Wednesday, August 18, 2004

The Qur'an

Sepoy of Chapati Mystery has a post about the Qur'an which in the context of a discussion about a new translation addresses a lot of key points about understanding Islam's holy text. One of these is the importance of context. It is significant that when people like me who teach Islamic history are introducing the basics of Islam to students, we often have them read a biography of Muhammad rather than the Qur'an. It would be like reading the Old Testament prophets without knowing what Egypt, Moab, Israel, and other terms actually refer to, or perhaps listening to John Kerry's acceptance speech with no knowledge of current events whatsoever. In Muslim tradition, study of the Qur'an has always begun with context, and for someone to open it up and start reading it like you would the U.S. Constitution is a sure path to error.

The other thing he mentions is orality. I don't have as much to say on this point, but I can testify to how much the Qur'an forms an audio presence in places I've been. In Jordan, the Qur'an would frequently be playing on intercity busses. Frederick Denny in his Islam and the Muslim Community talked about the importance of Qur'an reading, with stories of a competition in Indonesia. Muslim tradition contains stories of people - most notably Umar Ibn al-Khattab, I think - who were converted to Islam by the beauty and majesty of its words heard aloud, and today reading the Qur'an orally remains an important sacred art in the Islamic world.


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