The Arabic Bible before Islam – By Clare Wilde

Clare Wilde on Sidney H. Griffith’s The Bible in Arabic
Sidney H. Griffith, The Bible in Arabic: The Scriptures of the ‘People of the Book’ in the Language of Islam. Jews, Christians and Muslims from the Ancient to the Modern World, Princeton University Press, 2013, 247pp., $29.95

Non-Muslims, including Jews and Christians, have spoken Arabic since before the revelation of the Qur’an. Was there an Arabic Bible before the rise of Islam? Or, did the appearance of the Arabic Qur’an shape the Arabic Bible? These are among the questions addressed in Sidney Griffith’s masterful book, The Bible in Arabic.

Although the confessional plurality of the medieval Islamic world has been the subject of significant scholarly investigation in recent years — e.g. the works of Thomas E. Burman, David Thomas, Mark Cohen, Samir Khalil Samir, Sarah Stroumsa, and Reuven Firestone) — the Arabic Bible has yet to receive its due share of attention. In The Bible in Arabic, Sidney Griffith guides us through the complexities of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim engagements with both the divine and each other as Jews and Christians came to articulate not just theology, but also their very scriptures, in the language of the Qur’an.

The Qur’an frequently mentions biblical themes and personalities, presuming its audience’s familiarity with these traditions. The qur’anic accounts, however, are not exact replicas of canonical biblical narratives. This discrepancy has provided fodder for lively polemics between and among Christians, Jews, and Muslims for centuries. On the one hand, the Qur’an insists that it confirms that which came before. The biography of Muhammad even contains accounts of Christian and Jewish recognition of the veracity of his prophethood. Detractors of Muhammad and his message, on the other hand, have claimed that a heretical Christian taught Muhammad the garbled versions of biblical stories contained in the Qur’an. The Qur’an acknowledges — and counters — this accusation by indicating that the tongue of the supposed informant is ‘ajami (foreign? accented?), while the Qur’an is in clear (lit. “clarifying”) Arabic.

If Muhammad’s detractors are correct, in what language would such an informant (or, for that matter, any of the Qur’an’s first auditors) have known the Bible? Griffith does not dispute that Jews and Christians spoke Arabic before the emergence of Islam, nor that they may have conducted liturgies in Arabic. But he does refuse to posit a written Arabic Bible before the rise of Islam. The background of this claim is his decades-long engagement with Irfan Shahid, who argues that the Gospels and Psalms existed in Arabic before the rise of Islam. Locating extant parchments from late antiquity and the early medieval period that could constitute evidence in this debate is difficult, given the usually poor condition of any manuscript of such an early provenance. Nonetheless, Griffith demonstrates how the evidence we do have “argues against [the] probability” of a pre-Islamic Arabic translation of the Bible.

The Bible in Arabic highlights the importance of Arabic translations of books of the Bible for biblical scholars.

Whereas the Christian Bible was translated into the languages of every people who adopted Christianity, the Arabic of the Qur’an became the language of Islamic empire. Different peoples came to adopt Arabic with the emergence of various (initially, Arab-led) Muslim dynasties and the collection and codification of the Qur’an. It was the appearance of the Arabic Qur’an, Griffith argues, that “served as one of the catalysts for both Jews and Christians to undertake Arabic translations of their scriptures.” But this was neither an immediate nor a uniform process: there is no evidence of efforts to translate the entire Bible in a single project until the sixteenth century. Jews and Christians also had different motivations for their translations. Arabic Bible translations by Jews appear to have been for scholarly interpretations or commentary, while Arabic-speaking Christians undertook translation projects in order to be able to use the Bible in the vernacular in public and official contexts.

Codex Arabicus, ca. 900 – Image via Wikimedia Commons

According to Islamic tradition, the Qur’an is the word of God revealed to Muhammad in Arabic through the angel Gabriel and preserved in writing by scribes. For Muhammad is considered an ummi prophet, a term that is most commonly interpreted as “illiterate”, but may also be understood as “unable to read the languages of the Jewish and Christian scriptures”, or even “gentile.” The veracity of the Qur’an, preserved in its original Arabic version, both orally and in writing (the Arabic word “Qur’an” can be rendered in English as “reading” or “recitation”), is contrasted with the multiple biblical translations — many of which even contain different books. The Bible in Arabic, in fact, highlights the importance of Arabic translations of books of the Bible for biblical scholars, be it for the form in which the biblical text was known to its Arabic translator (in Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, etc.), or for the history of biblical exegesis, especially in response to Islam.

Griffith provides examples of Arabic Bible translations that preserve passages that have all but disappeared in their original languages, as in the addition to Mt. 6:34 — “and the hour’s difficulties for the hour” — which is not found in any surviving Greek Gospel manuscript. This phrase is of interest to liturgists because its appearance only in the Palestinian Syriac and a family of Arabic Gospel manuscripts indicates that it was familiar to the liturgies of the Jerusalem patriarchate. Of note for scholars of the Diatessaron is Ibn al-Tayyib’s Arabic Gospel harmony, which preserves probably original Diatessaronic readings, and was likely utilized by Syrian and Egyptian churches at least until the thirteenth century, long past the traditional terminus ad quem for Christian liturgical employment of the Diatessaron. Scholars interested in heterodoxy will be excited to learn of Arabic translations of apocryphal and pseudo-epigraphical texts that, previously, had been thought to exist only in Greek or Syriac fragments or in a single Syriac source (such as Sinai Arabic MS 389, which contains three Arabic translations of the Apocalypse of Baruch, the Epistle of Baruch, and 4 Ezra).

Given the plurality of Christian and Jewish biblical texts, and their disagreements, it is not surprising that Muslim polemicists charge Jews and Christians with having distorted the message that Moses and Jesus had brought (cf. Q 2:75; 5:13, 41). The Muslim theologian ‘Abd al-Jabbar (d. 1025) blames Paul and Constantine for distorting the religion of Christ, but he also points to the discrepancies among the four Gospel accounts, which are not even in the original language of Jesus. Why do Christians need four differing Gospels, when Jesus had brought the one (true) Gospel (Injil in Arabic)? According to Ibn Hazm (d. 1064), Jews follow the Torah (Tawrat in Arabic) produced by Ezra the scribe rather than the original brought by Moses. On the other hand, some non-Muslims have endeavored to demonstrate that the Qur’an itself is merely a human composition, compiled from pre-Islamic sources. These efforts have ranged from discussions of qur’anic reliance on foreign vocabulary (e.g. Syriac) to its biblical borrowings.

Contemporary Muslim political leaders and scholars of Islam could profit from Griffith’s reminder of the plurality of voices that have existed under Muslim rulers.

Rather than biblical “borrowings”, Griffith prefers to speak of “intertextuality” — Bible and Qur’an, Jews, Christians and Muslims, in conversation with each other. This scriptural intertextuality, or intertwining, is the hallmark of Griffith’s study, which analyzes not just the mechanics but also the significance — for study, debate, theology, or liturgy — of translating the Bible into the language of the Qur’an. This intertwining extends to the text of the Qur’an itself, which interacts with theological debates between and among Jews and Christians. Take, for example, the following qur’anic verse: “They are unbelievers who say that God is the Third of Three. No god is there but One God. If they refrain not from what they say, there shall afflict those of them that disbelieve a painful chastisement.” While Western Orientalist scholars and classical Muslim exegetes have read the Arabic phrase “third of three” as a reference to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, Griffith reads the phrase as reflecting a Christian Syriac homiletic epithet of Jesus the Messiah. But even in his attention to intertextuality among Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions, Griffith avoids employing the trope of a common Abrahamic heritage. He does not gloss over the significant theological differences among Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Rather, he reads the lively exegetical, polemical, and apologetic discourse of the first millennium of Islamic rule as a mark of identity-formation for both Jews and the various Christian denominations living under Muslim overlords, sparking lively inter-confessional debate that employed both reason and scripture in defense of “truth.” Both contemporary Muslim political leaders and scholars of Islam could profit from this reminder of the plurality of voices that have existed under Muslim rulers.

In keeping with his intertextual approach to scripture, Griffith encourages the reader to view the Bible as a subtext of the Qur’an’s retelling and reinterpretation of biblical history. His discussion of the Islamic “stories of the prophets” (qisas al-anbiya’) and “tales of the Jews and Christians” (Isra’iliyyat) and their relationship to the Arabic Bible will prove suggestive for those interested in the reception history of the Bible, who have in these qur’anic and extra-qur’anic accounts a rich and largely untapped resource. Similarly, Griffith encourages late antique historians to view the Qur’an as “just about the only document in any language” that offers “an insight into the Jewish and Christian presence in the Arabic-speaking milieu in the first third of the seventh century.” Qur’anic allusions to Jews and Christians require a nuanced reading, given the Qur’an’s critical polemics against their errors. Some scholars use the Qur’an’s discussion of Judeo-Christian themes as evidence of the continued existence either of an otherwise unattested Jewish Christian remnant, or of early Christian heretical sects such as the Collyridians, Nazorenes, or Ebionites. This enables them to set early Islamic history within a late antique landscape dramatically different from that found in traditional accounts in Latin, Greek, Syriac, or other sources. Griffith counters with an insistence that the Qur’an is familiar with, if critical of, “mainstream” Jews and Christians, such as rabbinic Judaism and those Christian groups that coalesced into distinct denominations after the Council of Chalcedon (451 CE) — whose contemporary heirs include Chalcedonians (e.g. Greek Orthodox), Nestorians, and Monophysites (e.g. Copts).

A broad introduction to a field yet in its infancy, The Bible in Arabic opens up numerous trajectories future scholars might wish to explore. Among these is the ongoing effort to produce reliable editions and translations of extant manuscripts — which, Griffith repeatedly laments, are unfortunately not yet much studied by modern textual scholars, although he indicates some hopeful signs of change. Another desideratum is investigation into early qur’anic commentators’ use of Jewish and Christian sources. One example is Muqatil b. Sulayman’s explicit glossing of Q 12:24’s allusion to Joseph’s desire for Zulaykha as “Joseph, having released his trousers and sat between her legs.” Such a less-than-hypothetical reciprocation of her desire for him is not easily reconciled with the grammatical contrary-to-fact construction of the Quranic verse, which is commonly translated as “he would have inclined to her [desire]”.

Griffith’s subtitle — The Scriptures of the “Peoples of the Book” in the Language of Islam — conveys that the Arabic Bible is as important for Islamic and qur’anic studies as biblical studies. Qur’anic scholars, as much as late antique scholars, will profit from The Bible in Arabic’s study of Jewish and Christian uses of the Arabic Bible, be it in inter-religious polemics, liturgical formulations, or even traditional lore about the evangelists. Such study could complement Angelika Neuwirth’s insightful observation of the structural similarities of some qur’anic suras with late antique Judeo-Christian liturgical formulas: an introductory section, then a scriptural lesson, followed by a closing section. Additionally, understanding the role of the Bible in pre-Islamic Arabia enables a reading of the Qur’an’s prophetology and biblical allusions as its first auditors might have understood them, simultaneously challenging and complementing traditional readings of the Qur’an.

Sidney Griffith’s latest work provides an accessible and comprehensive overview of the textual evidence for the genesis of the Arabic Bible, as well as its historic and contemporary importance — liturgically, theologically, and academically. This historian of Christianity in the Middle East has not only met but far exceeded his aim of “call[ing] attention to the story of how the Bible came into Arabic at the hands of Jews and Christians, and how it fared among Muslims from early Islamic times into the Middle Ages.” Like any good storyteller, he not only draws us into his narrative but also leaves us with a desire for more — and inspires us to undertake our own explorations into the varied fields that contribute to our understanding of the Arabic Bible.

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