One of the central tropes of Islamic responses to Christianity is that the Qur’an is not the Muslim equivalent of the Christian scriptures, but of Christ. Thus Mahmoud A. Ayoub says:
The Qur’an is, for Muslims, the literal and timeless divine Word which entered our time. It became a book which Muslims write down, memorize, recite, and live by. The Qur’an is therefore analogous to Christ in Christianity, who is the eternal Logos that was made flesh and dwelt among us (John 1: 14).
But already, one must observe that Ayoub is consolidating disparate elements. True, theologically aware Christians understand that Jesus Christ is the divine Word, and the Christian Scriptures only approximate the eternal Logos in their inscripturated mode. But Christians do not “write down, memorize, recite” the Logos. Many Protestants, especially in the fundamentalist Protestant and evangelical traditions do “write down, memorize, recite” their Scriptures, just as Ayoub says Muslims do with the Qur’an. So already the analogy begins to break down.
So perhaps we can say that the Qur’an is analogous to Christ in being the eternal Word of Christians, but analogous to the Bible of biblicistic evangelicals in being a transcendental text, whose content must ritually internalized (through memorization and repetition) and lived out.
Moreover, Ayoub immediately observes another significant difference:
Christ is God’s self-revelation or disclosure through incarnation. Hence, the Word was with God and the Word was God (John 1: 1). The Qur’an, on the other hand, is the revelation of God’s will and purpose for humanity. Although the Qur’an shares in divine transcendence, God remains the wholly other, absolutely transcendent lord over his entire creation.
Christian theologians can quibble with the first part of Ayoub’s presentation, since “divine ‘self-revelation’” appears to be specifically Barthian. Still, most Christian theologians would agree that Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity, directly and fully reveals the nature of his heavenly Father.
Thus, the difference observed by Ayoub is between a revelation of God in a supernatural being, and a revelation of God in a text. I once saw a Christian missionary, experienced in Christian-Muslim dialog, illustrate the Muslim view of Qur’anic revelation this way: he hid behind the podium, while extending a text to our view. The Qur’an does not reveal God himself. God remains “wholly other,” utterly wrapped in the transcendental mystery of his being. All that the Muslim knows is...God has revealed this text.
In contrast, even a biblicist Protestant who memorizes the Bible, who finds a solution to every problem or question in some text, no matter how obscure, and moreover can locate Philippians 4:12 in 3 seconds flat, believes that both Old and New Testaments is the revelation of the God who is known through Jesus Christ. He knows that the God of the Bible is his Father, because he has a relationship with Jesus Christ, his Son. So the analogy breaks down further.
The content of the Christian Bible can be understood in a variety of ways: biblicists would say something like, the story of God’s people, both in Old and New Testaments; someone more historically inclined might say, the history of God’s revelation in the history of the Israelites, and the mission and fate of Jesus, and interpretation of Jesus’s death and resurrection in the first generation of his followers; someone familiar with canonical criticism would simply say: the content of the Bible is Christ himself.
What all these views have in common is a sense of “salvation-history” (even if critically unsophisticated), and the location of the hermeneutical center of that history in “Jesus Christ,” as a transformative, “saving” presence and power.
In comparing this with the Qur’an, the first problem is that the Qur’an is historically flat. It simply consists of a series of sermons, stories, religious proclamations, harangues by some unknown authority within the community. To make sense of those sermons, stories and proclamations requires a subsidiary history, created by the later Muslim tradition.
A naive reader could pull a dusty Bible as an utterly obscure text off the shelves of an antiquarian library and discover a “history,” with apparent narrative continuity from beginning to end. A more sophisticated reader with some consciousness of the text’s canonical complexity could read the separate components—the Hebrew Scriptures, the Gospels, or Acts together with the Epistles— directly without any intermediary apparatus, and get some sense of the “story” they purport to tell. One cannot do that with the Qur’an. The familiar stories associated with events supposedly at Mecca and Medina cannot be directly connected to the Qur’anic texts. (They can be read into those texts—which is what traditional Islamic history does—but they cannot be read out of the texts.)
When one does read the Qur’an directly, the first thing one observes is its self-referential textuality. It is aware of being a book: After Surah 1, which acts as an “Opening” or “Exordium,” Surah 2 begins with “This is a Book, wherein is no doubt,....” and Surah 3, “He has sent down upon thee the Book,....” The word for “Book” is not qur’an, which means “recitation,” but kitab. The Qur’an is spoken and written in a world of authoritative religious texts, and claims to partake of that authority: 3:3 continues, “...the Book,/ with the truth, confirming what was before it....” (All translations are from The Koran Interpreted, by A. J. Arberry, although I will use traditional versification, which Arberry does not strictly follow.)
The opening surahs contain very little of a traditional religious proclamation. Rather, they are primarily summons to acceptance of the “book’s” authority and obedience of its directives. In short, it summons various groups of people to islam: submission. Surah 3 primarily appeals to the Jews (“Israelites”), Surah 4 includes some references to Christians. But by the end of Surah 5, the spokesman has given up on both groups: Jews will receive “degradation / in this world; and in the world to come awaits them a mighty chastisement (5.41)”; and Christians who continue to insist that “‘God is the Messiah, Mary’s son,’” are condemned as “unbelievers” (5.17) or, in another translation, “blasphemers”.
Now that the putative author/prophet has given up on the Jews and Christians as possible allies and participants in the new Muslim community, he turns to the pagans in Surah 6. He tries to convince them that nature is the manifestation of a single deity. And what is his evidence?
It is God who splits the grain and the date-stone, / brings forth the living from the dead; He / brings forth the dead too from the living. / So that then is God; then how are you perverted? / He splits the sky into dawn, / and has made the night for a response, / and the sun and moon for a reckoning. / That is the ordaining of the All-mighty, the All-knowing. / It is He who has appointed for you the stars, that / by them you might be guided in / the shadows of land and sea. / We have distinguished the signs for a people who know. / It is He who produced you from one living soul, / and then a lodging place, / and then a repository. / We have distinguished the signs for a people who understand. / It is He who sent down out of heaven water, and / thereby We have brought forth / the shoot of every plant, / and then We have brought forth the green leaf of it, / bringing forth from it / close-compounded grain, / and out of the palm-tree, from the spathe of it, / dates thick-clustered, / ready to the hand, and / gardens of vines,/ olives, pomegranates, / like each to each, and / each unlike to each. / Look upon their fruits when they fructify and ripen! / Surely, in all this are signs for a people who do believe. (vv. 95-99)
Pagans had always known these things. But they had never experienced the multifarious phenomena of life as signs for a singular divine power. No wonder that his pagan listeners “cried it lies” (v. 66, see vv. 25-34). The spokesman assumes a posture of revelation, without giving any evidence that revelation is the means for knowing about this ostensibly unitary divine power. The concept of revelation assumed in the Qur’an, borrowed from Judaism and Christianity, is simply alien to a pagan. Jews and Christians rejected the authority of the Qur’an because it claimed to replace the authority Jews and Christians already had in their scriptures and traditions. Pagans rejected it because they did not understand the authority of revelation itself.
The Qur’anic text is not only historically flat, but narratively flat. The narratives—many of them odd retellings of biblical accounts or Jewish or Christian fairy tales—are not really narratives at all, but simply accounts with moments of wonder and awe. Surah 18 is an interesting example. It consists of several separate anecdotes. The first is a middle eastern version of the story that Americans know as “Rip Van Winkle”: a group of men fall asleep in a cave for many years, waking up to a changed world. There is general agreement that the legend is based on ”the seven sleepers of Ephesus,” a apocryphal Christian story that developed sometime after the fifth century. The Qur’an’s point is that it is “among our signs / a wonder (v. 9).” It draws no moral from the story, other than it is a ripping good tale. (The Christian purpose for the tale seems to be a defense of the the dogma of the resurrection of the body.) So the Qur’an expropriates a Christian fairy-tale as evidence of its own authority, simply because it can tell the story.
This characteristic is even clearer in the next anecdote: a story about Moses and his “page” (traditionally translated “servant”). Moses gets wanderlust: “I will not give up until I reach / the meeting of the two seas,... (v. 60)” The journey has no goal, other than to get to the next anecdote. They forget a fish, and it slips away “burrowing” “into the sea”. Only a verse later do we learn that the fish was intended for a meal.(v. 62). When Moses asks for the fish, the page responds:
What thinkest thou? When we / took refuge in the rock, then I /forgot the fish—and it was Satan / himself that made me forget / so that I should not remember it— / and so it took its way into the sea in manner marvellous.’ Said he, “This is what we were / seeking!’ And so they returned / upon their tracks, retracing them. (18.63-64).
The anecdotes, both the specific story, as well as its components, have no narrative continuity. The story nowhere tells us about Moses and his page taking “refuge in the rock,” so we cannot know how that act contributed to the plot. It is introduced out of thin air, and just as directly disappears. The servant’s memory lapse has no explanation than, literally, “the devil made me do it,” and the missing fish does not change the story or alter its outcome. The missing fish in no way advances the story or enables the plot. It is told, apparently, for the sheer joy of the telling. It is told because it is “marvellous.”
I asked earlier what is the content of the Qur’an? The answer is that its content is the mere act of telling. It is a “marvellous” proclamation and “a wonder,” a “sign” that demands submission, “islam”. That is why to this day the central expression of Qur’anic piety is its “recitation,” as illustrated here.
The apparent similarities of the Qur’an with Christ and a biblicistic view of scripture only exist at the most general level of abstraction. Yes, the Qur’an is believed to be the very word of God, just as Christ is the Logos. Yes, Muslims ritually incorporate the Qur’an into their religious lives in ways similar to biblicistic Protestants. But the internal content, both of Christ-the-Word, and of an internalized Bible, remains incommensurate.