The “Psalms of David” as reimagined and rewritten by Muslims

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by David R. Vishanoff

The history of the Bible in Arabic includes not only the reception of its textual content, and the reworking of its stories and themes in various forms of “rewritten Bible,” but also the reimagining of the Bible as a concept—in the minds of Muslims as well as Jews and Christians. One particularly curious example of rewritten Bible is an Arabic text purporting to be the “Psalms of David,” written by a Muslim to fit a Qur’anic conception of the Zabūr. Rather than human prayers and praises addressed to God, this collection of one hundred “suras” takes the form of a divine revelation spoken by God to the prophet David, full of pious admonitions about the enticements of this world and the terrors of the next.

“King David Playing the Harp.” Miniature pasted on an album leaf from the period of Shah Jahan. India, Mughal; 1610-1620 (miniature) and c. 1640 (leaf). The David Collection, Copenhagen, Inv. no. 31/2001.

Here is a sample:

Blessed are the anxious, those stricken with fear, who comfort orphans with food and nourishment. Blessed are those who withdraw in silence from society and its vices, whose souls are afforded the most sublime insight. Blessed are those who rise to spend the night in vigil. But woe to those who go looking for adultery! The least that I will do to adulterers is to blot out the glow of health from their faces and wipe away both their lifespan and their livelihood. Blessed are those who think too highly of me to gaze on the private parts of those forbidden to them, fearing my punishment.[1]

This new scripture’s form and content suggest that it was intended as a collection of sermon material, while its fearful and ascetical tone suggest that its author was one of the khāʾifūn and zuhhād who, modeling themselves partly on Christian monks, upheld for a century or two an ascetic strand of Muslim piety that was displaced in the ninth century by mystical and legal forms of piety.[2] The recent discovery by Ursula Bsees of two papyrus leaves containing psalms 7–13 shows that the original Core text does indeed date back to the eighth or early ninth century.[3] In subsequent centuries it was frequently copied, edited, expanded, rearranged, and even radically rewritten, resulting in a dozen different recensions.[4]

Recensions and selected manuscripts of the Islamic Psalms.

These psalms appear to be original compositions, but their authors drew on, alluded to, or were inspired by several kinds of material: short passages from the Biblical Psalms and Gospels, ḥadīth qudsī, qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ, ḥikma, zuhd, the Qur’an, and possibly some “Sayings of the Desert Fathers.” The author of the Core text did not have direct access to the Biblical Psalms, but employed paraphrases of a few famous passages that had been learned orally and were circulating among Muslims. Even the later editors do not appear to have used Arabic translations of the Bible, with one exception: the editor of the Sufi recension used an Arabic translation, made from Hebrew, of Psalms 1–3.[5]

Although only a fragment of the Core text survives, its contents can often be reconstructed from the later recensions, each of which expanded and modified it in keeping with its editor’s own inclinations. For example, the “Sufi” editor elaborated on themes such as divine love, the “Pious” editor replaced love with obedience, and the “Orthodox” editor rectified theological problems such as allusions to David’s sin of adultery—a Biblical story that was known among early Muslims but was quickly modified or suppressed as unworthy of a prophet.[6]

Some manuscripts of the Islamic Psalms.

Copies of these recensions circulated from Iran and the Caucasus in the East to al-Andalus and Timbuktu in the West. (The “Broken Pious with Moses” recension was especially popular in Jerusalem.) Some copies were included in collections of sermons or alongside treatises on scrupulous piety (waraʿ), while others were made to look like copies of the Qur’an, with sura headings, verse divisions, and recitation marks. Dozens and probably hundreds of copies were produced between the 13th and 18th centuries, but interest faded as Arabic translations of the Christian Bible became widely available in print. A handful of scholarly articles drew attention to them in the early 20th century,[7] but since that time they have been almost entirely forgotten by Western as well as Muslim scholars. The only version to have been printed[8] is a small collection that was originally associated with Moses before being recast as Psalms of David; it is still being used in West Africa today for the training of preachers in Qur’anic schools.[9] Since I have found no complete copy of the Core text, I am preparing a critical edition and English translation of the Koranic recension, which does not diverge much from the Core text. I believe these rewritten psalms are worth bringing back into view, not because of their implicit polemical claim to be more authentic than the corrupted Biblical Psalms—a pretension belied by the Muslim editors’ eagerness to improve the text at every opportunity—but because of their historical value for the early history of Muslim piety, and also for what they reveal about the function of the Bible in the Islamic milieu. The Bible is not just a text; it is a repertoire of narratives, characters, concepts, values, and symbols that Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike can reinterpret and redeploy for their own purposes. The Bible is also a concept, an imagined idea that changes shape as it moves into new linguistic and religious environments. That is why the “Psalms of David” could be given a whole new text, and thus be made to serve Muslim ascetics as well as Christian monks.

David Vishanoff is Associate Professor of Islamic studies in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Oklahoma, where he teaches courses on the Qur’an, Islamic theology, Islamic law, and comparative topics in religious studies. He received his Ph.D. in West and South Asian Religions from Emory University in 2004. His research is principally concerned with how religious people interpret and conceptualize sacred texts—both their own and those of other religious traditions. His publications have dealt with the early history of Islamic legal theory and hermeneutics, and with uses of scripture across religious lines, especially Muslim rewritings of the Psalms. He is presently editing and translating one version of the Islamic Psalms, and studying modern developments in Qur’anic hermeneutics beginning with recent developments in Indonesia, where he spent the spring of 2013 as a Fulbright scholar. This work has led him to dabble in digital methods of data visualization and “distant reading.”

Footnotes

[1] Psalm 5.5 from the Koranic recension (corresponding to 4.5 of the Core text) based on MS Istanbul, Süleymaniye, Fatih 28, fol. 4b.2–8, and MS Madrid, National Library, MSS/5146, fols 208b.21–209a.4.

[2] See Hurvitz, “Biographies and Mild Asceticism;” Melchert, “Exaggerated Fear in the Early Islamic Renunciant Tradition;” Melchert, “The Islamic Literature on Encounters between Muslim Renunciants and Christian Monks;” Melchert, “The Transition from Asceticism to Mysticism at the Middle of the Ninth Century C.E.”

[3] MSS Vienna, Austrian National Library, A. P. 01854 a Pap and A. P. 01854 b Pap, of which Ursula Bsees and David Vishanoff are preparing an edition.

[4] For an overview of several recensions see Vishanoff, “An Imagined Book Gets a New Text.” I will give an updated and expanded overview in an edition of the Koranic recension that I hope to complete this year.

[5] See Vishanoff, “Why Do the Nations Rage?” 153–158.

[6] See Déclais, David raconté par les musulmans, 187–211.

[7] See the works of Cheikho, Krarup, Mukhliṣ, and Zwemer listed in the bibliography.

[8] al-Mukhtār, ed., Mawāʿiẓ balīgha min Zabūr sayyidinā Dāwūd.

[9] Personal communication from Dr. Yushau Sodiq of Texas Christian University, March 2019.

Bibliography

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