Emran El-Badawi on Holger Zellentin’s The Qur’an’s Legal Culture
Are the origins of the Qur’an’s laws and rituals traceable to a single ancient community of Jewish-Christians? Although long debated, this controversial yet hugely important question receives the expert analysis of Holger Zellentin, The Qur’an’s Legal Culture: The Didascalia Apostolorum as a Point of Departure.
Despite making up only one fifth of the text, qur’anic laws depict the world of its origin as well as give shape to our world today. For centuries, Muslim scholars have pored over its legal passages when formulating what would develop into the body of laws known as the Shariah. Modern scholars have explored the text’s laws in the context of Late Antiquity (ca. 2nd-7th centuries CE). The Qur’an’s dietary restrictions, its purity laws, and its regulation of a new religious community beside that of rabbinic Judaism and ecclesiastical Christianity — mostly found in the so-called Medinan suras — offers rare and valuable insights about the 7th century community that crystallized around the Qur’an.
Deciphering precisely who the Qur’an’s audience is means having a robust understanding of the text’s language — which is a challenge. A great deal of recent scholarship has established strong links between the rich and sometimes cryptic Arabic language of the Qur’an, on the one hand, and late antique Syriac Christian literature, on the other. Syriac was the dialect of Aramaic spoken by Christians and used by their churches in the Middle East, but Aramaic was the lingua franca of the region until replaced by Arabic in the 7th century. Can the vast literature of the Syriac-speaking Churches and its faithful shed light on the Qur’an’s laws and its relationship to earlier Jewish and Christian legal practices? Or, to ask this question differently, as Zellentin does in his book: Do the Qur’an and the Didascalia share a legal culture? He certainly makes a strong argument that they do.
Maneuvering through this subject can be complex even for seasoned researchers, so a foundation in “late antique legal culture, Judeo-Christianity, and the Qur’an” is essential for understanding the author’s line of argument. The legal culture of the Qur’an is composed of “its laws and its legal narratives,” understood within the “Jewish and Christian tradition broadly,” especially the legal framework of the Didascalia. The Qur’an’s “point of departure” from this culture is found where it further loosens or tightens the rules laid out in the Didascalia. Zellentin also “veers” from this exclusive textual dialogue by including the Clementine Homilies — a class of late antique literature sometimes associated with Jewish-Christian groups — “in order to confirm the historicity of the practice of Jewish believers in the midst of the Didascalia.” The Didascalia itself is an ancient church order (a law manual for Christian leaders) which emerged in 3rd century Syria, and whose Syriac translation was disseminated in the 5th-7th centuries, possibly in Arabia.
The laws found in the Didascalia have parallels in the abrogation of Judeo-Christian ethical and legal practices in the Qur’an. As Zellentin notes,
There is hardly any legal aspect exclusively shared between the Qur’an and the Didascalia; yet other than the Didascalia, there may be no other single post-biblical document with which the Qur’an shares so much of its legal culture.
Three of Islam’s pillars — alms, prayer and fasting — play an integral part in the relationship between the Qur’an and the Didascalia. Concerning the latter, sura 5:14’s establishment of fasting as a “covenant” (mithaq) should be understood as return to the tradition of the “Nazarenes or Judeo-Christians” (nasara) departed from by (later?) Christians in their “new covenant” (dytq’ hdt’; Did. 21:208.15). One may encapsulate from this and other evidence adduced by the author that the Qur’an’s Medinan suras expand upon and apply “the Didascalia’s list of legal and ethical commandments.”
A precursor to Islam’s dictates on marriage and diet are found amid the ritual law shared among the Didascalia, the Clementine Homilies, and the Qur’an. These texts share a common framework of legal instruments with respect to matters centering on marital and dietary purity. Zellentin is able to distinguish — often adducing evidence, but sometimes ab silencio — the practices of each text’s audience, further distinguishing the Didascalia’s “Christian believers” from its “Judeo-Christian group.” The otherwise bewildering matrix of relationships between purity on the one hand and audience on the other is carefully mapped out.
The shared legal culture between the Qur’an and Didascalia is not limited to lexical comparisons but goes deeper into the narratives of law. — that is to say, the story of how laws were accumulated and abrogated. A close reading of both texts reveals that there are two sets of laws kept by the Jews: the laws God gave Moses on Mt. Sinai, and those God has formulated in order to punish them for their disobedience beginning with their worship of the golden calf and subsequent “multitude of sins,” including murder, expulsion and killing of the prophets (Q 2:61, 85; 4:153-60; Did. 26:243.1-246.9). This second set of laws consists mainly of dietary laws — the very laws abrogated by Jesus in both the Qur’an and Didascalia.
Zellentin makes several new, bold, and insightful claims. He presents both Muhammad and Jesus — that is, the Jesus shared by the Qur’an and Didascalia — as law makers to the People of the Book (ahl al-kitab) and Gentiles (umiyyun) respectively, especially when it comes to dietary laws. (The conventional scholarly wisdom has typically juxtaposed Muhammad with Moses as lawgiver and nation builder) What’s more, the Israelites of the Qur’an are more properly understood as the Church. In this framework, the “triangle of texts” (Didascalia, Clementine Homilies and Qur’an) fits neatly within the qur’anic “middle nation” (Q 2:143) and its self-assertion as “confirming what was before it from the book” (Q 5:48). Furthermore, the “upright nation among the nasara” (Q 3:113) is identified with the Judeo-Christians of the Didascalia. Their religious observances are considered by the author to be “proto-Muslim.” The Qur’an is situated “between Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism,” and its criticism of the ruhban/rahbaniyyah is aligned with that of the Didascalia’s “bishop/episcopate.”
Zellentin’s analysis is technical and his use of evidence meticulous. His work dexterously engages both the primary as well as secondary literature, among which is the prominent Sidney Griffith who is against seeing the Qur’an through a “Judeo-Christian” lens. There has been good reason for Griffith’s reservation, but Zellentin is cautious to stay away from drawing the simplistic relationships between the Qur’an and Jewish-Christianity from which earlier studies have suffered. Furthermore, by undertaking this discussion within the methodological framework of “legal culture,” Zellentin affords the discussion the sobriety and complexity it deserves.
It is, however, this complexity that may leave some readers at the end of this book still searching for clearer answers. What precisely is the connection between the Qur’an, on the one hand, and the Didascalia and the Clementine Homilies, on the other? And can this connection be located in place and time? Can we glean any historical actors, people, or events that played a role in shaping the Qur’an? Where some earlier studies have offered hasty and therefore inaccurate solutions to such necessarily complex questions, Zellentin’s work offers us a solid foundation upon which to explore such questions, carefully and methodically. Rather than drawing linear or causative relationships, Zellentin persuasively argues that the Qur’an and Didascalia share a legal culture. That being said, following the scope of such a universal concept is at times confusing. The reader is expected to negotiate the simultaneous presence of “Biblical culture,” “Islamic legal culture,” and a “Judeo-Christian legal code.” A similar uncertainty is possible when trying to understand the relationship between what is “Judeo-Christian” and what is “gentile,” the conception of a “Christian-Judeo-Christian-Jewish debate,” a clear distinction between the qur’anic People of the Book (ahl al-kitab) from the People of the Gospel (ahl al-injil), or the circumstantial nature of some of his claims. The problematic nature of these details are not limitations but point, rather, to one of the greatest strengths of this work. Throughout his analysis, Zellentin maintains that rigid religious categorization is blurred when considering the Didascalia, and that the “Judeo-Christian” nomenclature consumed by academe is a “scholarly tool concocted.” And while his work is much vested in the Qur’an’s “shared legal culture” with the Didascalia and Clementine Homilies, it does — I believe — leave some room for broader conceptions of the Qur’an between Judaism and Christianity, among biblical as well as post-biblical texts like the Decalogue, Book of Acts, the Decree of the Apostles, and others.
The Qur’an’s Legal Culture is an elegant and exciting read on an otherwise dense and highly complex subject. Zellentin ties in qur’anic laws with Jewish customs and Christian texts. In doing so, he allows the reader to understand the Qur’an in textual rather than political terms, and to locate the text at the very center rather than the periphery of western civilization.
[Editor’s Note: At the time of this publication, Holger Zellentin is a subject editor for MRB in Late Antique Jewish History. However, the review was commissioned and edited by another section without Zellentin’s involvement.]