I was very gratified that when I put together my syllabus, the division between Meccan and Medinan surahs landed right at Spring Break (which has finally arrived!). Today we ended the class by putting up on the board a big list of themes from the Meccan surahs, along with patterns we had observed in the revisions (or corrections) of biblical stories. As we assembled our list, it became apparent that despite the repetition that students had (with some justification) complained of, there was a shift in emphasis over the course of our broadly chronological study. Earlier passages tended to go into more detail on the rewards and punishment awaiting the believers and disbelievers, a concern that gave way to defenses of the credibility of the resurrection of the dead, which was in turn displaced by an increasingly urgent reiteration of prophetic history (most systematically laid out in Surah 11, “Hud”). And the prophetic history became more and more ramified and complex. As I have often told students, Muhammad’s early message in his invocations of the ancient prophets is basically: “Mecca, don’t be a statistic!” The Qur’an establishes a stereotyped narrative where each prophet is met with rejection and derision, resulting in the destruction of the town. As Muhammad gains followers, however, the picture grows less stark. Jonah emerges as a counterexample to the trend, but most important by far is the figure of Moses.
We have now entered into what I consider to be the main body of the course. Having looked at biblical and historical background and dipped our toe into the water with Sells’ annotated translation, we have been systematically working through the Qur’an, working our way backward through the Meccan surahs, which will occupy us up until Spring Break (surprisingly soon!). We have taken a couple days out to work on selections from Qur’anic commentaries and, given the centrality of Moses for the Qur’an, we also devoted an entire day to a discussion of the biblical account of the Ten Plagues in Exodus.
By and large, though, it has just been the Qur’an — and today my students finally reached a bit of a breaking point with the repetition. Continue reading “Reading the Qur’an: Repeated Reminders”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Repeatedly in the Qur’an, we read that God has created humanity male and female. This duality plays a directly theological role: in contrast to God, who is absolutely One and eternal, who has no partners or offspring, humanity is dual and reproductive. It seems that the gender dyad is so fundamental to the Qur’an’s teaching as to leave no room for either homosexuality or for more fluid definitions of gender (as in trans experience). Indeed, the latter possibility never seems to come up, while several tellings of the Sodom story not only make it much clearer than the Bible does that homosexuality is the big problem — but that such a practice was literally unthinkable before the Sodomites invented it.
I wonder, though, if there may still be room to maneuver within Qur’anic terms toward a more open attitude to non-binary gender experiences and expressions. I have a sense that the purely negative theological role of the gender dyad may be the opening — the point of such declarations is to clarify humanity’s radical difference from God, rather than to make normative claims about human character. Presumably if humanity was more polymorphous, its difference from God would be even more strongly highlighted.
Further, we can see evidence that God views variety (beyond duality) to be a positive benefit to humanity, as in 49:13, “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other.” As with the gender dyad, the multiplicity of nations is not a curse or a failing (as in the Biblical narrative of Babel), but a positive opportunity for growth and communion. Could the same not be true of a more expansive view of gender experience and expression?
(Perhaps this is a stretch, and I am after all an outsider — but I am committed to the project of finding liberatory readings of scriptural traditions generally.)