhammad (pbuh)” in accordance with the context (Kitab al-Din wa al-Dawla, p. 66-118). As for the New Testament interpretations of al-Tabari, he states that the term paraclete (John 14:26), that is “one who will teach everything,” uttered by Prophet Jesus refers to none other than Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Apart from this, he followed a new method and calculated the numerical value of the term paraclete with the abjad calculation method, and compared this term with calculation of the phrases Muhammad (pbuh) bin Abdullah an-Nabiyyul-Hadi (Muhammad (pbuh), son of Abdullah, the one who leads to the right path) and Muhammad (pbuh) Rasul Habib Tayyib (Muhammad (pbuh), Cherished and Clean Prophet), stating that the results corresponded. Al-Tabari not only states that the words of Jesus in the New Testament, but also gives accounts from Saint Peter (Petrus I, 4:17) and even from Saint Paul (Galatians 4:22-26) (ibid., p. 118-124). In addition to this, even the Old Testament texts that were used by the Christians as evidence for the advent of Prophet Jesus are interpreted within this context and used as a reference (ibid., p. 117-118). As a matter of fact, he believed that the Christians had misinterpreted these statements and perverted their true meanings. Thus, he criticizes the interpretation of these statements by the people of the book in a rather harsh manner (ibid., p. 17, 111-112, 121, 123-124).

As can be seen from the examples we have presented in this short article, Muslim authors have developed a defensive method, influenced by verses in the Quran, and have read the revealed texts of the People of the Book and interpreted them according to Islam in their debates and dialogue with the People of the Book. In the same way that Christians refer to the Old Testament and use it as evidence to prove the mission of Jesus Christ, Muslims refer to both the Old Testament and the New Testament to prove the prophethood of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). This condition led to the formation of a new field of writing, known as the dala’ilun-nubuvve or basha’irun-nubuvve. The aim of such works is to prove the prophetic mission of Muhammad (pbuh). This was achieved by referring to his unprecedented personality, by describing the miracles he performed, by mentioning the occurrences which he announced before they happened, and by emphasizing the higher qualities of his community. Moreover, the sections which contain and analyze references to the Holy Bible make up a significant part of these works. Genesis, Isaiah, the Psalms, and the Gospel of John are the documents most often referred to on this issue. The statements which derive from the word Hamd, texts which mention the names of places that can be connected to Mecca and its environment, and the term paraclete, mentioned by Jesus, are all considered as proof of the advent of Islam (see Lazarus-Yafeh, Intertwined Worlds, p. 83-110; Adang, Muslim Writers, p. 139-162; 264-266). Furthermore, as has been seen in our last example, among other things, even the abjad calculation method has been used as a means. In this way, a relationship has been formed between the numerical values of certain words in the Old Testament and the New Testament and the numerical values of names and titles of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) to form an analogy.

This article has been written for

Adang, Camilla, Muslim Writers on Judaism and the Hebrew Bible: from Ibn Rabban to Ibn Hazm, Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1996.

Demiri, Lejla, Muslim-Christian Dialogue in the Eighth Century: The Nestorian Patriarch Timothy I and the Abbasid Caliph al-Mahdî, Roma: Pontificia Università Gregoriana (ubpublished M.A.Thesis), 2004.

Dunlop, D. M., “A Letter of Hārūn al-Rashīd to the Emperor Constantine VI”, In Memoriam: Paul Kahle, eds. Matthew Black and Georg Fohrer, Berlin: Alfred Töpelmann, 1968, s. 106-115.

Ibnü’l-Cevzî, el-Vefâ bi-ahvâli’l-Mustafâ, ed. Mustafa Abdü’l-Vâhid, Kahire: Dârü’l-Kütübi’l-Hadîse, 1966.

Ibnü’l-Leys, “Risâle”, Cemheretü resâ’ili’l-‘Arab fī ‘usūri’l-‘Arabiyyeti’l-zâhire, ed. Ahmed Zeki Safvet, Kahire: Mustafa el-Bâbî el-Halebî, 1356/1937, c. III, s. 252-324.

Lazarus-Yafeh, Hava, Intertwined Worlds. Medieval Islam and Bible Criticism, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

________, “Tawrāt”, EI², c. X, s. 393-395.

Mingana, A., “The Apology of Timothy the Patriarch before the Caliph Mahdî”, Woodbrooke Studies (Bulletin of the John Rylands Library), 12 (1928), s. 1-162.

Taberî, Ali b. Rabben, Kitâbü’d-dîn ve’d-devle, ed. A. Mingana, Manchester: University Press, 1923. Ýng. Terc. A. Mingana, The Book of Religion and Empire, Manchester: University Press, 1922.

Taberî, Ebû Câfer, Câmi‘ü’l-beyân ‘an te’vîli âyi’l-Kur’ân, ed. Beþþâr ‘Avvâd Ma‘rûf ve ‘Isâm Fâris el-Harastânî, Beyrut: Mü’essesetü’r-Risâle, 1994.

Watt, Montgomery W., “The Early Development of the Muslim Attitude to the Bible”, Glasgow University Oriental Society Transactions, 16 (1955-6), s. 50-62.

Dr. Lejla Demiri

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