The Qur’an’s Reformation of Judaism and Christianity: Return to the Origins

The Qur’an’s Reformation of Judaism and Christianity
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 The Qurans Reformation Of Judaism And Christianity
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Holger M. Zellentin
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The Qur’an and the reformation of Judaism and Christianity

Over the past decades, the Qur’an has moved closer towards the canon of the discursive space we conceive of as the West: no longer just the Scripture of an important minority, the Qur’an has become the focus of intense societal attention and is slowly being included in the curricula of schools and universities.1

This movement coincides with a double realignment of, first, the way in which we position the Qur’an vis-à-vis its historical context, and second, how we, as Western scholars of the Qur’an, position ourselves towards the text within our own historical context.

On the one hand, we have come to recognize that the Scripture of Islam should be understood not only as the foundational document of the Islamic community but also in dialogue with the world of Late Antiquity, whose transition into the Middle Ages was expedited by the rise of the Islamic community itself.2

On the other hand, the process of the Qur’an’s Western canonization has coincided with a methodological shift, leading to a long-overdue “linguistic turn” in the study of the Qur’an, which allowed for a reconsideration of the methodologies we employ and thereby for a more sophisticated self-reflection of how our own context determines our approaches.3

A key figure in translating the continental attention to hermeneutics into a more pragmatic world of Anglo-American historiography, and into the debate sur-rounding the Western canon, was Dominick LaCapra. In 1983, LaCapra sought to define the two parallel relationships between, on the one hand, a canonical “text” and its historical “context” and, on the other hand, between the historian and her own present world.4 LaCapra’s insights remain highly relevant to the rapidly evolving field of the academic study of the Qur’an, since they guide us on “a way that engages us as interpreters in a particularly compelling conversation with the past.”5

He set apart ordinary texts from canonical ones, which he defined precisely not in terms of the status they already had acquired but in terms of their merit as those texts that “often or even typically engage in processes that both employ or refer to ordinary assumptions and contest them, at times radically.”6 Regarding such texts, he stated the following:

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Rather [such] texts should be seen to address us in more subtle and challeng-ing ways, and they should be carried into the present – with implications for the future – in a “dialogical” fashion. . . . [Such a] text is a network of resistances, and a dialogue is a two-way affair; a good reader is also an atten-tive and patient listener.

Questions are necessary to focus interest in an investigation, but a fact may be pertinent to a frame of reference by contesting or even contradicting it. An interest in what does not fit a model and an openness to what one does not expect to hear from the past may even help to transform the very questions one poses to the past.7

Recognizing the Qur’an’s value as a canonical text, in the sense that it resists common assumptions, allows for an especially compelling conversation with the Islamic Scripture. When approaching the Qur’an as scholars, we must embrace the reality that the questions we ask are determined by our own present context. Yet at the same time, the quality of our scholarship will be determined by how we react to the innumerable moments of resistances to these questions that we encounter when carefully listening to the Qur’an’s message.8

The chapters collected in this volume seek a more nuanced understanding of a very timely question, namely how to understand the Qur’an in its Jewish and Christian context. This question is by no means a new one, but has been of central importance at least three times in the course of history. The Qur’an itself evokes the experiences and the fate of the “Sons of Israel” (banī ʾisrāʾīl, see e.g. Q 2:40), that of the “People of the Scripture” (ʾahl al-kitāb, see e.g. Q 29:46), as well as, in its Medinan suras, more specifically the presence of “the Jews and the Chris-tians” (al-yahūd wa-l-naṣārā, Q 5:51) as central points of reference.9 Likewise, the earliest Muslim commentators – as well as many non-Muslim critics of Islam throughout the Middle Ages and beyond – have time and again turned to the evidence provided by their own Jewish and Christian contemporaries in order to con-textualize the Qur’an’s often-elliptical utterances.10

The Western academic study of the Qur’an, finally, also began precisely with a new attempt to read the Qur’an as a historical document in light of Jewish and Christian sources.11 Yet the way in which the authors of the following chapters, along with other contemporary schol-ars, seek to contextualize the Qur’an is reflective of contemporary concerns and is markedly different from that of their predecessors in various ways.

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In contrast to the comparative efforts of religious polemicists of past and pre-sent, many contemporary scholars have largely digested the lessons of postcolonialism in as far as they tend not to seek to establish the superiority of any one tradition over any other.12

More acutely, in line with the lessons learned in the study of religion, and in contrast with those traditional exegetes – and even in contrast with some contemporary scholars – the following chapters tend not to compare the Qur’an – leave alone “Islam” – to an essentialized, and thereby ahistorical, view of “Judaism” or “Christianity.”

 Rather, they seek to gain a nuanced understanding of those particular types of Judaism and Christianity at the turn of the seventh century, whose adherents may have been in dialogue with – or would even, at least occasionally, have constituted part of – the Qur’an’s audience.13

Moreover, in distinction especially from the early representatives of the Western academic study of the Qur’an, the chapters here collected do not seek to trace the “influence” of the Jewish and Christian tradition upon the Islamic Scripture, but The Qur’an and the reformation of Judaism 3

rather tend to problematize this very concept, often taking established affinities as the backdrop of the shared discursive world within which and against which scholars should attentively, patiently, and in particular, openly, understand the Qur’an’s message.

To give but one example of the many ways in which the Qur’an, as the Scripture of the “youngest” of the three major traditions that lay claim to the biblical heritage, resists our preconceptions is the way in which it often situates itself as the representative of the “oldest” of these traditions, seeking to push back against perceived Jewish and Christian innovation.

 Resisting our sense of historical cause and effect, of earlier and later, and of the self-evident antiquity of Judaism and novelty of Islam, the Qur’an sees itself as reinstituting the original, unspoiled, and pure form of worship that had been established in the mythical past. When stating that the Torah and the Gospel “were not sent down until after him” (wa-mā ʾunzilati . . . ʾillā min baʿdihī, Q 3:65), i.e. after Abraham, and deducing that Abraham “was not a Jew and not a Christian” (mā kāna ʾibrāhīmu yahūdiyyan wa-lā naṣrāniyyan, Q 3:67), the Qur’an in effect offers something surprising.


Its argument here resists our preconceptions of it as a premodern text in as far as it parallels that of modern historical criticism of Christianity and Judaism, which have emphasized the ahistorical nature of the claim that Church fathers and rabbis have laid on Abraham.14

We should not, of course, project a Western historical consciousness onto the Qur’an. As is well known, the passage under discussion then goes on to depict Abraham as a ḥanīf muslim (Q 3: 67), as submitting to God in His absolute one-ness in a manner that is peculiar to the Qur’an alone. Likewise, in the Qur’an’s sacred history, which comes into ever sharper focus throughout its protean yet detectable chronological development, true submission to God – islām (see e.g. Q 3:19) – has been practiced throughout the history of humankind and predates the giving of the Torah to Moses.15 Such an essentialized view of the one true religion has understandably inspired generations of Muslims to claim Abraham as a Muslim in the same way that Jews and Christians have claimed him as one of their own.

 A projection of the present onto the past, in turn, conforms better to our view of Late Ancient religious claims, showing that the Qur’an here can helpfully be described as one of those canonical texts that “both employ or refer to ordinary assumptions and contest them, at times radically,” just as LaCapra has it: to view Abraham as one’s own is shared by many Late Antique traditions, yet to challenge such a claim on historiographical grounds is a radical contestation of the same assumption.

There are, then, many ways in which the Qur’an does not neatly align with the ordinary assumptions we hold about Late Antiquity, and even moments when the Qur’an helps us challenge contemporary scholarly assumptions about Judaism and Christianity.

In the view of many, for example, Judaism stands for obedience to the law and Christianity for its abrogation, and Islam simply seeks to replace both. The chapters in this volume show a more nuanced relationship, which can often be described as the Qur’an’s attempt to reform rather than to replace the religion of the Jews and the Christians of its time. In the Qur’an’s narrative of sacred

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