The “Dye of God”, baptism, and Qur’anic interaction with Christian themes.

I read an excellent paper by Sean Anthony, titled “Further Notes On The Word  Ṣibgha in Qur’an 2:138.” I thought I’d comment on some of the content in the paper which I found quite significant. I encourage those interested to have a look at the full paper.

The verse 2:138 of the Qur’an uses a very interesting and peculiar term that has caused some disagreement between scholars (traditional and western alike). This term is “Sibghat Allah” (صبغة الله), variously translated as “dye”, “color” of God etc, or less literally as “the religion” of God. More recently, some western scholars, following a tendency to note links between the language of the Qur’an and classical Syriac influence, posit that it would better be translated as “baptism”. The source of this argument is generally that the trilateral word for ṣibghah, i.e ص-ب-غ, is also the same root for the Syriac word for baptism (in Syr. ܡܨܒܘܥܝܬܐ, maṣbuʿita)1and that the context seems to make the most sense of it – certainly, it does require a little more imagination to understand what “God’s dye” would mean.

Which I suppose brings out an interesting question. Which reading to privilege? The classical understanding of the word is borne out of a focus on the Arabic language, which the Qur’an is expressed in, but as far Sean Anthony notes, the idiom, “dye of God,” does not have another relevant idiomatic precedent in the classical corpus. The advantages of the Syriac term have already been noted – and it is tantalizing to read the verse that way, given the strong allusions to the traditions of the “people of the book” in the entire chapter, and also that the term “baptism of God” has a defined technical usage in the historical context of the Qur’an (albeit among the Christians).

The answer, quite surprisingly, is somewhere in the middle. Sean Anthony brilliantly notes that the term “dye of God”, was often a metaphorical allusion, or atleast an association, to baptism, that is carried out by God directly-

“I would like to introduce a seemingly hitherto unnoticed similarity between Qur’an 2:138 and a passage from an early Christian document discovered among the Coptic Nag Hammadi codicies known as the Gospel of Phillip. The relevant passage from this parascriptural document reads as follows (Gos. Phil. 61.12–20):26

God is a dyer. Like the good dyes—they are called the ‘true’(dyes) — die with those (things) that have been dyed in them, thus it is with those whom God has dyed. Since His dyes are immortal, they become immortal by means of His remedies. But God dips/baptizes those whom He dips/baptizes in water.

The simile of the passage is a striking one: as good and true dyes become one with (or, ‘die with’) the items dyed, so God’s immortal dyes suffuse those whom He dyes with immortality during baptism.

For anyone familiar with the Quranic ‘Sibghat Allah’, the designation of God as a dyer in Gos. Phil., is immediately striking as both are framed soteriologically.”

Then he goes on to give several other examples, prior to the Qur’an, and in Syriac, that speak of baptism as God dyeing the believers, which are also associated with soteriology.

At this point I decided to consult al-Razi to see what a classical exegete would make of this verse. I was admittedly surprised to see al-Razi effortlessly making the link to baptism, and doing so without any linguistic arguments:

أن بعض النصارى كانوا يغمسون أولادهم في ماء أصفر يسمونه المعمودية ويقولون: هو تطهير لهم. وإذا فعل الواحد بولده ذلك قال: الآن صار نصرانياً. فقال الله تعالى: اطلبوا صبغة الله وهي الدين، والإسلام لا صبغتهم، والسبب في إطلاق لفظ الصبغة على الدين طريقة المشاكلة كما تقول لمن يغرس الأشجار وأنت تريد أن تأمره بالكرم: اغرس كما يغرس فلان تريد رجلاً مواظباً على الكرم، ونظيره قوله تعالى:{ إِنَّمَا نَحْنُ مُسْتَهْزِءونَ * ٱللَّهُ يَسْتَهْزِىء بِهِمْ } [البقرة: 14، 15]،{ يُخَـٰدِعُونَ ٱللَّهَ وَهُوَ خَادِعُهُمْ } [النساء: 142]،{ وَمَكَرُواْ وَمَكَرَ ٱللَّهُ } [آل عمران: 54]،{ وَجَزَاءُ سَيّئَةٍ سَيّئَةٌ مّثْلُهَا } [الشورى: 40]،{ إِن تَسْخَرُواْ مِنَّا فَإِنَّا نَسْخَرُ مِنكُمْ } [هود: 38

https://www.altafsir.com/Tafasir.asp?tMadhNo=0&tTafsirNo=4&tSoraNo=2&tAyahNo=138&tDisplay=yes&UserProfile=0&LanguageId=1

[Translation my own; may have errors]

“… some of the Christians used to immerse their children in yellow water, naming this practice as baptism, and saying regarding it; it is purification for them. When they do it to one of their children, they say “He is now a Christian”. So God says, “obtain the dye of God,” and Islam is not their dye – so the reason for using the word “dye” for the religion itself (ie. Islam) is for the sake of comparison. [The purpose of this] is like how you would say to a man who plants trees, and you want to exhort him to virtue, “plant trees like so-and-so plants trees.” You will therefore see a man that is committed to virtue. Refer to: “We are mocking… God mocks them…” (Q 2:14-15); “the disbelievers seek to deceive God but He deceives them”(Q 4:142); “they planned and God planned” (Q 5:54); “the recompense for evil is evil like it” (Q 42:40) ” “if you laugh at us, we also laugh at you!” (Q 11:38)

The end result of this paper, then, is not too far from the traditional interpretation, but certainly has a hint of the line of thought motivating some recent Islamicists. Personally, I think Sean Anthony could have been far better in referencing classical tafasir to see what Muslim exegetes actually thought. I cannot help but feel there is a subtle trend that on occasion pops up, and that is not giving traditional scholars the full credit they deserve (though as this particular Islamicist is always a great read, I am sure there is a good reason here). Having said this, I still thought this paper was valuable. While al-Razi refers to some unnamed tradition of Christians actually using coloured water to baptize their children, this paper identifies poetic usage of the term of “dyeing” with close relevance to “baptism”, thereby identifying a historical, idiomatic precedent for the Qur’anic phrase.

This continues a line of research I am absolutely fascinated by – the interaction between the Qur’an and Judeo-Christian tradition. Again, the prophet Muhammad, as we know him atleast, was hardly the suitable candidate to pick up phraseology and idiomata from Syriac Christian hymns and heterodox gospel traditions, and even through an oral medium, one must admit the usage in the Qur’an is fairly clever, not only for its reference to aforementioned Judaeo-Christian tradition but also from a rhetorical lens as al-Razi notes.

  1. Here, the root is Sad, Bet, and Ayin, as Syriac lacks the arabic Ghayn (for purposes of comparison, in Syriac, the Ayin and (lost) Ghayn are interchangeable).
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4 thoughts on “The “Dye of God”, baptism, and Qur’anic interaction with Christian themes.

  1. Peace,

    the linguist Marijn van Putten recently argued that the Aramaic dialect that mainly influenced Quranic Arabic, was, in fact, NOT Syriac.

    https://phoenixblog.typepad.com/blog/2018/01/overflowing-and-transgression-the-foreign-idols-of-the-quran.html
    https://iqsaweb.files.wordpress.com/2018/11/2018-iqsa-programbook.pdf

    I’d highly recommend you to follow him on Twitter, (and Sean Anthony as well), they always do very interesting threads.

    Like

  2. Dear Taha,
    Thank you for an interesting essay.
    And thanks to Mostafa for mentioning the work on the Qur’an and the Psalms.
    Just last century, the Gospel of Philip was found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in the same treasure trove that had the Gospel of Thomas. Neither of these books are considered canonical by mainstream Christianity, nevertheless, they are beautiful and deep.
    The Gospel of Thomas, like the Qur’an, has a 1-to-1 correspondence with the Psalms of the same number.
    The Gospel of Thomas has 114 Logoi, as the Qur’an has 114 Surahs.
    It might be the case that the Gospel of Philip is doing the same parallel technique of speaking with Psalms of the same number; however, it is more difficult to fix the text of the Gospel of Philip into precise chapters. This makes the comparison project more difficult. I hope to get to this in the future.

    Additionally, in the tafsir by al-Razi, his discussion of the tree seems to be related to Psalm 1. The fruit tree of Psalm 1 is planted by streams of water; the verb might also be translated as “transplanted.”

    Also, there is growing evidence that the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) may have been in substantial dialogue with Christian monks. This early research shows some of the evidence for such a dialogue:

    https://scripturefinds.wordpress.com/2016/09/17/friendship-and-mystical-connections-between-the-prophet-muhammad-and-the-christian-monks-of-mount-sinai-the-ashtiname/

    There is a lot of work to do in these areas.
    All best wishes,
    Richard Murray

    Like

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