Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 5 (2004-2005) - Review

John C. Reeves, ed. Bible and Qur’an: Essays in Scriptural Intertextuality (Society of Biblical Literature Symposium Series 24; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003). Pp. xiii + 245. Paper, US$31.95. ISBN 1-58983-064-4.

This edited collection contains a brief preface by the editor, nine essays, a bibliography, and four indices.  The nine essays are: “The Qur’­ān and the Bible: Some Modern Studies of Their Relationship,” by Reuven Firestone (pp. 1-22); “A Prolegomenon to the Relation of the Qur’ān and the Bible,” by Vernon K. Robbins and Gordon D. Newby (pp. 23-42); “Some Explorations of the Intertwining of Bible and Qur’ān,” by John C. Reeves (pp. 43-60); “Israel and the Torah of Muxammad,” by Brannon M. Wheeler (pp. 61-85); “On the Early Life of Abraham: Biblical and Qur’ānic Intertextuality and the Anticipation of Muxammad,” by Brian M. Hauglid (pp. 87-105); “The Prediction and Prefiguration of Muxammad,” by Jane Dammen McAuliffe (pp. 107-131); “The Gospel, the Qur’ān, and the Presentation of Jesus in al-Ya‘qūbī’s Ta’rīkh,” by Sidney H. Griffith (pp. 133-160); “Abraham’s Test: Islamic Male Circumcision As Anti/Ante-Covenantal Practice,” by Kathryn Kueny (pp. 161-182); and “Depaganizing Death: Aspects of Mourning in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Islam,” by Fred Astren (pp. 183-199).

            This collection of essays had its origins in post-September 11, 2001 discussions about the lack of work being done (or at least presented/published) by members of the SBL on the interconnections between the Jewish and Christian Bibles and the Qur’ān.  The editor commissioned a group of scholars to write essays for this volume, essays “that would address philological, historical, and/or cultural aspects of the textual and exegetical interfaces among the scriptures of the Abrahamic religions” (p. ix).  In the preface, the editor notes that in the early years of the SBL, there were a number of scholars who worked in both biblical and Islamic studies, under a rubric that we might term “orientalist,” and suggests that it was a combination of the development of narrow academic specialization and distrust of comparative studies that led to the decline of such cross-disciplinary scholarship.  The editor remarks in a footnote that the work done to produce the volume had the result of also creating an SBL program unit to study the relationships between Bible and Qur’ān.

            This reviewer is not competent to evaluate either the discussions of Qur’ānic scholarship or the specific exegetical readings done by this group of scholars.  I did learn a great deal about Islamic exegetical traditions, which I thought was interesting and well-expressed.  However, the book is marketed as an exercise in “scriptural intertextuality,” and this reviewer is competent in both intertextuality and in comparative studies.  In my remarks, therefore, I will discuss the methodological underpinnings and approaches in this group of essays.

            The term “intertextuality,” while used in many of the essays, is one that should, in my opinion, be used carefully by biblical scholars.  All of the essays in this collection use the term “intertextuality,” when they really should be using the terms “borrowing,” “allusion,” “interpretation,” or “influence.”  That is, all of these essays look at how the Qur’ān or qur’ānic interpretation is in reaction to the Jewish and/or Christian scriptural traditions.  To re-use, interpret, allude to, or re-write earlier material is not necessarily to be in intertextual relationship with it, and to use the term “intertextuality” in these cases is to use a neologism (only Griffiths defines how he understands the term [p. 134 n. 6]).  The understanding of “intertextuality” demonstrated by these authors is much more like the theory of influence promoted by Harold Bloom, who suggests that literature is in a struggle to overcome its strong forbears (The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry, 2nd ed. [New York: Oxford UP, 1997]), than it is like the theories of intertextuality put forth by Julia Kristeva (Le texte du roman: Approche sémiologique d’une structure discursive transformationelle [The Hague: Mouton, 1970]) and others working with the thought of Mikhail Bakhtin.  Kristeva defines literature as all discourse that uses the mode of intertextuality (p. 69), and suggests that intertextuality is the meeting and transformation of texts within other texts (p. 68); thus it is not enough simply to note an allusion or re-use in order to talk about intertextuality.  True intertextuality requires the study of how the newly-formed text shapes our views of the other texts it relates to.

            However, it is largely a discrepancy between theory and practice that leads to this mis-use of the term intertextuality in this collection.  That is, the editor and at least some of the authors (notably Firestone) suggest that seeing the Qur’ān in biblical terms was one of the great failings of earlier scholarship, and that the biblical scholarly guild should be using the insights of qur’ānic re-use/interpretation for our own readings.  If properly implemented, this would indeed be intertextual reading.  In practice, however, many of the essays in this collection tend to follow in the scholarly tradition that the editor decries:  seeing the Qur’ān in biblical terms, or in terms of biblical scholarship (particularly Robbins & Newby).  Whenever the Jewish and/or Christian scriptures are read through the lens of the Qur’ān, the Qur’ān is used as essentially another textual witness:  a witness to a scriptural interpretation tradition either not attested in the surviving Christian or Jewish commentators, or attested similarly in those writings. 

As a first step, demonstrating the complex commentary on and re-use of biblical traditions by the Qur’ān, the collection is valuable.  Hopefully there will be more to follow.

Christine Mitchell
St. Andrew’s College