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The Unlettered Prophet (13)
Khalid Masud
(Tr. by:Nikhat Sattar)

The Call for Help from the Quraysh to the Jews

The Qur’an was delivering a series of attacks on the beliefs, worship rituals and religious concepts of the Quraysh and the Prophet (sws) was communicating these in totality to his followers.  The Quraysh tried to find convincing answers to the questions raised and thus to satisfy the people, but they soon realized that their efforts were puny in front of the majesty of the divine text. They sent one of their leaders, Nadr ibn Harith to the Jewish elders of Madinah to convince them to resist the Prophet (sws) and to give the Quraysh some additional information which they could use as a reference against the Qur’an. The Jews had so far either remained indifferent, or given some occasional advice to their Makkan friends that they used to raise as objections, but after Nadr ibn Harith’s visit, were fully mobilized. This is the reason why there is little mention of the People of the Book during the early days of Prophethood in the Qur’an, but the activities of these enemies of Islam has been disclosed openly in later years. This shows that these people were not only fully aware of the message of the Prophet (sws), but they provided the Quraysh with the necessary moral, intellectual and political support to stand up to him.

The purpose of Nadr ibn Harith’s mission appears to be to assess the views of the People of the Book about the Prophet (sws): was he really a prophet as he claimed, or was he merely attempting to impose upon them by declaring himself as one? What were the signs by which a prophet could be recognized? How should they behave towards him? It is obvious that the birth of the promised prophet among the Quraysh was an event that must have been highly vexatious for the People of the Book. They knew from the predictions contained in the holy books that a great prophet was to arrive, and they had assigned expectations of rewards from God and power over other nations of the world to him. They had hoped that the last prophet would be from the long line of prophets, within the Israelites. It was a faint hope because the predictions made by earlier prophets were not specific about the promised prophet being from the Israelites.

The Jews had always viewed the Ishmaelites with contempt, so news of the last prophet from their people was not a happy one for them. On the other hand, it was a fact that the Quraysh were the leaders of the Arabs, and if the Prophet (sws) was to be resisted openly, it was likely that the innate nationalism of the Arabs might have made them resentful. The People of the Book seem to have planned with great care. They adopted a two-fold strategy during the Makkan phase. One was to keep a watchful eye on how the new prophet hood stages developed, and the other to incite the Quraysh to act against the message of the Qur’an, but refrain from becoming one of the parties as far as possible.


Objections on the Qur’an being a Wahi

Whenever the Prophet (sws) presented a message of the Qur’an, he clarified that it was a wahi from God and that he had been ordered to communicate it to the people. The People of the Book at first tried to convince the Quraysh that anyone who made such a claim was false because there was no reason for God to send his wahi through a human being. The Qur’an itself revealed this villainy thus:

 And they did give true appreciation to Allah when they said: “Allah did not reveal to a human being anything.” Say: “Who revealed the Scripture that Moses brought as light and guidance to the people? You [Jews] make it into pages, disclosing [some of] it and concealing much. And you were taught that which you knew not - neither you nor your fathers.” Say: “Allah [revealed it].” Then leave them in their [empty] discourse, amusing themselves. (6:91)

It is surprising that they thought of such a meaningless objection since their own identity was based on the fact they could understand and recognize wahi and spiritual revelations.  They were probably trying to take advantage of the naiveté and lack of knowledge of matters related to wahi. This is why the Qur’an asked about the source of the Book (Torah) that was revealed to Moses (sws). If mankind needed divine guidance at that time, did it not need it now? Had God retired from His responsibility to guide human beings? If the people to whom the Torah had come had decided to hide parts of the revealed message, would God leave his creation to falter in the dark? These claimants of God consciousness understood Him so poorly, that they neither knew His attributes, nor were they aware of His graciousness and blessings.

The other ludicrous objection raised by the People of the Book was that the language of all divine revelations was Hebrew; all earlier books were sent down in that language, whereas the Qur’an was in Arabic. Had it been really from God, it would have been in Hebrew. After all, God would not change His language with the passage of time. The Qur’an answered thus:

And if We had made it a non-Arabic Qur’an, they would have said: “Why are its verses not explained in detail [in our language]? Is it a foreign [recitation] and an Arab [messenger]?” Say: “It is, for those who believe, a guidance and cure.” And those who do not believe – in their ears is deafness, and it is upon them blindness. Those are being called from a distant place. (41:44)

In other words, if the audience was Hebrew speaking, the heavenly books were in Hebrew; the addressees of the Qur’an were Arabs, thus it was revealed in Arabic. Had it not been so, no one would have understood it, and people would have objected to the sense of having a divine Book in a non Arabic language for Arabs. The reality is that the People of the Book had shut their eyes to the guidance given to them in their own Books, and had become habituated to darkness. Now that they were faced with the light of the Qur’an, they were blinded by its brightness and could not bear to open their eyes. Would they prefer to turn a deaf ear to the Prophet’s message, and be called by God’s steward on the Day of Judgement to answer for their refusal to pay heed to God’s instructions, and thus taken towards hell?


The Accusation of Support from People of the Book

The People of the Book faced a challenge when the Qur’an presented facts that were already given in their own books. When this happened, they would say that Muhammad (sws) was compiling the Book (the Qur’an) with help from some members of their own group. They worded this accusation vaguely so that it would not be possible for anyone to probe deeply enough. They would claim that some people gave a few sentences in writing to Muhammad (sws) which he read out, and this process continued throughout the day. Incidentally, the people who were close to the Prophet were non-Arabs, and they were the ones mentioned in this connection. The Qur’an commented:

 And We certainly know that they say: “It is only a human being who teaches the Prophet.” The tongue of the one they refer to is foreign, and this Qur'an is [in] a clear Arabic language. (16:103)

Before making such a baseless claim, they should have at least considered the power, majesty and flawlessness of the language of the Qur’an. Could a non-Arab ever produce such text? If this was a human effort, why had the Quraysh failed to produce a similar sample from the People of the Book by using their vast resources?

There is another aspect which completely destroys the view that some People of the Book may have supported the Prophet (sws) in creating the Qur’an. If this were the truth, the Qur’an would have followed the Torah. When copying something, a clever person would never take the risk of creating something untested, because people could refuse it immediately. The Qur’an did not give importance to its conformity with what had been stated in the Torah. Instead, it stated the truth. The result is that themes evolved naturally in the Qur’an, whereas this is not evident in the Torah. At places, the Qur’an has corrected the Torah, assuming an authoritative position. Why would a few members of the People of the Book have done this for the Prophet (sws)? There are some topics discussed by the Qur’an that were not included in the Torah at all. Who brought these in?

The same centuries old objection of assistance from the People of the Book is still raised by some Western Orientalists. This objection remains clouded with the same vague claims even after much research. After spending considerable resources, Western scholars have not succeeded in identifying factual, evidence based arguments in support of their accusations. Their intellect does not seem to have risen above that of the Quraysh, or of the People of the Book, at the time of Prophethood. The Qur’an had managed to remove doubts from the minds of its detractors, and they became its avid followers subsequently, but some Western Orientalists still believe that they can prove it to have been written by a man. Observe the helplessness of William Muir, when he refers to various probabilities in a manner that leaves the process of research lamenting itself!

The general outline of the Christian story in the Coran, having a few salient points in accordance with the Gospel and the rest filled up with wild marvels, is just such as we might expect an enquiring Jew to learn from the traditions amongst the lower classes in Judea. Something might be learned too from the Christian slaves of Mecca; but they had generally been carried off from their homes in boyhood, and would remember little more than a few Scripture stories, with perhaps some fragments of the creed. Either the Jew or the Christian may also have heard the opening of the Gospel of Luke, and communicated to Mahomet the outline of the births of John and Jesus, which he transferred to the Coran. It is also possible that someone may have repeated to Mahomet from memory, or read to him from a manuscript, the verses of the Gospel containing these details;-but this is mere conjecture.1

As far as the presence of the People of the Book in Makkah is concerned, Jews and Christians were not strangers in the city. Khadijah’s uncle, Warqah ibn Nawfal read the Bible in its original language; Zayd ibn ‘Amr ibn Tufayl, Salman Farisi and Abu Fakihah Rumi were Christians. The Prophet’s adopted son, Zayd belonged to the Banu Kalab, among whom Christianity was well known. It is a historic fact that the elite elders of the Jews were friends with leaders of the Quraysh. Some influential Jews had come from Madinah to Makkah and had settled here. The Jewish leader, Ka‘ab ibn Ashraf used to stay in Makkah for several weeks. Quraysh leaders travelled to Madinah and stayed at the Jew Banu Nadir’s place.

The People of the Book may or may not have participated in the pilgrimage rites during the hajj during the times of the Prophet (sws), but their presence in the congregation at this time is indicated in history. Western Orientalists have stated that once the Prophet (sws) listened to the speech of the archbishop of Najran, Quss ibn Sa‘idah at Mina. It was not possible for Jews and Christians to ignore this national gathering of the Arabs that was also the centre of trading, social and economic activity.   

Was the presence of Jews and Christians in Makkah and its environs sufficient evidence of their assistance to the Prophet (sws) in writing the Qur’an is something a reasoning mind cannot accept. Here are a few arguments in support of this:


1. The research undertaken by Orientalists on the presence of Jews and Christians shows them to be mainly slaves or labourers. The level of knowledge they had could not have been adequate enough to be considered representative of that of the People of the Book. The Qur’an conducts a wide ranging debate into both the history and beliefs of these groups which would not have been possible based on information gleaned from hearsay. The Qur’an has also corrected the wrongly held beliefs of both the Jews and Christians.

How could the followers of other faiths be instrumental in setting up a parallel religion, similar to their own? Why would they have thus harmed their own interests? One can understand their resistance, but it is difficult to comprehend that they would have provided their help to the Prophet (sws). At the time of prophet hood, his was a single voice. Taking his side and standing with him was an action likely to put one’s life in danger. How would the Jews and Christians have benefitted from helping him? There was nothing they were to gain from this act. In later years, both the groups fought bloody battles with the Muslims. Why would they have been so supportive of Islam during its earlier phase?

2.            The Qur’an does not contain too much content about the people of the Book. Even if one assumes that the part that relates to them had been prepared with help from them, who provided the assistance to write up the remaining part that is six or seven times as large? The question still remains: who wrote the Qur’an? It is surprising that our intellectuals claim that scores of writers together cannot produce a play of the calibre of a Shakespearean one, which was, after all, the product of a human mind; similarly they find it difficult to imagine that a team of scientists could be behind the genius of Einstein who came up with his revolutionary Theory of Relativity. But it is relatively easy to spread such nonsense about the Qur’an, of which not a single verse could be created over centuries that it was written by Muhammad (sws), with help from a few Jews and Christians. This is despite knowing that the Prophet (sws) was never anyone’s student, and he was completely illiterate.

The Qur’an’s point of view is that as an argument for the prophet hood of Muhammad (sws), it is enough to recognize the fact that he had neither read any of the earlier books, nor did he know how to write, and yet he was suddenly and very eloquently able to communicate similar themes, and had full knowledge of what had happened to nations and prophets hundreds and thousands of years ago.

 And you did not recite before it any scripture, nor did you inscribe one with your right hand. Otherwise the falsifiers would have had [cause for] doubt. (29:48) 

 It follows, therefore, that the presence of the People of the Book in or around Makkah is of no consequence as far as the revelation of the Qur’an is concerned.


The Objection of Differences between the Qur’an and Ancient Books

When the Jews and Christians saw that the new Prophethood relied upon the Qur’an, which was communicated to the people as a divine revelation and they were automatically impressed by its content, they adopted the stance of pitching the earlier books against the Qur’an. When the Torah was already available, they said, there was no need for a new book. In answer to this, the Qur’an put forward the attitude they had taken towards the Torah:

Just as We had revealed [scriptures] to the separators Who have made the Qur'an into portions. (15:90-91)

 This is a reference to the Jews when they divided the Torah into sections so that they could hide some parts and reveal others. The result was that the entire message was not accessible to all people. Jewish scholars made changes in the Torah according to their whims and kept the common man away from the God given guidance it provided. At this act of the Jewish scholars, Jesus (sws) is known to have said that light is given to be placed on the sconce so that it could illuminate its surroundings, not to be covered with darkness. Because of this act of the Jews, some parts of the Torah were destroyed, and a stage was reached when it was completely lost. It was then recompiled through memory. Thus, at the time of revelation of the Qur’an, what was available with the Jews in the name of the Torah were a collection of some contradictory and debatable narratives. Even today, a reading of the Torah gives a sense of a narrator explaining something in his own words. There are only a few places where one can feel the grandeur and majesty of a heavenly text. If, after this despicable treatment the Jews had accorded to the Torah, God had not arranged for an alternative guidance for his servants, they would have suffered greatly.

To support this argument, the Jews put forward their concern about instructions in the Qur’an about eating and drinking being different from those in the Torah. For example, the instruction related to the Sabbath which was a basic tenet of Judaism had been totally neglected in Islam. Had the Qur’an been a heavenly book, it would have had the same instructions as those in the Torah. God would not change his injunctions with the passage of time. Hence, they said, the Qur’an was only a fabricated text. To this, the Qur’an explained thus: God has sent down His law (shari‘ah) for mankind in a sequential and phased manner. This step wise strategy now demands that His instructions shall no longer be valid for a particular nation, but for all human beings, and shall be according to human nature. The instructions in the Qur’an were according to the progeny of Abraham (sws), whereas those in the Torah held some consideration of the characteristics of the Jews. The latter had imposed some laws upon themselves, and God retained these upon them as a form of punishment. The Jews were so headstrong that they had to be brought under control by bringing them under additional restrictions. However, they were promised that when the last Prophet (sws) came, he would relieve them of these burdens. Hence, now the Qur’an was removing the additional instructions of the shari‘ah given in the Torah, and removing the constraints that the Jews had been living under so far.


Demand for Miracles

In addition to objections related to wahi and the Qur’an, the people of the Book also raised the issue of miracles. The prophets who had come amongst the Israelites had demonstrated miracles as proof of their divine messages, and their take was that a prophet could be identified only through the miracles that he was capable of. Hence if Muhammad (sws) was a true prophet, he should show them some miracles. The Qur’an answered that the real need was for people to listen carefully with an open mind to the prophets, and enable themselves to heed the voice of their inner conscience. If people kept their reason locked up, it was useless to show them miracles of any kind. The history of the Israelites is witness to the fact that Moses (sws) showed nine grand miracles to the Pharaoh at his demand, but because the latter was mentally not ready to listen and accept, he accused Moses (sws) of magic.

 And We had certainly given Moses nine evident signs, so ask the Children of Israel [about] when he came to them and Pharaoh said to him: “Indeed I think, O Moses, that you are affected by magic.” (17:101) 

It was clarified through the Prophet (sws) that God had given him the Book which reflected and highlighted the true nature of mankind, and presented its message through reasoning. This was the miracle Book that was evidence of his Prophethood. If they used their intellect and listened to their conscience, they would believe in the divinity of his message. However, it seems that the Jews and Christians did not abandon their position even after this clarification. They insisted that an angel should descend from the heaven, carrying pure and untouched papers as the divine message, that would contain clear and consistent instructions and the papers should not have been touched by any human hand or by any jinn. Only then would they believe the Prophet (sws). The Qur’an said:

Those who disbelieved among the People of the Scripture and the polytheists were not to be parted [from disbelief] until there came to them clear evidence – A Messenger from Allah, reciting purified scriptures within which are correct writings. (98:1-3)

Possibly the driving force behind this demand may have been the fact that the Ten Commandments of the Torah were revealed to Moses (sws) directly in a written form, and a group from Israelites were witness to this. The Qur’an always discouraged people from making such demands and asked them instead to concentrate on using their intellect to ponder over the arguments and evidence presented. 


Questions to Test

The Qur’an is witness, and it is borne out by historical facts that both Christians and Jews had raised some questions for the Quraysh that were related to the relatively less well known aspects of their history in order to, in their view, expose the claim of the Prophet (sws). They were under the impression that he would not be aware of these details, and if he did try to make these up, this would give them the opportunity to come out as the winning party and declare that he was airing false stories. He presented fictionalized statements and had no divine basis for his claims. However, the Qur’an answered their questions in depth, and also chided them for treating these events as mere stories and their failure to learn and correct their mistakes from them. The Qur’an presented these events of their history in their true perspective. Thus the questions that were raised to tease the Prophet (sws), created an opportunity for the Quraysh to criticize him and test his prophet hood claim turned into a training tool for the faithful and a prediction of dire consequences for the Quraysh. Three of such questions were related to Ashab-i Kahf (People of the Cave), Zulqarnayn and the settlement of Israelites in Egypt.

The Ashab-i Kahf were people who belonged to followers of the true Christian faith. God had put them under a long spell of sleep which was in itself a miracle for other Christians. Some Christians considered this a gift from their spiritual leaders and others believed that it was a manifestation of the greatness of God as a result. On demand from the People of the Book, the Qur’an related this incident and highlighted the fact that the People of the Cave were a few young men who were firm believers in the Oneness of God and demonstrated their dislike of the polytheism their nation had fallen into. When they publicly denounced the gods of their nation, the latter could not tolerate their open rebellion. Fearing for their lives, the young men left their city and hid in a cave where God decided to bestow upon them a special status, as a testimony for their nation, due to their integrity and honesty of purpose. He put them to sleep, and their faithful dog kept a watch over them at the cave’s entry. During this time, the number of people who believed in One God increased continuously, and a time came when they were in majority. God awakened the young men, now that the same nation that was after their blood had developed feelings of veneration and esteem for them. Whereas it was initially fond of shows to celebrate idol worship, now it wanted to erect a mosque in memory of the People of the Cave.  This incident was very inspiring for the Muslims who had suffered greatly at the hands of the Quraysh in Makkah. They realised that as a consequence of their honest sacrifices, God would show them His glory in the form of victory. They would, however, have to demonstrate a great deal of determination and firm resolution.  The Qur’an therefore, lighted up a forgotten chapter of people who had followed the right path, so that others could take a lesson and follow in their footsteps.   

The Jews were interested in the conquests of Zulqarnayn (Torah’s Khawras), and they considered him their king who had done them a great favour. Khawras had freed them from the slavery of Romans, and had rebuilt Jerusalem for them. Answering a question from the Jews about Khawras, the Qur’an highlighted the aspect of his personality that focused on his complete belief on God and the Day of Judgement, despite being the conqueror of most of the known land in the world. He protected himself from arrogance and oppression and was a very close friend of those he ruled over. He considered it his duty to redress their concerns, sought the ability to seek and find truth in others and facilitated them on choosing the right path. The message that the Qur’an spelt out, contained within the story of Zulqarnayn, was not only a lesson for the Jews, but also for the cruel and oppressive leaders of the Quraysh.

The Qur’an related the story of the entry of the Israelites into Egypt in a very interesting manner, and highlighted the majesty of God that revealed itself in this at every stage. Prophet Jacob and his children belonged originally to Canan. Prophet Joseph, his son, was the most beloved and very honest and truthful. His half brothers held a special grudge against him. In order to separate the son from his father, they took him to the forest and put him inside a well. As far as they were concerned, they had forsaken him for good. A tribe of the Ismaelites was passing through and stopped by for water. They dug Prophet Joseph out, took him to Egypt and sold him there as a slave. The buyer was a senior officer at the royal court and treated him as a son. He also entrusted him with all his responsibilities. Those were the days of slavery, and some royal women had him thrown into prison without reason, but he gained release in a most unexpected and God given manner. Subsequently, he gained access to the king and obtained wide ranging control over the country’s production resources. Egypt went through a severe famine, and his long range planning came in very useful during these trying times. Canan was also facing a similar situation, and when his brothers heard of his fame in managing the crisis, they came to Egypt to obtain grain. Here they came face to face with Joseph who recognized them and loaded them with whatever they wanted. It was much later that the brothers came to know that the person to whom they owed so much was their brother. They asked him to forgive them, accepting that they were the wrong doers, and that God had rewarded Joseph for his good conduct. At this stage, Joseph called his entire family from Canan to Egypt. The comparison between this narrative with the role that the Quraysh were playing vis a vis Prophet Muhammad (sws) was evident. By relating this matter, the Prophet (sws) was consoled that his path was difficult and full of troubles, but God would show His miracles and throw his adversaries at his feet, in the same way that Joseph’s brothers fell at their honourable brother’s. Nothing is impossible for God.


The Debate over Details of Prophets  

One way to hurt an enemy is to attempt to lower the worth of the attributes and qualities that he is claiming over others, so that people at large begin to have doubts about him. The Jews used this strategy. They talked about the qualities of the Israelites, to lessen the Prophet’s impact. The purpose was to shake those who were leaning towards Islam, claiming that the Prophet did not have any of the features that earlier prophets had. Thus, Muslims would be engaged in a useless debate, and would lose sight of their real goal. They would also gain by creating prejudices amongst the Muslims. The Qur’an warned the Muslims that this was a satanic attempt to confuse and entangle them. They were told to protect themselves from this, and not to say anything that may be untruthful about prophets. They were also told to highlight the specific features of the Prophet’s personality, but to remember at the same time that other prophets also possessed distinctive characteristics, which they could not deny:

And your Lord is most knowing of whoever is in the heavens and the earth. And We have made some of the prophets exceed others [in various ways], and to David We gave the book [of Psalms]. (17:55)


Making Fun of Qur’anic Guidance

The People of the Book taught the Quraysh ways and means to taunt the Prophet (sws) and also criticized and made fun of the teachings of the Qur’an, in which they included the Idolaters. They said that such ludicrous teachings could not have come from God, and so must be made up by this individual who claimed to be a prophet. The description of the Day of Judgement was chosen for ridicule in particular. For example, when the Qur’an said that God had assigned 19 angels for the oversight of Hell, and that a cactus tree would grow from the base of hell, the fruit of which would be given as food to the dwellers there, The Jews ridiculed this, and spread their propaganda against it among the Idolaters. They said that they did not believe that it served any purpose for God to send such messages. It must be Muhammad (sws) who was spreading such impossible things. Had the Idolaters said this, they could have been excused, because they were unaware of any heavenly book. But the Jews had been exposed to divine messages, and it was an unforgivable crime for them to talk in such a manner. They should have verified the message of the Qur’an because they had the secret of heavenly knowledge, but, by decrying it, they brought ill fate to themselves and were also the cause of misleading others. When the Qur’an explained the number of angels guarding Hell, it explained its reasons by referring to this attitude of the Jews:

And We have not made the keepers of the Fire except angels. And We have not made their number except as a trial for those who disbelieve - that those who were given the Scripture will be convinced and those who have believed will increase in faith and those who were given the Scripture and the believers will not doubt and that those in whose hearts is hypocrisy and the disbelievers will say: “What does Allah intend by this as an example?” Thus does Allah leave astray whom He wills and guides whom He wills. And none knows the soldiers of your Lord except Him. And mention of the Fire is not but a reminder to humanity. (74:31)

It was the misfortune of the People of the Book that, they were unable to derive the guidance that these teachings aimed to provide.



(Translated by Nikhat Sattar)




1. William Muir, The Life of Mahomet, vol. 2, 310.


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