This summer, I wrote a post on my first impressions of reading the Qur’an. Many readers were disappointed by the negative tone, as the post focused mostly on what I found alienating in the text (such as its repetitive nature), even as I admitted that the Bible has many alienating features that I am simply more used to.
Nevertheless, within a couple months, I had signed myself up to spend much more time with the Qur’an, in the form of a semester-long course (PDF syllabus). I feel no trepidation at this point, and I even look forward to the opportunity to delve into the text more deeply. What was once alienating weirdness has come to seem like compelling uniqueness, and my fatigue with the text has been replaced by a genuine affection.
What changed? First, I spent a couple weeks talking through key surahs with Shimer students in my Intro to Islamic Thought course (PDF syllabus). Then I studied some other translations, including Michael Sells’ excellent Approaching the Qur’an (which seems to be the Qur’an’s answer to the Alter translations of the Hebrew Bible).
But I honestly think that the biggest factor is simply that time has passed and I’ve had more time to digest and reflect. And now I see that, as necessary as it may have been for practical purposes, my crash course through the Qur’an last summer was simply not the way you’re supposed to read the Qur’an. I was reading it like a regular Western book when it’s simply not that kind of text — indeed, when it’s fundamentally a unique, sui generis text that therefore needs to be lived with. I will never live with it in the way that Muslims do, and in fact I may never gain access to the original Arabic text. But I’m glad to have the chance to live with it in my limited way and to help my students sit with this bewildering and fascinating text for a while, too.
5 thoughts on “Reading the Qur’an: A follow-up”
Wouldn’t that same insight apply to a host of Western texts – e.g. Teresa of Avila or Bonaventure? I’m wondering if the divide is really East/West or something else.
I hope I don’t seem to be relying on an East/West dichotomy — in my view, the Qur’an’s strangeness is due to features peculiar to it rather than to its belonging to a category known as “Eastern.” Many texts from many traditions require the same kind of training process.
I guess I was just reacting to the phrasing “I was reading it like a regular Western book.”
I agree with the substance of your point for sure.
Norman O. Brown says the only real comparison to the Qur’an, in terms of form and how one should read it, is Finnegan’s Wake.
Yeah, emphasis on “regular” rather than “Western.”
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