Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Exodus in the Qur'an, the Bible, and History (Part 1): The Exodus and Wilderness in Tradition and History

I am starting a new series of articles, in which I will be presenting gems in the Qur’anic account of the Exodus and Wilderness traditions that come to light when it is studied against the background of history and archaeology, particularly in biblical studies and Egyptology.  

By the “Exodus,” I am referring to the story of the miraculous deliverance of the Israelites (or Hebrews) from slavery in ancient Egypt under the leadership of Moses.  This story forms the basis for the Israelites’ obligation to adhere to the Torah in Judaism (Exod. 20:2-3), and as we will see, serves as a model for the nascent Muslim community in the Qur’an.  

By the “Wilderness” (a.k.a. “Wandering” or “Sinai”) tradition, I am referring to the story of the Israelites’ sojourn in the deserts of the Sinai peninsula (and to a lesser extent, northwestern Arabia and Jordan) for forty years following the Exodus.  It is in this setting that the Torah was revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai, and many famous incidents occurred such as the Israelites’ worship of the Golden Calf, the divine provision of the quail and manna, the springs of water from the rocks, and so on.  In the title of this series, I am using the term "Exodus" more broadly to allude to the Wilderness tradition as well.

Before I present these gems in specific terms, I will first talk about whether the Exodus tradition has any historical basis.  It is often claimed that the Exodus has been discredited by archaeology, and that it is nothing more than a myth or legend invented during the period of the Israelite monarchy, lacking any historical basis.  In fact, I have seen very few scholars make such a sweeping claim; most are more reserved than this and feel that the tradition does have a historical core but has been significantly embellished with sacred legends.  However, studies by Egyptologists Kenneth Kitchen[1] (one of the world's most renowned experts of ancient Egypt) and James Hoffmeier[2] have shown there to be a great deal in the Exodus tradition that can be verified against the background of ancient Near Eastern history and archaeology.  As far as I am aware, the evidence they have collected has not been met with any successful refutation.

While a few of the gems I will be presenting in this series are my own thoughts or findings, I have learned most of them from other writers.  In particular, I am indebted to the exhaustive scholarship of Kitchen and Hoffmeier and, on the Qur'anic account in particular, the insightful study of Louay Fatoohi and Shetha Al-Dargazelli.[3]  Any other sources will be cited in the footnotes.

The majority of these gems apply equally to the texts of the Hebrew Bible (in particular, the Books of Exodus and Numbers) and the Qur’an.  A good number of them, however, apply only to the Qur’an, and therefore challenge the assumption that the Qur’an is merely derivative of biblical tradition.  

These gems are also of various degrees of historical strength.  Some of them are conjectures—suggestive possibilities that arise from studying the Qur’anic stories against the background of history.  Many others are particularly strong, however, and quite striking.  All of them will in shā’a ’llāh give the interested reader food for thought.

[1] Kitchen, Kenneth A.  On the Reliability of the Old Testament.  Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, UK: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003.  All references to "Kitchen" will be to this book, unless otherwise noted.
[2] Hoffmeier, James K.  Israel in Egypt: Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition.  Oxford University Press, 1997.  All references to "Hoffmeier" will be to this book, unless otherwise noted.
[3] Al-Dargazelli, Shetha and Fatoohi, Louay.  The Mystery of Israel in Ancient Egypt: The Exodus in the Qur’an, the Old Testament, Archaeological Finds, and Historical Sources.  Birmingham, UK: Luna Plena Publishing, 2011. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Chiastic Structures in Sūrat al-Kahf (Part 6): Verses 50-51

The last chiastic structure in Sūrat al-Kahf I'd like to mention occurs in verses 50-51.  This passage is a summary of the story of Iblīs and his enmity towards Adam, followed by a small ring.  It occurs in the context of a larger discussion of unbelief and its outcome (vv. 47-59).  Even though it is a small ring, once again its ring structure sheds important light on the meaning and argument of the passage.

The verses are as follows:

وَإِذْ قُلْنَا لِلْمَلَائِكَةِ اسْجُدُوا لِآدَمَ فَسَجَدُوا إِلَّا إِبْلِيسَ كَانَ مِنَ الْجِنِّ فَفَسَقَ عَنْ أَمْرِ رَبِّهِ

A. أَفَتَتَّخِذُونَهُ وَذُرِّيَّتَهُ أَوْلِيَاءَ مِن دُونِي وَهُمْ لَكُمْ عَدُوٌّ بِئْسَ لِلظَّالِمِينَ بَدَلًا  
   B. مَّا أَشْهَدتُّهُمْ خَلْقَ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَلَا خَلْقَ أَنفُسِهِمْ 
A’. وَمَا كُنتُ مُتَّخِذَ الْمُضِلِّينَ عَضُدًا 

When We said to the angels, "Prostrate to Adam" so they prostrated, except for Iblīs.  He was from the jinn, and so he rebelled against the command of His Lord.

A. Then are you (mankind) going to take him and his offspring as awliyā' (protectors, guardians, friends, allies) beside Me, while they are for you an enemy?  How terrible an exchange for the wrongdoers!
   B. I did make them witness the created of the heavens and the earth, nor the creation of their own selves,
A'. Nor would I take the misguiders as helpers.   

This passage offers four reasons why mankind should not take Iblīs and is offspring as helpers.

(1) A begins with "Then are you going to take him and his offspring as awliyā' besides me?"  The "then" (fa-) at the beginning of the sentence links it with the immediately preceding part, "He was from the jinn, and so he rebelled against the command of His Lord."  This "command" is defined as "'Prostrate to Adam.'"  Therefore, the argument being made here is that even Iblīs was commanded to prostrate to Adam, who is representative of all of humanity.  Yet, Iblīs refused to honor Adam (humanity), because he was a jinn and envied him (and thus, again, humanity).  Accordingly, Iblīs marked himself off as "an enemy" to humanity.  On the other hand, God is the one who commanded Iblīs to prostrate to Adam in the first place.  How, then, can you take Iblīs as a walī (protector, friend, ally) instead of God?  Thus, "How terrible an exchange for the wrongdoers!"

(2) In B ("I did make them witness the created of the heavens and the earth, nor the creation of their own selves"), the center of the ring, God states that the worshiped entities (Iblīs and his offspring) did not even exist during the creation of the heavens and the earth, and they had no role to play in their own creation.  By implication, it is God, who actually created the heavens and the earth and who created them (Iblīs and his offspring), who should be worshiped.  (This corresponds with the beginning of the speech of the Companions of the Cave earlier in the sūra, when they say, "'Our Lord is the Lord of the heavens and the earth.  Never would we call on any god beside him.")  Since the reason is given in the center of the structure, it might be inferred that this is the most important reason for not taking Iblīs and his offspring as awliyā' (guardians or protectors) besides God.  This is corroborated by many other verses in the sūra, which emphasize not even taking Christ or saints as guardians or protectors, using the same word, e.g. "Do those who disbelieve think that they can take My slaves as protectors/allies besides Me?" or the speech of the Companions of the Cave just quoted above, which the Qur'an addresses its Christian audience with.

Now A' ("Nor would I take the misguiders as helpers") brings the whole ring to a close, and thus ties the whole argument together.  Each part of it corresponds to the terms that were laid out in A, but two more reasons are given:

(3) "Iblīs and his offspring" (A) are conclusively identified as "misguiders" (A').  This follows from the fact that they are an avowed "enemy" (A) to mankind (see reason 1).  Hence, they are only intent on leading human beings astray and not helping them.

(4) Finally, since God is able to create the heavens and the earth without any need of their assistance (B), He does not take them as helpers: "Nor would I take the misguiders as helpers" (A').  Therefore, neither should you take them as allies or protectors besides God: "Then are you going to take him and his offspring as awliyā' beside Me?" (A).  The terms of A' (Nor would I take/the misguiders/as helpers) match the terms already presented in A (Then are you going to take/him and his offspring/as awliyā' besides Me?), in the exact same order.

The ring composition of this passage corroborates the arguments it is making.  A' draws from the premises laid out in B and especially A, its syntactical semantic counterpart, to bring the argument to a conclusion.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Chiastic Structures in Sūrat al-Kahf (Part 5): Verses 22-26

At the end of the story of the Companions of the Cave, or the Sleepers of Ephesus, there is a commentary on the disputes of the Syriac and/or Arab Christian transmitters of the story over its details (vv. 22-26).  These verses form the next chiastic structure in the Sūrat al-Kahf.  Before examining this structure, however, I wish to draw attention to a controversy among Muslim exegetes.  

v. 25 says, "And they [the youth of the cave] remained for three hundred years—and they increased nine."  Most exegetes assume that this is the Qur'an's position.  Yet this is problematic, because the next verse says, "Say: 'My Lord knows best how long they remained.'"  This seems to enjoin a response to that claim.  In fact, several verses earlier, in v. 22, we find the same formula:  
Some will say, "They were three, and their dog was the fourth."  Some will say, "They were five, and their dog was the sixth," guessing at the unseen.  Some will say, "They were seven, and their dog was the eighth."  Say, "My Lord knows best their number.  None knows them but a few."
The variant claims of the Christian disputers are quoted, and then the Prophet is commanded to respond that God knows better. 

Some exegetes did holds that the statement in v. 25 was only a quotation, and not the Qur'an's position.  This view was even held by some of the Prophet's companions.  For example, some of the commentaries indicate that Ibn Mas'ud wrote "They say" at the beginning of the verse in his personal copy of the Qur'an as an annotation.  The exegetes who hold this view maintain that the quotations in v. 25 is a continuation from the quotations in v. 22.  How can this be, given that there are several verses between them that break up the flow between these two quotations?

This question is answered when we recognize that the entire passage (vv. 22-26) is a chiastic structure.  v. 25 (labeled A'1 below) is related back to v. 22 (labeled A1) through this structure, clarifying that it is indeed a quotation.  The entire passage is a follows:  

A. (1) سَيَقُولُونَ ثَلَاثَةٌ رَّابِعُهُمْ كَلْبُهُمْ وَيَقُولُونَ خَمْسَةٌ سَادِسُهُمْ كَلْبُهُمْ رَجْمًا بِالْغَيْبِ وَيَقُولُونَ سَبْعَةٌ وَثَامِنُهُمْ كَلْبُهُمْ
     (2) قُل رَّبِّي أَعْلَمُ بِعِدَّتِهِم مَّا يَعْلَمُهُمْ إِلَّا قَلِيلٌ 

     B. (1) فَلَا تُمَارِ فِيهِمْ إِلَّا مِرَاءً ظَاهِرًا وَلَا تَسْتَفْتِ فِيهِم مِّنْهُمْ أَحَدًا
          (2) وَلَا تَقُولَنَّ لِشَيْءٍ إِنِّي فَاعِلٌ ذَٰلِكَ غَدًا إِلَّا أَن يَشَاءَ اللَّهُ 

     B’. (1) وَاذْكُر رَّبَّكَ إِذَا نَسِيتَ  
          (2) وَقُلْ عَسَىٰ أَن يَهْدِيَنِ رَبِّي لِأَقْرَبَ مِنْ هَٰذَا رَشَدًا 

A’. (1) وَلَبِثُوا فِي كَهْفِهِمْ ثَلَاثَ مِائَةٍ سِنِينَ وَازْدَادُوا تِسْعًا
     (2)  قُلِ اللَّهُ أَعْلَمُ بِمَا لَبِثُوا


A. (1) Some will say, "They were three, and their dog was the fourth."  Some will say, "They           were five, and their dog was the sixth," guessing at the unseen.  Some will say, "They           were seven, and their dog was the eighth."
    (2) Say, "My Lord knows best their number.  None knows them but a few."

     B. (1) Then do not argue about them except with a manifest argument and do not seek                    an opinion about them from anyone,
          (2) And do not say about anything, "I will indeed do that tomorrow" without adding "if                  God wills."

     B.' (1) Remember your Lord if you forget,
          (2) And say "Perhaps my Lord will guide me to something closer than this in                                guidance."

A.' (1) "And they remained in their cave for three hundred years," and they increased nine.  
     (2) Say, "God knows best how long they remained."

The entire passage is a chiastic structure with two parallels embedded in each segment.

From this it is clear that A1 and A'1 are both quotations of the divergent claims of the Christian disputers, while A2 and A'2 both command the Prophet to respond on the pattern of "Say, '[God] knows best..."  Indeed, most of the Christian accounts place estimate the sleep of the youth as having lasted three hundred something years, so the Qur'an's quote is a succinct abridgment of these various claims.  In fact, by the various Christian and Muslim accounts of the story, the sleep took place between the edict of Decius (250-251) and the reign of Theodosius II (r. 401-450, though his active rule began in 416, when he had reached the age of majority).  Historically, the sleep of the youth could therefore not have lasted more than two hundred years.

B consists of a prohibition of action (1, "do not argue...") and a prohibition of speech (2, "And do not say...").  B' is the opposite: it consists of a command of action (1, "Remember...") and a command of speech (2, "And say...").

From this we see the importance of understanding Semitic rhetoric, and in particular the use of chiastic structures, as a hermeneutical key in interpreting the Qur'an. 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Chiastic Structures in Sūrat al-Kahf (Part 4): Verses 17-18

Previously, we saw three chiastic structures just in the introduction to Sūrat al-Kahf, i.e. verses 1-8.  The next chiastic structure occurs in the next section of the sūra, the story of the "Companions of the Cave," also known as the Sleepers of Ephesus.

The structure is as follows:

A.  وَتَرَى الشَّمْسَ إِذَا طَلَعَت 
     B.  تَّزَاوَرُ عَن كَهْفِهِمْ ذَاتَ الْيَمِينِ وَإِذَا غَرَبَت تَّقْرِضُهُمْ ذَاتَ الشِّمَالِ 
          C. وَهُمْ فِي فَجْوَةٍ مِّنْهُ ذَٰلِكَ مِنْ آيَاتِ اللَّهِ               
               D.  مَن يَهْدِ اللَّهُ فَهُوَ الْمُهْتَدِ               
               D’.  وَمَن يُضْلِلْ فَلَن تَجِدَ لَهُ وَلِيًّا مُّرْشِدًا          
          C’. وَتَحْسَبُهُمْ أَيْقَاظًا وَهُمْ رُقُودٌ     
     B’.  وَنُقَلِّبُهُمْ ذَاتَ الْيَمِينِ وَذَاتَ الشِّمَالِ وَكَلْبُهُم بَاسِطٌ ذِرَاعَيْهِ بِالْوَصِيدِ
A’.  لَوِ اطَّلَعْتَ عَلَيْهِمْ لَوَلَّيْتَ مِنْهُمْ فِرَارًا وَلَمُلِئْتَ مِنْهُمْ رُعْبًا


A. You would have seen the sun, when it rose   

     B. Inclining away from their cave to the right, and when it set, passing away from them to           the left  
          C. While they were in an open part of it.  That is among God's signs.
               D. Whoever God guides, he is committed to guidance,
               D. And whoever God leaves astray, you will not find for him a guide, a protector.
          C. You would have thought they were awake while they were sleeping,
     B. And We turned them to the right and to the left, while their dog was stretching out its            forelegs at the threshold.
A. If you had seen them, you would have turned away from them fleeing, and you would have been filled with fear of them.

A and A' are connected in two ways.  First, it is clear enough even in the English translation that the meaning "to see" occurs in both terms in the second-person and in the subjunctive mood (this mood is implied in the Arabic without being expressed grammatically).  Through this device, the Prophet, and by extension the audience, is forced to place himself in the scene and imagine it as if he had been there.  This connection is only semantic, however, because in the Arabic two different verbs are used for the meaning of "to see"—tarā in A and iṭalaʿta alā in A'.

Yet the latter verb supplies a second connection, because its root (ṭ-l-ʿ) is used in both segments.  This root has the basic connotation of "to rise" or "to ascend."  It is used with this basic meaning in A, in the form alaʿat, with the subject being the sun ("you would have seen the sun, when it rose").  The use of this root in A' with iṭalaʿta alā (again, meaning "to see" here) places the Prophet/the audience in the position of a climber who is ascending a mountain.  Then he reaches one of its cliffs, where the cave is, he comes upon a frightening scene, thus "you would have turned away from them fleeing, and you would have been filled with fear of them."  The frightening scene will be explained below.

B involves God turning the (rays of) the sun right and left away from the cave, while B' involves Him turning the sleepers themselves to the right and left.  One explanation of this is that it was a means of keeping their blood circulating, thus keeping them alive.  Another explanation is that as the rays approached them from the right, they would be turned to the left, and as the rays approached them from the left, they would be turned to the right.  As a result, even though the youth were "lying in an open part of" the cave, apparently while the cave was facing north, God miraculously coordinated the scene so that the rays of the sun would not expose them.  These are all signs of God's caring protection and intervention for them.  Another measure for their protection is mentioned in B': the whole time, the dog was guarding the entrance of the cave, with its paws outstretched as if ready to attack.  The scene of some people moving around in a distant and mysterious cave, and a dog guarding the entrance in attack mode, would have caused you to "have turned away from them fleeing," because "you would have been filled with fear of them."

In C, the location of the youth is mentioned ("while they were in an open part of it").  In C', what they were doing there is mentioned ("while they were sleeping").  This is also underscored in both cases by the use of a similar grammatical construct ("while they...": و هم).

The very center of the structure is a parallelism with contrasting statements: "Whoever God guides, he is committed to guidance" and "whoever God leaves astray, you will not find for him a guide, a protector."  It is at this center that the theme of God's guidance and protection is revealed.  This is a major theme of the whole sūra, emphasized at the very beginning of the story (v. 13): "Indeed they were youth who believed in their Lord, and We increased them in guidance."  The whole structure is an illustration of this theme.  God was guiding even their movements while they were sleeping, guiding their dog to guard the entrance, and guiding the rays of the sun away from their cave, thus protecting them.

The entire chiastic structure is a moving scene which the reader is asked to visualize, as if he were present there.  The significance of the structure is revealed at its center, and every line of it is a beautiful illustration of that theme.  "That is among the God's signs."