From Oral Prophets To Holy Books – OpEd


While written history has only been around for 5-6,000 years, religion in some form has been around for over 80-100,000 years. Although some religions claim to have teachings that date back to the dawn of time, spiritual practices and beliefs have emerged and eventually faded out of history as often as empires. Many oral only religious movements have been lost to history, but other religions, originally oral but later written down, are still practiced today. 

The Islamic tradition states that there have been 124,000 oral only prophets and holy men and women, but only 313 of them brought a written book from God. These Sacred Scriptures form the bases for the best known religions, and in many ways it is the Holy Book that is central to each religion, more than the personality of the prophet who brought it. Upon each religion’s  Sacred Scripture is built the laws and beliefs of the ongoing religion.

Early Muslim oral traditions found in the Hadith collections of Musnad Ahmad and Tabarani state that Allah sent 124,000 oral only prophets to warn all the tribes and nations on earth; to stop worshiping gods other than the one God. The “124.000 prophets” number flows from the Qur’an’s teaching that God sent one or more prophets to every human society in the world, from smallest to largest, to teach them in their own language: “We have not sent any Messenger except with the language of his people so he can make things clear to them. (Qur’an 14:4)

Since there are almost 7.000 languages currently spoken, and another 10,000+ that were spoken over the previous 6,000 years and are now extinct, all human societies have been taught the way God wants each of them to conduct their Divine worship (Qur’an 21:25), and the behavioral rules they should observe (16:90-92). 

“Abu Dharr narrated that one day he asked the Messenger of Allah (Prophet Muhammad): How many prophets are there in all? He replied: 124.000. Abu Dharr then asked: How many of them were messengers (bring a sacred scripture) prophets? He replied: 313 from the above group. He asked: Who was the first of them (the oral only prophets)? He replied: Adam…The first prophet among Bani Israel was Musa and the last of them (the Jewish prophets) was Isa (Jesus), and they (the Jewish prophets) were in all 600.” (Biharul Anwar, Vol. 11, Pg. 32.) 

The Qur’an mentions by name only five anti-images, monotheistic Messenger Prophets: Abraham (maybe the first 11 chapters of Genesis), Moses (Torah), David (Psalms). Jesus (Gospels), and Muhammad (Qur’an).

Muhammad was the last of the biological descendants from Messenger Abraham prophets, although non-Abrahamic prophets have started several religions with their own Holy Books in recent centuries. 

Prophet Abraham is unique as the only one of all God’s known Prophets or Messengers to be described as a nation/religion/ethnic community: “Abraham was a nation [Ummah]; dutiful to God, a monotheist [hanif], not one of the polytheists.” (Qur’an 16:120)  ] and a prophet “whom God chose to be His friend”.  

So Abraham was both the physical pro-generator of the Banu Israel (the Jewish People); and the spiritual pro-generator of the three religious communities with sacred scriptures that identify Prophet Abraham as the only one “whom God chose to be His friend”: Qur’an 4:125, Hebrew Bible Isaiah 41:8; and the New Testament James 2:23)

The Talmud (Megillah 14a ) states: “Forty-eight male prophets and seven female prophets prophesied to the Jewish people (Ummah), and they neither subtracted from nor added to (the commandments) written in the Torah, except for [Prophetess] Esther who added the Mitsvah [duty of reading] the Book of Esther.”

In the Hebrew Bible, Prophet Abraham is the first person to be called a “Hebrew” (Genesis 14:13). The term Hebrew comes from the verb ‘to go over a boundary’— like the Euphrates or Jordan river— or ‘to be an immigrant.’ The first thing God told Prophet Abraham in the Biblical account was:

“Leave your country, your kindred, and your father’s household, and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing….” (Bible, Genesis 12:1-2)

So Prophet Abraham was what we can call the first ‘Islamic Hebrew’ or the first ‘Muslim Hebrew,’as the Qur’an indicates: “He (Abraham) was not Yahuudiyyaan, “a Jew”, nor Nasraaniyyaan, ‘a Christian,’ but rather a Haniifaan, ‘a Muslimaan,’… (Quran, 3:67)
i.e. ‘a monotheistic Hebrew believer submitting (islam) to the one imageless God’ who created all space and time and who made Prophet Abraham-the-Hebrew’s descendants through Prophets Isaac and Jacob (Israel) into a great multitude of monotheists called the Children of Israel —B’nai Israel in Hebrew and Banu Israel in Arabic.

In addition, Prophet Isaiah said: “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the Lord: Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he [Abraham] was only one when I called him, that I might bless him and multiply him. (Bible, Isaiah 51:1-2)

And the Qur’an states: “You have an excellent example to follow in Abraham.” (Quran, 60:4)

“Follow the way of Abraham as people of pure (monotheistic imageless) faith.” (Quran, 3:95)

What makes Prophet Abraham-the-Hebrew an excellent example of pure faith according to three different religion’s Sacred Scriptures? It is that all three scriptures proclaim Abraham to be the one “whom God chose to be His friend”: the Arabic Qur’an 4:125, the Hebrew Bible Isaiah 41:8; and the Greek New Testament Book of James [the brother of Jesus] 2:23.

Prophet Abraham-the-Hebrew, “whom God chose to be His friend,” —as far as we know— is also the only prophet to have two sons who were also prophets. And these two sons of Abraham, Prophet Ishmael and Prophet Isaac, are the only two Prophets who each had a descendant many many centuries later, who proclaimed a sacred scripture each of which has become the basis for one of the two largest religions in the whole world.

Messenger Abraham was the first of those we know to receive a monotheistic, anti-images Sacred Scripture (Quran 87:18-19). Is being ‘the first’ what makes Abraham so special that his name appears 69 times in the Qur’an, second only to Moses (136 times)? No.

Messenger Abraham is famous for the numerous ways God tested him, especially the two terrible tests: banishing Hagar and his first born son Ishmael (Qur’an 2:124, & Genesis 16:1-16) and calling on Abraham to make his son a sacrificial offering to God. (Qur’an 37:100-113 & Genesis 22:1-24)

So the biological offspring of Prophet Abraham-the-Hebrew  (i.e., the Banu Israel) became the first ongoing monotheistic community when God rescued them from Egyptian oppression and made an  enduring covenant with them at Mount Sinai. Prophet Abraham-the-Hebrew was not born a Jew, but his descendants from his grandson Jacob/Israel became the Banu Israel—the Jewish People.

For 1200+ years after Prophet Moses, the Banu Israel was the only continuing monotheistic community in the world. Unlike the other monotheistic communities that rose and fell during those centuries, while most, but not all, of Banu Israel (the Jewish People) remained loyal to the covenant which God had made with them at Mount Sinai (i.e., Mount Tur – Quran 28:43-46).

It was only several centuries after Prophet Abraham-the-Hebrew that the Hebrew nation acquired its better-known name, the Children (Descendants) of Israel (in Hebrew B’nai Israel; in Arabic  Banu Israel). The name of Abraham-the-Hebrew’s grandson, Prophet Jacob, was changed by God to Israel when his descendants were being oppressed in Egypt.

The Biblical book of Exodus, Chapter 1, introduces how Abraham’s Hebrew descendants became the Children of Israel: “Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. ‘Look,’ he said to his people (the Egyptian nobility), ‘the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.’

“So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites and worked them ruthlessly. They made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly.

“The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, ‘When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.’ The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, ‘Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?’ The midwives answered Pharaoh, ‘Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.’ (Bible, Exodus 1:8-19)

So where did the name ‘Jew’ come from? The Hebrew version is יְהוּדִי (Yehudi) for a male and יְהוּדִיָּה (Yehuda) for a female. But if you’d read the Hebrew Bible – in Hebrew or in English, you will see the words יהודי (Yehudi) and יהודייה (Yehudi’ih) are strikingly absent because  יהודי and יהודייה come from the name יְהוּדָה (Yehuda) – the name of one of the sons of Jacob; it is also the name of the part of the Land of Israel named after that son. In English, that piece of land is called Judea.

The term Yehudi (יְהוּדִי) occurs 74 times in the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible. The plural, Yehudim (הַיְּהוּדִים) first appears in 2 Kings 16:6 referring to a defeat for the Yehudi nation, and in 2 Chronicles 32:18, where it refers to the language of the Yehudim, namely Yehudit (יְהוּדִית). 

The Biblical book of Jeremiah (34:9) has the earliest singular usage of the word Yehudi. In the book of Esther 2:5–6, the name Yehudi (יְהוּדִי) has a generic aspect, in this case referring to a man from the tribe of Benjamin: “A Jewish man (a man from Judea) was in Shushan the capital [of Persia], and his name was Mordecai, who was exiled from Jerusalem… “(Bible, Book of Esther 2:5-6)

It is hard for many non-Jews to understand the intertwined nature of the religion of Judaism with the ongoing nature of the ethnic Jewish People because Messenger prophet Abraham was an ethnic Hebrew, and a monotheist, but not himself a ‘Jew,’ as the Quran correctly notes; yet Abraham’s descendants through his son Isaac (Arabic Isḥaq) and grandson Jacob /Israel (Arabic Ya’kob/Isra’el) were later to become ethnic Hebrews, religious Jews, Yehudim, Banu Isra’el. 

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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