Islam teaches the Torah is corrupted / tahrif, but what does that mean?

The Quran explicitly states that the Torah of Jews has been corrupted [tahrif]. A popular thought amongst Muslims today is that tahrif implies they changed the text of the Torah. We encourage our readers to reject this opinion in favour of the earliest and most credible sources which explicitly state the text of the Torah is intact, but Banu Yisrael misinterpreted it.

c. 0-50 AH

Shortly after the Prophet’s (PBUH) death

Ibn AbbasMisinterpreted the text

Al-Bukhari reported that Ibn ‘Abbas said [the Jews] alter and add although none among Allah’s creation can remove the words from His book, they alter and distort their apparent meaning” – with this Hadith it is clear that those who walked with the Prophet (PBUH) believed the text of the Torah was original, while holding the view that the Jews perverted their interpretation.
154 AH

164 years after the Prophet’s (PBUH) death

Ibn al-Layth Misinterpreted the text

In the year 796 Abu l-Rabi Muhammad ibn al-Layth (a courtier to Kalif Harun al-Rashid ) penned a letter1 to Constatine VI stating that the word “tahrif” should be read as the Jews had distorted their sense. “Whoever looks in the books of the prophets will find Muhammad (PBUH) mentioned, but the people of the book have obscured these references by changing their interpretation”. Ibn al-Layth categorically denies the possibility of passages having been added to, or omitted from, the scriptures, and he then goes on to use the text of the Torah as proof of the authenticity of the Torah (a belief both he and the kalif share).

1 Risalat Abi l-Rabiʿ Muhammad ibn al-Layth allati katabaha li-l-Rashod ila Qustantin malik al-Rum
213 AH

223 years after the Prophet’s (PBUH) death

Ibn Rabban Misinterpreted the text

In the year 855 Ali ibn Rabban al-Tabari reaffirmed what al-Layth said2 before him, that the Jews distorted their interpretation of the scriptures and not of the text itself. Both al-Layth and ibn Rabban connected prophecies contained in the Torah to Muhammad (PBUH).

2 Kitab al-din al-dawla
c 190 AH

200 years after the Prophet’s (PBUH) death

Ibn Qutayba Misinterpreted the text

Ibn Qutayba used the Torah as a proof that the coming of Muhammad (PBUH) had been foretold by the Torah… throughout his numerous works like al-Layth he used the Torah as source of authentic historical reference. There can be no question that Ibn Qutayba believed tahrif to mean incorrect interpretation of a genuine text.
c 230 AH

240 years after the Prophet’s (PBUH) death

Al-Ya’qubi Misinterpreted the text

Ahmad al-Ya’qubi accepted evidence from the Torah throughout his works. This stands as a testament to his belief that the Torah was uncorrupted, as no scholar would use a corrupted text as a source of proof.
c 250 AH

260 years after the Prophet’s (PBUH) death

Al-Tabari Misinterpreted the text

Abu Ja’far Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabar explains two separate instances of the word “tahrif” in the Torah:

  1. When Moses ordered the Israelites to express their repentance, they used a phrase other than the one they had been commanded to use. The distortion that was an oral one, and not written.
  2. Al-Tabari explicitly states that when the seventy elders that had accompanied Moses (PBUH) to Mount Sinai returned to the Israelites, some of them gave a false report of what they heard, distorting G-d’s spoken words, but not the written Torah.
c 290 AH

300 years after the Prophet’s (PBUH) death

Al-Baqillani Misinterpreted the text

Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn al-Tayyib al-Baqillani was of the opinion that the words of Moses were still extant in their Hebrew original and that the Jews had inadvertently made mistakes in their translations.
305 AH

315 years after the Prophet’s (PBUH) death

Al-Ma’sudi Misinterpreted the text

Abu al-Hasan Ali ibn al-Husayn ibn Ali al-Mas’udi wrote3 that in the context of the Torah the word “tahrif” means that the Jews had distorted the sense of the Torah and not the text.

3 Muruj adh-dhahab wa ma’adin al-jawahir
c 340 AH

350 years after the Prophet’s (PBUH) death

Al-Muqaddasi Changed the text

Al-Muqaddasi was the first author to deviate from the traditional understanding of “tahrif” with his suggestion that the very text of the Torah had suffered distortion. It took 300 years for a scholar to suggest this innovative idea and despite it being incompatible with the view of far greater scholars before him, it is this view that is most popular today.
390 AH

400 years after the Prophet’s (PBUH) death

Ibn Hazm Changed the text

The most influential accusation of Jews falsifying the text of the Torah came 400 years after the death of Muhammad (PBUH) from Ibn Hazm an Andalusian scholar that denied Mosiac authorship and instead charged Ezra (Uzair) with penning the text we read today.4 This was a radical change from predecessors like Ibn Qutayba and Al-Tabari who not only believed the original words were extant, but that it was Ezra who reinstated them after they had been forgotten.

4 Al-Fisal fi al-Milal wal-Ahwa wal-Nihal
390 AH

400 years after the Prophet’s (PBUH) death

al-Biruni Misinterpreted & changed the text

Abu Rayḥan al-Biruni a contemporary of Ibn-Hazm found prophetic allusions to Muahammad (PBUH) in the Torah 5, while simultaneously holding the belief that some of the words had been altered by Banu Yisrael.

5 Athar al-baqiyah

In the words of Sheikh Abdul Hadi Palazzi

In classical Arabic, this word [tahrif] can either mean “alteration” (in the text), or “misinterpretation” (in the sense). While most of contemporary Muslim propagandists take only the first possible meaning into consideration, plenty of authoritative scholars of old (including Imam al-Ghazali and Shaykh Muhiddin Ibn ‘Arabi) prefer the second one, and support their point of view through ahadith which are universally accepted as authentic. According to on of them, the Prophet Muhammad asked the Jews of Medina to bring their Torah Scroll and to read from it to confirm a verdict (and the argument is “were that Scroll adulterated, the Prophet would have never judged on its base”). According to another hadith, he met Jews who were bringing a Torah Scroll in procession, kissed the Scroll and said “amantu bika wa amantu bima fik” (I believe in you and in yours contents). The argument here is “were that Scroll adulterated, the Prophet would have never said ‘I believe in your contents’.”. As a Muslim scholar, I think that showing all these and other legal proof in Islam is the best way to lead Muslims to recognize the Divine character of the Torah as the Jews have it today.

Thanks to Camilla Adang and Theodore Pulcini who’s work much of this article was based upon

4 thoughts on “Islam teaches the Torah is corrupted / tahrif, but what does that mean?

  1. As-Salâmu ‘aleyckum.

    From what I have learned, and that is not much admittedly, there are four traditions for the understanding of Tahrif:

    1: Those who believe that the whole Torah, as we know it today, has been falsified.
    2: Those who believe that most of the Torah has been falsified.
    3: Those who believe that most of the Torah, as we know it today, is as it was originally, but that parts talking about Muhammad has been moved (which I believe is the opinion of ash-Shafi’î?).
    4: Those, who the quotes relates in your post, who believe that the Torah is as it was, but it is the interpretation which has been falsified.

    I read an article about al-Biqâ’î, who was of the third group, who wrote a tafsir based on Biblical accounts, since most of the Bible – according to him – wasn’t changed and therefore to be considered part of Nass, or at least crucial in the understanding of Nass. It is interesting to see that a modern scholar like Gabriel Said Reynolds holds a somewhat similar thought, namely that the study of al-Qur’ân, at least in the academic world, should be conducted in relation to its Biblical subtext, rather than later tafsirs, which is mostly the case today.

    Thanks for the post:o)

    All the best

  2. Thank you for your informative post Shmuel.

    The purpose of this post was to document the earliest and arguably most authentic opinions. If we take your 4 categories and find the earliest source we think it looks like this:

    1. We can’t find any trace of this view for at least the first 500 years after the Prophet’s (PBUH) death.
    2. The earliest source of this opinion we can find is ibn Hazm
    3. The earliest source of this opinion we can finds is al-Muqaddasi
    4. Pre-al-Muqaddasi this is the only opinion we were able to find.

  3. Can you cite the verses in the Quran that state the Torah has been corrupted?

  4. Here are three verses that state the Jews distort the Torah:

    Do you covet [the hope, O believers], that they would believe for you while a party of them used to hear the words of Allah and then distort the Torah after they had understood it while they were knowing?

    – 2:75

    Among the Jews are those who distort words from their [proper] usages and say, “We hear and disobey” and “Hear but be not heard” and “Ra’ina,” twisting their tongues and defaming the religion. And if they had said [instead], “We hear and obey” and “Wait for us [to understand],” it would have been better for them and more suitable. But Allah has cursed them for their disbelief, so they believe not, except for a few.

    – 4:46

    So for their breaking of the covenant We cursed them and made their hearts hard. They distort words from their [proper] usages and have forgotten a portion of that of which they were reminded. And you will still observe deceit among them, except a few of them. But pardon them and overlook [their misdeeds]. Indeed, Allah loves the doers of good.

    - 5:13

    These verses seem allude to a distortion of sense/interpretation, over a textual change.

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