The Two Sons of Adam Rabbinic Resonances and Scriptural Virtuosity in Sūrat al-Māʾidah

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Michael Pregill



The qurʾānic Cain and Abel narrative in Q Māʾidah 5, which features a wellknown ethical maxim about the value of human life, exhibits a conspicuous connection to a Jewish precursor. As has been observed since the time of Abraham Geiger, the coincidence of the narrative and the maxim in Mishnah tractate Sanhedrin and its parallels in classical rabbinic literature appears to demonstrate the Qurʾān’s direct dependence on a Jewish source. In this article, I will pursue a more nuanced approach to the relationship between Sūrat al-Māʾidah and rabbinic tradition. On the one hand, I will propose a new interpretation of the famous motif of the raven that Cain imitated in burying his brother, which has persistently—but incorrectly—been understood to be drawn from a midrashic precursor. On the other, I will show that Sūrat al-Māʾidah does not intersect with tractate Sanhedrin solely at the point of this individual tradition; rather, investigation of the larger context of both the qurʾānic passage and the apparent source of the Jewish maxim in the Mishnah indicates that the two are linked through a much larger web of intertwined textual allusions. This coincidence possibly has implications for our understanding of the circumstances of the sūrah’s revelation as well as of the Jewish presence in the Medinan milieu, especially on the basis of the Qurʾān’s legitimation of violence in response to the alleged Jewish crime of spreading corruption in the land (fasād fī ’l-arḍ).


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