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.

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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.

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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The gender dyad in the Qur’an

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.)

Book recommendations: On the Qur’an

It is likely that I will be offering a course on the Qur’an again next spring, and I’m already planning on working my way systematically through the text one or more times before that (likely in different translations). I’ll obviously never have the instinctive command of the Qur’an that I have of the Bible, but it would be helpful in class if I could more readily make cross-references, etc.

Toward the same end, I would like to read at least a handful of additional books on the Qur’an and on Muhammad’s life and the time period. My main sources on the Qur’an as such so far have been Wadudi and Barlas — because everyone’s research into religious scriptures should start from the feminist critique! — and I’ve also worked my way through most of Hodgson’s imposing tomes. I’m already planning on picking up Kermani’s God is Beautiful, which should keep me occupied for quite a while.

And here is the question: what books on the Qur’an and its historical setting should I prioritize? (And please, please respond in comments rather than on Twitter, so that I can use this post as a reference.)

Reading the Qur’an: Surah 31, Luqman

Surah 31, entitled “Luqman” after the legendary wise man who appears in it, is about wisdom. The question is whether there is any content to wisdom beyond simple adherence to Islam, and initially the answer may seem to be no. Luqman’s first line of dialogue, delivered to his son, reads, “O my son! join not in worship (others) with Allah. For false worship is indeed the highest wrong-doing” (v. 13). Yet as the surah unfolds, it seems to me, we begin to discern the shape of a form of human wisdom that — while ultimately compatible with Islam — is not determined by its historical revelation, nor indeed by the historical intervention of any particular prophet into his society (interventions that as a rule occur when the society is beyond hope in any case).

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