By researching the Quran in Arabic and the four Gospels of the Bible in Aramaic, a language common to most of the Middle East in the 7th century A.D., a University of Houston (UH) professor says he has established links between the Quran and the Bible.
“The Quran is part of a larger discussion, it’s not just a holy book. It’s a book of world heritage and world history,” said Emran El-Badawi, director of the Arab Studies Program and assistant professor of Arabic language and literature at UH. “It’s the first book of Arabic literature. It’s written in language that is formulaic and poetic. It’s almost like reading one giant but diversely constructed poem. You can compare reading the Quran to reading the Iliad or the Odyssey from a literary perspective, rather than the Bible, which has was written by many authors and hosts different narratives.”
El-Badawi spent four years researching books and manuscripts in numerous languages, visiting the Corpus Coranicum in Berlin (a central repository drawing on some of the earliest Qurans known in existence) and meeting with experts in Cairo and Damascus. He reviewed archaeological epigraphic evidence, Christian literature, later Islamic literature in Arabic, non-Muslim literature in dialects of Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek and Ethiopic, and the world around the Quran to analyze the depth of the relationships between the Quran and the Bible.
“Much of the recent scholarship on the Quran looks at Christian literature in the Aramaic language. We are learning now that part of the reason the origins of early Islamic history and the Quran are so mysterious is because we’ve not always been looking in the right places; we should be looking, in fact, at Aramaic,” said El-Badawi.
The Quran taps into a reservoir of language and late antique Aramaic literature. He notes many of the Aramaic speakers at the time were Christian; most notably, Jesus Christ spoke Aramaic. Arabic and Aramaic are both Semitic languages and are closely related. The different communities that spoke Aramaic and Arabic were trading with each other and intermarrying. He refers to Aramaic in the 7th century as the common language, “… it was the ‘English’ of the Middle East.”
Many Christians are surprised to learn the Garden of Eden, Noah’s flood, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Jesus, the Disciples, Ezekiel, and Jonas are all referenced in the Quran. He points out that there is a well-developed familiarity with the Bible in the region by the time the Quran comes into existence.
“The references in the Quran to figures in the Bible must not be understood as copying; rather, the Quran builds up on the theology presented in the Gospels and marks a theological shift in the relationship between God and man,” said El-Badawi.
“There was a new worldview, and the author of the Quran and the audience of the Quran knew the Bible fluently. The Quran informs its 7th century audience that there are notions in the Bible that the author accepts and there are some things the author does not accept. What I argue is that this process took a long time, maybe centuries, to account for this inheritance; and so the Quran’s inheritance of biblical material spans a time period much longer than one author – even lifetimes or generations.”
An example El-Badawi gives where the Quran inherits a story and makes a change is in the Gospel of John. The text says that, “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God.” Then it continues stating that Jesus is the light of the world. In chapter 24 of the Quran, the text indicates a theological change to the Gospel of John, stating God is the light of the heavens and the earth.
“This example tells me that in the Gospels, the relationship between man and God is very close. They can touch, so to speak. They can merge. In the Quran, they have been completely separated. The Quran goes out of its way to unlock the two, to dislodge that relationship and say the world of man and God are separated,” said El-Badawi.
El-Badawi’s long-term goal for his research is for people to understand the Quran as important for literary and historical reasons. “My hope is to bring some sobriety, mutual understanding and peace to the world through a literary and academic approach.”
El-Badawi is the author of a new book, “The Qur’an and the Aramaic Gospel Traditions” and is newly appointed executive director of the International Qur’anic Studies Associations. He completed his doctoral degree with distinction from the department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. Prior to that, he completed a master’s degree in religion from Temple University and bachelor’s degree in computer science from Rutgers University.
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