The historic and academic context – Andrew Rippin

A long history of comparing the Bible with the Qur’an precedes the “side-by-side” presentation that is the feature of this book. The process may even be said to start with the New Testament’s citations of the Hebrew Bible and the Qur’an’s views of both of its predecessors. The Gospel writers looked to the biblical record of the past for scriptural predictions that were fulfilled in the coming of Jesus. Muslim scripture suggests that possession of revealed books is a criterion of true religion; it thus recognizes the Jewish Torah and Psalms and the Christian Gospels as defining characteristics of the earlier faith communities and as a basis for the construction of a new one. While acknowledging the inherent value of these scriptures, accusations are made in the Qur’an of Jewish and Christian “tampering” with the text of scripture, thus arguing for the validity and truthfulness of the Qur’an as the only valid inheritor of the status of being God’s word. The basis on which this argument was made required the scriptures to be brought together and compared as to their contents. This basically polemical approach towards the comparison of scripture continued in medieval times, and became a stock part of both Christian and Muslim attitudes towards each other’s texts. For example, a defense of Christianity written in Arabic by a certain al-Kindi in the 9th century brings forth explicit comparisons between the Bible and the Qur’an when making arguments that not a single truth can be found in the Qur’an that is not already known elsewhere. Likewise on the Muslim side, writers such as Ibn Hazm (died 1064) critiqued the biblical text for its wrongful portrayal of the prophets of the past, seizing on biblical suggestions that Abraham told lies and Lot and David were immoral, for example. This kind of assessment has been explored fully by Hava Lazarus-Yafeh in her book Intertwined Worlds: Medieval Islam and Bible Criticism Princeton University Press, 1992 in which she argues for a significant role for Muslim thinkers in the development of biblical criticism in Europe (in people such as Spinoza) precisely because they were examining the Bible in comparison to the Qur’an.

Not all medieval thinkers took a negative view, however. Walid Saleh has examined the work of the Egyptian intellectual, al-Biqa‘i, who died in 1480. This analysis “A Fifteenth-Century Muslim Hebraist: Al-Biqa‘i and His Defense of Using the Bible to Interpret the Qur’an,” Speculum 83[2008], 629-54 shows that a Muslim reading of the Bible could take a positive approach, although a controversial one, given the reaction of some of al-Biqa‘i’s compatriots at the time. While al-Biqa‘i certainly understood the Qur’an to be the ultimate judge of truth, he also recognized that the Bible can help explain much of the Qur’anic text by filling in details that are not explicit, especially in the stories of the prophets.

A Muslim thinker such as al-Biqa‘i might be seen as a precursor of 19th century European developments in the study of the Qur’an. Such studies are usually said to have commenced with Abraham Geiger, a rabbi and the founder of the German Jewish Reform movement. In 1832, Geiger published an award-winning work with the title “What did Muhammad take from Judaism?” published in English translation under the title Judaism and Islam in 1898 This book traces the sources of the Qur’an within Judaism, and to a lesser extent, Christianity, and, in doing so, attempts to demonstrate that religion developed in accord with human social concerns and conditions; and thus from the perspective of an emerging Reform Judaism, should continue to do so. All the stories of the prophets and the ethical impulses of the Bible and the Qur’an could be traced back to ancient mythological structures of which those texts were stages in a long historical evolution.

Geiger’s work was the beginning of an extensive series of academic works tracing the “sources” of the Qur’an in the Bible and the later biblical tradition (in its full sectarian diversity). Such studies now tend to be viewed as reductive in approach in that they allow no scope for the creative spirit of an individual prophet and they convey a strong sense of illegitimacy of any independent existence of a subsequent tradition because of its “derivative” nature. The main emphasis in historical scholarship today is to move away from a comparison of the text of the Bible to that of the Qur’an and recognize that the Qur’an stands at a particular historical moment within a long tradition of biblical interpretation. The Qur’an is viewed as emerging within the context of near eastern late antiquity, capturing a much broader scope of human mythological activity as its background than a simple comparison to the Bible might suggest.

This ‘side-by-side’ anthology of the Qur’an and the Bible, then, must be understood as a venture of a different sort than that found in medieval polemic, 19th century reductiveness, or 21st century multi-cultural contextuality. The first thing to remark is the key difference between it and other contemporary scholarly endeavors: that it focuses solely on the text of scripture. Such an approach has certainly been subject to criticism because it suggests a particular orientation to religion that is characteristic of the modern world (and especially Protestant Christianity) which tends to equate religion with its scripture. In reality, religions in their institutional forms are so much more than that, for they also involve the many varied expressions that the human communities derive from their texts. The focus on scripture also tends to suggest that members of religions are somehow bound to their texts in ways that limit their actions in the world such that they cannot act in other ways. To be a “true” Muslim, or Christian, or Jew, one must not be seen to be contradicting the scripture, it seems to suggest. For example, if the Qur’an says that owning slaves is fine, then to be a true Muslim one must accept that and preferably even own one! If God condemns homosexuality in the Bible then that is a guidance that must be followed! However, historically, the religious communities did not see themselves in this manner when it came to scripture and nor do all religious people take that view today; they all construct traditions and sources of authority to supplement and even correct scripture. Certainly this has changed for some believers in the modern world. Some contemporary Jews, Christians and Muslims see their religion as a personal, internal attitude that is stimulated, fostered and maintained through a relationship to their scripture only. So while the attitude towards scripture that sees it as foundational to life in the manner of a political constitution has impacted religion, it is important to remember that this does not capture the full sense of being Jewish, Christian or Muslim in the modern world as all believers understand it.

A “side-by-side” text of the type presented here has particular merits as well as a significant heritage. One model for it may be seen in the way Christian scholars have developed such an approach when dealing with to the three (or four) “synoptic” gospels. In that context, the format can be revealing for historical purposes. In the case of presenting Bible and the Qur’an together, however, the time frame that separates the two of them means that caution is needed. Juxtaposing the texts in this manner and attempting to draw any sort of historical conclusions can lead to some serious misinterpretations of the data. Of course, we may well assume that at least some Jews and Christians at the time of the emergence of the Qur’an were quite familiar with their canonical biblical texts and thus the textually based comparison as suggested by a “side-by-side” approach is not wholly anachronistic. However, the reader must guard against the misleading implications of a reductive approach in drawing any conclusions from the “side-by-side” comparisons that suggest either direct borrowings or apparent misunderstandings. History tends to make things far more complicated than that type of comparisons imply. The reader needs to be cautious, and recognize that these religious traditions are alive and have strong traditions of interpretation and adaptation that can move the ideas and traditions of those living communities a significant distance from the apparent sense of the scripture. The end result of this process of interpretation will sometimes exaggerate the differences between the two texts but, on other occasions, will bring them closer together.

There is probably no better example of this than the story of Jesus and his crucifixion. The account itself is a major point of contestation between Christianity and Islam, given that Christian theology has tended to depend on the historical reality of Jesus’ death on the cross for its theology of sacrifice and redemption. The oft-cited denial of Jesus’ crucifixion in the Qur’an, then, has made this a point for some aggressive debate between polemicists. However, the history of the way these verses have been interpreted in Islam, as has been explored in Todd Lawson’s The Crucifixion and the Qur’an: A Study in the History of Muslim Thought,Oneworld 2009 makes it clear that such a stark understanding and portrayal of the differences between the two religions on this point simply does not do justice to the full dimensions of the Muslim side of the debate. And surely it is important to remember that many Christians, too, can affirm their strong belief in the significance of Jesus while at the same time not embracing a notion of redemptive death on the cross. This emphasizes the point made here previously that the reader must guard against the inclination to think that believers are somehow tied to an interpretation of, or an attitude towards, scripture that emerges out of an apparent sense of the text just because the ‘side-by-side’ view suggests similarities or differences.

Ultimately, a ‘side-by-side’ text such as this serves to further certain common religious goals. It draws attention to the commonalities of traditions and the richness of mutually supporting scriptures within the near eastern religious milieu. Of course, there are differences, too, and those become apparent within this approach as it draws attention to the uniqueness of the each text when it deals with the same traditional material. So, what then should a ‘side-by-side’ text such as this do for the reader? What is its purpose? Put simply, it should awaken curiosity. Rather than rushing to judgment over right and wrong, the reader must be encouraged to ask ‘Why?’; ‘What does this mean?’, ‘Of what significance is this?’ If we are to speak of religious traditions being mutually enriching because of their differences and similarities, those characteristics cannot be simply left on the level of saying, ‘that’s interesting.’ The reflective process has to go further.

One of the challenges of structuring a ‘side-by-side’ text such as this is the level of repetition within the Bible and the Qur’an themselves. The instances in the Bible are well known, as evidenced in the case of the book of Chronicles and the four Gospels, and even explicit on occasion, given the name of the Book of Deuteronomy, or ‘second law’. The Qur’an’s use of parallel passages has been remarked upon in scholarship but never fully resolved as to what it means historically. Do the stories originate in different folk-tale traditions? Do they reflect different audiences during Muhammad’s lifetime? Are they intended to illustrate different theological points? The full sense of such duplication cannot be accommodated in this type of ‘side-by-side’analysis and yet, within both scriptures, repetition is a central rhetorical feature and is an integral part of the way in which the overall message is conveyed. In a detailed scholarly analysis of the matter, John Wansbrough argued for a strong sense of literary formulaic structuring, likely reflective of an oral compositional environment for the Qur’an. Qur’anic Studies: Sources and Methods Scriptural Interpretation, Oxford University Press, 1977; reprint Prometheus Press, 2004 This, he suggested, is displayed by the parallelisms displayed especially in the prophetic stories. In his analysis of the stories of the Arabian prophet Shu‘ayb (Moses’ Midian the father-in-law equivalent to the Biblical Jethro) as found in the Qur’an, 7:85-93, 11:84-95, 26:176-90, 29:36-7 Wansbrough saw a standard scheme found in prophetic literature in general. Such passages start with a commission of the prophet and a formula of legitimating, followed by a diatribe or accusation and a threat or prediction of destruction. Dialogue ensues with an altercation, a counter-argument and a final expression of resignation. The conclusion provides a rejection and fulfillment of the threat, and an epilogue and final assessment. The complexities of the text of the Qur’an and the Bible provide challenges to the reader on many levels in coming to a full appreciation of the literary depths upon which these texts draw. Certainly one of the merits of the ‘side-by-side’ presentation is to display some of this in a revealing manner, while not attempting or even pretending that this unlocks all the secrets.

Nor can a ‘side-by-side’ version of scripture convey all of the contents of either the Bible or the Qur’an. It is necessarily a selection. Such a selection must to be done, as it is here, with a great deal of care so as to reflect, as much as is possible, no sense of an agenda that serves the purposes of one faith community over another; nor indeed a secular attitude of ridicule towards both. The chapters of this anthology show the deep commonalities in the stories of the past shared by the religious traditions; and the fundamental motifs of monotheism contained in descriptions of creation and the judgment day under the guidance of the one God. Again, we should not pretend that this is all that these books are about. Such arrogance is entirely misplaced. Rather, the ‘side-by-side’ presentation must be viewed as an invitation to read more, to see the stories in their overall context, and to hear (as far as translations allow) the rhymes, rhythms and verbal musicality of both texts to their fullest and in their individuality.

     Sharing Mary, Bible and Qur’an Side by Side - Copyright © 2010 Marlies ter Borg / CreateSpace
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