The Qur’an according to Itself – By Gabriel Reynolds

Gabriel Reynolds on Anne-Sylvie Boisliveau’s Le Coran par lui-même

le coran par lui-même
Anne-Sylvie Boisliveau, Le Coran par lui-même, Brill Academic, 2013, 452pp., $209.00

Early Muslims took to naming their scripture the Qurʾan because of the passages therein that refer to the revelation given to Muhammad as al-qurʾan, an Arabic term which literally means, “the recitation”:

Say, “What thing is greatest as witness?” Say, “Allah! [He is] witness between me and you, and ‘the recitation’ (al-qurʾan) has been revealed to me that I may warn thereby you and whomever it may reach.” (Q 6:19a)

We will recount to you the best of narratives in what We have revealed to you of this “recitation” (al-qurʾan), and indeed prior to it you were among those who are unaware [of it]. (Q 12:3)

We did not send down to you the “recitation” (al-qurʾan) that you should be miserable. (Q 20:2)

Such passages exhibit the Qurʾan’s “meta-textuality,” its attention to the manner in which it was revealed, and to the nature and importance of its message. To early Muslim scholars, however, these passages exhibited something more. They understood references to the “recitation” (al-qurʾan) as references to the Qurʾan as it once existed in heaven. They took al-qurʾan as a proper noun, as the name of the book the angel Gabriel transported from heaven to Muhammad on earth.

This understanding is connected to a broader view of revelation, a view by which a compendium of all revelations exists with God in heaven, and that from this compendium God sent down angels to earth with individual scriptures. Early Muslim scholars developed this view of revelation in part on the basis of passages such as Qurʾan 43:3-4, which makes a connection between the “recitation” (al-qurʾan) and a “Mother Book”: “We have made it an Arabic ‘recitation’ (qurʾan) so that you may apply reason. Indeed it is with Us in the Mother Book [and it is] surely sublime and wise.” The Qurʾan, these early scholars held, is one part of this “Mother Book” from which God sent down a book (al-Tawrat, think Hebrew “Torah”) to Moses, a book (al-Injīl, think Greek euangelion, “gospel”) to Jesus, and the Qurʾan, the final revelation to humanity, to Muhammad.

With this view of revelation in mind most modern Muslim scholars — and many non-Muslim scholars — understand references to al-qurʾan in the text as references to the very scripture they are reading, to the Qurʾan with its 114 Suras: to the Qurʾan with a capital Q. For example, this understanding is evident in the way Ali al-Tantawi, an influential twentieth-century Syrian scholar, explains Q 17:88: “Say, ‘Should all humans and jinn rally to bring the like of this recitation (qurʾan), they will not bring the like of it, even if they assisted one another.’” In his General Introduction to Islam, al-Tantawi calls this verse a challenge “to produce a work similar to the Holy Qurʾan.” That “this qurʾan” refers in this verse to the Qurʾan with a capital Q is also generally assumed by English translators, almost all of whom (including Arberry, Asad, Hilali-Khan, Pickthall, Quli Qaraʾi, Sale, Yusuf Ali) render al-qurʾan as “Qurʾan” here (although Alan Jones, in his recent translation, renders instead “this recitation”).

Translators do something similar with references to a related term — al-kitab (literally “the Book”) — as in Q 16:89: “We have sent down al-kitab to you as a clarification of all things and as a guidance and mercy and good news for the muslims.” Muhammad Asad translates al-kitāb here as, “this divine writ.” Hilali-Khan translate (al-kitāb) as “the Book,” but add in parentheses, “the Qurʾan.”

Q 48:15 (Ink and Gold on Parchment) – Image via Wikimedia Commons
Q 48:15 (Ink and Gold on Parchment) – Image via Wikimedia Commons

Yet Anne-Sylvie Boisliveau, in her work Le Coran par lui-même, shows that the Qurʾan’s meta-textuality is not so simple. There is a logical problem with the way these translators render occurrences of al-qurʾan in the text: How could such occurrences both refer to the Qurʾan and be part of the Qurʾan?

There are other problems too: some passages seem to refer to multiple “qurʾans,”such as Q 34:31: “The faithless say, ‘We will never believe in this qurʾan, nor in that which was before it.’” Other passages seem to use “qurʾan” in the sense of a prayer or ritual: “Maintain the prayer from the sun’s decline till the darkness of the night, and [observe particularly] the dawn ‘recitation’ (qurʾan). Indeed the dawn ‘recitation’ (qurʾan) is attended [by angels]” (Q 17:78). Still other passages use terms other than al-qurʾan, such as al-kitab (“the Book”) or al-dhikr (“the Remembrance”), to refer to divine revelation. In theory, the early Islamic community could have chosen one of these other terms as the title for their scripture.

Accordingly, Boisliveau argues that the Qurʾan’s meta-textuality should be understood in more general terms, as references to the message God progressively gave to the Qurʾan’s prophet and not to the scripture as it was later canonized. She also argues that the Qurʾan’s meta-textuality manifests a concern to prove that it comes from God. It is telling, she insists, that the Qurʾan’s self-references often appear as responses to claims of those who refuse to believe that Muhammad is a prophet, who insist that he was nothing but a soothsayer (Q 52:29; 69:42), or a poet (Q 21:5; 37:36; 52:30; 69.41); or that he was inspired by demons (Q 26:210-12), or possessed by a genie (Q 15:6; 44:14; 68:51, etc.); or that he was simply a human who made things up (Q 6:91; 21:3; 74:25, etc.).

As Boisliveau notes, it is intriguing that the Qurʾan discusses such challenges at all. It could simply ignore the claims of its opponents and get on with its own claims. To Boisliveau, however, this is the way for the Qurʾan to make its own claims: by raising the views of opponents (whether real or fictional), the Qurʾan is able to refute them and thereby to articulate the case that it comes from God. All of this back and forth, in other words, is a rhetorical strategy, and an effective one at that.

Another strategy the Qurʾan uses to insist on its heavenly origin is to align itself with earlier revelations: “This Qurʾan could not have been fabricated by anyone besides Allah; rather it is a confirmation of what was [revealed] before it.” (Q 10:37a). In places the Qurʾan seems to say that the only thing that distinguishes it from earlier revelations is its language: “Before it the Book of Moses was a guide and a mercy, and this is a Book which confirms it, in the Arabic language” (Q 46:12). Here we begin to understand why the Qurʾan cares so much about its Arabic-ness. Muhammad is a prophet like other prophets before him, but he is the first prophet sent to the Arabs.

Or do they say, “He has forged it”? Say: “Do they say, ‘He has fabricated it’? Rather it is the truth from your Lord, that you may warn a people to whom there did not come any warner before you, so that they may be guided [to the right path].” (Q 32:3)

In this light the Qurʾan presents Muhammad as the “gentile” prophet, the prophet to those who had not yet received revelation: “It is He who sent to the gentiles (al-ummiyyin) an apostle from among themselves” (Q 62:2a). The Qurʾan also insists that Muhammad is found in the scriptures of Jews and Christians, when it refers to “the gentile prophet, whose mention they find written with them in the Tawrat and the Injil … .” (Q 7:157).

The Qurʾan’s references to Jewish and Christian scripture suggest that it was proclaimed among a people who had clear ideas about prophets and heavenly books. They imply, in other words, that the Qurʾan was preached in the midst of Jews and Christians and not in the midst of idolatrous pagans, as is traditionally assumed.

Yet if the case the Qurʾan makes for its own validity seems to depend on the validity of the scriptures of the Jews and Christians, the Qurʾan also accuses Jews and Christians of misreading their scriptures, and of forging new, false, scriptures (perhaps because the Qurʾan’s author did not find Muhammad in them). In the end, therefore, only the Qurʾan is an authentic scripture, a perspective Boisliveau calls, “le monopole de la communication divine.”

The Qurʾan, then, is ultimately very much concerned with itself. The heart of the Qurʾanic message is the case the Qurʾan makes for its heavenly origin. But what of this case? To Boisliveau, the way in which the Qurʾan argues that it comes from God is ultimately a “self-canonization.” She reduces the logic of the Qurʾan’s arguments to the following formula:

The Qurʾan comes from God,

and thus what it says is true.

And because it says that it comes from God and that what it says is true,

it thus comes from God.

Or, put more succinctly: le Coran vient de Dieu parce qu’il vient de Dieu, “The Qurʾan comes from God because it comes from God.

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