Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Joseph the Carpenter in Islam [Part 3 B]

Joseph’s Exclusion from Surah 3 and Relation to a Legend 

Masud Masihiyyen

In this section1 I shall scrutinize Muhammad’s Hadith about the speaking infants and discuss Joseph the Carpenter’s confusion with a mysterious figure named Jurayj and assimilation to Joseph the Son of Jacob.

Mysterious figure named Jurayj and his confusion with Joseph the Carpenter

Even a quick comparison of the two accounts ascribed to Ibn Ishaq point at Jurayj’s confusion with and substitution for Joseph the Carpenter:

Later her guardian was Jurayj, the ascetic, a carpenter of B. Isra’il. The arrow came out for him so he took her, Zachariah having been her guardian heretofore. A grievous famine befell B. Isra’il and Zachariah was unable to support her so they cast lots to see who should be her guardian and the lot fell on Jurayj the ascetic and he became her guardian. (The Life of Muhammad, a translation of Isḥāq's Sīrat rasūl Allāh by Alfred Guillaume, p. 275)

The same account is found in Tha‘labi’s collection of prophetic biographers (Qisas), still uniquely attributed to Ibn Ishaq, except this time it is Joseph the Carpenter who cast lots and gains responsibility for the guardianship of Mary. (Source

What was taught about Joseph in one narrative was likewise said about Jurayj in the other. Both Joseph and Jurayj were designated as a priest and a carpenter and both were identified as the person who was selected to be Mary’s caretaker through a lottery. The only difference was in the name. In order to solve the mystery and understand how and why the name Jurayj leapt into Mary’s story, we should try to figure out who this mysterious Jurayj was. 

First, Jurayj is claimed to be the Arabic equivalent of the name Gregory or George (*). In the Christian tradition the name Gregory or George does not occur in association with the non-canonical stories concerning Mary and Infant Jesus, nor can we find a text where these names appear along with the name Joseph or as its counterpart. In the Islamic tradition, on the other hand, we are surprised to find a direct reference to Jurayj by Muhammad: 

Muhammad bin Ishaq recorded that Abu Hurayrah said that the Messenger of Allah said, (No infant spoke in the cradle except `Isa and the companion of Jurayj.) (Source

What is more amazing is that in this reference the name Jurayj has a thematic connection and essential similarity with the teaching that Jesus spoke in the cradle when He was an infant, for Jurayj’s companion is reckoned as another infant that could miraculously speak like Jesus. Before proceeding to the story of the speaking infant (Jurayj’s companion), let’s read and see how Muhammad identified Jurayj:

Abu Hurayra asked, "Prophet of Allah, who was the companion of Jurayj?" The Prophet replied, "Jurayj was a monk who lived in a hermitage. There was a cowherd who used to come to the foot of his hermitage and a woman from the village used to come to the cowherd. One day his mother came while he was praying and called out, 'Jurayj!' He asked himself, 'My mother or my prayer?' He concluded that he should prefer the prayer. She shouted to him a second time and he again asked himself, 'My mother or my prayer?' He thought that he should prefer the prayer. She shouted a third time and yet again he asked himself, 'My mother or my prayer?' He again concluded that he should prefer the prayer. When he did not answer her, she said, 'Jurayj, may Allah not let you die until you have looked at the faces of the beautiful women.' Then she left. (Source)  

Muhammad taught that Jurayj was a monk that lived in a hermitage and devoted himself to prayer. Giving primacy to his worship, he would not even answer his mother’s calls whenever she came while he was in prayer. Feeling rejected, Jurayj’s mother prayed and hoped that her son would not die until he came across with some beautiful women. According to Muhammad, Jurayj’s mother’s wishful prediction was fulfilled when Jurayj was accused of fathering an illegitimate child and brought before the king for interrogation:

"Then the village woman was brought before the king after she had given birth to a child. He asked, 'Whose is it?' 'Jurayj's,' she replied. He asked, 'The man in the hermitage?' 'Yes,' she answered. He ordered, 'Destroy his hermitage and bring him to me.' They hacked at his hermitage with axes until it collapsed. They bound his hand to his neck with a rope and took him along to the king. When he passed by the beautiful women, he saw them and smiled. They were looking at him along with the people. "The king asked, 'Do you know what this woman claims?' 'What does she claim?' he asked. He replied, 'She claims that you are the father of her child.' He asked her, 'Where is the child?' They replied, 'It is in her room.' He went to the child and said, 'Who is your father?' 'The cowherd,' he replied. The king said, 'Shall we build your hermitage out of gold?' 'No,' he replied. He asked, 'Of silver?' 'No,' he replied. The king asked, 'What shall we build it with?' He said, 'Put it back the way you found it.' Then the king asked, 'What made you smile.' 'Something I recognised,' he replied, 'The supplication of my mother overtook me.' Then he told him about it." (Source

In a slightly different version of this story Jurayj’s mother wished that her son would not die until he saw the faces of prostitutes, and her wish was granted when Jurayj was slandered by a harlot from his village: 

The Children of Israel knew of Jurayj and his worshipThere was a very beautiful prostitute who offered to seduce him. She attempted to do so but he did not pay her [sic] any attention to her. She then approached a herdsman who used to seek refuge in his place of worship, she offered herself to him and he slept with her. She became pregnant, and when she gave birth she claimed that it was the child of Jurayj. They went to him, invoked curses over him, destroyed his place of worship and attacked him.
He said: ’Why are you doing this?’
They responded: ‘You fornicated with this woman and she bore you a child.’ 
He said: ‘Where is the child?’
So they brought him the child.
He said: ‘Leave me until I pray.’
When he finished praying he came to the boy and poked him in his stomach. He said: ‘O child, who is your father?
The baby boy responded: ‘So and so the herdsman.’
So the people turned to Jurayj, kissing him and asking him for forgiveness. They offered to rebuild his place of worship in gold, but he refused and asked them to rebuild it from mud just as it was before, and so they did. (Source)  

The major difference between these two accounts concerns the depiction of the women whose faces Jurayj would see in accordance with his mother’s wish. In the former narrative Jurayj’s mother wished that her son would see the faces of beautiful women whereas in the latter the faces of prostitutes. When the village woman in the first narrative was overtly identified as a prostitute in the second, there existed no need for Jurayj to be brought before the king and see the faces of beautiful women on his way to the court. Therefore, in the second story a reference to the king and Jurayj’s interrogation by him is missing, the incident happening between Jurayj and the villagers, who are said to be from the Children of Israel.  

Despite the differences, both stories essentially employ the same theme. A religious and pious person named Jurayj was accused of fornication when a woman who became pregnant and gave birth to a baby boy identified Jurayj as her baby’s father. This scandal infuriated the people and prompted them to attack Jurayj and destroy his temple. Eventually God cleared Jurayj of the slander through a miracle: the infant spoke and revealed the truth. Jurayj’s people apologized and asked for his forgiveness when the truth was made known to them. Finally, Jurayj was a very humble person who did not want to have a hermitage of silver or gold. 

Since Jurayj is identified as a monk and since monastic life was not practiced in Judaism, it is most likely that Muhammad heard the story in view from his Christian contacts. While trying to find the origin of this story, we should first check if a Christian saint named Gregory or George has a similar story of defamation and acquittal through an infant’s miraculous speech. Interestingly, there was a certain saint-monk who lived in the 6th century and had the name Gregory. This Christian saint’s life has some amazing similarities with Jurayj’s story recorded in the Islamic tradition. To compare:

Saint Gregory, Bishop of Agrigentum, was born on the island of Sicily, in the village of Pretorium, not far from the city of Agrigentum, of the pious parents Chariton and Theodota. … As archbishop, St Gregory led the life of an ascetic monk, fervently observing monastic vows. The flock loved their hierarch and trusted in him. But there were also malicious people who had resolved to slander him. While St Gregory was in church, these vicious people secretly led a bribed harlot into his chambers, and then in front of the crowd which accompanied the bishop to the doors of his house after services, they led her out and accused St Gregory of the deadly sin of fornication. They placed the holy bishop under guard. The people attempted to defend their bishop, but were unsuccessful. At the trial the harlot gave false testimony against St Gregory. … The Pope, after reading the charges, did not want to see the accused, and gave orders to remand him to prison. The saint endured his humiliation humbly, dwelling in constant prayer. … After two years, a clairvoyant Elder named Mark, who had known St Gregory since youth, came to the Pope. The Elder did not believe the charges and he persuaded the Pope to convene a Council to decide Gregory's case. … At the Council the slanderers attempted to renew their accusations, and as their chief proof they presented the deranged harlot to the judge, declaring that Gregory had bewitched her. But the saint prayed over her and cast out the devil. The woman came to her senses and told the Council the whole truth. The slanderers were brought to shame and judged. … St Gregory returned in honor to his own cathedral, and surrounded by the love of his flock, he guided the Church until his own peaceful demise. (Source

In spite of many parallelisms, it is not possible to say that Jurayj in the Islamic story was the same person as St. Gregory of Agrigentum. In the first place, the Christian monk named Gregory was not of Hebrew origin and did not live in a village of the Children of Israel. Second, there was neither a pregnancy nor an infant involved in the incident of slander befalling him. Accordingly, St. Gregory was cleared of guilt when the truth was confessed by the demoniac harlot, whose demon was expelled through the saint’s prayer. In sharp contrast to what Muhammad said, this particular Jurayj of Agrigentum did not get the help of a companion who could miraculously speak in his infancy. 

Undoubtedly, St. Gregory of Agrigentum was not the only saint to have been charged with immorality. Actually, another famous figure in Christian history similarly experienced defamation and suffered from the same type of accusation:

Ephraim, according to this biography, was a Syrian of Mesopotamia, by birth, and by parentage on both sides. … His way was divinely directed to the famous and saintly Bishop, Jacob of Nisibis, to whom he told his story and by whom he was affectionately welcomed and admitted into the number of "Hearers," -- that is, Catechumens in the first stage of preparatory instruction. From the first he showed himself a diligent disciple, in fasting and prayer, and in daily attendance on the teaching of the Scriptures. … A slanderous charge, however, was laid against him in his youthful manhood, which, but for supernatural interposition granted to his prayer, would have ruined his good name. A damsel of noble birth had been seduced by an official (Paramonarius, i.e., sacristan, or perhaps rather, steward) of the church, named likewise EphraimWhen pregnancy ensued and her frailty was detected, she at the instance of her paramour charged Ephraim the pious Catechumen as being the author of her shame. Her father laid the matter before the Bishop, who in much grief and consternation summoned his disciple to answer the accusation. The youth received it at first in amazed silence; but finally made answer, "Yea, I have sinned; but I entreat thy Holiness to pardon me." … After thus bearing for some days the burden of unmerited reproach, he perceived the great scandal caused to the people, and began to reflect that his meek acceptance of calumny was doing harm. On the following Sunday, therefore, after the Eucharist had been administered, he approached the Bishop in church in presence of the people, carrying the infant under his mantle, and obtained his permission to enter the bema (not the pulpit, but the raised sanctuary where the altar stood). Before the eyes of the astonished congregation, he produced the babe, held it up in his right hand, facing the altar, and cried aloud, "Child, I call on thee and adjure thee by the living God, who made heaven and earth and all that therein is, that thou confess and tell me truly, who is thy father?" The infant opened its mouth and said, "Ephraim the paramonarius." Having thus spoken, it died that same hour. The people and the Bishop received this miraculous vindication of the wrongfully accused with amazement and tears; the father of the sinful mother fell on his knees and cried for forgiveness; the true partner of her sin fled and was seen in Nisibis no more; Satan was confounded; and Ephraim was restored to more than all the favour and affection he enjoyed before. (Source

In terms of being the source of the narrative about Jurayj in the Islamic tradition this story is a stronger candidate as it involves a baby boy and its miraculous speech for the revelation of the truth. Very much like Jurayj’s companion, this baby boy opened its mouth to identify its true father and thus cleared the saint in view from the charges of fornication. Still, this account blatantly has a few contrasts with Jurayj’s story. First, this Christian saint is named Ephraim, which is by no means even close to the name Gregory or George. Second, Ephraim was of Syrian origin, having no racial affiliation with the Children of Israel. Third, Ephraim was not accused by a prostitute since the woman who had identified her baby’s father as Ephraim was a damsel of noble birth. She slandered Ephraim because she was afraid of revealing the identity of her baby’s real father, who coincidentally had the same name as the saint. In short, she tried to benefit from this case of mistaken identity due to her fear. Finally, the miraculously speaking infant’s father was not a herdsman, but a man serving in the church. All these differences show that Jurayj mentioned by Muhammad probably was not Ephraim, the Syrian saint of the 4th century. 

We are left with the possibility that the monk-saint who was referred to by Muhammad was no one else than St. David, who lived and founded a monastery in Georgia in the 6th century:

Saint David of Gareji was Syrian by birth. The future ascetic became a disciple of St. John of Zedazeni and journeyed with him to Georgia. St. David and his spiritual son Lucian settled on a mountain above Tbilisi, the capital of Kartli. At that time Kartli was constantly under threat of the Persian fire-worshippers. St. David would spend entire days in prayer, beseeching the Lord for forgiveness of the sins of those who dwelt in the city. When he was finished praying for the day, he would stand on the mountain and bless the whole city. Once a week Sts. David and Lucian would go down into the city to preach. A church dedicated to St. David was later built on the mountain where he labored. (Source

Although this monk was of Syrian origin and had the name David, he was known as David of Gareji or Gareja since he lived in Georgia and constructed a monastery complex on Mount Gareja (*). The attachment of the word Gareji to the saint’s name may have impelled Muhammad to conclude that there was a Christian monk who had the name Gareji, which he transliterated into Arabic as Jurayj. More, the teaching that St. David spent most of his time in prayer probably became the root of the embellished story in the Islamic tradition concerning the primacy given by Jurayj to prayer. In order to be sure that Muhammad meant St. David of Gareji when he related the story of a monk named Jurayj it is necessary to learn more about St. David’s life:

St. David’s authority and popularity alarmed the fire-worshippers, and they accused him of adultery, in an attempt to discredit him in the eyes of the people. As a “witness” they summoned a certain expectant prostitute, who accused him of being the child’s father. Hoping in God, the holy father touched his staff to the prostitute’s womb and ordered the unborn child to declare the truth. From out of the womb the infant uttered the name of his true father. Outraged at this slander, the bystanders savagely stoned the woman to death. St. David pleaded with them to stop, but he was unable to placate the furious crowd. Deeply disturbed by these events, St. David departed the region with his disciple Lucian. The holy fathers settled in a small cave in the wilderness and began to spend all their time in prayer. (Source

The Islamic story related by Muhammad about Jurayj seems to be a copy of this account. The similarities between St. David of Gareji and Muhammad’s Jurayj are:

  • Both were designated as a pious monk living in a hermitage. 
  • Both were devoted to prayer.
  • Both were accused of fornication and fathering a child by an expectant prostitute. 
  • Both were challenged by a furious crowd.
  • Both were cleared of guilt by making the infant miraculously speak and tell the name of its father. 

In addition, the claim in the Islamic report that Jurayj wanted to have a hermit of mud instead of silver or gold functions to exhibit his humility. St. David of Gareji was similarly renowned for his humility. He was such a humble person that he did not consider himself worthy enough to enter Jerusalem, and taking only three stones while leaving the Holy Land was enough for him:

After some time St. David set off on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He entrusted Lucian to fulfill his responsibilities at the monastery and took some of the other brothers with him. When the pilgrims were approaching the place called the “Ridge of Grace,” from which the holy city of Jerusalem becomes visible, St. David fell to his knees and glorified God with tears. Judging himself unworthy to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, he was satisfied to gaze upon the city from afar. … Returning, St. David took with him three stones from the “Ridge of Grace.” That night an angel appeared to the patriarch of Jerusalem and informed him that a certain pious man named David, who was visiting from afar, had taken with him all the holiness of Jerusalem. (Source

As for the differences, Muhammad regarded Jurayj’s accusation as the fulfillment of his mother’s wish whereas in the account about St. David of Gareji the slander was bound to the hostility of the fire-worshippers and nothing was said about the saint’s mother. This detail laying emphasis on the power of mothers’ prayers probably came from another source2 and associated Jurayj’s mother’s wish with the harlot’s slander. Naturally, no reference was made in the Islamic narrative to the enmity of pagans and their aims to degrade the pious monk. This leaves us with the question why Muhammad taught that Jurayj was accused by the Children of Israel. 

A more important discrepancy between the two accounts appears in the answer given to the question “When did the infant miraculously speak and reveal its father’s identity?” The infant in St. David’s story spoke when the saint prayed and touched the expectant woman’s womb with his staff. Thus, the baby was ordered to speak before his birth, that is, when he was still in his mother’s womb. In the Islamic story, however, Jurayj prayed and touched the baby’s stomach rather than its mother’s womb. Thus, Jurayj’s companion spoke after his birth. Where did this significant variance originate from? 

If we can answer these two questions, we shall get one step closer to the solution of the mystery regarding Joseph the Carpenter’s replacement with Jurayj in the Islamic report attributed to Ibn Ishaq. The most helpful clue can be derived from Muhammad’s reference to Jesus as the first of the two infants that miraculously spoke, the second being Jurayj’s companion. Jesus’ presentation as the foremost example of speaking infants was rather natural as this assertion had been explicitly incorporated into Jesus’ birth and infancy narrative in the Qur’an. According to the author of Surah 19, Jesus performed the miracle of speaking from the cradle when His mother returned to her folk after her delivery at an unknown and distant place:

Then she brought him to her own folk, carrying him. They said: O Mary! Thou hast come with an amazing thing. O sister of Aaron! Thy father was not a wicked man nor was thy mother a harlot. Then she pointed to him. They said: How can we talk to one who is in the cradle, a young boy? He spake: Lo! I am the slave of Allah. He hath given me the Scripture and hath appointed me a Prophet, And hath made me blessed wheresoever I may be, and hath enjoined upon me prayer and almsgiving so long as I remain alive, And (hath made me) dutiful toward her who bore me, and hath not made me arrogant, unblest.  Peace on me the day I was born, and the day I die, and the day I shall be raised alive! (Surah 19:27-33 Pickthall) 

It is impossible to deny the remarkable connections between this account in the Islamic scripture and the traditional story about Jurayj. In both cases there was an incident of pregnancy that cast doubt upon the piety of an outstanding figure, a group of angry people interrogating and accusing that figure, and an infant miraculously speaking and giving testimony to clear the pious figure of the charges of sexual immorality. 

The account of Jesus’ miraculous speech in Surah 19 thus appears to be the cause of the two major discrepancies between the story of St. David of Gareji in Christian tradition and that of Jurayj in Islamic tradition. In the adoption process of St. David’s story and the accidental transformation of his name into Jurayj, dependence on Mary’s story in Surah 19 resulted in Jurayj’s (St. David of Gareji) faulty affiliation with the Children of Israel and the assertion that the infant spoke after his birth. Consequently, Jurayj was accused by the Children of Israel after the child’s birth and the child spoke when it was brought to Jurayj in the same way as Mary was charged with fornication by the Children of Israel after Jesus’ birth and Jesus spoke when He was brought to His folk by His mother. 

Although Mary’s story in Surah 19 was given primacy to the extent that St. David’s original story was modified and adapted to it, in the light of the Islamic tradition below it will not be wrong to say that the adaptation sometimes worked the other way round:

And when she came to her people, and the young child was with her, they wept and were sorrowful, because they were pious folk, saying, "O Mary! you have done great wickedness and abomination, O sister of Aaron." … Then Mary told them to talk to Jesus, and they grew angry and said, "How can we speak to him who is in the cradle, a little child?" Wahab says that then Zachariah came to her, when she showed herself to the Jews, and said to Jesus, "Speak up, and give us your argument if you are so commanded." And at that instant Jesus (upon Him be peace), and He was only forty days old, said, "Verily, I am the servant of God to whom He has given a wonderful Book." (Quoted by Zwemer from "A translation of the life of Jesus Christ from Kusus-al-Anbiah, by Imam Abu Ishak Ahmed bin Mohammed bin Ibrahim Eth-Thalabi". Zwemer said “The account of the birth and life of Jesus Christ is found in this work on pp. 241-255, Cairo edition, 1325 A.H.” See Zwemer's article.)3

This report, which is an extension of the narrative in Surah 19, includes an interesting detail missing from the Qur’an: Infant Jesus miraculously spoke upon Zechariah’s instruction. Obviously, Zechariah’s abrupt insertion into the traditional story about Mary’s accusation exhibits the influence of St. David’s story. The parallelisms between Mary and Jurayj were thus advanced when Zechariah was made to enter the scene and play the role of the pious priest who made the infant speak and give testimony. In short, Islamic tradition developed and embellished the account of Mary’s interrogation by her folk in Surah 19 with the help of the story of Jurayj’s accusation by the Children of Israel by simply making Zechariah the equivalent of the priestly figure (Jurayj).4

The strong ties between Mary and Jurayj’s stories support the possibility that even the narrative regarding Infant Jesus’ speech in Surah 19 was shaped in accordance with the information Muhammad obtained about certain Christian saints, such as Ephraim and David of Gareji. This is because the occasion of Jesus’ speech from the cradle given in the Qur’an is totally different from the one given in the Arabic Gospel of Infancy, which is the original source of the teaching that Jesus did speak when He was born. According to the writer of this non-canonical Gospel, Jesus spoke when He was in the cradle in order to reveal His identity (the Son of God, the Logos, and the Savior sent by the Father) and tell His mother Mary that Angel Gabriel’s prediction to her was fulfilled (see chapter 1). According to the author of Surah 19, however, Jesus spoke from the cradle right when the Children of Israel saw Mary coming with a baby in her arms and thought that she bore a child of fornication. In other words, the Quranic author presented Infant Jesus’ speech as the miracle that defended Mary’s chastity and cleared her from the accusations of immorality. This was an innovation unknown to the writer of the Arabic Gospel of Infancy, who was naturally unaware of some indefinite infants appearing in some saints’ life stories long after Christ and miraculously speaking to prove the falsely accused saints chaste and pious.5

To sum up, Muhammad distorted St. David’s story by associating him with the Children of Israel and claiming that the baby had already been born when it spoke to reveal the truth since he adapted it to the peculiar version of Mary’s story in Surah 19. Now that we know who Jurayj was we can easily figure out why Joseph the Carpenter was replaced with him. First, Muslim commentators who were aware of the narrative about Mary’s accusation and Infant Jesus’ speech from the cradle in Surah 19 realized that Jurayj was thematically linked to Mary due to the similarities between his and Mary’s story. Second, the Quranic author excluded Joseph the Carpenter from Surah 19 and did not incorporate him into the story of Mary’s interrogation although the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew made it clear that the priests of the Temple first questioned and accused Joseph with regard to Mary’s pregnancy. Third, while reckoning the infants that could miraculously speak, Muhammad introduced Jurayj as the male counterpart of Mary and implied that Mary’s story formed a gender-based pair with Jurayj’s. All these factors motivated some Muslim scholars to conclude that the name of the pious priest who was mentioned along with Mary, who was accused of fornication in the same way as Mary, and who formed a couple with Mary was Jurayj rather than Joseph.

Evolution in Muhammad’s statements about the speaking infants

Interestingly, some Muslim scholars contended that Muhammad talked of three infants that could speak miraculously. This contention became popular as it was collected by both al Al-Bukhari and Muslim and caused an evolution in Muhammad’s former teaching, adding to it a new miraculous incident: 

There was also a baby who was being breast fed by his mother when a rider in fine garments passed by on an agile animal. His mother said: ‘O Allaah, make my child like him.’ The baby stopped suckling and looked at him, he said: ‘O Allaah, do not make me like him.’ He then continued suckling…” Abu Hurayrah - May Allaah be pleased with him - said: ‘It is as if I can see Messenger of Allaah - صلى الله عليه وسلم - right now, as he is illustrating the scene of the baby’s suckling with his forefinger in his mouth.’ He continued: "They passed by a slave girl who was being beaten by people who were accusing her of committing fornication and theft.' She was saying: `Sufficient is Allaah is for me, and the best of Guardians He is.’ The mother said: `O Allaah, do not make my child like her.' Again the baby stopped suckling, looked at her and said: ‘O Allaah! Make me like her.' At this point they spoke to each other, the mother said: `A good looking man passed by and I asked Allaah to make my child like him, you asked Allaah not make you like him. We passed by this slave girl while she was being beaten and being accused of fornication and theft, I asked Allaah not to make my child like her, and you asked Allaah to make you like her.' The child said: `That man was a tyrant, so I asked Allaah not to make me like him. They were accusing the girl of fornication, while she did not commit it, and they were accusing her of theft, while she did not steal, so I asked Allaah to make me like her." (Source

Obviously, this account is a later addition to Muhammad’s essential reference to Jesus and Jurayj’s companion as two infants that spoke in the cradle, for this third child and story does not have strong parallelisms with the former two. In the first two stories an infant’s speech aims to defend and prove the chastity of a pious figure (Mary in the first and Jurayj in the second) who was falsely blamed. In this third narrative the aim of the unknown baby’s speech to his unnamed mother is to teach her that it is not right to judge people by their outward appearances. Thus, this supposed miraculous incident seems to be a moral lesson or a parable rather than a real historical event.6

The popularity of the assertion that three infants spoke in the cradle rather than two stems from a hadith ascribed to Muhammad. However, this hadith is problematic as it first limits the number of speaking infants to three, but then shocks us by counting four figures:

“None spoke while in the cradle except three: ‘Eesaa ibn MaryamYusuf’s companionJurayj’s companion and the son of Pharoah’s [sic] daughter’s hair brusher.’ (Source)

More strikingly, the third infant mentioned in this hadith is evidently different from the indefinite infant whose story is quoted above! The only thing we can say at this point of our research is that the number and identities of the miraculously speaking infants exhibit a gross example of confusion in Islamic tradition. Muslims who are aware of the problem try to find a plausible solution and explanation. For instance, they make the following comment on the hadith above:

This Hadeeth with this wording is false. It was collected by al Haakim in al Mustadrak… so this Hadeeth is false with me for two reasons. The first: It restricts the number of those who spoke in the cradle to three, it then mentions four. The second: The Hadeeth that was collected by al Bukhaaree in the Book of Prophets has the exact same chain as al Haakim’s but with a contradicting wording… I have not found an authentic Hadeeth that removes this restriction [of only three people speaking in the cradle] that was collected by both al Bukhaaree and Muslim except the story of the baby boy of al Ukhdood.7 It is mentioned in it that he [the baby boy] said to his mother: ‘My mother, be patient for you are upon the truth.”8 (Source)  

It is true that there is something wrong with this Hadeeth in terms of mathematics, for three is not equal to four. However, this numerical contradiction can be easily solved if it is understood that one of the figures in this statement was accidentally given two different names:

“None spoke while in the cradle except three: ‘Eesaa ibn Maryam, Yusuf’s companionJurayj’s companion and the son of Pharoah’s [sic] daughter’s hair brusher.’ 

The current wording in this hadith thus backs up the theory that some Muslim commentators tended to consider Jurayj identical with Yusuf the Carpenter. As they mistakenly identified Joseph as Jurayj in the traditional story where Mary’s entrustment to a male guardian is related, they similarly incorporated the name Yusuf (Joseph) into the hadith mentioning Jurayj and his companion. Even the word “companion” was attached to the name Yusuf since it had been previously attached to the name Jurayj. To put it another way, some people reporting this hadith did see nothing wrong with adding into it the phrase “Yusuf’s companion” because they were sure that Jurayj was actually Yusuf. In time both names were accidentally maintained in the hadith, which gave the impression that Yusuf’s companion was someone else than Jurayj’s companion. The two names attributed to one single person consequently contradicted the number of the speaking infants explicitly stated by Muhammad. 

Joseph the Carpenter replaced with Joseph the Son of Jacob!

As a result of the confused and ignorant Muslim commentators Joseph the Carpenter was replaced with Zechariah and Jurayj in the traditional stories concerning Mary and Infant Jesus. As if these two replacements were not enough, Joseph the Carpenter was also confused and replaced with the Biblical ancestor Joseph the Son of Jacob by a certain group of Muslim commentators who misunderstood the problematic hadith about the infants speaking in the cradle. The disastrous result of this confusion was the misinterpretation of a Qur’an verse in the chapter named after Yusuf (Joseph). 

In the 12th chapter of the Islamic scripture is recorded Joseph’s story, which was plagiarized by the Quranic author from the Old Testament, embellished with the help of a few elements drawn from the Talmud, and reshaped in accordance with Muhammad’s peculiar ideology. According to this new Islamic version of the narrative, there was a witness from Potiphar’s (strangely named Al-Aziz in the Qur’an) household or folk who tried to help the slandered Joseph by exposing Potiphar’s wife’s lie and evil plot:

And they raced with one another to the door, and she tore his shirt from behind, and they met her lord and master at the door. She said: What shall be his reward, who wisheth evil to thy folk, save prison or a painful doom? (Joseph) said: She it was who asked of me an evil act. And a witness of her own folk testified: If his shirt is torn from before, then she speaketh truth and he is of the liars. And if his shirt is torn from behind, then she hath lied and he is of the truthful. So when he saw his shirt torn from behind, he said: Lo! this is of the guile of you women. Lo! the guile of you is very great.9(Surah 12:25-28 Pickthall) 

The Qur’an does not grant any information on the age and other characteristics of this unidentified person, who wanted to prove Yusuf’s innocence and was therefore designated as Yusuf’s witness in some writings of the Islamic tradition. When we check the commentaries on the verse referring to this witness, we see that Muslim scholars fell into variance about him:

There is a difference of opinion over the age and gender of the witness mentioned here. `Abdur-Razzaq recorded that Ibn `Abbas said that, (and a witness of her household bore witness) "was a bearded man,'' meaning an adult male. Ath-Thawri reported that Jabir said that Ibn Abi Mulaykah said that Ibn `Abbas said, "He was from the king's entourage.'' Mujahid, `Ikrimah, Al-Hasan, Qatadah, As-Suddi, Muhammad bin Ishaq and others also said that the witness was an adult male. Al-`Awfi reported that Ibn `Abbas said about Allah's statement, (and a witness of her household bore witness) "He was a babe in the cradle.'' Similar was reported from Abu Hurayrah, Hilal bin Yasaf, Al-Hasan, Sa`id bin Jubayr and Ad-Dahhak bin Muzahim, that the witness was a young boy who lived in the `Aziz's house. Ibn Jarir At-Tabari preferred this view. (Source

An Islamic website objects to the witness’ depiction as a babe with the following arguments:

Concerning Yusuf’s witness, then it is apparent in the story in the Qur-aan that he was a man and not a child in a cradle. If he were a baby in a cradle, the mere fact that he spoke saying that she [al ‘Azeez’ wife] was lying would have been sufficient to settle the affair, and a clear evidence against her, because it is a miracle. There would not have been any need in saying that he [the witness] was from her family, or for any other evidence for the innocence of Yusuf – ‘Alayhi as Salaam – which is the shirt that was cut from the back as mentioned in the Ayah. Ibn Jareer also collected authentic Ahaadeeth on the authority of ibn ‘Abbaas that this witness was a man with a beard, and this seems to be the correct opinion and Allaah knows best. (Source

Indeed, the Qur’an verse does not even imply that a miraculous incident happened so that Yusuf’s innocence could be proven. Where did this teaching originate from then? Why did some Muslim commentators insist on portraying the witness as a miraculously speaking infant? In order to find an answer to this question, the analysis of the Talmud and related non-biblical Jewish writings is crucial, for in the Islamic scripture Biblical narratives generally appear to have been blended with traditional Jewish fables and legends. 

Interestingly, we cannot find any reference to a speaking babe in Joseph’s story in a particular Talmudic collection:

"I caught hold of his garment," she said, "and cried with a loud voice; he became frightened and fled, leaving this portion of his cloth in my hand." The men repeated these charges to Potiphar, who returned to his house in a great rage against Joseph, and commanded at once that the lad should be whipped severely. During the infliction of this punishment Joseph cried aloud, raising his hands to Heaven, "Thou knowest, oh God," said he, "that I am innocent of all these things; wherefore, shall I die through falsehood!" Potiphar carried Joseph before the judges, and made an accusation against him, saying, "Thus and thus has the slave done." The judges then addressed Joseph, and he gave his version of the story, saying, "Not so; but thus and thus did it occur." The judges then ordered that the rent garment should be brought to them, and upon an examination of the same they pronounced Joseph "not guilty." But still they sent him to prison, that the character of the wife of one as high in the state as Potiphar might not suffer. (Source

However, the assertion that a babe miraculously spoke and declared Joseph innocent is found in the Jewish Legends:

Potiphar gave credence to her words, and he had Joseph flogged unmercifully. While the cruel blows fell upon him, he cried to God, "O Lord, Thou knowest that I am innocent of these things, and why should I die to-day on account of a false accusation by the hands of these uncircumcised, impious men?" God opened the mouth of Zuleika's10 child, a babe of but eleven months, and he spoke to the men that were beating Joseph, saying: "What is your quarrel with this man? Why do you inflict such evil upon him? Lies my mother doth speak, and deceit is what her mouth uttereth. This is the true tale of that which did happen," and the child proceeded to tell all that had passed--how Zuleika had tried first to persuade Joseph to act wickedly, and then had tried to force him to do her will. The people listened in great amazement. But the report finished, the child spake no word, as before. (Source

From this account we understand that Potiphar’s wife had a baby of eleven months that spoke to tell the truth about his mother and support Joseph. Still, it will be wrong to presume that the witness mentioned in Surah 12:26 could have been the same person as this child since the Legend in view clearly distinguishes the babe’s statements from the witness’ utterance recorded in the Qur’an. According to the non-canonical Jewish writings Potiphar’s wife’s babe overtly accused his mother (Zuleika) of slandering Joseph and confessed the whole truth. According to the writer of Surah 12, on the other hand, the indefinite witness only made a suggestion concerning the evaluation of the torn garment for a sound decision. To complicate the issue, in both the Talmud and the Jewish Legend the idea of checking the garment that was used by Potiphar’s wife as hard evidence for Joseph’s crime originated from the judges who dealt with the case in the court:11

Abashed by the speech of his own infant son, Potiphar commanded his bailiffs to leave off from chastising Joseph, and the matter was brought into court, where priests sat as judges. Joseph protested his innocence, and related all that had happened according to the truth, but Potiphar repeated the account his wife had given him. The judges ordered the garment of Joseph to be brought which Zuleika had in her possession, and they examined the tear therein. It turned out to be on the front part of the mantle, and they came to the conclusion that Zuleika had tried to hold him fast, and had been foiled in her attempt by Joseph, against whom she was now lodging a trumped up charge. They decided that Joseph had not incurred the death penalty, but they condemned him to incarceration, because he was the cause of a stain upon Zuleika's fair name." (Source

In a similar text of the rabbinical literature we read the following narrative:

It happened that, at the Nile festival, all the people of the house except Joseph and Zelikah had gone to see the ceremonies; Zelikah feigned illness as her reason for not attending the festival (comp. Soṭah 36b). With one hand she grasped a sword and with the other caught Joseph's garment, and when he attempted to release himself a rent was made in the garment. Afterward, when Joseph was brought before the priests for judgment, and while they were deliberating, Zelikah's child of eleven months suddenly began to speak, accusing its mother and declaring Joseph's innocence. The priests then ordered the garment to be brought in order that they might see on which side it had been rent; seeing that it was rent in the back, they declared Joseph innocent. Joseph was nevertheless thrown into prison by Potiphar, who was anxious thus to save his wife a public exposure ("Sefer ha-Yashar," l.c.; comp. Gen. R. lxxxvii. 10). (Source

Evidently, it was the judges rather than the speaking infant who deemed it necessary to check the garment. The content of the babe’s speech had nothing to do with the evidence Potiphar’s wife possessed to slander Joseph. This is why some Muslim commentators’ willingness to identify Yusuf’s witness in Surah 12:26 as the speaking infant in the Talmudic legend looks weird and points at a misunderstanding.

While demonstrating the Judaic roots of Islam and the influence of the Talmudic stories on the Qur’an, Geiger touches upon this issue and raises the possibility of Muhammad’s or Muslim commentators’ confusion:

Also the discussion about the tearing of the clothes, whether they were torn in front or at the back is found in the same way in the Sepher Hayyashar. In the words, "and a witness bore witness, " which we here do not take strictly according to the meaning of the context, but rather in the sense of an "arbitrator decided," others see an allusion to a witness who was present at what occurred between Joseph and the woman, and some of the commentators quoted in Elpherar express themselves quite in harmony with the Sepher Hayyashar as follows: "Sa'id Ben Jabair and Dhubak say it was a child in the cradle which God permitted to speak. This is the tradition of the Uphite commentator according to 'Abba's." In the Sepher Hayyasbar it is also asserted that there was present a child of eleven months who till then could not talk, but then attained to speech. But there is a difference in that the Jewish book makes the child confirm the utterance of Joseph, while the Arabic commentator puts into its mouth the decision about the rent clothing, while other Arabic writers reject as highly unsuitable. Many commentators say that this was no child, but rather a wise man full of penetration. It follows from this that Muhammad either mired the two legends inappropriately, or else that the second one came later into Arabic tradition and was read by the Arabs into the words of the Quran. (Source

The second possibility suggested by Geiger is stronger than the former. Most probably, it was not Muhammad himself, but some Arabic reporters that caused the confusion by interpreting Yusuf’s witness in Surah 12:26 as the speaking infant introduced in the related Jewish Legend. The reason underlying their wish to transform the adult witness – occurring in some commentators’ reports – into a babe speaking in the cradle was the reference to Yusuf’s companion in Muhammad’s hadith about the three infants that miraculously spoke. These commentators concluded that this Yusuf was the Son of Jacob either accidentally (due to ignorance) or deliberately if they understood that this Yusuf was Joseph the Carpenter, whom they wanted to remove from this particular hadith. Of course, Joseph’s exclusion from this statement would be beneficial as his presence testified to plagiarism and confusion. 

Joseph the Carpenter’s assimilation to Joseph the Son of Jacob also necessitated a drastic alteration to the phrase occurring in the hadith. Although Muhammad had talked of Yusuf’s companion, this new interpretation naturally replaced the word “companion” with the word “witness” so that the speaking infant in Muhammad’s mind could be equated with the babe declaring Joseph innocent in the Jewish Legend. Consequently, the number of the miraculously speaking children previously given by Muhammad as three soared to four when Yusuf’s companion was changed into Yusuf’s witness and the following story about Pharaoh’s daughter’s comber was included into the Islamic tradition:

The Prophet then noticed a fragrant wind and said: "O Jibril, what is this sweet scent?" He replied: "This is the scent of the lady who combed the hair of Fir`awn's daughter and that of her children. As she combed the hair of Fir`awn's daughter the comb fell and she said: bismillah ta`isa fir`awn -- In the name of Allah, may Fir`awn perish! whereupon Fir`awn's daughter said: Do you have a Lord other than my father? She said yes. Fir`awn's daughter said: Shall I tell my father? She said yes. She told him and he summoned her and said: Do you have a Lord other than me? She replied: Yes, my Lord and your Lord is Allah. This woman had two sons and a husband. Fir`awn summoned them and he began to entice the woman and her husband to renege on their religion, but they refused. He said: Then I shall kill you. She said: Be so good as to bury us all together in a single grave if you kill us. He replied: Granted, and it is your right to ask us. He then ordered that a huge cow made of copper be filled with boiling liquid (oil and water) and that she and her children be thrown into it. The children were taken and thrown in one after the other. The second and youngest was still an infant at the breast. When they took him he said: Mother! fall and do not tarry for verily you are on the right. Then she was thrown in with her children." He (Ibn `Abbas) said: "Four spoke from the cradle as they were still infants: this child, Yusuf's witness (cf. 12:26), Jurayj's companion, and `Isa ibn Maryam." (Source

The Islamic website from which the account above is taken puts a footnote on the statement attributed to Ibn Abbas and acknowledges that the hadith regarding the number of the infants speaking in the cradle is problematic: 

Ibn Hajar mentions that the account of the lady who combed the hair of Pharaoh's daughter is narrated from Ibn `Abbas by Ahmad, al-Hakim, Ibn Hibban, and al-Bazzar, while Muslim in Kitab al-zuhd wa al-raqa'iq (#3005) mentions the part of the infant speaking to his mother before they are both thrown into the fire, and the mention of Yusuf's witness in verse 12:26 as being an infant is narrated from Ibn `Abbas by Ibn Abi Hatim with a weak chain, and it is held by al-Hasan al-Basri and Sa`id ibn Jubayr. [It is also the explanation retained by Suyuti in Tafsir al-jalalayn.] This brings the number of speaking infants alluded to in the hadith "Those who spoke from the cradle are three" (Bukhari, Muslim, Ahmad) up to five, and there are reports that increase it to seven or more. Allah knows best. Fath al-Bari (1989 ed.) 6:593-594. (Source

It is also noteworthy that the connection between the speaking babe and Joseph in the rabbinical literature is missing from both the Qur’an and the Islamic tradition referring to Yusuf’s story. According to some Talmudic sources, the babe who spoke and cleared Joseph from the slander was Asenath, who later became Joseph’s wife:12

Asenath had saved Joseph's life while she was still an infant in arms. When Joseph was accused of immoral conduct by Potiphar's wife and the other women, and his master was on the point of having him hanged, Asenath approached her foster-father, and she assured him under oath that the charge against Joseph was false. Then spake God, "As thou livest, because thou didst try to defend Joseph, thou shalt be the woman to bear the tribes that he is appointed to beget". (Source

If Joseph the Carpenter’s assimilation to Joseph the Son of Jacob in the Islamic tradition was accidental, the authors of this confusion reached this faulty conclusion from a number of similarities between the Joseph in the hadith and the Joseph in the Qur’an. According to the tradition, two (Jesus and Jurayj’s companion) of the three infants in the hadith could miraculously speak to vindicate pious figures that were falsely accused of sexual immorality. Muslim commentators knew that in both the Bible and the Qur’an Joseph the Son of Jacob was designated as an innocent person who was slandered by an immoral woman.13 The connection established in the rabbinical literature between Joseph and a speaking babe convinced them that Muhammad had meant Yusuf in Surah 12 when he talked of Yusuf’s companion. The only problem was surmounted when the word “companion” was turned into “witness” through distortion. 

Strikingly, Joseph the Carpenter’s assimilation to Joseph the Son of Jacob reminds us Aaron’s sister Mary’s confusion with Jesus’ mother Mary in the Qur’an. Due to a number of similarities between these two female figures, Muhammad had mistakenly identified Jesus’ mother as the Miriam of the Old Testament when he taught that Mary was Aaron’s sister (Surah 19:28) and Imran’s (Imran being the Arabic equivalent of the Hebrew Amram) daughter (Surah 3:35 and Surah 66:12).14 Some of his followers fell into confusion and produced a similar kind of mistake when they assimilated Joseph the Carpenter to Joseph the Biblical patriarch. The only difference was that Muhammad had accidentally assimilated an Old Testament figure to a New Testament figure whereas his followers’ assimilation worked the other way round. 

The confusion and assimilation regarding Mary in the Qur’an are similar to those regarding Joseph in the Islamic tradition to the extent that they actually construct a couple. No matter how much aversion the Quranic author and some Muslim commentators had towards Joseph the Carpenter and no matter what they did to deny the pair of Joseph and Mary in Christianity, their very efforts of denial resulted in Joseph and Mary’s portrayal as a couple in the weirdest way possible.  

In this article I have analyzed and discussed how Joseph the Carpenter was accidentally replaced with Jurayj and Joseph the Son of Jacob in the Islamic tradition. In the next part of the series I shall scrutinize Surah 66, where Mary is identified as the daughter of Imran, in association with Surah 3:44 and illustrate how Muhammad wanted to take Joseph the Carpenter’s place in his fantasies.



1 The earlier sections are found here: [Part 1], [Part 2], [Part 3 A].

2 Both Judaism and Christianity teach that a mother’s prayer for her children is powerful and answered by God (*). Prophet Samuel’s mother Hannah in the Bible and St. Augustine’s mother St. Monica (*) are two prevalent examples that come to mind when the power of a mother’s prayer is recalled.

3 A copy of the Arabic original of this book can be accessed here. Zechariah’s story is on page 5398, but it is not without uncanny omissions in this particular copy.

4 The story reported by Wahab about Zechariah’s role in Infant Jesus’ first utterance is also in agreement with the traditional Islamic teaching that after Jesus’ speech in the cradle the Jews stopped bothering both Mary and Zechariah, whom they had previously targeted with ugly accusations (*).  

5 The combination of the particular miracle adopted from the Arabic Gospel with the narrative of Mary’s interrogation in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew in the creation of Surah 19 gave birth to a narrative having a few anomalies. For instance, the content of Jesus’ speech from the cradle in Surah 19 is far from being compatible with the time and the purpose of the miracle since Jesus reveals His own identity rather than explaining how He was conceived and why. For further information, see the second part of this series as well as my article entitled “Unraveling a Knot of the Qur’an”.

6 Although the slave girl in this narrative is said to have been falsely accused of fornication and theft, the baby does nothing to help her by clearing the misunderstandings. 

7 This baby boy is identified as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter’s hair brusher.

8 The aim of the baby boy’s speech in this story is to encourage and praise martyrdom for those who are suffering in the hands of disbelieving tyrants.

9 We are astonished to read in the Qur’an that the guile/deceit of women is strong whereas that of Satan is weak (Surah 4:76). The comparative reading of Surah 12:28 with Surah 4:76 shows that in Muhammad’s opinion women were mightier than Satan in terms of deceit.

10 Zuleika is actually the name ascribed to Potiphar’s wife in Islamic tradition.

11 This Talmudic teaching may be the source of the Islamic report attributed to Ibn Abbas that the witness in Surah 12:26 was from the king’s entourage.

12 The claim that Joseph was declared innocent by Asenath can also be found in the Midrash. See this entry.

13 Still, there was no pregnancy in Biblical Joseph’s story unlike in Mary’s and Jurayj’s stories in the Islamic tradition. Muslim commentators overlooked this contrast in their eagerness to affiliate the Yusuf in the Hadith with the Yusuf in Surah 12.

14 For further information on the possible reasons causing Muhammad’s confusion and blunder, see my article “The Anatomy of the Qur’an’s Mistakes”.

Articles by Masud Masihiyyen
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