Speaking Qur'an

An American Scripture

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Timur R. Yuskaev
Studies in Comparative Religion
  • Columbia, SC: 
    University of South Carolina Press
    , September
     2017.
     192 pages.
     $44.99.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781611177947.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In 2006, Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to the US Congress, decided to take a ceremonial oath with Thomas Jefferson’s copy of the Qur’an. A controversy ensued. Then and now, the idea that Islam, its followers, and its scriptures are fundamentally un-American and foreign is essential to the narrative of Islam’s critics. The Qur’an indeed originated in foreign lands and was revealed in a foreign language but so was the Bible. What then makes a scripture American? This is the question Timur R. Yuskaev strives to answer in Speaking Qur’an: An American Scripture. Yuskaev asserts that the Qur’an is an American scripture because American-Muslims “have made it so” (3). His book is an examination of how these Muslims do that. His main argument is that a scripture becomes American when it undergoes a process of cultural translation across time to “speak” to its adherents by resonating with their “common sense,” “collective memory,” and locally grounded realities (68).

Yuskaev acknowledges that Muslims across the ages, including Muslims enslaved in North America, have reinterpreted the Qur’an to make sense of their present realities. Enslaved Omar Ibn Said (1770-1864), for example, rendered the Qur’anic concept Al mulkas “Sovereignty,” a term that perhaps spoke to his situation and was consonant with the discourses of his African-American contemporaries (5). 

To examine Muslim America’s cultural translation of the Qur’an, Yuskaev focuses on the period bracketed by two historically defining moments—the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 and the atrocities of 9/11/2001. The first dramatically changed the demographics of both the US and Muslim America; the second resulted in Muslim hypervisibility, with Muslims becoming America’s newest “problem people.” Yuskaev argues that this cultural translation occurred in a three stage “progressive spiral” fashion. First, immigrant scholars engaged the Qur’an to extract “normative Islam”; then, their diverse students and readers worked on this “normative Islam” to formulate interpretations that spoke to their American context. This then enabled them to speak on issues of global import as American-Muslims rather than “as generic ‘normative’ Muslims” (22). 

In his introductory chapter, Yuskaev lays out his approach to exploring this “progressive spiral” of cultural translation through ethnographic fieldwork, examining the discourses of prominent Muslims, and exploring cultural concepts such as time, justice, redemption, and politics. He draws on theories from rhetoric, history, memory studies, and religion in public life to elucidate the historically and culturally grounded conceptualization of these terms. Though he strives to keep “theory under the surface” of his analysis (4), the historical understanding and the contemporary articulations of these concepts are front and center as they frame the four main chapters. Yuskaev notes that even where there is a historical equivalent, modern people “sense” and understand these concepts differently. In each chapter, he explores a concept through a prominent American-Muslim public intellectual’s discourse. The four intellectuals are chosen for their diverse background and for their intellectual and “practical orientation” (8). He examines how Fazlur Rahman (1919-1988), a Pakistani-American academic, examined time; how Amina Wadud (b. 1952), an African-American feminist academic/activist, spoke and wrote about gender justice as a natural extension of the Qur’an’s egalitarian message; how imam Warith Deen Mohammed (1933-2008), who transitioned the majority of Nation of Islam followers to Sunni Islam, grounded African-American redemption in the Qur’anic message; and how Hamza Yusuf (b. 1960), a popular white convert scholar, engaged in a double critique of modernity and the cultural politics of the West, and of Muslims using Qur’anic concepts.

In their written and spoken discourses, these intellectuals examine the socio-cultural-historical context of revelation and extract lessons from the Qur’an. Rendering these lessons in a language of principles and ethics, they exhort American-Muslim audiences to “sense” and embody these ethics. This “double movements” method in engaging the Quran, which Yuskaev credits Rahman with introducing in the US, is employed by Rahman’s students and others. This method makes original interpretation (ijtihad) “inescapable” and rethinking “the nature of time and history” necessary (31). It enables the Qur’an to “speak” to the collective memory of American-Muslims and builds a “deep, felt-in-the-bones connection” with the Qur’an (68).

Many American scholars, including Muslim ones like Amina Wadud, Ingrid Mattson, and Asma Barlas, have written about the Qur’an. Yuskaev draws on these scholarly discourses but aims to contribute to “the ongoing shift towards the examination of sacred texts as they are lived and embodied by human beings” and he succeeds in this (4). Because each of his case studies is meant to illustrate the cultural translation of the Qur’an, he at times seems to belabor his point. Additionally, the focus on the four intellectuals leaves out previous discourses and counter-discourses that are in dialogue with them. 

 Though the author strives to reflect the diversity of American-Muslim thought by having immigrant, African-American, and female voices, they are all Sunni Muslims, a limitation he regrets. Adding Sayyid Hussein Nasr, an academic Shi’i American-Muslim public intellectual contemporary of Rahman would have enriched the analysis. Yuskaev mentions Nasr in passing, noting that where Rahman’s influence was amplified by his university students, Nasr participated in Muslim conferences and his spoken and written discourse is widely circulated. Nasr’s influence is exemplified by his most recent contribution, The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary (Harper Collins, 2015), to the quintessentially American genre of scriptural studies. For this, Nasr assembled an editorial team of American-Muslim academics tasked with combining diverse historical interpretations and commentaries, then invited diverse Muslim public intellectuals to pen fifteen essays on pressing contemporary issues. The goals were to help Americans of all backgrounds gain deeper insights into the Qur’an, and to make the insights resonant with, and relevant to, Muslim-Americans. These few limitations notwithstanding, the book is accessible to a broad audience and is an important and timely contribution to Islamic and religious studies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Muna Ali is Visiting Researcher at the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University.

Date of Review: 
June 22, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Timur R. Yuskaev is associate professor of contemporary Islam at Hartford Seminary, where he coedits the Muslim World journal and directs programs training American Muslim religious professionals, chaplains, and imams. 

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