Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

14 Mar 2014

How Do Modern Muslims Interpret the Qur'an?

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short introduction koranIslam is the second largest religion in the world, with approximately 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide. There are over 2.7 million Muslims in the United States. The percentage of Muslims in the U.S. population is projected to rise from 0.8% in 2010 to 1.7% by 2030. Yet most Americans, including Christians, are largely unaware of what Muslims believe and practice. This includes an ignorance of the Muslim holy book, the Qur’an. As part of a series of books by Oxford University Press (Very Short Introductions) intended to allow experts to help newcomers understand a variety of subjects, Michael Cook’s The Koran: A Very Short Introduction endeavors to alleviate some of that ignorance. Michael Cook is the Class of 1943 University Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. Cook has written several works on Islamic thought and culture and uses his expertise to create an accessible introduction to the Qur’an.

After an introductory section in which Cook addresses the concept of scripture and a brief overview of the history and message of the Qur’an, he offers a backwards historical look at the book. He begins with the modern world, looking at the dissemination of the Qur’an, its modern interpretation, and the concept of scripture in the modern world. In the next section, he notes the role of the Qur’an in the traditional Muslim world, with chapters on the Qur’an as codex, text, worship, truth, and an object of dogma. The final part discusses the formation of the Qur’an, highlighting its collection, its form during the life of Muhammad, and some lingering doubts and puzzles with the traditional accounts of the Qur’an’s history.

The book provides a quick and easily accessible look at the Qur’an. As the title suggests, the book is a great place to start for those who have little previous knowledge of the Qur’an. Evangelicals may be bothered at times by the comparisons between the Qur’an and the Bible (along with comparisons to the Vedas and the Pali Canon), since Cook treats all scriptures or “classics” as important but ultimately man-made works. Further, some may wish that he was more critical of the Qur’an. But Cook strives for a balance of addressing issues with the Qur’an while still respecting its place in the Muslim faith.

Cook’s discussion of Qur’anic commentators might be of particular interest to North American Christians. Since Muslims view the Qur’an as an authoritative message from Allah, they strive for its proper interpretation. However, the modern world and its values often stand in opposition to the traditional understanding of the Qur’an. To illustrate how modern Qur’anic commentators address the tension between the modern world and the text of the Qur’an, Cook highlights “three characteristic, historically Western values of the emerging global culture: a scientific world-view; a tolerant attitude towards the religious beliefs of others; and an acceptance of women as equals of men”; and provides examples of Muslim responses (28-29).

Scientific World-view

Some Muslims have attempted to make the Qur’an into a scientific textbook—similar to the way some Christians have treated the Bible—arguing that it anticipates scientific truths like the modern understanding of an expanding universe or embryology. While not all Muslims have tried to read science back into the Qur’an, they do have to wrestle with passages that seem to contradict modern science. In Q7:163-6 (also referenced in Q2:65), Allah is said to have punished some ancient Israelites for fishing on the Sabbath by changing them into apes. Though traditionally the passage was interpreted as an actual change of humans into monkeys, modern commentators have argued that the change is metaphorical. They appeal to Q35:43, which states that God does not change his custom, to argue that the fact that God is not currently changing men into monkeys means he did not actually do it in the past. “Thus our modern commentators are engaged in a very traditional exegetical game: playing off one authority against another to get the result they want” (31). Conservative and fundamentalist commentators have criticized these efforts to remove the miraculous elements in the Qur’an.

Tolerance of Other Beliefs

Traditionally, Muslims have treated those of other religions in light of two verses in the Qur’an, one (the “sword verse”) calling for their execution unless they convert (Q9:5) and the other allowing non-Muslims to take a second-class place in society and pay a special tax (Q9:29). The second verse was largely applied to Jews and Christians, though at times other religions were included in it. Modern commentators have emphasized a third verse that states there is no compulsion in religion (Q2:256). While this verse was largely explained away by traditional commentators (see pp. 101-2), “for modern-minded Muslims…the verse is literally a godsend, scriptural proof that Islam is a religion of broad and general toleration” (34). Again, conservative and fundamentalist commentators still argue for the legitimacy of fighting unbelievers or taxing them, depending on the situation.

Equality of Men and Women

The rise of the feminist movement in the West stands in stark contrast to the traditional roles of men and women in Muslim society. For example, in Q4:34 “two things are hard to deny: the verse endorses male dominance, and it sanctions it by according to the husband a right, among other things, to beat a rebellious wife” (37). While modern commentators do not deny the reality of male authority, they argue that the verse is narrowly focused on husband/wife relations and that women are capable of incredible feats. Ultimately, though, they defend the right of a husband to use physical punishment as a way of dealing with a rebellious wife—stating that many other societies maintain the same practice. However, this is only to be used as “a last resort” (39).

Thus far, these attempts to reconcile the Qur’an with the changing values of the Western world have not gained widespread acceptance. Though most Muslims still hold to the traditional views, Christians in the West should not be surprised to discover that some of their Muslim neighbors and co-workers have embraced these newer interpretations in order to make Islam more fitting in their culture. Whether or not these modern views could be sustained in a country with a majority Muslim population is still to be seen.