Studying the Qur'an in the Muslim Academy

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Majid Daneshgar
AAR Reflection and Theory in the Study of Religion
  • Oxford: 
    Oxford University Press
    , December
     200 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In his latest book, Studying the Qur’ān in the Muslim Academy, Majid Daneshgar sets out to cast the spotlight on methods and priorities in the study of the Qur’an within what he describes as “the Muslim academy.”

The Introduction maps out core arguments of his book. Daneshgar identifies Muslim apologetics as the device used to ensure that “Muslims are not given access to critical non-Muslim writings about the Qurʾān and Islam while guaranteeing that a customary sectarian divide insulates Sunnis and Shiʿi from each other’s ideas and works” (2).

In chapter 1, the author provides further detail in support of his arguments. He categorizes Muslim study of the Qur’an and Islam in three types: apologetic, designed to shore up Islamic identities and values against perceived threats; more neutral, carefully avoiding contentious or taboo areas; and critical, targeting alternative sectarian groups in Islam or Western scholarship on the Qur’an.

Daneshgar observes that western scholars in Muslim contexts often play the game too:

[T]he publications of American and European scholars . . . based in Arab academic contexts demonstrates that, up to now, none of them has produced any study of the origin and early period of Islam, nor of related topics that are likely to prove controversial, to say the least, in their place or country of work. Many of them instead produce ‘neutral’ works, dealing with safe, or even ‘approved’ topics, that address contemporary debates on Islamic law and the Shariʿa, Islamic finance and education, Muslims in Europe, etc. (24)

Daneshgar proceeds to argue that “the study of Islam in Muslim academic contexts largely follows the agenda of Islamic traditional schools (madrasa, hawza, and pondok)” (49). He points to taboo questions that cannot be asked in Muslim academic circles: “Outside the academic context and in the private sphere, over which the authorities have less control, people argue that Muhammad loved the wife of his son. . . . Such ideas are scarcely heard among academics in universities” (65).

The author’s impressive breadth of scholarship is showcased by his engagement with issues relating to biblical studies, as well as with Islam in South and Southeast Asia, regions which are blind spots for most Arab and Iranian scholars of Islam. Daneshgar argues that there is little or no effort by Muslim scholars of the Bible to show how biblical scholars view their own sacred texts, preferring instead to Islamize the biblical literature and “de-Biblicize” Islamic sources.

Daneshgar also casts a critical eye on Sunni and Shi’a censorship of each other, devoting considerable discussion to a very perceptive and valuable focus on “the sectarian study of Islam” (75ff). He then considers the Arabizing of Islamic studies beyond the Middle East, using Southeast Asia as an example (76ff). He contrasts the relative openness to Shi’i Islam in Indonesia with the hostile anti-Shi’a invective found in Malaysia (85ff).

The author points out that opposition to western scholarship on the Qur’an has been especially acute since 1970, due largely to Edward Said’s Orientalism (Pantheon Books, 1978). He observes that Said ignored certain Western genres of literature and implies that Said selected his material to suit his arguments. Daneshgar also observes the practice by many Muslims of co-opting western achievements for Islam, such as widely distributed rumors that Albert Einstein was sympathetic to Islam and that Einstein’s theories resembled certain statements in the Qur’an (127).

Daneshgar concludes with a cautionary note: “Ignorance of and resistance to the history of religion indicate that the conservative presentation of religious studies can be considered as a serious threat to academic and public freedom and scholars should be aware of and try to counter it using philological, philosophical, and more importantly critical instruments” (141).

The book is well written and the arguments are compelling. The critical focus on Muslim study of the Qur’an is clearly ground-breaking, addressing topics that cry out for scholarly discussion but which many scholars have dared not address.

Daneshgar succeeds in highlighting a set of entrenched approaches and practices within parts of the worldwide Muslim academy designed to shield Muslims from scholarly critical thinking about Islam and the Qur’an. These practices ensure that Muslim students are not given access to critical non-Muslim writing about the Qur’an and Islam. Moreover, Sunnis and Shi’a are insulated from reading each other’s works. In addition, the academic study of the Qur’an that is under investigation carries a clear Arabo-Persian bias, showing ignorance of important developments in Islamic studies underway in regions such as Southeast Asia.

Daneshgar identifies a significant blindspot in Edward Said’s Orientalism—namely that Said’s demonstration of western scholarly stereotyping of the Orient also carries with it a Saidian stereotype of western scholarship. Indeed, Said himself seems to have stated a self-fulfilling prophecy in his book: “I hope to have shown my reader that the answer to Orientalism is not Occidentalism” (Said, Orientalism, Pantheon Books, 1978, 328). This has enabled generations of Muslim scholars—plus a not insignificant number of Western scholars—to typecast western scholarship on Islam as necessarily stereotypical and therefore deserving of exclusion from study programs . . . unless the Western scholarship in question embraces Saidian perspectives itself.

Daneshgar’s book also represents a strong affirmation of those Muslim scholars who have been willing to employ the tools of critical scholarship on the Qur’an and Islam within Muslim academic contexts. Such scholars may risk censure from their colleagues, but there are pioneers in this regard, such as Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, ʿAbdolkarim Soroush, and Daneshgar himself.

Daneshgar, like all authors, no doubt hopes that his book will generate discussion of the issues it raises and have an impact. In this context, the appearance of the October-December 2020 issue of the Brill journal Method and Theory in the Study of Religion carries forward the conversation that Daneshgar has begun in Studying the Qur'ān in the Muslim Academy. It is a conversation that should be pursued.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Peter G. Riddell is Professorial Research Associate in the School of History, Religions and Philosophies at SOAS University of London, and Senior Research Fellow of the Australian College of Theology at Melbourne School of Theology.

Date of Review: 
May 19, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Majid Daneshgar is a research associate at the Orientalisches Seminar, University of Freiburg, Germany. He is also an alumnus of the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies (FRIAS), where he worked on textual censorship in Islamic literature. He is interested in method and theory in the study of religion, critical thinking theories, and Islamic intellectual and exegetical progress, as well as Malay Islamic studies. His publications include Islamic Studies Today (2016), The Qur'an in the Malay Indonesian World (2016), and Tantawi Jawhari and the Qur'an (2017).


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