Reading the Qur’an: An update

This spring, I did a series of posts on my course “Reading the Qur’an,” in which we studied the full text of the Qur’an, roughly in chronological order of revelation, paired with biblical parallels, classical commentaries, and a contemporary feminist interpretation. (You can find those posts here.) As I was finishing my class, I was also completing work on an Arabic textbook oriented specifically toward reading knowledge of the Qu’ran (link) and shifting toward the study of the Qur’an in Arabic. This whole process was helped greatly by sitting in on my colleague Esra Tasdalen’s Intro to Arabic class last fall, where I learned the intricacies of the alphabet and pronunciation in a way I literally never could have achieved through self-directed study. I wish I would have been able to do more with the Arabic in my class, but I am only one man.

Since then, I have continued to study the Qur’an in Arabic, sometimes alternating with the Hebrew Bible. I spend about an hour most days on language study, and that has allowed me to get through Surahs 1-3 and 10-12, amounting to about 1/6 of the text of the Qur’an. (I also finally finished 2 Samuel, which I had left aside when the Arabic class started last fall.) Like most Western readers, I have a sometimes ambivalent relationship with the unique rhetoric and structure of the Qur’an. I go through phases where it seems pointlessly repetitive and randomly organized, but I always come back around to a renewed affection for the text — particularly when I get to sections that relate the stories of the various prophets. I have come to appreciate the Qur’an’s radicalization of the biblical “just enough detail” storytelling strategy, which forces the reader to fill in any number of gaps in order to reconstruct what is going on. A small detail, a turn of phrase, an unaccountable action — all of these provide fodder for reflection and reveal a more subtle storytelling technique than one initially suspects.

The Joseph surah is the one I have spent the most time with. In many ways it is unrepresentative of the Qur’an, in that it replaces the usual brief and fragmentary narrative snippets with an extended, cohesive story. At first glance, the text could seem like a somewhat arbitrary and even sloppy revision of the well-known biblical tale. Most notable here is the fact that — in keeping with the Qur’an’s agenda of making sure we never suspect even the faintest impropriety on the part of a prophet — it was immediately obvious that Potiphar’s wife was lying because everyone knew Joseph would never do that. This creates a problem, though, because you need to get Joseph in jail to keep the story moving, and on first reading it appears that the Qur’an just has them arbitrarily put Joseph in jail. Through my own reflection and discussion with students, I had concluded that more was at stake than a narrative kludge. Joseph is put in “protective custody” after it becomes clear that every woman in town is hyper-attracted to him. And what Joseph needs protection from is ultimately himself, because he knows he cannot resist such constant sexual availability. Even though he is a prophet, he is still a fallible mortal man. At first glance, the Qur’an’s Joseph might seem even more flat than the biblical character, but in this moment, he seems to me to show more authentic humanity.

Reading more closely in Arabic, I found another seemingly strange moment in the Joseph story, again tied to an apparently fanciful detail added by the Qur’an. One odd feature of the Qur’an version is that Jacob knows all along that Joseph will be fine and God’s hand is upon him. Yet when the brothers come back with the “mysterious Egyptian ruler’s” demand for Benjamin, Jacob can only recall the time that he lost Joseph. In the space of two verses, Jacob insists that God is in control and everything will be fine — and experiences grief so intense that he goes blind. Profound faith is compatible with deep human emotion.

I have made other discoveries, too. Reading Surah 2 — the most cohesive and argumentatively structured surah in the Qur’an — I noticed the ways that the persistent rhymes at the end of each verse provided an implicit structure. Most notably, one almost basically never finds a singular end-rhyme unless the word refers to God (or something under God’s direct control, like Satan). The Qur’an repeats over and over again that only God is truly One, while the created world is irreducibly plural, and the very grammar of the text hammers that theological point home. (In fact, I compiled a crazy Excel spreadsheet cataloguing every end-rhyme, the basic meaning of the word, and the context. I initially planned to try this with the entire Qur’an, but my first experience put me off such heroic labors for the moment.)

Going forward, I plan to start a second textbook oriented more toward classical Arabic (link) — mainly to get me used to reading unvowelled texts, which are the norm outside of the Qur’an itself (where you need the pronunciation and meaning to be exactly right). I’ve also ordered al-Jabbar’s Critique of Christian Origins (link) to use as my reading text once I get through that. I’ve been pondering writing something comparing Paul and Muhammad, so learning the Islamic critique of Paul seems important.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been doing in terms of language work lately.

3 thoughts on “Reading the Qur’an: An update

  1. ‘ I have come to appreciate the Qur’an’s radicalization of the biblical “just enough detail” storytelling strategy, which forces the reader to fill in any number of gaps in order to reconstruct what is going on. A small detail, a turn of phrase, an unaccountable action — all of these provide fodder for reflection and reveal a more subtle storytelling technique than one initially suspects.’

    I agree and some of the paralells are quite obscure. Mary and the date palm find their paralells in the infancy Gospel of Thomas/Gospel of James and in an echo in the canonical story of Jesus cursing the Fig tree.

    Jesus and the Last Supper during passover is also rendered in a quasi-mystical fashion.

    I suprised at just how many of these stories are taken from either the midrash or non canonical or non mainstream sources, reinforcing a sort of folk counter-history. Even though distinctly not Jewish, I guess this dovetails with the Qu’ran’s view of itself as a sort of internal Jewish critique insofar as it lays claim to the tradition through Ishamel and Abraham.

  2. Yes, I need to dig more into the Midrashim and apocryphal Gospels. I’m familiar with the Protoevangelium of James and kicked myself for not assigning it in my class this time around. There’s always more you can include, though.

  3. The episode of Mary and the date palm is originally found in the pseudo-gospel of Matthew, which also splices together the Protoevangelium of James and other apocrypha .The story appears to be older, see The Gospel of Pseudo Matthew and the Nativity of Mary – by Brandon w. Hawk (who locates it in ancient Dormition traditions) and From Hellenism to Christianity and Islam: The Origin of the Palm tree Story concerning Mary and Jesus in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and the Qur’an – Suleiman Mourad.The tradition seems to be associated with the recently archaeologically excavated 5th Century Church of the Kathisma on the road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

    Incidentally Gillian Rose mentions the Potiphar’s wife and the knives incident in the Jospeh sura in one of her footnotes to The Broken Middle, referring to Thomas Mann’s ‘Joseph’, ‘Psychologically, the feast is turned into a tea party, politically, it turns into a bloodbath instead of a ritual…’. She also notes in sufi literature the highest compliment to woman is ‘she seems like a Jospeh’.

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