List of legends in the Quran

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A number of legends, parables or pieces of folklore appear in the Quran, often with similar motifs to Jewish and Christian traditions which may pre-date those in the Quran.[1] One folklorist, Alan Dundes, has noted three "folktales" in the Quran that fit the pattern of those included in the Aarne–Thompson classification systems of folklore narratives.[2] Peter G. Bietenholz has also noted legends in the Quran that share themes found in Jewish and Christian legends.[1]


Jewish legends[edit]

Quran shows influence from Jewish literature, like the Midrash Tanchuma

Cain and Abel teaching[edit]

Several narratives rely on Jewish Midrash Tanhuma legends, like the narrative of Cain learning to bury the body of Abel in Surah 5:31.[3][4] Surah 5:32, when discussing the legal and moral applications to the story of Cain and Abel, relies heavily on the Jewish Mishnah tradition, and quotes from Sanhedrin 4:5:[5]

Sanhedrin 4:5 ...if any man has caused a single life to perish from Israel, he is deemed by Scripture as if he had caused a whole world to perish; and anyone who saves a single soul from Israel, he is deemed by Scripture as if he had saved a whole world. [6]

Quran 5:32 Because of that We ordained for the Children of Israel: that whoever kills a person—unless it is for murder or corruption on earth—it is as if he killed the whole of mankind; and whoever saves it, it is as if he saved the whole of mankind. Our messengers came to them with clarifications, but even after that, many of them continue to commit excesses in the land.[7]

Abraham legends[edit]

Surah 21, which tells of Abraham destroying the idols, after which he is delivered by God from being thrown into the fire, is a legend found in the Midrash Rabbah.[8]

Solomon[edit]

Valley of the ants[edit]

Legends of the Jews 5: "On one occasion he strayed into the valley of the ants in the course of his wanderings. He heard one ant order all the others to withdraw, to avoid being crushed by the armies of Solomon. The king halted and summoned the ant that had spoken. She told him that she was the queen of the ants, and she gave her reasons for the order of withdrawal. Solomon wanted to put a question to the ant queen, but she refused to answer unless the king took her up and placed her on his hand. He acquiesced, and then he put his question: 'Is there any one greater than I am in all the world?' 'Yes,' said the ant. Solomon: 'Who?' Ant: 'I am.' Solomon: 'How is that possible?' Ant: 'Were I not greater than thou, God would not have led thee hither to put me on thy hand.' Exasperated, Solomon threw her to the ground, and said: 'Thou knowest who I am? I am Solomon, the son of David.' Not at all intimidated, the ant reminded the king of his earthly origin, and admonished him to humility, and the king went off abashed.[9]

Quran 27:18–19 "Until, when they came upon the Valley of Ants, an ant said, 'O ants! Go into your nests, lest Sulaimān (Solomon) and his troops crush you without noticing.' He smiled and laughed at her words, and said, 'My Lord, direct me to be thankful for the blessings you have bestowed upon me and upon my parents, and to do good works that please You. And admit me, by Your grace, into the company of Your virtuous servants.'"[10]

Jellinek 150:22[edit]

The Jewish Encyclopedia includes a copy of Jellinek 150:22, which is about Solomon flying on a carpet.[11] The opening lines in this work and in the Quran – especially the ant's words – are almost identical, as can be seen:

(Jellinek) On another day while sailing over a valley where there were many swarms of ants,
(Quran) Until, when they came upon the Valley of Ants,

(Jellinek) Solomon heard one ant say to the others, Enter your houses; otherwise Solomon's legions will destroy you.
(Quran) an ant said, O ants! Go into your nests, lest Solomon and his troops crush you without noticing.

Christian legends[edit]

The Quran also contains many references to Apocryphal Christian legends.[12]

Seven Sleepers[edit]

The Seven Sleepers is a tale where seven believers from Ephesus seek refuge in a cave from pagans threatening them with death and fall into miraculous sleep lasting hundred years of years. They awake to find the pagans vanquished and the land converted to their faith. The earliest version of this story comes from the Syrian bishop Jacob of Serugh (c. 450 – 521), which is itself derived from an earlier Greek source, now lost.[13] An outline of this tale appears in Gregory of Tours (538–594), and in Paul the Deacon's (720–799) History of the Lombards.[14] The best-known Western version of the story appears in Jacobus da Varagine's Golden Legend. Christians celebrate the "Seven Sleepers of Ephesus" as a miracle and for centuries the Roman church celebrated its feast day on 27 July.[15]

The Seven sleepers also appears in the Quran (Quran 18:9–25), where a number of believers seek refuge in a cave. That they have faith in Islam and length of their sleep (309 years) is described, but the threat of death from pagans, the location of the cave, exact number of sleepers (only God knows), is not. The story fits Aarne-Thompson story type 766;[16][17]

Mary[edit]

Joachim and Anna[edit]

Gospel of James 1,2,5 "In the records of the twelve tribes of Israel was Joachim,...And his wife Anna...And the days having been fulfilled, Anna was purified, and gave the breast to the child, and called her name Mary."[18]

Quran 3:35–36 "The wife of Imran said, 'My Lord, I have vowed to You what is in my womb, dedicated, so accept from me; You are the Hearer and Knower.' And when she delivered her, she said, 'My Lord, I have delivered a female,' and God was well aware of what she has delivered, 'and the male is not like the female, and I have named her Mary,...'"[19]

Temple service and angelic food[edit]

Gospel of James 8 "And Mary was in the Temple of the Lord. She was nurtured like a dove, and received food from the hand of an angel."[20]

Quran 3:37 "Whenever Zechariah entered upon her in the sanctuary, he found her with provision. He said, 'O Mary, where did you get this from?' She said, 'It is from God; God provides to whom He wills without reckoning.'"[21]

Joseph chosen by lots[edit]

Gospel of James 9: "...Joseph took his rod last; and, behold, a dove came out of the rod, and flew upon Joseph's head. And the priest said to Joseph, You have been chosen by lot to take into your keeping the virgin of the Lord."[22]

Quran 3:44 "These are accounts from the Unseen, which We reveal to you. You were not with them when they cast their lots as to which of them would take charge of Mary; nor were you with them as they quarreled."[23]

Palm tree bending[edit]

Mary shaking the palm tree for dates, a legend derived from the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew.[24]

The Quran also incorporates a legend found in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew.[25]

Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew 20 "And it came to pass on the third day of their journey, while they were walking, that the blessed Mary was fatigued by the excessive heat of the sun in the desert; and seeing a palm tree, she said to Joseph: Let me rest a little under the shade of this tree...Then the child Jesus, with a joyful countenance, reposing in the bosom of His mother, said to the palm: O tree, bend your branches, and refresh my mother with your fruit. And immediately at these words the palm bent its top down to the very feet of the blessed Mary; and they gathered from it fruit, with which they were all refreshed."[26]

Quran 19:22–26 "So she carried him, and secluded herself with him in a remote place. The labor-pains came upon her, by the trunk of a palm-tree. She said, 'I wish I had died before this, and been completely forgotten.' Whereupon he called her from beneath her: 'Do not worry; your Lord has placed a stream beneath you. And shake the trunk of the palm-tree towards you, and it will drop ripe dates by you. So eat, and drink, and be consoled. And if you see any human, say, "I have vowed a fast to the Most Gracious, so I will not speak to any human today."'"[27]

Jesus[edit]

Speaking as a baby[edit]

Arabic Infancy Gospel 1 "...when He was lying in His cradle said to Mary His mother: I am Jesus, the Son of God, the Logos, whom thou hast brought forth, as the Angel Gabriel announced to thee; and my Father has sent me for the salvation of the world."[28]

Quran 19:27–34 "Then she came to her people, carrying him. They said, 'O Mary, you have done something terrible. O sister of Aaron, your father was not an evil man, and your mother was not a whore.' So she pointed to him. They said, 'How can we speak to an infant in the crib?' He said, 'I am the servant of God. He has given me the Scripture, and made me a prophet. And has made me blessed wherever I may be; and has enjoined on me prayer and charity, so long as I live. And kind to my mother, and He did not make me a disobedient rebel. So Peace is upon me the day I was born, and the day I die, and the Day I get resurrected alive.' That is Jesus son of Mary—the Word of truth about which they doubt."[29]

Clay birds[edit]

Gospel of Thomas 2 "And having made some soft clay, He fashioned out of it twelve sparrows."[30]

Quran 3:49 " A messenger to the Children of Israel: 'I have come to you with a sign from your Lord. I make for you out of clay the figure of a bird; then I breathe into it, and it becomes a bird by God’s leave...'"[31]

Denial of crucifixion[edit]

Payrus of Irenaeus' Against Heresies, which describes early Gnostic beliefs about Jesus' death which influenced Islam.

The view that Jesus only appeared to be crucified and did not actually die predates Islam, and is found in several apocryphal gospels.[32]

Irenaeus in his book Against Heresies describes Gnostic beliefs that bear remarkable resemblance with the Islamic view:

He did not himself suffer death, but Simon, a certain man of Cyrene, being compelled, bore the cross in his stead; so that this latter being transfigured by him, that he might be thought to be Jesus, was crucified, through ignorance and error, while Jesus himself received the form of Simon, and, standing by, laughed at them. For since he was an incorporeal power, and the Nous (mind) of the unborn father, he transfigured himself as he pleased, and thus ascended to him who had sent him, deriding them, inasmuch as he could not be laid hold of, and was invisible to all.-

— Against Heresies, Book I, Chapter 24, Section 40

Compare with Quran 4:157:

"And for their saying, 'We have killed the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, the Messenger of God.' In fact, they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, but it appeared to them as if they did."[33]

It has to be noted, that Islamic tradition held very similar beliefs, that someone else was crucified instead of Jesus, frequently identified as Judas Iscariot or Simon of Cyrene.[34][35]

Alexander the Great legends[edit]

Silver tetradrachm of Alexander the Great shown wearing the horns of the ram-god Zeus-Ammon.

Quran also employs popular legends about Alexander the Great called Dhul-Qarnayn ("he of the two horns") in the Quran. The story of Dhul-Qarnayn has its origins in legends of Alexander the Great current in the Middle East in the early years of the Christian era. According to these the Scythians, the descendants of Gog and Magog, once defeated one of Alexander's generals, upon which Alexander built a wall in the Caucasus mountains to keep them out of civilised lands (the basic elements are found in Flavius Josephus). The legend went through much further elaboration in subsequent centuries before eventually finding its way into the Quran through a Syrian version.[36]

The reasons behind the name "Two-Horned" are somewhat obscure: the scholar al-Tabari (839–923 CE) held it was because he went from one extremity ("horn") of the world to the other,[37] but it may ultimately derive from the image of Alexander wearing the horns of the ram-god Zeus-Ammon, as popularised on coins throughout the Hellenistic Near East.[38] The wall Dhul-Qarnayn builds on his northern journey may have reflected a distant knowledge of the Great Wall of China (the 12th century scholar al-Idrisi drew a map for Roger of Sicily showing the "Land of Gog and Magog" in Mongolia), or of various Sassanid Persian walls built in the Caspian area against the northern barbarians, or a conflation of the two.[39]

Dhul-Qarneyn also journeys to the western and eastern extremities ("qarns", tips) of the Earth.[40] In the west he finds the sun setting in a "muddy spring", equivalent to the "poisonous sea" which Alexander found in the Syriac legend. [41] In the Syriac original Alexander tested the sea by sending condemned prisoners into it, but the Quran changes this into a general administration of justice.[41] In the east both the Syrian legend and the Quran have Alexander/Dhul-Qarneyn find a people who live so close to the rising sun that they have no protection from its heat.[41]

"Qarn" also means "period" or "century", and the name Dhul-Qarnayn therefore has a symbolic meaning as "He of the Two Ages", the first being the mythological time when the wall is built and the second the age of the end of the world when Allah's shariah, the divine law, is removed and Gog and Magog are to be set loose.[42] Modern Islamic apocalyptic writers, holding to a literal reading, put forward various explanations for the absence of the wall from the modern world, some saying that Gog and Magog were the Mongols and that the wall is now gone, others that both the wall and Gog and Magog are present but invisible.[43]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Historia and Fabula: Myths and Legends in Historical Thought from Antiquity ... By Peter G. Bietenholz
  2. ^ Dundes, Fables of the Ancients?, 2003: p.66
  3. ^ Samuel A. Berman, Midrash Tanhuma-Yelammedenu (KTAV Publishing house, 1996) 31–32
  4. ^ Gerald Friedlander, Pirḳe de-R. Eliezer, (The Bloch Publishing Company, 1916) 156
  5. ^ Herbert Danby, The Mishnah: Translated from the Hebrew with Introduction and Brief Notes (Hendrickson Publishing, 2011) 388
  6. ^ Sefaria: Sanhedrin 4:5
  7. ^ ClearQuran: Surah 5
  8. ^ Rabbi H. Freedman and Maurice Simon, Midrash Rabbah: Translated into English with Notes, Glossary, and Indices: Volume 1 – Rabba Genesis (Stephen Austin and Sons, LTD 1939) 310–311. http://archive.org/stream/RabbaGenesis/midrashrabbahgen027557mbp#page/n357/mode/2up
  9. ^ SacredTexts: Legends of the Jews
  10. ^ ClearQuran: Surah 27
  11. ^ Jewish Encyclopedia: Solomon
  12. ^ G. Luling asserts that a third of the Quran is of pre-Islamic Christian origins, see Uber den Urkoran, Erlangen, 1993, 1st Ed., 1973, p. 1.
  13. ^ Pieter W. van der Horst (February 2011). Pious Long-Sleepers in Greek, Jewish, and Christian Antiquity (pdf). The Thirteenth International Orion Symposium: Tradition, Transmission, and Transformation: From Second Temple Literature through Judaism and Christianity in Late Antiquity. Jerusalem, Israel. pp. 14–5.
  14. ^ Liuzza, R. M. (2016). "The Future is a Foreign Country: The Legend of the Seven Sleepers and the Anglo–Saxon Sense of the Past". In Kears, Carl; Paz, James (eds.). Medieval Science Fiction. King's College London, Centre for Late Antique & Medieval Studies. p. 66. ISBN 978-0-9539838-8-9.
  15. ^ Seven Sleepers of Ephesus
  16. ^ 766: The seven sleepers, Aarne-Thompson-Uther Classification of Folk Tales
  17. ^ Dundes, Fables of the Ancients?, 2003: p.55-59
  18. ^ NewAdvent: Gospel of James
  19. ^ ClearQuran: Surah 3
  20. ^ Gospels: Infancy Gospel of James
  21. ^ ClearQuran: Surah 3
  22. ^ NewAdvent: Gospel of James
  23. ^ ClearQuran: Surah 3
  24. ^ Leirvik 2010, pp. 33–34.
  25. ^ Leirvik 2010, pp. 33–34.
  26. ^ NewAdvent: Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew
  27. ^ ClearQuran: Surah 19
  28. ^ Arabic Infancy Gospel
  29. ^ ClearQuran: Surah 19
  30. ^ EarlyChristianWritings: Gospel of Thomas
  31. ^ ClearQuran: Surah 3
  32. ^ Joel L. Kraemer Israel Oriental Studies XII BRILL 1992 ISBN 9789004095847 p. 41
  33. ^ ClearQuran: Surah 4
  34. ^ Neal Robinson Christ in Islam and Christianity SUNY Press 1991 ISBN 978-0-791-40558-1 p 127
  35. ^ Gregg, Stephen; Barker, Gregory 2010, p. 119.
  36. ^ Bietenholz 1994, p. 122-123.
  37. ^ Van Donzel & Schmidt 2010, p. 57 fn.3.
  38. ^ Pinault 1992, p. 181 fn.71.
  39. ^ Glassé & Smith 2003, p. 39.
  40. ^ Wheeler 2013, p. 96.
  41. ^ a b c Ernst 2011, p. 133.
  42. ^ Glassé & Smith 2003, p. 38.
  43. ^ Cook 2005, p. 205-206.