Reading Islam's holy book
In December 2015, then-candidate for the presidency Donald J. Trump announced his plan for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims” entering the country. This was not only a reflection of the deep influence that anti-Muslim pundits and advocacy groups had on the Trump campaign, but also a reminder of the fear that so many Americans have about Muslims—a fear upon which political candidates could capitalize.
In What the Qur’an Meant and Why It Matters, Garry Wills offers what he hopes can be a remedy to this fear: an invitation to pick up the Quran and read it, as he has done. Wills is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and a Catholic, famous for his historical biographies as well as books on cultural history and religion in America. In this book, he takes up a subject matter, Islam, with which he is admittedly less familiar.
After discussing how Americans’ fears of Islam were harnessed (and intentionally amplified) by the disastrous war in Iraq, Wills goes into the text of the Quran itself, drawing attention to what will be familiar to Catholics and other readers of the Bible. In the Quran, he encountered “stories I already knew,” those of Adam, Noah, Moses, Jesus, Mary and even John the Baptist. Wills also talks about what what surprised him and what he appreciates about it. “The overall tenor is one of mercy and forgiveness, which are evoked everywhere, almost obsessively.” At one point, he gives an extended discussion of one of the Quran’s recurring metaphors, water. “[Water] is the material thing nearest to God,” he writes.
Wills could have said the same thing of the Quran itself, which, for Muslims, is the closest thing to divine incarnation. The Quran, which is the Word of God for Muslims, does not play an analogous role to the Bible in Christianity; rather, the Quran’s role in Islam is comparable to that of Jesus in Christianity, who is the incarnate Word of God. While Wills focuses on the content of the text, he speaks far less of how the Quran as a whole fits in the broader religious life of Muslims. Just as the theological significance of Jesus is more that the summary of what he taught, the words of the Quran (whether they are printed on the page or recited aloud) are significant not only for what they might be interpreted to mean, but also that God spoke them at all. As the late Anglican bishop and scholar of Islam, Kenneth Cragg, writes, for Muslims, the Quran is like a sacrament. Thus, Qurans are holy objects, and hearing the recited Word is like being in the presence of the Eucharist.
For Muslims, the Quran is like a sacrament. Thus, Qurans are holy objects, and hearing the recited Word is like being in the presence of the Eucharist.
Throughout the book, Wills quotes the Quran extensively, not so much to lay out an argument but to illustrate what moved him in the text. Some of the passages that Wills brings up are my own favorites, about how God cares for us through the blessings of creation, like water, the sun and even sleep, and how creation is full of the “signs” through which God calls us to be grateful to him. At times, Wills offers beautiful summaries of Quranic themes, as when he writes, “If we look inward on ourselves, or outward to the stars, everything speaks of him [God]. Belief is just joining in the conversation.”
Addressing our biases
Early in the book, Wills admits to his readers that he has his own biases and stereotypes about Muslims and their faith. This is one of the most important statements Wills makes, because it gives license to readers to be honest about the prejudices that they likely also have. In taking the reader along his own journey into the Quran, Wills makes a concerted effort to challenge his own preconceived notions and those of his audience. In many cases, he succeeds, especially when debunking misinformed views about concepts like jihad and shariah. He skillfully reminds readers that both Christians and Muslims have things in our pasts and our present we should not be proud of, but that we also cannot blame each other’s entire religious communities and traditions for them.
Still, Wills sometimes falls into simplistic and stereotypical ways of talking about Muslims and their faith. His pithy one-liners often undermine his very real and commendable attempts elsewhere in the book to defend Muslims and to dismantle a monolithic view of them. At times he unintentionally leaves many common stereotypes about violence, misogyny, and intolerance intact or unknowingly contributes to them.
In taking the reader along his own journey into the Quran, Wills makes a concerted effort to challenge his own preconceived notions and those of his audience.
Some of the most important content in this book is not about the Quran but instead about the parallels between discrimination that targets Muslims in the United States today and that which Japanese-Americans faced during World War II. He crucially points out that the fear-mongering about Islam today recalls the obsession with communism in the mid-20th century. Wills also draws attention to the way that fear after Sept. 11, 2001, led to disastrous policies such as the Patriot Act and government-sanctioned torture.
An important part of this discussion, and of the whole book, is Wills’s explanation that Americans’ fear of Islam has, in many ways, been deliberately constructed. “What caused that fear? War…. In order to mobilize reaction to war conditions, threats from the foe must be emphasized, stating or overstating the peril….” Few Americans have considered this, and even fewer are aware that a well-funded network of bloggers and pundits deliberately spews anti-Muslim messages into U.S. public discourse and politics. I was pleased to see that Wills calls out this industry directly, naming names so his readers can identify these groups and figures. One voice that Wills mentions is Robert Spencer, the blogger and writer who helped contrive the controversy around the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque.” Spencer is just one of numerous Catholic writers working with anti-Muslim groups to produce misinformed and ill-intentioned content on Islam, for Catholic audiences in particular.
Learning from Muslims themselves
It is apparent that Wills really tried to do his homework, engaging with and citing numerous scholarly sources, including The Study Quran, a recently-released English translation with annotations and essays that I find invaluable in my own study of Islam.
But despite Wills’s rigorous research, What the Qur’an Meant could have benefited from a few more Muslim eyes on the manuscript—scholarly ones, and also those of non-expert, everyday practitioners. These Muslims would likely observe, as I did, that much of the subject matter Wills spends time on in the book is not actually at the fore of Muslim religious life or concerns. Wills’s lengthy discussion of plural marriage, for example, perhaps reflects his own curiosities, but it may leave readers thinking that issues like this loom larger in the daily and spiritual lives of Muslims than they actually do.
In his introduction, Wills asks if we must read the Quran. “We’d better,” he writes. But I would argue that learning about Islam must include much more than reading the Quran, and that it does not necessarily need to start there. The best learning happens through meeting Muslims, those who embody Islam in their daily lives. Before encouraging my fellow Catholics to read the Quran, I would encourage them to get to know Muslims, not just through face-to-face encounters but also on social media, where so many Muslim leaders and ordinary folks share their diverse perspectives. I am convinced that many of the stereotypical questions that non-Muslims have about Islam will not feel so pressing once we actually get to know Muslims and see how their faith is manifested in their lives.
Wills believes that picking up the Quran is the remedy to our fears of Islam. But the solution to confronting Islamophobia is not to pick up the Quran. As Wills does acknowledge, “actual acquaintance with the Qur’an failed to help me deal with Islam as other people perceive it…. What good was reading the Qur’an, then...?” Wills is on to something. Islamophobia is not simply a problem of religion. Islamophobia, a form of bigotry and racism, is a problem much deeper than ignorance of religious beliefs, and it won’t simply be done away with if we all learn more about Islam. Just as it would be misguided to think that reading the Torah would be the right first step (or any step) in addressing our anti-Semitism, so it is to wrong to think that reading the Quran is the place to start with addressing our Islamophobia.
Muslims do not read the Quran outside the context of their broader faith tradition (just as Catholics and other Christians do not read the Bible in a vacuum).
Still, many who are not Muslim want to read the Quran for reasons of spiritual edification or to learn about the spiritual lives of Muslims, and that is an admirable goal. Wills is short on tips for where to start, but there are some important things that first-time readers should know and consider before embarking on their own journey. At the outset, it is important to recognize that Muslims do not read the Quran outside the context of their broader faith tradition (just as Catholics and other Christians do not read the Bible in a vacuum). There is so much more to Islam and to the Quran than what is on the page, and without a window into the diversity of ways Muslims view and interpret the book, non-Muslim readers are going to come away with little more understanding of Islam than they had before opening it.
That is why an annotated Quran translation, or a version with introductory essays, is the best course of action for first-time readers. The Quran is not a series of narratives in chronological order, but a compilation of over 20 years’ worth of revelations that were communicated by God to the Prophet Muhammad. This means that cover-to-cover reading should not be the default course of action for those engaging the text. Readings in the Qur’an, by Kenneth Cragg, is an abridged translation that organizes verses thematically, and How to Read the Qur’an, by Carl Ernst, introduces non-Muslims to the ways Muslims interpret these revelations—with reference to the events occuring in the life of the Prophet and the early Muslim community. Ingrid Mattson’s The Story of the Qur’anis also a helpful place for understanding the place of the text in the lives of Muslims.
Wills writes that “fear is rarely a good guide.” And yet, he observes, fear often plays into the way that many non-Muslim Americans, including Catholics, approach Islam and Muslims. Despite the book’s shortcomings, Wills endeavors (and in many respects succeeds) to dial down that anxiety. In a time when many American Catholics fear Islam, and in a context where there is little Catholic writing on Islam that manages to be simultaneously accessible, thorough and charitable, Wills’s efforts are commendable.
This article also appeared in print, under the headline “Islam by the book,” in the March 5, 2018, issue.