A Journey with the God of the Qur’an

By Ebrahim MoosaNovember 10, 2019

A Journey with the God of the Qur’an

God in the Qur’an by Jack Miles

JACK MILES GAINED RENOWN for his Pulitzer Prize–winning God: A Biography (1995). Studying God in the Jewish and Christian scriptures allowed him to embark, after much hesitation, on an intellectual journey that eventually paid off in his latest, highly readable work, God in the Qur’an. Miles perhaps internalized William James’s lesson: that some important hermeneutic choices are necessary if one is to fathom the story of God in the religious texts vouchsafed to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. A “collective name” such as God, wrote James in his The Varieties of Religious Experience, is susceptible to a range of meanings and therefore demands difficult choices. Miles was guided not by “what any scripture says in the abstract but what those who honor it as scripture take concretely from it.”

After 9/11, the public interest in Islam soared in the United States. This interest may have been mostly of a hostile nature, but some was born of genuine curiosity. When sales of the Qur’an spiked around the country, I was at first alarmed. The Qur’an can easily be misunderstood in the absence of a guided reading. Untutored readers today often judge the text without reference to the historical context of the seventh century. As I and others found out, many first-time readers of the Qur’an struggled to make sense of it.

Few people know that the vast majority of the world’s Muslims read the Qur'an in Arabic only for liturgical and pious purposes, without understanding its content; preachers and qualified teachers have to explain it to lay audiences. Of course, many read the Qur'an in translation for inspiration and practice. An entire literature, called the “reports” (hadith, pl. ahadith), and attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, is read together with the scripture in order to elaborate and qualify the text of the Qur'an. Orthodox interpreters take the complex exegetical history of the Qur'an seriously. Some modern Islamic trends have pushed back against the traditional approach and called for exclusive reliance on the scripture, with mixed results. Often do-it-yourself exegeses result in grotesque oversimplifications of a complex text. Questionable interpretations are frequently offered that are violent or simplistic in nature, in contrast to the multiple sophisticated as well as historically informed exegetical positions of the same passages proposed by Muslim traditions that rely on careful scholarship.

God-sanctioned violence, as depicted in the Jewish and Christian scriptures, is a subject Miles did not avoid in his earlier work, and he explores it again, though to a limited extent, in his study of the Muslim scripture. With respect to his study of Allah, he candidly states: “[T]here is more to Him than His violence.”

Miles’s work on God in the Qur’an is heavily mediated by his previous work on God in the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels. Thus, the Qur'an’s episodes and salient personalities are projected against the accounts of the earlier scriptures either to show similarities or significant differences, and at times to provide nuanced insights. The book’s eight chapters — “Adam and His Wife,” “Adam’s Son and His Brother,” “Noah,” “Abraham and His Father,” “Abraham and His Sons,” “Joseph,” “Moses,” “Jesus and His Mother” — are followed by an afterword (“On the Qur'an as the Word of God”) and an appendix (“Of Satan and the Afterlife in the Bible and the Qur'an”).

Miles candidly admits that he did not consult Arabic sources beyond what his knowledge of other Semitic languages allowed, nor did he track the historical Muslim exegetical tradition or the theological debates related to the Qur'an. Still, even a reader familiar with the Qur'an will gain a lot from Miles’s book. Readers of the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels will no doubt find it illuminating. His comparative approach occludes the religious Muslim view of Allah as the Creator, but a great deal can be learned from a literary scholar’s reading of scripture.

The Qur'an’s account of Adam and Eve, for example, both overlaps with and differs from the previous two scriptures. The Qur'an itself says that it comes to confirm what the Old Testament and New Testament reported, but it also claims to be a corrective to the previous two scriptures. Miles reads the common story of our first human ancestors in the three Near Eastern scriptures through the lenses of various texts, ranging from the extra-biblical Hebrew work, Life of Adam and Eve, to John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Regained, which provide insights into the “event” of creation itself.

Varied modes of meaning-making have been applied to the Adam and Eve story in the three Abrahamic scriptures. For instance, in the Islamic account Satan plays a large role in Adam’s and Eve’s sinning (the eating of the forbidden fruit). Miles finds it “shocking” that “Allah grants Satan reprieve that so jeopardizes humankind.” Satan’s role is comparatively less active in the Old Testament when it comes to the expulsion of our forebears. If Yahweh seems “less godlike” since His knowledge appears partial, then at such moments, Miles argues, Allah, “by contrast, is never surprised by anything that anyone says or does or anything that happens and is far more dependably and predictably ethical and, above all, merciful.” Adds Miles: “Allah is forceful, yes, but […] His rage is never so hot […] as to incinerate His mercy.”

One key difference between the Qur'an, on the one hand, and the New and the Old Testaments, on the other, stems from the way Allah refers to humans as compared to Yahweh Elohim. In all three scriptures, humans carry the divine breath and spirit, yet the relationship between humans and God is different in each. Yahweh Elohim creates the humans “in the image of God,” a claim both Jews and Christians believe emphasizes divine likeness. This Old and New Testament God, Miles writes, “breathes not just His physical life but also His spiritual life into His first human creature.” Hence the study of humankind is a prologue to the study of God.

The Qur'an is completely silent about the likeness between God and humans. Muslim theology, chastened by the Qur'an’s continuous critique of Christendom’s trinitarian concept of God as shirk — the cardinal sin of associating anything or anybody with Allah — effectively voided the idea of being created “in the image of God,” and denied it any conceptual space. The goal is to ensure that neither literal nor mythopoetic elements contaminate the concept of God.

The notion of being created “in the image of God” does appear in the sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, but it is interpreted as a figurative expression. The Muslim theologian par excellence, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111), viewed the image of God as a symbolic expression akin to a mental form. Other Muslim theologians speak of Allah as a divine being, but only for didactic purposes, fully aware that language cannot encompass the majesty of God. Another gloss is that God sketched the image of humans in the divine realm before creation. The angelic homage to Adam, elevating all humans to an exalted status and establishing a covenant with all humanity in pre-creation, are the Islamic equivalents of imago dei.

Miles deploys Erich Auerbach’s idea of figural interpretation to explain the indescribable character of the divine. Auerbach’s dramatic account begins with God’s creation of the world, reaching its climax in Christ’s Incarnation and Passion, with the expected conclusion in Christ’s Second Coming and the Last Judgment. Unfortunately, Miles tries to mimic this interpretation with respect to the Qur'an, saying that the creation story reaches its climax in “God’s revelation of the Qur'an to Muhammad.” Corresponding to Christ’s return, we would have “Muhammad’s second coming (accompanied by Christ, actually, in developed Muslim tradition) ‘and the Last Judgment’.” Sure, Sunni and Shia Muslims expect a herald, the mahdi, at the end times, and the Shia doctrine advocates the “return,” known as the rajʿa in Arabic. But this is a second-order teaching in which Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, will come back to establish justice. Shia sources are less clear about who the actual returnees are. Some include Muhammad in the drama, others do not. Not knowing the complicated history of the theological exegesis of certain Qur'an passages, Miles’s readers might wrongly conclude that all Muslims believe in the second coming of Muhammad. This error might call for a correction in future editions.

A man whose father died without knowing faith once asked Muhammad about his father’s fate in the afterlife. Muhammad unhesitatingly answered: “Your father is in hell.” Yet, overcome by contrition, he recalled the man and, touchingly, consoled him: “My father and your father are in hell.” In a poignant report, Muhammad states: “I petitioned my Lord to allow me to seek forgiveness for my mother, but He did not permit me. I then petitioned my Lord to allow me to visit her grave, and He allowed me.”

God in the Qur'an asks people to adhere to values based on a “shared commitment to submit to Allah as the only God.” Just like in Christendom, God in the Qur'an prefers intentional communities, where individuals and communities make choices, over natural communities based on ethnicity, family, language, or race. In pursuit of an intentional community, the agents of God — whether Abraham, Jesus, or Muhammad — will by necessity become the sources of communal dissent, domestic turmoil, and familial discord.

The Qur’anic account of Jesus and his mother, Mary, differs in significant ways from that of the Gospels. Jesus is revered as a prophet and is mentioned frequently in the Qur'an, just as Mary’s virgin birth is dramatically recounted. Mary, Miles reminds us, is the only woman explicitly named in the Qur'an; a total of 34 verses refer to her by name. Jesus is known as “Ibn Maryam,” the “Son of Mary,” an appellation widely used in poetry and hymns in multiple Muslim languages. Miles counts more than 70 references to Mary in the Qur'an, including second- and third-person references, which means she is mentioned in the Muslims’ holy book “many more times than she is mentioned in any of the Gospels.”

The Qur'an repeatedly charges the Christians with Gospel-tampering and rejects the very idea of Jesus as God dwelling in the world. How does one account for these significant differences between the two scriptures? Miles proposes the idea of redaction, the wholesale editing of scriptures. Redaction aims to unearth the original work and the story behind later editions. “Yet who is to say that earlier was better than later?” asks Miles, explaining how a redactor can be a genius, as in the case of the Book of Job. Readers of the Bible should be aware, he writes, that an oral redaction of biblical accounts could have reached Arabia. This means that versions of the biblical stories mentioned in the Qur'an were designed to offer an account that was relevant to Muhammad’s community. It is not farfetched to think that biblical stories were circulating in pre-Islamic Arabia. So these differing accounts had something to do with the context in which these stories played out. Recently Aziz al-Azmeh, like many others before him, chronicled accounts of Christianity in parts of Arabia. A Christian poet like ʿAdi bin Zayd could in the same breath swear by the cross and the Lord of Mecca. Muhammad ordered that the icons or friezes of Mary and Jesus found in the Ka’ba, the shrine in Mecca, be left untouched, even though he instructed all idols to be destroyed. Unsurprisingly, confessional revisionists have contested this account, but early historical records say otherwise.

Muslims, writes Miles, believe that “Allah entrusted the Gospel to Jesus as he entrusts the Qur'an to Muhammad […] that Jesus’s relation to the Gospel parallels Muhammad’s to the Qur'an.” In other words, just like Muhammad dictated his revelations to a number of scribes over two decades, so did Jesus. Conceding to differences in the Muslim reading of the Bible, Miles writes that the Gospels depicted in the Qur'an “would, clearly enough, not read like the Gospels that Christians honor as scripture, so Allah delivers, in effect, a major challenge to the trustworthiness of the Gospels as Christians know them.” On this issue, scholars of the Gospels and the Qur'an have reached an impasse, unless the Gospels be seen as reports uttered by Jesus, just like the oral reports on Muhammad documented by his followers.

Finally, Miles wonders whether the Qur'an is the “Word of God.” He offers no straightforward answer, yet the last chapter of his book, where he raises this issue, makes for compelling reading. Here, scholarship on comparative religion, scripture, literary insights, and imagination are marshaled to jostle with the author’s personal experiences in a bid to make us understand how a scripture moves individuals. A reader journeying into God in the Qur'an, Miles concludes, has already “helped in a small way to give the emergent hybrid civilization we so badly need a chance to take its first breath.” I cannot agree more.


Ebrahim Moosa is professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

LARB Contributor

Ebrahim Moosa is professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Notre Dame in the Keough School for Global Affairs. He is the author of What Is a Madrasa? (2015) and Ghazali and the Poetics of Imagination (2006). He is the primary investigator of the Madrasa Discourses project, advancing scientific and theological literacy among recently graduated seminary (madarasa) students in South Asia. His interests include Islamic thought, law, ethics, and Islamic education.


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