[This article draws on material that has previously appeared in earlier versions in blogs on the https://www.Islamicity.com website]
The Harmony and Resonance of Qur'an and Torah
Rabbi Allen S. Maller
Some Christian missionaries, who are interested in proving the superiority of the Bible to the Qur'an, say that the Christian Bible (the Old Testament and the New Testament) is the true word of God while the Qur'an is not. They try to prove this by asserting that when the Qur'an's narratives differ from the Bible's narratives about the same event; the Qur'an must be wrong. I am a Reform Rabbi who has studied the Hebrew Bible in its original Hebrew language for over sixty years.
I have always found that the advice Prophet Muhammad gave his adherents in the following hadith narrated by Abu Huraira to be the best guide to understanding all of God's Sacred Scriptures: "The people of the Book used to read the Torah in Hebrew and then explain it in Arabic to the Muslims. Allah's Apostle said (to the Muslims). "Do not believe the people of the Book, nor disbelieve them, but say, 'We believe in Allah, and whatever is revealed to us, and whatever is revealed to you.' " (Bukhari book 92 #460 and book 93 #632) I myself follow this profound advice.
There are many forms of anti-Muslim activity in the world today. Some of them are political, and relate to political terrorism and foreign policies, both economic and political. Other forms of anti-Muslim activity are semi-religious; involving attacks on the Qur'an's teachings, and the evils and dangers of Shari'ah law. And some are completely religious. They use polemical arguments from the books of 18th and 19th century Christian Missionaries, who claim that Muhammad made lots of mistakes in the Qur'an when he refers to events that occur in the Bible. This they claim, proves that Muhammad was a false prophet, and therefore Islam is a false religion.
In reality, their writings are simply evidence of a truth, declared in the Merchant of Venice [1. 3i. 93] by William Shakespeare, who wrote, "The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose; an evil soul producing holy witness."
In reality, the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Qur'an; all have verses that seem to be in conflict with other verses in the same Holy Scripture. The task of commentators, religious scholars and theologians is to explain under which conditions and circumstances the opposing verses apply. People who are well educated in their own religion know this to be true, and they know that these religious scholars often disagree with each other. Some of these religious scholars lived in harsh and violent times and their explanations are harsh and extreme.
Those who are pious, but poorly educated in the various aspects of their own religion, do not realize that there are always other perspectives on how and when these contending and opposing verses should be applied. These pious, but poorly educated people, simply believe in their teacher of Holy Scripture, rather than believing in the One who inspired the Holy Scripture.
For example, according to the anti-Muslim polemical website “inthenameofallah.org”, the Bible clearly describes TEN miraculous plagues in Exodus 7.14 to 12.36; and the Qur'an wrongly says there were NINE. He also adds that, in the Qur'an, the order of the plagues, and even what the plagues were, differs from what is described in the Book of Exodus in the Torah. But this polemicist does not mention that the Torah never specifically refers to them as TEN plagues.
The Torah lists these events as preceding the many times when Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh to demand freedom for the Children of Israel to leave Egypt, and return to their homeland.
There probably were other disasters that befell Egypt during these years; when Prophets Moses and Aaron were not sent to confront Pharaoh yet again. Also, this anti-Muslim polemicist avoids mentioning (or doesn't know) that Psalm 105:23-36 lists NINE miracle plagues. And these NINE plagues are not listed in the same order as in Exodus. Should we then believe that King David, the author of most Psalms, did not know the number or order of the plagues? Or is it not wiser and more honest to start with the premiss that both Prophets Moses and Muhammad were inspired by the One and only God; to deliver God's message of guidance for living a holy life to different people, at different times, who were living in different circumstances. So, when there are differences between the Bible and the Qur'an; they are not contradictions but rather differences in emphasis due to the different historical needs of each religious community.
For those who want to understand the details, let us examine them. The Qur’an does twice refer to NINE signs: "To Moses We did give NINE Clear Signs: ask the Children of Israel: when he came to them, Pharaoh said to him: "O Moses! I consider you to have been worked upon by sorcery!" (17:101) and "Now put thy hand into thy bosom and it will come forth white without stain: (one) among the NINE SIGNS (you take) to Pharaoh and his people: for they [the Egyptian nobility] are a people rebellious in transgression. (27:12) Why does the Torah call them plagues while the Qur'an calls them signs? First of all, the Torah does not call all of them, or even most of them plagues.
The Torah refers to them as 'wonders' (Exodus 3:20); as 'plagues' (9:14 "one more plague 11:1); and most often as 'signs' (first sign 4:8, these two signs 4:9, signs 4:30, 'my signs' 7:3, 10:1-2). However, the Torah mostly just describes the events that happened, and Pharaoh's stubborn refusal to let the Children of Israel go free. Most of these events, like the locusts, had happened before and would happen again. If the Egyptians felt they were, as Moses claimed, punishments from God for enslaving the Jewish people, it is because they felt guilty about Pharaoh's oppressive policy.
The Qur'an's referral to these events as signs is closer to what the Torah actually says, then the popular idea that Egypt was struck by exactly ten events that were called plagues. The plagues as listed in the Torah are: (1) Waters turn to Blood (2) Frogs (3) Lice (4) Swarms of Wild Beasts (5) Livestock Epidemic (6) Boils (7) Hail (8) Locusts (9) Darkness (10) Death of the First Born.
The reason the Qur'an refers to Nine Signs according to one Muslim commentator, is to teach us that the death of all the first born in Egypt (Exodus 11:5) occurred after the Jews had already left Egypt, and were on their way to return to the Land of Israel. Thus, the tenth plague was limited to Pharaoh and all those charioteers who pursued the escaping Jews, and drowned in the Sea of Reeds. (Exodus 15:28)
I must say that as a Reform Rabbi I respect this insight into the difference between the Torah and the Qur'an very much. Although the Qur'an does state the responsibility of "Pharaoh and his people: for they are a people rebellious in transgression." (Qur’an 27:12), most Reform Jews are bothered by the "death of the first born" because it seems to also include children who were not responsible for supporting Pharaoh's oppression of the Children of Israel. This interpretation limits Egyptian deaths to Pharaoh, his eldest son, and those of his first born charioteers who pursued the escaping Jews, and drowned in the Sea of Reeds. If it seems strange to you that a Rabbi, who is a faithful believer in Reform Judaism, might respect an Islamic insight into an aspect of Torah, I should explain how this came about. I am a Reform Rabbi who has had an appreciation for Islam since the age of ten, when I learned in my synagogue's Hebrew school about the Golden Age of Medieval Judaism in Muslim Spain.
A decade later I studied Islam when I was a student at UCLA 63 years ago, and then I studied Islam again while I was in Rabbinical school while studying Medieval Jewish Philosophy. Over the years as I continued to read the Qur'an, Ahadith and other Islamic books, I came to think of myself as both a Reform Rabbi and an Islamic Jew; because I am faithful to my commitment to submit to the One God who liberated the Jewish People from oppression in the land of Egypt, and made a covenant with the People of Israel through Prophet Musa. In many ways I think of Muhammed as a Prophet of Reform Judaism as well as the great Prophet of Islam. In the generation of Prophet Muhammad, almost all Jews were Orthodox Jews.
Today in North America, Orthodox Jews are a small minority of all Jews, and Reform Jews are the largest denomination, although in Israel the Orthodox minority is much stronger and Reform Jews are a smaller minority. Reform Judaism began over 200 years ago. If Orthodox Rabbis had followed some of the teachings of Muhammad during his lifetime, Reform Judaism would have started almost 14 centuries ago. This is why I think of Muhammed as a prophet of Reform Judaism. In England Reform Judaism is called Liberal Judaism.
So following Prophet Muhammad's teaching I neither believe nor disbelieve in the Qur'an. I do respect the Qur'an very much as a kindred revelation, first given to a kindred people, in a kindred language. In fact, the Arab people, the Arab language and the Muslim understanding of the unity of God are closer to my own people, language and concept of God than that of any other religious community on earth. Islam teaches clearly that God does not have just one people or one true religion. Rather, God chose not to create human beings as one nation or with only one religion so that each religion could compete with all the others in order to see which religion produces the highest percentage of moral and loving people; and which people best embody in their personal and communal lives the moral teachings of their prophet.
As it is written in the Qur'an [5.48] "For every one of you did We appoint a law and a way. If Allah had pleased He would have made you one people, but (He didn't) that He might test you in what He gave you. Therefore compete with one another to hasten to virtuous deeds; for all return to Allah, so He will let you know that in which you differed." This is a wonderful further development of the teaching of the Biblical prophet Micah (4:5) that in the end of days-the Messianic Age "All people will walk, each in the name of their own God, and we shall walk in the name of the Lord our God forever."
As a Reform Rabbi I believe that Rabbis should modify Jewish traditions to prevent them from making religion too hard to practice. This is an important teaching in the Qur'an (7:157) and one that prophet Muhammad taught 12 centuries before the rise of Reform Judaism in the early 19th century. As Abu Huraira related: The Prophet said, "Religion is very easy and whoever overburdens himself in his religion will not be able to continue in that way. So you should not be extremists, but try to be near to perfection and receive the good tidings that you will be rewarded." (Bukhari book 2 #38)
I believe the Qur'an and the Torah complement each other, and why it is false and narrow minded to say that one contradicts the other. There are many differences between similar narrations in the Qur'an and in the Torah. For example, both the Qur'an and the Torah relate events concerning the oppression of the Jewish people in Egypt, and how God sent Moses/Musa to liberate the Jews from persecution by Fir'aun/ Pharaoh. Many Christian missionaries, and many socalled objective university professors, often point to the mention of Haman, a famous anti-semite who lived in Persia more than eight centuries after the Exodus, as an example of Muhammad's ignorance of history. This is absurd.
The Qur'an mentions Haman to show that God has saved the Children of Israel from persecution by more than one Pharaoh and in more than one land. This is a statement of God's enduring commitment to helping the weak and the oppressed. Let us read the passage together. “Now a man of the tribe of Levi married a Levite woman, and she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. When she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him for three months. But when she could hide him no longer, she got a basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch. Then she placed the child in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile. His sister stood at a distance to see what would happen to him.” (Exodus 2:1-4)
“In truth We recite to you some of the news of Moses and Pharaoh, for people who believe (in this Quran and the Oneness of Allah). Verily, Pharaoh exalted himself in the land and made its people sects, weakening (oppressing) a group (the children of Israel) among them, killing their sons, and letting their females live. Verily, he was of the Mufsideen (great oppressors or tyrants). And we wished to do a favor to those who were weak (and oppressed) in the land (of Egypt), and to make them (the Children of Israel) rulers and inheritors, and to establish them in the land (of Israel), and We let Pharaoh and Haman and their hosts receive from them, that which they feared. We inspired the mother of Moses, saying: "Suckle him (Moses), but when you fear for him, then cast him into the river and fear not, nor grieve. Verily! We shall bring him back to you, and shall make him one of (Our) Messengers." (Qur'an 28:3-7).
In the next few verses the Qur'an gives us some extra details explaining how Musa's mother felt at the loss of her son, as well as why Pharaoh's daughter did not hire an Egyptian foster mother for Moses. The Qur'an stresses the lesson that bad events often eventually turn into good outcomes, so one should trust in God and not become depressed. Once again the parallel between Pharaoh, done in by his daughter's saving Moses from death, and Haman, done in by Esther, who only became Queen because Haman helped get rid of the previous Queen, is stressed. Those who plan evil are often done in by their very one actions.
Then Pharaoh's daughter went down to the Nile to bathe, and her attendants were walking along the riverbank. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her female slave to get it. She (the slave or Pharaoh's daughter) opened it and saw the baby. He was crying, and she felt sorry for him. "This is one of the Hebrew babies," she said. Then his sister asked Pharaoh's daughter, "Shall I go and get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?" "Yes, go," she answered. So the girl went and got the baby's mother. Pharaoh's daughter said to her, "Take this baby and nurse him for me, and I will pay you." So the woman took the baby and nursed him. When the child grew older (two years later), she took him to Pharaoh's daughter and he became her son. She named him Moses, saying, "I drew him out of the water." (Exodus 2:5-10)
Then the household of Pharaoh picked him up, that he might become for them an enemy and a cause of grief. Verily! Pharaoh, Haman, and their hosts were sinners. And the wife of Pharaoh said; "A comfort of the eye for me and for you. Kill him not, perhaps he maybe of a benefit to us, or we may adopt him as a son." And they perceived not (the result of that). And the heart of the mother of Moses became empty (lonely). She was very near to disclosing his (being her son), had We not strengthened her heart (with Faith), so that she might remain as one of the believers. She said to his (Moses's) sister: "Follow him." So she (his sister) watched him from a far place secretly, while they perceived not. We had already forbidden (other) foster suckling mothers for him, until she (his sister came and ) said: "Shall I direct you to a household who will rear him for you, and sincerely look after him in a good manner?" So did We restore him to his mother, that she might be delighted, and that she might not grieve, that she might know that the promise of Allah is true. But most of them know not. (Qur'an 28:8-13)
We see again that the differences between the Qur'an and the Torah are the result of different lessons being derived from the same events. These different lessons are not in opposition to one another; they complement and enrich each other. When we follow Muhammad's teaching to "believe in Allah, and whatever is revealed to us, and whatever is revealed to you" we always gain a better understanding of God's will and of our own Sacred Scriptures.