Frye on the Islam and the Koran

Compiled by Bob Denham

The following entries come from Northrop Frye’s Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible and Other Religious Texts.  Additional references from Frye’s work on the Koran and Islam to follow.

[147]  I think Freud’s & Jung’s point about a fuller life as a reintegration of consciousness & life, or ego & id, has meaning on the historical level too.  Europe is an ego, the East an id, & the barrier between them, which isolated the West & made it into a Thomist-Cartesian frenzy of consciousness, was Islam.  Islam thus occupied the place of the superego: it held possession of the married land where the tomb of the Son was.  If the Crusades had achieved their objective, the centre of the world would have moved back from the Ego (Rome) to the Self (Jerusalem). (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 60)

[67]  The Bible is a work in which authorship counts for very little & editing & redacting & glossing & conflating & expurgating a great deal.  Because of this it’s also a translatable book, in contrast to the Koran, which is so dependent on Arabic that the Arabic language has had to go everywhere Islam does.  The Koran seems to me a simple, logical, & totally inadequate conception of a sacred book. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 84–5)

[69]  In my R.K. [Religious Knowledge] course is a clever & plausible remark about the Koran: suras arranged in order of length only means that if the Koran is the Word of God, God doesn’t give a damn about narrative sequence.  Hence the rise of narrative literature and of causality structures (science) in the Christian culture founded on the Bible.  There may be still something in this; but it may be balls too.  After sura 1, an obvious opening invocation, sura 2 outlines the same old fall-exodus recapitulation, sura 3 adds Xy to it; sura 4 deals with points of law like Leviticus, and so on.  It’s just possible that the length-order is the right one, moving from a sort of East Coker laying down of the law, in roughly continuous prose, toward a shower of lyrical apocalyptic sparks, charms, riddles, curses, etc. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 85)

[70]  In any case I need to study the form of the individual revelation, of which the Koran is the archetype, & which has its literary imitations in, e.g., Nietzsche’s Zarathustra & Lawrence’s Plumed Serpent. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 85)

[71]  Anyway, the Koran is, of course, deadly dull.  All sacred books are neurotic in proportion to the amount of yelling they do about the punishments of unbelievers, and the proportion in the Koran is high.  The neurotic impression is increased a hundredfold by the oral pre-literate style, which depends on & demands endless repetition.  The definitive, or once-for-all, statement is either existential—an oracle applying to a certain person at a certain time—or written down.  Written unique statements become Promethean, & afford a clue leading out of the labyrinth, when they’re chained together by a dialectic, whether conceptual or poetic. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 85)

[72]  Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, proclaim their revelation only in the open air & the sunlight (at least it’s difficult to think of the Sermon on the Mount as delivered in a pouring rain).  The Koran, Sura 6, speaking of Abraham, says that Abraham at first worshipped sun, moon & stars when they rose, but when they set he turned his attention to the God behind them [Koran 6:75–9].  In other words, he stayed in the upper world, & refused to go down into the world below the horizon of Nomos [law] & Nous [mind]. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 85–6)

[73]  This lower world, the world of signs, of secrecy, & of oracles, is also the world of writing—proclaimers have to depend on a writing secretary or keeper of the secrets.  Xy, Islam, & probably Judaism, have the conception of the secret books of life in which some angel writes down our largely forgotten acts, & confronts us with them at the Last Judgement.  The dark world is the world of signs, of which the archetype is the sign of Jonah, the prophet who descended to that world.  It stretches from the paleolithic cave of magic animal pictures to the descent to the cipher or oracle which we have in Arthur Gordon Pym, in Endymion, in Rabelais’ bottle oracle.[i] This all contrasts with the claim of Jesus & Mohammed to have said nothing in secret[ii]—secret traditions always have a gnostic, sufi, mahayana sense of heresy about them: the exoteric tradition is what is primary & holds society together: the gospel, not the mystery cult. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 86)

[76]  The Koran thinks of every object in nature as at once useful, or potentially useful, in relation to man (bee for honey, stars as guides through the labyrinth of nature, etc.) & as significant in relation to God: as phenomena, all things are signs of God’s activity.  It also, of course, regards monotheism as the form that all enlightenment takes, whether intellectual or moral.  Note the close interdependence of monotheism & the doctrine of signatures: it’s impossible to hold such a view except in relation to one infinite personality.  Hinduism & Buddhism, however, refine this i. p. [infinite personality] out of sight.  Not a simple problem, but monism seems to be essential to symbolism.  A symbol throws meaning across, & only a theist God, or some refinement of him, to whom everything can be thrown across, can support a conception of total symbolism. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 86–7)

[89]  So, if I’m right, my 5 chapters are really all there is.  My course essentially is covered in 1 & 2.  3 introduces the conception of two stages, & takes us as far as monotheism can go—the Koran doesn’t get beyond the Last Judgement.  4, based on Job & Ecclesiastes, takes wisdom—the conception of maya & the existential or scorners of the three A’s [absurdity, alienation, anxiety]—to the limit of stage 3; which is as far as most Far Eastern religion gets.  5, on how what’s revealed isn’t ultimately the language of revelation but the fact of creation, winds it up.  Through mysticism to dialogue—interpenetration of Word. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 90)

[80]  To those accustomed to written books, a synchronic orally composed book like the Koran is intolerable.  But Moslems wouldn’t think of it diachronically, with unrepeated statements gaining the emphasis of repetition by being in dialectical sequence.  They think of the Koran as words descending from heaven as rain descends from the sky, all over the place at once, and if you’re looking for rain to break a drought, you don’t complain that one raindrop is much like another. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 88)

[82]  Still with the Koran: it’s a perfect example of my concern and imagination thesis.  Mohammed was a very great inspired poet, but he found that this quality was precisely what made him distrusted.  So he insisted that he wasn’t a poet but a prophet, & started brainwashing his followers with interminable repetitions of the you-just-wait type.  Islamic culture, Sufi mysticism, geometrical art, mathematics & the like, descend from the suppressed poet; Islamic fanaticism descends from the paranoid prophet.  Yet, human nature being what it is, there would never have been any Islamic culture without the brainwashing paranoia.  Ugh.  But I think we’re finding the moral equivalent of war (see p. 26 [par. 78]) and the next thing to find is the moral equivalent of concerned paranoia.  One element in this is counter-prophecy, of the sort Blake describes in his Watson-Paine notes.  A prophecy that, without being facile or “optimistic,” points out the positive opportunities in each situation. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 88)

[159]  But, of course, there’s that difference between Plato’s anamnesis & Kierkegaard’s repetition: the inhibiting memory that Blake says has nothing to do with imagination, & the habit or practice memory that makes imagination expressible.  Yet even Blake includes the conception of the apochryphon of the heart, the secret book we all write every second of our lives, which according to the Koran (and the Bible too) confronts us at death [The Children of Israel 17:13–14; Revelation 20:12]. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 110)

[181]  Further, if I stuff the present essay, the passage on the Bible might become more functional.  (Imperialist nature of monotheism seen in the intense centralizing tendencies of Judaism at Jerusalem after the D [Deuteronomic] code & thereafter, Xy at Rome, Islam at Mecca, even in the 3 revy. [revolutionary] developments of it.)  (Note tendency of Black Power to turn Moslem because Xy is the “white” religion, forgetting that Islam was the religion of the Arab slave-traders.)  I’m beginning to feel that one of the key figures of history was that repulsive idiot Antiochus Epiphanes: without him neither Judaism nor Xy would ever have come into focus. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 115)

[182]  I wonder if something about the anxiety of continuity doesn’t belong here.  It takes the literary form of a father handing on proverbs to his son, wisdom being traditionally the beaten path.  The story of Ahikar: here a father showers an (adopted) son with proverbs; the son betrays & tries to kill him; he escapes, returns in wrath, imprisons his son, & showers him with more proverbs, this time in a more menacing context.  The story impressed the author of Tobit (cf. the Tobit-Tobias relation there) enough for him to claim A. [Ahikar] as a relative of Tobit; it’s in Classical culture (Aesop) & in the Koran (Loqman) [sura 31].  Cf., later, Polonius to Laertes & Chesterfield: the Hamlet context is significant because of the central importance of legitimacy in the history plays. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 115–6)

[189]  My present recasting of CP [The Critical Path] is:

1.  Personal & Autobiographical Introduction.  Perhaps I should reread Vico.

2.  The thesis of concern & freedom & of the fact that Judaism, Xy & possibly Islam are revy. [revolutionary] in origin. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 117)

[201]  In the present 5 it’s important to note that a written Scripture democratizes a community by providing an accessible source.  The oral tradition becomes esoteric.  In Islamic countries it democratized the religious set up, making every man his own priest, but not the political one.  The hierarchy of interpretation is, as I have it, another form of oral tradition.  Not having a definitive written document, on the other hand, releases the liberty of prophesying. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 121)

[166]  To make 1–4 primarily mine I’d have to get away from the handbook idea altogether.  This means that 1 acquires all my shape-of-canon & definitive myth vs. Koran stuff.  2 is about myth as a present-tense counterpoint to history.  3 is really my hermeneutics lecture, and 4 acquires some of my prose-of-concern points. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 168)

[171]  Four: What I have on translation, ending with the point about tr. as literal of the underthought.  Vs. Koran again.  Linguistic accidents: the presence of these in religious lit. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 171)

[245]  Chapter One: The Book Itself.  The canon of Old, New & Apocryphal Testaments: its context as indicated by, e.g., the Pseudepigrapha, Philo & Josephus.  Don’t break as you have it now.  The “moral” is the sense of canonical shape that emerges, vs. the Koran.  Very easy to read this as (a) doctrinal or (b) historical accuracy. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 185)

[260]  Two: all reading is translation.  Hebrew is translatable because it’s intensely demonstrative: everything is “and” connected, even though our conceptually-obsessed language keeps putting in “so,” “but,” “therefore,” & the like.  We shipped far too much Latin after Wyclif.  (The oral origin of parallelism is “dialogue,” or, ritually, antiphonal chant).  Hebrew rhythm is accentual, which is why English lit. is so Biblical.  Accidents of language (cf. Koran) can’t be reproduced, except independently in poetry (e.g. Eliot’s A-W [Ash-Wednesday]). (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 188)

[294]  The repetitiousness of the Koran would drive a reader out of his mind if he were reading it as he would read any other book.  But for a Mohammedan, brought up from infancy to learn it by heart, to attach the greatest possible reverence & weight to what it says, it does exactly the job it should do.  It gives the impression that while man’s will bucks & plunges in all directions, God’s will is steady & unyielding, incessantly coming back to the same point, until the horse is broken in, so to speak, & has learned to move with a direction and a will that are not his own. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 195)

[310]  Sex books in a bookshop are not there to tell you anything you don’t know; they’re there to keep your mind on the subject.  Similarly with devotional literature, Christian & Marxist.  Myths of concern [?]-clouds.  This is an extension of the dissociation-by-repetition principle (95–6 on the Koran [par. 294]) that repetition charges the emotional batteries & suspends the critical faculties.  What I tell you three times is true.  What I tell you three hundred times is profoundly true. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 198)

[325]  Then Three can begin with the Hebrew & Greek stuff & the division of language into the three areas of sound (untranslatable; Koran & Kabbalism), abstraction (dialectically translatable only; illustrate from Douai & KJ) & imagery (literally translatable, leading to Four’s discussion of what’s literal). (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 201)

[342]  Spire & minaret point to the sky; the domes of mosques & basilicas imitate it: Ugh: trylon & perisphere.  Don’t forget the purely typological & anti-historical identification of Miriam & Mary in the Koran [19:28]. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 204)

[349]  Just as in the Bible we cannot distinguish the voice of God from the voice of the Deteronomic redactor, so in the Koran we cannot distinguish the voice of the angel Gabriel from the voice of Mohammed in a bad temper. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 205)

[353]  Resurrection, the opposite of rebirth, is the genuine form of reincarnation.  In accepting incarnation Xy establishes the pattern of resurrection which (for instance) Islam doesn’t have. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 206)

[355]  Two (and Six): The history of the Bible is story: the Koran has shape (at least the individual suras have) but it doesn’t tell a story.  Story is connected with the fact that the heart of the Bible is ritual drama, not teaching. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 206)

[383]  Six: The Koran, & more particularly Rumi, make it clear that the succession of Prophets is not (of course) literal reincarnation, but is a discontinuous series of epiphanies of the same things; history in Heilsgeschichte form.  Rumi also says that good & evil, Adam & Iblis, Moses & Pharaoh, are equally manifestations of divine will, & that such opposites are the form that will takes.  Note the theme of different persons in one “substance,” in a different context.  I’ll have to find out what Tillich’s “principle” is.  Body only is not a simple conception. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 212)

[22]  Xy absorbed so much that Judaism (like Islam later) excluded.  The internalized imagery of the ancient cave returned in the cathedral, whereas the Holy of Holies remained dark: the Mother returned in far greater force, along with the dying god: the totemic identification of human & animal victim is kept separate in the Akeda [binding of Isaac] and Passover: the blood sacrifice is similarly absorbed into the harvest-vintage ones.  In short, there’s a real catholicity that gives it the resources of a world religion.  It has the power to transcend itself: Judaism hasn’t.  More accurately, and gratefully, it did transcend itself in the Christian Word & Spirit (NOT the Church). (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 370)

[41]  Jews put most of their anxiety on separating milk & meat dishes, which isn’t in the Torah but was a “fence” dreamed up by some rabbi centuries later.  I don’t know about Islam, but the God who dictated the Koran was such a dismal paranoid anyway they probably don’t need extra ones. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 373)

So the narrative unity of the Bible, which is there in spite of the miscellaneous nature of its content, was something that I stressed.  And that concern for narrative seems to me to be distinctive of the Bible among other sacred books.  In the Koran, for example, the revelations of Mohammed were gathered up after his death and arranged in order of length, which suggests that revelation in the Koran pays no attention to narrative continuity—that’s not what it is interested in.  But the fact that the Bible is interested in it seems to be significant for the study of literature and for many other reasons. (“Symbolism of the Bible,” Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 418)

The New Testament was written in Greek by writers whose native language probably was not Greek.  The kind of Greek they wrote was called koine, the popular Greek which was distributed all through the Near Eastern countries as a kind of common language.  The writers of the New Testament may have been familiar to differing degrees with the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, but when they quoted from the Old Testament they tended to use the Septuagint.  And that is the beginning of a principle which is rather important for the history of Christianity.  In any sacred book, there is enough concentration in the writing, and enough attention paid to it by those who accept it as sacred, for the linguistic characteristics of the original language to be of great importance.  Any Jewish interpretation or commentary on the Hebrew Old Testament inevitably takes great care to study the linguistic nuances of the Hebrew original, and similarly with the Koran, which is so bound up with the linguistic characteristics of Arabic that in practice the Arabic language has had to go everywhere that the Islamic religion has gone. (“Symbolism of the Bible,” Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 419)

You notice the similarity of Moses’ being concealed in what is called an ark, a kibotos, and Jesus’ being born in the manger.  And then you remember that in the Gospel account, Jesus is taken to Egypt by Joseph and Mary.  In the earlier account, Moses grows up in Egypt, and the names “Joseph” and “Mary” recall the “Joseph” who led the Israelites into Egypt in the first place and the “Miriam” who was Moses’ older sister.  In fact, there is a sura of the Koran that identi­fies the “Miriam” of the Exodus story with “Mary” of the Gospels [19:28].  Naturally, Christian commentators on the Koran say that this is ridiculous: but we must remember that the Koran is speaking from a totally typological, ahistorical point of view; and from that point of view, the identification makes sense. (“Symbolism of the Bible,” Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 484–5)

[T]he story of Israel begins with Moses and the Exodus, and the story of Christianity begins with the birth of Christ.  It doesn’t begin with the Essenes or anything else that might have looked vaguely similar.  The story of Communism begins with Marx and Engels and not with Fourier, Owen, St. Simon, or any of the other utopian socialists.  Islam begins with Mohammed and the flight from Mecca to Medina. (“Symbolism of the Bible,” Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 525)

Well, with a story like that [the story of Ahikar], of course, you can’t miss.  You have the authority of the elders; you have the dangers of trusting anybody under thirty; you have the hundreds and hundreds of proverbs to improve the mind of the reader who consults the story.  And so we’re not surprised to find that the story of Ahikar has embedded itself in all the literatures of the Near East.  It is quoted in the Old Testament, and the Book of Tobit in the Apocrypha concerns a man who is said to be the nephew of Ahikar [1:21], thereby establishing a link with another popular tale.  It is said to be echoed in the New Testament, though some scholars disagree with that.  Ahikar found his way into Greek literature under the name of Aesop; and there’s even a sura in the Koran which bears his name, or at least another version of his name, although the Koran for the most part is even less interested in secular literature than the New Testament, which is saying a good deal. (“Symbolism of the Bible,” Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 544–5)

We have there, as we have so often in the Jewish and Christian and Islamic religious traditions, the sense of God as being in charge of the order of nature, but without interfering in it.  There’s always something of a very human feeling that if we were God, we would work harder to earn our keep; that if we were in charge of what happened, we wouldn’t make such appalling bungles as God appears to be making.  But all these questions focus on the question of the origin and the existence of evil itself. (“Symbolism of the Bible,” Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 575)

The Exodus gives to the Biblical religions that curiously revolutionary quality which Judaism and Christianity and Islam all have to some degree: and we saw that a nation which has gone through that kind of revolutionary experience becomes a nation with a very strong sense of its own corporate unity because of the experience which its people have shared.  Thus, law becomes really the antitype of the birth of Israel at the deliverance from Egypt, or the reality to which it points. (“Symbolism of the Bible,” Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 584–5)


[i] In Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838) the descent is unresolved in Pym’s encounter with a gigantic, enigmatic shroud-figure in the Antarctic; NF examines the katabatic and epiphanic movements in Keats’s Endymion in SR, 125–65; for the encounter of Pantagruel and Panurge with the oracle of the bottle, see Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532–64), bk. 4, chaps. 34–48.

[ii] John 18:20.  Mohammed as the receptacle of clear, direct, and truthful revelation appears throughout the Koran.

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