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The Qur'an: A Biography
Jan 1, 2008

The Qur’an: A Biography. Such a title would normally suggest a book that deals with the history of the revelation of Qur’anic verses. However, Bruce Lawrence, professor of Islamic Studies at Duke University, has something else in mind. Rather than giving us a history of Qur’anic revelations, he provides a history of Qur’anic interpretations. Certainly, it is not without reason. “Few books in history have been as important or as poorly understood as the Qur’an,” notes Professor Lawrence. According to him, one common misunderstanding among both Muslims and non-Muslims is the conviction that the verses of the Qur’an have had the same meaning throughout history to each and every Muslim. Lawrence argues that the Qur’an requires study and study entails interpretation. Thus, “while the Qur’an itself is a unitary, coherent source of knowledge, there is not a single Qur’anic message…Each interpreter must choose. Each must follow a principle of interpretation. No matter who the interpreter, no matter the time or place from which she or he looks at the Qur’an, certain themes, issue and accent will be selected and emphasized over others” (p. 13). Therefore, understanding the Qur’an and its influence on Muslims requires as much the study of the interpretations of the Qur’an as the study of the Qur’an itself. Consequently, Lawrence has undertaken to write a book that surveys the divergent interpretations of the Qur’an throughout history.

Lawrence first provides a summary of Prophet Muhammad’s life (peace be upon him) in chapters 1 and 2. In the following chapters, he offers succinct summaries of divergent interpretations of the Qur’an throughout history. Chapters 5 and 6 deal with examples of earlier interpretations of the Qur’an, by the Shi’ite scholar Jafar as-Sadiq and the Sunni Abu Jafar at-Tabari, respectively. The next two chapters cover rather mystic interpretations of the Qur’an. Chapter 8 surveys probably the greatest Islamic mystic Ibn al-Arabi, “a deep sea diver in the ocean of the Qur’an” (p. 109). Chapter 9 is about another mystic, Jalal ad-Din Rumi (or Mawlana), who sought to display the “everyday wonders” of the Qur’an in his Mathnawi. The last four chapters cover four different modern interpreters of the Qur’an. Chapters 11 and 12 deal with two Indian/Pakistani scholars. Ahmad Khan of chapter 11 offers an early rationalist (“militantly rationalist” in Lawrence’s words) critique of traditional interpretations in the face of Western intrusion into the Muslim world. By contrast, Muhammad Iqbal of chapter 12 makes a case for a redefined spiritual Islam in the late-colonial period and calls for revivification of moral Islamic values among Muslims. In chapter 13, the American interpreter W. D. Muhammad offers yet another interpretation that stresses racial equality more than anything else. Lastly, in chapter 14, Lawrence depicts the mind of the notorious Osama bin Laden, in whose interpretations military jihad takes precedence over all other issues. Lawrence argues that bin Laden “selects only those verses that fit his message, and then cites them exclusively for his own purpose” (p. 180).

In one unusual chapter (chapter 7), Lawrence portrays a Christian interpreter of the Qur’an, Robert of Ketton, who was the first person to translate the Qur’an into a Western language (Latin) in the twelfth century. An Englishman, Robert of Ketton moves to Toledo and becomes part of a Christian group that translates scientific texts from Arabic into Latin. He eventually finds himself heading a team project to translate the Qur’an into Latin. In a time of heated and continuous warfare between Christians and Muslims, Robert of Ketton takes a more noble way of engaging with Muslims. Islam was to be approached “not by arms, but by words; not by force, but by reason” (p. 100).

In an era when both adherents and critics of the Qur’an make claims as to what “real Islam” is, Bruce Lawrence’s survey of Qur’anic interpretations reminds us that all interpretations of the Qur’an are but partial representations that favor certain sections and meanings over others. In so doing, The Qur’an: A Biography becomes a friendly reminder that it takes more humility than most of us assume to understand and appreciate the richness of the verses of the Qur’an.

As a final note, for the more academic reader the book has a significant flaw. Although he provides a “further reading” list which includes most of the books he cites, except for the verses from the Qur’an, Professor Lawrence does not provide direct references for other quotes or opinions. I hope he will remedy this gap in a future edition.