Jews and Muslims can take a cue from the words of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel of Mark below:
“So the Pharisees and (the rabbinic) scribes questioned Jesus: “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders (the Oral Torah)? Instead, they eat with defiled hands (hands not washed according to prescribed ritual).” (Gospel of Mark 7:5)
Prophet Jesus replied to the Pharisees and scribes who had expanded the Torah’s Oral Torah Laws:
“Thus you nullify the word of God by your (own) tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.” (Gospel of Mark 7:13)
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Jesus was responding to the dangerous excesses of his time, just as Muhammad was addressing those of his time, excesses which served only to degrade and nullify the previously revealed Words of God. Like Prophet Jesus, Prophet Muhammad said things which were
…confirming what was before me [Muhammad] of the Torah and [I have come to you] to make lawful for you [Jews] some of what was forbidden to you [in the Oral Torah]. And I have come to you with a sign from your Lord, so fear Allah and obey me.” (Qur’an 3:50)
“All food was lawful to the Children of Israel except what Israel [Prophet Jacob] had made unlawful to himself before the Torah was revealed [to Prophet Moses]. Say, [O Muhammad], “So bring the [written] Torah and recite it, if you should be truthful [that it is written there].” (Qur’an 3:93)
Jewish Oral Law
Jewish Oral Law stands alongside the Torah, as the Hadith stand alogside the Qur’an.
As an Islamic term, Taḥrif 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 from a holy text. A parallel Jewish example of this is in the Biblical book of Nehemiah (10:35), 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 festivals calendar.
“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.” (Nehemiah 10:34/35)
But this custom is not written anywhere in the Torah or in 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.
As for the practice of donating wood, Josephus implicitly connects it to Torah verses,
“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.” (Leviticus 6:12-13)
But this customary practice is only alluded to, not written explicitly in the Nehemiah passage:
“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.” (10:34/35)
The scribes who transmitted these Torah texts did not copy their texts verbatim, but engaged in the editorial practices of harmonization and expansion.
What is TAḤRIF in the Qur’an?
In order to understand the Islamic view of Taḥrif and why five verses in the Qur’an might refer to the tafsir (interpretation) of practices of some Orthodox Jewish rabbis as taḥrif, we must begin with the five verses themselves.
1—“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].” (Qur’an 3:78)
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!” (Qur’an 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).” (Qur’an 4:46)
4—“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!” (Qur’an 2:74)
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.” (Qur’an 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. Similarly, Qur’an 3:78 clearly condemns those among their group who belie their revealed religion :
“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 (some among them) tell a lie about God, being well aware [it is a lie].”
Qur’an 3:199 clearly praises those among their group who are true to their revealed religion:
“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. Those will have their reward with their Lord. Indeed, Allah is swift in account.”
In a Jewish context, “to exchange for a small price” would point to devaluating God’s words by adding a verbal expanding ‘fence’ around the Sabbath restrictions; and by adding lots of small details further constraining the dietary laws of “keeping Kosher,” especially during the week of Passover.
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, compiled from tractates of the Mishnah) as part of a “chain of tradition” 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 —for this is prohibited by the Torah in Deuteronomy 4:2 and 12:32— but rather as aids in avoiding the transgression of Torah laws.
Status of Oral Tradition
Only Orthodox Jews today maintain that the Oral Torah is of equal, or even of 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 and following the injunctions of the Qur’an, especially in the realm of religious law: Muslim-Shariah and Jewish-Halakah.
Secondly, the Qur’an itself states:
,,,but forgive them, and overlook (their misdeeds): for Allah loves those who are kind.” (Qur’an 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 among the Muslims who are 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 nearest to being God-fearing.” (Quran 5:8)
This verse negates any other verse which might be improperly used to defame or denigrate any other monotheistic religion.
While the Qur’an strongly criticizes those who try to materially change the intention of the words of God (taḥrif), at the same time it honors those who stay faithful to the revelation that God has given them in the past. God does not condemn any whole group for the sins of some of its members, past or present. Accordingly, we must all be careful in accusing others of corrupting the Scriptures of their own or of others — when, upon careful examination, this turns out not to be the case.