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.
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.