The House of David

"dawnbreak in the west"

Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Qur'an as a literary text (but not an historical one)

I am leafing through Professor Angelika Neuwirth's essays, two years ago edited by that author in Scripture, Poetry and the Making of a Community. Some are more helpful than others. To me, anyway...

In several places, Neuwirth tries to demonstrate a diachronic evolution of the Qur'anic thought. But she usually hasn't, first, gone through and figured out which sura quoted what. Instead she assumes the Noeldeke chronology, which is over a century old and most definitely showing its age. From that, she comes up with something very close to the Sira, ostensibly secularised. Well... yeah. Any Muslim could tell her that.

Those of her essays which work best are those which go in depth into a single sura, preferably with reference to non-Qur'anic material. I also appreciate those which run an overview of a topos shared among several suras, without assumptions of when they were composed. "Glimpses of Paradise" and "Images and Metaphors" are good here, respectively. A-priori assumptions are also minimal in the two chapters on suras 1 and 15, a sequence; so those chapters could work. I am intrigued by "From the Sacred Mosque" on sura 17, especially on vv. 2f as a commentary on v. 1.

At times the more "diachronic" assumptions turn out well. I happen to agree with Neuwirth, Noeldeke, and the Muslims overall that the shorter suras generally came first, so "From Recitation... To Canon" works. Even for the larger ones I agree on some of the sequences they assumed. The first Muslims weren't textual critics (that came later, with hadith-analysis) but there are some sequences that are just obvious. For instance 17 > 6 > 2: "A Discovery of Evil...?". I also accept *19:1-33 > 19 > 43 / 21 / 23, with 42 off to the side, as she offers in "Imagining Mary, Disputing Jesus". Although in both I have to quibble over the "Meccan" / "Madinan" comments.

But then there's "From Tribal Genealogy to... Covenant". The latter offers 108 > 102 > 80 > 70 > 90 > 37(!) > 22 > 2 > 3 > 33. Or take "Narrative as Canonical Process": 79 > 37 > 20 > 26 > 40 > 28 > 10! These sequences are so far from mine that I can make little use of the essays which assume them.

And sometimes we agree on the sequence, but Neuwirth spoils the execution. "Oral Scriptures in Contact" has 20 > 7 > 2; which I for one agree is a (much) better run than Witztum's 7 > 20 (and one Neuwirth has demonstrated in essays not included here). But from here she extracts vv. 80-2 as a "Madinan" intrusion to sura 20 and does the same for Q. 7:145-7, 152-3, "155g"-7. Where's the external evidence - even hadiths about sabab al-nuzul, since we're that desperate? and if passages of a text can just be juggled around like this then how can we discuss a "text" at all?

Even here, we have insights of interest. She links these passages to the pre-Zubayrid "Ashura" / Yom-Kippur ritual, and to disputes with the Jews or Judaisers. (We can ignore the "Madina-ness" of these Jews; the context of these passages is Sinaitic.)

So it's a collection with a lot of flaws. But despite them it shows why its author has lasted this long in the field.

PS. Typo on page 353: sura 23 isn't the Mu'min; that's sura 40. Sura 23 is the Mu'minûn, the plural Believers.

posted by Zimri on 15:02 | link | 0 comments

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