Books islam

Impressions of “The Many Faces of Christ,” by Phillip Jenkins, and “The Emergence of Islam,” by Gabriel Said Reynolds

I recently read two books, both of which revolve around the diversity of the Christian church in the middle ages. One of the currents in Christianity, which had proponents in Archbishop Nestorius and the middle east, was that God would never sully himself by actually inhabiting human flesh, having a mother, or a son. Perhaps the best remembered proponent of that belief was the Arab, Muhammad ibn Abudllah.


Early Islamic coin, prominently featuring the “Chi-Rho” sign still found in Christian churches

Our knowledge of early Islam is weak.  The Qu’ran itself is vague — one might say nearly timeless — and most of “early Islamic history” comes from hadiths written centuries after.

Here is a rare, contemporary account of the rise of Islam:

In that period a certain one of them, a man of the sons of Ishmael named Mahmed, became prominent. A sermon about the Way of Truth, supposedly at God’s command, was revealed to them, and Mahmed taught them to recognize the God of Abraham, especially since he was informed and knowledgeable about Mosaic history. Because the command had come from on High, he ordered them all to assemble together and to unite in faith. Abandoning the reverence of vain things, they turned toward the living God, who had appeared to their father–Abraham. Mahmed legislated that they were not to eat carrion, not to drink wine, not to speak falsehoods, and not to commit adultery. He said: “God promised that country to Abraham and to his son after him, for eternity. And what had been promised was fulfilled during that time when God loved Israel. Now, however, you are the sons of Abraham, and God shall fulfill the promise made to Abraham and his son on you. Only love the God of Abraham, and go and take the country which God gave to your father Abraham. No one can successfully resist you in war, since God is with you.”
Bishop Sebeos The Armenian History

Chi-Rho, the first two letters of christ, surrounded by Alpha and Omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet
Chi-Rho, the first two letters of christ, surrounded by Alpha and Omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet

A large fraction of the world’s population believe a book is all you need. Muslims believe that the Qu’ran is eternal, the first born of all creation, existing with God in heaven before the beginning of time. Many Protestants believe in Sola Scriptura, “the book alone,” that the traditions and councils and history of the church are at best irrelevant and at worst harmful, because the Bible has all the answers.

There are two problems with “the book itself.” First, few Christians understand the definition or construction of their book. Second,few Muslims rely on their book alone, because of the incorporation of the hadiths into Islamic jurisprudence.

many faces of christ philip jenkins

The Many Faces of Christ, by Phillip Jenkins, is a story of the writing and editing of the New Testament. Because the New Testament we are familiar with is fixed — Four Gospels, one Acts, several letters to specific churches, and so on — there’s a sense of that’s how naturally it should be. And indeed, virtually every Christian group uses the same four gospels — those according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, as their base. But there the differences begin. Is Acts of the Apostles properly part of the Bible itself (almost all groups: yes), or is it a work of hagiography (writing about holy lives), or is it simply false? What about the Protoevangelium of James, which focuses on the childhood of Mary? Martin Luther tried to remove the Letter to the Hebrews from the Bible… but perhaps the problem is Paul’s letters (like the Gnostics and the Muslims believe).

The mass destruction of these “alternative” books began, not during the reign of Constantine, but during the Protestant Reformation. The Catholic Church’s prohibition against vernacular copies of the bible — but rarely those of “alternative” books (which were not holy and, therefore, simply works of fiction)such as the Cave of Treasures or the Gospel of James — meant those were widespread before the emergence of common-language Bibles. But “Sola Scriptura” meant that such sayings and legends no longer had a place in Protestant Christendom.

The process of creating the Protestant Bible — of perfecting Luther’s “Sola Scriptura” — finished some time after Martin Luther, around 1800. After that year the Old Testament books Luther opposed rarely were included in Protestant Bibles, but the New Testament books Luther opposed were always included in Protestant Bibles.

An example of such extra-Biblical works was the Protevangelium, best seen as Joseph/Mary fan fiction. In this passage, Mary is being raised by the Temple in Jerusalem, and is of marriageable age (12), so the Temple holds a lottery to marry her off:

And when she was twelve years of age, the priests met in a council, and said, Behold, Mary is twelve years of age, what shall we do with her, for fear lest the holy place of the Lord our God should be defiled?

Then replied the priests to Zacharias the high-priest, Do you stand at the altar of the Lord, and enter into the holy place, and make petitions concerning her, and whatsoever the Lord shall manifest unto you, that do.

Then the high-priest entered into the Holy of Holies, and taking away with him the breast-plate of judgment made prayers concerning her;

And behold the angel of the Lord came to him, and said, Zacharias, Zacharias, Go forth and call together all the widowers among the people, and let every one of them bring his rod, and he by whom the Lord shall shew a sign shall be the husband of Mary.

And the criers went out through all Judaea, and the trumpet of the Lord sounded, and all the people ran and met together.

Joseph also throwing away his hatchet, went out to meet them; and when they were met, they went to the high-priest; taking every man his rod.

After the high-priest had received their rods, he went into the temple to pray;

And when he had finished his prayer, he took the rods, and went forth and distributed them, and there was no miracle attended them.

The last rod was taken by Joseph, said behold a dove proceeded out of the rod, and flew upon the head of Joseph.

And the high-priest said, Joseph, Thou art the person chosen to take the Virgin of the Lord, to keep her for him:

But Joseph refused, saying, I am an old man, and have children, but she is young, and I fear lest I should appear ridiculous in Israel.

Then the high-priest replied, Joseph, Fear the Lord thy God, and remember how God dealt with Dathan, Korah, and Abiram, how the earth opened and swallowed them up, because of their contradiction.

Now therefore, Joseph, fear God lest the like things should happen in your family.

Joseph then being afraid, took her unto his house, and Joseph said unto Mary, Behold, I have taken thee from the temple of the Lord, and now I will leave thee in my house; I must go to mind my trade of building. The Lord be with thee.
The Protovangelium of James 8:9-16

The same nonsensical story, of the Temple lottery to determine who would marry Mary, occurs in the Qu’ran

Right graciously did her Lord accept her: He made her grow in purity and beauty: To the care of Zakariya was she assigned. Every time that he entered (Her) chamber to see her, He found her supplied with sustenance. He said: “O Mary! Whence (comes) this to you?” She said: “From Allah. for Allah Provides sustenance to whom He pleases without measure.”

There did Zakariya pray to his Lord, saying: “O my Lord! Grant unto me from Thee a progeny that is pure: for Thou art He that heareth prayer!

While he was standing in prayer in the chamber, the angels called unto him: “Doth give thee glad tidings of John, witnessing the truth of a Word from God, and  noble, chaste, and a prophet,- of the company of the righteous.”

He said: “O my lord! How shall I have a son seeing I am very old and my wife is barren?” “Thus” was the answer “doth God accomplish whatt He willeth.”

He said: “O my Lord! Give me a Sign!” “Thy Sign,” was the answer, “Shall be that thou shalt speak to no man for three days but with signals. Then celebrate the praises of thy Lord again and again, and glorify Him in the evening and in the morning.”

Behold! the angels said: “O Mary! God hath chosen thee and purified thee- chosen thee above the women of all nations.

“O Mary! worship Thy Lord devoutly: Prostrate thyself, and bow down (in prayer) with those who bow down.”

This is part of the tidings of the things unseen, which We reveal unto thee by inspiration: Thou wast not with them when they cast lots with arrows, as to which of them should be charged with the care of Mary: Nor wast thou with them when they disputed.

Behold! the angels said: “O Mary! God giveth thee glad tidings of a Word from Him: his name will be Christ Jesus, the son of Mary, held in honour in this world and the Hereafter and of those nearest to God.

“He shall speak to the people in childhood and in maturity. And he shall be of the righteous.”
Qu’ran 3:37-46

emergence of islam gabriel said reynolds

If The Many Faces of Christ is the process of hacking off “unworthy” texts from the Bible, The Emergence of Islam by Gabriel Said Reynolds is about the opposite process that occurred in the Muslim worlds: how the Qu’ran has been drowned out by the Hadiths in Muslim religious literature.

Hadiths are sayings of the prophet Muhammad.  A biblical analogy might be to King David.  David’s story was written down very quickly — the Book of Samuel seems to have been written during the time of King Solomon and may have known King David.  But the “sayings of David,” the Psalms, were probably written hundreds of years later.

Interesting features of the Qu’ran include that it never calls itself the Qu’ran (“Recitation”), though it repeatedly calls itself “The Book,” “The Book Manifest,” or “Th Reminder,” that the word Qu’ran itself appears to be Syrio-Aramaic and not Arabic, that the Qu’ran repeatedly emphasizes that it was written in Arabic, that the Qu’ran appears to use the Ethiopian version the Torah as a source, and that the Qu’ran, though it references many prophets, saints, the Virgin, and the Messiah, never names a known pagan idol or deity.

Why it has these features is unknown, or at least not described in Reynolds’s book. Rather, Reynolds spends most of it attacking the historicity of the Hadiths, which he argues were written to explain the Qu’ran to a later, and much different, imperial community.

An example of this can be found in the tale of Jonah, which is described in familiar terms in the Qu’ran

And Jonah was surely of those sent.
When he fled to the laden ship,
So he shared with others but was of those cast away.
So the fish took him into its mouth while he was blamable.
But had he not been of those who glorify (Us),
He would have tarried in its belly till the day when they are raised.
Then We cast him on the naked shore, while he was sick.
And We caused a gourd to grow up for him.
And We sent him to a hundred thousand or more.
And they believed, so We gave them provision till a time.
Qu’ran 27:139-148

This is a clear description of the biblical Book of Jonah, and even matches step by step of the veggie tales movie version of it. But later Islamic scholars, writing around the time of the composition of the hadiths, were confused where and when Jonah “fled.” The answer is explicit, indeed ridiculously so, in the opening of the Biblical book – no less than three city names occur in the first three verses

The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”

But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.
Jonah 1:1-3

The Qu’ran was written in a place and time where everyone knew much of the Bible and quasi-biblical literature (the Cave of Wonders, the Torah, the Book of Samuel, the Psalms, the Protoevangelium, the Gospels, and the Letters of Paul all seem to be familiar to the author of the Qu’ran), but by the time the Hadiths were written this knowledge had been lost, and the cultural difference between Muslims, Jews, and Christians had become to vast that using the Book of Jonah as a reference was now out of the question.

A consequence of this view — that the Qu’ran is an ancient text but that the hadiths were written long after to explain to the Qu’ran — is that we know very little of the emergence of Islam. Almost Muhammad’s entire biography may be incorrect, as it is based on hadiths written hundreds of years after his life.

It also means that some odd aspects of the Qu’ran, such as using pronouns without previously identifying the noun, become even more vexing

For instance, in this passage (which begins the book, “The Israelites,” in this passage), who is “His servant,: and what are the “Mosques”

In the name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful.

Glory to Him Who carried His servant by night from the Sacred Mosque to the Remote Mosque, whose precincts We blessed, that We might show him of Our signs! Surely He is the Hearing, the Seeing.

And We gave Moses the Book and made it a guidance to the Children of Israel (saying): Take no guardian beside Me —

The offspring of those whom We bore with Noah. Surely he was a grateful servant.
Qu’ran 17:1-3

In the hadiths, the answer is clear: the references are to Muhammad, Mecca, and Jerusalem.

But Said suggests, the answer can just as plausibly be Elijah, Jerusalem, and Mt. Sinai.

Another example is the “Satanic verses,” where Muhammad approves prayers to three….   somethings…

Have ye thought upon Al-Lat and Al-‘Uzzá
and Manat, the third, the other?
These are the exalted “Gharaniq” whose intercession is hoped for.

The names Al-lat, Al-Uzza, Manat, and the word, “Gharaniq” are words unknown before the publication of the Qur’an. What is interceding?
Most texts will say these are goddesses, but no other pagan gods or goddesses are mentioned in the Qu’ran.  Numerous prophets, angels, and saints, though, are mentioned.  Perhaps Al-lat, Al-Uzza, and Manat are the names of prophets, angels, or saints?

Perhaps they as silent to history as St. Kilda.

Perhaps they are guardian angels?

We don’t know. There is so much we don’t know.

mary mother of jesus in quran

I’m glad I read The Many Faces of Christ before The Emergence of Islam because the Qu’ran’s scattershot approach to the Bible makes more sense in light of how the Bible was assembled. When the Patriarch of Constantinople denied God had a mother, though venerated the Virgin, the Qu’ran’s denial and veneration of the same is less surprising. Likewise, the Quran’s inclusion of apocryphal works (such as the Cave of Wonders or the Protoevangelium) but apparent ignorance of the Wisdom Books, also makes sense when one considers the state of the flux the biblical cannon was then in.

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One thought on “Impressions of “The Many Faces of Christ,” by Phillip Jenkins, and “The Emergence of Islam,” by Gabriel Said Reynolds
  1. As an aside to style/readability, I much liked your “fan fiction” reference and the call out to “Veggie Tales”.

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