theology matters: A Biblical Scholar Looks at the Qur'an

David Penchansky

David Penchansky

The Qur’an challenges its readers:

If you are in doubt about what We [God] have sent down to Our servant [Muhammad], then bring a sura like it, and call your witnesses, other than God, if you are truthful (2:23).

In another Sura (chapter) it says:

Or do they say, ‘He has forged it?’ Say: ‘Then bring a sura like it, and call on anyone you can, other than God, if you are truthful’ (10:38).

I certainly have no ability nor interest in producing a work comparable to the suras in the Qur’an, but I can examine the above assertions. The Qur’an claims for itself the quality of self-authentication. If one examines the Qur’an with an open heart, it says, its divine origin will become obvious. Where then does one begin to examine such a claim? The prospect is daunting. The Qur’an, at 114 chapters (roughly the size of the New Testament), might take a lifetime (or more) of study. One can begin though, and that is all that this holy book might ask of us.

So I begin with a passage of 23 verses, not chosen at random. In the Cave Sura (Sura 18), there are two tales of Moses. First, they present a gripping narrative. Second, these verses raise issues that interest me, particularly the question of how a good God can allow evil in the world. This is the theological field known as “theodicy.” Third, these verses concern Moses. As a biblical scholar, I have some background that I bring to the passage—so these verses are a good place to begin.

My students often express surprise at the appearance of biblical heroes in the Qur’an. In fact, there are many: Adam, Noah, Joseph, Solomon, Jonah, Mary, Jesus, but Moses appears more than any other. However, these two stories about Moses appear in no biblical account and nowhere else in the Qur’an. Elsewhere, the Qur’an, like the Bible, recounts Moses standing before the “burning bush,” although in the Qur’an it was a fire, and not a bush. It also considers his confrontation with the Pharaoh, and the Israelites’ worship of the golden calf in the wilderness.

I. The First Story

In the first story, Moses travels on a quest for “the junction between the two seas.” He will not stop, he says, until he finds it. “The junction of the two seas” represents an in-between place, a place where heaven and earth meet. Anything can happen in such a place. Moses and his servant reach the junction, the story indicates, but they continue on without realizing or recognizing that they had, in fact, reached their destination. However, while they were still there, the text indicates that they had lost sight of the fish they had brought for food, “and it took its course into the sea, slipping away” (18:61). When Moses, later in their journey, remembers the fish and asks his servant to prepare their meal, the servant confesses that he had forgotten the fish, and that it had swum away. Satan, he said, had made him forget to tell Moses. Upon hearing the servant’s recounting of such a miracle, Moses realizes that they had been to the junction between two seas. He says to his servant, “That is what we were seeking” (18:64). They turn around and return to that magical place.

And it is here that the Qur’anic story ends. We learn no more about the fish nor about the junction of the two seas. If the waters brought a dead fish to life, Moses was no longer interested.

One finds similar stories, roughly contemporary, in Christian traditions. These stories tell of Alexander the Great who seeks the magical waters where he witnesses a dead fish brought back to life. There are similar Jewish stories where Elijah serves as protagonist. These stories help us to understand what it was that Moses sought at the juncture of two seas. Moses wanted to find the waters of life, which bring youth and immortality to those who immerse in it.

II. The Second Story

Moses’ servant makes one more appearance as Moses embarks upon his second adventure. Moses and his servant encounter a figure identified as “one of God’s slaves” (18:65). This stranger, we are told, was blessed and taught by God. Moses asks the stranger to teach him the things God had taught. “Your mind,” the stranger says, “is incapable of comprehending the mysteries of what God taught me” (18:67). Moses, eager as a puppy, swears that he will persevere, and do whatever the stranger commands, “if God wills” (18:69). The stranger lays down one condition for accepting Moses’ company—that he not ask any questions. Instead, Moses must await the stranger’s explanations (18:70).

Apparently, Moses agrees to these conditions, and they set out on their journey. Finding themselves on a boat, the stranger attempts to sink it by drilling a hole. Moses speaks out: “Are you trying to drown everyone? You have done a terrible thing!” (18:71). Not addressing Moses’ question nor explaining his strange behavior, the stranger says, “I told you that you could not persevere” (18:72). Moses apologizes and asks for a second chance. However, I sense a note of adolescent cockiness in his answer: “Do not trouble me about what I forgot,” he says (18:73).

The stranger accepts his apology and they move on down the road. They see, coming towards them, a young child. The stranger kills him. That’s it. No description. Did he pick up a stick and club the child to death? Did he strangle him? The narrator allows our imagination to fill in the details. Moses could not look away. “How could you do such a thing, to kill an innocent child who had not hurt anybody?” (18:74). The stranger ignores the question, repeating his earlier refrain: “I told you that you could not persevere under my instruction” (18:75).

This atrocity should have led to the climax of the story, but one more incident takes place. It begins with Moses humbled and conciliatory. He says, “If after this, I ask you anything, abandon me. You have heard enough excuses from me” (18:76).

The stranger sets off with Moses a third time. However, the pattern has changed. The set-up and explanation are much longer. Moses and the stranger enter a village that refuses to receive them. The stranger finds a broken wall in the town and fixes it. Moses, incensed at this apparent generosity to a selfish and inhospitable people, says, “At least you could have charged them money for your services” (18:77).

The stranger gives Moses no more chances. He separates from Moses, finally and decisively: “This is the parting between me and you” (18: 78). After separating himself from Moses, he explains each of the three behaviors that had so upset his student. These explanations get to the heart of the story. Along with Moses, the reader has been waiting for someone to make sense of what had happened. What the stranger says to justify his behavior produces the theological content of the passage.

The first explanation concerns the sinking of the boat. It belonged to a family that made its living on the sea. The stranger intended to sink the boat in order to keep it out of the hands of an evil king

As for the ship, it belonged to poor people working on the sea, and I wanted to damage it, (because) behind them (there) was a king seizing every ship by force (18:79).

In the second explanation, the stranger says that he killed the child because he feared that the child would turn into a burden for his believing parents:

As for the young boy, his parents were believers, and we feared that he would burden them both [with] insolent transgression and disbelief. We wanted their Lord to give to them both in exchange [one] better than him in purity and closer [to them] in affection (18:80-81).

God would give them a better child to replace the insolent one.

The third explanation, about why the stranger fixed the wall, is more complex. The stranger explains that a treasure was hidden in the wall. It had belonged to two orphan brothers. Their father, now deceased, had hidden it from them, but the wall, now fallen into disrepair, threatened to expose the treasure. By repairing the wall, the stranger prevented anyone from discovering the treasure. It would remain hidden until the children came of age.

As the stranger separates from Moses, he spits out a parting insult: “That is the interpretation (of) what you were not able (to have) patience with” (18:82). There the story ends.

The following six assertions about these two stories show how they function to produce meaning:

1) There are two stories rather than one. The ambiguous transition between the two leads the reader to combine them as one. However, to do that, one must fill in narrative gaps with invention. So, in the reader’s mind, Moses’ quest for the water of life transforms into a quest for wisdom from the stranger. However, at base, the two Moses narratives are two distinct stories with significantly divergent narrative arcs.

2) The first story (with its five verses) is subsumed by the second (composed of eighteen verses). Whatever function or meaning it may have had on its own, it now serves to introduce and prepare for the second. Though it might originally have been about a quest for the waters of eternal life, it functions how to introduce Moses as a diligent seeker. It locates him in a magical place where anything can happen.

3) The stranger in the second story is an ambiguous figure who represents God. In the sura, he remains unnamed. God has shown him divine mercy; God has taught him divine knowledge. He acts on God’s behalf. On the most basic level, the stranger claims divine mandate for each of his outrageous actions: When explaining why he killed the child, he speaks with God’s voice and says, “we [God] feared that he would burden them both” (18:80). The stranger’s speech switches from first person singular to first person plural, which is the customary manner of God speech in the Qur’an:

And they found a servant, one of Our servants to whom We had given mercy from Us, and whom We had taught knowledge from Us (18:65).

However, other parts of the stranger’s speech make a clear distinction between God and the stranger. What the stranger does, he declares, is what the Lord wanted:

Your Lord wanted them both to reach their maturity, and bring forth their treasure as a mercy from your Lord (18:82).

The oddest wording is when the stranger is quoted as saying “we wanted that their Lord...” (18:82). “We wanted,” is God talking, as in verse 65: “our slaves,” “we gave him,” “we taught him.” However, God refers to the God of the parents of the dead child as “their Lord.” The distinction between the stranger’s voice and God’s voice becomes blurred and indistinct, one fading into the other. Since the narrator explicitly imbues the stranger with God’s mercy and God’s knowledge, his words and actions are divinely guided: The stranger insists, “I did not do it on my [own] command” (v. 82). In sum, the stranger acts on God’s behalf and as God’s representative.

4) If the stranger stands for God in the story, the disturbing and inexplicable actions of the stranger comment on the disturbing and inexplicable events of life in general. When the stranger explains his actions, he articulates how a faithful Muslim might affirm the goodness of God in the light of human suffering. The explanations assume that behind every inexplicable event, whether disaster (the first two tales), or the benevolence of a windfall (the third), God has hidden reasons. If they were known, it would make sense of the chaos and seeming randomness of life’s events.

The stranger (God) sank the boat to thwart an evil king’s designs. He killed the child as an act of mercy for believing parents. He hid the treasure to protect the two orphan brothers. However, the people involved could not see how God works behind the scenes to make things right. The family that owned the boat could not have known about the evil king’s designs. The parents could not have known how their child would have brought them grief. And the brothers could not have known about the treasure, hidden for their own good.

5) Therefore, this story becomes a defense of God’s governance of the world. God has reasons for the evil and suffering that befalls humankind, the text affirms, although such reasons are not always readily apparent from a human perspective. Couple that with the stranger’s admonition to Moses not to ask any questions, and the Qur’an articulates a powerful defense of divine goodness. The stranger requires Moses to be patient and not to ask any questions. In other words, God has reasons for everything. However, humans cannot possibly understand those reasons. Therefore, they must be patient and not question.

6) Here is the crux. If we regard the story as an argument in favor of God’s effective governance of the world, based on the stranger’s admonitions to Moses and on his explanations, then I argue that the first two are very poor explanations. Taking them in turn:

First, regarding the boat: the stranger, by sinking the boat, prevented an evil king from appropriating it by force. But how did it help the family that lost the boat?

Second, regarding the child: the stranger only feared (18:80) that the child would turn out badly. That word indicates an absence of certainty. Would the pious parents be happy that their son was murdered? Would they not rather have seen him alive? Why does the stranger think that the parents would be satisfied with exchanging an old child for a new one?

Each of these actions is horrible at face value, but even when the hidden explanation is revealed, they are still troubling. The stranger’s action on the boat is disturbing. The stranger’s murder of the child is horrifying.


In the face of divine injustice, Moses cannot restrain himself. He complains loudly that the stranger has acted immorally and foolishly. Destroying the boat might keep it out of the king’s hands, but the action renders it useless to the poor family, as well. Regarding the child, killing the child because he feared that he would turn out badly gives no comfort to the grieving parents.

I have thought long and hard as to whether my evaluation of the stranger’s explanations as spurious is simply my reaction as a contemporary reader (and thus yielding little insight into the Qur’an itself), or something we might see as embedded in the text. Does the Qur’an intend the reader to believe the stranger’s explanations, or are the tales told to invite the reader to question them?

I think the Qur’an embeds the questions in the text. The very fact that early commentators spent many words explaining the explanations suggests that the stranger’s explanations troubled them. What then might the sura mean by these explanations?

The key is in the stranger himself. He serves as a cipher of God. On the most basic level, he claims that what he does, he does at God’s behest. The text introduces him as being in a special category, one of God’s slaves, on whom God bestows special portions of mercy and wisdom. But that would make him only at most a prophet.

Earlier in this essay, I wrote that there appeared a deliberate confusion between the identities of the stranger and God. God acted through the stranger, and on occasion spoke through him. So if the stranger stands for God, and if the stranger’s explanations for his bizarre behavior are less than persuasive, that leaves us with a subtle and carefully nuanced theodicy. The text weaves together two voices that respond to suffering differently—a pious voice represented by the stranger, who urges trust, patience, and above all, no questions, and a questioning voice represented by Moses, who, though silenced, protests pointless pain and suffering inflicted on the innocent.

So has the Qur’an proven its claims? Please! I have just begun this journey.

At this point, I can say confidently that the Qur’an is profound. It is nuanced. It is beautiful. It is definitely worthy of study.

A famous Roman Catholic scholar of the Qur’an, when he visited the University of St. Thomas, once said something like this: “First, you take the Qur’an, and then after a while, the Qur’an takes you.”

I wonder if this is what has begun to happen to me.

David Penchansky is professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of St. Thomas, and has been on faculty since 1989.

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