Dr. David Penchansky’s new book may seem like something of a departure for a scholar of the Hebrew Bible and Christian Old Testament. Titled Solomon and the Ant: The Qur’an in Conversation with the Bible, the book is a fascinating examination of stories from the sacred text of Islam that draws on Biblical texts addressing similar questions about the nature of God and God’s interaction with people.
 
A professor emeritus at the University of Saint Thomas, Penchansky has taught theology there for the past 29 years. However, he has spent much of the last two decades studying the Qur’an, which Muslims believe is the word of God as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.
 
 
David Penchansky
Biblical scholar and University of Saint Thomas theology professor emeritus Dr. David Penchansky has authored a book on the Qur’an. Photo by Brad Stauffer

All Muslims are not going to agree with his work in “Solomon and the Ant,” Penchansky acknowledged, “but I want them to see that someone who is not a Muslim, who is a Christian, can read their sacred texts with respect and appreciation.”

All Muslims are not going to agree with his work in Solomon and the Ant, Penchansky acknowledged, “but I want them to see that someone who is not a Muslim, who is a Christian, can read their sacred texts with respect and appreciation. Then I can also say to my own community that this is a divine book, a gift from God to the ages. I say this without reservation. (The Qur’an) isn’t my text, but as a bystander it’s a wonderful place to spend some time.”

Penchansky is an active member of the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association and the International Qur’anic Studies Association. For 20 years, he has been married to Hend Al-Mansour, an artist originally from Saudi Arabia who is Muslim and a native speaker of Arabic.

Al-Mansour “has greatly enhanced my understanding and appreciation of the Qur’an,” Penchansky said. “On and off, she had been teaching me Arabic. I had been taking Arabic classes here and there. Then 10 years ago, I finished a capstone project for my career. I completed an introductory volume to the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible. So I was looking for something else to do and thought it would be a good use of my Arabic to start a project studying the Qur’an.”

   

More to the Qur’an than just doctrine

Penchansky thought that as a theology professor he should know more about the Qur’an. “From preliminary exposure, one could just assume it to be very doctrinaire and rigid,” he said. However, he discovered something else in the text while his wife was working on a piece about Joseph and his coat of many colors in the Old Testament.

“She introduced me to (a story about) Joseph in the Qur’an which I had never encountered before,” he said. “It was an incident that wasn’t in the Bible but was so funny, witty and clever that it put my expectations about the Qur’an in a whole different category. I thought I needed to look at the Qur’an much more intensely.”

Penchansky, who was involved in the creation of the Islamic Christian Center at Saint Thomas, was fascinated by the Muslin claim that anyone who reads the Qur’an with an open mind will inevitably recognize it as a divine work. “I thought that was a very interesting challenge to make,” he said. There is something magical about reading the Qur’an in Arabic, he added, and he resolved to memorize passages and to chant them “in my weakened approximation of a chant.”

 

house ad

 

For Solomon and the Ant, Penchansky selected stories in the Qur’an that interested him as narrative. “I’m interested in stories rather than lists, rules and battles,” he said. He chose texts that were outside of the mainstream, using all of the tools he had accumulated over 30 years of studying the Bible and applying them to the Qur’an.

The stories he favored contain conflicting viewpoints and allow for interpretation. Among the stories he discusses is “Solomon and the Ant.” It tells of King Solomon—the same King Solomon in the Bible—leading his army across a field. In their path is a colony of ants. One of the ants warns the other ants to flee. Solomon understands the ants’ language and he laughs. Readers are led to wonder about the meaning of that laugh and whether or not Solomon ultimately tramples the insects.

“This chapter, which is open to interpretation, is a centerpiece of the book in so many ways,” Penchansky said. “I think Solomon stands for God, and the ant represents any kind of disaster that is about to befall one. The story is a way for Muslims to think about God’s nature. The text deals with why innocent people suffer. Like the Biblical Book of Job, the story is a way for Muslims to process the bad things that happen.”

 

Penchansky said he has found a divine quality in the Qur’an just as he had with the Bible. “I think of there being this broad river made up of billions of Muslims all chanting the text,” he said. “I’m just kind of dipping my foot in the river, but I can feel the current.”

Penchansky has been acclaimed for his research into the historical, political and religious contexts from which the narratives in the Hebrew Bible emerged, according to Kimberly Vrudny, the chair of Saint Thomas’ Theology Department. “In his research, he has relentlessly pursued answers to perplexing theological questions, no matter where they took him,” she said.

“I really appreciate David’s approach because he challenges us,” said fellow Saint Thomas theology professor the Reverend Steven McMichael. “He brings us the experience of the story, but tells us there’s space for interpretation. He has the courage to be honest in this way.”

“David isn’t afraid of controversy,” said fellow theology professor Edward Ulrich, a specialist in world religions. “He’s breaking new ground with his study of the Qur’an.”

Penchansky said he has found a divine quality in the Qur’an just as he had with the Bible. “I think of there being this broad river made up of billions of Muslims all chanting the text,” he said. “I’m just kind of dipping my foot in the river, but I can feel the current.”

— Anne Murphy

COMMENTS TERMS OF SERVICE

The Villager welcomes comments from readers. Please include your full name and the neighborhood in which you live. Be respectful of others and stay on topic. We reserve the right to remove any comment we deem to be profane, rude, insulting or hateful. Comments will be reviewed before being published.

Leave a Reply