A Review of ‘The Bible in Arabic’, by Sidney H. Griffith

Intro photo credit: Ryk Neethling – https://www.flickr.com/photos/rykneethling/4543063042

Earlier this year Shabir Ally and David Wood debated the topic ‘What is the Qur’ans View of the Christian Scriptures?’. The relevant section I am about to comment on begins at 26:51 – https://youtu.be/WKqe8fKhfXg?t=1611

I find it interesting, in passing, what Shabir Ally says initially:

I move on now to an interesting book [‘The Bible in Arabic’, Sidney H. Griffith] which I believe to be a game-changer in Islamic studies. For a long time many academic scholars had said very much what David had said today [i.e. that the Qur’an holds to the reliability of the present scriptures at the time the Qur’an was revealed], and in fact so many of them had said it, that even Abdullah Saeed [whom David earlier quoted, c. 21:45] has been persuaded by it, and for a time I myself was being inclined towards that position as well, to think that it looks like the Qur’an is actually affirming the Torah and the Gospel as it existed at the time when the Qur’an was being revealed,  in all it’s totality. However, this book by Sidney Griffith, who is a modern scholar on the religion of Islam, though he does not seem to be a Muslim himself, he has written this book and many articles published in academic journals, in which he does say two things. … (1) That the bible according to the Qur’an has been changed. (2) According to the Qur’an again, that the Qur’ans view is that the Qur’an is restoring the original bible stories. The Quran is telling us the way it should be understood.

Excuse the long quote, but I believe it is all relevant. It is clear from the above that Shabir Ally considers this book (‘The Bible in Arabic’, by Sidney H. Griffith) to be influential, both in shaping Dr Ally’s own perspective, but also because he believes it to be a ‘game-changer in Islamic studies’. I note in passing that Shabir Ally himself, and many others, have either held to or seen plausibility in the view that the Qur’an affirms the non-corruption of former scriptures – for which see https://bloggingtheology.net/2016/09/18/the-quran-affirms-the-reliability-of-the-bible-a-plausible-muslim-view/

The quote above is also helpful in summarising Sidney Griffith’s main arguments, as understood by Dr Ally.

When I first watched this debate, I was (and still am) in broad agreement with David Wood’s argument. When I heard about this well-respected, non-Muslim scholar who argued to the contrary, I felt I needed to engage with his work, to see if there was merit to his arguments. The below are the notes I wrote concerning this book at the time when I read it 2-3 months ago. It is not particularly polished, and is lacking in details – but I hope you may still benefit from the general points I made:

Sidney Griffith says that the Qur’an does believe that the former scriptures have been corrupted. He cites a few of the classic proof texts [I no longer have the book in front of me, but perhaps Q 2:79, for example], but only in passing.

Much of his own argument is based on the fact that the Qur’an has its own ‘prophetology’, and places the former prophets from the former scriptures in this mold [Shabir Ally clarifies this in the video above, just after where my quotation ended. The Qur’an re-presents the stories of the Bible, ‘the way the stories should be understood’, to quote Dr Ally. It is also clarified below]. Therefore, the Qur’an believes in the corruption of the former scriptures.

But this does not follow. It is just as plausible that Muhammad, who did not know the contents of the former scriptures, sincerely did believe the former scriptures spoke of the prophets in the manner of the Qur’anic ‘prophetology’. Indeed I believe this is more likely, given the numerous passages [in the Qur’an] suggesting the former scriptures have not been corrupted [which authors like Gordon Nickel, ‘The Gentle Answer’, have discussed. For example, Q 5:47-48].

The implicit assumption seems to be – any divergence from the former scriptures must be intentional (due to Qur’anic prophetology) rather than accidental (the Qur’an tries to follow the former scriptures, but gets it wrong, because it doesn’t know their stories accurately). While Sidney Griffith likely is not a Muslim, I find that Muslims follow this line of reasoning all the time. It doth beg the question.

Towards the end of the book he also discusses the reception of the book [I’m afraid I’m not sure what I meant here – I assume I am referring to the reception of the Jewish and Christian scriptures by Muslims]. It is interesting that he says Muslims generally believed in the corruption of the former scriptures [contra Gordon Nickel], as the Qur’an itself teaches. Yet even Griffith seems to note a shift around the 10-11th centuries, prior to which there was greater use of the former scriptures to validate the Qur’anic/Islamic narrative. Contra Griffith, I suggest that this shift may perhaps be because in the first few centuries [of Islam], Muslim scholars (on the whole) may not have believed in the corruption of the former scriptures [for which see Gordon Nickel].’

I realise this approach may not be suitable for a Muslim – a Muslim will not believe that the author of the Qur’an (Allah) was ignorant of the contents of the former scriptures, therefore any deviation from them must be intentional. This is absolutely fine, indeed, I respect the consistency of this approach within a religious worldview. I do ask that such a presupposition of inerrancy be permitted to Christians interpreting the Bible.

Yet neither I nor Sidney Griffith share this presupposition, as we are not Muslims – thus when we try to interpret the Qur’an, we will be open to the possibility that the Qur’an is mistaken in thinking it preaches the same message as the scriptures of the Jews and Christians. Sidney Griffith does not arrive at this conclusion, but I do.

EDIT (28/09/2016) –

Refer to the comments section of https://bloggingtheology.net/2016/09/18/the-quran-affirms-the-reliability-of-the-bible-a-plausible-muslim-view/ for my dialogue with Taha. I have found it very enlightening!

In light of Taha’s comments, I may have missed a part of Griffith’s argument. I hope to get round to re-reading Griffith’s book (I have just bought it very cheaply for Kindle!), and I may update this post with further reflections if appropriate.



Categories: Islam

4 replies

  1. Hi Richard, you mentioned:

    “It is just as plausible that Muhammad, who did not know the contents of the former scriptures, sincerely did believe the former scriptures spoke of the prophets in the manner of the Qur’anic ‘prophetology’.”

    I see two problems here, you opened with this being a plausibility and then transitioned into an “assumption” of certainty, “who did not know”. On what basis do you make that leap of faith?

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I’m curious by Christian Apologists and their inconsistencies in these areas,

    I do not so much have an issue with the thesis that the earliest Muslim commentators (by Nickel’s working sample and the inferred definition taken from that sample) did not believe that the original scriptures were corrupted, a note of clarification here:

    By earliest commentators I mean those early Muslims who wrote exegetical commentaries such as Muqatil b. Sulayman and others whose works happen to be extant as that is the definition appealed to by individuals such as Nickel.

    I do not on the other hand believe that the ACTUAL earliest commentators (the Prophet Muhammad (S) and his Companions) who taught the commentary orally (which survives in Hadith Literature) believed that the original scriptures were intact, this thesis is easy to demonstrate, I could cite their narrations from Hadith Literature.

    Admittedly, if one read the Qur’an in the confused atomistic light that most Christian apologists do then I can indeed understand why one would conclude that the author of the Qur’an was arguing for the preservation of the scriptures. Given that most prophecies Christians depend upon from the Tanakh of this nature, I can imagine that its difficult to read another scripture in a unified manner at times.

    So I can see why one would be duped into believing:

    a) The Earliest Muslims believed it (the previous scriptures) was textually preserved
    b) Some Qur’anic Ayat seem to affirm this interpretation.

    Where you all lose me and confuse the living daylights out of me is where you argue that the author of the Qur’an had no idea what the previous scriptures even taught, were all Christians in the Arabian Peninsula and Ethiopia rejectors of the Crucifixion or something?

    Is this not in contradiction to the now noted fact that the Qur’an operates in a Biblical Subtext and that certain stories presuppose a knowledge of the individuals and original stories featured in the text. Many examples are elaborated upon in the following text:


    Liked by 2 people

  3. The Quran does not confirm the whole Bible from the beginning to end. In fact, the word “Bible” does not appear in the Quran, it’s a mistaken belief among Christians that the Quran affirms the four Gospels of the New Testament when the Quran only mentions the Gospel OF Jesus, not the Gospels about Jesus. The ‘People of the Scripture’ alludes to possessors of the Torah and Gospel and the Quran is confirming those books in principle, meaning the originals. But the copies available during the Prophet time were changed (2:79) and whatever agrees is accepted and contradicts the Quran is rejected. The context (2:75, 3:78-79) makes it clear there were both literate and te illiterate corrupters. The Quran is muhaymin over the former books, confirming what is true and rejecting what is false.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. “I do ask that such a presupposition of inerrancy be permitted to Christians interpreting the Bible.”

    I would be happy to do so if the Bible itself claimed to be the inerrant word of God, but I can find no such claim anywhere in the Bible.

    The Quran, in contrast, claims in many places to be the actual speech of God, and to be without mistakes or contradictions.

    Liked by 3 people

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