The Bible and the Qur'an

Biblical Figures in the Islamic Tradition

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John Kaltner, Younus Mirza
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , February
     2018.
     184 pages.
     $26.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780567666000.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In The Bible and the Qur’an, authors John Kaltner and Younus Y. Mirza offer a concise reference that is a wonderful resource for students to understand the similarities and differences between characters in each text, and a general description of the differences between the Bible and the Qur’an. The book format reads as a reference work, with forty-eight chapters divided by named characters with their English and Arabic names—like Moses/Musa, Jesus/Isa, Eve/Hawwa—and groupings such as the disciples of Jesus, jinn, angels, and the unbelievers. Each section also includes questions for contemplation or discussion, and a small bibliography for further reading. Because of the format and style, the book may not be for the casual reader or the scholarly expert, but it is suitable for any student or researcher who is looking for a succinct description or even a list of every surah in the Qur’an in which Adam appears.

The authors clarify that the way they have constructed the narratives is not the way in which they are presented in the Qur’an, since many characters are mentioned throughout the text without a singular narrative explaining their lives. The authors synthesize each of the qur’anic references of the characters, give a full description of the characterization, and show how it is similar or different from the Bible. This methodology allows for interesting interpretations of characters that are not necessarily encountered holistically, but instead would require the reading of the entire texts. While this is a helpful reference for professors, like myself, who seek to teach students how the Qur’an presents various characters like Jesus, the style and narrative presented is not the one found in the Qur’an. The authors use an interpretative lens, and they are somewhat upfront about this. They urge the reader to read the Qur’an in its entirety so as not to be misled by their interpretations. 

Within the introduction the authors include a brief explanation of the sources they use, primarily the Qur’an and the “Stories of the Prophets”: historical, midrashic commentary from qur’anic scholars. Through this introduction and the analysis of each character, the authors not only present character and narrative analysis of the Qur’an, but also theories about why differences exist between the two texts. For example, within the Abraham story, the authors note that Abraham’s destruction of idols mirrors that of the Prophet Muhammad, and while this story is found in non-canonical Jewish sources, it seems to be extremely important for Muslim readers of the Qur’an because of its representation of tawhid (Islamic monotheism). Utilizing brief narrative analysis in discussing wordplay in the Abraham story, the authors draw attention to the fact that the Qur’an uses similar sounding words to emphasize the humble qualities of Abraham/Ibrahim, noting that he was “not guilty of shirk (association) because he practiced shukr (thankfulness)” (11).

From a historical critical point of view, the title and main premise of biblical figures in the Qur’an is noncontroversial, especially given that the Bible is the older of the two texts. However, rooting the characters in the Bible and merely noting their existence in the Islamic tradition (not in the Qur’an) might strike a chord with theologians and readers with postmodern sensibilities who do not necessarily want to hold the Bible as the primary text. With that, the assumption is that the Bible is mainly for a Christian reader or an American undergraduate reader. This is reinforced by the introductory section that explains qur’anic sources, yet leaves out any biblical explanation. In this way, the authors assume that the reader understands the Bible and the characters discussed from a biblical perspective. Each section has a long list of qur’anic surahs, yet biblical references can only be found within the written descriptions and are not exhaustive. 

The authors appear to highlight the similarities between the texts to educate Jews, Christians, and Muslims about their shared traditions. This is evident in the way that the authors use the term “God” rather than “Allah,” except within their examination of the name Allah. This approach has pros and cons. As a professor to many Muslim students who do not understand the similarities of the Qur’an and the Bible, especially the Anglicized names of prophets, this book would be a beneficial resource to them. However, the text has some problematic language for Muslim readers, such as in the description of Adam where they state, “The Qur’an lacks a detailed account of Adam’s/Ādam’s creation” (16).

As a teacher of many Christian students, this would also be a great resource for them. However, I notice that many of my students, regardless of their Christian background, do not know the biblical stories, so there is a need for more detailed descriptions and references to the biblical characters and narratives. The authors fear that Christians might find it to “difficult” to read some of the passages in the Qur’an, but recommend that instead of rejecting the text as being “false,” they should understand why it disagrees with Christian theology (31). Regardless, this book is a helpful resource, especially for students as an introduction to qur’anic and biblical exegesis.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nicholaus Pumphrey is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Curator of the Quayle Bible Collection at Baker University.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Kaltner is the Virginia Ballou McGehee Professor of Muslim-Christian Relations at Rhodes College, Memphis.

Younus Mirza is Assistant Professor of Islam at Allegheny College.

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