I love reading, and naturally I tend to have a strong opinion on books. Although the Qur’an (the holy book of Islam) and the Bible have influenced me, I was actually introduced to the power of books before I had read either of these religious texts. When I first read (in my teenage years) Theodore Dreiser’s book, The Genius, close to the end of that book I cried. I was captivated by that work. Without any regard to the literary merits of the novel, I think it showed me that books have the power to affect us.
If an ordinary novel could have that much power, think how much influence the Bible or the Qur’an or the Bhagavat Gita or Thus Spoke Zarathustra could have. But a book’s power is not limited to affecting individuals. It affects a whole society as the book is read, interpreted, and used like a symbolic capital in everyday life. Because books are so powerful, I bet as a Christian you would like to know how the two most influential books in human history, the Bible and the Qur’an, are similar or different from one another.
In this post, I will show you the subtle differences between these two sacred books that affect our perception of them. After you read it and think about its implications to your faith, I doubt that you will be able to look at the Bible and the Qur’an the same way as before. However, before we jump into riding one of the most controversial and politically muddled topics of our age, I will lay down my cards so that you know what my angle is.
First, although I’m a Christian, I write this post from a secular point of view. I won’t refer to God. I won’t say that this book comes from God and the other not. I will treat both books simply as texts like any other text and highlight their literary features. But remember that both of these books speak about a deity, so no matter how much we claim to approach them from a secular standpoint, our approach has its own limitations if we don’t ignore the themes of the texts.
Second, writing from a secular point of view does not imply a pure neutrality. Being neutral is almost impossible, especially concerning the humanities. Any mindful person with some knowledge in the philosophy of science, hermeneutics, and psychology would tell you that. However, choosing one side does not necessarily equate to injustice. I write informed by my faith commitments as one who cares about world, Islam, and Christianity. I write with compassion, charitable discernment, from personal experience, and informed by years of study of Christianity and Islam. I personally side with a faith in Christ, which should not be understood to mean Islam is bad or invalid or inferior to Christianity.
Third, I assume that all ancient texts are a mixture of insights that later generations agree with some and disagree with others. There is no pure, golden, all-good, or all-bad text. So I will articulate both the positive and negative outcomes of the features I see in the Bible and in the Qur’an.
Can We Actually compare the Bible and the Qur’an?
Yes, we can compare the Bible and the Qur’an because both of them are books, and both of these books come from closely related regions of the world: the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Moreover, the Qur’an mentions Jewish and Christian scriptures. The Qur’an shares certain characters (Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus etc) and stories (about the flood, the burning bush, Christ’s miracles) with the Bible.
Just pace through the literature devoted to Muslim-Christian relations or the history of the Qur’an, and you will see comparisons between the Qur’an and the Bible. In short, we have notable reasons and a long scholarly tradition that establishes a reasonability of comparing the Qur’an and the Bible. This is not some hype or apologetic maneuvering. It is the real deal.
But the books also have differences. For example, some of the miracles of Jesus mentioned in the Qur’an are not mentioned in the Bible. I personally compare them as a person who is intimately familiar with both texts (full disclosure: I was a Muslim many years ago).
The Bible vs. the Qur’an
1.Scope and variety of recorded human experience is richer in the Bible. But they are more focused in the Qur’an.
As a historical record, the Bible registers a wide array of human experiences that spread across time and space. In Lamentations, you will find grieving; in Song of Songs, youthful love; in Amos, warning; in Isaiah, hope; in Ecclesiastes, weariness with the world. The letter to Philemon comes across as personal. The Book of Amos was written in Hebrew in ancient Israel; Philemon was written in Greek in Asia Minor. These books written in different languages and different places show how the Bible has recorded human experiences stretching over space and time.
The Qur’an, also a historical record, registers human experiences filtered through the lives of one or two generations and is confined to a smaller area than the area denoted in the Bible. In the Qur’an, we hear Islamic revelation only through the prophet Muhammad and only in his presentation. It does speak about a variety of human experiences and does have topical variety, but the richer topical variety of the Bible is absent from the Qur’an.
So the Bible is richer (having a greater scope of covered territory, more diverse human experiences, and more topics) than the Qur’an when it comes to registering the human experience. On the other hand, this makes the Bible more confusing to people. The Qur’an is more precise and certain because the scope of its territory and of human experiences is much narrower.
Practical lesson: When you read the Bible, be prepared to find things that may offend you or disagree with your understanding of the world. When you read the Qur’an, expect more frequent repetitions of main themes in various forms.
2.Scope and variety of perspectives is more diverse in the Bible. But they are more unified in the Qur’an.
The Bible has many authors, so it gives us a variety of perspectives. Just read the book of Job and its daring questions about God’s justice. Then compare it with Paul’s pious insights about God in Romans. Even in the Gospels that speak about one and the same person, we see various perspectives. Luke’s Gospel emphasizes one thing while Matthew’s another. All these perspectives give us nuances and make the Bible a true-to-life book. It is a not a math book or scientific report dissecting some concept through abstractions. It is a book about real humans struggling to make sense of their lives in the context of God’s revelation. So in a sense, the Bible is a concave lens. When God’s light passes through it, the Bible spreads it.
The Qur’an, obviously from a secular point of view, has one author: the prophet Muhammad. We hear in the Qur’an the speeches of other prophets given in snippets, like Abraham or Jesus, but they are all given from the prophet Muhammad’s perspective. His voice and his perspective are overwhelming and defining. Whether it is God’s voice that the prophet Muhammad mediates without his own contribution or other prophets’, we hear one and only one prophet’s voice. This is not bad in and of itself, but I believe it leaves less room for the struggle from questions we bring into our faith that is so prevalent in the real world. So in a sense, the Qur’an is a convex lens. It gathers the light that passes through it and focuses it.
Practical lesson: When you read the Bible, be open; wrestle with the Scripture. When you read the Qur’an, understand that a lot of contextual information is connected to prophet Muhammad’s life and without them it might be confusing to appreciate the text.
This is it for first part of the post. Stay tuned for the second part. If you liked the post, please share it on the social media. Let others benefit from the post.