History in the Qur’an
This article is adapted from The Mystery Of The Historical Jesus: The Messiah in the Qur’an, the Bible, and Historical Sources
Those who are familiar with the style of the Bible get surprised, and even baffled, when they read a translation of the Qur’an. Unlike the Bible which addresses most issues in the context of relating history, the Qur’an is not a history book. Although it contains historical stories about righteous and sinful individuals and nations, these are very limited. Additionally, the Qur’an has a unique style even in relating history. Understanding this aspect of the Qur’an is vital when studying its historical accounts. This short appendix should be particularly useful to the reader who is not familiar with the Qur’an or expects the Qur’an to have a similar style to other religious or historical texts, such as the Bible.
One attribute that characterizes the Qur’anic text in general and appears in different forms is succinctness. One manifestation of the Qur’an’s succinct eloquence is that its text often does not mention explicitly information that can be concluded from or found in another Qur’anic text. This is better explained with examples from the Qur’an, such as the following set of verses which start with God’s command to Prophets Moses and Aaron:
So go you both to him (Pharaoh) and say: “We are two messengers from your Lord; therefore send the Children of Israel with us and do not torment them; we have brought to you a sign from your Lord, and peace be upon him who follows the right guidance (20.47). Verily it has been revealed to us that torture will come upon him who rejects [the message] and turns away” (20.48). He said: “So who is your Lord, O Moses?” (20.49). He said: “Our Lord is He who created everything, then guided it [to its course]” (20.50). He said: “Then what about the former generations?” (20.51). He said: “The knowledge thereof is with my Lord, in a book; my Lord errs not, nor does He forget” (20.52).
The Qur’an reveals in verses 20.47 and 20.48 the essence of the message that God ordered Moses and Aaron to convey to Pharaoh. When it informs us in verse 20.49 of the debate that Moses and Aaron had with Pharaoh, the Qur’an does not mention what the two Prophets said to Pharaoh, because it is the same message mentioned in the previous two verses. The verse starts with Pharaoh’s reply to the message. It is as if the Qur’an says implicitly after verses 20.48 “and Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and conveyed to him what God had ordered them to tell him.”
Note also the Qur’an’s use of “He said” without specifying the identity of the speaker in each case. The reason is that the context leaves no ambiguity that the speakers are Moses and Pharaoh, and it makes clear also who said what.
The Qur’an often bypasses details that are given prominence in traditional recounting of history. For instance, it is common for the Qur’an not to mention the names of main characters and places in a story. Examples of prominent characters in Qur’anic stories whose names are not mentioned include Adam’s wife and two sons and Joseph’s eleven brothers. The latter are referred to throughout chapter 12 of the Qur’an, but never with their names. This is another example of a prophet that the Qur’an refers to but without mentioning his name:
Have you not considered [O Muhammad!] how the chiefs of the Children of Israel who came after Moses said to a Prophet of theirs: “Set up for us a king and we will fight in the way of Allah.” He said: “May it be that you would not fight if fighting was ordained for you?” They said: “Why would we not fight in the way of Allah having been driven out of our homes, and for the sake of our children?” But when fighting was ordained for them, they turned away except a few of them; and Allah knows the wrongdoers (2.246). And their Prophet said to them: “Surely Allah has raised Saul to be a king for you.” They said: “How can he hold kingship over us when we have a greater right to kingship than he, and he has not been granted abundant wealth?” He said: “Surely Allah has chosen him in preference to you, and He has increased him abundantly in knowledge and body; Allah grants His kingdom to whom He pleases”; and Allah is Embracing, Knowing (2.247). And their Prophet said to them: “Surely the sign of His kingship is that there shall come to you the Ark, in which there is tranquility from your Lord and a remnant of what the house of Moses and the house of Aaron have left, which will be carried by angels; surely there is a sign in this for you if you are believers” (2.248).
Although God refers to Saul with his name, He refers to the prophet in the three verses with his title only and does not reveal his name.
There are also many instances of places and cities that God refers to in various places in the Qur’an without naming or specifying them explicitly, such as the place to which Adam descended (2.36, 7.24), the village to which Jonah was sent (10.98), and the birthplace of Jesus (19.23).
Let us take another example. The Qur’an mentions in lengthy detail in several places the suffering of a certain prophet at the hand of his disbelieving people, and God’s subsequent revenge on those people. Nevertheless, not many details are given about the revenge itself, as often only the type of punishment is mentioned and the perishing of the disbelievers stressed. For instance, God reveals in several chapters various details of the story of Prophet Hūd, but He does not mention many details of the punishment of his disbelieving people:
So We saved him (Hūd) and those with him by a mercy from Us, and We cut off the last of those who rejected Our signs and did not become believers (7.72).
And when Our decree came to pass, We saved Hūd and those who believed with him with a mercy from Us, and We saved them from a severe torment (11.58). And that was [the people of] ‘Ād; they denied the signs of their Lord, disobeyed His Messengers, and followed the bidding of every insolent oppressor (11.59). And they were pursued by a curse in this world and on the Day of Resurrection; Lo! Surely ‘Ād disbelieved in their Lord; away with ‘Ād, the people of Hūd! (11.60).
So they rejected him (Hūd); therefore We destroyed them. Surely there is a sign in this, but most of them (the disbelievers in general) would not believe (26.139).
The punishment represents the end and climax of the struggle of Hūd against his people. Details of this event would have been given particular importance in traditional story telling. The Qur’an, in contrast, mentions only God’s aid to His prophet and His destruction of the disbelievers.
Another attribute of the Qur’an’s style in recounting historical stories is that the details of any particular story are usually found in more than one place. Building a complete picture of that story in the Qur’an would require compiling all its details from the various chapters. One example is the story of Jesus. The story of Joseph is mentioned in its entirety in the chapter that is named after that prophet; but this is an exception, not the rule.
An event may be described in different, but consistent, ways in different chapters, to reflect what God wants to emphasize and highlight in each chapter. For example, a historical conversation may be cited in different chapters using a number of different wordings to convey the meaning of that dialog. We must not forget that often the original language of a dialog was not the Arabic of the Qur’an, if Arabic at all, such as the dialogs between various prophets and their peoples. The verses below, which come from different chapters, describe the first dialog between God and Moses. They use different wordings to describe the same events. These chapters also differ with respect to the type and amount of information they give about that dialog:
When Moses said to his family: “Surely I have perceived a fire. I shall either bring you tidings thence, or I shall bring you a burning firebrand so that you may warm yourselves” (27.7). So when he came to the fire he heard a call: “Blessed is Whoever is in the fire and whoever is around it, and glory be to Allah, the Lord of the people (27.8). O Moses! It is Me, Allah, the Invincible, the Wise” (27.9). [And it was said to him]: “Throw down your staff.” And when he saw it moving as if it was a snake, he turned away fleeing without retracing his steps; [and it was said to him]: “O Moses! Fear not, for messengers are not to fear in My presence (27.10). Neither he who, after doing wrong, does good instead of evil, for surely I am Forgiving, Merciful” (27.11). [And it was said to him]: “Enter your hand into your bosom, it will come out white, showing no harm; [go with this] as one of nine signs to Pharaoh and his people; surely they are a rebellious people [against Me]” (27.12).
Then, when Moses had fulfilled the term and left in the night with his family, he perceived [at a distance] a fire at the side of the Mount and said to his family: “Tarry here; I have perceived a fire that I might bring to you tidings thence, or a firebrand that you may warm yourselves” (28.29). And when he came to the fire, he heard a call from the right coast of the valley in the spot that was blessed because of the tree: “O Moses! It is Me, Allah, the Lord of the peoples” (28.30). [And it was said to him]: “Throw down your staff.” And when he saw it move as if it was a snake, he turned away fleeing without retracing his steps. [And it was said to him]: “O Moses! Draw nigh and do not fear for you are one of those who are secure (28.31). Enter your hand into your bosom and it will come out white, showing no harm; and guard your heart against fear, for these shall be two proofs from your Lord to Pharaoh and his chiefs; for they are a rebellious people [against Me]” (28.32). He said: “My Lord! I have killed one of them and I fear that they will kill me (28.33). My brother Aaron speaks better than me, therefore make him a messenger and a helper to confirm me; I fear that they will accuse me of telling lies” (28.34). He said: “We shall strengthen you with your brother, and We shall give to you both authority so they shall not be able to reach you [for harm] on account of our signs; you both and those who follow you will be the victorious” (28.35).
And when your Lord [O Muhammad!] called Moses [saying]: “Go to the wrongdoing people (26.10) — the people of Pharaoh. Will they not act dutifully?” (26.11). He said: “My Lord! I fear that they will accuse me of telling lies (26.12). And my breast will be straitened, and my tongue will not speak fluently, therefore make Aaron a messenger [to help me] (26.13). And they have a charge of crime against me, so I fear that they will kill me” (26.14). He said: “By no means [will they hurt you]. So go you both with Our sings; We shall be with you, hearing (26.15). So, both of you go to Pharaoh and say: ‘We are messengers of the Lord of the people (26.16). Let the Children of Israel leave with us’” (26.17).
There is another prominent attribute that characterizes the Qur’an’s untraditional style in relating historical stories. Events that are mentioned in successive verses may or may not be related, and if they were related, the fact that they are mentioned immediately after each other does not necessarily mean that the latter event happened immediately before the first. In such cases, starting the narration of the second event with the article idh (when), rather than with thumma (then) or fa (“therefore” or “so”), often indicates the lapse of a period of time since the first event, the unrelatedness of the two events, or both. This is one example of two verses which we studied in detail in the book (§16.4 and §21.2.1). Both events are parts of the Jesus story, but the second event is unrelated to the first and is separate from it temporally, so the second verse is started with idh (when):
Lo! When I inspired the companions: “Believe in Me and in My messenger.” They said: “We believe. Bear witness that we are Muslims” (5.111). Lo! When the companions said: “O Jesus son of Mary! Can your Lord send down for us a table of food from heaven?” He said: “Observe your duty to Allah, if you are true believers” (5.112).
One last point that should be mentioned is that there are a number of verses that refer to historical details revealed in the Qur’an and stress that this information became known to Prophet Muhammad only through the Qur’an. These verses imply or explicitly state that had Muhammad not been a true Prophet of God, he would not have known these historical accounts. For instance, after relating the story of Prophet Noah, God states:
Those are some tidings of the unseen which We reveal to you [O Muhammad!]; you did not know them nor did your people before this [the Qur’an]; so be patient; the [prosperous] end is for the dutiful ones (11.49).
The term “tidings” in the following verse denotes the plot of Joseph’s brothers to get rid of him — another story that the Prophet learned about through the Qur’an: These are some tidings of the unseen which We reveal to you [O Muhammad!], and you were not with them (Joseph’s brothers) when they concerted their plans together when they were scheming (12.102). Another example is God’s following words about His revelation to Prophet Moses:
And We gave Moses the Book, after We destroyed the generations of old, [as] clear testimonies for people, and a guidance and a mercy, that they may remember (28.43). And you [O Muhammad!] were not on the western side [of the Mount] when We handed the matter to Moses, and you were not one of the witnesses (28.44). But We brought forth generations, and their lives dragged on for them; and you were not dwelling with the people of Midian, reciting to them Our verses, but We have sent [you as] a Messenger (28.45). And you were not on the side of the Mount when We called [Moses], but this [knowledge that We have revealed to you] is a mercy from your Lord for you to warn a people to whom no warner before you came, that they may give heed (28.46).
God stresses that the Prophet was not on the western side of the Mount to know about the Tablets of the Torah, which He wrote for Moses there, nor was he living among the people of Midian to know of what happened to Moses there after he left Egypt escaping Pharaoh’s wrath. God explains that Muhammad acquired this knowledge because God made him one of His Messengers: “but We have sent [you as] a Messenger.” In other words, that knowledge is proof that Muhammad is indeed a Messenger of God. Finally, God reminds His Messenger that he was not on the side of the Mount when God called on Moses, but that He has given him this knowledge as a mercy from Him so that he would warn people who had not had a warner before him “that they may give heed.” Confirming the prophethood of Muhammad and the divine source of the Qur’an is one goal that historical accounts in the Qur’an has.
Verse 3.44 makes a similar statement about God’s revelation of historical details about Mary’s childhood.
Copyright © 2007 Louay Fatoohi
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