Article Review: ‘Fire Cannot Harm It’: Mediation, Temptation and the Charismatic Power of the Qur’an
Author: Travis Zadeh
Published: Journal of Quranic Studies, Vol 10 Issue 2, 2008, pp. 50-72
Reviewer: Louisa Maynardt
The article in the Journal of Quranic Studies is not the usual fare for a review but it speaks to themes of sanctity and purity that have been discussed on the WWS website and in the i-view course. It addresses questions about the material Qur’an, that is, the divine word in its physical form as a book on earth.
The article helps those who are involved in theological conversations with Muslims to engage more meaningfully through the questions they ask and the topics they select. For instance, the Bible and the Quran are often compared as divine or sacred books and the roles of Jesus and Muhammad as founders of Christianity and Islam respectively. But this article makes clear that such comparisons can obscure rather than help understanding. The article also challenges assumptions about Muslim practices of ‘magic’ or ‘folk Islam’ where the verses or parts of the Qur’an are used in protective practices, often dismissed as superstition. It suggests that there is a deeper resonance with Christians in the search for healing and presence of God expressed in these practices.
Zadeh’s article charts historical interpretations of the role of the Qur’an in Muslim life. It is an academic article with many technical and Arabic terms but it is written in a reasonably accessible style. The introduction is particularly helpful with more specialist discussion in the latter parts. The heart of the matter is the nature of revelation and how the transcendent takes shape, or inhabits, the created world. The idea of the divine word coming to earth in Muslim debates will remind Christians of questions surrounding debates about the work and person of Christ. It will also resonate with Jewish dialogue partners who hold that the Torah was ever-existent with God. Zadeh mentions that the idea of a heavenly code was a common idea in the ancient near East (p. 51) and may therefore speak to other traditions as well.
The article makes clear that the Qur’an is not principally a book of theology, that is, a book that reveals God. The Qur’an presents itself as the uncreated word of God that is eternally with God. The phrase ‘mother book,’ (Q43:4) or ‘heavenly tablet’ (Q 85:22) is used to describe God’s word in the heavenlies that becomes known in the lifetime of the Arabian Muhammad in the 7th century. The Qur’an thus sees itself as a “miraculous intrusion of the divine into human history” (p. 50) and Muslims, as such, see the material Qur’an as bringing with it the presence of God. The article links the Hebrew word shekhina (the presence of God’s glory), with the sakina of the Qur’an (p. 51). The ideas of eternally present Word that with God and becomes his presence on earth echoes John 1:1 where “the logos becomes flesh and dwells among us.” The Qur’an in this way presents itself in the role of Christ, rather than the Bible, in Muslim life.
In Muslim interpretation, the idea of the Qur’an as material trace of God’s presence in the world leads to different thoughts on the written Qur’an, as we have it today. Questions arise about whether it may be touched by the ‘impure’ or not (p. 52), and how it is to be read or displayed. As the history of interpretation develops, the understanding of the Qur’an as sanctified object also develops to include belief that the Qur’an will intercede for believers on the Day of Resurrection (p. 53). This leads some Muslim understanding of the role of memorisation (hafz) as an attempt to possess the Qur’an internally, and in this way to be protected by it (p. 53).
Zadeh discusses differences in Muslim interpretation which can be obscure to the non-specialist (mainly pp. 56-60). However, it’s worth persevering because his discussion about the effects of hearing the Qur’an makes an explicit comparison with Christian practice. On p. 60 Zadeh explains how, in some Muslim traditions, the sound of Qur’anic recitation can be likened to the doctrine of transubstantiation, “positioning the sounds heard during recitation as themselves equal to divine speech” that enter into the body through the ears. The sounds affect material change in the body in a similar understanding of the eucharistic bread and wine (divine body and blood) that is ingested into the human body. The question that really tests this idea in Islam is whether the Qur’an, the word of God, can withstand fire (pp. 53-6). The implications are whether the one who has memorised the Qur’an will be protected from Hellfire.
In conversation with our Muslim neighbour, Christians may reflect on their beliefs about the Afterlife and what they consider to be their salvation from eternal damnation: wherein is their salvation? They may wish to think further about the role of the Holy Spirit in their everyday walk and also whether the Holy Spirit is Saviour. Christians who do not live with overt purity codes, may want to reflect on who or what they hold to be sanctified, and how they may come into the presence of a holy God.
For Jewish believers – how is the Torah the eternal word of God? How does it dwell in the person?
For Catholic and Orthodox Christians – how does the Eucharist save? Where is the presence of God outside of the times of Eucharist?
For Protestant Christians – how do Jewish, Catholic and Muslim conceptions of ‘indwelling’ compare to the role of the Holy Spirit? Does the Holy Spirit save or protect? If so, from what?
For all Christians – How do we think about the logos that was sent down to us at Christmas time, the Word becoming flesh?
For Hindus – what is it about fire that ‘dislodges’ the transcendent from the material?