Intertwined Worlds: Medieval Islam and Bible Criticism
New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1992.
For Lazarus -Yafeh the crystallization of every great
civilization is based on its contacts,
clashes and competition with rival forces, and the religious
aspect of this rivalry is especially conspicuous
in the Middle Ages. In this curious little volume, she investigates
Muslim medieval polemic as it was directed against the Hebrew Bible
to conclude that this rivalry was a continuous process, with
the various communities not only picking up arguments from each other,
but also from those who had preceded them, and passing them on to
those who followed. Despite the rivalry that prevailed, what strikes
the author is the fact that Muslim-Jewish polemic never reached the intensity
it did in the conflicts that arose between Jews and other communities.
Her explanation is that there was little competition between the two
faiths "perhaps because of their great similarity," but also because
there was a lack of response from the Jews: Jewish
leaders, such as Maimonides, prohibited teaching Muslims the tenets of Judaism "because Muslims do not accept
the text of the Torah as divine."(p. 8). As Lazarus-Yafeh points out,
it is indeed interesting that there are no records of Jewish books
ever being burned as a consequence of polimical activity.
Of the many Medieval Muslims who have put
forward criticisms of the Hebrew Bible, perhaps the most notorious is
Ibn Hazm. Absurd as it may sound, his arguments display the
typical syndrome of one who wants to both "have his cake and eat it".
For him, the Hebrew Bible cannot be taken to represent God's word, as
it has been altered. Yet for all, it is in this same "false" work that,
Ibn Hazm insists, are found statements which tell of the coming
of the Prophet Muhammad.
It is significant that for many Medieval
Muslims including Ibn Hazm, the altered nature of the Hebrew
Bible was the work of Ezra, who is generally believed to be the same
`Uzayr (acording to the author `Uzayr is the diminutive of Ezra)
referred to in the Qur'ân. The Qur'ân challenges
the monotheism of
Judaism explaining that the Jews had taken `Uzayr to be the son of God. The
subject of `Uzayr-Ezra brings up contradictory arguments as well, though
this time supplied by `Alî al-Munayyar al-Shâfi`î(d. 1520).
He stated that the Jews really worshiped `Uzayr, for the Qur'ân
asserts it. But when responded to with the argument that the Torah does
not indicate it, the lack of mention was promptly explained as a result
of falsification; apparently, the words had been deleted. On the other hand
there were Medieval Muslims such as Tha'labî, for instance,
who claimed that Ezra's reproduction of the Torah was exact, because
God had helped him, sending an angel to stimulate his memory.
To understand the nature of Muslim polemic against
the Hebrew Bible it is important to realize that there were not many
translations available in the Arabic language. According to Lazarus -Yafeh,
though the first Arabic translation of the Torah was probably made by Saadia
Gaon(882 - 922), it was not easily available to the general public. Much
of the Muslim polemic indicates that the Torah itself had not been available
to the critic, and, indeed, that he had probably relied on oral transmission
for his knowledge of the text, which invariably was mixed up with Midrashic
material. Ibn Hazm, however, was an exception who clearly knew the
actual text from a Spanish (Christian?) source rather than from the translation
of Saadia; Saadia's translation is distinctive because it avoids the anthropomorphisms contained
in the Bible so as to check Muslim criticism of it. Once again, Ibn Hazm's
contrariness is noticeable: Having expressed his horror and disgust at expressions such as
"God is a consuming fire," he had then gone on to justify the Quranic statement,
"God is the light of heaven and earth." According to him "light" was in fact one
of the names of Allah (!).
Muslim understanding of the Torah was to a large extent
based on oral communication. The result was that there were standard verses,
supposedly from the Bible,
which were communicated among the community and repeatedly used in their polemic.
Many of these verses were those that dealt with the desert, and
since for the Medieval Muslim the desert was equivalent with the Arabian desert,
the word was immediately explained as a reference to Mecca. Ironically,
Ibn Qayyim al-Djawziyya even explains Zion( which comes from the term Ziyya, meaning
desert) as a reference to Mecca. Similarly the phrase,
"to praise" conjurred up the image of Muhammad whose name
is essentially a verbal noun based on the verb meaning 'to praise."On the other hand,
Gemmatria--the art of combining the numerical
value of letters--was also used. Thus `Abd al-Haqq explains: The Hebrew
(they shall have hope for) is the sum of Ahmad (53) plus the five daily
prayers, plus Friday (the sixth day) (p. 97). Thus it was that several
references to the coming of Muhammad came to be discovered in the
It should be pointed out
that the nature of Medieval Muslim criticism of the
Hebrew Torah was largely based on the fact that to them the Jewish Holy
text was to the Muslim in no way comparable to the Qur'an, which by the late ninth
century was protected by the dogma of i`djâz
or inimitability. It is true, that in response scholars, such as Jehuda
Halevi(d. 1141), enshrined the Mishna with a similar qualification: "a mortal man is
incapable of composing such a work without divine assistance"(p.17).
Nevertheless, the general attitude of Jews to their holy book had in fact been quite
critical. Hence the question is asked
in the Talmud, "Is it possible that Moses whilst still alive would have written
'so. . . Moses died there?' The truth is, however, that up to this point Moses wrote,
from this point Joshua, son of Nun, wrote."
Finally, the book contains a fascinating appendix entitled: Jewish knowledge of the
Qur'an. Despite the fact that repeatedly laws were establsihed prohibiting
Jews access to the Qur'an, these laws were not always maintained,
and time and again we have Medieval Jews citing the Qur'an. Significantly,
actual translations of the Qur'an into Hebrew are rare and late. The three
manuscripts that are extant were made not from the Arabic, but rather from an early Latin translation.
Reviewed by Rizwi Faizer
Date: September 1999.