The Qur'an and Its Biblical Reflexes

Investigations into the Genesis of a Religion

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Mark Durie
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , October
     2018.
     394 pages.
     $120.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781498569453.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In The Qur’an and Its Biblical Reflexes: Investigations into the Genesis of a Religion, Mark Durie presents a thesis in which he argues that Qur’anic theology is not inherited from a Judeo-Christian background. However, the book engages very little with existing literature in Qur’anic studies and hardly engages with any biblical studies, especially about theology during late antiquity. Unfortunately, while there are many flaws, with limited space, I can highlight only a few.

In chapter 2, the book argues that there was an eschatological crisis. In the beginning, the Qur’an promises an imminent punishment against nonbelievers. As this imminent punishment did not occur, the Qur’anic style changed, eventually suggesting that the imminent punishment is to be carried out by the hands of the believers.

Chapter 3 expands on this, using a linguistic model to identify a chronology for the Qur’an using two metrics: lexical distance andformulaic distance. I must admit that my mathematics and engineering background makes me somewhat bias in my critique of this method. First, without knowing the statistical distribution along with the standard deviation, the averages become just nonsensical numbers. Second, even with the properanalysis, without any context to avoid type I and type II errors, the results would continue to be meaningless. For example, numbers may tell us that people with larger shoe sizes are significantly better drivers. But to draw any conclusion from such analysis without understanding the context would be premature. While the numbers are correct, the data includes both children and adults, skewing the results.

Another problem with this mathematical method stems from the assumption that Durie and other scholars are making—that Qur’anic style simply changed with time. It assumes that an author cannot change styles depending on the genre and audience. Michael Fishbane argued that some biblical authors used terms and formulae of previous works to deliberately allude to them. It is likely that the Qur’an uses a similar strategy, especially considering its orality, in order to remind the audience of previous utterances.

Chapter 4 discusses Qur’anic theology, contrasting its differences with biblical theology—a new notion that did not exist in early Judeo-Christian history during which time the Qur’an emerged. The Qur’an and Its Biblical Reflexes did not engage with any late antiquity literature on theology. For example, while the book illustrates how there are people who love God and that God loved, the Qur’an contains no command to love God. Instead, it presents Qur’anic theology as a master-slave relationship. Durie uses the Shemaʿ to prove that biblical theology entails the commandment to love God, yet he fails to realize that the Talmudic understanding involves people accepting to be in servitude of God. While one might argue that the Talmud is not the Bible, the Qur’an was not composed in a void without Jewish tradition, and there is much evidence that the Qur’an was aware of Talmudic teachings and engaged directly with it. One might also argue that the Qur’an frequently states that “ḥamd” is to God. While this term is typically understood as praise, its Semitic root is no different than the Ten Commandments’s desiring of the neighbor’s wife. As such, it can be understood to mean desire is to God enticed by love, while also Q. 94:8 is a clear command to desire God.

Durie makes the point that the Qur’an emphasizes God as the one and that no other exists, which is different from the Pentateuch portrayals that devotion is to be given to God alone without excluding the existence of other gods, though one might argue that Deuteronomy 32:39 is explicit about the exclusion of other gods. Nonetheless, while Durie acknowledges that later biblical books assert that God exists alone, he dismisses the idea that the Qur’an could have inherited such a notion from the Bible based on the premise that it is not specifiedin the Pentateuch.

Chapter 6 is marred with methodological inconsistencies. First, it suggests that the term “masīḥ” is an unanalyzable Arabic morphology when, in actuality, it is in the form of “faʿīl,” very common in Arabic. In another example it is argued that “rūḥ” in Arabic means “blowing” and that the Qur’an fails to define it as some sort of spirit or breath. Q. 15:29 and 38:72 do describe it in the sense of breath or spirit, but Durie argues that they should be translated as, “blown from My blowing.” Durie should have noted the definition if, as he insists, it is different from breath, wind, or spirit. Another example is Durie’s understanding of God’s presence, where he states that the Qur’anicdescription of God as all-encompassing (muḥīṭ) is in knowledge only. While Durie tries to exclude post-Qur’anic literature, he echoes here the interpretation of some later Muslim schools of thought and not necessarily the Qur’an.

There are other flaws as well, for example, while the Qur’an portrays David and Jesus cursing nonbelievers, Durie states that it is unfounded biblically. The Qur’anic understanding of a curse is the expulsion from divine mercy, which David appears to warn the wicked (e.g., Psalm 37), while Jesus gives woes to the Pharisees warning them of an inescapablehell (e.g., Matthew 23:33). Additionally, the book critiques Qur’an 9:111 which states God has purchased from the believers, their selves and their wealth for heaven, killing and getting killed for the sake of God, a promise found in the Torah and the Gospel as well. Durie argues that such a reference is nonexistent in the Bible. The Shemaʿ passage in Deuteronomy commands people to love God with all their heart, selves, and strength. Additionally, the Talmud explains that all their strength means with all their wealth too, an idea mirrored in the Gospels, where the rich are to give away their wealth and follow Jesus. Finally, as to killing and being killed, this may be mirrored in Matthew 10, with Jesus stating that he did not bring peace, but a sword, and everyone is to take the cross and lose their life for the sake of Jesus.

In summary, while the book boasts a “deeper analysis,” claiming any similarities between the Qur’an and the Bible to be superficial, it fails to realize the shallowness of its own examination. A humble approach would have been appreciated. For example, if we apply this methodology to the Book of Zephaniah, we could conclude that the book has little to do with the rest of the Hebrew Bible, or, since the Christology of the Gospel of John is unique, it therefore has nothing to do with its Jewish background or the rest of the Gospels.

Although the book is best described as novice, it is written clearly. Durie is a prodigious writer. However, this volume should be categorized as polemic rather than academic as, due to the rhetoric, generalizations, and lack of rigor, it fails to provide any substantive scholarly contribution.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Abdulla Galadari is Assistant Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Khalifa University of Science & Technology in the United Arab Emriates.

Date of Review: 
March 4, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark Durie is Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at the Melbourne School of Theology.

Comments

Mark Durie

The opening statement of the review states that my book "engaged very little with existing literature in Qur’anic studies". In reality there are many hundreds of references to the Qur’anic studies literature.

Almost all contemporary Qur’anic scholars would agree that the style of the Qur’an changes over time: it seems very odd indeed to question this fairly obvious fact. This assumption is also in no way inconsistent with the observation that a performer or author might change styles depending upon context and audience. My chronological analysis, also, does not assume that style does not change based on genre and audience, Indeed I document cases where the Qur’an reminds the audience of previous utterances. I also discuss oscillations in style, where a surah alternates between styles from different periods of recitation.

In my book I suggested an approach for developing a stylistic timeline for the Qur’an based on lexical and formulaic features.  This would serve instead of the traditional timeline based on the life of Muhammad (even the biography-based ordering of surahs is influenced by stylistics, as I pointed out). Any constructive suggestions about statistical analysis of the proposed time-line model would be most welcome.

Contra the review, I do engage with discussions of theology in late antiquity, for example in the section on fighting prophets.

The reviewer is right to point out that the Talmud is not the Bible.

My argument concerning monotheism was more subtle than the reviewer seems to grasp.  My argument was that the key points of the Qur’an’s construal of monotheism (such as, for example, the prohibition of shirk) was not a continuous development from Biblical monotheism.  The point was not that individual ’notions’, such as the idea that God is one, could not have been picked up by the Qur’an from Judaism or Christianity, but that systematic theological relationships were not transferred along with it. It is disappointing that the reviewer seems to have misunderstood this crucial feature of my whole argument.

The reviewer rightly points out that faʿ īl is a common pattern in Arabic. That is well-taken. My point was poorly expressed.

In the book I argued that in Q15:29 and Q38:72 the Qur'anic rūḥ should not be read as ‘breath’ or ’spirit’, and pointed out that the verb in these verses, nafakha, meant ‘blow’, not ‘breathe’. This is clear from the fact that nafakha is used to refer to blowing a trumpet, blowing on a fire, or inflating something by blowing into it. The discussion of these verses served as part of my argument that rūḥ did not mean ‘breath’ or ’spirit’ in the Arabic of the Qur’anic community. There is no inconsistency here, but a clear argument. The reviewer does not engage with my argumentation, but simply re-asserts the conventional interpretation as if it were self-evident, without engaging with any of the evidence against it.

My discussion of muḥīt is based on exegesis of the Qur’an, not on later schools of thought. I give several arguments from the text to support my  interpretation. I had already explained, at some length, in chapter 1 why my textual analysis was be based, not on later Islamic exegetical traditions, but on the Qur’an itself.

The point about David and Jesus cursing nonbelievers was that although they both uttered curses – as was acknowledged – they did not curse people for being non-believers. Furthermore, the ‘woes’ of Matthew 23 against the pharisees, are not curses, but are in the form of a lament. 

I know of no serious interpreter of the Bible who would argue that Jesus’ reference to the ’sword’ in Matthew 10:10 is a call to kill and be killed for the sake of God. This seems to be a case of the reviewer forcing a Qur’anic frame onto the Bible. His interpretation here seems polemical, and it serves as an example of the kind of interpretation that I was arguing against in relation to the Qur’an, namely an approach in which scholars have imposed a Biblical frame on the Qur’anic text.

 

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