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The Ummah Pericope

rhetoric and representation in Qur'ānic Communalism

Ph.D. Dissertation Abstract - Cornell University, 2014

My PhD dissertation studies an axial passage in the Qur’an’s longest redacted unit, the Surah of the Heifer (Q2). I refer to this passage (Q2:104−152) as the Ummah Pericope after its central verse: “We have now made you an intermediary Community (Ummah) so you stand witness over humankind and the Emissary stands witness over you.” (v.143) I show that the pericope presents the Ummah through three overlapping paradigms that together constitute proto-Muslim communal consciousness. In the pericope, the Ummah is a juridical entity: individuals or groups constitute an Ummah when they adhere to the same set of strictures and share praxis—an ahistorical community with permeable boundaries. The Ummah is also a genealogical entity: individuals or groups constitute an Ummah when they share patrimony and lineage—a historical community with impermeable boundaries. Furthermore, the Ummah as a prophetological entity: individuals or groups constitute an Ummah when they are direct or vicarious recipients of shared prophecy—a semi-historical community with somewhat permeable boundaries. 

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Chapter 1 is a survey of communal terminology and imagery in the Qurʾan’s Medinan chapters. My analysis rests on the understanding that the Qurʾān is a closed pre-Imperial text—one with a distinct late ancient worldview expressed through a coherent (yet idiosyncratic) literary logic. I show that the Medinan Qur’ān’s program of community formation and boundary making is contingent on specific late ancient Near Eastern sectarian discourses on communal election and soteriological legitimacy. The Ummah Pericope synthesizes the Qur’ān’s emergent communal ideology. 

In Chapter 2, I focus on the Ummah Pericope itself which I describe as a communal manifesto for the Qurʾan’s addressee-community. The pericope is the Qurʾān’s most explicit statements of communalism, and my analysis of it is guided by a set of principal questions about its central verse “We have thus made you an intermediary Community (Ummah) so you stand witness over humankind and the Emissary stands witness over you.” (v.143) I ask what textual predications (“thus”) produce a collective (“intermediary Community”) of individual actors (“you all”)? How and why is this group set apart from others (“over humankind”)? How is prophecy (“the Emissary”) implicated in the emergence of this community? What is the task of this community (“to stand witness”)? What are the consequences of this task? I propose answers for these questions in series of case studies, each focusing on each of the three communal paradigms presented in the Ummah Pericope

In Chapter 3, I present evidence that the phrase sibghat allah, “the Dye of God,” (Q2:138) in the Ummah pericope is a metaphoric reference to ubiquitous boundary-crossing practices in Late Antiquity—baptism and circumcision. The reference to a rite of incorporation provides insights into the text’s construction of the boundary that divides people into discrete salvific categories. I look at recent discoveries in Palestinian Christian Aramaic texts from the 5th and 6th centuries that provide evidence for an etymological link between the Qurʾanic term sibghata and widespread terminology for baptism and circumcision in eastern Christianities. I survey the widespread usage of dye metaphors in late ancient sectarian rhetoric on communal boundary-crossing. I explain how the Ummah Pericope reworks this metaphor into an apologetics of universalism that asserts the supersession of its addressee-community over previous salvific communities. Lastly, I look at how early exegetes recast the metaphor as a reference to fiṭra (primordial nature) thereby distancing the ritual referent and re-presenting the image as an affirmation of distinctly Islamic i.e. post-Qur’anic doctrine.

Chapter 4 is a focused study of the Ummah Pericope’s communal appellation, “the Children of Israel.” I explore how, in its condensed program of community formation, the pericope simultaneously contests and co-opts the authenticating communal lineage and legacy of its Jewish interlocutors whom it calls the Children of Israel. In this regard, I examine the Ummah pericope’s parallel depiction of Ishmael and Israel as heirs of Abraham. I argue that by re-introducing Ishmael into the sacred genealogies of Genesis, the Medinan Qurʾan contests and diverges from key aspects of Late Antique Judaic doctrines of communal election. Furthermore, I show that the Qurʾan’s references to Jacob-Israel’s death-bed bequest to his progeny appropriate other equally significant aspects of this same doctrinal framework to support its emergent communal ideology.

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In Chapter 5, I look closely at the conceptual intersection between prophecy and community in the Ummah Pericope. I present a diachronic case study of the Qur’an’s Jonah narrative-cycle referenced in the verses, tracing its post-Qur’anic rendering(s). I argue that the ambiguous communal purview of Jonah’s prophetic mission explains why his figure and narrative, to the exclusion of all other Biblical prophets, is so central in the Medinan Qurʾan. Jonah’s anguished excursion to the Ninevites—a community well outside the spatial and genealogical boundaries of Israel—is a typological precursor to the communally ambiguous mission of the text’s prophetic addressee.