Qur’an in Context

Jesus Muhammad Isaiah

Early 14th century image in an illuminated Ilkhanid manuscript of کتاب الآثار الباقية عن القرون الخالية (The Remaining Signs of Past Centuries) by Abu Rayhan al-Biruni (completed about 1000 AD)

The above picture from a famous 14th century manuscript, celebrated as one of al-Biruni’s (d. 1048) major works, shows two determined riders approaching a watchtower with a fearful looking guard. One rider has mounted a camel while the other is riding an ass. Faces of the three persons are deliberate Mongolian. Both heads are surrounded by a halo, and the right one is pointing at the left. It is intuitively clear that the artist wants to characterize Jesus and Muhammad in his painting.

I have written about the Ilkhanid manuscript of al-Biruni work before.

One of the key manuscripts in the formative period of Ilkhanid painting is the Kitab al-Athar al-Baqiya , or “The Remaining Signs of Past Centuries”, by Abu Rayhan al-Biruni who had died in 1048 (MS Arab 161, Edinburgh University Library) which is dated 707 AH/ 1307 CE. It contains 25 paintings. The Edinburgh al-Biruni manuscript has been written in either Maragha, the Ilkhanid scientific center, or in its capital Tabriz, the cultural and commercial hub at the crossroads between East and West in early 14th century. The miniatures include multiple non-Islamic elements, Jewish, Byzantine and Buddhist.

The context in the above miniature is as follows. According to its description in the respective catalogue (Chronology of Ancient Nations) by the Edinburgh University Library, it “[a]llegedly depicts a passage from Is[a]iah 21, presenting it as a prophecy about Muhammad: shown riding on a camel next to Christ, who is riding a donkey, Al-Biruni asserts that the Prophet’s arrival at the watchman’s tower announced the destruction of Babylon.” The passage reads (according to King James Version),

21 The burden of the desert of the sea. As whirlwinds in the south pass through; so it cometh from the desert, from a terrible land.

A grievous vision is declared unto me; the treacherous dealer dealeth treacherously, and the spoiler spoileth. Go up, O Elam: besiege, O Media; all the sighing thereof have I made to cease.

Therefore are my loins filled with pain: pangs have taken hold upon me, as the pangs of a woman that travaileth: I was bowed down at the hearing of it; I was dismayed at the seeing of it.

My heart panted, fearfulness affrighted me: the night of my pleasure hath he turned into fear unto me.

Prepare the table, watch in the watchtower, eat, drink: arise, ye princes, and anoint the shield.

For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.

And he saw a chariot with a couple of horsemen, a chariot of asses, and a chariot of camels; and he hearkened diligently with much heed:

And he cried, A lion: My lord, I stand continually upon the watchtower in the daytime, and I am set in my ward whole nights:

And, behold, here cometh a chariot of men, with a couple of horsemen. And he answered and said, Babylon is fallen, is fallen; and all the graven images of her gods he hath broken unto the ground.

10 O my threshing, and the corn of my floor: that which I have heard of the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, have I declared unto you.

11 The burden of Dumah. He calleth to me out of Seir, Watchman, what of the night? Watchman, what of the night?

12 The watchman said, The morning cometh, and also the night: if ye will enquire, enquire ye: return, come.

13 The burden upon Arabia. In the forest in Arabia shall ye lodge, O ye travelling companies of Dedanim.

14 The inhabitants of the land of Tema brought water to him that was thirsty, they prevented with their bread him that fled.

15 For they fled from the swords, from the drawn sword, and from the bent bow, and from the grievousness of war.

16 For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Within a year, according to the years of an hireling, and all the glory of Kedar shall fail:

17 And the residue of the number of archers, the mighty men of the children of Kedar, shall be diminished: for the Lord God of Israel hath spoken it. (Emphasis added.)

It is about Babylon and al-Biruni asserts that the Prophets’ arrival at the watchman’s tower announced its destruction.

As Christians have tried to make sense of prophecies in the Tanakh, or Old Testament, which are collectively called Christian typologies, so were Muslims eager to do the same with both holy books of their predecessors. The classic examples are actually found in the Qur’an where the Virgin Mary is described as “sister of Harun” (and thus a member of the House of Amran, father of Moses and Aaron), see, in particular, Q19, 28. Aaron as he is called in Hebrew had in fact a sister called Miriam, regarded as prophetess. When the Qur’an suggests a relationship with the Virgin Mary this must not be considered an erroneous reading of Exodus and the Gospels. The Qur’an may actually want to emphasize that Mary the Virgin is a new Miriam, the Prophetess as both are called Maryam in Arabic, a theological typology.

In a compilation of essays on the early antiquity environment when Islam developed (and the Qur’an created), Angelika Neuwirth, Director of Corpus Coranicum, a long-term research project at Berlin-Brandenburg’s Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Berlin, writes about knowledge transfer through typology by using the example of Abraham in the Qur’an. As she outlines in the introduction of her essay,

Um seine [that of the Qur’an] aktive Rolle in der Debattenlandschaft der Stätantike erkennbar zu machen, muss die herkömmliche Koranlektüre zu den theologischen Diskursen der Zeit hin geöffnet werden. Der Koran erscheint nicht länger als ein statisches Textdokument, sondern erweist sich als active player im spätantiken Debattenkonzert […].

In order to make its active role recognizable in the landscape of discourses of late antiquity, the common reading of the Qur’an has to be opened up for theological discussions of that time. The Qur’an then does not appear any longer as static text document but turns out to be an active player in late antiquity’s concert of debates […].

Rather than retelling biblical stories in a more or less awkward way (as has been assumed for centuries in Western exegesis), the Qur’an in fact coins new images of biblical individuals and events which in turn lead to new representations in liturgy.

Apart from Maryam, sister of Harun, Abraham is another example. It has become fashionable to talk about Abrahamic religions when referring to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But what is actually the rank of Abraham in the Qur’an? Has he been a nativistic representative of an ancient Arabic tradition of the Hanifs, as Tilman Nagel has claimed, or rather the protagonist of a newly interpreted and de-mystified collective rite of sacrifice?

In times of new emerging Islamophobia in Europe and the U.S. on one hand and, at the same time, increased terror threats, the most compelling answers for numerous questions the mostly clueless Western public may ask about the Qur’an’s origins had been broadcast in late 2015 by German-French ARTE, well-hidden at midnight, in a 7-part series of interviews by Gérard Mordillat and Jérôme Prieur with 26 eminent scholars of Islam Sciences in the broadest sense.

The title-giving theme is Jesus in Islam, but it quickly becomes clear what is the context in which the Qur’an in the 7th century CE, i.e. late Antiquity, originated. That repercussions of a vivid debate with all kinds of Christian and Jewish groups, possibly hetero- as well as orthodox,  in both Mecca and Medina can be identified in the Qur’an can no longer be denied. This is of course one important preliminary result of ten years of hard work by scientific members of the above mentioned Corpus Coranicum. The interview series provides nevertheless interesting insights in partly controversial scientific debates. In particular the eminent authority of apparently faithful Muslim scholars when accessing the Qur’an is very much revealing.

The series could be watched for 2 months on ARTE in December 2015 and January 2016 and got quite an audience. I am grateful that the videos have meanwhile been uploaded in YouTube.

Last modified 15 October 2017 @ 7:15 pm.

Last modified October 16, 2017.


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