Reading the Qur’an
C. Hurst & Co. £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70
OWING to his reformist ideas on Islam, Ziauddin Sardar, the cultural critic and writer, is known to many of us as the “critical Muslim”.
One of his many attempts to make the Qur’an meaningful to modern society was the project “Blogging the Qur’an” organised by The Guardian in 2008, in which he replied to questions asked by readers on Islam and the Qur’an. A revised and expanded form of those blogs forms the basis of this book.
Writing in a scholarly and yet accessible style, the author considers key issues in Islamic studies, particularly the issue of the contemporary relevance of the Qur’an.
Divided into four sections, the first part of the book begins with an account of Sardar’s personal “struggle” with the Qur’an. Although accepting it as “the sacred text of Islam”, to understand the Qur’an he realised the need for placing Qur’anic texts in the correct social and historical context.
In a similar reformist style, part two of the book examines the first two suras (chapters) of the Qur’an and their teaching on central themes of Muslim life: marriage, divorce, usury, prayer, apostasy, and war and peace.
Sardar’s deep understanding of the Qur’an, and his commendable objectivity, are manifest throughout parts three and four of the book, where he considers various aspects of Islamic theology and life. In particular, he refutes misconceptions held by many Muslims on controversial topics such as crime and punishment, homosexuality, polygamy, and domestic violence.
Arguing that the Qur’an, “like all religious scriptures, has many layers of meaning”, Sardar “attempts to uncover these multiple layers”, and by so doing “discover the contemporary relevance of the text”.
The author argues that this is not an easy task, however, as the Qur’an is “shrouded in veils of assumptions and veiled opinions”. So, emphasising the need to approach the Qur’an with “fresh eyes”, he calls us to “engage with its text unencumbered by prejudices and preconceived ideas”.
Incisive and forthright, Sardar criticises those who simply learn the Qur’an by rote; for, as he states, “reading involves a struggle with words and meanings.” “Everyone who claims to be a Muslim”, he declares, “must struggle with the meaning of the Qur’an,” as “there is no ‘get out clause’, no escape.”
Sardar provides reflective, discursive analysis of the holy book of Islam. Among other things he recognises that the Qur’an (although a sacred text), just like the Bible, should be subject to textual, literary and historical criticism.
To some readers, the book could seem intimidating. It is more than 400 pages long, and the print size is irritatingly small. But perseverance will be rewarded. This book is one of the most relevant works published on the Qur’an in recent times.
In an age when we see the narrow, bigoted interpretation of the Qur’an by Islamic State and other militant Islamist groups, Sardar’s book is a breath of fresh air. Among other things, he reminds us that the gates of ijtihad (independent critical reasoning) are not, and should not, be closed in Islam.
Dr Simon Ross Valentine is a specialist in Islamic studies presently working in Kurdistan