Does Q 2:79 claim that the previous scriptures have been textually corrupted?

In this article, we will consider both the Qur’anic text, as well as later commentary (tafsīr) on the Qur’an (see the appendix below for translations). The verse that we will consider is as follows:

79 So woe to those who write something down with their own hands and then claim, ‘This is from God,’ in order to make some small gain. Woe to them for what their hands have written! Woe to them for all that they have earned! (Q 2:79. All Qur’an citations are from the Abdel Haleem translation unless otherwise indicated)

The text is clearly speaking about some kind of textual mischief. However, does this prove the common Muslim position that…

  1. both the Torah and the Gospel…
  2. …experienced widespread
  3. …and extensive textual alteration…
  4. centuries before the time of Muhammad?

Before we begin, I should note that according to G. Nickel (2015, 74) ‘When accusations of falsification appear in Muslim commentaries on the Qur’an or in works of asbāb al-nuzūl, it is usually in the interpretations of two particular verses, Q 2:79 and 3:78.’ By contrast, he (73) argues that:

most of the verses from the Qur’an used by Muslim polemicists past and present to support their accusation of corruption of the text of the Bible were not, in fact, understood by classical Muslim commentators on the Qur’an to mean textual corruption. Instead, Muslim commentators pictured various acts of “tampering” which assumed intact scriptures in the possession of the Jews (and sometimes Christians) of Medina during the rule of the messenger of Islam.

I highlight this lest the reader of this article think the commentaries below on Q 2:79 are typical of the classic Qur’an commentators’ approach to the Bible. The reader is also encouraged to balance these texts with the positive evidence in favour of the Qur’an confirming the relibaility of the previous scriptures, as found here (see also the section ‘The Qur’an Affirms the Torah and Gospel’s Reliability’ here).

1. ‘…both the Torah and the Gospel…’:

The passage does not explicitly say that the thing being written was a ‘Torah’. As Nickel (2015, 74-75) notes:

‘this verse…specifies no particular scripture, but merely indicates al-kitāb (“the writing” or “the book”). As we saw in Chapter 2, the Qurʾan names the Tawrāt, Injīl and Zabūr at many places – but not here.

Indeed as Nickel (23) notes: ‘None of the verses in the Qur’an that explicitly mention the names Tawrāt, Injīl and Zabūr makes a negative statement about these earlier scriptures.’

Now, it is plausible that the Torah is in view in Q 2:79; it is after all the Jews/Children of Israel (or at least some of them, see below) being addressed in the previous verses, and v. 83 returns to discussing the history of God’s dealings with the Children of Israel (vv. 40ff.). The Torah is also mentioned in the commentaries of Muqātil ibn Sulaymān (d. 150 AH/767 CE) and al-Ṭabarī (d. 310 AH/923 CE) and in Tafsir al-Jalalayn (9-10th centuries AH/15-16th centuries CE) (see appendix). Tafsīr Ibn Kathīr (d. 774 AH/1373 CE) speaks of tampering undertaken by ‘the People of the Book’, which in some contexts can mean both Jews and Christians, but in other contexts just the Jews.

But is the Torah the only plausible object of what they ‘write…with their own hands and then claim, ‘This is from God”? Nickel (2015, 85) writes: ‘Even on Q 2:79, Camilla Adang wrote that al-Ṭabarī probably meant to say that the tamperers wrote “a separate book, alongside the Torah.” [Citation of Adang, 1996, 228]’. Andrew Rippin (n.d. Journal article version, citation discovered via Nickel, 85) writes similarly and suggests that the Mishnah or Talmud may be in view in some of Ṭabarī’s reports. I have done my best to translate al-Ṭabarī’s commentary on this verse in the appendix below, while incorporating available translations from Nickel (2011, 154) and J. Cooper (1987, 413). Note how al-Ṭabarī’ speaks of how the Jews ‘wrote a book according to how they interpret it from their interpretations….they sold it to a people who had knowledge neither of it nor of what is in the Torah’ (translation from Nickel, 2011, 154). The distinction between this book and the Torah, and the fact that this book is based on ‘their interpretations’, fits well the Mishnah or the Talmud.

But even if the Torah is the object of textual corruption, there is nothing in the context to suggest the Gospel is also in view. The vast majority of tafsīr I have come across references only the Jews, not the Christians. It is possible though that the Gospel is implied in Ibn Kathīr’s comments on the ‘People of the Book’, although the term can just refer to Jews.

2. ‘…experienced widespread alteration…’

Q 2:79 says ‘So woe to those who write something down with their own hands…’ It is always good to look at the immediate context, especially as this verse begins ‘So…’ (fa). The previous verse says:

78 Some of them [wa-minhum] are uneducated, and know the Scripture only through wishful thinking. They rely on guesswork.

It is only ‘some of them‘ who are in view here, not all of ‘them’. Who is ‘them’? It is either a subgroup of the Jews generally (see above for broader context addressing the Jews), or perhaps even a subgroup of a subgroup of Jews. In v. 75 we read:

75 So can you [believers] hope that such people will believe you, when some of them [farīqun minhum, ‘a group of them’] used to hear the words of God and then deliberately twist them, even when they understood them?

All of this is to say that we are talking about a subsection of Jews, or even a subsection of a subsection of Jews, who are fabricating some kind of text(s). This in no way suggests that other Jews are also fabricating their scripture. To say that ‘Some people do X’, is typically to imply that other people typically do not do X. It is ‘Some of them [who] are uneducated, and know the Scripture only through wishful thinking’ (v. 78) who commit the fabrication (v. 79). There is an implicit contrast with those who do know the Scripture, which requires that the Scripture still exists.

3. …and extensive textual alteration…

Assuming the Torah is in view here, and not the Mishnah or Talmud or other Jewish writings, it is not entirely clear how extensive this is. Q 2:78 reads: ‘Some of them are uneducated, and know the Scripture only through wishful thinking. They rely on guesswork.’ One of the key questions is that when it says they ‘know the Scripture only through wishful thinking’, does this mean they have absolutely no idea of what is in scripture, but they have ‘wishful thoughts’ and ‘guess’ what might be in it, or does it mean they understanding of the Scripture is filtered through ‘wishful thinking’ and ‘guesswork’? The former would suggest that any document they write and sell (v. 79) has little similarity to the original Torah, because they have virtually no knowledge of the Torah. It is an entirely different text. The latter might envisage that they are corrupting the Torah according to what they ‘wish’ or ‘guess’ that it should mean. This would then be recognisably the same text but with editing, of an unspecified level of severity.

While it is not clear-cut, I would favour the former reading; I see no reason not to take the language with its fullest force, that these are completely ignorant individuals forging and selling on fake copies of the Torah. I remind the reader that while I believe the Qur’an here is claiming an extensive degree of corruption, assuming for the sake of argument that the Torah and not Mishnah/Talmud is in view, I also believe it is limited in geographical (see above) and temporal (see below) scope. The production of individual forged copy(s) at the time of Muhammad does not challenge the entire manuscript tradition.

Interestingly, while I have argued for an extensive degree of corruption, some Islamic texts and opinions are more restrained. Muqātil ibn Sulaymān is quite restricted here in suggesting that it is the description of Muḥammad that has been textually altered; by so doing the Jews had hoped to keep their privileged position amongst the people, who gave them an annual share of their crops and fruit. al-Ṭabarī also contains opinions that Muḥammad is in view. Al-Wāḥidī (d. 468 AH/1075 CE), similar to Muqātil, exclusively mentions here the alteration of the Prophet’s description in the Torah, and the worldly gain that the Jews feared losing, and Al-Qurṭubī (d. 671 AH/1272 CE) also records this interpretation. Tafsīr Ibn ʿAbbās (collected by al-Fayrūzabādī, d. 816-817 AH/1414 CE) and Tafsir al-Jalalayn also mention the alteration of the description of Muḥammad.

A couple of the traditions (Al-Suddī and IbnʿAbbās) in al-Ṭabarī’s commentary suggest that an entire scripture was falsely created and sold on, with the act of selling itself the means whereby they hoped to profit.

al-Ṭabarī may be providing his own view when he says ‘the Jews because they tampered with the Torah, and added in it what they like, and erased from it what they hate…’, which suggests that personal desires were behind alterations in multiple places in the Torah itself. It would seem that Ibn Kathīr (d. 774 AH/1373 CE) also sees alterations in a number of places: “Woe to them because of what they have written with their own hands, the lies, falsehood and alterations. Woe to them because of the property that they unjustly acquired.’ Tafsir al-Jalalayn sees corruption regarding ‘the ‘stoning’ verse and other details’. Both Tafsir al-Jalalayn and Tafsīr Ibn ʿAbbās see ‘bribes’/’bribery’ as being in view. According to Nickel (2015, 40-41):

Al-Ṭabarī wrote that he was familiar with a tradition associated with Q 2:75 [note, a handful of verses earlier than Q 2:79] that Jewish leaders keep a second book in addition to the Torah. For a bribe, the leaders give a favorable judgment out of the second book. But al-Ṭabarī clearly preferred the story about Moses and the seventy leaders as the interpretation.

Even though al-Ṭabarī doesn’t adopt this (though Nickel, 2015, 86 notes that his commentary on Q 2:102 may well suggest that he does envisage the concurrent existence of an intact Torah and other fabricated books), and Tafsir al-Jalalayn and Tafsīr Ibn ʿAbbās do not include this story at Q 2:75, perhaps this is the kind of event that they mean when referring to ‘bribes’/’bribery?

4. …centuries before the time of Muhammad?

4a. The Qur’anic evidence

Muslims often allege that the Torah and Gospel were corrupted centuries before the time of Muhammad. Given that we have the entire Torah in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the fourfold Gospel in the fourth century, centuries before the time of Muhammad, and that they are substantially the same as the Torah and fourfold Gospel we possess today, any accusation of significant textual change must have taken place prior to the Dead Sea Scrolls.

However, there is nothing in Q 2:79 to suggest we are speaking of a past alteration, and indeed much against this idea.

To begin with, the verse is largely in the present tense:

79 So woe to those who write something [yaktubūna] down with their own hands and then claim [yaqūlūna], ‘This is from God,’ in order to make some small gain. Woe to them for what their hands have written [katabat]! Woe to them for all that they have earned [lit: ‘earning’, yaksibūna]! (Q 2:79)

Katabat is perfect tense, as the hands have written something. The other verbs are in the present tense; ‘writing’, ‘claiming’, ‘earning’. Now perhaps there are appropriate times to use the ‘present tense’ to describe a past action. ‘Present tense’ is English terminology, which is often appropriate, but perhaps there are other uses of al-muḍāriʿ; English and Arabic grammatical concepts do not always neatly overlap. But even so, one would need a good contextual reason to understand Q 2:79 as having happened in the past; the default assumption should be that the ‘present tense’/al-muḍāri indicates a present action.

And indeed, the context supports a present tense understanding. The following verse (v. 80) is about the same people; it begins ‘They say…’, or perhaps ‘They have said’ (the perfect tense is used), and the Prophet is then instructed in response: ‘Say to them…’ Furthermore, the previous verses, to which v. 79 is linked by the introductory ‘So’ (fa), speak of a present-day Jewish community interacting with the believing Muslims (v. 75-77).

Therefore, even if Q 2:79 is speaking of Jewish corruption of the Torah, and even if it were all of the Jews and not only some who were participating in or harmed by this corruption, this would not affect our manuscripts from centuries before the time of Muhammad. And those manuscripts are virtually the same as the Torah we have today (the same would also apply to the Gospel).

4b. The Islamic tradition evidence

As we have already mentioned, a number of the commentators see Muhammad as being in view, his mention in the Torah as the object of tampering. This could have either happened before he came or once he had come. Nickel (2015, 82) argues that ‘[I]n order for this accusation to make sense, the Jewish leaders would need to have seen the messenger [i.e. only once he has arrived] to know what to change about his description in their book.’ But another possibility, pace Nickel, would actually be that the Jewish leaders altered those features predicted of Muhammad in the Torah before he actually arrived (e.g. the Torah predicted that Muhammad would be of medium height, they preemptively changed this to tall). This could have been done pre-emptively to ensure that the Prophet, whoever he might turn out to be, could never remove their rights to food from the people.

However, I do still agree with Nickel’s broader interpretation. The Qur’anic claim that Muhammad is still ‘written with them’ (maktūban ʿindahum) in the Torah and Gospel (Q 7:157) would weigh against the idea that such a passage had been textually corrupted before Muhammad’s time, and this perhaps also fits the report found in Ibn Isḥāq (d. 761 or 767 CE):

ʿĀṣim b. ʿUmar b. Qatāda told me that some of his tribesmen said:’…There was continual enmity between us [non-Jewish Arabs and Jews], and when we got the better of them [i.e. of the Jews] and excited their hate, they [the Jews] said, “The time of a prophet who is to be sent has now come. We will kill you with his aid as ʿĀd and Iram perished.” We often used to hear them say this. When God sent His apostle we accepted him…but they denied him. Concerning us and them, God revealed the verse in the chapter of the Cow: “And when a book from God came to them confirming what they already had (and they were formerly asking for victory over the unbelievers), when what they knew came to them, they disbelieved it. The curse of God is on the unbelievers” ‘. (Guillaume, 1955, 93)

And Muqātil ibn Sulaymān comments on Q 4:46:

[Commenting on ‘forgotten some of what they were told to remember’] This is about how God, powerful and exalted, made a covenant with Banū Isrāʾīl in the Torah that they would believe (āmana) in Muḥammad (PBUH), and give credence (ṣaddaqa) to him. He is written [in what is] with them in the Torah. Then when God, powerful and exalted, sent him, they disbelieved (kafara) in him and envied (ḥasada) him, and said, “This one is not from the descendants of Isḥāq, but rather he is from the descendants of Ismāʾīl.’ (Translation from Nickel, 2011, 81)

Particularly this latter account, though perhaps the former, suggests that only once Muhammad arrived, and they realised that the Prophet was in fact an Ishmaelite (cf. Heraclius stating in a Bukhari Hadith saying ‘I knew it (from the scriptures) that he was going to appear but I did not know that he would be from you’), did they determine not to believe in him. Any corruption would therefore take place during Muhammad’s lifetime.

Furthermore, many Muslims understand Q 2:146 and Q 6:20 to claim that the People of the Book can clearly recognise Muhammad (though I disagree with this interpretation of these verses, see here). As Reuven Firestone (2019) writes:

The Qur’an is understood in normative Muslim exegesis to confirm that the People of the Book naturally recognized Muhammad’s prophethood. Q.2:146 “Those whom We have given the book recognize it (or him) as they recognize their own children, but a group of them certainly conceal the truth, and they know it!” This is paraphrased by the popular commentary known [sic] Jalalayn as follows: “Those whom We have given the book recognize him, Muhammad, as they recognize their own children because of the description of him in their Scripture.23 [Abdullah] Ibn Salām said, ‘I recognized him the moment I saw him, as I would my own son. But my recognition of Muhammad was more intense’ but a group of them certainly conceal the truth, —that is, his description—and they know this that you [i.e., Muhammad] follow.”24

If one holds that Muhammad is clearly recognizable based upon his description in the previous scriptures, then this diminishes the scope of potential textual corruption that can have taken place before Muhammad’s own day.

The other (less frequently made?) accusations in the commentaries about a separate book(s) being written and sold, hateful things being removed and likable elements added, could refer to either the corrupt Jews at the time of Muhammad or long before.

4c. Summary

Ultimately, I would stress that the Qur’anic text itself suggests a present-day action, and that the frequent mention of the corruption of prophecy(s) about Muhammad also suggests that this particular corruption was taking place in his own day (cf. Q 7:157). It is not clear when the other claims of corruption are supposed to have taken place.

4c. Overall conclusion

I have argued that the Qur’an in Q 2:79 is speaking only of an action undertaken by the Jews; the Qur’an commentators I have encountered tend to (if not universally) agree (it depends on how Ibn Kathīr understands ‘People of the Book’). The Qur’an seems to think that only some Jews have done this action, those ‘who do not know the book’. I have argued that Q 2:79 is not necessarily talking about corruption of the Torah itself, but could refer to the creation of an additional document (e.g. the Mishnah or Talmud); al-Ṭabarī himself may support this general idea, and it is just possible that Tafsir al-Jalalayn and Tafsīr Ibn ʿAbbās do too when they speak of writing undertaken due to bribery.

But if it is the Torah itself that is in some way being corrupted, there are different possibilities as to exactly what is envisaged, though I think complete fabrication of scripture is in view. Some commentators focus on or speak only of a corruption of prophecy(s) of Muhammad, while others suggest corruption may have taken place more generally to remove what the Jews didn’t like, including specifically the penalty of stoning, and add what they did like. Indeed, perhaps entire copies of the Torah were forged and then sold for money.

But when did all this happen? The Qur’anic evidence suggests that this action was taking place during the time of the Qur’an’s revelations; the verbs tend to be in the present tense, and this is a community who encounter the believers (v. 76), and that Muhammad can address (v. 80). The accusation in a number of the commentaries that the description of Muhammad is what has been altered makes more sense if this took place once Muhammad had arrived, even though it is possible that it took place before. The other accusations of tampering (i.e. selling off false copies of scripture, adding and removing according to their desires) make sense either in the past or in the present.

All of this means that one cannot simply appeal to Q 2:79 as a clear-cut statement that the previous scriptures, the Torah and the Gospel, have been textually corrupted. This sidesteps important questions about who did what to what, when. I believe that a Qur’anic answer points away from the idea of a geographically widespread corruption before the time of Muhammad, the kind of charge that Muslims need to make given our possession of manuscripts of the Torah and Gospel centuries before the time of Muhammad. The Islamic commentaries on this verse are mixed, some suggesting a very limited scope (i.e. corruption of the description of Muhammad), others more extensive, but none that I can see referring with any clarity to a corruption of the Gospel (though Ibn Kathīr might refer to Christians and therefore the Gospel).

Appendix: Qur’anic commentators on Q 2:79

I remind the reader that near the beginning of this article I quoted Nickel (2015, 74): ‘When accusations of falsification appear in Muslim commentaries on the Qur’an or in works of asbāb al-nuzūl, it is usually in the interpretations of two particular verses, Q 2:79 and 3:78.’ These commentary entries on Q 2:79 are therefore, along with Q 3:78, amongst the strongest places in the commentaries alleging textual corruption.

As mentioned before, the reader is encouraged to balance these texts therefore with the positive evidence in favour of the Qur’an confirming the relibaility of the previous scriptures, as found here (see also the section ‘The Qur’an Affirms the Torah and Gospel’s Reliability’ here).

I have attempted below to translate passages from Muqātil ibn Sulaymān and al-Ṭabarī, as well as reproduced pre-existing translations from elsewhere. I am able to translate the simpler level of Arabic Qur’an commentary, but will indicate any uncertainty I have. I am happy to be corrected (with explanation, not just being told ‘You’re wrong’) by those with superior knowledge. I provide these texts simply to try and make accessible certain texts to those with absolutely no Arabic knowledge. It is regrettable that such key texts have not yet been fully translated. Italics indicate the Qur’an portion being quoted.

Muqātil ibn Sulaymān (d. 150 AH/767 CE), Tafsīr Muqātil ibn Sulaymān. Our earliest complete Qur’an commentary. Available here.

So woe to those who write the book with their hands: something other than the description of Muḥammad, upon whom be peace. And that is that the leaders of the Jews in Medina erased the description of Muḥammad (PBUH) from the Torah, and they wrote something other than his description, and the Jews said something other than the description of Muhammad. Then they say ‘This…’: the description. …is from God, in order that they might purchase with it a small price. It means a small offering of what the lowest of the Jews give them every year from of their crops and fruits. So woe to them because of what their hands have written. It means in the Torah, of the changing of the description of Muhammad (PBUH). And woe to them for what they earned. From that food for which they denied Muhammad (PBUH), and if they had followed Muhammad (PBUH), that food would have been withheld from them.

Muḥammad ibn Jarīr al-Ṭabarī (d. 310 AH/923 CE), Jāmiʿ al-bayān ʿan taʾwīl āy al-Qurʾān. Voluminous and esteemed. Records a number of earlier opinions. Available here.

[Initial discussion about Wayl, either ‘punishment’ or a specific feature of hell, omitted] Abū Jaʿfar said: ‘And the meaning of the ayah according to what was narrated in what is mentioned in his saying concerning the interpretation of ‘Wayl’: the punishment which is a pus-drink of the people of hell, in the lowest part of hell, the Jews who write falsehood with their hands, then say ‘This is from God.’ The saying concerning the interpretation of the Most Exalted’s words: Those who write the book with their hands, then say ‘This is from Allah’, in order that they might purchase with it a small price. It means thus:

[Translation for this paragraph in blue provided by Nickel, 2011, 154] those who tampered (ḥarrafa) the kitāb of God from the Jews Banū Isrāʾīl and wrote a book according to how they interpret it from their interpretations, opposing what God sent down upon his prophet Moses (PBUH). Then they sold it to a people who had knowledge neither of it nor of what is in the Torah, being ignorant of what is in the kitāb of God.

… in order to obtain base goods of this world. So God said to them: So woe to them for what their hands have written, and woe to them for what they obtain. As [isnad] Al-Suddī [said], ‘So woe to those who write the book with their hands, then say this is from Allah, in order that they might purchase with it a small price’, he said ‘It was people from the Jews who wrote a book amongst them [? min ʿindahum], they sell to the Arabs, and they tell them that it is from God in order that they might obtain by it a small price.’

p. 2 on Al-Tafsir.

[Isnad] on the authority of Ibn ʿAbbās, he said: ‘The illiterate, a people who did not believe in a messenger God sent, nor in a book God sent down. So they wrote a book with their hands, then they said to a base and ignorant people, ‘This is from God’, in order that they might obtain by it a small price.’ And he said: ‘Goods from the goods of this world.’ [Isnad] on the authority of Mujāhid concerning the saying of God: Those who write the book with their hands then say, ‘This is from God’. He said: ‘These are those who knew that it was from God, and they tampered with it.’ [Isnad] on the authority of Mujāhid similar to the above, except that he said: ‘They tampered with it.’ [The same Arabic verb is used as above; the comment is likely highlighting the lack of the first part of the statement]. [Isnad] on the authority of Qatādah: So woe to those who write the book with their hands‘ the ayah [this may be indicating that the rest of the ayah should be quoted]. ‘And they are the Jews.’ [Isnad] on the authority of Qatādah concerning His saying: So woe to those who write the Book…’ he said: ‘They were a people from the Children of Israel who wrote a book with their hands, in order to consume the People, So they said ‘This is from God’, and it was not from God.” [Isnad] on the authority of Abū Al-ʿāliyyah, His saying: ‘So woe to those who write the book with their hands, then they say ‘This is from God’ in order that they might obtain by it a small price.’ He said: ‘They attended to [?ʿmdwʾ. Translated ‘took up’ by Nickel, 2015, 77] what God revealed in their book about the description of Muḥammad, and they tampered with it from its places, desiring by that goods from the goods of this world. So he said: ‘So woe to them for what their hands have written, and woe to them for what they acquire.”

[Isnad] on the authority of the Messenger of God [SAW]: Al-Wayl [Typically translated ‘Woe’ in Q 2:79] is a mountain in the Fire [i.e. hell]’ And it is that which was sent down concerning the Jews because they tampered with the Torah, and added in it what they like, and erased from it what they hate, and they erased the name of Muḥammad (SAW) from the Torah. [Nickel, 2011, 154 takes these previous sentences to all be part of the tradition from Muhammad. The red-letter and quotation marks on Al-Tafsir suggest they end this tradition earlier after ‘the fire’, and I have followed their understanding. It would seem strange for Muhammad to describe himself here in the third person. Perhaps there is a mixture of direct and indirect citation here with which I am not familiar]

And therefore God was angry with them, and he raised/withdrew some of the Torah and said: So woe to them for what their hands have written, and woe to them for what they acquire. [Isnad] on the authority of ʿAṭāʾ ibn Yasār he said: Wayl [Woe]: a valley in hell or a path in it, a mountain which would melt from the severity of heat.’ Abū Jaʿfar said: indeed he said to us a saying: ‘What is the meaning of So woe/wayl to those who write the book with their hands?

[The following section is difficult for me to understand. A summary from J. Cooper is provided at the end in blue]

And is writing other than with the hand until [ḥatā] the ones speaking by this speech until [ʾilā ʾan] they know these people, those whom God narrates their story they were writing the book with their hands?’ It is said to him: ‘Indeed the book is from the Children of Adam, and indeed it was from them by hand, and indeed the book is added to other than his book and other than the responsible/commissioned/al-Mutawalī wrote his line/script. So it is said: ‘So-and-so wrote to so-and-so thus, and if he is responsible his writing is by his hand without adding to the book. When/if the writer wrote it with a command of adding to the book.

p. 3 on Al-Tafsir.

So Our Lord is most knowledgeable in his saying: So woe to those who write the book with their hands. His servants, the believers, that the chiefs of the Jews, writing presides over[? taliya] the lie and falsehood about God with their hands against/according to their knowledge and intended a lie against God, then claim that it is from God, and in/concerning the book of God lying about God, and fabricating lies against him. So the One Whose Praise is Majestic rejects [it/them] in his saying: They write the book with their hands. That there is a guardian (waliyy) of writing that some of their ignorant with the command of their scholars and leaders. And that is like/the opposite [naẓīr] the saying of the one who said: ‘So-and-so sold me his eye/spring such and such, and so-and-so bought his soul such’, he intended with the entering of the soul and the eye, in that he denied the ambiguity of his hearer, that he should be responsible selling that and buying it, other than as his order described it. And it is necessary that the reality of the action [corresponds?] to the intrinsic reality of it. And thus is his saying: So woe/wayl to those who write the book with their hands.

[J. Cooper, 1987, 413, provides an abridgment of at least some of the above section which I have struggled with. He says: ‘Ṭabarī asks a hypothetical question as to why the text of the Qurʾān says << who write the scripture with their hands >> when surely everybody writes with their hand. He replies that this clarifies the point that the learned Jews who altered the Torah did so in their own handwriting and in full knowledge of the enormity of their lies, and not by employing or delegating ignorant scribes to write it for them.]

[The text becomes more understandable to me]

The saying concerning the interpretation of the saying of the most exalted: So woe/wayl to them for what their hands have written, and woe/wayl to them for what they earn. The Most Majestic and Praised means by his saying: So woe/wayl to them for what their hands have written. I.e. in punishment in the valley, liquid of the pus of the people of the fire in the lowest part of hell for them, it means those who write the book which we described its content of the Jews, the Children of Israel, tampering/tampered [mḥrrfan], then they said ‘This is from God’ desiring goods from the world by it, a little of what he purchases from them. And his saying: From what their hands wrote. He says: from that which their hands wrote from that: And woe/wayl to them. Also. From what they acquire. It means from what they do of sin, and what they commit of sins, and they acquire from the ḥarām (forbidden) in their writing that which they write with their hands, contrary to what God sent down. Then they consume its price, and they see; it from what they sold it to them, that it is from the book of God. [Discussion of the nature of ‘what they acquire’ omitted] [Ibn ʿAbbās] said: he says ‘from those who wrote with their hands of that deception.’ [Discussion of the nature of ‘what they acquire’ omitted]

Al-Wāḥidī (d. 468 AH/1075 CE), Asbāb al-nuzūl. The Asbāb al-nuzūl literature is concerned with the ‘occasions of revelation’. Translation from Mokrane Guezzou via www.altafsir.com

(Therefore woe be unto those who write the Scripture with their hands and then say, “This is from Allah”…) [2:79]. This was revealed about those who had changed the description of the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, and altered his traits. Al-Kalbi mentioned, through the above-mentioned chain of transmission: “They had changed the description of Allah’s Messenger, Allah bless him and give him peace, in their Scripture. They made him white and tall while the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, was brown and of medium height. They had said to their followers and companions: ‘Look at the description of the prophet who will be sent at the end of time; his description does not match that of this [man]’. The Jewish rabbis and doctors used to gain some worldly benefits from the Jewish people and so they were afraid of losing this gain if they were ever to show the real description. It is for this reason that they had changed it”.

Al-Qurṭubī (d. 671 AH/1272 CE), al-Jāmiʿ li-aḥkām al-Qurʾān.

According to Nickel (2015, 77-78):

[In commenting on “in order to purchase a small gain with it.”] al-Qurṭubī related an accusation attributed to Ibn Isḥāq and al-Kalbī. According to this tradition, the description (ṣifa, صِفة) of the messenger of Islam is contained in the books of the Jews. Those books describe him as of medium height (rabʿa) and of brown complexion (asmar). But the Jews make him a man of lank hair (sabṭ) and tall (ṭawīl) stature. Then they tell their companions and followers to compare the appearance of the messenger with the false description they made, and observe, “It does not resemble this description (naʿt, نعْت).’ In this tradition, the guilty actors are the rabbis (aḥbār) and the scholars (ʿulamāʾ). The reason they alter (ghayyara) is that they fear if they report the true description of the messenger, they will lose their food and provisions.

Ibn Kathīr (d. 774 AH/1373 CE), Tafsīr al-Qurʾān al-ʿaẓīm. The translation below is from here. Comparing the translation to the Arabic, it appears it may only be a partial translation, even though the sections that are translated are done so quite literally.

(Then Waylun (woe) to those who write the book with their own hands and then say, “This is from Allah,” to purchase with it a little price!). This is another category of people among the Jews who called to misguidance with falsehood and lies about Allah, thriving on unjustly amassing people’s property. `Waylun (woe)’ carries meanings of destruction and perishing, and it is a well-known word in the Arabic language. Az-Zuhri said that `Ubadydullah bin `Abdullah narrated that Ibn `Abbas said, “O Muslims! How could you ask the People of the Book about anything, while the Book of Allah (Qur’an) that He revealed to His Prophet is the most recent Book from Him and you still read it fresh and young Allah told you that the People of the Book altered the Book of Allah, changed it and wrote another book with their own hands. They then said, `This book is from Allah,’ so that they acquired a small profit by it. Hasn’t the knowledge that came to you prohibited you from asking them By Allah! We have not seen any of them asking you about what was revealed to you.” This Hadith was also collected by Al-Bukhari. Al-Hasan Al-Basri said, “The little amount here means this life and all that it contains.” Allah’s statement (Woe to them for what their hands have written and woe to them for that they earn thereby) means, “Woe to them because of what they have written with their own hands, the lies, falsehood and alterations. Woe to them because of the property that they unjustly acquired.’

Tanwīr al-Miqbās min tafsīr Ibn ʿAbbās (collected by al-Fayrūzabādī, d. 816-817 AH/1414 CE). Translation from Mokrane Guezzou via www.altafsir.com

(Therefore woe) severe punishment, and it is said this means: a valley in hell (be unto those who write the Scripture with their hands) change the description and traits of Muhammad (pbuh) in the Book (and then say, “This is) in the Book that has come (from Allah”, that they may purchase) through changing and altering it (a small gain therewith) a small gain in terms of means of subsistence and surplus of property. (Woe unto them) theirs is a severe punishment (for what their hands have written) have altered (and woe unto them) and theirs is a severe punishment (for what they earn thereby) of unlawful earnings and bribes.

Tafsir al-Jalalayn (9-10th centuries AH/15-16th centuries CE). Highly popular and concise. Translation from Feras Hamza via www.altafsir.com.

So woe a severe chastisement to those who write the Scripture with their hands that is fabricating it themselves then say ‘This is from God’ that they may sell it for a small price of this world these are the Jews the ones that altered the description of the Prophet in the Torah as well as the ‘stoning’ verse and other details and rewrote them in a way different from that in which they were revealed. So woe to them for what their hands have written of fabrications and woe to them for their earnings by way of bribery rishan plural of rishwa.

Works cited (click to open)

Adang, Camilla. Muslim Writers on Judaism and the Hebrew Bible: From Ibn Rabban to Ibn Hazm. Leiden: Brill, 1996.

Al-Tafsir – https://www.altafsir.com/ – an excellent resource providing a handful of English translations, and countless Arabic texts

Cooper, J. The Commentary on the Qurʾān by Abū Jaʿfar Muḥammad B. Jarīr Al-Ṭabarī. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Firestone, Reuven. “Muhammad, the Jews, and the Composition of the Qur’an: Sacred History and Counter-History.” Religions 10, no. 1 (2019): 63.

Guillaume, Alfred. The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Isḥāq’s Sīrat Rasūl Allāh. Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1955.

Haleem, M. A. S. Abdel. The Qurʾan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Nickel, Gordon. The Gentle Answer: To the Muslim Accusation of Falsification. Calgary: Bruton Gate, 2015.

Nickel, Gordon. Narratives of Tampering in the Earliest Commentaries on the Qurʾān. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2011.

Rippin, Andrew. “The Function of Asbab Al-Nuzul in Qur’anic Exegesis.” https://www.iis.ac.uk/fr/academic-article/function-asbab-al-nuzul-qur-anic-exegesis. This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in the Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 51, No. 1 (1988), pp. 1-20.

Q Tafsir.com http://m.qtafsir.com/ – Q Tafsir.com helpfully provides access to an English translation (and possibly abridgement, see comments in this article) to the Tafsīr of Ibn Kathīr.

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