Living by the Qur'an: Islam Scholar Jonathan Brown

By Frykholm, Amy | The Christian Century, November 25, 2015 | Go to article overview

Living by the Qur'an: Islam Scholar Jonathan Brown


Frykholm, Amy, The Christian Century


JONATHAN BROWN IS the author of Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet's Legacy, a hook that examines the ways that Islamic scriptures are interpreted in the modern world. Brown is a professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University and professor of Muslim-Christian Understanding in Georgetown's School of Foreign Service.

Could you give me an overview of scripture in the Islamic tradition?

The Abrahamic traditions are all similar structurally. They all have a central written text, and surrounding that text, a variety of secondary scriptures that emerge out of the questions of interpretation.

In Islam, the primary scripture is the Qur'an, which is then read through the secondary scripture of the prophet Muhammad's Sunna--what is known about the prophet's life. One form of Sunna is called the Hadith, a record of the sayings of the prophet, and another is legal maxims established by early legal schools.

But Islamic scripture is different from Jewish and Christian scriptures in that the time period is more compressed, more recent, and better documented. Even among Western scholars, there is not a lot of dispute about the document of the Qur'an itself.

There is much more controversy about the Sunna. Hadiths were not written down right away, and they were transmitted during a time when the Muslim community went through three civil wars. There was a tremendous amount of forgery, something early scholars acknowledged. They started a kind of science of authenticating Hadiths. That is a very open issue in Islam, and the science of Hadith criticism is itself a matter of open debate.

How significant is this distinction for the average Muslim? Where do they encounter each form of scripture?

For everyday Muslims, the scripture with which they have the most immediate contact is the Qur'an, which they believe is the literal word of God transmitted by the angel Gabriel to the prophet Muhammad in Arabic. When Muslims pray, which they in theory do five times a day, the Qur'an's opening seven verses are always used, and then another selection from the Qur'an is also used. Muslims have to have memorized enough scripture to do these prayers.

Most Muslims don't necessarily know a lot of Hadiths. They might know a little bit about the life of the prophet, but this might not be central to their faith.

You wrote about the interpretive tradition in Islam--how does it work? Who interprets and for what purposes?

First we have to understand what kind of book the Qur'an is. It is like a stream of divine consciousness. The meaning of the Qur'an is never the literal meaning of the Qur'an. Its interpretation is always based on a larger body of evidence: the Sunna of the prophet, the work of scholars after generations of interpretation, and other parts of the Qur'an. If you think about the Qur'an as a pretty strange book whose meaning is not evident on the surface, then you can understand why this broader interpretive context is necessary.

Understandings of the Qur'an are inherently problematic. There are four schools of law in Sunni Islam and two in Shi'a Islam and many theological schools. To some extent they all recognize one another's validity because they all recognize that there is work to do to interpret the words of the scripture.

In mainstream Sunni and Shi'a Islam, Muslim scholars trained in classical traditions are called the ulama. They see themselves as the ultimate location of revelation. If you ask, "What does Islam want from you?" the qualified Muslim scholar is the one who knows how to apply the tradition in any given time and place. This is good for the ongoing tradition because the ulama can reshape the Shari'a--Islamic law--according to new needs while remaining within its authentic vocabulary.

But Muslim scholars have to do this in a convincing way. They can't just say, "This is what I think the Qur'an means. …

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