Review of Robert Gregg, Shared Stories, Rival Tellings

Review of Robert Gregg, Shared Stories, Rival Tellings

In this rather hefty tome, Robert Gregg sets out to share with us the myriad ways the Bible and biblical lore has been read over the centuries across multiple cultural, linguistic, and religious contexts. This book’s comparative yet innovative nature opens up new avenues for looking at this vast interpretive corpus. In particular, Gregg engages equally, openly, and with the same level of academic curiosity with all the material he presents here, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish. Despite its heft, this is more a “popular” book than monograph, but that does not make it any less of a good read (it is very readable) or academically useful. While aimed at the educated generalist audience, this volume proves indispensable to anyone interested in comparative biblical exegesis and wants to familiarize oneself with trends in corpora outside of one’s normal fields. Even for those of us who were Gregg’s students, and familiar with this material, but especially for those of us who were inspired by Gregg and have made careers writing about this same material, this book still has much to teach us. The many ways through which Gregg approaches and interrogates his material in this book remains as important as the data collected in its pages. Thus, I read through this book oscillating between two reactions: “Oh yeah, I remember that one!” and “Wow, I’ve never looked at that material in this way.” Both were equally satisfying and exciting reactions.

Review of Holger Zellentin, The Qur’an’s Reformation of Judaism and Christianity

The title of this important collection of scholarly articles already gives away the hypothesis the editor intends the dozen, first rate studies of qurʾānic passages included in the volume to commend. Namely, the view that one might best understand the Arabic scripture’s relationship with contemporary Judaism and Christianity by recognizing, as he says, “the Qur’an’s attempt to reform rather than to replace the religion of the Jews and the Christians of its time.” (3). This characterization of the Qurʾān’s purpose is already debatable, albeit that one readily recognizes that the text does envision the continuing existence of the “Scripture People” within its purview, whose beliefs and practices are nevertheless criticized and whose social well-being is subjected to demeaning restrictions (Q al-Tawbah 9:29). The problem is that in several Medinan passages the Qurʾān explicitly distinguishes between “Those who believe, those who practice Judaism, and the Nazarenes (i.e., the Christians)” (Q al-Baqarah 2:62; Q al-Māʾidah 5:69; Q al-Ḥajj 22:17). It would seem that the Qurʾān really does commend replacement rather than just reformation on the basis of shared narratives. One suspects that in speaking of “reformation” in the present context, a term that readily suggests comparison with a major event in western Christianity of later times, the intention is to highlight the fact of the Qurʾān’s dialogue with Jews and Christians in the milieu of its origins, and to suggest familiarity with Jewish and Christian narratives of shared biblical and non-biblical figures, which the Qurʾān re-configures to fit its own, differing construction of revelatory meaning. More on this point later.

Review of Johanna Pink, Muslim Qurʼānic Interpretation Today

Have you ever wondered why Ibn Kathīr’s tafsīr is so ubiquitous online, in multiple languages, and in translations of different lengths? Or, what percentage of Muslims read the Qurʾān in previous centuries, and what “reading” meant? About the proliferation of pious lectures or advice-giving programs on YouTube and the details of the people behind them? Have you wondered about the role of nation-states in the politics of Qurʾān interpretation?

Review of Mark Durie, The Qur’an and Its Biblical Reflexes

Mark Durie’s The Qur’an and Its Biblical Reflexes is a highly original work and a substantial contribution to the field of Qurʾānic Studies. He engages with a great deal of secondary literature, but his study is also based on extensive direct reading of the text of the Qurʾān itself, so there is nothing second-hand about his approach. He presses everything he uses into the service of a very distinctive argument, so that what he says of the Qurʾān could also be said of his own work: it marches to the beat of its own drum. Durie writes clearly and engagingly, regularly re-stating his aims and recapitulating his developing argument.

Review of El-Badawi and Paula Sanders (eds.), Communities of the Qur’an

When I first saw the title of the book under review here, Communities of the Qur’an, I was excited. In the field of qurʾānic studies, there has been a decades-long (if not longer) focus on the qurʾānic text itself, on its origins and history, its linguistic and literary qualities, but rather much silence about the people who engage with it. This volume, edited by Emran El-Badawi and Paula Sanders, aims to change that by bringing together scholars who, in complex ways, write about and often also represent communities of the Qurʾān that the editors selected based on a thoughtful process. The result is a collection of essays, ten plus the introduction by the editors, rounded out with a foreword by Reza Aslan, and an afterword by Reuven Firestone.

Review of Nicolai Sinai, Rain-Giver, Bone-Breaker, Score-Settler

Nicolai Sinai’s small book, or essay, is a very welcome contribution to the study of the deity Allāh and the religious map of Arabia on the eve of Islam based on the jāhiliyyah (pre-Islamic) poetry. The work is available as an open-access e-book. Sinai’s study is rich in methodological considerations and lucid in style. The argumentation is easy to follow. In short, the essay is a joy to read. What I find especially significant is his integrated use of different source sets: in addition to Arabic poetry, he employs the Qurʾān and ancient Arabian epigraphic evidence as comparative materials (while eschewing Arabic prose literature). The picture that he puts forward is credible and well documented.

Review of Stephen Shoemaker, The Apocalypse of Empire

Stephen Shoemaker’s The Apocalypse of Empire builds upon the methodology, and some of the most provocative conclusions, of the author’s earlier monograph The Death of a Prophet.[1] In that book, Shoemaker subjects the extant evidence concerning Muḥammad’s death to close scrutiny, concluding that the Prophet died after the invasion of Palestine commenced in 634 CE and not before, as most accounts hold. Even more shockingly, Shoemaker asserts that Muḥammad preached a fervently eschatological message and led his followers in a campaign to conquer Jerusalem as the focal point of an imminent apocalyptic culmination of history.[2] One of the most compelling features of The Death of a Prophet is Shoemaker’s deployment of a methodology and framework drawn from the study of early Christianity in order to show how the overtly eschatological message of the original movement that followed Muḥammad was radically rewritten in the course of just a few decades, forever altering the meaning and thrust of Islam in its formative period.

Review of Daniel Beck, Evolution of the Early Qur’an

Recent scholarship, especially following the contributions of Angelica Neuwirth and Nicolai Sinai, has increasingly stressed that the Qurʾān is better understood through an examination of the Late Antique period and the multiple religious traditions that were active in the Hijaz and the shām region, which included Christian, Jewish, and Manichean traditions. In Evolution of the Early Qurʾān, Daniel Beck offers a new contextualization of several early Meccan sūrahs in the Qurʾān against this Late Antique background, and situates his contribution in correcting tendencies among scholars to see these early sūrahs either as obscure, or as secondary to the later corpus, or as representing fossilized relics of earlier traditions.

Review of Sean Anthony, Muhammad and the Empires of Faith

What do we know about Muḥammad? How do we know what we know and how certain can we be of that knowledge? These are questions that have been asked by scholars many times and answered in many different ways. In Muhammad and the Empires of Faith: The Making of the Prophet of Islam, Sean W. Anthony presents a fresh attempt to provide answers to these questions. The book has two goals. It strives to “revitalize historical research into the life and times of Muḥammad” and it attempts to “shed new light on the historical circumstances and the intellectual currents that gave rise to the sīrah-maghāzī tradition as a discrete genre of Arabic letters from the last decade of the seventh century C.E. up until the end of the eighth” (1). The book is therefore truly a study of two topics, the historical Muḥammad and the sīrah-maghāzī genre, and an urgent plea to make sense of the former in light of the latter.

Obituary: F. E. Peters

F. E. (Francis Edward) Peters, a scholar best known as a historian of religion, died on April 30, 2020 in New York at the age of 93. A native of New York City, Peters was trained in the Jesuit tradition, received his MA in Latin and Greek at St. Louis University, and received a licentiate degree in philosophy from the Pontifical Institute in Rome. After having been released from his Jesuit vows in 1954, he went on to earn a degree in Russian language studies at Fordham University and a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies from Princeton in 1961. He chaired both the Classics and Middle East Studies departments at New York University, where he taught for forty-seven years, retiring in 2008.

The Qurʾānic Doublets: A Preliminary Inquiry.

The present study involves a presentation and analysis of repeated phrases, or doublets, in the Qurʾān. I identify twenty-nine doublets of at least nine words (allowing for minor variation), the great majority of which are complete verses, found in different sūrahs. To provide a methodological framework for the analysis of these doublets I consider the history of scholarship on doublets in the Synoptic Gospels, distinguishing between harmonizing interpretations and the classifications of redactional and source doublets. With four exceptions (Meccan-Medinan doublets), the units making up qurʾānic doublets are both found within sūrahs traditionally identified as Meccan (Meccan-Meccan doublets) or both found within sūrahs traditionally identified as Medinan (Medinan-Medinan doublets). This distribution suggests the existence of pre-canonical texts, most likely one with Meccan material and one with Medinan material, which produced the doublets within each qurʾānic subcorpus. That Meccan-Medinan doublets are so rare suggests that repeated material in the Qurʾān is not always due to a process of repeating or re-composition (where an earlier qurʾānic phrase is redeployed, and possibly reshaped, for a later passage) but instead due to the redaction of discrete, pre-canonical texts.

From Coptic to Arabic: A New Palimpsest and the Early Transmission History of the Qurʾān

Recently identified on the antiquities market, the Copto-Qurʾānic Palimpsest represents an important artifact for the history of the transmission of the Qurʾān. Because its biblical lower (i.e., erased) text is in Coptic, the qurʾānic upper text is likely to have been written in Egypt. Hence, it provides us with our first piece of evidence for localizing early qurʾānic manuscript production. Going beyond the problem of dating and provenance, the present study aims to place the Copto-Qurʾānic Palimpsest in its context of production and to provide a snapshot of the scribal practices of the Qurʾān in the early Islamic centuries.