The Judeo-Christian Origins of Islam
By Ibn Warraq
Danish translation: Den jødisk-kristne oprindelse til islam
Source: Jihad Watch, July 11, 2011
Published on January 23, 2013

Originally published in 10 parts

As Patricia Crone once put it, “new religions do not spring fully fledged from the heads of prophets, old civilizations are not conjured away.” Islam did not somehow emerge fully developed, as the Islamic traditional accounts would have us believe, but slowly, over a long period of time, as the Arab conquerors came into contact with the far older cultures and civilizations, which pushed the Arabs to question and forge their own religious and cultural identity. Ever since the Nineteenth Century, when Western scholars, especially German, but also Italian, French, Hungarian, and British, began to examine Islam and the Koran in the same manner that they had begun examining the Old and New Testament, the debate has been as to determine whether it was Judaism or Christianity that contributed most to the creation of Islam. As Richard Bell, in his The Origin of Islam in Its Christian Environment [Edinburgh, 1925], expressed it, “That both Judaism and Christianity played a part in forming the doctrine of Islam and in preparing the spiritual soil of Arabia for its reception has long been recognised. How much influence is to be attributed to the one, and how much to the other, is difficult to decide. For much is common to both, and we have to remember that there were many forms of Christianity intermediate between the orthodox Church of the seventh century and the Judaism out of which it sprang, and it was in the East, on the confines of Arabia, that we know these Judaistic forms of Christianity to have longest maintained themselves. Some things in the Qur'an and in Islam which appear specially Jewish, may really have come through nominally Christian channels. But even with that allowance there is no doubt about the large influence exercised by Judaism.”


Adolf von Harnack [1851-1930], in his Die Mission und Ausbreitung des Christentums in den ersten drei Jahrhunderten [The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries] (1902, revised 1906, 1915, and finally 1924), wrote, “The large regions south of Palestine, Damascus, and Mesopotamia which bear the name of 'Arabia' were never civilized -- they were not even subdued -- by the Romans, with the exception of the country lying east of the Jordan and several positions south of the Dead Sea. Consequently we can look for Christians during our epoch only in the districts just mentioned, where Arabian, Greek, and Roman cities were inhabited by people of superior civilization. Immediately after his conversion Paul betook himself to 'Arabia' (Gal. 1.17), i.e., hardly to the desert, but rather to the province south of Damascus. Arabians are also mentioned in Acts 2.11…. There are no Arabic versions of the Bible previous to Islam, a fact which proves irrefragably that in its primitive period Christianity had secured no footing at all among the Arabs. Indeed it never secured such a footing, for the Arabic versions were not made for Arabs at all, but for Copts and Syrians who had become Arabians.”

Nonetheless, the Christian churches on the confines of Arabia exercised a certain amount of influence, and this influence came primarily from Syria in the north-west, Mesopotamia in the north-east, and Abyssinia in the west. The latter center may have exercised its influence across the Red Sea, but more probably by way of Yemen in the south, which was under Abyssinian rule for a while. However, as ever, scholars are divided as to the extent of the Christian presence in the Hijaz, that is, that part of Saudi Arabia that accommodates the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. For example, J.S. Trimingham, in his Christianity among the Arabs in pre-Islamic Times [London, 1979], remarks that: “Christianity was non-existent among the Arabs of western Arabia south of the Judham tribes.” In a chapter headed “Christians in the Hijaz,” after describing the history of Mecca according to the Muslim sources, plus its geographical location, he concludes that “these factors are sufficient to explain why Christianity in any of its available forms could have no influence upon its inhabitants.” Whereas another scholar, Irfan Shahid, in his Byzantium and the Arabs in the Fifth Century, observes that “Places with distinctly Christian association, such as Maqbarat al Nasara, the cemetery of the Christians, are attested in Mecca in later Islamic sources and these could not possibly have been fabricated.”

I believe that it is inadvisable, fruitless and unnecessary to rely upon late sources to establish the presence of Jews or Christians in Arabia, since, if the arguments of the revisionists inspired by the work of John Wansbrough are correct, Islam developed not in Arabia but much further north in the “the Sectarian Milieu” of Palestine and Syria. Thus we need only to examine the Koran itself to see that it is full of stories and motifs derived from the Old and New Testament. But such a scrutiny also yields further surprising results: many of the stories in the Koran, especially of Mary, mother of Jesus, have been taken from the apocryphal Gospels, which in turn derived them from older Buddhist texts.

William St. Clair Tisdall [1859-1928], in his The Original Sources of the Qur’an [London, 1905], gives us several examples of the probable source of the stories in the Koran. But it must be remembered that he was, in my opinion, working from false premises, since he accepted the entire Muslim traditional fairy tale about the compilation of the Koran, Muhammad, the Hadith, and the rest of One Thousand and One Night fantasies.

Tisdall begins with Surah XIX., Maryam, 28, 29, where we are told that when Mary came to her people after the birth of our Lord, they said to her,

"O Mary, truly thou hast done a strange thing. O sister of Aaron, thy father was not a man of wickedness, and thy mother was not rebellious."

Tisdall comments, “From these words it is evident that, in Muhammad's opinion, Mary was identical with Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron! This is made still more clear by Surah LXVI , At Tahrim, 12, where Mary is styled "the daughter of 'Imran," the latter being the Arabic form of Amram, who in the Pentateuch is called the father of "Aaron and Moses and Miriam their sister" (Numbers. xxvi. 59). The title "sister of Aaron" is given to Miriam in Exodus xv. 20, and it must be from this passage that Muhammad borrowed the expression. The reason of the mistake which identifies the Mother of our Saviour with a woman who lived about one thousand five hundred and seventy years before His birth is evidently the fact that in Arabic both names, Mary and Miriam, are one and the same in form, Maryam. The chronological difficulty of the identification does not seem to have occurred to Muhammad. … [Muslim] commentators have in vain attempted to disprove this charge of historical inaccuracy.”

Let us now see what the Qur'an and the Traditions relate regarding the latter.

In Surah III., Al 'Imran, 35,36 we read:—

"When 'Imran's wife said, ‘My Lord, verily I have dedicated to Thee what is in my womb, as consecrated: receive it therefore from me: verily Thou art the Hearer, the Knower.’ When therefore she bore her, she said, ‘My Lord, verily I have borne her, a female’ — and God was well aware of what she had borne, and the male is not as the female — ‘and verily I have named her Mary, and verily I commit, her and her seed unto Thee from Satan the stoned.’ Accordingly her Lord received her with fair acceptance, and He made her grow with fair growth, and Zacharias reared her. Whenever Zacharias entered the shrine unto her, he found food near her. He said, ‘O Mary, whence is this to thee?’ She said, ‘It is from God: verily God feedeth whomsoever He willeth, without a reckoning.’"

Tisdall continues, “In addition to and explanation of this narrative, Baidawi [died 1260 C.E.] and other commentators and traditionists inform us of the following particulars. ‘Imran's wife was barren and advanced in age. One day, on seeing a bird giving food to its young ones, she longed for offspring, and entreated that God would bestow on her a child. She said, ‘O my God, if Thou givest me a child, whether it be a son or a daughter, I shall offer it as a gift in Thy presence in the Temple at Jerusalem.' God heard and answered her prayer, and she conceived and bore a daughter, Mary. Jalalu'ddin tells us that the name of Mary's mother was Hanna. When she brought Mary to the Temple and handed her over to the priests, they accepted the offering and appointed Zacharias to guard the child. He placed her in a room, and permitted no one but himself to enter it; but an angel supplied her with her daily food.”

Returning to the Qur'an (Surah III.,41-46), we learn that, when Mary was older,

"The angels said, ‘O Mary, verily God hath chosen thee and purified thee, and He hath chosen thee above the women of the worlds. O Mary, be devout to thy Lord, and worship, and bow with those that bow.’ That is part of the announcement of the invisible; we reveal it to thee; and thou wast not with them when they threw their reeds (to see) which of them should rear Mary: and thou wast not with them when they disagreed. When the angels said, ‘O Mary, verily God giveth thee good tidings of a Word from Himself, whose name is the Messiah, Jesus Son of Mary, illustrious in the world and in the hereafter, and from among those who draw near (to God): and He shall speak to men in the cradle and when grown up, and He is of the Just Ones,’ she said, ‘My Lord, whence shall I have a child, since no human being hath touched me?’ He said, ‘Thus God createth what He willeth: when He hath decreed a matter, then indeed He saith to it, Be! — therefore it exists.’"

Tisdall comments, “In reference to what is said in these verses about 'casting reeds' or pens, Baidawi and Jalalu'ddin state that Zacharias and twenty-six other priests were rivals to one another in their desire to be Mary's guardian. They therefore went to the bank of the Jordan and threw their reeds into the water; but all the reeds sank except that of Zacharias, and on this account the latter was appointed her guardian."

Turning to Surah XIX., Maryam, 16-34, we find there the following narrative of the birth of Christ:

And in the Book do thou mention Mary, when she retired from her family to an Eastern place. Then apart from them she assumed a veil. Then We sent unto her Our Spirit; accordingly he showed himself to her as a well-formed human being. She said, ‘Verily I take refuge in the Merciful One from thee, if thou art God-fearing.’ He said, ‘Truly I am a messenger of thy Lord that I should give to thee a pure man-child.’ She said, ‘Whence shall I have a man-child, since no human being hath touched me, and I am not rebellious.' He said, ‘Thus hath thy Lord said, It is easy for Me, and let Us make Him a sign unto men and a mercy from us, and it is a thing decided.’ Accordingly she conceived Him: then she retired with him to a distant place. Then labour-pains brought her to the trunk of the palm-tree. She said, ‘O would that I had died ere this and had become forgotten, forgotten!’ Thereupon he called aloud to her from beneath her: ‘Grieve thou not; thy lord hath made a brook beneath thee. And do thou shake towards thyself the trunk of the palm-tree: it shall let fall upon thee freshly-gathered dates. Eat therefore and drink and brighten thy eye; then, if thou seest any human being, then say, Verily I have vowed unto my Lord a fast, therefore I shall surely not speak to any man today.’ Accordingly she brought Him to her people, carrying Him. They said, ‘O Mary, truly thou hast done a vile thing. O sister of Aaron, thy father was not a man of wickedness, and thy mother was not rebellious.’ Then she made a sign unto Him. They said, ‘How shall we speak to one who is a child in the cradle?’ He said, ‘Verily I am God's servant: He hath brought Me the Book and hath made Me a Prophet. And He hath made Me blessed wherever I am, and hath prescribed for Me prayer and alms, as long as I live, and to be well-behaved to My mother, and He hath not made Me violent, wretched. And peace upon Me the day I was born, and the day I shall die, and the day I shall be raised up alive.’ That is Jesus, Son of Mary; a statement of the truth, concerning which they doubt."

As Tisdall says, “We can trace every single matter here mentioned to some apocryphal source, as will be evident from the passages which we now proceed to adduce”.

Tisdall then quotes the Protevangelium of James the Less [the Younger] in reference to Mary's birth, without explaining what this text is: its authorship, date and original language, and so on. In fact, answers to these questions are exactly what is most significant and important. The Protoevangelium was accepted very early into liturgical collective manuscripts, and for that reason has survived in a large number of manuscripts and many versions. Comparatively recent discovery of a papyrus, now known as Papyrus Bodmer 5, dated to the 4th century, has helped scholar E. de Strycker to establish, what is now the best edition in Greek, in which language there exist 140 manuscripts. But there are also four manuscripts of the Protoevangelium in Syriac which probably originated in the 5th century. Then there are versions in Georgian, Latin, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopic, Slavonic languages, and in Arabic from the 10th century. The Protoevangelium circulated in the eastern area of the Church. Professor Wilhelm Schneemelcher of Bonn University describes the Protoevangelium’s contents, “Although it reaches the birth of Jesus and recounts it, it is really much more an account of the miraculous birth of Mary, the daughter of wealthy Joachim and his wife Anne, her upbringing in the Temple and her virginity, which is not impaired by the widower Joseph, to whom she is entrusted by lot, and by the birth of Jesus. Chapters 22-24 recount the murder of Zacharias, who is identified with the father of the Baptist”.

It purports to be the testimony of James, the brother of Jesus. In reality the book was probably not written before 150 C.E., though some chapters were possibly added later.

The first part of the translation of the Protoevangelium I give comes from Wilhelm Schneemelcher’s New Testament Apocrypha, Volume One [London, 1991], and the second part from Tisdall:

“And Anna sighed towards heaven, and saw a nest of sparrows in the laurel tree and
immediately she made lamentation within herself:
‘Woe to me, who begot me,
What womb brought me forth?
For I was born as a curse [before them all and ] before the children of Israel,
And I was reproached, and they mocked me and thrust me out of the Temple of the Lord.
Woe is me, to what I am likened?
I am not likened to the birds of the heaven;
for even the birds of the heaven are fruitful before thee, O Lord.
Woe is me, to what I am likened?
I am not likened to the beasts of the earth;
for even the beasts of the earth are fruitful before thee, O Lord.
Woe is me, to what I am likened?
I am not likened to these waters;
for even these waters gush forth merrily, and their fish praise thee, O Lord.
Woe is me, to what I am likened?
I am not likened to this earth,
for even this earth brings forth its fruit in its season and praises thee, O Lord.
“And lo! an angel of the Lord. stood by, saying unto her, ‘Anna! Anna! the Lord God hath hearkened unto thy petition; thou shalt conceive and shalt bear, and thy seed shall he spoken of in all the world.’ But Anna said, ‘As the Lord my God liveth, if I bear either male or female. I shall offer it as a gift unto the Lord my God, and it shall continue to do Him service all the days of its life.’ ...
But her months were fulfilled, and in the ninth month Anna brought forth. ...
And she gave breast to the child and called her Mary."

[The tale then proceeds to tell how, when the child was old enough to leave her mother, she was taken to the Temple at Jerusalem by Anna, according to her vow.] It then continues:

"The priest accepted her and kissed and blessed her and said, ‘The Lord God hath magnified thy name amid all the generations of the earth: upon thee at the end of the days shall the Lord God manifest the redemption of the Children of Israel.’ ...
But Mary was like a dove reared in the Lord's shrine, and she was wont to receive food from an angel's hand. But when she became twelve years of age, there was held a council of the priests, who said, ‘Lo! Mary hath become twelve years old in the shrine of the Lord, what therefore are we to do with her?’ ...
And lo! an angel of the Lord stood by him, saying, ‘Zacharias Zacharias! go forth and call together the widowers of the people, and let them bring each a rod, and to whomsoever the Lord God shall show a sign, his wife shall she be.’ And the heralds went forth throughout all the coast of Judaea, and the trumpet of the Lord sounded, and they all ran. But Joseph, casting away his adze, himself ran also into the synagogue: and having been assembled they went away unto the priest. And the priest took the rods of all, and went into the Temple and prayed. But having ended his prayer he came forth and gave to each one his rod, and there was no sign in them. But Joseph received the last rod. And lo! a dove came forth from the rod and flew up upon Joseph's head. And the priest said unto him, ‘Thou hast obtained by lot to receive the virgin of the Lord: receive her unto thyself to guard.’ ...
And Joseph, being affrighted, received her to guard. ...
But Mary, having taken a pitcher, went out to fill it with water. And lo! a voice, saying, ‘Hail, O highly favoured! the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.’ And she looked around to right and left [to see] whence this voice came. And having become alarmed she departed unto her house; and having set down the pitcher ...
she sat down upon the seat. ...
And lo! an angel of the Lord stood by, saying unto her, ‘Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found favour in God's sight, and thou shalt conceive from His Word.’ But Mary having heard considered in herself, saying, ‘Shall I conceive according as every woman beareth?’ And the angel saith unto her, ‘Not thus, Mary; for the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee, therefore also the holy thing that is to be born shall be called Son of the Highest: and thou shalt call His name Jesus."

The legend of Mary's being brought up in the Temple is found in many other apocryphal works besides the one we have here quoted. For example, in the Coptic "History of the Virgin" [Contributions to Biblical and Patristic Literature, ed. J. Armitage Robinson, Vol. IV No.2 Coptic Apocryphal Gospels, Translations by Forbes Robinson, Cambridge, 1896] we read:

"She was nourished in the Temple like the doves, and food was brought to her from the heavens by the angels of God. And she was wont to do service in the Temple; the angels of God used to minister unto her. But they used often to bring her fruits also from the Tree of Life, that she might eat of them with joy."

And in another Coptic work, entitled the "Story of the Decease of Joseph" [Ibid., p.132], the following passage occurs: "Mary used to dwell in the Temple and worship there with holiness, and she grew up until she became twelve years old. In her parents' house she abode three years, and in the Temple of the Lord nine years more. Then the priests, when they perceived that that virgin lived chastely and dwelt in the fear of the Lord, spake to one another, saying, ‘Let us seek out a good man and betroth her unto him until the time of the marriage-feast.’ ... And they forthwith summoned the tribe of Judah and chose out from it twelve men according to the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. The lot fell upon that good old man, Joseph."

Returning now to the Protevangelium, we are told that when the fact became known that Mary had conceived, Joseph and she were brought before the priests for judgment. The story then goes on:

"And the priest said, ‘Mary, why hast thou done this and hast humbled thy soul? Thou hast forgotten the Lord thy God, thou who wast brought up in the Holy of Holies and didst receive food at an angel's hand, and didst hear the hymns ... Why hast thou done this?’ But she wept bitterly, saying, ‘As the Lord God liveth, I am pure in His sight, and I know not a man.’"

Afterwards we are informed that Joseph and Mary went from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Failing to find room in the caravanserai at the latter place, they went to abide in a cave, and there the Lord Jesus was born. The words of the original, omitting as usual everything not connected with our present purpose, may be thus translated:

"And he found a cave and led her in ...
But I, Joseph, looked up into the heaven and saw the vault of the heaven stationary and the birds of the air trembling. And I looked upon the earth, and saw a dish laid out and workmen seated, and their hands were in the dish, and those who were raising [the food to their lips] did not raise it, and those who were putting it into their mouths did not put it in, but the faces of them all were looking upwards. And I saw sheep being driven, and the sheep stood still; but the shepherd raised [his crook] to smite them, and his hand remained aloft. And I looked to the torrent and saw kids, and their mouths were applied to the water and not drinking, and all things astounded."

The incident of Mary and the palm-tree as related above (Surah XIX., Maryam, 23-6) is apparently taken from the apocryphal work entitled "History of the Nativity of Mary and the Infancy of the Saviour," although, as we shall see, we can trace both accounts to a probably more ancient source. Now this work, Historia de Nativitate Mariae et de Infantia Salvatoris, or the History of the Nativity of Mary and the Infancy of the Saviour, is also called the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. Once again, Tisdall does not discuss dates or the origins of this apocryphal text. Professor Wilhelm Schneemelcher [op.cit.,Vol. One, p. 458] thinks this work was “written probably about Eighth or Ninth Century for the glorification of Mary as queen of the virgins”. If this is true, how would one account for it as a source for the stories in the Koran which, according to the Muslim accounts, reached its final form in about 650 C.E.?

However, another scholar, J. Gijsel, who has spent thirty years researching this text, collating more than 180 manuscripts, [in J. Gijsel and R. Beyers Libri de nativitate mariae (2 vols. CCSA 9-10; Turnhout: Brepols, 1997) pp. 59-67] dates Pseudo-Matthew [Ps-Mt] to the beginning of the 7th Century -- a date that still poses problems for those who accept the Islamic traditions. However, it is possible both the Koran and Pseudo-Matthew are drawing upon some earlier text. Gijsel, for example, is convinced that the Ps-Mt represents a revised and developed version of the Protoevangelium of James quoted earlier. But as Gijsel points out, we are dealing with radical re-writing and not mere editorial changes. Significantly, the story of the Infant Jesus and the palm tree does not appear in the Protoevangelium of James. It seems to me that we can confidently take Pseudo-Matthew as the source of the Koranic account. [See Review of J.Gijsel and R.Beyers by J.J.Elliot in Novum Testamentum XLII, 1, 2000, pp.97-99.]

However, as we shall see, Tisdall believes that both the Koran and the Apocryphal Gospel, perhaps unconsciously, are drawing upon a Buddhist text. Tisdall’s hypothesis does not necessarily contradict my account: it is a question of chronology and priority, and the texts available to the redactors of the Pseudo-Matthew. We are then presented with this possibility: Koranic account derived from Pseudo-Matthew which, in turn, is borrowing from Buddhist legends circulating freely in Syria and Mesopotamia from the earliest times.

Tisdall takes up the story, “In the book to which we have just referred, the event is connected with the Flight into Egypt. The tale records how the Holy Family started on the journey and for two days travelled on quietly. [The Pseudo-Matthew] then continues:—

"But on the third day after he had set out, it came to pass that Mary became exhausted in the desert through the excessive heat of the sun. When therefore she saw a tree, she said unto Joseph, ‘Let us rest a little while under the shadow of this tree.’ And Joseph hasted and brought her to that palm-tree, and took her down off her beast. When Mary sat down, she looked up to the top of the palm-tree, and seeing it full of fruit said to Joseph, ‘'I desire, if it be possible, to take of the fruit of this palm-tree.’ And Joseph said unto her, ‘I marvel that thou speakest thus, since thou seest how high the branches of this palm-tree are. But I am extremely anxious about water, for it has now been exhausted in our skin-bottles, and we have nowhere whence we can fill them and quench our thirst.’ Then the Child Jesus, who with joyful countenance lay in His mother the Virgin Mary's bosom, said to the palm-tree, ‘O tree, lower thy branches and refresh My mother with thy fruit.’ Instantly the palm-tree at this word bowed its head to the sole of Mary's feet: and they plucked the fruit which it bore, and were refreshed. And afterwards, when all its fruit had be plucked, the tree still remained bent, since it was waiting to rise up at the command of Him, whose command it had bowed down. Then Jesus said unto it, ‘O palm-tree, arise and be of good cheer, and be thou a companion of My trees that are in My Father's Paradise. But with thy roots open the spring that is hidden in the ground, and let water flow forth from that spring to quench our thirst.’ And the palm-tree instantly stood erect, and streams of very clear, cool, and very sweet water began to come forth from amid its roots. And when they beheld those streams of water, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy; and they with all their quadrupeds and attendants were satisfied and thanked God."

Tisdall continues, “Instead of connecting the palm-tree and the stream that flowed from beneath it with the account of the Flight into Egypt, the Qur'an, we have seen, connects them very closely with birth of Christ, representing Him as having been born at the foot of the tree, and at that moment (according to one explanation) directing the tree to let its fruit fall for Mary to eat, and telling her of the flowing streamlet. From its accordance with this apocryphal Gospel in this respect, it is evident that this explanation of the words of the Qur'an is more likely to be correct than the gloss which attributes the speech to Gabriel."

But we have now to inquire from what source the Qur'an borrowed the idea that Christ was born at the foot of a tree: and also what is the origin of the legend that the tree bowed down to let the mother and Child eat of its fruit. It is hardly necessary to say that for neither the one statement nor the other is there the very slightest foundation in the Canonical Gospels.

The source of both incidents is found in the books of the Buddhist Pali Canon, which, as we are informed in the Maha-Vamso, was reduced to writing in the reign of King Vattagamani of Ceylon, probably about 80 B.C. at latest. But it is very possible that very considerable parts of these Pali books were composed several hundred years earlier. The legends contained in them were, in later but still very early times, widely spread, not only in India and Ceylon but also in Central Asia, China, Tibet, and other lands. Buddhist missionaries are mentioned in Yesht XIII., 16, as having appeared in Persia as early as the second century before Christ. The influence which Buddhism exercised on thought throughout Western, as well as Central, Eastern and Southern, Asia was immense. Manichaism, Gnosticism and other heresies were largely due to this, as was the rise of Monasticism. Several passages in the apocryphal Gospels show that ideas of Buddhist origin had gained access to the minds of the writers of these spurious works, though doubtless these men were quite unaware of the real source of their inspiration. It was easy for Muhammad therefore to be misled in the same way; and we can point to the very passages in the Pali books which represent the earliest known form of the legends about the tree.

One of these occurs in the Nidanakatha Jatakam (cap. i., pp. 50-3). There we are told that when Maya, who was to be the mother of Gotamo Buddha, was with child and knew that her time was at hand, she obtained her husband Suddhodano's permission to return to her father's house to be delivered, according to the custom of that country. On the journey she and her handmaidens entered a beautiful forest, and Princess Maya greatly admired the abundant flowers which she saw on some of the trees. In the words of the passage to which we refer, the account of what then took place runs thus:

"She, having gone to the foot of a well-omened Sal-tree, became desirous of grasping a branch of the Sal-tree. The Sal-tree branch, having bent down like the end of a stick well softened with steam, came within the reach of the princess's hand. She, having stretched out her hand, seized the branch. ... Childbirth came upon her just as she stood, grasping the branch of the Sal-tree.

The differences between this and the account of Christ's birth as related in the passage in the Qur'an which we have quoted above are but slight. Muhammad mentions a palm-tree, the best-known of all trees to an Arab, in place of the species of flowering tree mentioned in the Buddhist book, since the Sal-tree of India does not grow in Arabia. Doubtless the legend had changed in this way in its transmission, as is generally the case in similar tales. The Indian legend intimates that the exertion made by Buddha's mother in reaching after the flowers growing on the branch above her head brought on the child's birth unexpectedly. The Qur'an seems to give no such good reason at all for the birth occurring below the palm-tree. But the stories are evidently one and the same. We notice here, as in the Qur'an, that the tree bent down its branches to let Maya pluck the flowers — or, as the Qur'an has it, let its ripe dates fall upon Mary.

The other account of this latter incident, — that given in the apocryphal Gospel, — is connected with the Flight into Egypt, when our Lord was an infant. This is parallel with what we read in the Cariya-Pitakam, (cap. i., poem ix.). There we are informed that in a former birth Buddha was a prince called Vessantaro. Having offended his people, he was banished from his kingdom, along with his wife and two little children. As they wandered towards the distant mountains, where they wished to find an asylum, the children became hungry. Then, the Buddhist narrative tells us: "If the children see fruit-bearing trees on the mountain-side, the children weep for their fruit. Having seen the children weeping, the great lofty trees, having even of themselves bowed down, approach the children."

It is clear that both the Qur'an and the author of the apocryphal "History of the Nativity of Mary" have unconsciously borrowed from Buddhist sources these particular incidents. This fact of course disproves the truth of the narrative.

Were proof required to show that, even as late as Muhammad's time, Buddhist legends were prevalent in Western Asia and were accepted as Christian history, it would be afforded by the existence of the tale of "Barlaam and Josaphat." This legend was written in Greek in the sixth century of the Christian era, as some hold, though it is more generally attributed to Johannes Damascenus, who flourished at the court of the Khalifah Al Mansur (A.D. 753-74). Josaphat, the Christian prince of the book, is undoubtedly Buddha himself, and his name is a corruption of Bodhisattva, one of Buddha's many titles. The main source of the tale is the Sanskrit legendary story of Buddha known as the Lalita Vistara. Yet Josaphat is a saint in both the Greek and the Roman Churches, in the former of which August 26 is sacred to him, in the latter November 27.

Another apocryphal gospel is of special interest, the Arabic Infancy Gospel. The textual history of this gospel is complex. It was very probably a translation from the Syriac, which was compiled sometime between the Fifth and the Sixth Century, and which in turn depended very much on the Protoevangelium of James, already mentioned, and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas [not to be confused with the (Coptic) Gospel of Thomas found at Nag Hammadi]. As J.K. Elliott, professor of New Testament Textual Criticism, University of Leeds, says, “Much of the material is embodied in the Syriac History of the Virgin”, a copy of which was discovered and translated by Sir E. A. Wallis Budge as The History of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the History of the Likeness of Christ [London, 1899]. Elliott continues, “Although there may be no direct link between the two, such comparisons reinforce the argument of the Syriac influence on the Arabic Infancy Gospel. Other links may be seen in the writings of the ninth-century Syriac father, Isho’dad of Merv, who seems to be aware of this Arabic Gospel in his commentary on Matthew”.

The first edition of the Arabic Infancy Gospel [AIG] was made in the Seventeenth Century by H. Sike, with the title Evangelium infantae vel liber apocryphus de Infantia Salvatoris, but the original Arabic text that he used has been lost. However, Arabic manuscripts have been discovered subsequently in Rome and Florence.

There are significant similarities between the Arabic Infancy Gospel and the Koran. Both talk of Jesus’ ability to bring clay models of birds to life, and to cure lepers. [AIG, 18,36; Koran 5,110] Both accounts present Jesus as a baby in the cradle giving an account of his respective mission in each religion in front of Mary:

Arabic Infancy Gospel, 1:

“We find what follows in the book of Joseph the high priest, who lived in the time of Christ. Some say that he is Caiaphas. He has said that Jesus spoke, and, indeed, when He was lying in His cradle said to Mary His mother: I am Jesus, the Son of God, the Logos, whom you have brought forth, as the Angel Gabriel announced to you; and my Father has sent me for the salvation of the world.”

Koran, Surah XIX, 29-34:

“But she pointed to the babe. They said: "How can we talk to one who is a child in the cradle?" He [Jesus] said: "I am indeed a servant of Allah: He hath given me revelation and made me a prophet; And He hath made me blessed wheresoever I be, and hath enjoined on me Prayer and Charity as long as I live; (He) hath made me kind to my mother, and not overbearing or miserable; So peace is on me the day I was born, the day that I die, and the day that I shall be raised up to life (again)"! Such (was) Jesus the son of Mary: (it is) a statement of truth, about which they (vainly) dispute.”


The Koran has references to only the Pentateuch and the Pslams. Moses’ name appears 136 times in the Koran, allusions far exceeding “those relating to other figures of the Islamic history of salvation, including Abraham.” [Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an, Vol. 3, s.v. “Moses” p. 419]. Bearing in mind the importance of Moses in the Koran, Patricia Crone and Michael Cook in their important work, Hagarism, put forward the thesis that the influence of the Samaritans was perhaps the decisive factor in the creation of the Islamic identity. The origins of the Samaritans are rather obscure. They are Israelites of central Palestine, generally considered the descendants of those who were planted in Samaria by the Assyrian kings, in about 722 B.C.E. The faith of the Samaritans was Jewish monotheism, but they had shaken off the influence of Judaism by developing their own religious identity, rather in the way the Arabs were to do later on. The Samaritan canon included only the Pentateuch, which was considered the sole source and standard for faith and conduct. The formula “There is no God but the One” is an ever-recurring refrain in Samaritan liturgies. A constant theme in their literature is the unity of God and His absolute holiness and righteousness. We can immediately notice the similarity of the Muslim proclamation of faith: “There is no God but Allah.” And, of course, the unity of God is a fundamental principle in Islam. The Muslim formula “In the name of God” (bismillah) is found in Samaritan scripture as beshem. The opening chapter of the Koran is known as the Fatiha, opening or gate, often considered as a succinct confession of faith. A Samaritan prayer, which can also be considered a confession of faith, begins with the words: Amadti kamekha al fatah rahmeka, “I stand before Thee at the gate of Thy mercy.” Fatah is the Fatiha, opening or gate.

The sacred book of the Samaritans was the Pentateuch, which embodied the supreme revelation of the divine will, and was accordingly highly venerated. Muhammad also seems to know the Pentateuch and Psalms only, and shows no knowledge of the prophetic or historical writings.

The Samaritans held Moses in high regard, Moses being the prophet through whom the Law was revealed. For the Samaritans, Mt. Gerizim was the rightful center for the worship of Yahweh; and it was further associated with Adam, Seth, and Noah, and Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. The expectation of a coming Messiah was also an article of faith; the name given to their Messiah was the Restorer. Here we can also notice the similarity of the Muslim notion of the Mahdi. We can tabulate the close parallels between the doctrines of the SAMARITANS and the Muslims in this way:

Muhammad, Hijra, Koran, Mt. Hira, Mecca

Under the influence of the Samaritans, the Arabs proceeded to cast Muhammad in the role of Moses as the leader of an exodus (hijra), as the bearer of a new revelation (Koran) received on an appropriate (Arabian) sacred mountain, Mt. Hira. It remained for them to compose a sacred book. Cook and Crone [CC] point to the tradition that the Koran had been many books but of which ‘Uthman (the third caliph after Muhammad) had left only one. We have the further testimony of a Christian monk who distinguishes between the Koran and the Surat al-baqara as sources of law. In other documents, we are told that Hajjaj (661–714), the governor of Iraq, had collected and destroyed all the writings of the early Muslims. Then, following Wansbrough, CC conclude that the Koran “is strikingly lacking in overall structure, frequently obscure and inconsequential in both language and content, perfunctory in its linking of disparate materials and given to the repetition of whole passages in variant versions. On this basis it can be plausibly argued that the book [Koran] is the product of the belated and imperfect editing of materials from a plurality of traditions.”

The Samaritans had rejected the sanctity of Jerusalem, and had replaced it by the older Israelite sanctuary of Shechem. When the early Muslims disengaged from Jerusalem, Shechem provided an appropriate model for the creation of a sanctuary of their own. The parallelism is striking. Each presents the same binary structure of a sacred city closely associated with a nearby holy mountain, and in each case the fundamental rite is a pilgrimage from the city to the mountain. In each case the sanctuary is an Abrahamic foundation, the pillar on which Abraham sacrificed in Shechem finding its equivalent in the rukn [the Yamai corner of the Ka‘ba] of the Meccan sanctuary. Finally, the urban sanctuary is in each case closely associated with the grave of the appropriate patriarch: Joseph (as opposed to Judah) in the Samaritan case, Ishmael (as opposed to Isaac) in the Meccan.

CC go on to argue that the town we now know as Mecca in central Arabia (Hijaz) could not have been the theater of the momentous events so beloved of Muslim tradition. Apart from the lack of any early non-Muslim references to Mecca, we do have the startling fact that the direction in which the early Muslims prayed (the qibla) was northwest Arabia. The evidence comes from the alignment of certain early mosques, and the literary evidence of Christian sources. In other words, Mecca, as the Muslim sanctuary, was only chosen much later, by the Muslims, in order to relocate their early history within Arabia, to complete their break with Judaism, and finally establish their separate religious identity.

There are many obscure passages in the Koran that can only be elucidated by reference to the Pentateuch or Psalms. Without going into the recondite philology of his arguments [for the details, see Michael Schub, The Secret Identity of Dhu l’Kifl, in ed Ibn Warraq, What the Koran Really Says, pp. 394-395], we can mention Michael Schub’s identification of the term “Dhu l’Kif”, which has puzzled commentators for centuries, with Melchizedeq mentioned in Genesis 14:16, Hebrews [NT] Chapters V and VII, Psalms CX. Melchizedeq is the one of who gets his share, who receives one-tenth of Abraham’s spoils, and who is to be ranked above the Levites, whose primary function under the Law was to collect the tithes, and that is precisely the sense of the Arabic Dhu l’Kifl.

Even more startling is the following example:

Surah III. 95-96; “Certainly the first house appointed for men is the one at Bakkah, blessed and a guidance for the nations. In it are clear signs: (it is) the Place of Abraham; and whoever enters it is safe; and pilgrimage to the House is a duty which men owe to Allah -- whoever can find a way to it. And whoever disbelieves, surely Allah is above the need of the worlds.”

Many translations simply add in brackets after Bakkah (Mecca), without a word of explanation. Modern Western commentators may add a footnote saying Bakkah was an alternative spelling of Mecca, as does the Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. The classical Arabic commentary known as Tafsir al-Jalalayn completed approximately in 1467 C.E says, “The use of Bakkah rather than Mecca reflects a Meccan dialect; it is called that because it bears down (bakka) on the neck of tyrants. The angels built it before the creation of Adam whereas al-Aqsa in Jerusalem was built after that.” Here is one Muslim translator’s comments, “Bakkah is the same as Makkah [Mecca] [referrring the reader to Al-Isfahani’s Dictionary of the Qur’an] from tabakk meaning the crowding together of men [Commentary of Fakhr al-Din Razi]. Others say it is from a root meaning the breaking of the neck, and the name is given to it because whenever a tyrant forced his way to it, his neck was broken [Razi]. Some think that Bakkah is the name of the mosque or the House itself that is in Makkah [Mecca]. The Jews and Christians are told that the Temple at Jerusalem was erected long after Abraham, while the Holy House at Makkah [Mecca] was there even before Abraham, and was in fact, the first House on earth for the worship of the Divine Being.” In other words, the Muslim commentators really do not have a clue as to its meaning.

Now here is an analysis by a little known scholar, André Regnier, writing in 1939 in the journal Le Muséon:

Sura 3, v. 96-97: “Lo! the first Sanctuary appointed for mankind was that at Bakka, a blessed place, a guidance to the peoples; Wherein are plain memorials (of Allah’s guidance); the place where Abraham (maqam Ibrâhîm)…” Then a pilgrimage to this house of worship is recommended. It is acknowledged that Bakka equals Makkah, Mecca. The commentary of the Galâlain, who represents current opinion, gives as the motive for this alteration the symbolic attachment to the root bakka, to crush, “Because Mecca crushes (or breaks) the neck of the proud”! Some philologists believe Bakka is a dialect pronunciation that confuses the two labials b and m. So be it, but it is strange that the other place where Mecca is mentioned in the Koran (sura 48, v. 24), it takes the form Makka (in a passage concerning the conquest of the city).
It so happens that our Bakka, which one finds a single time in the Koran, in a context relating to the site of worship and pilgrimage, corresponds to a Biblical word Baca, בָּכָא which one finds a single time in the Bible, in Psalm 84:6-7, precisely in a song of pilgrimage! If we look more closely, we find this: “Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion. As they go through the valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools.” Thus the pilgrims arrive in the courts of Zion.
Thus there is a similarity of theme, on the one hand a Koranic hapax and on the other a Biblical hapax, and finally, assonance of these two hapax. Let us add some secondary resemblances. First, the Hebrew berâkâh בְּ֝רָכֹ֗ות [Hebrew], some words after bâkâ' בָּכָא [Hebrew], echoes the Koranic mubârakan [Arabic] immediately after bakka [Arabic]. Then, the Greek version translated ma´yân, מַעְיָ֣ן [Hebrew: spring] as τόπος [topos] having read מׇעו֗ן [Hebrew] (dwelling); so does the Syriac, and the Vulgate with its “in valle lacrymarum, in loco quem posuit” [in the vale of tears, in the place which he has set]: so precisely does the Koran offer us a few words after bakka [A] (and making the latter more precise) its maqâm Ibrâhîm, venerated site and monument of the sacred enclosure: maqâm reflects τόπος, חעון [H].
Here are a few more observations: the versions translated הבכא [H] as if it were הבכה [H], moreover found in some manuscripts, “valley of tears”. But in order for בכא [H] to stick to the Arabic parallel *bk’ (to be deprived of milk, water, tears), it would signify on the contrary drought, supposing that baca, בכא [H] is a poetic and not a geographical term. In any case, someone reading the Hebrew could respect all the originality of this Baca, בָּכָא [H] and keep its form and pronunciation as for a proper name, without either translating it or interpreting it. And, despite the difference in root, the word bakka [A] resembles it as a proper name with the same assonance.
Some will maintain that all this is pure chance, in which case it must be admitted that chance creates singular coincidences. But since we are on the subject, there is something even more strange that we cannot accept as a product of chance: while הַבָּכָא בְּעֵמֶק [H] (in valle Baca, in the valley of Bacca) corresponds to bakka [A] for the characteristic element Baca, it happens that in Surah 48, v. 24, it is the other element, to wit בְּעֵמֶק, bə·‘ê·meq [H: the valley] that corresponds to bibatni makka [A] (the valley of Mecca), there where makka [A] receives its normal mim [Arabic letter “m” at the beginning of Mecca]! But we could also suggest that the two Koranic passages are allied in a certain dependence on the Hebrew verbal complex.
And so we retain the word Baca בָּכָא [H] as the radiant term of this first example.

This essay will be continued at a later date.