Qur'an and Bible Project

One of the stumbling blocks in encounters and discourse between Muslim and Jews is the existence of negative (alongside positive) portrayals of 'the Other' in their Scriptures. Depictions of Jews (and Christians) in the Qur'an can (and have been) interpreted both for good and ill. Similarly, portrayals of the 'Other' in the Bible were later applied to Muslims (and Christians), both positively and negatively. Unless both sides of these portraits are addressed, they will remain serious obstacles to genuine dialogue and the fostering of better relations.

Having values in common does not mean sharing all values. One of the weaknesses of contemporary interfaith approaches is limiting dialogue to the search for common ground and a reluctance to discuss difference - without the latter, genuine dialogue cannot exist and interfaith conversations will eventually run out of steam or be limited to enthusiasts. Of course, some level of commonality is necessary for generating solidarity but genuine dialogue requires a constructive interfaith tension. It takes a high degree of maturity to let contraries co-exist and to respect opinions that conflict with one's own without attempting to achieve a naïve accommodation.

The Qur'an and Bible project seeks to explore the relationship between the two scriptures, and their similarities and differences. What tools are available and which methods exist that can be applied to the interpretation of Scriptures, including problematic passages? The project studies Muslim and Jewish scriptures alongside one another, brings in classical rabbinic interpretations and the Hadith and Tafsir, and offers recommendations to interpret and discuss the texts (including hostile passages), in ways that further understanding between and among the Jewish and Muslim communities, foster dialogue and overcome prejudice and bias.

Since October 2021, we have convened a reading group on the topic in which eminent academics from universities in the USA, Oxford, Cambridge and Abu Dhabi gather regularly to discuss aspects of the relationship between the Torah and the Qur'an.

Reading Group - Results

Although the relationship of the Torah and the Qur'an is deep and nuanced, members of the Group have generally agreed the following statements.

Several of these conclusions, which were based on the texts, call for further study concerning the historical development of the interpretation of the texts and also seem to lend themselves to discussion between faith leaders and practitioners of interfaith dialogue. These are possible avenues for further activity at the Woolf Institute.

1. The Qur'an and the Torah are deeply connected.​ The Qur'an, in large part, comments on material contained in the Bible.

Agreement level: High

Commentary: the Qur’an explicitly refers to the Torah (the first 5 books of the Bible) in verses such as “We sent down the Torah in which was guidance and light” (Q5:44) and states that it comments on material contained in the Bible when at the conclusion of its account of the Joseph story it states “There was certainly in their stories a lesson for those of understanding” (Q12:111). The high agreement level of the group regarding this statement reflects this, though some members thought the Qur’an was a "retelling" or "in conversation with" or "an interpretation of" material contained in the Bible, rather than a "commentary". 

2. The Qur'an does not refute anything fundamental contained in the Torah.

Agreement level: High

Commentary: While there are many differences in the details of the stories contained in the Bible and the Qur’an, and different emphasis is given to parts of the stories, the group did not generally consider these differences to be “fundamental”. Indeed, the Quran states that it “confirms the scriptures which came before it [The Torah and the Gospel] and trusting it” (Q5:48) 

3. The Qur'an does not require perpetual animosity between Islam and the followers of Judaism and is not antisemitic (or anti-Jewish)

Agreement level: Very high

Commentary: The Qur'an does not single out Jews (or Christians) for approbation and nowhere does it call for their destruction. Nevertheless, parts of the Qur’an’s narrative is clearly hostile to some Jews, reflecting its deep concern with Jews at the time of Muhammad going astray from the Heavenly Book they had been given; however, none of the respondents considered that this required perpetual animosity between Islam and the followers of Judaism. One of the group who agreed with the statement noted nevertheless that the Qur’an does expect Jews to follow Muhammad and accept Islam. 

4. Parts of some later Jewish texts appear to have been based on Qur'an and Islamic texts

Agreement level: Very high

Commentary: the group thought that there was an influence of Islamic writing over later Jewish writing, such as the Pirqe de-Rabbi Eli'ezer's account of the Golden Calf, which appears to have been influenced by the Qur'an; there were also other instances of a two-way interaction 

5. The Bible contains more violent verses than the Qur'an, especially when it comes to extreme violence

Commentary: a presenter to the group concluded that the Bible contained more violent verses than the Qur’an and this was generally agreed, even if it was unclear if this meant in proportion to the length of the book, or the relevant sections of it. 

6. No Qur'anic passage teaches that enemies in warfare should be annihilated or exterminated

Agreement level: High

Commentary: This statement was generally agreed and stands in contrast to the Bible, which does contain statements requiring complete annihilation of the enemy (the ḥerem verses such as Deu 13.16). While this applies to a majority reading of the Qur’an, a group members pointed out that Q9:5 could be understood as advocating extreme violence, and that although the Qur’an did not state it, some passages in the biographies of Muhammad suggest that violence was advocated in certain circumstances. Nonetheless, there was a high level of agreement for this statement. 

7. The Qur'an presents material contained in the Bible, adapted to provide a distinct, Islamic message

Agreement level: very high

Commentary: historic attempts by Westerners to look into the differences in the Qur’an’s telling of stories contained in the Bible, such as Abraham Geiger’s book in 1833 typically considered that the Qur’an had garbled the Bible’s account in its re-telling and with strewn with errors. Our group generally had a different understanding: the Qur’an uses the material also found in the Bible to provide a distinct, Islamic message. Why would the God of the Qur’an and the God of the Torah, considered to be the same all-powerful God, send on message to Jews and a distinct message to Muslims? There were some questions that were beyond the scope and capabilities even of our distinguished group.


Read about the reading group here.