Quran Read-A-Long: Al-`Imran 1-9 Discuss the Quran Itself

We’ve reached the third surah! What’s more, verse two begins with a very important affirmation that we’ve discussed before: that there is no deity but God. Why important other than the obvious truth of the matter? Because Mohammed had to make it clear to the Quryash and other Arabs that Allah was the only God and that the secondary daughter deities that they worshiped and had shrines to were not real.

Verse three is a noteworthy internal affirmation of the Quranic revelation. The idea, as Asad seems to interpret it, is that whatever still remains so of the Torah has its verity confirmed by the Quran wherever the Quran speaks of similar things. We’ve discussed that the Quran believes the Torah and the Gospels to be corrupted. I have agreed that the Torah is not a single text but actually a series of interwoven texts (this theory is known as the Documentary Hypothesis). What I am particularly interested in at this moment is the Injil, or what the Quran believes the Synoptic Gospels are based on – a more accurate Gospel of Jesus. Is this document the same one that biblical scholars believe exists – the document known as Q? Or is this more similar to the Torah situation in which there is believed to be a complete and accurate document that lacks corruption and tells the story of Jesus’ life exactly as it happened (the implication here being that scholars don’t believe that Q is necessarily the truth so much as a document closer to Jesus and which the documents we have would have been partially based on)?

It seems significant that the directly stated verses are the “essence of the divine writ,” though there are many other verses that are allegorical in nature and require more strenuous mental searching and understanding. I think this is for the benefit of everyone who reads the Quran. All Muslims – not just the wise – should be able to read the Quran, God’s word, and take away from it the most important points, values and rules. There are plenty of simple people in the world and they should not be intimidated by reading the Quran and hearing God’s word: they should have the pleasure of knowing what God wants from them on their own. This speaks to the Islamic lack of clergy (which I think is awesome, by the way) because Muslims don’t require someone else to tell them what the Quran says. It is God’s word right to their ears. Similarly, Muslims don’t need any sort of intermediary through which to offer their prayers, whether a preist or Jesus (or Mohammed, as the case may be). Their prayers go right to God – perhaps in part because they are able to undersand God’s simple and most important words for themselves.

What are your thoughts about these verses? Please feel free to answer any posed questions or just address your own issues with the opening verses of Al-‘Imran.

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Al-`Imran 1-9

In the name of God, the most gracious, the dispenser of grace:

1. Alif. Lam. Mim. 2. GOD – there is no deity save Him, the Ever-Living, the Self-Subsistent Fount of All Being! 3. Step by step has He bestowed upon thee from on high this divine writ, setting forth the truth which confirms whatever there still remains [of earlier revelations]: for it is He who has bestowed from on high the Torah and the Gospel 4. aforetime, as a guidance unto mankind, and it is He who has bestowed [upon man] the standard by which to discern the true from the false. Behold, as for those who are bent on denying God’s messages – grievous suffering awaits them: for God is almighty, an avenger of evil. 5. Verily, nothing on earth or in the heavens is hidden from God. 6. He it is who shapes you in the wombs as He wills. There is no deity save Him, the Almighty, the Truly Wise. 7. He it is who has bestowed upon thee from on high this divine writ, containing messages that are clear in and by themselves – and these are the essence of the divine writ – as well as others that are allegorical. Now those whose hearts are given to swerving from the truth go after that part of the divine writ which has been expressed in allegory, seeking out [what is bound to create] confusion, and seeking [to arrive at] its final meaning [in an arbitrary manner]; but none save God knows its final meaning. Hence, those who are deeply rooted in knowledge say: “We believe in it; the whole [of the divine writ] is from our Sustainer – albeit none takes this to heart save those who are endowed with insight. 8. “O our Sustainer! Let not our hearts swerve from the truth after Thou hast guided us; and bestow upon us the gift of Thy grace: verily, Thou art the [true] Giver of Gifts. 9. “O our Sustainer! Verily, Thou wilt gather mankind together to witness the Day about [the coming of] which there is no doubt: verily, God never fails to fulfil His promise.”

Topical Tuesday: How Historical Should Historical Fiction Be?

I’m going to have to preface this with the qualification that I’m a historian by training, specializing in Judaism, Christianity and comparative religion. This makes me, for all intents and purposes, a little biased when it comes to my opinions on the necessary degree of historicity of historical fiction.

The Benefits of Historical Fiction

But this doesn’t mean I’m not a fan. It actually means I love historical fiction, because I think, when done well, historical fiction can provide a flavor and understanding of a time and place that is missed amidst facts and theories and trying to understand the whys of history. Historical fiction allows us to imagine dimensions of historical circumstances not previously thought about by creating characters with personalities and lives that before were only a series of dates and events.

Moreover, by including a complex story in a finite amount of space the disconnected facts can more easily be visualized as a multitude of simultaneously occurring factors and motivations that coalesced in that which we consider to be the relevant moments. That reflects history better than many history classes can. Though this is often the goal of historians – to properly blend the whys and hows in order to arrive at the historical circumstances in question – historical fiction allows far more people to achieve this outcome and see the beauty of the events as the historian might wish for them to be seen.

Good Historical Fiction

There are some television shows right now that I think do a particularly great job: Mad Men and The Tudors, to name but two (The Tudors is a complicated issue though). One book that I found to be particularly well done historical fiction was The Last Jew. Another excellent one was Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, by Christopher Moore, written as a lost gospel and the parts of Jesus’ life that are entirely absent in the Bible. Truly excellent stuff.

How Historical It Should Be

That said, I expect an incredibly high level of competence and understanding on the part of the author before s/he undertakes a project of historical fiction. A veritable expert s/he must be. I think it’s fine to invent people that don’t exist and conversations that didn’t happen amongst people that did, and to create new events so long as they don’t distort history. It’s a difficult line to walk.

I think that the characters who were real should reflect all current and respected scholarship on the personality of that character, though interpretive liberties are obviously acceptable so long as the character does not become someone else. If, in the Tudors, Henry VIII were portrayed as a courteous, non-self-centered, timid fellow, I would be pretty put off. Historical fiction should seek to better explain and bolster what we do know and our understanding of the people or era under discussion – as well as to entertain of course. Changing known historical events, which isn’t to say embellishing, is unacceptable.

I also think that all historical fiction should come with an explanation by the author of what’s being done: the goal, what’s being changed and what liberties taken, what’s not, why these decisions were made, and anything the reader should know to be able to differentiate between history and historical fiction. There’s nothing I hate more (hyperbole) than someone with a poor knowledge of history (or religion) reading historical fiction and then thinking that what they read is all true and having no way to differentiate the true from the invented. Case in point, The DaVinci Code.

First of all, horrible book – so bad I wanted to rip my own head off. Worse still, that a friend of mine thought he understood the fine points of Christian theology and the truth behind Christianity and the Church after reading this book. Yes, we are told up front that places and works of art are being described as they are, but I don’t think that helped everyone. Even if it was a sufficient explanation, the book itself sucked: three page chapters with suspense that turns out to be nothing at the end of every one. I thought I was reading R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps again.

But that’s more than enough from me for now. What do you think about historical fiction? What’s important to you and how historical should it be? What are your favorite works of historical fiction and why?

Check out Chandler’s different take on the matter HERE.

To read some other Topical Tuesday posts, click HERE. To read Fun with the Bible, click HERE.