Q 5:32, the Mishnah, and possible explanations

Q 5:32 – ‘On account of [his deed], We decreed to the Children of Israel that if anyone kills a person – unless in retribution for murder or spreading corruption in the land – it is as if he kills all mankind, while if any saves a life it is as if he saves the lives of all mankind. Our messengers came to them with clear signs, but many of them continued to commit excesses in the land.’ (Abdel Haleem)

‘[his deed]’ is referring to Cain’s murder of Abel, as named in the Bible (Genesis 4:8), even though the Qur’an refers to them simply as ‘Adam’s two sons’ (Q 5:27). It is thought by many that Q 5:32 is not alluding to the Bible, where nothing like it can be found, but to Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5:

In cases of capital law, if one testifies falsely, the blood of the accused and the blood of his offspring that he did not merit to produce are ascribed to the witness’s testimony until eternity. The proof for this is as we found with Cain, who killed his brother, as it is stated concerning him: “The voice of your brother’s blood [demei] cries out to Me from the ground” (Genesis 4:10). The verse does not state: Your brother’s blood [dam], in the singular, but rather: “Your brother’s blood [demei],” in the plural. This serves to teach that the loss of both his brother’s blood and the blood of his brother’s offspring are ascribed to Cain. The mishna notes: Alternatively, the phrase “your brother’s blood [demei],” written in the plural, teaches that that his blood was not gathered in one place but was splattered on the trees and on the stones. The court tells the witnesses: Therefore, Adam the first man was created alone, to teach you that with regard to anyone who destroys one soul from the Jewish people, i.e., kills one Jew, the verse ascribes him blame as if he destroyed an entire world, as Adam was one person, from whom the population of an entire world came forth. And conversely, anyone who sustains one soul from the Jewish people, the verse ascribes him credit as if he sustained an entire world. (Bold is original, red font is added)

The compilation of the Mishnah is typically dated to around 200 CE, though it contains earlier traditions. The connection between these two texts is not only made in Christian-Muslim discourse (for which see the list at the beginning of this Islamic Awareness article), but also in academic literature (Sinai, 2017, 139; Reynolds, 2018, 199; by numerous academics in eds. Azaiez, M., Reynolds, G. S., Tesei, T., and Zafer, H. M., 2016, 107-110). The similarity between these passages is also noted by The Study Qur’an (2015, 292).

The position of Islamic Awareness

Some (many?) Muslims attempt to downplay the similarities between these passages. I was recently sent a very erudite and thought-provoking article at Islamic Awareness, the first half of which I found enlightening and correctly cautious about the dating of certain Jewish texts. I am no expert in dating these texts, but I am aware generally of the difficulty of dating certain old texts. The section on Mishnah Sanhedrin was, however, less persuasive. While writing this post I discovered that Joseph Witztum (2011, 122), like myself, also finds this Qur’anic parallel to Mishnah Sanhedrin ‘much more convincing’ than Abraham Geiger’s previous two suggestions. I am indebted to Reynolds (2018, 199) for pointing me to Witztum.

There is a helpful and lengthy discussion by Islamic Awareness about the textual evidence for ‘out of Israel’/’from the Jewish people’, which is in fact represented in the translation above (though see the works cited in Witztum, 2011, 123, footnotes, who sees ‘from Israel’ as secondary). However, unlike with Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, Pirke De-Rabbi Eli’ezer and Midrash Tanhuma, there is little attempt by Islamic Awareness to date Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 after the coming of Islam (one throw-away comment is made, see below). The substantial critique is made as follows:

There are significant differences between the original account in the Babylonian Talmud [in which Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 can be found] and the Qur’an 5:35 on the issue of Cain and Abel. The original account in the Babylonian Talmud restricts the sins/blessings for killing/saving an Israelite soul. The Qur’an, on the other hand, universalizes the sins/blessings for killing/saving a human being with a condition, absent in Sanhedrin 4:5, “unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land”. Given these pertinent facts,  it is difficult to see how one can claim that the Qur’anic story was borrowed Sanhedrin 4:5. Moreover, there is no evidence of the existence of an Arabic Talmud during the advent of Islam in Arabia especially Makkah. It is also known that the final version of the Talmud came after the advent of Islam.

Responding to Islamic Awareness: textual variation, dating, and language

First I will briefly deal with the final sentence. Up until now in the article there has only been discussion of a few words, ‘out of Israel’ and how these were redacted because of Christian sensibilities, for which we have good evidence. No evidence is presented or scholars cited to suggest that an entire section of material, which we quoted at the beginning of this blog post, was created and added after the time of Islam. At the end of the article, in the bibliography, we are told that the oldest firmly dated manuscript of the Babylonian Talmud is from 1123 CE; but this is often the case with old works. The general scholarly consensus seems to be that Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 dates from before Islam, and I’ll go with that unless I have good evidence to the contrary.

The final sentence also says ‘there is no evidence of the existence of an Arabic Talmud during the advent of Islam in Arabia especially Makkah.’ I won’t spend long on this point, as Islamic Awareness does not, but in brief:

  • It is debatable whether the Qur’an is from Mecca in modern day Arabia (cf. e.g. Dan Gibson’s Early Islamic Qiblas).
  • The Islamic tradition tells us that there were Jews in Arabia, specifically in Medinah. At least some of them would have been bilingual presumably (at the very least knowing Hebrew enough to read their scriptures) and would have been able to read the Talmud, even if most Arabs could not.
  • The allegation was made in Q 16:103 that Muhammad had an informant who spoke a ‘foreign’ language (thus is ʾaʿjamī translated by numerous translations). While the verse may be right to suggest that that individual did not have sufficient Arabic to produce the Arabic Qur’an, this does not mean he may not have passed on information about Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5.

Responding to Islamic Awareness: similarity and dissimilarity

The core argument put forward by Islamic Awareness is that Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 and Q 5:32 are not in fact that similar. I disagree; I think there is enough similarity to suggest that the Qur’an is interacting with Mishnah Sanhedrin. Both passages use language about killing one soul being like killing the whole of mankind, and both do so in the context of Cain and Abel. I don’t think this is coincidental. Additionally, Witztum (2011, 123) notes that the same verb katabnā (lit: ‘we wrote’) is also used in Q 5:45 and Q 21:105, both of which cite scriptural material. This strengthens the possibility that there is a citation in Q5:32, and also that the Qur’an considers it to be scripture. Let me therefore deal with the major objections:

  • Killing an Israelite (Mishnah Sanhedrin)/killing anyone (Qur’an). First of all, I thoroughly dispute the premise. The Qur’an is not presenting this as a general rule, but explicitly says ‘We decreed to the Children of Israel…‘ (emphasis added).
    • If someone responds ‘Ah but the verse says ‘if anyone kills a person‘, thinking that this implies universality, they should remember that context determines scope. We all know this; if a company’s staff handbook says on p. 87 that ‘If anyone has an accident, this must be reported in the health and safety logbook’, it is very obvious from context that ‘anyone’ is referring to employees and those on the premises, not anyone in the entire world who has an accident. That would need to be a very large logbook indeed…
    • Furthermore, Witztum (2011, 124) notes the anti-Israelite polemic, that the Israelites in particular needed to hear this story because of their wickedness (recounted in great detail in the Qur’an), as is confirmed by the final portion of v. 32 (to which we would add v. 33).
    • Furthermore, as mentioned above, Witztum (123) cites a couple of studies suggesting that ‘from Israel’ is in fact not the original reading, though I can concede the point for the sake of argument.
  • Neither Witztum or I suggest, and in fact we deny, that the Qur’an is slavishly copying the Qur’an. The Qur’an may cite or interact with a story or statement while tweaking its details to fit its own theology.
    • This is exactly what seems to be happenning with the ‘unless in retribution…in the land’ exception, which Abdel Haleem seperates out with hyphens (as an explanatory clause seperate from the citation?).
      • The Qur’an is inserting its own view, as it does elsewhere, for instance, by retrojecting ‘crucifixion, the amputation of an alternate hand and foot’ mentioned in the next verse (Q 5:33) back into the time of Pharoah (Q 20:71).

The best Muslim response?: a) original written Torah

Other than a more detailed attempt to post-date Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 after the coming of Islam, the best response I can envisage would be to say that God really did in the original Torah reveal to the Children of Israel what Q 5:32 records. Even though it isn’t preserved in the Torah as it is written today, it was passed down over the centuries by the Jewish people and ended up in the Mishnah.

It is interesting that this response seems to credit non-Muslims with the ability to reliably transmit oral traditions over a very long time period (approximately two millenia from Moses until the coming of Islam), without the benefits of isnāds. Can this be true, but Christians could go so astray in the three-to-four decades between Jesus’ death and the the writing of the New Testament documents? I suppose it could be said that the teaching of Q 5:32 is so momentous that Jews couldn’t possibly forget it (though the same could be said for the early Christians’ and their beliefs about Jesus, who he was and his saving death).

Putting aside that objection, and the Qur’an’s repeating elsewhere of historically doubtful material (e.g. the Alexander legend in Q 18:83-101), perhaps the greatest difficulty with this view is that Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 seems to be the source of Q 5:32, not vice versa. Why do I say this?

In case our Muslim friends are tempted to agree with Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5, it should still be noticed that this is not recorded as divine speech; it appears to be an exegetical conclusion. It is predicated on the Hebrew plural word dāmīm, lit: ‘bloods’, being used as opposed to the singular dām. However, the plural dāmīm is used outside of the context of Cain and Abel (e.g. Leviticus 12:5, 2 Kings 9:26), with none of the symbolism that could be read into that passage about all of Abel’s descendants. Gesenius notes that the plural blood is used to refer to ‘blood which is shed‘ (italics original), and this fits well with what we find in Genesis 4:10. Even were it not for this particular feature of ‘bloods’, Gesenius notes the number of different meanings that the plural can express in Hebrew. I am grateful to a commentator here for discovering the Gesenius reference.

The best Muslim response?: b) oral Torah

It is of course possible that Genesis 4:10 was revealed by God with the meaning intended by Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5, even though scripture never explains this, and there are very plausible alternative interpretations. Perhaps this is part of the oral Torah.

I am sceptical, in part due to my views on the oral Torah, but also due to my brief first-hand experience with Jewish exegesis, which often appears to be eisegetical rather than exegetical, at times fancifully so. I also think the Qur’an is opposed to such notions as oral Torah, instead speaking of a kitāb (‘book’) given to Moses (Q 2:53), the ‘Torah’ (e.g. Q 3:3). Furthermore, as we have mentioned above, Witztum (2011, 123) notes that the same verb katabnā (lit: ‘we wrote’) is also used in Q 5:45 and Q 21:105, both of which cite scriptural material. Specifically, they quote the Old Testament text as we actually have it (the lex talionis, such as in Exodus 21:24, and Psalm 37:29).

The best Muslim response?: c) false etymology

It could alternatively be suggested that Q 5:32 and Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 both reflect God’s genuine revelation, aside from any linguistic considerations, but that later rabbis focused in on dāmīm as something similar to a false etymology. They already had their statement (‘anyone who destroys one soul..’), and they were trying to find somewhere to derive it from. This is possible, though it seems a bit coincidental that plural dāmīm happened to be included in God’s revelation for the rabbis to be able to exploit it, rather than that dāmīm is the cause of the saying. A similar issue applies in this blog post responding to a video by Islam Critiqued, which is about how Jewish exegesis and the boiling waters of the flood ends up in the Qur’an. The issue appears again, as explained by Islam Critiqued (13:20 onwards), concerning the story of Abraham being thrown into the fire.

Dear Muslim friends, do you think Qur’an 5:32 is interacting with Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5? Do you think Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 is part of the oral Torah? The original, written Torah? Or is it human exegesis? Please do share your thoughts in the comments below.


It just so happens that Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 seeks to refute ‘heretics who believe in multiple gods [that they] will not say: There are many authorities in Heaven’. The idea of multiple ‘powers in heaven’ is explored by Alan F. Segal in his (1977, original edition) seminal work Two Powers in Heaven: early rabbinic reports about Christianity and Gnosticism. This is one of the key works which argues that Judaism around the time of the origins of Christianity is more complex than the later, unitarian form of Judaism with which most of us are familiar.

Works cited

Azaiez, M., Reynolds, G. S., Tesei, T., Zafer, H. M. (2016). The Qurʾan seminar commentary: a collaborative study of 50 Qurʾanic passages. Berlin/Boston, De Gruyter.

Kautzsch, E. (ed.), Cowley, A. E. (trans.) (1910) Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Gesenius’_Hebrew_Grammar/124._The_Various_Uses_of_the_Plural-form

Islam Critiqued, 21/11/2020 ‘The oven boiled: from eisegesis to history’, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5C8guidRqko. Date accessed: 24/11/2020.

Islamic Awareness, ‘On The Sources Of The Story Of Cain & Abel In The Qur’an’, originally published 1998, last updated 2006. Accessed on 23/11/2020. https://www.islamic-awareness.org/quran/sources/bbcanda?fbclid=IwAR1zNH0kfKURXmrMtALVc9bn3-Vzr36JDI7C9Okasuu3a4HJDugwODXF-Gc

Nasr, S. H., C. K. Dagli, M. M. Dakake, J. Lumbard and M. Rustom (2015). The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary. New York, HarperOne.

Reynolds, G. S. (2018). The Qur’ān and the Bible: text and commentary. New Haven/London, Yale University Press.

Segal, A. F. (2012, reprint edition). Two powers in heaven: early rabbinic reports about Christianity and gnosticism. Waco, TX, Baylor University Press.

Sinai, N. (2017). The Qur’an: a historical critical introduction. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.

Stackexchange, Biblical hermeneutics, ‘Why is “bloods,” translated as “blood,” in Genesis 4:10? https://hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/17035/why-is-bloods-translated-as-blood-in-genesis-410

Wikipedia. ‘False etymology’ https://www.google.com/search?client=firefox-b-d&q=wikipedia+false+etymology

Witztum, J. B. (2011). The Syriac milieu of the Quran: the recasting of biblical narratives. Doctor of Philosophy thesis, Princeton University.

Article updated 21:36, 24/11/2020 – a reference to Islam Critiqued’s video ‘The oven boiled: from eisegesis to history‘ was added.

Article updated 10:15, 25/11/2020 – a reference is added to a more recent blog post that tackles a similar issue, as well as to an Islam Critiqued video about Abraham being thrown into a furance.

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