Reading the Qur’an for the first time: Scattered impressions

The most difficult part of preparing for my Introduction to Islamic Thought class has not been the task of assembling a list of major thinkers and texts. Though it took some digging and much advice from more experienced teachers and scholars, at the end of the day, there is enough of a “canon” of schools and figures in Islamic thought that I feel reasonably confident my syllabus is, if certainly not perfect, at least adequate in that area. Much more difficult was the task of grappling seriously with the Qur’an for the first time. It is not much longer than the New Testament, but it is a profoundly unwieldy text — the surahs (chapters) are arranged in approximate reverse order of length, so that they seem to be in completely random order; their titles most often refer to a single isolated detail in the surah, so that the table of contents gives the reader almost no guidance; and it is frankly incredibly repetitive and hence difficult to plow through, even for a seasoned reader of tedious texts (viz., patristics) such as myself.

Now, however, I have gotten through it, and so I thought I’d write up my initial thoughts, if only to preserve them for myself.

As I’ve said, the text is very repetitive. Again and again, we get the same exhortations, the same descriptions of heaven and hell, the same accounts of previous prophets (an assortment of biblical and Arab figures). The various prophets themselves are all very much “on message,” something that is most striking in the case of the biblical figures. Noah and Abraham, for instance, are incorporated into the overarching narrative whereby prophets urge their fellow countrymen to reject idols and embrace the one God, but they reject the prophet and are destroyed. Sermons and conflicts unfamiliar to the reader of Genesis help to bring Noah and Abraham more into line with prophets like Moses, who seems to be the clearest point of self-identification for Muhammad. The emphasis on Moses seems to serve another function, though, which is to point up the ineffectiveness of miraculous signs in persuading unrepentant sinners — haters gonna hate, whether the prophet comes at them with miracles or clear teaching.

Indeed, the emphasis throughout is on the radical clarity of the Qur’an, and here I have to concede the point: it is much more straightforward than the Hebrew Bible or New Testament. I’m sure that over years of study, subtle differences (such as those I am able to perceive in the Bible) begin to appear, but for right now, my impression is one of overwhelming consistency. In part, this is achieved through sanding off some of the rough edges of the biblical traditions he’s working with. Muhammad’s “reboot” of the prophetic tradition removes virtually all the moral ambiguity — Job is afflicted by Satan and God restores him, with no hint of complicity on God’s part; Joseph is clear that he has a divine mission from the very start, with none of the youthful arrogance we see in Genesis, and the accusations of Potiphar’s wife don’t even pass the laugh test (though he is thrown in jail for some mysterious “other reason”); Abraham has a dream telling him to sacrifice Isaac, tells Isaac his plan, gets Isaac’s clear consent, and then is interrupted by God, who congratulates him for fulfilling his dream.

Even the apparent logical contradictions are simply presented, over and over, as though they’re non-problematic. This is above all the case with the conflict between human free will and the divine will — God is often said to lead sinners astray on purpose, but the text expects the readers to see this as perfectly fair. Most notable here is the fall of Iblis (obviously a point of interest for me), who seems quite literally to be the victim of a set-up when he refuses to bow down before Adam. The story changes slightly with each telling, but my overall take-away is that Iblis openly proclaims his intention of leading humanity astray, and God gives him an explicit go-ahead. One gets the sense that the two are actually plotting together, to the point that Iblis is totally on board with his own ultimate punishment.

Above all, the text is very self-referential — one could say that the main topic of the Qur’an is the authority and trustworthiness of the Qur’an itself. This is hardly unique, as segments of the Hebrew Bible and entire books of the New Testament (the Gospel of John!) share the same trait, but what’s interesting is how little work the text does to fill in the concrete consequences of loyalty to its message. I’ve read figures that suggest that around 5% of the text of the Qur’an can be construed as legal in character, and I can confirm that when such matters do come up, they seem jarring and out of place. Even such basic points as the famous “five pillars of Islam” are not clearly articulated in the Qur’an, but appear only in the hadith traditions.

So overall, it’s a strange book. Even if I’m a little burnt out right now, though, I am still intrigued to learn more. I am not devoting a huge amount of time to the Qur’an in my fall class, but I’m planning on proposing a spring elective that focuses only on the Qur’an — perhaps in comparative perspective, or perhaps on its own, with a mixture of historical and contemporary commentaries alongside. I am very sensitive to the fact that for most readers, their experience with the Bible is much like mine with the Qur’an, and I want to get to the point where I can begin to see the subtle shifts and nuances beneath the initially off-putting exterior.

6 thoughts on “Reading the Qur’an for the first time: Scattered impressions

  1. I remember being intrigued when I read the Qur’an in college a couple of times. I was particularly fascinated about how various Biblical narratives are re-presented (e.g. the story of Lot, the birth of Jesus and Mary, the story of Joseph, the story of Adam and Iblis, etc.). Also, despite all the media frenzy about the violence in the Qur’an, it’s clear the Qur’an deserves a ‘PG’ rating whereas the Bible is clearly meriting an ‘R’ rating.

  2. I don’t have anything substantive to say about your reflections here, but have you considered using some Quranic recitations? Sells has collected some particularly lovely ones here. I can send you MP3s if you’d prefer not to buy it. It’s an interesting aspect of the tradition of reading the Qur’an and I’ve used it to good effect in intro courses.

  3. I’m seconding Anthony Paul Smith’s point about recitation. So much of the clarity you note about the Quran is manifest to the extreme in the clarity of its expression.

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