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Islamo-Biblica / Isrā’īliyyāt and the Bible in early Shī`īsm.

Islamo-Biblica / Isrā’īliyyāt and the Bible in early Shī`īsm. 


Stephen Lambden


From Notes written in the 1980s - Under revision and correction


Several important Imamī  Shī`ī factions, including early Zaydis, Ismā’īlis and Sufi sympathizers as well as later twelver thinkers and Safawid philosopher-theologians, had a significant influence within Islamic history in that they nurtured a tradition of biblical awareness, citation and dialogue. An openness was shown towards the ahl al-kitāb  and  towards messianic and allegedly proto-Shī`ī dimensions  of their  sacred writings and traditions.

Little academic work  has been done on  Isrā’īliyyat and  the Bible in specifically Shī`ī sources though some useful late 19th  and 20th century articles exist including, for example, key articles by Friedlander, Vajda, Corbin, Kohlberg, Wasserstrom, Moreen and others (--> bib.). It  seems that from the earliest period Shī`ī converts and writers were open to the appropriation of  biblical data and Abrahamic Isrā’īliyyāt. It has been observed that Ismā’īlī and Imami Shī`is were  ““Biblicizing” in their attitude towards the past” (Wasserstrom, 1994 [IOS]: 299). Neither Kulayni’s Uṣūl al-kafī  nor Majlisi’s Biāār al-anwār  appear to contain especially negative forms of the āaddithū `an banī isrā’īla  or  register trenchantly anti-Isrā’iliyyāt  traditions (Majlisī, Bihar2 14:494f).

 Neither  Goldziher (d.1921) nor  Goitein (d.1985), perhaps the two most learned representatives  of earlier Judaeo-Arabic study, were sufficiently conscious of the magnitude of what has  recently been called the “Judaeo-Shī`ī symbiosis” (Wasserstrom, 1994:297-324). Few took up Wellhausen’s (d.1918)  observation that “the dogma of  Shi`ism... seems to stem more from the Jews than from the Persians” (ibid, 298). Recently, however, Wasserstrom has written a penetrating analysis of the Sunnī dictum, “The Shī`īs [rāfia ] are the Jews of our Community [umma]” (idem, 1994). He has underlined the fact that Shī`ī and Jewish doctrine have a good deal in common.

 There is no doubt that Islamified, Islamo-biblical teachings played a significant role in the evolution and crystallization of Shī`ī doctrine. Judaeo-Christian traditions had a significant impact upon  Shī`ī apologetics. This may be reflected in the following  well-known saying of the prophet, “The `ulāma (learned) of our community are even as the  anbiyā  (prophets) of the children of Israel”  (al-Aāsā’ī,`Awali, 4:77; cf. 1:357; 2:241+fns). Several other Shī`ī traditions compare and contrast aspects of Islamic and Judaic religiosity. Imam Ja`far al-Ṣādiq, for example, is reckoned to have stated,

The likeness of  the weaponry (al-salāā)  among us [Imami Shī`īs]  is as the likeness of the Ark  of the Covenant among the children of Israel (al-tābūt fī banī isrā’īl) who  were the  progeny of Israel (banū Isrā’īl).  In other words the [Shī`ī] people of the House (ahl al-bayt)  who discovered the Ark of the Covenant (al-tābūt) in their possession (? `upon their gate’,Bāb)  attained prophethood  (al-nubuwwa).  Whoso among us  attains this weaponry (al-salāā)  has thereby attained the Imamate (al-imāma)  (Bihar 21:238)

Imam `Ali Ibn Abi Talib (d. 40'661), the Bible and Islamo-Biblica.

The Nahj al-balagha

The proto-Shī`ism  of the ghulāt   (“extremist”)  factions.

 Numerous early Shī`ī Muslims belonged to groups which have been inadequately labelled ghulāt  (“exaggerators”). These highly diverse early Shī`ī factions greatly influenced evolving, and subsequent Imamī and twelver Shī`ī thought  (Kohlberg 1973:320). While some controversial doctrines championed by the “exaggerators” came to be rejected (e.g. anthropomorphism and metempsychosis) others were accepted, including messianic beliefs and the concept of raj`a, “return”. It was also among ghuluww  thinkers that the Jewish rooted notion of an al-ism al-a`ẓam  (mightiest Name [of God]) held central importance and came to be conceptually transformed within  an evolving Shī`ī theology.  Bābī-Bahā’ī doctrines of the al-ism al-a`ẓam  would appear to have their Islamic roots in the theological speculations of early ghulāt  groups.

 It has long been realized that mainstream, heterodox  and heretical Abrahamic religious, groups including  Jewish factions, Christian groups, Gnostics, Manicheans  and Mandaeans as well perhaps as  Qumran sectarians  and  Samaritan thinkers,  influenced  the development of  Shī`ī doctrine and practise. Key  Shī`ī messianic and imamological concepts including the Imami  ma`ṣūm  (infallibility) applied to the Imams , can be well accounted for as a result of influences from the above channels. The influence of gnostic and other cosmologies, prophetologies, messianisms  and apocalyptic perspectives are often closely reflected in the thought of  ghuluww  ("extremist")  factions  (Wasserstrom, 1985; 96f; Cranfield, 1991:132-160).1  Multiple forms of  Islamic “gnosis”  “remained very much alive and active in the early Islamicate period” (Wasserstrom, 1997 [IOS]:130-131). Similar ghuluww  doctrinal tendencies, it should be remembered,  had a significant  impact upon the initially `heterodox Shī`īsm’ of the early Safavid period (Babayan, 1994;1996).

 From early times Sunnī writers have held the view that  a most probably fictitious Yemenite Jewish convert to Islam  named `Abd-Allāh ibn Saba’ (or Ibn al-Sawdā’ , `son of the black’) was the fountainhead  of early Shī`īsm. Nascent Shī`īsm was early considered an aberrant Isrā’īliyyāt informed offshoot of Judaism  (Murtadā al-`Askarī`, `Abd-Allāh b. Sabā --> bib.). This Ibn Sabā’ is said to have deified Imam `Alī by teaching that God was incarnate in him. He  apparently predicted his Christ-like raj`a  ("return") in the clouds both before and after his death (by assassination in 40/661). Ibn Sabā’ is pictured as  one who held to the basically Christian concept of  “return” which he linked to Q. 28:5  and the person of Muhammad  (Ṭabarī, Tārīkh  [2942] tr. Humphreys, 15:146+ index).

 Only the Manṣūriyya among numerous other ghuluww  groups can be touched upon here. These are the “extremist” followers of Abū Manṣūr  al-`Ijlī (d.c.121 /738)  who claimed to succeed Imam Muhammad al-Bāqir. Evidently again subject to Christian and other religious influences,  al-`Ijlī regarded Jesus as the first created being (cf. John 1:1), Imam `Alī being the second. Like the qur’ānic Jesus, al-`Ijlī  claimed  to have been raised up to heaven where an anthropomorphic God  “wiped his head with his hand” (cf. Isa. 25:8b; Rev. 21:4). The Deity addressed him in Persian or Syriac saying, “My son, go and teach on my behalf” (Madelung, Manṣūriyya, EI2 VI:441). al-`Ijlī  considered the early Imams to be messenger-prophets and, like the Bāb, claimed to have brought the ta’wil  (interpretation) of  the Q.

 al-Qāsim b. Ibrāhīm (d. Medina 246/860) was among  the important early  followers of Zayd b. `Alī ( d.122/740) (Madelung, 1965; Abrahamov,1988). He wrote a K. al-Radd `alā al-naṣara  (Refutations of the Christians) which included a few NT citations (Di Matteo,1921-3). It is also clear from his `The Tabaristānīs Question’ that he convened gatherings in his Egyptian home where he discussed theological and other matters with Christians from several different backgrounds (Abrahamov, 1988). Such dialogue with various religionists is also reported of the Shī`ī Imams.

The Shī`īte Imams, Isrā’īliyyāt and the Bible

 Many statements of the first, sixth, seventh and eighth Imams,  indicate their impressive knowledge of the Bible and of the Jewish and Christian religions (Damad, Thaqalayn, 2/iii-iv, 99-100).This is especially clear from an examination of works of  Ibn Bābūya al-Qummī (d. 280/901) such as his K. Tawḥīd  (Book of the Divine Unity, c. 340/ 950), Kamāl al-dīn (The Perfection of Religion), the `Ayūn akhbār al-Riā’  and various Iḥtijāj   (Religious Disputation) and related compilations.

  Important in this respect are the Iḥtijāj  works of al-Ṭabarsī (d. c. 548/1153) and Majlisī (Iḥtijājāt   = Biḥār2  vols. 9-10)1 some of whose Persian works are also significant in this respect, especially his Ḥayāt al-qulūb  (“The Enlivening of the Hearts”, see Ḥayāt II:1071ff). Like the closely related and widely dispersed  masā’il  (Questions and Answers) traditions an example of which is found towards the beginning of the  Persian Ṭabarī Tārīkh,  the rich in Isrā’īliyyāt Shī`ī Iḥtijāj  sources include details of religious confrontations between the prophet, various (twelver) Imams  and  members of the ahl al-kitāb  (Jews, Christian, etc).2  Isrā’īliyyāt traditions  and Islamicate biblical citations are fairly numerous in these sources.

 Twice translated into Persian during the Safawid period al-Iḥtijāj `alā ahl al-lajāj   (“The Disputation against the People of Obstinacy”) of al-Ṭabarsī  records a  tradition relayed through Ja`far al-Ṣādiq  and Imām `Alī detailing a debate of Muhammad with a Jew, a  Christian, an Atheist, a Dualist (Zoroastrian) and an Idolator (Ihtijaj, 1:21ff). Muhammad  confounds Jewish and Christian assertions about the supposed Sonship (ibn Allāh) of Ezra and Jesus. Using his opponents logic he argues that if Ezra who revived the Torah is called  Ibn Allāh (Son of God) why not Moses to whom this very book was revealed.  Jesus could not be the Ibn Allāh because his own words contradict belief in his unique Sonship. Muhammad, it was pointed out, recalled that  Jesus had said  “I am going to my Father and to your Father” (cf Jn 14:16; Ihtijaj, 1:23-4).

The  Christian Patriarch Bārīha and the Shī`ī theologian  Hishām b. al-Ḥakam  (d. 179 / 796).

 Among the Iḥtijājāt   (religious disputations) recorded in the K. Tawḥīd   (section 37) is the record of an early  Shī’ī- Christian debate located in Baghdad (Karkh) which Thomas has dated to the  140s / c. 765 and described as a “carefully dramatized narrative” (Thomas, 1988:60; 1992:190 fn.4).  It took place between an otherwise unknown Christian Patriarch named Bārīha and the Shī`ī merchant and theologian  Hishām b. al-Ḥakam (d. 179/796). The debate is partly oriented around the  Christian doctrine of the trinity  and  the error of  “those who say that God is the “third of three” (Q.5:73; K. Tawhid, [ sect. 37]: 270-275).

 This  early dialogue includes  a brief account of the conversion to Shī`īsm  of Barīha through Hishām b. al-Ḥakan through the seventh Imam Mūsā al-Kāẓim  (d.183/799) then resident in Medina. Imam Mūsā allegedly questioned Barīha about his knowledge of  al-kitāb  (the Book, Bible, NT) and was told that Mūsā had an unsurpassed knowledge of its ta`wīl   (exegesis, interpretation). The account highlights the miraculous biblical knowledge of Imam Mūsā.  In Christ-like fashion he began to recite the Gospel (qira`at al-injīl). An astounded Barīha asked Imam Mūsā where he had obtained such knowledge of biblical recitation. Imam Ja`far al-Ṣādiq explained,

`We [the Imams]  have the [Abrahamic] books as a legacy from them. We recite them as they did, and pronounce them as they did... (K.Tawḥīd, 275; tr. Thomas 1988:54ff, 60). 1

Barīha and his female attendant are said to have become devotees  of  Ja`far al-Ṣādiq ( and Imam Mūsā) around 148/765.  This apologetically oriented Iḥtijāj    is instructive and  may say  more about the concerns of Ibn Bābūya than be an accurate reflection of a mid. 8th century Shī`ī-Christian debate  (Thomas 1988:62ff). Whatever the case, the importance and example  of the Imam being supernaturally biblically aware is evident.

A debate  of  `Alī b. Mūsā al-Ridā’ (d. 203/818)

 It is the eighth Imam, al-Ridā’ to whom biblical knowledge and skill in dialogue are especially attributed in the Iḥtijāj  sources. The account of his debate of  c. 202/817-8 set up and before the `Abbasid  Caliph al-Ma`mūn (189/813-210/817?) is noteworthy.1 This ecumenical debate  was initiated when the Caliph ordered leading religious figures (ahl al-adyān)  and upholders of diverse religious opinions (aṣāāb al-maqālāt)  to take part in a debate. The (Armenian) Patriarch (al-jāthilīq), the Jewish Exilarch (rā’is al-jālūt),  leaders of the Sabaeans’asā al-ṣābi’ūn),  Zoroastrians and others were also ordered to take part (Ibn Bābūya, Tawḥīd, 417).

 Imam al-Risalā’ is said to have debated with these leaders  as an expert in all past sacred scriptures in their  original languages (Hebrew, Persian Greek, etc). He exhibited a perfect knowledge of biblical prophecies fulfilled in Islam. He stunned the Jewish Exilarch by reciting verses of the Torah and citing a conflation of Isa 21:7 and parts of Ps.149 (Tawhīd, tr. Thomas, 1988:73+ fn.53,77).   

 During the debate al-Ridā’  raised  the question of the  early loss of the true Gospel(s). He asked  the Patriarch to explain how “the first Gospel” was lost, rediscovered and reached  its present form. The Patriarch stated that the Gospel was lost for a day, then rediscovered  when John and Matthew communicated it. Claiming greater knowledge of Gospel origins than the Patriarch, the  Imam explained as follows,

I know that when the first Gospel was lost the Christians met together with their experts and said to them: 'Jesus son of Mary has been killed and we have lost the Gospel. You are the experts, so what can you do?' Luke and Mark said to them: 'The Gospel is in our hearts and we will produce it for you book by book, every one. .. we will recite it to you, each and every book, until we have brought it together  for  you completely'. So Luke, Mark, John and Matthew2 sat down and wrote for you this Gospel after you had lost the first Gospel. But these four were disciples of the first disciples...(K.Tawḥīd, 425-6 tr. Thomas, 74 cf. Biāār2 10:306f).    

 That an original (single)  Injīl  was replaced by those of  the four evangelists is echoed in other Islamic sources including  al-Jāāiz, (Radd, 24 II:8-20) and  `Abd al-Jabbār  (al-Mughnī V:143;  Tathbīt dalā’il  152, 1:6-155; Thomas, 1988:74. fn.61) as well as al-Shahrastānī (<–fn.) Some of these sources reckon that the original Gospel was written in Hebrew or Syriac [Aramaic] and replaced by an inadequate version in Greek or some other language. Writing on the Injīl   in his Insān al-kāmil,  for example,  the Shī`īte Sufi of the school of Ibn al-`Arabī, `Abd al-Karīm al-Jīlī (d. 832/1428) held that God sent down the Zabūr  to David and the Injīl   to Jesus in the Syriac language (bi’l-lughat al-suryāniyya).

 In the course of debating Jesus’ power of resurrection Imam Ridā’ made the following Isrā’īliyyāt informed statement:

... Elisha (Alyasa’) performed similar acts to Jesus, walking on the water, reviving the dead, healing the blind and lepers, though his  community never took him as Lord, and no one ever worshipped him in place of God, great and mighty [cf. 2 Kings 2:12f;4:32f; 5:1ff]. The prophet Ezekiel (Ḥizqīl)  performed similar acts to Jesus son of Mary, for he revived thirty-five thousand men sixty years after their deaths  [cf. Ezek. 37:1ff]  (K.Tawḥīd, 422;  tr. Thomas 1988:70). 

           The Christian  Patriarch also affirmed Imam Ridā’s knowledge of Jesus’ (conflated Johannine) Paraclete promises,

 I  am going to my Lord and your Lord, [Jn 20:17b, cf. Jn 16:5a etc,] and the Paraclete will come [15:26a]. He it is who will witness to me [Jn 15:26c] about the truth as  I have witnessed to him, and he it is who will explain to you  everything [Jn 14:26b]; he it is who will expose the evil deeds of the peoples, and  he it is who will shatter the designs of the unbelievers [cf. Jn 16:8] ( ibid, tr. Thomas ibid, 73+fns., 78).1


This  Iḥtijāj  episode detailed in his K.Tawhīd  and  elsewhere has  been reckoned by Thomas  “the earliest surviving compendium of theological discussions from a Shī`ite author” and seen as an “artificial”, creation designed to “secure the [Shī`ī] groups position within the Muslim intellectual community”  (Thomas, 1988:53,80; cf. 65ff  K. Tawḥīd: 417ff). Whatever their  historical veracity such Shī`ī Iḥtijājāt    accounts contain often conflated Islamicate Bible citations which certainly influenced post-10th century Shī`ī Bible  awareness and attitudes towards the people of the Book.

          Shī`ī data from various  Iḥtijāj   episodes seems to be reflected in the writings of both BA* and AB*. In an epistle addressed to a Jewish covert named Ḥakim Ḥayyīm in response to a question about the absence of a Gospel reference to the promised Aḥmad of  Q. 61:6,  BA*  stated that many of Jesus’ revelations were not included in the extant, post-apostolic Gospels assembled by the four evangelists. In saying this he may be influenced by the assertions of  Imam Riā’ or  by other similar Islamic statements (e.g.  <-- Shahrastānī). AB* not only drew upon Iḥtijāj  accounts involving Muhammad’s debating with Christians but, in certain of his alwāḥ,  held that the original Injīl  Gospel(s) was in Hebrew being later rewritten in Greek (bi-lisān–i `ibrānī va yunānī) (Ma’idih  9:22, 27).

                1 To some degree in this connection  mention has already been made of the alleged role of Imam `Al¿ in tafs¿r,   of  the probably Zayd¿ Muqªtil b. Sulaymªn  and of the Shi`ite historians Ya`qūb¿, Mas`ūd¿, and Maqdis¿.

                1Volumes 9 and 10 within the second edition of Majlis¿’s Bi{ar   form the K.  al-i{tijªj   (Book of the Confrontation’ =  345pp +  454pp) and reproduce material from a wide range of I{tijªj sources

                2 Bulky Sh¿`¿  I{tijªj   volumes date from  the  3rd / 9th. century. The Dhar¿` a lists a dozen or more al-Ihtijªj  (Religious Disputation) volumes (Dhar¿` 1:281-4 Nos.1471ff). Among them is one of Ibn Shahrªshūb (d.588/1191;  Dhar¿`a no. 1472)

                1Thomas notes that “It is known that Hishªm b. al-}akam was a merchant as well as an intellectual and that he moved from his native lacuna to Baghdad sometime in the mid-second/eighth century” (1988:60). Apart from the K. al-taw{¿d   this religious encounter is cited the I{tijªj   of  ²abr¿z¿  (<--)  and, among other Sh¿`¿ sources, in  Majlis¿’s Bi{ar  al-anwªr 2 (10:234ff).

                1Refer  al-²abars¿, Ihtijaj, II:415-432; Bihar 2  10:299-307 cf.49:173ff  and  also Ibn Bªbuya, `Uyūn al-akhbªr   (2:139f) and  K. al-Tawh¿d   (sect. 65 417-441).

                2 It is of interest to note that this order of the four Gospels is also given al-Shahrastªn¿ in the third prolegomenon to his al-Milal wa’l-nihal  (Cairo 1968:15). In his commentary on the U®ul al-Kªf¿  Mullª ™adrª also at one point lists the four Gospels (pl. al-anªj¿l al-arba`a) in this order in a citation from al-Shahrastani (=  Lk., Mk, Jn., Matt.) (Sh-Kafi, 3:597; cf. Imam Ridª’ in K.Tawhid, 426 cf. Bihar 210:306f)

                1 With such Sh¿`¿ biblical citations from one allegedly learned in the Hebrew writings [sic.] of the Sabaeans, the Persian texts of the Zoroastrians and the Greek writings of the philosophers problems of ta{r¿f    (“falsification”)  are obviously compounded.