God in the Qur’an
by jack miles
knopf, 256 pages, $26.95
Jack Miles, a former Jesuit seminarian turned author and editor, is best known for God: A Biography. In his latest book, he compares the gods of the Qur’an and Bible, with sympathy for the former. Instead of addressing the attributes of the Qur’an’s God systematically, God in the Qur’an takes readers on a journey through those elements of qur’anic sacred history that have parallels in the Bible: from Adam to Jesus and Mary. Throughout this journey, Miles compares Allah, God of the Qur’an, with Yahweh, God of the Bible, as two different characters. God in the Qur’an is thus less a theological exploration of who God truly is and more a comparison of the divine protagonists in these two books. In the end (although Miles does not put it this crassly), Allah wins. He is more merciful, more reasonable, and more predictable. However, Miles also finds beauty in the biblical narrative of a God who is irascible and prone to emotional outbursts, yet loves his people deeply through it all.
In making this comparison Miles sticks to the canonical scriptures. He notes that biblical characters such as Adam, Noah, and Abraham are changed in the Qur’an. God forgives Adam for his offense of eating from the forbidden tree. The qur’anic Noah has only one son, and that son refuses to board the ark (boasting foolishly that he will save himself in the mountains). Abraham has a conflict with his father (who is named Azar, and not Terah), and later warns his son before leading him away as a sacrifice. Miles presents such elements as the Qur’an’s—or rather Allah’s—corrections of the Bible. For example, on the sacrifice of Abraham’s son, Miles writes:
Here Allah sharply corrects the biblical account: Abraham does not conceal from his son the divine command that has come to him in a dream. And the son, for his part, does not proceed in oblivious trust, like Isaac in the Book of Genesis, but—being old enough to take a reflective and responsible part in the sacrifice—declares a forthright willingness to give up his life if such is Allah’s will. Like his father, he submits to his divine Lord—good Muslims both.
Miles’s commentary is penetrating. Still (and Miles recognizes this), in all of these cases the Qur’an’s biblical subtext is not limited to the canonical Bible but includes the entire legacy of Jewish and Christian literature through the early seventh century. Ephrem the Syrian, for example, has God forgive Adam. The story of Noah’s lost son is likely an exegetical development of Ezekiel 14. The story of Abraham’s conflict with his father is known from the Book of Jubilees and (as Miles mentions) the apocryphal Christian work Apocalypse of Abraham. The notion that Abraham’s son was a willing participant in the sacrifice is suggested by Judith 8:26 and is explicit in a wide range of Jewish sources, including the Targum Neofiti and the midrash Genesis Rabbah.
All of this raises the question of what “Bible” meant in the Qur’an’s context. As the studies of Sidney H. Griffith have shown, the Bible was likely not translated into Arabic until at least a century after the rise of Islam. Accordingly, the author of the Qur’an would have encountered not the Bible but biblical tales, transmitted orally, and likely not have distinguished between what is biblical and what is parabiblical. In other words, one wonders if the Qur’an is actually “correcting” the Bible, as Miles puts it, or communicating stories that were already transformed by Jews and Christians.
The answer is probably both. Miles is certainly right that the Qur’an is interested in asserting its authenticity against rival accounts. As Miles notes, at the end of the Joseph story the divine voice of the Qur’an calls out, “This account of something that was beyond the reach of thy perception We [now] reveal unto thee.” The Qur’an says something similar when telling the story of Mary’s childhood in the Temple. The Qur’an thus explicitly sees itself as a new and prophetic telling of sacred history. Unlike the Bible, the Qur’an is “self-consciously” prophetic. As Miles describes, the Qur’an is articulated as God’s self-communication. In literary terms, the speaker is usually God. (This led earlier generations of Qur’an scholars to argue that Muhammad either deceived himself, or deceived others, into thinking that he heard God’s voice.) At the same time, the Qur’an is clearly shaped by the sorts of stories Jews and Christians were telling in Late Antiquity (including stories from the Bible and stories about Alexander the Great and the Sleepers of Ephesus).
Yet what of the character of the deity who speaks in the Qur’an? Miles finds Allah to be a compassionate, if stern, God. Allah sends prophets as messengers and admonishers to demand that humans worship him alone. This act of sending is the central manifestation of divine mercy. God could have remained silent. He could have left humans to deduce their religious obligations from the signs of God in nature alone. Instead, he chose to speak. Thus, in the Qur’an Noah is a prophet who demands that his people repent and believe before the punishment of the flood overcomes them. In Genesis, Noah is righteous, but he does not speak a word to his people (although 2 Peter does make him a “preacher of righteousness”).
The character of Moses is also fundamentally different in the Qur’an. In the Exodus account, “Yahweh is out for revenge” for Pharaoh’s plot against His people. He prevents Pharaoh from converting by hardening his heart. Pharaoh is under “Yahweh’s psychic control” and the last plague is Yahweh’s “final divine atrocity.” Allah, however, sends Moses to Pharaoh not only to demand the liberty of the Israelites but primarily to demand Pharaoh’s conversion to proper “theolatry”—right worship of God. As Miles correctly notes, in the Qur’an Pharaoh actually does convert in the end. (One might add, however, that Allah does not accept his conversion. Miles cites Pharaoh’s conversion from Qur’an 10:90, but in the next verse Allah angrily rebukes Pharaoh for believing only when death throes are upon him.)
Although Allah does not show the full range of emotions manifested by Yahweh, he is not a totally predictable God. Like Yahweh, Allah is capable of tricks. In Q 3:54, a verse usually interpreted as God’s tricking the Jews by transforming someone else into the likeness of Jesus, the Qur’an declares: “They schemed. But God schemed; and God is the best of schemers.” The Qur’an declares elsewhere (3:178) that God gives a respite to sinners so that they might “increase in sin” and accordingly be punished. The Qur’an repeatedly speaks of God’s “sealing” of hearts—in Q 4:155 the Qur’an insists that God has “sealed” the hearts of the Israelites and makes this the reason for their unbelief. Allah is also capable of vengeance. Indeed, the Qur’an calls God on several occasions Dhu intiqam, “the Avenger.” Yet Miles is right that Allah does not wish to condemn sinners or unbelievers. The Qur’an insists that God longs for their repentance and salvation. The Qur’an also calls God al-Tawwab, meaning, the one who “turns” to man in clemency.
It is this merciful face of God that Miles means to show to his non-Muslim readers in God in the Qur’an. In the Afterword, Miles expresses his earnest wish that by “exercising your imagination” during the journey through the Qur’an’s sacred history, non-Muslims “may find it a little easier to trust the Muslim next door.” As I see it, his book does more than that. It allows Jews and Christians (and others) to appreciate the religious bonds they share with their Muslim neighbors. If anything, the qur’anic and biblical visions of God are even closer than Miles suggests. No less than the Bible, the Qur’an tells the story of a God who is indeed capable of mercy, but also capable of wrath.
Gabriel Said Reynolds is professor of Islamic studies and theology at the University of Notre Dame.