As I work on my Islam course for the fall, it occurs to me that I’ll likely have more material than I can use in one course. Hence, I’m pondering the idea of proposing another Islam-related elective for the spring semester as well, which would have the added benefit of helping me solidify my own preliminary grasp on Islamic thought. I’ve thought especially about something like the Qur’an and the Bible, and more recently about something comparing St. Paul and Muhammed. What do you think, readers? Does any of this sound plausible, particularly that last idea?
15 thoughts on “Islam course idea”
Sounds like a fascinating course. My knowledge of Islam is very cursory (I’m embarrassed to admit), but I could imagine many lines of inquiry and comparison — How does each figure deal with questions of idolatry and religious syncretism? The nature of the law and the “gospel” (And does Mohammed have something like a “gospel”?). Then there’s the fascinating Sarah/Haggar typology of Galatians. How does that compare with the treatment of these figures in the Qur’an? And on a related topic, how about how each figure deals with the roles of women? A comparison between the two on providence/predestination might be illuminating. And of course, how about each figures revisionist relationship to Judaism. And the nature of religious experience — particularly the mystical journeys both Paul and Mohammed report — is another angle.
My first inclination is to bring up the work of Marshall Hodgson, whose account of “Islamicate civilization” always involved a discussion of the possibility of comparison with other traditions. His article on “The Interrelations of Societies in History” makes favorable mention of Karl Jaspers’ philosophy of history, which asserts that the major civilizations of Eurasia have a common source. It might be fruitful to read Hodgson with the work of Talal Asad in mind, which would raise questions about the possibility of comparisons across time and space, the category of religion etc.
Just as the Catholic Church insists upon the primordial purity of Mary, because it is through her that the Word of God was given to this world, so Islam insists that the Prophet was “unlettered” so to speak, that is to say, not touched by profane knowledge, by the arguments of philosophers, by idolatry or by any worldly influence. This has been an area of constant misunderstanding between the two religions. Christians compare, usually, the Prophet to Jesus and the Qur;an to the Bible; but, as Schuon and others have pointed out, the only legitimate comparison would be between the Prophet and Mary on the one hand and on the other between the Qur’an and Jesus. For Christians the Word was made flesh, whereas for Muslims it took earthly shape in the form of a book, and the recitation of the Qur’an in the ritual prayer fulfills the same function as the eucharist in Christianity; at the same time, Mary gave birth to Jesus without passing on to him any taint of earthly sin, so many Christians say, and the Prophet acted as a channel for the Word without lending it any taint of merely human wisdom, so many Muslims say. I think these are the more interesting comparisons.
I think a class on the Qur’an and the Bible would be fascinating. I remember reading the Qur’an a couple of times in college and being intrigued by the ways in which certain Biblical stories were re-narrated (e.g. Joseph, Lot, etc.).
When I teach Islam (in seminary classrooms), I use a text called “The Koran Handbook,” which is a Qur’an translation, but the suras are out of order and organized thematically, and heavily annotated. This has been one of the most helpful resources to me as someone learning and teaching this material.
Pancakesandwildhoney, why can’t one compare the Bible and Quran in terms of genres and content (of which there is much to compare, as they often present divergent versions of the same stories and characters)? I don’t think the particular theological conception — or more accurately, the particular metaphor — a tradition uses to understand its scripture should stop us from making comparisons. As an aside, how would one compare Jesus with the Quran in anything other than abstract terms? One is a set of words, and the other is “word” only in a metaphorical sense.
Brennan, I think you’re mistaken in claiming religious traditions ‘really’ have a metaphorical relationship to scripture, despite what they might wrongheadedly imagine about this relationship. You’ve implied ‘theological conception’ might do as a term deployed by members of a tradition to understand scripture, but that metaphor would be more accurate, thus coupling them in a problematic way – theological conceptions aren’t ‘metaphor’, and if they have a relationship to it, then it needs to be spelled out. Christianity and Islam approach metaphor very differently, and you can’t just operate the secular-Christian reduction that your use of metaphor involves. The claim that the Quran is “just a set of words” and the conception of Jesus as word-made-flesh is “only metaphorical” is just stupid! Sorry, but it is.
Hi, Ruth. A short comment surely does not provide the space to provide the level of nuance this conversation requires, but I’ll try. First: I didn’t say the Quran is “just” a set of words. It’s a lot of things, surely. But certainly one way of looking at it is precisely as a set of words, just as one way of looking at the Hebrew Bible is as a set of words. One can attempt to bracket questions of theological conviction and read it as a book. One can also do this with the Bible. This makes for really interesting comparisons. I don’t think this is stupid.
And to be clear, all I’m saying is that a particular community’s articulation of their understanding of a sacred object does not force us to limit our comparisons in an academic setting. My question remains: what activity would you do in class to compare the Quran and Jesus beyond a conceptual comparison? Would you read the New Testament, maybe?
To be clear (which obviously I’m not good at): that’s a real question — I’m not being a smartass. I re-read my comment and it sounds like I’m answering my own question, but I’m just trying to think of an answer.
you can compare them, of course, in that way, and many do (and honestly, I have no problem with that). In my opinion, however, that comparison is not the most suitable comparison.
As for the second part, I think those terms are the only ones appropriate for Christ. I mean, when we use the name Jesus, do we not try to force upon those to whom we are speaking and upon ourselves something great besides God? It seems that the Christian painters knew more about this than we often do. They did not present a picture of Jesus of Nazareth as Jesus of Nazareth. They painted him as the infant of Bethlehem who contains the whole universe ‘lying now in Mary’s lap’ Luther sings. Through his infantile traits shines the power of the Lord of the world. Or they painted him as the visible bearer of the divine majesty in those great mosaics where every piece of his gown is transparent for the infinite depth he represents and expresses. Or they painted him as the Crucified who does not suffer as an individual man, but as he who stands for both the suffering universe and the divine love which participates in its suffering. Or they painted him as the bringer of the new era who controls the powers of nature, the souls of men, the demonic forces of disease, insanity, and death. But they did not give him individual traits, did not make him a representative of a psychological type or of a sociological group. Look at the Sistine Chapel. Michaelangelo gave a special characteristic to every prophet, every sibyl. But when he painted Jesus as ultimate judge, only an irresistible divine-human power appears. When Jesus becomes an object of biographical and psychological essays, interesting as they are, and is portrayed as a fanatic and neurotic, or as a pious sufferer, or as a moral example, or as a religious teacher, or as a mass leader–we are no longer talking of Christ.
When the “Word was made flesh” thing about Jesus becomes merely a thing of no real theological importance about Jesus, then he ceases to be the one in whom we can believe, for he is no longer the Jesus who is the Christ.
Of course, to take Christ seriously means one must read the NT but that only gets us so far. Take the Fourth Gospel, for instance. Jesus says “I am the truth.” This does not seem to be a doctrine but a reality. It is a profound transformation of the ordinary meaning of truth. For us, statements are true or false; people may have truth or not; but how can they be truth, even the truth? I am the truth must be hinting at some ultimate reality present in Jesus, namely, God is in him in some way in his unapproachable mystery. Jesus is not the truth because his teachings are true. But his teachings are true because they express the truth which he himself is. He is more than his words. And he is more than any word said about him. To appreciate this nuance is to appreciate the comparison between Christ and Qur’an.
Muslims say, at least most of them, that the purity of the stream of revelation remains unsullied in its course from the spring which is its origin to the lake into which is flows; in ohter words, the Qur’an exists in written form exactly as it issued from the divine Presence. Christians, at least most, do not say this about their sacred text, but most do say it about Jesus, who is, if we are honest, the sacred text of Christianity. “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
Sorry for the long comment.
Pancakesandwildhoney, it wasn’t long at all apart from the pasted-in Tillich quotes.
Adam, I’m curious about the St Paul and Muhammad comparison. What prompted the idea?
And I’m finding the Muhammad/Mary comparison really interesting.
Both are “founders” of a religion (in a different sense than Jesus) — both built concrete communities (albeit very differently), both left a body of inspired literature that presupposes knowledge of concrete circumstances in their communities without relating them (knowledge that we simply don’t have in Paul’s particular case) and then gave rise to a tradition of stories that claims to fill in those gaps (much more robust in Muhammad’s case). Plus I thought it would be an interesting angle on the difference between an apostle and a prophet.
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