No book is regarded with more fear and loathing in the West than the Qur’an, the fundamental religious text of Islam, and yet I am confident that most people who are anxious about what is written in the Qur’an have never actually held a copy in their hands, much less opened it and read it.
That’s exactly why “How to Read the Qur’an: A New Guide, With Select Translations” by Carl W. Ernst (University of North Carolina Press: $30) is such a unique, timely and important book. His self-appointed mission is to break through “the blank slate of sheer unfamiliarity with the Qur’an among Americans and Europeans.” But Ernst, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a leading American expert on Islam, is fully aware of the political and theological minefield that he treads in his scholarship.
“The Qur’an is the source of enormous anxiety in Europe and America,” where it is treated not as a text to be studied and explained but “a very dangerous problem,” Ernst reminds us. With the characteristic understatement of a scholar, he proposes that “such an attitude of suspicion is hardly conducive to a fair-minded understanding of the text.” Indeed, he insists that we are obliged to approach the Qur’an with the same open-mindedness that we employ when considered the Bible: “[R]eading the Qur’an from a literary and historical perspective is a humanistic exploration of the text that treats it like any other writing.”
To be sure, Ernst acknowledges that “a small minority of extremists” in the Islamic world “quote the Qur’an in support of terrorist violence,” but he refuses to allow them to hijack what is, after all, an ancient text that is organically linked to the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Indeed, he condemns the “conspiracy theory” that has come to be attached to Islam in general and the Qur’an in particular in the minds of many Westerners.
“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,” he writes. “In part because of these contemporary anxieties, it is difficult for most Europeans and Americans to read the Qur’an.”
So he leads us, gently and patiently, through the intricacies of the Qur’an, starting with the fact that it is no longer fashionable to use the familiar spelling, “Koran.” He puts aside the troubling theological issues that arise whenever a scholar encounters a work that is presented by its human author as divine revelation, and instead approaches the Qur’an “as a literary work that exists in history.” This is the key with which Ernst unlocks a door and allows us to enter the text.
“[O]nce 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 was also claimed by the West,” he explains. “Moreover, like other prophetic writings, the Qur’an engages in critical rewriting of those previous texts as a way of establishing its own voice.”
He explains how the Qur’an came into existence as oral recitations by the Prophet Muhammad in Mecca and Medina in the early seventh century, how the text was conveyed, memorized and written down on bone, wood, leather and other materials, and “how the Qur’an itself testifies to history.” He discusses the so-called “satanic verses” that Salman Rushdie made famous, to his own misfortune. Although Ernst acknowledges the tradition that the Qur’an cannot and should not be translated, he asserts both the right and the rightness of his own enterprise.
“From a strictly literary perspective,” writes Ernst, “there does not seem to be any good reason why the Qur’an should be privileged among all other texts in the world as being only accessible in the original language.”
Along the way, he points out some of the striking commonalities between the Qur’an and the Tanakh. Like the Jews, whose liturgy is rooted in biblical Hebrew, “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.” Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Joseph are invoked in some of the suras, as the basic literary unit of the Qur’an is called, and Ernst focuses on a passage in which a notably clueless Moses is instructed in the divine mysteries by an emissary known as al-Khidr: “Don’t blame my forgetfulness, or ask something difficult,” implores Moses, and al-Khidr scolds him: “Didn’t I tell you? You won’t have patience to bear with me.”
Of course, despite Ernst’s best intentions, it is impossible to avoid all controversy. Merely to entertain the notion that the Qur’an is a work of human authorship, written by a flesh-and-blood human being in a particular time and place, is itself an affront to pious Muslims. But here, too, is a commonality; scholars make the same assumption about the Torah and the New Testament, and they manage to offend pious Jews and Christians when they do.
To Ernst’s credit, he is applying to the Qur’an the same tools of scholarship that have long been used in studying the religious texts of Judaism and Christianity, and he thereby seeks to open a conversation in which all Jews, Christians and Muslims of good will can and should participate.