TAC Bookshelf for the Week of November 26
Casey Chalk, contributor: No religious text originates in a vacuum. Anyone who has taken an introductory Bible course at a secular university is remedied of such conceptions quite quickly. So it is with the Quran, the first text offered to the world in the Arabic language. Scholars in past generations have argued that the Quran’s background can largely be described as pagan and Jewish. Notre Dame professor Gabriel Said Reynolds contests this in The Quran and The Bible by arguing that Islam’s sacred text should be studied in reference to Christianity and Biblical literature. By this term is meant not only the Christian canon of Scripture, but post-Biblical, pre-Quranic Jewish and Christian writings, which encompassed a shared “sacred history among Jews and Christians.” Reynolds’s objective in this impressive tome—a 1,000 page commentary of the Quran—is to demonstrate the depth of that “conversation” between the Bible and the Quran.
Curiously, the Quran contains no direct citations of the Bible. Moreover, many of the references to Scripture depart from the original text. Much of this, Reynolds notes, is related to the Quran’s peculiar theological and prophetological concerns, which makes many figures of the Old Testament into prototypes of the prophet Muhammad. This raises a further question for Reynolds, given that the Quran often departs from the Biblical narrative. According to the Quran, Abraham’s father was Azar, not Terah; Ezra was known as the “Son of God”; Haman, the central antagonist of the Book of Esther, is in Egypt rather than Persia; and the same pharaoh that raised Moses is the same pharaoh Moses confronts when he later returns to Egypt. Reynolds charitably notes that “the best thing that can be said” regarding these errors is that the writers of the Quran know the Bible as an oral tradition, transmitted by Jews and Christians. One might less charitably say that the Quran’s understanding of the Bible is corrupted and deficient.
Reynolds’s observation leads to another that will be discomfiting to pious Muslims—that “there is simply no compelling academic reason… to refuse categorically the possibility that the Quran has multiple authors and/or editors.” Such a theory would explain why the Quran, like Scripture, possesses such a diversity of material. Reynolds acknowledges that there are “theological reasons” why one would refuse this possibility. Of course, historians’ province is not to make judgments about the divine character of sacred texts—but the diverse origins of the Quran present a difficulty for any Islamic theology unwilling to consider a human, historical dimension of the text.
This is especially the case when Reynolds’s careful scholarly work demonstrates the Quran’s extensive reliance on Syriac texts: the Syriac Gospels and the post-Biblical Syriac Didascalia Apostolorum, preeminent among them. The author’s analysis of Surah 12, Joseph, for example, is a salient example of how closely the Quran is drawing upon Syriac Christian literature. For those interested in reading and contemplating the Quran within its broader historical and theological context will find this an invaluable resource.
Hunter DeRensis, editorial assistant: The book I finished reading most recently is Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost. The book is a deep dive into Central Africa during the scramble by European powers in the late 19th century to colonize the continent.
What became the “Congo Free State” was a special case. It was not ruled and administered by a European government, but by one European monarch. Between 1885 and 1908, the entirety of the Congo fell under the jurisdiction of King Leopold II of Belgium, who ruled the 900,000 square mile country as his personal fiefdom. Under his oversight occurred one of the worst genocides of the modern age.
A man obsessed with personal wealth, Leopold geared his personal colony towards the exploitation of native rubber trees and ivory. Men were forced at gun point into the jungles to collect rubber, while their wives and children were kept in cages as bargaining chips. Whole villages were massacred when rubber quotas were not met. To ensure no bullets were wasted, a devilish receipt system was instituted where for every bullet shot by the Force Publique (the colonial paramilitary force), a human hand was to be collected. One bullet, one kill, one hand.
Stories describing hills of severed hands, vultures so gorged on human flesh they couldn’t fly, and Belgian officers carrying out the most twisted and satanic abuses abound. A lack of hard data prior to 1920s era censuses make numbers hard to crunch. But it’s reasonable to say that over the decades roughly 10,000,000 Congolese were murdered, starved after being looted, or died of smallpox. That’s half the colony’s population. In a culture that both dramatizes and pushes the Holocaust in literature, film, and public education, it’s eerie to consider such a massive genocide so unknown to modern ears.
Hochschild’s book reads like an action movie, which shouldn’t be a surprise. Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness is about a journey into the colonized Congo, and its storyline would serve as groundwork and inspiration for Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.
Conrad isn’t the only name that jumps from the page. The book separates itself from normal nonfiction due to a larger-than-life cast of characters. King Leopold himself, the “Silver Fox,” whose clever propaganda and media manipulations kept the world’s eyes averted for years. George Washington Williams, an African American and Civil War veteran who after writing the first academic history of blacks in America, traveled to the Congo and publicly refuted Leopold’s propaganda in print. Henry Morton Stanley (of “Mr. Livingston” fame), the Welsh journalist-turned-explorer who mapped out the Congo on Leopold’s behalf, taking pot-shots at natives for target practice along the way. Leon Rom, the Belgian Force Publique commander who decorated his villa with human heads. And E. D. Morel, the ordinary shipping company clerk who in his own words “stumbled upon a secret society of murderers with a King for a croniman,” and who established the first international human rights campaign to free the Congo Free State.
I had the sometimes-grim pleasure of reading King Leopold’s Ghost at the recommendation of Professor Benedict Carton. An expert in African history (specifically South Africa), his enthusiastic and animated teaching-style is one of the best enjoyments George Mason University has to offer.