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Home » Islam » Written Scripture and Oral Tradition in Judaism and Islam: Similarities and Differences – Part I

Written Scripture and Oral Tradition in Judaism and Islam: Similarities and Differences – Part I



The relation between Judaism and Islam is mostly known in our days for the clash in Israel/Palestine, but there are people who treat it more serious, attempting to understand where they differ and, more important, where they find common ground.

Interestingly enough I don’t know of many scholars who deals with this in the comparative study of religion, most either focusing on the schism between “Western” and “Asian” religions, Christianity and Judaism, or Christianity and Islam. There has been made some serious and noteworthy works, such as F. E. Peters’ three works, “The Children of Abraham,” and “The Monotheists, Vol. I + II,” as well as Jacob Neusner’s and Tamara Sonn’s “Comparing Religion through Law: Judaism and Islam,” and “Judaism and Islam in Practice,” the latter in corporation with Jonathan E. Brockopp. Besides these we can find a smaller number of books, as well as a number of articles – see for example Sanaz Alasti’s comparative study on stoning – not to mention the books dealing with the historic status of the Jew under Islamic rule, though I view that more as a theme in historic and social studies, though it can be helpful for my own studies as well. If we look outside the academic world, we will find some more people, thinkers, religious figures, and others, such as Karen Armstrong, and Rabbi Benyamin Abrahamson. But within the academic world the number of names is limited, and only Peters really stand out, attempting (with success I would say) to make a comparative study and a system of this involving both Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Where is a student, studying comparative studies in religion, to turn, if he/she wants to learn about this subject? Well, besides the mentioned scholars and works, there are not many places to turn, which is also somewhat underlined by my own range of choices, when I think about the courses I can choose among, either being from the program in Jewish studies or Islamic and Middle Eastern studies, and – sometimes – Archeological studies. Besides that one has to turn to the two religions, and –more or less, and of course guided – do his/her own studies. And that’s what I will attempt to here, at least partly. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t consider myself to be a scholar or some new revolutionist theorist on the subject, but rather a student on the subject, who wishes to get a better insight in what I’m studying, and while doing this, sharing it with my readers.


I thought that the subject of the title could be an interesting and good approach. Both Judaism and Islam have a body of writing, which they consider holy, as well as an oral tradition, used in order to clarify points in these bodies of writings. Before I begin I need to clarify some points of confusion. What do I mean when I say “body of writings,” “oral tradition,” and “Judaism” and “Islam”? Also, since this will be of some length, it will be presented in several parts, so don’t be confused if it seems like I’m suddenly stop in the middle of the “study.”

By “body of writing” I merely think of the collection of books, chapters, verses, and what have you, which makes out the central scripture, for Judaism it is the Chumash – or as it is also known, Torah or the Five Books of Moses, being Genesis (Bereshit), Exodus (Sh’mot), Leviticus (VaYiqra), Numbers (BaMidbar) and Deuteronomy (Devarim). Indeed, the Jewish Bible consists of a wider expansion of books, being the books of the Prophets and Writings, but – as I will point out – they don’t draw the same attention as the Chumash does. I have chosen to use the term “Chumash,” based on the Hebrew word for five, “Chemesh,” since that is the normal use for this body of writings among Jews, and it helps to differ between the more abstract use of the term “Torah”[1] and the Five Books of Moses. When it comes to Islam it is simpler. The Quran was revealed to Muhammad by Gabriel (Quran 75:17-18) and was recited when revealed, hence the name Quran, which comes from the word qara’a, meaning “he recited” or “he read,” most likely putting the emphasis on the former meaning. The whole Quran was revealed to Muhammad during a period of 23 years, and consists of 114 chapters, Suwar (Surah in singular), beginning with the shortest Surah, al-Fatiha, the Opening, but from there being organized with the longest first and the shortest last. Though it is known by other names as well, e.g. al-Furqan (the criterion) or al-Hudah (the Guide)[2], I have chosen to use the version Quran, since that is the most used name.

By “Oral Tradition” I’m thinking about the traditions which follows the Chumash and the Quran, being the Mishnah, and the Sunnah – or Ahadith (the collection of sayings connected to Muhammad and/or his followers) – respectively. For both of them goes that they were passed on orally but eventually ended in written form, though that wasn’t necessarily meant to be so. The Mishnah, which means “repetition” from the word “shanah” (which appears in many forms in Hebrew, the word for year, Shanah, being the most obvious) was originally only transferred in oral form, from teacher to disciple, and complimented the Chumash. Around 200-225 CE Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi found it necessary to write the mishniyot (the plural form of mishnah) down, so they wouldn’t be lost, cause by the widespread killing of Jews who practiced their religion. R. HaNasi’s collection wasn’t the first though, others having being written earlier, most known being R. Akiva’s collection, on which R. HaNasi’s collection also is based on, though we don’t have any examples on earlier versions. The Mishnah is then further expanded by the Gemarrah, the comments being added later, found in a Palestinian version (the Yerushalmi) and a Babylonian (the Bavli), the latter being the authoritative when the two disagree. In the case of Islam Muslims found some parts of the Quran confusing, and therefore turned to Muhammad for clarification. After his dead in 632 CE people attempted to explain by relating to what he had said or how he had acted in certain situation, to find out how he related to the questions about interpretations and understandings of the Quran. The practice of writing down the sayings of Muhammad did begin relatively early, some even wrote them down during his life, but the collections of Ahadith (plural of Hadith) didn’t begin before after his death, the science of Hadith, Ulum al-Hadith, being utilized around 200 years after his death by Ali ibn al-Madini. The science of Hadith focused on establishing links of narrators, isnad (sanad in singular), finding the most credible isnad going back to Muhammad or his followers. These Ahadith, wich consist of isnad and matn (the content of the Hadith) was then collected in various collections, having six collections for the Sunnis (of which two are “sahih,” trustworthy) and four for the Shi’as.

By “Judaism” and “Islam” I mean the traditional understanding of these terms, being the religious stream followed by the majority. Hence in the case of Judaism, it will be rabbinical Judaism, based on the teachings of the Pharisees and later the rabbis, as we find them in the Mishnah, in various Midrashim, and in the Talmud, and in the case of Islam I will primarily focus on Sunna-Islam, but also relate to Shi’a-Islam. Hence I will not be relating to various sects or groups within the two religions, who question the validity of the oral traditions.

[1] See my post Torah vs. Halachah for an explanation of the term “Torah.”

[2] The understanding of this term mirroring one of the meanings of the Torah, which also means guide.

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