We have a fresh opportunity to reflect about the quranic Noah.
At this point professor Carlos A. Segovia isn’t going to speak about his views on the quranic Noah but he also speaks about the quranic studies too.
Alukah: Journal ofIslamic Literature
Carlos A. Segovia
Carlos A. Segovia, PhD
Lecturer in Quranic and Islamic Studies
Saint Louis University – Madrid Campus
Co-Director of the Early Islamic Studies Seminar
The Quranic Noah and the Making of the Islamic Prophet:
A Study of Intertextuality and Religious Identity Formation in Late Antiquity
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – Tension, Transmission, Transformation, 4
Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter, 2015.
An interview with the author, by Abdul-Rahman Abul-Majd
Abdul-Rahman Abul-Majd: I’d like to know why you chose to write on the quranic Noah.
Carlos A. Segovia: Well, I wanted to write on quranic intertextuality. My view is that, as a rule, the formation of late-antique religious identities undergoes a complex process whose multilayered sequence may be summarised as follows: (1) unclear dissemination of vague identity markers against a brewing background of common texts, ideas and practices; (2) re-dissemination and re-semantisation of such markers along new ad hoc but still fuzzy lines or axes of crystallisation; and (3) the final promotion and consolidation of these as framing vectors of a new, well-defined religious identity. Put differently: what usually begins as a juxtaposed set of indeterminate flows, gradually transforms into an agglomeration of interdependent clusters before narrowing into a well-defined realm, thus paving the way to the formation of a new religious community with its own set of ideas, its own text, and its own characteristic practices. Intertextuality is a privileged window to that process: scripture in a broad sense (for we need to look at the developments of parabiblical literature just as much as we do need to look at the transformation of biblical literature itself) encouraged multiple readings and appropriations, multiple lines of flight that produced new thought-worlds. We should approach religions as prisms.
I thought the quranic Noah narratives could prove helpful to explore this kind of development. Just an intuition at first, but not a capricious one perhaps, as they emerge here and there throughout the quranic corpus, they mirror themselves, they implicitly or explicitly refer to other texts and documents which they rework… And since I had already studied the ways in which Noah’s figure, with its many reworkings, had proved so very fundamental in the making of pre-rabbinic Judaism and earliest Christianity as apocalyptic religions (whatever their concurrent and/or later developments), I wanted to check whether this might have been the case with Islam, as well. That was, say, my dice throw – and it did work! For, through a very creative re-reading of several previous texts (the New Testament passages that equate the days of Noah with the end of times, Ephraem and Narsai’s writings, etc.), the quranic Noah narratives helped to strengthen the eschatological credentials of the quranic prophet, and then those of Muhammad, in the most fascinating ways one could ever think of – and hence to legitimate his mission and to make of him the prophetical referent of a new religious community. So I am really grateful that De Gruyter accepted this project and determined to include it in its JCIT series.
Q: Could you show how the quranic Noah is to be approached? What did you find in reading between the lines?
CAS: Noah is normally seen as little more than one of the many prophets mentioned in the Qur’an, a prophet among other prophets. In a way, this is true. His story is told in the Qur’an as a warning and a reminder: “Remember what happened to the people of Noah, they rejected his warnings, and were punished by God – will you not take heed?” This type of punishment stories abound in the Qur’an, whose emphasis on the imminent coming of the “Hour” is very explicit against any claim to the contrary.
Yet in my view it would be wrong to stop there! Even within the Qur’an’s punishment stories, the Noah story plays an outstanding, unparalleled role. There is no other punishment story in the Qur’an so often repeated, no other punishment story with so many versions and significant variants in it. Also, it is by far the longest of these kind of narratives, not only because there is a whole sura dedicated to Noah in the Qur’an (sura 71), but because, originally, this particular sura and the Noah narrative in sura 11 very likely formed a textual unity – which means that the study of the quranic Noah narratives may, additionally, help to shed light on the history of the composition of the quranic corpus.
More importantly, they do not just provide another model for the quranic prophet, who is repeatedly introduced in the Qur’an as a biblical prophet (which, of course, forces us to question the naive view that he preached among and against pagans). Reading between the lines, an amazing and elsewhere unmatched identification takes place: at a given point (Q 11:35, 49), the quranic Noah and the quranic prophet exchange not just their roles, but also their very own identities, so much so that it is difficult to tell anymore who is who. Furthermore, if put together in a sequence, the quranic Noah narratives build little by little a prophetic biography, and they do so around a few key-episodes which will be later used by the authors of Muhammad’s “biography” (Sira) to frame his life and teachings.
Lastly, there is a likewise intriguing stock of previous Noahic elements which did not make their way into the quranic Noah narratives but, nonetheless, are indirectly reused in the Qur’an to describe Jesus, and then Muhammad in the Sira literature and other texts. Now, these elements are not only apocalyptic in their nature, they are overtly messianic and thus point to something really remarkable to which due attention has not been paid so far, however: namely, that during, say, a blink, a tiny but nevertheless significant blink in the emergence of Islam as a new religion – for such view was later abandoned, or at least marginalised – Muhammad was thought of as a new Messiah. Needless to say, this challenges our view of Islam’s origins in a very profound way.
Q: Could you elaborate on the relation between the quranic Noah and the re-mapping of early Islamic history?
CAS: True scholarship is always about remapping, remapping this, remapping that, and so on. So it should not surprise us that early Islamic studies are no longer what they used to be just a few decades ago. New problems have been allowed to enter the field, new tools and methods are being explored in it, and as a result our concerns have changed dramatically. In short, there is a kind of paradigm shift in the making, and this is certainly good news! The major shift that has taken place has to do with the problem of how should the emergence of Islam be re-approach and studied. Wether we like it or not, we can no longer rely on the traditional grand narrative of Islam’s origins; pretending otherwise would be like explaining the emergence of the earliest Christ-believing groups by relying on the author of Luke-Acts, who offers a rather monochrome picture of Christian beginnings centred upon what s/he retrospectively imagined as Paul’s mission; or like accepting the Mishnaic and Talmudic legends about Yavneh as the actual birthplace of rabbinic Judaism.
We need to move beyond such narrative and ask questions: Was pre-Islamic Arabia dominated by polytheism? Which were the connections between the Hijaz and the Yamama, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, Himyar (Yemen) and Aksum (Ethiopia), Syria and Iraq on the eve of Islam? How did the Byzantine/Sassanian confrontation shape the politics of, and foster the development of competing religious trends in, the late 6th- and early-to-mid-7th-century Near East? How flexible were the different religious denominations that co-existed there, and how did they interact and exchange? Was there a clear-cut beginning to the process that, towards the last decade of the 7th century or the first decade of the 8th century, but surely not before that time, resulted in the formation of a new Arab state with its new religion, Islam? And what about this process itself, was it as homogeneous and continuous as we often presume it was?
But together with this historical questions, other must also be formulated so as to gain a better understanding of the Qur’an as a late-antique document: What is the Qur’an? Is it a book or a corpus? And if a corpus, what kind of corpus? Which is the number, provenance, and nature of its constituting elements? How can we differentiate between its various layers? Where, when, why, how and by whom were they produced and edited? Which religious milieu, or milieus, may be said to better represent the background, or the successive and even eventually simultaneous backgrounds, against which the composition of the quranic corpus must be placed? How long did the process last? When was the quranic corpus collected? And when did it become the canonical book we all have in mind when we refer to the Qur’an? As I have already mentioned, examining the intertextual connections of this marvellous corpus – that is to say, exploring the Qur’an’s intertextuality or hypertextuality – is but one out of the many tasks we should happily assume, and analysing the quranic Noah narratives in particular a possible vehicle for that.
Of course, one can close that door, renounce to make any questions and cling to the traditional narrative of Islam’s origins. Alternatively, one can try to find a sort of balance between the traditional interpretation of the Qur’an and the new readings that its scholarly examination requests today. But I think it is more honest to go all the way wherever it takes us. It is absurd to pretend that this is dangerous or offensive, and ridiculous to label such option as “revisionist.” Scholarship consists in revising everything inasmuch as it consists in re-mapping and rethinking everything. And I have many Muslim students, great Muslim students (SLU Madrid is a wonderful place to teach, and this Fall semester in particular has proved really exceptional in this sense!) who perfectly know how much I do respect their religious beliefs and that I do not work on the Qur’an in the way I do aiming to destruct their religious convictions. I simply try to show them how very fascinating the Qur’an is from a historical point of view, and that such a sophisticated document invites us to approach it with a sophisticated lens. The fact that, at some point, it became what it now is is an altogether different story, a very interesting story indeed, but a different one. If you want to know what the Qur’an means for Muslim believers, you need to go and study the Islamic tradition, which opens a fantastic world of re-interpretation for this document, and be both sensitive and friendly towards the beauty of Muslim life, religion, and culture. But studying the Qur’an as a scholar is another thing, it means to be captured by the document’s pre-canonical story, which is full of uncertainties.
Besides, it would be unfair to affirm that Islamic tradition has always been reluctant to explore at least some of these uncertainties. Islamic tradition is richer than we think. My Muslim students know this, as well. So they are not afraid to think freely. And when I show them that, as a late-antique document, the quranic corpus is a kind of dialogical prism that helped to lay the foundations of a specific religious dialect within a common religious language shared by Christians and Jews alike, and that dialects are living entities waiting for new developments, they fully understand that by presenting to them their own religious tradition as one whose textual beginnings are less clear (i.e. more fuzzy or ambiguous) than we fancy, I am inviting them to partake in, an expand towards the future, an open dialogue we should all engage in to build a more peaceful world. I take this to be my responsibility as a teacher, for I like teaching as much as I like scholarship. But it is also a kind of Deleuzean conviction I cannot give up: exposing subject-type individuations/identities to the richness of the unexpected and the creative openness of the virtual (ideal but not abstract, real but not given), and thus exploring its potentially new molecular combinations is just how we should all live. I am grateful to a very dear friend of mine, Sofya Gevorkyan, who dreams to open one day a philosophical school sensitive to this issues, for having recently reminded me how very important, transformative and unrenounceable this conviction is. And I must thank too Daniel Boyarin for his fabulous example as a scholar in this respect.
Q: You mention in your book that Angelika Neuwirth and Nicolai Sinai fear that intertextual explorations of the Qur’an might at times be suspected of serving underlying political agenda, namely of aiming demonstrate that the Qur’an is no thing and assert Western superiority…
CAS: I think I have responded to this question in my previous answer. Neuwirth and Sinai are far from being the only scholars worried about this. Honestly, I do not care what they are worried about. I do not even really understand what they are worried about. Yes, there are “revisionist” scholars of early Islam – as they would put it – whose purpose is to deconstruct Islam’s very foundations in order to show that formative Islam was little more than, say, a Christian heresy, or a deviant Jewish offshoot with Arab overtones, or something else but anyway miserable, or inferior to the West, etc. I am not interested in this, either. I am just interested in scholarship. That is to say, I am not interested in how badly scholarship may be eventually used by the scholars themselves or by other people. Indeed, everything can be used in many good and bad ways alike. But there is something I believe in, namely that historical- and cultural criticism is not a colonialist tool to be imposed on Muslims. What would be colonialist – very paternalist, and hence very colonialist – would be to pretend that Muslims cannot think critically because they are Muslims. Just like it would be stupid to think Muslims or any other human collective will ever remain the same through history. The future is open, the present is open. To assume it, Muslims need not look to the West, although there is nothing inherently bad in looking to the West; in fact in our world there is no more East and West, or fortunately there is everyday less and less of that divide that stands firmly or unquestioned. Muslims just need to re-affirm two concepts of their own: ijtihad (roughly, independent, rational thinking) and ta’wil (which can in turn be translated as symbolic, i.e. non-literal hermeneutics). That is all they need to do, and in fact many Muslims are already willing to do it and doing it. The intertextual exploration of the Qur’an is a path that can be easily traversed with the help of these two concepts, and a fascinating one to get lost in for that matter.
Q: You would wish to thank Gabriel Said Reynolds, Tommaso Tesei, and especially Guillaume Dye for their comments and critical insights on several sections on your book.
CAS: Oh yes, certainly! Gabriel Reynolds, who is also working on the quranic Noah, was very nice to suggest to me several readings that proved really helpful in my study of the quranic Noah narratives. And I can say the same about Tommaso Tesei, who is a very remarkable young scholar of the Qur’an and a very nice guy too. As for Guillaume Dye, well, he is fantastic, and we do share so much indeed! From the very beginning he supported my work, made me revise many things, and encouraged me to expand it. We work together in many things, and gladly so. Naturally, our views differ in several important issues, but his objections are always precious. We form a team, with Manfred Kropp (whom, without knowing it, opened for me the field of early Islamic studies with his lectures at the College de France, which I had the fortune to watch online in the late 2000s) and Emilio Gonzalez Ferrin, my colleague at the University of Seville in Spain. In 2013 we launched together the Early Islamic Studies Seminar: International Scholarship on the Qur’an and Islamic Origins, and since then we have managed to recruit more than 50 wonderful international scholars from different fields. Our first meeting in Milan in June 2015 was a great success indeed. But this would not have been possible without the collaboration of the Enoch Seminar: International Scholarship on Second Temple Judaism, Christian, and Rabbinic Origins, to whose founding director, Gabrielle Boccaccini, I would like to express my gratitude – for this and for how he welcomed me to the Enoch Seminar in 2009. And there are many, many good friends and colleagues I would also need to thank for their generous help and insights. Scholarship is always a solitary move, but it is always played in community, it needs friendship to grow.
Abdul-Rahman Abul-Majd: Thank you very much, professor Segovia.
Carlos A. Segovia: Oh, on the contrary – thank you very much indeed for this opportunity!
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