<%-- Page Title--%> Theology <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 120 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

August 29, 2003

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A History of Creation

Part III

Zeeshan Hasan

The assimilation of polytheist images for the purpose of establishing monotheism may seem bizarre from our perspective, since we are the product of millennia of monotheist thinking in the Judeo-Christian-Muslim traditions. However, in Biblical times there was evidently no difficulty with accepting images of God which seem difficult from our developed monotheist perspective. It seems likely that the Bible was itself in the process of assembling a monotheist picture of God over many centuries, and in the meantime God could be represented in language which echoed the tale of Marduk slaying Tiamat, especially since this enabled P to reinforce the sabbath as the Jewish ritual day of rest.

Finally, done with our lengthy detour into Israelite and Babylonian religion, we can finally come back to the Qur'an. The remarkable thing is that the Qur'an keeps P's week-long creation story, along with it's Enuma Elish-derived story of the splitting of the heavens and earth from a single primordial entity. Muslims have been blissfully unaware of this, even though the Qur'anic use of P's Babylonian-inspired account requires some sort of explanation, since it seems to contradict the commonplace view that the Qur'an is divine revelation and hence “pure” of any trace of polytheism, mythology, etc.

While it is impossible to question the divine origin of the Qur'an in a Muslim context, the traces of non-monotheist Babylonian myth in the Bible and the Qur'an can be dealt with if we realise that is basically similar to an old Muslim philosophical debate about the nature of revelation. This was the debate over whether the Qur'an was “created” by God for the specific historical circumstance of seventh century Arabia, or existed alongside God eternally as an “uncreated” truth. The argument can be briefly summarised as a philosophical debate over the nature of truth. Medieval Muslim philosophers argued as to whether the Qur'an, as revelation and hence the ultimate truth, was “created” by God for the particular historical occasion of Muhammad's prophecy. The question arose because Muslim philosophers borrowed heavily from the classical Greek philosophy of Plato, which regarded the absolute truths as unchanging and ahistorical (in the manner of Platonic “forms”, the unchanging truths which underly the changing physical world). Both sides of this argument believed that the Qur'an was the word of God; the question was whether God intended the same revealed truth to hold for all times (implying an uncreated and unchanging revelation) or different revealed truths to hold for different times (implying that God changed the revelation itself over time). Notably, however, the classical Muslim debates were completely theoretical and philosophical in nature; at the time, there was no scope for historical analysis of the changing nature of revealed creation stories. Knowledge of the evolution of the Biblical and Babylonian creation stories has only been discovered in the last century, through the immense efforts of historical Biblical scholarship on the one hand and archeological excavation of Babylonian cities and translation of cuneiform tablets found in them. Our investigation into the Biblical and Babylonian roots of the Qur'anic creation story is a powerful empirical argument for the Qur'an (and revelation in general) being created by God for specific historical circumstances. Since the creation stories as expressed in J, P and finally the Qur'an are seen to change significantly, we must conclude that each of these revelations was created by God for a specific historical context and to address specific religious needs.

The issue of createdness and historical specificity of revelation is not just an academic question. It has immense consequences for Muslim law, since the concept of an “uncreated” and ahistorical Qur'an implies that Qur'anic laws should be applied to all times and places. However, if the Qur'an was indeed “created” by God specifically for Muhammad's time, then there is no reason that those time-specific laws should be applicable outside those particular historical circumstances. The task then becomes to search for the ethics underlying the Qur'anic laws, which would represent their eternal and unchanging aspect. Our discussion, by providing real evidence for a changing revelation and a Qur'an “created” for a specific time and place, negates the idea of universally applicable Qur'anic law.

Finally, we may look at what the Qur'an has to say about all this. Although it does not address the development of revelation directly, support for a view of a historical context-specific revelation can be found in the verses discussing abrogation (Arabic naskh) of older revelations by newer ones. The following Qur'anic verses are illuminating:

And when We exchange a verse in the place of another verse - and God knows very well what He is sending down -- they say, 'Thou art a mere forger!' Nay, but the most of them have no knowledge. Say: "The Holy Spirit sent it down from thy Lord in truth, and to confirm those who believe, and to be a guidance and good tidings to those who surrender." And We know very well that they say 'Only a mortal is teaching him.' The speech of him at whom they hint is barbarous; and this speech Arabic, manifest. (Qur'an 16:102-5)

The naskh referred to above seems to be the replacement of old Biblical stories by new Qur'anic ones. Hence the countering of the allegation of opponents of Islam, who claimed that Muhammad was being coached by a local Jew in Biblical stories; this is denied as altogether impossible, as the stories that Muhammad is telling are Arabic, and are in fact different from the Hebrew / Biblical ones. In the specific example of the creation story, P's account has been retained only in summary, with references to Tiamat and the justification of the sabbath having been removed or condensed. But at the same time, the Qur'an repeatedly asserts that it is continuing the Judeo-Christian revelation; the implication is that the different revelations themselves are created by God for each age.
From our perspective, the idea of historical naskh also holds a useful assumption that each revelation addresses specific needs and circumstances; hence P's revelation can contain references to the Babylonian myth of Marduk and Tiamat, as the need of that time was to integrate Babylonian ideas to create an image of the Israelite God as a cosmic creator, a necessary step in the development of true monotheism.

Muslims naively consider themselves part of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but have not explored the Bible and its pre-Biblical roots sufficiently to understand what that really means. The Qur'an has really been considered the only revelation worth thinking about, and because it was then considered in isolation, “revelation”has been considered to be an isolated, ahistorical event. This separation of revelation from history in turn leads to a conservative and unchanging view of religion as a whole. However, the Biblical evidence is that the divine revelation as represented in the Judeo-Christian tradition has changed greatly over time, incorporating different ideas at different times. The Judeo-Christian revelations were not the same as the Qur'anic one, but through a process of evolution gradually evolved to the point where the Qur'an fit as a next step. Given that, it is reasonable to assume that Islam is still evolving and will continue to evolve over time, and that this should not be condemned as “innovation”, but rather seen as part of the larger divine plan of the religious evolution of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religion.





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