The Qur’an in Historical Context

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?

Honor Diaries

Raheel Raza is one of several women featured in the award-winning documentary Honor Diaries

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 FarrinCassandra 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.

12 replies
  1. Brian says:

    The Quran does not really have stories — it refers to stories in the Bible, but its references are so condensed, and often vary from the centuries-older version, that they are nearly unrecognizable to readers familiar with the Bible. Also, the Quran does not have a recognizable narrative form. It has snatches of dialogue mashed together with warnings and advice, all seemingly unrelated. The text it is most similar to is The Secret History of the Mongols, as they are both the first literary works produced by non-literary societies.

  2. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    Literacy rates around the time the Christian canon was written has been estimated at between around 5% and 10% in the Greco-Roman world, depending one whether rural or urban. As Lee & Scott (Sound Mapping the New Testament, p. 91) state, “Manuscripts implied spoken contexts and supported oral performances.” As they also pointed out, publication was oral performance. Print illiteracy, as well as lack of necessity and the exorbitant cost, didn’t support the promulgation of books for the general public. (See also Joanna Dewey, Seminar Papers Spring 2006, “The First Century Oral-Written Media World,” in which she begins, “Contrary to our implicit belief, written texts were peripheral in antiquity,” (to orality) and later, “Existence of texts, however, does not entail *reliance* on texts even by the most literate within the society.” So I would think that the New Testament was produced by a “non-literary society,” if literacy is defined as writing and reading print. Only the very few wrote and read.

  3. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    Before dismissing the Qur’an as a product of a non-literary society, one must look at the zero, that wonderful symbol that the Romans had no concept of. (I’ve heard a slave in Rome could gain freedom by doing his master’s arithmetic! Try dividing or multiplying with Roman numerals!) Then there is “Al-jabr,” which is the shortened word that became algebra, invented by Mohammed ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, a ninth century Arab mathematician. He gave the world algebra, which is a far more powerful instrument than arithmetic. Without it modern life wouldn’t be what it is today (Scholling,, “Modern-School Algebra,” introduction, 1936). I wouldn’t say that the Muslim world of this time could be considered backward!

    In “The Qur’an: A Biography,” by Bruce Lawrence (prof of Islamic studies, Duke), he notes in his introduction, “All of the vignettes in this book illustrate a recurrent, essential point: while the Qur’an itself is a unitary coherent source of knowledge, there is not a single Qur’anic message. The Qur’an – like all sacred literature – requires study. The act of studying its form, content and transmission over time is called interpretation.” He mentioned 3 ways – literal, historical and allegorical (p.79). It is also imperative, if one wants to understand the Qur’an, that one understand the culture in which it was created.

    Rumi (13th century) is one of my favorite poets and thinkers. He was also a Muslim. Masnavi I Ma’Navi, a seminal work by him, has many great parables and poems. One of my favorites (Book 1.14) is “The Chinese dnd Greek Artists.” I’ll paraphrase. The Chinese and Greeks each thought they were the greatest painters. In order to settle this dispute each was given a house to paint. The Chinese used many paints and did an elaborate job. The Greeks used no colors but just cleansed the walls from all filth, burnishing them until they were clear and bright as the heavens. When the Sultan inspected them, he admired the Chinese, but the Greek house was the best, since “all of the colors of the other house were reflected on its walls with an endless variety of shades and hues.”

    It is difficult, if not impossible, to judge fairly another culture based on the values of one’s own culture.

  4. Brian says:

    Yes, none of that is very convincing, is it? And in fact it is misleading, which is why it’s so very difficult for people to understand the Quran. So many people making disingenuous arguments for it.

    For example, you say, “So I would think that the New Testament was produced by a ‘non-literary society’ ” — but why would you think that when the New Testament quotes so extensively from the Hebrew Bible? The truth is that Hebrew literature and Christian literature are just more sophisticated than the Quran. It is impolite to say so, but that’s the truth. Not all texts are created equal.

  5. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    There is absolutely no evidence that there was any higher rate of literacy in Palestine (where the Hebrew Bible was used) than anywhere else. Yes, *to you* the Hebriew & Christian literature are “sophisticated.” So what? They are part of your culture. That would be, a religiocentric, if not an ethnocentric point of view. That is probably at the root of the lack of communication between people of different faiths. (It would be interesting to see an unbiased rubric for determinating “sophistication” in literature. In the last four decades as an English teacher I have yet to see that!

    Sure, “not all texts are created equal.” (I would have used the adverb.) But, unless you are equipped to make judgments using Hebrew, Greek and Arabic to make decisions about the texts you are not really equipped to say that “Hebrew literature and Christian literature are just more sophisticated than the Qur’an.” The “book review” is hollow.

  6. Brian says:

    It doesn’t surprise me that most English teachers are not aware of (and I would say, in fact, resist) any way of determining sophisticated literature from lesser or unsophisticated literature; it would contradict their principle of relativism: that nothing is better than anything else. It is a waste of time to discuss this with anyone committed to relativism.

  7. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    Let’s see. One compares a 2000 year old group of writings of several genres in Greek to 1500 year old recitations in Arabic using modern English and a worldview that teaches the superiority of the West to the Middle East to say that the Bible is more “sophisticated” than the Qur’an. That is a prime example of ethnocentricity, or “evaluating other races and cultures by criteria specific to one’s own.” This worldview has been used in the past to evaluate Native Americans, Africans, and those in the Middle East to validate taking lands and subjugating people of different races and/or ethnicities. But, in the rural South I am certainly familiar with that view. I will move on, noting that it is still alive and well!

    As I alluded to above Qur’an means recitation. It is a book written to be recited. It is said to consist of the revelations of the Prophet Muhammad between 610-632 ce. Different people heard these and began an oral tradition that became a written one after his death. Before a Christian besmirch this, it is important to remember that tradition has all of the teachings of Paul, as well as the revelation of John as coming from a revelation – a revealing – of Christ. The tradition of the gospels is that they were written by those closest to Jesus. (Though this is no longer thought true by biblical scholars, many have embraced the same “chain” of memories in their Q hypothesis, written within several decades of the death of Jesus.) These Christian views are still evidently held by a majority of adherents, measured in polls, so when a Muslim sees the Qur’an as “the Word of God,” it is pretty much the same as a Christian who sees the Bible as “the Word of God.” Recitation is still a key to understanding the Qur’an. It is an oral book meant to be recited aloud in Arabic.

    It has been said by some that the earliest gospel, Mark, is an oral gospel. One finds fewer variant free verses in it than in the other gospels (which would be true of oral transmission, where the gist of the story, the audience, and the storyteller change, adding and subtracting), as well as fewer second and third century copies of it than other gospels (J. Dewey). In its original Greek much of it is in present tense. The narrative also is embedded in dialogue. The pattern of doublets and use of groups of three, either people or action adds to the feature of oral transmission (D. Schmidt). The orality is lost in translation, as translators into English make it more attractive to an English reader. It gets “spiffed up” almost every time there is a new translation. . Even today I’ve noticed that when a group chants a selection, often from the Bible, it takes on a different, almost magical, dimension that adds significantly to what is being said. I surmise this is the same found when selections of the Qur’an are spoken, are chanted.

  8. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    Here are a few resources I have found useful in my studies, not including the Sufi books:
    Armstrong, Karen. A History of God. (She is an author.)
    Armstrong, Karen. Holy War.
    Armstrong, Karen. The Battle for God. (A great source for understanding the three fundamentalisms.)
    Khaldi, Tarif. Images of Muhammad. (Khaldi is a prof of Arabic and Islamic studies at the American University of Beirut.
    Lawrence, Bruce. Defenders of God. (He is prof of Islamic studies at Duke.) This is another great source for understanding the three fundamentalisms.
    Lawrence, Bruce. The Qur’an: A Biography.
    Safi, Oman. Memories of Muhammad. (He is prof of Islamic studies at UNC.)
    That doesn’t include the books dealing with Sufism, which has some of the most enlightening aphorisms and parables as I have read, at least as snappy as those found in the gospels.
    In another book, from 1958 (The Koran: Selected Suras) the translator added something found in the original 17th century English translation by Alexander Ross, called “Needful Caveat.” “Good Readere, the great Arabian Imposter now at last after a thousand years is by way of France arrived in England and his Alcoran or Gallimaufry of Errors, (a brat as deformed as the parent, and as full of heresies as his scald head was full of scurffe), hath learned to speak English. I suppose this piece is exposed by the Translator to the publicke view no otherwise than some monster brought out of Africa, for people to gaze, not to dote upon…” This continues at length and gives the modern reader a look at the anti-Islamic thought that apparently endures today. As a society, are we still as puerile as Ross was in 17th century England?

  9. Cassandra says:

    Brian knows a good deal more about Islam and Muslim history than I do, so I can’t and won’t comment on whether they should be considered a literary or nonliterary society. The most obvious reason I know of, however, for considering them a strongly oral-based culture is the practice of isnad I referred to in my last blog post, not to mention the high place recitation of the Qur’an has in Muslim cultures even today.

    Dennis, I haven’t read Joanna Dewey’s seminar paper and only portions of Sound-Mapping, but a while back I did read Books and Readers in the Early Church by Harry Gamble (Yale UP, 1995). I wrote a review of it, not for Westar. Without trying to oversimplify the relationship between oral and written culture, Gamble cautions against putting too much emphasis on the study of distinct units of story (pericope). He points out that books were not necessarily expensive or commercial. You didn’t have to be wealthy to own a book. Rather, in their efforts to “spread the word,” Christians appear to have copied and distributed plenty of literature from within a generation of Jesus’ death.

    His examples and description reminded me of the pamphlets handed out by sectarian groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Latter-day Saints today. Gamble cites a range of evidence, such as multiple pagan authors’ awareness of Christian texts, to support the view that Christian literature was easy to come by. Pagan writers also tended to discredit the literary merit of Christian literature, again, not unlike how people view sectarian literature today.

    All that is just to say that I do think it’s plausible to say that Christianity emerged in a culture that was already on its way to literacy rather than orality. Even though most people were not literate, it’s plausible to say the culture around them privileged literacy over orality. Maybe we could read something for the blog about this topic.

  10. Ben Wiebe says:

    S Rushdie speaks eloquently for freedom of speech. We need to stand up for this in context. In most civil societies we recognize that not just anything goes when it comes to speech – “hate speech” is not acceptable (another example is speech that would simply distort or deny the record of someone like A Hitler). Today people are concerned about the hacking at Sony and rightly so. But before we get up in arms we should think about what it would be to turn the tables and understand how people here would feel if people from say China or Japan made a movie advocating the assassination of our leaders. It is to, say the least, a trashy movie (from all that we know), and we are going to stand up for this noble cause – for the right to advocate “hateful” and gross violence and entertain trash? Let us stand up for free speech in context. I think there is room here for second thought.

  11. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    That’s interesting. Lee & Scott reference Gamble several times, especially talking about use of the codex in the second century. They point out, elsewhere of the economics involved, “the high cost of papyrus and the expense of having copies written on it,” speaking about private reading. (I would assume the way one read didn’t affect cost.) I’ve yet to see any evidence of “multiple pagan authors’ awareness of Christian texts” by 70-80 ce., which would have been a generation after Jesus’ death, when it seems the religion considered itself a Jewish sect. The earliest of which I’m aware, if not an interpolation, was Tacitus and possibly Suetonius, around two generations after Jesus’ death. What I’ve read also suggests that the very term “Christian” was not a self-description until the second century, which bolsters that. (For instance, “Acts and Christian Beginnings,” p. 136 states, “The term ‘Christian’ is rare to nonexistent in first-century writings.” (I assume the “rare” refers to the contested “Testimonium” of Antiquities 18.64.) Interesting. I’ll have to look into Gamble’s book.

  12. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    To add to that, the way one read didn’t affect cost, but the cost probably affected the way one read. In other words, one book went a long way, as far as the voice could carry and ears could hear, when read orally!

Comments are closed.