Misreading the Qur’an

A lot of work is being done on what the Qur’an refers to [it is largely incomprehensible without exegesis]. Gabriel Said Reynolds has helpfully summarized some of these developments in this article. Another helpful source is this Wikipedia entry on the Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran. I came across another example of this dependence on the Bible today in an article about the Corpus Coranicum project:

Gerd-R. Puin, a retired professor of Arabic studies at Germany’s Saarland University, has been working for decades on a trove of Korans from a mosque in Yemen — possibly the oldest ones in existence. Because they were primarily memory aids, early Korans were written in a vowel-less “skeleton” language. Deciphering those clusters of consonants requires a sense of what languages and what cultural and religious traditions Mohammed and his earliest followers were borrowing from and reacting against. Much of the wording and imagery of the Koran are borrowed from Christian and Jewish texts, Puin argues. In fact, he says, much of the Koran is incomprehensible unless read alongside those earlier texts. As an example, he points to the term “sakina,” which Muslim scholars have translated as a spirit of calm — Puin argues that it only makes sense as a descendant of the Hebrew term “shekhinah,” which means the presence of God. The more one studies its historical context, Puin argues, the harder it is to resist the sense that the Koran itself was, at least in part, pieced together from parts of other religions.

I would love to see a version of the Qur’an in the future that fully cross-references these notional Christian sources: liturgies, Creeds and the Bible itself. That should be fascinating.

11 thoughts on “Misreading the Qur’an”

  1. If you want cross-referencing—go to the Yusuf Ali translation of Quran with commentary. You will find it interesting.

    Sakina—-is not the only word from the Torah/Judaism—it is translated as “spirit of tranquility(calm)” because that is how the Quran defines it.

    The Yemeni Qurans—As far as I understood, those Qurans were the ones that were “destroyed” by being buried because of scribal/copying errors. —therefore, their usefulness for scholarly purposes is debatable.

    Syrian-Aramaic reading—The point is moot since the Quran istelf declares it is a revelation in Arabic and explains why. All the words used in the Quran have been defined within the text itself. There is not much use searching for meanings/definitions in Aramaic if the Quran itself provides definitions/meanings.

  2. It is highly unlikely that any direct borrowing occurred (i.e. taken directly from textual versions). This is detritus from the reductionist worldview of the scientific revolution (and the superiority complex of the Western/Christian worldview).

    The similarities most likely come from familiar stories circulating in the religious environs of the Arabia in which the Muslims lived. If you read these stories from the Qur’an these are the big ones. These are popular enough stories that would have been well known by Muhammad’s hearers. It is similar to the Christmas story that most everyone in the United States knows, even if they’ve never been to church or even looked at a Bible. It’s “common” tradition.

    The danger of viewing the Qur’anic revelation in light of earlier Scriptures is to view the early Scriptures as the correct ones and to critique the Qur’an from this point of view. To do so is to risk misunderstanding Islam from within the context of its own paradigm.

    In the early days of Islam, Muslim scholars actually sought dialogue with Christians/Jews to understand in more depth the relatively skeletal references to the stories from early Scripture. Most references that bear the stamp of Christianity/Judaism come not from the Qur’an but from the traditions that developed later in an effort to explain the Qur’anic text.

  3. There is no doubt that the Quran has links with Christianity and Judaism. It is a book which complements the two others. As concerns the words which seem to be borrowed from Judaism, I think that it is simply due to the fact that they have the same origine, i.e.: Semitic.

    1. Dr. Bachir, you miss the point. The Qur’an seems to be using (directly) early Christian liturgies and Scriptures. Saying it has a “Semitic” origin is so broad as to be unhelpful.

  4. Dear Sir, i dare again comment on your conclusions. As far as the Quran is concerned, it is full of stories that are found in other religions, since these last are “originally” the word of God, before undergoing human transformations for “human interests”! the Quran fills the blanks and some other times it also leaves blanks.
    Now, the fact that many words in the Quran are taken from other Semitic (or not) languages accounts for the universality of Islam and the Quran. It is meant to be understood by all human beings, which is why God uses non-arabic terms in the Holy Book to make it easily read.
    this may seem ‘naive’ but until clear proofs are brought to light, one can say that the Quran is still the Book of God written in Arabic ( the word ‘Arabic’ in certain passages of the Quran means “well understood, well phrased etc.”)

    1. I am not understanding the point you are trying to make. We are not just talking about words, but wholesale borrowing from liturgies, etc.

      Also, the Qur’an claims to support the Torah, but part and parcel with the Law and the prophets is circumcision, the sacrificial system, and Isaiah 53. In other words, a need for atonement for our sins via blood sacrifice at the Temple. Jesus fulfilled these requirements and yet the Qur’an either spurns them or fails to understand them. As the Torah says in Genesis 3:15, “he shall bruise your head and you shall bruise his heel.” This points out the Son of Man, Jesus, who crushed the head of Satan and cleared away our sins with God.

      I point this out to show that the Qur’an does not confirm the books which came before it.

      1. No, what I dont understand, Sir, is this: ‘how can the Quran copy former liturgical passages when it is clearly said “‘inna anzalna eddikra wa ‘inna lahou Hafidhoun” (We have descended the word and We shall protect it) So where is the copying here? Dont you think that it is simply a continuation process between the Quran and all the former scriptures.?
        Anyway, sorry to disturb u again and again.

  5. You are not disturbing me at all. I welcome your comments, that is what a blog is for.

    Just because the Qur’an asserts something does not mean I have to accept it as true. I am speaking of the thesis of authors like Christopher Luxenberg:

    “It equates the Qur’an with the qeryana, originally meaning lectio rather than lectionarium, the technical term for readings from scripture used in the Syriac liturgy, and identifies the Qur’an as a ‘lectionary’ that included readings from the Old and New Testaments, as well as liturgical prayers, psalms and hymns. As Luxenberg argues, the book of the Qur’an (kitab), at least initially, resembled such a lectionary, and the “mother of the book” (umm al-kitab) was the Bible, the source-book of the Syriac lectionary.”

    – from The Qur’an in its Historical Context, in the chapter “Recent Research on the Construction of the Qur’an” by Gerhard Bowering.


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