A Bridge of Stories - Marlies ter Borg
You have before you a unique anthology of stories told in both the Bible and the Qur'an. It starts obviously with creation, which in both books took six Days or divine periods. It continues to describe the creation of man and woman, who in both books dwell in the Garden of Eden, until they are forced to leave paradise through a fault of their own. It figures the sons of Adam, Cain and Abel, and the first murder. Then the great flood is described which destroyed human and animal life on earth, except for those who had boarded the ark of Noah. In both books Abraham nearly sacrifices his son, and Lot confronts the lusty masses of Sodom. Joseph is left by his jealous brothers, sold as a slave to Egypt, there to rise to power. Both books relate his near seduction. Moses is put to water by his anxious mother in both books, later to save his people from Egyptian oppression. David fights Goliath in both books, becomes King and is a gifted psalmist. His extremely capable Solomon receives the queen of Sheba in both books. Job suffers and is healed and even Jonah gets swallowed by a big fish in Bible and Qur’an. The parallels continue in the New Testament. Zacharias receives heavenly news about the miraculous birth of his son John as Mary does about Jesus, who is well-loved and respected in both Christianity and Islam. Jesus lives a life of peace and healing, supported by his disciples in Bible and Qur’an. In both books God lifts him up to heaven, there to act as witness or judge on Judgment Day. Both books show how the inevitable reckoning of the individual’s life and deeds follows a day of destruction, when earth and sky make way for heaven. Those on the left descend into hell in both books, and those on the right are lifted into paradise.
Thus this anthology follows the well known stories from the first Day to the Last; from Creation of the Universe to its destruction leading to the Day of Judgment. All these well known stories are told here as it were in their own words. Quotes have been taken from Qur’an and Bible and arranged to show the very similar storyline developing on both sides.
According to the Qur’an Jesus or ‘Isa is emphatically not the son of God because God, typically unlike humankind, neither begets nor is begotten. Jesus, who is also called the Christ, the anointed one in the Qur’an, does not die on the cross. Indeed. ‘Isa is a great prophet, born of the virgin Mary, who received a Holy book as did Moses and Muhammad. ‘Isa is lifted up to Heaven as he is in the Bible. But neither he nor Muhammad or any other human being is, or indeed needs to be the Savior. In the Qur’an it is up to individual men and women to show remorse and to regain paradise by deserving it, as Adam and his wife did before them.
Such are the two stories behind the stories, similar in so many respects different in a few. It is for the reader, plodding steadily from Alpha to Omega, or browsing through the chapters at will, to compile a personal necklace from the gems Bible and Qur’an have on offer.
Thus the reader can follow the storyline from one chapter to another. The quotes are arranged here in a novel way: systematically side by side. The Bible quotes being the oldest are placed reverently on the left. The more recent Qur’an quotes are placed on the right. Sometimes the stories are not immediately parallel. Thus the Quranic story of fratricide refers to the sixth commandment which in the Hebrew Bible is linked to the story of Moses. Such digressions are recognizable by the different shade. The same method of selection and arrangement is used to deal with three legal issues that have been at the center of recent controversy: the position of women, penal law and international law, especially regarding war.
Law is often prohibitive. It tells us what not to do. A special chapter is reserved for a more positive approach to human behaviour: common values and virtues, formulated in both books to encourage motivating men and women to ‘do their best’.
The first and last chapter, aptly named Alpha and Omega, deals with common attributes ascribed to God in both Bible and Qur’an. They act as it were as the starting and ending point of a rainbow, a divine arch over the stories and issues in which humankind is the central focus. Even the attributes of God are described in quotes, in ‘the Author’s own words’, whoever that may be. In that sense, I am not the author of this anthology, simply its compiler.
For the reader’s convenience, this compilation has been structured so that each chapter can be read separately. The parallel structure and subtitles make it possible to follow the similarities and differences closely, step by step. The stories are kept brief; some elaborations and most repetitions that occur in the Qur’an and the Bible are omitted, to increase readability. Careful mention of sources makes it easy for the reader to go back to the context in both books.
Each chapter is introduced by a short preview, explaining what the reader can expect. The characters are introduced. Similarities and differences in the storyline are briefly mentioned. These introductions are as short and objective as possible. I make no attempt at interpretation. Neither are the stories placed in the context of other relevant texts such as from the Talmud, Church Fathers or the Hadith. No judgment is made, on the assumption that the readers can and will make their own judgment in a variety of ways.
That a variety of interpretations the texts are possible and indeed often enlightening is shown by the guest introductions and intermezzos. In chapter 2 Nur Moch Ichwan from Indonesia elaborates on the concept of tolerance, which lies at the root of this book, as it lies, in his view, at the root of Islam. In chapter 3 I specify the methods and limits of this book, as any author should in an academic publication. In chapter 4 Andrew Rippin discusses the academic and historic context of this side by side, which although novel in its own way, is nevertheless embedded in the past. Whilst stressing the limits of the approach he ends with an invitation to the reader hear the musicality of both texts in their individuality.
As Nur shows, interfaith dialogue is very much a personal matter. It is a dialogue between humans, each with their own background. This is why I have asked a handful of experts from a variety of backgrounds to write a short piece on a specific theme, appearing in one or more specific chapters. These experts are not only academics, but have concrete practical experience in the dialogue between Academics, Christians and Muslims. They were asked to give us an anecdote from their experience, showing how reading texts from the ‘other’ faith entails a typically human, emotional response. Thus in the first intermezzo Herman Beck, a Dutch Islam expert and practicing Christian tells us how his Indonesian students reacted to reading the creation story from Genesis. In ii Barbara Stowasser from Washington explains how surprised her students were by the egalitarian character of the Qur’anic story of Adam and his wife. In iii Khaled Abou el Fadl expresses the longing for brotherhood, as a counterpoint to the story of fratricide. In the forth intermezzo I give myself room to show how sharing the stories on Mary has given me a surprising new image of the mother of Jesus as a highly educated woman. In intermezzo v. on Individual responsibility and the Afterlife Mehmet Pacaci, Tafsir expert from Ankara, explains the figurative meaning of Judgment Day. In vi. he shows how a shadow of dread fell over his audience of Christian Methodists when he dealt with the concept of hell, and how it was sublimated into a deeper understanding of the concept of paradise. As a backdrop to the chapter on legal aspects of the role of women, Martha Frederiks, a Christian expert from Holland with a missionary background, expresses her surprise at finding a number of colorful stories about inspiring women she met in the Qur’an. Khaled Abou el Fadl closes the row with some reflections on various attributes of God, which are to be found in both Qur’an and Bible.
Thus a small sample is given of ways in which stories can inspire and surprise readers as they did experts in the field working in an interfaith setting. This is of course no more than a sprinkling, a small posy of daisies in a field full of flowers. Indeed, the emphasis is not on completeness but on freshness. It must be refreshing, even to those with knowledge of Islam, Judaism or Christianity, to read the stories as they appear side by side. Too often we come to texts with minds formed by interpretations into which we are ready to bend any and every quote we encounter. In this anthology the reader is asked to postpone judgement, in order to take a fresh look at stories which have over the centuries provided new inspiration time and again. Even apart from religious meaning, the texts assembled in this anthology are part of world literature which, ancient as they may be, deserve a fresh look today.
In spite of my objective of being objective, I must confess to an underlying subjective stance which has governed not only the selection, but the very idea of producing this anthology. My aim has been reconciliation through mutual understanding. It is the same drive that inspired the quotes from Obama and El Fadl which introduced this book. That there are and have been tensions between the faiths, from whose books I have plucked is no news. In this anthology I have chosen to highlight similarities whilst respecting differences. I have chosen to do so, not on a high level of abstraction which is the prerogative of theology, nor on the concrete level on which the media like to focus, but on something in between, which is accessible to all human readers; that of stories which unravel around special human beings the faiths share. I feel and hope that the charming and dramatic stories, common to both Bible and Qur’an and presented side by side in this anthology, will act as so many bridges, ready for anyone willing to cross.