When new religions come into being they are always confronted with the challenge of demonstrating to the world, or at least the local community, that they are authentic. No new religion can survive without a large enough pool of supporters to contribute adequate energy and resources to the religious community. And no new supporters will do so if they cannot be convinced that the religion they are supporting is for real. How does a new religion demonstrate that it is authentic? A number of strategies are typically employed, ranging from the recycling of authoritative religious symbols found in established religions (such as covenant, prophethood, and sacrifice), to the claim that the established religions have prophesied or otherwise proven that the new emergent religion would arise at some future time to represent God's will in a fresh and perfected form.
The environment out of which a new religion springs is never neutral, however, and emerging religions are always challenged by the religious establishment. Established religions attack emerging religions by claiming that they are inauthentic or that they make false claims and fail to make the case that they represent the true will of God. The production of claims and counter-claims, declarations and accusations, attacks and defense against attack, eventuates in the development of religious polemics and apologetics.
By the time Islam emerged into history during the seventh century, Jewish and Christian leaders and spokespeople had been engaged in heated debate and competition already for centuries. Each community energetically claimed to represent the only authentic expression of God's will, and each claimed with equal energy that its competitor did not. The lines of argumentation had long been drawn, and both communities had developed and honed their strategies of apologetic and polemic. Enter Islam, which claimed to correct the errors of both with its most sublime revelation of the Qur'an articulated by the last and most divinely beloved of God's prophets.
Muslim leaders, intellectuals, and activists invoked strategies of argument that were not radically different from the strategies of their Jewish and Christian competitors. One of these was the well-attested assertion that the new dispensation had previously been predicted or was publicly proven by reliable authority. This strategy is found already in the Qur'an (2:97; 26:192–96; 87:18–19).
I have found myself drawn to a different strategy based on the power of narrative to demonstrate the authenticity of Muhammad's prophethood. It is a story of special interest because not only does it occur in the canonical literature of Islam, but versions are found also in Jewish and Christian (and Samaritan) literature that contest this very strategy of authentication. The Jewish and Christian versions argue that Muhammad is not a prophet nor is his revelation authentic and take two forms. One is the tale of a Christian holy man who discovers through his esoteric wisdom that a very young Muhammad will grow up to become the most perfect prophet of God. The other, which I will consider here, is the story of Jewish sages who leave their own community and religion in order to follow the last of God's prophets, Muhammad ibn Abdullah.
The Muslim Story
The Muslim version of the story was most likely the earliest and derives from what were certainly real encounters between Muhammad and the Jews living in Arabia during his lifetime. The Qur'an refers repeatedly to Jews and the references suggest that most Jews refused to accept Muhammad's prophetic claims. The scriptural references are difficult to contextualize historically, but Islamic interpretive literature in the form of Qur'an commentary and oral tradition fill in the gaps. While most are polemical, the basic narrative—even if not the details— seems historically plausible. The Jews are interested in the new prophet, and the overall interest suggests that at least some Jews were expecting some kind of messianic or prophetic figure to come from Arabia (See Deut. 33:2 and especially Hab. 3:3, which has been read by some rabbinic and medieval Jews as a hint at a redemptive figure coming from Arabia). Some Jewish leaders seek him out to test his wisdom and authenticity, and one theme repeated in the sources has a good number of Jews, and even some of their rabbis (who are called chaver rather than rabbi in most sources), join up with Muhammad but eventually determine that he is not a true prophet. This is considered the ultimate hypocrisy in the Muslim sources, and many names of Jewish turncoats are listed in them. Some of the rabbis tested him with questions about esoteric matters, but they refused to follow him sincerely even after they admitted that he answered their questions correctly. They continued pestering Muhammad and tried to stump him publicly to embarrass him and disprove his claims. In the Muslim sources, however, every such attempt is defeated, often through Qur'anic revelation. According to a highly respected eighth-century biography of Muhammad, most of the first hundred verses of the second chapter of the Qur'an were revealed in order to confound the Jews who tried to stump Muhammad. In a very few cases, however, one or more rabbis realized or admitted the truth, and their conversion proved the truth of Muhammad's message. One such rabbi was Abdullah b. Salam, whose Jewish name may have been `Ovadia ben Shalom. In the Muslim version of the story, Abdullah understood from descriptions of Muhammad that "he was the one we were waiting for."
The Christian Story
A Christian angle on the story of Muhammad and the rabbis emerged early on. One of the first articulations is found in Theophanes' Chronicle, written in the late eighth/early ninth century. "When [Muhammad] first appeared, the Hebrews were misled and thought he was the Anointed One they expected, so that some of their leaders came to him, accepted his religion, and gave up of that of Moses, who had looked on God. Those who did this were ten in number, and they stayed with Muhammad until his death. But when they saw him eating of a camel they knew he was not the man they had thought. They were at a loss as to what to do; as they were afraid to give up his religion, they stayed at his side and taught him lawless behavior toward us Christians."
According to Theophanes, since the Jews had already erred by not accepting the true Anointed One, Jesus Christ, it is not surprising that they should run after a bogus diviner. They eventually figured out their mistake, but it was not their acumen in discerning truth from falsehood or any sense of spirituality that inspired them. What convinced them, rather, was their dry and spiritless Jewish dietary restrictions (Lev. 11:4/Deut. 14:7). Only after noticing Muhammad gobbling up camel meat did they realize they were wrong about him. Yet they didn't give up his religion because they were afraid of being killed. This would support the Christian view that Jews were anxious about death, unlike Christians, who as true believers, had confidence in death only of the body but not the spirit, and who trusted in a heavenly reward for being loyal to the true faith. And finally, it was the Jews who taught Muhammad all the negative attitudes toward Christians and Christianity that are found in the Qur'an and the subsequent religious literatures of Islam.
The Jewish Story
Two short and damaged early manuscripts containing the story, one in Hebrew and the other in Judeo-Arabic, were found in the Cairo Geniza. Just as in the Muslim and Christian versions, learned Jews come to Muhammad and befriend him but don't fully believe him. And as in the Muslim version their names are given. But the names provided in the Jewish versions are meant to show that some of the closest companions of Muhammad were not loyal followers, but rather Jews who only pretended to accept him. So, for example, the same Abdallah ibn Salam who accepted Islam in the Muslim sources was only pretending. And one of the Jewish sages who didn't really accept Muhammad's prophethood turns out to be the great caliph `Umar ibn al-Khattab, whose beloved Islamic nickname was Al-Faru- q, meaning "he who distinguishes truth from falsehood." Another was the very first caliph and Muhammad's closest ally, Abu- Bakr. Even Muhammad's son-in-law and cousin `Ali ibn Abi Talib (who inspired the emergence of Shi`ite Islam) was one of those Jewish infiltrators.
In the Jewish versions, the learned sages join Muhammad in order to protect their people from the overwhelming power of the Muslim empires and the coming degradation of the Jewish people. Exactly how these sages knew the future is not fully explained. In the Hebrew version, ten elders (`asara hazeqenim) came to him and wrote for him the Qur'an. Each one of them then inserted their names within it and also wrote a special code into chapter 2, called "The Cow." This is the same chapter that in the Muslim version refers so negatively to the Jews who refused to accept the prophethood of Muhammad. The code that the rabbis inserted into the Qur'an is constructed around a very interesting and enigmatic Qur'anic phenomenon: the so-called "mysterious letters" that preface a full twenty-nine of its chapters. Neither traditional Muslim scholars nor modern academic scholars of the Qur'an have been able to figure out why so many chapters are preceded by one, two, or three Arabic letters. The mystery is solved—or at least it is claimed to be solved by these medieval Jewish polemical texts—by the following story found in Judeo-Arabic from the Cairo Geniza.
This writing is the narrative of Muhammad . . . and those among the [Jewish] sages who inclined toward him and came and told him his affairs, and [who wrote] for him a book. They compiled and wrote their names in the beginning of a chapter of his Qur'an, and they compiled and wrote "Thus did the sages of Israel advise the dumb wicked man" hidden and confused so that he would not understand and become cursed . . . as those sages said to whomever would understand [the code] so as not to join up with the Gentiles [i.e. those who followed Muhammad] . . . These are the sages that came to him: Abraham, called Ka`b al-Ah.ba - r; Avshalom, called `Abdallah al-Silm; Jacob, called `Umar the Witness (or martyr) . . . These are the ten who came to him and Islamized through him so that nothing would harm Israel. They made for him a Qur'a-n and wrote and compiled their names, each one in a chapter without cause for suspicion. They wrote in the middle [of the] chapter "Thus did the sages of Israel advise the dumb wicked man." In the name of Allah, the Exalted, the Powerful, the Mighty, the Great, the Victorious, the Forgiving, the Master, the Creator, to whom everything belongs.
According to this story, Jewish sages feigned joining Muhammad and then counseled him in the writing of the Qur'an. Their purpose was to imbed proof within the Qur'an that it was a human document rather than the word of God in order to preserve fellow Jews from mistakenly joining the new faith. Exactly how this was done is not obvious, but it seems that the device is associated with the so-called "mysterious letters" of the Qur'an as well as hidden codes within the chapters through which the names of the ten sages can be deciphered. According to this narrative, then, the "mysterious letters" were actually codes imbedded within the Qur'an by Muhammad's Jewish companions, which when decoded, reveal that the Qur'an is not divine but the writing of a false prophet. It therefore cannot possibly supersede the sanctity of the Torah.
For example, the Arabic letters that preface the second chapter of the actual Qur'an are alef lam mim. According to Islamic tradition their meaning remains a mystery, though if they were joined together they would speak a word meaning "ache" or "pain" in Arabic. In Hebrew the three letters spell "dumb" as in "unable to speak." That word, then, was understood to have been planted in order to refer the knowledgeable Jewish reader to a verse from the Hebrew Bible containing the same word, which would prove that the prophet and his revealed scripture are not authentic. So the alef lam mim might refer to the word as it appears in Isaiah 56:10: The watchmen are blind, all of them, they perceive nothing; they are all dumb dogs (כְּלָבִים אִלְּמִים) that cannot bark; they lie sprawling, they love to drowse. By association, therefore, the mysterious letters thus refer to Isaiah 56:10 and mean "dumb," thus serving as proof (to a medieval Jew at any rate) that Muhammad is a false prophet. Very recently, after giving a talk about the relationship between the Qur'an and the Bible, an extremely well educated Iranian Jew approached me and told me confidentially that, if I was not yet aware, the Jews of Muhammad's generation actually wrote the Qur'an for him. The Jewish, Christian and Islamic versions of the story share motifs and attack their religious competitors, though they are of course directed against different targets. What they all share is a palpable tension and anxiety over the problematic determination of the end of prophecy and the authenticity of scripture. dogs that cannot bark; they lie sprawling, they love to drowse." By association, therefore, the mysterious letters refer to Isaiah 56:10 and mean "dumb," thus serving as proof (to a medieval Jew at any rate) that Muhammad is a false prophet. Very recently, after giving a talk about the relationship between the Qur'an and the Bible, an extremely well-educated Iranian Jew approached me and told me confidentially that, if I was not yet aware, the Jews of Muhammad's generation actually wrote the Qur'an for him.
The Jewish, Christian, and Islamic versions of the story share motifs and attack their religious competitors, though they are of course directed against different targets. What they all share is a palpable tension and anxiety over the problematic determination of the end of prophecy and the authenticity of scripture.