Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Parables of Jesus in Islamic Literature (Part 4)

Sahih al-Bukhari

Many of the traditions about Jesus in hadith literature stem from the Sermon on the Mount; parables appear infrequently. The parable of the Workers in the Vineyard found in Sahih al-Bukhari is a prominent exception. This parable, which appears at least six times—although none of those instances ever indicates that the labor occurs in a vineyard—is significantly reworked to Islamicize its message (for a more extensive examination, see Elmostafa 2015). 

All versions follow the same basic story, but the occurrences in 3:468, 3:469, 4:665, and 6:539 (al-Bukhari 1971) are more closely related, and the occurrences in 1:533 and 3:471, where the first two sets of workers quit the assigned task, closely resemble each other.

The version in Sahih al-Bukhari Volume 4, Book 56, #665 (4:665) is an example of the first category:

Allah’s Apostle said, “Your period (i.e. the Muslims’ period) in comparison to the periods of the previous nations, is like the period between the ‘Asr prayer and sunset. And your example in comparison to the Jews and the Christians is like the example of a person who employed some laborers and asked them, ‘Who will work for me till midday for one Qirat each?’ The Jews worked for half a day for one Qirat each. The person asked, ‘Who will do the work for me from midday to the time of the ‘Asr (prayer) for one Qirat each?’ The Christians worked from midday till the ‘Asr prayer for one Qirat. Then the person asked, ‘Who will do the work for me from the ‘Asr till sunset for two Qirats each?’” The Prophet added, “It is you (i.e. Muslims) who are doing the work from the Asr till sunset, so you will have a double reward. The Jews and the Christians got angry and said, ‘We have done more work but got less wages.’ Allah said, ‘Have I been unjust to you as regards your rights?’ They said, ‘No.’ So Allah said, ‘Then it is My Blessing which I bestow on whomever I like.

In this version, Muhammad is explaining to Muslims their current situation. The employer—Allah, as we find out at the end of the story—hires the first group (i.e., the Jews) to “work” until midday for one Qirat—a weight measurement seen as equal to the weight of a seed from a carob tree (.2053 grams) for gold or silver, from which we get the English word carat. At midday, the work for the Jews was over, and then the Christians were hired, also for one Qirat, to work the next period of the day. The Christians finished their work, and then Muslims were hired to finish the day/task, and they were paid twice the amount as the first two groups of Jews and Christians. The reason for the doubling of pay is perhaps explained elsewhere in the Sahih al-Bukhari, in a hadith that envisions the doubling of pay for extra work/faithfulness:

Allah’s Apostle said, “(A believer) who accompanies the funeral procession of a Muslim out of sincere faith and hoping to attain Allah’s reward and remains with it till the funeral prayer is offered and the burial ceremonies are over, he will return with a reward of two Qirats . . . . He who offers the funeral prayer only and returns before the burial, will return with the reward of one Qirat only” (Volume 1, Book 2, #45).

In the parable, there is an important difference between the first two assignments and the third: The first two are finished working, since Jews and Christians have completed their tasks. The third group’s mission is still ongoing, since the labor of Muslims continues: “you . . . are doing the work.”


This interpretation of the different groups of laborers representing different religious groups is similar to some earlier Christian interpretations. Irenaeus, Origen, Augustine, and Gregory, for example, all argue that the different agreements the owner makes at different times with workers represent the different dispensations God established throughout history (e.g., the covenants made with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus). In hadith traditions, the first two dispensations are Jews and Christians, but the final dispensation is that of Muslims. In other words, this parable is reworked to argue that even though God’s revelations to Muhammad are reminders of what God had already conveyed to previous prophets like Abraham, they are also corrections to the errors of the Jews and Christians. Muhammad, the last and most important of those prophets, is able to correct those errors.

Next up: Other examples of the (re)interpretation of this parable in Sahih al-Bukhari.

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