Ecumenical & Interfaith, Muslim Ministry
Camels and Needles in the Qur’an and in the Gospels
January 21, 2022
Updated January 25, 2022
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Reading Surah 7:40 in the Qur’an, and the words of Jesus in the Gospel accounts (Matthew 19:23-24; Mark 10:25 and Luke 18:25) with the word picture of the camel and needle, could give the reader the impression that they are talking about the same message. Some authors like Abdulla Galadari think so. But are they? The purpose of this article is to examine the qur’anic and biblical versions and to examine their main message.
The Biblical Message
When Jesus spoke to his disciples concerning the possibility of a rich man entering the Kingdom of Heaven/God in his own strength, he used a metaphor, or word picture, to describe the sheer impossibility of that happening. Not only was the man rich in monetary assets, he was rich in his self-righteousness. In Matthew 19:23-24 we read:
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
As we know from all figures of speech in the Bible, they are used to convey an effect and this is exactly what happened, as the disciples quickly responded in astonishment with the question, “Who then can be saved?” (v. 25).
Jesus then introduced the idea that salvation and entry into God’s Kingdom does not depend on human resources, energy, legalistic righteousness, or qualifications, but rather, God’s gracious gift, as he said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (v. 26).
The Qur’anic message
In a passage which the scholar Eric Bishop says could arguably “be almost the only direct quotation in the Quran from the New Testament” and Abraham Geiger, in his study of the items that Muhammad “acquired” from Judaism, admits that this verse (or aya) “seems to be borrowed from Christianity” we read the following in Surah 7:40:
Surely those who call Our signs a lie, and are arrogant about it – the gates of the sky will not be opened for them, nor will they enter the Garden, until the camel passes through the eye of the needle. In this way, We repay the sinners. (Droge rendition)
Q7:40, thus asserts that those who refuse the signs of Allah via his messenger Muhammad will never enter the gardens of Paradise “until the camel enters the eye of the needle.” It uses the same word picture as the Bible to convey sheer impossibility.
Yet, in contrast to the Bible, the qurʾanic version, refers to the impossibility of those who “deny” (lit. impugn or fight against) and are “disdainful” (lit. act arrogantly against [Arabic: istakbarū] ) “our signs” to see Paradise. This is a threat, using the divine “Our” and “We” against anyone who refuses to accept Muhammad’s message, which is coterminous with the message of Allah of Islam. It is clearly polemical and “turns the phrase” to show that the truth encapsulated, for instance in the Islamic Shahadah, which affirms the unity of God and the messengership of Muhammad, is the only sign worth following.
It is conceivable, as well, that the qur’anic version, besides having an allusion or echo of Jesus’ sayings about the camel and the needle, also refers to “the gates of the heaven” which could be an allusion to Genesis 28:17 (the gate of heaven) or to a more distant echo in Revelation 21:27, where those who are excluded from the New Jerusalem “will never enter it.” The phrase “requite the guilty” (alt. recompense sinners) could also have allusions to the phrase “and you requite the guilt of the fathers” found in Jeremiah 32:18.
If we take this text in the overall theme of the Qur’an, which arguably is “striving in the way of Allah” and “doing good while avoiding the wrong [as described by Islam] (see Q3:110) then we see that it advocates submitting (vs. “denying”—as above) to and accepting (vs. “disdaining”—as above) the “signs” of Allah. These “signs” include every verse of the Qur’an, the actions of Allah, and the “sign” of the prophethood of Muhammad.
Comparing and contrasting the messages
As much as the Muslim writer Abdulla Galadari suggests that “the Qur’an is engaging with its counterpart in the Gospels” and that “the rich man in the Gospels is asking about inheriting eternal life, while the Qur'an also discusses eternal life and inheritance in the same context” there is more to this than meets the eye.
It seems to me that rather than using a “turn of phrase” to describe what the Qur’an is doing with the biblical material, or simply employing an allusion, it is “turning the phrase” of the camel and the needle. Rather than “engaging” the biblical material, as Galadari suggests, it is subverting the Bible.
Jesus communicated that depending on one’s material wealth, or one’s religiosity alone to get into Heaven, was tantamount to the sheer impossibility of a camel going through a needle. Rather, he pointed to the need for a trust in the God of the impossible who would extend his grace through faith in the perfect righteousness of the person who was talking—namely Jesus Himself.
The Qur’an uses this metaphor of impossibility—which in all likelihood could have been a Semitic stock phrase—and suggests that entry into “the gates of the sky” or a way of saying heaven, is impossible unless a person accepts the “signs” of Allah and his said-to-be messenger, Muhammad.
What appears to be a unified message between the Bible and the Qur’an at first glance is anything but that. Granted, both use the metaphor of the camel and the needle to convey something impossible in the natural world, but their end goal is a universe apart.
While the Gospels point to the “sign” of the Son of Man who will come with divine power and glory (Matthew 24:30) who makes it possible—in the face of sheer impossibility—by grace, even for those who formerly trusted in their self-righteousness to gain entrance to Paradise, the Qur’an points its audience—by employing its all-too-frequent threat language—to submission to its message; as well as its Christ-denying message—or else.
For additional reading:
Eric F. F. Bishop, “The Eye of the Needle,” Muslim World 31, no. 4 (Oct 1941): 354–359.
Abdulla Galadari, “The Camel Passing Through the Eye of the Needle: A Qur’anic Interpretation of the Gospels,” Ancient Near Eastern Studies 55 (June 2018): 77–89.
Abraham Geiger, Judaïsm and Islam: A Prize Essay (Madras: SPCK, 1898) translated from Abraham’s Geiger’s 1833 Was hat Mohammed aus
dem Judenthume aufgenommen, or “What Did Muhammad Acquire from Judaism?”
Gabriel Said Reynolds, “On the Presentation of Christianity in the Qurʾān and the Many Aspects of Qur’anic Rhetoric,” Al-Bayan: Journal of Qur'an and Hadith Studies 12, no. 1 (2014): 42–54.
Andrew Rippin, “Qurʾān 7:40: ‘Until a Camel Passes through the Eye of the Needle,’” Arabica 27 (1980): 107–113.
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The similarities are very surface level! Thank you for pointing out this 'common ground', I wonder how often I have mistakenly walked across such ground without noticing the fault lines.
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