Reviewed by Rod McLary
“Exegesis’, or the critical interpretation of a religious text, has an extensive history dating back to 100 BCE. It includes an investigation into the history and origins of the text and may also include the study of the historical and cultural background of the author and the text. In Christian terms, exegesis begins with the view that the Holy Spirit inspired the authors of the scriptural texts. Thus, the texts have a ‘fuller meaning’ because of their divine authorship and this fuller meaning is gradually revealed through the process of exegesis.
However, exegesis is not practised only in the Christian religion but in all religions including Judaism and Islam. In relation to the latter, Muhammad has been cited as having said that the Qur’an has an inner meaning, and that this inner meaning conceals an even deeper inner meaning. Exegesis is the process by which this ‘deeper inner meaning’ can be brought to light.
Exploring the bonds which link two of these three major religions together is the focus of this major study by Dr Gabriel Said Reynolds – Professor of Islamic Studies and Theology at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana USA.
In his book, Dr Reynolds examines together the Bible and the Qur’an to contribute to a deeper understanding of the Qur’an by bringing to light its conversation with the Bible . By ‘conversation’, Dr Reynolds means the ways the Qur’an alludes to Biblical texts; and within his definition of ‘texts’ is included not only texts from the canonical Bible but also from Jewish and Christian writings which form part of the sacred history of the Jewish and Christian faiths. He contends that these texts also formed part of the repertoire of the author of the Qur’an . The Qur’an was written as a monograph over a period of 22 years whereas the Bible comprises some 66 ‘booklets’ by a number of writers over a period of 1500 years, and is 600 years older than the Qur’an.
Earlier Muslim exegetes [that is, those who practise exegesis] have provided Biblical texts as a way to make the Qur’anic texts more understandable . This then begs the question – how much did the author of the Qur’an know about the Bible? Understandably, this question is almost impossible to answer. What can be said though is that the Qur’an seems to know the Bible as it was read and communicated at the time – and taking into account its various interpretations of the time . Of course, theologically speaking, the author of the Qur’an is God just as the author of the Old Testament is God. But academically speaking, the author may be Muhammand and there may have even been a number of authors or editors. This latter view goes some way to explain the diversity of material included in the Qur’an. Dr Reynolds suggests that the answer is complex – there are passages in the Qur’an where it seems that there is a departure from the Biblical text in order to ‘develop a certain symbolism’ ; in other passages, the departure may be a result of confusion; and even, in some passages, the Qur’an seems to follow the Biblical text.
Dr Roland E Miller – Professor Emeritus of Luther Seminary, Minnesota – in a public lecture in November 2016 at the Cathedral of the Holy Family in Saskatoon, Canada said ‘two books, two different primary purposes … yet many points of contact’. He went on to say that that the primary purpose of the Qur’an is ‘to offer God’s guidance’ and that of the Bible is ‘to reveal God’s plan of salvation’.
One critical connection between the Qur’an and the Bible is Jesus. In the Bible, God’s salvation begins with the promises of a Saviour and then their fulfillment in the life of Jesus. According to Miller, the Qur’an ‘does not report the activity of Jesus as the saving Word of God [but] it looks at him through the lens of guidance’. Jesus is one of small group of revered prophets and is mentioned 93 times in the Qur’an.
In terms of the structure of the book, the book proceeds according to the order of the Qur’an not the Bible. Thus, the structure allows the reader who may interested in a specific passage from the Qur’an to readily find the discussion on that passage. However, the author avoids making just simple comparisons but provides Biblical material which will assist in a better understanding of the Qur’an. In some places, the author adds explanatory notes which will further assist the reader to understand the Qur’an.
An apposite example of passages in both books which strengthen the author’s contention of ‘a conversation between the Bible and the Qur’an’ is –
Moses said to his people, ‘Turn to God for help and be patient. The earth indeed belongs to God, and He makes whomever of his servants He wishes to inherit it, and the outcome will be in favour of the Godwary. [128. al-A’rāf, The Elevations]
“Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid! Stand firm, and you will see what the Lord will do to rescue you today; the Egyptians you see today you will never see again”. [Exodus 14:13]
The book is beautifully presented and is well-footnoted and referenced. It is an academic study and the content reflects the author’s depth and breadth of knowledge regarding both the Qur’an and the Bible. While the primary target audience would be academics in the fields of exegesis and comparative religions [if that is not now a pejorative term], there is much to interest and delight the casual reader.
Dr Gabriel Said Reynolds is the Professor of Islamic Studies and Theology at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of two further books on the Qur’an and Islam and is the editor of The Qur’an in Its Historical Context.
Dr Reynolds was one of 15 Catholic delegates invited by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID) to participate in a bilateral conversation with 15 Muslim counterparts at Al-Azhar al-Sharif Centre for Dialogue (ASCD) February 2017 in Cairo, Egypt.
by Gabriel Said Reynolds
Yale University Press
ISBN 978 0 300 18132 6
Please use discount voucher code BCLUB18 at the checkout to apply the discount.