How to Read the Qur'an
A New Guide, with Select Translations
By Carl W. Ernst
The University of North Carolina Press
Copyright © 2011 Carl W. Ernst
All right reserved.
Chapter One The History and Form of the Qur'an and the Practices of Reading
Situating the Qur'an in History The Problem of the Historical Understanding of the Qur'an
The Qur'an is most frequently approached as a religious text that makes authoritative claims, which are to be either rejected or accepted. Certainly there are religious contexts where such an approach makes sense, whether it be in Muslim circles where reinforcement of Islamic religious teachings is the aim or in non-Muslim religious groups where the message of the Qur'an is fiercely opposed. Yet there are other ways of approaching the Qur'an as a literary text embodied in concrete historical situations; it is the argument of this book that situating the Qur'an in history with literary analysis is the most appropriate method both for the modern university and for the emerging global sphere of public culture.
The historical approach to religion as developed in modern universities, particularly in North America, is a way of addressing religious pluralism without either establishing or rejecting any particular form of religion. The university constitutes a public space in which everyone may take part, and the discussion of religion can be carried out by anyone without having to pay the price of a precommitment to any particular religious persuasion. In the academy, it is no longer acceptable (outside of explicitly religious schools) to quote one particular scriptural position as authoritative and beyond question. The proliferation of multiple religious views in modern society makes such an imposition impractical at best—at worst it is a tyrannical dream. Similarly, in the wider public arena, despite the existence of groups intent on imposing their own sectarian dogmas on society, it is increasingly possible for people to come to a positive appreciation of the religious views of others. Such a positive appreciation differs from the grudging acceptance known as tolerance, which only puts up with hated and distrusted others out of necessity. This is not to prejudge the outcome of a historical and literary reading of the Qur'an, but it is my observation that many people today have a genuine curiosity to understand the wellsprings of the religious beliefs of others. A historical and literary approach at least offers the prospect of a fair-minded and reasonable approach to other people's religions, which is why such a method seems both attractive and necessary today.
It might be argued that the Qur'an does not envision the possibility of a nonbeliever understanding the scripture of Islam. Indeed, being a rejecter of God's message is in effect the definition of disbelief. Qur'anic rhetoric treats the divine revelation as so transparently true that only willful disobedience could inspire its rejection. In a frequently repeated image, recalling the biblical language of God "hardening the heart" of Pharaoh, the Qur'an refers to God "putting a seal" on the hearts of unbelievers. "As for the unbelievers, it is the same for them if you warned them or you did not warn them; they do not believe. God has sealed their hearts and their hearing, and upon their sight there is a darkening; theirs is a great punishment" (2:7). At the same time, however, the Qur'an alludes to the possibility of non-Muslims—in this case, Christian monks—being deeply moved by the recitation of the text: "When they hear what was sent down to the messenger, you will see their eyes overflow with tears from that part of the truth that they recognize" (5:83). Admittedly, the Qur'an also envisions these monks proclaiming their faith and their status as witnesses of the revelation, so this ends up being a more or less triumphalist statement about the truth of the Qur'an. But the academic study of religion is necessarily something that stands apart from the endorsement of any particular religious message. What characterizes the academic approach is the application of humanistic and social scientific methodologies to the subject at hand; the scholarly analysis and reframing of a topic is different from the mere replication of its claims to authority.
Yet in another sense the Qur'an does offer a warrant for non-Muslims needing to understand the revelation. In a very profound sense, the Qur'an carries with it a recognition of the inevitable pluralism and multiplicity of humankind. "For everyone we have established a law, and a way. If God had wished, He would have made you a single community, but this was so He might test you regarding what He sent you. So try to be first in doing what is best" (5:48). If the existence of multiple religious groups is, as it were, part of the divine plan from a Muslim perspective, what conclusions may be drawn? Either non-Muslims must commit to endless (and ultimately insoluble) conflict with Muslims, or some kind of overlapping consensus or mutual recognition has to be worked out. Like it or not, non-Muslims will have their own perspectives on the Qur'an and the Islamic tradition, and the Qur'an does not appear to admit the possibility of the Islamic equivalent of evangelizing all humanity. It seems to me that an academic approach based on history and literature offers an important nontheological alternative to the implacable hostility and prejudice against Islam, which is such a prominent characteristic of the current climate of opinion in America and Europe.
There is, of course, a long history of more or less hostile academic study of Islam by non-Muslims, beginning with medieval theological polemics and transitioning to the modern academic enterprise known as Orientalism. Beginning with the first Latin translation of the Qur'an, completed in 1143 by Robert of Ketton, European Christian scholars embarked on a project of studying the Qur'an in order to refute it. The first successful translation of the Qur'an into English, done by George Sale in 1734, was in turn based on a more extensive Latin translation by an Italian Catholic priest named Louis Maracci (1698), which systematically attempted to disprove the Islamic scripture. While Maracci, ironically, viewed Islam as nearly as bad as Lutheran Protestantism, Sale (a Protestant) was content to dismiss Muhammad with faint praise as a minor lawgiver.
Most European intellectuals, even in the age of the Enlightenment, took it for granted that Muhammad was an impostor and that the Qur'an was a fabrication. Thomas Carlyle, who strikingly presented a rare positive portrayal of Muhammad in his book On Heroes, Hero Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841), gave the following frequently quoted negative review of Sale's translation of the Qur'an: "I must say, it is as toilsome reading as I ever undertook. A wearisome confused jumble, crude, incondite; endless iterations, long-windedness, entanglement.... Nothing but a sense of duty could carry any European through the Koran." It may be asked in passing whether any of Carlyle's distaste for the Qur'an was due to the English style of George Sale's translation, though that would perhaps be unfair. In any case, Carlyle's jarringly negative verdict on Qur'an is fairly typical of what even the most open-minded European readers had to say on the subject. What Carlyle objected to was the organization and style of the Qur'an, which was believed to have been compiled in a haphazard fashion after the death of Muhammad. To his mind, it was not really a book at all. Still, it is noteworthy that Carlyle was aware that the chapters of the Qur'an were organized roughly by size (with the longest going first), in such a way that the first sections of the text were actually the last to be revealed. "The real beginning of it, in that way, lies almost at the end: for the earliest portions were the shortest. Read in its historical sequence it perhaps would not be so bad." We shall return later to the topic of a chronological reading of the Qur'an.
In any case, there was a long tradition of religious animosity against the Qur'an in Christian Europe. This was followed by the disdain of enlightened intellectuals who viewed the Qur'an as at best a derivative work, definitely inferior to the Bible and to the classics of Greek and Roman antiquity. While there were undoubtedly impressive scholarly contributions in the early European study of Qur'an, it should nevertheless be taken into account that much of that scholarship on the Qur'an was negative in its approach. In a rather different style defined by the Enlightenment, later Orientalist scholarship on the Qur'an would be marked to a considerable extent by the ambivalent projection of the Islamic "other," who was defined in every way as being the opposite of the European.
Nevertheless, new investigations of the historical and literary character of the Qur'an began to appear in Europe by the middle of the nineteenth century. The single most important contribution came from the German scholar Theodor Nöldeke, in his Geschichte des Qorans (History of the Qur'an), first published in 1860. Nöldeke, a distinguished scholar of Arabic and Persian, built upon suggestions proposed two decades earlier by Gustav Weil to produce a reassessment of the Qur'an's traditional chronology, in order to refine with more detail the notion of the Meccan and Medinan phases of the Prophet Muhammad's career. Nöldeke employed considerations of not only content but also linguistic style and form to divide the Meccan period into three separate phases. Nöldeke's work was reissued in an expanded form in 1909, supplemented by an additional volume by Friedrich Schwally (1919) on the collection of the Qur'anic text and a concluding third volume (1938) by G. Bergsträsser and O. Pretzl on the variant readings of the Qur'an. This fundamental work of European scholarship, which will be discussed further below, is the basis for all modern academic study of the Qur'an.
In many respects, this historical and literary investigation of the Qur'an was carried out alongside similar critical researches that European scholars were undertaking in the study of biblical texts. Julius Wellhausen's historical-critical analysis of the Old Testament (1883) brought to fruition a movement that questioned the traditional notion that Moses was the author of the first five books of the Bible; he proposed instead the "documentary hypothesis," according to which these books were actually compiled by different authors many centuries later and retroactively attributed to Moses. Similar revisionist approaches had been proposed for the study of the New Testament and the life of Jesus, culminating notably in Albert Schweitzer's Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906), which argued that modern authors inevitably projected their own understanding of Jesus in a way that had little to do with the actual historical context of Jesus. It must be acknowledged that such critical studies of the Bible caused dismay and controversy in some religious circles, leading for example to the Catholic Church's 1907 condemnation of modernism as a heresy. Likewise the birth of Protestant fundamentalism, articulated in the 1910 publication of The Fundamentals, was in good part a reaction against the German school of biblical criticism (along with Darwinian evolution). It is therefore not surprising that Orientalist scholarship on the Qur'an has been received with similar suspicion and resistance in some Muslim circles, where it has been seen as an attack on the basis of religion. In view of the long history of antagonistic Christian writings on the Qur'an, this negative reaction by Muslims to European scholarship is understandable. Moreover, despite the claims of European scholars regarding their own scientific objectivity, it was quite common until recently for them to make derogatory remarks about the inferior style of the Qur'an compared with European literatures. A similar condescending attitude was typical of European attitudes toward classical Arabic poetry as well. And, as we shall see, there are a number of new "revisionist" theories proposed in recent years, which attempt to cast major doubts on the authenticity of the Qur'anic text.
Despite the presence of theological prejudice and negativity in earlier European studies of the Qur'an, nevertheless, the approach of historical and literary scholarship still has much to offer, nor is it intrinsically antireligious. After all, if we are not able to make judgments based on rationality and historical evidence, we will be left with appeals to authority, and this is hardly a solution, given the multiple authorities available today. If we are to have a serious academic discussion of this topic, the standard of debate must be characterized by analysis of evidence and argument and by the clarification of the consequences that are at stake. Special pleading on behalf of particular theological positions may be satisfying on one level, but what does genuine faith have to fear from history? Scholarly study should not be held hostage to the charge of deviation from anyone's religious orthodoxy.
Although there certainly are serious problems with the legacy of Orientalist scholarship, of which readers should be aware, the shortcomings of earlier scholars do not in themselves invalidate the principles of historical research. Recent years have seen development of a post-Orientalist form of Islamic studies, in which both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars have joined in applying the methods of the humanities and social sciences to the study of Muslim societies and cultures, without accepting the old colonial antitheses that oppose Europe and America to an imagined "Islamic world." Rather than perpetuate "false dichotomies and unnecessary dilemmas," the new approaches to Islamic studies acknowledge the cosmopolitanism that goes beyond the fixed identities of multiculturalism. It is in this spirit that the present approach to the historical and literary study of the Qur'an is conceived.
A useful analogy for this project is the study of the Bible as literature or from a historical perspective, which is a subject firmly ensconced in the curricula of North American colleges and universities. Literary critics like Northrop Frye, Eric Auerbach, and Harold Bloom have brought critical questions to bear on the structure and function of biblical texts, as well as on their immense impact on later European literatures. Bart Ehrman has produced a rigorously historical introduction to the New Testament that is the undisputed standard in its field, despite its complete avoidance of theological issues. He and many other scholars of biblical studies for years have faced the gap between academic biblical studies and the Sunday school interpretations of the Bible that many students bring with them to college. The political and legal stance that governs American education distinguishes the academic "teaching about religion" from the authoritative "teaching of religion" that takes place in faith communities. Thus, while the teachings that students have received are interesting and worthy of study in their own right, the academic study of religion does not permit authoritarian claims to privilege one perspective over another. While perhaps difficult to implement in practice, the principle that governs this approach to religious studies in no way differs, whether one is speaking of the Bible or of the Qur'an.
History of the Qur'anic Text
The traditional history of the compilation of the Qur'an is fairly well known from early Arabic sources, and it may be summarized as follows. The prophetic career of the Prophet Muhammad took place roughly over the course of twenty-three years, from around 610 up to the time of his death in the year 632 CE. During that time, revelations that he received were delivered orally and were then written down as they appeared on materials of different types, including bone, wood, and leather. Members of the early Muslim community also memorized this material. Muhammad's oral recitation (which is the meaning of the Arabic word qur'an) seems not to have been collected into a single book during his lifetime. After his death, his companion and successor Abu Bakr (d. 634) is said to have ordered a collection of the written revelations, fearing for the preservation of the text because of the deaths of a number of those who had memorized it. He entrusted the compilation of the text to Zayd ibn Thabit (d. 655), who had formerly served the Prophet as a scribe. But variations began to emerge in the copies of the Qur'an preserved in different centers of the empire of the caliphate, and dissension resulted. Therefore, the third caliph, 'Uthman (d. 656), called for a standardization of the text, which was again supervised by Zayd ibn Thabit. Copies were distributed to the main centers of the empire, and alternate versions were suppressed. This 'Uthmanic version is regarded as the authoritative text of the Qur'an. While the outlines of this account of the collection of the Qur'an are widely accepted in traditional sources, there are enough different versions of this story and enough references to variations in the text of the Qur'an to prompt questions and alternative theories, as we shall see.
Excerpted from How to Read the Qur'an by Carl W. Ernst Copyright © 2011 by Carl W. Ernst. Excerpted by permission of The University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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