Friday, October 22, 2010

The Ebionites, Muhammad, and the Quran

In an article well worth reading about the religious practices of the Ebionites found here, author Stephen Tomkins notes, "... it sounds not unlike Islam in all those respects."

There is a reason for that. The Ebionites followed a text known as the Gospel of Matthew to the Hebrews. Although most scholars would say it was lost to history, it is possible that its precepts can be found today in the early suras of a text far more famous known as the Quran.

If true, this could be a fascinating study. Two of the major controversies in the early Christian church were the nature of the divinity of Jesus (how could he be both a man and God?), and the extent to which Christians were to follow Jewish practices and traditions. Although the Apostle Paul's conviction that Jesus was both fully God and fully man and that being Christian meant leaving everything Jewish behind eventually won the day, many groups disagreed. As they and their gospels were declared heretical by early Church councils, they were forced away from the Christian geographical centers of power and some of them ended up in Arabia and Yemen. Two of these were the Nestorians and the Ebionites. Although they are sometimes lumped together, they are distinct in that the Nestorians believed in the divinity of Jesus whereas the Ebionites saw him merely as a Prophet.

One difference between those declared heretics and the orthodox church was that the former often followed only one text, or gospel, rather than all the books that became the New Testament. The Ebionites followed The Gospel of Matthew to the Hebrews (called by some scholars simply the Gospel of the Ebionites). It is probably a second-century compilation including passages from Matthew, Mark, and Luke that emphasizes the compassion and humanity of Jesus while denying his divinity. The Ebionites believed that Jesus was a man, not God, and that a presence called the Holy Spirit descended upon him at his baptism and remained with him until just before his crucifixion. They followed the dietary and health practices of the Jews and placed much emphasis on rituals such as ablution, fasting, and circumcision.

Available online studies of the Ebionites found here and here seem unaware of their continued history  after persecution possibly forced them from the Levant into Arabia in the early centuries of the Christian era. There are several reasons for this historical lack of knowledge.  One is the fact that the Ebionites were less significant and less known than the Nestorians, the larger Christian sect in Arabia at the time that did accept the divinity of Jesus. Another is that Christian historians typically had little access to ancient Islamic history, until recently only available in Arabic, that made scattered references to the Nusraniyah (taken from the town of Nazareth, this is the Quranic word used to describe the non-orthodox Christians in Mecca at the time of Muhammad).

There is another and more significant reason. After Muhammad, Muslims paid little or no attention to the beliefs of Christians and Jews in the Arabian Peninsula other than to compare them critically to Islam. Muslims believe the Quran was revealed directly to Muhammad from Allah via the angel Gabriel.  They historically had little interest in the beliefs of others, and even less interest in the possibility that their religious texts and practices influenced Muhammad and the formation of the Quran.

Muslims have placed much emphasis in creating an imaginary genealogy for Muhammad that passes through Abraham all the way back to Adam. Of more historical relevance is that Muslim scholars emphasize his lineage from his ancestor Qusay to Muhammad's grandfather Abdel Mutallib, but ignore that same lineage from Qusay to grandson Assad who was the grandfather of Khadijah, Muhammad's first wife, and Waraqa bin Naufal, the Prophet's distant uncle. The reason Muslims have deliberately ignored that side of the family is that it included relatives including Waraqa and possibly Khadijah herself who were members of the Nusraniyah.

Ancient historian Abu Faraj Al Isfahani noted in his Kitab Al Aghani that Waraqa bin Naufal converted to Nusraniyah, and biographer Ibn Ishaq describes him as a Hanif, one who believed in only one God.
Hadith compilers Bukhari and Sahih Muslim both state that Waraqa bin Naufal translated the Book of the Hebrews and the Gospel into Arabic. It is possible the book they meant was the Gospel of Matthew to the Hebrews.

Among the characteristics of the Ebionites was compassion for the poor and the orphaned. Waraqa bin Naufal, who was both a scholar and the leader of the Ebionites in Mecca, took a special interest in his young relative the orphaned Muhammad. He saw in him qualities of leadership, spent much time with him, and over the years taught Muhammad the Gospel of the Ebionites as well as the contents of the Torah. Waraqa bin Naufal performed Muhammad's marriage to Khadijah, and groomed Muhammad to replace him as the Ebionite spiritual leader in Mecca.

(When presented with criticism of Muhammad's later multiple marriages, Muslims often point out that the Prophet remained in a monogamous relationship with Khadija for 25 years. The reality is that Muhammad's marriage with Khadijah was essentially a Christian marriage, with both divorce and having more than one wife not allowed to the Ebionites).

When Muhammad first announced that he was receiving revelations from God, the revelations were in large part the stories he had learned from Waraqa bin Naufal. Waraqa encouraged Muhammad to consider himself a Prophet, with the understanding that just as Abraham had been the Prophet to call the Jews back to Allah, and Jesus the Prophet who called his generation back to Allah, so Muhammad would be the Prophet who could call the Arabs back to Allah. It is interesting to note that at this time Muhammad did not see himself as founding a new religion, but only in calling people back to the Islam of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.

The influence of Waraqi bin Naufal upon Muhammad and his revelations continued until Waraqa died. It is not accidental that the Hadith writers note that "revelations ceased for some time" following the death of Waraqa. The reason, of course, is that Muhammad was no longer learning from his Ebionite uncle.

The presence of the Gospel of the Ebionites in the short, poetic Meccan suras with their vivid descriptions of hell and Muhammad's repeated claim that he is a Prophet just like Abraham, Moses, and Jesus is something most Muslims are not allowed to even think about, at least publicly. It's much easier, and safer, to just toe the party line. I would encourage Muslims to be a little more open in their thinking and scholarship.

(Acknowledgements to Joseph Azzi, author of The Priest and the Prophet, for much of the above material).


Susanne said...

Wow, that was very interesting information! Thanks for taking time to share it with us!

thefrenziedchameleon said...

I've been doing research for the past few months which included this topic. This journal entry, by far, was one of the best things I've found along the way. Thank you.

Will read more of your blogs. I can tell already that it'll end up being one of my favorites :)

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the writing. I'm muslim, and thanks to my dad who forced me into madrassa in elementary and middle school, i know more of Muhammad than my muslim friends who went to public school in indonesia

Waraqa bin naufal was indeed the go-to man anytime Prophet received verses (i'm using islamic perspective that is the Prophet received those ayats from God via Gabriel) . I am always fascinated by waraqa.

Thanks again for the beautifully written article. I love comparing differen religions thanks to my dad and uncle (who is kyai-scholar) as they gave me christian bible, jewish torah, bhagavad gita when i was only 10 in adition to compulsory mastering arabic to translate qur'an by myself ad arabic is not my mother tongue.

Your article suggest that Muhammad acted as Ebionite priest, at least for some time, i myself dont mind. As long as his teaching takes me to worship one God, i'm fine.

God knows best

Rifaas said...

Waraqa was considered a Nestorian not an Ebionite!

Anonymous said...

There is no evidence that Nestorians existed in Arabia, let alone surpassed other Christians in number. Arabia had very few Christians at Muhammads time. In fact most Christians in Arabia were sent from Abyssinia(by orders of Constantinople) to Yemen, and Abraha attempted to conquer the SURRENDURED city of Mecca, but birds threw rocks at his elephants and they fled with an army(mentioned in the Qur'an). This was also the year of Muhammads birth.

Nusraniyah doesn't derive from Nazareth. "The early followers of Christ were called 'Nozrei ha-Brit' or 'Nozrei brito' - keepers of His Covenant (Eisenman p.36, 99). The name of Nozrei is Hebrew terminology for Christians. In Arabic it is Nazrani. It has nothing to do with the town of Nazareth, which may not even have existed at the time of Jesus."

The Gospel of Mathew begins with a corrupted lineage chain connecting Joseph(who was nothing to the true Jesus) to Abraham, not the Virgin Mary.
Only 4 members of that side were Hanif, none claimed to be Nusraniyah except Waraqa. No scholars "deliberatly ignore that side" that I know of.

Among the characteristics of the Ebionites was compassion for the poor and the orphaned. That in no way has to do with the fact that Muhammad was an orphan and helped the poor. All religions of the least common sense will give special rights to orphans and needy, even the original Jesus did. So you'd have to say that Jesus himself was an Ebionite Jew!

The main points of refutation is Mary's virgin birth. This is universaly accepted by islam, but is totally rejected by Ebionites. They were also strict vegitarians, unlike Muslims who just refrained from pork. If Waraqa did in fact teach Muhammad, he left out the most important parts!

observant observer said...

Anon, read in this blog about the year of elephant n the quran,youll find another fictious story uncontious of the surrounding fat, made up by Muhammad!!!!

Anonymous said...

Magnificent beat ! I would like to apprentice even as you amend your website, how could i subscribe for a
weblog web site? The account helped me a applicable deal.
I were tiny bit acquainted of this your broadcast offered bright clear concept
Feel free to visit my web-site : penilarge opinie

Sam William said...

A shocking book titled The Unknown History of Islam speaks a great deal about this article and presents more evidence that Ebionite Waraqah Ibn Naufal wrote the Quran and sponsored Muhammad into being a prophet to bring all Jews and Christians under the banner of a new religion, Islam. The book is worth looking at and reading.

Anonymous said...

It's not my first time to visit this web page, i am browsing this site dailly and take nice data from here all the time.

Also visit my web site ::

Unknown said...

Waraqa bin Naufal could not have written these verse :
Al Mukminuun Verse 14.
"Then We made the sperm-drop into a clinging clot, and We made the clot into a lump [of flesh], and We made [from] the lump, bones, and We covered the bones with flesh; then We developed him into another creation. So blessed is Allah , the best of creators".

It took the learned Dr Maurice Bucaille by surprise which prompted his conversion.

Contrary to the belief that Warakah wrote the Quran, the Quran was memorized first before it was written. Quran was only written in mashhaf form during the reign of the first Caliphate Abu Bakar. Most of the early followers knew Quran by heart, they recite word by word in front of Muhammad, a Muslim tradition which persist
until today where hundreds of thousands of Muslim can recite the Quran, word by word, by heart.
It is important to note that People of the Book travelled from as far as North Africa to Yathrib or Medina (during the period of schism in Christianity) to escape persecution and to seek the coming of a Prophet, 200 years before Muhammad was born.
Islam was not created by Muhammad. As stated in the Koran, Al Baqarah
"O you who have believed, decreed upon you is fasting as it was decreed upon those before you that you may become righteous."
The word "before you" means that it was also decreed to earlier Muslims before the period of Muhammad.

Anonymous said...

The term People of the Book refers to Jews and Nasrani that follow the prophecy in their scripture about the coming of a prophet from the East (Land where Ishmael's descendants inhabit). As the People of the Book were given the message about things to come regarding the righteous servant of God that will obliterate molten images worshiped in East. Nasrani do not refer to Christians that uses Greek Roman gospels, but rather Hebrew alphabet gospels (used by Jewish Nasoreans/Ebionites) that do not posses stories written by Roman scribes.

If the Roman Christians were indeed People of the Book like Jewish followers of Jesus. They should have settled in the East as well awaiting for the arrival of the Servant of God . Just like People of the Book that made settlements surrounding the location of prophecy awaiting for the arrival of the prophet.

Rob said...

Great debate! I would say that Waraqa was a nasorean. The Quran uses that as a term for Christians and clearly the Jewish followers of Jesus went east after the destruction of Jerusalem. The Nasoreans followed Jewish practices and saw Jesus as Messiah and human.
The Nasoreans were led by James, Jesus' brother in Jerusalem, who may have been a nazirite. Paul never met Jesus so there is a likelihood James knew Jesus better!
Jesus indicates he is not going to undo any part of the Torah, and therefore remained an Orthodox Jew with a messianic hope in the midst of Roman occupation.
It is not known that Nazareth existed at the time. So it is more likely that Jesus was a nazirite or know as originator of the Nasoreans.

Unknown said...

What horse crap this pathetic article. And mixing truths with lies. The uncle was a sect of the later followers of our beloved messiah yeshua(as) aka Jesus to english speakers. This ignoramus joseph azzi is a devil in human skin. He is clearly a liar and we muslims believe Jesus(as) is the only son of beloved mary (as) and he is a prophet and word sent by Allah/God. And a rabbi meaning teacher.

Diky said...

if a man heart is circumsiced he will no reject to circumcised his penis if it was instruction from his god.

Tim said...

"It's All About Mohammed" a (not favorable) biography of Mohammed based upon historical Islamic approved indicates that Mohammed received training from a haniff (monotheistic monk) named Zayd. Three years after Zayd's death, Mohammed began preaching his religion.

While "It's All About Muhammed" is a very biased account unfavorable to Mohammmed, it is well researched and I think is correct to focus on the person of Zayd for formative influences on the emergence of Islam. I also recommend the writing of Gabriel Reynolds of Notre Dame university ("The Emergence of Islam")

Unknown said...

It is reported in their enemies writings that the Ebionites did reject the virgin birth. That is probably because they go back to James, the biological half brother of Jesus. I am a Muslim but do not accept the doctrine of the literal perpetual virginity of Mariam, though in spirit I believe she was eternally pure.

The other reason for rejecting the virgin birth is it was a Greek invention based on the mistranslation of Almah to virgin in the Septuagint, which is not even a prophecy about Jesus.

Now obviously I accept (esoterically) the virgin birth, I believe in the Qur'an, but just because the earliest accounts of the Ebionites say they rejected the v.b. doesn't mean by the 7th century they hadn't realized the wisdom in its displaying of the power of God.

Also they could have just accepted it upon assimilation with the Muslims as well.

There are many reasons, and people who see them, for believing that Islam is the faith of James, Peter and John before Paul corrupted it. Virgin birth or not.