An Anthropology of the Qur'an
Series: Routledge Studies in Religion
- ISBN: 9781003200321
- Published By: Taylor & Francis Group
- Published: November 2021
In An Anthropology of the Qur’an, Ahmed Achrati explores how the Quran frames representations of God and engagement with the divine. The central claim of his study is unconventional: Achrati argues that the understanding and representations of God within Islamic traditions not only contrast with, but in fact invert, the representation of God as framed in the Quran itself. Whereas Islamic authorities have traditionally emphasized God’s similitude to humans, Achrati contends that God is in fact characterized by an absolute alterity, captured in God’s name al-Quddūs (“the Pure,” “the Holy”). Al-Quddūs, for Achrati, signifies a conception of the divine that lies beyond the limits of human reason. An acknowledgment of God’s otherness therefore holds emancipatory potential, he argues.
With high readability and interdisciplinary erudition, Achrati sets out to establish this bold claim, leading the reader past the linguistic intricacy of the Quran and foundational theological debates in early Islam, to contemporary discussions on freedom and gender equality. Located at the nexus of linguistics and philosophy, Achrati’s argument invites readers of all backgrounds – laypeople, believers and scholars of Islam – to reflect critically on their understanding of the divine and on contemporary engagement with the Quran in Islamic Studies.
Achrati’s argument no doubt caters to the imagination, and he begins by establishing a firm analytical framework. The author’s point of departure is that, however heterogenous the Islamic community, all Muslims share a belief in God, as articulated in the shahāda (confession of faith). The representations of God’s oneness, or tawḥīd, are reflected in God’s ninety-nine names (Asmā’ Allah al-Ḥusnā), which have historically guided Muslims’ engagement with the divine. Although these names express human attributes, such as mercy and power, Achrati presents Quranic evidence to argue that human’s relation to God is not characterized by similitude, but rather by an “asymmetrical relationship in which the distance from Allah to men tends towards the infinitely small, while the écart [distance] from men to Allah tends towards the infinitely great” (4). For the author, al-Quddūs uniquely signifies this relation. The historical misrepresentation of God – “the inversion of al-Quddūs” (93) – resulted from the collapse of two distinct categories – the sacred and the divine: “Equating the sacred with the divine spelled the displacement of the Holy, and the emptying of al-Quddūs of its essential purity” (94).
In the book’s first ten chapters, Achrati attempts to lay bare how the Quran presents the otherness of God, and how this idea has been misconceived in Islamic tradition, due to the influence of Islam’s “tawḥīdic discourses” (69). He draws on a wide variety of interlocutors, including thinkers like Abu Hamid al-Ghazali and Voltaire, as well as contemporary scholars like Talal Asad and Roy Rappaport, to demarcate and problematize the categories of immanence, transcendence, and sacrality. He argues that historically, tawḥīdic discourses have privileged divine attributes like power and mercy and have identified these with “divine presence” (102). This association has influenced the way authority is understood in Islamic societies. Throughout the book, Achrati demonstrates an intimate knowledge of Arabic and the Quran, furnishing the book with poetic overtones and underscoring his linguistic expertise. In the book’s second part, Achrati suggests that restoring value to God’s marginalized attributes of otherness can radically transform our understanding of Islamic authority.
An Anthropology of the Qur’an covers a vast number of topics, and Achrati presents them with extremely clear prose and in an accommodating structure. This is the book’s main strength. Moreover, as much as his kind of engagement with the Quran could be regarded as old school within the discipline, Achrati’s approach feels fresh in the midst of the contemporary de-centering of the Quran in Islamic Studies.
But the book’s blessing is ultimately the book’s curse. From the chapter overview alone, it is clear that Achrati has an all-in mindset throughout. The amount of topics the author covers in this two-hundred-page book is impressive, but Achrati’s lack of analytical and disciplinary focus, together with his unorthodox line of argumentation, works to the absolute detriment of the book. When the stakes are high, so too are the losses. In light of the existential problems Achrati aims to tackle in the book, his analyses and conclusions are thin and insufficient.
For example, when Achrati talks about the “sacralization of political power” (100) within Islam, he notes that Muslims have often used God’s names to refer to themselves. He argues that by doing so Muslims presuppose not only “a divine investiture, but actual participation in divine Majesty (jalāl)” (100). Though thought-provoking, his analysis ends there, somewhat prematurely. Another example is when Achrati discusses the “semantics of water”, which he uses to describe the relation between God and humans as “a descent from the sky” and “its rise as mist” (88). But Achrati fails to provide a historical and empirical grounding to these distinctive claims, and instead predominantly stays within a linguistic realm of analysis. He draws alluring conclusions, but does little to embed them in convincing empirical analysis. The last four chapters of the book plainly disappoint, as Achrati conceptualization of the emancipatory potential he signals in restoring God’s alterity is, again, substantiated solely by linguistic argumentation. Overall, the result is a book which, although it purports to be an anthropology, in fact appears detached from lived religious experience in Islamic societies.
This relates to the question of Achrati’s audience. It is unclear whether Achrati addresses this book to an academic audience or to an audience of believers. Achrati does not actively engage with current scholars in Islamic Studies, but at the same time his argument is so labyrinthine that it is unlikely to resonate with the common believer. Caught in the middle, Achrati’s book reads like a preach, a personal statement that, although it draws on a great amount of literature, does not engage meaningfully with its interlocutors or audience. An Anthropology of the Qur’an is a poetic and passionate work, which’s claims deserve to be taken out of a solely linguistic context, taken out onto the streets, and be reflected against a lived Islamic reality.
Wytze J. Dijkstra is a graduate student in Islamic and Arabic studies at Utrecht University.Wytze DijkstraDate Of Review:March 27, 2023