Muslim Perspectives on St. Paul

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February 9, 2020

Bilal Muhammad is a Fellow and Research Assistant at the Berkeley Institute for Islamic Studies. He is also an MA Candidate at the University of Ottawa Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, B.Ed at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, and Honors BA in Political Science and History at the University of Toronto. He is an educator and researcher based in Toronto, Canada.

Paul is a controversial figure at the center of Christian-Muslim dialogue. While many contemporary Muslims are critical of Paul, history paints a more nuanced picture.

 

Abstract

This research paper explores a plethora of pre-modern Islamic references to St. Paul of Tarsus. Paul is spoken of in positive terms by prominent Muslim historians and exegetes, including Ibn Isḥāq, Aḥmad al-Yaʿqūbī, Al-Baghawī, Ibn al-Jawzī, Ibn Kathīr, Qurṭubī, Ibn ʿAsākir, and Shawkānī. He is oft associated with the story of the three messengers in chapter 36 of the Quran. This represents a consolidation of Christian history by Muslim scholars, creating a shared Abrahamic reverence for pre-Muhammadan figures. Furthermore, this paper reviews some explicitly negative references to St. Paul found in early Shīʿī literature.

 

Many modern Muslim polemicists involved in interfaith dialogue with Christians have made St. Paul of Tarsus the focus of their criticism. The late Muslim polemicist Ahmed Deedat described Paul as “the real founder of Christianity” and the cause of division between Christian and Islamic theology.[1] Bilal Philips, a prominent preacher and apologist, said that Paul opposed the way of the prophets and cancelled their laws.[2] Paul is credited with the antinomianism and Christology that many modern Muslims decry.

St. Paul, also known as Paul the Apostle, is the author of thirteen of the twenty-seven books in the New Testament. He claimed to have been a former Pharisee from a family of Pharisees in Philippians 3:5-6. Robert Eisenman speculates that Paul was from the Herodian family.[3] Paul was actively involved in persecuting early Christians (Acts 8:1) until he experienced a vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:4-5). Thereafter, he joined the early Church and exported Christianity to Hellenic peoples. Modern scholars have drawn parallels between the mystical content of Paul’s writings, Jewish mysticism,[4] and the theosophy of Philo.[5] With the spread of Islam into the Levant, Egypt, and Asia Minor, Muslim scholars interacted with many of the doctrines and revered figures of Christianity. While the trend today is to dismiss St. Paul outright, this was not necessarily the case among Muslims historically. This paper will document pre-modern Muslim perspectives on Paul.

Perhaps the earliest Muslim reference to St. Paul is in the Sīra of Ibn Isḥāq (d. 767 CE), which identifies him as one sent by Jesus to carry his message. “Among those who Jesus the son of Mary sent from the apostles and the disciplines after them are Peter the Apostle and Paul with him. Paul was from among the disciples, and he was not from among the apostles. They were sent to Rome.”[6] This section also documents the locations that the other apostles were sent to. Ibn Isḥāq relied on reports from Judeo-Christian sources (Isrā’īlīyāt) for his biography,[7] and he studied in Alexandria;[8] these may account for a perspective rooted in Pauline Christianity. Ṭabarī (d. 923 CE) records this same reference of Ibn Isḥāq in his Tārīkh ;[9] as does Qurṭubī in his Tafsīr .[10] The status and reception of the Sīra may represent a toleration for this collated view.

A detailed reference to St. Paul can be found in Tārīkh al-Yaʿqūbī, one of the earliest Islamic sources on the history of the world. It was written by Aḥmad al-Yaʿqūbī (d. 898 CE), an Abbasid-era historian and geographer with Shīʿī sympathies. He writes,

They began describing the order of the Messiah and calling the people to their religion. Paul was the harshest of the people against them, and he did them the most harm. He would kill them and look everywhere for them. So, he set out seeking a group [of Christians] in Damascus, when he heard a voice calling to him, saying, ‘O Paul! How long will you persecute me for?’ So, he panicked until he went blind. Then, he came to Ananias, who prayed over him until his eye healed. Afterward, he would stand in the churches, mention the Messiah and glorify him; until the Jews wanted to kill him, so he fled from them and joined the disciples in calling the people [to Christianity]. He spoke as they spoke and became ascetic in worldly matters, until all the apostles chose him as their leader. He would stand and speak about the matters of the Children of Israel and the prophets, and he would mention the state of the Messiah (or Christology, ḥāl al-massīḥ). He would say, ‘Come with us to [preach to] the nations, just as God said to the Messiah: I have made you a light unto the nations.’ So, they would go to the ends of the Earth with sincerity, and every man would speak their view. So, they said, ‘We must maintain a law (nāmūs), and send one who professes this religion to every nation, and prohibit them from eating meat sacrificed to idols, committing adultery, and eating blood.’ Paul set out to Antioch with two men to begin baptizing. Then, Paul returned, and set forth to the emperor of Rome and spoke. He mentioned the state of the Messiah, causing the community to want to kill him for desecrating their religion.[11]

This positive account of Paul appears to use the Book of Acts as a reference, as it recounts Paul’s conversion, gives him a unique station above the apostles, and maintains a set of laws. These laws seem to correspond to Acts 15:20, where Peter and James advise Paul and the apostles to teach the gentiles to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, sexual immorality, meat of strangled animals, and blood. Yaʿqūbī does not mention Paul’s antinomianism, but hints at his mystical ascetism and Christology.

saint paul icon

The icon of Saint Paul (Saul) of Tarsus in “Chiesa dei Santi Gervasio e Protasio Martiri” – The Church of Saints Gervasius and Protasius in Pavia.

Wahb b. Munabbih (d. ~725 CE) is an early authority in adīth who is known for his transmission of Isrā’īlīyāt. In the Tafsīr of al-Baghawī (d. 1122), in the exegesis of Surat Yāsīn, a tradition from Wahb b. Munabbih states that Paul was one of the messengers sent to a community of disbelievers: “’We sent two to them’ (36:14). Wahb said: John and Paul … ‘so We strengthened them with a third’ (36:14) the third messenger was Simon [Peter].”[12] Al-Baghawī identifies these “apostles” as messengers sent by Jesus to the city of Antioch.[13] After the first to were sent, calling the city and its king to abandon their idols, they were imprisoned and flogged. So, Jesus sent Peter to assist them, whereupon he cured a child of his blindness in the company of the king.

One of the earliest exegeses is that of Muqātil b. Sulaymān (d. 767 CE), a Sunni or Zaydi storyteller, who reported that the two messengers were Thomas and Paul.[14] The same account is reported by Ibn al-Jawzī (d. 1201 CE) in his Tafsīr .[15] Ibn Kathīr (d. 1373 CE) reports from a different chain that the first two messengers were Peter and John, and the third messenger was Paul.[16] Shawkānī repeats this in his Tafsīr .[17] Of course, historically, Paul had never physically met Jesus during the latter’s ministry; and although this story is common in Muslim exegeses, it is not found in Christian literature.

In the chronicle Tārīkh Dimishq by Ibn ʿAsākir (d. 1175 CE), another report by Wahb details the story of Paul.

Paul was from the leaders of the Jews.  He was the harshest among them and the most spiteful among them in rejecting what the Messiah brought … he gathered soldiers and went to the Messiah to kill him and prevent him from entering Damascus. So, he (Jesus) sent a meteor to him, and an angel struck him with its wing and blinded him. Thus, he saw a proof for what he had brought … resulting in his belief and confirmation of it. So, he met the Messiah upon that, and he asked him to heal his eye. The Messiah said, ‘How long will you harm me and harm those with me?’[18]

The text continues to say that Jesus directed him to Ananias. This tradition implies that Paul was working against Jesus during his ministry and was even involved in gathering troops to fight against him. It seems to muddle the post-resurrection period by implying that Jesus was heading to Damascus at the same time that Paul was.

Perhaps the classical references that are most critical of St. Paul are those in the Twelver Shīʿī adīth literature. In the Tafsīr of ʿAlī b. Ibrāhīm al-Qummī (d. 919 CE), a narration attributed to Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq says,

God did not send a prophet except that his nation had two devils that harmed him and misguided the people after him … as for the two of Jesus, they are Paul and Marītūn.[19]

It is unclear who Marītūn refers to – perhaps Matthew or Mark, the authors of two of the four gospels. The narration however is correct in saying that Paul’s ministry came after Jesus’, unlike some of the previous accounts.

In Thawāb al-Aʿmāl, a book of reports compiled by Shaykh al-Ṣadūq (d. 991 CE), the following quote from Muḥammad al-Bāqir can be found:

“[In the pit of hell] there are seven chests, five containing persons from the previous nations, and two containing persons from this nation. As for the five, they are (1) Cain, who killed Abel, (2) Nimrod, who challenged Abraham regarding his Lord, saying ‘I give life and I give death,’ (3) Pharaoh, who said ‘I am your Highest Lord,’ (4) a Jew who Judaized the Jews, (5) Paul, who Christianized the Christians, (6-7) and from this nation, two Bedouins.”[20]

There are other sources to one who “Christianized the Christians”, an expression referring to one who took the people from Christ’s teachings to a deviated practice.

A similar adīth about the pit of hell can be found in Kāmil al-Ziyārāt by Ibn Qulawayh (d. 977 CE), where Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq says,

Therein is all those who taught disbelief (kufr) to the servants … Paul, who taught the Jews that God’s hand is tied, Nestorius, who taught the Christians that the Messiah is the son of God, and said to them ‘they are a trinity’.[21]

 This narration seems to mix up its historical personalities: Paul is not known to be influential among Jews (regardless of his claim of being a former Pharisee), and Nestorius (d. 450 CE) was known for opposing the use of the title “Mother of God” (theotokos) for Mary. It is of course plausible that this is a reference to a different Paul, although the Arabization of the Latin name would suggest that it is referring to St. Paul. Furthermore, while Nestorius did not produce the concept of the Trinity, he was indeed a promoter of it.

An early cryptic Sunni reference that may indirectly refer to Paul can be found in the Musnad of Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal (d. 855 CE). Also on the theme of hell, the Prophet Muḥammad reportedly says, “The arrogant ones will be resurrected on the Day of Resurrection and made into particles in the image of people. They will be stepped on by belittled ones until they enter a prison in hell called ‘Būlus.’”[22] Whether the use of the same Arabic word for “Paul” is just a coincidence cannot be ascertained, but in light of other narrations that associated Paul with hell, it is possible that the use of this name was deliberate.

Lastly, Rajab al-Bursī (d. 1411), a Shīʿī mystic quoted a saying, attributing it to God in the Injīl: “Know yourself, O people, and you will know your Lord. Your outer self will be annihilated, and your inner self will remain.”[23] This saying is used in mystical Shīʿī circles today, often with a slightly different wording; “… and your inner self is Me (wa thāhiruka ana).” A similar passage can be found in 2 Corinthians 4:16, in which St. Paul says, “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day-by-day.” Al-Bursī probably considered the epistles to be an extension of the Injīl, and thus considered its words to be sacred and divinely inspired.

There are several lessons that can be extracted from this review of relevant literature. It seems that many of the pro-Pauline references represent a consolidation of Christian history into the Islamic paradigm. The Quran emphasizes a belief in forerunning books and messengers, making “no distinction between any of His messengers.” (2:285) This principle perhaps created an attitude that was accepting of revered Christian figures. The use of Judeo-Christian lore in early exegeses demonstrates a permissive universalism.

Likewise, the effort to clamp down on Isrā’īlīyāt demonstrates a need for Islam to be distinct and purified from earlier traditions. The copying of stories from one century to another may represent an uncritical attitude that many prominent scholars had toward pre-Islamic lore. Historical discrepancies between the Islamic accounts of Paul and the Christian accounts may be the result of hearsay or lost sources. Paul’s appearance in exegeses of Surat Yāsīn can be attributed to prominence of Paul’s relationship with Antioch, which is the burial place of Ḥabīb al-Najjār, the Islamic saint mentioned in the same Surah. The anti-Paulinism of some Shīʿī sources may be a more informed response to St. Paul’s ideas; or it may be inherited from Jamesian Jewish Christians. More research needs to be done on whether the epistles of Paul were considered part of the Injīl in the seventh century, as that may bring about new questions. Research into the development of the Muslim position that the Bible has been distorted would be welcomed.


[1] Ahmed Deedat, Crucifixion or Cruci-fiction?, 1-2.

[2] Bilal Philips, The True Message of Jesus, 73-74.

[3] Robert Eisenman, “Paul as Herodian”, https://depts.drew.edu/jhc/eisenman.html (accessed January 24th 2020).

[4] Timo Eskola, Messiah and the Throne: Jewish Markabah Mysticism and Early Exaltation Discourse.

[5] Samuel Zinner, The Gospel of Thomas in the Light of Early Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Esoteric Trajectories.

[6] Ibn Hisham, al-Sira al-Nabawiyya, https://bit.ly/2GisfWn (accessed January 24th, 2020)

[7] Aaron Hughes, Muslim and Jew: Origin, Growth, Resentment, 15-40

[8] “Ibn Ishaq”, Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ibn-Ishaq (accessed January 24th 2020).

[9] Moshe Perlmann, The History of al-Tabari, Vol. 4, 123

[10] Qurtubi, Tafsir al-Qurtubi, http://quran.ksu.edu.sa/tafseer/qortobi/sura61-aya14.html (accessed January 24th 2020).

[11] Ahmad al-Ya`qubi, Tarikh al-Ya`qubi, 89.

[12] Al-Baghawi, Ma`alim al-Tanzil, Vol. 7, 12.

[13] Ibid, 12-14.

[14] Ibn al-Jawzi, Zad al-Masir fi `Ilm al-Tafsir, 1169.

[15] Ibid, 1169.

[16] Ibn Kathir, Tafsir Ibn Kathir, https://quran.ksu.edu.sa/tafseer/katheer/sura36-aya14.html#katheer (accessed January 24th 2020).

[17] Shawkani, Tafsir Fath al-Qadir, Vol. 2, 480.

[18] Ibn Asakir, Tarikh Medinat Dimishq, Vol. 15, 333.

[19] Ali b. Ibrahim al-Qummi, Tafsir al-Qummihttps://bit.ly/2RMHR9S (accessed January 24th, 2020).

[20] Saduq, Thawab al-A`mal, https://bit.ly/2TUsVJz (accessed January 24th, 2020).

[21] Ibn Qulawayh, Kamil al-Ziyarat, https://bit.ly/2O0OW5C (accessed January 24th, 2020).

[22] Ahmad b. Hanbal, Musnad Ahmad b. Hanbal, Vol. 6, 232.

[23] Hurr al-Amili, al-Jawahir al-Sanniyya, https://bit.ly/3aMbzVh (accessed January 24th, 2020).

2020-03-10T02:29:27-08:00

Bilal Muhammad

Bilal Muhammad is a Fellow and Research Assistant at the Berkeley Institute for Islamic Studies. He is also an MA Candidate at the University of Ottawa Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, B.Ed at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, and Honors BA in Political Science and History at the University of Toronto. He is an educator and researcher based in Toronto, Canada.
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