Excerpt: How to Read the Qur’an, by Carl W. Ernst

How to Read the Qur’an: A New Guide, with Select Translations, by Carl W. Ernst, 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 the following excerpt, Ernst explains the usefulness of approaching the Qur’an as a literary and historical text, not just a religious one.

From How to Read the Qur’an (pp. 20-22):


The Qur’an is most frequently approached as a religious text that makes authoritative claims, which are to be either rejected or accepted. Certainly there are religious contexts where such an approach makes sense, whether it be in Muslim circles where reinforcement of Islamic religious teachings is the aim or in non-Muslim religious groups where the message of the Qur’an is fiercely opposed. Yet there are other ways of approaching the Qur’an as a literary text embodied in concrete historical situations; it is the argument of this book that situating the Qur’an in history with literary analysis is the most appropriate method both for the modern university and for the emerging global sphere of public culture.

The historical approach to religion as developed in modern universities, particularly in North America, is a way of addressing religious pluralism without either establishing or rejecting any particular form of religion. The university constitutes a public space in which everyone may take part, and the discussion of religion can be carried out by anyone without having to pay the price of a precommitment to any particular religious persuasion. In the academy, it is no longer acceptable (outside of explicitly religious schools) to quote one particular scriptural position as authoritative and beyond question. The proliferation of multiple religious views in modern society makes such an imposition impractical at best—at worst it is a tyrannical dream. Similarly, in the wider public arena, despite the existence of groups intent on imposing their own sectarian dogmas on society, it is increasingly possible for people to come to a positive appreciation of the religious views of others. Such a positive appreciation differs from the grudging acceptance known as tolerance, which only puts up with hated and distrusted others out of necessity. This is not to prejudge the outcome of a historical and literary reading of the Qur’an, but it is my observation that many people today have a genuine curiosity to understand the wellsprings of the religious beliefs of others. A historical and literary approach at least offers the prospect of a fair-minded and reasonable approach to other people’s religions, which is why such a method seems both attractive and necessary today.

It might be argued that the Qur’an does not envision the possibility of a nonbeliever understanding the scripture of Islam. Indeed, being a rejecter of God’s message is in effect the definition of disbelief. Qur’anic rhetoric treats the divine revelation as so transparently true that only willful disobedience could inspire its rejection. In a frequently repeated image, recalling the biblical language of God “hardening the heart” of Pharaoh, the Qur’an refers to God “putting a seal” on the hearts of unbelievers. “As for the unbelievers, it is the same for them if you warned them or you did not warn them; they do not believe. God has sealed their hearts and their hearing, and upon their sight there is a darkening; theirs is a great punishment” (2:7). At the same time, however, the Qur’an alludes to the possibility of non-Muslims—in this case, Christian monks—being deeply moved by the recitation of the text: “When they hear what was sent down to the messenger, you will see their eyes overflow with tears from that part of the truth that they recognize” (5:83). Admittedly, the Qur’an also envisions these monks proclaiming their faith and their status as witnesses of the revelation, so this ends up being a more or less triumphalist statement about the truth of the Qur’an. But the academic study of religion is necessarily something that stands apart from the endorsement of any particular religious message. What characterizes the academic approach is the application of humanistic and social scientific methodologies to the subject at hand; the scholarly analysis and reframing of a topic is different from the mere replication of its claims to authority.

Yet in another sense the Qur’an does offer a warrant for non-Muslims needing to understand the revelation. In a very profound sense, the Qur’an carries with it a recognition of the inevitable pluralism and multiplicity of humankind. “For everyone we have established a law, and a way. If God had wished, He would have made you a single community, but this was so He might test you regarding what He sent you. So try to be first in doing what is best” (5:48). If the existence of multiple religious groups is, as it were, part of the divine plan from a Muslim perspective, what conclusions may be drawn? Either non-Muslims must commit to endless (and ultimately insoluble) conflict with Muslims, or some kind of overlapping consensus or mutual recognition has to be worked out. Like it or not, non-Muslims will have their own perspectives on the Qur’an and the Islamic tradition, and the Qur’an does not appear to admit the possibility of the Islamic equivalent of evangelizing all humanity. It seems to me that an academic approach based on history and literature offers an important nontheological alternative to the implacable hostility and prejudice against Islam, which is such a prominent characteristic of the current climate of opinion in America and Europe.


From How to Read the Qur’an: A New Guide, with Select Translations, by Carl W. Ernst. Copyright © 2011 by Carl W. Ernst. Published by the University of North Carolina Press.

Carl W. Ernst is William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Visit the Facebook page for How to Read the Qur’an. Ernst is also author of Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World.