Revelation given to the Tribes?

Another example of the Incoherence of the Qur'an

Jochen Katz

Intelligence tests often use questions in a format like this one: "What does not belong? Circle the item which does not belong into this group: [spoon, knife, fork, hammer]."

The Qur'an makes the following statement regarding the recipients of divine revelation:

We have revealed to thee as We revealed to Noah, and the Prophets after him, and We revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, Jesus and Job, Jonah and Aaron and Solomon, and We gave to David Psalms, S. 4:163 Arberry

We have sent thee inspiration, as We sent it to Noah and the Apostles after him: we sent inspiration to Abraham, Isma'il, Isaac, Jacob and the Tribes, to Jesus, Job, Jonah, Aaron, and Solomon, and to David We gave the Psalms. S. 4:163 Yusuf Ali

Which entry on this list does not really belong there? Which is "the odd one" because it is different from all the others?

That was not too difficult: What are "the Tribes" doing in a list of prophets?

All other entries in this list are individuals about which the Quran makes the claim that they are prophets, that they received revelation, that they even received "the book" (S. 6:89).

There are many differences between a person and a tribe. An individual prophet has a definite life span on this earth (usually between his date of birth and date of death), and the revelation takes place at one or more occasions within this specific time. And, in most cases, that prophet then preaches the message of God to his people. A tribe is a group of people that may number many thousands of individuals, some pious and some not so pious. A tribe may be extant for hundreds or even thousands of years, and its membership constantly changes due to births and deaths and marriages into other tribes.

Before we continue looking at the tribes, we need to step back a bit and ask: What is the reason for verses like these?

People were (and still are) questioning Muhammad's credibility and authority. In fact, Muhammad himself had doubts about the nature of his spirit encounters (1, 2, 3, 4). That is one reason why the Qur'an repeatedly links Muhammad's prophethood and revelations with earlier prophets and revelations, specifically with the Biblical Prophets. The appeal to their experiences and messages — supposedly being similar to the experience and message of Muhammad — has the double purpose of (a) reassuring Muhammad about himself and (b) authenticating Muhammad as a true prophet of God in the eyes of his audience (see also vs. 166-170).

However, adding "the Tribes" into this list of "recipients of revelation" certainly raises the question: How and when did "the Tribes" receive revelation in the same way as the others on that list? After all, the main point of this verse is this claim of similarity: "We have revealed to thee (Muhammad) AS we have revealed to Noah, and ..."

If one does not want to consider the inclusion of "the tribes" in this list an outright error, this statement is at least unclear and yet another example of the incoherent nature of the Qur'an (*). What revelation is Muhammad referring to in regard to the tribes, and in what way is it supposed to be similar to the way of revelation that Muhammad experienced?

Yes, the tribes did receive revelation, but the Qur'an is mixing two categories. Noah, Abraham, David, etc. are people to whom God spoke, to whom he gave direct revelation. Let's call them first-hand recipients of revelation. The Tribes are second-hand recipients of revelation. They received the Word of God through the Prophets living at their time (the first-hand recipients) like Moses, David, Elijah, Isaiah, etc. We, today, are third-hand recipients as we did not receive revelation directly through living prophets, but through the second-hand recipients who have passed it on. However, the difference between second-hand and third-hand recipients is relatively minor. The big difference is between first-hand and second-hand recipients. In other words, the Qur'an is mixing apples and oranges. He is confusing the categories of recipients of revelation.

Since the point in this verse is a comparison between Muhammad and others who received revelation before, does that now mean the claim is that Muhammad received some of his revelation first-hand like Noah, Abraham and David, and some of his revelation second-hand like the tribes? And who was the first-hand recipient of the part of the revelation that Muhammad received second-hand? What does the author of the Qur'an want to say? Is the Qur'an itself a mixed product?

I don't think that this is what the author of the Qur'an intended to say. He wanted to put Muhammad on the level of the earlier first-hand recipients of revelation, but simply made an error in the formulation of this verse, and thus muddled his message.

Most English translations correctly render the Arabic term "al-asbat" as "the Tribes". However, a number of translators were apparently rather uncomfortable with the inclusion of "al-asbat" (the Tribes) in this list of prophets, and they decided to "adjust" the meaning of it by substituting this word with something else in English, or leaving it untranslated and then "explaining" the term in a different way:

We have inspired you, as we inspired Noah and the prophets after him. And we inspired Abraham, Ismail, Isaac, Jacob, the Patriarchs, Jesus, Job, Jonah, Aaron, and Solomon. And we gave David the Psalms. Rashad Khalifa

Surely, WE have sent revelation to thee, as WE sent revelation to Noah and the Prophets after him; and WE sent revelation to Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and his children and to Jesus and Job and Jonah and Aaron and Solomon, and WE gave David a Book. Sher Ali

Verily, We have inspired you (O Muhammad SAW) as We inspired Nuh (Noah) and the Prophets after him; We (also) inspired Ibrahim (Abraham), Isma'il (Ishmael), Ishaque (Isaac), Ya'qub (Jacob), and Al-Asbat [the twelve sons of Ya'qub (Jacob)], 'Iesa (Jesus), Ayub (Job), Yunus (Jonah), Harun (Aaron), and Sulaiman (Solomon), and to Dawud (David) We gave the Zabur (Psalms). Al-Hilali & Khan

Al-Hilali & Khan's, Sher Ali's and Khalifa's substitutions or explanations are basically the same. They created a harmonization for this verse, i.e. now the list consists completely of individuals, though some are only mentioned summarily as a group, "the prophets after him" and "the Patriarchs". These translators (and others as well) have removed this problem in S. 4:163 by using dishonest translation, and their manipulation of the meaning is itself evidence that there is indeed a problem. That "al-asbat" means "the Tribes" can easily be seen in S. 7:160:

And of Moses' folk there is a community who lead with truth and establish justice therewith. We divided them into twelve tribes (asbatan), nations; and We inspired Moses, when his people asked him for water, saying: Smite with thy staff the rock! And there gushed forth therefrom twelve springs, so that each tribe knew their drinking-place. And we caused the white cloud to overshadow them and sent down for them the manna and the quails (saying): Eat of the good things wherewith we have provided you. They wronged Us not, but they were wont to wrong themselves. S. 7:159-160 Pickthall

"Moses' folk" or "the people of Moses" (as most translations render it), i.e. the Israelites, were obviously not divided into twelve sons or children or patriarchs, but into twelve tribes.

However, even if we were to accept the translation "the Patriarchs", it will not really help the credibility of the Qur'an. There is no record that God spoke to all the sons of Jacob directly in the way he spoke to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Jacob's son Joseph is the only one of the twelve who is special in this regard. Jacob's sons were not all prophets. Substituting "the tribes" with "the patriarchs" only replaces one kind of error with another.

Moreover, the Qur'an does not paint too flattering a picture of the sons of Jacob. According to S. 12:8, the sons of Jacob call their father dalal ("far astray", a word that the Qur'an usually uses for the unbelievers). Furthermore, they plotted to kill their brother Joseph, a prophet of God (S. 12:9), but in the end "only" sold him into slavery (S. 12:20). They lied to their father Jacob first about their intentions regarding Joseph and afterwards about what they had done to him (S. 12:11-18). Interpreting al-asbat in S. 4:163 as "the patriarchs" means that the Qur'an actually teaches that eleven prophets were plotting to kill another prophet, their brother Joseph, and they were repeatedly lying to their father, the prophet Jacob.

On second thought, putting Muhammad on one level with those patriarchs is maybe not so far off the mark? (*) Certainly more appropriate than equating him with Noah, Abraham or even Jesus!

Apart from this main blunder, there are a number of other strange features in S. 4:163.

  1. Given that Moses is the one prophet who is mentioned more often in the Qur'an than any other, and given the constant claim of Muslims that Muhammad was the awaited "prophet like Moses", it is rather curious that his name is omitted from this particular list which has the purpose of connecting the revelation given to Muhammad to the revelation given to earlier prophets.
  2. Up to Jesus, the names are given in chronological order but, starting with Jesus, the second half of the list is a chronological mess.
  3. Whom does the phrase "and the Prophets after him" refer to? To prophets living in the time between Noah and Abraham? After all, this phrase is inserted into the chronological part of the list. Who are they supposed to be? The Bible does not mention any prophets between Noah and Abraham. Or does it refer to all prophets that came after Noah? Then this phrase would also include all the names that come after it. Why then mention them again?
  4. "We have revealed to thee as we have revealed to ...": As mentioned above, the point that is made here is a claim of similarity. However, the only revelation that is named, the Psalms, are very much unlike the Qur'an. Even worse, Noah, Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac and Jacob did not get any book, so that the comparison of Muhammad's experience of revelation with the revelation given to the first five persons named on this list seems to be rather pointless, at least in regard to authenticating Muhammad's revelation by comparison with earlier revelation.
  5. If revelation to the tribes, i.e. the Israelites, refers to the full Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament of the Bible, then Muslims need to face the issue that this Bible says that Ishmael did not receive revelation, and that he is not a prophet. This constitutes another element of incoherence in this verse.

The first of these points may need some more elaboration. When analyzing verses 163-170, it looks like Muhammad realized later that he had left out one of the most important messengers (from the list in verse 163) and, as a "repair operation", he inserted him in a parenthetical remark in the middle of some general statements about messengers. The clause "and to Moses God spoke direct" (vs. 164) is true, but it looks out-of-place where it was inserted:

163  We have sent thee inspiration, 
       as We sent      it          to Noah and the messengers after him: 
          we sent      inspiration to Abraham, Isma'il, Isaac, Jacob and the Tribes, 
                                   to Jesus, Job, Jonah, Aaron, and Solomon, 
                               and to David We gave the Psalms.

164  Of some messengers We have already told thee the story; 
     of others We have not; - 
                               and to Moses God spoke direct; -

165  Messengers who gave good news as well as warning, 
        that mankind, after (the coming) of the messengers, 
                      should have no plea against God: 
                      For God is Exalted in Power, Wise.

The text would flow without interruption if the clause "and to Moses God spoke direct" were removed. Yusuf Ali recognized this and therefore put it between dashes as a parenthetical remark. In fact, the text would flow even better if the whole of verse 164 were removed. It could well be that it is a later insertion, and this section of the text consisted originally of verse 163 and 165 only, i.e., verse 165 was following directly upon verse 163.

The Incoherence of the Qur'an
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