Nicholas of Cusa on Errors in the Qur’an

Nicholas of Cusa writes:

the Koran says that the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, was the sister of Aaron and the daughter of Amram. Now, it is most certain that the one who reported these [details] to Muhammad erred and was ignorant of the Gospel’s true narrative. For Mary the daughter of Amram and sister of Moses and Aaron was dead and buried in the desert more than a thousand years before [the time of] the Virgin Mary, the glorious mother-of-Jesus-Christ, who lived (as is read in this same Koran) at the time of Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist.

He is referring to passages such as Surah 66.12:

…Mary, daughter of Imran. She guarded her chastity, so We breathed into her from Our spirit. She accepted the truth of her Lord’s words and Scriptures: she was truly devout.

And Surah 3.35-36

Imran’s wife said, ‘Lord, I have dedicated what is growing in my womb entirely to You; so accept this from me. You are the One who hears and knows all,’ but when she gave birth, she said, ‘My Lord! I have given birth to a girl’– God knew best what she had given birth to: the male is not like the female–‘I name her Mary and I commend her and her offspring to Your protection from the rejected Satan.’

Imran is another way of saying Amram, who was the father of Miriam, Moses and Aaron:

And Kohath was the father of Amram. The name of Amram’s wife was Jochebed the daughter of Levi, who was born to Levi in Egypt. And she bore to Amram Aaron and Moses and Miriam their sister. (Numbers 26.58-59)

The author of these Qur’anic passages is clearly mistaken about just who Mary and Miriam are. As Nicholas writes: “And since the Koran makes these statements not once but repeatedly, this one example suffices [to show] that error is contained in [that] book and [to show] that therefore the authorship is not God’s.”

Islamic Response: Exegete Ismail ibn Kathir writes:

(O sister of Harun!) referring to the brother of Musa, because she was of his descendants. This is similar to the saying, `O brother of Tamim,’ to one who is from the Tamimi tribe, and `O brother of Mudar,’ to one who is from the Mudari tribe. It has also been said that she was related to a righteous man among them whose name was Harun and she was comparable to him in her abstinence and worship.

This response does not make sense in light of the Qur’an saying that Amram’s wife gave birth to Mary, not in some ancestral way, but directly.

The Location of the Qur’anic Revelation

Patricia Crone notes:

In addition, the Qur’an twice describes its opponents as living in the site of a vanished nation, that is to say a town destroyed by God for its sins. There were many such ruined sites in northwest Arabia. The prophet frequently tells his opponents to consider their significance and on one occasion remarks, with reference to the remains of Lot’s people, that “you pass by them in the morning and in the evening”. This takes us to somewhere in the Dead Sea region. Respect for the traditional account has prevailed to such an extent among modern historians that the first two points have passed unnoticed until quite recently, while the third has been ignored. The exegetes said that the Quraysh passed by Lot’s remains on their annual journeys to Syria, but the only way in which one can pass by a place in the morning and the evening is evidently by living somewhere in the vicinity.

This is fascinating. How could these revelations have occurred in Mecca or Medina if the people hearing them passed by Sodom in the morning and evening?

Hagarism: Sources 1

Patricia Crone and Michael Cook wrote a book called Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World. The book posits a very different origin for Islam than the one we usually read about. They question the existence of the historical Muhammad and the origins of the Qur’an.

This book is vociferously hated in Islamic circles from what I can tell. I see it denounced and ridiculed, but I have yet to see anything that actually refutes it in terms of dealing with its claims and sources one by one. Crone herself has said that she no longer holds to the central thesis of Part I of the book {she has not refuted the entire thing}. That said, I want to list some of her sources for public consumption.

Her first claim is that the prophet of “Hagarism” came preaching Judaic messianism. Her is her text, interspersed with her endnotes and sources:

If we choose to start again, we begin with the Doctrina Iacobi, a Greek anti Jewish tract spawned by the Heracelan persecution.

N. Bonwetsch (ed.), Doctrina Iacobi nuper baptizati, in Abhandlungen der Königlichen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften ‘zu Göttingen, Philologisch-historische Klasse, n.s., vol. xii, Berlin 1910.

It is cast in the form of a dialogue between Jews set in Carthage in the year 634; it was in all probability written in Palestine within a few years of that date.

See F. Nau, ‘La Didascalie de Jacob‘, in R. Graffin and F. Nau (eds.), Patrologia Orientalis, Paris 1903-, vol. viii, pp. 715f. The lack of hindsight in respect of the outcome of the Arab invasion would suggest that Nau’s date of 640 is certainly too late.

At one point in the argument reference is made to current events in Palestine in the form of a letter from a certain Abraham, a Palestinian Jew.

Doctrina, pp. 86f

A false prophet has appeared among the Saracens … They say that the prophet has appeared coming with the Saracens, and is proclaiming the advent of the anointed one who is to come[tou erkhomenou Eleimmenou kai Khristou]. I, Abraham, went off to Sykamina and referred the matter to an old man very well versed in the Scriptures. I asked him: ‘What is your view, master and teacher, of the prophet who has appeared among the Saracens?’ He replied, groaning mightily: ‘He is an impostor. Do the prophets come with sword and chariot? Truly these happenings today are works of disorder … But you go off, Master Abraham, and find out about the prophet who has appeared.’ So Abraham, made enquiries, and was told by those who had met him: ‘There is no truth to be found in the so-called prophet, only bloodshed; for he says he has the keys of paradise, which is incredible.’

There are several points of interest in this account. One is the doctrine of the keys. It is not of course Islamic, but there are some slight indications that it was a doctrine which the Islamic tradition had been at pains to repress: there is a group of traditions in which the keys of paradise are sublimated into harmless metaphor, and a Byzantine oath of abjuration of Islam mentions the belief that the Prophet was to hold the keys of paradise as part of the ‘secret’ doctrine of the Saracens.

See A. J. Wensinck et al., Concordance et indices de la tradition musulmane, Leyden 1933- 69, s.v. miftah, where the key(s) of paradise are prayer and the shahada.

‘I anathematise the secret doctrine of the Saracens and promise of Muhamed that he would become the gatekeeper (kleidoukhos) of paradise .. .’ (E. Montet, ‘Un rituel d’abjuration des Musulmans dans l’eglise grecque‘, Revue de l’histoire des religions 1906, p. 1 5 I). The oath seems to be a ninth-century compilation of heterogeneous materials.

The point is not of great intrinsic interest, but it does suggest that we have in the Doctrina a stratum of belief older than the Islamic tradition itself. Of greater historical significance is the fact that the Prophet is represented as alive at the time of the conquest of Palestine. This testimony is of course irreconcilable with the Islamic account of the Prophet’s career, but it finds independent confirmation in the historical traditions of the Jacobites, Nestorians and Samaritans;
The earliest confirmation is that of the ‘Continuatio Byzantia Arabica‘, which preserves in Latin translation a Syrian chronicle dating from early in the reign of Hisham (see below, p. 179, n. 9) and presumably of Melchite or Jacobite origin: according to this source, the Saracens invaded the provinces of Syria, Arabia and Mesopotamia while under the rule of Mahmet (T. Mommsen (ed. ), Chronica Minora, vol. ii ( = Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Auctores Antiquissimi, vol. xi), Berlin 1894, p. 337). Otherwise the most important testimony on the Jacobite side is the archaic account of the origins of Islam preserved by Michael the Syrian (J.-B. Chabot (ed. and tr.), Chronique de Michelle Syrien, Paris 1899-1910, vol. iv, p. 405 = vol. ii, pp. 403f); to this maybe added an anonymous Syriac chronicle of the later eighth century (I. Guidi et al., Chronica Minora (= Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium. Scriptores Syri. third series, vol. iv), Louvain 1903-7. pp. 348 = 274)· On the Nestorian side the belated witness of the Arabic Chronicle of Si’ird is explicit (A. Scher (ed. and tr.). Histoire nestorienne, part two, in Patrologia Orientalis, vol. xiii, p. 601).while a Syriac chronicle probably written in Khazistan in the 670s suggestively slips in a mention of Muhammad as the ruler of the Arabs in the middle of an account of the conquests. (Chronica Minora, pp. 30 = 26; the dating is that of T. Nöldeke, ‘Die von Guidi herausgegebenesyrische Chronik’, Sitzungsberichte der philologischhistorischen Classe der KaiserlichenAkademie der Wissenschaften, vol. cxxviii, Vienna 1893. pp. 2f). On the Samaritan side we have the testimony of a medieval Arabic recension of the tradition (E. Vilmar (ed.), AbulfathiAnnalesSamaritani. Gotha I 865. p. I 8o). The convergence is impressive.

the doctrinal meaning of the discrepancy will be taken up later.

But the really startling thing about the Doctrina is its report that the Prophet was preaching the advent of ‘the anointed one who is to come’. That is to say the core of the Prophet’s message, in the earliest testimony available to us outside the Islamic tradition, appears as Judaic messianism. The idea is hardly a familiar one, but again it is strikingly confirmed by independent evidence.

It also finds a confused reflection in the prominence in Theophanes’ account of the beginnings of Islam of Jews who take Muhammad to be their expected Christ (Chronographia, A.M. 6122).

[end of quotes from Hagarism]

Misreading the Qur’an

A lot of work is being done on what the Qur’an refers to [it is largely incomprehensible without exegesis]. Gabriel Said Reynolds has helpfully summarized some of these developments in this article. Another helpful source is this Wikipedia entry on the Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran. I came across another example of this dependence on the Bible today in an article about the Corpus Coranicum project:

Gerd-R. Puin, a retired professor of Arabic studies at Germany’s Saarland University, has been working for decades on a trove of Korans from a mosque in Yemen — possibly the oldest ones in existence. Because they were primarily memory aids, early Korans were written in a vowel-less “skeleton” language. Deciphering those clusters of consonants requires a sense of what languages and what cultural and religious traditions Mohammed and his earliest followers were borrowing from and reacting against. Much of the wording and imagery of the Koran are borrowed from Christian and Jewish texts, Puin argues. In fact, he says, much of the Koran is incomprehensible unless read alongside those earlier texts. As an example, he points to the term “sakina,” which Muslim scholars have translated as a spirit of calm — Puin argues that it only makes sense as a descendant of the Hebrew term “shekhinah,” which means the presence of God. The more one studies its historical context, Puin argues, the harder it is to resist the sense that the Koran itself was, at least in part, pieced together from parts of other religions.

I would love to see a version of the Qur’an in the future that fully cross-references these notional Christian sources: liturgies, Creeds and the Bible itself. That should be fascinating.