Sura Baqara 2:79
“Sura Baqara 2:79 clearly says that Jews and Christians rewrote their Scriptures”
The Qur’ān contains one verse (2:79) which seems to indicate textual corruption and is frequently quoted by those who oppose the previous scriptures:
“And verily a party (فَرِيق fariq ) among them [Jews] hear the Word of God (Qur’ān); then they pervert it knowingly after they have understood it … There are illiterate men among them who, ignorant of the Scriptures, know of nothing but wishful fancies and vague conjecture. Woe betide those that write the scriptures with their own hands and then declare, ‘This is from God’ in order to gain some paltry end. Woe shall be their fate, because of what their hands have written, because of what they did! ” (Sura 2:75, 78-79)
From verse 75 we learn that the ‘scripture’ under discussion is the Qur’ān (not the previous scriptures), which the Jews misconstrued. This passage is condemning the Jews of Medina for taking Muhammad’s words and twisting them for their own profit.
Verses 78-79 says that some “illiterate” people who lived among the Jews had “written” fake scriptures, selling them for profit. At first glance, this seems to be a direct contradiction, since illiterate means unable to read or write! But the word “illiterate” is ummiyyun (أُمِّيُّونَ) , which according to Ibn Abbas and other authorities can alternately be translated as Gentile (non-Jew, pagan), in the sense of pagan Arabs who were neither Jewish nor Christian. Since these fake-scripture writers were clearly literate, we must assume ummiyyun means that these scripture-forgers were Gentiles, not Jews.
This fits well, for there were a number of Gentile Arab poets who composed false “revelations” for personal profit. During Muhammad’s own lifetime, an Arabian poet named Nadr Ibn Harith (d.624 ) used to interrupt Muhammad’s meetings and recite tales which he had heard from non-Arabs in a style similar to the Qur’ān , intending to outdo Muhammad.1 Musaylima was another Arab from Muhammad’s day who proclaimed himself a prophet and messenger of Allah and composed verses like the Qur’ān which he presented as revelations. The famous Muslim battle of Al-Yamama was fought against his following. According to Imam Razi, Musaylima is the subject of Sura 6:93:
“Who can be more wicked than the man who invents a falsehood about God, or says: ‘This was revealed to me,’ when nothing was revealed to him?” (Sura Al An’am 6:93)
A similar claim of prophethood was made by another Gentile named Al-Ansi in San’a, whose substantial following believed that he had received revelations. We know from history of numerous other Gentile false prophets such as Mani (مانی), Mazdak (مزدک), Al-Muqanna (المقنع) and Baha’ullah (بهاء الله), all of whom were Middle-Eastern non-Jews who composed their own fake ‘scriptures’ saying they were from the same God. Naturally, the Jews and Christians rejected all these scriptures since they had the real ones with them.
All of these Gentile false prophets fit this passages’ description of ummiyyun (non-Jewish) deceivers who after being among Jews and Christians wrote their own fake scriptures and declared “this is from God” for personal profit. This would be the most natural interpretation of this verse, that the false prophets described here were Gentile. It would fit with the rest of the Qur’ān , which clearly respects the then-existing tawrat and Injīl as sacred Scripture.
Even if we interpret this verse as describing Jewish corruption of their Tawrat (not the Christian’s Injīl), the earliest scholars like Tabari still do not interpret this to mean changing a written text. The Qur’ānic scholar Saeed Abdullah describes Tabari’s interpretation of Baqara 2:79:
The form of distortion that Tabari seems to refer to in this instance is that of writing down certain interpretations and attributing them to Allah, not changing a written text (word of God).2
It was not until Ibn Khazem (d. 1064 A.D.) that Muslims began to accuse the Christians and Jews of having irrecoverably corrupted their Bible, that is with textual modifications. This was centuries after Muhammad, contradicting the early authorities like Ibn Abbas.
It is simply ludicrous to assert that God-fearing Christians and Jews would allow their Sacred Scripture to be changed, deluding themselves. Muhammad’s advice to the Jews and Christians was not to discard their scriptures and follow the Qur’ān , but rather to judge carefully by their own Scriptures (Maidah 5:47). Critics like Zakir Naik falsely use this verse to accuse Christians of changing their scriptures, when this passage is speaking neither of Christians nor of the Injīl, but rather of malicious Jews mocking Muhammad’s words and Gentile false prophets composing their own scriptures.
- The account of Nadr Ibn Harith is found in Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasulullah.
- Saeed Abdullah, The Charge of Distortion of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, The Muslim World, Vol. 92, Fall 2002, p.426