'God in the Qur'an' continues Jack Miles's journey through religions

Readers who marveled at the passionate intellectual pyrotechnics of Miles's two books will notice almost immediately in this third installment that something seems fundamentally changed.

God in the Qur'an By Jack Miles Knopf Doubleday 256 pp.

Historian and Biblical scholar Jack Miles won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for his book "God: A Biography," which, ironically enough, was so memorably effective mainly in the ways it abandoned both history and Biblical scholarship. Instead, in the course of the book, Miles performed a virtuoso feat of literary reconstruction by reading the Hebrew Bible as though it were not only one seamless work from a single author but also the work of a first-rate contemporary biographer somehow ideally placed to observe the nature and personal growth of this Person named Yahweh. 

The conceit shouldn't have worked. Not only was there no authorial unity to the Old Testament's concepts about the nature of God (sometimes He's a disembodied spirit; at other times He's only one among a pantheon of gods, etc.), but there was also total agreement that whatever His nature, God was something vastly different from human. The very idea of psychological growth would be alien to Him – it would be like trying to get a Pacific typhoon to take a personalty quiz.

And yet, all throughout "God: A Biography," sparks of pure genius fly in all directions. It was a masterful performance, and it was repeated in 2001 when Miles came out with "Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God" and turned his methodology on the New Testament, trying to dissect the psychological maelstrom represented by the notion of God incarnating Himself as a mortal man and handing himself over to be killed at the hands of His own most troublesome people. 

The two books, one delving into the Hebrew Bible and the other into the New Testament, seemed naturally to call for a third, using the same unorthodox approach to analyze the God of the third Abrahamic religion, Islam. On one level, this is what Miles's latest book, God in the Qur'an, sets out to do.

Readers who marveled at the passionate intellectual pyrotechnics of those previous two books will notice almost immediately in this third installment that something seems fundamentally changed. Miles is still an engrossing storyteller and a very capable teacher, here organizing his material around a handful of key figures from earlier scriptures: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and Jesus. The raw mechanics of the approach are on one level similar, with the author taking up specific moments or characters or stories and giving them a solid shaking. But everything hits a wall. 

Miles starts by dismissing the idea, occasionally expressed by Islamic apologists, that he's actually comparing apples and oranges. “While the Jewish and Christian scriptures, which came to completion centuries before Muhammad was born, do not ever speak of the Qur'an, the Qur'an does speak of Torah and Gospel, which are important parts of the Jewish and Christian scriptures,” Miles writes with his typical clear-spoken patience, “and no attentive literary interpretation of the Qur'an can fail to concede that its divine speaker certainly does identify Himself as the God whom Jews and Christians worship and as the author of their scriptures.” 

In the characterization throughout this book, Miles has God – Allah – as the speaker of the Qur'an (Muhammad claimed only to hear everything from the angel Gabriel; the assumption here, and throughout Islamic theology, is that those two things are exactly equivalent), a kind of divine master-professor who knows thoroughly the contents of the previous two Abrahamic scriptures and intends, patiently and definitively, to correct any and all mistranslations, miscommunications, and misinterpretations. This in itself is extremely fruitful territory for the kind of literary project Miles has perfected, since on its face it involves a being simultaneously claiming to be infallible and claiming to be massively misquoted in every single previous scripture He's directly inspired.

But instead, there's virtually none of this kind of meta-analysis. Instead, Miles rather demurely calls "God in the Qur'an" a “first visit” to Islam and, after an introduction that talks at length about the violence of Islamic extremism, he largely soft-foots his way through the intricacies of the Qur'an, ending with fairly anodyne summaries about the teachings here (“it is a simple message, a clear message, a reasonable message, even a natural message”).

And Miles himself indicates why this would be so, the essential problem at doing with the Qur'an what he'd previously done with the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. In the Qur'an, he writes, “Allah is the instructor; Muhammad is the pupil; we, as readers of the Qur'an in English translation, are invited to listen and learn.” This version of God seems uninterested in knowing humans; He expects to set the record straight and be obeyed. Personal relationships, even troubled ones, between man and god are absolutely at the heart of the earlier scriptures, and Miles' invigorating technique of probing those relationships is baffled when God is not a character but a Perfect Master. Readers will still encounter many of the fascinating insights that filled the previous two books, but, ironically, they'll find no revelations in these pages.

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