People of The Books: Qur’an and The Bible

Stephen Burge on Gabriel Reynolds

The Qur'an and the Bible: Text and Commentary
The Qur’an and the Bible: Text and Commentary. Gabriel Reynolds. Yale University Press, 2018. pp. 1032 $40.00 (hardcover)

Gabriel Reynolds’ The Qur’an and the Bible: Text and Commentary, is a handsomely produced volume, and an intriguing volume as well, raising many questions concerning how we read the Qur’an and the Bible together. Books should provoke us; we are right to be challenged by the things we read. As someone who is both an academic working in Islamic and Qur’anic Studies for a number of years, and an Anglican priest, Reynolds’ book challenged me and prompted important methodological (and ethical) questions about how we engage in reading scriptures comparatively: either as scholars or as people with (or without) faith.

The book begins with a short introduction, in which Reynolds outlines the aims of the volume, the relationship between the Bible and the Qur’an, and the history of scholarship exploring the relationship between the two. At its heart the work comprises the translation of the Qur’an made by Ali Quli Qarai, which Qarai has revised himself for Reynolds, with commentary inserted by Reynolds as the text progresses. In his commentary, Reynolds notes important Biblical and post-Biblical passages that are relevant to understanding the passage of the Qur’an.

The passages of commentary are usually relatively short, around a paragraph long, with the longest stretching to two pages (on Q. 2:125–28, pp. 69–71). The comments feature a mix of personal remarks, Biblical references and quotations, alongside some secondary scholarship. In all, the volume includes some 965 comments, of which 686 are direct commentary and 279 are simple cross-references. Of the 686, 37 are what I would call “hanging quotations” – that is Bible passages placed alongside the Qur’an without any direct comment. This means that the volume has about 650 passages of direct commentary; for researchers of the Qur’an this will provide an extremely valuable resource and will also provide a platform for plenty of research in the years to come. The work ends with a brief discussion of the sources used (pp. 941–945), a bibliography (pp. 947–964) and two indexes (a Biblical citation index and a subject index), which will also be invaluable.

The commentary presents ‘Biblical intertexts’ that can help elucidate the meaning of the Qur’an, or can provide a religious or spiritual counterpoint to the Qur’anic message.  For example, in his commentary on Q. 38:17, Dāwūd / David is referred to as a “penitent [soul]” (awwāb). Reynolds comments:

The reference in verse 17 to David as “penitent” (cf. v. 24), is likely an allusion to his repentance for the cuckolding and murder of Uriah (2Sa 12:13; cf. Psa 51). Yusuf Ali translated (instead of “penitent”) as “he ever turned to (to God)’ (Muhammad Asad translated similarly), presumably to suggest that (being a prophet) he never sinned. (p. 689)

This is typical of the type of commentary which Reynolds employs: he highlights a Biblical intertext, which helps explain the meaning of the Qur’an, but also engages with some of the issues and interpretations found in later Muslim commentaries and translations. For example, in the Tafsīr al-Jalālayn, al-Maḥallī interprets this verse in light of David’s pious character. In this way, Reynolds’ The Qur’an and the Bible will provide academic readers with ample material to explore in future research, and for non-academic readers, with an interest in exploring Christian-Muslim-Jewish relations, opportunities for discussion and dialogue.

As mentioned above, there are a number of places where Reynolds’ commentary is simply a line cited from the Bible, without any further comment. A number of these “hanging quotations” appear to hold something in common with the Qur’anic passage being discussed; for example, in his commentary on Q. 16:79 (“Have they not regarded the birds disposed in the air of the sky: no one sustains them expect God. There are indeed signs in that for people who have faith”), Reynolds cites Matthew 6:26, “Look at the birds in the sky. They do not reap or gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they are?” Although the principal message in this passage in Matthew (as in Luke 12:22–33) is concerned with worry, rather than the signs of God, both the Qur’an and the Gospels do share an image. This would certainly require more thorough investigation, particularly in the way in which they are used, both in the Qur’an and the Bible, but also in post-Biblical literature. In many ways these “hanging quotations” are a little teasing, as many suggest the use of similar imagery and concepts in both scriptures, and the reader is left wanting to know more about them.

In other cases, the links between the Qur’an and the “hanging quotations” can appear more tenuous and the reader is left wondering why Reynolds suggested that the Bible and Qur’an shared an idea in these cases. Each reader will, of course, have a different reaction to these “hanging quotations”, but several of them seemed more distantly related. For example, does the verse from the Psalms, “Your eyes could see my embryo. In your book all my days were inscribed, every one that was fixed is there” (139:16), have much to do with the Qur’anic verse, “There is no invisible thing in the heaven and the earth but it is in a manifest book” (Q. 27:75)?

In some cases, there does appear to be a link, but, on further inspection, the link becomes more tenuous. Take, for example, the commentary on Q. 58:11. The verse reads:

O you who have faith! When you are told, “Make room,” in sittings then make room; God will make room for you. And when you are told, “Rise up!” Do rise up. God will raise in rank those of you who have faith and those who have been given knowledge, and God is well aware of what you do.

To which, Reynolds gives the following verse from Luke:

For everyone who raises himself up will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be raised up (14:11).

Are these two passages really exhibiting intertextuality? The Qur’an, in this passage at least, is saying nothing about humility, which is the central message of the passage in Luke, as well as in a number of other similar passages in the New Testament (e.g. Matt 23:12; Luke 18:14; James 4:10; 1 Peter 5:5 etc. and also in the Hebrew Bible,  Psa 55:19; Isa 2:9; 5:15 etc). Indeed, in Luke 14:11 Jesus juxtaposes the idea of raising up (hupsōn) with being cast down or abased (tapeinōn), employing a rhetorical flourish with chiasmus: hoti pas ho hupsōn eauton [A] tapeinōthēsetai [B] kai tapeinōn[B] eauton hupsōthētai [A]. The chiasm emphasises the difference between those who raise themselves up and place their confidence in their own abilities, with those who cast themselves down and abase themselves. This juxtaposition is not made in this passage of the Qur’an.

The two texts also differ in genre and function. Luke 14:11, with its powerful chiasm, also functions as a maxim; but the Qur’anic verse is not particularly ‘maxim-like’, nor is it part of a parable, but appears to be a direct reference to a specific community context, especially when the following verse is taken into consideration, which is concerned with how members of the community should talk to the Prophet. More importantly, the Qur’anic passage is encouraging people to “rise up”, presumably to pray, which is in complete contrast to the passage from Luke. On a philological level, there is also no link between the Lucan hupsōn (or the Hebrew vocabulary signified by hupsōn in the Septuagint) and the Arabic anshūzū (“rise up”). Although the root n-sh-z can be used metaphorically, most famously in Q. 4:34 and 4:128, the context of Q. 58:11 conveys a purely physical action. Consequently, there does not appear to be a link between Q. 58:11 and Luke 14:11; yet, with the “hanging quotation”, Reynolds implies that there is a link between the two; which begs the question: why?

When establishing intertexts is it enough for the links to simply appear similar? What problems emerge when using translations to establish parallels, which may be more distant when they are compared in their original language? Jewish and Christian readers familiar with the Bible will inevitably be drawn to make comparisons with others. The University of Toronto holds a copy of Northrop Frye’s copy of the Qur’an, in which he made a number of annotations, which illustrate his own personal response to the text, of which Biblical intertexts form a part. But to what extent do these reveal more about Frye’s, and by extension Reynolds’ or our own, responses to the Qur’an, rather than the historical relationship between the Qur’an and the Bible? To what extent are our own readings of the Qur’an subject to the whims of our own lives and experiences? Readers from other faiths would do well to reflect how their own readings of the Qur’an are subject to the whims of their own lives and experiences.

On this point, the lack of engagement with Biblical violence was a deep concern: while Qur’anic violence is laid out in full view, Reynolds is silent on the many disagreeable passages concerning war, murder, and violence in the Bible that could have been related intertextually to the Qur’an. When I turned to begin reading the commentary on Sūrat al-Tawba, which contains a number of verses concerned with Muhammad’s military campaigns, I wondered how Reynolds would address the issue of violence: were there going to be any intertextual references to Biblical violence? The answer was no: there was not a single mention of Biblical violence in Reynolds’ commentary. The beginning of Sūrat al-Tawba includes the (in)famous passage which says, “…kill the polytheists wherever you find them, capture them and besiege them, and lie in wait for them at every ambush…” Surely, given the tenuousness of some of the Biblical passages cited by Reynolds as intertexts, the lines of Psalm 149 which extol the enactment of vengeance on others peoples could have been cited as an intertext for this passage? Or the attack against the Benjaminites at Gibeah, which also mentions the community lying in ambush: “The troops in ambush rushed quickly upon Gibeah. Then they put the whole city to the sword” (Judges 20:37).  Yet on Biblical violence, Reynolds is notably quiet.

Reynold’s silence is, perhaps, generated by a discomfort with Biblical violence, but given contemporary discourses about Islam, and an increasingly predominate Islamophobia, this is of concern. This selective approach does also raise some deep ethical issues around the way in which people of faith engage with their own scriptures and with those of others: are we more willing to expose violence in the other than we are willing to engage with the violence in our own tradition, either scriptural or historical? These are very difficult and uncomfortable issues, but ones which all who engage in comparative religion and interfaith issues need to reflect on.

Despite some of the criticisms made above, the volume provides a profitable place for interfaith dialogue to develop between members of the Abrahamic religions: in a world which seems to be becoming increasingly polarized, a resource such as this will enable Jews, Christians and Muslims to see the imagery, concepts, and ideas that they hold in common. This can only be a good thing, and the volume should be deeply commended for facilitating this. The Qur’an and the Bible raises valuable theological and methodological questions about the ways in which the Qur’an and the Bible can be read together. These are complex questions not answered here, but such difficult questions often ask more about ourselves than of the texts that we are reading – but they are questions that we must explore.

Stephen Burge is a Senior Research Associate in the Qur’anic Studies Unit at The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London. He has written extensively on angels, hadith (traditions of the Prophet Muhammad), and the interpretation of the Qur’an; among his publications are Angels in Islam (2012), The Meaning of the Word: Lexicology and Qur’anic Exegesis (2015) and a forthcoming accessible series book, The Prophet Muhammad: Islam and the Divine Message ​(November 2020).