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.

Continued from page 1

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.

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


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Related Topics: Quran, Muslim, Islam