Toward a Literary Reading of the Qurʾan
This book began by raising the question of how non-Muslims should read the Qurʾan, followed by an account of the obstacles that make it difficult for non-Muslims to read the Qurʾan at all. Most of these impediments arise from a nearly complete lack of acquaintance with the text itself, except via media-inflated claims of the contemporary relation between religion and violence. There are other cultural barriers, such as the notion that one can evaluate religious beliefs by a quick look at a text that is assumed to have only one simple meaning, or the idea that everything that people do is determined by a religious scripture from hundreds of years ago. It is also a difficulty if readers assume that the Qurʾan is a foreign text that has no relation to anything familiar. Plus there is the problem that the official arrangement of the Qurʾan puts the latest portions of it at the front, making it all but impossible for newcomers to read the text by following the standard sequence.
As a way around these obstacles, I have proposed to read the Qurʾan in a literary and historical fashion, which means treating it as a text that can be understood through its style and structure, its reference to earlier literary productions, and its historical context, including its initial audience. This also means shifting the Qurʾan out of the framework of theological authority, leaving aside for the moment the question of its status as a divine communication. The chronological approach to understanding the unfolding of the Qurʾan offers instead an opportunity to grasp the way that it was received by its first listeners, as a fresh oral composition. In this way, modern readers can see how the Qurʾan builds up a vocabulary and reper-