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The Qur'an in Conversation with the Bible

Subproject by Prof. Dr. Angelika Neuwirth

The observation that the Qur’an does not exist in more than one version, that there are no apocryphs nor pseudepigraphs attached to it, that it has not been submitted to diverging authoritative translations nor to starkly contrasting readings that would have crystallized into different religions, easily blinds us for the fact that the Bible, the scripture that preceded the Qur’an, in this respect is essentially different. The Bible seems to have been from early times onward in need of translation; the earliest Greek version, the Septuagint, dates back to the 3rd century BC. The Hebrew text of the Pentateuch which was read in liturgy in the Hellenistic era needed to be flanked by an Aramaic translation (targum), which often entailed interpretative extensions. Translation presupposes exegesis, in the case of the Bible it was to lay the foundation for the emergence of two rival identity groups: Jews and Christians. Biblical exegesis in Christian hands became the vehicle of a strongly sectarian reading which subordinated the Hebrew Bible to the hermeneutic authority of the New Testament which was considered to entail the key to the ‘true’ understanding of the Bible as a whole. Did this development effect the Arabian milieu of the Qur’an’s emergence as well? Was the epistemic space in which the Qur’an developed – as a majority of scholars holds today - completely dominated by Christian readings of the Bible?

The question is not one of sources. Monotheists in the Qur'anic milieu were - in most cases - not familiar with the codified Bible but with a vernacular manifestation, the "interpreted Biblie", an orally transmitted gamut of homiletically enriched Biblical traditions. It is this manifestation of the Bible that the pious across confessional borders drew on. Not unlike the rabbinic corpus the Qur’an is not a textual fait accompli but needs to be read as the transcript of a communication process. What will be investigated is the textual politics of the Qur'an applied in negotiating Biblical tradition. It has to be contextualized with exegetical practices current in both the Christian and the Jewish schools of exegesis. Screening the text as to its practice of typology, allegory, of de-allegorization and re-allegorization as well as its employment of formal logical techniques of argument and last but not least rabbinic principles of interpretation will allow us to trace the origins of Islam: the process of the Qur’anic community’s development from an isolated conventicle of pious individuals to an independent religious community in possession of a scripture coming up the epistemic standards of Late Antiquity.