As an Atheist with an interest in all things religious, I often get asked “Why focus on religion so much if you don’t believe it?” It always seemed a rather odd question to me. It is unlikely that one can understand the World we live in, and the social history that produced us, without a fundamental understanding of the overwhelming power that organised faith has had upon the World across the brief history of mankind. Religion has sparked wondrous works of creative genius, and terrible moments of oppressive atrocity. It is woven into the fabric of human history. It is this that fascinates me.
Subsequently, as a non-believer, I am drawn to the mysteries surrounding Holy texts and from where they sprung. As Atheists, we dismiss the idea that Holy texts are divine in any sense, and so we must seek to provide more plausible explanations for their existence. For me it is impossible to deny that the Qur’an is a fascinating historical document.
I am quite certain that the Qur’an was written down for the sake of empire. It is an imperial book, and it has control at its core. As noted in a previous article, the earliest Quranic manuscript we have dates back to the reign of Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan, a ruler who embarked on a massive imperial PR campaign – continued by his son – with the purpose of solidifying his fledgling empire, by linking it back to the founder of the faith. Muhammad’s name starts to appear on coins in 686 – a year after al-Malik’s accession, he oversaw the building of the Dome of the Rock, and it was during his reign, that the state and the new faith become one and the same. The Arabic empire, becomes an Islamic empire.
But let’s for a moment entertain the idea that the Qur’an came entirely from the mouth of Muhammad over the space of twenty years. It is important to note that we non-believers are quite certain that the Qur’an offers nothing new in terms of explanation or advancement in the sciences, nor anything that couldn’t have been produced without the need for a God. Even in the 7th Century. It then follows that the stories in the Qur’an must have came from elsewhere. Once we have evidence for this, the divinity of the Qur’an becomes entirely unnecessary.
A couple of stories in particular feature in the Qur’an, that also feature elsewhere, and prior to the Qur’an. The subject of Jesus’ youth was an important issue for early Christianity, and spawned plenty of different tales, mainly due to its omittance from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. One later Gnostic story in particular features in Qur’an 3:49:
“And (make him) a messenger to the Children of Israel (saying): I have come to you with a sign from your Lord, that I determine for you out of clay the form of a bird, then I breathe into it and it becomes a bird with Allah’s permission, and I heal the blind and the leprous, and bring the dead to life with Allah’s permission; and I inform you of what you should eat and what you should store in your houses. Surely there is a sign in this for you, if you are believers.”
– Similarly, Qur’an 5:10 says:
“When Allah will say: O Jesus, son of Mary, remember My favour to thee and to thy mother, when I strengthened thee with the Holy Spirit; thou spokest to people in the cradle and in old age, and when I taught thee the Book and the Wisdom and the Torah and the Gospel, and when thou didst determine out of clay a thing like the form of a bird by My permission, then thou didst breathe into it and it became a bird by My permission …. but those of them who disbelieved said: This is nothing but clear enchantment.”
– The Infancy Gospel of Thomas – a Gnostic text written between between 140ad and 170ad – first referenced by Irenaeus and later by Origen, tells a very similar story:
“Then he (Jesus) took from the bank of the stream some soft clay and formed out of it twelve sparrows; and there were other boys playing with him.
But a certain Jew seeing the things which he was doing, namely, his forming clay into the figures of sparrows on the Sabbath day, went presently away and told his father Joseph,
Behold, your boy is playing by the river side, and has taken clay and formed it into twelve sparrows, and profanes the Sabbath.
Then Joseph came to the place where he was, and when he saw him, called to him, and said, Why do you that which is not lawful to do on the Sabbath day?
Then Jesus clapping together the palms of his hands, called to the sparrows, and said to them: Go, fly away; and while you live remember me.
So the sparrows fled away, making a noise.
The Jews seeing this, were astonished and went away and told their chief persons what a strange miracle they had seen wrought by Jesus.”
– The link is clear. Jesus creates birds out of clay, and miraculously brings them to life, as a sign to non-believers. Of course, it is prudent to note that similarity does not necessarily mean a plagiarised copy. He might have known nothing of these stories, and God revealed them. It was just coincidence that the same stories happened to be invented centuries earlier by Christians in Greece/Syria. We would need evidence that Muhammad had access to these stories, to entirely eliminate the divine explanation. So then, do we have evidence that Muhammad had access to these stories? Well, yes. By way of traditional biographies of the Prophet:
“[Those who talked to Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him, were Abu Haritha Ibn `Alqama, Al-`Aqib `Abdul-Masih and Al-Ayham al-Sa`id.] They were Christians according to the faith of the king with differences between them; they say: He is Allah, and say: He is Son of Allah, and say: He is the third of three [i.e., part of Trinity] and these are the claims of Christianity. [They use as evidence for their claim that He is Allah the argument that] he used to raise the dead, cure the sick, create from clay bird-like structure then breathe into it to make it a [living] bird.
– This is from Ibn Ishaq, who notes that the ‘Family of Imran’ – the third Chapter of the Qur’an – was revealed just after the delegation of Najrān Christians spoke to Muhammad. This delegation included Abu Haritha Ibn `Alqama, who had been lavished with gifts and money from the Christian Kings. You will note, that the first quote from the Qur’an I used in this article, is from Chapter 3 of the Qur’an. So it would appear that according to Muslim tradition, Muhammad just happened to have a revelation confirming new stories on the early life of Jesus he’d just heard from Christians telling him about the early life of Jesus. If this doesn’t strike you as a little suspicious, not much will.
Further, the same Sura 3 – revealed after Muhammad meets Christians who have their own Gnostic traditions – mentions a legend of Mary, also prominent in Gnostic texts.
“Her Lord graciously accepted her and made her grow in goodness, and entrusted her to the charge of Zachariah. Whenever Zachariah went to see her in her sanctuary, he found her supplied with provisions. He said, “Mary how is it you have found these provisions?” and she said, “They are from God: God provides limitlessly for whoever He wills.” ”
– The Protevangelium of James says:
“(1) And her parents went down, marveling at and praising and glorifying the Lord God because the child had not turned back to look at them. (2)While Mary was in the temple of the Lord, she was fed like a dove and received food from the hand of an angel. (3) When she turned twelve, a group of priests took counsel together, saying, “Look, Mary has been in the temple of the Lord twelve years. (4)What should we do about her now, so that she does not defile the sanctuary of the Lord our God?” (5) And they said to the high priest, “You have stood at the altar of the Lord. Go in and pray about her. And if the Lord God reveals anything to you, we will do it.” (6) And the priest went in taking the vestment with twelve bells into the holy of holies and prayed about her. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord stood before him, saying, “Zachariah, Zachariah, depart from here and gather the widowers of the people and let each one carry a staff. (8) And the one whom the Lord God points out with a sign, she will be his wife.”
– With variation in editorial detail, the story is the same. Mary lives in a sanctuary, Zachariah is prominent in her life in the sanctuary, and she is given “provisions” from a divine source.
Another story, this time from The Arabic Infancy Gospel says:
“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 thou hast brought forth, as the Angel Gabriel announced to thee; and my Father has sent me for the salvation of the world.”
– This story of Jesus speaking, as a baby, from the cradle is echoed in the Qur’an:
“But she pointed to the babe. They said: “How can we talk to one who is a child in the cradle?” He 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 dispute.”
– Two things to note here. Firstly, the link between Jesus as a baby in the cradle speaking philosophically about his role, with his mother close. The Arabic Infancy Gospel requires Jesus to echo Christian thought, whilst the Quranic version echoes Islamic thought. Secondly, The Quranic verse seems to note that this is a story not accepted by mainstream Christianity: “…which they dispute“. This suggests that the story most certainly pre-dates the Qur’an, was well known as a dispute within the Church, and given that we Atheists insist that the Qur’an was not divine; it is more evidence that Muhammad had heard or read the Infancy Gospels in some form, and was thoroughly inspired by them.
So, we know that at least three stories from the Qur’an are reflected in early Gnostic Christian texts, written far removed from the life of Jesus, and that have no credible base in historical reality. We know that Muhammad had dealings with Christians (Khadijah’s cousin ‘Waraqa’ was a devout Christian). We know that Muhammad conversed with gnostic-leaning Christians who believed that Jesus created birds from clay and brought them to life and that Muhammad had a revelation concerning Jesus and clay birds around that exact time, the same is true for the story of Mary. From this, it seems to me far more plausible that Muhammad – if we are to indulge the idea that the Qur’an indeed came from his mouth – framed the Qur’an from a plethora of Gnostic texts and sects that already existed, rather than from revelation. Whilst again, it is true that similarities do not necessarily mean plagiarism, they do offer plagiarism as an alternative explanation, and a plausible one. Natural explanations will always be more plausible than supernatural explanations. There is certainly enough within the context of the Gnostic texts and the Qur’an for any reasonable mind to seriously doubt the story of revelation.
It is this intriguing history; these few short years in the Arabian desert regions and the subsequent power and influence over generations of human beings from Mecca to Edinburgh, Medina to Beijing, that as an Atheist, keeps me enduringly fascinated by the subject of religion.