By Dr Jonathan Brown. This article was initially published at Al-Medina Institute.
Why does the Quran tell us that the Jews claim Ezra (ʿUzayr) is the son of God (Quran 9:30), when Jews do not make this claim or anything approaching it? This is not a question that arose just recently during an interfaith panel. It’s not a new question at all. Even in the ninth century, the Zaydi Imam and renowned scholar al-Qāsim b Ibrāhīm al-Rassī (d. 860 CE), who had studied Jewish and Christian scriptures in Egypt and who had engaged in debates with priests and rabbis, said that he had never encountered a Jew who believed Ezra was the son of God.1 Nor was this a question that Muslims pondered at ease in the libraries of Baghdad or Cordoba. As early as the ninth century, Muslim scholars like al-Jāḥiẓ (d. 868, who wrote a famous rebuttal of Christianity) were being confronted by Christian opponents who argued that the Ezra claim was evidence that the Quran contained patent falsehoods. So is the Quran wrong in attributing this belief to Jews? Is it rebutting the belief of a community that never actually held that belief? How should we understand this?
An explanation given by Muslim scholars from the time of al-Jāḥiẓ and al-Ṭabarī (d. 923) was that this belief had, in fact, been held by a group of Jews in Arabia, but that this sect had died out. Ibn Ḥazm, the famous Andalusian scholar (d. 1064), wrote that there was a group of Jews in Yemen who believed this.2 (Interestingly, an inscription from a 4th-6th-century CE Jewish temple in South Arabia suggests possible angel worship).3 A second explanation was that this Quranic verse related to the verse immediately following it: ‘They have taken their rabbis and monks as lords apart from God…’ (Quran 9:31). In other words, Jews venerated Ezra so much that it was as if he were a god to them.4]
Muslim scholars found a basis for the first claim – that some Jews actually considered Ezra to be the son of God – in a Jewish work entitled The Fourth Book of Ezra (probably composed in the first century CE), which had not been included in the Hebrew Bible but which rabbis still read and consulted (it belongs to a body of works known as the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, namely works that claimed to be written by some Old Testament figures such as Enoch but which were really produced in the Hellenistic or early Roman periods). Fourth Ezra tells how Ezra led the Children of Israel after their return from the Babylonian exile, when their scriptures had been lost (this is all in the Bible’s book of Ezra as well). Ezra is given inspiration by God to reconstitute the Torah in 451 BCE. As a reward, God tells Ezra that “You shall be taken up from among men, and henceforth you shall live with my son….” Here it is important to remember that, like the belief of the Quraysh that angels were the daughters of God (“We worship the angels, who are daughters of God,” said the Quraysh to the Prophet in Ibn Isḥāq’s Sīra; see also Quran 17:40, 37:150-53), in Jewish scriptures of this period angels were called the children of God.5
But there does not seem to be any strong evidence that the Jews of western Arabia at the time of the Prophet ﷺ believed this about Ezra. The problem is that we do not have any external sources (in other words, non-Muslim sources) for what Jews in Arabia believed. As F.E. Peters observed, the Quran is pretty much the only source we have for what Jews believed in seventh-century Arabia.6
Another possibility is that ʿUzayr as mentioned in the Quran was never a one-for-one counterpart of Ezra. First, the Quran does not actually specify that Jews believed that Ezra was the son of God; it says that they said that ʿUzayr was the son of God. The Quran provides no more information about ʿUzayr, nor do the mainstay Hadith collections. A Hadith in Sahih al-Bukhari reiterates the claim made in the Quran, and a Hadith in the Sunan of Abū Dāwūd quotes the Prophet ﷺ as saying that he does not know if ʿUzayr is a prophet or not.7 What other information we find in less critical collections of Hadiths comes from stories drawn from figures like the Successor (and Jewish convert to Islam) Kaʿb al-Aḥbār (d. circa 653) and the early collector of stories of the prophets, Wahb b. Munabbih (d. 732), without any chain of transmission to any authoritative source.8
The persona of Ezra was highly complex in the milieu in which the Quran was revealed. The figures of Enoch (Idrīs in the Islamic tradition) and Ezra were intermingled in the Hellenistic and early Roman periods (roughly 300 BCE – 100 CE), particularly in a body of religio-philosophical writing called the Hermetic Corpus (appeared in Greek circa 1st – 4th centuries CE).9 All this occurred before Islam, so it would not have been the Quran confusing Ezra with someone else. The Quran would have been referring to a character who had already emerged as a composite figure in the overall body of Judeo-Christian material circulating in the Near East in the centuries before Islam.
Enoch and Ezra were closely associated with one another because both were referred to as ‘The Scribe’ and both were elevated to angelic status. But in the case of Enoch, he was not simply referred to as an angelic ‘son of God.’ In another famous Old Testament Pseudeprigrapha, The Book of Enoch (which dates early second century BCE to first century CE), Enoch is raised up to the status of the righteous ‘son of man,’ i.e., an angel with the appearance of a man (II Enoch 46.1, 71.14). But in III Enoch (which perhaps dates from 5th to the 7th centuries CE) he is transformed into the Metatron (yes, Metatron!), a super archangel who is designated the ‘lesser God (Yahweh)’ (III Enoch 12.5).10 The figure of the Metatron appears in the Babylonian Talmud11](circa 500 CE), the predominant expression of rabbinic Judaism in the Near East at the time, as well as in the Hekhalot literature (literature of mystical ascent), which developed in the region from the 6th-7th centuries.12
While we do not have direct information from Jewish sources about what the Jews of Arabia believed at the time of the Prophet ﷺ, we do know that many of the other beliefs that the Quran mentions Jews having were, in fact, found in the Babylonian Talmud (for example, the belief that Abraham would descend into Hell to remove all the Jews, and thus that they would only be punished there ‘for an hour’, reminiscent of Quran 2:80).13 And we know that a belief in Ezra/Enoch assuming the status of a super angel was common among Jews in Babylon/Iraq, the nearest and most influential center of Jewish thought and lore in the area in which the Quran was revealed. In fact, in 8th-century Baghdad, when a Jewish movement named Karaite Judaism emerged as a response to Rabbinic Judaism, one of its criticisms of mainstream Rabbinic Judaism was that it worshiped the Metatron as a archangel and substitute for God.14
The question of what the Quran means by its mention of Jews and ʿUzayr reminds us of an important question, one that has occupied Muslims since the death of the Prophet ﷺ: Is everything in the Quran eternally binding upon Muslims? If not, how do we know which parts are and which parts aren’t? This would require volumes to answer, since it is, in truth, the single greatest engine of thought in the Islamic tradition.
But briefly, Muslims have always held that the Quran was and remains ‘suitable for all times and all places (ṣālih li-kull zamān wa kull makān).’ But this applies to the revelation as a whole, not to all its particular rules and references. To offer a blunt, non-legal example: ‘Perish the hands of Abū Lahab’ (Quran 111:1) will always be true, but it only applies to one person – Abū Lahab – and he has been dead for fourteen centuries. In the realm of law that could be binding on Muslims, the ulama have also concluded that some legal commands of the Quran applied only in the time of the Prophet. For example, in Surat al-Mumtahana, God commands the Muslims to refuse to return Meccan women who had fled to Medina as Muslims but instead to compensate their husbands by sending them the equivalent of the mahr. Although a minority of scholars has considered this ruling to have continued, so that, when believing women flee from outside the Abode of Islam to Muslims lands, Muslims might have to compensate their husbands, the vast majority of Muslim scholars consider this ruling to have ceased to apply.15 In the case of the Jews and ʿUzayr/Ezra, the same principle applies to a question of theology. The Quran’s discussion of what Jews believe ceases to be applicable once they stop believing it, and it would be sheer ignorance for Muslims to insist that our discussions with Jews hinge on obsolete tenets of faith.
Note: It’s also possible that, in the religious climate of pre-Islamic Arabia, ʿUzayr was actually a reference to Azarias, a figure connected to the Old Testament Book of Daniel. He is one of the Jews thrown into the fire by the Babylonians. But instead of burning, he looks like ‘a son of God’ (Daniel, 3:25). This story was reported by Wahb b. Munabbih and Ibn Qutayba (d. 889).16
1. Wilfred Madelung, Der Imām al-Qāsim ibn Ibrāhīm und die Glaubenslehre der Zaiditen (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1965), 90.
2. Viviane Comerro “Esdras est-il le fils de Dieu?,” Arabica, 52, no. 2 (2005): 166.
3. An scription from a synagogue in Ḥimyar says that the temple is named after Ṣūrī’īl, close to name of angel Suri’el; Christian Robin, ‘Le Judaisme de Ḥimyar,” Arabia 1 (2003): 108; José Costa, “Les Juifs d’Arabie dans la litterature talmudique,” in Le Judaism de l’Arabie critique (Brepols, 2015), 472-481.
4. Comerro, ibid.
5. Ibn Isḥāq, The Life of Muhammad, trans. A. Guillaume (Oxford: Oxford U. Press, originally published in 1955), 134; D.S. Russell, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 108-112; Viviane Comerro “Esdras est-il le fils de Dieu?,” Arabica, 52, no. 2 (2005): 165-181.
6. F.E. Peters, Muhammad and the Origins of Islam (Albany: SUNY Press, 1994), 261 (ebook).
7. Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī: kitāb al-tafsīr, bāb sūrat al-furqān; Sunan Abī Dāwūd: kitāb al-sunna, bāb fī al-takhyīr bayn al-anbiyā’ ʿalayhim al-salām.
8. See, for example, Muḥammad al-Kisā’ī’s Tales of the Prophet, trans. Wheeler Thackston, Jr. (Chicago: Great Books of the Islamic World, 1997), 69.
9. Fred Lapham, An Introduction to the New Testament Apocrypha (New York: T&T Clark, 2003), 38-39.
10. D.R. Russell, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 42-3.
11. See Babylonian Talmud, Hagiga 125a; Sanhedrin 38b.
12. Beate Ego, “Hekhalot literature,” Brill’s New Pauly, ed. Hubert Cancik and Helmuth Schneider.
13. From José Costa, “Les Juifs d’Arabie dans la litterature talmudique,” 472-481
14. Gordon Newby, A History of the Jews of Arabia (U. South Carolina Press, 1988), 59-61.
15. Abū Manṣūr al-Māturīdī, Ta’wīlāt al-Qur’ān, ed. Bekir Topaloğlu et al., 17 vols. (Istanbul: Dār al-Mīzān, 2006), 15:125.
16. Comerro, ibid.