The following is an excerpt of my conversation with Dr. Michael Birkel at Eralham College, in which I make a distinction between studying the Qur’an and studying tafsir–i.e. the rich tradition of Islamic commentary. For the full text of this and many other insightful conversations please see Qur’an in Conversation, ed. Michael Birkel, 2014.
One thing that I argue in the first chapter of my book, The Qur’an and the Aramaic Gospel Traditions, is that there exists some serious sectarian and missionary activity in the environment of the Qur’an. Some Muslims feel uncomfortable when I say that, and fear that I am subjecting the text to a secularizing or even orientalist reading. In such cases I say, “no, I’m reading the Qur’an and you’re reading tafsir, the commentary that came about later on.” The Qur’an discusses the sectarianism of its day explicitly, a small sample of which can be gleaned from such words as shiqaq, “division,” ahzab, “parties,” and when it talks about groups or sides. The Qur’an is adding its voice to a multiplicity of competing theological and legal schools and proposing its own to be the correct one.
To push this argument further, some Muslims are hesitant to look at such texts as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, or the Protovangelium of James. Muslim tradition is not based, as it were, on such texts but rather on exegetical, prophetic and biographical literature—tafsir, hadith, sirah, and so on—which flourished about two centuries after the Qur’an. However, in the pre-modern Muslim scholarship of the ninth to sixteenth century, widely accepted authors like ibn Qutaybah, Tabari, al-Suyuti and others were looking at and debating the textual context with which the Qur’an is in dialogue. I say “in dialogue” because it is talking to the audience of those texts. In the fifteenth century, in his multi-volume Tafsir, al-Biqa’i considers the canonical Gospels—that is, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—to be the injil referred to by the Qur’an. Most Muslims today would not agree with that. And yet this line of thought was afforded some space within Islam in the past. And al-Biqa’i was a scholar in high regard. Unfortunately, the difference of opinion that was considered rahma, “mercy,” among classical Muslim scholars, has long disappeared today. In some cases this problem has been exacerbated by “post-colonial baggage.” And so today we have tremendously bright scholars before the vast sea of knowledge and wisdom that is the Qur’an, but we have discouraged them from plunging their buckets deep into the waters, as our predecessors used to. My instinct is always that much of this problem is informed by political rather than academic challenges.
I hope and feel that I am reviving my own tradition, which has a rich scholarly history. I am not alone; there are others. Within the Islamic world you have someone like Yusuf Zaydan, a historian and historical novelist who has written a number of best sellers in Egypt. He says that as Muslims we need to truly study the pre-Islamic world. Otherwise our knowledge of that world is reduced to cheap miracles. For example, if the meaning of a word in the Qur’an is not entirely clear—like the mysterious unconnected letters ALM, HM, and so on—there is a temptation to identify it as a miraculous utterance. At the same time, when the first Muslims scholar had recourse to such an idea, it followed a lengthy process of research and inquiry. (pp. 46-47)