Waraqa ibn Naufal Was No Supporter of Muhammad's Prophethood

Waraqa Ibn Naufal is a well-known figure in the story of the life of Muhammad, as it usually is told: He is said to have been a cousin of Khadijah, the first (monogamous) wife of Muhammad: He is further said to have become a Christian and to have been a learned man, able to read the Christian Holy Scriptures in "Hebrew" (certainly meant: that kind of Christian Aramaic which is termed Syriac), and to have translated some of them into Arabic. There are even traditions that he was the (Syriac-Orthodox) bishop of Mecca. In Muslim historiography he is reported to have been the first one to recognize and enthusiastically welcome the prophethood of Muhammad - though there are no reports that he has ever become Muslim.

A critical reading of two reports in Ibn Hišâm's „Kitâb sîrat rasûli llâh

In the light of a critical reading1 of two of the oldest reports, however, it becomes obvious that this well-known pious legend about Waraqa Ibn Naufal as the first supporter of Muhammad's prophethood is a pious fraud. On the contrary, it can be excluded with certainty that Waraqa believed in the Prophethood of Muhammad or that he supported such claims. This fraudulent representation of Waraqa’s attitude towards Muhammad stems from Ibn Hišâm’s edition (or better mutilation) of Ibn Ishâq’s „Kitâb sîrat rasûli llâh“.

See: Ferdinand Wüstenfeld (ed.), Kitâb sîrat rasûli llâh. Das Leben Muhammads nach Muhammad Ibn Ishâk bearbeitet von Abd al-Malik Ibn Hischâm, vols. I & II, Göttingen 1860, reprint Frankfurt/Main 1961, henceforth abbreviated by W; or MuStafâ aS-Sayyiqâ et alii (eds.), as-sîrat an-nabawiyya li Ibn Hišâm, 4 vols., Cairo 1355 AH = 1936 AD, henceforth abbreviated by M; English translation by Alfred Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad, Karachi-Oxford-New York-Delhi 1978, henceforth abbreviated by G; German translation by Gustav Weil, Das Leben Muhammeds nach ... Ibn Hischam, 2 vols., Stuttgart 1864.
However, the passages with the story of Waraqa are so corrupted, that one is able to recognize the gross logical, grammatical and lexical mistakes. Apparently the later great Arab historians did not fail to observe the corruption in Ibn Hišâm’s text, since they all – which is striking – avoided to quote the passages concerning Waraqa verbatim, as was otherwise common. The corrupt character of these passages is evident to such an extent that it is again possible to recognize the original text and meaning.

The Story of Waraqa doing homage to Muhammad as "the prophet of this people"

In Ibn Hišâm's Sîra (W I, 153 s.or M I, 254) – I repeat: not of Ibn Ishaq’s text, which is lost, but of Ibn Hišam’s mutilation of it – or in Alfred Guillaume's translation (G, 107) we read:

„Then she [Khadijah; Ch.H] ... set forth to her cousin Waraqa b. Naufal b. Asad b. `Abdu'l-`Uzzâ b. QuSayy, who had become a Christian and read the scriptures and learned from those that followed the Torah and the Gospel. And when she related to him what the apostle of God told her he had seen and heard, Waraqa cried, ‘Holy! Holy! Verily by Him in whose hand is Waraqa’s soul, if thou hast spoken to me the truth, O Khadija, there hath come unto him the greatest Nâmûs (T. meaning Gabriel) who came to Moses aforetime, and lo, he is the prophet of this people. Bid him be of good heart.’ So Khadija returned to the apostle of God and told him what Waraqa had said. (T. and that calmed his fears somewhat).
And when the apostle of God had finished his period of seclusion and returned (to Mecca), in the first place he performed the circumambulation of the Kaba, as was his wont. While he was doing it, Waraqa met him and said, ‘O son of my brother, tell me what thou hast seen and heard.’ The apostle told him, and Waraqa said, ‘Surely, by Him in whose hand is Waraqa’s soul, thou art the prophet of this people. There hath come unto thee the greatest Nâmûs, who came unto Moses. Thou wilt be called a liar, and they will use thee despitefully and cast thee out and fight against thee. Verily, if I live to see that day, I will help God in such wise as He knoweth.’ Then he brought his head near to him and kissed his forehead; and the apostle went to his own house. (T. Waraqa’s words added to his confidence and lightened his anxiety.)“

[N.B: The comments in round brackets beginning with T. in the above are comments taken by the translator Guillaume from Tabari.]

Now, I’m going to elaborate why this „translation“ along the lines of Islamic tradition is indefensible:

1) If one insists upon translating the text of Ibn Hišâm as Guillaume does, reading the verb forms as passive – which is by no means necessary, since without vowel marks active and passive forms look the same – then one has to translate the fourth to the last (underlined) sentence: „You will be disavowed it and you will be insulted it and you will be expelled it and will be attacked it.“ and not: „Thou wilt be called a liar, and they will use thee despitefully and cast thee out and fight against thee.“ as Guillaume does, concealing the grammatical nonsense of this repeated „it“ (or „him“), which of course is a trace of the corruption of the text.
The next impossibility is even worse. Guillaume continues: „Verily, if I live to see that day, I will help God in such wise as He knoweth.“ Even in this weakened form the thought is blasphemous. The blasphemy is even more striking if one translates along the same lines, but nearer to the Arabic text: „Verily, if I live to see that day, I will grant God a victory, which he knows.“ The whole idea is impossible in the mouth of a pious man, as Waraqa is said to have been. It is the result of the distortion of the text, which even is revealed by some irregularities in this text.

One such irregularity is the syntactically and grammatically faulty insertion of an „I“ (ana) preceding the (rasm of the) verb adrkt, which Guillaume incorrectly translates as „live to see“ instead of „reach“, „attain“, „arrive at“. The verb in its given form, which equally well can be read as 2nd person singular masculine adrakta instead of 1st person singular adraktu, already contains the subject. After deleting the faulty insertion of ana, "I", the text easily can be read as: „However, even if you may attain (what you are aiming for) – on that day (of the judgement) God will grant (us) a victory, which He announces.“ (Insertions – for better understanding – are mine)

Guillaume continues: „Then he brought his head near to him and kissed his forehead...“ To be precise, what Waraqa is reported to have kissed, is Muhammad's yâfûkh. And yâfûkh in the first place means the fontanella of a child2, because you can see it pulsating or "breathing" like bellows. This strange scene, however, that Waraqa should have kissed Muhammad’s yâfûkh, is a mere construction, construed by the metathesis of qlb („beat“) to qbl („kiss“). Correcting this metathesis yields: Then he brought his head near to him, and his yâfûkh was beating. Waraqa's yâfûkh is meant, not Muhammad's. And since an elderly man like Waraqa doesn't have a fontanella anymore, what is "beating" or "breathing heavily" is a vein or some veins of his head! Now both parts of the sentence make sense: Bringing one’s head near to a person is in and of itself a general expression of angry opposition, and the swelling and beating of the veins of the head are even more common signs of anger: Then he brought his head near to him, and the vein of his head was beating.

2) „The greatest Nâmûs“ (al-nâmûs al-akbar), of course, is neither Gabriel nor any other mysterious spirit, but clearly „the most noble law“ (cf. Greek „nomos“ entrenched into Arabic via the Syriac or Christian-Aramaic language), which came to Moses.

3) The two phrases „He is the prophet of this people“ and „Thou art the prophet of this people“ are two later insertions which obviously are not fitting to the context.

Summing up all arguments, I repeat the corrected translation of the fraudulent text given by Ibn Hišâm:

„Then she [Khadijah; Ch.H] ... set forth to her cousin Waraqa b. Naufal b. Asad b. `Abdu'l-`Uzzâ b. QuSayy, who had become a Christian and read the scriptures and learned from those that followed the Torah and the Gospel. And when she related to him  what God’s apostle had reported to her that he had seen and heard. Then Waraqa ibn Nawfal said: ‘Holy, holy, and by Him in whose hand Waraqa’s soul is – if you have spoken the truth – truly the noble law, which came to Moses already has come to him. And look, he is the prophet of this nation (This sentence is a later insertion not fitting to the following; Ch.H.) Therefore say to him that he shall remain constant!’ Then she returned to the apostle of God and told him what Waraqa ibn Nawfal had said.
When God’s apostle had dismissed his clients and gone away, he did as he used to do and began with the Kaaba and made the circambulation around it. Then Waraqa ibn Nawfal encountered him, just when he made his turn around the Kaaba, and said: ‘O my nephew, say to me what you have seen and heard!’ Then God’s apostle told him. Then Waraqa said to him: ‘By Him in whose hand my soul is. Look, you are the prophet of this nation (Again: a later insertion not fitting to the following; Ch.H.). Truly the most noble law, which came to Moses, already has come to you, but you are disavowing it, damaging it, expelling it and attacking it. However, even if you may attain (what you are aiming for) – on that day (of the judgement) God will grant (us) a victory, which He announces.’ Then he put his head near to him, and then the vein of his head was beating (with anger). Then the apostle of God went away into his house.“

Summing up, there is no idea that Waraqa supported Muhammad’s claims to prophethood!

The Story of Waraqa interceding in favour of Bilâl

Another story of Waraqa’s support for Muhammad, too, depends on the report in Ibn Hišâm’s edition of Ibn Ishâq’s text: The story of Waraqa and Bilâl (W I, 205/1 or M , 340).

I’m now going to show that this report is grossly distorted, too.

Typical for the traditional understanding is Guillaume's translation (G, 143 f.), which actually is more of a paraphrase than a genuine translation. It actually is erroneous, and its misunderstandings originate in its adherence to the traditional Islamic legend of Waraqa having been a supporter of Muhammad's prophethood.

A translation which follows quite precisely the Arabic text at the expense of a good English style would be:

"And Bilâl, the [later; Ch.H.] freedman of Abû Bakr's (may Allah be pleased by him), belonged to one of the Banû JumaH, being one of their slave borns, and his name was Bilâl b. RahâH, and the name of his mother was Hamâmah. He was faithful to Islam, pure of heart. And it happened3 that Umayyah b. Khalaf b. Wahb b. Hudhâfah b. JumaH brought him out when the noon was hot, and throw him on his back in the valley of Mecca, then had a heavy rock put on his chest. Then he said to him: »[No, by Allah,] You will not stop so till you die or you abjure Muhammad and serve Al-Lât and Al-'Uzzâ.« Then he [Bilâl] said, while he was in this trial: »One, one!«

Ibn Ishâq reported: Hišâm b. `Urwah tradited to me from his father, he said:

It happened that Waraqah b. Naufal passed by him while he was thus tortured and said: »One, one!«, and that he then said: »One, one, by Allah, Bilâl!«, that he then turned to Umayyah b. Khalaf and who from the Banû JumaH executed this on him, and that he then said: »I swear by Allah, verily, if you kill him in this [manner] I verily will consider it a grace!«4 – till Abû Bakr AS-Sadîq [the son of Abû Quhâfah], may Allah pleased with him, passed by him some day,5 while they did so with him, because Abu Bakr's house was among the Banû JumaH. Then he said to Umayyah b. Khalaf: »Have you no fear of God because of this poor one? Till when?« He replied: »It is you who corrupted him, so save him from what you see!« Then Abû Bakr said: »I will do so. With me is a boy, black, stronger than he and more firm to your faith. Take him for him!« He said: »I already have agreed.« Then he said: »He is yours.« So Abû Bakr AS-Sadîq (may God be pleased with him) took him as such his boy, he took him and then freed him."

I gave the story in full length. The reader may get some impression of this dramatic scene – showing again that Waraqa was by no means a supporter of Muhammad's claims to prophethood, but an adversary of him and his followers. Recalling that the Arabic words for „One, one“, namely „Ahad, ahad“, render the groaning of the tortured, one should realize that their repetition by Waraqa bitterly reflects Waraqa’s mixture of consent and enraged mockery of a renegade.

Two poems by Waraqa b. Naufal?

The above makes it clear why there is no report that Waraqa became Muslim, even no report of when and how he died. Such reports would have endangered the success of the fraud of Ibn Hišâm (and others), who changed the meaning of a vivid representation of Waraqa’s dramatic encounter with Muhammad near the Kaaba and with Bilâl, into exactly the opposite. According to Muslim tradition Waraqa was „blind“ (a’mâ) at the end of his life. And this word practically always – at least in the Koran: 30 times against 2 times – has the figurative meaning of „infidel“.

Now under the name of Waraqa b. Naufal a little poem has been transmitted to posterity6:

"....................                                                           you have escaped a hot furnace of God
by your belief in a Lord whom no other lord equals    and because you left the groves of the hills, so [sinfull] as they are."

We cannot elaborate here on the meaning of the "groves of the hills" in religious history. For a deeper insight we refer to the below cited book by Günter Lüling "Über den Ur-Qur'an : Ansätze zur Rekonstruktion der vorislamisch-christlichen Strophenlieder im Koran".7 We only may point out that they are identical with the much maligned "high places" in the Bible, and this will suffice to understand another poem which was transmitted to posterity8 and which looks like as if it, too, could have been from Waraqa:

I always have been afraid that those who already had followed the right path
some day would dwell in the groves together with the prophet.
This sarcastic allusion to the prophet Muhammad proofs to be a contemporary, arguably Meccan Christian's sigh of sadness about the apostacy of some Christians to the national-Arabian, paganizing cult re-inforced by the "prophet" Muhammad.

Eventually I may point to a fairly revolutionary theory, put forward by the Lebanese scholar who goes under the pseudonym Abû Mûsâ al-Harîrî in his book "qass wa nabîy" ["Priest and Prophet"], Diyâr ‘Aql, Lebanon, 1985, that Waraqah b. Naufal and Muhammad co-operated for some time. Apparently this co-operation ended in dissension and strife.


1 This critical reading was done the first time by Günter Lüling in his books: "Über den Ur-Qur'an : Ansätze zur Rekonstruktion der vorislamisch-christlichen Strophenlieder im Koran" ["About the Ur-Koran : Attempts to reconstruct the Pre-Islamic Christian Strophic Hymns in the Koran"], Erlangen, 1st edition 1974, 2nd edition 1993, p. 293-295, 465; "Die Wiederentdeckung des Propheten Muhammad : Eine Kritik am »christlichen« Abendland" ["The Rediscovery of the Prophet Muhammad : A Critique on the »Christian« Occident"], Erlangen 1981 (ISBN 3-922 317-07-3), p. 282 ff., 405 ff.

2 The Arabic word for "to breathe heavily" is nafakha, and yâfûkh seems to be an early misreading for nâfûkh, which actually is the variant used in vernacular Arabic, as Dr. Christoph Luxenberg kindly pointed out to me. Dr. Rainer Nabielek, Berlin, kindly made me aware that yâfûkh in the Arabic medical literature meant both the right and left os parietale, which will close the fontanellas when the child is growing up. We will  immediately see the reason for the wording here, including yâfûkh/nâfûkh.

3 Guillaume translated the Arabic phrase "kâna ... yakhrujuhu" (i.e. kâna with an imperfect) according to the scholastic rules of the grammar of Classical Arabic as "he used to bring him out". This however is erroneous, since the story told here clearly is no repeated one, but a single event. So Guillaume cannot continue translating in this manner. When it comes to the phrase "kâna Waraqah b. Naufal yamurruhu" he duly feels forced to translate simply "Waraqah b. Naufal was passing him by". The construction  'kâna with an imperfect' must be understood as "it happened that..."; it is an Aramaism, as Dr. Christoph Luxenberg kindly explained to me.

4 Günter Lüling understands the principal clause of this sentence instead of la-’attakhidhannahu Hanânan as lâ-takhidhannahu Hanânan, originating from lâ-tatakhidhannahu Hanânan by an haplological ellipsis of the syllables tata, and translates: "don't have mercy with him!" In any case, Guillaume's translation "I will make his tomb a shrine" as well as Gustave Weil's translation "so werde ich an seinem Grabe beten" ["I will pray at his tomb"] are mere fantasy, not supported by the Arabic text.

5 The translation imitates the order of  words of the Arabic original to show the reader the rather odd position of the „some day“. This „once upon a day“ - despite the conjunction „till“ - again is an insertion, a trick to make out of one scene two scenes of torturing Bilal – one with Waraqa and one with Abu Bakr joining in. This obviously is odd, and this „some day“ has to be deleted.

6 Louis Cheikho, kitâb šu‘arâ’ an-naSrânîya, Bayrût 1890, reprint Bayrût 1967, vol. I qabl al-islâm, p. 617, 11 f.

7 A considerably reworked and expanded English version is to be published under the title "On the Pre-Islamic Christian Strophe Poetical Texts in the Koran : Toward Reconstruction of the Pre-Islamic-Christian Strophical Hymnody behind the transmitted prose text of the Koran".

8 Edward William Lane, Arabic-English-Lexicon, London 1863-1893, see entry khašiya.

Last revised 2002-06-29