Close Reading in the Qur’an

Image - Qur'anic calligraphy
text from the end of sura 18 (al-Khaf, the Cave)

Notes on Chapter 2 (“Close Readings, Old and New”) of Michael Birkel, ed. Qur’an in Conversation (Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2014) 33-35.]

Mohammad Hassan Khalil unpacks the meaning of the opening line of the Qur’an, the bismillah, rendered into English in various ways, such as “In the name of God, the all-compassionate, the all-merciful.” He points out that the underlying Arabic root of compassion and mercy, rahma, points back literally and connotes the womb of a mother, the embodiment of compassion. [The same relationship is apparent in Hebrew, a language related to Arabic, in which rachamim, compassion or mercy, derives from the Hebrew word for womb, rechem.] According to Khalil, this invocation, which precedes all but one of the suras in the Qur’an and which opens the text as a whole, provides an interpretive key to the entire sacred text, including its numerous references to the recompense due unbelievers and evil-doers. Scholarly commentary on this fact is, as Khalil notes, ancient and continuous, occupying an important place in medieval Qur’anic commentary. It is a mistake to think that Muslims have only begun talking about God’s compassion and mercy since 9/11, a mistake that likely stems from ignorance of the wider body of Islamic commentary. In fact, as Khalil points out, the idea that hell is not eternal, but has a temporal limit, even for unbelievers, is also an old idea, despite the sense among some contemporary Muslims that this does not represent “orthodox” Islam. Khalil argues that, especially as “the prevailing view in Islamic thought anyway is that God will eventually save all believers, however sinful they may be … the effect should be devotion rather than laxity of complacency” (39)

Emran El-Badawi looks closely at suras 17-20, and argues that these late Meccan suras indicate the significance of the Qur’an’s original Jewish and Christian audience. He identifies a number of examples within the text of the Qur’an that support this suggestion, in particular the sequence of addresses in suras 17-20 that seem to identify first Jews and then Christians, verses that address themselves to “you who believe” and then in the same verse mention Jews and Christians, expressions that seem to recognize the existence of different Christian ideas in the environment of the Qur’an, etc. This intertextual dialogue stems from theological conversations of the past, so in one sense it doesn’t matter directly for the theological conversations of the present; but in the sense that it demonstrates that these conversations have been going on for a long time, and that the Qur’an is embedded in an ongoing theological conversation that includes Jewish and Christian text and reflection, it may affect people’s tendency to see Islam as having arisen and developed in an isolated theological environment.

Asma Barlas looks in depth at the similarities and differences in the Qur’an’s account of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of one of his sons, and the Biblical narrative of the binding of Isaac, looking at the way the two different narratives identify God, and the location of moral agency in the narrative. Her reading stresses the fact that God in the Qur’an is never identified as “father,” which makes it impossible to use the human relationship to God, in particular Abraham’s relationship to God, as justification for patriarchal “father-right,” prototypically the right of absolute power of life and death over one’s children, a relationship the Biblical account presupposes. As she notes, Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling focuses on Abraham and Abraham’s moral dilemma for the good reason that Abraham is the moral agent in the Biblical narrative. In the Qur’an’s account, Abraham’s unnamed son appears more to be the moral agent. Barlas also brings forward Ibn al-‘Arabi’s commentary on the account, which was a test of “knowledge, not of ethics,” and which Abraham fails “by taking his dream literally, because dreams are on a different plane from ordinary reality,” so that “God saved Abraham’s son from the deadly consequences of his father’s misunderstanding” (55). Barlas extends al-Arabi’s reading in a feminist direction, arguing that “this rescue signals a resistance on the Qur’an’s part to father-right, or traditional patriarchy” (56). Barlas emphasizes the importance of the inclusion of the son’s voice in the Qur’an’s account, which limits the authority of the father, and which locates moral agency in the story in the son, who submits to God rather than to his father (59-60). She emphasizes this reading by drawing a contrast between the account of Abraham and his son, and that of Abraham and his own father, a maker of idols, whom Abraham opposes. That episode also precipitates a divine rescue, but in Barlas’s interpretation the two rescues are significantly different; one is a rescue from coercion that opposes faith; the other is a rescue from the consequences of faithful submission, but implicitly – based on her invocation of al-Arabi – to a misinterpretation of God’s demands.

Kecia Ali focuses on a comparison on the annunciation stories to Hannah or Anne, the mother of Mary, to Zakariya, and to Mary, demonstrating that the parallels between Mary and Yahya (John the Baptist), between Mary and Zakariya, and between Mary and her own mother, serve to destabilize what we might otherwise think of as stable categories of gender. That is, the Qur’an presents its account of events in such a way that miraculous children may be either female or male, that miraculously blessed parents may be either male or female, even that prophets may (on Ali’s argument) be either female or male – in light of the argued question of whether Mary should or should not be recognized as a prophet in Islamic tradition. Her discussion highlights the way a text of this kind opens itself up over and over again to deeper and deeper reflection through the practice of close reading.

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