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.

Continue reading “Reading the Qur’an: Training Wheels”

Reading the Qur’an: Background work

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

The first week or so of my course (syllabus) is dedicated to providing background to the Qur’an. The constraint of using primary sources meant that I couldn’t assign a straightforward historical review, so instead I am using Ibn Ishaq’s Life of Muhammad, which is the earliest systematic compilation aiming to cover all of the Prophet’s life. I paired a series of selections on his life before becoming the Prophet with some narratives from the Bible on the early life of certain prophets (Moses, Samuel, and Jesus — I wish I had also included David, because there is a close parallel to the part where David is out in the field because they assume he’s too young). The students were generally already familiar with the Bible, but even those who were not found it easier to read. That was in large part due to a unique feature of Islamic historiography, at least as far as it concerns the Prophet — they want to keep everything that has been handed down, even if they doubt that it happened (as Ishaq tactfully announces when he begins a story with “they allege…”). This is because the life and practice of Muhammad has a quasi-Scriptural character, hence they want to err on the side of caution lest they throw out a part of the divine revelation. We discussed how the existence of multiple versions, while confusing to the reader, is likely an indication of the importance of a story. We also agreed that many of the fanciful-seeming stories where Muhammad gets divine signs from a young age and everyone “already knows” he’s going to be Prophet express a desire to reconcile the apparent contradiction that Muhammad was just “some guy” until one day he was Prophet — in other words, they are a kind of “prequel” gesture to try to align his early life with his ultimate calling.

Continue reading “Reading the Qur’an: Background work”

Reading the Qur’an: Introduction to an Occasional Series

This semester I am teaching a course entitled “Reading the Qur’an” (syllabus) as part of North Central College’s Honors program, and I plan to blog about my experiences, approximately once a week. The first day of class was today, so there is not much to share yet. We discussed a selection of prayers from the Qur’an, Hebrew Bible, and New Testament, which provided some initial orientation for how Islam relates to the other monotheistic traditions and gave me the opportunity to introduce some basic expositional facts.

I have offered several classes on the Qur’an and taught selections in other classes (including an Introduction to Islamic Thought course). This is the area — aside from fine arts — where I have most expanded my teaching competence since starting at Shimer. The Qur’an presents unique challenges in a discussion-centered course. The first is the unwieldiness of the text itself, which is not organized in an intuitively logical way. I believe that over time I have arrived at a workable order of presentation that strikes a balance between the likely chronological order of revelation and the practical need to have a relatively compact selection each day (rather than jumping around constantly). The second is the text’s embeddedness in Muhammad’s life and circumstances, a problem that is especially difficult to handle given the constraint of using “primary sources” wherever possible. I have addressed this primarily by including generous selections from Ibn Ishaq’s Life of Muhammad, the earliest full biography of the prophet.

Finally, the Qur’an takes up and transforms existing biblical narratives, so that many of its fragmentary presentations of the various stories are hard to follow unless you somehow “already know” the overall narrative. I have addressed this by systematically pairing Qur’an readings with important biblical parallels — much more thoroughly than in any previous iteration of the course. Indeed, in previous years, I was continually frustrated to find that I had made mistakes (for instance, assigning the passage from 1 Kings on the Queen of Sheba alongside the surah actually named “Sheba,” which, in typical Qur’anic fashion, barely mentions Sheba at all), and I spent a lot of time double- and triple-checking that I had lined everything up correctly. While I have not been absolutely exhaustive, I am very pleased with the parallels I have lined up (including less obvious parallels, such as the similarity of argument in Surah 2 and Romans regarding the foundational role of Abraham).

I also provided for some consideration of how the Qur’an has been taken up in later Islamic tradition, as represented by selections from the Anthology of Qur’anic Commentaries. In the past, I have included more feminist commentaries, but this time I was constrained (even beyond Shimer norms) not to use contemporary scholarly works. If I were offering the course again outside of the Honors setting, I would reintroduce that element. I did flag the issue in class today and offer to point interested students toward relevant resources for their final papers.

Aside from that gap in coverage, I am very pleased with how the syllabus came together and look forward to discussing the materials with my students — and with you, my dear readers.

Knot of the Soul Book Event: A Political Theology of Jinn?

Stefania Pandolfo’s book provides us with an intersecting account of the wounds left open by the trauma of colonization in Morocco. It is less a theoretical work than an attempt to be true to the lives and experiences of those to whom she has lent her ethnographic ear. Their lives and experiences are outlined and unfolded in terms of dialogue between Islamic psychology and psychoanalysis that she finds to be already well underway—not only in colonial and postcolonial debates over psychiatric practice in France and Morocco, but in the most authoritative texts of psychoanalysis itself. Yet even this framing is inadequate, as her rich exploration of the artwork produced by Ilyias while in a psychotic “state” (hāla) draws on the aesthetics of Aby Warburg and Giorgio Agamben as well as Islamic thought on the importance of the image and the imagination. Here above all, we can see that her theorization follows her ethnographic subject rather than the other way around—a priority that had already become clear in Chapter 6, “The Burning,” which is made up largely of her interlocutors’ debate over whether risking the passage to Europe amounts to suicide. Indeed, she concludes her work with a harrowing account of the Imam’s use of Qur’anic healing to drive out a jinn.

There is much in this work to instruct a Western reader—I certainly learned a great deal. Few academics in the West know much of anything about the history of public policy in any postcolonial society, and in that respect her discussions of the debates surrounding psychiatric care in Morocco were very informative. Here and elsewhere, she shows the Western debate to be parochial and narrow compared to what is found in the postcolonial world, where intellectuals engage with Islamic traditions and Western thinkers as a matter of course. Hence when she draws her own analogies with Freud, Lacan, Warburg, Agamben, or any number of other Western thinkers, it comes across as a suggestion or a hypothesis rather than an “explanation” in any strong or reductive sense. She never claims that the jinn simply “are” unconscious drives, for instance, even if psychoanalytic explorations of the drives can shed some light on the dynamics of the fraught relationship between human beings and jinn. If the Imam can live in a world in which Western psychiatry and Qur’anic healing can coexist without fully reducing one to the other, then so can she.

While I admire this approach, I did find myself wishing for more explicit theorization. Continue reading Knot of the Soul Book Event: A Political Theology of Jinn?”

The Qur’an’s eternal now

The Qur’an makes high claims for its clarity and internal consistency, and as I have spent the week reacquainting myself with it in class, I am coming to a fresh appreciation of how radically focused it is. Calvin claims that the Bible is never telling us anything we don’t really need to know, but that is a retrospective hermeneutic principle — the Qur’an really is like that from the very beginning. Nothing is placed in there simply to satisfy your curiosity or clarify “in-universe” details. Everything and everyone is radically on message.

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Fun facts about Islamic law

The last item on my summer reading list was Knut S. Vikør’s Between God and the Sultan, a survey of Islamic law. It provided a less partisan counterpoint to Hallaq’s work, which had been my primary source of information previously (aside from the segments on Shari’a in Hodgson). Some very general points that I found particularly interesting or salient:

  • Classical Shari’a was never a standard code of law that can simply be applied — instead, it was an attempt to discern the ultimately unformulable perfect divine law that only God knows. Hence the practice of law grows directly out of the radical monotheism of Islam, which denies any commensurability between God and humanity.
  • In classical Shari’a, law was independent of the state in a way we can’t really imagine today. While the sultan or other ruler was required to administer some punishments, the practice of Shari’a law was monopolized by a self-selecting group of scholars.
  • At the same time, Shari’a was never the “only” form of law — the sultan and police often ran their own courts, which were much more flexible and practical in certain instances (because the burden of proof for securing a criminal conviction in Shari’a is extremely high, so that even obviously guilty individuals may wind up going free).
  • Classical Shari’a only arose centuries after the rise of Islam, as a practical solution to political conflicts at that time (namely, a trans-national Islamic community divided into smaller political units). Law was practiced differently in Islam before that, and presumably it would also be legitimate to practice law differently after that (as is in fact the case in virtually all Islamic countries).
  • Classical Shari’a was never any one thing — even in its most established form, it stabilized into four different schools of law, within each of which there was still room for debate.
  • The social conditions that produced classical Shari’a have been irrevocably altered. No modern state — even Iran — is likely to concede its monopoly on law to a group of self-selecting scholars. (The one arguable exception is Saudi Arabia, which was never colonized and hence maintains some level of continuity with pre-modern Shari’a practices.)
  • In contemporary parlance, “Shari’a” has more often served as a rallying cry than as a concrete proposal, and attempts at literalism have ironically enshrined some of the most severe punishments as “Shari’a” when they were actually little used and significantly ameliorated in classical Shari’a.
  • The emphasis on the “worst” provisions of “Shari’a” often has more to do with an attempt to differentiate Islam from the West than with any substantive commitment to (or even knowledge of) Shari’a law as it was actually practiced in pre-modern times.

tl;dr: The system of classical Shari’a law is fascinating, but it would be impossible to restore it in the modern world. People who claim to be doing so are not in fact doing so.