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
Another questionable assumption is the idea that if one understands the Qur’an, one understands the entire Islamic faith, and therefore one understands all Muslims. This breathtakingly simple concept, a by- product of Protestant views of scripture, is no doubt convenient; it means that in order to understand Muslims one does not really have to take seriously things like hundreds of years of history and politics, social and economic conditions, the cultures of different regions, and so on. It would be easy if, from a few lines in a sacred text, one could predict everything about the behavior of hundreds of millions of people in widely separated countries, as if they were programmed from a central computer. A simple thought experiment should indicate otherwise. What does the New Testament tell us about modern American Christian attitudes on issues like abortion, homosexuality, and environmentalism? Since Christians fall on all sides of these issues (let alone the debate about which groups count as Christian), many additional factors would have to be introduced to provide convincing explanations of these questions. Likewise, the Qur’an by itself is far from explaining the history of Muslim majority societies. Even in a relatively specialized subject like classical Islamic law and ethics, the Qur’an is only one of several sources of authority. Those who wish to understand Muslims today will need to look at a great many other subjects besides the Qur'an. Another obstacle that needs to be addressed is the assumption that the Qur'an, unlike the Bible or the Greek and Latin classics, is an exotic oriental text that is foreign to the traditions of “the West.” Elsewhere I have attempted to point out that Islam plays a significant role in both European and American history, and that it would be a mistake to pretend otherwise.7 More important, recent research is making it possible to understand how closely the Qur’an is related to other ancient texts, both biblical and later in origin. The intertextual relationship between the Qur’an and other writings of “Western civilization” is a controversial subject only in theology. That is, for Christian theologians, and later for post- Enlightenment European scholars, the Qur’an was viewed as an inferior derivative work, a travesty of the Bible. Conversely, for Muslim scholars, divergences between the Qur’an and biblical texts were proof of the distortions of the Bible. For neither of these groups has it been considered worthwhile to investigate the way that the Qur’an engages with earlier texts, as part of a shared civilization. If one sets aside such theological competition, however, once this barrier is removed it becomes wonderfully apparent that the Qur’an was aimed at an audience that was quite aware of a wide range of ancient religious literature that is also claimed by the West. Moreover, like other prophetic writings, the Qur’an engages in critical rewriting of those previous texts as a way of establishing its own voice. While we are far from having a comprehensive view of this intertextual relationship, one of the aims of this book is to acquaint readers with examples of the ways in which the Qur'an references and grapples with earlier sacred writings. Seeing the text in this way makes it clear that the Qur’an is in fact a part of the same tradition as the Bible.
The problem of reading the Qur’an is compounded by the fact that the scholarship surrounding this text is one of the most forbidding and technical fields of what used to be called Oriental studies. Much of the modern scholarship on the subject is published in German and French, and even the English- language materials are located mostly in specialized journals or in hard- to- find collections of articles. Moreover, Qur'anic studies as an academic field has been pursued by a relatively small number of researchers, so that it can scarcely compare with the vast number of publications that have been produced in biblical studies over the past century or so. Still, there have been significant advances made in Qur'anic scholarship in recent years, which include the first specialized academic journal devoted to the subject, plus a number of excellent academic syntheses and reference works, including the extremely valuable Encyclopedia of the Qurʾan.8 But it is still difficult for the average interested reader to get access to the most important available scholarship on the Qur’an. The media and popular writings about Islam are much more interested in oddball attempts at discrediting the Qur’an than in the more challenging task of reading the text seriously. Internet sites operated by religious organizations (whether attacking Islam or defending it) shed more heat than light upon the subject. What is needed at this point is a clear and straightforward presentation of the main issues and debates in modern scholarship concerning the structure and characteristics of the Qur’an, which will enable readers to come to a significant understanding of this complicated text, its relationship to other scriptures, and its historical context. That rather urgent need is the pretext for this guide to reading the Qur’an.
1 See my article, “From the Heart of the Qur’an Belt,” Religious Studies News, May2003, available online (with other sources on the controversy) at http://www.unc.edu/~cernst/quran.htm (accessed February 12, 2011).
2 For a detailed sociological study of the actual attitudes of American Muslims toward extremist violence, see David Schanzer, Charles Kurzman, and Ebrahim Moosa, “Anti-Terror Lessons of Muslim- Americans,” Report for the National Institute of Justice, January 6, 2010, http://www.sanford.duke.edu/news/Schanzer_Kurzman_Moosa_Anti- Terror_Lessons.pdf (accessed February 12, 2011). See also Charles Kurzman’s collection, “Islamic Statements against Terrorism,” http://www.unc.edu/~kurzman/terror.htm (accessed February 12, 2011).
3 The extent to which we do not understand the details of this process is underlined by Andrew Rippin’s foreword, in John Wansbrough, Qur'anic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation, ed. Andrew Rippin (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 2004), xv–xviii.
4 Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London: Routledge,1988).
5 Alexander Stille, “Radical New Views of Islam and the Origins of the Koran,” New York Times, March 2, 2002, http://www.rim.org/muslim/qurancrit.htm (accessed February12, 2011).
6 Peter Wright, email communication, May 23, 2010.
7 Carl W. Ernst, Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003).
8 Journal of Qur'anic Studies, published by Edinburgh University Press since 1999; The Blackwell Companion to the Qur’an, ed. Andrew Rippin (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006); The Cambridge Companion to the Qur’an, ed. Jane Dammen McAuliffe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006); The Koran, ed. Colin Turner, Critical Concepts in Islamic Studies, 4 vols. (London: Routledge Curzon, 2004); The Qur’an: An Encyclopedia,ed. Oliver Leaman (London: Routledge, 2008); The Encyclopedia of the Qur’an, ed.Jane Dammen McAuliffe, 6 vols. (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2002–7).
9 John B. Gabel, Charles B. Miller, and Anthony York, The Bible as Literature: An Intro
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