TOWARDS DEVELOPING AN ENGLISH SYNOPSIS OF THE QUR’AN AND THE BIBLE
Luther College, University of Regina
The comparative study of the Qur’an and the Bible is enjoying a boom today, helped no doubt by the increase in western interest in Islam due to current events. A prime example is the creation of a program unit in the Society of Biblical Literature focusing on the Qur’an and Biblical literature. Of course, comparison of the Qur’an and the Bible has occurred almost since the Qur’an first appeared on the scene, usually for polemical purposes: Muslims seeing in the differences between the Bible and the Qur’an signs of the Christian and Jewish corruption of scripture,
and Christians seeing in the differences between the Qur’an and the Bible signs of Muslim heresy.
The modern Western comparative study of the Qur’an and the Bible was launched in the mid 1800’s by the likes of Abraham Geiger and Gustave Weil. It developed through several phases, beginning with a source-critical perspective that viewed the Qur’anic texts as largely derivative of the Bible, but this perspective is now complemented by other approaches that respect the integrity of the Qur’anic text. In any case, westerners, in many cases Christians of various persuasions, are very interested in the Qur’an today and tend to compare it and assimilate knowledge about it, implicitly if not explicitly, through comparison to the one model of scripture with which they are most familiar: the Bible. This is a potential problem, in that it does not allow the Qur’an to speak for itself. As well, the comparative study of the Qur’an and the Bible has moved out of the relatively restricted domain of specialist scholars and is now being accessed on a more popular level, again posing potential problems.
Comparative textual studies of scriptural texts are, of course, not new. Christianity has a long history of such studies due to the presence of four gospels, or sacred biographies of Jesus, in its scriptural canon. From early times, this has encouraged comparative enterprises ranging from gospel harmonies such as those of Tatian and comparative cross references to the gospels such as the comparative tables of Eusebius. In more modern times, the comparative study of the four gospels (or more, if various non-canonical gospels are taken into account) has been facilitated by the production of synopses, in which the various gospel texts are set next to each other in running columns on the same page, so that, at one glance, similarities and differences between the tellings of a similar story in different gospels is apparent (e.g. Aland 1997, Orchard 1983).
Besides gospel synopses, a whole host of other synopses have been produced in fields associated generally with biblical studies. These include synopses based on the hypothetical Q source (e.g. Robinson 2000), synopses of parallels in the New Testament letters (e.g. Reuter 1997-8), synopses of the Deuteronomistic history and Chronicles (e.g. Endres, Millar & Burns 1998), or of various legal codes in the Hebrew bible (e.g. Lasserre 1994), and synopses of ancient Near Eastern texts with parallels in the Hebrew bible (e.g. Walton 1989). Synopses of various manuscripts of a text for text critical purposes have also been produced (e.g. Beentjes’ 1997 synopsis of all the Hebrew manuscripts and parallel Hebrew texts for Ben Sira). For all their differences, all these synopses have one general purpose in common: “to present together parallel texts, so that they may be compared” (van Zyl 1997:365, based on Lasserre 1996:54).
It would seem that for the work of a Qur’an and biblical literature consultation, with its stated aim of encouraging scholars “to consider the importance of the Quran and Muslim exegesis for understanding the Bible and its interpretation, and vice-versa”, a synopsis of parallel passages in the Qur’an and the Bible would be immensely useful. At one glance, one would be able to see parallel texts, just as in other synopses. And, in fact, such a synopsis does exist – in German. Entitled Bibel und Koran: Eine Synopse gemeinsamer Überlieferungen
, it was compiled by Johann-Dietrich Thyen and published in 1989 by Böhlau in Cologne.
This work begins with an extensive introduction that expounds on the differences between the Qur’an and the Bible in terms of order and style,
describes three periods of Qur’anic revelation in the prophet Muhammad’s life,
argues that the reference to seven in al-Hijr 15:87 is to a series of “punishment stories”,
and ends with a diatribe against fundamentalism.
Clearly written for a Christian (Catholic) audience, it however eschews/declines the search for Qur’anic dependence on the biblical tradition and instead encourages a dialogue of texts in order to elicit each text’s particular language, profile and meaning.
Thyen’s synopsis proper presents the parallel texts, in German translation, on opposite pages: the biblical text on the left hand page and the Qur’anic text on the right hand page. The parallels appear in biblical order, beginning with creation and proceeding through to the life of Jesus, and ending with a miscellaneous set of topical parallels.
The parallel texts are divided into pericopes and given titles. The work ends with a series of comprehensive indexes.
Brilliant – a ready-made synopsis of the Qur’an and Bible already exists; it only needs to be translated into English for English-speaking users. But a reading of some of the small body of theoretical reflections on the construction and function of synopses opens up a whole host of potential problems.
PROBLEMATICS OF SYNOPSES
Like all human productions, synopses are not innocent. In a critical analysis of gospel synopses, the South African biblical scholar van Zyl wryly observes: “a synopsis . . . is not an objective or neutral tool which automatically renders the raw, untainted data for further exegetical usage. By its very nature a synopsis cannot be but a manipulation of the text . . , creating a new, synoptic, text by means of textual ‘engineering’ according to the editor’s overt or, more often, intuitive application of beliefs and assumptions . . . What a synopsis in fact displays, is not the relationships between the . . . parallels an sich, but a representation of these relationships which came about as a result of (a) the editor’s perception of them, and (b) his (sic) subsequent engineering of them” (1997: 362). Van Zyl is reflecting on a lively controversy in New Testament gospel studies mounted by supporters of the Griesbach hypothesis of Matthean priority who claim that the mere visual appearance and arrangement of the standard gospel synopses in use today are biased in that they subconsciously steer their users towards accepting the theory of Markan priority.
Van Zyl is of the opinion that synopses, including gospel synopses, are still useful in that they can approximate, although not reach, neutrality or objectivity. He warns editors of synopses to be honest and open with their readers, by spelling out in detail the theory behind the construction of their synopses. According to him, four factors contribute to this construction: (1) the decision as to which textual materials form parallels with other material; (2) the visual display of the textual materials on the page (usually in columns); (3) the common or main order of texts adopted as a framework for the synopsis; and (4) the division of the textual material into units, and, often, the titles given to such units. To these we may add three additional factors, identified by Guy Lasserre in his detailed meta-study of synopses: (5) the ancillary material, such as introductions, notes, and indexes that surround the synoptic textual material proper; (6) the purpose for which the synopsis has primarily been constructed; and (7) the audience towards which the synopsis is directed.
Let us look at each of these factors and their effect on the function of a synopsis, drawing examples from Thyen’s German Qur’an-Bible synopsis as appropriate. First is the question of how parallels are even identified. According to Lasserre (57ff.), parallels are identified via a perception of similar content, such as identical or similar words and phrases, similar themes, or convergent motifs and allusions. As well, parallels may be identified on the basis of a perception of similar form, such as similar genre, structure or style. It is clear that in Thyen’s synopsis, and in any Qur’an-Bible synopsis, parallels will not be identified primarily by strict verbal similarity nor by similarities in form. The similarities by which parallels will be identified are largely thematic, although they may include similarities in literary motifs and allusions. For narratives, the thematic links will comprise similar plots and especially similar, if not identical, characters. For other genres, such as legal, hymnic/psalmic or oracular material, parallels in theme or motif will also be supplemented by perceived similarities in genre, structure or style.
The more important point, however, is that these parallels are usually posited intuitively – there are no clearly defined rules or methods for identifying similarities. And yet it is difficult to formulate such rules with any precision outside of strict verbal similarities where statistical methods can be employed (see Blomberg 1984). This may mean that rules for identifying parallels will or can be formulated only in retrospect, and that a first stab at a Qur’an-Bible synopsis will have to be relatively open-ended. Another strategy may be to use some sort of sigla or a particular font or typeface to classify parallels on a spectrum ranging from near to distant.
A related issue is what to do with these two texts – the Qur’an and the Bible – when no parallels are identified. After all, a synopsis informs not only where it shows parallels but also when it shows the absence of parallels – when one of the columns of the page is blank. Since the Qur’an is much shorter than the entire Bible, and since much of the Bible does not have parallels in the Qur’an (as well, some of the Qur’an has no parallels in the Bible), to try to include both texts in their entirety would make a rather unwieldy product. Nonetheless, it should be kept in mind that the presence of parallels should not obscure their absence elsewhere. Alternatively, of course, some of that white space could be filled with extra-Biblical and extra-Qur’anic material such as commentary, folktale, pseudepigrapha, etc. – this is already done to small extent in Thyen’s synopsis, as in the story of the brother murdering a brother, where rabbinic midrash and mishnah appear as parallels. One could imagine the same being done when the Qur’an presents no parallels to the Bible – i.e. having selections from the tales of the prophets or other Isra’illiyat material in the Qur’anic column when there are no direct Qur’anic parallels to parts of the Bible. Obviously, the boundaries of a synopsis remain somewhat fluid based on one’s procedure for identifying parallels.
Once the parallels have been selected, the next questions concern how they are to be displayed. Usually a number of columns are used, and a particular text functions as the main text determining the order of textual units in the synopsis. This main text usually appears in the left hand column, or in the middle if there are several columns. Thyen has elected to use, in effect, only two columns – one for the biblical material and one for the Qur’anic material (although, as already mentioned, occasionally extra-biblical material appears in the biblical column). The biblical material appears in the left hand column and it is the biblical material that determines the order of this synopsis. The effect, unconsciously, is to privilege the biblical text. Other arrangements, therefore, might be considered, such as making the Qur’anic text the main text, or following an eclectic order in which first one text and then the other is in control. Furthermore, there is no necessity, except for ease of publishing, to adhere to a strict two column format. When more than one Qur’anic parallel to a biblical text exists, for example, the number of columns could be multiplied on the Qur’anic side (e.g. the Qur’an presents the story of Noah or of the Golden Calf multiple times, while they appear only once in the Bible). The same could hold when more than one biblical parallel exists for a single Qur’anic text, although Thyen does not present such an example.
A further element involved in the display of the parallels is the division of the texts into coherent units. Thyen does so, and also gives these parallel units titles. While such a procedure makes the synopsis more user friendly, one should beware how unit demarcation may radically decontextualize texts, and how the assignment of titles may prematurely skew analysis of the parallels. Thyen tries to mitigate this effect by often devising somewhat different titles for the parallel text units.
We will pass over the fifth consideration, that of ancillary material surrounding the synopsis proper, although recognizing the importance of such material for laying out the method and purpose of the synopsis, and for making it more useful. We will pass directly to the last consideration: the purpose and proposed audience. These two considerations are naturally intertwined.
According to Guy Lasserre again, synopses are generally constructed for one of six purposes: (1) for historical research; (2) for text-critical research; (3) for the analysis of textual sources and redaction; (4) for thematic interpretation; (5) for linguistic studies;and (6) for research into literary genres. Conceivably, a Qur’an-Bible synopsis could be used for any of these purposes. When comparison of the Qur’an and the Bible began as an academic enterprise, somewhat distanced from theological polemic, it nonetheless tended to be dominated by source and redactional concerns pertaining to the Qur’an. Thyen firmly rejects this approach, wanting instead, as already mentioned, to put the Qur’anic and biblical parallels side by side for the purposes of dialogue and for more sharply discerning the unique profile of each text. Thyen’s approach could be categorized as thematic interpretation.
As for audience, each approach and purpose calls for a particular audience. But more generally, audiences can also be divided into, on the one hand, specialists, and, on the other, a more general popular audience. It is this second audience, and specifically a Christian one, that Thyen has in mind for his synopsis: he himself addresses those whom he describes as, “Christians and contemporaries stamped by Christian tradition, who live [in society] together with Muslims and are not indifferent to their Muslim neighbours” (Thyen 1989 ; xvi). His remarks near the end of his introduction indicate that he envisions, more specifically, Roman Catholics, as his audience. This selection of audience affects the form of the synopsis. The introduction focuses largely on explaining the Qur’an to persons unfamiliar with it, and the synopsis itself makes the biblical text the main text, thus opening the way, as Thyen says, “from the familiar biblical to the unfamiliar Qur’anic texts” (Thyen 1989: xvii). Of course, for this audience the texts are presented in translation, and the notes are of an explanatory, not a critical, nature.
It is obvious that Thyen’s synopsis, while an impressive achievement and a usable tool for those to whom it is addressed, cannot be adopted, as is, for a more academic audience. Much of Thyen’s synopsis provides foundational material for a more critical Qur’an-Bible synopsis, but all the issues need to be rethought – from the criteria for establishing parallels to the visual display of those parallels.
To conclude, some examples of various arrangements of texts for a potential Qur’an-Bible synopsis will be discussed. They are based largely on Thyen’s synopsis, but show some variations. One needs to keep in mind that there is no such thing as an “all purpose” synopsis – each particular synopsis will inevitably be found wanting. What needs to be avoided is a synopsis that serves blatantly polemical goals. For example, a Qur’an-Bible synopsis of sorts can be found in a recent evangelical Christian anti-Islamic polemical introduction to Islam (Caner 2002: 245-246); it is apparent that its main purpose is not objective or scholarly, but geared to unfavorably contrast Muhammad with a particular image of Jesus.
Now, on to examples that are hopefully more balanced (these examples can be found on the on-line bible and qur’an synopsis). The first example is the story of Adam’s two sons and how one murdered his brother; this story appears only once in both the Bible and the Qur’an so the English translation of both texts can easily be lined up with one another. An immediate issue, however, is which translation of each text to employ (for scholarly use the texts could be presented in their Hebrew and Arabic form). Also at issue is which text occupies the controlling left hand column – one can either place the Qur’anic or the biblical text in that position. It will also be noted that when the material is arranged side by side, it becomes questionable whether the material is sometimes really parallel. This is typical of a synopsis, which begins with similarity but then also highlights difference. Finally, one could add material on the biblical side from midrash and pseudepigrapha to provide parallels to parts of the Qur’anic story that find no parallel in the biblical version.
A second example concerns the presentation of creation texts. Here, the biblical text from Genesis 1-2 would require multiple scattered Qur’anic parallel passages, making for a very complicated layout. Somewhat more simple would be the presentation of stories such as those of Noah or the Golden Calf incident which occur only once in the biblical text, but several times in the Qur’an.
A third and final example includes the presentation of legal texts. For instance, the biblical Decalogue is found in two places (Exodus and Deuteronomy), while Qur’anic parallels to individual commandments are found scattered in at least six or more surahs; thus eight or more columns would be required. Conversely, although the Qur’an contains no exact parallel to the biblical Decalogue as a whole, it does contain a discrete collection of laws in Surah 17:22-39 which can be set in parallel with biblical laws drawn from various places in the Pentateuch. Legal material, like wisdom sayings and other non-narrative material, presents special challenges for a synoptic display.
First, a scholarly Qur’an-Bible synopsis is certainly desirable, but it will of necessity be quite complex, including original languages and translation, critical notes, etc. Such a synopsis should be constructed on a website, which allows for many more options for the visual display of parallels, as well as for hypertext links. It would also make possible ongoing scholarly collaboration.
Second, a more popularized Qur’an-Bible synopsis is also a desideratum, given both the ignorance regarding one text or the other depending on the community, and given the efforts of polemicists on both sides to use comparison of the Bible and Qur’an to further narrow sectarian agendas.
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Caner, Ergum Mehmet & Emir Fethi
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1992 Intertwined Worlds: Medieval Islam and Bible Criticism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Orchard, John Bernard (ed)
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1997 "Objective display or textual engineering? Hermeneutical aspects in making and using a synopsis of the synoptic Gospels", Neotestamentica 31.2: 361-388
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1845 Biblische Legenden der Mohammedaner. Frankfort:
 And likely having a significant influence on the development of historical critical methods of biblical study in Europe – see Lazarus-Yafeh 1992.
 See, for example, Mateen Elass’ Understanding the Koran: A Quick Christian Guide to the Muslim Holy Book (Zondervan, 2000), a publication aimed at lay people, which aims to bolster Christian confidence in the Christian bible by contrasting it as a superior text with the Qur’an.
 This work seems to be based on a prior 1984 publication by a Dietrich Thyen entitled Bibel und Koran im Vergleich, und kleine Koran-Konkordanz, published by Verlag für Christlich-Islamisches Schrifttum in Altenberge, as part of a series, Islam und Christentum, apparently meant to facilitate Muslim-Christian dialogue. Thi work does not contain a synopsis proper, but rather a synoptic table in which references to parallel Qur’anic and biblical texts are listed. Thyen’s synopsis has been published in a third edition by Böhlau in 2000.
 Including a lengthy analysis of Surah 6:95-99 to illustrate the distinct linguistic beauty of the Qur’an.
 In the early Meccan period, no evidence is found of influence from biblical texts; the use of material corresponding with biblical material starts only in the late Meccan period and continues into the Medinan period.
 Five of these are biblical stories and two are the Arabian stories of Tamud and Ad. The aya is, however, traditionally interpreted as referring to the seven ayas of the opening surah al-Fatiha.
 Thyen associates Christian fundamentalism with the Protestant principle of sola scriptura as opposed to the (in his opinion, more positive) Catholic contextual approach. Muslim fundamentalism, at least by implication, he associates with the doctrine of the uncreated Qur’an as opposed to the rationalism of the Mu’tazilis.
 These topics include Prayer and Confession, Testimony and Confession (of Christ), Laws, Freedom and Reponsibility, The Role of the Devil, Revelation and Scripture, Women, and War and Peace. Further topics, such as The Seven Sleepers, Journey to the Water of Life, Unconditional Obedience, Horn, Wall and Gog are really parallels between the Qur’an and extra-biblical elements in Christian tradition.
 These include indexes of biblical references, of Qur’anic references, a Qur’an concordance, a list of names and terms in their biblical and Qur’anic forms, and a subject/person index.
 Examples might include the two biblical calls of Moses (Exodus 3-4 and 6), the two biblical versions of the Ten Commandments, the doublets of the wilderness wanderings, the two versions of the David and Solomon stories in the books of Samuel/Kings and Chronicles, and the various depictions of Jesus in the four gospels.