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Cover of the Qur'an Credit: crystalina flickr creative commons

Cover of the Qur’an           Image Credit: crystalina / flickr creative commons

How to approach the Qur’an? This is a pressing question, given the Qur’an’s powerful influence on decisions and events that impact millions of people around the world.

Many non-Muslims have the (mistaken) impression that the Qur’an is a compilation of Muhammad’s verbatim accounts of what God said to him. Though this may not be a significant distinction, it was not God who spoke to Muhammad, but the angel Gabriel.

More significant: Muhammad himself did not write the accounts of these conversations. He verbally repeated his revelations to his Companions (the earliest converts to Islam which included several family members and close friends). It was they who wrote down what Muhammad shared with them. How long after Muhammad described a given encounters, how faithfully they transcribed his accounts, and whether the scribes heard any particular account directly from Muhammad or second-hand, is not always clear.

Algerian (Muslim) scholar, Mohammed Arkoun (1928-2010), in his book Lectures du Coran (unhappily, only available in its original French), identifies three key moments in the chronology and epistemology of the Qur’an:

  1. The period of the revelations to Muhammad (d. 632)     610-632 CE
  2. The collecting and putting together of the final version   632-936 CE
  3. The time of orthodoxy                                                 936 CE ->present

Arkoun finds that by the time the polymath, جلال الدين السيوطي, al-Suyûtî (d. 1505 CE), wrote his1500-page analysis of the Qur’an, the table of contents of which included eighty-four categories, he was already treating the Qur’an as an authoritative “as is,”—in other words, as if it had always been a single text with unchanging content. Though, at first glance, al-Suyûtî’s analysis appears exhaustive, a deeper look shows that he focuses on the “external” linguistic features of the Qur’an—its lexicon, morphology, syntax, semantics, rhetoric, and prose style.

In a sense, then, al-Suyûtî takes an approach to the Qur’an that, according to Arkoun, had already become de rigueur in the Islamic world; he builds a fence around it. He does not breach the fence by moving past externalities to explore the Qur’an’s “internal” assumptions, claims and convictions.

Like the majority of scholars of the Qur’an, even to the present, no questions appear or are answered in al-Suyûtî’s treatise about how and why the Qur’an is organized in the way that it is rather than in some other way, about the thought-world that formed and informed Muhammad, about the theological shifts internal to the text, about the layers of Islamic imaginary embedded in this collection of texts written by various people over a period of time, etc.

The upshot, for Arkoun, is this—by the early 1500s, the Qur’an was already being treated—even by scholars like al-Suyûtî—as the fixed, literal Word of God.

Arkoun also finds it significant that al-Suyûtî mentions the name of ‫مُجَاهِدْ بِنْ جَبْر‎, Abû Bakr Ibn Mujâhid (645-722 CE) only once and peripherally. Why is this significant? Because Ibn Mujâhid, born after the death of Muhammad, was, according to Arkoun, responsible for the final changes made to the Qur’an.

By the time al-Suyûtî conducted his analysis, Ibn Mujâhid’s “reforms” as Arkoun calls them, had become so normalized that they did not attract attention and, even for a highly-regarded scholar like al-Suyûtî, they did not warrant evaluation.

Besides Ibn Mujâhid’s reforms, the most significant event with regard to the Qur’an was, in Arkoun’s opinion, the publication in Cairo in 1924 of a standard edition of the Qur’an. From that moment forward, Arkoun writes, the text became intertwined with the problems of everyday life, treated as ahistorical and as an immediate and direct connection to the Word of God whether by government functionary, party activist, schoolteacher, writer, recent convert, or whomever.

He notes that, as late as 1969, when authorized representatives (by virtue of their religious roles or positions at universities) from all of Islam’s communities gathered, their unanimity on the Qur’an—be it on the question of reading strategies, of positions defended, or of ideas developed—was striking.

Even Shi’ites and Karijites, who agree on little else, harbored minimal disagreements with regard to the Qur’an. (Although the Qur’an garners unanimous support, the Hadith, or collected sayings of Muhammad, take different forms which divide Muslims.)

Thus, the Qur’an, the historicity of which has been largely set aside as a topic of reflection, continues to serve as the foundation for various forms of Arabic culture in conversation with the structures of the State and of an expanding society.

But, Arkoun argues, this reading of the Qur’an is based on the idea that each Sura corresponds to a textual unit whose origin can be traced to Muhammad’s Meccan or Medina periods. The truth, in his opinion, is much more complex, and requires study. Work, Arkoun asserts, is also needed on the chronology of the Suras and on the exegeses transmitted in the closed “official” corpus.

Though enough manuscripts and decisive works have been lost that definitive answers may never become available, for Arkoun, Islamic thought, so attached to reading the Qu’ran in its “fresh state of revelation,” can no longer ignore the fruits of historical inquiry.

What difference can such inquiries make? What’s at stake?

Arkoun offers the following example: the word kalâla is used only twice in the Qur’an. One reading of this word would allow wealth to be passed down to a daughter-in-law or a female fiancée. This reading, however, has been rejected in favor of an orthodox reading limiting rights of inheritance to male relatives.

Research on the system of inheritance in place in Arabia during the time of the Prophet in comparison to that of Iraq and Syria during the same period would show, Arkoun predicts, that interpretation of these passages by the first jurists was consistent with a system of inheritance not rigidly tied to the male line.

Arkoun places part of the blame for fixed readings of the Qur’an on Western translators. Intense interest in Islam has led to an acute demand for translations of the Qur’an in all languages. Editors, anxious to keep costs down, re-edit old translations or accept eclectic versions touted as “improved.” Although these offerings are conceived and executed as well as possible—they do not venture outside the limits of classical philology. Western translations thus do not challenge the accepted, orthodox understandings of the text.

If a translator of the Qur’an were to choose instead to pay attention to the historical, social, and cultural background of the text, he or she would need to develop, for each language, a way to capture cultural nuances, and to identify metaphors that correspond to Arabic metaphors. The reticence of linguists to engage in these efforts reinforces the long-standing hostility of Muslims to translations.

In contrast, the Biblical sayings of Jesus, who spoke Aramaic, were quickly rendered into Greek, then Latin, then in the 16th Century into German by Martin Luther and into English by William Tyndale. The Bible’s linguistic code changes with every new translation, Arkoun notes, and its cultural code changes as well, giving rise to new religious sensibilities and reinforcing a sense of the text’s historicity. Successive interpretations and re-interpretations of the Bible have provided space, he explains, for transformation and tension, and thus for reflection and investigation.

For now, according to Arkoun, intensive studies of the Qur’an are limited to descriptive and linear studies of thinkers like al-Suyûtî and their works, or to structural and semiotic analysis of the text.

In either case, areas of scholarship are being neglected. Arkoun calls for studies of the arc of Islamic consciousness in the Qur’an (whether mythical, historical, social, economic, political, philosophical, moral, esthetic, or religious), of the rational and the irrational, of the profane and the sacred, etc.—each, he holds, has a history that has not been explored for its own sake.

Arkoun points out that as long as the distinctions between myth and history, rationality and the imaginary are ignored, as he claims they are, the dominant current of Islamic thought can continue to assume that contemporary reason remains identical to the reason at work in the Qur’an and in the thought-world of the Prophet.

And then, as a result of overlooking important distinctions, the word kalâla, for example, which could be read to allow wealth to be passed down to a daughter-in-law or a female fiancée can continue, instead, to be rejected in favor of an orthodox reading limiting rights of inheritance to male relatives. Clearly this impacts the lives of millions of women.

Who knows what other distinctions with the potential of having a significant, positive impact on the lives of Muslims and non-Muslims could be discovered if research into the areas proposed by Arkoun were to take place.

Arkoun wrote his book on reading the Qur’an three decades ago and his conclusions could be outdated. If you are an expert on Islam, and the investigations for which he called in 1982 have occurred or are under way, please let us know!

Sources: Mohammed Arkoun, Lectures du Coran, Paris: G.-P. Maisonneuve et Larose, 1982.