When I was a teenager my grandfather showed me a copy of a Qur’an his father had brought back from military service in the Middle East. It was lovely, with delicate pages just like a Bible and a clothbound cover. Of course it was in Arabic, so I couldn’t read it. But it inspired me to try reading an English version of the Qur’an.
I found the experience highly perplexing. The Qur’an contains stories with familiar names from the Hebrew Bible—Moses, Joseph, Ishmael, and so on—but the details are different. For instance, in Genesis 39, Joseph is accused of accosting his Egyptian master Potiphar’s wife. Joseph is thrown into prison on that basis and no one ever exonerates him. God turns this situation into a blessing, but the blemish is never removed from Joseph’s record, so to speak. In the version of the story found in the Qur’an (Sura 12), from the beginning Potiphar treats Joseph/Yusuf more as an equal than a slave (“perhaps … we will adopt him as a son”), and Joseph is exonerated on the basis of a rather humorous test:
[Joseph] said, “It was she who sought to seduce me.” And a witness from her family testified. “If his shirt is torn from the front, then she has told the truth, and he is of the liars. But if his shirt is torn from the back, then she has lied, and he is of the truthful.” So when her husband saw his shirt torn from the back, he said, “Indeed, it is of the women’s plan. Indeed, your plan is great. Joseph, ignore this. And, [my wife], ask forgiveness for your sin. Indeed, you were of the sinful.”
Happily, Joseph is found innocent, his reputation left untarnished. (In fact, Potiphar’s wife is also exonerated. When the women of the city laugh at her for seeking to seduce a “slave boy,” she invites them to dinner and has Joseph serve the meal. His good looks enchant the women so much, they forget what they are doing and cut their hands with their dinner knives!)
Had I encountered the Joseph/Yusuf story, I might have kept reading, but I remember distinctly wondering by Sura 2 why the story was in such a big hurry, and why on earth it mattered what color the cow was that the Israelites sacrificed (2:68), and soon abandoned the project. The Bible is no easier to understand, of course, but I didn’t have even the equivalent of the minimal context church had given me for that. Perhaps you’ve shared a similar experience. It took 9/11 and some thoughtful professors to open the Qur’an again.
What happens when we place the Qur’an in historical context instead of plucking bits and pieces from it at random to defend particular views?
Award-winning Muslim activist Raheel Raza addressed the confusion and problems that result from a lack of proper historical understanding of the Qur’an at her presentation Politics, Patriarchy, and Power: When the Word of God Goes Wrong on November 23rd, 2014, at the San Diego Convention Center as part of the Westar Institute Fall 2014 national meeting. Raza has graciously shared an outline of her speech with us, so in this blog post I’m sticking to a few interesting points of connection.
“Islam is in the spotlight, like a deer frozen in the headlights of a car. Since 9/11 especially, there has been no stone left unturned in scrutinizing each aspect of the faith by both experts and pseudo-experts,” Raza began. “This work is being done at two levels—one of course is the very important scholarly, academic level … but what you don’t normally see is the work being done at the grassroots level, by the activists … to light a fire under the feet of religious leadership to bring about change.” She goes on to make a critical observation—one that will no doubt sound familiar to Westar members and friends—that activists need the support of critical scholars.
Critical scholarship can challenge assumptions about the past by offering a more nuanced history of religion. Where activists are able to access this information and engage with it, they can in turn have an enormous impact on debates around such issues as environmental ethics, end-of-life care, gender and marriage roles, interfaith relations, institutional violence and poverty. We can acknowledge this without feeling overly critical of Islam. After all, it was (literally) only yesterday that Libby Lane was appointed the first female Bishop in the UK.
The historical study of Islam has not been discussed much at Westar in recent years, so this subject may be as new to you as it is to me. A bit ironically, Westar Fellow Joseph Bessler opens his book A Scandalous Jesus: How Three Historic Quests Changed Theology for the Better with an anecdote about an exchange between Muslim author Salman Rushdie and Bill Moyers on the PBS program Faith & Reason regarding this exact issue:
“Yes,” I thought, still somewhat amazed, “he’s calling for a study of the historical Muhammad.” Lamenting the silencing of public discourse, Rushdie highlights the importance of historical studies as a way of moving Islam toward a more tolerant and open civil society. Such scholarship, implicitly challenging the notion that the Qur’an is a divinely revealed text, would undercut the theological argument by which Islamic states and radical clerics censor and silence public dissent. … Moyers’ interview with Rushdie gives an American audience the opportunity to see the importance of the West’s own history of conlflict between traditional assumptions of religious authority and the creation of an open civil society. My own reading of the interview is that Rushdie sees the question of the historical Muhammad not simply as a point of inquiry but as a needed point of leverage for opening up the sphere of public discourse in Muslim societies. (10–11)
So what are some of the issues that contribute to confusion around the Qur’an? Like the Bible, its contents do not appear in chronological order. The books are organized from longest to shortest. The books were composed in two very different locations (Mecca and Medina), and span many years in the life of Muhammad. Another natural problem the Qur’an shares with the Bible is its antiquity; it simply does not address modern issues, at least not directly. These barriers confuse attempts to figure out what the Qur’an can tell us especially about the actual teachings of the historical Muhammad. (Note: I am not addressing here the role of hadith, the collection of sayings and traditions about the prophet, in this quest, but obviously hadith studies are vitally important to the question of the historical Muhammad as well.)
South African Islamicist Farid Esack was once asked about how to handle modern social issues, such as AIDS, that are not mentioned in the Qur’an. Esack encouraged his listeners to engage with these contemporary issues rather than avoid them. “When I read the Qur’an and re-read it … I have to look at it in the context of today. So I look at the issue of AIDS in the light of compassion and mercy, which is what we are told God is all about.” In a fascinating lecture on the subject of Islam and ethics—helpfully, from an Africa-based rather than Western-based perspective—Esack observes that 9/11 has significantly narrowed discussions of Islam in the United States to arguments over whether or not it can be compatible with peace, with the US Constitution, and so on. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to focus on other critical issues such as enslavement and impoverization, and what Islam can offer with regard to that. He found himself having to re-frame his priorities depending on which continent he was doing his scholarly research.
Individuals like Rushdie, Esack, Raza are seeking a more nuanced understanding of Islam in public discourse where it intersects with their respective areas of work. Raza cited multiple examples of places in the Qur’an that complicate claims made about it in the post-9/11 West: “The Qur’an clearly elucidates that is is a message that is to be practiced in conjunction with the messages that came before it,” she said. Traditionally, the daily prayers recited by Muslims include a blessing on Abraham and his progeny. For that matter, “Jesus is mentioned more times by name in the Qur’an than Muhammad.” We don’t hear much about this because from early in the history of Islam, leaders began quoting the Qur’an as an authoritative text for their own purposes (sound familiar?):
Extremists don’t relate the history [behind the Qur’an]; they just take one line out of context. … One of the reasons that the misinterpretation of the Qur’an became so popular after the death of the Prophet is that the early rulers right after the Prophet had so politicized the faith that they used carefully chosen verses to promote their own political agendas. This was the rise of Islamicism as we know it today. … This was a tragedy that overtook the spiritual message of Islam.
Among the scholars of Islam Raza has found most helpful as an activist include Amina Wadud, author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective, and Laleh Bakhtiar, the first woman to translate the Qur’an. Raza has listed these and other role models and mentors on her recommended reading page on her personal website. The information is out there, and the quest for a (post)modern understanding of the Qur’an is truly still in its infancy. We can’t let pride get in the way of learning, whether we are engaging with that quest from within or outside that tradition, so it is with that spirit that I will conclude with a piece of light-hearted—not necessarily easy—advice from Raza: “We have to learn to self-critique and laugh at ourselves.”
Don’t leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below[divider style=”hr-dotted”] Cassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.