God in the Qur’an is the final volume in a series of three books by Jack Miles about God in the three major Semitic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – commonly described as monotheist, whose followers make up more than half the world’s population. The first book in this series, God: A Biography (1996), was widely acclaimed, and won the author a Pulitzer. It is about the development of God’s character in the successive books of the Tanakh, the canonical collection of the Jewish scriptures. The second book, Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, published six years later, is a continuation of Miles’ seminal work and seeks to explain the dramatic transformation in God’s personality between the Tanakh and the New Testament. Appearing with a lag of some sixteen years in 2018, God in the Qur’an, completes the trilogy.
Although these books concern themselves with God, Miles does not engage with God as a believer, theologian or literary historian. Instead, he approaches the scriptures as a literary critic approaches works of literature, but with a specific focus. His focus is on God, the chief protagonist of each of these ‘literary works’ – Yahweh, Christ and Allah – and what they reveal about His personality, the developments or shifts in His personality, and comparisons across the three scriptures. In God in the Qur’an, he undertakes a series of comparative exercises: how does Allah differ from Yahweh and God, both Father and Son?
Miles explains that he approaches the scriptures ‘not through belief but through a suspension of disbelief’, a concept first proposed by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the nineteenth century. This is a bit confusing. In order to appreciate a novel, one must enter into the world of the novel as if this world, with its settings and characters, are real, that is, by accepting it on its own terms, temporarily suspending our disbelief that they are no more than fictional characters. ‘You can play along in the same way’, writes Jack Miles, ‘even when a literary character is divine’. Not quite: for in the scriptures, God is not a literary fiction but the Creator of the heavens and earth. A literary approach to the scriptures, therefore, requires a temporary suspension of belief in God as the creator of the heavens and earth, that is, if one is – like Miles himself – a believer. And this is what he says, a bit later: ‘As a Christian, by a kind of reversal, I can temporarily suspend my belief that the God of the Bible is indeed much more than a literary character.’