The biblical figures who throng the pages of the Koran appear at once long-familiar and oddly alien. Abraham, Moses and Pharaoh, Joseph and Jacob, Jesus and Mary have all taken on the aspect of expatriates, friends whom we once knew well but who have now come home indefinably transformed; they have picked up new accents and exotic mannerisms; they make puzzling pronouncements not heard before. True, Abraham (Ibrahim in Arabic) is still the ‘friend of God’, as in Jewish and Christian tradition, but Jesus is regularly described as the ‘son of Mary’, in tacit refutation of the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, for, as an early Koranic verse has it, God ‘neither begets nor is begotten’.
There are startling new notes as well. In the twelfth sura, or chapter, of the Koran, devoted to Joseph, or Yusuf, his failed seduction by Potiphar’s wife (otherwise unnamed in the story) follows the biblical narrative, but when the unlucky lady, having been dazzled by Joseph’s beauty, seeks to justify