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.
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
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.
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