Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Qur’an: a Biography

Bruce Lawrence’s The Qur’an: a Biography provides a short but very informative guide to the nature of the Qur’an and how it has been seen throughout its 1400 year history. It is part of a series on books that shook the world. Lawrence is a scholar of Islam who has previously written on fundamentalism

The Introduction covers what the Qur’an says about itself and Muslim debates over the status of the Qur’an—is it a perfect reflection of the Word of God and thus eternally true of itself (univocal) or is there mediation through the human so it is subject to interpretation in particular contexts (plurivocal)? That the Qur’an was originally a series of spoken texts is made very clear—the first word in Muhammad’s first vision was Recite! and it is only properly The Book of Signs when spoken aloud.

The first two chapters are on Muhammad himself, providing a short biography. After that, each chapter is a case study. So, there is a chapter on his youngest wife, A’ishah, who lived to a considerable age (she was probably nine when they married, 14 when he died and lived to be 65) and was an important figure in the oral transmission of Muhammad’s teachings—only three of the Companions match or exceed the number of traditions of the Prophet (2,000) which were transmitted through her. A chapter on the Dome of the Rock—whose verses are the oldest written texts of the Qur’an still in existence written 60 years after the death of the Prophet—completes the first part of the book, on the Arab Core.

The rest of the book takes us through how the Qur’an has been interpreted down the centuries. A chapter on a Shi’a Iman, a chapter on a Sunni historian, the first non-Arab discussed, make up the Early Commentaries. The next part, on Later Interpretations, covers Robert of Ketton, who translated the Qur’an into Latin in the C12th—Lawrence thinks he did a very creditable job—and is the only non-Muslim to get a chapter; then a visionary interpreter of divine names and renowned Sufi; and then a translator of the Qu’ran in Persian and founder of the so-called whirling dervishes, a Sufi order.
So Lawrence is taking us through the spreading impact of the Qu’ran. Not merely into other cultures (particularly Persian) but also in the ways in which it is used and what it inspires. The next part is Asian Echoes, starting with the Taj Mahal, a Persian building that happens to be in India and which has more Qur’anic verses on its walls than any other Muslim tomb. (It is also the most dramatic expression ever of romantic love in any human construction.) Then a chapter on a C19th Indian politician and educator who sought to reconcile Islam and modern science. And a chapter on a Muslim poet in British India whose poetry was inspired by Qur’anic verses and made the first speech in favour of the creation of what became Pakistan.

The final part, Global Accents, uses three contemporary case studies. The first is the most prominent American Black Muslim, the son of the founder of The Nation of Islam. W. D. Muhammad preaches a much more inclusive form of Islam than his father, much closer to mainstream Islam. Lawrence inserts most of a speech in which W D Muhammad says, among other things,
The Constitution of America is influenced by Quranic teachings. Even the capitalist concept of business is influenced by Quranic teachings (p.165).
This is, as they say, a stretch. Particularly the first sentence. Indeed, the first Constitution to explicitly deny its government the right to establish a religion is—how to put this politely?—not obviously Islamic in its inspiration. But W. D. Muhammad's comments are most definitely in line with the longstanding Muslim tradition of appropriating other people’s traditions where convenient. After all, Muhammad and the Qur’an appropriate in its entirety the Jewish prophetic tradition (and adds on Jesus, which certainly increases the coverage). To the extent that Abraham’s intended sacrifice of his son to God is said to have taken place near Mecca, with Abraham and his son building the first Kaaba shrine.* Sheik Hilali’s claim that Australia was originally discovered by Muslims is of a piece. It is a bit like the way the Soviet Union had a habit of pretending Soviet or Russian scientists had discovered rather more than they did. If you are carriers of the Final Revelation, then it is much more comforting to think that fellow carriers did as much as possible. while it is rather confronting if Unbelievers go around high achieving.

The next case study is the most famous current advocate of jihad—Lawrence has edited a collection of his speeches and writings. Lawrence explains and critiques Osama’s interpretative strategy with Qu’ranic verses, though Lawrence’s own qualification of jihad with defensive in the chapter is too defensive. After all, anyone who wants to claim that Islam sanctions aggressive war for the faith need look no further than the career of the Prophet himself, not to mention the conquests of his Companions. The tradition of the ghazi goes right back to the start of Islam, the only major religion founded by a conqueror. Islam never developed a warrior code such as the Zoroasterian jawanmardi, the Christian chivalry or the Buddhist bushido to reconcile the role of the warrior with the precepts of religion, since warrior precepts were incorporated from the beginning.

Lawrence concludes that Osama’s doctrine of uncompromising violence is merely a recipe for endless anarchy. Lawrence's claim that
Osama bin Laden is mislabelled as an Islamic fundamentalist. He is more the descendant of Rasputin and the Russian anarchists of the early twentieth century than he is of Muhammad and Muslim warriors of the early seventh century. His Qur’an is not a signpost but a grave marker
(p.183) is a gross slander on Rasputin, who was anti-war. By Russian anarchists, Lawrence appears to mean the Nihilists. Again, he may be being a bit harsh. What Lawrence seems to be groping towards is some notion that Osama and his ilk are influence by the Jacobin tradition of total politics. There may be something to that—particularly in influence on Sayyid Qutb—though the entirely Arabian tradition of Wahhabism/Salafism (which is older that any Jacobin tradition) is surely also important. It is arguable that Osama’s conception of what the Qur’an enjoins is more absolutist than early Muslim practice. But Lawrence seems to be trying to absolve Islam of any responsibility for Osama’s embrace of terror. (9/11 may have been a bit of an embarrassment, given a book Lawrence published in 1998, though the apparent central point about the diversity of Islam is surely correct.)

The final chapter looks at the use of the Qur’an as an instrument of healing, which continues to the present. The Epilogue notes the Qur’an's own references to its levels of meaning, the continuing debates over the status of Muhammad and the meanings of the Qur’an, its use and abuse.

While Lawrence is clearly very sympathetic to his subject, he is also a clear and enlightening writer. The book provides an excellent insight into the status, nature and role of the Qur’an in Islam and Islamic history.

*Christianity appropriated Jewish prophetic traditions too, but it was actually founded by Jews and its Old Testament simply incorporates Jewish Scriptures. It does not rather imaginatively rework them, as the Qur’an does.

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