By: J. Luis Dizon

Tarīf (from the verb حرف (ḥarrafa), meaning “to corrupt”) refers to the Islamic doctrine that the Jews and Christians corrupted the previous scriptures. It is based on various Qur’anic verses, such as 2:75-79, 3:78, 5:13, 5:41-47, and many others. The impetus for the formulation of this doctrine comes from the fact that the scriptures (the Torah and the Gospel) do not contain things that they should have (e.g. descriptions of Muhammad), as well as the fact that many doctrines taught therein (e.g. The Trinity, Vicarious Atonement, Original Sin, etc.) contradict Islamic dogma.

There are two types of Tarīf. These are:

  1. Tarīf al-Mana (Corruption of meaning)
  2. Tarīf al-Nass (Corruption of the text)

Interestingly, although the majority of Muslim preachers and apologists today advocate the latter, a close reading of the Qur’an appears to support the former. As William Montgomery Watt has pointed out, “There is absolutely no suggestion in the Qur’an that the whole Bible had been corrupted at some time in the distant past, nor that there had been the collusion between Christians and Jews which would have been necessary in order to corrupt the Old Testament”[1]

Similarly, Muslim scholars throughout history have differed on how to understand Tarīf. If we survey their works, we find that there is an evolution in Muslim opinion on the matter. The evolution of Muslim thought on Tarīf can roughly be traced as follows:

  1. 7th-8th centuries – Muslim sources only teach Tarīf al-Mana (Ibn Abbas, Ibn Munabbih, Ibn Ishaq, Muqatil).
  2. 9th-10th centuries – Tarīf al-Nass appears in a few sources, but the majority still teach Tarīf al-Mana (Al-Tabari, Saḥiḥ al-Bukhari, Sunan Abu Dawud).
  3. 11th century-Present – Tarīf al-Nass dominates Muslim polemics (Al-Maqdisi, Ibn Hazm, Ibn Kathir, Al-Biqa’i,), but many scholars hold onto Tarīf al-Mana (Al-Wāhidi, Al-Razi, Ibn Khaldun, Mahmoud Ayoub, Abdullah Saeed).

Below is a short survey of some representative voices in the Islamic tradition, showing how they differed on Tarīf and the various Qur’anic verses that pertain to it. I try as much as possible to minimise comments and limit the main text to primary source quotations. Supporting commentary on the sources (including quotes from scholarly secondary sources) is provided in the footnotes.

Ibn ‘Abbas (619-687) and Ibn Munabbih (655-737)

The earliest extant comments on the authenticity of the previous scriptures in Muslim tafāsir come from Ibn ‘Abbas and Ibn Munabbih. Ibn Kathir quotes them in his commentary on Q 3:78:

Al-Bukhari reported that Ibn ‘Abbas said that the Ayah means they alter and add although none among Allah’s creation can remove the Words of Allah from His Books, they alter and distort their apparent meanings. Wahb bin Munabbih said, “The Tawrah and the Injīl remain as Allah revealed them, and no letter in them was removed. However, the people misguide others by addition and false interpretation, relying on books that they wrote themselves.”[2]

According to them, the uncorrupt Torah and Gospel are still extant. They have just been misinterpreted, and these misinterpretations have been enshrined in Jewish and Christian literature other than the scriptures.

Muqātil (d. 767)

Another early tafsir on the Qur’an comes from Muqātil b. Sulaymān. He comments that the Jews find descriptions of Muhammad in their Torah, but are denying it. This implies that they have uncorrupted scriptures whose meanings they misinterpret or ignore. For example, in his comment on Q 2:16, he writes:

This is about how the Jews found the description of Muḥammad the prophet, may the prayers and peace of Allah be upon him, in the Torah before he was sent, and believed in him, assuming that he was from the descendants of Isḥaq, upon who be peace. Then when Muḥammad, may the prayers and peace of Allah be upon him, was send from among the Arabs, from the descendants of Isma’īl, upon whom be peace, they disbelieved (kafara) in him out of envy (asad), and “purchased error with guidance.”[3]

Also of interest is his comment on 2:146, where he relates a story wherein Muhammad argues with some Jews and appeals to the scriptures for the change in qibla (direction of prayer).:

You know the circumambulation of the house (bayt) is true because it is the qibla which is written (maktub) in the Torah and Injīl, but you conceal and deny the truth that is in the book of Allah.[4]

It can be inferred from these quotes that 1) the People of the Book are presumed to have intact copies of their scriptures, and 2) these scriptures are presumed to contain confirmations of Islamic doctrines, which the People of the Book would find if they only cared to read them.

Ibn Isaq (704-767)

Muhammad b. Isḥaq is known as the author of Sirat Rasul Allah, the earliest extant biography of Muhammad. It is notable for its narratives of Jews and Christians who are said to have found descriptions of Muhammad in their scriptures, complete with his name and the timing of his arrival. This indicates that uncorrupted copies of those scriptures are presumed to have been extant at the time, and confirmed Islamic teaching. One notable example is the conversion of the Jewish rabbi ‘Abd Allah b. Salām. Ibn Isḥaq narrates as follows:

I was told the story of ‘Abdullah b. Salām, a learned rabbi, by one of his family. He said: ‘When I heard about the apostle I knew by his description, name, and the time at which he appeared that he was the one we were waiting for, and I rejoiced greatly thereat, though I kept silent about it until the apostle came to Medina. When he stayed in Quba’ among the B. ‘Amr b. ‘Auf a man came with the news while I was working at the top of a palm-tree and my aunt Khalidā d. al-Harith was sitting below. When I heard the news I cried Allah Akbar and my aunt said, “Good gracious, if you had heard that Moses b. ‘Imrān had come you could not have made more fuss!” “Indeed, aunt,” I said, “he is the brother of Moses and follows his religion, being sent with the same mission.” She asked, “Is he really the prophet who we have been told will be sent at this very time?” and she accepted my assurance that he was. Straightway I went to the apostle and became a Muslim, and when I returned to my house I ordered my family to do the same.

‘I concealed the matter from the Jews, and then went to the apostle and said, “The Jews are a nation of liars and I wish you would take me into one of your houses and hide me from them. Then ask them about me so that they may tell you the position I hold among them before they know that I have become a Muslim. For if they know it beforehand they will utter slanderous lies against me.” The prophet housed me; the Jews came; and the apostle asked them about my standing among them. They said: “He is our chief, and the son of our chief; our rabbi, and our learned man.” When they said this I emerged and said: “O Jews, fear God and accept what He has sent you. For by God you know that he is the apostle of God. You will find him described in your Torah and even named. I testify that he is the apostle of God, I believe in him, I told him to be true, and I acknowledge him.” They accused me of lying and reviled me. Then I reminded the apostle that I had said that they would do this, for they were a treacherous, lying, and evil people. I publicly proclaimed my conversion and my household and my aunt Khālida followed suit.’[5]

Similar narratives are told of the Christian monk Baḥira, who is said to have read of the mark of the prophet in his books,[6] as well as Waraqa b. Naufal, the Christian cousin of Muhammad’s first wife, Khadīja, who is said to have mastered the scriptures and because of the knowledge he gained thereby immediately recognised Muhammad’s prophethood.[7] All of these presuppose intact scriptures.

Sirat Rasul Allah is also notable for containing one of the earliest reports of the story wherein Muhammad exhorts the Jews to use the Torah to judge two Jews who were caught in adultery. This story is later picked up and repeated in Sai al-Bukhari, Sunan Abu Dawud, and Al-Wāhidi’s Asbāb al-Nuzūl (see below).[8]

In addition, Sirat Rasul Allah also contains one of the earliest citations of the Bible in an Islamic work. Ibn Isḥaq cites John 15:23-16:1 approvingly, applying the verse to Muhammad without giving any indication that he regarded the Gospel of John as corrupt:

Among the things which have reached me about what Jesus the Son of Mary stated in the Gospel which he received from God for the followers of the Gospel, in applying a term to describe the apostle of God, is the following. It is extracted from what John the Apostle set down for them when he wrote the Gospel for them from the Testament of Jesus the Son of Mary: ‘He that hateth me hath hated the Lord. And if I had not done in their presence works which none other before me did, they had not had sin; but from now they are puffed up with pride and think that they will overcome me and also the Lord. But the word that is in the law must be fulfilled, “They hated me without a cause” (i.e. without reason). But when the Comforter has come whom God will send to you from the Lord’s presence, and the spirit of truth which will have gone forth from the Lord’s presence he (shall bear) witness of me and ye also, because ye have been with me from the beginning. I have spoken unto you about this that ye should not be in doubt.’

The Munaḥḥemana (God bless and preserve him!) in Syriac is Muhammad; in Greek is the paraclete.[9]

Finally, Ibn Isḥaq names the disciples of Jesus towards the end of his book. Although he doesn’t mention the New Testament, his endorsement of the list of followers implicitly endorses their writings as well.

Those whom Jesus son of Mary sent, both disciples and those who came after them, in the land were: Peter the disciple and Paul with him (Paul belonged to the followers and was not a disciple) to Rome; Andrew and Matthew to the land of the cannibals; Thomas to the land of Babel which is in the land of the east; Philip to Carthage which is in Africa; John to Ephesis the city of the young men of the cave; James to Jerusalem which is Aelia the city of the sanctuary; Bartholomew to Arabia which is the land of the Hijaz; Simon to the land of the Berbers; Judah who was not one of the disciples was put in the place of Judas.[10]

Al-Tabari (839-923)

Al-Tabari relates two traditions on Q 2:75, neither of which relates that the actual Torah was altered. The first is about the Jews possessing a corrupt book alongside the uncorrupted Torah (probably a reference to the Talmud):

Ibn Zaid, concerning “They heard God’s speech and then altered it”: This means the Torah which He sent down to them; they altered it: they made what was licit in it illicit, and what was illicit in it licit, and the truth in it false, and the false in it true. When the one in the right came to them with a bribe, they took out God’s scripture for him, but when the one making false claims came to them with a bribe, they took out that altered scripture for him, and he was found to be truthful therein. And if someone came and asked them something in which was no truth, no brine, nothing, they would command him to the truth. And God said to them “Will you bid the people to piety and forget yourselves, while you recite the scripture? Do you not understand?” (2:44) [1331][11]

The second narration is about unbelieving Jews contemporaneous to Moses verbally altering the commands given to Moses:

Muhammad b. Isḥaq: It has reached us from one of the learned that they said to Moses: ‘O Moses, something prevents us from seeing God, so make us hear his speech when He talks to you.’ So Moses asked this of his Lord, and He said: ‘Indeed, so command them to purify themselves, and to purify their clothes, and to fast.’ And they did. Then he went forth with them until they came to Mount Sinai. When the overcast covered them, Moses commanded them to prostrate, and they fell down prostrating. His Lord spoke with him, and they heard His speech, commanding him and forbidding him, so that hey understood what they heard. Then he went back with them to the Children of Israel. When they came back a party of them altered what He had commanded them, and, when Moses said to the Children of Israel: ‘God has commanded you to do such-and-such’, this group whom God mentioned said: ‘’In fact, He said such-and-such’, the opposite of what God had told them. It is they whom God meant when He revealed this to his Messenger, Muhammad, may God bless him and grant him peace. [1333][12]

Neither narration teaches that the actual Torah was altered, but only that a false book was written alongside it, or that the contents were verbally distorted.[13]

Sai al-Bukhari (c. 854)

One of the most authoritative hadith collections, Sai al-Bukhari contains a mixture of conflicting narrations on the previous scriptures. One such narration, attributed to Ibn ‘Abbas, appears to teach textual corruption:

Narrated Ubaidullah bin Abdullah bin Utba: Ibn Abbas said, “O Muslims? How do you ask the people of the Scriptures, though your Book (i.e. the Quran) which was revealed to His Prophet is the most recent information from Allah and you recite it, the Book that has not been distorted? Allah has revealed to you that the people of the scriptures have changed with their own hands what was revealed to them and they have said (as regards their changed Scriptures): This is from Allah, in order to get some worldly benefit thereby.” Ibn Abbas added: “Isn’t the knowledge revealed to you sufficient to prevent you from asking them? By Allah I have never seen any one of them asking (Muslims) about what has been revealed to you.”[14]

However, other narrations from Sai al-Bukhari presuppose an intact scripture that can still be used to make proper judgments:

Narrated Ibn ‘Umar: A Jew and a Jewess were brought to Allah’s Apostle on a charge of committing an illegal sexual intercourse. The Prophet asked them. “What is the legal punishment (for this sin) in your Book (Torah)?” They replied, “Our priests have innovated the punishment of blackening the faces with charcoal and Tajbiya.” ‘Abdullah bin Salam said, “O Allah’s Apostle, tell them to bring the Torah.” The Torah was brought, and then one of the Jews put his hand over the Divine Verse of the Rajam (stoning to death) and started reading what preceded and what followed it. On that, Ibn Salam said to the Jew, “Lift up your hand.” Behold! The Divine Verse of the Rajam was under his hand. So Allah’s Apostle ordered that the two (sinners) be stoned to death, and so they were stoned. Ibn ‘Umar added: So both of them were stoned at the Balat and I saw the Jew sheltering the Jewess.[15]

Sunan Abu Dawud (c. 889)

Also one of the authoritative hadith collections, Sunan Abu Dawud narrates another version of the story where Muhammad judges according to the Torah. This version shows Muhammad being even more reverential towards the Torah than Bukhari does, declaring in no uncertain terms that the Torah used by the Jews during his time is divinely revealed.

Narrated Abdullah Ibn Umar: A group of Jews came and invited the Apostle of Allah to Quff. So he visited them in their school. They said: Abul Qasim, one of our men has committed fornication with a woman; so pronounce judgment upon them. They placed a cushion for the Apostle of Allah (who sat on it and said: Bring the Torah. It was then brought. He then withdrew the cushion from beneath him and placed the Torah on it saying: I believed in thee and in Him Who revealed thee. He then said: Bring me one who is learned among you. Then a young man was brought. The transmitter then mentioned the rest of the tradition of stoning similar to the one transmitted by Malik from Nafi'(No. 4431).[16]

Al-Wāhidi (d. 1075)

Al-Wāhidi reports that Umar b. al-Khattab heard the Jews reciting the Hebrew Bible and praises the contents of the Torah, without any hint of believing that any part of it had been corrupted:

Wahidi further relates on the authority of al-Sha’bi that ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab said, “I used to frequent the Jews in their schools when they studied the Torah and marvel at how the Torah concurs with the Qur’an and how the Qur’an concurs with the Torah. They said to me, ‘O Umar, there is no one dearer to us than you.’ ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Because,’ they said, ‘you come to us and enjoy our company.’ I answered, ‘I come to marvel at how the Books of God confirm each other.’ . . .[17]

Also, in Asbāb al-Nuzūl, Al-Wāhidi uses a variation of the hadith about Muhammad using the Torah to judge the Jewish adulterers as the occasion of revelation for Q 5:41-47:

(O Messenger! Let not them grieve thee who vie one with another in the race to disbelief…) [5:41-47]. Abu Bakr Ahmad ibn al-Hasan al-Hiri informed us by dictation> Abu Muhammad, the chamberlain of Ibn Ahmad al-Tusi> Muhammad ibn Hammad al-Abiwardi> Abu Mu’awiyah> al-A’mash> ‘Abd Allah ibn Murrah> al-Bara’ ibn ‘Azib who said: “One day, the Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, passed by a Jewish man who had just been flogged and had his face darkened with coal. He summoned the Jews and asked them: ‘Is this what your Scripture decrees as punishment for the adulterer?’ ‘Yes!’ they replied. He then summoned one of their doctors and asked him: ‘I implore you by Allah who has sent the Torah to Moses, is this what your Scripture decrees as punishment for the adulterer’. He said: ‘No! And if you had not implored me by Allah, I would not tell you. Our Scripture rules that the punishment of the adulterer is stoning. But it became widespread among our notables. Initially, when one of the notables committed adultery, we left him unpunished while we applied stoning on the communality in cases of adultery. Then we decided to look for a punishment that was applied on both the notables and communality of people. And so we agreed on darkening the face with coal and flogging to replace stoning’. The Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, said: ‘O Allah! I am the first to reapply your command after they had suspended it’. And he ordered that the Jewish man be stoned. Allah, exalted is He, then revealed (O Messenger! Let not them grieve thee who vie one with another in the race to disbelief) up to His words (If this be given unto you, receive it…), they said: ‘Go to Muhammad; if he directs you to flog the adulterer and darken his face with coal and apply flogging, then follow him. But do not follow him if he directs you to apply stoning on him’. Up to His words (Whoso judgeth not by that which Allah hath revealed: such are disbelievers) [5:44]. He said: ‘This relates to the Jews’. Up to His words (Whoso judgeth not by that which Allah hath revealed: such are wrong-doers) [5:45]. He said: ‘This relates to the Christians’. Up to His words (Whoso judgeth not by that which Allah hath revealed: such are evil-livers) [5:47]. He said: ‘This relates to all disbelievers’. Narrated by Muslim from Yahya ibn Yahya from Abu Mu’awiyah”. Abu ‘Abd Allah ibn Abi Ishaq informed us> Abu’l-Haytham Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Ghawth al-Kindi> Muhammad ibn ‘Abd Allah ibn Sulayman al-Hadrami> Abu Bakr ibn Abi Shaybah> Abu Mu’awiyah> al-A’mash> ‘Abd Allah ibn Murrah> al-Bara’ ibn ‘Azib who related that the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, stoned a Jewish man and a Jewish woman and said afterwards: “(Whoso judgeth not by that which Allah hath revealed: such are disbelievers) [5:44], (Whoso judgeth not by that which Allah hath revealed: such are wrong-doers) [5:45], (Whoso judgeth not by that which Allah hath revealed: such are evil-livers) [5:47]. All these three verses were revealed about the disbelievers”. This was narrated by Muslim from Abu Bakr ibn Abi Shaybah.[18]

Al-Razi (1149-1209)

The classical mufassir Fakhr Al-Din Al-Razi relates in al-Tafsīr al-Kabīr that there are two classes of Taḥrīf, without mentioning his preference for either of them:

[First is] by changing a word for another like their placing of the word ‘adam tawil’ in place of ‘rab’ah’ in Tawrat. . . if it is said, how is this [change] possible for a Book whose letters and words are known to such a large number of people in the East and West, we would say: It is perhaps possible to say that [initially the number of] people were few and those who had the knowledge of the scripture (‘ulama’) were extremely small, and therefore they were able to cause this change (Taḥrīf).

Secondly, what is meant by Taḥrīf is to cast false and doubtful [statements], top give false interpretations, and to change the true meaning of a word to false meaning using various linguistic tricks, as is done by the people of innovation in our time with regrd to the [Qur’anic] verses that are not in line with their schools [madhahib]. This is the most correct [interpretation]. Thirdly, [the meaning is that] they [the Jews] used to meet the Prophet [May God’s blessing be upon him] and ask him about things and he informed them . . . when they left, they changed his words.[19]

Elsewhere, in his commentary on Q 2:75-80, Al-Razi leaves the matter open whether the passage refers to Jews living contemporaneously with Moses or with Muhammad. He also recognises that Taḥrīf al-mana is the more likely interpretation:

Alternation [Tarīf] must refer either to the actual words or to their meaning. . . . Unbroken transmission [tawatur], however, prevents alteration of the actual words. Thus if those who altered were the seventy men at the time of Moses, they would have altered nothing relating to Muhammad, but only injunctions and prohibitions. If, on the other hand, they lived at the time of Muhammad, it is more probable that was is intended by altering are things relating to Muhammad. The literal sense of the Qur’an does not indicate what they actually altered.[20]

Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328)

The famous Hanbali theologian Ibn Taymiyya held to a moderate form of Tarīf al-Nass. Although he believed that some copies of the Torah and Gospel were corrupted, he also held that pure, uncorrupted copies of these scriptures still existed alongside the corrupted ones:

It is said that in the world there is no single copy [or version of the scripture] that corresponds to what God revealed in the Tawrat and Injīl. All that exist are changed (mubaddal). As for Tawrat, its transmission from a large number of people to a [subsequent] large number of people has stopped and the Injīl is taken from four [people].

Then, among these people [Muslims] there are those who allege (za’ama) that much of what is in Tawrat and Injil [today] is false (batil), not of God’s word (kalam allah). Some of them said that what is false is not much. It is [also said]: No one has changed any text of the scriptures. Rather they [Jews and Christians] have falsified their meanings by [false] interpretations. Many Muslims have held both of these views. The correct [view] is the third view, which is that in the world there are true (Sai) copies [versions], and these remained until the time of the prophet (peace be upon him), and many copies [versions] which are corrupted. Whoever says that nothing in [these] copies [versions] was corrupted he has denied what cannot be denied. Whoever says that, after the prophet (peace be upon him), all copies [versions] have been corrupted (hurrifat), he has said what is manifestly false (khata’). The Qur’an commands them to judge with what Allah reavealed in the Tawrat and Injil. [Allah] informs that in both there is wisdom (hikmah). There is nothing in the Qur’an to indicate that they altered all copies [versions].[21]

Ibn Kathir (1300-1373)

The classical mufassir Ibn Kathir believed in the corruption of the text of scripture. He states this clearly in his commentary on Q 3:78:

We should state that there is no doubt that they [the Jews and Christians] altered, distorted, added to and deleted from them [the Tawrah and Injīl]. For instance, the Arabic versions of these books contain tremendous error, many additions and deletions and enormous misinterpretation. Those who rendered these translations have incorrect comprehension in most, rather, all of these translations.[22]

However, it is interesting that his commentary implies that his judgment is based only on Arabic translations of the Bible, not the Hebrew and Greek originals. Also, despite his advocacy of this position, he recognises that his forebears did not hold to Taḥrīf al-Nass. In the same tafsir, he cites earlier commentators Ibn Abbas and Ibn Munabbih (see above), to the effect that nothing in the Bible has been changed.[23]

Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406)

In his Muqaddimah, Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun cites stories from the Hebrew Bible,[24] and then goes on to defend the general authenticity of those scriptures:

Someone might come out against this tradition with the argument that it occurs only in the Torah which, as is well known, was altered by the Jews. The reply to this argument would be that the statement concerning the alteration of the Torah by the Jews is unacceptable to thorough scholars and cannot be understood in its plain meaning, since custom prevents people who have a revealed religion from dealing with the divine scriptures in such a manner.[25]

Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966)

The leading intellectual of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb advocated Tarīf al-Mana as opposed to Tarīf al-Nass:

The preferred view is that [this refers to] their interpretation of texts from the Tawrat in ways that were not intended (ya’ni tawiluhum li’ibarati al-tawrat bi ghayr al-maqsud minha) [by God]. This is [in order] to reject what exists in it [Tawrat] of signs of the last message [of the Prophet], and the rules and laws which are confirmed by the last book [Qur’an].[26]

Elsewhere, Qutb is quoted using the word Tarīf to refer to what some Muslims do with the Qur’an. Since he obviously would not believe that the Qur’an’s text was or could be altered, we can infer from this that he uses Tarīf to refer to a distortion of the interpretation of the text, rather than a distortion of the text itself.[27]

Mahmoud Ayoub (1938-Present)

Lebanese Muslim scholar Mahmoud Ayoub points out that the Qur’anic Tarīf verses teach Tarīf al-Mana, not Tarīf al-Nass:

Contrary to the general Islamic view, the Qur’an does not accuse Jews and Christians of altering the text of their scriptures, but rather of altering the truth which those scriptures contain. The people do this by concealing some of the sacred texts, by misapplying their precepts, or by ‘altering words from their right position’ (4:26; 5:13, 41; see also 2:75). However, this refers more to interpretation than to actual addition or deletion of words from the sacred books. The problem of alteration (Taḥrīf) needs further study.[28]

Abdullah Saeed (1960-Present)                   

In an article for The Muslim World, Muslim scholar Abdullah Saeed from the University of Melbourne affirms that the Qur’an does not teach the corruption of the previous scriptures, but speaks of them only in positive terms:

The Qur’an revealed to the Prophet Muhammad is said to “confirm what is with them.”  Obviously, this refers to a text that existed with the Jewish or Christian communities at the time of the Prophet. The People of the Book are described as reciting “verses of Allah.” Many verses in the Qur’an refer to the People of the Book as ones to whom God “gave the Book,” and who are asked “to establish Tawrat and Injīl.”  The Jews at the time of the Prophet are readers of the scripture as are the Christians.

In no verse in the Qur’an is there a denigrating remark about the scriptures of the Jews and Christians. Instead, there is respect and reverence. Any disparaging remarks were about the People of the Book, individuals or groups, and their actions. These and many  other verses which similarly revere the “Book of  God”  (Tawrat or Injīl), as given to Jews and Christians, led scholars like Ibn Taymiyya to consider unwarranted  the wholesale  rejection by  Muslims of  the  Christian  and  Jewish  scriptures.[29]


[1] William Montgomery Watt, Muslim-Christian Encounters: Perceptions and Misperceptions (London: Routledge, 1991), 32.

[2] Isma’il b. Kathir, “The Jews Alter Allah’s Words,” Quran Tafsir Ibn Kathir (Accessed 18 January 2016),

[3]  ‘Abd Allah Maḥmud Shiḥata (ed.), Tafsir Muqātil ibn Sulaymān (Beirut: Mu’assasat al-Ta’rikh al-‘Arabiyya, 2002), vol. 1, 91. Cited in Gordon Nickel, The Gentle Answer to the Muslim Accusation of Biblical Falsification (Calgary, AB: Bruton Gate, 2015), 47.

[4] Cited in Ibid., 45.

[5] Alfred Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1967), 240-241.

[6] Ibid., 79-81.

[7] Ibid., 83.

[8] Ibid., 266-267. It is noteworthy that the narration of this story by Ibn Isḥaq is much longer and more detailed than the same narrations as found in later sources. For the sake of brevity, I have not included the full narration here, but invite the reader to look up the original source.

[9] Ibid., 103-104. Guillaume notes in a footnote that Ibn Isḥaq is here citing the Palestinian Syriac Lectionary reading of John, rather than the ordinary text used in Syriac-speaking churches.

[10] Ibid., 653. Compare this list with that found in Matthew 10:1-4.

[11] Abu Ja’far Muḥammad B. Jarir Al-Tabari, The Commentary on the Qur’an, Vol. 1 (Oxford University Press, 1987), 402.

[12] Ibid., 403.

[13] Islamic studies scholar Camilla Adang comments:

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 Muammad and his religion (Muslim Writers on Judaism and the Hebrew Bible: From Ibn Rabban to Ibn Hazm (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 229, emphasis mine).

Muslim scholars who concur with this interpretation include Muhammet Tarakci and Suleyman Sayar, who state:

Al-Tabari argues that the Jews change legitimate things with what are forbidden (by religion), and forbidden things with legitimate ones, truth with false, false with truth. In his opinion, ‘tarīf’ is to change meaning and religious judgments. (“The Qur’anic View of the Corruption of the Torah and the Gospels” The Islamic Quarterly 49(3):231).

Abdullah Saeed takes a similar interpretation. He writes:

Tabari sems to be of the view that the people referred to [in Q 2:79] are from among the Jews of Banu Isra’il, who distorted (harrafu) the Book of Allah and wrote a book [which contained] their interpretations. Those were opposed (mukhtalifin) to what Allah had revealed to his prophet Moses (peace be upon him). According to him, the Jews then “sold” (communicated) this book to a people who had no knowledge either of what the book contained or of Tawrat. The form of distortion that Tabari seems to refer to in this instance is that of writing down certain interpretations and attributing them to Allah, not changing of a written text (word of God) (“The Charge of Distortion of Jewish and Christian Scriptures,” The Muslim World 92 (Fall 2002), 426, emphasis mine.).

[14] Sahih al-Bukhari III:48:850. See also IX:93:614 for a similar narration. All hadith quotations are taken from “Sunnah and Hadith,” Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement (Accessed 20 January 2016),

Two issues need to be addressed here: 1) It isn’t clear from the context whether the “changing with their own hands” means changing the actual scriptures or creating false books such as the Talmud to serve alongside the authentic scriptures (as in al-Tabari’s commentary), and 2) it is questionable whether Ibn ‘Abbas would teach textual corruption, since other narrations also attributed to Ibn ‘Abbas teach that the scriptures have been preserved (see above). For more on this point, see Sam Shamoun, “Did Ibn Abbas Believe that the Holy Bible was Corrupt?,” Answering Islam (Accessed 19 January 2016),

[15] Sahih al-Bukhari XIII:82:809.

[16] Sunan Abu Dawud 38:4434.

[17] Maḥmoud Ayoub, The Qur’an and its Interpreters, Vol. 1 (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1984), 127.

[18] Alī ibn Ahmad al-Wāhidī, Asbāb al-Nuzūl, trans. Mokrane Guezzou (Amman, Jordan: Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought, 2008), 68. Download this book at the following link:

[19] Cited in Saeed, “The Charge of Distortion of Jewish and Christian Scriptures,” 423-424.

[20] Ayoub, The Qur’an and its Interpreters, Vol. 1, 121. Saeed comments on al-Razi’s view of tahrif:

In his interpretation of Q5:13 and Q5:41, Razi also gives preference to the view that tahrif is false interpretation. As noted above, his preference stems from the belief that changes to the words of a transmitted Book by a large number of people (bi al-tawatur) is not likely to occur. . . . Razi also states that verse Q5:41 was revealed in response to the Prophet’s inquiring about the punishment of stoning. He goes on to say off the meaning of yuharrifuna al-kalima min ba’di mawadi’ihi that they [Jews] replaced al-rajm (stoning) with al-jald (flogging). If this story is reliable, this is more like concealing what was actually in the text and not revealing it, not an actual change of the words (“The Charge of Distortion of Jewish and Christian Scriptures,” 425-426).

Tarakci and Sayar concur with this understanding of al-Razi:

Expressing that ‘taḥrīf’ may be occurred as the corruption either of the text or the meaning, Fakhr al-din al-Razi believes that ‘taḥrīf’ in the Qur’an means to misinterpret by stating wrong opinions or playing on words (“The Qur’anic View of the Corruption of the Torah and the Gospels,” 231).

[21] Saeed, “The Charge of Distortion of Jewish and Christian Scriptures,” 430.

[22] Isma’il b. Kathir, “The Jews Alter Allah’s Words.”

[23] It is interesting how Ibn Kathir attempts to reconcile his statements with those of his predecessors. He asserts that Ibn Abbas and Ibn Munabbih must be referring to the heavenly originals of the Tawrah and Injīl, rather than the copies in possession of the Jews and Christians. However, there is no indication that this is what Ibn Abbas and Ibn Munabbih meant. Ibn Kathir attempts to anachronistically project the 14th century concept of textual corruption back into the 8th century.

[24] W.J. Fischel writes of Ibn Khaldun:

Throughout his historical survey of Israel and the Jews, Ibn Khaldun refers to the Taurat, the Pentateuch, ‘as the oldest book of the revealed writings that came down to us’, and he introduces many quotations with ‘as I read in the Taurat’, ‘it is mentioned in the Taurat’, or ‘all this is explained in the Taurat’. He also incorporated into his account a great number of Hebrew names and terms in Arabic transliteration, and in each case he states that ‘this is a Hebrew word’ or ‘its meaning is in the Hebrew’ (ma’nahu bi l’ibraniya) (“Ibn Khaldun: On the Bible, Judaism and the Jews,” in Ignace Goldziher Memorial Volume, Vol. 2, eds. S. Lowinger et. al. (Jerusalem: Rubin Mass, 1958), 154).

[25] Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, Vol. I, trans. Franz Rosenthal (Princeton University Press, 1967), 20. According to Fischel:

Unlike Ibn Hazm or other Muslim authors dealing with the fundamental concepts of other religions in comparison with or in defense of Islam, Ibn Khaldun approaches the Bible and Judaism not as a theologian but as an historian, generally free from polemics and prejudices; as a Muslim, however, he could not help taking part in the discussions of Islamic scholars as to the origin and genuineness of the text of the Holy Scriptures of the Jews and Christians (Ahl al-Kitab). As is well-known, Islamic theologians were divided in their views in this respect—one group accused the Jews and Christians of having corrupted the text (tahrif) while others charged them only with a misinterpretation of passages of the Holy Scriptures. Ibn Khaldun, as Mas’udi and others, adheres to the latter view and rejects the notion of the falsification of the text as such (“Ibn Khaldun,” 156-157).

[26] Cited in Saeed, “The Charge of Distortion of Jewish and Christian Scriptures,” 425.

[27] Cited in Ibid.

[28] Maḥmoud Ayoub, “Uzayr in the Qur’an and Muslim Tradition,” Studies in Islamic and Judaic Traditions, ed. W. M. Brenner and S. D. Rick (The University of Denver, 1986), 5.

[29] Saeed, “The Charge of Distortion of Jewish and Christian Scriptures,” 429. Download this article at


One thought on “Muslim Writers on Taḥrīf

  1. The discussion is not upto the mark.U C The what was called a guidance is
    mentioned as quran, then again the word reminder is used. means The word quran is not seriously thought as as a title of the book that was compiled after the death of Mohammed

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