The Qur’an: My first reading

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The Blue Mosque, Istanbul

When talking about the Qur’an with others, I like to ask “Is it an ancient text or a medieval text?” Most people will say ancient right away, but it does not fit nicely on either side. Muhammad died in 632, and so the text of his book was written in a period that is referred to as either late antiquity or the early middle ages. To give some context: In the West, St. Benedict has only decades ago written his rule which will give stability to Europe in the Middle Ages, and St. Isidore and St. Gregory the Great are wrapping up the era of the Church Fathers in the West. And yet these developments have no direct bearing on the Qur’an. When Muhammad refers to “Romans”, this refers to those who are living in Greece and Turkey, what history now refers to as the Byzantine Empire (and most translations of the Qur’an will just say “Byzantines” instead of “Romans”). In the Eastern Empire, the Patristic era has not yet ended. St. Maximus the Confessor will arrive around 650 to determine the Monothelite controversy, and then the following century will be concerned with the Iconoclasm controversy—a controversy that inspired (in part) by iconoclastic Muslim neighbors, but which is ultimately resolved (in part) through the writings of St. John of Damascus, who wrote under the protection of an Islamic patron.

Although these Eastern Romans are mentioned by Muhammad, even these are further removed from the Christians he would be most familiar with. The Persian Empire (also called Sassanid or Sasanian) covered much of the Middle East in his time, and as a consequence of its opposition to the neighboring Roman Empire, as well as doctrinal controversies in the 5th century, the Christians that populated much of the Middle East were not Orthodox and Catholic, but were Monophysite or Nestorian. And further beyond that, based on the stories he tells about Biblical figures (stories which he assumes his readers are familiar with), he probably had interaction with Christian Gnostics of some sort. The clearest instance of this are the stories of Christ’s childhood which are directly from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas. Besides Christians, Jews, and Gnostics, he is most often writing against idolaters and polytheists, which made up the vast majority of his audience in southern Arabia. I think this context is helpful for seeing the Qur’an, not as a book that fell from the sky (even if in pieces), but as a work shaped by a more interesting religious milieu.

All of that being said, the Qur’an is a rather strange work. Unlike the Bible, which is divided into books of rather straightforward genres (narrative, poetry, maxims, letters), the work is some mixture of all these and without any clear structure (the suras/chapters are more or less ordered from longest to shortest). There are bits of narrative, but only bits, and often they are repeated many times. Some of the more entertaining bits were those about Abraham becoming angry with his father and other relatives for their idolatry and attempting to convert them to monotheism, as well as the stories about Solomon controlling demons and Jinn. Perhaps the most intriguing story (and one which shows up about 7 times), is about the fall of Satan. God creates the first man and then commands all of creation (including the angels) to bow down before him. Satan refuses, on the basis that he is a creature superior to man and so ought not to bow down. His punishment is eternal damnation, though he requests permission to tempt man until the end of time, and his request is granted. What strikes me as bizarre in this story, is that there seems to be no reason why an angel should bow down to a man. In a couple tellings, God’s will itself is presented as the reason, and this alone is to suffice. I am tempted to think a piece is missing from the story, and that this piece is found in Christianity. In Christ, you have the one who is both God and man, and so a man whom the angels should bow down to (and indeed we see the angels praise him the Gospel of Matthew and the Book of Revelation). Furthermore, there are medieval Christian accounts of the fall of Satan, that relate his pride to a refusal to bow down to a creature, that is, to Christ in his humanity. I will need to do more research, but I suspect that both the Quranic and medieval Christian accounts have some common source in an earlier patristic writer.

Most of the Qur’an will not strike a reader as out of the ordinary. He is often praising the divine attributes (All-Compassionate, All-Merciful, Omniscient, Omnipotent) and the general outline of its moral teaching should be familiar (along the lines of the 10 commandments). Even a few points of divine revelation, especially the Last Judgement and the Resurrection of the dead, are told in a way that is generally familiar. Muhammad became creative in many of the details: the four rivers of the Garden are water, milk, wine, and honey; the dark-eyed virgins on green cushions; the reception of a book in either the right hand or the left hand (you want it in the right hand). The problems in the Qur’an are most obvious when he is speaking about the Trinity and Jesus. With respect to the Trinity, he basically lumps the teaching together with polytheism, and makes frequent rejections of any position where God is said to have a son. Again, I think this mistake was easy to make on account of the bizarre for of Christianity he encountered. See this quote: “Remember when God said to Jesus son of Mary: ‘Did you really say to people: Take me and my mother as two gods, instead of God?’” No, I do not remember that at all. Here is one more, where Jesus supposedly prophecies the coming of Muhammad: “Remember when Jesus son of Mary said: ‘Children of Israel, […] I bring you glad tidings of a messenger to come after me called Ahmad.’” Again, I do not remember that at all, since it is nowhere in the Bible, and yet he expects his reader to be familiar with such sayings. Even his usage of the title “Jesus son of Mary”, as true as it is, seems to be repeated so as to distance Jesus from his more prominent title, the son of God. This is reminiscent of the Nestorians who denied Mary the title “Mother of God” and separated the two natures united in Christ.

One other aspect of the Qur’an that stands out is the insistence on the importance of the book itself, even referring to it as “the Arabic Qur’an”. In one surah, there is even a repetition of the claim that it is a book very easy to memorize. This stands in stark contrast to the New Testament, where Jesus does not write any books, and usually only quotes or reads from them in order to manifest their fulfillment. Whereas the New Testament gives the impression of being a collection of narratives and letters put together after the fact, and by different human authors, Muhammad often repeats the importance of holy books. And not only the Qur’an, but also the Torah of Moses and “the Evangel” of Jesus. My translator renders as “Evangel” what is probably just the Arabic word for “Gospel”. I imagine he made this choice lest anyone think he is referring to the any of the 4 canonical Gospels, none of which Jesus wrote, or to the Gospel in a broader and not necessarily written sense. Again, this points to a tradition of Jesus that no longer exists in our own day but had some currency in the Arabic world of late antiquity.

The main reason I can think of for reading the Qur’an is that it forms some part of the lives of over a billion people on the earth. That being said, there may be easier ways to learn about Islam than reading through the Qur’an. The interests that led me to read it were its connections with Syriac and Gnostic Christianity, as well as the way it lays the foundation for Islamic law.