A Feast for Polymaths: Jack Miles on Gabriel Said Reynolds’s “The Qur’an and the Bible”

By Jack MilesDecember 17, 2018

A Feast for Polymaths: Jack Miles on Gabriel Said Reynolds’s “The Qur’an and the Bible”

The Qur’ān and the Bible by Gabriel Said Reynolds

JANE DAMMEN MCAULIFFE — editor of the five-volume Encyclopaedia of the Qur’ān and of the Cambridge Companion to the Qur’ān — distinguishes “Two Trajectories of Textual Study” in her introduction to the 2017 Norton Critical Edition of the Qur’an. The first, “Traditional Accounts of the Qur’ān’s Origins, Collection, and Codification,” is the more Muslim of the two. The second, “Challenges to the Traditional Accounts,” is the more secular, historicist, or revisionist.

The first trajectory typically interprets the Qur’an by linking passages within it to traditional accounts of the life of Prophet Muhammad, who, according to Muslim tradition, received the Qur’an as a revelation from God, mediated by the angel Gabriel:

Both the Qur’ān and the Prophet’s biography depict a polytheist society [around Mecca] centered on clan and household idols, stone and star worship, divination by arrows and entrails, and pilgrimage rituals involving animal sacrifice and circumambulation of a sacred space.

The second trajectory

presumes a human author, or authors, of the Qur’ān. While it often — but not always — speaks respectfully of the theological claims of believing scholars, it does not share them. Consequently, it treats the Qur’ān like any other major work of world literature and feels free to apply the same techniques and methods of literary scholarship to this text that it would to any other.

Thus, it debates, for example, whether Muhammad was the author of the entire Qur’an or only of parts of it, the rest being a completion by his early followers. Thus, again, it challenges the traditional characterization of seventh-century Mecca and environs as pagan and polytheist rather than also significantly Christian and Jewish. The resulting challenge to the tradition, McAuliffe writes, is substantial: “The sense of ‘Islamic exceptionalism’ that marked earlier periods of [even secular] historical research is crumbling before an emergent understanding that Arabia was integrated into, and influenced by, patterns of change within the whole eastern Mediterranean world.”

This challenge is one that Gabriel Said Reynolds called “[t]he crisis of Qur’ānic Studies” in his 2010 study, The Qur’ān and Its Biblical Subtext (“Routledge Studies in the Qur’an”). That work laid the foundation for Reynolds’s new book and was written clearly for Reynolds’s learned colleagues rather than for the general public. In it, Reynolds sharpens the conflict that McAuliffe identifies, for Reynolds sees even quite recent, ostensibly revisionist or secular commentary as slipping by degrees into traditional, biography-shaped modes of interpretation.

I myself find it plausible to suppose that enlarging the geographical, cultural, and religious frame around the Hijaz (the region of Western Arabia where Mecca is located) might still leave the figure of Muhammad at the center of revisionist exegesis of the Qur’an. I find it equally plausible, however, to suppose that the process by which literate Arabs transcribed and transmitted a revelation — whether received orally from an angel or composed orally by the prophet — may have exposed the revelation itself to literary influence from whatever literatures the transcribers and transmitters were acquainted with.

Such exposure is clearly assumed in the 13 “Qur’ānic case studies” that form the core of The Qur’ān and Its Biblical Subtext. To be sure, Reynolds stops short of claiming that the biblical (sometimes extra-canonical) texts he cites to cogent effect are literal sources for the Qur’an. Such a claim would amount to a renewal of the medieval Jewish and Christian canard that Muhammad was a simple plagiarist, and plagiarism is a charge Reynolds never brings. As I read him, he wants to make a more nuanced claim — namely, that literate, text-centered culture and oral, preaching-centered culture were mutually permeable in the seventh century and for long thereafter. What began as oral tradition could become written tradition, and vice versa. It remains true, however, that in our day, centuries after the earliest promulgation of the Qur’an, modern exegetes trying to recreate the doubly permeable culture within which the Qur’an came to birth have no alternative but to cite the actual surviving written texts and observe the degree by which they parallel and/or illuminate given passages in the Qur’an.

Accordingly, Reynolds’s massive new commentary on the Qur’an by way of the Bible draws on an extraordinary range of relevant extra-Qur’anic ancient literature. The Qur’ān and the Bible includes an entire Qur’an translation — namely, the entire second edition of Ali Quli Qarai’s translation, which, as Reynolds explains in his acknowledgments, the translator has revised for inclusion in this new and adventurous commentary. As Quli Qarai’s translation proceeds, chapter by chapter and verse by verse, Reynolds’s commentary is not gathered at the bottom of the page in the usual format for commentary. Though set in a different typeface, his commentary breaks in on the pages themselves — sometimes very briefly, sometimes at great length — as Reynolds cites and discusses parallels from the Bible or from other biblically inspired or somehow biblically connected ancient texts.

Sometimes these intrusions, while legitimate, are not especially illuminating. Thus, at Qur’an 2:15 (“It is God who derides them, and leaves them bewildered in their rebellion”) Reynolds breaks in to add: “On God’s deriding of the believers, one might compare Psalm 2:4: ‘He who is enthroned in the heavens laughs, the Lord makes a mockery of them.’” True enough, but this sort of comment adds little.

Sometimes, however, Reynolds’s intrusions are fascinating and remarkable for how very closely and extensively the extra-Qur’anic texts he brings to bear actually parallel the Qur’an. Let me quote one particularly baffling passage in the Qur’an at some length and then sample how Reynolds engages it. The passage is Qur’an 18: 60–83, the story of Moses and “his lad” who set out to reach and do reach “the confluence of the two seas.” There, Moses says to the lad, “Bring us our meal. We have certainly encountered much fatigue on this journey of ours.” The lad replies that Satan made him forget about the fish, which then came to life and escaped into the sea. To the news that their dinner has escaped, Moses replies, “That is what we were after!” and, puzzlingly, they reverse course and begin retracing their steps.

They then immediately encounter a mysterious man identified only as “one of Our servants whom We had granted mercy from Ourselves and taught him knowledge from Our own.” Moses asks this man to accept him as a student, and the man agrees, though warning Moses that he must have patience. The man — known in Muslim tradition as al-Khidr or “the green one” — then performs three disturbing actions. First, he drills a hole in a boat, endangering the passengers. Second, he meets and slays a young boy for no apparent reason. Third, when Moses and he are refused food in a town they come to, the man finds a collapsing wall and chooses to build it back up. After each action, Moses objects. The man then leaves Moses, after delivering the following speech:

He said, “This is where you and I shall part. I will inform you about the interpretation of that over which you could not maintain patience. As for the boat, it belonged to some poor people who work on the sea. I wanted to make it defective, for behind them was a king seizing every ship usurpingly. As for the boy, his parents were faithful [persons], and We feared he would overwhelm them with rebellion and unfaith. So We desired that their Lord should give them in exchange one better than him in respect of purity and closer in mercy. As for the wall, it belonged to two boy orphans in the city. There was a treasure under it belonging to them. Their father had been a righteous man. So your Lord desired that they should come of age and take out their treasure — as mercy from your Lord. I did not do that out of my own accord. This is the interpretation of that over which you could not maintain patience.

They question you concerning Dhul Qarnayn. Say, “I will relate to you an account of him.”

Of Dhul Qarnayn, Reynolds explains that the Arabic means “the two-horned man” and is a reference to Alexander the Great, who is represented on certain coins with the horns of the Egyptian God Ammon. Reynolds identifies the episode itself as “part of a tradition that includes the Greek Alexander Romance (fourth or fifth century AD), the Babylonian Talmud, and the Syriac Christian Song of Alexander (ca. AD 630–35; the Song is falsely attributed to Jacob of Serugh).” Of the three paradoxical actions, Reynolds writes:

Most of these traditions present the theme of a sage who is upset by the methods of divine justice. One tradition (narrative 96; see T. Nissen, “Unbekannte Erzählungen aus dem Pratum Spirituale,” 367) tells the story of an angel of God (equivalent to the mysterious “servant of God” in the Qur’ān) who acts in ways that mystify an old and pious monk. The angel steals a cup from a pious man, strangles the son of another pious man, and rebuilds the wall which belonged to an impious and inhospitable man. The angel explains that the cup which belonged to the first man had been stolen. The son of the second pious man was to grow up to be an evil sinner; by strangling this son the angel allowed him to die before he fell into sin. Beneath the wall of the impious man lay hidden treasure, and by rebuilding the wall, he kept the man from finding this treasure and using it for evil. These line up closely to the Qur’ānic “Moses and the servant of God” passage.

I quote Reynolds’s words at some length, first, to illustrate how very striking are the parallels that he sometimes finds and, second, to demonstrate how very demanding the lay reader must find his way of presenting these parallels. “Unbekannte Erzählungen aus dem” is German for “Unknown tales from the,” and Pratum Spirituale is a Latin title that I would translate “Spiritual Pasture.” The same paragraph from which the sentences above are taken also includes the untranslated French title of another obscure scholarly article.

In sum, then, The Qur’ān and the Bible: Text and Commentary is a stunningly learned work, bringing together a truly impressive set of written, extra-Qur’anic witnesses and parallels to passages in the Qur’an, but its intended readers can only be those as polymathic and polylingual as Gabriel Said Reynolds himself. The work will claim a large place within Jane Dammen McAuliffe’s second trajectory of learned textual study of the Qur’ān and will inevitably challenge “Islamic exceptionalism.” Those who welcome that challenge will be much instructed by it. Those who do not may be offended by it and may draw attention, ad hominem, to the fact that Reynolds, a Roman Catholic of partly Arab heritage, is professor of Islamic Studies and Theology at Notre Dame University, a Roman Catholic university.

It is academically ill-mannered to mention such a personal and biographical detail, but perhaps politically naïve to omit it. If in our American day evidence for or against the confirmation of a Supreme Court Justice cannot be judged by what it is but only by who has delivered it, we can hardly expect evidence for or against the exceptional character of the Qur’an always to be judged with any greater neutrality. ’Tis true, as Shakespeare wrote, ’tis pity, and pity ’tis, ’tis true.


Jack Miles, currently Corcoran Visiting Chair of Christian-Jewish Relations at Boston College, is the author of God in the Qur'an, just published by Alfred A. Knopf.

LARB Contributor

Jack Miles, an ex-Jesuit, is the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning God: A Biography (1995), editor of The Norton Anthology of World Religions, and professor emeritus of English and religious studies at the University of California, Irvine.


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