The Qur'an is the central religious text of approximately 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. Many also consider it to be one of the finest pieces of literature in the Arabic language. On a more contemporary note, its contents are routinely used to justify the position of those who maintain that Islam is essentially a religion of peace. However, the contents of the same Qur'an are also used by radical Islamists, including members of the Islamic State (ISIS), to vindicate many of their actions and, in addition, to delineate the nature of the righteous life. For these reasons alone, it is important to both peruse and comprehend the contents of this salient tome.
Translator A.J. Droge begins by rightly pointing out that even though the Qur'an is difficult to translate, in this particular translation, “utility” and not “conviction” has been his guiding principle. As such, the text that he has translated is the so called “Cairo edition”, which was first published in 1924 by a committee of Muslim scholars. The credible justification for this action is the point that the Cairo edition “has achieved a kind of
de facto canonical status in both the religious and secular academic worlds” (p. vii, emphasis in original).
The Qur'an, we are told, was revealed by Allah (God) to Prophet Muhammad through the angel Gabriel. It is divided into 114
suras (chapters) and the individual suras are further made up of
ayahs (verses). Therefore, the notation Q93(6) refers to the sixth verse in the 93rd
sura of the Qur'an and, in what follows, I shall follow this notation when referring to specific parts of the Qur'an. It is unclear whether the Qur'an was revealed to Muhammad in a single setting or over a period of time. Although some parts of the Qur'an such as Q97(1-5) suggest that it was revealed all at once, the translator plausibly contends that it is more likely that it was revealed to Muhammad in stages and over a period of about twenty years.
To a generalist reader with some knowledge of the pertinent history, this translation is excellent. This is largely because of the extensive annotations on every page which provide the reader not only with the appropriate historical context but also with ample references to relevant descriptions in other religious texts in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Because the translator includes many Arabic words in his manifold annotations, it is not difficult to imagine how beautiful the Qur'an must read and sound to someone able to peruse it in the original Arabic. This notwithstanding, I would like to focus the remainder of this review on four inscrutable parts in the Qur'an that are important not only for purely intellectual reasons but also for their contemporary relevance.
Consider first the issue of the present life versus the Hereafter. The Qur'an repeatedly—see, for instance, Q87(16-17)—glorifies the Hereafter and has little regard for the present life. This glorification applies only to the believers (Muslims) who will reach Paradise, which is a place of gardens with orchards, grapes, full-breasted maidens—see Q78(33-34)—and cups of wine. In contrast, disbelievers will be subsumed by fire and meet a terrible fate in Gehenna (Hell). Since the means to attaining Paradise is the quality of the life that a believer leads in his or her present life, this point alone ought to make one’s present life salient. In addition, why is it that wine is an abomination in the present life and a part of the work of Satan—see Q5(90)—but is both available and acceptable in Paradise?
Second, consider the matter of marital relationships. In Q4(34), we are told that men are the “supervisors” of women in part because God has favored some over others. In addition, in Q4(34) and in Q33(31) we are told that righteous women are obedient. Finally, we learn that disobedient wives ought to be admonished, avoided in bed, and, if necessary, struck. Even if we leave aside how strange this sounds from a contemporary perspective, it is certainly interesting that even righteous women appear to have no comparable recourse against, say, violent and/or philandering “supervisors.”
Third, in Q35(36) and elsewhere, the Qur'an repeatedly points out that disbelievers will meet a fiery Hell in the Hereafter. In addition, in Q9(29), believers (Muslims) are asked in no uncertain terms to fight all those who do not believe in God or the Last Day and do not forbid things that God and Prophet Muhammad have forbidden. The propriety of fighting people purely because they are not Muslims can, of course, be questioned. In addition, this call for violence would seem not to square well with the repeated references to God as “the Merciful” and ‘the Compassionate.”
Fourth, from a modern vantage point, it is difficult to come to terms with the systematically inferior position of women in life in general in the Qur'an although I note that this state of affairs is certainly not unique to the Qur'an and to Islam. In Q4(3) we learn that a man may marry up to four wives. In Q2(282) we are told that a woman’s witness testimony is worth half that of a man’s. When it comes to matters of inheritance, Q4(11) tells us that a woman typically inherits one-half of what a man inherits. Finally, Q65(4) suggests that it is okay for a man to marry a girl who has yet to reach puberty. It is certainly true that the historical context in which these and other such verses were revealed to Muhammad need to be taken into account when evaluating their merits. Even so, given the categorical nature of many of these pronouncements, there does not appear to be much ground for disparate, reasonable interpretations.
In sum, geopolitical events in the Middle East and the rise of extreme interpretations of the Qur'an in particular and Islam more generally make it important for us to read and comprehend this major religious text. The translation under review here by A.G. Droge makes it easy for readers to accomplish this seemingly herculean task.