Historical story-telling in the Quran

December 20, 2009 at 8:47 pm (Islam, myth and metaphor, why I didn't convert to Islam)

I have been aware, for some time, that the Quran contains historical stories that compare to apocryphal Judeo-Christian sources. I do not think this was a coincidence.

I was always thinking that Muhammad knew those stories and God utilised the stories he knew already.

One possibility is that God was confirming only the parts of the story that were true – like including the angelic announcement to Mary, but not the part that said she actually conceived as a virgin (which I didn’t think made sense in an Islamic context). Leaving room for her to have married in the meantime and conceived naturally. The Quran often seems to subtly change the Biblical stories in ways that make them more credible. Having said that, I still have trouble with some of the stories, such as the ones that attribute apparent natural disasters to the wrath of God. I have written about that elsewhere and it is still not solved for me.

Another possibility is that the stories’ truth or falsehood didn’t really matter but they were being told in the Quran to make some other point. There are a lot of legends in the Quran, pre-existing legends, involving unrealistic things like talking birds, and Muhammad Asad interprets these as literary devices and not literal truth. But why wouldn’t God tell true stories, since He can? Why would He want to make it seem non-supernatural by using these popular legends?

The historical story-telling in the Quran is confusing and to be honest, seems like fragments of oral traditions. There seems to be only one continuous story and that’s Surah Yusuf. Why does that one get told in full and at length? I don’t know. Plus although it tells the story of Lot’s escape from Sodom and Gomorrah in several places, sometimes it says his wife was left behind, sometimes it says an old woman was left behind. Not a contradiction, but it makes it seem like these came from two different orally-transmitted traditional accounts.

It does not merely repeat pre-existing stories though – it definitely makes some changes. The major difference between the Quranic and Biblical accounts of the life of Jesus, for example, is the denial of the crucifixion (if indeed it is a denial – see my post on Jesus in the Quran for discussion on that). This caused me quite a lot of anxiety, because I don’t think there are any mainstream historians questioning the crucifixion event. We cannot build a time machine and go back to check if it really happened, but I definitely find it disconcerting that the Quran appears to depart sharply from the Christian accounts on this point. I could cope better if it said it was only the resurrection that didn’t happen, because this is disputed with the discovery of the Codex Sinaiticus.

Another thing that bothers me about the account of Jesus is that it claims the Injil (Evangel, or Gospel) was a divine book like the Quran, given to Jesus (which has now been lost). The fact is, the gospel is the “good news” that Jesus’ disciples preached of salvation. Again, a bit of mental gymnastics required to convince myself that God spoke to Muhammad through his own (albeit flawed) understanding.

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