Syriac Source-Material For Islam’s Holy Book

October 18, 2019 Category: Religion

(Author’s Note: This is the first of a two-part piece on the Syriac origins of Islam.  This essay (which discusses content) and “The Syriac Origins Of Koranic Text” (which discusses linguistic medium) have a symbiotic relationship.  Here, we will see how the Koran and Hadith lifted much of their material from extant Syriac lore.  This makes sense, as the point of departure for the Mohammedan movement was the gamut of Abrahamic material available at the time, in that particular region, amongst Syriac-speaking Bedouin who were steeped in a Syriac-based culture.  Hence the present thesis is buttressed by the thesis of the other essay—which shows how Mohammedan scripture was originally composed in the same language as the source-material.  In sum: That the new creed gestated within a Syriac meme-o-sphere is attested by the fact that, not only was it derived from Syriac folklore (as will be shown presently); it was initially conveyed in the Syriac language.  Note: Mohammed of Mecca, considered the “Seal of the Prophets” in Islam, is denoted “MoM”.  Classical Arabic is denoted “CA”.)

A full understanding of the development of the Koran–and of the Mohammedan Faith in general–cannot be procured until one recognizes the percolating memetic environs in which it occurred.  During the epoch of the religion’s gestation (from the late 7th century through the early 9th century), cultures of the Middle East were suffused with a potpourri of Abrahamic folklore.  This is made apparent by the Syriac basis for much of what eventually came to be Islam’s sacred scripture.  Here, I will assay the history of the CONTENT; while the next essay will be a linguistic analysis.

Predictably, the relevant history has been elided by Islamic apologists in an attempt to uphold even the most flimsy of historiographic claims.  This laundering of history does not necessarily stem from perfidy; it merely requires that we not notice what the historical record shows.  My aim here is to counter such dissimulation by highlighting some key points.

Let’s start with the obvious.  If the Koran were in any way derivative in nature, we would expect to find antecedent sources with distinct peculiarities that match the raft of distinct peculiarities found in the Koran.  It turns out that this is–indeed–what we find.  Upon surveying the contents of Islam’s holy book, we encounter myriad idiosyncrasies that had been recycled from earlier material.  That is to say: In recounting the things that it does (and in the particular manner that it does so), the “Recitations” inadvertently betray their earthly origins.

It only stands to reason that the earliest Mohammedans–engaged, as they were, in oral traditions–regurgitated much of what they’d heard from the sources that happened to be available to them at the time.  Traces of this memetic cooptation remain.  There are tell-tale signs of this, as they appropriated material replete with errancies.  The source-material had been disseminated in a language that also happened to be MoM’s native tongue: Syriac.

We might begin by looking at the deserts to the south.  There was both a Jewish and Christian presence in Himyar / Hadramaut, thanks–in part–to the reach of the (Sabaean Christian) Aksumites (and Himyarites) in Yemen.  Jewish and Christian communities were especially prominent at Zafar, Najran, and Ma’rib (present-day Sana’a).  Just a few decades before MoM’s birth, the king of Yemen became Christian.  Meanwhile, Himyar’s official religion had already been Judaism for CENTURIES–a fact attested in the “Throne of Adulis”.  Even more telling, the Himyarites were monotheists who worshipped the godhead, “Al-Rahman” [the Merciful], who was often equated with the Abrahamic deity.  The moniker of this deity was based on the Syriac term for mercy, “ra[c]hma”. {1}

Sabaitic (which gave rise to the Ethiopic script, Ge’ez) was also used in southern Arabia (spec. Yemen), which was eventually overtaken by the Himyarites c. 280 A.D.  During the 4th century, the Himyarites became Abrahamic in Faith.  They then became explicitly Judaic in the late 5th century under king Tuba Abu Karib[a] Asad.  The Faith became theocratic under his son, Masruk (a.k.a. “Yusuf Dhu Nu’as”), who viciously persecuted local Christians as heretics.  The (Christian) Aksumites of Abyssinia soon put an end to that Judaic regime, thus taking control of the major south Arabian cities of Karyat al-Faw, Nashan, Nashak, Kaminahu, Haramum, Karnawu (Ma’rib), Najran, Zafar, and Azal (Sana’a).  The new dynasty was that of king Abraha, who would be featured in the fabled “Battle of the Elephants” (purportedly waged against Mecca c. 570, according to Mohammedan lore).

Up until c. 565 (five years prior to MoM’s birth), the Himyarite / Sabaean ruler, Abraha al-Asram conquered Yemen and the Hijaz.  He was a Christian zealot.  Consequently, during his rule, people of the region would have been exposed to Christian dogmas in a fairly systematic way; as prodigious amounts of evangelism would have surely taken place.  Al-Asram was responsible for the erection of the Christian church at Ma’rib known as Al-Qalis.  And for generations leading up to MoM’s birth, the Christian Kaaba at Najran was a major place of pilgrimage for the region’s Christians.

There are even tales of MoM cursing (“bahala”) the Christians of Najran for having rejected his message (that is: rejecting HIS rejection of the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth).  MoM is said to have dictated a letter to the bishop of Najran, Abdul Haris ibn Alqama, in an attempt to sway him on the matter; but to no avail.  (Ref. Ibn Isham’s “Sirat Rasul Allah” and Ibn Ishaq’s “Sirat al-Nabi”; though this apocryphal tale may have originated with Muqatil ibn Sulayman in the 8th century.)

Prior to Al-Asram, the zealous Himyarite ruler, Yusuf Dhu Nuwas (operating primarily out of Zafar c. 517-527) had aggressively imposed JUDAIC thinking upon the region–even going so far as to persecute Arabian pagans.  Such Judaic influence seems to have also been in the northern part of the Hijaz.  Sure enough, there are Jewish inscriptions at the Tayma oasis as well as at Umm Judhayidh (in Tabuk).  And, of course, the presence of Jewish Arabians in Yathrib is well attested in Islamic lore.

In the pre-Islamic era, there was also an Abrahamic proselyte named Zayd ibn Amr ibn Nufayl ibn Abd al-Uzza–a member of the Adi clan (part of the Quraysh).  He would have been conversant in Syriac, as he gained much of his knowledge of Abrahamic lore from information-gathering sojourns to Syria.  He needn’t have been bi-lingual for this to have been the case.

MoM’s great-grandfather, Hashim ibn Abd Manaf was known for leading Qurayshi trade caravans southward to Yemen (retroactively dubbed “Caravans of Winter”) as well as northward into the Levant (retroactively dubbed “Caravans of Summer”).

Suffice to say: The Abrahamic brand of monotheism was already quite familiar to Hijazis by the time MoM lived; and it would have primarily propagated via Syriac sources.

It is clear that an explicitly Ishmaelite brand of the Abrahamic creed began prior to the Mohammedan movement.  Tellingly, the South Arabian version of the mother-goddess, Ishtar (“Athtar Hagar”) was named after the mother of Ishmael.  This onomastic exigency is attested by the fact that the Arabs were not only referred to as “Ishmaelites”, they were often dubbed “Hagarenes” as well…even prior to the Mohammedan movement. {40}

Indeed, by the time MoM was born, the Banu As[s]ad was Abrahamic; and had already established a pilgrimage tradition to the Meccan cube.  In fact, by the time MoM was undertaking his ministry, that Arabian tribe even boasted its own Abrahamic prophet: Tulayha ibn Khuwaylid ibn Nawfal.

(Note that once he had mobilized a large enough following, MoM promptly had Tulayha–along with other aspiring prophets like Saf ibn Sayyad of Yathrib and Musaylima[h] ibn Habib of Yamama–executed; thus eliminating the competition.)

It is clear, then, that by the time MoM would have undertaken his ministry, Abrahamic lore had taken on a palpable Ishmaelite pedigree on the Arabian peninsula.  The aspiring prophet merely capitalized on certain (favorable) exigencies when he proffered his revelations.  That is to say: Most of the memes of which his followers made use were already in place–a smorgasbord of narrative tidbits that were ripe for the picking.

And so it went: Rather than come up with revolutionary new ideas, the early Mohammedans simply harvested what was already there.  As any charismatic leader would, MoM simply put a new twist on things, rebranding old tropes with a smattering of beguiling novelties–custom-tailored to suit the occasion.  In doing so, there is no doubt that MoM struck a nerve–especially amongst the highly-fragmented, world-weary (and often disaffected) Bedouins of the Hijaz.

It is revealing that the authors of the Koran spoke of the “Sabians”.  For “sabi” means “baptism” in Syriac.  (The sect was known for its emphasis on routine baptisms.)  The appellation seems to have referred to the Mandaeans; but it may have also been an oblique reference to the Elkesaites, an Ebionite (Jewish) sect named after a prophet, Elkesai…who claimed to have received the revelations from an angel c. 100 A.D.  (Sound familiar?)  The Elkesaites thrived in southern Mesopotamia and northern Arabia.  In fact, there were numerous Ebionite sects in the region, including Essenes, Nazarenes, and Sampsaeans…some of whom performed a regimen of prayers each day while facing Jerusalem and uttering the phrase: There is no god but god [“eloah”].  (This proclamation should also ring some bells.)

Note that Ebionites considered Jesus of Nazareth to be a mortal prophet, and so were arguably more in keeping with the original movement around the fabled Nazarene preacher (known as “The Way”). {2}  Ironically, the Mohammedans honored this fact more than did Pauline Christians!

The Mandaeans (a.k.a. the “Nasoreans”; perhaps a variation on “Nazarenes”) were prevalent in the region; and spoke a variant of Syriac now referred to as “Mandaic”.  (“Manda” means “knowledge” in Aramaic.)  Meanwhile, there was the (Christian) Ghassanid kingdom to the immediate northwest–on the periphery of Arabian lands.  This would invariably have had notable influence on northwestern Arabia.  The famous church at Aqaba dates from the late 3rd century.  And the Dura-Europos church in Syria dates back to the 230’s.

The Mohammedan prayer routine was likely adopted from the Mandaeans, who engaged in propitiations five times each day; and were known to have recited, “There is no god but god.”  They spoke Mandaic, which was an alternate variant of Syriac; so likely shared a vernacular (esp. liturgical terminology) with the Nabataeans and other north Arab peoples.

In Late Antiquity, some Arabs practiced a generic version of Abrahamic Faith—neither specifically Judaic nor specifically Christian.  Most notable was the Banu Hanifa, who hailed from as far east as the Nejd (a.k.a. “Yamama”), in the center of the Arabian Peninsula.  This syncretic creed may have served as yet another precursor to the Mohammedan movement.

It is important to bear in mind that, during Late Antiquity, centers of Syriac Christianity included Darmsuk (a.k.a. “Damascus”) and even the Nabataean capital of Rakmu / Rakemo / Rekem (better known by its Greek name, “Petra”). {37}  Starting in the 7th century, the Mohammedan movement would emerge in newly-established urban centers like Kufa and Basra (see my essay on “The Meccan Cube”).  The key, here, is that—irrespective of the specific doctrines / theology embraced—all these communities were SYRIAC.  It’s no wonder, then, that the best perspective that we get of the embryonic Mohammedan movement (effectively, proto-Islam) is not from Islamic records, but from SYRIAC records, which were primarily Christian. {38}

Many—perhaps even the MAJORITY—of the people within the Umayyad and the early Abbasid domain were, it turns out, (Syriac) Jews and Christians—that is: those who lived under Muslim governance yet did not end up converting to Islam.  (It was not Islamic FAITH that spread by the sword; it was Islamic RULE.) {39}  In the late 8th / early 9th century, Nestorian patriarch Timothy of Adiabene was in on-going dialogue with Muslim rulers.  In fact, there is a famous debate—perhaps apocryphal—between himself and the third Abbasid caliph, Al-Mahdi c. 782.  What was documented is a mutually respectful exchange; and was recorded IN SYRIAC.  (Only later was it translated into Arabic.)  In fact, Timothy was given a ceremonial burial at the “Dayra Klila Ishu” [Monastery of the Wreath of Jesus] in Baghdad. (!)

So what of the standard Islamic narrative that, at the time of Islam’s inception, the majority of people in the region were pagans worshipping all sorts of queer deities?  This is largely a myth.  The Nabataeans worshipped Dushara (with his consorts, Allat and Al-Uzza); but their alternate name for this god was “Allah” (as attested by inscriptions, which named Al-Uzza as his consort). {41}  In any case, the region was festooned with Syriac Christians, who’s godhead—the Abrahamic deity—was dubbed “Alaha”.

By the 4th century, there were churches in Arabia as far east as Jubail (the ruins of which have been extensively vandalized by Arabians, and kept hidden by the Saudi government).  The Mar Sarkis monastery at Maaloula, Syria dates to the 4th century.  So does the Mar Mattai monastary at Mount Alfaf in Nineveh.  We might also note the “Dair Mar Elia” in Nineveh–yet another Syriac church that predates MoM’s ministry. 

In the 6th century, significant parts of the Banu Kindah and Banu Taghlib (both of the Najd) had become Christian.  Most notably, there was a major Christian presence at Al-Hirah, as attested by the “Chronicle Of Seert”.  In fact, as MoM came of age, he would surely have been aware of the Lakhmid Christian poet, Adi ibn Zayd (who hailed from Al-Hirah) as well as of the renown preacher, Abraham “the Great” of Kashkar (who did most of his proselytizing in Al-Hirah).

And all THAT was in addition to a swath of Nestorian Christianity spanning from the Levant, across Mesopotamia, and into Persia (ref. the monastery of Saint Thaddeus near Chaldoran, dating from the 2nd century).  This would have all influenced the thinking in Nabataea–especially amongst the Lihyanites of Dedan, who spoke Syriac and used what would become known as the Nabataean alphabet. 

Suffice to say: By MoM’s lifetime, Arabia was TEEMING with Judeo-Christian memes, generally articulated in Syriac, and primed for being co-opted into a newfangled memeplex as the occasion warranted.

It should also be noted that there was even Zoroastrianism in Arabia–especially amongst the Banu Tamim and Banu Lakhm.  (The Lakhmids were Arabs in northeastern Arabia who spoke both Syriac and Middle Persian–specifically in places like Hir[t]a.)  It should be noted that Zoroastrianism was monotheistic–replete with a Judgement Day, when all the world’s dead will be resurrected in the midst of a whirlwind of apocalyptic mayhem.  And they believed that “Paradise” in the hereafter was a verdant celestial luxury resort…equipped with a coterie of angelic virgins called “pari”.

Myriad pagan rituals would be incorporated into the new Mohammedan liturgy.  The “Kitab al-Asnam” [Book of Idols], composed by Hisham ibn al-Kalbi of Kufa in the late 8th century, described the deities and rituals of pre-Islamic Arab religions.  Sure enough, virtually ALL the rituals used by the early Mohammedans had pagan precursors in Arabian culture.  It is little wonder that we do not hear about this much anymore.  For it would make plain the degree to which Islam co-opted extant Bedouin practices into its repertoire.

Overall, the eschatological—specifically, apocalyptic—literature that proliferated amongst the Arabs during the relevant period included the (Syriac) “Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius”: material that was inspired by the prophecies in the Book Of Daniel concerning the End Times.  The tract refers to the “sons of Ishmael” that will emerge from the desert of Ethribus to inflict god’s punishment upon those who had “slipped into depravity” (be they wayward Christians or pagans).  The tract refers to the foreboding legend of Gog and Magog; and speaks of a POLITICAL savior figure (a last emperor / prophet) who will come to restore the true word of god to those who’d been led astray by some sort of corruption.

All this should sound familiar.

Naturally, the Christian authors vilified the Ishmaelites (Arabs) in this narrative; and fashioned the last emperor / prophet as a (Christian) Roman.  It does not follow, however, that Arabs (esp. those with Abrahamic predilections) would not have taken this prophecy as a queue.  Indeed, the heady prognostication was a tacit invitation—nay, a provocation.  As such, it would have been easily construed as a call to action on the part of disenchanted Arabs, seeing TRINITARIANS as those who were straying from the path.  (Predictably, later Christians invoked this narrative to justify their enmity toward the hegemonic Saracens; as with the “Libellus de Antichristo” by Adso of Montier-en-Der c. 954.)  Hence the nascent Mohammedan movement was furnished with a well-articulated casus belli.  The movement would undergo a long metamorphosis—from its gestation in the 620’s / 630’s to its final codification more than a century later.

This brings us to the topic at hand: The authors of the “Recitations” appropriated selected tidbits from extant lore, then passed it off as a novelty.  This is, after all, how appropriation typically works, especially when it comes to religion.  (I explore numerous examples of this in my two-part series on “Mythemes”.)  Here, we are looking at more than just phrases / idioms; we are looking at signature motifs and specific plot points.

When it comes to Islamic scripture, the key is that extant lore was re-purposed, imbued with a distinctly Ishmaelite pedigree, then presented as if it had been that way ALL ALONG.  Thus Abraham erected the Kaaba in the Hijaz (rather than on Moriah) at some point in the early 2nd millennium B.C.; and it was Ishmael, not Isaac, who was the anointed son.  (The Akedah is moved from the hills of Canaan to the deserts of Arabia.  And Beth Israel may be from the sons of Jacob ben Isaac, but Dar al-Islam is from the sons of Ishmael.  The former had gone awry; and the latter had re-discovered the way, thanks to the Final Revelation.)  This means that every Abrahamic prophet that ever existed was, in fact, Muslim—from Noah to Jesus of Nazareth.  Any other narrative is errant.  Consequently, the record needed to be corrected—bringing the theology back to the way it originally was (before corruption set in, yielding misguided creeds like Judaism and Christianity). {33}

*  *  *

Once parallels between antecedent lore–specifically, from Syriac sources–and Mohammedan lore are elucidated, it becomes plain to see that the Koran’s authors were re-purposing material that would have been familiar to people at that particular place and time (that is: in the Hijaz, al-Anbar, and al-Sham during the Dark Ages)…and readily available in their own language: Syriac. {3}

Before proceeding, it’s worth noting that the authors of the Koran effectively reduced the New Testament to solely the “Injil” (Canonical Gospels) and the Old Testament to solely the “Tawrat” (Torah)…with one interesting exception: the so-called “Zabur” (the book given to King David, per 4:163 and 17:55; i.e. the Book of Psalms).  As it turns out, Syriac Psalters proliferated in the region at the time; so this single exception makes sense.

Thus, as far as the early Mohammedans were concerned, the Hebrew Bible was effectively the Pentateuch.  It’s no wonder, then, that we do not find recognition of any of the (five) “Megillot” in Islamic lore.  There are no traces of the Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, or the Book of Ruth in Koranic verse; as those books were not as readily available in Syriac. {34}  There WAS, however, a Syriac Targum written on the Book of Esther (the “Targum Sheni”); composed by a contemporary of MoM, nevertheless.  Sure enough, we encounter some apocrypha from THAT work in the Koran; as we’ll see.

There is a plethora of ineluctable signs that the Koran had Syriac origins which can be found IN THE KORAN ITSELF.  Here are a dozen of the most obvious.  Taken together, they betray the worldly nature of the source material:

ONE:  The tale of Abraham [“Ibrahim”] being delivered from the fire in Babylon is, it turns out, based on a mistranslation.  The mistake is repeated throughout the Koran (2:260, 6:74-84, 19:41-50, 21:60-69, 26:69-79, 29:13-16, 30:52-72, 38:81-95, 43:25-27, and 60:4).  This scribal flub was based on Abraham having hailed from “Ur”, which meant “city” in Assyrian.  However, in the Semitic languages (both Ancient Hebrew and Aramaic / Syriac), the same lexeme means “fire”.  (It was later rendered “nar” in CA.)  So when the Hebrew scribe, Jonathan ben Uzz-i-El transcribed Genesis 15:7 (in which Abraham was said to have “been brought from Ur of the Chaldeans”), he mistakenly wrote it as Abraham having been delivered from THE FIRE of the Chaldeans–insinuating that he had endured a trial-by-fire (by god’s grace) rather than simply hailing from a Chaldean city.  This version of the tale made it into legends about the villainous Nimrod of Babylon, who was then said to have cast Abraham into a furnace…from which the prophet emerged unscathed, thereby validating his exalted status.

This piece of apocrypha also cropped up in the Midrash Rabba; and would surely have been circulating in Syriac literature throughout the Middle East by the time MoM was born. {7}  It is no wonder, then, that THIS version (the errant version) eventually wound up in the “Recitations”.  Are we to suppose that god ALSO mistranslated this word?

TWO:  The tale of the liaison between Yusuf and Zuleika in Surah 12 was likely adapted from material found in the Aggadah (i.e. the Midrash regarding parables).  Most notably, it wound up in the Semitic “Dibre ha-Yamim be-Aruk”–a work that would later be dubbed the “Sefer ha-Yashar” [“Book of Jasher”] during the Renaissance.  Zuleika was said to have been the wife of the dashing Egyptian captain, Potiphar (Yusuf’s master at the time). 

The glitch in the Koran is obvious.  The authors seemed to have been unaware of Zuleika’s husband’s name, and so were left to simply refer to him by the vague Semitic honorific, “aziz”–an appellation used at the time in both Mandaic and Syriac.  (Further confusion surrounds these identities, as–according to conventional Abrahamic account–Yusuf eventually married a woman named “Asenath”, who was the daughter of an Egyptian priest named Poti-Pherah.)  Zuleika is not mentioned by name in the Torah, but she IS mentioned by name in the aforesaid Aggadah…which would likely have been circulating in Syriac throughout the region.  This is highly probable considering the Geonim were operating primarily out of academies in (Syriac-speaking) Mesopotamia.  (There were also the Mandaeans in the region: Gnostics who spoke the neo-Aramaic tongue, Mandaic.)  This glitch indicates that the Syriac literature, not the canonical account familiar to the Roman Church, served as the source material.

THREE:  The tale of King Solomon, the talking hoopoe bird, and the Malkat of Saba (a.k.a. the Queen of Sheba)…involving a glass floor that appeared to be water…ended up in Surah 27 (verses 17-44).  This was an adaptation of a piece of apocrypha uniquely found in the Judaic [second] “Targum of Esther”.  That work is not to be confused with the original “Book of Esther” [“Megillat Esther”], which was composed in Ancient Hebrew in the 4th century B.C. as part of the K-T-B-im [Writings; often rendered “Ketuvim”].  Lo and behold: THIS “Targum” [translation] was originally composed in Syriac at some point during MoM’s lifetime.  Naturally, THAT–rather than the ancient Hebraic texts about Solomon–is what would have been circulating amongst the (Syriac-speaking) Bedouins in the Hijaz.  Lo and behold, THAT is the material found in the Koran. {4}

This anecdote is also found in the (Jewish) “Hekhalot” [Palaces] literature of the era, which were often rendered in Syriac.  Believing a glass floor to be water (used as a litmus test for Faith) was a common Judaic trope at the time.  It would have been odd for it to crop up in Islam’s holy book had the authors not been appropriating material from extant lore.  Again: This is NOT something that would have been available in any scripture that was being circulated in languages other than Syriac (or Mishnaic Hebrew, which was just another variation on Aramaic).

Note that the Sabaean queen (errantly referred to as “Bilqis” in Islamic scripture) is the woman with the most lines of dialogue in the Koran—more than even Miriam, the mother of Jesus (for whom an entire chapter is named).  The woman given the second most to say is the wife of the (un-named) Egyptian pharaoh (who is given the name “Asiya” in extra-Koranic sources).  These seem to be rather peculiar choices…until we realize what the source-material was.  As it turns out, these two women had special prominence in extant SYRIAC lore.

FOUR:  The tale of the virgin mother, Miriam stopping to rest–with the talking baby Jesus–under a date / palm tree in 19:22-26 was lifted from a Gospel entitled, “The Book Of The Nativity Of The Blessed Miriam And The Savior’s Infancy” (a.k.a. “pseudo-Matthew”)…which had been rendered in Syriac during MoM’s lifetime. {12}  In this recounting, Jesus of Nazareth even speaks to his mother from the womb–saying: “Shake towards you the trunk of the palm and it will drop down on you dates soft and ripe.”  

When it comes to Miriam (Romanized to “Maria”; rendered “Mary” in English), several other anecdotes found in Islamic lore were lifted from the (Syriac) Gospel of James—most notably: being given nourishment by angels, weaving a curtain for the local temple, and the choice of Joseph as her guardian (selected via the casting of lots).

Meanwhile, the account of Miriam and Zacharias in 3:35-44 was ALSO likely adapted from a Syriac edition of “pseudo-Matthew”.  In addition, we might note the account of Miriam venturing alone to “the East” (19:16).  These tales did not appear in the canonical Gospel accounts (which were primarily circulating in Koine Greek).  They ONLY occurred in Syriac source-material.

FIVE:  The tale of an infant Jesus speaking from his cradle (19:29-34) was lifted from the “Gospel of the Infancy of the Savior” (a.k.a. “Syriac Infancy Gospel”), which dates back to the early 6th century. {5}  The anecdote had been included in the “Peshitta”–which was itself based in part on the various oral traditions of antecedent Abrahamic lore: the “targumim” [translations].  Once we consider this tract’s peculiar emphasis of the angel Gabriel, it is no wonder that it was THAT angel (rendered “Jibr[a]il”) who came to play such a prominent role in Mohammedan lore.  The choice of Gabriel as envoy was likely also influenced by his having featured prominently in “The Demonstrations” by Aphrahat of Ashuristan, which was itself inspired by the Book of Daniel (also available in Aramaic).  So it makes sense that it was not the archangel Michael who was cast in the role of divine emissary to the final Abrahamic Prophet.

Tellingly, the Dayro d-Mor Gabriel [Chapel of Saint Gabriel] was founded c. 397 in the “Tur Abdin” region by “Mor” Samuel (and his student, Simon).  One or both of them had a dream in which the arch-angel, Gabriel delivered a message from god: build a house of worship here.  Clearly, Gabriel was seen as a divine emissary in the Syriac tradition.

Had Michael featured prominently in the Abrahamic lore proliferating in Arabia at the time, then it likely would have been Michael (“Mikha’il” in Arabic) who visited MoM on the fabled “Night of Destiny” (a.k.a. “Night of Power”).  As it happens, Michael–far more prominent in the canonical texts–is mentioned only once, in passing, in the Koran (2:98); and even then, in conjunction with Gabriel.  The explanation for this is plain to see: It was Syriac material (in this case, the Syriac Infancy Gospel) that informed the Bedouins’ knowledge of Abrahamic lore.

SIX:  The tale of Jesus of Nazareth turning clay into birds (3:49 and 5:109-110) was lifted from the “Infancy Gospel of Thomas” (15:1-7), which had been rendered in Syriac by the time MoM had been born.  After all, it is on THAT work that the aforementioned “Syriac Infancy Gospel” was based (see item 5).  Interestingly, this piece of apocrypha was not in the canonical texts (scripture that was primarily composed in Koine Greek).  It is notable that in both versions of this odd anecdote, the crowd scornfully dismisses Jesus as a mere magician, rejecting any conception of him as divine.

SEVEN: The tale of Alexander the Great (rendered “D[h]u al-Qarnayn” in the Koran) traveling to the end of the world to the place where the sun sets (18:86) could be found in the Christian hagiography, “The Deeds Of Alexander” (a.k.a. “The Romance Of Alexander”), a tract attributed to Callisthenes of Olynthus in the late 4th century B.C. (though was revamped by a Ptolemaic scribe in Egypt in the 2nd or 3rd century A.D. in either Greek, Coptic, or Aramaic).  Claims about Alexander having traveled to the edges of the Earth (which wound up in Islamic lore) seem to be lifted from the legends propounded in this work.  Of course, Callisthenes would have composed the text in Greek.  However, a direct Syriac adaptation entitled “The Legend of Alexander” was composed in Mesopotamia c. 629 A.D. (!)  The Syriac version contained embellishments that were not in Callisthenes’ work–including the tale of a wall built to stave off Gog and Magog…which, lo and behold, also wound up in Islamic lore (see example Twelve below). {6}

EIGHT:  The tale of the “Sleepers of the Cave” (18:9-26) was a revamped version of the “Seven Sleepers Of Ephesus”–a piece of folklore that had been propagated by the Syriac poet, Jacob of Serug[h] c. 500.  The tale was surely known in the region during MoM’s lifetime; but by then, it had already had a long history.

It originally stemmed from the legend of the Cretan prophet, Epimenides of Knossos, who—the story goes—fell asleep in a cave (possibly on Mount Ida, known for its significance to Zeus) for fifty-seven years, at the behest of the gods; and upon awakening, purified Athens.  The tale was famously recounted by Plutarch c. 100; and was then adapted by the Roman author, Diogenes Laertius in the early 3rd century, whereupon it was circulated in Anatolia.  (That’s where the German theologian, Johann Karl Christoph Nachtigal eventually got the idea for Peter Klaus…which is where Washington Irving later got the idea for Rip Van Winkle.)

Considering all this, it comes as no surprise that, in Arabia, the Jews and Christians of Najran had started circulating the tale by the 5th century…a fact that confirms that, by the time the “Recitations” were composed in the 7th century, the tale had spread from Anatolia through Mesopotamia and Persia, and all the way down through the Hijaz.

But how did this ancient Greco-Roman legend make its way into Syriac folklore?  To reiterate: Jacob of Serug[h] was the primary link—which makes sense, dwelling, as he did, in northern Syria.  But we might also note that this piece of apocrypha was propagated by Gregory of Tours in the 6th century.  The on-going memetic transmission is indicated by the commentary of Ishodad of Merv from the 9th-century, wherein he discusses a Cretan prophet referenced in the New Testament (whom Clement of Alexandria had identified as Epimenides in his “Stromata”).  This demonstrated that the tale had proliferated along the Silk Road in the early Middle Ages; and—in the process—had been adapted for Christian audiences, eventually becoming a part of Syriac lore.

The fact that this (rather silly) tale crops up in the Koran is further proof that the “Final Revelation” lifted much of its material from local legends—that is: folklore that was prevalent in the region at that time.  More to the point: It is a reminder that the book’s contents are folkloric, not historic.  For obviously, the authors of the Koran did not realize they were relaying an apocryphal tale about a Greek oracle from Crete.

In the Muslim world, we also find the tale relayed in Ibn Hisham’s “Sirah an-Nabawiyyah” (c. 800)…and repeated in the “tafsir” of Al-Tabari (in the 9th century) and on through Ibn Kathir (in the 14th century).

What is most incriminating about the way that this tale is conveyed in the Koran is that the author seems unsure of what, exactly, really happened.  Consequently, he is forced to speculate about the number of sleepers.  18:22 even begins with “Some say…” before providing possibilities–a peculiar thing to insert if this account is supposedly being provided BY GOD HIMSELF.  The caveat is added that “only god knows” what the exact number was.  (Was the purported author of the Koran being playful here–teasing his audience?)  The pièce de résistance occurs at the conclusion of this verse, where the audience is instructed not to question the matter.  18:23-26 is simply further equivocation on the issue (offering what amounts to a daft litany of special pleading).  {36}

NINE: The tale of the angel, “Iblis” (the nascent Satan) refusing to bow to Adam, and consequently being cast out of heaven for his insolence (7:11-18, 15:28-35, 17:61-64, 20:116-117, and 38:71-85).  This seems to have been lifted from an account found in the (Syriac) “The Cave of Treasure[s]” by the 4th-century theologian, Ephrem of Nisibis…which itself may have been an adaptation of antecedent Judaic apocrypha (e.g. the “Life of Adam and Eve”; “Mastema” in the Covenant of Damascus; as well as accounts found in the Talmudic “Genesis Rabba” / “Bereshit[h] Rabba”).  Even Ephram’s emphasis on abstaining from WINE (yet having grapes provided in Paradise) is echoed in the “Recitations”.  All of Ephrem’s work–including his hymns–were composed in Syriac; and were widely circulated throughout the Middle East.

The angels bowing to Adam (on god’s command) is not mentioned anywhere in the Hebrew Bible, or in Greek Christian scripture; but it IS prominent in Syriac texts—most notably: “The Cave Of Treasures” by Ephrem of Nisibus (rendered “Ma’arah al-Kanuz” in Garshuni).  Also likely influential on Islamic lore was the Syriac “Conflict Of Adam And Eve With Satan”.  (I discuss the history of Satan in my essay, “Nemesis”, where I explore the tale of “Iblis” refusing to kneel before Adam.)

Another tell-tale sign of the Koran’s Syriac origins: The motif of TWO trees (that of Knowledge and that of Life) in the garden of Eden does not occur in the Koran.  Instead, we hear of a single tree (that of Immortality), a leitmotif that was lifted directly from exegeses that existed in SYRIAC.  Also, Eve is not implicated in the temptation to eat from the tree (“shajar[at] al-huld”), as she is in the conventional Judeo-Christian version.  (The tree is dubbed “ilan[a] hayya” in Syriac.)

TEN: The tale of Abraham smashing all the idols except for the largest one (the moon-goad, Hubal), after which he is thrown into a fiery pit for his iconoclasm (21:51-71).  This came from the Judaica circulating around the Middle East (in Syriac) at the time.  The most notable source was the Midrash Rabba (i.e. the Aggadah), which was itself based on the Targum of Jonathan ben Uzz-i-El from the beginning of the 1st century.  Later, Muslims would contemptuously refer to much of the Judaic lore propagating throughout Dar al-Islam as “Isra’iliyyat”…as if their own lore had nothing to do with it.  This pejorative was ostensibly an attempt to distance themselves from material tied to the Jewish tradition.

ELEVEN: According to the Koran (3:55, 4:157-159, 5:117, and 19:33), Jesus of Nazareth did not actually die on the cross.  Rather, it only APPEARED that he perished via crucifixion.  In reality, he was simply taken up into heaven.  Hence the Mohammedans were left to explain what “really” happened on Cavalry on that fateful Friday evening.  Enter the tale of a figure named “Serges” (alt. “Sergius”).  Who?  In the 8th century, Ibn Ishaq sought to explain away the traditional crucifixion account. {8}  His strategy was to reference an apocryphal version of the Passion derived from a 5th-century tale about two figures who were martyred by crucifixion: “The Passion of Sergius and Bacchus”.  Ibn Ishaq proposed that the man who was crucified c. 31 A.D. was not Jesus, but was actually Sergius. 

This “just-not-so-story” seems to have ALSO been based on a misreading of the (Syriac) writings of John of Damascus in his discussion of Docetism—whereby it only APPEARED as though Jesus died on the cross. {9}  The tale of Sergius and Bacchus was originally in Koine Greek, but was rendered in Syriac in the 4th century.  It even became the basis for a popular cult in the Syrian city of Resafa (which was consequently re-named “Sergi-o-polis”).

The Mandaeans—who spoke a dialect of Syriac (now referred to as “Mandaic”)—believed that JoN would return to the heavenly realm (what they called the Kingdom of Light) after the Passion.  The crucifixion, it turns out, was only an ILLUSION.  Lo and behold, this peculiar idea is repeated in the Koran (4:157-159).  We know that the Mandaeans were on the radar of the early Mohammedans, as they were alluded to in the “Recitations” (as “Sabians”; though the label could have referred to the Manicheans; or it may have even been a reference to the Aksumites, who were descendants of the Sabaeans).  Though not a formidable presence, they operated within the Abrahamic orbit, spoke a variation of the same language, and dwelled in the same region.

The view of the crucifixion “only in appearance” was also broached in the Syriac “Apocalypse of Peter”; and by Ignatius of Antioch in his letter to the Trallians.  Meanwhile, the Docetic theme of JoN as apparition was presented in the Syriac “Acts of John”. {43}

It is little surprise, then, that this zany crucifixion tale was adopted by the early Mohammedans as an alternative to conventional accounts of the Passion of the Christ, which they were determined to obviate.

TWELVE: The Koranic reference of Gog and Magog [rendered “(y)Ajuj” and “Majuj” in the Koran] (21:96-97) was lifted from apocryphal (Syriac) sources.  The tale is about Alexander the Great during his time in central Asia.  As the story goes, the great Macedonian conquerer–who was reputed to have been a Muslim–built a defensive iron wall to keep nefarious peoples of faraway lands at bay (18:92-99).  At the time, those peoples were alternately associated with the Scythians, Huns, and the Turkic-Mongol tribes beyond the Pontic Steppes. {10}  The ORIGINAL reference to these peoples (who were equated with the Japhethites in Biblical lore) occurred in the Book of Ezekiel.  However, the reference was ORIGINALLY “Gog OF Magog”.  Later versions mistranslated this as Gog AND Magog–notably: the Samaritan version of the Pentateuch (which was composed in the Samaritan variation of Aramaic).

The prophecy was as follows: In the End Times, this wall would be rent asunder, thereby unleashing these diabolical hordes onto the People of the Book.  This menacing eschatological account was echoed in the (Syriac) “Aggadah”.  The role of Alexander the Great in this grand scheme was derived from the (Syriac) “Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius”…which was originally composed in the 4th century, yet updated in the 7th century in response to Mohammedan hegemony.  This particular account would also occur in the (Syriac) “Romance of Alexander” (see item 7 above)…which was contemporaneous with MoM’s ministry.

Where was this fabled rampart located?  It seems to correlated with the Wall at Derbent [from the Middle Persian “Dar-band”, meaning “blocked gateway”].  Sure enough, medieval Arabs came to refer to Derbent as “Bab al-Hadid” [Gate of Iron]. {11}  It also may have possibly referred to the Great Wall of Gorgan / Gurgan (Persian “Astara-bad”), a pass in the Alborz Mountains, to the east in Golestan (what the Greeks called “Hyrkania”).

Al-Yaqub’s geographical work, the “Kitab al-Buldan” references this pass (purported to be in Bactria / Sogdia) using the Pahlavi “Dar i-Achanii” [“Iron Gates”].  Clearly, he did not think of it in CA terms.  It seems to correspond to a defile in the [g]Hissar Mountain Range known in Old Turkic as the “Temir Kapig” (ref. the Orkhon inscriptions).

Incidentally, the term for “Gog” is directly from the rendering in Syriac (using the aliph in front: “ya-” as the prefix), as was used by Jacob of Serug.  (Note that “gog” was rendered “juj” in the same way that the Syriac “M-G-U” was rendered “majus”.)

It is also likely that the idiosyncratic version of Noah and the Flood found in the Koran may have been lifted from the (first) Book of Enoch, which includes citations from the (now lost) Book of Noah.  Again: This was widely circulated in Syriac throughout the Middle East during Late Antiquity; and so would have been the version with which the Bedouins of the Hijaz were familiar.  It is entirely possible that this divergent version of the tale was co-opted into the Abrahamic lore circulating in Arabia during the formation of explicitly Mohammedan lore amongst the Ishmaelites.  We find repeated references to such material throughout the Koran (as with 6:154-157, 7:157, 10:37, and 35:31), indicating that there was a familiarity with such material amongst the target audience. {13}  And as we have seen, much of this came from non-canonical sources that were unique to Syriac-speaking precincts.

Other interesting discrepancies occur between the Torah and the Koran.  For example: In the former, the emphasis is on Noah during / following the flood; whereas in the latter, the narrative centers on Noah (as a preacher) BEFORE the flood.  Noah’s antediluvian ministry—as found in the Koran—is of rather intriguing provenance.  It does not exist in Occidental (Greek or Latin) sources.  So from whence did it come?  Lo and behold: This alternate version of the narrative occurs in the commentaries of the Syriac writers, Ephrem of Nisibis (4th century) and Jacob of Serug[h] (late 5th / early 6th century).  There are lexical indications of the source material as well.  Notably, the Koran’s authors referred to the mountain on which the ark came to rest as “al-Gurdi” (later rendered “al-Judi”) instead of “Ararat” (11:44).  The term has its origins in Syriac lore (as “Djudi”; later rendered “Gardu” / “Kardu”), the term for the land of the Kurds.

Even more telling, it was in Syriac lore that we hear about Noah’s “lost son”, who perished in the flood.  This is something that does not occur in Occidental versions; yet, sure enough, crops up in the Koran (11:42).  This is no coincidence.

Tales are one thing, but what of TROPES?  Throughout the “Recitations”, there are various statements that hint at dubious sources.  Here are a dozen interesting examples:

Item One:  The portrayal of Abraham in the Book of Jubilees (BoJ).  Along with the Garima Gospels, this text was originally composed in Coptic, Ge’ez (based on Sabaean / Old South Arabian), and–of course–Syriac.  This portrayal predominated in Abyssinia, and thus amongst the (Sabaean) Aksumites.  Recall that in MoM’s lifetime, the Aksumite Kingdom–which embraced the Abrahamic tradition–encompassed both Abyssinia and southern Arabia (Yemen).  Consequently its scriptural sources would have had influence in the Hijaz at the time.  (The BoJ was later rendered the Ethiopic “Book of Division” by the “Beta Israel” movement in Abyssinia.)  Sure enough, the treatment of Abraham in the Koran and the BoJ is strikingly similar.

Also in the BoJ, we find a familiar leitmotif: The decrees of the Abrahamic deity are inscribed on celestial tablets; and an angel reveals its contents to a prophet.  (Ring any bells?)  Moreover, Ibn Ishaq’s biography of MoM highlights key events in the prophet’s lifetime that mimic auspicious occasions commemorated in the BoJ.  This is no coincidence.

Such folkloric affinities are unsurprising, as there were POLITICAL affinities between the early Mohammedans and the Christian Abyssinians.  Indeed, there are tales of the earliest followers of Mohammed seeking sanctuary there.

Item Two:  The reference to Jews being transformed into apes and swine in 2:65-66, 4:47, and 5:60.  Ironically, this derogatory epithet seems to have been lifted from the Talmudic tradition.  7:163-166 makes a reference to a cursed Jewish town “by the sea”, the residents of which transgressed Mosaic law by fishing on the Sabbath.  The townspeople were consequently transformed into the “despised” creatures by an angry god.  The apocryphal tale was likely a distortion of the tale of the infamous Sabbath-breakers of “Bet[h] Mekoshesh” [House of the stick-gatherer] from Numbers 15:32-36.  That tale was circulated in the Middle East during the Mishnaic era–especially via the “Tosefta”.  In Judaic lore, this particular cursed house was associated with the family of the notorious Pharisee priest, “Caiaphas”…which doubled as the term for “ape” in Mishnaic Hebrew.

Item Three:  The cooptation of extant material also included aphorisms.  A prime example is the oft-cited exhortation in 5:32–an allusion to a command addressed to the “Children of Israel” after Cain had murdered Abel.  It is plain to see that this was lifted from earlier sources.  The Koranic passage is as follows: “For anyone who murders any person who has not committed murder or horrendous crimes, it shall be as if he murdered all the people; and for anyone who spares a life, it shall be as if he spared the lives of all the people.”  As it turns out, this an adaptation of a passage from the Mishnah compiled by Judah ha-Nasi at the end of the 2nd century A.D.  The relevant passage–which also pertains to Cain having murdered his brother–reads as follows: “Whosoever destroys a single soul of Israel, scripture imputes [guilt] to him as though he had destroyed a complete world; and whosoever preserves a single soul of Israel, scripture ascribes [merit] to him as though he had preserved a complete world.”  (Note that “Israel” refers to a people, not to any particular place.)

Here’s the thing.  This passage does not appear in the Torah.  Rather, it appears in the Babylonian Talmudic literature–much of which would have been circulating in Syriac during the time the “Recitations” were being composed. {14}

There is also the oft-touted 109:6 (“Unto you your way of life; unto me my way of life”).  (Note: “din” is also sometimes translated as “religion”.)  This seems to be an echo of Isaiah 55:8 (“My beliefs are not your beliefs; my ways are not your ways”). {30}

Item Four:  In 7:40, we are notified that “the gates of Heaven will not be opened for [non-Muslims]; nor will [non-Muslims] enter paradise until a camel enters into the eye of a needle.”  A version of this trope is most known from Matthew 19:24.  However, the Mohammedan version was likely taken from the apocryphal “Acts of Peter and Andrew”, which was widely circulated in Syriac.

Here’s the problem: In the original version, the camel-through-the-eye-of-a-needle meme is used in reference to how difficult it would be for those who are AFFLUENT to get into heaven.  (It would be easier to thread a needle with a camel.)  In the Koran, the object of contempt was changed from the avaricious to those who are impious.  (It is as likely for a non-Muslim to enter heaven as it would be to thread a needle with a camel.)  Thus the authors contort Jesus’ “camel through the eye of a needle” line from the Gospels–reframing it to be about Muslim vs. non-Muslim (instead of plebes vs. affluent).

Item Five:  The trinity consisted of the father, the mother, and the son (5:116).  This mis-impression likely derived from antecedent Semitic myths about the godhead, Baal and his consort, As[h]toreth / Asherah…coupled with the fact that Christians thought the Abrahamic deity (Y-H-W-H was an alternate of Baal) begat a son.  Funny enough, the consort of “Baal Shama’im” was the Arabian goddess, “al-Lat” (as attested on Safaitic inscriptions in Nabataea).  Moreover, the Palmyrenes worshipped “al-Lat” along with a god named “Rahim”.  Meanwhile, “Al Uzza” was considered the consort of the Nabataean godhead, Dushara…who’s alternate moniker was “Allah”.  This should all sound oddly familiar.

Marian cults (notably, the Arabian “Collyridians”) seem to have proliferated in the Middle East during Late Antiquity, which would have bolstered the impression that Christians deified the mother of Jesus of Nazareth.  The inordinate emphasis in the Koran on Miriam, mother of Jesus, is likely a reflection of the Koran’s own (Syriac) source material; as both Ephrem of Nisibis and Jacob of Serug[h] (both Syriac writers) devoted much focus to Marian lore.  Also notable: At the time, the (monophysite) Church of Abyssinia was renown for its quasi-deification of Miriam, mother of Jesus.

This error may have also come from the Syriac proselytizer, Alcibiades of Apameia, who founded the Elkesaite sect in the 3rd century.  Alcibiades equated the holy spirit with a mother figure.  (It probably didn’t help that Maronite sects at the time referred to Jesus’ mother, Miriam, as the “Holy Mother”, “Queen of Heaven”, and/or “Mother of God”; and that they routinely worshipped effigies of the Madonna.).  To reiterate: Ephrem of Nisibis and Jacob of Serug[h] placed special emphasis on Marian lore, to the point of verging deification.  It would have been hard not to notice this; and it surely caused a stir amongst the Syriac-speaking peoples of the Middle East. {15}  The biggest influence on Middle Eastern impressions, though, may have been the polemic of Nestorius (eponymous founder of Nestorian Christianity), who denounced the Orthodox Church’s use of the term, “Theotokos” [Mother of God] for the mother of Jesus.  It is quite likely such an exalted moniker left the impression–amongst Syriac-speaking peoples who heard the arguments against this–that Miriam was considered by the Romans to be a partner with the godhead.

But why all the hubbub over this particular matter?  Here, again, we encounter the influence of the Syriac Church during the germination of Mohammedan lore.  In the Eastern Church, Mary was considered the mother of JoN, but most adamantly NOT the mother of god.  This was, to put it mildly, a contentious issue.  (Mother of GOD?  Perish the thought!)

Semantics was also a possible source of confusion on this point.  For in Syriac literature, the Holy Ghost was generally given a feminine designation–sometimes even carrying the connotation of “Mother”.  To make matters even more slippery, the Syriac lexeme for “mother” (“mor”) was similar to one of the Syriac lexemes for “our Lord” (“moran”).  Hence Father, Son, and Holy Ghost could easily have been misconstrued as Father, Son, and Mother.  Semantic slippage is not uncommon, especially when etymology tracks with cultural metamorphosis.  (It was, after all, a botched translation that rendered the forbidden fruit in Genesis as an “apple”…and the mother of Jesus a “virgin”.)  The “catch” is that such etymological glitches leaves a trail.  Hence errant translations can be traced back to their source.

And so it went: Mother as part of the Holy Trinity.  Sure enough, this bit of misunderstanding found its way into the “Recitations”–as we find in 4:171 and 5:112-116.  (The confusion on this point is also evident in 6:101, which asks rhetorically: How can god have a son if he has no wife?  Of course, nobody ever said that Yahweh had a mate.)  The misconception certainly did not come from the Koine Greek version of the New Testament; nor did it come from any Latinized texts from the late 4th century, as with those complied by the Dalmatian cleric, Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus of Stridon (a.k.a. “Jerome”).  Rather, it spawned from lore that was circulating in Syriac…and so would have been the basis of understanding amongst those who spoke Syriac.

Item Six:  The adjuration to pray three times each day (as specified in the Koran) originated during Classical Antiquity.  This is attested by the “Book Of Daniel” (6:11), material of which would have circulated in Syriac, rendered the “Demonstrations”–a tract composed by Aphrahat of Adiabene [Ashuristan] in the 4th century.  This is not to say that the early Mohammedans got the idea DIRECTLY FROM those works; it simply shows that the practice was well-established in Syriac-speaking circles.  As mentioned earlier, the Mandaeans (who spoke a variant of Syriac) had five daily propitiations.

Item Seven:  The division of heaven into seven layers (2:29) had been well-known in Abrahamic circles since Classical Antiquity.  This is attested in what is now referred to as the “Apocalypse of Abraham”, wherein Abraham makes a sojourn to heaven; and is given a guided tour of all seven tiers.

Would Arabians at the time have been familiar with that particular Syriac work?  Lo and behold, we find reference to the “Suhuf Ibrahim” [scrolls of Abraham] in the Koran (87:19).

As it turns out, the “seven heavens” leitmotif was adapted from Mithraic cosmogony.  Mithraism was rampant throughout the region during Late Antiquity.  The cult would have proliferated across the Middle East in Syriac, though not in its (more widespread) Roman incarnation.

This celestial leitmotif can also be found in the Book of Enoch (wherein the eponymous protagonist is referred to as the “Son of Man”).  Note that the Book of Enoch was—in large part—a regurgitation of the Babylonian myth of En-men-dur-ana (alt. “Emme-dur-an-ki”), the world’s seventh king (who was associated with the all-seeing sun-god, Utu [Semitic: “Shamash”], source of divine judgement).  Lo and behold, Enoch was considered the seventh patriarch.  And like Emmeduranki, Enoch ascended to heaven at the end of his worldly life.  The book also discusses how and why certain angels fell from heaven—a topic that became prevalent with the Islamic conception of “Iblis” cum “Shaytan”.

We might then consider the fabled “Night Journey” (the “Mi’raj”), as recounted in Bukhari’s Hadith 5/58/227 and 9/93/608 (as well as in the writings of Ibn Ishaq), which were purportedly based on the testimony of Ibn Abbas.  And where might the tale of the magical sojourn come from?  As it turns out, it is an almost exact duplication of a Persian tale: that of  the fabled Zoroastrian prophet, “Arda” [Just] Wiraz[a] (a.k.a. “Arda Viraf”). {35}  One night, Viraf goes on a “dream journey” to the next world, where he engages in dialogues with angels (notably: Atar) and past prophets (notably: Sraosha / Saoshyant); and even meets the godhead (Ahura Mazda).  The godhead tells the prophet that Mazda-ism is the one true Faith; and the only way to salvation.  Viraf is also given a glimpse of hell, so that he might witness the torments visited upon the damned.  All this should sound very familiar.

Item Eight:  The notion that the sun and moon are objects of approximately the same size, and move across the sky (13:2, 14:33, 21:33, 31:29, 36:38-40, and 39:5).  Moreover, both of them are sources of light (10:5 and 25:61).  Such misconceptions were probably lifted from the aforementioned Book of Enoch…which was circulated in Syriac at the time.

This mis-impression was nothing new; as it dated back to the Sumerian / Akkadian and Hittite word for the moon, “Iskhara” (meaning “maker of light”).  The matter of geo-centrism is explored at length in my essay, “The Koran As A Miracle?”

Item Nine:  The claim that Solomon could control the wind in 38:36.  This was likely lifted from the “Testament Of Solomon” (ToS), a tract composed by a Palestinian sometime between the 1st and 4th century A.D.  (This would have invariably been rendered in Syriac, considering it was composed in the Levant during Late Antiquity.)  The ToS tells of Solomon subduing a wind demon; then marshaling those powers to perform formidable tasks (like erecting his temple). {16}  A boy is then said to have bottled the wind-demon in a flask.  This occurred after he’d been sent to…none other than…Arabia. (!)  This indicates that the primary source for the Mohammedan conception of Solomon was the ToS…rather than having been derived from the portrayal in canonical tracts (e.g. First Kings and First Chronicles).

Solomon even seems to serve as the prototype for MoM himself.  Interestingly, both are referred to as “rasul Allah” (messenger of god).  This onomastic parity works quite well considering Solomon’s storied relationship with the queen of the Sabaeans (the Queen of Sheba), who hailed from Abyssinia.  Pace the Nestorians, the Aksumite / Himyarite influence on southern Arabia would have accounted for much of Hijazis’ exposure to Abrahamic lore. {1}  It is no surprise, then, that tales of Solomon were propagated in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) and Himyar (now Yemen).  Consequently, Bedouins in the area were most familiar with Solomonic hagiographies involving THOSE places.

Item Ten:  The statement in 28:76 that “Kora[c]h” had so much wealth that it weighed down the bodies of strong men.  This trope seems to have been adopted from a line in the Gemara by a 3rd-century “Amora”–possibly Shimon ben Lakish, who most likely composed his material in Syriac.

Item Eleven:  The false statement that the Jews considered Ezra (rendered “Uzayr” in Arabic) the son of god in 9:30.  This comically mistaken impression was likely derived from the “Jewish Apocalypse of Ezra” (a.k.a. the second “Book of Esdras”; alt. 4 Ezra), wherein Ezra plays the preeminent role in the Abrahamic narrative.  The book had been rendered in Syriac–among other languages–during Late Antiquity; so its material would have been circulating in the Syriac-speaking world. {17}

In this apocryphal tract, Ezra is portrayed as the (anointed) restorer of Mosaic law, the dictator of the Hebrew Bible, AND the prophet of the End Times.  Ezra is even said to have ascended to heaven. (!)  In other words, he played the role of a Messiah.  So it is easy to see how this misimpression would have emerged…and would up in the Koran.  Note that the flub was repeated in the “Sahih” Hadith of Muslim (vol. 1, no. 352).

Item Twelve:  The staunch position taken on pre-destination by Moses Bar Kepha is a theme that occurs throughout the Koran (as “qadar”).  The earliest Canaanites worshipped the goddess of fate, “Ashima”–who was herself based on the Assyrian concept of fate, “shimti”.  At it turns out, Ashima’s Nabatean counterpart was “Manat”, a goddess that would appear in Arabian theology. (!)

Tropes like those listed here would have come not only from Syriac Christians, but from Jews promulgating Mishnaic (read: Rabbinical) material throughout the Levant and Arabia (notably: the Targums).  It makes sense, then, that the authors of the Koran refer to Jews–with whom they were apparently quite familiar–as “Rabbaniyun” [Rabbanites] (3:79 and 5:44/63).

There are plenty of other examples of memetic appropriation.  Take, for instance, the twelve disciples of JoN.  They were based on the twelve major Judaic prophets.  (Also recall the twelve tribes of Israel.)  Sure enough, they were re-conceived as the twelve “aqaba” / “ansar” in Mohammedan lore.  (Meanwhile, Shiism posits twelve imams.)  And all of THAT was likely lifted from the Roman cult of Mithra[s]…which was likely basing this on the number of lunar cycles each year.

The use of “Gehanna” / “Ge-Hinnom” (rendered “Jahannam” in CA) to name a venue for punishing the wicked in the afterlife came not from the Hebrew Bible, but from the (Syriac) Targums.  It was the Targum writers who took the name of the (Hinnom) valley in Jerusalem and rendered it the moniker for a bleak afterlife destination; so it is very telling that THAT was the name that the Mohammedans fell upon for hell. {32}

According to apocrypha about the so-called “Night of Destiny” (“Laylat al-Qadr”; when MoM was first visited by the archangel, Gabriel), the message was: “Read, read, read in the name of your god” (where “read” could also mean “recite”: [i]K-R[a], the basis for “Koran”).  That was the first line delivered to MoM (which was eventually rendered the opening verse of Surah 96); and seems to have been lifted from an anecdote found in “The Confessions” by the Numidian evangelist, Augustine of Hippo–a work composed at the end of the 4th century.  Augustine (who was possibly Berber) wrote in Latin, but his target audience was the Manichaean community of which he had been a part for most of his life.  That community existed across the Middle East, and was most conversant IN SYRIAC (along with Middle Persian; and, later, Sogdian).  So surely his material was circulated accordingly.

Bear in mind that the appropriation of extant material for NEW scripture is not unheard of.  Just as, say, the founder of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, Joseph Smith, clandestinely adapted Solomon Spalding’s “Manuscript, Found” into his tall-tales, the authors of the Koran adapted material (at least, the parts of it they fancied) that was available to them.

Bottom line: The Koran is riddled with instances in which apocrypha from known sources are regurgitated.  The shows that the “Recitations” were an ad hoc agglomeration of tid-bits from antecedent lore, which had been orally-transmitted and “tweaked” over time.  So much, then, for the purported inimitability of the “Recitations”.

Once we understand the historical context of this material, it makes sense that all this appropriation occurred as it did.  When the “Recitations” were being cobbled together in the late 7th thru 9th centuries, the various amanuenses operated in what was essentially a roiling memetic soup of Zoroastrian (Persian) and Judeo-Christian (Syriac) memes.  Even in the Koran itself, it is admitted that Ishmaelites were already familiar with the lore that MoM was touting (8:31).  Archeological evidence in the region attests to this fact.

As already mentioned: In the late 6th century–as MoM came of age–one of the most significant pilgrimage sites in the region was a church in Ma’rib (Sana’a, Yemen) known as “Al-Kalis”.  Also note that those who erected the Kaaba were already familiar with the eponymous Abrahamic prophet (i.e. Abraham).  According to Ibn al-Kalbi’s “Kitab al-Asnam”, one of the idols of the pre-Islamic Kaaba was of “Abraham as an old man”.  This was so prevalent, early Muslims even had a name for those who honored that idol: the “Hanif”…which became the moniker for all “People Of the Book” (i.e. those who, in some way, partook in the Abrahamic tradition).  {42}

The Syriac-speaking Lakhmids were located in northeastern Arabia; and had a major settlement at Al-Hasa (a.k.a. “Hadjar”; “[h]Agarum”).  Syriac Christianity flourished amongst the Lakhmids—especially after their king, Al-Nu[a]man III [ibn Al-Mundhir IV] of Al-Hirah officially converted in c. 592.  (His maternal grandfather was Jewish; his cousin was the famed Christian poet, Adi ibn Zayd al-Ibadi of Tamim.)  All of these people were Syriac-speaking Arabs who were, of course, familiar with the Abrahamic tradition…at least the versions that were circulated in Syriac.  Sure enough, those are the versions—idiosyncrasies and all—that wind up in Islamic lore.

So to what degree were Arabs familiar with Persian lore?  Quite, as it turns out.  This was not limited to the Lakhmids.  Indeed, the inter-marriage of Sassanians and Arabs was so common that there was a term for their mixed progeny: “Al-Abna”.  In the generations leading up to MoM’s ministry, Persian officials were garrisoned as far south as Sana’a—surely telling tales that were disseminated throughout the region.  Generations were likely reared on tales of beautiful “houri” (angelic virgins in Zoroastrian theology) in an afterlife paradise, wherein they were lavished with accoutrements like “asawir” (the Persian word for “bracelets”), “istabraq” (the Persian word for “brocade”), “sundus” (the Persian word for “silk”), “namariq” (the Persian word for “cushions”), “zarabi” (the Persian word for “carpets”), “kanz” (the Persian word for “treasures”), and an endless supply of “rizq” (the Persian word for “bounty / provision”).

Also noteworthy is the abiding prominence of the Syro-Persian Bakh-Y[e]shu [“Redeemed by Jesus”; alt. “Bukhtishu”] family: Nestorian scientists—mostly physicians—from Persia who played a significant role in the Muslim world from the 7th century thru the 9th century.  This Syriac Christian clan was associated with the famed Academy at Gondi-shapur, which was renown for its medical school.  It was likely the “Gondishapuri” scholars who ensured the Muslim world would be acquainted with Greek philosophy (Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle) as well as the Roman physician, Galen.  Following the Saracen conquests, this group eventually expanded to the new Abbasid capital, Baghdad; and established a presence in the great school at Nisibis.  Thereafter, they spread medical knowledge throughout the realm…IN SYRIAC (though they likely also used Middle Persian).

Meanwhile, the Tanukhids were Eastern Christians who engaged in monasticism throughout the region, and were especially smitten with the apostle, Thomas.  Queen Mavia, their most famous ruler (who was known at the time as the queen of the Saracens), had converted to Christianity in the late 4th century.  Notably, she sought to adapt Abrahamic lore to the sensibilities of her constituents, thereby imbuing it with a distinctly Arab identity.  Sure enough, it was Mavia who first coined the Arabs’ identification as “ISHMAELITES”.  This Arab queen proved to be extremely influential in the region–a legacy that surely affected the the perceptions of Bedouins of the Hijaz onward through MoM’s lifetime.

Suffice to say, the narrative tid-bits enumerated above wound up in Islam’s holy book simply because they were part of the memetic ecosystem in which the burgeoning Mohammedan tradition coalesced.  Such exigencies invariably affected the new Faith during its gestation period.  There was no revelation; there was only adaptation.  NONE of it came out of thin air.

We now know that all the above accounts are apocryphal; but medieval Arabian scriveners would not have known any better.  They would not have known Greek; so they were primarily restricted to Syriac sources.  The evidence bears this out: In every case, the material was lifted from sources that were uniquely SYRIAC.  This common Syriac substrate tells us not only from whence Koranic material came, but also from whence it did NOT come (i.e. from sources that were unavailable in Syriac).

The raft of signature idiosyncrasies–and errancies–leaves the distinct mark of parochialism on Mohammedan lore.  And not just ANY parochialism; but parochialism that existed in a Syriac-speaking milieu.

The present thesis is not an ambitious one.  The only claim being made here is that everything that has been adumbrated in this essay would have been lifted from sources composed in the lingua franca of the region (Syriac) rather than from sources that were in other languages (e.g. Koine Greek, the language in which the canonical texts of the New Testament were first composed).  The material then would have been coopted without those doing the coopting REALIZING that they were simply incorporating pre-fab errancies into their own lore (which they naturally took to be perfectly authentic).

Given all this, the incorporation of material of dubious provenance into a newfangled theology was virtually inevitable–glitches and all. {18}  Such eventualities bely the eternality of Islam’s holy book, revealing it to be as much an accident of history as, well, any other book of sacred lore.

It is not far-fetched to suppose that the meandering process of incorporation included misconceptions that were popular at the time.  The “catch” is that the inclusion of the above material reveals the eminently terrestrial origins of the Koran; and its flagrant fallibility. {19}  It brings to mind the professor who catches a student having cheated on a test based on the fact that a quirky mistake was also made by a neighbor in the class.  The exact repetition of a peculiar glitch is a dead giveaway that cribbing occurred.  It is no wonder that the Arabians who didn’t to believe the “Recitations” to be genuine revelation were said to have rebuffed MoM by noting he was merely relaying fables of old (16:24).  For that was, indeed, exactly what he would have been doing.

The point cannot be emphasized enough: Mohammedan lore was formulated within environs steeped in Abrahamic lore–much of it apocryphal–of a CERTAIN KIND: whatever had been propounded in Syriac.  It should come as no surprise, then, that all this happened as it did; and that the resulting scripture bears all the marks of cooptation that we find.

But there is even more to the story.  For we can also look at the overarching theological features that prevailed during the Faith’s gestation period.  Mohammedan lore, it turns out, coalesced in a climate shot through with a contentious debate over the nature of the Abrahamic deity.  The issue: Trinitarian or not?  (And if trinitarian, trinitarian in what sense?)  THAT point of contention was the hot topic during Late Antiquity–and so was surely at the forefront of people’s minds.  This is demonstrated by the focal point of the earliest statement we have concerning the new Faith: the inscription on the Dome of the Rock from the last decade of the 7th century.  The inscription seems peculiarly fixated on the Abrahamic deity NOT being a trinity.

The monomaniacal fixation on the Abrahamic deity not having any “partners” didn’t come out of the blue.  According to Ibn al-Kalbi, the trope “god has no partners” was lifted from a pre-Islamic “talbiyya” [acclamation]: “O Allah, here I am. You have no partner save the one who is yours” (reference the beginning of his “Book of Idols”).  The acclamation was amended thus: “O Allah, here I am. You have no partner.”  It seems that this was a major point of contention that prompted the transition to the Mohammedan Faith.  Hence peculiarly specific statements that wound up in the “Recitations” (supposedly from an eternal, celestial book) like 4:171: “Don’t say three!  For your god is one god.”

In the frenetic enterprise to debunk Trinitarianism, it was inevitable that further misconceptions would be countenanced–as with the mistaken notion that the Holy Trinity is the Father (Abrahamic deity as godhead), son (Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ), and mother (Miriam as worldly mother of the Christ).  In their eagerness to explicate how untenable Trinitarianism was (and that it was incommensurate with monotheism), the early Mohammedans jumped the shark (see item FIVE above), and assaulted a straw man.

It cannot be overstated that there was a tendentious discussion about the triune nature of the Abrahamic deity while MoM was coming of age.  The (Syriac) Patriarch of Antioch from 581 to 591 (that is: from when MoM was 11 years old to when he was 21) was Peter of Raqqa, who participated in the heated debate about whether or not monophysitism was tri-theistic…causing quite a stir.  This was certainly a hot topic as MoM was reaching adult-hood.

Another likely influence during the gestation period of Islam’s holy book were the (Syriac) writings of Jacob of Edessa, who flourished in the late 7th century.  His immensely popular writings on the Bible (esp. the “Enchiridion” and “Book of Treasures”) likely molded impressions of Judeo-Christian scripture that ended up being espoused by the earliest Mohammedans.  Also circulating at the time was the (Syriac) “Book of Hierotheus on the Hidden Mysteries of the House of God” by Stephen Bar Sudhaile (late 5th century), likely very influential when the “Recitations” were being compiled.  There was even the (Syriac) “Book of Perfection” by Sahdona of Halmon, who was a contemporary of MoM.  We could go on and on.

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