Reading the Qur’an: Training Wheels

[This semester, I am blogging my course on the Qur’an. You can see my previous post here and the whole series here.]

One of my favorite resources for teaching the Qur’an is Michael Sells’ Approaching the Qur’an, which includes a translation of many of the shorter, more “poetic” surahs, together with helpful annotations — including an invaluable (and probably irreplaceable) section that guides you through listening to the recitation of certain surahs. It works well as an initial set of “training wheels” for reading the Qur’an in two ways. First, the ample commentary helps students to get a handle on the often enigmatic and fragmentary visions related in the surahs in question (mainly 81-114). Second, the translation is creative and subtle, conveying a sense of both the beauty and the strangeness of the Qur’anic idiom. Despite these benefits, though, I have found it to be a little hit-or-miss with students, whether because the commentary seems to leave too little to discuss or because the short surahs simply do not seem to provide enough for them to work with in discussion.

Part of the problem, I realized, was that, despite the title, the Sells version can actually be difficult for an initial approach to the Qur’an — at least for a discussion-centered course, which requires students to have some sense of mastery or at least orientation to give them the confidence to speak up. That’s why I decided that this time I would start with the aforementioned background materials, so that they would have a sense of Muhammad and his mission as well as the basics of prophetic and apocalyptic literature. And it worked! The first day of our discussion (80-88), they made a lot of astute observations about the similarities and differences with the biblical text, particularly the greater simplicity of the Qur’an’s account of the day of judgment, which just kind of happens instead of requiring the baroque sequence of events described in Revelation.

The richest day of discussion was probably the second (89-97), which happened to include a sequence of surahs relating specifically to the prophet’s mission and calling. The student who gave the initial presentation highlighted the intimacy of God’s relationship to Muhammad in 93 (The Morning Hours) and 94 (The Laying Open), particularly the former, where God recounts caring for Muhammad when he was an orphan. It is always more powerful when you recognize a reference immediately than when you need to read a footnote, and having discussed Muhammad’s own background and its social implications in his context increased the impact of this passage. It was also interesting to observe that Sells provided a different occasion for the revelation of both surahs than our Life of Muhammad text, which highlights the diversity of those explanations. I wondered aloud whether, just as some incidents in the Gospels appear to be invented in order to supply a prophetic “fulfillment,” so too might some of the occasions of revelation be invented rather than strictly remembered — and logically, at least some of them must be, since they conflict. Reflecting later, I also wondered whether the vagueness may be an intentional way of drawing in the listener, so that they can hear their own struggles and redemptive moments echoed in the Qur’anic revelation, rather than simply those of the Prophet as a unique individual.

The discussion was a little more restrained the third day, which covered the most fragmentary surahs (98-114). I normally only do two days of the main reading, then a third day for the recitation segment, but this semester I had extended it — mainly to fill a little extra time, rather than for any principled reason. I may steer back to the two-day format next time I offer the class.

One unexpected topic that came up throughout was the question of moral perfectionism. My students somehow got the idea that the Qur’an was demanding absolute blamelessness, so that nearly everyone would go to hell. I knew from elsewhere in the Qur’an — and the first line of every surah — that God is actually more accomodating and understanding, but it was hard to draw that out of these surahs in specific. My intuition, though, was that the sins mentioned are all very serious things that only wealthy or powerful people would really be in a position to do, and so at the end of class I just went through every single surah, picking out the sin and asking if they are doing it. Were they oppressing the poor? Stealing an orphan’s inheritance? Lording their wealth over others? Maliciously hamstringing a holy she-camel? Thankfully, they all reported they were innocent of such offenses — maybe they have a chance at heaven.

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