Misreading the Quran

Few topics are more important to the future of the free world than its relationship with Islam.  Muslims are on the march, here and in Europe, and many make it clear that they have no intention of leaving the West as they found it.

Frighteningly, the university dialogue about this crucial relationship, which often spills over into national policy, is usually controlled by academics who willfully ignore Islam's less savory aspects.  Whether they deliberately aid the cause of "jihad" or are so enamored of their own studies of the Islamic world that they are blind to its dark side doesn't matter; either is perilous to our society's long-term security.

Carl Ernst is one such academic.  There is little question that he is an important voice in Middle East studies.  He is the William R. Kenan Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, the former chair of the religious studies department, the co-director of Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations, the director of the Duke University-UNC Consortium of Middle East Studies, and a board member of the national Middle Eastern Studies Association.

Yet, with a background in comparative religions instead of history or political science, he seems ill-equipped to comprehend the worldwide emergence of radical Islam in a broader sense.  His latest book, entitled How to Read the Qur'an: A New Guide, with Select Translations, defends the Quran against Western criticism, largely by emphasizing literary and structural techniques rather than the major themes.  It is a paean to minutiae; Not only does Ernst miss the forest for the trees, but he misses the trees for the leaves.

It's not the first time that Ernst has tried to introduce the Muslim holy book in a more benign light than perhaps it deserves.  He caused a national controversy at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2002 when he convinced the school to assign Michael Sells' Approaching the Quran as its summer reading program selection required for all incoming freshmen.

Critics attacked the choice, saying that Sells' book whitewashed the Quran's violence by eliminating the more questionable chapters (suras).  It was considered especially divisive coming the year after the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.

Ernst defended his support for Sells' book in a 2003 Spirituality and Health article, in which he concluded:

One happy response to the tragedy of September 11 has been a thirst for knowledge of Islam. This summer reading program was a small step in that direction. As the Qur'an asks, "Are those who know the same as those who do not know?

It astonishes to hear an American to speak of a "happy outcome" of 9-11, especially if that outcome caused Americans to learn about Islam according to the terrorists' wishes.  He missed entirely that the surge in interest in Islam was because people wanted to know why it compelled its followers to commit such terrible acts -- not because they sought its wisdom.  And quoting the Quran to authoritatively affirm his comments seems provocative beyond the pale.

Ernst also raised questions about his allegiances in 2008, when he traveled to Iran to accept an award for scholarship directly from the radical Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Ernst intended How to Read the Qur'an to be a first exposure for college and even high school students.  But it is no straightforward introduction to a complex subject.  Ernst eschews thematic discussion of the book, the method most likely to provide the basic understanding that should be the purpose of a first exposure.

The Quran is important because it has affected hearts, minds, and events for 1,400 years; a first exposure should deal with its meaning and influence above all.  But the key issues are of little concern to Ernst:

Although some readers may be particularly interested in sura 4, "The Women," for its focus on gender issues, or in suras 8 and 9 because of their attention to warfare, those questions would be most relevant for a subject-oriented approach to the Quran ... which is not the main concern of this book.

Instead of tackling the most relevant issues, Ernst presents the Quran according to its technical building blocks, a technique sure to confuse the novice rather than illuminate.  In doing so, some important themes are mentioned, but in a tangential, scattershot manner that instills vague impressions rather than understanding.

In How to Read the Qur'an, Ernst attacks Western critics of the Quran for tending to "take individual verses out of context" when they point out its ominous meanings.  But the Quran contains over 100 passages urging violence in a variety of contexts, including jihad.  If the angry words appear on page after page, then perhaps they are the context, and there is no reason to doubt that violence is expected of the faithful.

According to Ernst, many Western scholars claim that the Quran is an "inferior derivative work" for its many uses of previous texts, including the Old and New Testaments and various tales from Arabic poetry and Middle Eastern folklore.  He tries to refute their opinions through a process of  "intertextuality" that suggests that "the Quran engages with earlier texts as part of a shared civilization."  He takes that idea farther:

... the Quranic appropriations of biblical and other pre-Islamic narratives, oftentimes with new emphases and different conclusions, is a logical extension of the same literary processes of prophecy that have been practiced over the centuries.

One might be tempted to argue that the Quran, with its emphasis on war and hellfire, is hardly the "logical extension" of the New Testament, which suggests turning the other cheek.

The Muslim take on intertextuality is that "divergences between the Quran and biblical texts were proof of corruptions of the Bible," according to Ernst.  Only belief in the Quran as divine revelation could uphold such a claim -- scholarly objectivity suggests that the accounts of witnesses closest to the original stories are more likely to be historically accurate.  Despite Ernst's objective aspirations -- "no judgment is made whether or not the Quran is a divine revelation or the word of God" -- he offers support for the Muslim view. 

Ernst also decries Orientalism, which is the study of the Middle East and Asia from a Western perspective, regarding it as "arbitrary theories by arrogant outsiders."  Yet he is perhaps guilty of a similar cultural superiority, albeit one that downplays the violent aspects of Islam that are commonly accepted by believers rather than emphasizing them.  He rejects the practice of Muslim scholars to rectify conflicts within the Quran based on the age of texts -- called "abrogation" -- instead preferring to use structural analysis developed by Western scholars that looks at the way the verses are organized.  In Ernst's method, many of the more violent verses can be downplayed, whereas abrogation tends to elevate them.

One well-known case of abrogation concerns the Medinan sura "Al Tawba," one of the last written.  It contains the infamous "Verse of the Sword," which "commands warfare against unbelievers," and, according to Ernst, "is held by some commentators to abrogate dozens of Quranic verses that proclaim patience and forgiveness for people of the book."  This is because the early, less aggressive revelations were made during the Meccan period, when Muhammed had little power and was more conciliatory; in the later Medinan period, he had an army of converts at his disposal and pursued conquest.

But Ernst fails to say that "some commentators" are actually many of the most noted Islamic scholars over the centuries and that there is ample justification for giving primacy according to later texts within the Quran itself.  For instance, for Sura 2, "the Cow":

None of Our revelations do We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, but We substitute something better or similar: Knowest thou not that Allah Hath power over all things?

And it is not just the Sword Verse that commands war against "unbelievers" or harsh treatment of Jews and Christians.  Such commands appear throughout the Quran, such as "I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them." 

There is ample evidence of radical Islam seeking influence in the American academy; how, then, can we give so much intellectual authority to narrowly focused literary scholars, such as Carl Ernst, who think the most interesting facet of the Quran is its rhyme schemes and such?  All over the world, radical Muslims are smirking.

Jay Schalin is the director of state policy analysis for the Pope Center for Higher Education.

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