Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Muhammad the Borrower Still!

The Influence of the Christian Apocrypha On
The composition and formation of the Quran Pt. 1

Sam Shamoun

Bassam Zawadi has written an article where he tries to disprove that Muhammad plagiarized the story of Jesus fashioning clay birds and speaking in the cradle from Christian apocryphal sources, specifically the Arabic Infancy Gospel of Thomas.

It seems that Zawadi has “lifted” most of his information from some other source, or that someone else has helped him write it, since the writing style and vocabulary are manifestly unlike Zawadi’s as any careful examination of his materials will easily prove.

Be that as it may, Zawadi’s reply is nothing more than a lengthy display of logical fallacies and obfuscation. And since he put his name to it, he will also have to bear the responsibility for all the fallacies and errors committed.

Zawadi appeals to Muhammad’s sincerity to prove that he would have no interest in plagiarizing a Christian story and passing it off as revelation from God. However, there are several major problems with this assertion.

First, Muhammad’s sincerity is simply irrelevant and doesn’t address the fact that the Quran contains an apocryphal Christian fable.

Second, this is a non-sequitur since it does not logically follow that Muhammad wouldn’t include stories which he had heard from his interactions with Jews and Christians just because he sincerely believed that he was the messenger of Allah. Muhammad may have believed that his god wanted him to adopt and include the myths and legends which he heard from the Jews and Christians into the Quran. As we shall see shortly this is precisely what Muhammad did.

Nor does it follow that Muhammad’s sincerity proves that the Quran is from God, as even Zawadi realizes. The most this proves is that Muhammad was sincerely mistaken. As John Gilchrist explains:

It is not our view that God was the author of the Qur'an but at the same time we do not believe that it was fraudulently composed by Muhammad consciously as its author. A study of its sources will confirm that this statement is true in one sense: “That Mohammed was really the author and chief contriver of the Koran is beyond dispute” (Sale, The Preliminary Discourse to the Koran, p. 68). Nevertheless it is not true to say that Muhammad deliberately forged the book as a revelation and, as a pious impostor, consciously attributed it to Allah. His subjective sincerity forbids such a conclusion.

The chief question for us is whether or not Muhammad believed in the message himself. All his life he maintained that he had got his message from God, and I do not think that there can be any doubt that in the beginning of his activities at any rate he believed fully and firmly in his mission. (Hammershaimb, "The Religious and Political Development of Muhammad", The Muslim World, Vol. 39, p. 196).

That Mohammed acted in good faith can hardly be disputed by anyone who knows the psychology of inspiration. That the message which he proclaimed did not come from himself, from his own ideas and opinions, is not only a tenet of his faith, but also an experience whose reality he never questioned. (Andrae, Mohammed: The Man and his Faith, p. 47).

These matters can only be satisfactorily explained and understood on the assumption that Muhammad was sincere, that is, that he genuinely believed that what we now know as the Qur'an was not the product of his own mind, but came to him from God and was true. (Watt, Muhammad at Medina, p. 325).

There is no concession to Islam in these statements. Watt rightly adds: "To say that Muhammad was sincere does not imply acceptance of the Qur'an as a genuine revelation from God; a man may without contradiction hold that Muhammad truly believed that he was receiving revelations from God but that he was mistaken in this belief" (op. cit.). Another writer puts the matter well when he says:

If we say that such 'revelations' were believed by Mahomet sincerely to bear the divine sanction, it can only be in a modified and peculiar sense. (Muir, The Life of Mahomet, p. 504).

We can conclude by saying that our Christian sense of honesty and fairness demands that we give credit where credit is due and that we allow Muhammad a considerable degree of personal sincerity in his subjective confidence that the Qur'an was a revelation from God himself. Nevertheless we find that the actual process of the revelation was equally subjective and characterised in good measure by Muhammad's own personal temperament. The final form it takes tells us as much about his own personality as it does about anything else and an analysis of the development of the Qur'anic text will show ultimately just how much the finished product bears the mark of its human mediator rather than its alleged divine author. (A study of its origins and sources, which follows, will prove conclusively that Muhammad was the real author of the book, notwithstanding his sincerity). (Gilchrist, Muhammad and the Religion of Islam, The Nature of Muhammad's Prophetic Experience, B. Muhammad's Concept of Revelation, 3. The Esoteric Nature of Muhammad's Experiences; bold emphasis ours)

This brings us to the next problem with Zawadi’s argument. A person can be deceived into thinking that he is receiving revelations from the true God when in reality he is being inspired by Satan. This comes as no surprise to Christians since the Holy Bible teaches that Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light pretending to be righteous in order to deceive mankind (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:14-15).

It is clear that as far as the Holy Bible is concerned Muhammad was deceived into thinking that the spirit that came to him was God’s righteous angel whereas it was actually the devil himself (or at the very least some evil spirit) in disguise.

In fact, Muhammad himself initially thought that he was demon-possessed:

So I [Muhammad] read it, and he [Gabriel] departed from me. And I awoke from my sleep, and it was though these words were written on my heart. (Tabari: Now none of God's creatures was more hateful to me than an (ecstatic) poet or a man POSSESSED: I could not even look at them. I thought, Woe is me poet or POSSESSED - Never shall Quraysh say this of me! I will go to the top of the mountain and throw myself down that I may kill myself and gain rest. So I went forth to do so and then) when I was midway on the mountain, I heard a voice from heaven saying ‘O Muhammad! thou are the apostle of God and I am Gabriel.’ (The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, with introduction and notes by Alfred Guillaume [Oxford University Press, Karachi, Tenth impression 1995], p. 106; bold and capital emphasis ours)

All the evidence shows that Muhammad was correct.

Fifth, the argument from sincerity proves too much since it can be used to validate the claims and experiences of other religious figures.

For instance, what could have been Baha'ullah's motive to suffer imprisonment all those years if he were not really a prophet? What were Buddha's motives for abandoning his lofty status as a prince to live an impoverished life if he did not sincerely believe that what he was teaching was the truth? What led Mirza Ghulam Ahmad to accept persecution and disgrace for claiming to be Allah’s final Islamic messenger and reformer for this age? Why would Rashid Khalifah die as a martyr if he were simply a deceiver seeking monetary gains? What could have been the motives behind these men maintaining their persecuted positions, forsaking earthly riches for their beliefs and teachings?

Since Baha'ullah, Joseph Smith, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad and Rashad Khalifa believed that what they received was really from God and suffered greatly for it would Zawadi also embrace them as messengers of God? If not, why not?

Zawadi will immediately agree that they were certainly not from God, since their teaching contradicts the Qur’an. But on what basis would he question their sincerity? On what basis does Muhammad’s subjective sincerity constitute proof for the divine origin of his teaching if the same conclusion does not hold for these other men?

Moreover, the Shia have suffered greatly under the persecution of the Sunnis. They have held to their convictions even if it meant great suffering. This shows their sincerity. Does it follow the Shia are right and the Sunnis are wrong?

Sixth, it is not at all certain that Muhammad was the beacon of truth that Muslims like Zawadi make him out to be. For one, these Muslims are basing this on biased Muslim sources which were written centuries after Muhammad’s death. Muslims would obviously want to portray Muhammad in the most favorable light possible, fabricating stories and putting words into the mouths of Muhammad’s enemies as a way of making their prophet look much better than he really was.

In other words, Muslims rewrote history to their liking. After all, Muslims became the dominant force in Arabia and could essentially write and say anything they wanted without having anyone contest it.

But even with that said, there is plenty of evidence from the Quran showing that Muhammad wasn’t as honest or forthright as these polemicists would have us believe. The Quran is filled with references to Muhammad’s contemporaries accusing him of being a liar, a forger, a magician etc.

We know indeed that it grieves thee the things they say; yet it is not thee they cry lies to, but the evildoers - it is the signs of God that they deny. S. 6:33 Arberry

And if they call you a liar, say: My work is for me and your work for you; you are clear of what I do and I am clear of what you do. S. 10:41 Shakir

And they say: "O you (Muhammad SAW) to whom the Dhikr (the Qur'an) has been sent down! Verily, you are a mad man (jinn-possessed [majnoonun]). Why do you not bring angels to us if you are of the truthful ones?" S. 15:6

This sure doesn’t sound like the people who knew Muhammad best thought that he was an honest person or the paragon of truth and integrity!

The Islamic sources further attest that Muhammad used his prophetic claims to advance his own desires and ambitions. For instance, the Quran says that Allah made Muhammad rich:

Did He not find you as an orphan and give you shelter? Did He not find you wandering about and give you guidance? And did He not find you in need AND MAKE YOU RICH? S. 93:6-8 Muhammad Sarwar

One way Allah made Muhammad rich was to command the Muslims to give a fifth of the booty to his so-called “messenger”:

They ask you (O Muhammad) about the spoils of war. Say: "The spoils are for Allah AND THE MESSENGER." So fear Allah and adjust all matters of difference among you, and obey Allah and His Messenger (Muhammad SAW), if you are believers... And know that out of all the booty that ye may acquire (in war), a fifth share is assigned to Allah,- AND TO THE MESSENGER, and to near relatives, orphans, the needy, and the wayfarer,- if ye do believe in Allah and in the revelation We sent down to Our servant on the Day of Testing,- the Day of the meeting of the two forces. For Allah hath power over all things. S. 8:1, 41

He also made his “prophet” wealthy through pillaging, raiding, and ransacking caravans, villages etc.,

Narrated Abu Huraira… Allah made the Prophet wealthy through conquests… (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 3, Book 37, Number 495)

Muhammad further used his prophetic status to take and sleep with any woman he desired:

O Prophet! We have made lawful to thee thy wives to whom thou hast paid their dowers; and those whom thy right hand possesses out of the captives of war whom Allah has assigned to thee; and daughters of thy paternal uncles and aunts, and daughters of thy maternal uncles and aunts, who migrated (from Makkah) with thee; and any believing woman who gives herself to the Prophet if the Prophet wishes to wed her;- this only for thee, and not for the Believers (at large); We know what We have appointed for them as to their wives and the captives whom their right hands possess;- in order that there should be no difficulty for thee. And Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful. Thou mayest defer (the turn of) any of them that thou pleasest, and thou mayest receive any thou pleasest: and there is no blame on thee if thou invite one whose (turn) thou hadst set aside. This were nigher to the cooling of their eyes, the prevention of their grief, and their satisfaction - that of all of them - with that which thou hast to give them: and Allah knows (all) that is in your hearts: and Allah is All- Knowing, Most Forbearing. It is not lawful for thee (to marry more) women after this, nor to change them for (other) wives, even though their beauty attract thee, except any thy right hand should possess (as handmaidens): and Allah doth watch over all things. S. 33:50-52

The preceding passage provided justification for Muhammad to sleep with any woman willing to give herself to him! This led even Muhammad’s wife to mockingly say:

Narrated Aisha:
I used to look down upon those ladies who had given themselves to Allah’s Apostle and I used to say, "Can a lady give herself (to a man)?" But when Allah revealed: "You (O Muhammad) can postpone (the turn of) whom you will of them (your wives), and you may receive any of them whom you will; and there is no blame on you if you invite one whose turn you have set aside (temporarily)." (33.51) I said (to the Prophet), "I feel that your Lord hastens in fulfilling your wishes and desires." (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 6, Book 60, Number 311)

Muhammad also allowed himself to have more than four wives. For instance, Muhammad at one time had eleven wives:

Narrated Qatada:
Anas bin Malik said, "The Prophet used to visit all his wives in a round, during the day and night and they were ELEVEN IN NUMBER." I asked Anas, "Had the Prophet the strength for it?" Anas replied, "We used to say that the Prophet was given the strength of thirty (men)." And Sa'id said on the authority of Qatada that Anas had told him about nine wives only (not eleven). (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 1, Book 5, Number 268)

What truly makes this all the more shameful is that Muhammad forced certain men who had more than four wives to divorce some of them in order to comply with the Quranic injunction of Q. 4:3, which limits the number of wives to a maximum of four:

Narrated Abdullah ibn Umar
Ghaylan ibn Salamah ath-Thaqafi accepted Islam and that he had ten wives in the pre-Islamic period who accepted Islam along with him; so the Prophet told him to keep four and separate from the rest of them.
Ahmad, Tirmidhi and Ibn Majah transmitted it. (Al-Tirmidhi, Number 945: taken from the Alim CD-ROM Version)

Narrated Al-Harith ibn Qays al-Asadi
I embraced Islam while I had eight wives. So I mentioned it to the Prophet. The Prophet said: Select four of them. (Sunan of Abu Dawud, Book 12, Number 2233)

Muhammad even went so far as to use his so-called inspiration to justify his preferential treatment of some of his wives:

Narrated 'Urwa from 'Aisha:
The wives of Allah's Apostle were in two groups. One group consisted of 'Aisha, Hafsa, Safiyya and Sauda; and the other group consisted of Um Salama and the other wives of Allah's Apostle. The Muslims knew that Allah's Apostle loved 'Aisha, so if any of them had a gift and wished to give to Allah's Apostle, he would delay it, till Allah's Apostle had come to 'Aisha's home and then he would send his gift to Allah's Apostle in her home. The group of Um Salama discussed the matter together and decided that Um Salama should request Allah's Apostle to tell the people to send their gifts to him in whatever wife's house he was. Um Salama told Allah's Apostle of what they had said, but he did not reply. Then they (those wives) asked Um Salama about it. She said, "He did not say anything to me." They asked her to talk to him again. She talked to him again when she met him on her day, but he gave no reply. When they asked her, she replied that he had given no reply. They said to her, "Talk to him till he gives you a reply." When it was her turn, she talked to him again. He then said to her, “Do not hurt me regarding Aisha, AS THE DIVINE INSPIRATIONS DO NOT COME TO ME ON ANY OF THE BEDS EXCEPT THAT OF AISHA.” On that Um Salama said, “I repent to Allah for hurting you.” Then the group of Um Salama called Fatima, the daughter of Allah's Apostle and sent her to Allah's Apostle to say to him, “Your wives request to treat them and the daughter of Abu Bakr on equal terms.” Then Fatima conveyed the message to him. The Prophet said, “O my daughter! Don’t you love whom I love?” She replied in the affirmative and returned and told them of the situation. They requested her to go to him again but she refused. They then sent Zainab bint Jahsh who went to him and used harsh words saying, “Your wives request you to treat them and the daughter of Ibn Abu Quhafa on equal terms.” On that she raised her voice and abused 'Aisha to her face so much so that Allah's Apostle looked at 'Aisha to see whether she would retort. 'Aisha started replying to Zainab till she silenced her. The Prophet then looked at 'Aisha and said, “She is really the daughter of Abu Bakr.” (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 3, Book 47, Number 755)

Notice that Muhammad’s justification for loving and favoring Aisha more than the rest of his spouses was because Allah singled out and specifically chose Aisha’s bed to send down his revelations to him! Allah refused to do this for any other wife!

This hadith reveals just how unhappy and miserable Muhammad’s wives truly were due primarily to Muhammad’s failure as a husband. Muhammad clearly failed to satisfy the emotional and physical needs of his spouses.

In fact, the misery of Muhammad’s wives can be more readily seen by Aisha’s comments to her husband that if it were up to her Muhammad would not spend time with anyone else:

Narrated Muadha:

'Aisha said, “Allah's Apostle used to take the permission of that wife with whom he was supposed to stay overnight if he wanted to go to one other than her, after this Verse was revealed:--

‘You (O Muhammad) can postpone (the turn of) whom you will of them (your wives) and you may receive any (of them) whom you will; and there is no blame on you if you invite one whose turn you have set aside (temporarily).’ (33.51)” I asked Aisha, “What did you use to say (in this case)?” She said, “I used to say to him, ‘If I could deny you the permission (to go to your other wives) I would not allow your favor to be bestowed on any other person.’” (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 6, Book 60, Number 312)

Here we can sense the anguish of Aisha and her heart’s cry for a husband who would be wholly devoted to her. Unfortunately for her and the other wives Muhammad was not that man since he was more concerned with what made him happy.

Finally, Muhammad wasn’t beneath breaking his oaths and acting hypocritically:

… He replied. ‘I have not provided you with means of conveyance but Allah has provided you with it, and by Allah, Allah willing, if ever I take an oath to do something, and later on I find that it is more beneficial to do something different, I will do the thing which is better, and give expiation for my oath.’ (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 4, Number 361)

Narrated 'Aisha:
A man asked permission to enter upon the Prophet. When the Prophet saw him, he said, "What an evil brother of his tribe! And what an evil son of his tribe!" When that man sat down, the Prophet behaved with him in a nice and polite manner and was completely at ease with him. When that person had left, 'Aisha said (to the Prophet). "O Allah's Apostle! When you saw that man, you said so-and-so about him, then you showed him a kind and polite behavior, and you enjoyed his company?" Allah's Apostle said, "O 'Aisha! Have you ever seen me speaking a bad and dirty language? (Remember that) the worst people in Allah's sight on the Day of Resurrection will be those whom the people leave (undisturbed) to be away from their evil (deeds).” (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 8, Book 73, Number 59o)

For more information on these various topics we recommend the following articles and rebuttals:

So much for the appeal to Muhammad’s sincerity.

Finally, the issue is not that Muhammad plagiarized the Arabic Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Rather, the argument is that Muhammad heard Christians referring to this story and therefore decided to include it in his Quran since he erroneously assumed that it was an actual miracle performed by the historical Jesus.

Zawadi raises the false analogy of the so-called pagan parallels to the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection and the Christian responses to defend against the claim that Muhammad borrowed from the Arabic Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Zawadi erroneously thinks that these are somehow analogous to one another.

The problem with this “defense” is that there is no evidence that these so-called pagan parallels were even in circulation before the birth of Christ and the writing of the Gospels. All of these pagan stories which are supposed to contain similarities to the Gospel reports actually originate AFTER the rise and spread of Christianity. Thus, if anyone copied anyone it was the pagans who copied the Gospels in order to make their gods comparable to the risen Lord Jesus!

In the case of Muhammad, however, we know for certain that the story of Jesus fashioning clay birds was in circulation long before Muhammad was born. We also know that he had come into contact with some Christians who shared this story with him. More on this later.

Zawadi mentions the following Christian reply to the accusation that the story of Jesus was copied from pagan myths:

- This is an act of Satan's deception: Many of the early church writers such as Irenaeus, Justin Martyr and Tertullian claimed that the similarities between Christianity and paganism were a Satanic attempt at "diabolical mimicry", which means that Satan purposely ensured that stories similar to what would be included into the future Gospels would be pre-recorded in pagan sources so that it appears that Christians copied from the earlier pagan sources. They view this as some kind of pre-emptive strike from Satan against Christianity. It's also possible that Satan's deception could be that he is whispering into the ears of skeptics and tempting them to opt for the belief that Christianity was influenced by pagan myths.

And then turns this same argument against Christians who claim that Muhammad borrowed from the Christian Apocrypha:

- Prove that this is not merely a Satanic attempt where Satan tried to ensure that the story of Jesus eating [sic] in the cradle didn't find its way into any first century sources because he knew that many historians in the future would adopt a historical method that would drive them to say that this story is a forgery. Or that Satan is currently the one responsible whispering into the ears of skeptics that the obvious conclusion to derive from a story being found in both the Qur'an and Infancy Gospel is that the Qur'an plagiarized the story.

(Sidenote – Zawadi refers to Jesus eating in the cradle when he meant to say speaking in the cradle. After all, what’s so miraculous about a baby eating in the cradle, unless by eating we assume that Jesus was eating solid foods as an infant?)

There is actually no need to disprove this since in actuality it is not that Satan made sure that the story of Jesus speaking in the cradle wasn’t written in any first century documents. Rather, my conviction is that Satan may have actually influenced Muhammad to adopt fables such as this one from these Christian apocryphal sources in order to dupe Christians of Muhammad’s time to believe that the Quran acknowledges the miraculous life and ministry of Jesus.

In other words, Satan tried to persuade Christians who did believe in these stories that Muhammad’s “revelation” truly did honor Christ and spoke the truth about him.

After all, which of Muhammad’s Christian contemporaries would have taken his claims seriously if he tried to denigrate Christ by denying his miraculous life? It was bad enough that he denied (albeit a mistaken view) of Christ’s Deity, but to deny his miracles would have been simply too much for the Christians to accept.

That Muhammad’s views of Christ were shaped by what Christians believed at that time can be easily demonstrated by Muhammad’s teachings concerning Mary. During his time the vast majority of Christians held to the perpetual virginity of Mary, i.e. the Lord’s mother remained a virgin even after giving birth to her blessed and glorious Son. This accounts for why the Quran fails to mention Mary’s fiancée/husband Joseph or that Jesus had siblings (cf. Matthew 1:18-25; Mark 3:31-35; Luke 1:27; 2; John 2:12, 7:1-10; Acts 1:14; 1 Corinthians 9:5; Galatians 1:19) since Muhammad was trying to win over the Christians of his day who held to Mary’s perpetual virginity.

In light of this it only makes sense that Satan would inspire Muhammad to include apocryphal fables into the Quran seeing that his Christian contemporaries actually believed these stories. Little did Muhammad (or even Satan) realize that these same stories would end proving that the Quran is not a revelation from the all-knowing God of the Holy Bible.

Zawadi raises the following objections:

If Muhammad was copying from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, or reliant upon it even indirectly, why were its crucial details omitted? The Quran does not mention the "soft" clay, the "twelve sparrows," Jesus' "clapping of hands" and his "crying" to the sparrows: "Be off..." It does not mention Jesus asking the sparrows to remember him and the sparrows noisily flying. In fact, the entire framework of the story is absent in the Quran (the sabbath story).

If the Quran was dependent upon the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, why would its Author omit so much - He omitted everything except for mentioning the miracle of the clay-bird?

The Quran only states that Jesus made a bird from clay and it transformed into an actual bird when he breathed into it. The Quran then emphasizes that this was God's miracle, done through Jesus (peace be upon him). Thus, it is highly unlikely that Muhammad had a copy of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas in his lap and was copying directly from it.

Could it be that Muhammad acquired this story indirectly, as it was circulating orally (with its ultimate source being the Infancy Gospel of Thomas)? This is "possible." Though one wonders, is it likely that the written story would later transmit orally in such a way that it was completely stripped from all the exciting details in its written form and a total absence of its framework? That seems quite improbable.

Not only is it possible that Muhammad acquired this story orally the Islamic sources actually say that this is precisely how Muhammad learned of this fable!

According to the sirah literature a group of Christians from Najran came to Muhammad to inquire of his views concerning the Deity of the Lord Jesus Christ. During their discussion these Christians mentioned the stories of Jesus speaking in the cradle and fashioning clay birds to prove that Christ is God. The first eighty verses of Q. 3 were then composed in direct response to the Christian claims:

… ‘The plain verses are the mother of the Book; the rest are obscure.’1

I heard a scholar above suspicion mentioning that these verses were sent down about the people of Najran when they came to the apostle to ask him about Jesus the son of Mary. (The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, with introduction and notes by Alfred Guillaume [Oxford University Press, Karachi, Tenth impression 1995], p. 257; bold emphasis ours)

1. Sura 3.5. (Ibid.)


A deputation from the Christians of Najran came to the apostle. There were sixty riders, fourteen of them from their nobles of whom three were in control of affairs, namely (a) the ‘Aqib the leader of the people, a man of affairs, and their chief adviser whose opinion governed their policy, ‘Abdu’l– Masih by name; (b) the Sayyid, their administrator who saw to transport and general arrangements, whose name was al-Ayham; and (c) their Bishop, scholar, and religious leader who controlled their schools, Abu Haritha b. ‘Alqama, one of B. Bakr b. Wa’il.

Abu Haritha occupied a position of honour among them, and was a great student, so that he had an excellent knowledge of their religion, and the Christian kings of Byzantium had honoured him and paid him a subsidy and gave him servants, built churches for him and lavished honours on him, because of his knowledge and zeal for their religion…

The names of the fourteen principal men among the sixty riders were: ‘Abdu’l-Masih the ‘Aqib, al-Ayham the Sayyid; Abu Haritha b. ‘Alqama brother of B. Bakr b. Wa’il; Aus; al-Harith; Zayd; Qays; Yazid; Nubayh; Khuwaylid; ‘Amr; Khalid; ‘Amr; Khalid; ‘Abdullah; Johannes; of these the first three named above spoke to the apostle. They were Christians according to the Byzantine rite, though they differed among themselves in some points, saying He is God; and He is the son of God; and He is the third person of the Trinity, which is the doctrine of Christianity. They argue that he is God because he used to raise the dead, and heal the sick, AND DECLARE THE UNSEEN; AND MAKE CLAY BIRDS AND THEN BREATHE INTO THEM, SO THAT THEY FLEW AWAY; and all this was by the command of God Almighty, ‘We will make him a sign to men.’ They argue that he is son of God in that they say he had no known father; AND HE SPOKE IN THE CRADLE and this is something that no child of Adam has ever done. They argue that he is the third of three in that God says: We have done, We have commanded, We have created and We have decreed, and they say, If He were one he would have said I have done, I have created, and so on, but He is He and Jesus and Mary. Concerning all these assertions the Quran came down.

When the two divines spoke to him the apostle said to them, ‘Submit yourselves.’ They said, ‘We have submitted.’ He said: ‘You have not submitted, so submit.’ They said, ‘Nay, but we have submitted before you.’ He said, ‘You lie. Your assertion that God has a son, your worship of the cross, and your eating pork hold you back from submission.’ They said, ‘But who is his father, Muhammad?’ The apostle was silent and did not answer them. So God sent down concerning their words and their incoherence the beginning of the sura of the Family of ‘Imran up to more than eighty verses… (Ibid., pp. 270-272; bold, capital and underline emphasis ours)


This sura is composed of 200 verses. It was revealed in Madina after sura 8, al-Anfal (The Booty). Commentators are generally agreed that the first eighty-odd verses were revealed concerning the Christian delegation of Najran, an ancient town in South Arabia.

Wahidi reports:

“Commentators have said that a delegation from Najran consisting of sixty horsemen came to the Messenger of God. Among them were fourteen of their notables. Three of these fourteen held special authority among their people. They were al-‘Aqib, ‘Abd al-Masih by name, who was the leader of the people and guardian of their affairs, and whose opinion was never opposed. The other was called al-Ayham who was the sayyid (chief) of the people and their leader. The third was Abu Harithah b. ‘Alqamah who was their bishop and religious leader (imam), and the head of their religious school (midras). He attained high honor among his people because he studied all their (sacred) books, so that he acquired great learning. Even Byzantine kings honored him, bestowing on him great wealth and building churches for him because of his great wisdom. These men came to the Messenger of God in his mosque at the time of the midafternoon prayers. They were clad in Yamani attire, garments and mantles. They were equal in elegance and beauty to the men of the tribe of Banu al-Harith b. Ka‘b. Those of the companions of the Messenger of God who saw them exclaimed, ‘We have never seen a delegation like them!’ When the time for their prayers had come, they arose and prayed in the mosque of the Messenger of God, and the Prophet said, ‘Let them pray.’ They thus prayed facing east. Then al-Sayyid and al-‘Aqib spoke with the Messenger of God and he said to them, ‘Accept islam!’ They answered, ‘We have been muslims long before you!’ He replied, ‘You do not tell the truth! Your claim that God has a son, your worship of the cross and your eating of the swine prevent you from being muslims.’ They retorted, ‘If Jesus were not the son of God, then who is his father?’ They thus debated with the Prophet concerning Jesus. He argued, ‘Do you not know that there is no child but that he must resemble his father?’ ‘Yes,’ they said. He continued, ‘Do you not know that our Lord is living and will never die, while Jesus is subject to extinction?’ They said, ‘Yes.’ The Prophet argued further, ‘Do you not know that our Lord has control over all things which He alone preserves and sustains?’ ‘Yes,’ they said. He said, ‘Does Jesus possess the power to do any of these things?’ ‘No,’ they answered. He then continued, ‘It is our Lord who formed Jesus in the womb as he willed [cf. verse 6, below]. Our Lord, moreover, neither eats, drinks, nor does he void. Do you not know,’ he went on, ‘that the mother of Jesus bore him in the same manner as women bear children, and delivered him as they do, and that he was then nurtured as would any child. Then he ate, drank, and voided.’ They consented saying, ‘Yes.’ The Prophet concluded, ‘How could it then be as you say!’ But they were silent. Thus God sent down concerning them the first eighty-odd verses of this sura” (Wahidi, pp. 90-91).

Tabari begins his commentary on this sura with the following general statement:

"It is related that God begins in revealing the opening of this sura as He does with the negation of divinity of any being other than He, and describes Himself as He does at its beginning [i.e., verse I] as an argument against a group of Christians who came to the Messenger of God from Najran. They debated with him concerning Jesus and manifested unbelief in God. God, therefore, sent down the first eighty-odd verses of this sura CONCERNING THEM and Jesus, and as an argument for His Prophet against them and any others who may have held similar views. Yet these men persisted in their rejection of faith and grave error. The Prophet called them to the mubahalah [i.e., praying to God and invoking His curse on those who are in the wrong; see verse 59, below], but they refused. They asked instead that he accept from them the jizyah poll tax. This he did, and they returned to their country. However, even if it may be true that they were primarily intended by God in this argument, nevertheless, any other people who share their rejection of faith in God by taking other beings beside Him as lords and gods worthy of worship, are likewise included in this divine reproof. They are also subject to the proof of the criterion (furqan) by which God judged between them and His Messenger” (Tabari, VI pp. 150-151).

Tabari then relates the tradition already cited from Wahidi, but on the authority of Ibn Ishaq, who reported in turn on the authority of Muhammad b. Ja‘far b. al-Zubayr. He adds that the men of Najran who spoke to the prophet were adherents of the “king’s religion,” perhaps meaning that they were Melkites.

Tabari asserts further that “Christians were nonetheless in disagreement among themselves, some saying that Jesus is God, others that he is the son of God, and, still others, that he is ‘the third of three’ [see Q. 5:73]. These are the claims of the Christians. They have argued in support of the claim that Jesus is God from the fact that he used to raise the dead, cure diseases AND FORETELL UNKNOWN THINGS. HE ALSO USED TO FASHION OUT OF CLAY THE SHAPE OF A BIRD, THEN BREATHE INTO IT, AND IT BECAME A BIRD (Q. 3:49 and 5:110). All this, however,” Tabari continues, “was by God’s permission, to make Jesus a sign for humankind. Christians have likewise argued that Jesus is the son of God in that they say that he had no known father. HE ALSO SPOKE IN THE CRADLE (Q. 3:46, 5:110 and 19:29), a thing which none of the children of Adam had done before him. They have contended that Jesus is ‘the third of three’ on the basis of God’s saying ‘We did,’ ‘We commanded,’ ‘We created’ and ‘We have decreed.’ They thus argue that had God been only one, He would have said, ‘I did,’ ‘I commanded,’ ‘I decreed’ and ‘I have created.’ This refers, therefore, to God, Jesus and Mary. It is concerning all these claims that Qur’anic verses were sent down. Thus, God informed His Prophet of their claims” (Tabari, VI, pp. 152-153). (Ayoub, The Qur’an and Its Interpreters: The House of ‘Imran [State University of New York (SUNY) Press, Albany 1992], Volume II, pp. 1-4; capital and underline emphasis ours)

The foregoing explains why Muhammad’s version of this apocryphal fable lacks “the exciting details” found in the “written form” and why “its framework” is missing.

These quotations serve to further answer and refute the following statements and challenges raised by Zawadi:

We need to bare in mind that similarity between a Qur'anic account and a Biblical (or non-Biblical) story is not proof of the former borrowing from the latter. They could have the same source as well. Why could it not be that a certain event occurred and eventually came to be recorded either in a Biblical or a non-Biblical writing and later Allah revealed to Muhammad (peace be upon him) the story as well? If a priori we reject the possibility of Muhammad's prophethood then we would have no choice but to look for a non-divine solution (i.e. that Muhammad either directly or indirectly borrowed a certain story). But if we are open to the possibility of revelation, miracles and Muhammad's prophethood, then the mere fact that two stories are the same or similar does not by itself negate the prophethood of Muhammad or that he received the information through fresh revelation. Only by a priori denying the possibility of revelation and miracles can we come to this conclusion. We need to ensure that we are not appealing to the fallacy of false cause when examining this issue.


- Similarity does not equal sameness: Christian apologists would claim that just because there are similar features between one story and another that doesn't necessarily imply that they are the same story, since it's very likely that a story told could be similar to another story in certain aspects, yet not totally the same.

The problem that Zawadi faces is that the Islamic sources which were just cited emphatically prove that Muhammad took the very exact story which he heard from this Christian group and included it within the Quran. This explains why the Quran’s story of Jesus creating clay birds is identical to the version narrated by the Christians from Najran, i.e. Muhammad acquired his information directly from the Christians who had obviously derived it from the apocryphal Christian Gospels which they had either read or heard. (It seems highly probable that in the case of Abu Haritha b. ‘Alqama he would have actually read this for himself since the Islamic sources claim he was very knowledgeable in the Christian scriptures.)(1)


- There is no evidence that pious Christians would have copied off pagan sources: Christian apologist Sam Shamoun said (bold emphasis mine):

If Smith wants to prove that Christianity borrowed from these pagan religions, not the other way, then he must establish the following:

- He must provide some pre-Christian evidence, whether archaeological inscriptions, artifacts etc., showing that these pagan stories existed before the time of Jesus.

- He must also show that such stories were not just in circulation, but that they were circulating in first century Palestine.

- He must then demonstrate that God-fearing, monotheistic Jews such as Christ's followers would be interested in plagiarizing such myths in the first place. (Sam Shamoun, The Alleged Pagan Origins of Christianity: Examining More of Abdullah Smith's Continuing Intellectual Suicide Mission, Source)

It is rather unfortunate that Zawadi actually thinks that my statements somehow apply to Muhammad’s situation when they do not. What Zawadi’s misapplication of my points shows is that he simply can’t prevent himself from repeatedly committing logical fallacies, in this case the fallacy of false analogy.

Be that as it may … according to the Muslim sources, (a) the clay bird story was already circulating before Muhammad composed his verses, (b) this story came to Muhammad’s attention by the Christian deputation from Najran, and (c) Muhammad adopted this fairy-tale into his Quran as a polemic against the claims made by these Christians in support of the Deity of Christ.

To be more specific, the Najran Christians believed that Jesus did the miracle of the clay bird and used it to prove his Deity. Muhammad took the conviction of these Christians that this story was a fact at face value. Little did he realize that this story was found merely in an apocryphal legend and not part of the canonical Scriptures. Muhammad accepted the story as fact, and only challenged their interpretation of it. The purpose of including this story in the Quran was meant to show that this incident does not establish that Christ was fully Divine. The situation would have been completely different if he had said: EVEN IF this story were true, it would not imply the deity of Christ, BUT MORE IMPORTANTLY, the story itself is not trustworthy because it is a late invention. Such a reply would have shown some amazing insight on the part of Muhammad. But as it stands, the Muslim sources themselves provide the evidence that Muhammad received this detail from the Christians and then incorporated it into the Quran through his reply (and later repeated it again in Q. 5).

Thus, Muhammad had both a clear reason and the means by which to include this fable into his Quran. So much for Zawadi’s false analogy.

This concludes the first part of our rebuttal. It is now time to move on to part 2.


(1) This same story is repeated in Q. 5:110, a surah which according to Muslim scholars was composed after Q. 3:

This Surah was revealed to suit the requirements of the changed conditions which were now different from those prevailing at the time of the revelation of Al-i-'Imran and An- Nisa… (Syed Abu-Ala' Maududi's Surah Introductions to the Qur'an)