The Injil in Islamic thinking

December 2020

The word Injil is derived indirectly from the Greek euaggelion through the Ethiopian wangel. It occurs twelve times in the Quran but is not mentioned in the earlier surahs. It is presented (Al Maidah 5:46, 57:27) as a book revealed to Jesus. According to some authorities the Injil was revealed to Jesus on the thirteenth day of the month Ramadan (‘Wahb ibn Munabbih, (died around 730) as quoted by Zamakhshari (1070-1143) in the Kashshaf), others say it was on the eighteenth day of that month, twelve hundred years after the revelation of the Zabur. In the Quran it is called ‘the scripture’ and was read by contemporary Christians of Muhammad (Al-Maidah 5:47, Al-A’raf 7:157). The four gospels are often extended to include the whole of the New Testament.

In all references to the Injil as an inspired record, there is not one single statement to the effect that the Christians of Muhammad’s day did not possess the genuine Scriptures. For example in An-Nisa’ 4:171 the Christians are charged with extravagance, or error in doctrine, but not with not possessing the true Gospels.

Distinguished commentators like Badawi and Zamakshari openly admit that injil is not an original Arabic word but is borrowed from the Syriac word used by the Christians themselves to describe the Gospel. Indeed, whereas some early Quranic scholars tried to find an Arabic origin for it, these two men of authority rejected the theory with undisguised contempt.

Islam’s knowledge of the injil 

There was confusion as to what exactly the injil contained, whether just the four Gospels, or the whole of the New Testament. This frequently led to the Muslim accusation that the Christians had corrupted the original injil. It is clear that many Muslims had a knowledge of the Gospels but it is difficult to pin-point how that knowledge was obtained. Some of it was obtained orally in controversies or friendly conversations between Christians and Muslims but historical evidence is lacking. Polemic writers such as Ibn Hazm (994-1064) and al-Ghazalli (1058-111) seemed to have read Arabic translation of the Gospels made by Arabic speaking Christians.

The Gospel translated into Arabic

Sahih Bukhari (AH 256) relates the story of Waraqah ibn Naufal, who became a Christian, (some suggest he was an Ebionite bishop), knew Hebrew, studied the Bible and wrote down the Gospels in Hebrew. Admired by Muslims as a hanif these traditions have the colour of legend.

According to al-Qastallani (1448-1517) in his publication al-Muwahib the Injil was first revealed in the Syriac tongue, and was then later translated into seventeen languages. The Gospels were certainly translated into Arabic from the Greek, Syriac and Coptic versions. Bar Hebraeus who was a catholicos of the Syriac Orthodox Church in the 13th century speaks of a translation made between 631 and 640 by the Monophysite Johannes by order of an Arab prince, ’Amr b. Sa’d, it is the oldest reference to a known Arabic manuscript. Translations from Greek fragments should be probably dated from the early ninth century. The oldest surviving translation from the Syriac is of the same period. It is certain that passages from the Gospels were put into Arabic at a much earlier date. George, bishop of the Arab tribes of Mesopotamia, a friend contemporary of James of Odessa (d. 578) wrote a grammar with explanatory comments on the injil.

Non-Biblical gospels

In addition to the canonical Gospels, there were early Arabic versions of many of the New Testament apochrypha such as the Protoevangelion of James, the Arabic Gospel of Infancy (the only manuscript in Arabic where Jesus is said to speak from the cradle), the apocalypse of Paul and the apocryphal Acts of Apostles, also the Gospel of Thomas (a Syriac version prior to Muhammad which records miracles of Jesus including the creation of clay birds coming to life).

Oral teaching and communication derived from Christian communities

The spread of Christian ideas in Arabia, together with narratives from the Gospels and the apocryphal books, before the rise of Islam was effected orally by Christian communities. In Yemen around 525 there existed an organised Christian community, in active rivalry with the Jews and in close relations with the Ethiopians. In the north-east the influence of the Nestorian church was spread from al-Hira frequenting the court of the Lakhmid princes. The Christianised poets like Zaid b. ‘Amr b. Nufail and Umaiya b. Abi’l-Salt of Taif are represented as being in relations with the Christians of Yemen and of Syria where the Ghassanid princes and the tribes under their influence had also adopted the Monophysite doctrine.

The Bedouin of the Hijaz were predominantly pagan, although there were at least two Christian tribes the Judham and ’Udhra. Many surrounding tribes had accepted Christianity in some form or other and their three chief centres were 1) Yemen in the south; 2) Syria in the north; 3) Hira (Abyssinia) in the east (Abyssinia was in fellowship with the Egyptian Monophysite Church). Christianity however, had little affect in Arabia with only really Najran affected in the south.

The passages in the Quran which reflect the canonical and apocryphal gospels can therefore be assumed to be derived from these Christian communities. It is assumed that a high proportion of Ethiopic and southern Arabic terms are found, such as those contained in Al-Maidah 5: 112-115. The great majority of passages are narratives relating to the birth of Jesus, Mary and John the Baptist, and the mission, miracles and ascent of Jesus. There are also allusions to several parables for example, the sower – “and their similitude in the Gospel is: like a seed which sends forth its blade, then makes it strong; it then becomes thick, and it stands on its own stem, (filling) the sowers with wonder and delight”

(Al-Fath 48:29). A further example is seen in the parable of the virgins: “0ne Day will the Hypocrites- men and women – say to the Believers: “Wait for us! Let us borrow (a Light) from your Light!” It will be said: “Turn ye back to your rear! then seek a Light (where ye can)!” (Al-Hadid 57:13)

Tradition and the New Testament

Various miracles, sayings and ideas which are attributed to Muhammad or his followers have been traced to the Gospels while the high position of the poor and the difficulty of the rich entering heaven are honoured in contrast to the views of the heathen Arabs. Abu Duwud, even puts a version of the Lord’s prayer into the mouth of Muhammad.

The Gospel parable of the labourers in the vineyard from Matthew 20:1-16 is re-formed by Muhammad as a parable against Jews and Christians as follows: “Narrated Ibn ‘Umar, The Prophet said, “Your example and the example of the people of the two Scriptures (i.e. Jews and Christians) is like the example of a man who employed some labourers and asked them, ‘Who will work for me from morning till midday for one Qirat?’ The Jews accepted and carried out the work. He then asked who will work for me from midday up to the ‘Asr prayer for one Qirat?’ The Christians accepted and fulfilled the work. He then said, ‘Who will work for me from the ‘Asr till sunset for two Qirats?’ You, Muslims have accepted the offer. The Jews and the Christians got angry and said, ‘Why should we work more and get lesser wages?’ (Allah) said, ‘Have I with-held part of your right?’ They replied in the negative. He said, ‘It is My Blessing, I bestow upon whomever I wish.” (Bukhari Volume 3, Book 36, Number 468)

The Apostle Paul’s words as found in 1 Corinthians 2:9 are also targeted, “But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” and restated under the narration of Abu Huraira:  “the Prophet said, “Allah said, “I have prepared for My righteous slaves (such excellent things) as no eye has ever seen, nor an ear has ever heard nor a human heart can ever think of ” (Bukhari Volume 9, Book 93, Number 589)

Legends of the Mahdi on Muslim eschatology have drawn considerably from Christian apocalyptic literature.

Early Islam and its knowledge of the New Testament

Several Muslim historians are known to have had an extensive knowledge of the Gospels . Al-Yaqubi, one of the fathers of Arab history gives a synopsis of them, and al-Masudi (Arab historian and Geographer 896 – 956) does not conceal his relations with Christians. He tells us that he visited a church in Nazareth and received a large number of Gospel stories from them. He knows of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, his childhood in Nazerath, the verse from Matthew 3:17 “This is my beloved Son” which he gives with slight alterations. He had also heard of the story of the Magi who visited the infant Jesus. He gives the story of the summoning of the apostles accurately. He also names the four evangelists of the Gospels and speaks of the “book of the Gospel.” He does hesitate in respect of distrust of this book owing to its contrast to the Quran which he greatly revered. Al-Masudi is also comparatively well informed of the lives of the Apostles. He twice speaks of the martyrdom of Peter and Paul. He knows Thomas as the apostle of India and on the whole it is Thomas who seems best known amongst the apostles to Muslims next to Peter. Paul is less known than Peter.

The Persian scholar Al-Biruni (973-1048), one of the most important Muslim authorities on the history of religion, was even better informed than Al-Masudi. He had a remarkable ability to engage Hindus in peaceful dialogue having studied Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and other religions. He treated religions objectively, striving to understand them on their own terms rather than trying to prove them wrong. In order to write his Chronology, he had to consult with Nestorian Christians. He notices the differences between the four gospels and details how Christians explain the differences between the genealogies found in Matthew and Luke. He speaks of other gospels which the Marcionites, Bardesanites and Manicheans possessed and their contradictory nature. As he considers these to be different recessions of the Gospel he argues in summary that they are of little value.

The Historic Reliability of the Gospel

The Arabic translation Injil of the Greek word euaggelion means ‘happy message’ or ‘good news’ for it proclaims to all the absolute love of God towards sinners through the atoning death of Christ on their behalf.

After having been spread orally throughout many countries in the East and West, by the middle of the first century the Gospel was written down. It was written either in detailed biography as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John or in the form of an explanation of the principles and teaching of Christ by Paul, Peter, James and others.

In the second century, copies of the Gospel numbered in the thousands, appearing in several languages for the benefit of those who had adopted Christianity. According to the testimony of Justin Martyr (100-165) and Tertullian (160-220), the Gospel was read during worship meetings, and many believers memorised its contents. Since the Gospel was transmitted in thousands of copies and translated into several languages, and because it had spread into different countries, being memorised by countless believers, it is impossible that it could have been falsified.

The Gospel was not recorded on stone or bone, as was the case with many ancient writings, but very accurately and carefully on papyrus and parchment scrolls. When these scrolls became old, new ones were prepared, as was the case with important Greek and Roman writings. It is clear that no part of the Gospel was lost, nor was a new text inserted in place of the original.

No one burned or disposed of the original scripts of the Gospel, as was the case with some ancient books when someone wanted to conceal parts for personal reasons. Rather, these original scripts remained as they were, and after the second century many copies were made from them.

The injil remains the good news it always has been continuing to announce the intervention of God in history “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).