Legends and the Quran

Legends and the Quran

This article considers the relation of the Qur'an, the central religious text of Islam, and pre-Islamic mythology and legends.

Early in Islamic history, debates over the role of Jewish mythology, as well as Christian Biblical apocrypha references in the Qur'an, the sacred text of Islam, existed. "Myths are narratives that serve to explain and describe the experienced world by laying bare its archetypal patterns; they are often staged in a cosmic or supernatural framework so as to manifest binding truths, to generate meaning and provide guidance. Legends, raising no such universal claim, may be understood as narratives of pious imagination celebrating an exemplary figure."[1]

However, the acknowledgment of Qur'an's incorporation of myths and legends is not widely accepted in the Islamic community and remains a sensitive and controversial topic as it is often use to threaten the Qur'an as the word of God. Instead, Islamic scholars point out that difference between the Qur'anic accounts and that of Jewish mythology and Christian Biblical apocrypha service to correct the legends, and thus rendering them factual and reliable.

The Qur'an contains many religious accounts considered legendary by historians, source critics and Jewish and Christian scholars alike.[2] Most of the legends that are suggested to parallel Qur'anic accounts are part of literature was created hundreds and in some cases (such as the Israelite exodus from Egypt) centuries after the events occur, and are thus not considered to have any historical accuracy. Historians and Critics of Islam explain the presents of mythology in the Qur'an as being due to Muhammad misinterpreting legends and traditions as histories, and believing they were accepted by rabbinic Judaism and Christianity.[3]

The acknowledgment and the role of legends in the Qur'an remains a debated topic.


The Qur'an's response

During Muhammad's lifetime, non-Muslims accused Muhammad of borrowing from "tales of the ancients" to compose the Qur'an. Because Muslims believe that the Qur'an was not revealed all at once, the Qur'an quotes these critics.

But the misbelievers say: "Naught is this but a lie which he has forged, and others have helped him at it." In truth it is they who have put forward an iniquity and a falsehood. And they say: "Tales of the ancients, which he has caused to be written: and they are dictated before him morning and evening." Say: "The (Qur'an) was sent down by Him who knows the mystery (that is) in the heavens and the earth: verily He is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful." (Qur'an [Quran 25:4-6]) --translated by Yusuf Ali

Satan and Adam

When God creates Adam, he commands all the angels to bow to him. Satan refuses to bow to Adam and is therefore rebuked by God. The apocryphal Jewish work Life of Adam and Eve also contains this narrative.


Behold! thy Lord said to the angels: "I am about to create man, from sounding clay from mud moulded into shape; "When I have fashioned him (in due proportion) and breathed into him of My spirit, fall ye down in obeisance unto him." So the angels prostrated themselves, all of them together: Not so Iblis: he refused to be among those who prostrated themselves. (God) said: "O Iblis! what is your reason for not being among those who prostrated themselves?" (Iblis) said: "I am not one to prostrate myself to man, whom Thou didst create from sounding clay, from mud moulded into shape."

[Quran 15:28]

And Behold, we said to the angels: "Bow down to Adam" and They bowed down. Not so Iblis: He refused and was haughty: He was of those who reject Faith. We said: "O Adam! dwell Thou and Thy wife In the Garden; and eat of the bountiful things therein As (where and when) ye will; but approach not This tree, or ye run into harm and transgression." [Quran 2:34] --translated by Yusuf Ali

The Life of Adam and Eve

Then Michael came; he summoned all the troops of angels and told them, "Bow down before the likeness and the image of the divinity." And then, when Michael summoned them and all had bowed down to you, he summoned me [Satan] also. And I told him, "Go away from me, for I shall not bow down to him who is younger than me; indeed, I am master prior to him and it is proper for him to bow down to me. [The Life of Adam and Eve 14.1-14.3

The story of the expulsion of satan is unique to the latin manuscript of the Life of Adam and Eve, written around and after the 9th centuryLife of Adam and Eve#Latin Life of Adam and Eve and it is possible that it was actually drawn from Qur'an. These verses are often used to suggest that Iblis ie. Satan in Qur'an is an angel. However, Iblis is considered to be a jinn by Islamic scholars due to other evidence in the Qur'an and hadith.

Adam and the Angels

Adam possess more knowledge than angels.


And He taught Adam the nature of all things; then He placed them before the angels, and said: "Tell me the nature of these if ye are right." They said: "Glory to Thee, of knowledge We have none, save what Thou Hast taught us: In truth it is Thou Who art perfect in knowledge and wisdom." He said: "O Adam! Tell them their natures." When he had told them, Allah said: "Did I not tell you that I know the secrets of heaven and earth, and I know what ye reveal and what ye conceal?" [Quran 2:31] --translated by Yusuf Ali
When Adam was barely an hour old, God assembled the whole world of animals before him and the angels. The latter were called upon to name the different kinds, but they were not equal to the task. Adam, however, spoke without hesitation: "O Lord of the world! The proper name for this animal is ox, for this one horse, for this one lion, for this one camel." Legend of the Jews Vol I: Adam Ideal Man:28[4]

Killing all Mankind

The Qur'an relates a Talmudic parable about the value of human life in its account of the murder of Abel by Cain.


On that account: We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one slew a person - unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land - it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people. [Quran 5:32] --Translated by Yusuf Ali

The Qur'an does not mention Abel and Cain by name, but refers to them as the two sons of Adam, " Recite to them the truth of the story of the two sons of Adam" [Quran 5:27] --Translated by Yusuf Ali.


For this reason, man [i.e. the first human being] was created alone to teach that whoever destroys a single life is as though he had destroyed the entire world, and whoever saves a single life is as if he had saved the entire world. Mishnah Sanhedrin, 4:5[5]

The Raven and the Burial of Abel


Then Allah sent a raven, who scratched the ground, to show him how to hide the shame of his brother. "Woe is me!" said he; "Was I not even able to be as this raven, and to hide the shame of my brother?" then he became full of regrets [Quran 5:31] --Translated by Yusuf Ali

The Qur'an does not mention Abel and Cain by name, but refers to them as the two sons of Adam, " Recite to them the truth of the story of the two sons of Adam" [Quran 5:27] --Translated by Yusuf Ali.

Haggadah of Pesach folklore

Nature was modified also by the burial of the corpse of Abel. For a long time it lay there exposed, above ground, because Adam and Eve knew not what to do with it. They sat beside it and wept, while the faithful dog of Abel kept guard that birds and beasts did it no harm. On a sudden, the mourning parents observed how a raven scratched the earth away in one spot, and then hid a dead bird of his own kind in the ground. Adam, following the example of the raven, buried the body of Abel, and the raven was rewarded by God. Chapter III: The Ten Generations The Punishment of Cain

Abraham idol wrecker

A Jewish depiction of Abraham smashing the idols

Abraham smashing idols contained in Midrash Bereishit 38:13 and Surah 21 in the Qur'an. Abraham's father was an idolater while Abraham is a devout monotheist. Abraham breaks many idols and the people try to burn him until God rescues Abraham.

Qur'an surah and verse Qur'an quote Midrash
21.51 "What are these images, to which ye are (so assiduously) devoted?" "Then why do you pray to them and worship them?"[6]
21.57 "after ye go away and turn your backs" "the woman rushed out into the street"[6]
21.58 So he broke them to pieces, (all) but the biggest of them "he broke them all except the largest"[6]
21.62 They said, "Art thou the one that did this with our gods, O Abraham?" "'What hast thou done?' they demanded, angrily."[7]
21.63 He said: "Nay, this was done by - this is their biggest one! ask them, if they can speak intelligently!" "I? Nothing," answered Abraham. "See, the largest idol . . . It seems to me that he has been angry and has killed all the others. Ask him why he did this."[7]
21.65 "Thou knowest full well that these (idols) do not speak!" "'They cannot speak,' said Terah."[6]
21.68 They said, "Burn him and protect your gods, Let them be bound and cast into the furnace[8]
21.69 We said, "O Fire! be thou cool, and (a means of) safety for Abraham! "Abraham walked unharmed in the flames"[8]
21.70 We made them the ones that lost most! "Twelve men in all perished . . . Haran was burned to ashes at once"[8]

The Qur'an does not elaborate on the meaning behind the idolaters losing more than Abraham likes the Midrash. The Midrash account is accepted by Jews as non-historical but as a lesson created by Jews to warn against following the Greek gods[citation needed]. Elements of the story suggest to have roots in the Apocalypse of Abraham and the Book of Jubilees. Abraham's father's name is Azar in the Qur'an and Terah in the Midrash and Bible

. . . though some of the later Arab writers give the name . . . as Teraḥ. Others claim that Azar was his real name, while Teraḥ was his surname (Nawawi, "Biographical Dict. of Illustrious Men," p. 128; but see Jawaliḳi, "Al-Mu'arrab," ed. Sachau, p. 21; "Z. D. M. G." xxxiii. 214). Still a third class of authorities say that Azar means either "the old man" or "the perverse one."[9]

Early Muslims differed on whether Azar was an alternate name for Terah, as Israel was for Jacob.[10] Many of the commentators of the Qur'an (both Sunni and Shia) have also cited an opinion that Azar was the paternal uncle or maternal grandfather of Abraham.[11]

Moses' milk

God forbids Moses from suckling from a foster mother.


And We had already forbidden foster suckling mothers for him, until [his sister] said: Shall I show you a household who will rear him for you and take care of him?" [Quran 28:12]


The Holy One, Blessed is He, said: "Shall the mouth that will one day speak to me suckle from anything unclean?"[12]

Pharaoh's magicians

Pharaoh's magicians later accept Moses as a prophet and convert. This Qur'anic account also appears in Ambrosiaster, a 4th century biblical commentary[13].


But the sorcerers fell down prostrate in adoration. Saying: "We believe in the Lord of the Worlds,- The Lord of Moses and Aaron." [Quran 7:120] --Translated by Yusuf Ali


Jannes and Jambres were two brothers, magicians and enchanters of the Egyptians, who through phony magic thought to resist God's mighty acts. But worsted by Moses they confessed in pain from their sores that God was active in Moses.[14]

Korah's keys

The Qur'an describes Korah as exceedingly wealthy in the same way as the Talmud.


Korah was one of Moses' people, but he betrayed them and oppressed them. We gave him so many treasures that the keys would certainly weigh down a company of men possessed of great strength. [Quran 28:76]


And Rabbi Levi said: "The keys to Korah's treasure house was a load for 300 white mules and the keys and locks were leather."[15]

Flying mountain

Both the Qur'an and the Talmud tell the story of God raising a mountain over the Israelites


We raised the mountain over them as if it had been a canopy, and they thought that it was going to fall on them. (We said): "Hold firmly to what We have given you." [Quran 7:171]


The Holy One, blessed is He, raised a mountain over Israel as though it were a dome. And He said to them: if you hold to the Torah all is well, but if not you will be buried here![16]

The Cave

The story of men protected by sleeping in a cave is taken from a Jewish legend, according to Muhammad Asad, though was understood by the earliest Islamic scholars as a Christian legend.

As already mentioned, the majority of the classical commentators rely on this Christian legend in their endeavour to interpret the Qur'anic reference (in verses 9-26)[Quran 18:9-26] to the Men of the Cave. It seems, however, that the Christian formulation of this theme is a later development of a much older oral tradition -a tradition which, in fact, goes back to pre-Christian, Jewish sources. This is evident from several well-authenticated ahddrth (mentioned by all the classical commentators), according to which it was the rabbis (ahbdr) of Medina who induced the Meccan opponents of Muhammad to "test his veracity" by asking him to explain, among other problems, the story of the Men of the Cave. Referring to these ahddrth, Ibn Kathir remarks in his commentary on verse 13 of this surah: "It has been said that they were followers of Jesus the son of Mary, but God knows it better: it is obvious that they lived much earlier than the Christian period-for, had they been Christians, why should the rabbis have been intent on preserving their story . . . ?[17]

Mary and Zechariah

Several elements of Mary's childhood under Zechariah are depicted in the Qur'an and Gospel of James. The oldest manuscript of the Gospel of James is the 4th century Papyrus Bodmer V[18]

God cares for Mary

Mary the mother of Jesus at a young age was fed by supernatural means.


Every time that he entered (Her) chamber to see her, He found her supplied with sustenance. He said: "O Mary! Whence (comes) this to you?" She said: "From Allah: for Allah Provides sustenance to whom He pleases without measure."[Quran 3:37]

Gospel of James

And Mary was in the Temple nurtured like a dove and received food from the hand of an angel. [Gospel of James online source 8:1

Casting lots to care for Mary


Thou wast not with them when they cast lots with arrows, as to which of them should be charged with the care of Mary: Nor wast thou with them when they disputed (the point). [Quran 3:44] --translated by Yusuf Ali

Gospel of James

[L]et every one of them bring his rod, and he by whom the Lord will show a sign will be the husband of Mary.[19]

Mary and the miracle of the Palm Tree

The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew describes Mary sitting below a palm tree with Jesus, Jesus talking to Mary when he is a baby and baby Jesus performing miracles to nourish Mary with dates from a palm tree and a stream of water. The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew is believed to date back to the 6th century[20].


So she conceived him, and she retired with him to a remote place. And the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm-tree: She cried (in her anguish): "Ah! would that I had died before this! would that I had been a thing forgotten and out of sight!" But (a voice) cried to her from beneath the (palm-tree): "Grieve not! for thy Lord hath provided a rivulet beneath thee; "And shake towards thyself the trunk of the palm-tree: It will let fall fresh ripe dates upon thee. [Quran 19:22]

Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew chapter 20

And it came to pass on the third day of their journey, while they were walking, that the blessed Mary was fatigued by the excessive heat of the sun in the desert; and seeing a palm tree, she said to Joseph: Let me rest a little under the shade of this tree. Joseph therefore made haste, and led her to the palm, and made her come down from her beast. And as the blessed Mary was sitting there, she looked up to the foliage of the palm, and saw it full of fruit, and said to Joseph: I wish it were possible to get some of the fruit of this palm. And Joseph said to her: I wonder that thou sayest this, when thou seest how high the palm tree is; and that thou thinkest of eating of its fruit. I am thinking more of the want of water, because the skins are now empty, and we have none wherewith to refresh ourselves and our cattle. Then the child Jesus, with a joyful countenance, reposing in the bosom of His mother, said to the palm: O tree, bend thy branches, and refresh my mother with thy fruit. And immediately at these words the palm bent its top down to the very feet of the blessed Mary; and they gathered from it fruit, with which they were all refreshed. And after they had gathered all its fruit, it remained bent down, waiting the order to rise from Him who bad commanded it to stoop. Then Jesus said to it: Raise thyself, O palm tree, and be strong, and be the companion of my trees, which are in the paradise of my Father; and open from thy roots a vein of water which has been hid in the earth, and let the waters flow, so that we may be satisfied from thee. And it rose up immediately, and at its root there began to come forth a spring of water exceedingly clear and cool and sparkling. And when they saw the spring of water, they rejoiced with great joy, and were satisfied, themselves and all their cattle and their beasts. Wherefore they gave thanks to God.[21]

Jesus creates birds

Jesus forms birds out of clay.


I fashion for you out of clay the likeness of a bird, and I breathe into and it is a bird by permission of Allah [Quran []]

This parallels an episode in the apocryphal Infancy Gospel of Thomas where he does the same:[22]

Infancy Gospel of Thomas

[Jesus] then made soft clay and shaped it into twelve sparrows.[23]

The Injilu 't Tufuliyyah, also known as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ, was written in the middle of the 2nd century[24].

Jesus speaks in the cradle

The 2nd century's Injilu 't Tufuliyyah or the Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ, contains an Arabic translation of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and additional narratives. This contains a narrative of Jesus speaking while an infant, also contained in the Qur'an[24].


But she pointed to the babe. They said: "How can we talk to one who is a child in the cradle?" He [Jesus] said: "I am indeed a servant of Allah: He hath given me revelation and made me a prophet; And He hath made me blessed wheresoever I be, and hath enjoined on me Prayer and Charity as long as I live; (He) hath made me kind to my mother, and not overbearing or miserable; [Quran 19:29]

Infancy Gospel of Thomas

Jesus spoke when he was in the cradle, and called out to his mother Mary:— "Verily I am Jesus, the Son of God, the Word, whom thou hast given birth to according to the good tidings given thee by the Angel Gabriel, and my Father hath sent me for the Salvation of the World."

See also

  • History of the Qur'an
  • Biblical narratives and the Qur'an
  • Prophets of Islam
  • Stories of The Prophets


  1. ^ Encyclopedia of the Qur'an, myth, legends and the Qur'an
  2. ^ C. C. Torrey, Jewish Foundation of Islam, 1933, Ktav Publishing House, Inc.: New York, See pages 117 and 119.
  3. ^ Joseph Campbell. The Masks of God:Occidental Mythology
  4. ^ chapter 4 The Johns Hopkins University Press: 1998.
  5. ^ Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5
  6. ^ a b c d Gertrude Landa. Jewish Fairy Tales and Legends. 1919. p94
  7. ^ a b Gertrude Landa. Jewish Fairy Tales and Legends. 1919. p95
  8. ^ a b c Gertrude Landa. Jewish Fairy Tales and Legends. 1919. p97
  9. ^ Abraham. Jewish Encyclopedia
  10. ^ See for example Tafsir al-Tabari for 6:74 (Arabic).
  11. ^ From the Sunnis, see Tafsir ruh al-ma`ani, and from the Shia al-Tusi's Tafsir.
  12. ^ Shemot Rabbah 1:25
  13. ^ Lunn-Rockliffe, Sophia. "Ambrosiaster's Political Theology", page 2. Oxford University Press, USA. 2007.
  14. ^ The Apocryphon of Jannes and Jambres the Magicians, E.J. Brill, 1994 p. 30
  15. ^ Sanhedrin 110a. See also Pesachim 119a
  16. ^ Avodah Zarah 2b
  17. ^ Muhammad Asad. The Message of the Qur'an. The Book Foundation: 2003. Footnote on 18.7
  18. ^ Hock, Ronald F.:"The Infancy Gospels of James and Thomas," page 4. Polebridge Press, 1996.
  19. ^ Gospel of James 8:6 online source
  20. ^ Smith-Christopher, Daniel L.; Spignesi, Stephen. "Lost Books of the Bible for Dummies", page 179. For Dummies, 2008.
  21. ^ Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew chapter 20 online source
  22. ^ Rev. W. St. Clair-Tisdall, The Sources of Islam: A Persian Treatise, translated and abridged by Sir William Muir, T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh, Scotland. 1901
  23. ^ Robert J. Miller, ed., The Complete Gospels: Annotated Scholars Version (Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press 1992), pp. 363-372. or online [1]
  24. ^ a b Davis, Steven. "The Infancy Gospels of Jesus: Apocryphal Tales from the Childhoods of Mary and Jesus," page 112. Skylight Paths Publishing, 2009.

External links

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