Interview: Carl W. Ernst on How to Read the Qur’an

Carl W. Ernst is William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author, most recently, of How to Read the Qur’an: A New Guide, with Select Translations. This book offers a compact introduction and reader’s guide for anyone, non-Muslim or Muslim, who wants to know how to approach, read, and understand the text of the Qur’an. In this interview, Ernst explains why a nontheological approach is helpful in understanding one of the world’s major religious texts.

Update 1:30 pm: Tune in to WUNC’s “The State of Things” this Wednesday, 12/7, at noon EST to hear Ernst’s conversation with host Frank Stasio. Listen online at http://wunc.org/programs/tsot/.

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Q: In your introduction, you quote an early Muslim leader who observed that ″The Qur’an does not speak, but it does require an interpreter.″ Can you please expand on how that concept is important to anyone studying the Qur’an?

A: The point is that the Qur’an, like any other text, is subject to interpretation and multiple points of view. A lot of people just want to know what the Qur’an “says” on particular subjects, assuming that it has a completely homogeneous and consistent position on every issue. But the reality is that the Qur’an addresses different audiences and changes its method of communication over the period of its delivery. So one needs to understand its historical context and the way it is constructed.

Q: What sets your book apart from other introductions to the Qur’an?

A: Most introductions to the Qur’an are subject-oriented, seeking to find consistent legal or theological doctrines that function authoritatively for believers; many studies of the Qur’an are also highly technical and use specialized vocabulary. This book takes instead a non-theological, literary approach. It looks at the Qur’an from a pre-canonical point of view, seeing the text from the viewpoint of its first audience as it unfolded over time. A chronological reading of the 114 suras of the Qur’an, from the earliest Meccan suras to the last Medinan suras, shows how the Qur’an interacted with its audience through revision and later insertions into early passages. All this is presented in clear language without specialized academic terminology.

Q: What are some obstacles to reading the Qur’an? How does this book help eliminate some of those obstacles?

A: The first obstacle to reading the Qur’an is the widespread anxiety about its very existence, both among secularists (who find any religious revelation unacceptable) and conservative religious groups (who are offended by a revelation that they consider false). This anxiety has even led to some semi-scholarly conspiracy theories, which fantasize about debunking the Qur’an in the style of The Da Vinci Code. But if one sets aside these theological positions to open up a historical inquiry into this very important text, similar to the study of the Bible as literature, it turns out to have fascinating connections to a shared religious history.

The next obstacle is that the last parts of the Qur’an to be delivered are located at the beginning of the book, which makes it very difficult for a newcomer to understand the text by starting on page 1; it’s sort of like reading a mystery novel by starting with the last chapter. The chronological reading proposed in this book, beginning with the earliest suras which are located at the end of the Qur’an, provides a much more intelligible perspective.

Q: You state that without context, the Qur’an is grossly misinterpreted. What are the benefits of reading it properly? And, who needs to learn to read it properly?

A: One of the major misinterpretations assumes that the Qur’an can be understood by taking a few isolated lines out of context and assuming that the most extreme interpretation of those lines somehow rules the lives of Muslims. Instead of beginning with a hostile attitude, if the reader instead tries to understand the original audience, the developing styles, and the key arguments of the Qur’an, it can then be examined from a humanistic and social perspective as part of the global heritage of humanity. My book aims to make it possible for educated people to go beyond the position of ill-informed hostility and actually learn something about the Qur’an as a text.

Q: How would you define your overall approach to reading the Qur’an? What makes it effective?

A: My approach is both literary and historical, not theological; my aim is understanding and explanation rather than advocacy or attack. The book’s main strengths are the chronological reading of the Qur’an in the order of its delivery, exploration of inter-textual connections with earlier writings, and explanation of ring composition as a way of discovering the central messages of the Qur’an. The most practical feature of the book is the way in which it breaks down the Qur’an into the “building blocks” of its composition; this is illustrated by appendixes that outline the structure of many suras and provide exercises for the use of classes or study groups.

Q: You mention that ″the central messages of the Qur’an are embedded in its structure.″ What are some of the structural features, and why are these features so significant?

A: Like many other ancient writings, including the Hebrew Bible and Homer’s Iliad, the Qur’an displays what scholars call ring composition, or symmetrical structure. This means that in individual units of the Qur’an (the 114 suras or chapters), there is often a symmetry between the beginning and end of the text, frequently with multiple parallel steps, and at the center of the ring is the main message. What is especially striking is the frequency of central messages that emphasize religious pluralism as a key principle of the divine plan for humanity. While these central points recognizing pluralism occur amidst historical circumstances of religious conflict, it is nevertheless significant that these broad principles clearly have such an important position.

Q: How does the Qur’an fit into the history of Western civilization? By understanding the Qur’an’s role in these Western histories, do you find that the Qur’an is a more accessible read?

A: Theological barriers have predisposed many Euro-Americans to assume that the Qur’an is a foreign text that is simply wrong when it differs from the Bible, or else derivative and inferior when it resembles it. But what is fascinating is the extent to which the Qur’an was clearly aimed at an audience that knew a lot about biblical and other writings. The Qur’an contains strong references to (and revisions of) important texts from the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the Talmud, and later so-called apocryphal writings. Following up these inter-textual connections makes it clear that the Qur’an is part of a shared religious history of prophecy and revelation.

Q: How does this book engage with the current religious and political context of understanding the Qur’an?

A: While this book is primarily an exploration of the text of the Qur’an, the introduction and conclusion frame the question of understanding the Qur’an in terms of current debates. The primary audience for this non-theological presentation consists of non-Muslims who are curious about how the Qur’an can be understood. But there are also religious readers who will be interested in its implications, including Christians and Jews who are open to thinking about the scriptural connections of the larger Abrahamic tradition. And there will also be Muslim readers who will be intrigued by a new kind of literary and historical analysis of their sacred text.

Q: Why did you include new translations of 725 Qur’anic verses? Why did you choose these verses, and how do these translations further elucidate the Qur’an for the reader?

A: I saw my task in this book as providing a new way to read the Qur’an, and that could not have been accomplished by simply producing a brand-new translation of the complete text. But it was also necessary to produce new translations of key sections, such as the discussion of the so-called “Satanic verses” in relation to sura 53, the treatment of Christian and Near Eastern narratives in sura 18, or the verses on the People of the Book in the later Medinan suras. My new translations clarify the literary structure of the Qur’an which can offer a model for reading other passages that are not translated here. The style is informal and direct, frequently arranged on the page in ways that facilitate understanding.

Q: Lastly, what do you hope to accomplish by publishing this guide?

A: My main hope is to be able to raise the level of discussion beyond the current impasse, which leaves the average reader in frustrated incomprehension about a text that has had a major impact on the world’s history and culture. By giving the reader the tools of the best modern scholarship, in a straightforward and direct style without scholarly jargon, I hope to make it really possible for people to read the Qur’an.

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