The Qur'an & the Bible

Text and Commentary

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Gabriel Said Reynolds
Translator(s): 
Ali Quli Qarai
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , June
     2018.
     1032 pages.
     $40.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780300181326.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This hefty tome by Gabriel Said Reynolds of Notre Dame University, a specialist in the relationship of the Qur’an and the Bible, should put to rest any lingering doubts about whether Islam’s scripture, the Qur’an, participates in the long trajectory of biblical tradition. The volume presents the entire Qur’an, in the English translation of Ali Quli Qarai, with extensive interspersed commentary wherever a parallel with or allusion to biblical tradition is found. This approach differentiates Reynolds’s work from previous scholarly compendia of Bible and Qur’an, such as those of Abraham Geiger and Heinrich Speyer, who follow the canonical biblical order rather than that of the Qur’an, or Denise Masson, who groups similarities between the Bible and Qur’an into various themes. 

Reynolds does not restrict the search for parallels and allusions to the present canonical biblical texts, but includes Jewish and Christian biblical traditions as they appear in a huge variety of extra-biblical texts extant during the period of late antiquity (3rd – 7th centuries) within which the Qur’an historically originated. Reynolds aims to situate the emergence of the Qur’an within the productive ferment of religious ideas of this historical period, and contends that, read within this context, many apparent conflicts between the Bible and the Qur’an disappear. 

A review cannot do justice to the extensive material in what is, ostensibly, a reference work. However, some examples will give an idea of what the reader can expect. First, much of the commentary concerns instances where the Qur’an clearly parallels biblical texts. For example, the twelfth surah of the Qur’an overall reflects the Joseph story in Genesis 37:39-50. The Qur’anic account, however, departs from the biblical story in a number of details. Rather than regarding these as inaccuracies, Reynolds points out that the Qur’an here often follows the interpretation and elaboration of the Joseph story by Syrian Christians and Jewish rabbis. Similarly, the Qur’an’s narration of stories such as Cain’s murder of Abel or Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son are shown to draw on developments and interpretation of these stories in Jewish targums, midrash, and Talmud. Since some biblical parallels appear multiple times in the Qur’an, thankfully the commentary is fully cross-referenced.

Second, commentary is provided on instances where the Qur’an evidences the development and elaboration of biblical traditions beyond the strict confines of the canonical biblical texts. An example is the story of God commanding the angels to prostrate to Adam, a story that is not found in Genesis or elsewhere in the canonical Bible, but is mentioned in seven different places in the Qur’an. Reynolds demonstrates that this story emerges from rabbinic speculation on the exalted status of humanity in Psalm 8:4-6 and from early Syriac Christian texts, notably the Cave of Treasures, which understood Adam as a prototype of Christ. Another example is the miracle of the palm tree and spring associated with Jesus’s birth and infancy (Qur’an 19:22-26), a development reported in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and connected with Palestinian commemorative traditions at the Kathisma church near Jerusalem.

Third, the commentary also highlights instances where the Qur’an narrates mainly Christian traditions and legends that developed after, and apart from, the Bible. For example, the eighteenth surah of the Qur’an clearly reflects the Christian legend of the “Sleepers of Ephesus,” which originated in the 5th century to make a case for the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. The same surah also tells a number of stories that appear in connection with Alexander the Great in Syriac Christian traditions.  

Of course, not every verse of the Qur’an is related to Jewish and Christian traditions, and so whole surahs and parts of surahs pass without any commentary in Reynolds’s volume. And sometimes the Qur’an presents a unique development of biblical tradition not found in any previous sources, such as the story of the crow who shows Cain how to bury the body of his brother Abel (Qur’an 5:31). Notably, Reynolds does not deal much with possible Arabian “pagan” traditions reflected in the Qur’an, nor with the speculation that parts of the Qur’an are conversant with marginal “sectarian” forms of Judaism or Christianity (or Jewish-Christianity). He also avoids “medieval sources” that postdate the origin of the Qur’an, thus excluding the entire Muslim tradition of tafsir (Qur’anic commentary) and sira (biography of the Prophet Muhammad). Nonetheless, he does reference two medieval tafsir (al-Wahidi’s Asbāb nuzūl al-Qur’ān, and al-Mahalli and al-Suyuti’s Tafsīr al-Jalālayn) in order to contrast later medieval readings with a reading of the Qur’an in a late antique context. 

The work is prefaced by a list of abbreviations and conventions, a list of biblical and post-biblical characters in the Qur’an, and a detailed introduction outlining the method, structure and scope of the commentary and situating it in relation to earlier scholarship on the Qur’an and Bible. (Reynolds is careful throughout to acknowledge his indebtedness to the work and insights of other scholars, both past and contemporary). The volume concludes with a very helpful note on sources, a detailed bibliography, an index to the Qur’an, and an index of citations of biblical verses. Regrettably, no index is provided for the copious citations of extra-biblical sources. 

Overall this volume is a marvelous compilation that will reward repeated consultation, as well as a compelling argument for reading the Qur’an in the context of late antiquity. In particular, as scholars have discovered, the importance of the Syriac Christian tradition comes to the fore (Reynolds here depends particularly on the work of Joseph Witztum). Of course, one can quibble with aspects of the work. Some of the parallels seem somewhat far-fetched; a future desideratum is a system of classification to guide the identification of parallels and the evaluation of their probability. The quotation of parallel texts tends to obscure the fact that oral, not written, tradition was the most likely vector for biblical traditions appearing in the Qur’an. Conversely, some of the commentary seems to have nothing to do with biblical parallels. As for Qarai’s translation, it uses terminology, such as “tryst” or “immaculate,” according to archaic and not contemporary meaning; his theological interpolations into the text of the Qur’an can also be annoying. The wholesale rejection of a historical framework based on sira to map the unfolding of the Qur’an over time is unfortunate in that it eliminates the possibility of identifying interpretive development in the conversation with biblical traditions between earlier and later units of the Qur’an. 

In the end, the most valuable aspect of this work is that it enfolds the Qur’an into the ongoing development of biblical tradition. It provides a window, not only to understanding the Qur’an, but also to how the Bible was understood in late antiquity: “The Qur’an itself, by referring regularly to Jewish and Christian traditions, demands that its audience know those traditions ... We should thus learn to appreciate the Qur’an not only as the scripture of Islam but also as a central work in the history of Biblical literature” (14).

About the Reviewer(s): 

F. Volker Greifenhagen is Professor of Religious Studies at Luther College at the University of Regina in Regina, Saskatchewan.

Date of Review: 
September 17, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gabriel Said Reynolds is Professor of Islamic Studies and Theology at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of The Qur’an and Its Biblical Subtext and The Emergence of Islam and the editor of The Qur?an in Its Historical Context.

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