Jesus In The Qur’an

The image of Jesus in the Qur’an could be summarized with the words of Nietzsche, words “human all-too human.” This, in contrast to the teaching and view of the Church. It is clear that this in principle does not embody a Qur’anic innovation but goes back to early disputes in nascent Christianity.
Thus the Qur’an partially preserves traces of embryonic Christology(-ies), which were later modified or expanded upon by councils.

Taken as a whole, such Qur’anic ideas about Jesus are diffuse, and the statements taken over from the Gospels (above all from Matthew) are not noted as such in the Qur’an. In the Qu’an, Jesus is sent to the people of Israel as a prophet and a messenger of Allah, but they rejected him (6,49; 61,6); he encounters a denial decreed by Allah Himself (5,100); with the exception of a (rather) small group of Israelites (61,14).

Theologically essential is that although Jesus’ virgin birth is deemed to be true, he is never viewed in the Qur’an as a son or descendant of David (vis-à-vis other traditions, such as those from Qumran, e.g. 4Q174, a Midrashic text in which God calls the Davidic Messiah his son). No royal dignity is attributed to him, neither the cross nor the resurrection (as in early Christianity) have any salvational relevance: in the Qur’anic view, Christ’s death on the cross had no existential reality, nor did it constitute any
part of his calling. Jesus either seems to die a natural death (19,33) or is taken up to heaven (3,55; 4,158; 5,117; cf. Enoch and Elijah) and is raised together with all the dead at the Last Judgment (19,33).

Through this desoteriologization of the life of Jesus, but especially of his Passion, his removal from the economy of salvation, a brazen psilanthropism (Jesus is a mere man: 4,171 “how could he (Allah) have a child?” yakūna lahū waladun) is discernible. Basically, the Qur’anic image of Jesus in the early Suras corresponds roughly to that of the Proto-Lucan gospel.

The image of Jesus in respect to the Christology found in the Qur’an is by no means uniform and is the result of theological debates in and during Syro-Mesopotamian Late Antiquity, and which Christology also underwent development, as can be clearly seen by comparing 19,1-33 (compatible with
Christianity) with the later interpolation 19,33-40.

Jesus himself is mentioned by name in 14 suras. The name ‘Īsā is usually understood as a realisation of Jesus (Ἰησοῦς < יְהוֹשַׁע< יֵשׁוַּע “Joshua,” i.e., the “Saviour”); but this is not unproblematic. Elsewhere, we find other terms, such as, “servant of God » (ʿabdu llāhi 19,30; cf. the Gospels and Acts 3,13; 4,27, in which the deutero-Isiaian servant of God [ עבד יהוה ] is applied to Jesus); “the word of God” (kalimatu mina llāhi, 3,39,45; see the λόγος, Joh. 1,1ff.); al-masīḥu ʿīsă bnu maryama rasūlu llāhi wa-kalimatuhū ʾalqāhā
ʾilā maryama wa-rūḥun minhu … wa-rūḥun minhu
, “The Messiah, ‘Īsā, Mary’s son is only Allah’s messenger and His word, … and Spirit from him” (4,171); “The Word of truth” (19,34; cf. Jn 1,14).

Often the Qur’anic Jesus appears in connexion with Adam and in lists of previous prophets (e.g., 2,136=3,84; 4,163; 6,85; 33,7-8; 42,13; 57,26f.), but he is said to be more significant than those (2,253, “supported by the Holy Spirit” wa-ʾayyadnāhu bi-rūḥi l-qudusi, cf. 2,87; 5,100; 4,171f. etc.).

Our findings so far: according to the Qur’an Jesus is a human being – in contrast to the Nicaean Creed (natum, non factum, unius substantiae cum Patre – Apostle’s Creed: qui conceptus est de Spiritu Sancto, natus ex Maria Virgine): created and not begotten! A figure comparable to Adam – the Virgin Mary is indeed his mother, but he does not descend from the line of David, nor does he claim royal dignity; whereas he appears as the (provisional) apotheosis of the prophets – Muhammad is interpolated into the Qur’an (3,144; 33,40; 47,2; 48,29) only in later redactional stages, whereby in some of these passages it is questionable whether it is not actually Jesus who is meant as the Muhammad (i.e. the Blessed One). Allah-God is unique and indivisible (tawḥīd , e.g., 112,1 a syntax which is Aramaic and not Arabic: huwa llāhu ʾaḥadun-i; this is of course a partial
imitation of the Shema Israel, “Hear, O Israel,” Deuteronomy 6, 4-9), and rules alone, i.e., a rejection of the Trinity, considered “association” (shirk).

Furthermore, the Torah and the Gospels are seen as the same revelation vis-a-vis the Qur’an, which though Jews (4:45) and Christians (e.g. 2:59;
7:162; 30:30) ‘corrupted’ (tabdīl).

This view of things is by no means new in the history of theology, and thus logically, this can not be seen as something unique, revealed to Mohammad, an illiterate merchant in distant Mecca. As explained at the beginning, the early pericopes of the Qur’an reflect long-lasting inner-Christian debates, often quite polemical in nature. We find similar theological views, for example, in the Pseudo-Clementines. This work, in a Greek (the so-called Homilies) and a Latin version (the so-called Recognitiones by Rufinus of Aquileia), represents the core of the “Teachings of Peter” (Κηρύγματα τοῦ Πέτρου), and both go back to a common source, called the Grundschirft,
probably the Περίοδοι Πέτρου of the Church Fathers (Origen, Epiphanes), the work of a scholarly anti-Marcionist theologian of Syrian Christianity in the fourth century, which is also known in later Syrian, Arabic and Ethiopian traditions.

In this once very influential treatise we have a corpus that can be regarded in many ways as a starting point for Qur’anic ideas. Here the monarchic rule of God is rigorously adhered to (μοναρχία θεοῦ), a bi- or triarchy is unimaginable (ἑτέροις συνάρχειν). Jesus did not fulfill the law as the Son of God (ὁ υἱός του Θεού < בן-אלהים), but as the Son of Man (ὁ υἱὸς τοὺ ἀνθρώπου < בן-אדם ; i.e., ἄνθρωπος ἐξ ἀνθρώπων). He was not preexistent, but merely accepted by God as his Son and annoited (Christ) at baptism (Recog. I.48 “qui in aquis baptismi filius a deo appellatus est“), understood as a fulfillment of Ps 2:7 (no longer present in the Koran); before this event, he was merely a Messiah designate.

In the Homilies, Jesus is ὁμοούσιος τῷ πατρί, born ἐκ τῆς ουσίας, all quite Arian formulations (“deus ingenitus – filius genitus”). Jesus is seen as a prophet, similar to Moses, who even prophesied about him (Dt 18,15-22). In Hom. VIII.10, we find that the concept of the ‘true prophet’ (ἀληθῆς
προφήτης
) is elaborated, as the proclaimer of the ‘eternal law’ (νόμος αιώνιος. This corresponds to the idea of the “well kept tablet,” lauḥ maḥfūẓ in Sura 85,22; cf. 5,48-59) in the past, present and future – “The true prophet, from the beginning of the world age hastening through” (“verus
propheta ab initio mundi per saeculum currens
,” Recog. II.22 ), which is identical to the “Holy Spirit” (ἅγιον πνεῦμα Hom. III.17, which ἔμφυτον ϗ ἀέννατος).

This human prophet is sinless (αναμάρτητος= צדיק , Hom. II.6; III.11), and is the only one who can “enlighten the souls of men” (Hom. I.19). Christ is not only the New Moses, but also the New Adam, since we find here the idea that the first man (Adam Qadmon) had breathed into him the breath (πνεῦμα) of God (cf. Qur’an 15,29; 38,72), and was also anointed with the oil of the Tree of Life (Recog. I.45). Thus an “anointed one,” i.e., Messiah or Christos (Hom. III.20), and could therefore prophesy. Thus Adam was sinless, and accordingly there could be no fall; otherwise, the Holy Spirit residing in him would have sinned as well.

Here we have an idea very similar to those found in the Qur’an (2:30-37; 20:115-122; 7:11-27). So, for example, no notion of original sin (e.g. Qur’an 7:23: “Our Lord, we have wronged ourselves”); in the Qur’an (e.g., 2,31), Adam does not give names to animals as in Genesis (2,19: “And the Lord
God formed of earth all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the sky, and brought them to man to see what he would call them, and that every living creature should bear the name that man would give it”), but Allah taught Adam (and not the angels) their names, a prophetic activity
(derived from the θεῖον πνεῦμα).

Explicitly, we find the equation of Adam and Jesus in the Qur’an (3:59: “Indeed, the likeness of ‘Īsā near Allah like that of Adam. He created him from dust. Then he to him ‘be’ and he was.” This is quite similar to what we find in the Gospel of John (1,3: πάντα δι’ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν ὃ γέγονεν), based in turn on Psalm 33,6.9 ( כִּ֤י ה֣וּא אָמַ֣ר וַיֶּ֑הִי הֽוּא־צִ֝וָּ֗ה וַֽיַּעֲמֹֽד ), quite opposite to Paul’s conception of the Second Adam.

Thus, the teachings of Peter, based on Jewish tradition, describe how the divine spirit (θεῖον πνεῦμα), i.e. the glory of God (Hebrew שכינה), was already effective in Adam (which is why he is considered a prophet in this work, as in the Qur’an). This glory thereafter wandered through the ages to manifest itself successively in prophets – a metamorphosis and not a hypostasis – in, cf. e.g. Hom. XVII.4 (=Recog. II.47), an allusion to Proverbs 9,1 (“Wisdom has built her house; she has set up its seven pillars”; cf. in the Talmud, Chagiga 12b: ז’ עמודים) —the list includes Adam-Christ Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and Jesus, the representatives of the “sevenfold mystery” (ἑβδομάδος μυστήριον, Hom. XVII.9), the ἑπτά στῦλοι υπάρχοντες κόσμῳ.

These bearers of revelation (ἡγεμόνες τὴς προφητείας, Hom. II.15 – “who are all born of women,” Recog. I.60) found their culmination in the “Jewish body of Jesus born among the Jews” (op. cit.), cf. in early rabbinical exegesis of Ecclesiastes 1:9 (“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again”): “Like the first the last saviour so shall the last saviour be.” Jesus, like Adam and Moses, were different from other prophets in that they possessed the ability to fortell (prognosis). Although the figures mentioned in the list of prophetic mediators of the ‘eternal law’ in the Pseudo-Clementines are subject to variation, Adam, Moses and Jesus are constant factors.

This has its counterpart in the Qur’an, which also often lists such
figures, e.g. 2,136; 3,84; 4,163; 6,85; 33,7-8; 42,13, and thus apparently continues this tradition: prophets are the representatives of humanity with whom God makes his covenant, and the truth of each former messenger is included in the proclamation of the following one, so that Mohammed, in the Islamic understanding, brings together once and for all all all the truth
conveyed by them (e.g. 33:7). Hom. VII.8 “Religion is to fear him [scil. God] alone and to believe only the Prophet of Truth” is to all intents and purposes equal to the Islamic Shahāda: “There is no God but God – Mohammed is the messenger of God.”

The reason for the successive repetition of revelation is the belief that not all parts of the Torah are equally authentic, some are even considered to be blatant forgeries. In Hom. I.18f./Recog. I,15 this is illustrated: the world is like a house filled with the smoke of ignorance, vice and aberrations, the true prophet must come to its door, open it and expel this smoke and let
in the (true sun)light (cf. Jn 3:19ff.).

Moses in this tradition, like Muhammad in the Islam tradition, only passed on what had been revealed to him orally, as ‹ interpretations’ (ἐπιλύσεις, Hom. II.38; see, IIPetr. 1,20 … προφητεία… ἰδίας ἐπιλύσεως οὐ γίνεται). This, however, was quickly corrupted by Satan and thus the true παράδοσις Μωϋσέως became adulterated with false pericopes (ψευδεις περικοπαί), by bad instruction, misrepresentation, etc. Here we find a certain influence of Isaiah 29:13 (Septuagint) and Mt 15:13 (see also Jer 8:8, Ez 20:25).

Hence, everyone was able to read into the Scriptures (Hom. III.9) what he wished. Ergo, the repeated call in the homilies: “Therefore, if some of the scriptures are true and some are false, our Master said for a good reason: ‘Be good money-changers,’ insofar as there are some true whilst some are false.”

Generally speaking, the ‘eternal law’ (Hom. VIII.10, see above) was inscribed by God’s hand into the world at creation as the first teaching to mankind (IX.10); it was known to Adam (III.48 ), and was revealed again to Moses, becoming though in the course of time increasingly obscured by errors, until it was finally elevated to eternal validity by Jesus, who had the “knowledge of the mysteries or laws” (γνῶσις τῶν απόρρητῶν, XVIII.15; secretior legis intellegentia, Recog. I.74) (cf., Qur’an 3, 48; 5, 46, 100; 57, 27).

So, Moses received a Torah that was different from the one we have today. Specifically, the group behind the Pseudo-Clementines rejected the sacrificial cult as pagan, and which had only been temporarily tolerated by Moses. Therefore necessarily Pauline soteriology, which regarded the death of Jesus as a bloody atonement, is rejected outright.

In their view, Christian liberation from the Jewish sacrificial cult was not initiated by the sacrifice of the Son of God, but by the water of baptism, through which Jesus extinguished the fires of the sacrificial altar once and for all.

This understanding of Scripture, i.e., the existence of false verses or passages that corrupt the unchanging eternal law of God, which can only be reinstated through a new revelation, corresponds to the role of Mohammad in the later Islamic understanding of the Qur’an (see above on tabdīl; in Islamic theology the terms taḥrīf and kitmān are also used to denote the falsification of the holy scriptures of Judaism and Christianity).

Another conspicuous feature that cannot be discussed in detail here is the political rejection of the monarchy (and the glorification, as with the Samaritans, of the age of Judges, Recog. I.38), which is seen as synonymous with war (Hom. III.62); the biblical kings were rather tyrants (tyranni magni quam reges), the building of the Temple, the place of sacrifice par excellence, was considered hubris – the whole institution, also the status of
David, is said to have had no part in the “eternal law.”

Thus, as has already been mentioned, Jesus’ Davidic descent is not mentioned in the Qur’an, nor is he mentioned in the Qur’an as king
(e.g., 21,78ff.). In Islam, as with Eastern Christianity (and Mesopotamian predecessors), we find the notion of “vicarious kingship” (e.g., Caliph means ‘vicar’; ʻAbd el- Malik was Caliph, the representative of God. Allah was King, Arab. Malīk – cf., Koran 20,114; 23,116; 59,23; 62,1; 114,2; also one of the ninety-nine most beautiful names of God in Islam – whose slave or servant this ruler viewed himself as). This was probably a reason for dispute of the early Umayyads with Heraclius after his Pyrrhic victory over the Sassanids – after his reorganisation of the empire, he took the title Βασιλεύς.

In the preceding, an attempt was made, admittedly with (very) coarse brushstrokes, to show that some decisive theologumena of the Qur’an already appear in the Pseudo-Clementines. As mentioned above, versions of this literature were handed down in Semitic languages during Late
Antiquity and probably exerted, directly or indirectly, influence on various Qur’anic authors who shared these attitudes or convictions, at least partially: Jesus both as Adam novus (see above e.g., ad 3,59) and Moses novus, as the ultimate fulfillment of revelation.

As far as the equation with the latter is concerned, it is interesting to note that in the Qur’an, Mary is presented as the daughter of ʻImran (e.g., Qur’an 3,35; in Christian tradition Joachim); in the Bible though Amram is the father of Moses; in 19,28 Mary (biblically, Miriam, is listed as Hārūn’s,
i.e. Aaron’s (who is aligned with John the Baptist) sister. Some commentators see in this a confusion – but this is unnecessary. If Moses is supposed to be a prefiguration of Jesus, Moses 2.0 (or Adam 3.0), then this similarity is more than understandable (also because Mary and Miriam
are actually the same in Semitic, m-r-j-m).

Here we see again a hint of the sophisticated compositional technique of the Qur’an. Theologians were at work here, not an illiterate desert merchant! The Islamic understanding of Mohammed as the last prophet, as Jesus novus (resp. 2.0 – which partly explains the intertextuality of Jesus’ vita
with that of Muhammad in the Sira) is but a continuation (Fortschreibung) of this theme.

The notion found in Hom. VIII.6f. that the teaching of both Moses and Jesus was the same(!) revelation, that love for Moses and Jesus was the true fulfillment of religion, and those who understand this (single!) revelation are blessed by God – is rooted historically in antimarcionite polemics. Yet the idea that the Torah and the Gospel are identical, as are Adam, Moses and Jesus show that this doctrine, in an expanded form, underlay the composition of the Qur’an.

Professor Dr. Robert M. Kerr studied Classics and Semitics largely in Vancouver, Tübingen and Leyden. He is currently director of the Inârah Institute, for research on Early Islamic History and the Qur’an in Saarbrücken (Germany).

The image shows Muhammad leafing Abraham, Moses and Jesus in prayer, in heaven, in a 15th-century Persian miniature.

Looking For The God Hubal

When we look at the the later Islamic narratives of everyday life in Mecca in the days when a certain prophetic figure named Muhammad allegedly lived, for which there is no historical evidence, we would at first sight seem to be well-informed, there is a rich documentation. A closer look at these references, however, shows that they date some 150 to two centuries after the events they purport to narrate, and what they relate is often quite fantastic, in light of what we know about the ancient Arabs and the ancient Semitic world in general. An interesting case in point is the deity who is said to have been chiefly worshipped at the Meccan Kaaba in the sixth-century, namely, Hubal.

The Book of Idols (Kitāb al-Aṣnām) by the Iraqi Islamic savant, Hišām ibn Muhammad ibn as-Sā’ib al-Kalbī (see, in general, Fuat Sezgin, Geschichte des arabischen Schrifttums), who flourished during the eighth-ninth centuries, notes, “From what I have heard, [the idol of] Hubal was made of red carnelian, having human form, but with a broken right Hand. The Quraish had received him in this condition, but had since made him a [replacement] hand of gold. He was inside the Kaaba.”

Here, as is often the case with Islamic traditions, there are many, often contradictory narrations. Al-Kalbī’s contemporary, the Baghdad judge Muḥammad b.ʿUmar b.Wāqid al-Wāqidī thought that the graven image stood in front of the entrance to the Kaaba, next to the door. The latter furthermore relates that in front of his statue seven arrows were placed for
the purpose of belomancy, performed by a ṣāḥib al-qidāh (“Arrow Lord”) – possibly a biblical motif, cf. e.g. I Sam 20; Ezek 21,26 and Hab 3,11: two are said to have been employed to establish the legitimacy of a child’s descent in case of doubt, one for necromancy, one for questions concerning marriage, and three whose function could no longer be inferred by the author.

In the well-known hagiography (Sīra) of Muhammad, attributed to Ibn Hišām, it is noted that Muhammad’s grandfather ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib almost sacrificed his son ʿAbdallāh in a narrative reminiscent of the sacrifice of Isaac in Gen 22, after an oath had been taken (cf. Jephthah in Judges 11) — according to Islamic exegesis (Sura 37,106f. refers hereto), we also find an explanation as to why Muhammad was referred to as Ibn adh-dhabīḥaini, “the son of the twice sacrificed,” i.e., his father and his alleged ancestor Ishmael.

Muhammad on the other hand, who was already fatherless at birth, was brought to the Kaaba by his grandfather for a paternity test by means of arrows, according to the Riwaya of Yūnus ibn Bukayr of the 9th-century; according to aṭ-Ṭabarī in the 10th century, the infant was brought to the idol Hubal in the Kaaba (fa-adkha-ahu ʿala Hubal fi jawfi l-Kaʿba), while the idol is not mentioned by Ibn Hišhām (fa-dakhala bihi l-Kaʿba). Either the latter interpolated his source (Ibn Isḥaq’s), or Hubal was introduced into the tradition secondarily.

By all accounts, the latter possibility would seem to be more likely, especially since later Islamic traditions tend to provide more, albeit quite peculiar and downright odd information.

In yet other traditions, we learn that Hubal cohabited with (the idols of) 360 other deities, apparently one for every day of the then current solar year (the current Islamic lunar calendar was only introduced later). This is somewhat surprising, since usually only one deity, a duad or, on occasion, a triad inhabited one and the same shrine. Allegedly then the Kaaba collapsed when Muhammed recited Q17,82.

Other accounts make even less sense: e.g. the ‘blue-eyed’ historian of the city of Mecca, Abū l-Walīd Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Azraqī, who purportedly lived during the 7th century, claims that the standard sacrifice for Hubal was a hecatomb of camels. How this should have been done in a small building like the Kaaba or on a smallish stone (fixed in a wall) remains, as is customary in such accounts, unmentioned.

Furthermore, as is often the case with pre-Islamic Arabian deities in Islamic traditions, Hubal, is not seen as an indigenous god. So in The Book of Idols (ed. Klinke-Rosenberger, pp. 33-37 Arabic), the arrival of various idols, among these Hubal, is associated with the journey ʿAmr Ibn Luḥayys to Syria (note the similarity of this description with that of Naaman and Elisha in 2Kings 5).

According to al-Azraqī, Hubal is said to come from Hīt in Mesopotamia; Ibn Hišām on the other hand claims that he came from Moab, in the country of Balqā’. To what extent these statements can be seen as containing historical information remains uncertain, also because Islamic tradition attributes the building of the Kaaba to Abraham and must see to preserve a certain memory of his “true monotheism” from primeval times, which was then corrupted by external influences, as is the wont of foreigners.

It is striking that outside of these Islamic sources, Hubal seems to be unknown in the Hejaz. He is not even found as a theophoric element in Arabian personal names. Wellhausen (Reste arabischen Heidentums, 1897, attempted to explain this conspicuous omission by asserting that Hubal was originally seen as the given name of God, i.e. Allah – just as Yahweh is the name of the Jewish God (‘ɛlōhīm). This is not a convincing argument, merely a desperate guess conditioned by the lack of data.

However, for the time being, for the sake of argument, let us view the Islamic material as historically credible – if Hubal is to be viewed as a newly arrived divine resident foreigner, this could, to some extent, explain why he seems to have been largely unknown; also because, according to Islamic tradition, written history began only with the Koran after Mohammad’s death.

If this were actually the case, however, one would expect that this god be attested elsewhere, in his alleged homeland(s), for example, namely, Mesopotamia, Palestine or Syria. In the onomasticon attested especially in ancient North-Arabic and later Aramaic inscriptions, we find a name HBL (variants WHBL, ‘HBL), which superficially at least would seem to be concordant with the Islamic findings related in the preceding.

However, this is not a theophoric element, but rather a verb which modifies such, i.e. whb + ‘l “God’s gift” (cf. e.g. Deodatus, Nathaniel, etc.). In secondary literature, a Nabataean inscription from the Ḥegra (Madāʾin Ṣāliḥ), in contemporary northern Saudi Arabia, is often brought to bear (Corpus Inscriptionum Semiticarum II, Paris, 1889), No. 198).

Certainly corroboratory mention of this deity in a text written to the Arabic Nabataeans (who, however, customarily used an Aramaic dialect as their written language) would certainly lend Islamic tradition considerable substantiation. This inscription is a funerary text for two women, scil. Kmkm and her daughter Kljbt, dated roughly to the year 0 AD. As often the case with such inscriptions, curses are pronounced against those who may come later to desecrate the grave (lines 3-8):

…wjlʿn dwšr’ wmwtbt w’lt mn ʿmnd wmnwtw wqjšh mn jzbn kpr’ dnh ’w mn jzbn ’w jrhn ’w jntn jth ’w jnpq mnh gt ’w šlw ’w mn jqbr bh ʿjr kmkm wbrth w’ḥrhm wmn dj l’ jʿbd kdj ʿl’ ktjb p’jtj ʿmh ldwšr’ whblw wlmnwtw šmdjn 5 …

“And may Dušara … his ??? … and Allat of ʿAmnad, and Manūthu, and Qaiša curse he who would sell this grave, or he who buys it, or he who taxes it or he who would give it away, or removes bodies or body parts, or buries herein another besides Kmkm or her daughter or their progeny. Whosoever acts contrary to that which is stated here, shall be cursed fivefold by Dušara, and HBLW, and Manūthu…”

As was noted, this inscription is often cited as proof for the cult of a deity known as Hubal (cf. e.g. CIS a.l.ex antiquis Arabum diis“). Two points mitigate this proposition:

1) As remarked by Euting in CIS, the dative preposition l- is missing (“Euting dubitat an hic verus sit sensus, præpositione lante nomen deficiente; suspicatur ergo epitheton aliquod dei Dušara, sed vix probabile“). The editor’s doubts about Euting’s postulate are actually untenable nowadays, since no further unquestionable evidence for this deity has been found during the last century, during which our knowledge of the language as well as the number of known published inscriptions has grown considerably.

It is much more likely to interpret the word HBLW as a toponym, i.e. Dušara of hblw (cf. “Our Lady in/of/on/with …”) – cf. the place name hbltt in a Safaitic inscription (A. Jamme, Miscellanées d’ancient arabe VII,, 28, Fig. 6).

2) The content of this inscription can by no means be described as unique, since a large part of the corpus of the Nabataean epigraphy consists of such texts; and moreover, there are several approximately contemporaneous texts from the same place (with comparable inscriptions). See CIS II No. 197, 199, 205, 209, 212) that mention Dušara and/or Manûthu among others, but never Hubal. The old rule applies here: Unus testis, nullus testis.

In the preceding, we clearly see a methodological problem of Islamology. Orientalists of earlier times, the decipherers and first editors of such inscriptions, often depended on Islamic traditions to interpret these newly discovered texts. These results in turn found their way into Islamic studies – a classical circular reasoning. If this were just any any other (obscure) word, instead of hblw, nobody would think of lexicalising it as a deity.

How then is this deity Hubal, supposedly imported to Mecca, who seems to have been unknown even in his purported homeland, to be analysed? Perhaps an etymologisation of his name can help us further? Let us note briefly that among the older Semitic languages this root is only attested in Bible Hebrew, and in some later Aramaic dialects influenced (in part) by it, such as Syriac (heḇlā “Dust, Vanity”), Targumic Aramaic (“Breath, Vanity”) and the Jewish-Babylonian Aramaic of the Talmud (“Breath, Steam, Haze”) (> Arabic habalt “Fume, steam,” perhaps why in some Islamic traditions Hubal was interpreted as a rain god).

The Hebrew root HBL (cf. the dictionaries) is usually seen as an onomatopoeic term for “breath, breath” as well as “wind”, which then in Gen. 4 uses the name for Adam and Eve’s second son, the shepherd Abel (Hebrew Heḇel), as well as for “nothingness” (“Man is like a breath [la-heḇel], his days are like a shadow scurrying by! -Psalm 144:4); or “vanity” (“O vanity of vanities! [hăḇēl hăḇālīm] says the preacher; O vanity of vanities! [hăḇēl hăḇālīm] Everything is vanity! [hāḇel] -Ecclesiastes 1:2).

Often, however, especially in the Deuteronomistic polemic against (supposed) idolatry, this lexeme takes on a technical theological meaning in the sense of “idol”, “idolatry,” because now only the orthodox view of the worship of Yahweh was acceptable in their eyes, everything else was considered vain vanity. We see this use of Heḇel or plural Hăḇālīm, e.g., in Deut 32:21; 1Kings 16:13,26; 2Kings 17:15; Jeremiah 2:5 (“What did your fathers find wrong with me, that they departed from me and followed vainglory and became vain? [ha-heḇel waj-jehǝbbālū]); 8:19; 10:3,8; 14:22; Jonah 2:9(8); Psalm 31:7(6) (in the last two examples in parallelism with šāw’ “emptiness, futility”).

We also find this understanding in some renditions of the Septuagint, e.g., Deut 32:21; Jeremiah 14:22; 16:19, where the Hebrew term is translated with with “idol” (i.e. εἴδωλον, in classical Greek, originally a “phantom; figure, idea;” only in the later biblical tradition did it take on the meaning “idol”) or μάταιος (actually “futile, vain,” > “idol,” under the influence of Hebrew), e.g., in Jeremiah 2:5 (cf. also Esther 4:17p [prayer of Esther], 3Maccabees 6:11; as well as this use in the NT, especially Acts 14:15).

Here we see how a word that actually means ‘nothing at all’ comes to mean something that is not and can not be. For the sake of clarity, in this specific biblical usage, the Hebrew term Heḇel (plural Hăḇālīm) does not indicate a deity (real or imagined), but it is rather a pejorative term to declare all divine beings except Yahweh, and all representations of gods (including Yahweh) to be ‘null and void’.

From the point of view of Semitic etymology then, Hubal is not a god, but rather instead Heḇel, divine non-existence. Apparently we have landed in nothingness, having shown that Hubal is nihility (which might bemuse some Islamicists), he has literally evaporated in a biblical thunderstorm. Is it possible to bring this god back?

Theologians, in order to preserve their faith in the divine (in this case anyway) can be quite inventive. If on the one hand hebraica Veritas can be helpful in understanding Islamic tradition, then one can also use Arabic (once called the Ancilla Fidei, “servant of the faith” because she was considered to be useful in the study of the Hebrew vocabulary of the Old Testament) to interpret the Bible.

For example, the Canadian Old Testament scholar William Ewart Staples attempted to use the Hebrew term Heḇel as a theological term to denote a “cult mystery” in Canaanite nature religion. Later, his Scandinavian colleague, Hans M. Barstad went even further and claimed that the Hebrew word actually implied a Canaanite rain god (cf. e.g. Zechariah 10:1-2 “Ask the Lord for rain in the springtime; it is the Lord who sends the thunderstorms. He gives showers of rain to all people, and plants of the field to everyone. The idols speak deceitfully, diviners see visions that lie; they tell dreams (Heḇel) that are false, they give comfort in vain. Therefore the people wander like sheep oppressed for lack of a shepherd” – he rules of Hebrew grammar are willingly disregarded to inject an Islamic rain deity (see above) into this biblical verse (see Bob Becking). And thus yet another link is added to the previously mentioned circular argument.

In order though to make something out of nothing, to save what is salvageable, others have attempted to relate Hubal (the vocalisation is secondary and need not be viewed as original) to a supposed apotheosis of Abel (see, Hibil-Ziwa in the Mandaic tradition) – cf., e.g., T. Fahd, Le panthéon de l’arabie centrale à la veille de l’hégire. But this remains problematic and unconvincing (cf. Fawzi Zayadine, Journal Asiatique 257, 1969, 172) — this also applies to the proposal already suggested by Edward Pockocke in the 17th century, which is still occasionally used today, namely that Hubal is derived from Hebrew hab-baʿal, “the Baal”.

In conclusion, despite the combined efforts made hitherto by Islamologists, Old Testament scholars and Orientalists, their efforts may best be summed up by a quotation from Ecclesiastes: “But when I looked around for all my works that my hands had done, and for the trouble I had taken to do them, behold, all was vanity and a haste for wind and nothing lasting under the sun!”

This god, as his name implies, could not have existed. On the other hand, it can probably not be a coincidence that a specific Deuteronomistic term of anti-polytheistic polemics is used by a later tradition (indirectly) dependent for a similar purpose.

The fact that much of what is biblical in later Islamic tradition (note the so-called Isrāʾīlīyāt) was also adopted from Jews and Judaism is certainly not a new insight. Likewise, the Islamic polemic of Arab idolatry in the Hejaz during the so-called ǧāhilīya (“period of ignorance”) is largely ignorant itself, i.e., largely based on imaginary foundations, as the many anachronisms make clear.

One cannot escape the impression that when the Islamic historians and theologians wanted to report about the bad old days of idolatry, realising that they had no first-hand information at all (also because the formation of Islam in Mecca and Medina is historically not viable), they were dependent on those who, as is well known, possessed knowledge of times distant, namely the Jews.

Apparently, Islamic historiographers borrowed a word to indicate the vanity of idols to denote the chief idol of their holy city in an imagined past – Hubal never was. Trying to find him is like chasing after the wind!

Professor Dr. Robert M. Kerr studied Classics and Semitics largely in Vancouver, Tübingen and Leyden. He is currently director of the Inârah Institute, for research on Early Islamic History and the Qur’an in Saarbrücken (Germany).

The image shows a pre-Islamic anthropomorphic stele.

Origins Of the Ka’ba And The Hajj

When it comes to the origins of Islam, in the popular imagination anyway, all seems to be clear. To paraphrase Ernst Renan, a French scholar of the nineteenth century, Islam was born “in the full light of history.” When, however, we look closely at the sources, a more complex and confusing picture emerges.

This applies especially with regard to the origins of the Islamic pilgrimage to the Kaʿba in Mecca, Allah’s “sacred House” (al-bayt al-ḥarām) and the activities partaken by believers. (Pilgrimage involves both the Ḥajj and the ʿUmra – note that Islamic texts are rather vague on the fusion of the ʿUmra with the Ḥajj and when it might have happened, often assuming that the latter had always included circumambulation of the Kaʿba).

In Islamic texts pertaining to these rites, there is often discomfort with regard to some of the rituals, so for example, the famous ḥadīth which has ʿUmar state his disinclination to make istilām (greeting or kissing) of the black stone of the Kaʿba is well known, and so too is al-Ghazālī’s admittance that some of the Ḥajj rituals lack obvious aesthetic pleasure or rational explanation. We also often find mention of the Hajj to ʿArafat not to the Meccan Kaʿba, which only seem to have been conflated at a later period.

In the Qur’an, according to Islam, a revelation to Muhammad, at least three passages assume that the Hajj is directed towards the bayt which, in one passage, is identified as the Kaʿba:

  • In 3:97 we read that mankind owes the duty of ḥijj al-bayt to Allah;
  • In 2:158 it is stated that “whoever makes Hajj of the bayt, or ʿumra” (man ḥajjaʾl-bayt awi ʿtamara) and includes the names of al-Ṣafā and al-Marwa;
  • 2:196 which starts with the command to “fulfill (or complete) the Hajj and the ʿumra for Allah,” goes on to mention ʿArafāt in verse 198;
  • 22:26-29 notes firstly that Allah showed Abraham the place of the House, whereupon he is ordered to proclaim the Hajj to all humanity, which seems to suggest that it is the “House” or bayt that constitutes the object of Hajj – verse 28 then refers to the slaughter of animals which are to be eaten and shared with the poor, and verse 29 prescribes a final circumambulation of the“ancient House” (al-bayt al-ʿatīq), once the tafath (usually interpreted as ritual dishevelment) has been completed.

Taken together, these passages would seem to suggest that it is the bayt that is to be the object of Hajj, and they probably have much to do with the widely accepted idea that the Kaʿba has always been at the centre of the Ḥajj. The Kaʿba is equated with the bayt in 5:97, which states that
Allah made the Kaʿba, al-bayt al-ḥarām, as a support(qiyām) for mankind (al-nās). These passages are, even when taken together are rather vague.

Scholarship has shown that verses in the Qurʾan which allude to Abraham and the bayt are adaptations of Jewish and Christian midrash, and we know that in the Late Antique Middle East there were numerous sanctuaries associated with Abraham and where an annual festival during a specific month was celebrated.

It would therefore seem that much of the quranic material focusing on the bayt (esp. 3:97 and 22:26-29) as the focus of a festival or celebration (ḥajj) has originated with reference to a place other than the Kaʿba at Mecca, and indeed the key term ḥajj in this meaning is a borrowing from Syriac (which in turn borrowed it from the Hebrew Bible). Only later did it become attached to the Kaʿba, which was identified as Abraham’s foundation.

The material which can be gleaned from Islamic sources pertaining to the history of the Ḥajj during the early Islamic period – between the death of the Prophet and that of Ibn al-Zubayr – shows it as a symbol of religious and political authority, but does not suggest any way in which it might have been connected with Muḥammad or Abraham.

The legitimate question in light of the evidence available, or the lack thereof, is whether the Prophet ever took part in the Ḥajj? Before the Prophet’s “Farewell Pilgrimage” (ḥijjat al-wadāʿ) we have no real evidence, and it should be noted that there are many variant reports about the Farewell Pilgrimage, and it is clear that over time these underwent considerable literary amplification.

One might be tempted to envisage a development that was begun by the Prophet and still in formation in 72 AH (Ibn az-Zubayr), although this does seem rather far-fetched by all accounts. The attention the sources give to the re-building of the Kaʿba by Ibn al-Zubayr, and to the alterations made to its form, seem at odds with the sense of continuity in its history that Muslim tradition generally seeks to present.

Based on the available Islamic sources relating to the period between the death of the Prophet and the fitna of Ibn al-Zubayr, it is hard to make the case that the Ḥajj was focussed on, or even associated with, the Kaʿba, which is not mentioned as frequently as one might have expected, and based on the same evidence, one is even led to call into question the historicity of the traditional accounts of the Farewell Pilgrimage.

Apart from al-Yaʿqūbī’s report about ʿAbd al-Malik’s designs regarding the Dome of the Rock, it is rarely, if ever, clearly stated that the Ḥajj involved visiting the Kaʿba. Depending on our attitude to the reliability of the reports, we might conclude that the Meccan sanctuary was a building of some religious importance, possibly associated with an anachronistic notion that the Prophet may once have prayed inside, and that when people came to Mecca for the Ḥajj they may have visited it.

Nonetheless, Muslim tradition on the Meccan sanctuary before Ibn al-Zubayr’s construction work really makes no mention of the site’s Abrahamic associations. It is well known that Ibn al-Zubayr justified his rebuilding by an appeal to the alleged wishes of the Prophet and by the claim that he was restoring the building as per the original foundations laid down by Abraham. It is rather unclear why that should have been necessary at the time, but the tradition gives the impression that an
inappropriate, or at least an imperfect, jāhilī structure was to be replaced with a properly Islamic (i.e. Muḥammadan and Abrahamic) one.

At this point, we should ask ourselves a few pertinent questions.

What is a Kaʿba and is it unique?

As was noted, there were numerous contemporary shrines dedicated to Abraham:

Traditionally, the term Kaʿba is taken to mean “cube”, vis-à-vis the present shape of the Meccan sanctuary (cf. the root’s quadratic semantics in modern Arabic, which are later and derived from the Islamic shrine).

However, in Arabic, the primary meaning of the root k-ʿ-b denotes “swelling” (cf. ابو كعيب ābw kʿyb – “mumps”), often of the breasts of young girls during puberty (or compare كواعبkāwʿb), hence unsurprisingly كعبةk’b, etc. “virginity.”

In EpiphaniusPanarion, we find a reference to the mother of the Nabatean God Dusares ( ذو الشرىdhu al-sharaa) as Χααβου or Chaabou, because, like Mary, she was a virgin. Now then, both mother and son were widely venerated by both Arabs and other Semitic peoples in antiquity, hence the numerous shrines attested in literature.

A Kaʿba then, a shrine dedicated to this goddess (and her son), is analogous to the Parthenon, i.e. a building dedicated to a virgin goddess (or the many Christian Churches named after “our Lady”, a pre-Christian appellation for a goddess). What though does any of this have to do with Abraham?

If we look at the modern Kaʿba, we might still be able to find some clues. To the North-West of the structure, we find a low-standing semi-circular wall which is part of the sacred precinct (around which the Tawaf is performed), called الحطيم (āl-ḥaṭim ,“something destroyed”?), in which we find the ,حجر إسماعيل (ḥiǧr Ismāʿil, traditionally seen as Ismael’s grave; outside thereof we find that of Hagar.

Now in Islam, like in Judaism, there is a taboo on corpses, unlike in Christianity in which churches once needed to contain the relics or to be built on the grave of a martyr or biblical figure (especially since St Helena, Constantine’s mother). The fact that the only two people allegedly buried in an Islamic shrine are buried in المسجد الحرام (al-masjid al-haram, the Grand Mosque) is surprising at least.

It is clear that the Arabs traced their lineage to Abraham through Ismael, not an indigenous tradition, but one developed by Josephus and later amplified by Church Fathers, especially Saint Jerome. In the fifth century, we see that this is used to convert pagan Arabs, i.e., by converting to Christianity they might be able to reclaim their birthright – Ismael was Abraham’s firstborn, and present when God made His covenant with him.

For Arab and Semitic Christians especially, who rejected Pauline soteriology, and who saw in the person of Jesus a human prophet who did not repudiate the Law, Abraham and Ishmael were important. Some insight in this longstanding theological debate, which also sheds some light on traditions that would go on to become incorporated in Islam, can be found in Galatians chapters 3-4, esp. 4:21ff. The Arabs of the seventh century, who rejected Chalcedonian Christology, saw themselves as both the spiritual
and biological heirs of Abraham through his son Ismael.

As was noted in the preceding, we find no real evidence for Mecca as the site of the Ḥajj before Ibn az-Zubayr. As noted, he rebuilt the sanctuary, allegedly according to its original intent or design. At the same time, the criticism brought to bear in (later!) Islamic texts against his contemporary and adversary, ʿAbd el-Malik, was that the latter allegedly diverted the pilgrimage from Mecca to Jerusalem.

However, these texts leave one with the impression that later authors knew of the Umayyad pilgrimage to Jerusalem – but did not understand that Mecca only gained primary significance later. There do not seem to be traditions about the Umayyads being connected to Mecca – and therefore later authors assumed that they had rerouted the Ḥajj. In this time there is no evidence associating Mecca with either al-’Isrā’ wal-Miʿrāj’ (which is only centuries later), nor is Jerusalem referred to as al-quds; instead, we find a realisation of the city’s Latin name Aelia.

Indeed, the Umayyads are often criticised in these later texts for being somewhat deviant vis-à-vis later Islamic orthopraxy. The disparagement is valid, simply because Islam did not yet exist in the seventh century, only in the latter half of the eighth and first half of the ninth centuries can we see what would become Islam slowly emerging in the Abbasid capital Baghdad.

In the preceding, we have noted that the Qur’an makes no specific mention to the Ḥajj at the Meccan Kaʿba. Furthermore, Muhammad’s association herewith is spurious at best. Indeed, before Ibn az-Zubayr, during the second Fitna, we have no real tangible evidence, and by all accounts, there was a major Ḥajj to Jerusalem, hardly surprising for a monotheistic “Abrahamic” religion.

It would though seem that Mecca was also one of the many pilgrimage sites devoted to Abraham, especially in relation to the veneration of his son Ismael, and was frequented especially by Arab believers, who saw themselves as Abraham’s biological and spiritual heirs through Ismael (whose firstborn Nebaioth, Genesis 25:13, is sometimes seen as the progenitor of the Nabateans).

Originally the Kaʿba at Mecca though, in pre-Christian times, was dedicated to the Semitic deity Dusares and his mother Kaabou, who was actually a sacred stone (a Baetylus, i.e. beth-’el the dwelling of (a) god, بيت الله bayt allah). That cult sites were repurposed and adapted to new religious realities (“under new management”), needs no further explanation.

By all accounts, Ibn az-Zubayr, in the power struggle of the latter seventh century, a civil war among various Arab factions, for hegemony over an Arabic Empire (Islamic is an anachronism), chose as his site, Mecca, which must have had considerable longstanding cultic significance for the Arabs. After his demise, this site was understandably given preference over Jerusalem and incorporated over time into the primary sanctuary of what would later become Islam.

Professor Dr. Robert M. Kerr studied Classics and Semitics largely in Vancouver, Tübingen and Leyden. He is currently director of the Inârah Institute, for research on Early Islamic History and the Qur’an in Saarbrücken (Germany).

The image shows an illustration of Mecca by Sir Francis Burton, the famed soldier, linguist, scholar, explorer, discoverer, poet and author, from his book, Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah, published in 1855-1856.

A Camel And The Eye Of The Needle In The Qu’ran

Not only those familiar with the New Testament will know the expression “Camel through the eye of a needle.” This phrase is attributed to Jesus, Matthew 19:23-24 (cf. Mark 10:25; Luke 18:25): “Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”

This metaphor is of course quite powerful, irrespective of any questions about its eventual authenticity, although the exaggerated hyperbole paradoxically results in tragic irony, since a conventional camel could never pass through the eyelet of a normal needle. This would mean that it is unreservedly impossible for a rich person to enter heaven – perhaps appealing to liberation theologians, or those who ascribe to the social gospel and/or predetermination, yet nonetheless doubtlessly a contradictio in adjecto.

Since at least Clement of Alexandria (ca 150-215 AD), a solution to this conundrum has been proposed. If we assume that an early copyist (and the first Christians who copied New Testament texts were not trained professionals, for which they were often rebuked by their opponents such as Porphyry) mistakenly wrote κάμηλον (kamelon) “camel” instead of κάμιλον (kamilon) “rope, cable” (of a ship, of a net), then the aphorism might make more sense to “fishers of men.”

One problem, is that kamelon is only attested once in what survives of ancient Greek. Nonetheless, the notion of a rope or a cable, made by twisting together strands of hemp or some other such material is quite attractive, as by unravelling, disposing oneself of material possessions, it might just be possible to finally go through the needle’s eye, or enter heaven as it were.

This apophthegm is of course found in the Qur’an in 7:40: “Lo! they who deny Our revelations and scorn them, for them the gates of heaven will nor be opened not will they enter the Garden until the camel goeth through the needle’s eye (ḥattā yaliǧa lǧamalu). Thus do We requite the guilty.”

Obviously, this is borrowed, whether directly or indirectly need not concern us here, from the New Testament passages mentioned in the preceding, and thus tells us something about the history of the Qur’an – its obscurity precludes it being an independent composition.

Naturally, the same syllogistic concerns apply here as with its ultimate source. Interestingly enough, in traditions attributed to Ibn ʽAbbās (questions as to his doubtful historicity need not concern us here), and cited by some later exegetes, we find the suggestion that instead of ǧamal “camel” one should instead read ǧummal “thick nautical rope, anchor cable.”

The fact that this lexeme, like the Greek term mentioned in the preceding, has maritime semantics is noteworthy. It should be noted here that both Greek terms, scilicet, κάμηλον/ “camel” thus κάμιλον/ “rope cable” are Semitic loan-words, the former necessitates no explanation; the latter from a common Semitic root ḥbl (cf. e.g. Hebrew ḥeḇel, Arabic ḥabl).

This of course would seem to imply that not only the precept itself, but also this exegesis was borrowed from Christian traditions (in the widest sense of the word). Since the semantics of ḥbl denoting a (nautical) rope (rather surprising indeed, if we are to believe that the Qur’an originated in the Hejaz), along with the fact that ǧummal in this meaning is only really employed in Arabic in connexion with this Quranic verse (s., Lane, Lexicon, S. 461) one might ask whether a word was invented to fit the established exegetical tradition.

In old Arabic, such as is found in the oldest Quranic manuscripts, which are unpointed, ǧamal/camel/ جمل und ḥabl/rope,cable/ حبل are quite similar, حمل (j/ḥ/ḫ/ml), one can easily read this passage as ḥattā yaliǧa l-ḥablu “until the rope goeth through the needle’s eye.”

The fact that both the ropy semantics and the ǧīm were preserved, although a good Arabic alternative was available, demonstrates that the Ibn ʽAbbās tradition, that which shows the most familiarity with biblical materials, must be dependant on these, to which the neologism ǧummal testifies.

This is just another indication that the Qur’an and its early exegesis were rooted in the exegetical and hermeneutical culture of interpretation of the Bible, where occasionally something was lost in translation. We may yet ourselves be sooner able to pass through a needle’s eye before we are completely able to understand the convoluted language of the Qur’an.

Professor Dr. Robert M. Kerr studied Classics and Semitics largely in Vancouver, Tübingen and Leyden. He is currently director of the Inârah Institute, for research on Early Islamic History and the Qur’an in Saarbrücken (Germany).

The image shows the “Camel going through the eye of a needle,” a print by Maarten van Heemskerck, from his series, The Wretchedness of Wealth, from 1563.