In his Letter to Obadiah the Proselyte, the great scholar Rabbi Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) states: “The Ishmaelites are not idol worshippers in the least, and [polytheism] has been long cut off from their mouths and their hearts, and they worship the singular God properly and without any blemish.” [But, while] “It is permitted to teach the commandments to Christians and to attract them to our religion, it is not permitted to do the same with the Ishmaelites,” he writes.
“This is because Christians never denied the authenticity of our Torah, they merely added their mistaken beliefs on top of it, but they and we believe both in the Torah’s sanctity and in the fact that it is an accurate representation of the original Torah delivered to the Jews by God through Moses.
“The Muslims, on the other hand, even though their Qur’an describes the giving of the Torah to the Jews, they insist that wherever their version differs from what’s in our Torah, this is because we either made mistakes in copying our texts, or, worse, [intentionally] falsified our texts.”
This charge that “we either made mistakes in copying our texts, or, worse, falsified our texts” is called by Muslims Tahrif. What Medieval Islam called Tahrif is called by modern scholars various versions of texts. Dr. Natia Mirotadze, a post-doctoral researcher at the department of Biblical Studies and Church History of Salzburg University points out in an article on the Times of Israel (March 3, 2023) that the Hebrew book of Esther was translated into Greek and also expanded with additions during the 1st century B.C.E.
It was then revised into two further textual forms. A fourth version preserved only in a late first-millennium Old Georgian translation combines all three Greek texts. The Hebrew book of Esther only exists in the Masoretic text (MT).
Dr. Mirotadze states: “No fragment of an Esther scroll has been found among the Qumran Scrolls, but Qumran 4Q550, contains an Aramaic text referring to Esther, which seems to come from the Masoretic text. This text is also known as 4Q Jews-at-the-Persian-Court. See, Kristen de Troyer, “Once More, the So-Called Esther Fragments of Cave 4,” Revue de Qumran 19.3 (2000): 40122. According to a note on the Old Greek Esther, three different dates are possible: 114/13 B.C.E., 78/77 B.C.E., or 48 B.C.E.
The Old Greek Esther is likely the oldest translation of the book of Esther into Greek. Much of it is an accurate translation of the MT, but it also includes six extra blocks of text distributed in appropriate parts of the story, with no basis in the Hebrew original. The author of these six additions (probably the translator of the Hebrew version into Greek) added several small elements to the story.
Dr. Mirotadze points to two examples of expansion: Once Haman convinces Ahasuerus to allow him to destroy the Jews, the book of Esther (3:12–15) reports that Haman sends out a royal edict. This addition provides a copy of that edict. And after Haman is executed, Ahasuerus allows Mordechai and Esther to write a new edict that combats the old one. Again, the Greek fills in by writing the text of the edict.
There are also examples of translations subtracting material from the book of Esther. The third Greek version is extant only in an Old Latin translation. The Latin text eliminates the account of the killing of Haman’s sons. It moves instead straight from the enemies of the Jews being afraid in the opening verses of chapter nine to Mordechai writing down the events in a book and establishing the festival (9:21–23). Jean-Claude Haelewyck of the Catholic University of Louvain, calls the Latin version “a peaceful text.” because the editor deliberately removed the “vengeful side” from the book.
Tahrif usually is meant to refer to a twisted, distorted or incorrect interpretation of a whole verse or just one word; but sometimes it refers to the actual elimination of some words or even a whole verse or two from a holy text. A good Jewish example of this in the Biblical book of Nehemiah 10:35 is given by Dr. Alex P. Jassen, Associate Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University.
“Bringing wood for the Jerusalem Temple altar was an important celebration in Second Temple times. To ground this customary practice in the (written) Torah, Nehemiah (10:35) describes it as a Torah law, while the Dead Sea Qumran Scrolls ‘Temple Scroll’ (11Q19) and the ‘Reworked Pentateuch Scroll’ (4Q365) include it in their biblical festival calendar.
Nehemiah states (10:35: “We have cast lots [among] the priests, the Levites, and the people, to bring the wood offering to the house of our God (clan) by clan annually at set times in order to provide fuel for the altar of our God, as is written in the Torah”.
But this custom is not written anywhere in the Torah or the books of the Hebrew Prophets.
It is true says Dr. Jassen, that during the Second Temple period, a ritual or festival of bringing wood to the Temple was observed. The first century CE Jewish historian Josephus describes the practice: On the next day (14th of Av), which was the Feast of Wood-carrying, on which it was a custom for everyone to bring chopped wood to the altar so that fuel for the fire might never end.
Josephus implicitly connects the practice of donating wood to Leviticus 6:5-6: “The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out: every morning the priest shall feed wood to it, lay out the burnt offering on it, and turn into smoke the fat parts of the offerings of well-being. A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar.”
But it is not written explicitly: “We have cast lots [among] the priests, the Levites, and the people, to bring the wood offering to the house of our God (clan) by clan annually at set times in order to provide fuel for the altar of our God” The scribes who transmitted these Torah texts did not copy their texts verbatim, but engaged in the editorial practices of harmonization and expansion.
In order to understand the Islamic view of Tahrif and why five verses in the Qur’an refer to the tafsir (interpretation) practices of some Orthodox Jewish rabbis as tahrif; we must begin with the five verses themselves.
1—“O Muslims, do you then expect that these people will accept your invitation and become believers? whereas there have always been among them some who have been hearing the Word of God, understanding it well and then perverting and tampering with it knowingly.” (2:74)
2—“But woe to them who fake the Scriptures and say: “This is from God,” so that they might earn some profit thereby; and woe to them for what they fake, and woe to them for what they earn from it!” (2:78)
3—“Among the Jews are those (some) 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 cursed them for their disbelief, so they believe not, except for a few (some).” (4:46)
4—“And, behold, there are indeed some among them who distort the Bible with their tongues, to make you think that [what they say] is from the Bible, the while it is not from the Bible; and who say, “This is from God,” the while it is not from God: and thus do they tell a lie about God, being well aware [it is a lie].” (3:78)
5—“But because of their breach of their covenant, We cursed them, and made their hearts grow hard; they change the words from their (right) places and forget a good part of the message that was sent them, nor will you cease to find them- barring a few (some) – ever bent on (new) deceits: but forgive them, and overlook (their misdeeds): for Allah loves those who are kind.” (5:13)
First, as Qur’an 2:74 states:…there have always been among them some who have been hearing the Word of God, understanding it well and then perverting and tampering with it knowingly.” The key word is some. As Qur’an 3:78 states: “And, behold, there are indeed some among them who distort the Bible with their tongues, so as to make you think that [what they say] is from the (written) Bible, the while it is not from the (written) .Bible; and who say, “This is from God,” while it is not from God: and thus they tell a lie about God, being well aware [it is a lie].”
As Qur’an 3:199 clearly states: “Indeed, among the People of the Scripture are those (some) who believe in Allah and what was revealed to you and what was revealed to them, [being] humbly submissive to Allah. They do not exchange the (written) verses of Allah for a small price (the Oral Torah). Those will have their reward with their Lord. Indeed, Allah is swift in account.”
One of the most important concepts of Rabbinic Judaism is making a fence around the Torah (asu s’yag latorah). The term is found in the very first passage of Avot (Pirke Avot) as part of a “genealogy” of Rabbinic Authority: “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and committed it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, the elders to the Prophets, the Prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence around the Torah.”
Just as a fence around a yard or house protects it, many of the Rabbinic innovations and expansions were designed to protect the commandments in the Torah from being transgressed. These developments were not seen as additions or subtractions (prohibited by the Torah in Deuteronomy 4.2 and 13.1), but rather as aids in avoiding the transgression of Torah laws.
Only Orthodox Jews today maintain that the Oral Torah is of equal, or even greater, importance than the written Torah. Most non-Orthodox Jews view the Oral Torah as helpful in a similar way as the Hadith are helpful to understanding the Qur’an, especially in the realm of religious law Muslim-Shariah and Jewish-Halakah.
Second the Qur’an itself states:,,,but forgive them, and overlook (their misdeeds): for Allah loves those who are kind.” (5:13) This is because one should never blame a whole group for the sins of some members of the group. That is what Islamophobes do when they blame all Muslims for the actions of some Muslim terrorists.
As the Qur’an states: “Believers, be steadfast in the cause of God and bear witness with justice. Do not let your enmity for others turn you away from justice. Deal justly; that is nearer to being God-fearing.” (Quran 5:8) This verse abrogates any other verse which can be used to defame or denigrate any other monotheistic religion.
Professer Paul B. Fenton of the Université Paris-Sorbonne (Paris IV) states: “On the whole a relatively small fraction of medieval Muslim literature is devoted to anti-Judaic polemic, and the same is true of anti-Islamic texts in Jewish literature. The reason for this on the Muslim side is that, both theologically and politically, Jews represented much less of a (military) hreat to Islam than did Christians. Consequently, they were not worth refuting except in countries where they were the only religious minority, such as in the Maghreb, where indeed anti-Jewish tracts were more numerous.
From the Jewish side, it was forbidden to polemicize against Islam, an offense incurring capital punishment, or at least the annulment of the dhimma, or ‘the pact of tolerance’. Unlike the Jews of Christendom who would often (be forced to) engage in public disputations on religious issues, the Jews of Arab lands were, as (Rabbi) Maimonides puts it ‘sufferers in silence’.