The Qur’an makes high claims for its clarity and internal consistency, and as I have spent the week reacquainting myself with it in class, I am coming to a fresh appreciation of how radically focused it is. Calvin claims that the Bible is never telling us anything we don’t really need to know, but that is a retrospective hermeneutic principle — the Qur’an really is like that from the very beginning. Nothing is placed in there simply to satisfy your curiosity or clarify “in-universe” details. Everything and everyone is radically on message.
This stands out in the accounts of the various prophets, who all deliver essentially the same message under very similar circumstances. And all of these similarities come together to highlight the fact that it’s happening again in the very moment of enunciation. This rhetorical effect guides the selection and presentation of the prophetic anecdotes. In the Meccan surahs, when Muhammad is a persecuted apocalyptic preacher, he draws repeatedly on stories of powerful cities who reject their prophet and are destroyed. Noah is a particularly insistent point of reference, because the first prophet is also a prophet of the end of his world — creating a retrospective bookend with Muhammad’s own preaching of the Last Judgment. The repeated reiterations of the story of Moses point toward the same rhetorical end: the powerful may oppose the prophet, but he will be vindicated.
In the Medinan period, the focus changes. Now we see Moses’s struggle to bring order and discipline to the Israelite nation after the Exodus. This message speaks both to Muhammad’s own similar struggle with the Islamic community and provides a point of contact for preaching to Jewish communities as well. Surah 2 (The Cow) is a particularly dramatic instance of the latter, with the Qur’an reminding the People of Israel over and over that they have disobeyed and rejected God. Some of these incidents are directly biblical, and others are seemingly invented or at least augmented: for instance, when the people want to turn aside from God’s miraculous mana for the common goods that can be purchased in any town. The message is clear: this is another one of those moments, and perhaps the last. Another bookened is opened up, with Muhammad offering the People of Israel their last chance to submit to the prophetic message.
Perhaps the most dramatic case, however, is one that never occurred to me before today’s class discussion: the fall of Iblis (2:30-34). As a scholar of the devil, I had of course meditated on this story many a time, but today it hit me. God is giving Adam the names of all things and asking him to recite them back to the angels — and who else do we know who has been given divine instruction to recite? The Qur’an is writing the scene of its enunciation back into the beginning of creation itself. The first man is already the first prophet, preaching to the angels, who had previously announced their skepticism of God’s intention to create a viceregent on earth: “Wilt thou place therein one who will make mischief and shed blood? Whilst we do celebrate Thy praises and glorify Thy holy name?” (30). When God demands that the angels — a privileged group complacent in their proprietary ownership of God’s favor, parallel to the way the Qur’an presents the Jews — prostrate themselves, he is asking them to submit, to become Muslims. And though the majority obey, the one who refuses disrupts the first prophetic community in Eden irrevocably.
None of this is a history lesson or an edifying tale — all of it is commentary on right now. Everything moves irresistably toward the establishment of the Qur’an’s own present authority as the recapitulation and summing up of all previous revelations, as what quite literally makes those prophetic moments of the past live again in the present moment of revelation. Obvious miracles and signs may be a thing of the distant past, but the reality of prophecy is urgently present in the here and now. The history of salvation and the apocalyptic future all collapse down into the present moment, which presents the hearer with the same choice that has always been offered — and the same eternal consequences.