Contextual Displacement in Jewish and Christian Sources


In my book The Mystery of The Historical Jesus: The Messiah in the Qur’an, the Bible, and Historical Sources I coined the term “contextual displacement.” This term denotes a very important concept that is critical to understanding a certain class of differences between the Qur’an and Jewish and Christian writings. In this article, which is largely based on a section from my book on the historical Jesus, I explain the concept of “contextual displacement.”

The Qur’an attributes the inauthenticity of the Bible to two forms of textual manipulation by the latter’s authors, editors, and copyists: textual addition and textual corruption. These two explain the differences between the Qur’an and Jewish and Christian sources.

Textual addition denotes the practice of introducing passages that were never part of the revealed divine book, so they are completely the creation of their respective authors. These are also likely to have been modified, deliberately or inadvertently, by later editors and copyists. One Qur’anic verse criticizes “those who write the book with their hands and then say ‘This is from Allah’ to get a small price for it” (2.79). Examples of added texts include the passages that promote Jesus’ divinity. These were never part of the Injil — the book that God revealed to Jesus — and were added by their respective authors and editors to Christian sources.

Textual corruption, on the other hand, signifies the practice of changing original divine texts. Any passage that was developed from one that was in the original divine book is an instance of textual corruption. This may involve deleting parts of the original passage or adding to it. This is one verse that confirms that the Biblical authors altered the divine text:

Do you [O you who believe!] hope that they (Children of Israel) would believe with you when a party from among them used to hear the Word of Allah and then alter it after they had understood it, knowingly? (2.75).

 One example of textual corruption in the Bible is its description of the image in which God created man. This is what the Old Testament says:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Gen. 1:26-27)

The Qur’an only says that God gave man a good image, without relating it to the image of God. The image of God is a concept that does not make sense in the Qur’an, because “there is nothing like Him” (42.11):

It is Allah who has made for you the earth as a resting place, and the sky as a canopy, and has shaped you, making your shapes good, and has provided for you sustenance, of things pure and good. Such is Allah your Lord. So blessed is Allah, the Lord of the peoples (40.64).

The statement that God made man look good which was in the original Torah was changed by the authors of the Book of Genesis to another that states that God created man in His own image.

There is one form of textual corruption that is particularly relevant to any comparative study of history in the Qur’an and the Bible. This type of textual corruption denotes the instances where a character, event, or statement appears in one context in the Qur’an and in a different context in other sources. I will call this form of textual corruption “contextual displacement.”

The Qur’an uses the Arabic verb harrafa — which means “alter,” “change,” or “move away from” — when talking about the tampering that the Torah and Injil were subjected to. Interestingly, in three of these verses, the verb is used in combination with the Arabic word mawadi‘ which means “contexts” or “places”:

Allah best knows your [O you who believe!] enemies. Allah is sufficient as a Guardian, and Allah is sufficient as a Supporter (4.45). [Your enemies] from among the Jews who alter words from their contexts (4.46).

Because of their breaking of their covenant, We have cursed them and made their hearts grow hard, altering words from their contexts and forgetting a part of what they were reminded of. You [O Muhammad!] will not cease to discover treachery from them except a few. So forgive them and overlook [their misdeeds]. Allah loves the good-doers (5.13).

O Messenger! Let not them grieve you, those who vie one with another in the race to disbelief, among those who say with their mouths: “We believe,” but their hearts did not believe, and of the Jews who listen to falsehood, listen to other folk who have not come to you [who] alter words from their contexts (5.41).

Displacing words and changing their contexts or “contextual displacement” is what these verses talk about. Contextual displacements are seen by those who consider the Bible as the word of God and even secular scholars as proofs that the Qur’an has copied inaccurately from the older sources. The Qur’an’s explanation is that it reports the true contexts, and that any different contexts in Jewish and Christian writings resulted from changes made to the Torah, Injil, or other divine revelations by man. In other words, these are the result of Jewish and Christian authors moving figures, events, and statements from their correct, original contexts. In some cases, there is no external information or internal consistency problem that can allow an independent observer to tell which of the two contradictory accounts is the correct one and which one represents a contextual displacement. But in many cases, this is perfectly possible and at times even clearly obvious. My argument is that every time this is possible, it is the Qur’anic account that proves to be internally consistent and in line with external evidence, whereas the corresponding account in the Jewish or Christian sources has an inconsistency problem and/or is in conflict with external information.

One example of contextual displacement is found in the Biblical book of Esther. The story of Esther is known to be unhistorical, so it must have been invented by its authors, i.e. it is a textual addition. But the story has a Haman who is described as the prime minister in the court of the Persian king Ahasuerus. A character with the same name appears in the Qur’an as a high ranking minister in Pharaoh’s court. This is an instance of contextual displacement where a character has been moved by the Biblical authors from one context to another. I have dedicated a chapter in my book The Mystery of Israel in Ancient Egypt: The Exodus in the Qur’an, the Old Testament, Archaeological Finds, and Historical Sources to explain in detail why Haman must have been an Egyptian rather than Persian figure.

In the case of Haman’s identity, for example, the Qur’an’s story was revealed by God and is therefore true, whereas the identification of the Old Testament resulted from moving Haman from the story of Moses, which was part of the Torah, to a completely different story.

Let me cite another contextual displacement, but this time from Christian sources. The Qur’an describes the birth of Jesus and following events as follows:

And the pangs of childbirth drove her (Mary) to the trunk of a palm tree. She said: “I wish I had died before this and had become someone totally forgotten!” (19.23). Then he (Jesus) called her from beneath her: “Do not grieve! Your Lord has placed a rivulet beneath you (19.24). And shake the trunk of the palm tree toward you, and it will let fall fresh dates upon you (19.25). So eat, drink, and be consoled. If you meet any human being, say: ‘I have vowed a fast to God, so I will not speak today to any person’” (19.26). Then she brought him to her people, carrying him. They said: “O Mary! You have come up with a grave thing (19.27). O sister of Aaron! Your father was not a bad man, and your mother was not an unchaste woman” (19.28). Then she pointed to him. They said: “How can we talk to one who is a child in the cradle?” (19.29). He said: “I am Allah’s servant. He has given me the Book and has appointed me a prophet (19.30). He has made me blessed wherever I may be. He has enjoined upon me prayer and almsgiving so long as I remain alive (19.31). And [He has made me] kind to my mother and has not made me arrogant or wretched (19.32). Peace is on me the day I was born, the day I shall die, and the day I shall be raised alive” (19.33).

Jesus spoke immediately after his birth to his mother to console her, mention the miraculous appearance of food and drink, and ask her not to talk to people. He then spoke in the cradle to his mother’s people to defend her against their accusations. So the miracle is placed in a logical and understandable context.

But we find in the apocryphal Arabic Gospel of the Infancy this different account:

Jesus spoke even when he was in the cradle, and said to his mother: “Mary, I am Jesus the Son of God, that word, which you did bring forth according to the declaration of the angel Gabriel to you, and my father has sent me for the salvation of the world.” (AraIn. 1:2-3)

Jesus is shown here telling his mother that he was Jesus her son whom she gave birth to according to the news that she received from Gabriel.  But Mary already knew this, so there was no reason for him to say it! The miracle is poorly weaved into the fabric of the story. This is another example of a miracle that the apocryphal writer, or his source, was aware of but did not know correctly its context so the report is poorly integrated into the story. It is a contextual displacement. The Injil, which God revealed to Jesus, is certain to have included a lot of details about Jesus’ life and miracles. The miracle of speaking in the cradle to defend his mother was one of them.

There are many differences between the Qur’an and Jewish and Christian sources, including the Old and New Testaments, that can be convincingly explained as contextual displacements in these sources.

Copyright © 2009 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved.


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