The Word of God: What Can Christians Learn from Muslim Attitudes toward the Qur'an? *

By Teipen, Alfons | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Spring-Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

The Word of God: What Can Christians Learn from Muslim Attitudes toward the Qur'an? *


Teipen, Alfons, Journal of Ecumenical Studies


In Muslim-Christian dialogue, it is by now almost a platitude to recognize that Jesus, not Muhammad, is better understood as the functional equivalent of the Qur'an. While Muhammad does exhibit parallels with the historical, human Jesus, clearly the Qur'an rightfully inherits the place of prominence structurally or, indeed, is the only adequate locus of comparison. Both Jesus and the Qur'an are the word of God, the one incarnated, the other inscribed. Both lead to the ultimate goal and are, in a sense, guidance and light, (1) both having pre-existed before all time. (2) Such a juxtaposition not only justly undermines prejudiced, Orientalist misrecognitions of Muhammad's role as the heretic, (3) but it also, more importantly, assigns to the Qur'an a status that is more easily recognized by Muslims. Muslims insist that the Qur'an is much more than a mere book; such insistence has, however, not always been taken seriously by non-Muslims, particularly by those of us in academia.

We, after all, should know best what a book is. Trained as historians and biblical-textual critics, we should know how a book works, how a book becomes a book, and how to get back beyond a book to the real thing, namely, the history(ies) and community(ies) that not only inform but also in a sense make the book. In other words, our training in biblical scholarship enables us, so the assumption goes, to make informed judgments about hermeneutics, history of text and canon, and historical criticism. Just give us the book, and we shall deal with it.

Propositions that Western, modernist approaches of historical and textual criticism be applied to the sacred text of Islam are (to say the least) not always welcomed by traditional Muslims. To expose the texts of the Qur'an to analysis in the same manner that textual criticism has dealt with the biblical texts is perceived as sacrilegious by many, precisely because the Qur'an is, theologically speaking, not on the same plane as the Bible. (4) Toby Lester's suggestion in the Atlantic Monthly (5) is a case in point. Lester came under heavy criticism not merely because he had suggested that historical and textual criticism might be applicable to the Qur'an but also because his overall presentation of the issues involved was misinformed. A conflation of a wide variety of issues--including the suggestion of textual criticism of the qur'anic text, based on the discovery of qur'anic manuscripts in a genizah at Sana'a, Yemen, as well as a misrepresentation of traditional Muslim attitudes toward the issues involved--l ed to a dismissal of much of what Lester had to say. (6)

Even if Lester had not conflated these issues, can tools developed in biblical studies in the last few centuries be applied equally fruitfully to qur'anic material? A quick answer cannot easily be had, as critical scholarship on the qur'anic text is still in its infancy. For the time being, a more fruitful enterprise might consist in turning the question around: Is there something that Christians might learn from Muslim attitudes toward the Qur'an?

The issue at stake here is what is revealed in the revelatory process. Christians believe, with Jn. l:1ff., that the word of God became flesh; that is, Godself became human. Incarnation is thus at the center of Christian attention and hope. How such an intersection of the eternally divine with the temporal human-historical is possible is one of the great theological conundrums and enigmas; in traditional language, it is a mystery of faith. A quick look at some of the central texts of early Christianity referring to this mystery, namely, the Nicean Creed and the Chalcedonian definitions, will suffice to make us aware of the limits of our language to enable us to capture this mystery. The contradictory language used--particularly as it pertains to the christological formula, where the relationship between the divine and human aspects of Jesus is "acknowledged to be unconfusedly, unalterably, undividedly, inseparably in two natures" (7)--indicates that propositional language falls pitifully short of expressing s uch divine mystery. …

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