Reading the Qur’an: Muhammad and Moses

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

I was very gratified that when I put together my syllabus, the division between Meccan and Medinan surahs landed right at Spring Break (which has finally arrived!). Today we ended the class by putting up on the board a big list of themes from the Meccan surahs, along with patterns we had observed in the revisions (or corrections) of biblical stories. As we assembled our list, it became apparent that despite the repetition that students had (with some justification) complained of, there was a shift in emphasis over the course of our broadly chronological study. Earlier passages tended to go into more detail on the rewards and punishment awaiting the believers and disbelievers, a concern that gave way to defenses of the credibility of the resurrection of the dead, which was in turn displaced by an increasingly urgent reiteration of prophetic history (most systematically laid out in Surah 11, “Hud”). And the prophetic history became more and more ramified and complex. As I have often told students, Muhammad’s early message in his invocations of the ancient prophets is basically: “Mecca, don’t be a statistic!” The Qur’an establishes a stereotyped narrative where each prophet is met with rejection and derision, resulting in the destruction of the town. As Muhammad gains followers, however, the picture grows less stark. Jonah emerges as a counterexample to the trend, but most important by far is the figure of Moses.

What is special about Moses is that he not only preaches against a country that is destroyed. He also saves his followers and founds a new nation. This process is not without its hiccups — the story of the Golden Calf appears in the Qur’an as well, albeit in altered form — but overall the People of Israel under Moses is a positive example of a community responding appropriately to prophetic guidance. In fact, our reading today included the rebellion of Korah (Qarun), who is recast as an isolated individual who grows proud of his wealth and is swallowed up in the earth. Remarkably, the people all clearly articulate the intended lesson and resolve not to chase after wealth themselves. This makes Moses a kind of hinge figure between the ancient prophets (Noah, Hud, Salih, Shu’ayb, Abraham, and Lot), whose preaching falls on deaf ears, and the later prophets (David, Solomon, and Jesus), who maintain some significant following and authority.

The hearer of Qur’anic revelations who was not initially familiar with the Moses story would be surprised, I think, by the growing emphasis, not only on his backstory as an Israelite infiltrator (in the earliest versions of his story, he appears to be one of Pharaoh’s people just as Hud is one of the ‘Ad people, etc.), but on his role as subsequent leader and lawgiver to the Israelites. Surely it is no mistake that this emphasis emerges ever more forcefully as the need for the Muslim community to flee Mecca becomes more and more urgent — and indeed, the last couple surahs we read today (28 and 29) emphasize Muhammad’s connection to Mecca (29:67) and promise that he will be able to come back home eventually (28:85). I would need to do more work to establish the exact chronological order to substantiate this, but the general drift of the emphasis is clear.

Over the past couple weeks, I also deviated from my original plan by substituting chapters from Barlas’s “Believing Women” in Islam for the traditional commentaries I had originally assigned. I figured that it was too late for the powers that be to penalize me for deviating from the “primary sources only” plan — and in any case, Barlas is a “primary source” in that she is making a creative theological argument. I have noticed that the further I get from the War on Terror years — and hence the identification of sympathy for Islam as a liberal position — the most skeptical students have been about Barlas’s claim. The chapter we read first, on the Qur’an’s critique of patriarchy, is a bit of a mixed bag. Students found her discussion of Muhammad’s polygamy, and especially the controversy over Ayesha’s age, to be distracting (and I suggested it may be a classic instance of a passage inorganically shoved into a chapter to satisfy a peer review). More convincing, indeed seemingly undeniable, was her reading of the figure of Abraham, who seems to be systematically revised in a way that makes the story of “Father Abraham” into a case study for the rejection of patriarchal authority. Not only does he challenge and even humiliate his polytheist father, but he asks his son (presumably Ishmael rather than Isaac)’s opinion about a dream in which he is sacrificing him — and once Abraham gets his son’s full consent, God immediately intervenes to praise both for their faith.

This demotion of the father is paired with a great deal of attention to and compassion for the mother’s role in procreation. Both Mary and the mother of Moses are presented in ways that show a profound empathy for the suffering of childbirth and, in the case of Moses’s mother, the pain of separation from a child, which leaves her with “a void in her heart” (28:10). Even if my students are not fully convinced of Barlas’s contention that the Qur’an is a pro-feminist document, it seems clear that the distinctive concerns of childbirth and motherhood are granted a level of reverence that is not as evident in the other monotheistic scriptures.

In any case, we determined that no biblical narrative is incorporated into the Qur’an without any significant change. Most changes aim to eliminate any moral ambiguity, most notably when the Qur’an presents Job as tormented by Satan and then rescued by God, with no indication of any shady deal between the two. A big part of this agenda is the transformation of all prophets — including the taciturn Noah, who speaks not a word in the biblical Flood narrative — into active preachers, who speak in terms that are strangely reminiscent of Muhammad…. In some cases, as when the Sodom narrative is explicitly tied to homosexuality, this removal of ambiguity may be less welcome from a secular perspective. And from a narrative point of view, it also introduces complications, as when everyone agrees that Joseph could never have committed adultery with Potiphar’s wife — but he is then thrown in jail anyway, because the story requires it. Even in this most questionable case, however, our discussions convinced me that there is greater sophistication at work than I initially suspected. Perhaps Joseph himself recognizes that he could not resist the advances of all the smitten women in the town indefinitely, leading him to prefer seclusion for a time.

The more I study the Qur’an, the more I see the immense rigor and creativity behind its reworking of the biblical tradition. I personally prefer the original version, with all its moral ambiguity, but one does not write Scripture with an eye for entertainment value. (And from the point of view of the Qur’an’s own conceit that its versions of the stories are the lost originals, a whole new hermeneutical path opens up, investigating what the biblical authors’ motives were in revising the stories.) The same is true of the Qur’an’s idiosyncratic organization. In what was almost an act of desperation as we struggled to impose some order on our discussion, I suggested that we should go through an individual surah and write on the board the main themes of all the paragraphs supplied by the translator (which of course do not correspond to anything in the original text but at least gave us a starting point). We did this several times, and lo and behold — we started to see a logic to the seemingly scattered organization. Surahs seem to be structured proportionately, with turning points at key fractional points (1/4, 1/3) and “bookends” to reinforce the message.

The organization is not flagged in ways that a Western reader would expect, but it is present — albeit in a way that seems almost impossible, at least for us, so far, to discern on first reading. This fits with the nature of the Qur’an as a text to be worked over and over in one’s own mind — not to be read through, but lived with. I feel like I personally am having a breakthrough after living with the text by teaching it roughly every two years since my first crash-course over the summer when I was tasked with developing new courses on Islam. I imagine that my work on Arabic will open new perspectives, as I plan to finish my textbook over Spring Break and then at least try to read (or rather, study) a portion of each class assignment in the original language. And fittingly enough, our first major Qur’anic reading of the Meccan period will be from the beginning of Surah 2, which includes the fullest version of the story of Iblis — which is to say, of the fall of the devil.