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
While the Qur’an overlaps with the Bible on certain subjects, it is unfamiliar enough in its distinctive narratives and in its stylistic peculiarities that many first- time readers have pronounced it to be impenetrable. The strangeness of the Qur’an for the Jewish or Christian reader lies in the fact that it does not repeat earlier biblical texts but instead makes brief allusions to them while providing a new and original synthesis that departs from familiar ways of reading the Old and New Testaments. Though the Bible, especially in the King James Version, has had centuries of powerful impact on the development of English prose, the Qur’an remains an unknown cipher for most English speakers, despite its tremendous influence on the literatures and languages of the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Given the blank slate of sheer unfamiliarity with the Qur’an among Americans and Europeans, it is perhaps inevitable that certain cultural habits have become obstacles to an understanding of it. In the mood of anxiety and fear of the post- 9/11 era, it is perhaps understandable that one of these habits would be the temptation to find quick answers in this ancient text, to provide simple solutions to an urgent modern political problem. Unfortunately, nervous haste all too readily leads to serious problems of misrepresentation, as isolated phrases are made to stand in for a whole text, a single text is made to stand for an entire religion, and extremist individuals magnified by the media are taken to be representative of hundreds of millions of people in dozens of different countries. These are not trivial mistakes; weighty and unfortunate consequences flow from any distorted prejudice that substitutes for real knowledge.
At this point, I would like to draw attention to several ways in which it has been common to approach a text like the Qur’an superficially. One is what Professor Peter Wright of Colorado College calls “religious tourism, “which he defines as “the presumption shared by many people that learning about religion consists in hearing various dogmas and then arguing about whether or not one finds those dogmas compelling.”6 Put another way, religion is thought of as a marketplace in which the commodities are “beliefs,” which supposedly can be determined and evaluated by a quick look at a few lines, regardless of their meaning in context. Obviously, one does not need to actually read much, or take any classes, in order to decide what one likes or does not like; advertising and the media typically fill in the blanks for consumers of religion, just as they do for buyers of other commodities. But it turns out that texts like the Qur’an, which come from far away and which have been held in reverence by many people over centuries, have multiple meanings. There are major groups of believers who accept the Qur’an (or the Bible) as an authority but who have radically different understandings of what it is all about. To imagine that one can pick up a complicated text like this, read a few lines, and know what it “says” on any given topic is unrealistic, to say the least.
As one early Muslim leader observed, the Qur’an does not speak, but it does require an interpreter. One of the key points of this book is that the focus of the Qur'an underwent significant changes during the twenty- three years when it was being delivered. If in fact the Qur’an altered its expression and emphasis for changing audiences and circumstances on its first appearance, how could one decide what the Qur’an says on any given subject for all times? Another major conclusion of this book is that the central messages of the Qur'an are embedded in its structure, in the way that its component parts are put together, so pulling a random verse out of context is as likely as not to produce misinformation. The good news is that, with a little more effort, one can come to understand both the structures by which the Qur’an is composed and the changing literary and historical situations within which it had meaning for its audiences.