Soft handling and hard reading of the Christian and Muslim Scriptures

Habent sua fata libelli: The Gospels and the Quran in Mortal Hands

The Gospels and the Quran are the emblematic books of two of the world’s most widespread and influential religions, past, present and future. They have been read and heard by billions of people who have regarded their contents as a manifestation of God’s will, expressed in the Quran in God’s own words and in the Gospels in the reported speech and deeds of God’s own Son. But if they are parallel in their influence, habent sua fata libelli. Whatever Terence might have originally intended by saying that books have their own fate, it has certainly proven true of the Gospels and the Quran.  To begin with, the Quran is an edited recording, a record of the revelations sent down to the Prophet over the course of 22 or 23 years now collected into 114 titled suras or chapters. The Gospels, on the other hand, are literary compositions, constructed texts devised by human authors to present the deeds and teachings, the life and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

The Christians once had something like the Quran, a collection of Jesus’ sayings, one example of which now lies embedded within the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and another in the Gospel of Thomas.  But they did not serve the churches’ purposes, and eventually those early collections of logia had to yield to the competing narrative of the “Good News” represented by Mark’s Gospel. Although the Coptic Gospel of Thomas shows that the Quran-form of Jesus’ teaching was still in circulation in the fourth century, it was alive only among sectarians, who had been judged heretical by the majority of their contemporaries. And the Muslims have their Gospels, accounts of the life and times of the Prophet from Muhammad Ibn Ishaq, which, though it is by no means Scriptural — the Quran is the sole Muslim Scripture — it is certainly canonical for Muslims.  And, like the Christian Gospels, it is surrounded by a penumbra of legendary Apocrypha that enlarge and supernaturalize Ibn Ishaq’s somewhat sober Life.

Once they reached their finished form, the Gospels and the Quran set off on very different trajectories.  The “Good News” of Jesus undoubtedly began as an oral kerygma, whose rudiments we can trace in Paul, and even more distinctly in the Acts of the Apostles.  But once the Good News had been textualized as our unmistakably literary Gospels, their career is that of a book, not a homily.  Homilies there were as Christianity spread across the Mediterranean, but they are homilies about the Gospel, a book that would eventually rest upon a lectern in every Christian church in the Roman Empire and, even more remarkably, fit snugly into the pocket of every Christian missionary.  The rapid and quite unique Christian adoption of the more portable and more economically produced codex-book in preference to the standard volumen-scroll is one of the remarkable characteristics of the Christians’ practice in the first centuries of their existence.  Christianity made the book, as we know it, and, as some have argued, the codex-book may have made Christianity.

The Gospels continued to be heard, of course.  From early on they were read as part of the basic Christian Eucharistic liturgy.  At first the reading was apparently sequential, “for as long as time will allow,” as Justin Martyr put it.  There may even have been the practice in some quarters of combining the four Gospels into a single harmonious narrative.  There are some who think that Tatian’s Diatesseron was made for just such a liturgical purpose. Soon, however, the Gospels began to be dismantled, parceled out into pericopes appropriate for the daily progress of ecclesiastical feast days across the liturgical year. At first these passages were simply noted, as indices at the beginning or end, in copies of the New Testament, but eventually the passages themselves were compiled into a book, a new type of Gospel, a kind of Gospel reader called an Evangeliarium where the Gospel passages were now rearranged in the order in which they were used in the daily liturgy.

What is to be noted about this procedure is that the Gospel passages were being read: the person charged with this duty, usually a deacon, was called an anagnostes or lector, a reader. And there is no mistaking that the book itself, the physical object, plays an important part in the ceremony.  Richly decorated inside and out, it was laid upon the altar; it was incensed, kissed, borne aloft in procession to the place of its reading.  And even when it was being chanted, as it was on solemn occasions — the High Mass of the Western Church — the Gospel was still being sung off a book.  This was not opera, where the roles were memorized; this was a concert where the singer had a score before him.

The hearing of the Gospels made pagans into Christians; the community possession of the Gospel book confirmed them as members of the Church since it was manifestly impossible to conduct the essential liturgy without it.  Christian missionaries arrived in the lands of the heathen Gospel in hand, and one of their first tasks was not simply to translate it into the local vernacular, which could have been accomplished orally, but to equip the local vernacular with a proper script so that the Gospel might be written down.  A Latin script gave half of the Slavic peoples, a Gospel Book of their own, and the Greek script equipped the other half with their own quite distinctly written Euangelion.

The Quran’s history is quite other.  The Muslim culture hero was and is one who has memorized the Quran, which is merely one indication that the Quran has held its own as a recitation against the Quran as a book. The Quran has clung faithfully and tenaciously to its original incarnation as a recitation: it was received as such and has remained such for countless Muslims. There is power in origins, obviously, and Muhammad’s own original receptive hearing and public pronouncement of the Quran has a great deal to do with the persistence of the Muslim Scripture as a very un-Scriptural and un-scripted recitation.  It was certainly not because literacy came late or weakly to Muslim society.  Though born in an Arabian cultural outback — certainly not, however, in the desert, as s some seem to think — Islam created in the sequel a profoundly urban culture. Islam came to maturity in cities of the Arabs’ own making — or re-making — across the Middle East and North Africa, and it produced a body of literary scholars — grammarians, rhetoricians, poets, jurists and philosophers — almost beyond the numbering.

No, it was not a failure of literacy that held the Quran close to its oral roots, but we can point in other directions for at least a partial explanation of the Quranic permanence as a recitation.  The Christians’ missionary impulse has already been remarked upon: when Irish monks or Jesuit missionaries arrived on distant shores to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ’s to pagans, they had a copy of that same Good News in their pockets or their wallets or the saddlebags. And they soon made sure that their proselytes had a copy as well.  Muslims had no missionaries in the same sense of “those sent forth” for the purposes of conversion; indeed, they required none. Conversion to Islam followed, generally speaking and certainly in the great military expansion of the first three or four centuries, in the wake of conquest. This was not, as is sometimes thought, conversion by conquest and there was no coercion involved; rather, it was conversion by a acculturation: the subject population of Christians and Jews generally became Arabized before they became Islamicized.  And that acculturation took place not through books but through exposure to the living culture of the newly arrived majority of rulers, a culture that was broadly and deeply founded on the oral Quran.

A second factor in the fata diversa of the two libelli is a liturgical tradition of Christianity that not only incorporated the Gospel reading into the Eucharistic liturgy but also developed what I have already described as a subsidiary cultus of the book itself: the round of kisses, incensing and processions that accompanied the Gospel lectionary in its movement about the sanctuary. The Islamic daily liturgy is one of individual prayer, and the more social Friday liturgy is marked off solely by a congregational sermon.  Finally, the one example of a Muslim representational liturgy like that of the Eucharist or, more precisely, like the early Christian stational liturgies in Jerusalem, namely the annual hajj or pilgrimage in and about Mecca, is pre-Islamic in origin and hence pre-Quranic as well.  It has no association with the Quran.

If the Gospels and the Quran are received as an act of faith by Christian and Muslims believers and are treated reverentially in those communities, they have also come into the less reverential hands of a  community of scholars that chiefly reveres its own skill at deconstruction. Textual criticism is the principal heuristic tool developed for the study of documents. In its early practice by the Greek scholars at Alexandria in the third century BCE or by the Christians Origen and Jerome in the third and fourth centuries CE, it was employed chiefly for the emendation or improvement of texts, but from at least the time of Lorenzo Valla (1407-1457), a close and critical inspection of the text also proved useful for determining the authenticity of documents.  The story is well known of how this analytical technique, which was first applied to secular texts like that of Livy, was eventually used on Scripture itself.  The Words of God, do not much encourage or invite such scrutiny in their original state as what Homer called the “winged words” of oral discourse, but once they lost their wings and were committed to earth-bound writing, they were fair game indeed, and by the 19th century the Scriptures, hai graphai, those “things written down,” were commonplace objects, of textual criticism.

The Bible and the New Testament have long since assumed the quality of “something written” and have sat quite patiently for their textual portraits.  Not so the Quran.  Alone among the monotheists revelations, it identified itself from the outset not as “something written,” nor even as “something recited,” but as the latter act itself: al-qur’an, “The Recitation.”  Eventually the Quran began to call itself “The Book” as well, but even then  it was not thinking of “leaves between covers,” as a later expression put it, but rather of Scripture in the transcendental sense, a “virtual Scripture,” as Angelika Neuwirth has aptly described it.

Source criticism is a type of “hard reading” developed for the analysis of documents, a critical technique to dissolve documents into their older and/or primary components. It dissolved or reduced the Pentateuch, for example, not into its editorial components, the Five Books of Moses, but into other constituent elements that had nothing to do with Moses or with any other known figure for that matter.  It discovered within the text of the present Pentateuch older and not entirely assimilated documents since dubbed E and J, and then one called P, and then, finally,  D. some efforts have been made to find an individual behind the anonymous letters — Harold Bloom’s identification of the author of J. as a woman being the most notorious if not the most convincing effort — but source critics have generally contented themselves with describing the tendencies of the document and making a stab at their provenance and, less surely their date.

In New Testament studies source criticism has proceeded in a similar way with a focus on the documents behind the Synoptic Gospels or John in the first instance.  The Synoptics indeed almost reach out and seize the source critic by the lapels.  Here are three documents with some very high degree of interdependence that is betrayed by great swatches of verbatim identical verses in each.  Once it was decided, or at least agreed — there is no absolute certitude here, of course — that Mark’s Gospel was prior to those of Matthew and Luke, the key turned remarkably easily in the lock.  Matthew and Luke both used Mark as a source: those verses that they share and are also found in Mark bear witness to their plagiarism.  More, there are some 235 additional verses that they share almost verbatim and are not found in Mark.  The conclusion, as the French like to say, imposes itself.  Matthew and Luke had before them another textual source alongside of Mark and had borrowed from it as well.  Let us, the source critics said, call it “Q”.  And there was still more.  There is some material (M) that appears only in Matthew and some other (L) that shows up only in Luke’s Gospel.  The source critic had thus elicited four distinct sources, Mark, Q, M and L, for the synoptic Gospels, only one of which, Mark, was one of those Gospels.

All this is well known and has proved a fruitful hypothesis for trying better to understand the source for the foundation events of the Jewish and Christian traditions.  When we turn to the third of the Children of Abraham, Islam, we find a very different situation, however.  Historians of Israel do not have a great deal of interest in the “historical Moses,” the actual individual who stands behind the figure called Moses who dominates the narrative of most of the Pentateuch and who some thought to be its author.  Like Noah and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses may have been a real person, but at this remove and with the sources at our disposal, he is inaccessible, unrealizable. As we move forward in the Bible narrative, David and Solomon have somewhat greater historical heft because they were political figures who may possibly have left their material traces on the landscape, clues that the historian finds reassuring, if exceedingly sparse in number. But Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel still remain unsubstantial historical presences behind the dazzling literary prophecies that bear their names. Isaiah is, of course, the poster boy for authors with names but no substance since he has long since been dissolved by the critics into three quite distinct Isaiahs.

When we pass from the Jewish Bible into the Christian New Testament, we enter a quite different source critical world.  The source critic has applied his textual shredder, as already noted, and the fragmentary results are passed on to the historian.  But the New Testament historian is no longer engaged with the phenomena described in the text, as was the case with the Biblical Pentateuch, for example, or Ezra-Nehemiah or even the Prophets, but is here focused on the principal historical person the New Testament documents purport to be about.  If the quest for the historical Abraham or the historical Moses is on what may be a permanent hold, the quest for the historical Jesus is, as we are all aware, very alive and very well indeed.

Israelite religion has no distinct beginning that we can discover: if Abraham looks like a unique pioneer, what are we to make of Melchizedek? And Noah?  But Christianity does have such in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and the documents we call the Gospels, no matter when or by whom they were composed, are all firmly tied to Galilee and Judea in the first decades of the first century and, even more substantially, to the person of Jesus.  To put it another way, these documents are studied not because they cast light on Second Temple Judaism or daily life in Palestine, which they assuredly do, but principally and overwhelmingly because they are sources on or for Jesus of Nazareth.

I make these points, which are commonplace in biblical studies, not because I am particularly interested here in either the Old or the New Testament, but because my intent is to head in the direction of the Quran and to escort the reader across the same terrain that I myself covered in coming to the study of the Muslim Scripture. Some Islamicists may be born such, but more others are, like myself, made, and the Western manufactured variety usually come to the Muslim Scripture from a Scriptural background of the Old or the New Testament.

The Muslims’ Scripture is called, as by now everyone seems well aware, the Quran (or Qur’an or Koran).  The Quran now rests before us as a book, presently a printed book, most copies of which go back to a fixed type edition published in Egypt in 1923 and, before that, to a number of 19th century Muslim lithographs. As far as Europeans are concerned, the Quran was read in Arabic chiefly in an edition first published by Gustav Flügel in 1834, with minor corrections in 1841 and 1858. Before Herr Flügel and before those lithographs, the Quran was almost exclusively in manuscript books, copied and recopied with loving care, and with remarkably few variants, from the 10th century even unto the present.

The printed or written page is not how most people access the Quran, however.  “Most people” includes a very large percentage of the world’s nearly one billion Muslims who hear “The Recitation” actually recited for liturgical, devotional and even juridical purposes in their everyday lives.  This is important and interesting, but the historian, and even more obviously the text critic, deals in texts, not recitations or, if recitations, then recitations frozen in transcription.  If we intend to investigate how Muhammad produced the Quran, and we must look closely at its recitation.  If our goal is, on the other hand, to understand how the words that came forth from his mouth came to be written down, we must begin with the text and try to work backwards.

Before we look at the text of the Quran, however, we must pause and reflect on why the Quran is not at first regard a text that leads to the historical Muhammad just as the Gospels are thought, or hoped, to lead to the historical Jesus. The Gospels are about Jesus; the Quran is not about Muhammad.  The Gospels, those hopelessly devoted biographies of Jesus, had human authors, and so not even the most conservative of the Christian Fathers maintained that it was the Holy Spirit that actually moved the pen that the Evangelist held impotently in his hand. But that is very close to what happened with the Quran, save that we must gently remove the pen from the Prophet’s hand. God it was the auctor of Scripture, the medieval scholastics said, and the evangelist merely the scriptor.  Not so with the Quran. God revealed the Quran’s orally, we are told, but Muhammad did not write it down: he recited The Recitation. If we are looking for Quranic scriptores, we must look elsewhere

Muhammad, then, is related to the Quran not as its subject, as Jesus is to the Gospels, but as its human medium.  Even so, Muslims have never been concerned with the Prophet’s qualities as a rawi or reciter, his particular skills of voice, memory or diction, his gifts for rapid or imaginative improvisation.  Rather, what the biographical tradition concentrated on was his moral qualities, his trustworthiness, his purity of soul, indeed, his freedom from all sin. Muhammad’s accuracy in repeating what he had heard was never an issue in Muslim biography or Islamic theology.  And yet there is a subtext.  The Quran was recited first by God and then by the Prophet in the Qurashi dialect of Muhammad’s Mecca. This was the judgment of neither the Quran nor Muhammad himself but the reported decision of the Caliph Uthman in his instructions to the committee of editors he charged with preparing the first standard edition of the Quran.  In cases of doubt or dispute, they were instructed, they should prefer the Qurashi reading, that is, Muhammad’s native speech, over all others.  It is a rare but illuminating example of the mortal medium conditioning the eternal message.

The Quran then is not about Muhammad but about Islam, that “submission” to the One True God that that same God was proclaiming, through the medium of Muhammad, to the idolatrous pagan Arabs of Mecca. The Gospels attest to Jesus, the Quran to Islam.  The canonical Gospels are not necessary for Christianity: Jesus had his followers during his own lifetime, and after his death there were Christian converts like Paul, for example, and all the believers to whom Paul’s letters are addressed, who had come to the new faith before our Gospels were written.  But there was no Islam in the formal sense before there was the Quran. Muhammad did not summon his followers as Jesus did; indeed, he had no followers in that Apostolic sense.  Muslims were converted by and through the Quran, and even if one professed Islam as a result of instruction, as happened later, the Quran was still what the Christians call the regula fidei, their anchor in the true faith.

These differences in the two Scriptures mean that they are approached differently. In a matter of authorship, for example, each of the four canonical Gospels is credited to a quite specific and quite human author, and their very titles, “The Gospel according to Mark,” is a fairly explicit confession that this is a conditioned document.  It is Mark’s “take” on Jesus, and if Mark’s credentials are later flourished as impeccable — he was a follower of the Apostle Peter, and his Gospel reflects Peter’s recollections of Jesus — he was nonetheless a fallible human author.  Mark and the others were protected from gross error by the inspirational guidance of the Holy Spirit, but it was still possible to think that his style and syntax were not perfect, and that if Homer nodded, the Evangelist himself might catch, if not forty winks, then at least one or two of those restful moments on occasion.

The terrain surrounding the Quran is entirely different, beginning with the title page.  There is no author listed there: this is not “The Recitation according to Muhammad.” But the “author” does identify himself within the work.  The “I” and the “we” and even occasionally the “he” of the Quran is unmistakably the God who created the world and will judge it on the Final Day. And his pronouncements are directed in many instances to a singular “you,” who appears to be Muhammad, and though the actual name appears only three times in the entire work (3:144; 33:40; 47:2), we are quite sure that Muhammad is God’s messenger.  God, then, is the author of the Quran, which is mediated to an audience through Muhammad.  We know that there was an audience because the primary speaker in the Quran, God, tells us how they received The Recitation– many with disbelief –and instructs Muhammad how to respond.

These are all elements of enormous interest, but let us stay for the moment with the difference between the two Scriptures. As is clear from these few remarks, the Gospels present themselves rather precisely as documents, as an essential part of a testamentum or diatheke. The New Testament was, the early Christians decided, a judicial document, a rewriting of that original berith contracted with Abraham (with Torah codicils in God’s own hand!). The Gospels are its historical briefs, presentations (with argument) of the life and teachings and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth.  Admittedly a “Gospel” is a mixed genre. While the form and structure of the Gospels leave little doubt that we are somewhere in the biographical tradition, it is biography with a message, somewhere out there with hagiography or the campaign biography or an obituary written by the deceased’s heir.

Jesus’ message is embedded in the Gospels; the Quran too is a message, an angelion. It is just more forthrightly delivered and not embedded within a biography. We must assent if we are to be saved.  The Gospels for their part demand historical as well as moral assent: it is impossible to mistake the tone of Luke’s resonant declaration “In the 15th year of the reign of the emperor Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being ruler of Judaea…”(Luke 3:1). It is not the Gospels that command us to believe or to act; rather it is Jesus who is portrayed in them making those demands.  “Repent,” Jesus is made to say, “Believe,” “Pray,” “Love your neighbor,” “Render to Caesar…”, all of them “on his own authority” (Mark 1:22), and while the Muslim Scripture makes many of the same demands, they are always in its own name that is, on the authority of God who is not shown speaking in it but who speaks immediately through it.

There is history in the Quran, to be sure, or, more accurately, a variety of historical events are put forward, only far our moral contemplation and never to suggest anything remotely like “what actually happened.” The Quran uses history only to illustrate, and chiefly to illustrate what happens to those who disbelieve God and his prophets.  The events are presented as vignettes, though in some cases the narrative line appears to have trumped the exemplary point and to have expanded into a full-blown tale. This is famously so in the case of the Biblical Joseph whose story takes up the entirety of Sura 12, or the ripping good tale of Moses and the Pharaoh which is recited vividly and at length a number of times in the Quran (7:103-137; 10:75-92; 22:24-29), or that surrounding the conception and birth of Jesus (10:16-34). They are, in any event, God’s stories and not the Prophet’s; Muhammad is merely cued—“Recall to them the story of…”—to repeat them to the audience.

If, as I remarked, the Gospels were not necessary for conversion to Christianity, the fourth and fifth generation of Christians were faced with the problem of authenticity raised by the circulation in their assemblies of various Gospels as well as Pauline letters and other documents. It was they who created the New Testament, both the idea of a testamental dossier—the Jewish collection of Scripture was called simply “The Books” (ta biblia). This explicitly designated “New Covenant” or “New Testament” would contain the documents that authentically testified to the fact that the Abrahamic covenant had been redrawn in the person of Jesus. The argument rests principally on the four historical briefs that are the Gospels.  And among the many of the Gospels that were circulating at the time, these four were included in the Scriptures because of a near unanimous judgment on the part of those early Christian assemblies, the ekklesiai, that these documents were authentic testimonies not merely to “what really happened” — the ancient world had no problems with the expression — but to the truth in a larger sense.  In the judgment of the churches, is not only of the “historical Jesus” who is present in the canonical Gospels; it is also the “real Jesus.”

There is no question of canonicity with respect to the Quran.  Unlike the Bible and the New Testament, the Quran pronounces itself Scripture.  Human agents are not asked to judge it but simply to assent to it.  The Quran is not about advance the way those other Books are; rather it is about Truth itself, and the auditor must accept it or suffer the terrible consequences that the Book itself spells out in some detail.  There were of course doubters of both Gospels and Quran, but the Gospels present them as disbelieve in Jesus; the Quran’s doubters doubted the Quran itself.  In the New Testament doubts regarding Jesus are resolved by an appeal to a basic historical criterion: the eyewitness testimony of reliable witnesses to the resurrected Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:3-7).  The Quran’s doubters are confronted with the Quran itself.

Inside a library, the Gospels and the Quran are two sets of books jostling for shelf space; outside, in the homes of believers and their places of worship, they are objects of veneration, “sacramentals,” to invoke an older Catholic terminology of categorization. In addition to popular devotion, each Scripture has spawned a florid mystical tradition that takes wing from the sacred page as well as a rich scholarly tradition that attempts to penetrate into the depths of the text, and where occasionally the scholar and the mystic meet behind the words of God. But for all their similarities, these two collections of what the believers credit as the words of God also differ profoundly in their origins, their subsequent history and, their use and function in the complex of beliefs and practices that comprise Christianity and Islam.

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