The Problem of Reading the Qur'an

Dr. Carl W. Ernst examines the Qur'an and the unique challenges that come with studying such an ancient and important book.

BY: Carl W. Ernst


From HOW TO READ THE QUR'AN: A NEW GUIDE, WITH SELECT TRANSLATIONS by Carl W. Ernst. Copyright © 2011 by Carl W. Ernst. Published by the University of North Carolina Press Used by permission of the publisher.

Obstacles to Reading the Qur’an

The genesis of this book comes from a simple question: how should non-Muslims read the Qur’an? On one level, this would seem to be a relatively straightforward issue. The Qur’an is a sacred text, comparable to the Bible and the scriptures of other religious traditions, which are often read and studied in academic and literary contexts. From that point of view, the questions might seem to be primarily technical—how is the text organized, what are its primary features, and what is its audience and principal interpretive traditions? Surely the Qur’an should be approached like any other text.

But with the Qur’an the situation is different. The Qur’an is the source of enormous anxiety in Europe and America, for both religious conservatives, who are alarmed about a competitive post biblical revelation, and secularists, who view Islam with deep suspicion as an irrational force in the post- Enlightenment world. Neither of those worldviews takes the Qur’an very seriously as a text; according to these views, it is instead a very dangerous problem. It is even the case that a number of attempts have been made to outlaw the sale and distribution of the Qur’an completely, as a text that promotes violence, an argument made by fundamentalist Hindus in India during the 1980s and more recently by a right- wing anti- immigration party in the Netherlands. In 2002, outside religious groups sued the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for violating the freedom of religion, when(at my suggestion) it assigned a translation of selections from the Qur’ans its summer reading program for all incoming students that year.1 In 2010,an obscure Christian pastor in Florida drew worldwide attention when he threatened to burn copies of the Qur’an, claiming that it was the cause of the terrorist attacks against American targets in September 2001. These are only a few manifestations of contemporary nervousness about reading the Qur’an. I would argue that such an attitude of suspicion is hardly conducive to a fair- minded understanding of the text.

Hostile readers of the Qur’an use a literary approach that is the equivalent of a blunt instrument. They make no attempt to understand the text as a whole; instead, they take individual verses out of context, give them the most extreme interpretation possible, and implicitly claim that over1 billion Muslims around the world robotically adhere to these extremist views without exception. This is, in effect, a conspiracy theory that has virally multiplied in significant sectors of modern Euro- American society. It is irrational, it is paranoid, and it is out of touch with the realities of the lives of most Muslims around the world today. It ignores the existence of multiple traditions of interpreting the Qur’an in very different fashions(see chapter 1). Unfortunately, a small minority of extremists, who quote the Qur’an in support of terrorist violence, have been magnified by the media into a specter that is now haunting Europe (and the United States)more intensely than Marxism ever did.2 In part because of these contemporary anxieties, it is difficult for most Europeans and Americans to read the Qur’an.

Continued on page 2: What IS the Qur'an? »

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Related Topics: Quran, Muslim, Islam