The orthodox Sunni doctrine is that the Quran is co-eternal with God and that it was revealed piecemeal to Muhammad at certain moments in time but that each revelation comes from its eternal and incorruptible original. The Quran places itself, in its text, at an equal status to the Gospel, Torah, and Psalms (which causes doctrinal impossibilities that Sunni scholars simply prefer to ignore, which is an issue for another time). According to the Quran, the Torah was given directly to Moses, the Gospel to Jesus, and the Psalms to David.
Now, to any little-o-orthodox Christian, the entirety of this doctrine is simply a bizarre idea. Christians know that there are actually four books that all teach the same gospel, written by the four evangelists, not by Jesus–and Jesus was the Gospel that they taught, not a mere book, however inspired, but the embodied Good News, which is what the word “gospel” or “injil” means. Furthermore, Christians believe that holy scripture is not revealed but “God-breathed,” which is the literal translation of “inspired by God.” No Christians believe that the writers of the Bible were possessed by God as and then used just as vessel of automatic writing of purely supernatural words. It is also not an orthodox Christian belief that the Bible was dictated by God–this is a fringe position that a very small number of people will argue, but it has never been accepted by any large Christian group. Of course, the exact meaning and implications of the doctrine of inspiration is endlessly debated, but there’s a little-o-orthodox Christian consensus that, for example, the different books of the Bible were written using the unique human styles and talents of each writer, and that our Bible as we have it now contains some scribal contributions, such the authorship attributions in the Psalms.
There is, however, a large stream of Judaism that takes an entirely different view of the Torah. During the time of Muhammad, in fact, it was the only form of surviving Judaism. Talmudic (that is, what is called big-O-Orthodox) Judaism holds to the principle of the Torah mi-Sinai, which means Torah From Sinai. This means that these Jews believe that the entirety of the Torah was handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai at the same time as the Ten Commandments in its complete, perfect, and final form.
But why? Why would anyone believe Torah mi-Sinai, much less make it a core point of faith, since it is the most counterintuitive doctrine that one could derive from actually reading the books in question?
The doctrine of the Torah mi-Sinai only seems contrary until you realize that it was developed by Pharisaical rabbis in response to Christianity–specifically in response to the coming of Yeshua (Jesus), claiming clearly to be the Mashiach and the Son of God, and to the destruction of the Second Temple in AD 70, which Yeshua predicted with perfect accuracy. This prediction is something that early Christian writers paid virtually no attention to because (frankly) they were too busy being persecuted and martyred around the time of the event. It essentially didn’t make the headlines where most Christians lived and was only looked back at hundreds of years later.
Of course, anti-theist (as well as Jewish) scholars want to use the prediction of the destruction of the Temple as a proof that certain texts were written after the fact, since there’s no room for accurate prophesy in the world of an anti-theist, but there’s the difficulty that all but the most illogical agree that the Book of the Acts of the Apostles was written by the same author as the Gospel of Luke and that Acts was finished both before the execution of Paul (which happened AD 62-68) and before Neronian persecution of AD 64. This is significant because the Acts of the Apostles was the sequel to Luke’s Gospel, which places Luke securely earlier–which means that Jesus’ prophesy of the Temple’s destruction was reported in Luke before it was destroyed. The off-hand treatment of the prophesies about the Temple in the Gospels of Luke and John and the writers’ assumption of an intact Jerusalem for their readers merely underscores that it was, in fact, an existing prophesy that Christians and Jews alike could look at in AD 70, evidence that Yeshua (Jesus) was exactly who he claimed to be.
So, what in the world does Yeshua’s prophesy about the Temple have to do with Torah mi-Sinai?
The Pharisaical sect (which was the only sect that survived the destruction of the Temple) was faced with more than a mere prophesy of some guy the Sanhedrin had killed. That was bad enough. Rather, they were faced with the vast weight of centuries of existing rabbinical theology and doctrine that had to be purged of all the things that had caused Yeshua to be recognized as the Mashiach by so many Jews. A good part of that theology had centered on the role of the Word of the Lord in the Tanakh. Many of the previously orthodox understandings had tied to Second Power Jewish theology, Messianic theology, or both. And so much of that theology pointed with devastating precision to Yeshua Hamashiach (that is, Jesus Christ). We can easily see the origins of this particular aspect of Second Power theology by looking at the use of the phrase “the Word of the Lord” in the Tanakh (Old Testament) to describe something that was a clear visual manifestation of God in human-like form. The prologue of the Gospel of John brilliantly elaborates upon this connection and its theological consequences, but this was merely the killing blow after of centuries of rabbinical discussion. The Christian–that is, Messianic–view formed such a powerful argument that some other thing had to be switched out for the many places where either the Mashiach or the Second Power had been understood, including the concept of the Word of the Lord. And this was done by elevating the Torah into its place.
The reasoning goes like this: The Torah was God’s Word. So then all the places in the Tanakh that spoke of the Word had to connect, at least mystically, to the Torah, and now the Torah is shoved into all sorts of places where it hadn’t really ever been before. This forced the doctrine of a pre-existent Torah (for the same reasons that Jesus being the Word of God also had to be pre-existent), and therefore it also forced the doctrine of Torah mi-Sinai, a perfect, pre-existent Torah, handed down intact and complete to Moses, in the face of the text itself, which describes no such thing.
All Talmudic law is downstream of this doctrinal sleight of hand.
So Talmudic Jews were forced to adopt the belief that the Torah was not only made without any human agency except that of Moses’ work as a scribe, but that the Torah existed before Moses and, in fact, before the creation of the world. This was considered a very literal pre-existence. According to Eliezer ben Yose the Galilean, “for 974 generations before the creation of the world the Torah lay in God’s bosom and joined the ministering angels in song.” A minority opinion later developed that the Torah existed only as a thought in the mind of God, but that was some time after the time of Muhammad.
This requires a radical reinterpretation of the Torah into something that it does not, in fact, represent itself to be–for example, everything that occurs after Moses’ encounter with God on Sinai in the Torah then becomes the fulfillment of God’s perfect prophecies, up to and including Moses’ disobedience and resulting death. Alternatives to Torah mi-Sinai only emerged when the original understandings of the Word of God were so thoroughly forgotten that Jews were able to convince themselves that this was just a misreading invented by Christians out of whole cloth. And as long as they read their Tanakh with one eye shut, or as long as they thought that the Tanakh was just something of cultural heritage, not to be taken seriously, they could keep believing it.
The vast theological implications of this novel doctrine will be explored in another article. For now, however, we will look at what the doctrine did to inform Islam.
Informed directly from the Jewish view of the Torah, the Quran was seen as Allah’s pre-existent Word. However, while Jewish rabbis had been very careful to try to weaken the meaning of this equivalence, it was instantly obvious to Islamic theologians that Allah could not have existed without his Word. Allah’s Word is a property of Allah. If Allah is unchangeable (as anything that is perfectly eternal is required to be, for theological reasons I won’t get into here), there could not be a pre-Word Allah and a post-Word Allah. The idea is absurd on the face of it. Similarly, Allah cannot have created his Word. This means that the Quran is necessarily not just pre-existent but eternal, because Allah’s Word must be so.
Now, the rabbis had avoided this simply by sidestepping the logical consequences of their doctrine, since they knew perfectly well what a co-eternal word would mean. But Islamic theologians were coming at this with fresh eyes and didn’t see the trap until they were in it up to their necks.
Eternality is a characteristic belonging only to God. If the Quran is eternal, then the Quran must be God. Yes, God’s Word is a property of God–that is how the understanding of Jesus as God’s Word leads inevitably to Trinitarianism. One God, three Persons. (This is how the Early Church articulated it, in what I think is one of the clearest and soundest early doctrines, but if you want to articulated it differently, I’m not going to get too worked up about it.)
This is why the rabbis would say only that the Torah was pre-existent, not eternal, in spite of how illogical it was, because as soon as they said it was eternal, they knew what road that led down–straight to a Two-Person God, at the very least.
The Sunni Islamic scholars didn’t see it coming, though. They were too influenced by pagan ideas of triads and families of gods to realize where they were headed, and they followed the logic to the required step without realizing that they were actually putting the Quran on the same footing with Allah. The Quran, likewise, recklessly affirms that Jesus was “a Messenger of Allah and his [Allah’s] Word which he conveyed to Maryam” without knowing that all of the traits that Islamic scholars would realize they must give to the Quran as Allah’s Word must also apply to Jesus–not merely equally but correctly. They adopted this theology echoing Talmudic Judaism and Christianity without knowing the repercussions of it.
In the ninth century, the Sunnis had had enough contact with Christianity and enough time to think through the implications, and this became a subject of contentious debate. The orthodox Sunni view was nevertheless affirmed because it is required by the internal view of the Quran and in the ahadith. As Al-Tabari (d. 923) wrote, “God’s uncreated word however it is written or recited, whether it be in heaven or on earth, whether written on the ‘guarded tablet’ or on the tablets of schoolboys, whether inscribed on stone or on paper, whether memorized in the heart or spoken on the tongue; whoever says otherwise is an infidel whose blood may be shed and from whom God has dissociated Himself.”
The Mutalizah, the Shia, and the Zaydis have broken with this doctrine because of the heretical implications, but Qadi Ayyad, a 12th century Almoravid jurist, represents the orthodox Sunni view when cited Malik ibn Abbas when he wrote, “He said about someone who said that the Qur’an is created, ‘He is an unbeliever, so kill him.’ He said in the version of Ibn Nafi’, ‘He should be flogged and painfully beaten and imprisoned until he repents.’ In the version of Bishr ibn Bakr at-Tinnisi we find, ‘He is killed and his repentance is not accepted.'”
Islam, as usual, pushes Muslims into intellectually impossible positions and the “solves” the dilemma through the threat of death. But the actual, embodied Word of God is not any book but Jesus Christ himself. This theology comes straight from the Tanakh (Old Testament) and requires both Jews and Muslims to take two different theologically impossible positions to avoid coming to the conclusion that was built into the Torah from the very beginning.