Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Solving a Quranic Puzzle

A Jewish Fish in Muhammad’s Dish

Masud Masihiyyen

Muhammad had some imperfect knowledge of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, and was therefore prone to confusion and error. Although he claimed that his Qur’an essentially functioned to confirm the former revelations (Surah 3:3, Surah 5:48), what he taught mostly either contradicted the Bible or did not exist in the Bible, having been drawn from non-biblical sources. Additionally, Muhammad’s and/or his scribes’ tendency to assimilate narratives having similarities or thematic ties caused more trouble and less harmony with the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Finally, it is apparent in the Qur’an that various accounts of biblical origin underwent drastic modifications. These distortions enlarged the gap of discrepancies between the Bible and the Islamic scripture beyond repair.

In some cases these distortions resulted in anomalies and blunders that perfectly exhibit Muhammad’s and/or the Quranic author’s mistaken conclusions. For example, while relating the story of the angelic annunciation to Zechariah, the writer of Surah 19 bafflingly asserted that Zechariah’s son would be given a unique name that had not been given to anyone before (verse 7). The biblical teaching that many people in Israel before the time of Zechariah had this name exposes the fallaciousness of this Islamic assertion. It is not difficult to guess that the writer of the Qur’an did not have access to the canonical Gospel of Luke, but derived his story from hearsay and probably misunderstood the Evangelical statement that no one among Zechariah’s relatives had the name John (Luke 1:60-61).1

The curious fact that the name of Zechariah’s son in the Qur’an was given as Yahya rather than Youhanna (Yochanan in Hebrew) instigated some Muslim propagandists to argue that the name as it is found in the Qur’an had not been given to anyone before and the teaching in verse 7 was therefore free from error. Needless to say, this ridiculous argument fails to save the Islamic scripture from error, but adds a piece of humor to the issue: the adherents of this argument want us to believe that Allah gave an Arabic name to an Israeli prophet and then bragged about the uniqueness of that name.2 If this was indeed the case, the writer of the Qur’an meant that the name given to Zechariah’s son was so unique that it was not his real name. Accordingly, the statement in verse 7 was realistic and contained a subtle confession: no one had been given the same name as Zechariah’s son before because the name Yahya was pure invention, having been produced by the writer of Surah 19.

In rare cases it is not so easy to guess the origin of a faulty statement or doctrine in the Qur’an. The reason is that Muhammad did not keep faithful to the teachings he heard from the People of the Book, but blended his plagiarized data with his personal ideas and conclusions. When this was coupled with the use of multiple sources from outside the Bible, a few legends peculiar to the Qur’an came into existence. These kinds of legends look authentic and may be used3 in support of the claim that Muhammad did not copy from the Bible and non-canonical texts of Judaism and Christianity, but got his teachings directly from above.4 This is why a meticulous analysis of these purely Quranic accounts is relevant for the refutation of this fundamental Islamic assertion.

Accordingly, in this article I am choosing a Quranic legend about a group of rebellious Israelites that violated the Sabbath and were allegedly transformed into apes. The discovery of the source of this legend will demonstrate how perfectly Muhammad resembled the ummi (unlettered) folk that he accused of not knowing the Book, but deriving their knowledge only from hearsay (Surah 2:78).5

The legend of the Sabbath breakers

The Islamic scripture endorses the biblical teaching that God commanded the Children of Israel to keep the Sabbath:

And We caused the Mount to tower above them at (the taking of) their covenant: and We bade them: Enter the gate, prostrate! and We bode them: Transgress not the Sabbath! and We took from them a firm covenant. (Surah 4:154 Pickthall)

An earlier verse gives a baffling reason for the ordinance of the Sabbath:

The Sabbath was appointed only for those who differed concerning it, and lo! thy Lord will judge between them on the Day of Resurrection concerning that wherein they used to differ. (Surah 16:24 Pickthall)

In another verse of the post-migration period we find an interesting reference to a curse imposed on some Jews that did not observe the Sabbath:

O ye unto whom the Scripture hath been given! Believe in what We have revealed confirming that which ye possess, before We destroy countenances so as to confound them, or curse them as We cursed the Sabbath-breakers (of old time). The commandment of Allah is always executed. (Surah 4:47 Pickthall)

The following verses function to specify the type of this curse:

And ye know of those of you who broke the Sabbath, how We said unto them: Be ye apes, despised and hated! And We made it an example to their own and to succeeding generations, and an admonition to the God-fearing. (Surah 2:65-66 Pickthall)

The author of the Qur’an evidently believed and taught that some people from the Children of Israel were changed into apes because they broke the Sabbath! More, he even sounded sure that the Jews living in Muhammad’s time were well aware of this incident. Actually, Surah 2:65-66 are a summarized repetition of the narrative that had been recorded in the pre-migration period of the Qur’an:

Ask them (O Muhammad) of the township that was by the sea, how they did break the Sabbath, how their big fish came unto them visibly upon their Sabbath day and on a day when they did not keep Sabbath came they not unto them. Thus did We try them for that they were evil-livers. And when a community among them said: Why preach ye to a folk whom Allah is about to destroy or punish with an awful doom, they said: In order to be free from guilt before your Lord, and that haply they may ward off (evil). And when they forgot that whereof they had been reminded, We rescued those who forbade wrong, and visited those who did wrong with dreadful punishment because they were evil-livers. So when they took pride in that which they had been forbidden, We said unto them: Be ye apes despised and loathed! (Surah 7:163-166 Pickthall)

With the help of this short narrative we find out that

  • There was a certain Jewish town by the sea. (As usual, no details given about the time or place of the incident)
  • God wanted to test these Jews because they were evil.
  • The test was essentially related to the observation of the Sabbath.
  • As a part of the test, God sent big fish to the shore of the town only on Sabbaths.
  • There were implicitly three groups of people involved in this story. A group worked as preachers and tried to persuade the others not to catch fish on the Sabbath whereas a second group thought that preaching was useless because God had destined to destroy the townsfolk. A third group did not listen to the warnings, but fished on the Sabbath and was therefore punished.
  • The group that caught fish on the Sabbath did not only break the Sabbath, but also became haughty. As a result, they were transformed into apes.

Unsurprisingly, the missing elements of this narrative are completed in the traditional Tafsir. For instance, we are told that these people lived at the time of David in Eilat:

(And ye know) you indeed know and heard about the punishment (of those of you who broke) who have taken the covenant (the Sabbath) the day of Saturday and this at the time of David (pbuh) (how We said unto them: Be ye apes, despised and hated!) turned into humiliated and base apes. (Tafsir Ibn Abbas)

And question them, O Muhammad (s), in rebuke, about the city that was by the sea, bordering the Red Sea (bahr al-qulzum), and this was Eilat … (Tafsir al-Jalalayn)

Ibn Kathir gave more details about the evil actions of the Sabbath-breakers and explained why they were transformed particularly into apes:

(And indeed you knew). This Ayah means, O Jews! Remember that Allah sent His torment on the village that disobeyed Him and broke their pledge and their covenant to observe the sanctity of the Sabbath. They began using deceitful means to avoid honoring the Sabbath by placing nets, ropes and artificial pools of water for the purpose of fishing before the Sabbath. When the fish came in abundance on Saturday as usual, they were caught in the ropes and nets for the rest of Saturday. During the night, the Jews collected the fish after the Sabbath ended. When they did that, Allah changed them from humans into monkeys, the animals having the form closest to humans. (Tafsir Ibn Kathir )

In his comprehensive commentary on the Qur’an Rev. E. M. Wherry quoted the following traditional story as related in Sale:

"The story to which this passage refers is as follows: - In the days old David some Israelites dwelt at Ailah or Elath, on the Red Sea, where on the light of the Sabbath the fish used to come in great numbers to the shore, and stay there all the Sabbath to tempt them; but the night following they returned into the sea again. At length some of the inhabitants, neglecting God's command, catched [sic] the fish on the Sabbath, and dressed and ate them; and afterwards cut canals from the sea for the fish to enter, with sluices, which they shut on the Sabbath, to prevent their return to the sea. The other part of the inhabitants, who strictly observed the Sabbath, used both persuasion and force to stop this impiety, but to no purpose, the offenders growing only more and more obstinate; whereupon David cursed the Sabbath-breakers, and God transformed them into apes. It is said that one going to see a friend of his that was among them, found him in the shape of an ape moving his eyes about wildly, and asking him whether he was not such a one, the ape made a sign with his head that it was he: whereupon the friend said to him, 'Did not I advise you to desist?' at which the ape wept. They add that these unhappy people remained three days in this condition, and were afterwards destroyed by a wind which swept them all into the sea." (Source)

An unusual story not found in the Jewish Bible or the Talmud

It is striking indeed to see that this story in the Qur’an about a Jewish town by the sea is recorded neither in the Bible nor in the Talmud. Even though it was nothing unusual for the author of the Qur’an to recount stories and legends that were found only in some non-canonical texts of rabbinical Judaism rather than in the Jewish Bible, this particular legend stunningly seems alien also to the Jewish rabbinical literature. In his comprehensive study on what Islam borrowed from Judaism Abraham Geiger wrote the following comment about the story of the fish and some Jews transformed into apes:

The affair of the Sabbath-breakers, who were punished by being changed into apes, is also supposed to belong to the time of David, but the circumstance is mentioned only in general terms, and nothing definite is given about time or details, except in verse 82, where the time is given, but not the fact. Among the Jews there is no trace of this legend. (Geiger, Judaism and Islam, Chapter 2, Part 3)

Similarly, this baffling legend in the Qur’an is referenced under the entry of “apes” in the Jewish Encyclopedia:

The Mohammedans have a legend, referred to in the Koran (suras ii. 61, 62; vii. 163), to the effect that certain Jews dwelling at Elath on the Red sea in the days of David, who yielded to the temptation to fish on the Sabbath, were turned into Apes as a punishment for Sabbath-breaking (Lane, "Thousand and One Nights," iii. 550). (Source)

The fact that a certain legend about the Jews and their Sabbath is recorded only in the Qur’an, but failed to make its way even into the rabbinical or non-canonical writings is rather mysterious. What makes things all the more curious is the peculiar way the writer of the Islamic scripture first introduced this incident as something overtly known by the Jews. Note that Muhammad is told to question the Jews about the town by the sea:

Ask them concerning the town standing close by the sea. Behold! they transgressed in the matter of the Sabbath. For on the day of their Sabbath their fish did come to them, openly holding up their heads, but on the day they had no Sabbath, they came not: thus did We make a trial of them, for they were given to transgression. (Surah 7:163 Yusuf Ali)

We often read in the Qur’an that some people questioned Muhammad about certain issues (for example, Surah 2:189, Surah 2:215, Surah 5:4, Surah 7:187, Surah 20:105), but this was one of the rare cases when he was asked to question others. Unfortunately, the answer or reaction of the questioned Jews to Muhammad’s claim was not recorded in the Qur’an even in a censored form. Consequently, we cannot know for sure how Muhammad’s Jewish addressees treated this reference. The only thing we are allowed to infer is that the particular formulation in Surah 7:163 portrays the writer of the Qur’an as someone who did not doubt the least that the Jews living in Muhammad’s time were aware of this story. This is why the question in view is rhetorical, displaying the writer’s aim to remind the Jews of something well-known in their history rather than reveal a story that had been kept hidden from them until the birth of Islam.

While briefly mentioning the same incident for the second time in the post-migration period, the writer of the Qur’an again insisted that the story of the Sabbath-breakers was known by the Jews, repeating his previous claim with certainty:

And well ye knew those amongst you who transgressed in the matter of the Sabbath: We said to them: "Be ye apes, despised and rejected." (Surah 2:65 Yusuf Ali)

A Jew reading this verse has the right to protest and accuse the author of misinformation because no Jewish source in history contains this story. In the light of this fact one may conclude that Surah 7:163-166 and Surah 2:65-66 are similar to Surah 9:30, where the Jews are falsely denounced for considering Ezra the Son of God although they have never had such a tenet. Still, the context and function of Surah 9:30 are obviously different than those of the verses relating the legend of the Jews turned into apes. It is easy to understand that in Surah 9:30 the Jews were slandered and stigmatized because Muhammad felt obliged to fabricate a valid theological reason to force the Jews into the category of polytheist folks and thus justify the Islamic jihad against them. Equally, he accused them of taking their rabbis as lords beside God in verse 31, revealing his eagerness to deny the fact that the Jews were monotheists. In case of Surah 7:163-166, on the other hand, he apparently did not have any impetus to narrate this legend apart from taking delight in the assertion that some Jews were punished and changed into despised apes.

The vital question is how come that a striking story about the Jews, supposedly known by the Jews, and primarily addressing the Jews does not exist in Jewish history. A few possibilities concerning the origin of this legend come to mind, but all of them undermine Muhammad’s claims about the divine source of his book. First, it is probable that some Jews indeed told this story to Muhammad and/or the author of the Qur’an and this at least explains why and how the narrator in Surah 7 could feel so certain of the veracity and fame of this legend. Nonetheless, the transmission of the legend was made by some crafty Jews who wanted to test Muhammad’s familiarity with biblical and Talmudic stories. They made up this legend in order to later expose Muhammad as a person that unhesitatingly reiterated false statements as the true word of God. In other words, they tried Muhammad and set their nets for him in order to catch him as fish. This is a weak possibility though when a great number of the mostly accurate Talmudic legends in the Islamic scripture are taken into consideration for a comparison. Additionally, there seems no record about those Jews ever capitalizing on their catch. More to the point, if they then protested that this was merely invented by them, Muhammad would hardly have repeated the story a couple more times in the Quran at later times.

A stronger possibility is that Muhammad heard and adopted this legend from some Jews who did not know their scriptures except through hearsay. They may have naively and honestly fallen into confusion and error before infecting Muhammad’s scripture.

Yet the strongest possibility is that this legend was produced by the author of the Qur’an, who made use of multiple sources and combined different things he had heard about the punishment of the rebellious Jews and about the observation of the Sabbath to weave this interesting legend in Surah 7. Thus, he created a peculiar narrative that contains various and analogous biblical and Talmudic themes known by the Jews. Of course, he applied some modifications to the themes and narratives he became familiar with. In order to see what steps he followed in the process of the creation of this legend, it is imperative to check both the Bible and the Talmud on the major elements of this Quranic story and study them comparatively.

Sabbath in the Torah

In the first place, God commanded the Israelites through Moses to observe His Sabbaths:

He said to them, “This is what the Lord has said: ‘Tomorrow is a time of cessation from work, a holy Sabbath to the Lord. Whatever you want to bake, bake today; whatever you want to boil, boil today; whatever is left put aside for yourselves to be kept until morning.’” (Exodus 16:23 NET Bible)

Remember the Sabbath day to set it apart as holy. (Exodus 20:8 NET Bible)

But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; on it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your male servant, or your female servant, or your cattle, or the resident foreigner who is in your gates. (Exodus 20:10 NET Bible)

For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth and the sea and all that is in them, and he rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy. (Exodus 20:11 NET Bible)

There is no narrative in the Torah even to imply that a group of the Israelites was punished since they failed a test connected to the observation of the Sabbath. We only read that a man who did not keep the Sabbath while the Israelites were still in the wilderness was stoned to death by the community (Numbers 15:32), but it is evident that he was sentenced to death because he gathered wood rather than because he went fishing on the Sabbath.

The idea that God became furious and sent a plague to the rebellious Israelites in association with the theme of hunger and greed occurs in the Torah in Numbers 31:34, the narrative of the provision of quail. According to this account, many people complained about the manna and raced to eat of the quail sent down by God, but were immediately killed:

But while the meat was still between their teeth, before they chewed it, the anger of the Lord burned against the people, and the Lord struck the people with a very great plague. (Numbers 11:33 NET Bible)

Although this particular narrative contains the themes of hunger, rebellion, and punishment, it differs from the story in Surah 7:163-166 because it is by no means linked to the observation of the Sabbath or a divine test. More interestingly, a certain account in the Torah is in sharp contrast to the teaching in the Quranic legend that some of the Children of Israel were tried and even forced to violate the Sabbath. The author of the Qur’an contended that the big fish were sent to the shore of the town only on Sabbaths, not appearing on any of the other days. This would make it impossible for those people to catch the fish on the other days of the week. In contrast, the God of the Torah was so gracious to the Children of Israel that He gave them more manna on the sixth day because they would not get any food on the Sabbath:

On the seventh day some of the people went out to gather it, but they found nothing. So the Lord said to Moses, “How long do you refuse to obey my commandments and my instructions? See, because the Lord has given you the Sabbath, that is why he is giving you food for two days on the sixth day. Each of you stay where you are; let no one go out of his place on the seventh day.” (Exodus 16:27-29)

The test mentioned in the Qur’an also looks weird and cruel. It is actually a temptation more than a test as it compels people to break a divine commandment, but this is in line with the Islamic theology, which teaches that God tries people with both good and evil (Surah 21:35) although the Bible makes it clear that God does not tempt people to sin (James 1:13).

Apes in the Bible

What highlights the legendary character of the story in the Qur’an is the contention that some of the Children of Israel were transformed into apes. The word “ape” occurs in the entire Bible in two places:

Along with Hiram’s fleet, the king had a fleet of large merchant ships that sailed the sea. Once every three years the fleet came into port with cargoes of gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks. (1 Kings 10:22 NET Bible)

The king had a fleet of large merchant ships manned by Huram’s men that sailed the sea. Once every three years the fleet came into port with cargoes of gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks. (2 Chronicles 9:21 NET Bible)

These almost identical verses show that apes were among the cargoes brought to Israel by ships of trade. There is nothing in the Bible that implicitly or explicitly associates the apes with the punishment of the Israelites or with the Sabbath. Surprisingly, the Talmud has a narrative that is very similar to the Quranic teaching that God punished some rebellious people by turning them into apes:

According to their deserts did God punish the three rebellious parties. Those who had said, "We will place our gods in the heavens," were changed in appearance, and became like apes; those who had said, "We will smite Him with arrows," killed one another through misunderstandings; and those who had said, "Let us try our strength with His," were scattered over the face of the earth. (The Talmud: Selections: Part First: Biblical History)

Further, it is written in the Legends of the Jews that the people at the time of Enosh fell into idolatry and therefore lost their likeness to God’s image, beginning to resemble in appearance centaurs and apes:

The generation of Enosh were thus the first idol worshippers, and the punishment for their folly was not delayed long. God caused the sea to transgress its bounds, and a portion of the earth was flooded. This was the time also when the mountains became rocks, and the dead bodies of men began to decay. And still another consequence of the sin of idolatry was that the countenances of the men of the following generations were no longer in the likeness and image of God, as the countenances of Adam, Seth, and Enosh had been. They resembled centaurs and apes, and the demons lost their fear of men. (Legends of the Jews, Chapter III: the Ten Generations)

It is highly likely that Muhammad and/or the author of the Qur’an became familiar with these non-canonical teachings and decided to teach that a group of Jews violating the Sabbath were turned into apes as a type of punishment and humiliation. The modification is striking: the idolaters in the Talmud were replaced with rebellious Jews in Surah 7 probably because the association of the punished Jews with apes was more appealing to Muhammad, who had no interest in story of the Tower of Babel. This replacement would also be plausible and compatible with the rest of the Islamic scripture since the writer of the Qur’an generally tended to target the Jews and sought a chance to denounce/accuse them. For instance, he affiliated the legend concerning two fallen angels (Harout and Marout) with the Jews rather than with the early generations of mankind (Surah 2:102).

Another element in the narrative in Surah 7:163-166 may be reflecting the latent connection between the Talmudic version of the Tower of Babel and the Quranic legend in view. It is emphasized in the following verse that the Sabbath breakers were changed into apes because they became haughty:

So when they took pride in that which they had been forbidden, We said unto them: Be ye apes despised and loathed! (Surah 7:166 Pickthall)

This emphatic reference to pride reminds us of the teaching that the people who were changed into apes in the Talmud were also haughty as they defied God and took part in the construction of the Tower of Babel.6

Undoubtedly, Muhammad regarded the transformation of some Jews into apes as the most prominent example of a curse and the fulfillment of the threats in the Bible. God had threatened to curse the Israelites that did not keep His commandments:

“But if you ignore the Lord your God and are not careful to keep all his commandments and statutes I am giving you today, then all these curses will come upon you in full force. (Deuteronomy 28:15 NET Bible)

Muhammad most likely relied on the biblical threats he heard about and could easily claim that the Jews that did not keep God’s commandment about the Sabbath were actually cursed.

Although Deuteronomy 28 contains different types of curses targeting the disobedient Jews, some of the elements in this chapter may have compelled Muhammad to replace a group of the haughty rebels in the Talmudic version of the story of the Tower of Babel with a disobedient Jewish group living in a town by the sea. For instance, God had threatened through the following verses that He would humiliate the Israelites that did not keep His commandments:

You will become an occasion of horror, a proverb, and an object of ridicule to all the peoples to whom the Lord will drive you. (Deuteronomy 28:37 NET Bible)

The foreigners who reside among you will become higher and higher over you and you will become lower and lower. (Deuteronomy 28:43 NET Bible)

Upon hearing of these statements Muhammad probably thought that this curse of humiliation would be most fittingly embodied in the transformation of some disobedient humans into apes. His indifference to the story of the Tower of Babel and his general tendency to associate this incident with the Children of Israel rather than with the generation living after the deluge introduced the ape motif into the legend of the Sabbath-breakers.

Sabbath and the fish

A careful examination of the Bible shows that the writer of the Qur’an, who took the idea of some humans transformed into apes from the Talmud, devised his legend most likely by distorting the following biblical account:

The people from Tyre who lived there were bringing fish and all kinds of merchandise and were selling it on the Sabbath to the people of Judah – and in Jerusalem, of all places! So I registered a complaint with the nobles of Judah, saying to them, “What is this evil thing that you are doing, profaning the Sabbath day? Isn’t this the way your ancestors acted, causing our God to bring on them and on this city all this misfortune? And now you are causing even more wrath on Israel, profaning the Sabbath like this!” (Nehemiah 13:16-18 NET Bible)

The fish brought by the people of Tyre to Jerusalem on the Sabbath were changed in the hands of the Quranic author into fish that were sent by Allah on Sabbaths to the Jews living in a town by the sea! More, Nehemiah in the Bible was changed into some unidentified preachers urging the townsfolk to obey the commandment concerning the Sabbath. The most drastic difference between the two texts is that Nehemiah in the Bible managed to make people observe the Sabbath whereas a group of the people in the Quranic story did not listen to the unnamed preachers, kept profaning the Sabbath, and were punished. The reason underlying this discrepancy may be that Nehemiah’s reference in verse 18 to the misfortune (deportation and captivity) befalling the Jews because of their sins was misinterpreted as something following the Jews’ continuing violation of the Sabbath at the time of the preaching.

Accordingly, the efforts Nehemiah made to stop people from profaning the Sabbath in the Bible was changed in some traditional Islamic commentaries into the efforts of the rebellious townsfolk that wanted to catch the fish on Sabbaths. To compare:

When the evening shadows began to fall on the gates of Jerusalem before the Sabbath, I ordered the doors to be closed. I further directed that they were not to be opened until after the Sabbath. I positioned some of my young men at the gates so that no load could enter on the Sabbath day. The traders and sellers of all kinds of merchandise spent the night outside Jerusalem once or twice. But I warned them and said, “Why do you spend the night by the wall? If you repeat this, I will forcibly remove you!” From that time on they did not show up on the Sabbath. Then I directed the Levites to purify themselves and come and guard the gates in order to keep the Sabbath day holy. (Nehemiah 13:19-22 NET Bible)7

Remember that Allah sent His torment on the village that disobeyed Him and broke their pledge and their covenant to observe the sanctity of the Sabbath. They began using deceitful means to avoid honoring the Sabbath by placing nets, ropes and artificial pools of water for the purpose of fishing before the Sabbath. When the fish came in abundance on Saturday as usual, they were caught in the ropes and nets for the rest of Saturday. During the night, the Jews collected the fish after the Sabbath ended. (Tafsir Ibn Kathir)

The place of the legend of the Sabbath breakers in the Qur’an

Although it is unanimously taught in the traditional Islamic commentaries that the Sabbath-breaker Jews were transformed into apes at the time of David, this legend is related as an example demonstrating the Jews’ rebellious character since Moses’ time. In Surah 7:

  • Verse 160: Moses divided the Israelites into twelve nations and provided water for them.
  • Verse 161-162: The Children of Israel were commanded to live in an unnamed city in repentance. Some of them changed the word given to them and were punished by God.8
  • Verse 163-166: Some Jews living in a town by the sea were punished by God because they broke the Sabbath.

Similarly, in Surah 2:

  • Verse 63: God made a covenant with the Children of Israel.
  • Verse 64: The Children of Israel turned back from the commandments, but God forgave them.
  • Verses 65-66: Some Jews living by the sea broke the Sabbath and were punished.

It seems that the writer of the Qur’an tried to thematically associate this legend with the Israelites’ former rebellions and the former plagues befalling them in the wilderness at Moses’ time. This answers the question why he drastically altered the account in Nehemiah, contending that a group of the Jews still broke the Sabbath and were turned into apes. In the Quranic version of the account the reference in Nehemiah to the merchants coming from Tyre and selling their fish to the Jews is also excluded since the big fish are presented as provision directly sent by God. In other words, these fish are likened to the heavenly food given to the Israelites at Moses’ time (manna and quail), revealing another connection between the Jews of Moses’ time and those living in the town by the sea in Surah 7.

Moreover, it should not be forgotten that according to the Bible, Nehemiah functioned like Moses in that he asked the Israelites to go by the Law after the return to the holy land from Babylon. Thus, Nehemiah represented the time of restoration and return to God’s Law after the term of captivity. The author of the Qur’an, on the other hand, ignored the theme of restoration and obedience in Nehemiah, doing his best to present the incident of the Sabbath-breakers as a natural continuation of the Israelites’ disobedience and punishment in Moses’ time. This is why he made this legend an indispensable part of the heavy critique of the Children of Israel and of Allah’s oaths to constantly humiliate them. We can now understand better why the following verses come right after the account of the disobedient Jews in the 7th Surah:9

And (remember) when thy Lord proclaimed that He would raise against them till the Day of Resurrection those who would lay on them a cruel torment. Lo! verily thy Lord is swift in prosecution and lo! verily He is Forgiving, Merciful. And We have sundered them in the earth as (separate) nations. Some of them are righteous, and some far from that. And We have tried them with good things and evil things that haply they might return. (Surah 7:167-168 Pickthall)

Likewise, the fact that the writer of Surah 7 was not pleased with the theme of repentance and obedience in the Book of Nehemiah is evident in his claim that a group of the Jews living in the town by the sea had been condemned to a curse even before a trial because they were evil. This perfectly explains why he taught that God tempted those Jews to disobedience by compelling them to catch fish on Sabbaths. The biblical teaching that Nehemiah became successful in making people observe the Sabbath sounded so disturbing to the author of the Qur’an that he made a group of the Jews in his legend state the futility of the preachers’ efforts and ask them why they were bothered with a group of people that had been condemned to destruction. Symbolically, these people questioning the preachers represent Muhammad, who objected to the idea that the Jews violating the Sabbath during Nehemiah’s time were turned from their disobedience and who asked the biblical author why he bothered himself with the repentance of the Jews and spoiled his fun by taking away from him a great chance of stigmatizing the Jews.

Islamic commentators were unaware of these connections between the Bible and the Islamic scripture and ascribed this incident to the time of King David probably because they knew that in the Qur’an David was stunningly associated with a curse imposed on the disbelieving and rebellious Children of Israel (Surah 5:78).10 As for the awkward assertion in the traditional Islamic commentaries that the place where this incident took place was Elat (also Eilat or Elath) remains a mystery. According to the Torah, this city first appears in Deuteronomy 2:8 in regard to the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness under Moses’ leadership. It is not possible to know for sure if this occurrence of the city in association with Moses and the Israelites in the Torah prompted some Muslim commentators to consider it the town located by the sea in Surah 7. Humorously, the word “apes” appears in the Jewish scriptures only in association with Israel’s fleet of ships stationed in Ezion-Geber, which is close to Elat (1 Kings 9:26).

Finally, in response to the rhetorical question posed in Surah 7:163 for the purpose of reminding the Jews of Muhammad’s time of this incident, it is our turn to remind the reader of the Qur’an of the following points:

  1. Some Israelites indeed violated the Sabbath when they kept buying fish from the merchants of Tyre in Jerusalem at Nehemiah’s time, but they were not cursed or plagued as they started to keep the Sabbath again upon Nehemiah’s instructions and efforts.
  2. According to a legend in the Talmud, one of the three groups of rebellious people constructing the Tower of Babel were cursed and made to resemble apes, but such a punishment never befell the Israelites.

The fact that the Jews were aware of the narrative in Nehemiah does not justify the Quranic author’s claim that they also knew a legend invented by him. Similarly, the fact that a legend concerning the transformation of some haughty and rebellious people into apes is recorded in the Talmud, a Jewish source, does not justify the Quranic author’s claim that such a tragedy happened to some haughty and rebellious Jews. Therefore, this particular legend constitutes the second example of Muhammad’s “divinely inspired ignorance”, the first example of which was examined and demonstrated by Jochen Katz in his article on Surah 3:183.11


The foregoing study demonstrates how the author of the Qur’an abused different sources and wrought them into one single legend that was mistakenly considered authentic, but turned out to have been born from the distortion and inaccurate synthesis of both biblical and Talmudic teachings of Judaism. These distortion techniques may be peculiar to him and make it difficult for us to detect the source of a legend in the Qur’an, but the truth prevails: the Islamic scripture did not come from God, but from an ummi prophet (Surah 7:158) who did not know the Bible except through hearsay and who wrote the Book with his hand in order to claim later that it came from God.

[First published: 9 November 2012]
[Last updated: 9 November 2012]


1 Another possibility is that the abuse of the non-canonical Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew in the formation of Surah 19 contributed to this particular mistake. For further information, see my article Surah Mariam: The Curse of the Apocrypha.

2 It is true that the Arabic equivalent of the Hebrew name Yochanan is rather Youhanna than Yahya, but the reason for this particular replacement in Surah 19 was most likely not related to the Quranic error concerning the historicity of the name.

3 Some Muslim propagandists I have come across at forums tend to think that an account missing from the Bible and found only in the Qur’an works against the charges of plagiarism.

4 Bassam Zawadi even focused on the differences between the accounts of Jesus’ nativity and infancy in the non-canonical Christian literature and in the Qur’an to argue that these differences deny the possibility of plagiarism. See my rebuttal to his article.

5 Ironically, Muhammad depicted himself as the ummi prophet in Surah 7:157-158. It is possible to take this particular designation as a confession if what is stated in Surah 2:77-78 is ascribed to Muhammad himself rather than to some Jews.

6 For more information on Muhammad’s possible familiarity with the narrative of the Tower of Babel, see my article here.

7  Note that in this biblical narrative the gates are open, and let in the merchandize/fish. Then they are closed and nobody can pass. This reminds us of the Islamic story reported by Sale and quoted by Wherry, according to which the Sabbath breakers caught fish on Saturdays “with sluices, which they shut on the Sabbath, to prevent their return to the sea.”

8 This also sounds similar to the fact that the Israelites returned to the holy land and settled in Jerusalem after the captivity at Nehemiah’s time. It is by no means a coincidence that these verses in Surah 7 were immediately followed by the account of the Jews living in a town by the sea and incurring God’s wrath through disobedience.

9 In his commentary on Surah 7 Wherry wrote that these verses are related to Deuteronomy 28:49-50 (*). If we thus view Surah 7:167-168 as the Quranic version of Deuteronomy 28:49-50, the legend of the Sabbath-breakers appears to represent the curse of humiliation mentioned in Deuteronomy 28:37.

10 The Sabbath breakers were also claimed to have been cursed in Surah 4:47.

11 While trying to evade a prophetic test posed by the Jews, Muhammad did not only present a fallacious argument, but also revealed his biblical ignorance in addition to his tendency to make false conclusions about some biblical stories.

Articles by Masud Masihiyyen
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