Surah 3 Imran
Continuing the series in which an Anglican priest, trained as an early medieval historian, reads the Qur'an.
Though one might attempt to divide Surah 3 into sections (and it may indeed contain verses edited together), to my mind the surah seems best understood as a diptych of 200 verses, the first 100 are (apparently) directed to unbelievers and are made roughly of 3 sets of 33; the second 100 are directed at believers. I shall treat the two sections in two separate posts.
Part 1 of the surah clearly marks a step up in the existential challenge to belief we saw at the end of Surah 2, The Cow. The first 32 verses emphasize repeatedly the danger of divine judgement on those who refuse to believe. We should note, however, the nature of this judgement: it is categorically God’s alone. Believers are merely to warn, not to threaten or (worse) carry out God’s judgment themselves.
The causes of unbelief are considered two-fold. Predictably, and in common with many religious traditions, one cause is the preference for earthly rewards over heavenly ones (NB in both cases these rewards are apparently perceived from a purely male point of view). More curiously, alongside this, unbelief is also linked to the nature of revelation itself. It appears that in God’s sovereignty, some verses of 'the Book' are ambiguous in meaning and others not, and the former have become a source for dissent.
Yet what is this 'book'? Is it the Qur’an itself? If it were we would face the bootstrap problem: can the Qur’an refer to its own reception history? Perhaps - if we imagine a gradual process of revelation, and if this surah refers to the way earlier parts of the Qur'an were received.
However I think it more likely that 'the book' here means Revelation in general: the Torah and Gospels in totality. What is being referred to mainly in part 1 of this surah is Jewish and Christian disagreement. Indeed this will underscore the significance of the following section which offers an extensive presentation of a distinctively Muslim view of Jesus as an apparent alternative to the differing views of Christ offered by Jews and Christians.
Interestingly this notion of ambiguous revelation gives rise to the idea that God alone knows the true meaning of Scripture (a meaning which will, of course, uniquely be revealed to Muhammed). This is however an interestingly radical apophatic position regarding scriptural hermeneutics. Again, this is grounded in a continual reassertion of the sovereign nature of God, and the appropriate human response of submission ('islam'). This appropriate human-divine relationship is underlined by the 'sign' of the outcome of the Battle of Badr where the faithful minority were vindicated by trusting in God rather than by might (or indeed by making alliances with unbelievers).
This opening section gives rise to a rather beautiful prayer which crucially (in the light of what follows about the nature of Jesus) culminates in praise of God’s unique powers over life and death:
Say ‘Lord, Sovereign of all sovereignty, You bestow sovereignty on who You will and take it away from whom you please; You exalt whomever You will and abase whomever You please. In Your hand lies all that is good; You have power over all things. You cause the night to pass into day, and the day to pass into night; You bring forth the living from the dead and You bring forth the dead from the living. You give without stint to whom You will.”The second third of part 1 of the Surah (roughly vv. 34-66) now appears to take a rather surprising biblical turn, and much ink has been spilt over the undoubted similarities between this passage's description of Mary’s own birth and her conception of Jesus, and the very similar accounts found in non-canonical texts (the Protoevangelium of James and the so-called Pseudo-Gospel of Matthew, an analysis of which I shall perhaps treat in a separate posting).
Following on from the previous section’s focus on dissent among (presumably) Jews and Christians, the key feature in this section is the claim that Jesus is created by divine fiat, rather than by divine conception. This account is claimed to be a new divine revelation that settles once and for all the aforementioned ambiguity of Scripture that has resulted in these disputes.
The climax of the first section (on Jesus) is the assertion that God has no consort, and that Jesus is not the divine offspring of (for example) sex with Mary. Interestingly – since it contrasts with later statements about Jesus’s disappearance and denial of crucifixion – though unclear it appears here that Jesus does nevertheless appear to die and is ‘taken up’ to God, and that this is in keeping with God’s (earlier affirmed) sovereign powers over life and death.
Orthodox Christians will of course have little problem in agreeing with much of this, for what the text actually appears to refute is a biological view of Jesus’s spiritual origins. There are even hints of a slightly higher Christology: Jesus is a ‘Word’ from God (my translation has ‘word’, but Arabic does not capitalize) whom God, in an echo of the New Testament accounts of Jesus's baptism, is said to 'favour'.
After the discussion of Jesus, the text moves very briefly on to the theme of dispute about Abraham: is he a Christian or a Jew? One may perhaps see here a trace echo of Jewish-Christian disputes and a continuation of the argument articulated by Paul. The answer here is: Abraham is simply one who submits, i.e. in Arabic muslim, but which elides as ‘a Muslim.’
Abraham’s appearance here is though only apparently cursory. It is in fact the beginning of the final 33 verses of this first half of the Surah and which culminate in the account of Abraham’s foundation of the world’s first shrine at Meccah, and its importance for Muslims. After the Jewish-Christian dispute about Jesus, this final third thus serves to lift up Abraham as a unifying alternative figure (ironically, echoing Paul’s rhetorical use, and making Abraham a founding figure for a third world religion). Mecca is, in implied contrast to Jerusalem a kind of new ‘beacon to the nations’ to which, in a recurrent appeal to ‘People of the Book’, Christians and Jews are called. (The ‘Book’ here meaning the total revelation in whatever form, if unadulterated.)
As I also hinted at in my discussion of the previous Surah, there is also an element of struggle here for the 'soul' of the people. What is new though is a more noticeably apologetic attempt to situate Islam as a rival alternative to the (perceived) doctrinal mistakes of (many) Christians and Jews about Jesus (though their ethical lives are affirmed). The first 100 verses of this surah are thus carefully constructed around an argument whose direction moves from judgement, via an examination of Jewish-Christian dispute, to the unity of all those who submit and who gather around the symbolic figure of Abraham and the place of his shrine: Mecca.