Sunday, May 29, 2016

Excellent article series on Noah's Flood and the Qur'an

Up until now, the best treatment I have seen of the Flood and the Qur’an was in Islam and Biological Evolution: Exploring Classical Sources and Methodologies by David Solomon Jalajel.  I had come to the same conclusions as Jalajel before reading his chapter, but seeing that my interpretations were supported by some major Qur’anic commentaries was reassuring.  Surveying and analyzing a number of classical commentaries, Jalajel argues that the Qur'an does not:
  • indicate that the Flood was global;
  • claim that Noah's people were the only human beings on the earth in his time;
  • state that the Flood was universal, affecting all of humanity, but only that it affected Noah's people;
  • claim that all human populations descended from Noah and those who boarded the ark.
Concerning that last point, the Qur’an only states that Abraham descended from Noah (cf. 3:33-34) and hence the Quraysh (36:41; 69:11), the Children of Israel (17:3), and the Biblical prophets named in the Qur’an (6:84).[1]

al-Alusi’s commentary is most instructive.  Commenting on 71:26, in which Noah prays, “do not leave on the earth [or “the land,” ʿalā ’l-arḍ] an inhabitant from the disbelievers,” al-Alusi writes,
...the word ‘[e]arth’ is quite often used to refer to a portion thereof, and it is possible that this is how it is being used here.  Likewise, if we were to concede that the intended meaning was all of the earth, nonetheless the supplication was invoked against the ‘unbelievers’ and these were the ones to whom he was sent and who did not respond.[2]
Similarly, al-Alusi comments in reference to 11:40, which states, “We said, ‘Load upon the ship of every set of mates a pair'":
What the heart tends to accept is that the flood—as some have opined—was not universal in scope and that Noah was not commanded to carry with him what generally subsists on unclean substances on the [e]arth, like mice and insects.  Instead, he was commanded to carry with him what he would need when he and those with him were saved from drowning.[3]
Still, this treatment left one important question in my mind.  The Qur'an says that Noah’s ship “came to rest upon Mount Judi (wa-’stawat ʿalā ’l-jūdiyy)” (11:44).  Yet, for rainfall to cause flood waters to reach the elevation of a mountain and then to recede would entail all kinds of physical impossibilities and would multiply the earth’s atmospheric pressure to a degree that the earth would become uninhabitable.  It would also require a global flood, which would clash with all of the evidence we have from geology.[4]  Moreover, it seemed to me that Mount Judi, known in Turkish as Cudi Dagh (pronounced joo-dee daa'), is too far north to be affected by a flood in the Persian Gulf but too far south to be affected by a Black Sea flood.

Fortunately, I stumbled upon a brilliant series of articles by a Muslim researcher, examining the Qur’anic account of the Flood from the perspective of history, geology, archaeology, and anthropology.  I was very surprised to find such a sophisticated treatment of the subject on an obscure blog that hasn’t been updated since 2007!  The author explained the goal of his series as follows:
This is not an attempt to prove the validity of the Qur’anic and/or Biblical story of Noah and the Flood, but simply to look at various physical aspects of the event, and to relate it to what we can discover from geographical, historical, archaeological, and other sources – in short, relate it to what we know about the world in general.
The contents of this series are outlined as such:

This series is the best treatment of the subject I have seen.  The author avoids the pitfalls of Christian fundamentalist interpretations of the Flood story, which immensely clash with the data of geology and other physical sciences.  I was very pleased to find a satisfying answer to my above question in SF06b: Extent of the Flood.   The author points out,
Now, when we read that the ship came to rest “‘alaa’l juwdiyyi”, we do not have to understand that to mean ‘on top of Judi” It could also be understood as “at Judi.” In Arabic, “‘alaa baabihi,” meaning “at his door,” is common usage.
Hence the Qur’anic statement could be translated as “it came to settle at Mount Judi.”

Using visuals, the author goes on to show how severe flooding of the Persian Gulf—a phenomenon that is now attested to by geological evidence—combined with a temporary sagging of the Arabian plate would be capable of inundating Mesopotamia without requiring a significant rise in sea level.  The floodwaters would be able to reach into a valley that extends into the vicinity of Mount Judi.  He observes that this
could be produced by means of a heating and partial melting of the continental crust from below. Effects of this could also involve volcanic eruptions, including massive eruptions of steam. In this respect some rather cryptic words used in the Holy Qur’an might be of significance. They appear to mean: “And the oven was heated.” 
As for Qur’anic references to “waves like mountains” (11:42), this can be taken to suggest that Noah’s ship sailed temporarily into the ocean.  It does not entail that the waves were literally the altitude of mountains (cf. 42:32; 55:24) or that this description applies to the floodwaters over Mesopotamia.

The author’s model of the Flood resembles that of Hugh Ross in his Navigating Genesis: A Scientist's Journey Through Genesis 1-11.  Ross likewise proposes a regional flood that covered the Persian Gulf basins, Mesopotamia, and part of the Arabian Peninsula, though he places the Flood tens of thousands of years earlier.  What is unique about this author’s treatment however is that he focuses on the details of the Qur’anic story, carefully considering the geological, archaeological, and anthropological implications of each detail.

The blog series contains many insights beyond the ones I have noted.  The only disagreement I have that I would like to note is that the author assumes that the Flood wiped out all of humanity during Noah’s time and that all subsequent human populations descended from those who boarded the ship.  As I noted above, even this assumption is unnecessary on the Qur’anic account.

The only significant thing lacking in this author’s treatment is a discussion of the transmission of the Flood story and the relationship between the Biblical (and hence, to some extent, Qur’anic) account and the more ancient Mesopotamian versions.  These include the Ziusudra Epic in Sumerian, the Atrahasis Epic in Akkadian, and the Epic of Gilgamesh.  A masterful study of this nature is Noah’s Ark and the Ziusudra Epic by Robert M. Best.  Studies of the the Mesopotamian Flood accounts have led many Assyriologists to trace the origins of the Flood story to a local flood in southern Iraq c. 2900 BCE.   Engagement with this evidence is generally missing from conservative Christian and Muslim discussions, which tend to focus more exclusively on exegesis and scientific data.

[1] This verse also mentions “Job.”  The Bible only states that Job was from “the land of Uz,” which is not a known geographical location.  Rabbinic authorities differed over whether Job was an Israelite, an Aramean, an Edomite, or some other ethnicity, and the question remains open as far as modern Biblical scholarship is concerned.  Hence, this is moot for my argument.
[2] al-Alusi, Rūḥ al-Ma‘ānī, 29/126.  Qtd. in Jalajel, 57.  
[3] al-Alusi 12/353.  Qtd. in Jalajel, 60-61.
[4] See Robert M. Best, Noah’s Ark and the Ziusudra Epic (Fort Myers: Enlil Press, 1999), 39-40, for a summary and references for such studies.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Does the Qur'an "copy" or "plagiarize" the Bible?

A common accusation by polemicists against Islam is that the Qur’an “plagiarizes” or “copies” the Bible or other Jewish and Christian sources.  To be candid, this continues to be one of the stupidest claims to come out of anti-Islamic polemics, and I notice even Muslims rarely realize the stupidity of this argument.

When movies like “The Ten Commandments” and “The Passion of the Christ” came out, no one claimed that they were plagiarizing the Bible, because everyone recognized that these are intentional retellings of the Biblical stories.  Similarly, when someone writes a book containing Bible stories for children, nobody claims they are “plagiarizing” or “copying from” the Bible. This is adaptation or a retelling of a well-known traditional story. Likewise, when the Qur’an retells traditional stories about Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, or Jesus, to claim that what it is doing is “plagiarism,” “copying,” or even “borrowing” shows a fundamental ignorance of what these terms mean, as well as how traditional stories have always been retold in news ways throughout history.

Hence such claims no longer remain credible in Western Qur'anic studies. Here are two representative quotes on this topic from important contemporary Western scholars of the Qur’an, both of whom incidentally are Catholic clergymen.

Sidney H. Griffith writes:
Hermeneutically speaking, one should approach the Qur’ān as an integral discourse in its own right; it proclaims, judges, praises, blames from its own narrative center. It addresses an audience which is already familiar with oral versions in Arabic of earlier scriptures and folklores. The Qur’ān does not borrow from, or often even quote from these earlier texts. Rather, it alludes to and evokes their stories, even sometimes their wording, for its own rhetorical purpose. The Arabic Qur’ān, from a literary perspective, is something new. It uses the idiom, and sometimes the forms and structures, of earlier narratives in the composition of its own distinctive discourse. It cannot be reduced to any presumed sources. Earlier discourses appear in it not only in a new setting, but shaped, trimmed and re-formulated for an essentially new narrative.[1]
Similarly, Michel Cuypers writes:
There is of course no question of criticizing 'borrowings,' 'imitations,' or 'influences' from apologetic or polemical intentions, as a certain Orientalism in bad taste has done, but rather recognizing that the Qur’an shares a phenomenon which is characteristic of Biblical writings—re-writing. The books of the Bible unceasingly re-appropriate earlier writings, reusing them and turning them to a new perspective which makes revelation advance. The Qur’an does no different, although it does so in a different way from the Bible…since it positions itself as the final revelation in the Judeo-Christian tradition, it has had to re-assume the earlier traditions while making its own mark on the texts it repeats in this way. Far from reducing the Qur’an to a pastiche of earlier writings, the intertextual or 'interscriptural' work we will undertake removes none of its originality, but on the contrary, better draws it out.[2]
I will have a chapter on this subject in an upcoming book I have been co-authoring—hence my prolonged absence on this blog (!)—which I will soon be giving details about, insha’a ’llah.  Stay tuned!

[1] Sidney H. Griffith, “Christian Lore and the Arabic Qur’an: The ‘Companions of the Cave’ in Surat al-Kahf and in Syriac Christian tradition,” in The Qur’ān in Its Historical Context, ed. Gabriel Said Reynolds (London: Routledge, 2008), 116
[2] Michel Cuypers, The Banquet: A Reading of the Fifth Sura of the Qur’an (Miami: Convivium, 2009), 31.