Lectures on the Development of the Islamic or World-View, 
Intellectual Tradition and Polity

Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah

Published by Adam Publishers & Distributors Shandar Market, Chitli Qabar, Delhi, India



History of the Qur'an

The Earlier Prophets and their Books

There is a tradition in the Musnad of Ahmad ibn Hanbal that the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) said: 

"From Adam to me Allah sent a hundred and twenty-four thousand Prophets of whom three hundred and fifteen were entrusted with a Book.
The names of all these Prophets to whom scriptures were revealed are not mentioned either in the Qur'an or in the Hadith. It is not possible for us therefore, to provide details about them. We come across a few references to the books revealed to Adam, the first Prophet. Unfortunately, however, we are not aware of the language in which they were revealed nor do we have any idea of their contents.

Adam's son, Shith (peace be upon him) was also a Prophet. A few scriptures. it is suggested in some accounts, were revealed to him. But they, too, are not extant. Parts of a book attributed to ldris (peace be upon him), one of the earliest Prophets, have been found only recently. A few scrolls have been discovered in some caves near the Dead Sea in Palestine. A scripture among these scrolls is attributed to Enoch (in Arabic, Akhndkh) who is none else than Prophet Idris (peace be upon him). Recently a Jew[ish] translation of this book into English [has] been published. Even though there is no definitive and irrefutable proof, yet the research date so far suggests that this book could be called the scripture of the most ancient Prophet. The book contains a prophecy about the last Prophet which is also incorporated in the "Letters of Jehovah" in the New Testament.

After Idris (peace be upon him) we come across a few allusions to Noah. There is a small sect called Sabacans in Iraq. Sabacan's have a religion of their own. They claim to be followers of Noah and his religion. According to them they once possessed Noah's entire Book which is now extinct and they are left with no more than four or five lines which deal with morality. Noah is followed by another Prophet whose book is mentioned in the Qur'an. He was Abraham (peace be upon him). Twice the Qur'an refers to "The Books of Abraham and Moses" (53:36-37 and 87:19). The contents of Abraham's Book [is] not found in the Jewish and Christian literature, but [has] been briefly mentioned in the Qur'an.

Non-Quranic Prophets

Besides these Prophets there are other individuals who have not been accorded the status of a Prophet in clear terms in scriptures, still the possibility that they were Prophets cannot be dismissed altogether. One of them is Zoaster. The Psrsi's acclaim him as their Prophet, and it is possible because the Qur'an mentions Magians (22:17) whose religion is based on Avesta, a book revealed to Zoaster.

If we were to compare the teachings of Avesta, as known to us, with those of the Qur'an, we shall have some idea of the intrinsic superiority of the latter. Avesta was written in the contemporary language called Zand. After the conquest of Iran, the language of the new rulers gained currency and the old tongue became archaic with the result that except for a few specialists, no-one remained familiar with Zand. That is why the scholars of Zoroastrianism summarized, and wrote commentaries on Avesta in the new language called Pazand. Only abort one-tenth of this version of Avesta is available to us, the rest has disappeared. It comprises some details about prayers and a few commandments.

In any case, an ancient religious book is known to us as Avesta, even though it has not come down to us in its entirety. The Avesta, among other things, contains the following statement of Zoaster: "I have not perfected the religion. Another Prophet will come after me and he will perfect this religion; his name will be 'Mercy for the entire universe.' 

This reminds one of the Quranic verses in which Muhammad (peace be upon him) has been so-called (see Qur'an 21:107). In India, too, some religious scripture[s], are to be found. Hindus believe them to be revealed by God. Among these holy books are the Vedas, the Puranas, the Upanishads and others. It is difficult to determine whether they were all revealed to a single Prophet. It is possible that they were revealed to various Prophets (provided they were Prophets). In these books too, particularly the Puranas, we come across a few interesting allusions. Purana is the same word [that] is still used in Urdu in the sense of ancient. In the Qur'an, we come across a significant reference; "And lo, it is in the Scriptures of the men of old." (26:196). 

There are ten Puranas. In one of them a it is mentioned that in the final epoch a man will be born in a desert. His mother's name will be "Reliable" (Aminah?) and his father's name will be the "slave of God" (Abd AIIah?). He will be obliged to move north from his country and settle there. He will then conquer his own country with the help of ten thousand men several-fold. In the battle, his chariot will be drawn by camels and they will be so swift that they will soar to the skies.

From these statements in the Puranas, it is possible to infer that they refer to the coming of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him). 

In addition to these ancient books, there are others with which Muslims are quite familiar, i.e. the Torah, the Zabur (Psalms) and the Evangel. The Book revealed to Moses (peace be upon him) is generally referred o as the Torah, but in fact the Torah is only part of the Book revealed to him. The word Torah means 'law.' The Jews attribute five books o Moses. The first is called the "Book of Genesis", the second is "Exodus", which deals with the exodus from Egypt; the third is "Law"; the fourth is called "Numbers", because Moses had ordered a census of [the] Jews based on their distribution into various tribes; and the fifth is called "Deuteronomy", which means 'retelling of old accounts,' their updating and elaboration.

The History of the Earlier Scriptures

In the beginning, the fifth book was not extant among the Jews. It was six hundred years after Moses, and during the time of war, that a man brought a book to the then Jewish ruler and said that he had found it in a cave. He did not know what it was exactly, but the book contained some religious commandments. The king sent the manuscript to a Prophetess of his time. The Jews had women Prophets (at least they make a claim to that effect). Huldah, a Prophetess according to the Jewish tradition, remarked that the manuscript was indeed a book of Moses (peace be upon him). Six hundred years after his death, the book began to be attributed to Moses. It was called 'Deuteronomy'. because it contains a summary of some of the commandments of the earlier four books with the addition of a few more. In any case, the sum total the five books is that the Jews conquered part of Palestine during the time of the Prophets who came after Moses and established their rule there.

A little later Nebuchadnezzar, the ruler of Iraq, invaded Palestine. Since his religion was different from that of the Jews, he not only conquered their country but proceeded to destroy the religion of his enemy. He collected all [the] manuscripts of the Torah and set fire to them. Not a single copy survived. According to Jewish historians, a hundred years after this event, one of their Prophets called Esra (he was probably 'Uzayr) claimed that he remembered the Torah by heart. He dictated the book from memory. Some time after the revival of the Torah in this manner the Romans invaded Palestine under the command of Antiochus who repeated the performance of Nebuchadnezzar and set fire to the Jewish scriptures which were thus destroyed for the second time.

A little later another Roman ruler sent an expedition under the command of Titus who set fire for the third time to all available Jewish scriptures in Palestine. What we have now by the name of Torah is only a part of the Old Testament in which five books are attributed to Moses (peace be upon him). These books are the revived remnants of the original which was burnt three or four times. How and by whom they were revived is not known.

The reader of these books is confronted with two problems. [Occasionally] he comes across portions which are obviously later accretions; at other times he feels that a link is missing and a statement remains incomplete. The additions are of such a nature as [to] bring out a clear contradiction. [The] books attributed to Moses contain events which occurred after his death. In Deuteronomy, for example, the last chapter deals with the illness, death and burial of Moses (peace be upon him) it, in addition to other subsequent events. Obviously, this portion is a later addition. Every reader can see such contradictions for himself.

There must be many more which are not so obvious. One also misses quite a few things in the narrative. For example. one comes across, at least twenty times, phrases to the effect "you will find details about this commandment in such and such a chapter." One of the chapters referred to is called the "Battles of God," another is entitled "The Book of Sincere and Pious People." These chapters are simply not there. They do not exist. This is what happened to the Torah which has emerged from the vicissitudes of history and is available to us in translation in most of the languages of the modem world.

Muslims usually mention [the] Psalms or the Zabur after the Torah. Zabur is also considered an independent scripture like the Torah and the Bible. But the Psalms attributed to David in the Old Testament comprise poems of praise of God and do not contain any new commandments. The Muslims' concept of a Prophet is that he brings a new law but there is no new commandment in the Psalms. However, like other ancient books (from that of ldris to Avesta), the Psalms also contain a prophecy about the coming of the last Prophet. Besides, it repeats the same story as the Torah - which shows how things were added to or omitted from it for one reason or [an]other.

The Four Gospels

Muslims generally believe that the lnjil (Evangel, Gospel) was an independent book which was revealed to Jesus (peace be upon him). But the scripture, which has reached us through Christian sources, comprises not one but four Gospels viz. those of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Every Gospel is attributed to a different individual. And these four books do not complete the Injil. According to Christian historians, there were more than seventy Gospels. Most of them were discarded as being of [a] dubious nature and only four were considered reliable. 

On reading them, however, one discovers that they are biographies of Jesus and not the revealed word of God to a Prophet. Four persons in succession wrote biographies of Jesus and each called it a Gospel. The Arabic word Injil means 'good tidings.' The reason why the word was used as a title is found in the life history of Jesus as given in the book. Jesus would generally repair to a village and proclaim to its people, "I give you good tidings that the Kingdom of God is at hand." This is probably why the book was given this name. If it was revealed to Jesus, he did not dictate it to anyone and the book does not, therefore, exist in the world today.

The Gospels, which are now extant, owe their existence to many an author who wrote biographies of Jesus Christ in different periods of history. Every author gave them the title of 'Gospel.' Of these, the Church considered four as reliable and rejected the rest. Nobody knows by whom, when, and how the four Gospels were selected, nor are we aware of the criteria which was used in their selection. Voltaire, the famous French historian, has suggested that the Church once thought that from the seventy odd gospels whose contents were contradictory, only the reliable ones should be selected. The method employed for such a selection was that all the Gospels were placed on a table near the altar in the Church. The table was then shaken. The books which fell down were considered unreliable and those that remained on the table, despite the shake-up were acclaimed as authentic. This is Voltaire's statement. It is difficult for us to explain the basis on which he made it. It is obvious, however, that the Christians reject this statement and consider its author a liar and a scoundrel. In any case, time is [the] consensus on the conclusion [of] this book, if one was ever dictated by Jesus, does riot exist in the world today. What we have by the name of Injil is only a collection of biographies. We can call it the "Idea of Jesus", like the biographies of the Prophet (peace be upon him) written by Muslim scholars.

Sometimes one wonders why Jesus (peace be upon him) did not dictate the commandments revealed to him. Perhaps the reason is that he knew the fate that had overtaken the Torah [that was] revealed to Moses (peace be upon him), his predecessor. The[ir] enemies invaded the country and desecrated the[ir] book. Time and [time] again they set it on fire and destroyed it. Jesus, fearing a similar fate, might have thought it prudent to rely on the memory of his pious followers who, he thought would pass on the message in any case, to the next generation. This is perhaps the reason why he desisted from preserving the Divine revelation in the form of a written book.

God is possessed of eternal knowledge. He cannot possibly give one command to Adam (for example, worship One True God alone) and another, completely contradictory [to] the first, to a later Prophet. It is possible, however, that one Prophet is given a set of commandments, and another who follows, is given the same commandment with a few additions. Had the books revealed to Adam retained intact, there would presumably have been no need for' God to send new books, for the original one would remain valid. But we have seen in this brief study that none of the books revealed to ancient Prophets has reached us in its entirety. That is why God willed [that] the book containing all the commandments should be made available to man and that its authenticity should be preserved for all times to come. Such a book is the Qur'an.