Robert Alter’s ‘The Art of Biblical Narrative’ and Qur’anic Narrative

Robert Alter’s ‘The Art of Biblical Narrative’ and Qur’anic Narrative

By Leyla Ozgur Alhassen

Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative[1] is an introduction to the literary elements of Biblical narrative, and can be an extremely useful work for scholars of Qur’anic narrative. Below, I highlight certain aspects of Alter’s analysis of Biblical repetition and type-scenes, which can be especially useful for studies of Qur’anic narrative style.

According to Alter, Biblical narrative establishes patterns of repetition and then makes strategic changes in them; this can then serve the purpose of “commentary, analysis, foreshadowing, thematic assertion”[2] and “development of plot.”[3] We thus see “how substantially the same materials can be redeployed in order to make different points.”[4]

When we discuss repetition, it is useful to realize that there are many forms in which repetition can occur. Alter includes a list of repetitive techniques found in Biblical narrative, and all of them can be found in the Qur’an. His list moves from a small to a large scale: 1) Leitwort, the semantic root of a word is used repeatedly and in a variety of ways; 2) Motif, “a concrete image, sensory quality, action, or object recurs through a particular narrative”; 3) Theme, “an idea which is part of the value-system of the narrative . . . is made evident in some recurring pattern”; 4) Sequence of actions, a sequence of actions is repeated in “three consecutive repetitions, or three plus one, with some intensification or increment from one occurrence to the next, usually concluding either in a climax or a reversal”; and 5) Type-scene, “an episode . . . in the career of the hero which is composed of a fixed sequence of motifs.”[5]

The type-scene is a particular kind of repetition, which Alter discusses in detail. Alter lists examples of type-scenes in the Bible; many are also found in the Qur’an: “the annunciation . . . of the birth of the hero to his barren mother; the encounter with the future betrothed at a well; the epiphany in the field; the initiatory trial; danger in the desert and the discovery of a well or other source of sustenance; the testament of the dying hero.”[6] It would no doubt be a fruitful project to compare this list with Qur’anic narrative, and to see if there are other type-scenes more commonly found in the Qur’an. As with other kinds of repetition, the type-scene can be used in different ways; it can be “aborted,”[7] or “the total suppression of a type-scene may be a deliberate ploy of characterization and thematic argument.”[8]

According to Alter, the type-scene serves “an eminently monotheistic purpose: to reproduce in narrative the recurrent rhythm of a divinely appointed destiny in Israelite history.”[9] It would be worthwhile to explore ways in which the type-scene and other Qur’anic narrative devices similarly serve a monotheistic purpose in the Qur’an. In Alter’s work, we can see many ways in which insights from studies of Biblical narrative—repetition and type-scenes in particular—can be usefully applied to studies of Qur’anic narrative, and similarly be used to serve monotheistic purposes.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2013. All rights reserved.

[1] Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York: BasicBooks, 1981.
[2] Alter, p. 91.
[3] Alter, p. 100.
[4] Alter, p. 56.
[5] Alter, pp. 95-96.
[6] Alter, p. 51.
[7] Alter, p. 60.
[8] Alter, p. 61.
[9] Alter, p. 60.