Islam’s Tahrif Is About Only One Meaning Or Many Meanings – OpEd


One of the most complex, controversial and misunderstood concepts in the Qur’an is Tahrif. The term Tahrif does not occur in the Quran, but there are four Qur’an verses claiming that some people have tampered with the pre-Qur’an sacred texts of other people (Qur’an 2:75; 4:46; 5:13; 5:41). The term Tahrif is also used to refer to the Shi’a charge that parts of the Quran in which Ali ‘s authority is given divine sanction, have been removed.

A1-Raghib al-‘Isfahani, in his Mufradat al-Qur’an, also defines `tahrif as a way of interpreting a certain speech or writing so that it appears to denote two different meanings.’ According to this definition, tahrif is not an alteration of the actual words and phrases of a sacred text, but the alteration of its meanings. It is in this sense that tahrif has been used in the following Qur’anic verse: “Some of the Jews pervert words (yuharrifuna) from their meanings…(4:46)

The verse indicates that Jews used to alter the meanings of the scripture while keeping its actual words (what the Jews call Midrash). Although tahrif literally means semantic (meaning) alteration (al-tahrif al-ma`nawi), the term has also been in use for textual alteration (al-tahrif al-lafzi). Thus tahrif is of two kinds: semantic and textual.”

Rabbi Judah complains; as the generations and the centuries pass by words change their meaning; or add new meanings to the old meanings, which are sometimes even lost. So Rabbi Judah said: If one translates a verse literally one is a liar; if one adds or subtracts anything, one is a blasphemer and is accused of libel.” (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 49a) Semantic Alteration can be found in all religions that have a centuries old tradition of interpretation (Tafsir).

A1-Raghib al-‘Isfahani also states: “This kind of tahrif has definitely been committed in regard to the Qur’an, particularly in some of its exegeses whose authors have tried to impose meanings on the Qur’anic verses different from their literal sense, in order to justify the doctrines and ideas of certain (Islamic) schools. It is about this kind of tahrif that al-‘Imam al-Baqir said: “They have recorded its letter but changed its meaning. They narrate its text without heeding its contents” (Rawdat al-Kafi, 128; al-Wafi, v, 274).” Thus, one can say that Tahrif can also be found today in those Qur’an verses that have been given an extremest gloss by ISIS and Salafi pro-terrorists. 

According to “Tahrif and Torah: Early Muslim Writers and Polemicists on the authenticity of the Hebrew Scriptures” by Sam Shamoun: “Our analysis of both the Quran and the earliest records of Islam have shown that the first Muslims believed that the previous scriptures remained in a uncorrupt form and were available during the time of Muhammad’s advent. In this paper we turn our attention to the writings of the first Muslim apologists and polemicists so as to ascertain their views of the Holy Scriptures. More specifically, we look to the views of the earliest Muslim polemicists regarding the Hebrew Scriptures to see whether they believed that the previous scriptures remained intact.”

The following citations are taken from Camilla Adang’s book, Muslim Writers on Judaism & the Hebrew Bible from Ibn Rabban to Ibn Hazm. It is published by E. J. Brill Leiden 1996 (Brill Academic Publishers 1997), ISBN: 9004100342.[2]

Adang focuses her attention on the following 10 Muslim authors, specifically the last nine:
Abu’l-Rabi’ b. al-Layth (c. 8th century A.D.).
‘Ali b. Rabban al-Tabari (b. 810 A.D.).
Abu Muhammad ‘Abd Allah b. Muslim b. Qutayba (b. 828 A.D.).
Ahmad b. Abi Ya’qub b. Ja’far b. Wahb b. Wadih al-‘Abbasi (b. first quarter of 9th century).
Abu Ja’far Muhammad b. Jarir al-Tabari (b. 839 A.D.).
Abu’l-Hasan ‘Ali b. al-Husayn al-Mas’udi (b. 893 A.D.).
Abu Bakr Muhammad b. al-Tayyib b. Ja’far b. Muhammad b. al-Qasim (ibn) al-Baqillani (b. 950)
Abu Nasr Mutahhar b. Tahir al-Maqdisi.
Abu’l-Rayhan Muhammad b. Ahmad al-Biruni (b. 973 A.D.).
Abu Muhammad ‘Ali b. Ahmad b. Hazm (b. 994 A.D.).
The first 7 writers were of the opinion that the Hebrew Scriptures remained intact, with the last 3 claiming that textual corruption had taken place. Ibn Hazm was the most vociferous of those who held that the text of the Hebrew Bible was corrupted.

It will be our aim here to specifically focus on the views of the first 7 Muslims. We do this to demonstrate that the first Muslims did not hold to the position that the previous books, specifically the books of the Hebrew Bible, were corrupted to such an extent that its message was unreliable, no longer accurately reflecting the original message of the OT prophets.

Ibn al-Layth… In the epistle of Ibn al-Layth, on the other hand, tahrif is clearly interpreted as a distortion of their sense: whoever looks in the books of the prophets will find Muhammad mentioned, but the People of the book have obscured these references by changing their interpretation. Ibn al-Layth categorically denies the possibility of passages having been added to, or omitted from, the scriptures, and professes his belief – and Caliph Harun’s – in the authenticity of these scriptures. This point of view seems to be shared by Ibn Rabban. (p. 224)

Ibn Rabban… The accusation of deliberate distortion of the Torah, which we find for example in the works of Ibn Hazm, is nowhere voiced in Kitab al-din a’l-dawla … he refers to a distortion of the interpretation of the scriptures and not of the text itself … However, Ibn Rabban could ill afford to reject the Torah as a forgery, for this would deprive him of the main proof he adduces for Muhammad’s veracity; the frequent occurrence of his name and description in the Jewish – and Christian – scriptures. To a large extent, the same goes for Ibn Qutayba’s Dala’il al-nubuwwa. (p. 225)

Ibn Qutayba… Ibn Qutayba used the Torah not only as a book in which the advent of the Prophet is foretold, but also as a historical source … It is clear that what is meant by tahrif is giving a wrong interpretation to an otherwise genuine text. Ibn Qutayba does not question the authenticity or validity of the [written] Jewish scriptures, and nowhere does he accuse the Jews of having distorted them. Admittedly, he states in his Ma’arif that the Torah was burned at one point, but he immediately adds that Ezra reinstated it after the Jews had returned to Syria …

The statement about the restoration of the Lost Torah probably goes back indirectly to the apocryphal IV Ezra with which, as we have seen in Chapter Four, Ibn Qutayba was acquainted in one form or another. We see the motif of Ezra as the inspired restorer of the holy scriptures recurring in the works of other historians, among them al-Tabari. (pp. 225-226; underlined emphasis ours)

Al-Ya’qubi As in the cases of Ibn Rabban and Ibn Qutayba, tahrif does not seem to have been an issue for al-Ya’qubi…… Most important, however, is the fact that like Ibn Qutayba al-Ya’qubi sees no reason not to accept evidence from the Torah. (pp. 226, 227)

Al-Tabari… A study of his explanation of the verses in which the accusation of tahrif occurs, as well as those in which similar allegations are leveled at the Jews, allows us to summarize his views on the issue as follows:

… When Moses ordered the Israelites to express their repentance, they used a phrase other than the one they had been told to use: instead of hitta – which according to Goldziher may be derived from the Hebrew hata’nu, we have sinned – they said hinta. (I say hitta refers to prayer Al Hait 2:58 “And when We said: Enter this city, then eat from it a plenteous wherever you wish, and enter the gate making obeisance, and say, Hittat. We will forgive you your wrongs and give more to those who do good.” Some commentators identify this city with Jericho, some with Jerusalem.
“Say “Hittat” prayer . “Hitta” is also the Hebrew word for “wheat”, which would explain Ibn Ishaq’s connection to Sira:368 “They entered the gate they were ordered to enter with prostration in the crowd saying ‘Wheat is in the barley”’ In Hebrew, “Hattat” is a term used to describe a “sin-offering”, a sacrifice made as atonement of specific or general transgression. In addition, those who could not afford an animal or a bird for the Hattat sacrifice, could bring a measure of fine flour, which bring us back to “wheat”..

Any way you look at it, this verse does not make sense, and it is another example of how the authors of the Quran take a term that they heard from the Jews and construct a messy concoction around it. This “Hittat” verse is repeated in 7:161-162.

2:59 “But those who were unjust changed it for a saying other than that which had been spoken to them, so We sent upon those who were unjust a pestilence from heaven, because they transgressed.” “changed it” in this verse refers to the word “Hitta” from the previous verse.
The reference to “Pestilence from Heaven” is to a few references in the Bible of pestilence brought about by God.) The distortion that was effected here was an oral one, and al-Tabari does not link it with the written text of God’s word. 

The same applies in the case of the seventy elders who accompanied Moses to Mount Sinai and were allowed to hear God’s speech. Once they returned to their people, some of them gave a false report of what they heard, distorting God’s spoken words, but not the written Torah, as is explicitly stated by al-Tabari. (pp. 227-228; underlined emphasis ours)

The rabbis are admonished in the Koran not to hide their knowledge in their desire for power and worldly gain. Yet some of them write a book according to their own interpretations alongside the Torah, and twist their tongues, so that the Muslims might think that what they misrepresent is from the book of God and part of His revelation, while in actual fact, God never revealed any such thing to any of His prophets. In so doing, they add to God’s book what does not belong to it. Again, the context suggests that al-Tabari understands these additions as oral, not textual ones. When these rabbis twist their tongues, they distort the real meaning of the words into something objectionable, scorning Muhammad and his religion.

Al-Tabari explicitly states what he understands by distorting the word of God: changing its meaning and interpretation, deliberately bending its original meaning to something else. (p. 229)
There is no suggestion in al-Tabari’s Tafsir that the Torah was lost or perished at some point in history. In his Annales, however, the author does state that it was burned and lost, but that Ezra miraculously restored it:

When [the Israelites] returned to Palestine, they had no divine scripture, for the Torah had been seized and burned, and it perished. Ezra, one of the captives in Babylon who returned to Palestine, spent day and night grieving over it, in solitude. While he was in waterless valleys and in the wilderness, grieving over the Torah and weeping, lo and behold, a man approached him as he sat, and [the man] said, “O Ezra, what grieves you?” Ezra said, “I grieve over God’s scripture and covenant which was among us, but our transgressions and the Lord’s wrath against us came to such a pass that He made our enemy prevail. They slew our men, and destroyed our country and burned our divine book, without which our worldly existence and our life to come has no meaning. What shall I weep over if not this?” The man said, “Would you like it to be returned to you?” Ezra asked, “Is that possible?” “Yes,” the man replied. “Go back, fast, cleanse yourself, and cleanse you garments. Then be at this place tomorrow.”

Ezra went back, cleansed himself and his garments, and went to the appointed place. He sat there, and the man came carrying a vessel filled with water – he was an angel sent by God – and gave Ezra to drink from that vessel. The Torah then presented itself in Ezra’s consciousness. Ezra returned to the Children of Israel and set down the Torah for them, so that they might know what it permits and what it prohibits, its patterns, precepts and statutes. They loved it as they had never loved anything before. The Torah was established among them, and with it their cause fared well. Then he died. In the course of time, the Israelites considered Ezra to be the son of God. God again sent them a prophet, as He did in the past, to direct and teach them, and to command them to follow the Torah. (pp. 230-231)

Al-Baqillani… It would seem that al-Baqillani simply assumed it to be authentic, albeit abrogated …Apparently al-Baqillani believed that the words of Moses were still extant in their Hebrew original, and could serve as the touchstone with which to compare the statements made by the Jews. The term as used by him stands for inadvertent errors made in the process of translation, rather than deliberate alterations effected in the text of the Torah. (pp. 234, 235)

Al-Ma’sudi: According to al-Ma’sudi’s account of the Torah – which echoes that of al-Ya’qubi – the text of the Torah was not corrupted; no new laws were introduced; the old ones were just reinstated …
… The one time he addresses the issue of tahrif – in the Muruj – it is clear that he accuses the Jews of distorting the sense of the Torah, not the text …

So far, we have only encountered authors who subscribed to the view that the misrepresentation of the Torah referred to in the Koran merely concerns the meaning of the Torah and not its text. As may be concluded from al-Tabari’s Tafsir, however, the opposite view also had its partisans. With al-Maqdisi we turn to an authority who had his misgivings about the authenticity of the text. (p. 232; underlined emphasis ours)

Adang concludes:… It was found that the MAJORITY of our authors subscribe to a mild interpretation of the Koranic allegation of large-scale tampering with the Torah by the Jews (tahrif); according to this interpretation, only the sense of the biblical text had been changed while the text itself remained intact. Only al-Maqdisi and Ibn Hazm believed that the text had suffered distortion. The person held responsible by Ibn Hazm for corruption of the Torah was Ezra the scribe, who was generally put in a very positive light by Hazm’s predecessors. Apart from al-Tabari, the authors who held to a moderate view of tahrif felt justified in using the Bible as a historical source and for apologetical purposes. (p. 251; underlined and capital emphasis ours)

The obvious reason why some Muslims of the past such as Ibn Hazm (and many today) argued that written Scriptural were corrupted is that the Trinitarian message of the New Testament Bible is directly opposed to the statements of the Quran. “About him all the prophets testify, that everyone who believes in him (Jesus, the Son of God) receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” Acts 10:43 NET Since Jews are not Christians we are not in this kind of dilemma.

“You study the scriptures thoroughly because you think in them you possess eternal life, and it is these same scriptures that testify about me, but you are not willing to come to me so that you may have life.” John 5:39-40 NET Bible

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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