Issue 61 / January - February 2008
The Qur'an: A Biography
The Qurâ€™an: A Biography. Such a title would normally suggest a book that deals with the history of the revelation of Qurâ€™anic verses. However, Bruce Lawrence, professor of Islamic Studies at Duke University, has something else in mind. Rather than giving us a history of Qurâ€™anic revelations, he provides a history of Qurâ€™anic interpretations. Certainly, it is not without reason. â€śFew books in history have been as important or as poorly understood as the Qurâ€™an,â€ť notes Professor Lawrence. According to him, one common misunderstanding among both Muslims and non-Muslims is the conviction that the verses of the Qurâ€™an have had the same meaning throughout history to each and every Muslim. Lawrence argues that the Qurâ€™an requires study and study entails interpretation. Thus, â€śwhile the Qurâ€™an itself is a unitary, coherent source of knowledge, there is not a single Qurâ€™anic messageâ€¦Each interpreter must choose. Each must follow a principle of interpretation. No matter who the interpreter, no matter the time or place from which she or he looks at the Qurâ€™an, certain themes, issue and accent will be selected and emphasized over othersâ€ť (p. 13). Therefore, understanding the Qurâ€™an and its influence on Muslims requires as much the study of the interpretations of the Qurâ€™an as the study of the Qurâ€™an itself. Consequently, Lawrence has undertaken to write a book that surveys the divergent interpretations of the Qurâ€™an throughout history.
Lawrence first provides a summary of Prophet Muhammadâ€™s life (peace be upon him) in chapters 1 and 2. In the following chapters, he offers succinct summaries of divergent interpretations of the Qurâ€™an throughout history. Chapters 5 and 6 deal with examples of earlier interpretations of the Qurâ€™an, by the Shiâ€™ite scholar Jafar as-Sadiq and the Sunni Abu Jafar at-Tabari, respectively. The next two chapters cover rather mystic interpretations of the Qurâ€™an. Chapter 8 surveys probably the greatest Islamic mystic Ibn al-Arabi, â€śa deep sea diver in the ocean of the Qurâ€™anâ€ť (p. 109). Chapter 9 is about another mystic, Jalal ad-Din Rumi (or Mawlana), who sought to display the â€śeveryday wondersâ€ť of the Qurâ€™an in his Mathnawi. The last four chapters cover four different modern interpreters of the Qurâ€™an. Chapters 11 and 12 deal with two Indian/Pakistani scholars. Ahmad Khan of chapter 11 offers an early rationalist (â€śmilitantly rationalistâ€ť in Lawrenceâ€™s words) critique of traditional interpretations in the face of Western intrusion into the Muslim world. By contrast, Muhammad Iqbal of chapter 12 makes a case for a redefined spiritual Islam in the late-colonial period and calls for revivification of moral Islamic values among Muslims. In chapter 13, the American interpreter W. D. Muhammad offers yet another interpretation that stresses racial equality more than anything else. Lastly, in chapter 14, Lawrence depicts the mind of the notorious Osama bin Laden, in whose interpretations military jihad takes precedence over all other issues. Lawrence argues that bin Laden â€śselects only those verses that fit his message, and then cites them exclusively for his own purposeâ€ť (p. 180).
In one unusual chapter (chapter 7), Lawrence portrays a Christian interpreter of the Qurâ€™an, Robert of Ketton, who was the first person to translate the Qurâ€™an into a Western language (Latin) in the twelfth century. An Englishman, Robert of Ketton moves to Toledo and becomes part of a Christian group that translates scientific texts from Arabic into Latin. He eventually finds himself heading a team project to translate the Qurâ€™an into Latin. In a time of heated and continuous warfare between Christians and Muslims, Robert of Ketton takes a more noble way of engaging with Muslims. Islam was to be approached â€śnot by arms, but by words; not by force, but by reasonâ€ť (p. 100).
In an era when both adherents and critics of the Qurâ€™an make claims as to what â€śreal Islamâ€ť is, Bruce Lawrenceâ€™s survey of Qurâ€™anic interpretations reminds us that all interpretations of the Qurâ€™an are but partial representations that favor certain sections and meanings over others. In so doing, The Qurâ€™an: A Biography becomes a friendly reminder that it takes more humility than most of us assume to understand and appreciate the richness of the verses of the Qurâ€™an.
As a final note, for the more academic reader the book has a significant flaw. Although he provides a â€śfurther readingâ€ť list which includes most of the books he cites, except for the verses from the Qurâ€™an, Professor Lawrence does not provide direct references for other quotes or opinions. I hope he will remedy this gap in a future edition.