A Literary Portrait of Qur’anic Origins

by Aaron W. Hughes*

I would like to consider Reza Aslan’s recent IQSA blog post in light of his best-selling book Zealot, because his blog post appears like his book to be essentially a creative literary piece. In a recent review of Zealot published in Critical Research in Religion (2.2 [2014]: 195-221), Richard Horsely, a leading scholar of Christian origins, argues that

the lack of critical analysis of sources and the periodic historical confusions in his narrative, however, suggest that Zealot is not a historical investigation. The biography at the end of the book explains that his formative training was in fiction and that his academic position is in the teaching of creative writing. His presentation of Jesus’ ‘life and times’ (a modern genre) appears to flow out of just this literary experience. (195)

This was by no means a singular charge. Many scholars, not to mention reviewers such as those in the New York Times, were very critical of his book. ArtAslan leaves the intellectual heavy lifting to others and instead reproduces a host of assumptions that are reminiscent of a previous generation of New Testament scholars. He conflates gospel accounts, takes poetic license to embellish stories, and devotes most of his focus on Jesus the individual as opposed to the various social actors that made the many Jesus movements possible. He also assumes that the texts of the New Testament explain how “Christianity’’ broke away from “Judaism,” when many scholars of this period (from Neusner to Boyarin to Horsely himself) have shown, with evidence, that such a separation is much more complicated and much later than this.

Aslan imports this basic methodology into his blog post with the aim of offering us insights into the “Qur’anic Clues to the Identity of Muhammad’s Community in Mecca.” In it he makes the rather unremarkable point that “there is no reason to believe that this term was used to designate a distinct religious movement until many years into the Medinan period or perhaps after Muhammad’s death.” Indeed, why stop there? Why not go further and say that the term may not designate a “distinct religious movement” until the eighth, ninth, or even tenth century? Instead of Muslims, Aslan encourages us to consider using the term that the Qur’an uses, ummah. The Constitution of Medina, not to mention the Qur’an, is simply and unproblematically assumed to date to the time of Muhammad.

Aslan then projects our modern understandings of such terms as “ethnicity,” “religion,” “experience,” and “ethics” onto the seventh century. He never entertains, for example, what the term “Jew” might have signified in the seventh century, especially in Arabia following the codification of the Babylonian Talmud roughly a century earlier. Instead, he assumes that what is meant by “Jew” then is the same as now. He brings in Newby’s irenic reading of the situation—that the Jews would have nothing to object to Muhammad’s prophecy. It could be argued, if we assume as Aslan does, that Jews then were like Jews now, that they would have objected to everything from Muhammad’s still inchoate message to the charge that their scripture had been tampered with. Why not assume, for example, that Muhammad, at least initially, thought he was a “Jew”?

Aslan then speaks of “Arabian Jewish mysticism,” as if that term actually denotes something real in the world. What sources does he have for this pre-kabbalistic mysticism? What were its contours? He then speaks of “theological differences between Islam and the other People of the Book” at the time of Muhammad as if Islam had somehow fallen to the earth theologically complete, as opposed to examining the historical controversies that made theology possible only much later. If “Muslim” only took on its religio-semantic valences much later, then surely the same could be said for “Islam.”

As with Zealot, Aslan concludes his blog post on a very modern note: “The point is that although Muhammad recognized the irreconcilable differences that existed among the People of the Book, he never called for a partitioning of the faiths.” Instead, this partitioning was the product of later jurists. If we want to get to the authentic message, Aslan concludes, then we need to “understand Muhammad’s actual beliefs regarding the Jews and Christians of his time.”

This confusion of myth and history, the conflation of fact and fiction, is dangerous for the historical study of Qur’anic origins. Aslan’s goal is not historical scholarship, but to produce a literary portrait designed to make us feel good about ourselves—and about Islam in the league of religions. But what happens when a modern virtue gets in the way of history? Unfortunately, as irenic terms like “convivencia,” “multicultural,” “symbiosis,” “Abrahamic,” and “tolerant” increasingly litter our intellectual landscape, it is history that ultimately gives way. As the late Chief Rabbi of Israel once said about The Bible Code (1997), “If you have to lie to people to get them to believe, what’s the point?”

* Aaron W. Hughes is Philip S. Bernstein Chair of Jewish Studies in the Department of Religion and Classics at the University of Rochester.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2015. All rights reserved.

A Course on the Qur’an as Literature

By Emran El-Badawi

I offered an undergraduate course last spring for the first time on the Qur’an as Literature. My goal was simple, I wanted my students to read the text closely and interpret its verses themselves. Their apprehension, at first, to commit to this bold exercise soon gave way to an ease and skill with handling the text.

Framing this course on the Qur’an as “literature” emphasized the literary qualities of the text and de-emphasized a theological approach. It meant going deep into the rhyme, rhetoric and homiletic nature of the text. It also entailed divorcing the text, to some extent, from Tafsir. I took some cautionary notes from Andrew Rippin’s article on the pitfalls of “The Qur’an as Literature,”[1], but some of this was new territory for me.

(greenzblog.com)

(greenzblog.com)

Part of the course description reads:

This course examines the content and literary style of the Qur’an and in the context of the late antique Near East, ca. 2nd-7th centuries CE. We will read the text alongside the texts belonging to the “People of the Scripture” (ahl al-kitab), i.e. Christians and Jews, and other religious groups explicitly mentioned in the Qur’an. Their scriptures include the Hebrew Bible (al-Tawrah), the New Testament (al-Injil), Zoroastrian texts (cf. al-majus) and Arabian prophetic speech (shi‘r kahin). This comparative approach will provide students with a rich understanding of the Qur’an as an integral part of world literature, and challenge contemporary and traditional assumptions about the text. This approach will also allow the Qur’an to speak for itself, rather than reading it through the eyes of medieval interpretation (Tafsir) or prophetic tradition (Hadith) which began in the 9th century CE. This course also exposes students to some of the scholarly challenges of studying the different layers of a text (Meccan vs. Medinan), identifying its audience, trying to construct the history of its transmission (oral vs. written) without much evidence, and to the limits of translation.

Fortunately, the class size was fairly small, 15 or so, and students came from different religious as well as cultural backgrounds, which made for much lively discussion and debate. Students were pushed to think critically and in a systematic function about the Qur’an, as well as challenge their own assumptions about the text. For students I find two principle barriers that stand between them and the Qur’an. These are the ‘politicization of the text’ on the one hand, and the ‘confusion of the text with traditional interpretation’ on theother. More broadly speaking, I wanted them to appreciate scripture not just as a religious text, but as an integral part of world literature that holds value in the academy.

For an undergraduate course like this, all instruction and materials were in English. Reading materials included  How to Read the Qur’an by Carl Ernst (who incidentally has a terrific course on this subject!) [2] and several supplementary articles including: a rhyming translation of Q 93-114 by Shawkat Toorawa, a qur’anic reading of the Psalms by Angelika Neuwirth, and a humanistic reception of the text by me.[3] Students were encouraged but not required to buy a translation of the Qur’an, given the plethora of translations online. (Although for practical purposes we used Yusuf Ali’s translation during class time). Finally, included in the course materials were sections of the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, post-biblical exhortations (e.g. Ephrem the Syrian), Zoroastrian texts and Pre-Islamic poetry. For some students it was the first time they had read the Qur’an; for others the first time they read the Bible. In both cases, students expressed how pleased they were at this eye-opening experience and fruitful exchange.

The course benefited a great deal from following stories posted on the IQSA blog (that’s right, this blog!) and the Qur’an Seminar at the University of Notre Dame, which was still running at the time. To my surprise, students were both curious and welcoming of the technical dimensions of Qur’an study. Some of our best discussions, for example, involved scrutinizing the rhyme of Arabic poetry or considering a particular Syriac word. The course naturally explored a number of qur’anic themes like apocalypticism, prophecy, law, etc, as well as introduced students to debates concerning the text’s chronology, speaker and structure. My happiest moment was when a student expressed to me how the course “made the Qur’an part of a much more intellectual conversation.”

Teaching this course was a tremendous learning experience for both the students and myself. The students learned how to navigate a sometimes unwieldy text and appreciate its tremendous contribution to the world in which they live. Collectively, we learned that as long as one approaches any scripture respectfully as well as critically, the task of understanding it becomes that much easier.


[1] Andrew Rippin, “The Qur’an as literature: perils, pitfalls and prospects,” Bulletin of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies, 10.1, 1983.

[2] Carl Ernst, How to Read the Qur’an: A New Guide with Select Translations, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.

[3] Shawkat Toorawa, “’The Inimitable Rose’, being Qur’anic saj‘ from Surat al-Duhâ to Surat al-Nâs (Q. 93–114) in English rhyming prose,” Journal of Qur’anic Studies, 8.2, 2006; Angelika Neuwirth, “Qur’anic readings of the Psalms” in Ed. Angelika Neuwirth et al. (eds.), The Qur’an in Context, Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2009; Emran El-Badawi, “A humanistic reception of the Qur’an,” Scriptural Margins: On the Boundaries of Sacred Texts, English Language Notes, 50.2, 2012.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2013. All rights reserved.