A Review of The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary; ed. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, et al. HarperOne, 2015
Like fundamentalists of every flavor, radical Islamists come to their wars of ideas armed with proof-texts—those decontextualized bits of scripture that can be strung together in chains to justify whatever one happens to believe. In the current historical moment, this means acts of violence and cruelty in the name of one of the world’s great religions.
An irony of our age is that most Western opponents of radical Islam use the same proof texts to justify bigotry against all Muslims. Just Google “Islam and Violence,” and you will find hundreds of proof-text pages with quote after quote from the Quran seeming to justify, and even require, acts of violence—which, of course, happens to be the same thing that most Islamist terrorists believe. Rarely do enemies agree so completely on first principles.
The big problem though, is that (like most assertions supported by chains of oversimplified proof texts) the assertion is false. Or, at least, it is not always true, and it is not true in the ways that both violent Muslims and violent anti-Muslims assume when they start mining the Quran for reasons to fight.
Into this rhetorical context comes the long-anticipated, ten-years-in-the-making, Harper Study Quran. Based on the wildly successful Harper Study Bible, and edited by practicing Muslims who are also trained and respected scholars, the Study Quran offers itself as an the first English translation to incorporate significant commentary designed to contextualize nearly every ayah (verse) in the sacred book.
And I’ll be dag-nabbed if it doesn’t do it. By my rough estimates, about 90% of the book consists of verse-by-verse commentary keyed to the text by a practical (and merciful) two-color printing scheme that keys the text to the notes with bright red numbers.
As I read this new Quran (and I am reading it straight through because I am weird like that), I have found that I cannot realistically read all of the commentary and still follow any kind of narrative flow. I read most of the text without the commentary, glancing down at the footnotes only when I felt that I needed more context to understand the basic meaning of a passage.
The Study Quran supports this kind of reading, but it is really designed for intensive study of a passage or a theme. The editorial apparatus makes this kind of reading very easy. A comprehensive (and multi-colored) index allows readers to follow themes and ideas through the text, and a set of essays at the end of the volume brings together concepts like “Quranic Ethics, Human Rights, and Society” and “Conquest and Conversion, War and Peace in the Quran.”
But however one reads it, the Study Quran’s overwhelming strength is that it provides, for nearly every verse in the Quran, both the context of its original recitation and a survey of 1400 years of scholarship.
To understand why this is important, consider how the Quran is structured. Unlike the Bible, it contains very little sustained narrative, and the individual surahs (chapters) were not all revealed as discrete units, so each ayah has an independent context of original reception. For Latter-day Saints, the closest analog to the Quran would be the Doctrine & Covenants if it were separated into individual verses and then reassembled according to a loose thematic pattern.
The Quran, in other words, lends itself to proof texting even better than the Hebrew or Christian Bibles—and that’s saying something. The editors of the Study Quran patiently and painstakingly reconstruct, to the extent possible, the original context of each recitation in the entire book and make that reconstructed context available to any reader willing to devote the time attention required to understand it.
The results are remarkable, and they have the wonderful added effect of limiting the ability of both adherents and detractors to manipulate the book’s meaning through uncritical prooftexting.
Here is one example (though I wish I had the space for a dozen) of what happens when a passage often used to justify both violence and Islamophobia undergoes the Study Quran’s contextualizing treatment. In the 33rd Ayah of Surah 5 (The Table Spread), we read the following injunction:
Verily, the recompense of those who wage war against God and His Messenger, and endeavor to work corruption upon the earth is that they be killed or crucified, or have their hands and feet cut off from opposite sides, or be banished from the land.
Pretty gruesome, to be sure, and also pretty clear. But the editors of the Study Quran want us to know two things that no other single-volume English translation will tell us: 1) that this passage was recited in a specific instance and for a specific purpose; and 2) that there is a long tradition of Muslim scholarship and jurisprudence interpreting this verse.
The context was a specific and extremely bloody attack upon the Muslim community in Madinah. After accepting a group of Bedouins into the community under the pretense of conversion, Mohammad allowed them to depart when they claimed that they were not comfortable with city life. He sent camels with them “for milk and sustenance” and a Muslim camel herder to help them on their way. “Once outside the city, however, they brutally maimed and killed the camelheard and made off with the camels the Prophet had given them to use (293).
In context, then, the punishments in the passage were mandated against specific individuals who had acted with impunity to terrorize the Muslim community. And, the editors explain, the verse has NOT normally been interpreted as a general process for dealing with apostates:
Given that the perpetrators were also, among other things, apostates . . . since they embraced Islam in the presence of the Prophet, then renounced it through their actions, a small minority have considered the verse to apply to apostates in general. It seems clear, however, that the severe punishments in this verse pertain specifically to those who commit various crimes brazenly and with exceptional brutality, violence and terrorization of innocent people. (293)
This contextualizing commentary does not erase the violence in the text, of course. But it does limit its application among those willing to consider things like why a passage was originally given and what it has meant to fourteen centuries of devout Muslim scholars. And these are things that both Muslims and non-Muslims need to understand.
For those who believe, as I do, that humanity’s survival into the next century will require us to understand and appreciate each other’s deepest beliefs, The Study Quran is a gift and a treasure. It does not make understanding Islam easy, but it makes it possible—if we are willing to invest the effort it takes to accept the gift and heft the treasure.
And for English-speaking Muslims who are not terrorists and radical Islamists (which is about 99.9% of the total), it provides a valuable tool for deepening faith and demonstrating the shallowness of the proof-texters who constantly attack them.
In an interview with CNN shortly after the volume’s publication, the lead editor, Seyyed Hossein Nasr argued that “the best way to counter extremism in modern Islam is a revival of classical Islam.” That is a tall order for any single book, but I suspect that, if a revival of classical Islam ever happens in the English-speaking world, the revivalists will all carry copies of the Study Quran–and the revolution will be extensively footnoted.