The Quran in Context

A Review of The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary; ed. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, et al.  HarperOne, 2015

sqLike 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.


  1. Patrick Seegmiller says:

    I’ve been looking for a good study Quran! I just added it to my Christmas list! Thanks for the review! This reply needs more exclamation points!!!!!

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for the review.

  3. Sidebottom says:

    I think you mean “Islamist”. An Islamicist is an Islamic scholar.

  4. Fixed. Thanks.

  5. Nice review. It’s also notable that this volume is years in the making, with scholars working together to compare all English translations and context. This book is expected to be the definitive English translation.

  6. MIchael, I was wondering when someone on a site would comment about this. I had one of the editors and translators on the air with me a few weeks ago. It was a terrific experience and my last question kind of surprised him. I asked him how spending the last ten years translating and focusing on the Quran had changed him. He said that it had strengthened his faith in God and had changed him so much towards his family and others that he was still evaluating it. I came across this in a notice from Maxwell Institute Podcast #33.

  7. Sounds interesting. However, it is difficult to think that only radicalized Muslims think the Koran encourages violence, since all the Muslims I have known well enough to know their views think things like they can’t tell their family they converted to another religion or their family might feel compelled to murder them, or that a father owns his children and a mother has no rights to them so it isn’t kidnapping to take them to another country. My sample size is fairly small, but when when my entire sample size includes kidnapping and murder as legitimate possibilities within families, it is hard not to blame the Koran.

  8. Hi jks, if it’s any help, I lived in the heart of Saudi Arabia for a number of years and grew close to several devout Muslims, and worked with many more, from the Hanbali school (upon which the strict Wahabi tradition arises). And they did not feel the need to murder those that converted, that they owned their children, or that the mother had no rights. They were both strictly faithful to their religion and warmly loving of their families. I was very open and clear about my Mormonism and they were respectful and curious. And for the most part, most were not antagonistic towards Israel or America. This is not to say that there aren’t extremists out there, but that my experience doesn’t indicate a high percentage.

    Additionally, I’ve spent time in Southeast Asia where the greatest concentration of Muslims is, and their version of Islam differs markedly from that of tribal Arabia – though still based on the Quran. The Muslims in SE Asia are generally very moderate. It would be interesting to know what role ethnic heritage and culture play in the practice and interpretation of the Islam. I see parallels with my own experience of Mormonism within and without the Western United States.

  9. I would like to know where jks lives? I have known very few Muslims. They are very admirable people, very devout and peace-loving as much as I have known them, which, to be honest is really very, very little.

    My concern is not about the 99.9% of the Muslims who are peaceable. My concern is the hundreds of thousands of radical Muslims who can wreak havoc very quickly. Hundreds of thousands, you question? Well, 1.68 billion x 0.1 = 168 MILLION. Even if the estimate is 99.98% peaceable people, the multiple is .02 making the radical number 33,600,000 people to be concerned about.

    33 MILLION, 600 THOUSAND RADICALS can cause a lot of fear among moderate Muslims, can recruit a lot of people of the baser sort, people who were bullied when young and want to take it out on someone or who were bullies when young and want to continue the practice in the name of religion. That number of radicals can literally take over nations and subject other nations to cave into their terrorism, as the pirates of the Barbary Coast did for so many centuries.

    A million bullies with rockets, missiles, tanks and assault weapons who declare “We will kill you, enslave your women and children, marry your daughters and fly our flag over your government buildings” need to be taken seriously, no matter that 99.98% of the other followers of the radical’s religion are wonderful, peace-loving people.

    Halloween used to be a time when people could hand out apples and all sorts of home-made treats until a few wacko’s put needles and razor-blades in the treats and hid chocolate covered drugs in bowls full of home-made candies. Now everyone is afraid of home-made treats. Why? Because no one can tell which homemade treats are safe and which are lethal or just dangerous. People can’t take the risk.

    This is the same way I feel. I can’t tell which of the people who cover their faces are peaceable and follow the wonderful words of being loving, truthful, kind, forgiving, etc and which ones are smiling at me because they know that here in America we have generally been taught to trust a person who smiles and speaks kindly, and we have been taught to fear being “bigoted” or “racist” or “prejudiced. We can easily be manipulated to back down from people who loudly declare us to be in any way those things we have been taught are bad because, in fact, they are bad ways to be.

    However, being on guard against a possible 33.6 MILLION radical, bigoted, murderistic racists who want to follow their interpretation of their Holy scriptures is not being radical, bigoted or racist. It is, in my opinion, being wise.

  10. The problem with Islam and and even Christianity is that there is no authority. According to scholars, that’s what that particular passage in the Quran is talking about, but so what? They are just scholars, one can merely disagree with them. And for a book to be of such a pure record of the direct word of God that adherents must recite it in the original language, even if they don’t understand it, that verse is pretty ambiguous. How is a typical reader, unaware of the history, supposed to figure out that this verse applies to specific people for a specific incident? Especially when it refers generally to “those that…” and not with language that seems to refer to a specific.

    There’s no source that can authoritatively declare what Islam entails and what position one must take to definitively qualify as muslim.

  11. ACS,
    Seriously, where did you come up with those numbers? How did you decide that many people are radicalized? I’m not sure if I can trust the people I go to church with are nice like their smiles, or raging bigots who think Muslims are out to get them.

    Completely agree with ESO.

  12. I think the biggest problem with the Quran is that it is considered the literal word of God (which is why a “translation” is a no-no — changing the word of God in any way is blasphemous). Such absolutism is fundamentally dangerous. Sure, they’re are Christians who think that way (and they’re dangerous too), but it seems more institutionalized in Islam. Obviously, any reasonable Muslim would admit that even though they have the literal word of God, that doesn’t mean they understand it perfectly, but I think the premise itself gives fertile soil for crazies.

  13. ACS, just a sanity check on your math. You say, “My concern is not about the 99.9% of the Muslims who are peaceable… 1.68 billion x 0.1 = 168 MILLION.” Now let’s pretend the estimate is 98% instead of 99.98%. Paraphrasing you, “Even if the estimate is 98% peaceable people, the multiple is 2 making the radical number 3,360,000,000 people to be concerned about.” Even if 98% of them are peacable, that means 3.36 BILLION of them are not! Wait… you are off by a factor of 100. The multiplier for 99.9% would be 0.001, not 0.1. Assuming your other numbers are correct, it’s 1.68 million. And remember, we’re not even talking about where this 1.68 million is concentrated. Furthermore, if you revise your estimate to “99.98% peaceable”, then you have 0.0002 x 1.68 billion = 336,000.

    But remember, even once we correct your math, we still have to worry about spatial distributions. Who specifically are you worried about? Where are they? How many? What specific data points are behind your blanketing fear and hatred of entire groups of people? Is that fear going to protect you and harm mainly the guilty, or is it mainly directed toward the innocent?

  14. Michael, thanks for the helpful review. I have felt a need to better understand Islamic culture and thought. We have a mosque right next door to our stake center here in Western Washington, and we have found them to be good neighbors. We share our parking lots back and forth for events, and have hopefully helped them to feel welcome in our community, which not everyone around here is willing to do.