THE author, a professor of Islamic Studies at SOAS University of London, is an authority on Qur’anic studies. The book comprises 13 essays, five of them published here for the first time, which are organised in three categories: teaching, style, and impact.
Professor Haleem’s objective is to retrieve “the true nature of the Qur’an”, which, he holds, is obscured by “literalism, atomism and the disregard for the context and of what the Qur’an says to explain itself”. These failures are evident, not just in the writings of anti-Muslim polemicists and Muslim extremists, but also entrenched in the classical tradition of exegesis (tafsir) and Islamic law (fiqh).
Those who have some background in Islamic studies will benefit most from this collection, and will be able to locate the essays within the larger context of scholarly debate. This is especially true with regard to the more technical essays on Qur’anic style — for example, how the Noah narratives or divine oaths are deployed.
In the first part, the essays address contentious issues head-on: the “sword” verse cited to justify militant expansionism; the “tribute” verse associated with subjugating Jews and Christians; and jihadists presented as enjoying priority access to paradise. Haleem is able to remove the sting from such texts, and offers plausible and more eirenic interpretations.
It is evident throughout the essays that interpretation can be a matter of life and death. Haleem wants to privilege the Qur’an over hadith. When it comes to fiqh punishments of death for apostates, and stoning for adultery, he argues that both run counter to the teaching of the Qur’an, and depend instead on often weak or misunderstood hadith.
There is much distilled wisdom here — not least, the need to approach the Qur’an as a book of religious guidance rather than of history, science, or literature. The general reader will learn how best to read the Qur’an, and which English translations to avoid, and why. There is insightful material on how the Qur’an understands Jews and Christians. While the divinity and crucifixion of Christ are denied, the Qur’an does not claim that only Muslims will enter paradise.
Haleem’s admirable study creates new interpretative problems, of course. If Qur’anic jihad is only defensive, how does one explain the explosive early Islamic conquests — underpinned by an ideology of conquest, based on a particular reading of jihad; and understood as the “unceasing quest” to make God’s word supreme through military expansion, which is “a collective duty for the Muslim polity according to all Sunni schools of law” (see Jonathan Brown’s Misquoting Muhammad: The challenge and choices of interpreting the Prophet’s legacy)?
The other gap in the study is the matter of addressing sensitive issues raised by Islamic feminists. For example, the Qur’an allows slave concubinage, the hadith evidences such activities, and Sunni law regulates it. Even though slavery is largely banned today, it has deeply coloured attitudes to marriage (see Kecia Ali’s Sexual Ethics and Islam).
Let us hope that Professor Haleem has time to address such issues in the future.
Dr Philip Lewis is Consultant on Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations to the Bishop of Leeds.
Exploring the Qur’an: Context and impact
Muhammad Abdel Haleem
I. B. Tauris £29.99
Church Times Bookshop £27