al-Isrâ’îliyât – The Tales of the Tribes of Israel in Exegisis

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One: What are al- Isrâ’îliyât?

The main flaw that is pointed out by the scholars of Hadîth regarding the narrations of Tafsîr is the inclusion of al-Isrâ’îliyât in the books of Tafsîr. This term is oft-repeated although the vast majority of people may not fully understand its true meaning.

(NOTE: If you want to build a strong and powerful relationship with Allah, check out Islamia TV, where you can watch Islamic speakers from across the globe deliver inspiring and motivational courses. Learn more at www.islamia.tv.)

Al-Isrâ’îliyât is the plural of Isrâ’îliyah (Israeli). This term is recognized to be derived from one of the names of the Prophet Ya’qûb(Jacob). Ibnul Jawzi has mentioned that there is no Prophet who was given two names except for Ya’qûb and our Prophet Muhammad . Rasûl ul Allâh has numerous names recorded for us in the authentic Sunnah[1]. This statement from Ibnul Jawzi is not the only one regarding the issue. There are a few people of knowledge who have stated that there were other Prophets that possessed numerous names.

Asserting that Ya’qûb is Isrâ’îl is in need of evidence

Ibn Kathîr and others have shown that Ya’qûb is in fact Isrâ’îl due to the hadîth reported by Abû Dawûd at-Tayalisî in his Musnad[2] that Ibn Abbâs said that a group of Jews presented themselves to an-Nabi and he said to them:
Do you know that Isrâ’îl is Ya’qûb? They responded saying, By Allâh, Yes we do! He said to them, O Allâh! Be witness! [3]

Linguistic Definition

Isrâ’îl is a word that is composed from the union of two separate words. Some have said that half of the word is Arabic in origin while the other half is Hebrew in origin. The first part of the word Isrâ is from the word Isrâ migration and setting upon a journey. The second half of the word îl is a word that means Allâh in Hebrew. As such it has been said that Ya’qûb was given the name Isrâ’îl because he migrated to his Lord.

Others have said that the whole word is Hebrew in origin. They state that Isrâ means a slave and therefore the word means the Slave of Allâh in Hebrew.

Legal Definition

In Islamic jurisprudence and terminology the term al-Isrâ’îliyât is used to describe a narration that originates from Jewish (Biblical) sources. This initial definition was expounded upon by the scholars of Tafsîr who said that any narration reported in Tafsîr or books of Sîrah that does not have an (Islamic) origin (and foundation Chain of narration) and discusses the Prophets in a lewd way or discusses the essence of (our belief) in Allâh or discusses matters that cannot be fathomed with logic are to be termed as al-Isrâ’îliyât. Examples of this are the description and dimensions of Nûh’s (Noah s) Ark and the numbering of Sulaiman s (Solomon s) army and so on.

Two: How al-Isrâ’îliyât entered into the Books of Hadîth and Tafsîr

There are many reasons why al-Isrâ’îliyât entered into the Books of Hadîth and Tafsîr. These reasons can be condensed into the following points:

1. A large contingent of Jews lived in the Arabian Peninsula

It is commonly known that assimilation in society causes intermingling of cultures and narratives. The cultures absorbed from each other. Therefore the presence of a large Jewish population in the Arabian Peninsula caused the inclusion of narration heard from them. These narrations eventually, after many generations, find their way into the books of Tafsîr and so forth.

2. Jews traded extensively in the Arabian Peninsula

This is also an important reason even if it is attached in part to the first point there is a point of distinction that needs to be pointed out. The distinction being that the caravans arriving steadily from Jewish lands returned back to their home lands while the other Jews lived in the peninsula.

3. The Hijrah (Migration) of Muslims to Lands wherein Jews reside

In Shâm (present-day Jordan, Syria, Palestine, and Lebanon) and other regions saw a large amount of Muslim conquests and thus the possibility of trade. This led to migrations and conquests that eventually resulted in assimilation between the varying cultures. The cultures absorbed from each other narratives and stories. With the passing of time the once foreign narrations soon became engrained in the minds of the Muslim populations to the point that some falsely declared them Muslim traditions.

4. Jewish Scholars entering into the Dîn of Islâm

From the things that had a tremendous impact upon the dissemination of al-Isrâ’îliyât in Tafsîr was the entrance of numerous Jewish scholars into Islâm. When a scholar speaks his words have more impact and weight than those of the regular lay-man. The words of a âlim are at a high level of acceptability with the proper conditions being met.

5. Spellbinding stories are intriguing

A person narrating exotic stories that were never heard before can spellbind an audience and hold them captive with his narrative. The more exotic the tale the more the listeners led an ear. All of us seek to hear exotic tales.

Due to these reasons and others similar to them, al-Isrâ’îliyât spread and eventually made their ways into the books of Tafsîr. This was most evident amongst those who had little insight into the inner workings of the sciences of Hadîth and knowledge of the Isnâd (Chains of Narration).

Three: The Categorization of al-Isrâ’îliyât

Al-Isrâ’îliyât can be categorized into three levels.

First: al-Isrâ’îliyât based on the Authenticity of the Chain of Narration – Isnâd

There are two levels of Isrâ’îliyât when looked at from the prespective of the Isnâd.

  1. 1. al-Isrâ’îliyât that have Sahîh (accepted) Isnâd
  2. 2. al-Isrâ’îliyât that have Da’îf (unacceptable) Isnâd

This categorization of course is simplified. Within the Sahîh there are levels and within the Da îf there are also levels.

An example of a Sahîh Hadîth

Ibn Kathîr reports from Ibn Jarîr that he said that al-Muthanâ narrated that Uthmân bin ‘Umar narrated that Falîh from Hilâl bin ‘Ali from Atâh bin Yasâr that he said:

  “I met Abdullah bin ‘Amr and said to him, Inform me about Rasûl ul Allâh s description in the Torah. He replied, Yes. By Allâh he is described in the Torah with descriptions that are similar to that which is in the Qur’ân. (In the Torah it once said,) O Prophet! We have sent you as a witness (over them), a bearer of Glad-tidings, a warner and a fortification for the illiterate masses. You are my worshipping slave and Messenger (unto them). You are named al-Mutawakil (the one who relies upon Allâh) and are not severe or overly harsh. Allâh shall not remove him until he rectifies with him the crooked creed until it is said, There is no god worthy of worship except Allâh. Allâh shall open with him hearts that had been heedless (Ghuflan) and ears that have been deaf (Sûman) and eyes that have been blind (Umyân).”

Atâh then said,

  “I then met Ka’b and asked him the same question. He responded with the exact same statement. Not a single letter was different in his wording except that he said that, Allâh shall open with him hearts that had been heedless (Ghulûfuyan) and ears that have been deaf (Sûmûmiyan) and eyes that have been blind (‘Umûmîyan).”

An example of a Da’îf Hadîth:

What has been reported from Ibn Abbâs in regards to the Tafsîr of Surat Qâf (Chapter 50) that Qâf is the name of an enormous mountain that is at the periphery of the earth. This, without a doubt, is false and to claim that such a statement is from Ibn Abbâs is a lie as more than one of the people of knowledge have proven.

Second: al-Isrâ’îliyât based on their agreement with that which is established in our Laws

There are three levels of Isrâ’îliyât when viewed from the prespective of their agreement with that which is established in our Sharî’ah.

  1. al-Isrâ’îliyât that are in agreement with our Sharî ah
  2. al-Isrâ’îliyât that contradict our Sharî’ah
  3. al-Isrâ’îliyât that are neutral not rejected and not affirmed to be truth.

An example of a narration from al-Isrâ’îliyât that is in agreement with our Sharî’ah

Al-Imâm al-Bukhârî (Sahîh al-Bukhârî 9:511)[4] and others report that an-Nabi said:
Narrated from Abdullah ibn Mas’ûd that he said:

 “ A priest once came to the Prophet of Allâh, and said: “O Muhammad! We find (in the holy scriptures) that Allâh will place the heavens on a finger, the earths on a finger, the trees on a finger, water on a finger, the ground on a finger and all mankind on a finger, and say: “I am King.” (What does this mean?)” The Prophet rocked with laughter, confirmed the priest in his statement about Allâh and recited the verse:

  They made not a just estimate of Allâh such as is due to Him. And on the Day of Resurrection the whole of the earth will be grasped by His Hand and the heavens will be rolled up in His right Hand. Glorified be He, and High is He above all that they associate as partners with Him!” [Sûrah az-Zumar 39:67]

Here we see that the words of the priest were accepted because they agreed with that which Allâh has sent us in our Laws.

An example of a narration from al-Isrâ’îliyât that contradicts our Sharî’ah.

The claim that Harûn (the Brother of Mûsa) was the one who molded the Golden Calf for Bani Isrâ’îl to worship when Mûsa was upon Mount Tûr receiving revelation from Allâh for Forty nights is rejected. We have no doubt that this claim is false and completely void of any truth. Allâh has informed us in the Qur’ân that as-Sâmirî was the one who molded for them the calf that they took in worship. Allâh, the Most High, said:

Therefore we establish that their claim is false and Bâtil.

An example of a narration from al-Isrâ’îliyât that is neutral that which our Sharî’ah has neither endorsed nor refuted.

The story of the murdered man whom Allâh mentioned in the Qur’ân as being the one who is to be struck with the meat of the cow (Surat al-Baqarah Verses 67-74). Allâh, the Most High, said:

  [Mûsa (Moses)] said: “And what is the matter with you. O Sâmirî? (i.e. why did you do so?)” (Sâmirî) said: “I saw what they saw not, so I took a handful (of dust) from the hoof print of the messenger [Jibrîl (Gabriel) horse] and threw it [into the fire in which were put the ornaments of the Fir’aun’s (Pharaoh) people, or into the calf]. Thus my inner-self suggested to me.”

Mûsa (Moses) said: “Then go away! And verily, your (punishment) in this life will be that you will say: “Touch me not (i.e.you will live alone exiled away from mankind); and verily (for a future torment), you have a promise that will not fail. And look at your ilâh (god), to which you have been devoted. We will certainly burn it, and scatter its particles in the sea.” [Ta-Ha 95-97]

  And (remember) when you killed a man and fell into dispute among yourselves as to the crime. But Allâh brought forth that which you were hiding. So We said: “Strike him (the dead man) with a piece of it (the cow).” Thus Allâh brings the dead to life and shows you His Ayât (proofs, evidences, verses, lessons, signs, revelations, etc.) so that you may understand. [Al-Baqarah 2: 72,73]

It is narrated that there was a young man from Bani Isrâ’îl who asked sought to marry his cousin but her father, his uncle, refused him. At the same time the uncle was waiting for a group of merchants to visit their town. The young man asked his uncle if he could accompany him to the outskirts of the town to wait for the merchants. The uncle granted him permission. During the journey the young man killed his uncle and returned to the village asking if anyone had seen or heard from his uncle. He, along with a group of men, set out to search for his uncle. They came upon his murdered corpse and blamed it on the newly arrived merchants. The young man was given inheritance from his uncle and was married to his cousin. When the merchants disputed the accusation they were ordered to slaughter a cow and strike the deceased with it.

We do not deny, nor do we affirm this story since there is no evidence for or against it. The knowledge of its authenticity is with Allâh.

Third: al-Isrâ’îliyât that viewed from the prespective of Reports of Information regarding particular Issues

There are three levels of Isrâ’îliyât when viewed from the prespective of Reports of Information regarding particular Issues:

1. In matters of Aqîdah

The previously mentioned incident of the priest is an example of a report from a person from the people of the Scriptures regarding an issue of Aqîdah.

2. In matters of Ahkâm (Rulings and Judgements)

An example of this is the incident wherein the Rabbis tried to conceal the passage in the Torah that stated that an adulterer is to be stoned to death. When the passage was laid bare it served as a report of information from their scriptural sources regarding the punishment of adulterers and thus it relates to the matters of Ahkâm.

3. In matters of exhortation, biographies and History

An example of this are the descriptions of Nuh s Ark and the type of animals brought aboard into it, the ant which spoke to Sulaiman, and the descriptions of Mûsa s rod. Stories that do not fit in the matters of Aqîdah or Ahkâm are included in this third category.


Footnotes

1. Translator: Bukhârî reports that Jubair bin Mutim said, I heard Allâh’s Apostle saying,

 “ ‘I have several names: I am Muhammad and I am Ahmad, and I am Al-Mahi with whom Allâh obliterates Kufr (disbelief), and I am Al-Hashir (gatherer) at whose feet (i.e. behind whom) the people will be gathered (on the Day of Resurrection), and I am Al-Aqib (i.e. who succeeds the other prophets in bringing about good).” Volume 6, Book 60, Number 419

2. Al-Imâm al- Irâqi quotes Imâm as-Suyûti s, Tadrîb ar-Râwi, that Imâm Abu Dawûd at-Tayalisi did not himself write the Musnad. Rather his students gathered it from that which was recorded from him by Yusuf bin Habîb.

3. This hadîth has in its chain of narration a man named Shahr bin Hûshab who used to report narrations from Ibn Abbâs . Shahr is a man whom the scholars have spoken negatively about. Some of the scholars place his narration at the level of Hasan (good and accepted but not the level of Sahîh authentic). Al-Hafidh Ibn Hajr in at-Taqrîb has judged him to be Sadûq (truthful in general) but full of errors (in his reports) and known for Irsâl (reporting directly from the Prophet and not mentioning the name of the Sahâbi whom he is reporting from). Imam Muslim said regarding him in the Introduction to his Sahîh, Shahr has been criticized.

Therefore those who deem his narration to be Hasan or Sahîh accept this hadîth through this particular transmission. Those who deem Shahr to be weak reject this particular chain of narration with regards to this particular Hadîth.

4. Translators note: This hadîth is reported also in Sahîh Muslim (Book 039, Number 6699). It is also reported on the authority of Abu Hurairah, Abdullah bin ‘Umar, Abdullah bin Miqsam and many others. As Muslims it is paramount that we understand the issue of Tawhîd Al-Asmâ was-Sifât (Allâh s Names and Attributes). In this Sahîh, Agreed upon, Hadîth we find that Rasûl ul Allâh establishes for Allâh a Hand and quotes a verse from the Qur’ân to lend evidence to the statement. As Muslims we must believe in the Attribute established for Allâh without:

  1. Ta’tîl: Denying their wording Allâh does not possess a Hand ?

  2. Ta’wîl: Interpreting them to change their meaning The word Hand is figurative and means Power.

  3. Tamthîl: Likening them to the Creation of Allâh The word Hand means it is like our hands.

  4. Takyîf: Seeking to explain how they are The Hand is the kindness of Allâh

Al-Imâm at-Tahâwî said in al-`Aqîdah at-Tahâwîyah:

  “To imagine Allâh in a certain form is not correct. The safest way for a Muslim is to believe in all the attributes of Allâh without adding any interpretation. To negate the attributes of Allâh altogether or to compare Him to someone (anything created), is a deviation from the right path. Our Lord is unique and without any equal at all.”

Some people have erred in their belief due to the fact that they find difficulty in accepting that Allâh is referred to as having a Hand, a Face, Anger, Pleasure, Eyes, etc. all of which are befitting His Majesty, different than anything that can be imagined, rationalized or witnessed in the worldly life. Allâh says, “ There is nothing like unto Him ” (42:11), that “ There is none comparable to Him ” (112:4) and that “ No vision can grasp Him, but His Grasp is over all vision.” (6:103).

A simple example should clarify this problem. A clock has hands and a human being has hands and the metaphorical proverbial hands of time are always ticking. There is also the eye of a needle, the eye of a Hurricane, human eyes, etc. The three have separate functions, appearance, limits and so forth. The point is that words carry a representation that is directly related to our conceptualization. Those who perform Ta’tîl, Ta’wîl, Tamthîl, Takyîf are in essence seeking to conceptualize what is not Allâh and therefore fall into an enormous error by inferring about Allâh what He is not or denying Allâh that which He has established for Himself in explicit wording. Just like we do not confuse the hands of a clock with our own hands we should not confuse the divine Hand of Allâh with our own.

Therefore Allâh has a Hand that befits His Divine Majesty. It is different from anything that is created. It cannot be seen in the worldly life. It cannot be rationalized, made similar to, interpreted or denied. It is a Hand because Allâh says so and His Messenger reports to us so.

(NOTE: If you want to build a strong and powerful relationship with Allah, check out Islamia TV, where you can watch Islamic speakers from across the globe deliver inspiring and motivational courses. Learn more at www.islamia.tv.)



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