The Prophet Muhammad and Earlier Religions

The Qur`an by being based on a fresh experience with the divine, by transforming earlier stories and/or telling them in a new spirit, and by stating earlier ideas differently and changing their relative value in the overall system has created something very new and powerful


The Prophet Muhammad and Earlier Religions, Especially Judaism and Christianity It is often said that Islam is an off-shoot of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Sometimes it is even said that Islam is a Judeo-Christian heresy. Another form of this type of view attacks the very person of the Prophet of Islam. It is alleged that the Prophet Muhammad took most of his teachings from the Bible or from other Jewish/Christian sources. In particular, he borrowed from the Jews the central belief of his teaching – a strict monotheism and rejection of idol worship.

The implication is that if most of what the Prophet taught, including the central proclamation of Islam, was found in earlier Judeo-Christian tradition, his teachings could not be from direct divine revelation. The fact that Qur`anic versions of older Jewish or Christian traditions can often have radically different elements is attributed to ignorance or misunderstanding or distortion of earlier sources on the part of the Prophet Muhammad or his “informers”.



A closer look at Islam and the Judeo-Christian traditions shows such views to be grossly mistaken. Both the Biblical and Islamic traditions agree that Abraham had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac and that both became ancestors of nations. If so, then it is to be expected that both nations possessed some of Abraham's heritage without any one of them being a borrower from the other. For while one brother may in some ways influence the other they both independently inherit knowledge and some character traits from their father and then pass these on to their descendants.

Independent forms of the Abrahamic heritage

This is confirmed by the fact that as the descendants of Ishmael and Isaac moved to different lands they gave independent forms to the Abrahamic heritage. Among the Ishmaelites the Abrahamic heritage was preserved mainly in the form of some system of regular prayer and charity and some hajj rites which commemorate stories connected with Abraham, Ishmael and Hagar. These rites which predate the writing of the Torah as we have it today have no parallel in the Israelite tradition. Also, most of the traditions enacted in the hajj rites are not told in the Bible, e.g., the running of Hagar between the hills of Safa and Marwa, the (re)building or purification of the shrine in Makkah, the stoning of the devil as he tries to tempt Abraham from doing the will of God, and the sacrifice of an animal to commemorate Abraham's sacrifice of his son for whom God provided a ransom. This establishes that the Ishmaelites preserved the Abrahamic heritage quite independently of the Israelites and makes it probable that at least some elements common to Islam and Judaism may also be the result of the two nations separately preserving that heritage without anyone borrowing from the other. This is probably the case with monotheism. The Qur`an traces its monotheistic message first and foremost to Abrahamic religion (millah; 2:135, 3:95, 4:126, 6:161, 19:123, 22:78)1 and not any Israelite prophet.

All prophets use earlier traditions

The discrediting of Islam and its Prophet by explaining it in terms of simple borrowing from Judeo-Christian tradition also ignores the fact that extensive use of earlier traditions has also been established by critical scholarship in case of Judaism and Christianity and their founding figures. Thus: Many of the stories in the Old Testament, other than some of those that deal specifically with Israeli history, have been traced to Sumerian, Babylonian and Canaanite traditions. For example, the story of Adam and his expulsion from the Garden has been linked to similar Sumerian stories later adopted in the story of Gilgamesh in the Babylonian tradition. The Biblical story of Noah’s flood is also very similar, both in structure and details, to earlier Sumerian and Babylonian traditions. The story about Abraham and earlier ancient ancestors of humanity are also probably of non-Israelite non-Biblical origin. - The Law of Moses has close precedents in the Code of Hammurabi (the king of Babylon from 1792 to 1750 BCE, about five centuries before Moses, who lived in the 13th century BCE).

The first recorded monotheistic system arose in Egypt during the rule of Akhenaten (1353-1337 BCE) who promulaged his monotheistic system a generation before Moses (died 1245 BCE?) and may have in some way influenced the Jewish community in Egypt around the time of Moses. Even if we accept a more tradtional dating of Moses that places him before Akhenaten, the fact remains that Akhenaten’s monotheism is documented many centuries before that of Moses. -  The institution of kingship, which later became the basis of influential messianic prophecy, was borrowed from other nations. According to 1 Sam 8:20, when people ask Samuel to appoint a king over them, they do so in order that they “also may be like other nations”. There are many parallels that have been pointed out by scholars between the kingship ideology of the Israelites and those of the nations around them2.


This should hardly be surprising, since if the Israelites wanted a king to be like other nations, they could hardly have done otherwise than to pattern their kingdom on those that existed around them. -  Some beliefs found in the Biblical and other influential Jewish books such as the Apocrypha have also been traced to non-Jewish origins. For example, the belief in the resurrection, later affirmed by both Christianity and Islam, has been traced to Persia. -  The Talmud contains many ideas taken from Greek and Christian sources. -  As for Christianity, there is hardly anything that Jesus said which the Jewish prophets and rabbis or cynic sages had not said before, including the golden rule and the saying about the love of enemy, of which Christians are so proud. -  Paul, after declaring that the Jewish law was nailed to the cross, had to give to his Churches some rules of conduct and ethical principles of his own. But many of these principles have close parallels to the lists of vices and virtues found in Greek tradition, not to talk of the parallels that Paul’s central proclamation of a dying and rising Lord has with the dying and rising gods of the pagan mystery cults. To be sure that there are many differences between the Judeo-Christian traditions and their earlier Sumerian, Babylonian, Canaanite, Persian, and Greek forms, but why should these differences be not explained by ignorance or misunderstanding or distortion on the part of Biblical and other Jewish and Christian writers or their “informers”? It is better to admit the fact every religion has adopted ideas and traditions found earlier and then turn to the question: Must we conclude that a religion cannot be of divine origin simply because the ideas and traditions it contains existed earlier? The answer to this question is in the negative.

For, there are two possibilities:

 1)        The earlier ideas and traditions used by the religion are revealed by God himself. In this case, God himself may be using his earlier revelations in a new communication, e.g. to make them more effective and relevant in a new situation. This is hardly problematic.

 2)        The earlier ideas and traditions are of human origin. Again there is no problem, for, if divine revelation can use human language, why can’t it also use some human ideas? The truth is that prophets of God like other leaders who want to change people’s thinking and conduct must build on what is already there. They cannot bring completely unfamiliar ideas and achieve much with people. Moreover, since the prophetic revelation deals with basic issues of human existence and salvation, it is only to be expected that people everywhere have thought about these issues and come up with answers, of which some are similar or even identical.

Thus despite some very close parallels between what Moses, Jesus, Muhammad (God bless them all) had to say and what was said before them, they can be true prophets of God bringing genuine divine revelation. It should be noted that even if no new ideas are introduced by a prophet there may be something very new in his words. This something new may be a new expression of the older ideas, an expression that makes it more effective and relevant to a new situation. It may consist of decisions as to which of several interpretations of earlier ideas and traditions are the correct ones. Or, it may be new emphases put on the various ideas and a new way of fitting them into the whole. The post-Mosaic biblical prophets all say very similar things and yet each one of them has something very new. Sometimes something new can be added without any change in the outward form of an existing idea. Take a joke. Two people tell the joke in exactly the same words. One produces yawns and the other laughter. Two conductors conduct the same musical piece with exactly the same notes in exactly the same sequence. One delights the audience, the other disappoints them. In case of the Biblical prophets, the mere freshness of their experience with the divine adds something new to their words, even if the intellectual content of those words may seem very similar.

The unique role of the Prophet of Islam

The Qur`an by being based on a fresh experience with the divine, by transforming earlier stories and/or telling them in a new spirit, and by stating earlier ideas differently and changing their relative value in the overall system has created something very new and powerful which first transformed the Arab nation and subsequently started a process of transforming the whole world which still continues and, according to Islamic belief, will continue till the end of history. It is interesting that the Qur`an itself addresses in many verses the relationship of Islam with earlier religious traditions. Thus it tells us that the Prophet of Islam did not come to introduce any innovation in religion (46:9) but teaches the same religion that was taught by earlier prophets (42:13) and that is based on unchanging fitrah or true nature of human beings (30:30). In earlier times prophets were raised among all nations (16:36). The similarity of the teachings of the true prophets of God concerns its essence but not all the details. The essence of all true religions is a relationship with the one transcendent and holy God, a moral life, and good deeds, with implicit or explicit belief in the hereafter and future judgment (5:69, 98:5).

This does not change, but details of ritual procedures and regulations/conventions for organizing community life may differ from religion to religion (5:48, 22:67, 45:17). The true prophets of God also differ in the roles they perform in history. Some play a more foundational role, others more reforming or supporting role.


The role of the Prophet Muhammad is mainly defined by the following functions

- Providing a universal expression to the religious truth. In many different chapters of the Qur`an, coming from different periods, the Prophet is presented as a messenger of God to all humankind and all people of the world are explicitly addressed (6:90, 7:158, 10:57, 12:104, 21:107, 25:1, 38:87, 68:52, 81:27, 98:1-3).

-  Providing resolutions of important differences that existed earlier. Thus in reference to the Jews the Qur`an says: This Qur`an indeed relates to the children of Israel most of what they differ in. And it is surely guidance and mercy to the believers (27:76-77) Many ideas in Judaism and Christianity oppose each other and while some diversity is positive and inevitably exists in all traditions, in other cases we want to know the truth. One may say that we should simply leave people to choose which of the opposing ideas are true. But if people were so smart why is there any need of divine revelation at all? If there is God and he communicates with humanity through revelation, then we should expect that at least in some important matters such as whether there is resurrection or not, he would provide some guidance. It is noteworthy that, as shown by the word “most” in the above verse, the Qur`an does not aim to settle all differences. Elsewhere it says that some differences between people will only be settled in the hereafter (22:17).

-  Providing complete and balanced teaching. Human beings can come up with very good ideas but they often get carried away with their good ideas and cannot hold them in balance with other good ideas. Mercy and compassion are a very good idea but so are justice and law of retaliation. How to hold the two in balance? Having a law is a very good idea but so is the idea that there is a spirituality that transcends the law and without which law can indeed cease to be a life giving force. How to balance the two ideas so that the law is not rejected as a curse nor does it become a curse? Pluralism is good but so is making a distinction between truth and falsehood, right and wrong. How to see truth and goodness in other traditions and at the same time take these distinctions seriously? Universal view of religious truth is a great idea but for religious truth to be manifested and advanced, it has to be experienced by some individuals and communities at particular times and places. How to maintain a universal outlook on religious truth without reducing it to a set of abstract, intellectually satisfying ideas and how to define it in terms of the individuals, communities or circumstances in relation to which its manifestation takes place without getting lost in those individuals, communities, or circumstances? Muslims believe that the Qur`an strikes the necessary  balance, even if they themselves cannot often maintain it. One Christian who converted to Islam gave his reason for conversion as follows: Islam is like a perfect building, where there is everything and everything is where it should be.

-  Providing more focus on what is really important and necessary. Jewish tradition, being the work of many individuals over many centuries, is so vast that you can find almost every religious idea somewhere in the Bible, the apocrypha, and the rabbinical writings in the Talmud etc. This has one advantage: anything a follower of another religion says, the Jews can point to some of their sources and say: “the idea is found in our religion and so we do not have to listen to you, much less follow you.” The situation is somewhat similar in Christianity, although in that religion a few trinitarian and redemptive dogmas and talk (but not so much the practice) of love tend to push everything else aside.

But the vast and tremendous diversity of ideas also has a disadvantage: important religious ideas and spiritual and moral principles get diluted and confused, if not buried under the massive weight of tradition. The emphasis then shifts towards something other than the essential religious, spiritual, and moral principles. In Judaism the emphasis gets put on nation while in Christianity focus is on the person of Christ. Neither Moses nor Jesus taught any such emphasis. From another angle the situation can be described thus: In his/her spiritual and moral journey a Jew travels with a lot of heavy baggage while a Christian (by concentrating on the messianic prophecy and doing away with other elements of earlier traditions including the law) travels with an insufficient amount of luggage. God Most High in his mercy sent the Prophet Muhammad to provide spiritual and moral seekers just the right amount and type of baggage for their important journey.

Notes 1.  Here one may raise two objections: a)      Abraham was not a monotheist, since the Torah suggests that his grandson Jacob had figurines of gods in his house (Gen 31:30-35). But, since the writing of Torah was not completed until around 450 BCE, almost 15 centuries after Abraham, we cannot reject Abraham’s monotheism on the basis of polytheistic tendencies in the existing Torah. Just think of the case of another figure who is known to be a monotheist: Jesus. Most of the traditions about Jesus were formed and written down within about 150 years after his departure. Yet, on the basis of those traditions Jesus himself has become God the Son, separate in person from God the Father. Imagine if those traditions were written a thousand years after him!!! A strong argument in favor of Abraham’s monotheism or at least very strong monotheistic tendency is that two religious traditions that adopted monotheism with the greatest seriousness and  persistence --- Islam and Judaism – both trace their origin to Abraham. That is, Islam and Judaism are like two independent and hence reliable witnesses to the monotheism of Abraham. b)    


By the time Islam came on the scene the descendents of Ishmael had become pagans, so Islam’s monotheistic teachings must have been derived from Judaism and Christianity. In connection with this objection, it may be admitted that paganism was indeed the dominant religion in Arabia at the time of the Prophet Muhammad. But this does not mean that monotheistic ideas had ceased to exist. Once again the example of Christianity illustrates the point. Although in Christianity trinitarian view of God became dominant in the fourth century, a strict monotheism had always existed within

Christianity, sometimes as an undercurrent and sometimes as separate organized churches. When the Qur`an calls the pagan Arabs to the monotheistic heritage of Abraham, they do not object by saying that Abraham was not a monotheist. They do not tell Muhammad that the idols they worshipped were also worshipped by Abraham and Ishmael. 2. Thus Babylonian, Assyrian, and Egyptian kings are said to be sons of God or gods who bring comfort and joy to the downtrodden, defeat the oppressors, and bring blessings, peace and prosperity; they are chosen by the gods to make right shine in the country; they defeat the enemies and rule from sea to sea and are lords of the whole world (Helmut Ringgren, The Messiah in the Old Testament, SCM Press, London, 1956). Very similar things are said of the Israelite kings in the Old Testament (Psalms 72: 1-9, 89:27, 110: 1-2, 132:10-12, 1 Chronicles 22:10).

By: Dr. Ahmad Shafaat (January 2003)
http://www.islamicperspectives.com/ProphetMuhammad.htm

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