Exploring the Qur'an

Context and Impact

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Muhammad Abdel Haleem
  • London, England: 
    I.B. Tauris
    , June
     2017.
     360 pages.
     $45.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781780763651.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The most recent work from Muhammad Abdel Haleem, Exploring the Qur’an: Context and Impact, advocates the importance of familiarity with Arabic and placing each verse in the broader framework of the Islamic sacred text. This book is largely a reaction against the approaches of two seemingly distinct groups. Haleem is critiquing the atomistic method of traditional Western qur’anic scholarship and the provocations for violence found in fundamentalist readings of the Qur’an. According to Haleem, the underlying issues in both approaches is that they focus on individual qur’anic verses or sections, without contextualizing these isolated textual units.

Haleem’s analysis of the Qur’an in this book is divided into three sections: Part I: Teachings, covers some of the more polemical issues in the Qur’an; Part II: Style, focuses on the qur’anic method of storytelling which stretches beyond an individual sura, or chapter; and Part III: Impact, looks at the effect of the Qur’an inside the Muslim world and also the significance of English translations.

Part I includes four chapters. Chapter 1 focuses on the so called “sword verse” (Q 9:5) used by extremists to justify violent action. Chapter 2 concentrates on the qur’anic presentation of jizya, or the tax issued for non-Muslim monotheistic communities (i.e., Jews and Christians) living under Islamic authority. Chapter 3 offers a thorough overview of the term and qur’anic definition of jihād. Chapter 4 looks at the way in which the Qur’an develops the concept of paradise: who will be admitted, and what their reward will be.

In this initial section, Haleem attempts to counter popular assumptions regarding the connection between the Qur’an and violence. In regard to the sword verse, which includes the oft-quoted qur’anic declaration, “slay the polytheists wherever you find them,” Haleem places it in the context of the larger sura and its initial historical environment. From this perspective, Haleem explains that the “verse simply makes the declaration that God and His Messenger are no longer bound by the treaty the enemy has broken, and gives this enemy a whole four months’ notice before hostilities began” (26). As a prescriptive, this “verse merely gives permission for the Muslims to fight or restrict their enemies’ movements, and then only those polytheists who have broken the treaty, not any other polytheists” (26).  Haleem argues that the verse is in reference to a specific historical situation and should not be used as broad justification for violence against those outside of the Islamic faith.

Context is also at the center of his discussion of jihād and its usage in the Qur’an. Haleem places the term in its textual setting to explain that his approach is “to deal with the subject on the basis of the Qur’an alone, on the basis of linguistic analysis of the text of the Qur’an itself, as a term which forms an important theme in the Qur’an” (49). From this perspective, there is a sustained case that jihād is individualized to specific situations of defensive action and is not part of a universal decree for all Muslims.    

To discuss the topic of the jizya tax, Haleem extends the conversation beyond a solely textual study and into the historical setting of the occasions of revelations (sabab al-nazūl). With this linguistic, textual, and historical analysis, Haleem argues that the jizya is “a very clear example of the acceptance of a multiplicity of cultures within the Islamic system” and supports his claim that one finds in the Qur’an “an excellent example of interfaith relationships, pluralism, and multiculturalism” (46). This is a robust assertion which is reflective of Haleem’s view of the Qur’an: one that he is attempting to defend against a perceived exegetical onslaught from fundamentalists and some in Western scholarship.         

Part II contains six chapters. They cover the following topics: Legal Style, Euphemistic Style, Narrative Style, Coherent Style, Evidential Style, and Rhetorical Style. Chapter 7, which reviews repeating stories in the narrative style shows that the story of Noah is indicative of the overarching textual analytic style advocated in this work. While each sura that references Noah is “a self-contained entity” (136), the telling of the Noah story is not repeated unnecessarily. The objective of the retelling of Noah’s experiences is to serve as a constant reminder to the qur’anic reader, offering lessons well beyond a simple reductionist view of punishment (140).    

Part III has three chapters, each of which looks at the influence of the text. One of the most noteworthy points in this section of the book appears in chapter 12, where Haleem provides a history of European translations of the Qur’an. The European approach to the Qur’an rests on the unproductive premise that it should be read, in content and form, like the Bible (251)—that is, as the Bible has been read by modern Protestant Christians. In the shadow of this assumption, Haleem takes us through the history of English translations of the Qur’an, beginning with Alexander Ross in 1649 and up to the 20th century translation by Arthur J. Arberry (252-67).    

Many of the topics covered in this work will appeal to the general reader and specialist alike. Haleem makes a strong case for an approach which places controversial and provocative verses in the setting of the overarching qur’anic narrative, but it is not entirely clear as to when analysis should be confined to a text and when it should be extended into a historical study. Nonetheless, there are many significant contributions in this book, including Haleem’s overview of the polemical approach of Western scholarship on the Qur’an and the value of a contextual reading.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Adam benShea is lecturer in the religious studies program at California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo.

Date of Review: 
October 26, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Muhammad Abdel Haleem is King Fahd Professor of Islamic Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and one of the world's leading authorities in Qur'anic studies. He is the author of Understanding the Qur'an: Themes and Style, also published by I.B.Tauris, and his major new translation of the Qur'an, with parallel Arabic text, was published in 2010.

Keywords: 

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