Religion and Islamic Studies

Joseph in the Torah and the Qur’an: An Assessment of Malik Bennabi’s Narrative

Malek Bennabi’s The Qur’anic Phenomenon provides an excellent analysis of Qur’anic revelation through the application of the phenomenology. A closer analysis of the work shows that Bennabi’s major contribution is to be found in his narrative strategies and comparative style as evidenced, among others, in chapters 13 and 14 of the Qur’anic Phenomenon. Here Bennabi provides a balanced picture of the story of Joseph in the Torah and the Qur’an. Bennabi’s textual strategy, narrative and meta-narrative brings out the uniqueness of the Qur’anic account of Joseph. The reconstruction of the story of Joseph opened a new type of discourse in understanding the relationship between religion and modernity.

Malek Bennabi (1905 – 1973), born in Constantine, is an eminent scholar and thinker of post World War II Algeria and one of the foremost intellectuals of the modern Muslim world. Educated in Paris and Algiers in Engineering, he later based himself in Cairo, writing and lecturing on what he believed to be the grand issues: Qur’an, science, civilisation, culture and ideas. Of his many works, The Qur’anic Phenomenon is certainly the most important work written about the Qur’an in the 20th century.1 It provides an excellent analysis of Qur’anic revelation through the application of the phenomenology as a method of understanding and appreciating the Qur’anic text. Given the fact that phenomenology as a method was well-established in Islamic studies, Bennabi’s claim to his use of phenomenology as a new direction or an innovation in Islamic scholarship is unlikely to be accepted. However, the genuine contribution of Bennabi is in both his narrative strategies and comparative style.2

This study focuses on chapters 13 and 14 of The Qur’anic Phenomenon. In these two chapters, Bennabi’s narrative reached its climax providing a balanced picture of the story of Joseph in both the Torah and the Qur’an. While the language of difference is not over emphasised, the uniqueness of the Qur’anic account of the story of Joseph has been well portrayed.3 This success is largely due to Bennabi’s narrative and comparative mode of analysis without compromising his faith or objectivity. This has been explained in this study by paying closer attention to the problem of textual strategies, narrative and meta-narrative. 

The Context of the Book

The Qur’anic Phenomenon was written twice in its original French version. The first form was lost during the Second World War.4 It has been suggested that the narrative in the first form was perhaps addressed to the Muslim youth who were influenced by the West as well as to non-Muslims who increasingly became part of the debate on religion and modernity. Perhaps, the book was based upon reflections concerning the challenges he faced when, out of necessity, he became a member of the Christian Youth Organisation in Paris and, as narrated in his autobiography, he had learned discussions with the leaders of that organisation.5 That is how he became familiar with the Judaeo-Christian tradition and modernity and the challenges they posed to Islam.

The second time the book was reorganised, reconstructed and almost rewritten by Bennabi during his stay in Egypt in the late fifties and early sixties. The reconstructed book was translated into Arabic.6 Although he voiced his dissatisfaction with the present form of the book, the depth of the argument and the religious imagination which are reflected in the text is beyond the reach of an isolated Muslim intellectual in Paris during the 1940s. Thus, his assertion that, “in its present form, it does not satisfy the original idea we formulated concerning the problem of the Qur’an,” should not be taken literally but rather it reflects the new orientation within which the text was written.7 As he stated, the essence of his original text was to establish “an analytical method for the study of the Qur’anic phenomenon.”8 He explained that the major objective of his work was to furnish Muslim youth with new theoretical orientation in understanding religion as well as to suggest a methodological reform in Qur’anic exegesis that would redefine the meaning of i’jaz (inimitability of the Qur’an).9

From the introduction to the book, it is clear that Bennabi was familiar with Taha Hussain’s famous book on pre-Islamic Arabic poetry Fi al-Shi’r al-Jahili and the debate it instigated in Egypt’s intellectual milieu.10 Taha Hussein applied the Cartesian method of doubt on the subject and created intellectual havoc in the Arab world. Bennabi made a direct reference to Taha’s book and provided a learned rather than a sensational response.11 He adroitly redirected the discussion into becoming a real challenge to modernity and opened a new discourse in the study of the religious phenomenon.

It is possible to discern a relationship between Bennabi’s understanding of the problem of i’jaz and its wider context of Qur’anic exegesis and his intellectual engagement on the issue of pre-Islamic poetry. The narrative in the introduction to the book was adjusted to include both the content and implication of the issue on his major thesis on the Qur’anic phenomenon. It is worth noting as well that in Paris the issue was to convince both non-Muslims and Muslims of the relevance of the Qur’an to the religious phenomenon. In Cairo, the Muslim audience was of two types: the elite with “a mind of Cartesian bent” and the laymen who espoused popular ideas.12 This is because Bennabi’s theory of social change identified two separate levels: intellectual and popular. In his view, any learned discussion geared towards formulating a new method of understanding i’jaz and suggesting a modification in the system of Qur’anic exegesis had to keep in mind the sensibilities of these two levels; otherwise its message would not filter and penetrate all the layers of the social fabric.13

Accordingly, he tried at a stroke to redefine the meaning of i’jaz and modify the system of Qur’anic exegesis by utilising the issue of pre-Islamic poetry. Admittedly, the connection between pre-Islamic poetry and Cartesian method is highly visible. But Bennabi’s narrative suggested that the deep meaning of the issue is much less about pre-Islamic poetry than about the challenge of modernity that had to be addressed by a new approach and a set of strategies for social change. The Egyptian context was far more complex than the French one with regard to this issue.

Though Bennabi would make us believe that the original idea of his book was retained with less sophistication and, perhaps, with lack of documentation, the most significant development in the present form of his text is that it reflected the depth of the intellectual crisis in Egypt at that time. His real contribution was both to the understanding of that crisis and to suggest a learned methodological reform in Qur’anic exegesis that required a new set of tools. It can be argued that the present form of the book might fit neatly into the previous analysis compared with the French form which was published in Algiers, but certainly the lost text which was in French was considered by Bennabi as far more complex and represented the original idea.

Whatever the case, one would always see the fact that the present form of the text reflected the complexities of Islam and modernity in Egypt and the Muslim world. Most important, perhaps, the battleground for such an intellectual endeavour was neither Paris nor Algeria during that era. Although the literary theory of i’jaz was already out on a limb compared to the new position suggested by Bennabi, Sayyid Qutb developed a new literary approach that was gaining momentum among Muslim intellectuals.14 However, Bennabi’s approach was more fundamental in its response to the basic postulates of modernity... 

Dr. Ibrahim M. Zein is Professor, Department of Usul al-Din and Comparative Religion, International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM). E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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