Book Note | The Bible in Arabic

by Josh Mugler in

Sidney H. Griffith. The Bible in Arabic: The Scriptures of the 'People of the Book' in the Language of Islam. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013.

Sidney Griffith, now professor emeritus at the Catholic University of America, has long been one of the most respected voices in the scholarly discussion of Christians living in the Middle East before and during the early Islamic period. His latest monograph, The Bible in Arabic, takes up those longstanding concerns and expands them in new directions to fit the breadth of its topic, leading its reader on a tour from pre-Islamic Arabia to early modern Europe in search of Arabic translations of the Bible.

Griffith begins by addressing an old commonplace among scholars of the Qur’an, namely that the Christians with whom the Arabic scripture is in dialogue must have been members of otherwise little-known “heretical” sects with beliefs and practices placing them on the fringes of Christian identity. This has long been a scholarly way of explaining what seem to be strange attacks on Christian orthodoxies within the Qur’an, such as its suggestion that Jesus may have told his followers to worship himself and his mother as two gods alongside the one true God. Scholars have scoured Arabia for centuries on a quest for evidence of “Mariolatrous” sects of Christianity, yet Griffith argues, here as elsewhere, that the Christian communities in the audience of the Qur’an were more or less mainstream members of the three major sects of world Christianity at the time, and that the Qur’an’s seemingly strange polemics should instead be seen as intentional rhetorical twists on Christian ideas.

This issue of identification aside, much of the first half of the book is devoted to determining the date and context of the earliest written Arabic translations of the Bible among both Jews and Christians, and particularly whether there is any evidence that such translations may have been in existence before the advent of the Arabic Qur’an, as argued by Hikmat Kachouh and other scholars. To make a long story short, Griffith finds no conclusive evidence for such an early date, and in fact argues what may be a somewhat counterintuitive point: that the publication of the Qur’an was itself the major catalyst for Jewish and Christian efforts to translate their own scriptures into the newly dominant regional language, and that the influence of the Qur’an upon the lexicon and style of classical Arabic in turn means that these translations are necessarily marked by numerous Qur’anic turns of phrase.

If there is one unifying argument to the book, it is that the early translation and use of the Arabic Bible was a process thoroughly marked by the interreligious intellectual atmosphere of the early caliphates. Christians and Jews who translated their scriptures, or portions of them, did so not only to address the liturgical and intellectual needs of their own newly Arabophone communities, but also in response to the challenges posed by debates and discussions with their Muslim counterparts. Biblical passages were translated in ways carefully calibrated to answer questions raised by Muslim interlocutors, including theological challenges from the Qur’an, philosophical points of debate, and criticisms of the deficiencies of biblical style. Naturally, Jews and Christians responded to each other at the same time that they responded to Muslims. In this way, not only were Jewish and Christian beliefs and practices shaped by their interactions with Islam, but their sacred text itself was made a partner in the ongoing interreligious dialogue. Thus, even if Arabic Bible translations are of little use in determining the “original” biblical text, they are certainly helpful in discovering the interpretations and uses of scripture current in their own time and place, and Griffith criticizes other scholars for failing to pay attention to manuscript details such as liturgical markings, marginal notes, and introductions by the translators.

In addition to the production and use of the Arabic Bible by Jews and Christians, Griffith discusses its use by Muslims, including an extended case study of the story of Abraham as told by the ninth-century Muslim scholar al-Ya‘qubi. Griffith argues that all Muslim uses of the Bible, whether drawing on preexisting Christian and Jewish translations of the text or on conversations with living Jews and Christians, have been shaped by the Qur’an’s unique “prophetology,” ably set out in Chapter 2. Again, some Western scholars have struggled to understand why the Qur’an includes details of biblical stories that are not found in the canonical biblical text, or even contradict it, with some arguing that the Qur’an is simply misinformed about the details of these stories. Griffith argues, to the contrary, that the Qur’an is intentionally reshaping these stories to put forward its vision of the ways that God and God’s prophets interact with humanity, which may or may not align with the biblical versions of those stories as the Christians and Jews have them. Later Muslim scholars take a similar approach, often happy to draw on the Bible to fill in details left fuzzy by the Qur’an, but also very willing to cast aside anything that contradicts their scripture. The idea, common among Muslims, that Jewish and Christian scriptures have been “corrupted” from their original meaning, whether in text or in interpretation only, facilitates such a selective relationship to the biblical text.

The Bible in Arabic, like Griffith’s career as a whole, covers a wide range of geographical and chronological settings, from pre-Islamic Arabia to the monasteries of Palestine and the intellectual salons of classical Baghdad. The book ends with modern European approaches to the Arabic Bible and the massive shifts that have taken place in the scholarly environment such that Western Christians often dictate the terms of new Bible translations, moving away from the Qur’anic milieu of the earliest Arabic Bibles. Griffith opens a window onto an earlier scholarly world, showing how the production of the earliest Arabic Bibles—and indeed the production of Arabic Christianity, Judaism, and Islam as a whole—has been from the beginning a thoroughly interreligious endeavor.

Josh Mugler is a Ph.D. candidate in theological and religious studies at Georgetown University
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