The Problem of Reading the Qurʾan
The genesis of this book comes from a simple question: how should nonMuslims read the Qurʾan? On one level, this would seem to be a relatively straightforward issue. The Qurʾan is a sacred text, comparable to the Bible and the scriptures of other religious traditions, which are often read and studied in academic and literary contexts. From that point of view, the questions might seem to be primarily technical—how is the text organized, what are its primary features, and what is its audience and principal interpretive traditions? Surely the Qurʾan should be approached like any other text.
But with the Qurʾan the situation is different. The Qurʾan is the source of enormous anxiety in Europe and America, for both religious conservatives, who are alarmed about a competitive postbiblical revelation, and secularists, who view Islam with deep suspicion as an irrational force in the post-Enlightenment world. Neither of those worldviews takes the Qurʾan very seriously as a text; according to these views, it is instead a very dangerous problem. It is even the case that a number of attempts have been made to outlaw the sale and distribution of the Qurʾan completely, as a text that promotes violence, an argument made by fundamentalist Hindus in India during the 1980s and more recently by a right-wing anti-immigration party in the Netherlands. In 2002, outside religious groups sued the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for violating the freedom of religion, when (at my suggestion) it assigned a translation of selections from the Qurʾan as its summer reading program for all incoming students that year.1 In 2010,