The Jewish Origins of Islam
Edouard-Marie Gallez, Le Messie et son prophète: aux origines de l’Islam. Paris: Studia Arabica, dirigée par Marie-Thérèse Urvoy. Tome I: De Qumran à Muhammad. 4th edition, 2012. 523 pp. 35 Euros. Tome II: Du Muhammad des Califes au Muhammad de l’histoire. 2010. Pp 574. 39 Euros.
Reviewed by Anne Barbeau Gardiner
In his groundbreaking book, Le messie et son prophète: Aux origines de l’Islam, Edouard-Marie Gallez lifts the veil and lets us see the historical roots of Islam. He shows it originating in a vast movement of messianic Jews called “Ebionites” or “Nazareens.” These non-rabbinical Jews accepted Jesus as the messiah, but not as the divine Logos. Gallez shows how the scrolls and fragments found in the Qumram caves by the Dead Sea and in the vicinity of Massada illuminate the ideology behind this movement of Jews, who were eager and willing to follow the messiah into holy war, believing they would thereby save the world. Unlike rabbinical Jews, who looked to the past, these men looked forward to an earthly utopia that would come only after mass exterminations. Like the later Muslims, they believed that the messiah had not died on the Cross but had been taken up alive into heaven and was ready, whenever the conditions were right (i.e., when Palestine was no longer in the hands of the impious and the Temple had been rebuilt), to return to the Mount of Olives and lead them to the subjugation of the entire world. The Nazareens, like the Muslims, forbade pork and wine
The first tome of this magisterial work of about a thousand pages deals with the Essenes, the Qumram documents, and the Jewish Messianic movement from its rise in the 2nd-century B.C. to its culmination in 7th-century Islam. The second tome is devoted in large part to the birth of Islam, the attempt to erase the Nazareen legacy, and the traces of it that remain in the Qur’an, which started as a compilation of Nazareen lectionaries (“qery’n,” to which the Arab word qur’an corresponds). These lectionaries were initially given to the Arab Qorechites to indoctrinate them into the messianic ideology and engage them in the conquest of Palestine.
The Muhammad of History
The last chapter of the second tome is entitled “The Historical Muhammad: a Portrait” and based on sources dating from the 7th century. Let me start with this extraordinary chapter and then return to survey how the two tomes lead up to this “Portrait.” Gallez states that Muhammad’s first wife Hadija, a rich widow who was older than he, was a cousin of the Nazareen priest Waraqa ibn Nawfal, so she was probably a Nazareen herself. Waraqa was also a distant cousin of Muhammad’s and played an important role in their marriage. (This leads me to wonder whether Muhammad himself was not part Jewish, but Gallez does not raise this question.) Waraqa had indoctrinated the Arab tribe of the Qorechites, who were previously Christian, into joining the Nazareen cause, which was to regain Jerusalem by force of arms and bring about the messiah’s prompt return. When Chosroes led a Persian expedition into Palestine in 614, thousands of rabbinical Jews gave him assistance (one Jewish encyclopedia cited by Gallez puts their number at 24,000), and so the Persian general, in return for his easy victory, gave them control over Jerusalem. In the same expedition, Muhammad (a surname which in the Nazareen language meant “one who desires to please God”) probably led his Qorechite warriors into Jerusalem, but the rabbinical Jews, who had been installed as masters there, expelled him and his Qorechites, as well as the Nazareens. Even so, Muhammad had now seen that it was possible to conquer Jerusalem.
The Byzantine Emperor began his re-conquest of the region in the early 620s, so the Persians abandoned Jerusalem in 622. Gallez thinks it likely that Muhammad’s emigration or hegira towards the oasis of Yatrib (Medina) was the result of this Christian re-conquest. The Chronicle of Sebeos (660) reports that in Yatrib, Muhammad—as a Nazareen follower of the Torah—prohibited wine and had a Jewish woman and her lover stoned to death for adultery. In Yatrib he won over the surrounding Arab tribes by preaching to them that God had promised Palestine to Abraham’s descendants and, since they themselves were the descendants of Abraham, they would inherit that promise if they returned to the worship of the one God of Abraham and of him alone. This preaching was intended to make them abandon their Christian religion. Contrary to what Muslims say, the conversion of the Arabs had started three centuries earlier, and Maximus the Confessor had written about them in 632, that among them “the error of polytheism had disappeared.”
Muhammad’s success is confirmed by the Chronicle of Jacob of Edessa (before 692) and also by Doctrina Jacobi (before 640). In the latter we learn that some rabbinical Jews arriving in Yatrib in 625 or 627 found the Arabs there already impregnated with the Nazareen ideology and their chieftain Muhammad “proclaiming the coming of the messiah” with such charism that they were all united firmly under his authority. The Chronography of Theophane (who died in 817) states that in 622 some rabbinical Jews known to the Byzantines attached themselves to Muhammad: they saw him as one of “their prophets,” the one who, as Malachy 3:23 foretold, would precede the messiah. In the 8th-century Secrets of Rabbi ben Yohay, a Jewish apocalypse, there is a passage going back to 650 where a rabbinical Jew still believes the Messiah will come if Umar rebuilds the Temple. (Would rabbinical Jews, I wonder, have attached themselves to a “prophet” who wasn’t at least part Jewish? Again, Gallez does not raise this question.)
Muhammad and his Arab troops soon began making incursions into Palestine to “liberate” it and restore “the House of God.” He and his followers called themselves “muhajirun” or “emigrants” living out a new Exodus. Others called them “Hagarenes” and “Saracens,” but they themselves kept this unique name of “muhajirun” for at least three generations. This was the name they used in official documents, such as the Charter of Medina (Yatrib), a pact which included Jews (the Nazareens) in their “Umma,” or confraternity of war. Gallez explains that “muhajirun” meant “those who have left their country or emigrated in order to fight for God.” It is only in 775 that they start calling themselves “muslimun” and that “islam” replaces “hijra.” In 629 Muhammad led an attempt to conquer Jerusalem, but was defeated by the Byzantines at Muta, southeast of the Jordan. He died a few years later, probably in 634, the same year that Sophrone, Patriarch of Jerusalem, reported that the Arabs were boasting about “conquering the world.”
Jerusalem would finally be taken in 637 by his successor Umar. Gallez observes that no one knows how Muhammad would have reacted had he lived to see the non-arrival of the messiah. That non-arrival changed everything. At first the Arabs allowed the Nazareens to build a place of prayer right where the Holy of Holies had once stood, but they later drove them off and made it their own place of prayer. Interestingly, the Dome of the Rock, which Caliph Al-Malik began to construct in 691, was originally called the Dome of Abraham, because it was believed to lie on Mount Moriah, where Abraham had almost sacrificed Isaac. Its name was changed because it was later said to contain the rock from which Muhammad had ascended on his nocturnal journey to Heaven.
The Non-Existent Essenes
In the first section of his work, Gallez cuts down the “tree” of the Essenes, so that the “forest” of a vast messianic movement can finally be seen. I can only give a simplified version of his learned arguments. The Essenes were supposed to have lived in Qumran until the year 68 and then have disappeared, but it is likely they never existed at all, though thousands of articles and books have been written about them as if they had. In the first hundred pages, Gallez shows that, strange to say, they are never even named in the Qumran scrolls and there is no reference to them in the Talmudic tradition. Yet as soon as the Qumram scrolls began to be deciphered in the 1950s, it became a “dogma” that these scrolls had all belonged to the Essenes, who supposedly had a monastery near the Dead Sea and a team of scribes busily copying documents.
In the 1st century, the Essenes were initially mentioned, but not actually seen, by Pliny the Elder, Philo of Alexandria, and Flavius Josephus. First, Pliny, whose Natural History is full of fantastic stuff, called them a unique “race” of Jews living for thousands of years without women and money. As in the myth of the Phoenix, whenever individual Essenes died they were always replaced by an equal number of Jews weary of the world. Gallez sees Pliny as winking here, especially since there were Greek priests of Artemis in Ephesus who were already called Essenes. Secondly, Philo, who used a slightly different word, Esseens, saw them as virtuous but not necessarily celibate and said in one account that they numbered four thousand, and in another, dozens of thousands. Thirdly, there is a long passage on the Essenes in Flavius Josephus, but as Gallez shows, this passage was clearly an interpolation by a 3rd-century Roman pagan, who made ridiculous claims, such as that these Jews worshiped the sun and believed in the preexistence of souls. All later references to the Essenes were built on these three sources. They climaxed in the 19th century with Renan’s charge that Christianity was just a continuation of Essenism.
The archeology of the Qumram ruins, which is far from being complete, has shown that only a limited number of people could have lived there: no more than fifteen, according to one author, and no more than fifty, according to another. There was nothing monastic about the objects found there. Instead, they showed it as a place producing perfume and balm, perhaps for burials. Pious Jews would not have lived surrounded by cemeteries, one of them only 50 meters away. Even so, some still defend the Essene hypothesis.
The Rise of the Nazareens
The corruption of the Jewish priesthood in the 2nd century B.C. gave rise to an anti-Temple movement that led to the Pharisees and eventually to the Nazareens. Gallez gives credit to Jacqueline Genot for having interpreted a number of Qumran scrolls as being related to the followers of the “master of justice” Yose ben Yo’ezer, a priest from Zerada whom the high priest Alcime ordered to be killed on Yom Kippur, in 159 B.C. After his brutal killing his followers were filled with eschatological fervor, looking forward to a new Temple and a new priesthood to be instituted by God through his messiah. In fact, they looked forward to two messiahs: the first, a priest of the tribe of Levi, the second, a warrior king of the tribe of Juda who would soak the earth with the blood of the impious and conquer the world.
In the 1st century, another major strand was woven into the web of apocalyptic Jewish messianism: the followers of James the Just -- who was not an apostle but the blood cousin of Jesus and the first bishop in Jerusalem --- exalted him above the apostles and even claimed that the destruction of the Temple was the result of his being stoned to death by zealots in 62 AD. After James’s death, some of his followers reinterpreted Christianity in a radically Judeocentric way, one that led to the Nazareen ideology.
Gallez shows that the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs are a key to understanding the evolution of this messianic movement from the 1st to the 7th century of our era. The Testaments were well known before they were found in the Qumran caves, for they were popular works of eschatological inspiration repeatedly adapted to the times. Scholars have found supposedly Christian interpolations in these texts, but Gallez carefully analyzes the passages and shows them to be Nazareen, not Christian. For one thing, they show the Almighty taking possession of an adult man, rather than the Logos becoming incarnate. This is precisely what the Nazareens believed, that God had taken possession of Jesus at his Baptism in the Jordan and had subsequently used him as messianic tool.
Moreover, the name Jesus is completely absent from these Nazareen interpolations, a name which, as Christians taught, reveals the divinity of Jesus. Likewise in the Qur’an, Jesus is professed nine times as messiah, but his real name is never given; rather he is called Isa, which is a form of Esau. Gallez points out that the Talmud also calls Christians the “sons of Esau.” Curiously, the Nazareens had an anti-Trinitarian saying, “There is no God but God; No associate for him.” Similarly the primitive “sabada” of the Muslims was “There is no God but God: No associate for him.” Fifty years later, they added, “Muhammad is his messenger” (or “rasul Allah”). The first mention of him as God’s messenger was on a Persian coin minted in 685.
It is also telling that while these supposedly Christian interpolations refer to the messiah as crucified, they never speak of him dying on the Cross. This coincides with the Nazareen belief (and later Muslim belief) that the messiah did not shed his blood on Calvary. For this reason, their Eucharist was celebrated with water, not wine. In their ideology, too, it was not a question of man being delivered by repentance, but of man being delivered by great exterminations. Like the Muslims after them, they did not believe in original sin, nor in personal sin. For them, man sins only by opposing God’s designs (which they thought they could discern). In addition, they believed that God does not sanctify man but, as long as he is a believer, He covers him with the mantle of justice. The Nazareens followed only the Gospel of the Hebrews (also called the Gospel of the Nazareens), a mutilated and radically revised version of Matthew’s Gospel. It is no longer extant, but we have quotations from it in the Church Fathers’ writings on heretics. At the same time, the Nazareens observed all the Jewish rituals, so Jerome called them “semi-Jews.”
The Church Fathers, from Irenaeus to Jerome, speak of the Ebionites or Nazareens as heretics, and they are alluding to them when they warn against “Judaizers.” They knew that the Nazareens denied the divinity of Christ while accepting the Virgin Birth, that they practiced circumcision, that they reproached rabbinical Jews for altering the texts of the Bible to hide the fact that Jesus was the messiah, and that they prayed toward Jerusalem. All these things the Muslims would do after them, except that they eventually changed their quibla and prayed toward Mecca. Origen says that the Nazareens refused to drink wine, but not out of asceticism, only to reserve it for the day when the messiah would inaugurate his earthly kingdom. Interestingly, when Jerome describes the fleshly pleasures anticipated by the Nazareens in that kingdom, they sound a lot like the pleasures Muslims believe await them in paradise.
In the last part of the first tome, Gallez gives a survey of all the Jewish insurrections that happened in the Roman Empire between the 1st and the 7th centuries and descries an eschatological zeal at the root of them. Those who had rejected Jesus as messiah, he says, were trying to replace him by another. This is plainly seen in the insurrection of 135, where Rabbi Aqiba served as the “prophet” announcing Bar Koseba was the messiah. Gallez is not surprised that the historiography of the Judeonazareens (his usual name for them) has escaped the notice of the West, for until the withdrawal of the Byzantine Empire from the Near East, their presence could be ignored. Then, however, it was suddenly imposed on the world and on history in the form of Islam.
Erasing the Nazareen Legacy
In Sura 5:82, we are told that those who are closest to the true believers are not Jews or Christians but the ones who say, “we are Nazareens” (“nasara”). In other suras, however, the term “nasara” changes to mean Christians, who are said to be the enemies of the true believers. Gallez takes note of the “slippage” here and of a number of other terms that change in meaning from the most primitive Qur’anic verses to the later ones. Umar started to collect and destroy the Arab lectionaries (qur’ans) which the Nazareens had used to indoctrinate the Qorechites. After him Utman carried out a policy of systematic destruction. Gallez thinks it is unlikely that one of these lectionaries will ever be found. Yet they formed the first strata of the Qur’an, and he shows us that we can still glimpse traces of them in the suras (a Hebrew word meaning elements in a scroll).
The only certain fact known about Muhammad is that he made an attempt to conquer Jerusalem in 629 and failed. Yet this is precisely the fact that has been erased from his story. It is claimed that he spent his youth in Mecca, but as the Swedish scholar Patricia Crone found, there is no mention of Mecca in any ancient source before the Arab conquests. She sees this silence as striking and significant. Mecca was far too poor in natural resources for caravans to stop there, and it was never a religious center before the rise of Islam. This was a city created from scratch by the caliphs. Muhammad grew up more than a thousand kilometers from there, and there is no reason to think he ever visited the place. The city is not even mentioned in the Charter of Medina. In fact, the area of commerce for the Qorechite Arabs was near Gaza and Bosra. However, the caliphs needed to erase the Jewish-Nazareen past and create an Arab past, so they invented a city of supposedly ancient Abrahamic origin.
The city of Mecca was not the only creation of the caliphs. Specialists say that the formative stage of Islam lasted for about two centuries. Sources available to historians date from 150 to 300 years after the period they describe. However, there is a document Gallez cites as “reliable” from the year 644, an exchange between John I, the Jacobite Patriarch, and Said ibn ‘Amir, the Arab Emir of Homs. The exchange was recorded in a letter by the patriarch shortly after it took place. The Emir attacked the divinity of Christ by referring to the Torah and calling on a “Jewish” scribe to assist him (very likely a Nazareen, Gallez says). Then he invited Christians to embrace the Law of the Muhajirun (Emigrants). At this meeting it is unlikely the emir would have failed to mention Muhammad and the Qur’an if he could have done it, since he had in fact been a companion of Muhammad.
There is no complete Qur’an earlier than the 9th century, and the earliest fragments, which were found in San’a, come from the first part of the 8th century. Yemenite authorities will not give access to these fragments, but photos of them show a text washed away under the visible text. Besides the absence of early records, Muslim tradition speaks of the systematic and repeated destruction of manuscripts by order of the caliphs. Gallez mentions a letter sent by Emperor Leo III in 719 to Caliph Umar II, mentioning the destruction by Hajjaj of the old writings in Mesopotamia and the composition of new ones.
The basis for the divinization of the Qur’an is this: the nocturnal voyage of Muhammad to Heaven. He is said to have traveled 1200 km on a flying horse from Mecca to Jerusalem and, once there, to have ascended from the esplanade of the Temple into Heaven. God revealed the Qur’an to him, but after his return to earth Muhammad did not remember it. Therefore, the Angel Gabriel later had to refresh his memory by dictating it to him in a grotto, verse by verse. On the 1200 km trip back to Mecca the same night, Muhammad, from the vantage point of his flying horse, observed a caravan approaching Mecca and announced its arrival. His “prophecy” was confirmed.
Gallez speaks of the “implacable logic” of this story, which is a “closed circle” without an exit. Here the Qur’an authenticates itself. All the details of the nocturnal voyage are geared to making the book literally divine. Based on this account it became officially the “uncreated Word of God.” At first, the Mutazelites insisted it was “created,” but they were soon silenced.
It is not certain when the caliphs decreed that Muhammad had made a nocturnal journey to Heaven, but it must have been after the building of the Dome of the Rock in the 690s, because the inscriptions on this building completely ignore the idea. This is strange since it was from this place that Muhammad was supposed to have ascended. In the middle of the 8th century St. John of Damascus, who frequented the caliph’s court before becoming a monk and was well informed about Islam, stated that Muhammad was reported to have received information from an angel in a dream. By the end of the same century, however, Muhammad was said to have received it directly from God in Heaven. Thus the Qur’an became the “uncreated Word of God.” Interestingly, the Jews (including the Nazareens) said something similar about the Torah, namely, that there was a copy of it in the hands of God, so it was both earthly and heavenly. At the feast of Shavu’ot, too, some Jews read a text about Moses going to Heaven and receiving the Torah from the hand of God.
After being called “messenger of Allah,” Muhammad was given the added title, “Seal of the Prophets.” Some Muslim commentators noted that the Manicheans had given the same title to their prophet Mani (216-74). They also noted that Mani, like Muhammad, had been called the Paraclete predicted in John’s Gospel and had received a revelation from an angel in a grotto. In addition, the Muslim Ramadan is close to the 30-day Manichean fast, which also used to end each day at sunset.
While erasing most of the Nazareen legacy, the caliphs also carried it forward in the Qur’an by their hostility to Trinitarian Christianity. In Sura 5 of the Qur’an, God takes Isa (Jesus) as a witness against the Christian belief in the Trinity. In the same Sura Jesus and his mother Mary are said to be two extra “divinities” whom Christians worship along with God in the Trinity. Christians are therefore “associators” who associate two more gods with God. This is something that merits punishment, so in sura 72, 18-20, the true believers are welcome to confiscate the churches of these damnable “associators.”
It is not easy for a Christian to argue against this gross misunderstanding of the Trinity when the Qur’an is supposed to be the “uncreated Word of God”! Gallez points out that one possible source of the misunderstanding was the Gospel of the Nazareens, where the Holy Spirit was called “our mother.” Origen and Jerome reported that Jesus in this heretical Gospel called the Holy Spirit “my mother” and that the Holy Spirit addressed him, after his Baptism, as “my first-born Son who reigns forever.”
This book is a treasure trove of knowledge about the hidden Jewish origins of Islam. One can only hope that it will soon be available in an English translation.
This review appeared in the February 2018 issue of Culture Wars.
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