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
What is the Qur’an, actually? The historical evidence regarding the origin of the Qur’an is discussed in greater detail in chapter 1, but a brief summary is offered here for those who are unfamiliar with the text. The Qur’an (the title literally means “recitation”—the older spelling “Koran” is no longer used by scholars) can be described as a book in the Arabic language that is divided into 114 chapters known as suras; these suras in turn are divided into numbered verses (ayas), of which there are nearly 6,000in all. While there is debate over exactly how the Qur’an was transmitted and collected, there is widespread agreement among both Muslim authorities and modern Euro- American scholars that the basic text emerged in sections during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad over a period of some twenty- three years (roughly 610–32 CE). Then, by a process that is still quite unclear, these portions were assembled into the present form over the next few decades.3 The text features numerous indications of oral composition techniques, such as repetition, argumentative (“agonistic”)style, building blocks, symmetry, and formulaic utterances, which are often difficult for modern readers to appreciate.4
In terms of chronological sequence, the most significant division of the suras of the Qur’an is marked by the emigration (hijra) of the Prophet Muhammad in 622 CE, when he left the unfriendly environment of pagan Mecca and took leadership over the town of Medina; this was roughly halfway through his prophetic career. The Meccan and Medinan suras show quite different qualities. The short and rhythmically powerful Meccan suras sustained the worship services of a small community of believers under pressure from a hostile pagan establishment. In contrast, the lengthy and prosaic Medinan suras debated scriptural and legal issues with Jews and Christians, at a time when Muhammad’s followers were striving to survive as a community during a difficult struggle with opposing military forces and political treachery. The differing characteristics of the Meccan and Medinan suras will be crucial for understanding the changes in the way the Qur’an unfolded over time. The other basic point to be made about the Qur’an is that it has a central importance in Islamic religious practice. Muslims (who number well over1 billion souls today) consider the Qur’an to be the word of God, transmitted through the Prophet Muhammad. Although over 80 percent of Muslims worldwide are not native speakers of Arabic, all observant Muslims need to know at least portions of the Qur’an by heart in the original language, to recite in their daily prayers. Recitation of the Arabic text of the Qur’an is a demanding art; at the highest level, virtuoso Qur’an reciters demonstrate vocal skills comparable to those of an opera singer. Handwritten copies of the Qur’an, often in lavish and lovingly created calligraphic styles, represent one of the most revered forms of Islamic art. The Qur’an is a major source of Islamic religious ethics and law, and it has had a pervasive impaction the literatures of Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Urdu, and many other languages spoken by Muslims.
In comparison with the Bible, the Qur’an exhibits much greater textual stability, and the variant readings found in different manuscripts are largely trivial differences in pronunciation or vocabulary. A number of theories have been advanced in recent years by European writers, questioning the traditional account of its composition. Some have proposed that the Qur'an was actually assembled as long as two centuries after the time of the Prophet Muhammad. This hypothetical argument has not gained much traction, because of a lack of supporting evidence. Other more bizarre theories have been advanced, claiming that the Qur’an is really based on a Christian text, or that it is not written in Arabic at all, but in a form of Syriac that is badly understood (see chapter 1). Scholars of biblical studies (and readers of The Da Vinci Code) are certainly familiar with breathless exposes that claim to overturn all of the history of Christianity. This kind of radical revisionism probably gets more of a hearing when it concerns Islam, in part because most people are less familiar with the subject, but also because of fantasy expectations about debunking the Qur’an; otherwise it is hard to understand why such eccentric publications would be featured on the front page of the New York Times.5