IN THE QUR’AN
pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $26.95
of Peace amid the Clash of Empires
Juan Cole 326 pp. Nation Books. $28
Allah, the God of Muslims, a different deity from the one worshiped by Jews and
Christians? Is he even perhaps a strange “moon god,” a relic from Arab
paganism, as some anti-Islamic polemicists have argued?
about Allah’s apostle, Muhammad? Was he a militant prophet who imposed his new
religion by the sword, leaving a bellicose legacy that still drives today’s
new books may help answer such questions, and also give a deeper understanding
of Islam’s theology and history.
Miles, a professor of religion at the University of California and the author
of the Pulitzer-winning book “God: A Biography,” has written “God in the
Qur’an.” It is a highly readable, unbiasedly comparative and elegantly
insightful study of the Quran, in which he sets out to show that the three
great monotheistic religions do indeed believe in the same deity — although
they have “different emphases” when it comes to this God, which accounts for
their divergent theologies.
begin with, one should not doubt that Allah is Yahweh, the God of the Bible,
because that is what he himself says. The Quran’s “divine speaker,” Miles
writes, “does identify himself as the God whom Jews and Christians worship and
the author of their Scriptures.” That is also why Allah reiterates, often with
much less detail, many of the same stories we read in the Bible about Yahweh
and his interventions in human history. The little nuances between these
stories, however, are distinctions with major implications.
for example, the story of Abraham, which is so central to both the Bible and
the Quran. Miles examines Abraham in both and highlights a key difference: In
the Bible, Abraham is presented as the father of a great nation that will
multiply and inherit a holy land. “To your descendants I give this country,”
Yahweh vows, “from the River of Egypt to the Great River.” In the Quran,
however, the stress is on Abraham as the great champion of monotheism against
idolatry: His biggest mission is smashing the idols — a story foretold not in
the Bible, but in an ancient rabbinical exegesis of it, a midrash. “Yahweh is a
fertility god,” Miles provocatively suggests, whereas “Allah is a theolatry
god” — theolatry meaning the worshiping of God alone.
story of Moses, again a crucial one in both the Bible and the Quran, comes with
similar nuance. In the Bible, the great mission of Moses is to liberate his
people, the children of Israel, from the yoke of the Pharaoh. In the Quran,
too, Moses rises up against the Pharaoh, but his main problem is that the
Pharaoh and his people worship false gods. Yahweh “wants to defeat Pharaoh,”
Miles observes, for he has “no intention of ever becoming Egypt’s God.” In
contrast, Allah wants to convert Pharaoh and to make all Egypt, monotheist.
such scriptural comparisons, Miles gets to the core of the Abrahamic matrix:
The monotheism that the Jewish people developed over the centuries was
inherited by Islam and was turned into a global creed. All the national
elements within Judaism, meanwhile, were then muted.
about Christianity, the third, and the largest, piece of the matrix? It seems
to be, just like Islam, an universalisation of Judaic monotheism. But
Christianity introduced a new theological element to the scene — a divine
Christ and triune Godhead — which proved unacceptable to both Judaism and
Islam. In the chapter comparing the Quran with the New Testament, Miles shows
this by explaining how Islam rejects Christian theology, while showing great
respect for Jesus Christ and Mary. He also sees “a brilliant symmetry” in how
Islam combined Judaism’s criticism of Christian theology with Christianity’s
criticism of Jewish particularism.
book underlines other distinctions between Yahweh and Allah. The former comes
across as more disputable and “less absolute and overwhelming.” Allah, on the
other hand, appears as more “compassionate.” And while Allah offers both great
promises and threats for the afterlife, Yahweh is focused on this world.
observing such nuances, Miles, a Christian, is as objective, fair and gracious
as one can get. In the beginning, he declares his own “suspension of
disbelief,” which means letting go of his non-Muslimness and reading the Quran
on its own terms. At the end, he turns back to his faith and reminds us: “The
Bible is my Scripture, the Quran is theirs.” Yet by reading the latter with
respect, he thinks non-Muslims can find it “a little easier to trust the Muslim
next door, thinking of him as someone whose religion, after all, may not be so
who take the time to read the Quran may end up feeling a bit baffled, though. For
they will hear a lot about Abraham, Moses, Joseph or Jesus, but almost nothing
about the person they may be expecting the most: Muhammad. For while the Quran
often speaks to Muhammad, it almost never speaks about him.
is why the Islamic tradition developed a post-Quranic literature on the life
and times of Muhammad, recorded in the books of Sira, or biography. And
a cutting-edge version of Sira comes from the pen of Juan Cole, a
professor of history at the University of Michigan and the author of the
popular blog Informed Comment.
book, “Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires,” is not just
eruditely informative, but also ambitiously revisionist, with two unorthodox
arguments he keenly advances throughout the book.
first argument links the birth of Islam in early-seventh-century Arabia to the
major geopolitical conflict of the time — the clash between the Christian
Byzantine Empire based in Constantinople and the Zoroastrian Sasanian Empire
based in today’s Iran. Cole’s starting point is the Quranic Sura, or chapter,
titled “Romans.” “The Byzantines have been defeated in a nearby land,” it
reports, but also heralds that their victory will come soon, adding that “on
that day, the believers will rejoice.” This famous passage has traditionally
been taken as an indication of sympathy among early Muslims for Christians as
fellow monotheists against pagan enemies. But Cole thinks there is much more to
it, postulating an alliance with Rome in which Muslims became “members of the eastern
Roman Commonwealth.” It is an interesting theory to consider.
second argument is more important. Going against familiar if not frequent
militant images of the Prophet Muhammad in the West, he portrays Islam’s
founder as a peacemaker who wanted only to preach his monotheism freely and who
even tried to establish “multicultural” harmony.
first years of Muhammad’s mission, which he spent as the leader of an oppressed
minority in Mecca, provides ample evidence to support this argument. The next
decade in Medina, during which swords were unsheathed and battles were fought,
complicates it. Cole solves the problem by advancing the explanation that
modern Muslims typically offer: All these wars by the Prophet Muhammad were
“defensive” in nature, fitting into a vision of “just war.”
goes as far as rejecting some of the violent episodes attributed to the Prophet
Muhammad as later fictions by belligerent Muslim empires. These include the
most disturbing incident of all, the massacre of the male members of a Jewish
tribe in Medina for collaborating with the pagan besiegers — a story doubted
also by a few Muslims, including myself. Cole may be the first, though, to
doubt the Tabuk Expedition, a would-be battle between the armies of the Prophet
Muhammad and the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius.
of Cole’s well-intentioned hypotheses, clearly aimed at challenging
Islamophobia, may never be proved. But he is demonstrably right in concluding
that Islamic orthodoxy deviated from its foundations by “abrogating” the
peaceful and tolerant verses of the Quran, by reserving salvation only to
Muslims, or by adopting some cruel practices like stoning. Beneath this thick
layer of what became Islamic tradition, there is a more uplifting image of the
Prophet Muhammad, waiting to be discovered not just by non-Muslims, but also
many Muslims themselves.
Mustafa Akyol, author of “Islam
Without Extremes” and “The Islamic Jesus,” is a senior fellow on Islam and
modernity at the Cato Institute.