Does the Quran approve of Paul?

Someone asked:

You Muslims claim Paul was a deviated person who taught something other than Jesus’s message, but the Quran says ⟪And present to them an example: the people of the city, when the messengers came to it – When We sent to them two but they denied them, so We strengthened them with a third, and they said, “Indeed, we are messengers to you.”⟫ (36:13-14) and the scholars of Islam said one of these three was Paul!

I respond:

Allah says in the Quran ⟪And present to them an example: the people of the city, when the messengers came to it – When We sent to them two but they denied them, so We strengthened them with a third, and they said, “Indeed, we are messengers to you.”⟫

Allah simply recounts the story of the messengers anonymously and does not name the messengers in the Quran nor does the Prophet (SAW) name these messengers in any authentic hadith. Likewise, Allah does not name the city in the Quran nor does the Prophet (SAW) name this city in any authentic hadith.

Then, where did this idea that one of the messengers was Paul come from?

This idea came from some scholars who were making theories about whom Allah refers to. These theories should be taken as opinions that can be strong or weak, and they cannot be elevated to the level of the Quran itself.

Often, people’s doubt in this regard rises because they read the Tafsir of Ibn Kathir. But, Ibn Kathir himself does not agree with the view that this city was Antioch and the messengers were apostles of Jesus (AS)!

Ibn Kathir does mention that plenty of scholars opined the city to be Antioch. This opinion is reported from Ikrimah, Qatadah, and Az-Zuhri. However, the views of some scholars are not binding until there is a proven consensus, and there is no such consensus on the names of these messengers.

There are multiple views reported from the early scholars about the names.

Ka’b al-Ahbar opined that they were: Sadiq, Masdooq, and Shallum.

Wahb ibn Munabbih claimed the first two were: John and Paul.

People take this latter opinion and claim the Quran approves of Paul, even though it is clearly just a theory by one scholar about the names of the messengers!

The reality is there is no strong confirmation in the Quran or Sunnah about whom these messengers were nor about what city they were sent to.

Ibn Kathir explicitly doubts the claim that this verse is referring to Antioch or messengers sent by Jesus (AS) based on three reasons:

  1. The apparent words of the Quran indicate these were messengers sent by God, not simply apostles sent by Jesus (AS).
  2. History attests that the people of Antioch believed in the apostles of Jesus (AS) eventually, but this Quranic narrative is about a people who were destroyed because of disbelief. This did not happen to the people of Antioch.
  3. Jesus (AS) is chronologically after Musa (AS), and we have evidence to suggest that no punishment came down from the sky after Musa (AS). So, since this story mentions a divine punishment, it must have been before Musa (AS).

Based on all this, Ibn Kathir concluded that this story is not about Antioch or any apostles at all, let alone the specific claim about Paul. It is rather about messengers Allah sent to a city in the past long before Jesus (AS). (See Tafsir Ibn Kathir for verse 36:27)

Ibn Kathir’s conclusion is correct, and scholars like Ibn Taymiyyah came to the same conclusion.

Someone might ask: Why don’t you accept your own scholar’s statement that one of them was named Paul?

I would respond: Muslims are not bound to individual opinions from scholars. The only thing we are bound by is evidence from the Quran, the Sunnah, and consensus and agreement of all the scholars without difference of opinion.

There is no evidence from those three sources about the names of these messengers mentioned in this Surah. So, we are not forced to adopt a specific interpretation of it. After all, scholars are only fallible humans who can make mistakes.

Wahb ibn Munabbih who claimed one of them was named Paul clearly did not realize the full history of what Paul did. If he knew, he would not have given such an opinion.

So, it is important to understand: Individual scholars can make mistakes and interpretations can be wrong. As for the Quran and the Prophet (SAW)’s statements about the religion, they never make mistakes.

And Allah knows best.

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