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The Qurʾān and the Bible: 
Text and Commentary

by gabriel said reynolds
yale, 1032 pages, $40

This book is misleadingly named. The blame, if blame there be, rests with the stingy conventions of contemporary publishing. The work deserves one of those splendidly prolix seventeenth-century titles, of the kind that required three progressively diminished fonts in order to fit on the title page: A New English Rendering of The Qur’an, being a Revision by the Author of the celebrated Translation of Ali Quli Qarai, together with a seriatim Commentary shewing the manifold narrative Tributaries ultimately derived from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, with particular Attention to various Syriac Christian Vehicles of Transmission, enriched by the Annotations and Explanations of sundry eminent Scholars: Muslim, Jewish, and Christian alike, together with a compendious Bibliography, &c.

A professor of Islamic studies and theology at Notre Dame, Reynolds has given us a complete Qur’an—highly useful in itself—annotated so as to illustrate and expound those pre-qur’anic sources indirectly descended from the Bible. Of a typical page, two-thirds might be devoted to verses (ʾayāt) of the Qur’an, and the remainder to interspersed commentary citing and explaining parallels that can plausibly be regarded as tributary. Reynolds has consciously limited his focus, centering on what he calls the “conversation” by which “the Qurʾān alludes to, and develops, earlier traditions.” Says Reynolds:

The absence of direct quotations of Jewish and Christian texts in the Qurʾān reflects the path these texts took to reach the Qurʾān’s author. As Sidney Griffith has argued, neither the Bible nor other Jewish and Christian texts were available in Arabic at the time of the Qurʾān’s origins. The author of the Qurʾān would have heard only descriptions or paraphrases of such texts rendered into Arabic orally, most likely from some form of the Semitic language known as Aramaic. . . . My argument that the Qurʾān is so closely, or organically, related to the Bible represents a departure from traditional ideas that the background of the Qurʾān is largely pagan (and partially Jewish).

Reynolds’s mention of the Aramaic language points to a key element in his “conversation.” From the eighth century b.c., Aramaic had been the lingua franca of the Near East, and with the rise and spread of Christianity, the dialect of Aramaic known as Syriac became a major literary language in eastern Christendom, operating as the vector not only of liturgy and theology, but of a plebeian Christian folk culture as well. Following the path laid out in the 2011 Princeton dissertation of Joseph Witztum, The Syriac Milieu of the Quran, Reynolds is particularly attentive to the ways in which Syriac literature had fastened upon certain biblical accounts and reshaped them in characteristic fashion, traces of which are discernible in their Qur’anic adaptations. Syriac literature included creations of high intellectual culture but was not limited to them. We also have documents produced by folk religion and the often giddy imagination of popular piety. Some of the apocryphal infancy narratives of the life of Jesus belong to this latter category. The literature displays a recognizably Syriac fable-forming mechanism with a folkloristic proclivity, ­otherwise familiar to us in the way Christmas carols make use of the Bible, refashioning the narrative in the service of apologetic or didactic or sentimental purposes, yet always so as to ­foreground the gestural and picturesque.

An instructive example of Reynolds’s bringing biblical and qur’anic episodes into conversation is found in the story of Joseph and the wife of Potiphar. The story the Bible tells in fourteen verses (Gen. 39:7–20) is expanded into thirty-one by the Qur’an (12:23–53), and from the outset it is evident that the reticence of the earlier author is to be remedied:

The woman in whose house he was, solicited him. She closed the doors and said “Come!!” He said, “God forbid! He is indeed my Lord; he has given me a good abode. Indeed, the wrongdoers do not prosper.” She surely made for him; and he would have made for her [too] had he not beheld the proof of his Lord. So it was, that We might turn away from him all evil and indecency. He was indeed one of Our dedicated servants. They raced to the door, and she tore his shirt from behind, and they ran into her husband at the door. She said, “What is to be the requital of him who has evil intentions for your wife except imprisonment or a painful punishment?” He said, “It was she who solicited me.” A witness of her own household testified [saying]: “If his shirt is torn from the front, she tells the truth and he lies. But if his shirt is torn from behind, then she lies and he tells the truth.” So when he saw that his shirt was torn from behind, he said, “This is [a case] of you women’s guile! Your guile is great indeed! Joseph, let this matter alone, and you, woman, plead for forgiveness for your sin, for you have indeed been erring” (12:23­–29).

In his commentary on the passage, Reynolds gives us, by way of contrast, the spare text from Genesis, then points to an exegetical fable in the Babylonian Talmud in which Joseph had decided to relent to the woman’s importuning, but corrected himself after receiving a miraculous vision in which his father, Jacob, upbraids him; it is suggested this may account for the “proof of his Lord” mentioned but not explained in the Qur’an. The test for determining Joseph’s guilt or innocence, i.e., the location of the rip in his shirt, has no basis in Genesis and is missing from other Jewish sources but is to be found, Reynolds notes, in the Syriac Christian homilies of Narsai and Pseudo-Narsai (fifth century a.d.).

What the qur’anic author (or his yet undiscovered sources) has himself contributed are the words of the husband’s address to his wife and, in admonishment, to womankind; the sententious truism of Joseph (“wrongdoers do not prosper”); and, most characteristically, the kind of narrator’s apostrophe—editorially indicated by the capitalized We and Our—by which the reader is addressed in the first person plural (we Muslims) in order that the proper moral lessons are made explicit. That is to say, the Qur’an distances itself from its own narrative just far enough to pass judgment on its truth and godliness. Equally interesting is what is not made explicit in the Qur’an. The author’s many oblique references and allusory technique depend upon a common knowledge of stories told elsewhere. Almost certainly we have to postulate an extensive oral culture that provided the background information needed to make the stories cogent and complete. Where we lack the “story behind the story,” the qur’anic discourse often seems gauzy and perplexing. (Compare the Qur’an’s account with the unity, lucidity, and economy of the account of the serpent and the woman in Genesis 3.)

Figures from the Old and New Testaments are often given a second life and novel history by the Qur’an, in accordance with the particular interests and sentiments of the author. The Qur’an has the newborn Jesus speak to Mary, telling her to shake the trunk of the palm under which he was born so as to feed herself on the dates that drop (19:25). Jesus announces to the Israelites that, as a sign to them, he will shape birds out of clay and vivify them by his breath (3:49); he is raised alive to heaven by God (3:55), though it is not altogether clear that he died first. Mary is herself the sister of Aaron (19:28), taken as an infant by Zechariah to live in the sanctuary of the temple, where he tended to her and God miraculously fed her (3:37). Reynolds indicates the pertinent parallels with apocryphal scriptures of the early Christian centuries. The Qur’an displays a strong affinity for the ­anecdotal among these episodes: those which present themselves vividly to the pictorial ­imagination or which conclude with a striking and ­memorable utterance, usually aphoristic in nature.

The qur’anic treatment of Abraham illustrates a more evident moralizing. In the Bible, Abraham becomes the father of true worship of the one true God by virtue of his divine election and obedient response. Whatever cult he paid to native deities before his call is not mentioned, and we are not told that Abraham destroyed paganism and graven images so as to clear the ground in anticipation of his election. In later Jewish midrashic texts, however, Abraham’s father, Terah, is depicted as a maker and seller of idols. In the account given in the Genesis Rabbah, Abraham demolishes these idols on the day he is left in charge of his father’s shop. In the Qur’an (21:51–66), Abraham finds himself in a location with many idols and smashes all but the largest one among them. When arraigned for the sacrilege, he answers that it was the large idol itself who had shattered the smaller ones, taunting the idolaters, “ask them, if they can speak,” thereby confounding his accusers and winning his acquittal. Here again it would appear that the biblical account—if indeed it was known at all—was regarded as insufficiently explicit and insufficiently memorable to serve the author’s didactic purposes, among which communicating a detestation of idolatry was paramount. Thus the tidily dramatized moralism of the midrash was brought into service.

Unlike the rabbis or the Syrian monks of the time, the author of the Qur’an was not part of a literary culture working within a tradition of manuscript recension and transmission. Reynolds makes an important point: “The Qurʾān is the first book in the history of Arabic literature. There was no preexisting canon of Arabic works to which the Qurʾān’s author could turn. Accordingly he benefited from a variety of different linguistic and literary traditions which were transmitted orally in the Late Antique Near East.” If there was no tradition of monoglot writing at this place and time, it stands to reason that, by the same token, there was no tradition of reading, that is, of reading silently by and for oneself. We are obliged to consider that the first Arabic book was not offered to its first audience as a folio placed in the hands and consumed in private, but was itself read and expounded aloud, and to that extent partaking of the same cultural energies that produced it. In tracing the development of the sources of the qur’anic text, Reynolds may have provided some clues toward its exegesis as well, just as the historical-critical methods have illuminated the Old and New Testaments in interesting and useful ways.

This is a well-produced book, and a book laid out with working scholars in mind. The commentary is not placed in footnotes but on the main pages, in a legible font, immediately following the verses discussed. Reynolds is generously redundant in his annotations, reiterating arguments and bibliography that apply to more than one passage instead of obliging the reader to chase down cross-references, endnotes, appendices, etc., so as to patch it all together by himself. This considerateness has fattened the tome beyond a thousand pages, but makes it that much easier to use. Reynolds’s own writing is pleasingly plain, clear, undoctrinaire. He is out to inform rather than dispute, and succeeds.

Paul V. Mankowski, S. J., writes from Chicago. 

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