Early last year, the Ministry of Culture of the Islamic Republic of Iran awarded its World Prize for the Book of the Year to The Banquet: A Reading of the Fifth Sura of the Qur’an—originally published in French as Le Festin: Une lecture de la sorate al-Mâ’ida. The book’s author was invited to Tehran to receive the award from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and was subsequently asked to present his findings to academic gatherings in Tehran and at Iran’s principal Shiite university at Qum. He managed to win over his initially skeptical audience and was invited to give a lecture to seminary students (which his travel plans did not permit).
The irony in all this is that the author, Michael Cuypers, is a Belgian Catholic, a member of the Little Brothers of Jesus who had been expelled from Iran in 1989. He had initially lived in Tabriz at a leper colony run by the brothers, but was later asked by his order to start a foundation in Tehran. There he studied Farsi and Iranian culture at Tehran University. But when some Iranian students were expelled from Belgium, the Iranian government retaliated by expelling two Belgian citizens, one of whom was Cuypers. He then moved to Egypt, where he learned Arabic and got a job as a file clerk at the Institute of Oriental Studies, run by the Dominicans. When the director of the Institute learned that Cuypers had a gift for analyzing texts, he asked Cuypers to apply his skills to the Qur’an. A religious brother who had wanted nothing more than to live with the poor had become a scholar, almost by accident.
Around the same time, Cuypers was introduced to the work of Roland Meynet, SJ, a specialist in analyzing rhetorical structures in the Bible. Cuypers sent Meynet a copy of an article in which he analyzed several suras of the Qur’an. He felt that the same Semitic mentality at work in the Bible could be found in the composition of the Qur’an.
The method Meynet applies to the Bible and Cuypers to the Qur’an is quite different from standard historical criticism. It takes the sacred texts as written but attempts to understand the underlying structures (the “rhetorical composition”) that unite the seemingly disparate parts of a text. The premise is that a logic very different from that of the Greeks and Romans is at work, and that understanding this distinctive logic is key to unlocking the texts.
At first sight, the Qur’an reads like a series of fragments, presented with little apparent structure—something akin to literary stream of consciousness. Of course, the same can be said of certain biblical books. The prophets, for example, often announce, seemingly in the same breath, both the most tragic destinies and exalted promises of glory. In the Torah, the most banal—and even shocking—ritual prescriptions sit alongside sublime calls for social justice and love of God and neighbor, as though all were on the same plane. Meynet affirmed that these biblical juxtapositions were indeed coherent, but that they play on a different register, one we need to rediscover. Cuypers affirmed the same of the Qur’an, shedding new light on its subtle intricacies, beauty, and coherence (some Muslim scholars pointed out that these attributes are hardly surprising to those who believe that the words of the Qur’an are those of Allah to his Prophet). The techniques and technicalities of Cuypers’s method are complicated and can be disconcerting, at least initially, to the Western mind. But his conclusions are enlightening.
Beginning in the nineteenth century, non-Muslim scholars in the West applied various techniques from modern science (historical and literary criticism, linguistics, etc.) to their study of the Qur’an. Those attempts were usually spurned by Muslims, because of their novelty, but also because of their polemical overtones. In contrast, Cuypers applies his method prudently and respectfully. In his award-winning book, he concentrates on a single sura that has puzzled Islamic scholars for centuries and given rise to a multiplicity of interpretations.
Muslim scholars are accustomed to analyzing the Qur’an verse by verse, without considering the immediate literary context or analyzing the interconnections of the verses. To resolve apparent contradictions in the Qur’an, commentators traditionally have recourse to a Qur’anic verse in which God states that he abrogates a law only in order to give a more perfect one. This understanding led commentators to give preference to apparently more restrictive laws over seemingly more moderate ones. But in his study, Cuypers demonstrates that the verse in question refers to the Mosaic Law, not to Qur’anic Law.
The Fifth Sura concerns, among other things, the relationship among Muslims, Jews, and Christians. It refers often to the covenant described in Deuteronomy and Numbers, and it concludes with an invitation by Jesus to a heavenly banquet. At times, the sura refers to “peoples of the book” (Christians and Jews) as enemies of Islam. In other sections, this hostility seems to apply only to those who have not followed the teachings given by Moses, the prophets, and Jesus. For historical reasons, the verses that nourish Muslim identity and forbid alliances with Jews and Christians are considered definitive. Cuypers shows that the symmetry of the text puts the emphasis on the universal values of Islam. The enigmatic banquet scene where Jesus asks for “a banquet table from heaven to be a feast for the first among us and the last among us” (Sura 5,114) corresponds textually to an earlier segment of the same sura (5,3) where Allah declares, “Today I have completed your religion for you and I have perfected my blessing upon you.” The two verses, which appear at the end and at the beginning of the chapter, are symmetrical and “foundational.” Even though Christians are encouraged to enter the Islamic covenant, religions are destined to coexist. Using his “rhetorical method,” Cuypers explains that one of the intended meanings of the chapter is that God permitted four religions (Islam, Judaism, Gnosticism, and Christianity). Had he wished to do so, God “would have made a single community from them,” but in his unfathomable wisdom he did otherwise, so that “they might surpass one another in good actions,” and thus challenge one another to better live God’s teachings (5,48).
Cuypers’s award, which passed under the radar of the Western media, is significant—and perhaps prophetic. That the Iranian clerical establishment not only listened to Cuypers but was willing to learn from him challenges our stereotypes of Iran—and of the Muslim world in general. Still, the award does not necessarily constitute a breakthrough in Muslim-Christian relations. Islam, after all, incorporates a multitude of different and sometimes antagonistic tendencies; to some Muslims, Tehran’s gesture might seem to border on blasphemy. Nonetheless, the prize does indicate vitality and openness in Iranian intellectual life, and this points to the possibility of dialogue in the future. After all, it was contact with Islam and its sense of the absolute holiness of God, its sense of community, and its self-dispossessing hospitality that led Christians like Louis Massignon and Charles de Foucauld to a greater appreciation of those values in their own tradition.
In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul II said this about differences among Christians:
"Why did the Holy Spirit permit such divisions?... There can be two answers to this question: a negative response—these divisions are the result of peoples’ sins; the other response is more positive. Might not these divisions be a way that has led and continues to lead the church to discover the multiple riches contained in the gospel? Perhaps these riches would not have come to light otherwise. Mankind must strive at unity through plurality, in the forms of thinking and acting of all cultures and civilizations. Might not such a manner of doing things be more consistent with the wisdom of God, his goodness, his providence?"
Might this not also hold for interreligious dialogue? If so, it would, to some extent, coincide with the message of the Fifth Sura.