This Bible is aware of how much awareness reading a sacred text demands. The fact that ancient scriptural style can be defended by reference to the fictional monologue of an Irish woman relating the details of her many-sided sex life in turn-of-the-century Dublin is a sign of the luxuriance of our own culture, which no longer builds high walls, as Catholic Ireland did for so long, between the sacred and the profane.
When it comes to the Quran, the adjacent, later holy text, we are in deeper waters, where citing Molly Bloom, or her Islamic equivalents, is unlikely to help us penetrate its meanings or find neat analogues for its beauties. Weighing in at nearly a thousand pages of translation and quotation and citation and argument, it is never relieved from the pressures of contemporary perplexities, political and rhetorical.
Such a reader, approaching from outside the scholarly and scriptural field, can only sense the audacity of his project, the hazards it must navigate. To make the Quran a dependency of the Bible can be seen as a form of colonialism. Every step is considered, and the performance is carefully constrained by parentheses and negative constructions. He obviously thinks that the Quran has had multiple authors and editors, rather than, as Muslim tradition holds, having been dictated directly by the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad, but no positive assertion could be more cautiously wrapped in qualification.
Neither narrative nor obviously philosophical, it is a series of often disjointed-seeming exhortations and commands and hymns and images, with stories borrowed telegraphically from the Bible and then editorialized on by a divine voice. Although the Quran is part of an oral tradition of versifying much of it rhymes, though not in this translation , it is also purposefully opaque, enigmatic in execution, as a divine text should be.
Alter emphasizes similar effects in the Hebrew Bible—the way in which passages in Lamentations, for instance, are shaped as acrostics.
The mystery is essential to the sacredness of the text. Tolkien began his series with an inscription in Orcish, which he did not expect his readers to understand; they were to pay reverence to the occult nature of his imagination even before they entered his books. The three holy texts—Torah, Gospel, and Quran—turn out to be tightly interwound, so much so that it is not entirely wrong to see the Quran as a long correction to and commentary on the Jewish and Christian scriptures.
There are abbreviated vignettes of Mary and Joseph and Jesus, of the other, earlier Joseph, of Moses and Aaron, and of Jacob and Isaac and Abraham, with echoes of the Psalms and the Gospels found everywhere.
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Countless are the points of contact, the small adjustments. One crucial early turn involves the Prostration of the Angels, in itself a beautiful title for a poem.
In the Quran, adapting the Genesis story of creation, God, rather than Adam, names all the animals—yet the order of animal names is given to Adam before it goes to the angels, who are then asked to bow before Adam, conceding the superiority of man even to the celestial choir:. We have no knowledge except what You have taught us. Indeed, You are the All-knowing, the All-wise. At the same time, Adam is assigned to a level not of subjection but of near-equality. Similarly, the story of the temptation is transformed: in the Jewish version, the snake who tempts Eve is simply a snake; in the Christian interpretation, it is Satan in the guise of a snake; in the Islamic account, it is Satan himself.
That these stories, of the Garden and the Fall, are told so telegraphically surely indicates that their audiences were familiar with previous versions of them.
And yet, Reynolds makes clear, no versions of what we now call the Old or New Testaments existed in Arabic when the Quran was composed—those texts would have been known almost exclusively through oral tradition and storytelling. The Quran, in turn, draws from an overheard version of the Greek texts, probably as passed through North African and Syrian translations, so what we are witnessing is part of a centuries-old game of telephone, played throughout the ancient Middle East in many of its tongues.
It can seem mysterious that Quranic references to the Biblical texts are nonetheless so frequent and so deft, until you stop to think about just how much can be transmitted by shared storytelling, even in a hyperliterate culture like ours, let alone in a bardic oral culture like that of seventh-century Arabia.
The gist of such tales would be immediately available to us, even if we remembered the details differently or changed the original storytelling sequence. Something like this seems to have happened in the composition of the Quran. Although in many places the alterations appear to be purposeful rebuttals of the Biblical stories, in other places the tales have, it seems, simply been compressed or altered by repetition. As Reynolds points out, Haman, the fifth-century-B.
Persian villain of the Biblical Book of Esther, is transposed in the Quran back to pharaonic Egypt, where he can bedevil Moses—perhaps to make a specific theological point, perhaps in the spirit of an inspired storyteller redeploying a good villain. The Quran has a story about Jesus that, Reynolds shows, is a variant of one told originally about Alexander the Great.
pierreducalvet.ca/2231.php The Quran accepts both the Torah and the Gospels as having been divinely inspired but considers them now outmoded. There is an upright group among them, but what many of them do is evil. O People of the Book!
Why do you mix the truth with falsehood, and conceal the truth while you know [it]? Allah just is, and just does. The Christian Jesus is a lesser prophet, then, wrongly promoted by his followers to coequal status with the divine one.
The one perpetual foundation of Islam, which shines through every page of the annotated text, is the insistence on the absolute divinity of the divine—God is everywhere, all-knowing and all-penetrating, and the essence of holiness is compliance with his will. The God of the Book of Genesis or of Job, who makes bargains or bets, or the God with whom Jesus, in effect, contests in the Agony in the Garden, is a more argumentative, a more anthropomorphic, creature.
That God, Yahweh, is imaginable as the benevolent but enraged patriarch whom Michelangelo pictures so effectively on the Sistine ceiling. The resistance of Islam to depictions of the divine arises from the absurdity of depiction—the absurdity is the sacrilege. It is logical, then, that submission to his authority depends not at all on signs or miracles.
The Quran would regard any such demonstrations as unworthy of omnipotence. Divinity is to be submitted to simply on the basis of its own evident existence, exemplified in humanity itself. The nonbelieving reader of sacred texts has the advantage of being undisturbed by the countless alienating passages that they contain: why be distressed, such a reader might ask, by the relentlessly patriarchal tone of either the Bible or the Quran—or by their tolerance of slavery, or, for that matter, by the tribal genocide regularly urged in Exodus?
If one is taking the texts not as divine rule, or even as contemporary moral discourse, but, rather, as inspired ancient poetry, episodes in the history of civilization, one can be serenely unsurprised that they share the values of their time and place. The troublesome passages are troubling chiefly to those who want truth and beauty and permanent values. A former Jesuit turned Episcopalian, Miles sets out to show that the Quranic texts are supple, compassionate, and moral in a contemporary way.
He has a noble political goal in mind as well: to humanize Muslim texts for American readers, who are too often taught to be afraid of them.
Yet his readings seem sometimes simply willful, finding murmurs of humane meaning in passages with other purposes. Throughout, he uses a form of interpretation familiar to any reader of contemporary apologetics for ancient sacred texts. Post-Enlightenment values are projected backward, and, when the text resists them strenuously, the resistance is either elided as inessential or else taken to be evidence of a profound mystery, to be contemplated at length.
We are asked to read past this on our way to greater understanding. It is bullying, albeit from an admirably eloquent bully. The overt content of so many sacred stories, which enjoin obedience for the sake of an ultimate reward, is not really sublimely mysterious.
It is the content of every authoritarian story ever told. We like to believe that we do the right thing because it is the right thing, forgive our enemies because forgiveness is a superior virtue to revenge. But it is what most of human history has meant by it. A credible idea of God implies an idea of power. We moderns prefer sympathy as social glue, modesty as a virtue, and sensual pleasure as a value, and so we search the sacred texts for their rare moments of compassion, as in Lamentations, or avowals of failure, as in Job, or salutes to sex, as in the Song of Songs. Between the authority that the texts sought and, for us moderns, can no longer claim and the anarchy that their refutation supposedly invites lies the practice of literary argument.
No wonder our versions of the sacred texts should be so interlineated, so discursive, so likely to refer back and forth among other texts—so enmeshed in literary commentary. Entangling texts one with another is our way of entrapping a credible idea of the holy, a net for catching God.
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