Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Cain and Abel in the Qur'an

Muhammad as the distorter of both the Torah and the Talmud

Masud Masihiyyen

People who organize a new religion and forge a scripture of their own for any deceptive purpose (distortion and falsification) inevitably run the risk of giving themselves away as their borrowed material mirrors the time of their composition and betrays their will to present their forgery as an authentic and reliable scripture. This is because by the time they form their creed and devise their scripture, their primary sources are supported by oral traditions that may have gained popularity to the point of supplementing the scripture. For instance, the author of the “Gospel of Barnabas” forged his apocrypha with the aim of distorting and replacing the canonical Gospels of Christianity. Since he lived in the medieval era, until his time the canonical Gospels had been interpreted and explained through traditional commentaries, and these commentaries had already become so significant and dominant in the Church that Pseudo-Barnabas did not see anything wrong with blending them into his re-written version of the canonical scripture. As a consequence, the narratives of the canonical Gospels were not only modified for the sake of their adaptation to Islamic doctrines, but were also expanded to include some details that were missing from the original and canonical accounts. A person carefully examining the Gospel of Barnabas (GOB)1 and comparing it with the four canonical Gospels of Christianity will notice that Pseudo-Barnabas turned traditional teachings and explanations of the Church into essential and indispensable parts of his Gospel version through the magic of falsification. This is why it is not surprising to find in the forgery of Pseudo-Barnabas the non-biblical information (one that corresponds to nothing more than pure speculation) that Salome was Virgin Mary’s sister (GOB 209:1; compare this with the information given about Salome in the Catholic Encyclopedia(*). Likewise, fake Barnabas foolishly attempted to present a traditional teaching of the Church as an integrated part of Christ’s supposed Gospel when he claimed that Enoch and Elijah would come back at the end of times (GOB 52:2; compare this with the teaching of the Church fathers about Elijah’s return here).

Muhammad, whose name we frequently see in the medieval Gospel of Barnabas2, did exactly the same thing many centuries before Pseudo-Barnabas while founding his religion named Islam and devising a new scripture for himself. Having failed to distinguish dominating Christian doctrines and stories from the canonical Gospels of the Church, Muhammad kept borrowing and perverting non-canonical elements and writings for adaptation to his Islamic creed and incorporation into the Qur’an. This explains why in today’s Qur’an we have the narrative of the sleepers in a cave (Surah 18:9-26), which was a story that came not from the New Testament, but from oral and written Christian tradition concerning martyrs. Similarly, Muhammad’s teaching in Surah 3 that Jesus’ mother was dedicated to the service of the temple and experienced angelic visions (Surah 3:35-37) was plagiarized from the apocryphal Gospel of James. In three of our previous articles (1, 2, 3) we discussed at length Muhammad's plagiarism from the non-canonical and traditional writings of the Church and saw how he made vain efforts to introduce the distorted version of non-biblical material as the genuine and reliable word of God.

Yet it would be a great loss if we were not to make a similar study on the theme of Muhammad’s plagiarism from the traditional but non-biblical sources of Judaism in the process of forging his scripture, for the narrative and teachings in the Qur'an tell us that Muhammad was primarily concerned with Judaism rather than Christianity and erected the pillars of his religion on the transformation of the biblical figures of the Hebrew Bible into Muslim messengers preaching Islam prior to him and heralding his ministry. Even the assertion that Abraham is the father of Muslims (Surah 22:78) and that he went to Mecca to construct the Cube (Surah 2:124-127) illustrates how Muhammad dedicated himself to countering the Jewish Bible and its fundamental tenets by a simple geographical shift from Israel to Arabia.

Unsurprisingly, Mohammad's desire to incorporate everything he heard from the People of the Book into his Qur’an without testing their source accompanied him as an eternal partner while he was borrowing material from Judaism for their adaptation to his innovated doctrines. The natural outcome of this bad habit was the erroneous treatment of the non-biblical statements and teachings of Judaism as original parts of its sacred scripture. The more often Muhammad fell into this error, the higher the number of discrepancies he created between the Hebrew Bible and his Qur’an, which he claimed to have come from God for the confirmation and preservation of the former scriptures. In some cases Muhammad's failure to distinguish the word of God from the word of the Jewish rabbis went further than the distortion of the Torah and resulted in the distortion/modification even of the very material borrowed from Talmudic Judaism.

In order to see how Muhammad turned out to be the distorter of both the Hebrew Bible and the traditional teachings and comments of Jewish rabbis it will suffice to choose a narrative of biblical origin in the Qur’an and compare it textually with its original version. Of the various narratives in the Qur’an that convince us of Muhammad's plagiarism from non-biblical sources including Jewish legends3, we are choosing for analysis Surah 5:27-32, which relates the story of Adam's two sons in a quite different way than its authentic account in Genesis 4:1-16. The reason for this particular choice is the fact that Surah 5:27-32 exhibits a foremost example of Muhammad’s undeniable plagiarism from Talmudic Judaism, signifying through its place in the Islamic scripture the true yet hidden purpose of the borrower.

CAIN and ABEL in the Torah

Now the man had marital relations with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. Then she said, “I have created a man just as the Lord did!” Then she gave birth to his brother Abel. Abel took care of the flocks, while Cain cultivated the ground. At the designated time Cain brought some of the fruit of the ground for an offering to the Lord. But Abel brought some of the firstborn of his flock – even the fattest of them. And the Lord was pleased with Abel and his offering, but with Cain and his offering he was not pleased. So Cain became very angry, and his expression was downcast. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why is your expression downcast? Is it not true that if you do what is right, you will be fine? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at the door. It desires to dominate you, but you must subdue it.” Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” And he replied, “I don’t know! Am I my brother’s guardian?” But the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! So now, you are banished from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you try to cultivate the ground it will no longer yield its best for you. You will be a homeless wanderer on the earth.” Then Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is too great to endure! Look! You are driving me off the land today, and I must hide from your presence. I will be a homeless wanderer on the earth; whoever finds me will kill me.” But the Lord said to him, “All right then, if anyone kills Cain, Cain will be avenged seven times as much.” Then the Lord put a special mark on Cain so that no one who found him would strike him down. So Cain went out from the presence of the Lord and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden. (Genesis 4:1-16 NET Bible)

CAIN and ABEL in the Qur’an

But recite unto them with truth the tale of the two sons of Adam, how they offered each a sacrifice, and it was accepted from the one of them and it was not accepted from the other. (The one) said: I will surely kill thee. (The other) answered: Allah accepteth only from those who ward off (evil). Even if thou stretch out thy hand against me to kill me, I shall not stretch out my hand against thee to kill thee, lo! I fear Allah, the Lord of the Worlds. Lo! I would rather thou shouldst bear the punishment of the sin against me and thine own sin and become one of the owners of the fire. That is the reward of evil-doers. But (the other's) mind imposed on him the killing of his brother, so he slew him and became one of the losers. Then Allah sent a raven scratching up the ground, to show him how to hide his brother's naked corpse. He said: Woe unto me! Am I not able to be as this raven and so hide my brother's naked corpse? And he became repentant. For that cause We decreed for the Children of Israel that whosoever killeth a human being for other than manslaughter or corruption in the earth, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind, and whoso saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind. Our messengers came unto them of old with clear proofs (of Allah's Sovereignty), but afterwards lo! many of them became prodigals in the earth. (Surah 5:27-32 Pickthall)

The place and context of the narrative

The first major difference between the Biblical and Quranic version of Cain and Abel’s story concerns the place and context of this narrative and illustrates Muhammad’s deviation from the original biblical account in both its form and content. This short and simple record on the theme of the first murder in human history occurs in the first book of the Bible (Genesis) in chapter 4, which comes right after the chapter recounting Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden of Eden after their fall, but appears in Muhammad’s book for the first and last time in Surah 5, which is a chapter of the late Medina period. Accordingly, the story in the Qur’an is awkwardly separate from the main accounts about Adam and Eve and seems loosely attached to them only with the help of the characters’ identification as Adam’s two sons. Apart from the reference to Adam’s two sons in the sentence introducing the narrative, there is nothing in the Islamic scripture to thematically or chronologically associate Cain and Abel’s story with that of their parents or the earliest period of the creation. What is the reason for this discrepancy?

First of all, knowing that the Islamic scripture, unlike the Bible, does not follow either a chronological or a thematic order, the reader of the Qur’an will not be surprised to see that the account of Cain and Abel is detached from the narratives about Adam and his wife and those describing the early period of mankind on earth. Still, it is natural to wonder why Muhammad related the incident of the first murder of human history in one of the concluding chapters of his book and did not mention it in the early period of the supposed celestial dictation. Was it because he and Allah were not familiar with Cain and Abel’s story in the days prior to the migration or because they decided to add it to the Qur’an in a rush, failing to determine the appropriate time for its introduction? What caused this delay and the last-minute addition of the account? In order to answer all these questions, it is crucial to analyze the particular location of the narrative about Adam’s two sons in Surah 5 and focus on the verses preceding and following it.

Being mostly concerned with legal matters, this particular chapter contains various commandments that constitute an important part of the Islamic law. The law-oriented nature of the Surah is apparent even in its opening verse, which declares certain things unlawful for Muhammad's followers:

O ye who believe! Fulfil your indentures. The beast of cattle is made lawful unto you (for food) except that which is announced unto you (herein), game being unlawful when ye are on the pilgrimage. Lo! Allah ordaineth that which pleaseth Him. (Surah 5:1 Pickthall)

After a few verses exhibiting Muhammad's fury towards the People of the Book who did not accept his claims of being the final prophet (verses 12-15), Surah 5 starts talking about the Israelites' disobedience to their leader Moses after the Exodus from Egypt (verse 20) and attempts to explain why they had to wander in the wilderness for forty years before entering the Promised Land.

(Their Lord) said: For this the land will surely be forbidden them for forty years that they will wander in the earth, bewildered. So grieve not over the wrongdoing folk. (Surah 5:26 Pickthall)

Right after the verse referring to the Israelites' disobedience and their relevant punishment, the author of the Qur’an makes an abrupt transition to Cain and Abel's story. A careful examination of the narrative in the Qur’an tells us that the account of Cain and Abel has no affiliation with the story of the Israelites' wandering in the wilderness if the vague thematic parallelism between Cain's punishment in the biblical account and that of the Israelites in the Book of Exodus is overlooked. In both narratives God chose to punish sinners (Cain in the first incident and the nation of Israel in the second) by making them wander in the earth for an appointed time. As a result of this parallelism it is possible to suggest that Muhammad heard these two independent stories and established a connection between them, but this thematic association remained hidden due to Muhammad's unfaithfulness to the original version of Cain and Abel's story in the Bible, which had explicitly bound Cain's wandering in the land to his punishment by God because of his sin in contrast to the Qur’an, which switches from Cain to Israel before the former story reached its conclusion.

Cain and Abel's story in the Qur’an ends in verse 32, after which comes one of the most violent commandments of the entire Islamic scripture:

The only reward of those who make war upon Allah and His messenger and strive after corruption in the land will be that they will be killed or crucified, or have their hands and feet on alternate sides cut off, or will be expelled out of the land. Such will be their degradation in the world, and in the Hereafter theirs will be an awful doom (Surah 5:33 Pickthall).

Interestingly, this verse includes one's banishment from his land into the means of the sinners' punishment. If we get back to the narrative about Adam's two sons in Surah 5, we see that it actually ends in verse 31 where Cain is stated to feel repentant after seeing a crow bury its friend. The function of Surah 5:32 is later understood to be providing an explanation for the source of a teaching given to the Children of Israel, and lacks a chronological affiliation with Cain's murdering and burying his brother, leaving us with the question “How is the prescription levied on the Israelites of Moses’ era linked to the time of the first murder and burial in human history?” Thus, at first sight Surah 5:32 seems to be thematically linked to the Children of Israel and a doctrine imposed on them rather than to the story of Adam's two sons. What is the reason underlying this chronological gap? A similar question is how Muhammad managed to draw a one-to-one relation between the narrative of the first murder in human history and a specific statement prescribed only for the Children of Israel.

It is impossible to solve this mysterious jump in Muhammad's mind from Adam's two sons to a teaching delivered to the Israelites at Moses' time without taking into consideration the influence of Talmudic Judaism on Muhammad's view of the Jewish tenets. A careful investigation of the Jewish traditions and commentaries made on the Hebrew Bible reveals the striking fact that the association between the precise statement in Surah 5:32 and the biblical account about Cain and Abel originally belonged to the speculative comment of a Jewish Rabbi, who focused on the plural form of the word “blood” in the biblical version of the story and concluded that this particular grammatical structure pointed at the interrelation between one single man and his offspring in terms of destroying or saving a life. Scholars who were familiar with the Talmudic Judaism and had read this commentary instantly recognized and highlighted the vague association between the story of Adam's two sons and the curious reference to the prescription in Surah 5:32 while talking about Muhammad's plagiarism from both the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish traditional commentaries. For example, in his article entitled “The Jewish Influences in the Qur’an”, John Gilchrist gives the original source of the Jewish commentary and explains how the discovery of that source resulted in the retrieval of the missing connection between verse 31 and 32 of Surah 5. After quoting Surah 5:32, he wrote:

At first sight this verse seems to have no connection with the preceding narrative. Why the life or death of one should be as the salvation or destruction of all mankind is not at all clear. When we turn to another Jewish record, however, we find the link between the story and what follows. Once again we find that it derives from a strange interpretation of a Biblical verse. We read: We find it said in the case of Cain who murdered his brother, 'The voice of thy brother's bloods crieth' (Genesis 4.10). It is not said here blood in the singular, but bloods in the plural, that is, his own blood and the blood of his seed. Man was created single in order to show that to him who kills a single individual it shall be reckoned that he has slain the whole race, but to him who preserves the life of a single individual it is counted that he hath preserved the whole race. (Mishnah Sanhedrin, 4.5) (Source)4

The funny thing is Muhammad did not include into the story of Adam’s two sons the Biblical verse that referred to Abel’s blood in plural form and thus gave birth to the traditional commentary appearing in the Mishnah Sanhedrin. In other words, he accidentally borrowed a non-biblical statement and treated it as if it were a part of the Scripture, but excluded the very verse the particular statement had been based on. The result was obscurity and confusion. Accordingly, Tisdall wrote: “And this omitted part is the connecting link between the two passages in the Qur’an, without which they are unintelligible” (source).

Interestingly, Ibn Kathir’s commentary on Surah 5:32 is of no help for the clarification of the link between the commandment in view and Cain’s murdering his brother due to Ibn Kathir’s and other Muslims’ ignorance of the Torah verse in Hebrew that uses the word “blood” in plural form:

Al-`Awfi reported that Ibn `Abbas said that Allah's statement, (it would be as if he killed all mankind. . .) means, "Whoever kills one soul that Allah has forbidden killing, is just like he who kills all mankind." Sa`id bin Jubayr said, "He who allows himself to shed the blood of a Muslim, is like he who allows shedding the blood of all people. He who forbids shedding the blood of one Muslim, is like he who forbids shedding the blood of all people. (Source)5

The traditional reports given by Islamic commentators thus confirm the omission of the crucial connection between Jewish Midrash and Surah 5:32 and Muhammad’s ignorance on this issue. Consequently, such commentaries should be re-written to reflect this fact: “The statement in Surah 5:32 was reported from a Jewish Rabbi to our prophet, who forgot to ask how a particular precept of the Mosaic Law was dependent on the murder committed by one of Adam’s two sons”.

Despite the deficiency in Muhammad’s plagiarism, it is obvious that the reason for the late incorporation of the narrative about Cain and Abel into the Islamic scripture was Muhammad’s wish to explain the source of the doctrine stated in Surah 5:32, which he apparently considered to be ordained by God for the Israelites during their wandering in the wilderness.6 This, as we stated earlier, is in perfect agreement with the placement of the story of Adam’s two sons in the Qur’an right after the reference to the Israelites’ journey on their way to the Promised Land under Moses’ guidance in verse 26. Thus, even the location and context of the Islamic account substantiate the theory that Muhammad heard from the Jews of his era the Rabbinical comment on Cain and Abel’s story first rather than the Biblical account about them in Genesis 4 and followed a reverse strategy by going from the Rabbinical commentary to the original story and erroneously regarding the traditional writings (Talmud) as equal to the writings of the Hebrew Bible.

Finally, Muhammad’s failure to discern the Hebrew Bible from the other written sources of Judaism is also apparent in his eagerness to insert the story of Cain and Abel into a law-centered chapter of his book. While highlighting the similarities and relation between the Islamic Law and that of the Children of Israel (Jews), Muhammad talked of the rules and teachings imposed on the Israelites in the following two verses of Surah 5:

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. Then although there came to them Our apostles with clear Signs, yet, even after that, many of them continued to commit excesses in the land. (Surah 5:32 Yusuf Ali)

We ordained therein for them: "Life for life, eye for eye, nose for nose, ear for ear, tooth for tooth, and wounds equal for equal." But if any one remits the retaliation by way of charity, it is an act of atonement for himself. (Surah 5:45 Yusuf Ali)

In both verses the same Arabic verb (katabna) is used with the same plural personal pronoun in order to stress the divine origin of the teachings. Further, the prescription in verse 32 is thematically related to the one given in verse 45 because it presents the act of retaliation, which is the major theme of verse 45, as one of the two things that can restrict and annul the rule concerning the link between one person and the whole race with regard to murder in verse 32. These parallelisms strikingly display that Muhammad’s deity endorsed the traditional teachings of Judaism as equally authorized as his divine revelation. In the light of these observations, it also becomes clear why Muhammad claimed in Surah 7 of his book that God had “ordained” laws for Moses that did not only command, but also “explained everything”:

And We ordained laws for him in the Tablets in all matters, both commanding and explaining all things … (Surah 7:145 Yusuf Ali)7

The missing names and the aid of the Islamic tradition

The Islamic version of Cain and Abel’s story also differs from the one in the Bible in that it does not state the names of these two characters and chooses to identify them only through the phrase “Adam’s two sons”. The Hebrew Bible, on the other hand, does not only name these two brothers Cain and Abel, but goes further to explain the sense of the name Cain explicitly and the name Abel implicitly in accordance with the inspired author’s general tendency to provide etymological information on certain names. First, the Hebrew form of the name Cain is phonologically analogous to the verb “create”, which explains why Eve says she has created a man as the Lord did in Genesis 4:1 when she gives birth to her first son. (See footnote 4 in NET Bible) Second, the name Abel, although this is not patently stated in Genesis 4, is derived from the Hebrew word corresponding to breath and vanity and thus makes an allusion to the tragic brevity of Abel’s life due to his murder by Cain (See footnote 7 in NET Bible).

It is not at all reasonable to expect the Qur’an to follow the Bible in terms of giving the root and sense of a personal name as a result of Muhammad’s ignorance of biblical etymology and his indifference to the meaning or phonological properties of certain biblical names even at the risk of producing great blunders of an anachronistic nature. The fact that the distinction between the names Abram and Abraham in the Bible is missing from the Qur’an and the relevant erroneous supposition that Abram was known by the name Abraham (the father of many nations) even in his youth prior to his call by God (*) owe their existence to Muhammad’s bad habit of ignoring the parallelisms the Bible drew between the sounds and meanings of certain words. Similarly, we witness Muhammad’s failure to infer the relation between the name Isaac and Sarah’s laughter, which shows her reaction to the angelic annunciation of Isaac’s birth from her. In the biblical account, both Abraham and Sarah are said to have laughed upon hearing the promise of a childbirth, finding the annunciation incredible (Genesis 17:17 and Genesis 18:12). In the Qur’an, however, Abraham’s wife is said to approach the visiting angels with a laughter even before Isaac’s birth is foretold and the laughter stunningly appears to be the cause of Isaac’s birth rather than of his name (Surah 11:69-71). In the light of these observations, it would require a miracle to find the meanings of the names Cain and Abel maintained in the Qur’an either properly or inaccurately. This hyperbole becomes more meaningful when we cannot find in the Qur’an even the names of Adam’s two sons.

Bafflingly, Muhammad deprived his followers even of the basic knowledge of the two brothers’ names and used the phrase “Adam’s two sons” as if striving to single Adam out as the main character of this story. Why did he follow this kind of an odd course? Before counting the possibilities underlying the lack of the names Cain and Abel in the Islamic scripture, it is noteworthy that this account does not represent the only case where Muhammad skipped the name of a person and preferred linking him to his father even when the son was the main character of a teaching. For example, none of the narratives in the Qur’an reveals the names of Noah’s sons although they are said to be the only survivors of the flood (Surah 37:77). More to the point, Surah 11 talks of a certain son of Noah and contends that he refused to follow his father into the ark and consequently drowned in the flood (Surah 11:42-43), but conceals the name of this son although he represents a unique case and remarkable role in this particular narrative. In short, keeping the names of certain figures a mystery and identifying them only through their fathers was not an exceptional strategy for Muhammad.

As to why Surah 5 does not state the names of Adam’s two sons, we can come up with a few possible reasons ranging from Muhammad’s capricious reluctance to the deficient nature of the information he gained from the People of the Book, particularly, the Jews. Quite interestingly, the absence of the names of Adam’s two sons from the Qur’an is interpreted by some commentators in a drastically different way with the aim of making the narrative in Surah 5:27-32 lose all its ties with the original story in Genesis 4. According to Baidawi and Tabari, the Qur’an pertains not necessarily to Adam’s two sons in a literal sense, but to two males descending from his progeny (*). Nonetheless, this controversial view is far from explaining why the account in the Qur’an looks like a distorted copy of the story in the Hebrew Bible. Further, the Islamic tradition concerning Adam’s two sons and elaborating on their story, which we shall analyze later, presents Adam as the two brothers’ biological father, making the metaphorical interpretation invalid.8 Finally, there is nothing in the Qur’an to refute the hypothesis that the appearance of only Adam’s name in Surah 5:27-32 was the natural result of Muhammad’s efforts to establish at least a chronological connection between this account and the early period of mankind (Genesis) with the help of a direct reference to Adam.

In contrast to the view of the commentators who argue that Surah 5 does not refer to Adam’s literal sons, Islamic tradition is full of reports that claim otherwise and partly agree with the Biblical account by identifying the murdered son as Habil, the Arabic equivalent of the name Abel. The agreement is partly because the other brother is named Qabil in Islamic tradition, which is a modified form of the name Cain. While summarizing the theme of the account in Surah 5:27-32, Ibn Kathir does not even deem it necessary to explain the source of the names Qabil and Habil as if they are recorded in the Qur’an:

Allah describes the evil end and consequence of transgression, envy and injustice in the story of the two sons of Adam, Habil and Qabil. One of them fought against the other and killed him out of envy and transgression, because of the bounty that Allah gave his brother and because the sacrifice that he sincerely offered to Allah was accepted. The murdered brother earned forgiveness for his sins and was admitted into Paradise, while the murderer failed and earned a losing deal in both the lives. (Source)

Why did the Islamic tradition modify the original name Cain into Qabil? According to some scholars, this discrepancy did not result from ignorance, but from Muhammad’s or his followers’ wish to invent a new name that was meant to rhyme with the name Habil, the Arabic form of Abel:

All the rest of the history of the first human pair is omitted, and only one event in the life of Cain and Abel is depicted. This is depicted for us quite in its Jewish colours. In this passage, and indeed throughout the Quran, they are called sons of Adam, but in later Arabic writings their names are given as Qabil and Habil, which are clearly chosen out of love for the rhyming sounds. (Source)

This suggestion does not sound improbable, and is relevant to the claim that while writing his book Muhammad gave priority to rhyming like the poets of his time. Even if the invention of the name Qabil in the Islamic tradition originally belonged to someone else other than Muhammad and was later falsely ascribed to him, this does not affect the fact that the inventor of the name had walked in Muhammad’s footsteps while creating a new name by changing only the initial sound of another original name in the Bible so that a pair of rhyming names could be obtained. We know with certainty that in the Qur’an Muhammad followed this same strategy when he modified the Hebrew name Korah into Qarun and thus made it rhyme with the name Aaron (Haroun in Arabic):

  • The pair of Korah and Aaron in the Bible versus the pair of Qaroun and Haroun in the Qur’an
  • The pair of Cain and Abel in the Bible versus the pair of Qabil and Habil in the Islamic tradition

Obviously, Muhammad had derived the name Qaroun from the name Haroun and made these two a pair9 because of the following Biblical teachings, which he awkwardly did not include into his Qur’an:

  1. Korah and Aaron were related because Levi was the grandfather of both. (Numbers 16:1 and 26:59)
  2. Korah rebelled against Moses particularly because he was hostile to Aaron out of jealousy and rivalry. (Numbers 16:9-11)
  3. The ritual of offering incense was chosen so as to show whom God favored and whom he refused. (Numbers 16:16-19)
  4. Korah was punished because of his rebellion, and swallowed by the earth in sharp contrast to the favor imposed on Aaron. (Numbers 16:31-33)

Thus, Muhammad himself or his mentor chose to summarize all the Biblical points above by simply establishing a phonological analogy between the names Korah and Aaron, which necessitated the replacement of the name Korah in the Bible with the name Qaroun in the Qur’an. As we have seen above, the same kind of a phonological modification for the sake of rhyming and displaying a thematic connection was applied in Islamic tradition to the names of Adam’s two sons. The reason underlying this might be that Muhammad or his mentor discovered amazing analogies between the narrative of Korah’s rebellion against Aaron and that of Cain’s murdering Abel. Strikingly:

  1. Cain and Abel were brothers, which was similar to Korah and Aaron’s being relatives due to their descending from the same patriarch.
  2. Cain was evil and rebellious, so was Korah.
  3. Cain got angry and decided to kill his brother out of jealousy and rivalry. He got furious and rebellious when God accepted the offering by his brother, but did not look at his offering. Korah got angry and rebelled in the wilderness because of his jealousy and rivalry. His anger and opposition were in reaction to Aaron’s exalted status. God accepted the offers and incense of Aaron but did not allow Korah to similarly officiate at the sacrifices.

These similarities explain why Islamic theology hastened to create the pair of the names Qabil and Habil by following the same strategy that had given birth to the pair of the names Qarun and Haroun in the Qur’an. The funny thing is that the Qur’an does not refer to the similarities numbered above, but hides from its readers the motive for the modification of the Hebrew names. Consequently and ironically, it is impossible to understand the Qur’an and solve its mysteries without studying the Hebrew Bible, which enables us to detect the parallelisms that Muhammad’s textual alterations were derived from. The odd manner of these changes supports the theory that Muhammad did not actually know he was distorting the original Torah by adding into it new material invented from the interpretation of the very things contained in it. Above all, these changes make no sense to the reader of the Islamic scripture who cannot see there a reference either to the original material of the Torah or to the parallelisms that were drawn by Muhammad or his mentor from that same material. In other words, Allah conceals best.

Further Differences and Muhammad’s plagiarism from Jewish Traditions

Unlike its counterpart in the Hebrew Bible, the account of Adam’s two sons in the Qur’an does not bother to explain what each of the brothers offered to God. Thus, it is impossible for us to see whether Muhammad endorsed the Biblical teaching concerning the type of the sacrifices offered by Cain (fruit of the ground) and Abel (firstborn of his flock) unless we read the reports and statements in the Islamic tradition:

Several scholars among the Salaf and the later generations said that Allah allowed Adam to marry his daughters to his sons because of the necessity of such action. They also said that in every pregnancy, Adam was given a twin, a male and a female, and he used to give the female of one twin, to the male of the other twin, in marriage. Habil's sister was not beautiful while Qabil's sister was beautiful, resulting in Qabil wanting her for himself, instead of his brother. Adam refused unless they both offer a sacrifice, and he whose sacrifice was accepted, would marry Qabil's sister. Habil's sacrifice was accepted, while Qabil's sacrifice was rejected, and thus what Allah told us about them occurred. Ibn Abi Hatim recorded that Ibn `Abbas said -- that during the time of Adam -- "The woman was not allowed in marriage for her male twin, but Adam was commanded to marry her to any of her other brothers. In each pregnancy, Adam was given a twin, a male and a female. A beautiful daughter was once born for Adam and another one that was not beautiful. So the twin brother of the ugly daughter said, ‘Marry your sister to me and I will marry my sister to you.’ He said, ‘No, for I have more right to my sister.’ So they both offered a sacrifice. The sacrifice of the one who offered the sheep was accepted while the sacrifice of the other [the twin brother of the beautiful daughter], which consisted of some produce, was not accepted. So the latter killed his brother." (Source)

More interestingly, this commentary presented by Ibn Kathir also agrees with the data given in the Jewish traditions (rabbinical literature) that aim to answer the question why God asked both brothers to offer a sacrifice and if this was part of a test. The Jewish Encyclopedia refers to the writings of the rabbinical literature on this issue, which turn out to be the original source that the Islamic commentary cited above originated from:

Woman was at the bottom of the strife between the first brothers. Each of the sons of Adam had a twin-sister whom he was to marry. As Abel's twin-sister was the more beautiful, Cain wished to have her for his wife, and sought to get rid of Abel (Pirḳe R. Eliezer, xxi.; Gen. R. xxii. 7, according to Ginzberg's emendation; Epiphanius, "De Hæresi," xl. 5, "Schatzhöhle," ed. Bezold, p. 34; compare, too, "The Book of the Bee," ed. Budge, pp. 26, 27). (Source)10

The narrative in the Qur’an skips God’s warning delivered to Cain in the Bible and ascribes a similar oracle to Abel. Until Surah 5:31 the Islamic counterpart of the story narrates the dialogue between the two brothers and depicts Abel as both a righteous person who becomes merciful towards his evil brother despite his ability to overpower and kill him and as a vindictive person who curses his evil brother when he understands that he will be slain by him. All of these portrayals are evidently borrowed by Muhammad from Jewish traditions rather than the Hebrew Bible; this is why it is not surprising to find them in the Qur’an and unsurprising not to find them in Genesis.

The Jewish rabbinical literature provides varying accounts of the dialogue and strife between Cain and Abel, which caused the first murder in human history. For instance:

And Cain said to his brother Abel: --"Come! Let us go into the field!" So they went into the field and Cain again said to Abel: --"I see that the world was created in love; but it is not ordered by the effect of good deeds. For there is partiality in judgment because your offering was accepted with favor." Abel answered and said: --"The world was indeed created in love and it is ordered by the effect of good deeds and there is not partiality in judgment! My offering was accepted with favor before yours because the effect of my deeds was better than yours!" Cain answered and said to Abel: --"There is no judgment and no Judge and no world to come! No reward will be given to the righteous nor any account given of the wicked!" Abel answered and said: --"There is indeed a judgment and a Judge and a world to come! The righteous will be given a good reward and the wicked will be called to account!" And because of these words, they fell to quarreling in the open field. And Cain rose up against his brother Abel and drove a stone into his head, killing him. (Chapter 24 Targum of Jonathan)

Now, thanks to the account above, we know why Abel in the Qur’an uttered the following sentence:

(The other) answered: Allah accepteth only from those who ward off (evil). (Surah 5:27 Pickthall)

The detailed record of the quarrel between Cain and Abel in the quotation above also concerns the theological teachings related to the divine judgment and the punishment of the wicked. These tell us why Abel in the Qur’an, unlike in the Hebrew Bible, delivers a fundamental teaching about the end of sinners on the Day of Judgment:

Lo! I would rather thou shouldst bear the punishment of the sin against me and thine own sin and become one of the owners of the fire. That is the reward of evil-doers. (Surah 5:29 Pickthall)

Additionally, this particular Qur’an verse illustrates the influence of the traditional Jewish description of Abel in the Book of Enoch as a vindictive soul waiting and praying for the malediction and punishment of his brother:

I saw the spirits of the children of men who were dead, and their voice went forth to heaven and made suit. Then I asked Raphael the angel who was with me, and I said unto him: 'This spirit--whose is it whose voice goeth forth and maketh suit?' And he answered me saying: 'This is the spirit which went forth from Abel, whom his brother Cain slew, and he makes his suit against him till his seed is destroyed from the face of the earth, and his seed is annihilated from amongst the seed of men.' (Book of Enoch xxii:5-7)

As a matter of another difference, the account in the Qur’an makes it clear that Abel was murdered by his evil brother not because he was weak, but because his righteousness did not let him overpower his brother for the sake of killing him. This particular idea, which describes Abel as a person physically stronger than his brother, is, as usual, not peculiar to the Qur’an, but is evidently taken from the traditional rabbinical literature:

It is an error to think that Cain was stronger than Abel, for the contrary was the case, and in the quarrel that arose Cain would have fared worse had he not appealed to Abel for compassion and then attacked him unawares and killed him. --Gen. Rabba 26.

The account in the Qur’an later focuses on the events occurring after Abel’s murder by his brother in verse 31:

Then Allah sent a raven scratching up the ground, to show him how to hide his brother's naked corpse. He said: Woe unto me! Am I not able to be as this raven and so hide my brother's naked corpse? And he became repentant. (Surah 5:31 Pickthall)

and relates the outcome of Cain’s murder in verse 32:

For that cause We decreed for the Children of Israel that whosoever killeth a human being for other than manslaughter or corruption in the earth, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind, and whoso saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind. (Surah 5:32 Pickthall)

Both of these verses owe their existence to the Jewish commentaries and stories written to explain and embellish the narrative in Genesis 4. First, the verse recounting Abel’s burial is a slightly modified form of the story found in a Jewish legend:

Adam and his companion sat weeping and mourning for him (Abel), and did not know what to do with him, as burial was unknown to them. Then came a raven, whose companion was dead, took its body, scratched in the earth, and hid it before their eyes. Then said Adam, 'I shall do as this raven has done,' and at once be took Abel's corpse, dug in the earth and hid it. (Pirke Rabbi Eliezer chapter xxi, as quoted in Gilchrist and referred to in this article.)

The Jewish fable concerning Abel’s burial differs from the account in Surah 5:31 only in details and deserves a closer examination for the possible motives causing its modification during its transfer by Muhammad into the Qur’an.

As we said in the first section of this article, Surah 5:32, which ties Abel’s murder by his brother to a teaching ordained for the Children of Israel, is adopted from a commentary occurring in a Jewish writing named Mishnah Sanhedrin. With the addition of this verse, the entire account about Adam’s two sons in Surah 5:27-32 bafflingly finds its basis in rabbinical literature instead of the Hebrew Bible and marks Muhammad as a meticulous borrower that somehow aimed to present the sources of the Talmudic Judaism as the original and indispensable part of God’s revelation. Due to his odd struggle to incorporate into his Qur’an all the traditional commentaries and stories of Judaism instead of the narrative in Genesis 4, Muhammad’s supposed revelation looks very much like an ordered and unified collection of Jewish apocryphal literature. (For a comparison, see Hagada, the Legend of the Jews, chapter III) In short, the Qur’an can be designated as a scripture revealed via angel Gabriel from a Jewish library.

Upon the question who buried Abel: Why did Muhammad distort the Jewish story?

Surah 5:31 exhibits a brilliant example of Muhammad’s either deliberate or ignorant distortion of the stories and fables he heard from the People of the Book. Although Muhammad copied the story of Abel’s burial from a traditional Jewish commentary, he did not keep faithful to the original version of the narrative by ascribing the burial to Cain (the murderer) instead of Adam and Eve, Abel’s grieving parents. There are a few possibilities for Muhammad’s replacement of Adam and Eve with Cain. First, some scholars think that this was not an intended modification, but a hapless and accidental one that resulted from the weak memory of Muhammad’s informants rather than Muhammad’s desire to twist the correct version of the story. For instance, while commenting on this variation, Tisdall wrote:

When we compare the Jewish legend with the one given in the Qur’an, we see that the only difference is that in the former the raven taught Adam how to bury the body, whereas in the Qur’an it is Cain who is said to have been thus taught. It is clear also that the passage in the Qur’an is not a literal translation from one or more Jewish books, but is rather, as we might expect, a free reproduction of the story as told to Muhammad by some of his Jewish friends, of whom early Arabian accounts mention the names of several. This explains the mistake that the Qur’an makes in attributing the burial to Cain instead of to Adam. We shall notice similar phenomena throughout the whole series of these excerpts. It is hardly probable that these slight divergences were purposely made by Muhammad, though it is quite possible that the Jews who related the legends to him had learnt them orally themselves, and that they and not the Arabian prophet made the mistake. (Source)

However, it is not completely wrong or implausible to hold Muhammad responsible for the apparent difference between the account in the Jewish story and the one in Surah 5 as some other examples of Muhammad’s plagiarism prove that he did not only use, but also abused the texts with the help of which he devised his new and Islamic version of the narratives. The textual comparison of Jesus’ speech in the cradle as recorded in the Arabic Gospel of the Savior’s Infancy with the one as recorded in Surah 19:30 exposes Muhammad’s deliberate acts of perversion in addition to the mistakes he himself made during the same process of falsification (*).

More to the point, the entire analysis of Surah 19 in that particular article displays other kinds of modifications (comparatively innocent ones) Muhammad applied to the chronological order of the genuine account due to his misunderstandings and his willingness to overcome a few problems the new form of the story gave birth to. Accordingly, it will be correct to suggest that the replacement of Adam and Eve in the Jewish legend with Cain in the Qur’an was more related to Muhammad’s stylistic anxieties than to his worries about theological implications, for the occurrence of Adam and Eve’s names in Surah 5:31 would not have caused a big theological problem for Islam. As a result, it is crucial to check if Muhammad preferred Abel’s burial by Cain to that by Adam and Eve in his Qur’an only because of some stylistic reasons.

The overall style of the story in Surah 5:27-32 does not allow the appearance of Adam as the person burying the murdered brother simply because it describes the incident happening between two people (Cain and Abel) and leaves no room for a third person even after the murder committed at the end of the dialogue. This is in sharp difference to the style of the original narrative in the Jewish tradition, where Cain is said to have met Adam and conversed with him about the consequences of his repentance:

Cain's repentance, insincere though it was, bore a good result. When Adam met him, and inquired what doom had been decreed against him, Cain told how his repentance had propitiated God, and Adam exclaimed, "So potent is repentance, and I knew it not!" Thereupon he composed a hymn of praise to God, beginning with the words, "It is a good thing to confess thy sins unto the Lord!" (Haggada Chapter III)

Second, Muhammad or his mentor may have wanted to draw a parallelism between the act of murder and of burial, supposing that it would be much better to identify the murderer as the burier in accordance with the assertion in Surah 5:31 that Abel’s burial by Cain was a sign of the latter’s repentance. According to the original Jewish legend, however, Cain’s repentance did not necessarily require Abel’s burial by him. Most probably, the Jewish story ascribed Abel’s burial to Adam and Eve instead of Cain because the account in Genesis implied that Cain did not care about his dead brother or talk about his sin prior to God’s appearing to him for the declaration of his guilt and punishment (Genesis 4:9-12).

Third, the attribution of the act of Abel’s burial to Cain instead of Adam and Eve in the Qur’an may have been derived from the augmentation of the existing similarities between Genesis 3 and 4 with regard to the divine oracle judging and condemning sinful acts. These similarities are:

  1. Genesis 3 relates how mankind first fell into sin whilst Genesis 4 narrates how the first murder was committed in human history.
  2. In Genesis 3 God addresses Adam and Eve, who fell into sin, and condemns them. In Genesis 4 God does the same thing after Cain becomes sinful by murdering his brother. In both accounts the divine oracle starts with a rhetorical question (in Genesis 3 God asks Adam: Where are you?” whilst in Genesis 4 He asks Cain: “Where is your brother?”)
  3. In Genesis 3 God banishes Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden whilst in Genesis 4 He banishes Cain from the ground by turning him into a wanderer.
  4. In both Genesis 3 and 4 the ground is cursed because of the sinners (Adam in the former and Cain in the latter).

Muhammad’s Jewish mentor or another helper who was aware of these analogies may have wished to extend them and made another association between these two narratives by focusing on the concept of shame and the sinners’ reactions after being aware of their sin. This would naturally make Abel’s burial by Cain, in other words, Cain’s shaming himself after the sin of murder and covering his dead brother’s body, the equivalent of Adam and Eve’s sewing fig leaves to cover their naked bodies in shame right after recognizing their sin.

Interestingly, we see in Islamic tradition a teaching that strengthens the second possibility stated above by thematically affiliating the account of Cain’s murdering Abel with that of Abel’s burial by Cain. According to this non-Jewish and purely Islamic legend, which was devised as the counterpart of the teaching in Surah 5:31 and with the aim of answering the question how Cain murdered his brother, Satan appeared to Cain so as to show and teach him how to murder his brother:

Ibn Jarir said, "When he wanted to kill his brother, he started to twist his neck. So Shaytan took an animal and placed its head on a rock, then he took another rock, and smashed its head with it until he killed it while the son of Adam was looking. So he did the same thing to his brother." (Source)

This Islamic legend is almost identical with the statement in Surah 5:31, which describes Cain (not Adam and Eve) as an ignorant person who needed divine guidance to bury his brother and could accomplish this task only after God had taught him the first burial with the help of an animal. Thus, the Islamic legend reported by Ibn Kathir tells us that Satan taught Cain how to kill his brother whereas God taught Cain how to bury his brother by using an animal. More strikingly, the traditional commentary on Surah 5:31 adds to this story a detail that is missing from both the Jewish legend concerning Abel’s burial by Adam and Eve and the Qur’an:

(Then Allah sent a crow who scratched the ground to show him how to hide the dead body of his brother. He (the murderer) said, "Woe to me! Am I not even able to be as this crow and to hide the dead body of my brother." Then he became one of those who regretted.) As-Suddi said that the Companions said, "When his brother died, Qabil left him on the bare ground and did not know how to bury him. Allah sent two crows, which fought with each other until one of them killed the other. So it dug a hole and threw sand over the dead corpse (which it placed in the hole). (Source)

The Islamic tradition funnily claims that Allah sent two crows instead of one when he wanted to teach Cain how to bury his dead brother because these two crows mysteriously had to stage the fight between Adam’s two sons before one of them could play the role of both the murderer and the burier. This detail demonstrates how Muslims distorted even their scripture while haphazardly transferring the elements peculiar to the story of Abel’s death to that of his burial and vice versa, eventually betraying the originalities of both stories through confusion.11

Finally, another interesting teaching reported in the Islamic tradition supports the theory that Muhammad or his mentor was aware of the Jewish legend that ascribed Abel’s burial to his parents rather than to Cain. Right after making references to the reports concerning Abel’s burial by Cain (Surah 5:31), Ibn Kathir introduces the following Islamic legend:

Shaytan then went to Hawwa' in a hurry and said to her, ‘O Hawwa'! Qabil killed Habil.’ She asked him, ‘Woe to you! What does 'kill' mean’ He said, ‘He will no longer eat, drink or move.’ She said, ‘And that is death’ He said, ‘Yes it is.’ So she started to weep until Adam came to her while she was weeping and said, ‘What is the matter with you’ She did not answer him. He asked her two more times, but she did not answer him. So he said, ‘You and your daughters will inherit the practice of weeping, while I and my sons are free of it.’ (Source)

Thus, Islamic tradition includes Adam and Eve into the story of Cain and Abel right after the incident of the fratricide and aims to associate this legend with the Biblical account in Genesis 3, in which the serpent (Satan) goes to Eve rather than to Adam. As a result of Adam’s falling into sin by listening to his wife, God says that in marital life the man (husband) will have the upper hand. More, the divine oracle makes it clear that Adam and Eve were the prototypes of the two sexes that would inherit the consequences of the first (ancestral) sin. Although the stories about Adam and his fall in the Qur’an do not confirm these Biblical teachings, the traditional commentary above looks like their poor and irrelevant copy. Certainly, the awkward Islamic insertion of the motif of weeping into the story of Adam and Eve’s fall and Adam’s denial of weeping as a feminine thing most likely represent the Islamic reaction to the Jewish legend that depicts BOTH Adam and Eve as weeping upon Abel’s death and just before burying him. In short, it is not a coincidence that the Islamic legend in view makes Adam declare himself and his sons free of weeping for the first time on the occasion of Abel’s death and that this story is recounted by Ibn Kathir while making a commentary on Surah 5:31, which contradicts the Jewish legend by contending that it was Cain who buried Abel. Consequently, it will be rational to say that this particular Islamic legend was fabricated either by Muhammad or his followers in an effort to challenge the Jewish legend ascribing Abel’s burial to the weeping and mourning Adam and Eve and in order to cast some doubt upon its reliability.


Our comprehensive and comparative analysis between Surah 5:27-32 and Genesis 4:1-16 depicts Muhammad as a person who, despite the aid and guidance of his Allah, failed to discern the Jewish scripture (Torah/Hebrew Bible) from the traditional yet non-canonical writings of Judaism that aimed not to rival or replace the genuine word of God but to embellish and expound them. The saddening fact that the Jewish legends and fables derived by the Jewish rabbis can be found in the Qur’an in the form of a celestial revelation exposes Muhammad’s hidden relation with the Jews of his time as well as his naïve reliance on any kind of information he gained from such people.

The scrutiny of the story of Cain and Abel in the Qur’an is significant not only because it displays the results of Muhammad’s erroneous and unlimited plagiarism from the sources of Judaism, but also because it explains how Islamic tradition gave birth to new legends and stories that aimed to counter the original legends and fables of Talmudic Judaism. The discrepancies between the accounts in Genesis 4:1-16 and Surah 5:27-32 have thus gone beyond the realm of sacred scriptures and turned into a matter of whose legend is more authentic and credible.


1 An English translation can be accessed online on this website and, depending on the country of residence of the reader, the book by L. and L. Ragg can be accessed on Google Books as well.

2 The occurrence of the name Muhammad in the text is a strong indication that this book was written after the time of the Islamic messenger.

3 A great number of articles on the sources of the Qur’an and the Jewish influence on its formation can be found here.

4 Clearly, the word “race” in the Jewish commentary refers to “Abel’s seed”, i.e. to all those people who will not be born because Abel died before he could cause them to be born. I.e. it does not refer to “all of mankind” (the human race) as suggested in the Qur’an, but only to the part which would have been the murdered man’s offspring. Thus, Muhammad did not even understand that particular detail and expanded “race” (= his seed) to “the whole of mankind”, which simply makes no sense and adds a new item to his mistakes.

5 It is also noteworthy that Ibn Kathir’s commentary starts out with all life being of equal value, but the value of the life of a human being (with no restrictions) quickly narrows down to making only the blood of a MUSLIM equal to the value of all of mankind. The value of the life of an “unbeliever” quickly goes out of the window.

6 Note that Muhammad was clearly mistaken in this assumption since no such doctrine is found anywhere in the Torah; this was merely rabbinical speculation about the not-immediately intuitive plural expression, “bloods”. Moreover, this particular rabbinical interpretation was in turn misunderstood by Muhammad, who transformed the reference to the potential “offspring of one man” into “all of mankind”.

7 Interestingly, Judaism has a teaching that Moses received a written Torah (Pentateuch) and an oral Torah (the Mishnah, i.e. commentary and explanation). This particular verse may actually be a reflection of this belief. See this entry.

8 Additionally, if Baidawi and Tabari’s controversial interpretation concerning the identity of Adam’s sons were accurate, the phrase in the Qur’an verse would have to be formulated indefinitely, i.e. “(some) two sons of Adam”, not with the definite article “THE two sons of Adam”. In any case that interpretation has little foundation.

9 More on the Islamic view of Korah/Qaroun can be found in this article here.

10 The Jewish and Islamic traditions regarding the connection between the two brothers’ offerings and their choice of a spouse are not without differences. In the Jewish tradition each son was supposed to marry his OWN TWIN-sister, in the Muslim tradition he was supposed NOT to marry his own but the twin-sister of one of his brothers. This still shows dependency, but also exhibits how Muhammad and/or Muslim commentators either manipulated the account or simply didn’t remember it correctly.

11 A similar example for this kind of confusion in the Qur’an can be found in our article entitled "Adoption by Adaption".

Articles by Masud Masihiyyen
Answering Islam Home Page