Prelude: Divine Guidance
Islam teaches that Allah sent communication to mankind at various times in history. This communication was through human messengers (prophets), who were directly inspired by Allah, and commanded to convey to their people the truth and guidance received through this revelation. Every true prophet of Allah must show people at least one miracle: something that is beyond human capability, a sign from God. A miracle (along with other factors, as we discuss later) is what proves that the prophet is indeed conveying a divine message, and that he is not just a philosopher, social reformer or charismatic leader.
Our knowledge is limited, subject to change, and confined to our experience in and of this world. Since we cannot directly perceive anything outside this life, we cannot know exactly how our conduct here impacts our fate after death. Human reason and experience might, arguably, be able to reach some realizations (about God, morality and divine justice) independently of divine revelation. But it is only by means of communication from outside this world that we could ever receive detailed knowledge of ultimate realities about the universe and our role in it. Individual spiritual experiences and human moral judgments can vary drastically between different people, especially in different cultures and time periods. This subjectivity makes these two sources unsuitable for the collective guidance of humanity. It makes sense for there to be some core of absolute values, corresponding to the essential, shared nature of humanity, and such common values can provide a basis for the smooth conduct of society.
All the prophets preached the same core message of the necessity of worshipping God alone, of belief in the institutions of scripture and prophethood, and of human accountability, belief in the Day of Judgment and life after death.
“Verily, we raised up in every nation a messenger [saying]: Worship Allah, and shun the false objects of worship.” [Quran, ]
The messages of different prophets might sometimes have diverged in practical details of rituals and laws, such as how many times a day to pray, when to fast, and whether a particular type of food is permissible to eat. Some of the prophets definitely received revealed books, while others may or may not have.
The Revealed Books
We do not know exactly how many prophets and scriptures there have been over human history. The Quran tells us about the following scriptures, and these are therefore the ones we are sure were genuine revelations:
- The Torah was given to Moses (peace be upon him). The Quran affirms that the Torah contained light and guidance, and was a source of law and detailed explanation. [5:44, 6:154] Among the Mosaic laws mentioned in the Quran are those of retaliatory retribution:
“And We prescribed for them therein: a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth, and for wounds is legal retaliation. Whoever does not judge by what Allah has revealed, they are the unjust.” [Quran, 5:45-46]
- The Injeel was given to Jesus (peace be upon him). It confirmed the Torah before it, and apparently also instituted some new regulations. (see: Q[3:50, 5:46-7]) Both the Torah and the Injil also foretold the coming of Prophet Muhammad, contained descriptions of the pious, and advocated just war. [Quran, 7:157, 48:29, 9:111]
- The Zaboor was given to David (peace be upon him). Amongst its original contents is the promise of establishment in the earth for the righteous. (see: Q[4:163, 21:105])
- The Qur’an was given to Muhammad (peace be upon him), and is the final scripture. We return to discuss it shortly.
There were also some scrolls (suhuf) that were given to Abraham and Moses (peace be upon them both).”Successful is he who purified himself, and remembered the name of his Lord, so that he prayed. Nay, but you prefer the life of this world, while the Hereafter is better and more lasting. Verily, this is in the former scrolls. The scrolls of Abraham and Moses.” [Quran, 87:18-19]”Or, has he not been informed of that which was in the scrolls of Moses, and of Abraham, that no laden soul shall bear the burden of another, and that mankind shall have nothing but that for which he strives, and that his effort shall be seen, then he shall be given the fullest recompense.” [Quran, 53:38]
Status of the Earlier Scriptures
The former books were revealed as guidance for the people of those times and places. Those people who followed the original books sincerely were rightly guided. However, over time, the earlier messages became changed through distortion, forgetfulness, interpolation and editing.
“They distort words from their context, and they have forgotten a portion of that with which they were reminded.” [Quran, 5:13,15,41]
“Do you, then, hope that they will believe in you, when a group of them used to listen to the word of Allah, and then distort it knowingly after they had understood it? . . . . Woe, then, to those who write the scripture with their own hands, and then say, ‘This is from Allah,’ in order that they might purchase thereby a meager price. Woe to them for that which their hands have written, and woe to them for that which they earn (thereby)!” [(2) Al-Baqarah, 75, 79]
At least a part of the distortion involves distorting the meaning rather than the text of scripture:
“Among them is a group who twist the scripture on their tongues, that you might think [what they are saying] to be from the scripture, while it is not from the scripture. And they say it is from God, while it is not from God. They knowingly utter a lie against God.” Q[3:78]
Original scripture can also become lost and dispersed through editing or redaction. Moses brought a book, the Torah, which in time became five different books that are almost certainly written by some person(s) after Moses’ time. (Note, for instance, the words, “And Moses died. And there arose not a Prophet since in Israel like unto Moses.” )
“Say, Who sent down the book that Moses brought as a light and guidance for mankind, [and] which you make into pages that you show, and [yet] hide much” [6:91]
Similarly, there is no longer a Gospel of Jesus, but rather numerous biographical accounts, each of which is now called a Gospel, and which together probably contain remnants of the original Injil. The dominant thread of Christianity chose four Gospels to include in the Bible, but there were others that they decided to omit.
Many regulations in the earlier scriptures were revealed specifically for their own lifetime. A new message from God might institute some changes in what He now expects from people. Therefore, even if the original forms of the former books were extant today, it would not be allowed to follow them over the Quran.
“And We revealed the Book to you (Muhammad, (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) with the truth, confirming that which is before it, and a controller over it.” [Quran, 5:48]
On the other hand, if we are certain that a certain regulation was part of a former scripture, while the Quran does not legislate anything on the matter (and nor does the authentic Sunnah), then many Muslim scholars are of the view that the original regulation remains in force. (As noted earlier, we cannot be certain of the reliability of the material in the present forms of the earlier books. Therefore, for practical purposes, the continued applicability of earlier laws is generally restricted to instances where the Qur’an or authentic hadiths affirm that something was a part of an earlier revelation.)
The contents of the existing forms of the earlier scriptures can be divided into three categories:
- That which is affirmed by the Qur’an and/or Sunnah. Such material we know to be true, and it is very possible (even certain, in some cases) that it is a remnant of the original forms of the earlier revealed books.
- That which is refuted or contradicted by the Qur’an and Sunnah, and which we therefore conclude to be false and the result of tampering with the earlier revelations.
- That which the Qur’an and Sunnah are silent on, neither affirming it nor refuting it. Such material has a chance of being true. Another hadith tells us, “Do not affirm the People of the Book, nor rebut them, but say: ‘We believe in Allah and in whatever has been revealed to us, and whatever was revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and the tribes, and whatever Moses and Jesus were given, and whatever the [other] prophets were given from their Lord.’ [Surah al-Baqarah]” [Bukhari]
The Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) has said,
“Relate from the children of Israel, and there is no blame.”
[Part of a hadith narrated by Bukhari and others]
This obviously refers to the third category cited above. Imam al-Shafi`I said: “It is known that the Prophet would not give permission to relate lies, and so the meaning [of the hadith] is: Relate from the Children of Israel what you do not know to be lies.” Hence, such material can be used, as tentative divine knowledge and as a historical source, entertaining a possibility of its being true, but without certitude.
There are some ahadith that apparently prohibit referring to Judaeo-Christian books. For example, `Umar (may Allah be well pleased with him) once told the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) that he had some parts of the Torah, and asked if he could show them to him. The Prophet’s face changed (showing his anger), whereupon `Umar said, “I am pleased with Allah as Lord, Islam as religion and Muhammad (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) as Messenger.” The Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) said, “By He in Whose Hand is my soul! Even if Moses (peace be upon him) were to arrive in your midst, and you were then to follow him and leave me aside, you would surely have gone astray.” [Narrated by Ahmad]
The matter can be reconciled in (at least) two ways:
- The prohibition can be taken as being on taking and implementing problematic beliefs, regulations and laws from those sources. The permission is then regarded as being for narrating stories containing useful lessons or morals consonant with the Qur’an and Sunnah. Similarly, it would be permissible for someone with a sufficient grounding in Islamic knowledge to study the Bible to get a better understanding of Judaism and Christianity, which could be helpful for presenting the message of Islam to Jews and Christians.
- The prohibition can be taken as applying to people who do not yet have sufficient grounding in knowledge of the basics (especially beliefs) of Islam to be able to distinguish between material of the three categories in those sources, and/or who might become confused or misled by reading them.