Monday, March 16, 2015

Three Approaches to the Qur'an

The Qur'an is a difficult read.  Currently, I'm working on a reading/writing project entitled "The Qur'an: a Book Report" in which I read each surah (or chapter) of Islam's holy book and write a summary of what I read.  While I consider myself a fairly astute reader, I'm also keenly aware of the fact that, as a non-Arabic speaking non-Muslim, I'm missing an awful lot of the meaning.  To help remedy this situation, I've begun reading a book called The Cambridge Companion to the Qur'an, which contains several essays by scholars on various aspects/contexts/interpretations of the Qur'an.  In the Introduction, the book's editor, Jane Dammen McAuliffe presents three examples of people throughout history who have approached the Qur'an in widely different ways.  Learning about these approaches has caused me to consider the nature of my own approach.

Peter the Venerable (The Apologetic Approach)

The first example is the medieval French monk/scholar Peter the Venerable, who helped produce the first complete Latin translation of the Qur'an.  Peter was interested in apologetics--that is, defending Christianity against "heretics."  He wrote treatises against Jews and Muslims.  McAuliffe describes Peter's intentions in this way: "Peter's motivations for supporting qur'anic scholarship were clear and straightforward.  They can be succinctly captured in the phrase 'know the enemy.'  In the eyes of Peter and others of his era, Islam was a grievous heresy and a false religion, one which should be denounced and combated at every turn."  Thus, Peter the Venerable represents one approach to the Qur'an, which is the apologetic, or defensive, approach.

Peter the Venerable with other monks (from a 13th century illuminated manuscript).

Ignaz Goldziher (The Scholarly Approach)

In contrast to Peter the Venerable's apologetic approach was the approach of Hungarian scholar Ignaz Goldziher, who took a scholarly/academic approach.  He was not interested in defending (or attacking) any particular faith.  Rather, his motivation was pure curiosity--he simply wanted to understand Islam's holy book.  He was a contemporary of the influential Bible scholar Julius Wellhausen, and both men were "shaped by the perspective of Abraham Geiger who insisted that all religious texts were human productions, decisively determined by the historical contexts that generated them."  Goldziher exemplifies the "academic" approach, and his works are still cited by scholars of Islam today.

Ignaz Goldziher

Muhammad Asad (The Seeker's Approach)

In contrast to Peter the Venerable's apologetic approach and Ignaz Goldziher's academic approach, was the approach of Muhammad Asad (born Leopold Weiss), a European Jewish journalist who embarked on a spiritual journey that ultimately led him to embrace the Islamic faith.  Asad's extensive travels throughout the Middle East,  and his friendship with Muslim intellectuals were characterized by sincere religious searching.  After his conversion, Asad went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, moved to Pakistan, and briefly served as Pakistan's representative to the United Nations.  Asad's approach may be called "the seeker's approach."

Muhammad Asad addressing Radio Pakistan.

These three approaches--the apologetic, the academic, and the seeker's--caused me to reflect on my own reasons for reading and studying the Qur'an.  If I am honest with myself, there is an element of all three in my project, though I hope there is less of the apologist (with all the arrogance that implies), and more of the curious academic and the sincere seeker.  Less Peter the Venerable, more Ignaz Goldziher and Muhammad Asad.

No comments:

Post a Comment