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The Qur'an and Its Biblical Subtext.

The Qur'an and Its Biblical Subtext. By GABIUEL SAID REYNOLDS. Routledge Studies in the Qur'an, vol. 10. London: ROUTLEDGE, 2010. Pp. xi + 304. $130.

Although the title of this book might suggest to the unwary that it is yet another attempt to unearth a Qur'anic Urtext in the style of a Liiling or a "Luxenburg," the author's purpose is in fact quite different. Rather than trying to discredit the Qur'an as a pastiche of biblical themes and tropes only half understood, Reynolds credits the Qur'an both with a fuller appreciation of the biblical and post-biblical tradition within which it explicitly situates its discourse, and also with having more depth and skill in its engagement with that tradition than is usually acknowledged by non-Muslim scholars. He wants to consider the Qur'an as being in honest conversation with the biblical tradition rather than as simply drawing inexpertly from it--a conversation in which it has its own voice and point of view.

The bulk of the book consists of thirteen case studies of elements within the Qur'an text that have traditionally posed problems for the mufassiran and for contemporary translators, whether Muslim or not. The mufassirun he selects are Muqatil, al-Qummi, al-Tabari, al-Zamakhshari, and Ibn Kathir, representing respectively the approaches he characterizes as haggadic, sectarian, literalist, rationalist, and fundamentalist. The translations considered are those of Pickthall, Yusuf Ali, Blachere, Paret, Arberry, Fakhry, and Abdel Haleem. Some of the case studies are just on a single term, such as the name Muhammad, the epithet al-rajim applied to Satan, or the appellation hanif. Others deal with more extended narrative episodes, e.g., the nativity of Mary, the Companions of the Cave, the career of Jonah, or the laughter of Sara. The traditional commentators' frank reporting of multiple opinions of these matters, and their often inconclusive treatment of them, as well as the variations and necessary parenthetical clarifications common among the translations indicate that there is a subtext to these passages--and, the author would maintain, to the whole Qur'an--that very often eludes its readers.

Using a method that takes its inspiration from Franz Rosenthal and, before him, Heinrich Speyer, Reynolds divides each case study into three sections. First, he presents the Qur'anic account of a particular episode, or its usage of the term under consideration. Then he indicates the difficulties the mufassirun and the translators have found in dealing with it. The last part of each study is headed "subtext," by which Reynolds means "the collection of traditions that the Qur'an refers to in its articulation of a new religious message" (p. 36). He explores elements of biblical and post-biblical literature that he argues help make more sense of the Qur'an's account by clarifying the thought of its implied, or even often declared, interlocutor. These sections, Reynolds acknowledges, are obviously more speculative, and even sympathetic readers will not necessarily agree with all of his conclusions. However, he demonstrates convincingly that his approach, far from proving the dependence of the Qur'an on its subtext, actually reveals a much less dependent, more self-assured Qur'an. Although these case studies do not include any legal texts, they represent, Reynolds maintains, an adequate sampling of the Qur'an to make his point. He suspects that the legal texts can also be seen as more coherent when read against the background of its subtext.

Reynolds rightly wants to distinguish what he is proposing--and demonstrating--from the task of identifying sources for the Qur'an. Though he does not dismiss the value of such efforts at identifying sources, they often belong to the approach he decries, one that takes the Meccan prophet as the somewhat inexpert author of the Qur'an; an author who is trying to conceal the fact that his work is not original--an accusation that the Qur'an itself records as having been levelled at it. Q 16:103 addresses the suggestion of a foreign source, while nine times the Qur'an recounts that it is being dismissed as just "tales of the ancients."

Reynolds positions his close textual examinations within the framework of a much broader discussion of what he refers to as the current crisis of Qur'anic studies. If it is a crisis, it is one that might be said to have been happening in slow motion since John Wansbrough's seminal works in the 1970s. Indeed, Reynolds traces the roots of the issue well back into the nineteenth century. He lays out the history of the continued insistence among Western scholars on reading the Qur'an through the biography of Muhammad as expounded both in sira works and tafa sir. This insistence continues to the present day in spite of occasional expressions of surprise that the Meccan paganism so important to the sira is so little in evidence in the Qur'an itself, and notwithstanding acknowledgements that biographical reports sometimes seem tailor-made as explanations of perplexing passages in the scripture. This approach in the end fails to do justice, in Reynolds's opinion, either to the Qur'an's own originality as a new voice in the conversation growing out of the biblical tradition, or to the inventiveness and creativity of the tnufassiran in "shaping the Qur'an in the light of their particular concerns" (p. 228).

As Reynolds observes (p. 254), it is not so much Wansbrough's historical claims about the lateness of the Qur'an's codification or about the development of Islam in Mesopotamia that are important, as his methodological insight that, whatever the community of faith--the community of the Heilsge-schichte--might be doing, critical scholars should read the Qur'an not primarily through the tafsir but within the broader tradition of biblical literature. It is to the testing and verification of Wansbrough's thesis that Reynolds sees his volume contributing.

If anything, the crisis Reynolds sees in Qur'anic studies--and which he sees amply illustrated by the overall approach of the Encyclopaedia of the Qur'an, which he suggests might well have borne the title Encyclopaedia of Tafsir--is a crisis in the original sense of that word: a moment of decision. Will critical Qur'an scholarship continue to minimalize the obvious difficulties of reading the Qur'an through the tafsir; will so much of it go on insisting, against mounting evidence, that the sira can provide us with at least a basic chronology on which to rely in reading the Qur'an against the background of the career of the Meccan prophet? Or will scholars rather tackle the more complex and demanding task of also reading the Qur'an precisely as it tells us to: in continuity and conversation with a pre-existing tradition to which it repeatedly and unabashedly relates itself?

Any critique as sweeping as this raises the question, is it not strange to think we still have something so significant to learn about the Qur'an so late in the piece? Is one supposed to believe that all mufassirun over the centuries did not really know what they were reading? Some consideration of the parallels in biblical studies would not be out of place. Scholarship is still in the process of learning to read the New Testament in the light of its subtext and contra-texts--Hebrew Bible, Rabbinic thought, non-canonical gospels, the Dead Sea scrolls. Scholarship is filled with proposals about the ideas and the texts that lie behind the scriptural texts, and such proposals often open more profound readings of them. Jewish readings of John's Gospel, for example by Daniel Boyarin, offer much more important insights into that most important of Christian documents than the ideologized readings that preferred not to recognize John's Jewishness. Referring principally to Ibn Kathir, Reynolds observes that "certain of the mufassiran developed a fundamentally antagonistic attitude to the Qur'an's biblical subtext" (p. 201). The same can certainly be said of many Christian readings of the NT, at least as early as Marcion, and as recent as Bultmann. There is no doubt that the welcome recognition of the subtext enriches the text immeasurably.

In discussing in chapter three their exegetical devices (story-telling, asbab al-nuzul, qira'at ta'khir al-muyaddani, and recourse to isra'iliyyat), Reynolds notes that the mufassirun "used tafsir to claim the Qur'an as their own. In so doing they tended to distance it from the narratives and doctrines of Jews and Christians" (p. 201). There is, of course, a sense in which this is obviously true: every interpreter of a scripture is working within a particular consensus and is offering a reading of the text that is consonant with, and that can be relied on to defend, that consensus--however broad or narrow it may be. Yet at the same time, "to claim the Qur'an as their own" is a slightly troubling way of putting it, and could imply a criticism. One wonders whether what is coming to the surface in that turn of phrase might not be a subtle counter-claim, of the kind made not so subtly by earlier critics, who sought to undercut the Qur'an and as it were to "repossess" it. One thinks of Abraham Geiger's title Was hat Mohammed aus dem Judenthume aufgenommen? Behind the justifiable insistence on the importance of the biblical subtext for understanding the Qur'an, there can be a privileging of the world that generated the text at the expense of the world generated by the text. Such a privileging fails to take the text seriously as a canon of scripture for a community of faith. In the "canon criticism" turn in biblical studies since the 1970s one sees a dissatisfaction with an exclusive concentration on the subtext, and an attempt to reinstate the believing community as the reader of the text. It would be unfortunate if, in Qur'anic studies, the same insights could not be acknowledged, and a balance found between reading the Qur'an against the background of its subtext and reading it from within the community of faith that it generated. Reynolds's project walks a fine line, and needs to be attentive to the risks of falling back into, or being co-opted by, older patterns of thought that appeal to the subtext to impoverish the Qur'an rather than enrich it.

In chapter four Reynolds makes what will probably seem to most readers his most controversial claim: the Qur'an should be read as a homily, that is, as a religious exhortation on biblical themes, that "develops independently from but parallel to Christian homily," particularly the homilies of the Syriac tradition (p. 249). Reynolds contests Artgelika Neuwirth's denial that the Qur'an should be thought of as homiletic, and rejects her notion that the Psalms offer a better analogue. It is not clear that one has to choose definitively between these two options, since neither one on its own is able to account for the particularities of the Qur'an's style and content, yet each contains important similarities: the allusiveness and varied style of the Psalms, and the eschatological concerns and the direct parenetic address of the homilies. What is lacking in either the Psalms or the Syriac memre and yet central to the Qur'an is the self-referential metadiscourse of revelation and scripturality.

It is this Qur'anic metadiscourse that gives one pause when Reynolds claims that the Qur'an "does not seek to correct, let alone replace, Biblical literature, but instead to use that literature for its homiletic exhortation" (p. 239). There is an element of truth to that claim, but to sustain it one would need to consider carefully just how self-referential the apparently self-referential aspects of the Qur'an are. An argument can be made, I believe, that much of the Qur'an's discourse about signs, about scripture, about recitation, though it has come to be read particularly within the believing community as being self-referential, can also be construed quite fruitfully as having a referent beyond the text itself.

In his closing exhortation to the study of the Qur'an in the light of its biblical subtext, Reynolds claims that with this method "it emerges that Qur'an and Bible, far from being incompatible or in opposition, are very much in harmony." It may be just that the hortatory mood of the peroration has got the better of him, but such a claim would risk undercutting his other affirmations about the distinctiveness of the Qur'an's voice in preaching the biblical tradition, and the challenge it poses to other communities and their readings.

This is a significant contribution to contemporary Qur'anic studies. In the breadth of its reading and the linguistic skills on which it calls, it models the virtues and abilities it recommends for all students of the Qur'an.


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Author:Madigan, Daniel A.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2013
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