Did Muhammad Plagiarize Imrau'l Qais?

Some might have heard the above questioned claim, repeated by some Christian authors who do not know better (and then also by those who read their books). The following article will show that this claim is not substantiated by sufficient evidence.

This result of my investigation into the origin of this claim is provided as an apology to the Muslims who might have had to bear this attack through an unsubstantiated allegation and as a service to the Christians so that they may know better and not base any argument on information erroneously claimed to be a fact. We are called to be people of truth and need no false claims, either for our own faith or in questioning Islam.

On page 9 of Rev. W. St Clair-Tisdall's book The Sources of Islam, being Sir William Muir's translation of Tisdall's Persian work Yanabi`u'l Islam, and published in 1900, we find the following paragraphs on pages 9-10:

It is interesting also to note that some verses of the Coran have without doubt been taken from poems anterior to Mahomet's assumption of the prophetic office, in proof of which two passages in the Sabaa Moallaqat of Imra'ul Cays etc. are quoted, in which several verses of the Coran occur, such as, "The hour has come, and shattered is the moon."[1] It was the custom of the time for poets and orators to hang up their compositions upon the Kaaba; and we know the Seven Moallaqat were so exposed. We are told that Fatima, the Prophet's daughter, was one day repeating as she went along, the above verse. Just then she met the daughter of Imra'ul Cays, who cried out: "O that's what your father has taken from one of my father's poems, and calls it something that has come down to him out of heaven"; and the story is commonly told amongst the Arabs until now.

The connection between the poetry of Imra'ul Cays and the Coran is so obvious that the Moslem cannot but hold that they existed with the latter in the Heavenly Table from all eternity! What then will he answer? That the words were taken from the Coran and entered in the poem, - an impossibility. Or that their writer was not really Imra'ul Cays, but some other who, after the appearance of the Coran, had the audacity to quote them there as they now appear; - rather a difficult thing to prove!

1. The two passages given by our Author from the Sabaa Moallagat contain several verses, more or less similar to the Coran: - Surah liv. 1, xxix. 31 and 46, xxxvii. 59, xxi. 96, xciii. 1, this last, - By the brightness of the morning; and by the night when it groweth dark. The passages noted are the same in both, with occasionally a few verbal differences.

The Sources of Islam, an (otherwise) very useful book, has been reprinted many times and is readily available. This might be one reason that the above claim is well publicised.

Sadly, St. Clair-Tisdall's second book on this topic, The Original Sources of the Qur'an, published by SPCK, London, 1905, has apparently never been reprinted, even though it is far more thorough (287 pages) and a vast improvement over the first book (102 pages). But most people don't want to read voluminous books and publishers like to print books that sell.

This is probably the main reason that it is not well known that the author has changed his opinion in his later book in regard to the above quoted conclusion.

On pages 47-49, we find the "Appendix to Chapter II" quoted here in full:

It is sometimes said in the East at the present day that Muhammad not only adopted many of the ancient habits and religious rites of the heathen Arabs and incorporated them into Islam, but that he was also guilty of plagiarism in borrowing parts of certain verses of Imrau'l Qais, an ancient Arabic poet. These, it is asserted, may still be found in the Qur'an. I have even heard a story to the effect that one day when Fatimah, Muhammad's daughter, was reciting the verse "The Hour has come near and the Moon has split asunder" (Surah LIV., Al Qamar, 1), a daughter of the poet was present and said to her, "That is a verse from one of my father's poems, and your father has stolen it and pretended that he received it from God." This tale is probably false, for Imrau'l Qais died about the year 540 of the Christian era, while Muhammad was not born till A.D. 570, "the year of the Elephant."

In a lithographed edition of the Mu`allaqat, which I obtained in Persia, however, I found at the end of the whole volume certain Odes there attributed to Imrau'l Qais, though not recognized as his in any other edition of his poems which I have seen. In these pieces of doubtful authorship I found the verses quoted below.[1] Though they contain some obvious blunders, I think it best to give them without correction. The passages marked with a line above them occur also in the Qur'an (Surah LIV., Al Qamar, 1, 29, 31, 46; Surah XCIII., Adduba', 1; Surah XXI., Al Anbiya 96; Surah XXXVII., As Saffat, 59), except that in some of the words there is a slight difference though the meaning is the same. It is clear therefore that there is some connexion between these lines and the similar verses of the Qur'an.

1. Regarding the Mu`allaqat it may be well to quote the following from Abu Ja`far Ahmad ibn Isma`il an nahhas (died A.H. 338) He says:-

As-Suyuti says very much the same, though he also refers to the story that the verses were hung up in the Ka`bah as possible (Mudhkir, II., 240).

There seems good reason to doubt whether Imrau'l Qais is the author of the lines in question. They may have been borrowed from the Qur'an instead of having been inserted therein from an author who lived before Muhammad's time. On the one hand it is difficult to suppose that at any time after the establishment of Islam any one would have the daring to parody the Qur'an by taking passages from it and applying them to the subject to which these lines of poetry refer. On the other hand, it is very customary even in comparatively modern times to quote verses of the Qur'an and work them into later compositions of a philosophical or religious character, to which class, however, these Odes do not belong. It would be difficult to imagine Muhammad venturing to plagiarize from such a well-known author as Imrau'l Qais (even though, as we shall see later, he did so from less known foreign sources); though this may be in part met by supposing that, as these Odes formed no part of the Mu`allaqat, they were not as generally current as poems contained in the latter collection were. The account generally given of the Mu`allaqat is that, whenever any one had composed an especially eloquent poem, it was suspended on the wall of the Ka`bah, and that the poems in this celebrated collection owe their name, which means " The Suspended Poems," to this custom. Good authorities[1], however, deny that this was the origin of the name, but that is perhaps a matter of little importance. In spite of the Eastern story which I have quoted, the balance of probability certainly inclines to the supposition that Muhammad was not[1] guilty of the daring plagiarism of which he has been accused.[2]

1. This is the opinion of Sir C. J. Lyall, than whom it would be difficult to find any one better qualified to speak on the subject of ancient Arabic poetry. In a letter which he has kindly sent me regarding the authorship of the lines in question attributed to Imrau'l Qais, he expresses his conviction that they are not his, giving reasons founded principally upon the style and the metre. I have incorporated some of his observations into this Appendix, and I owe to him also the preceding note. His arguments have caused me to modify the opinion on the subject expressed in my Persian work, Yanabi`u'l Islam.
2. The Rev. Dr. Zwemer, of Bahrain, however, informs me that he has found the words Danati 'ssa`atu wa'nshaqqa 'lqamaru (cf. Surah LIV., 1, Iqtarabati 'ssa`atu wa'nshaqqa 'lqamaru) in the last section of the last poem of Imrau'l Qais in an edition which he possesses. He adds: "A Shaikh taught in Al Azhar tells me that this evident quotation perplexes learned Muslims."

In Conclusion: It is wrong to present as fact the charge that Muhammad plagiarized Imrau'l Qais. Fact is, these verses are very similar to the Qur'an and they have baffled many people. Some sources attributed them to Imrau'l Qais, but there are reasons that speak against it. This latter issue of their origin, whether they are from a time before or after Muhammad, is a matter of interpretation and might never be possible to prove it one way or the other. It is therefore wrong to present as fact that Muhammad plagiarized Imrau'l Qais. In my opinion, until further information comes to light that might make a reexamination necessary, this whole story should be dropped. There is no need to fill books with speculations. There are enough solid facts which speak for themselves.

My hope is that this article has clarified the issue, and will result in various authors changing statements in this regard in the preparation for possible future editions of their publications.

My request to the Muslim reader is that he may not discard either the books by Tisdall or by other authors because they contain some minor mistake. I do appreciate Tisdall's painstaking work on the sources of the Qur'an and recommend all Muslims to seriously think about the questions raised by this research.

Copyright 1997 by Jochen Katz, all rights reserved.

Do not copy this article to other web sites, but feel free to link to this page.

Oct. 1999: The valuable but rare book The Original Sources of the Qur'an by W. St. Clair Tisdall has now been made available in the Answering Islam Library of Classical Books.
In June 1999, a Muslim website plagiarized the essential information in the above article, adding some names and quotations of Christian authors which I had left unnamed in my first paragraph. I take it as a compliment for my research. It was the comment found in the book by Anis Shorrosh that originally prompted me to investigate the issue.

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