Mizan Special Issue: “The Evolution and Uses of the Stories of the Prophets”

Michael Pregill
Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilizations
Boston University

 

The new issue of Mizan: Journal for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilizations has just been published and is now online at http://www.mizanproject.org/journal/. The thematic issue, “The Evolution and Uses of the Stories of the Prophets,” coincides with the fiftieth anniversary of Tilman Nagel’s 1967 thesis “Die Qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ: ein Beitrag zur arabischen Literaturgeschichte,” a groundbreaking contribution that has played a seminal role in the modern study of the subject. The papers we present here in the journal issue were originally delivered at a conference convened in Naples in fall 2015 by Marianna Klar, Roberto Tottoli, and myself in anticipation of this important occasion: “Islamic Stories of the Prophets: Semantics, Discourse, and Genre” (October 14–15, 2015).

Mizan Cover

The study of qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ, the Islamic tales of the prophets, has a well-established pedigree in the Western academy. Nagel’s work in the 1960s provided a solid foundation for future research, but it is one that subsequent scholars have built upon somewhat irregularly, and much work remains to be done. Unfortunately, the study of qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ per se has not flourished in the last couple of decades with quite the same vigor as the study of Qurʾān and tafsīr, though the study of qiṣaṣ has surely benefitted, at least indirectly, from the extremely energetic expansion of both of those fields in recent years.

Nagel’s thesis discusses the ancient roots of qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ among early traditionists, as well as highlighting important literary works in which this early (or allegedly early) material is gathered. He goes on to delineate the literary genre of qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ proper, discussing major works carrying this title or something similar such as mubtadaʾ, badʾ al-khalq, and so forth. Nagel’s thesis represents the first attempt to delineate the contours of qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ both as a genre and a broader tradition in a serious and methodical way.

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Pursuers sawing the tree in which Zechariah is hiding (detail) (p.75, Isl. Ms. 386, University of Michigan Library, Special Collections Library, Ann Arbor).

Perhaps the most obvious and explicit contribution Nagel’s work made was to draw greater attention to critical works of the qiṣaṣ genre such as those of al-Kisāʾī, al-Thaʿlabī, and Ibn Muṭarrif al-Ṭarafī (d. 454/1062). It is important to note, however, that this focus on classic specimens of the genre was balanced by Nagel’s keen appreciation of the larger tradition that crystallized in the specific works that constituted that genre, evident in the significant amounts of qiṣaṣ material found in works of historiography, tafsīr, adab, and the like. Understandably given the prominence of qur’anic material in establishing views of prophetic figures among Muslims, tafsīr has held a certain pride of place in scholarly treatments of the Islamic versions of Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and so forth. Thus, one clear desideratum in the field of qiṣaṣ studies, (such as it is) would be the exploration of representations of prophetic figures in other genres, as well as careful study of the genre of qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ itself as a whole and the major works that it comprises.

This journal issue aims to make a small contribution to advancing the field by showcasing new research in qiṣaṣ studies. The articles featured here demonstrate that current scholarship on qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ adopts a variety of disciplinary perspectives, reflects diverse concerns, and approaches the broader qiṣaṣ tradition in all its breadth and nuance, particularly focusing on the overlooked aspects of that tradition. Many of these articles discuss material from the post-classical period, especially historically neglected material from Shi’i literature, popular epic, and modern literary settings.

The future growth of the field may lead to such a degree of diffusion of approach and subject matter as to challenge the whole presupposition that there even is or could be a field of qiṣaṣ studies, although it is clear what all the articles in this issue at least have in common. All prioritize the question of what is distinctively Islamic in various Muslim reinterpretations of qiṣaṣ narratives over that of sources or influences; in fact, most of the articles here do not address the question of origins or precursors at all, or at least downplay this question. Thus, our contributors collectively emphasize that qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ is not really about ‘biblical prophets in Islam’ or even ‘biblical-qurʾānic prophets’ but rather simply Islamic prophets—with the meaning of “Islamic” varying enormously from author to author and context to context.

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Joseph’s brothers and the wolf before Jacob (detail) (p.48, Isl. Ms. 386, University of Michigan Library, Special Collections Library, Ann Arbor).

This brings us back full circle to the work of Nagel we commemorate and celebrate here, in that his pioneering work on qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ as a genre originally aimed at discerning what was or has been distinctively Islamic about the Islamic stories of the prophets. This journal issue hopefully makes clear that the question of how Muslims have articulated specifically Islamic expressions and forms of meaning through the stories of the prophets is of perennial relevance, from the Qurʾān down to the modern era, and that qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ, as genre and discourse, is of significant value for examining conceptions of Islam itself in a range of Muslim communities and traditions.

 

Mizan is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal published under a Creative Commons license and supported by the generosity of ILEX Foundation. The journal features an integrated annotation functionality and we encourage readers to engage our authors through this medium (using this functionality requires a quick registration process in order to prevent spamming of the site and maintain a civil and professional environment).

We are currently accepting proposals for short features to be published on the Mizan Project and Mizan Pop sites, as well as proposals for future thematic issues of the journal. Interested parties are encouraged to contact me directly at mpregill@bu.edu.

 

 

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2017. All rights reserved.

Islam and its Past: Jahiliyya, Late Antiquity, and the Qur’an

“Islam and its Past: Jahiliyya, Late Antiquity, and the Qur’an brings together scholars from various disciplines and fields to consider Islamic revelation, with particular focus on the Qur’an. The collection provides a wide-ranging survey of the development and current state of Qur’anic studies in the Western academy. It shows how interest in the field has recently grown, how the ways in which it is cultivated have changed, how it has ramified, and how difficult it now is for any one scholar to keep abreast of it. Chapters explore the milieu in which the Meccan component of the Qur’an made its appearance. The general question is what we can say about that milieu by combining a careful reading of the relevant parts of the Qur’an with what we know about the religious trends of Late Antiquity in Arabia and elsewhere. More specifically, the issue is what we can learn in this way about the manner in which the ‘polytheists’ of the Qur’an related to the Jewish and Christian traditions: were they Godfearers in the sense familiar from the study of ancient Judaism? It looks at the Qur’an as a text of Late Antiquity-not just considering those features of it that could be seen as normal in that context, but also identifying what is innovative about it against the Late Antique background. Here the focus is on the ‘believers’ rather than the ‘polytheists’. The volume also engages in different ways with notions of monotheism in pre-Islamic Arabia. This collection provides a broad survey of what has been happening in the field and concrete illustrations of some of the more innovative lines of research that have recently been pursued.”

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Description courtesy of Oxford University Press

Islam and its Past: Jahiliyya, Late Antiquity, and the Qur’an
Carol Bakhos and Michael Cook, Eds.
S.L.: Oxford University Press, 2017
ISBN: 9780198748496

A review of this publication is forthcoming in IQSA’s Review of Qur’anic Research (RQR). For full access to the Review of Qur’anic Research (RQR), members can log in HERE. Not an IQSA member? Join today to enjoy RQR and additional member benefits!

 

Before Orthodoxy: The Satanic Verses in Early Islam

One of the most controversial episodes in the life of the Prophet Muhammad concerns an incident in which he allegedly mistook words suggested by Satan as divine revelation. Known as the Satanic verses, these praises to the pagan deities contradict the Islamic belief that Allah is one and absolute. Muslims today—of all sects—deny that the incident of the Satanic verses took place. But as Shahab Ahmed explains, Muslims did not always hold this view.

Before Orthodoxy

Before Orthodoxy wrestles with the question of how religions establish truth—especially religions such as Islam that lack a centralized authority to codify beliefs. Taking the now universally rejected incident of the Satanic verses as a case study in the formation of Islamic orthodoxy, Ahmed shows that early Muslims, circa 632 to 800 CE, held the exact opposite belief. For them, the Satanic verses were an established fact in the history of the Prophet. Ahmed offers a detailed account of the attitudes of Muslims to the Satanic verses in the first two centuries of Islam and traces the chains of transmission in the historical reports known as riwāyah.

Touching directly on the nature of Muhammad’s prophetic visions, the interpretation of the Satanic verses incident is a question of profound importance in Islam, one that plays a role in defining the limits of what Muslims may legitimately say and do—issues crucial to understanding the contemporary Islamic world.

Harvard University Press
$49.95
 • £39.95 • €45.00
ISBN 9780674047426
Publication: April 2017

Disclaimer: This content is courtesy of Harvard University Press.

Before Orthodoxy: The Satanic Verses in Early Islam

“One of the most controversial episodes in the life of the Prophet Muhammad concerns an incident in which he allegedly mistook words suggested by Satan as divine revelation. Known as the Satanic verses, these praises to the pagan deities contradict the Islamic belief that Allah is one and absolute. Muslims today—of all sects—deny that the incident of the Satanic verses took place. But as Shahab Ahmed explains, Muslims did not always hold this view.

Before Orthodoxy

Before Orthodoxy wrestles with the question of how religions establish truth—especially religions such as Islam that lack a centralized authority to codify beliefs. Taking the now universally rejected incident of the Satanic verses as a case study in the formation of Islamic orthodoxy, Ahmed shows that early Muslims, circa 632 to 800 CE, held the exact opposite belief. For them, the Satanic verses were an established fact in the history of the Prophet. Ahmed offers a detailed account of the attitudes of Muslims to the Satanic verses in the first two centuries of Islam and traces the chains of transmission in the historical reports known as riwāyah.

Touching directly on the nature of Muhammad’s prophetic visions, the interpretation of the Satanic verses incident is a question of profound importance in Islam, one that plays a role in defining the limits of what Muslims may legitimately say and do—issues crucial to understanding the contemporary Islamic world.”

Harvard University Press
$49.95
 • £39.95 • €45.00
ISBN 9780674047426
Publication: April 2017

Disclaimer: This content is courtesy of Harvard University Press.

Review of Qur’anic Research, Vol. 3 no.6 (2017)

In the latest installment of the Review of Qur’anic Research, Daniel Brubaker reviews François Déroche’s Qurʾans of the Umayyads: A First Overview (Leiden: Brill, 2014), “a book that brings the full and mature range of Déroche’s multifaceted work in this field to bear upon the question of the state(s) and stages of development of the Qur’an as an object during the Umayyad period (41–132/661–750). The book’s subtitle appropriately reflects the size and complexity of the task; the closer one works with the manuscripts, the more one realizes that for each question answered others yet remain. Still, Déroche’s work has been substantially based upon the belief that the task is doable since these extant objects have something to tell us and serve as windows to the times of their production (and thereafter) and to the practices, values, and views of those who commissioned them, as well as those who produced them…”

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Want to read more? For full access to the Review of Qur’anic Research (RQR), members can log in HERE. Not an IQSA member? Join today to enjoy RQR and additional member benefits!

 

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2017. All rights reserved.

Psychological Readings of the Qurʾan

By Gabriel Said Reynolds (University of Notre Dame) 

 

In his 1996 work Dieu et l’homme dans le Coran the French Dominican scholar Jacques Jomier devotes a chapter to ”The Psychological Certainty of Muslims” (“La certitude psychologique du musulman”).  The premise of this chapter is that Muslims are especially confident of the truth of their faith.  Jomier explains:

In many circumstances Muslims appear sure of their faith, persuaded that it is self-evident, even suspecting (in certain extreme cases) that those who do not share their faith are insincere.[1]

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From Jomier’s perspective some Muslims are so certain of their religion that they imagine even non-Muslims secretly recognize the truth of Islam (he finds this idea implicit in a verse of the Qurʾan– Q 2:42 – which tells the Jews not to conceal the truth that they know).  Jomier presumably developed his notion regarding “the psychological certainty” of Muslims from his many years living in Egypt (1945-1981).  He does not, however, seek to prove this notion in any systematic way.

Are Muslims in fact especially “certain” of their religion?  Pew has found (in a 2011 survey) that only 35% of American Muslims answered yes to the proposition “Your religion is the one true faith” (compared to 30% of American Christians).[2]  It may be that a higher percentage of Muslims from Islamic countries such as Egypt would answer yes to this question.  Pew did not ask the same question when it surveyed Egyptian Muslims in 2012.  In that survey, however, Pew did find that 78% of Egyptian Muslims report that “there is only one true way” to interpret the teachings of Islam, a result which may correspond, indirectly, with Jomier’s notion of certainty.[3]

In any case, my point here is not to prove or disprove Jomier’s notion of the “psychological certainty of Muslims.”  Instead I’d like to draw attention to his explanation for this supposed phenomenon.  According to Jomier there is something in the nature of the Qurʾan itself which engenders certainty.  Jomier points to the simplicity and binarity of the Qurʾanic style.  The Qurʾan, he argues, leaves the audience with only two stark choices: submission to God or rebellion against Him.  Commenting on Qurʾan 6:50 (where the Prophet is commanded to say, “Can the blind and the seeing be deemed equal? Will you not, then, take thought?”), Jomier observes, “All of one’s attention is drawn to the question regarding which no doubt is possible.”[4]  Elsewhere he describes the “binary” style of the Qurʾan in more general terms: “There is God or there is not God, there is the blind and the seeing, truth and falsehood, the believer and the unbeliever, the good to do and the evil to avoid, paradise and hell.”[5]

Jomier’s efforts to describe how the rhetorical turns of the Qurʾan engender psychological certainty are taken up in a second French language work: L’action psychologique dans le Coran, “Psychological Action [or Operation] in the Qurʾan” by Dominique and Marie-Therèse Urvoy.[6]  The Urvoys develop the ideas of Jomier still further, attempting to identify certain “strategies” of the Qurʾan’s rhetoric, strategies intentionally deployed to win the unyielding allegiance of its audience.  Under the rubric of “Subliminal Processes” in the Qurʾan the Urvoys include something they name the “subtle insertion” (literally, “sliding in,” Fr. “glissement”) of secondary messages.  They argue that the Qurʾan has a way of adding in “almost insidiously” a secondary message, parallel to the development of a principal theme, in a manner which is “practically subliminal.”[7]  The ideas of the Urvoys far exceed a simply analysis of the Qurʾan’s logical strategies of argumentation, such as that found in Rosalind Ward Gwynne’s Logic, Rhetoric, and Legal Reasoning in the Qurʾan.[8]  Indeed the Urvoys seem to go further still than Jomier in insisting that the Qurʾan’s author intentionally (“almost insidiously”) imbedded certain patterns in the text in order to win total devotion from his audience.

The studies of Jomier and the Urvoys on these matters are fundamentally problematic.  They assign a contrived motive to the Qurʾanic author which exceeds simple argumentation.  In addition they underestimate the intellectual independence of the Qurʾan’s audience.

Still it is worth noting that their arguments – strangely enough – have certain connections to Islamic apologetical works which are meant to underline the supposed brilliance of Qurʾanic rhetoric.  Notably Jomier was particularly interested in the arguments of Muhammad Ahmad Khalafallah (d. 1991), the author of the well-known 1951 work al-Fann al-qasasi fi al-Qurʾan al-karim, “Narrative Art in the Noble Qurʾan.”  Jomier was one of the first scholars to draw attention to this work – and to the controversy which it engendered — in a long 1954 article entitled “Quelques positions actuelles de l’exégèse coranique en Egypte révélées par une polémique récente.”[9]  As Jomier notes, the original form of Khalafallah’s work – that is, his dissertation at King Fuʾad University (now the University of Cairo) – was entitled Min asrar al-iʿjaz, “On the Secrets of [the Qurʾan’s] Inimitability.”  Khalafallah originally wrote this study of Qurʾanic “inimitability” to combat the views of “atheists, Orientalists, and missionaries.”[10]

In order to wage this combat Khalafallah sought to show that the Qurʾan need not be judged by the historical accuracy of the stories which it tells, since those stories were written not with the goal of relating “historical truth” but rather “literary truth” (al-aqīqa al-adabiyya).[11]  In other words, from his perspective the Qurʾan relates stories in a way meant to convince its audience of its message, and in a special way to inspire fear and piety among them.  At one point Khalafallah comments that the Qurʾan’s stories appeal to the “emotional logic” (manṭiq al-ʿaṭifa) of its audience, and not to the “logic of intellectual reflection” (manṭiq al-naẓar al-ʿaqli).[12]  This does not take us very far from the Urvoys’ notion of the Qurʾan’s psychological “action.”

A more recent pious exploration of the Qurʾan’s supposed ability to convince or enrapture its audience is found in Navid Kermani’s God is Beautiful.[13]  Kermani, who focuses on the reception history of the Qurʾān, describes in vivid detail Islamic stories meant to redound to the doctrine of Qurʾanic inimitability.  He is particularly interested in those traditions which speak of pious believers who were so affected by hearing the Qurʾan that they were struck down and died.[14]  Now Kermani does not imagine that his readers will all accept the idea of Qurʾanic inimitability.  As he puts it, Kermani does not expect every reader to “sway to the rhythm of the Qurʾān recitations.”[15]  He does, however, seem convinced that there is something remarkable in Qurʾanic rhetoric, and in its sound, which leads its audience to be swept away.  At the same time Kermani does recognize that there are certain historical and sectarian factors which led to the development of the Islamic doctrine of the Qurʾan’s inimitability.[16]

Still it seems to me that the critical works of Jomier and the Urvoys, and the more apologetical works of Khalafallah and Kermani are two sides of the same coin.  The notion that there is something contrived, magical, or miraculous in Qurʾanic rhetoric that overwhelms its audience is simplistic.  Of course there are many pious Muslims (and non-Muslims) who are enthralled with the rhetoric of the Qurʾan.  Some converts attribute their conversions to the qualities of the Qurʾan (ʿUmar, the second caliph, is said to have accepted Islam after hearing a recitation of the Qurʾan).  But others are not.  One of the Prophet’s own scribes, Ibn Abi Sarh, is said to have left the Prophet’s service, and Islam, when he came to believe that his messages did not come from God.  Christians and other non-Muslims are compelled in the Islamic world to hear the Qurʾan time and again over loudspeakers and yet still do not convert to Islam.

In other words, religious convictions cannot be attributed simply to the logic, rhetoric, or aesthetics of a scripture.  Instead such convictions are connected to a social context.  Religious “certainty” is necessarily linked to the experience of belonging which believers find in a community of faith.  “Certainty” is accordingly found not only with Muslims but presumably found also with others – such as evangelical Christians or Latter Day Saints – from groups in which esprit de corps (or ʿasabiyya) is strong.  It is also connected to the efforts of missionaries (or “daʿwa practitioners”) whose vocation is to increase devotion among believers while bringing unbelievers into the fold.  In other words, the Qurʾan, like other scriptures, does not find its meaning in a vacuum.  The Qurʾan has meaning in context.


[1] J. Jomier, Dieu et l’homme dans le Coran (Paris : Cerf, 1996), 161.

[2] http://www.people-press.org/2011/08/30/muslim-americans-no-signs-of-growth-in-alienation-or-support-for-extremism/

[3] http://www.pewforum.org/2012/08/09/the-worlds-muslims-unity-and-diversity-executive-summary/

[4] Jomier, 170.

[5] Jomier, 168.

[6] Paris : Cerf, 2007.

[7] Urvoy and Urvoy, 71.

[8] London: Routledge, 2004.

[9] MIDEO 1 (1954), (39-72), 66.

[10] J. Jomier, “Quelques positions actuelles de l’exégèse coranique en Egypte révélées par une polémique récente (1947-51),” MIDEO 1 (1954), (39-72), 66 .  See M.A. Khalafallah, Al-Fann al-qasasi fi al-Qurʾan al-karim, 4th edition (First edition 1951) (London: Al-Intishar al-ʿArabi, 1999),  10.

[11] The term “literary truth,” however, would disappear from the printed version of Khalafallah’s work.  See Jomier, 63.

[12] Al-Fann, 155.

[13] N. Kermani, God is Beautiful, trans. T. Crawford (Maldin, MA: Polity, 2015).  Original German: Gott ist schön (Munich: Beck, 1999).

[14] In particular he focuses on the work of al-Thaʿlabi (d. 427/1035): Qatlā al-qurʾān, ed. Nāṣir b. Muḥammad al-Manīʿ (Riyadh : Maktabat al-ʿUbaykān, 2008).

[15] Kermani, 251.

[16] See Kermani, 196.

 

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© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2017. All rights reserved.