How to Read the Qur'an: A New Guide, with Select Translations

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How to Read the Qur'an: A New Guide, with Select Translations

By Carl W. Ernst

University of North Carolina Press, 288 pp., $30.00

In the decade since 9/11, it seems as though every trade publisher and university press has brought forth a volume like this one: a guide to the Qur'an for the perplexed. Carl Ernst, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, eschews the usual method for books of this sort. He contends that guides to the content, themes and teachings of the Qur'an prematurely iron out the tensions and conflicting statements in the text. Instead, he appeals to us as readers and teaches us how to make sense of the text, because in order to understand what the text says, we need to understand how it says it.

As he makes a case for his chronological, literary and intertextual approach, Ernst enumerates the sources of perplexity about the Qur'an concisely and persuasively, including archaic translations in King James English; selective proof-texting by politically motivated, unsympathetic polemicists; unwarranted expectations that a sacred text should take narrative form; and speculative conspiracy-theory explanations of the Qur'an's composition.

Ernst's alternative mode of reading hangs on three key strategies. The first: don't begin at the beginning! Read the text chronologically, he advises, and he includes a chart that lays out both the traditional Egyptian ordering and the 19th-century text-critical ordering by German Orientalist Theodor Noldeke. The lyric qualities of the shorter early suras, or chapters, received by Muhammad at the beginning of his career in Mecca and before his flight to Medina are the general reader's best entry into the Qur'an. The length and complexity of the suras increased through the 22-year career of Muhammad. In the Qur'an, the suras are generally arranged from longer to shorter, and thus in roughly reverse chronological order.

A chronologically ordered reading makes visible the characteristic styles, themes and concerns of the Meccan and the Medinan periods. The earliest suras were used as worship texts for the followers gathering around Muhammad in the early period of his career. Careful observation of the style and flow of the text reveals later insertions into these suras, sometimes to explain unfamiliar terms or spell out exceptions to general commands. Ernst takes the literary unity of the suras as a starting point and generally accepts the traditional view that the Qur'anic texts date to the lifetime of the prophet. Readers familiar with historical-critical approaches in biblical studies will appreciate Ernst's careful, contextual and analytical reading. More investigation of questions surrounding the compilation and organization of the Qur'an would have been helpful, given the insight that such inquiry could offer into the development of the nascent Islamic community.

Ernst's second key strategy for making sense of the Qur'an involves attending to a particular organizational structuring of the suras known as ring compositions: a chiastic ordering of the text that mirrors the themes of the sura from the center (such as A B C/X/C' B' A'), in which a central element (X) often speaks to a universalizable principle that is the focal teaching of the sura, or of a section thereof. These general principles can be distinguished from the more context-specific commands and statements, which are of limited application.

The structure in the later, longer Medinan suras becomes quite complex, with subsections having rings within rings, for example. Ernst takes pains to demonstrate this structure, summarizing the recent work of other scholars. Many readers will find themselves skipping or skimming Ernst's detailed analyses of the Medinan suras. Inductive identification of their themes and emphases appears at points more an art than a science. …

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