Reading the Qur’an: Background work

[This semester, I am blogging my course on the Qur’an. You can see my previous post here and the whole series here.]

The first week or so of my course (syllabus) is dedicated to providing background to the Qur’an. The constraint of using primary sources meant that I couldn’t assign a straightforward historical review, so instead I am using Ibn Ishaq’s Life of Muhammad, which is the earliest systematic compilation aiming to cover all of the Prophet’s life. I paired a series of selections on his life before becoming the Prophet with some narratives from the Bible on the early life of certain prophets (Moses, Samuel, and Jesus — I wish I had also included David, because there is a close parallel to the part where David is out in the field because they assume he’s too young). The students were generally already familiar with the Bible, but even those who were not found it easier to read. That was in large part due to a unique feature of Islamic historiography, at least as far as it concerns the Prophet — they want to keep everything that has been handed down, even if they doubt that it happened (as Ishaq tactfully announces when he begins a story with “they allege…”). This is because the life and practice of Muhammad has a quasi-Scriptural character, hence they want to err on the side of caution lest they throw out a part of the divine revelation. We discussed how the existence of multiple versions, while confusing to the reader, is likely an indication of the importance of a story. We also agreed that many of the fanciful-seeming stories where Muhammad gets divine signs from a young age and everyone “already knows” he’s going to be Prophet express a desire to reconcile the apparent contradiction that Muhammad was just “some guy” until one day he was Prophet — in other words, they are a kind of “prequel” gesture to try to align his early life with his ultimate calling.

For the second day, we went with the Life of Muhammad alone, covering his calling as a prophet and bringing us up through the conversion of Umar. And at this point, it’s clear that the “prequel” legends break the main story of his calling, because the emotional impact and meaning of the most important events in that story are vitiated if he “already knew” he was bound to become God’s prophet. The students agreed that Muhammad seems much more human and relatable in these sections, and some even expressed discomfort with how forceful Gabriel had to be to get him to go public with the message. The issue of violence arose as well, both in the account of an act of self-defense that is designated as “the first blood to be drawn in Islam” and even more in the conversion of Umar, who is presented as a very intimidating guy. They gradually came to think that self-defense against people who are persucting the Muslims or trying to keep them from using a public shrine was justifiable. We also talked about how it might have been different if Umar were the Prophet instead of Muhammad, and they felt everyone’s faith would have been more questionable since he could have bullied them into it. As a protector, he’s a great boon to the movement, though. We also highlighted the role of his wife Khadija in Muhammad’s life. She already appeared to be a bit of a feminist icon — independently wealthy, taking the initiative, etc. — in the first reading, and here she is the first believer and supporter of Muhammad’s message. In fact, she has to help convince him that he’s not a demon-possessed poet. This drew us into a possible gender-swapped parallel with Mary and Joseph, as Muhammad brings the Word of God into the world with the support of a believing spouse who gets a revelation as well. Here again, though, if Khadija “already knew” Muhammad was bound to be the Prophet, the dramatic effect is lost (which is not to say that the Prophet’s real life should be dramatically structured).

I rounded out our background discussions with some samples of biblical prophecy (Amos) and apocalyptic literature (New Testament passages). With Amos, I mainly wanted them to see that it’s normal for the prophetic voice to speak in the first person as God, as Muhammad does in the Qur’an, and I anticipate that they will see the parallels in terms of the denunciatory content of those revelations as well. Past experience showed that students, even those with a Christian background, tend to be confused about the resurrection of the dead, so I included passages from 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians to show that it is indeed “a thing” prior to the Qur’an. As for the selections from Revelation and the apocalyptic passages from the Gospels, there was mainly confusion — in keeping with my pedagogical goal of setting them up to notice how much simpler and more streamlined the Qur’anic approach to apocalyptic is. In place of all these supposed sequences of events, the Qur’an basically says: the Day of Judgment will happen unexpectedly, it’ll be scary, and the dead will be raised in order to be judged. No mark of the Beast, no thousand-year kingdom, no late-breaking release of the Devil from jail, etc. — just the basics.

I also tried to highlight some of the weirder and more counterintuitive aspects of Jesus’s teaching, but in that regard I am not sure how much impact I had since one student was taking up a lot of airtime with more conventional preacherly interpretations of those same passages. And I now wonder if part of the reason that I am so drawn to teaching the Qur’an is that it scratches some of the same intellectual itches as teaching the Bible, but without the need to fight against so many preconceptions. Yes, there are still preconceptions — Islam is violent or misogynist or whatever — but students usually realize pretty quickly that those are based on ignorance or are at least overly simplistic, while the preconceptions about the Bible are much more detailed and appear to them to be based in deep knowledge. This fits with my general tendency to teach pre-modern Islam not a radically foreign “Oriental” tradition, but as a kind of “alternate history” of the West, which takes many of the same starting points (both biblical and Greek intellectual traditions) in often very different directions. Maybe eventually I’ll turn the corner and decide that the West is actually the “alternate history.”

2 thoughts on “Reading the Qur’an: Background work

  1. Always enjoy it when you dig deep and do an exegetical and hermeneutic close reading of a Biblical/Qu’ranic text Adam, so I am very much looking forward to this series. I’ve just finshed Frank Kermode’s ‘The Literary Guide to the Bible’ so I’m ready to offer my more oblique contributions.

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