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Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian Sources of the Koran

by Will Durant?

As the style of the Koran is modeled on that of the Hebrew prophets, so its contents are largely an adaptation of Judaic doctrines, tales, and themes. The Koran, which excoriates the Jews, is the sincerest flattery they have ever received. Its basic ideas-monotheism, prophecy, faith, repentance, the Last Judgment, heaven and hell, seem Jewish in proximate origin, even in form and dress. It deviated from Judaism chiefly in insisting that the Messiah had come.

Mohammed frankly reports contemporary accusations that his revelations were "nothing but a fraud which he hath fabricated, and other people have helped him therein, . . . dictating to him morning and evening" (xxv, g; xvi, 105). He generously accepts the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures as divinely revealed (iii, 48).

God has given man 104 revelations, of which only four have been preserved-the Pentateuch to Moses, the Psalms to David, the Gospel to Jesus, the Koran to Mohammed; who so rejects any one of these is, in Mohammed's view, an infidel. But the first three have suffered such corruption that they can no longer be trusted; and the Koran now replaces them.

There have been many inspired prophets, e.g., Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Enoch, Christ, but last and greatest, Mohammed. From Adam to Christ Mohammed accepts all the narratives of the Bible, but occasionally amends them to save the divine honor; so God did not really let Jesus die on the cross (iv, 157).

The Prophet alleges the agreement of the Koran with the Bible as proof of his divine mission, and interprets various Biblical 30 as predicting his own birth and apostolate. From the Creation to the Last Judgment he uses Jewish ideas.

Allah is Yahweh; Allah is a contraction of Allah, an old Kaaba god; a kindred word was used in various forms in divers Semitic languages to express divinity, so the Jews used Elohim, and Christ on the cross, appealed to Eli. Both Allah and Yahweh are gods of compassion, but they are also stern and warlike deities, capable of many human passions, and resolved to have no other god besides them. The Shema' Yisrael of the Jewish ritual, affirming the unity of God, is repeated in the first article of Moslem belief, "There is no god but Allah." The Koranic refrain that Allah is "gracious and compassionate" echoes the same frequent phrase in the Talmud.'

The designation of Allah as Rahrnan, the merciful, recalls the rabbinical use of Rahmana for Yahweh in the Talmudic age. The Talmud loves to say, "The Holy One, Blessed be He"; Moslem literature follows with the oft-repeated words, "Allah" (or "Mohammed"), "Blessed be he." Apparently the Jews who acquainted the Prophet with the Bible also gave him snatches of the Talmud; a hundred passages in the Koran echo the Mishna and the Gemaras.

The teachings of the Koran about angels, the resurrection, and heaven follow the Talmud rather than the Old Testament. Stories that make up a fourth of the Koran can be traced to haggadic (illustrative) elements in the Talmud. Where the Koran narratives vary from the Biblical accounts (as in the story of Joseph) they usually accord with variations already existing in the haggadic literature of the pre-Moslem Jews.

From the Mishna and Halakah-the oral law of the Jews-Mohammed seems to have derived many elements of ritual, even minute details of diet and hygiene. Ceremonial purification before prayer is enjoined, and the hands may be washed with sand if no water can be had-precisely the rabbinical formula. The Jewish institution of the Sabbath pleased Mohammed; he adopted it with a distinction in making Friday a day of prayer for the Moslems.

The Koran, like the Mosaic Law, forbids the eating of blood, or the flesh of swine or dogs, or of any animal that has died of itself, or has been killed by another animal, or has been offered to an idol (v, ~ vi, 146); the Koran, however, allows the eating of camels flesh, which Moses forbade, but which was sometimes the only flesh food available in the desert. The Moslem method of fasting followed the Hebrew model.

The Jews were bidden by their rabbis to pray thrice daily, facing toward Jerusalem and the Temple, and to prostrate themselves with forehead to the ground; Mohammed adapted these rules to Islam. The first chapter of the Koran, which is the basic prayer of Islam, is essentially Judaic. The lovely greeting of the Hebrew, Shalom aleichem- parallels the noble "Peace be with you" of Islam. Finally, the Talmudic heaven, like the Koranic paradise, is one of frankly physical, as well as ecstatically spiritual, delights.

Some of these elements in creed and practice may have been a common heritage of the Semites; some of them-angels, devils, Satan, heaven, hell, the resurrection, the Last Judgment-had been taken by the Jews from Babylonia or Persia, and may have gone directly from Persia to Islam.

In Zoroastrian, as in Mohammedan, eschatology, the resurrected dead must walk upon a perilous bridge over a deep abyss; the wicked fall into hell, the good pass into a paradise where they enjoy, among other dainties, the society of women (houris) whose beauty and ardor will last forever. To Jewish theology, ethics, and ritual, and Persian eschatology, Mohammed added Arab demonology, pilgrimage, and the Kaaba ceremony, and made Islam.

His debt to Christianity was slighter. If we may judge from the Koran, he knew Christianity very imperfectly, its Scriptures only at second hand, its theology chiefly in Persian Nestorian form. His earnest preaching of repentance in fear of the coming Judgment has a Christian tinge. He confuses Mary (Heb. Miriam) the mother of Jesus with Miriam the sister of Moses, and misled by the rising worship of Mary in Christendom-thinks that Christians look upon her as a goddess forming a trinity with the Father and Christ (v, 3 16).

He accepts several uncanonical legends about Jesus and the Virgin Birth (iii, 47xxi,9i). lIe modestly acknowledges the miracles of Jesus, while making no claim to such powers for himself (iii, 48; v, iio). Like the Docetists, he thinks that God put a phantom in Christ's place on the cross, and drew Him up to heaven unhurt. But Mohammed stopped short of making Jesus the Son of God. "Far is it removed from Allah's transcendent majesty that He should have a son" (iv, 17 i). He begs "the people of the Scripture" to "come to an agreement between us and you, that we shall worship none but Allah" (iii, 64).

All in all, despite deprecating intimacy with them, Mohammed was well disposed toward Christians. "Consort in the world kindly with Christians" (xxxi, 15). Even after his quarrel with the Jews he counseled toleration toward the "people of the Book"-i.e., the Jews and the Christians.*

Mohammedanism, though as fanatic as any faith, concedes that others than Moslems may be saved (v, 7~), and requires its followers to honor the "Law" (the Old Testament), the Gospel, and the Koran as all constituting "the X Word of God"; here was a refreshing breadth of view. Mohammed adjures the Jews to obey their Law, Christians to obey the Gospel (v, 72); but he invites them to accept also the Koran as God's latest pronouncement. The earlier revelations had been corrupted and abused; now the new one would unite them, cleanse them, and offer all mankind an integrating, invigorating faith.

*The term and policy were later extended to the Persians as also having a sacred book, the Avesta.

Excerpts from Will Durant's The Age of Faith Pages 162-186 Pub. 1950


I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life. I believe the equality of man, and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy. Thomas Paine