The story of the first murder, one brother killing the other, is told in both in the Qur’an and in the Bible. In Genesis, these sons of Adam and Eve are called Cain and Abel. In Islamic tradition the sons of Adam are called Qabil and Habil.

The root of evil here is jealousy in pleasing God. The sacrifice of Abel is accepted, that of Cain is rejected. In the Bible, God makes clear that acceptance depends on whether one acts in the right way or not. If one acts badly, it can go from bad to worse.

The Qur’an refers to earlier crimes. The sacrifice of a righteous man will be accepted, but that of a criminal will not. The high moral standards of Habil shows in his refusal to retaliate.

In the Qur’an, the first murder was the occasion to proclaim a general ban: you shall not murder! This is the sixth of the commandments received by Moses. The Qur’an recognizes that the Israelites were the first to receive this commandment and confirms its importance in a passage also found in a Jewish legal document from the end of the second century A.D.

Therefore, the human being (Adam) was created alone, to teach you that anyone who destroys one soul from the sons of Man (benei Adam) is reckoned by scripture as if he destroyed the whole world; and anyone who saves one soul from the sons of Man, is reckoned by scripture as if he had saved the whole world… “Mishnah Sanhedrin, 4.5

The story ends in different ways. In the Bible, the killer is punished with many hardships. He flees, but God protects him from revenge by a special sign. In the Qur’an, the killer shows remorse. A raven teaches him how to pay his brother his last respects. This is followed by a quote, in the Quran, from the Jewish High Court, 2nd century AD. Killing one is killing all, saving one is saving all.


Saving one is saving all

Intermezzo by Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp

I had not noticed the beautiful passage in the Qur’an about the killing and especially the saving of one person, a familiar and moving  passage for me.  Then during the first Gulf war a booklet with Qur’an quotes was given me at an interfaith meeting organized by the Dutch Minister of  internal affairs. The idea was that religious leaders of all faiths should express their solidarity  at a time of increasing anti-islam sentiment. Later I  found a friend in Achmed Kuftaro, the Grand Mufti of Syria. It was at a meeting in Japan that he recited this Qur’an passage to me. It   was a moment of intense unity.           


Cain and Abel

Now Adam knew (slept with ed.) Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, and said,

“I have acquired a man from the LORD.”

Then she bore again, this time his brother Abel. Genesis 4:1-2

Jealousy at harvest time

…Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground to the LORD. Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat.

And the LORD respected Abel and his offering, but He did not respect Cain and his offering. And Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. Genesis 4:3-5

Sin wants to destroy you

So the LORD said to Cain,

“Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen?

If you do well, will you not be accepted?

And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door.” Genesis 4:6-7

The first murder

Now Cain talked with Abel his brother; and …when they were in the field …Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.

Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?”

He said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

And He said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground. So now you are cursed from the earth, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.” Genesis 4: 8-11

Cain punished and protected

“When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. A fugitive and a vagabond you shall be on the earth.”

And Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is greater than I can bear…and it will happen that anyone who finds me will kill me.”

And the LORD said to him, “…whoever kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the LORD set a mark upon Cain, lest anyone finding him should kill him. Genesis, 4: 12-15

Sixth commandment

And Moses called all Israel, and said to them “You shall not murder.” Deuteronomy 5: 1,17

Mishnah Sanhedrin, 2nd century AD

Therefore, the human being (Adam) was created alone, to teach you that anyone who destroys one soul from the sons of Man (benei Adam) is reckoned by scripture as if he destroyed the whole world; and anyone who saves one soul from the sons of Man, is reckoned by scripture as if he had saved the whole world…  Mishnah Sanhedrin, 4.5


The sons of Adam

Recite to them the truth of the story of the two sons of Adam.
5 The table spread, 2

Sacrifice not accepted

Behold! they each presented a sacrifice (to Allah): It was accepted from one, but not from the other. Said the latter: “Be sure I will slay you.” 5 The table spread, 27

Slay me

“Surely,” said the former: “Allah accepts of the sacrifice of those who are righteous. If you stretch your hand against me, to slay me, it is not for me to stretch my hand against you to slay you: for I do fear Allah, the Cherisher of the Worlds. For me, I intend to let you draw on yourself my sin as well as yours, for you will be among the Companions of the Fire, and that is the reward of those who do wrong.”

5 The table spread, 28-29

He murdered his brother

The (selfish) soul of the other led him to the murder of his brother:

He murdered him and became (himself) one of the lost ones.

5 The table spread, 30

Criminal shows remorse

Then Allah sent a raven, who scratched the ground, to show him how to hide the shame of his brother.

“Woe is me!” said he; “was I not even able to be as this raven, and to hide the shame of my brother?” Then he became full of regrets.

5 The table spread, 31

Killing one is as killing all

On that account:

We ordained for the Children of Israel that if anyone slew a person – unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he slew the whole people (humankind ed.): and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people (humankind ed.).

Then although there came to them Our Messengers with Clear Signs, yet, even after that, many of them continued to commit excesses in the land. 5 The Table Spread,32