The National Catholic Review
'The Study Quran' in Advent

Cambridge, MA. Ironically, sadly, just when Donald Trump wants to close the door on Muslims, Pope Francis was opening the holy door in St. Peter’s Basilica, insisting that divine mercy is never a closed door. Indeed, as he insisted back in April when he announced the Holy Year of Mercy, this is truth shared widely with Jews, Muslims and people of other faiths. After offering a strong affirmation of God’s mercy in Jewish tradition, he turned to Islam:

Among the privileged names that Islam attributes to the Creator are ‘Compassionate and Merciful.’ This invocation is often on the lips of faithful Muslims who feel themselves accompanied and sustained by mercy in their daily weakness. They too believe that no one can place a limit on divine mercy because its doors are always open.

So let us begin there, with the first words of the Quran itself: “In the name of God (Allah), the Compassionate (al-Rahman), the Merciful (al-Rahim” (1.1). These words open every chapter of the Quran except one, the ninth (“Repentance, al-Tawbah), which speaks of repentance but also of fierce contest with idolaters; more on that difficult chapter another day. Here, in the very first chapter, the next verses echo the same theme: “Praise be to God, Lord of the worlds, the Compassionate, the Merciful” (1.2-3).

The Study Quran— a wonderful Christmas gift for studious friends and family in all its magnificent 2,000 pages—invites us to simply read the chapters of the Quran itself, or to ponder any given verse with commentary, or, as I have begun to do, also to look into the 57 page index, to follow a word across the many chapters. But surely the basic point is simple: right from the first verses of the first chapter we begin to learn much about God’s compassion and mercy. We are confronted with it, surprised by it, drawn into it. This is a core truth of Islam, repeated over and over, and neither the bigoted nor the violent can obscure the fact.

The first chapter of the Quran is only seven verses long, but the commentary in The Study Quran extends for nearly seven pages, and is full of insights for beginners like myself. “God, the Compassionate, the Merciful:” the divine essence (Allah, God), the unity of all divine attributes (Compassionate), and the unity of divine acts (Merciful). “The Compassionate” is a divine name that no other can bear, since “it connotes the Loving-Mercy by which God brings forth existence.” “The Merciful” indicates “the blessing of nourishment by which God sustains each particular being.” Compassion is like the sun, mercy is the ray of sunshine warming and vivifying every given thing on earth. The first (Compassion) brings the world into being, the second (Mercy) “is that by which God shows Mercy to those whom He will, as in 33.43, ‘And He is Merciful unto the believers,’” enabling them to endure as they were created to be. And that Mercy is, in turn, the wellspring of other Divine Names: the Kind, the Clement, the Beautiful.

We learn later on, in 21.107, that the Prophet Mohammed is sent by God as an act of mercy: “And We sent thee not, save as a mercy unto the worlds.” The commentary here explains the subtlety of the Arabic: “The grammar of the verse allows it to be understood to mean either that the sending of the Prophet Mohammed was a merciful act by God or that the Prophet is himself a mercy that God sent. It can signify that the Prophet is a possessor of mercy, is merciful, or is himself a mercy.” This is, the comment continues, a manifestation of the mercy to which the Law tends, and a mercy for all, the whole “world,” and not just believing Muslims. Even those who do not believe in the Prophet experience his mercy, which wards off doom even from those who reject him; he will intercede for all, on the Day of Judgment.

And finally—I cannot go on too long—this mercy brings peace and harmony to men and women, who find their partners by divine mercy: “And among His signs is that He created mates for you from among yourselves, that you might find rest in them, and He established affection and mercy between you” (30.21). This, we are told in the commentary, is “an address to both men and women, telling of the manner in which God has extended His own Love and Mercy to them through the love and mercy that they manifest toward one another.” One could continue tracing "the Merciful" for a long time; God is invoked this way well over 100 times in the Quran (or so my counting in the index suggests).

The comments are, we are told, drawn from the 41 traditional commentaries listed at The Study Quran’s beginning. One thousand five hundred years of wisdom across the bottom of the page. Like most of you reading this, I cannot go and check those original sources for myself, but it seems that the illuminations of every word of every verse are rooted in the consensus of a long lineage of earlier readers. We do not read the Quran on its own, but with those who have gone before us. Is this not the Catholic faith, too?

And, as I have just shown, mention of the opening of the Holy Door of Mercy by Pope Francis, seen by him to be an act that will resonate with Jews and Muslims and believers in other traditions, has opened easily, smoothly, into these passages from across the Quran. The Study Quran makes it so very easy for us to meditate on God’s mercy, the reality that shames and extinguishes hatred among people of different faiths. In the same declaration I cited at the start of this post, Pope Francis makes an appeal for a Merciful Encounter among believers, the very opposite of fear and discrimination, hatred and violence against the outsider:

I trust that this Jubilee year celebrating the mercy of God will foster an encounter with these religions and with other noble religious traditions; may it open us to even more fervent dialogue so that we might know and understand one another better; may it eliminate every form of closed-mindedness and disrespect, and drive out every form of violence and discrimination.

Granted, his words do not, and my words certainly will not, suffice suddenly to change the reckless tone of our politics and extinguish the international infatuation with violence. Last night, I listened to a moving conversation at the Harvard Divinity School, with Pastor Dr. James Movel Wuye and Imam Dr. Muhammad Nurayn Ashafa, as part of the H.D.S. Religions and the Practice of Peace initiative. These courageous figures have opened doors to reconciliation between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, and their work is more immediately important than the study we do. But learning, study, teaching are fundamental to living faith in any tradition, part of the human race’s spiritual DNA, essential to our survival in a world that spirals downward when ignorance prevails. Pray, study and act.

(Note to readers: I haven’t forgotten my intention to offer reflections on Mary and Jesus, as seen through this Study Quran. But going slowly here, too, is a help, and in either the next post or the one thereafter, I will take up that theme.)


Guillermo Reyes | 12/13/2015 - 9:07am

Readers might be interested to know that the book was made possible, in part, by the financial support of College of the Holy Cross (Jesuit) in Worcester, MA and George Mason University, the largest public research university in Virginia

Wish I had the time to read it so I look forward to Fr Clooney's series

Gracias Padre!

William Rydberg | 12/13/2015 - 11:53am

If such is the case, in my opinion these articles more approprately belong under book review...

Beth Cioffoletti | 12/12/2015 - 9:49am

I'm in. I have just ordered the STUDY QURAN for my own Xmas present to myself. Thanks, Fr. Clooney. Please keep this slow study session going.

Richard Murray | 12/12/2015 - 2:34am

Dear Fr. Clooney,

Thank you for your wonderful articles, and for alerting us to this excellent new edition of the Qur’an.

You have spoken here of Surah 1. It happens to have many points contact with Psalm 1. Both speak of the right path, the wrong path, the Day of Judgment, and more shared vocabulary and realities. How did this happen? And why? Is it a coincidence?

It turns out that the Zabur of Dawood (the Psalms of David), which is mentioned 3 times in the Qur’an, has deep and mystical connections to the very architecture of the Qur’an.

For example, the 114 Surahs of the Qur’an have direct parallel relationships with the first 114 Psalms. This is astonishing.

Within each Surah (chapter) of the Qur’an there are multiple Ayat (verses, signs). Surah 2 has the most verses (Ayat), with 286.

Remarkably, similar to the Surah-Psalm relationship, there is a Ayah-Psalm relationship. Each Ayah (verse) has a parallel, direct relationship with the Psalm of the same number. (Some of these relationships are quite clear, others may not be easy to see, or even present. It does not need to be 100% uniform for the mystical reality to exist, perhaps.) Also, I have not nearly concluded my study of this, and I don’t know Arabic yet.

However, something is definitely happening, between the Psalms and the Qur’an.

Initial writing about it is this brief essay:

And downloadable:

Currently I’m writing my initial work about the Psalms, and mystical structures hidden within them, structures which are quietly alluded to by Christians, including St. Antony of Egypt, St. Teresa of Avila, her friend St. John of the Cross, and also the Jesuit San Roberto Bellarmino, to name only four of the dozens, or more, who may be aware of these mystical realities.

Also, most of the authors of the New Testament are conscious of these realities. St. John builds the mystical Ladder before our eyes using numbers, in a hidden way. When the Holy Family is in the temple with the Prophetess Anna, St. Luke gives us the numerical formula-key that generates the angels’ flight on the Ladder.

The Qur’an speaks about these mystical realities even more than the New Testament does. For example, the Qur’an speaks repeatedly about angels moving between Heaven and Earth, and speaks of Ladders connecting Heaven and Earth.

Here is a link to the first chapter of the draft about the Mystical Psalm Structures:

Thank you, and I would be grateful for your thoughts, criticism, and suggestions.
(Also, I think I should send you an email.)

PJ Johnston | 12/12/2015 - 12:06am

Thank you for this reflection (and the one preceding it, for that matter). I've been reformatting my Intro/Indian Religions course to focus more on minority traditions such as Indian Islam and Christianity, and have been looking for a good resource on the Qur'an to go with Carl Ernst's excellent work on South Asian Islam. This seems like exactly the kind of reference I had in mind. It's a little on the expensive side, but when I passed on your America post to friends in the field (something I do from time to time), someone took your "Christmas gift for friends" suggestion seriously and mailed an anonymous copy to my house, making it considerably more affordable! I hope with sensitive teaching of Islam becoming increasingly important due to all the prejudice and misinformation in society today, more resources of this kind become available. Thanks for the tip!

William Rydberg | 12/11/2015 - 5:30pm

Sort of like a high school book report?

William Rydberg | 12/11/2015 - 3:12pm

I am trying to understand the amount of time that you employed in researching this subject, as well as the amount of real-life due diligence you employed on the subject generally, outside of reading this document. I understand that you can't get all the information out in a few columns and that you appear to be a Scholar, can I assume you applied rigorous method?

But I was wondering, to what extent have you run this by your own Jesuit Order's Missiology Experts? Also, I was wondering if you had any authoritative feedback with the Roman Rite and non-Roman Rite Uniate Catholics who live in the Middle East regions, like Chaldeans, Maronites, Coptic, etc.., or Diocesan in Pakistan, or even India or Indonesia? Are they on Board with the content. Or is this the result of a course that you are taking? Please elaborate.

In any event, what you are writing is very interesting to a lot of the readership, no doubt.

I know that you have said that your specialty is Hinduism, have you spent years in the region?

Looking forward to your next writing in the series...

PJ Johnston | 12/12/2015 - 1:08am

This is more of a secondary or tertiary area of research for me, but if you're interested in good (but readable) specialist works on South Asian Islam, you could do worse than looking up the work of Carl Ernst. His website is here: Anything by Richard Eaton is also good, but much less accessible.

It's a shame that most people think of the Middle East and violent political conflict when they think of Islam, because the Muslims of the Middle East are together about 20% (a minority) of the world's Muslim population and South/South Asia together are closer to two-thirds. There are marginal exceptions in some of the modern reformist movements, but traditional S/SE Asian Islam is basically about Sufism, peaceful expansion through new agricultural technologies and maritime trade, cultural accommodation to a highly pluralistic religious environment, and so forth - the image of jihad and terrorism is pretty much completely out of place. This has traditionally been true in the Middle East as well, but 19th and 20th century anti-colonial movements and the legacy of CIA-funded madrasas which advanced a jihad interpretation of Islam in order to combat the Soviets have done nobody any favors.

If you like documentaries, you might enjoy William Dalrymple's documentary on Sufi music ( or his reflection on an older pattern of religious cooperation in the Middle East and South Asia which was upended in the last century as the British Empire dissolved into chaos (

Francis X. Clooney | 12/11/2015 - 4:29pm

Mr Rydberg: You raise some excellent points about what would have to go into a fuller, authoritative treatment of Islamic-Christian relations. As my posts make clear, my work here is to show what can be gained by close reading of the new Study Quran - a reading that, while not the total of the work to be done, is part of it. As for my work on Hinduism, please check my CV, which is at my Harvard University website. FXC

William Rydberg | 12/11/2015 - 5:32pm

You ought to advise your Editors accordingly. The showcase on the website splash is misleading in my opinion...

Chuck Kotlarz | 12/11/2015 - 12:31pm

Syrians perhaps could improve our lifestyle. The US suicide rate runs over thirty times higher than Syria. More Americans die from suicide than traffic accidents. The US mortality rate from alcohol runs over 40 times more than Syria. The US mortality rate from drugs runs more than 200 times higher than Syria. Syria is over 90% Muslim.

Guillermo Reyes | 12/13/2015 - 9:21am

I have said many times that the USA should welcome more refugees to improve our nation on many fronts.

We lack a positive cultural πνεῦμα / pneuma / spirit and our collective ψυχή / psyche / soul is killing our people: we are a world leader in cancer, heart disease, obesity, metabolic disorders / Type II Diabetes, dependence on psychiatric medications and mental illnesses

America has become a very physically and morally sick nation. I take no pride in the recent increase of rates of ill health, most at our own hand