Review of the ‘Study Quran’

The review asks, can Islam find a way to reform?

Ten years in the making under the editorship of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, using beautiful font, and published by Harper Collins, the Study Quran is modeled after various Study Bibles, such as the NIV, ESV, NASB, Catholic Study Bible, to name only those.

It is a new translation of the 114 surahs (suras) or chapters. Then on nearly every verse, sometimes down to a phrase or clause within a verse, the team of scholars offers comments.

I use the prism of the present v. the past in my review.

First, in the General Introduction, Nasr says he wanted to employ only Muslim commentators who accept the Quran as the Word of God. He writes after reluctantly accepting the editorship,

[T]his would be a Muslim effort and that, although the book would be contemporary in language and based on the highest level of scholarship, it would not be determined or guided by assertions presented in studies by non-Muslim Western scholars and orientalists who have studied the Quran profusely as a historical, linguistic, or sociological document, or even a text of religious significance, but do not accept it as the Word of God and an authentic revelation (xl).

So far I can’t quarrel with this exclusion of non-Muslims scholars who don’t see the Quran as inspired Scripture. I prefer my commentators to believe the Bible is the Word of God and are respectful of it. But there is concern about a deficiency in the “historical, linguistic, and sociological” aspects of the Quran, which respectful Christian scholars in Study Bibles will use. Nasr promises the readers he won’t look into the mystical elements of the Arabic letters and letter combinations. That’s a good thing, for Arabic is one language among thousands. From a scholarly point of view, there’s nothing special about it.

Second, still in the General Introduction, Nasr spells out the basic belief about Quranic inspiration—dictation, really:

The Quran is for Muslims the verbatim Word of God, revealed during the twenty-three-year period of the prophetic mission of the Prophet Muhammad through the agency of the Archangel Gabriel … The meaning, the language, and every word and letter in the Quran, its sound when recited, and its text written upon various physical surfaces are all considered sacred. (xxiii) …

Does this mean that the Quran is still subjected to historical influences that came through Muhammad’s mind and then into the Quran? Or does that excerpt mean that Allah himself foresaw the historical influences and incorporated it into Gabriel’s verbatim messaging? Or maybe the excerpt says the Quran is too pure to be influenced by history.

Specifically, is there room to interpret some verses in the Quran as only historical, like hand-chopping for grand larceny (high-dollar theft), or hitting one’s wife (see below)? Both of those examples come from an Arab cultural influence.

And what about the numerous stories roughly paralleling the Old and New Testaments and apocryphal literature? Muhammad was no scholar, so he didn’t pore through dusty manuscripts. Rather, these stories were picked up and garbled from generations of poets and story-tellers circulating over the trade routes for centuries. Clearly these are literary influences in the Quran, unless Nasr believes Allah dictated even them.

So can the Study Quran commentators make such distinctions between general religious principles and historical contexts, whether coming through Muhammad’s mind or through Gabriel who was speaking in a language and to issues reflecting only seventh-century Arab practices and culture?

It should be noted, however, that believing Muslims like Nasr do not need to abandon Allah’s dictation if they conclude that Allah spoke not only to the world today, but also limited some verses only to the seventh century.

The first test case is in surah 4:34, which permits a husband to hit his wife, after three mitigating steps have been exhausted (e.g. correcting his disobedient wife, warning her, and separating from her in the bedroom). The translation is honest enough: “strike them.” The commentary is sufficient except one line that says Muhammad never struck his wives, because one hadith  says he hit Aisha: “He struck me on the chest which caused me pain” … (Muslim no. 4.2127 or Book of Prayer no. 2127).

But let’s not quarrel about a custom that happened often enough in seventh-century Arab culture. And, further, let’s imagine that the commentators are right that the strike is not intended to leave a mark and is to be used rarely. This question still has to be asked: Is this command to be interpreted as only applying to the original context back then—the verse has an expiration date—or should it be interpreted as universally applying today?

The commentators opt for its universal application.  This belief in the verse’s universality is predictable but still a big disappointment. It is as if these twenty-first century commentators can’t leave some Quranic elements back in the past, especially the legal and jihad aspects.

Another test case is chopping off a hand for grand larceny in surah 5:38. The commentators say this punishment existed in Arab society before the Quran came. And in another comment on another verse they tell us that this mutilation was suspended by an early caliph during a famine. So Quranic law can indeed be determined by history.

And so can modern scholars and Imams and jurists envision a new historical context—the twenty-first century—and suspend the punishment now?

A third test case is in surah 24:1-4, where the Quran lays out the punishment for sexual misconduct (zina): one hundred lashes for the misconduct (verse 2) and then eighty lashes for bearing false witness about it (verse 4). In a brilliant analysis, the commentators argue that adultery (and not just fornication by two singles), is included within zina. The ahadith (plural of hadith) command that adulterers should be stoned to death, but those traditions are not consistent. Therefore, reason the commentators, the Quran, taking priority over these specific and inconsistent ahadith, does not order stoning, but lashing.

This is an improvement for women in Islamic society today. The commentators need to translate their analysis into Arabic and other languages and send it to sharia law courts. However, in the commentators’ haste, they overlooked the fact that in the twenty-first century even lashing is excessive and should be interpreted as applying only in the seventh century.

The Quran, influenced by a large community of Jews thriving in Medina and therefore Old Testament law, treats sexual misconduct as a crime punishable by lashing (cf. Deut. 25:2-3) or death (Lev. 20:10). The New Testament, in contrast, has moved on and sees such misconduct as a sin forgivable by God and man (1 Cor. 6:9-11). So we shouldn’t let the Quran, appearing after the New Testament, march society backwards 3,500 years and make us come back under an old religious law.

The ultimate example in the Study Quran of depending too much on the past is the forty-one commentators whom the Quran Study commentators use as their touchstones, so to speak. Nearly all of the forty-one died in (our) Medieval Age. I grant they may have some insights—perhaps even deep ones. I don’t necessarily share the snobbery against the old ideas, but I am rather prejudiced against their laws of punishment and their ways of extracting information.

My point in this review was to limit my criticism to the main assumption behind their commentary—the old ways versus the new ways.

The conclusion is that we will have to wait for better and modern scholarly (and respectful) standards to explain the Quran for the world today. A new generation of scholars putting together the next Study Quran must come up with an interpretive method that distinguishes which verses are historical-cultural and therefore have expiration dates because they’re harmful and degrading (e.g. the hudud punishments and domestic laws like hitting), and which ones are universal and timeless because they are harmless and uplifting (e.g. prayer, alms, fasting, and pilgrimage).

This Study Quran hits rarely and misses often—but at least they score a few hits.

Until we see improved and updated interpretation methods, we’ll never see the very beginnings of an Islamic Reformation, which is sorely needed today, if the world—especially Muslim women—is to experience any peace.

This review first appeared on December 13, 2015, at American Thinker as “The Study Quran Raises Questions.” It has been updated and expanded here.

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