Thursday, May 19, 2016

Does the Qur'an "copy" or "plagiarize" the Bible?

A common accusation by polemicists against Islam is that the Qur’an “plagiarizes” or “copies” the Bible or other Jewish and Christian sources.  To be candid, this continues to be one of the stupidest claims to come out of anti-Islamic polemics, and I notice even Muslims rarely realize the stupidity of this argument.

When movies like “The Ten Commandments” and “The Passion of the Christ” came out, no one claimed that they were plagiarizing the Bible, because everyone recognized that these are intentional retellings of the Biblical stories.  Similarly, when someone writes a book containing Bible stories for children, nobody claims they are “plagiarizing” or “copying from” the Bible. This is adaptation or a retelling of a well-known traditional story. Likewise, when the Qur’an retells traditional stories about Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, or Jesus, to claim that what it is doing is “plagiarism,” “copying,” or even “borrowing” shows a fundamental ignorance of what these terms mean, as well as how traditional stories have always been retold in news ways throughout history.

Hence such claims no longer remain credible in Western Qur'anic studies. Here are two representative quotes on this topic from important contemporary Western scholars of the Qur’an, both of whom incidentally are Catholic clergymen.

Sidney H. Griffith writes:
Hermeneutically speaking, one should approach the Qur’ān as an integral discourse in its own right; it proclaims, judges, praises, blames from its own narrative center. It addresses an audience which is already familiar with oral versions in Arabic of earlier scriptures and folklores. The Qur’ān does not borrow from, or often even quote from these earlier texts. Rather, it alludes to and evokes their stories, even sometimes their wording, for its own rhetorical purpose. The Arabic Qur’ān, from a literary perspective, is something new. It uses the idiom, and sometimes the forms and structures, of earlier narratives in the composition of its own distinctive discourse. It cannot be reduced to any presumed sources. Earlier discourses appear in it not only in a new setting, but shaped, trimmed and re-formulated for an essentially new narrative.[1]
Similarly, Michel Cuypers writes:
There is of course no question of criticizing 'borrowings,' 'imitations,' or 'influences' from apologetic or polemical intentions, as a certain Orientalism in bad taste has done, but rather recognizing that the Qur’an shares a phenomenon which is characteristic of Biblical writings—re-writing. The books of the Bible unceasingly re-appropriate earlier writings, reusing them and turning them to a new perspective which makes revelation advance. The Qur’an does no different, although it does so in a different way from the Bible…since it positions itself as the final revelation in the Judeo-Christian tradition, it has had to re-assume the earlier traditions while making its own mark on the texts it repeats in this way. Far from reducing the Qur’an to a pastiche of earlier writings, the intertextual or 'interscriptural' work we will undertake removes none of its originality, but on the contrary, better draws it out.[2]
I will have a chapter on this subject in an upcoming book I have been co-authoring—hence my prolonged absence on this blog (!)—which I will soon be giving details about, insha’a ’llah.  Stay tuned!

[1] Sidney H. Griffith, “Christian Lore and the Arabic Qur’an: The ‘Companions of the Cave’ in Surat al-Kahf and in Syriac Christian tradition,” in The Qur’ān in Its Historical Context, ed. Gabriel Said Reynolds (London: Routledge, 2008), 116
[2] Michel Cuypers, The Banquet: A Reading of the Fifth Sura of the Qur’an (Miami: Convivium, 2009), 31.


  1. this indeed a subject that is always recurring in others argument against Islam. I look forward, as I have since I met you a few years ago Sharif in your handling it in a profound & enlighting way.

    1. Aww, thanks Uncle Samir! :)

    2. These clergymen mean it from a literary perspective, not from a historical one. Literary it's of course never a "borrowing", because the religious ideology beneath the Quranic story corpus (i.e. "dogmatic re-articulation") shaped the existing narratives to be of an "amending" purpose - it' pretty clear by itself for the most thinking sceptics, but it doesn't help the fact that these narratives existed before. And the critical point may emerge if sufficient evidence will be brought that the employed story couldn't have authentically gone back to a respective prophet's (say Jesus) time and had suffered from side influences afterwards.

    3. Even if that might be the case with some stories, the Qur’an uses stories that were part of its milieu as parables to convey its teachings, and it’s style of narration is often ambiguous about their historicity, as many contemporary scholars and readers of the Qur’an have noted. So even if that is the case, it does not affect the Qur’an’s message or divinity in any way.

  2. وَأَنْزَلْنَا إِلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ بِالْحَقِّ مُصَدِّقًا لِمَا بَيْنَ يَدَيْهِ مِنَ الْكِتَابِ وَمُهَيْمِنًا عَلَيْهِ ۖ فَاحْكُمْ بَيْنَهُمْ بِمَا أَنْزَلَ اللَّهُ ۖ وَلَا تَتَّبِعْ أَهْوَاءَهُمْ عَمَّا جَاءَكَ مِنَ الْحَقِّ ۚ لِكُلٍّ جَعَلْنَا مِنْكُمْ شِرْعَةً وَمِنْهَاجًا ۚ وَلَوْ شَاءَ اللَّهُ لَجَعَلَكُمْ أُمَّةً وَاحِدَةً وَلَٰكِنْ لِيَبْلُوَكُمْ فِي مَا آتَاكُمْ ۖ فَاسْتَبِقُوا الْخَيْرَاتِ ۚ إِلَى اللَّهِ مَرْجِعُكُمْ جَمِيعًا فَيُنَبِّئُكُمْ بِمَا كُنْتُمْ فِيهِ تَخْتَلِفُونَ

    And We have revealed to you, [O Muhammad], the Book in truth, confirming that which preceded it of the Scripture and as a criterion over it. So judge between them by what Allah has revealed and do not follow their inclinations away from what has come to you of the truth. To each of you We prescribed a law and a method. Had Allah willed, He would have made you one nation [united in religion], but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you; so race to [all that is] good. To Allah is your return all together, and He will [then] inform you concerning that over which you used to differ.

    Quran: 5:48

    > A criterion of the scripture that preceded it
    Any competent thinker would immediately realize that in order to be a criterion for something you have to actually reference it and talk about it. When a movie critic talks about a movie they are not plagiarizing the movie. When a teacher fact-checks a student’s essay they are not handing back a plagiarized version of the essay, but rather, a fact-checked one. Such is the stupidity of those who claim that the Quran is plagiarizing the OT/NT.