Samuel Ross studies the Bible’s influence on Quran commentators.
The Quran, the sacred text of Islam, is a compilation of God’s revelations as proclaimed by the Prophet Muhammad between 610 and 632. Muslims study these scriptures with the aid of Quran commentaries, works that explain and interpret the text, verse by verse. The first commentaries were written by the eighth century, and Muslim scholars continue to produce them today.
Commentaries are generally written to help readers understand the Quran, a challenging text that makes frequent use of ellipses, employs archaic language and does not always provide a situational or historical context for Muhammad’s declarations. Samuel Ross, assistant professor of religion, said the works have additional value: Because commentators often reference ideas from other fields such as law, science and philosophy, scholars can compare commentaries from different times to discover how Islamic perspectives have evolved.
“For a historian they’re an amazing resource,” Ross said. “These commentaries are like an archive of Islamic thought.”
Ross is specifically interested in how, when and why Muslims have used the Bible to interpret the Quran. The Muslim holy book makes numerous references to the Bible: It praises the Torah, traditionally identified with the first five books of the Old Testament; the Psalms; and the injil, or “gospel,” a general term that does not refer to a specific biblical book.
The Quran mentions prophets such as Moses, David and Jesus as well as biblical narratives like the Israelites’ escape from Egypt. But such stories are abridged accounts that don’t always provide historical context. The Quran does not, for example, explain the chronology of the Israelites’ enslavement and escape. Ross said this is because the Quran presupposes its original audience — seventh-century residents of the Arabian Peninsula — would have been familiar with those stories. For readers in later generations and in other parts of the world, a commentary writer might fill in the gaps.
Ross said Islamic studies scholars know that some Quran commentators cited the Bible, but he wanted to get a clearer picture of how frequently the references happened and at what historical moments. He said the answers could shed light on how Muslims viewed the Bible and how they related to Christians and Jews throughout history.
Ross searched the text of 153 digitized Quran commentaries for biblical terms. The results showed that Quran commentators — with rare exceptions — did not incorporate such context until the late 19th century. Then, suddenly, commentators from all over the Muslim world began referencing the Bible. Ross christened this dramatic shift the “biblical turn.”
His discovery raised new questions: Why didn’t commentators reference the Bible earlier? What happened in the late 1800s to spark the change?
Ross found that although the Bible was translated into Arabic as early as the 8th century, Muslims had difficulty accessing the relevant portions of the Bible written in Arabic script until the 12th century. By then, Islam had become the dominant religion and sociopolitical power in the regions of the world where commentators were working, among them Spain, the Middle East and Central Asia. Ross posited that, in the absence of contact with Jews or Christians, Muslims may have been less curious about the Bible.
In contrast, the 19th–century expansion of British and French colonial power into the Arab world was accompanied by an influx of Christian missionaries who brought millions of Arabic-language Bibles and established high-quality schools that many Muslims attended. Ross concluded that this exposure to the Bible revived curiosity about it among Muslims and prompted scholars to address it in their commentaries.
Reading the Bible, Ross said, changed how Muslims understood the Quran. He identified passages that commentators traditionally interpreted one way but began explaining differently once they had access to the Bible. Ross said the fact that commentators allowed the Bible to influence their interpretation of the Quran suggests that for many Muslim scholars, the status of the Bible rose in the modern period.
“You’ll find examples of commentators who, when faced with an apparent contradiction between the Quran and the biblical text … worked to harmonize the two texts together,” he said, “which suggests that they’re treating the Bible charitably and therefore giving it a degree of authority.”
Ross explained these ideas in The Biblical Turn in the Qur’an Commentary Tradition, a manuscript based on his dissertation at Yale University, where he earned his doctorate in 2018. The work won the 2019 BRAIS – De Gruyter Prize in the Study of Islam and the Muslim World, which is awarded by the British Association for Islamic Studies and academic publisher De Gruyter.
Omar Anchassi, who served as coordinator for the prize, is an early career fellow in Islamic studies at the University of Edinburgh. He called Ross’ project a major contribution to the field.
“This will be the go-to book for anyone working on the Bible or aspects of it in Islamic thought,” Anchassi said. “Anyone interested in the relations between Muslims and Jews, and between Muslims and Christians, will find this book absolutely indispensable.”
Each BRAIS – De Gruyter entry was reviewed by a panel of Islamic studies scholars as well as an additional expert in that contestant’s subfield. For Ross’ manuscript, that reviewer was Walid Saleh, a Quran commentary scholar and professor of religion at the University of Toronto.
Until Ross’ analysis, Saleh said, no one had attempted a comprehensive study that examined how Muslims used the Bible in Quran commentary. He said Ross’ contribution to the field is what he would typically expect to see from established scholars at the end of their careers.
“He has given us a summation and a trajectory that was not there before,” Saleh said, “and it gives us a better understanding of how we narrate this history.”
As part of the prize, De Gruyter will publish Ross’ manuscript, likely in 2022. By combining a historian’s perspective with digital humanities research, his book will illuminate a previously overlooked development in Muslims’ understanding of the Quran and in relationships among three of the world’s major religions.
by Robyn Ross
*Editor’s note: Samuel Ross and writer Robyn Ross are not related.