Book Review: ‘What the Qur’an Meant And Why It Matters’ by Garry Wills

In his latest book, Catholic scholar Garry Wills undertakes the arduous but noble endeavor of explaining the Quran to the average American reader. He is candid about his intellectual limitations and his lack of Arabic proficiency, so he defers to scholars to guide him along the way, but he is forthright about the need to explore the text with a spirit of graciousness and generosity. Indeed, one need not be a scholar to find inspiration in religious scripture, otherwise very few would.

The Quran isn’t a book whose translation a beginner can read from cover-to-cover without stopping often. It is thought to have been revealed to the Prophet Muhammad over a period of 23 years, who recited its words to believers who then recorded them on various parchments and surfaces. It was officially arranged into book-form after the Prophet’s death, though he instructed them on the order of arrangement prior to dying, but the chapters (surah in Arabic) were not arranged in chronological order of revelation, nor were they divided along any consistent thematic topics.

Muslims believe the Quran is the literal word of God, but the average non-Muslim reader — and perhaps even the average Muslim reader — would not always know, without additional commentary, which of its injunctions are speaking to Muhammad specifically or to the believers generally, or whether God is speaking to a specific situation or to a general one. Some verses abrogated others that came before it, as they understandably would, given the drastic changes that took place in the Prophet’s life and community over this short period of 23 years.

The titles of the surahs are not usually helpful, as they are often just named after a catchword or oddity in the surah. There are of course, general themes that most readers would be able to recognize and contemplate over, including stories similar to those found in the Bible, but to read the easy parts would also mean having to parse through the difficult parts.

He makes these points to illustrate how easy it is to manipulate and misquote the text, which makes it all the more necessary to work toward understanding it properly. The horrific actions of terrorist organizations such as Islamic State (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda reflect this sort of textual manipulation, who find their interpretations mirrored only in the virulent anti-Muslim tirades of Islamophobic writers.

In ‘Part I,’ Wills identifies three different kinds of ignorance that are both drivers and consequences of contemporary Islamophobia: secular ignorance, religious ignorance, and fearful ignorance.

He locates ‘secular ignorance’ as stemming from political responses to 9/11, including the Patriot Act and the Iraq War. He engages in a blistering criticism of neoconservative writers and their colleagues (including the now-rehabilitated Francis Fukuyama) who built up a case for the war based on false pretenses, their own political agendas, and on reductive characterizations of the complex interplay of Muslim politics in the Middle East.

‘Religious ignorance’ on the other hand, is the driving force behind the belief in a civilizational conflict between “Islam” and “the West,” and the impetus behind legislation seeking to “ban Shari’ah law.” The false notion that Islam as a religion is exceptionally antithetical to American ideals is reminiscent of the discrimination faced by Catholic and Jewish immigrants to the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Finally, there is ‘fearful ignorance,’ which Wills explains by drawing parallels to Cold War hysteria against communism and the need for the United States to have an enemy in order to shore up support for its policies. Wills stresses the importance of separating Islam and the vast body of Muslim believers from terrorism, and then aptly notes a major difference between anti-communist hysteria of the past and the anti-Muslim hysteria of today, as manifested in the ‘War on Terror’ discourse: “It was hard enough to find and defeat an ism like Communism. Terror is a tool, not a country.”

After highlighting these three kinds of ignorance, which serve to set the stage for the reader, he begins ‘Part II’ of his book, dedicated to identifying major themes of the Quran.

In true Catholic fashion, Wills describes Quranic themes with captivating and vivid imagery. He depicts “the desert culture of the Quran” and its emphasis on water not merely as a vivifying mechanism, but as a purifying one. Water is a recurring theme of the Quran: Indeed, “shari’ah” linguistically refers to a watering path; man was created from fluid; water brings life to the earth and provides sustenance to all living things; rain will resurrect the dead for judgment in the next world as rain brings life to plants in the temporal world; water can even signify death, exemplified by the flood of Noah; and the deprivation of it is best showcased in descriptions of hell, a place where the harshness of desert culture is magnified to its most extreme conditions.

The next chapter, entitled ‘Conversing with the Cosmos’ is an enchanting elucidation of theology that would give a spiritual boost to even the most secular reader. He highlights the Quran’s consistent and constant evocation of God’s beauty as manifested in His creation. God calls humankind to enter a dialogical and conversational relationship with the universe through reflecting over the marvels of celestial bodies, towering mountains, vast plains, and blue seas, in order to fully appreciate and affirm for themselves the Awesomeness of their Creator.

Contrary to modern anthropology, writes Wills, which explains religious practice as having originated with polytheism and then evolving into monotheism, the Quran asserts the originality of monotheistic message which was gradually diluted and corrupted over time as humankind became less contemplative over God’s creation and more engrossed in materialism, requiring the sending of a new messenger each time to renew the original, pristine message.

He then transitions into ‘The Perpetual Stream of Prophets,’ wherein he highlights parallels and contrasts between the Biblical and Quranic narratives of the Big Five: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Jesus, and Moses. Both Jesus and Moses have prominent roles in the Quran, with their stories described in meticulous detail and their names mentioned more often than Muhammad. The author’s intent for lending more focus to these last two Prophets serves a didactic purpose: “It is clear that Muhammad’s revelations were meant to lay a basis for peaceful relations between followers of Torah, Gospel, and Qur’an” (page 109).

From here, the next chapter progresses into relationships and responsibilities between Muslims and the “People of the Book.” This is where complications begin. Does the Quran obligate “People of the Book” to upgrade to the newest installment of Abraham 3.0? Or are they asked to maintain honesty and fidelity to their own traditions to the best of their ability? How are Muslims called to engage with their Abrahamic counterparts?

Wills goes through the various Quranic verses discussing these questions and focuses on those verses that urge the Prophet to remind Christians and Jews to refer judgment of their personal and legal affairs to their own scriptural texts.

In instances where the Quran criticizes Jews and Christians, it does so on account of them failing to hold true to their own respective scriptures and escaping commitments to their own respective Covenants. God subjects Muslims to the same kind of harsh criticism, which makes it clear, argues Wills, that each tradition was meant to follow its own Covenant and set of laws.

His knowledge as a scholar of Roman Catholicism shines here, as he is able to deftly reconcile Islamic polemics against Christianity by demonstrating that the Quran isn’t so much “anti-Christian” as it is “anti-Nicaean,” which was a council arranged by Emperor Constantine I to establish a uniform church doctrine. The Quran isn’t criticizing Christianity so much as it is criticizing the corruptions and distortions of self-identifying Christians who came later.

However, his scholarship on Christianity and his bias favoring Christians exposes his limitations on his understanding of how the Quran engages with its other Abrahamic counterpart, Judaism. Because of this, he concludes that Judaism receives harsher criticism from the Quran than does his own faith. This deficiency in analysis of course isn’t blameworthy, as everyone has shortcomings and biases, but it is one worthy of noting nonetheless.

The more informed reader would also note that he doesn’t sufficiently cover all of the verses that relate to Quranic engagement with Christians and Jews, including those that suggest that Islam is the only way toward salvation. If he were to cite these verses, and then argue, as many Muslim theologians and scholars have, that “Islam” as a verb, to submit, is inclusive of “People of the Book,” it would bolster his claims that all three members of the Abrahamic family have a share in God’s salvation. By not engaging with these verses at all, Wills does not give the topic its due justice, though one can still appreciate the path he takes toward addressing it.

To his credit, Wills notes that the Quranic marriage laws permitting Muslim men to marry Jewish and Christian women, the Quranic dietary rules permitting food prepared by “People of the Book,” and the Quranic injunctions for all three to come to common terms are all instructive: Muslims were meant to establish meaningful social relations with People of the Book.

The next chapter is on jihad, which he defines as “zeal.” I found this to be a particularly unique translation that I haven’t encountered before. Similar to the word “crusade,” he argues, “it would be a mistake to brand all kinds of zeal as fanatical” (page 130). When George W. Bush uttered the word “crusade” to describe the ‘War on Terror,’ there was a shudder in the Middle East, but Wills suggests that Bush came from a culture that attaches a positive connotation to the word “crusade”: a crusade for democracy (however misguided it was).

“That shows how the same word can be revered by some groups and reviled by others. That is true, now, of ‘jihad.’ For one culture it means a striving for moral discipline and observance of the Qur’an, sometimes (but not always) while waging a just war. In another culture, it always means ‘holy war,’ though there is no word for that in the Qur’an,” as he notes (page 132).

He cites the few verses which are often deployed to endorse the idea that Islam is a religion of violence and undertakes a discursive endeavor to contextualize them, while also pointing to ways in which Christian scripture can just as much be misquoted to indicate that Christianity is inherently violent. He points out that the concept of “holy war” is nonexistent in the Arabic language, and that even the “verse of the sword” doesn’t mention anything about a sword.

However, when he makes the claim that the Quran is a book of peace, it appears that he separates “the Quran” from “Islam” and “the New Testament” from “Christianity.” He doesn’t elaborate on this distinction beyond making the claim that the actions of believers do not align with the morals of their books. He clarifies that Islamic imperial conquests, like Christian imperialism, were unfortunate departures and abuse of the true nature of these faiths, which was peaceful.

One understands from this that by “Islam” and “Christianity,” he is not referring to abstract belief systems, but to the actions of believers. While in this chapter he writes that the question of Islam being a religion of peace is an “entirely different matter,” in other parts of the book he states plainly that Islam “favors peace over violence,” exposing an inconsistency in definitions. Is “Islam” what the Quran says, or is “Islam” the actions and behavior of its believers?

The next chapter focuses on shari’ah, where he notes that the word itself is mentioned only once in the Quran referring to a watering path, not to a set of laws. Here, he argues correctly that there is no book of shari’ah which lays out explicit and unchanging commands of what Muslims can and can’t do, and lambastes the absurdity of attempting to ban it: “If a foreign country were to ban Christian law, what law would they mean? There are many bodies of Christian laws, accumulated over a long and contentious history. Would it be canon law? If so, which body of law from which era would they be singling out? Or the Westminster Confession? The Thirty-Nine Articles? The Canons of Dordt? The Ecclesiastical Ordinances? Or how would one ban Jewish law? What would be outlawed? Deuteronomy? Halakha? Israeli government law?” (page 147).

He correctly notes that the Quran, like the Old Testament, does indeed prescribe brutal penalties, but that the penal code is a very minor aspect of Islam, and the conditions for their implementation cannot possibly be met in today’s world. Moreover, he emphasizes that the Quran allows ample opportunity for repentance and forgiveness that would render such codes meaningless, citing a litany of verses about the constant opportunities that God offers believers for penitence, forgiveness, and mercy.

He quotes Edward Gibbon, who wrote that the practice of Islam as a faith is primarily manifested in three ways: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, which constitute very basic duties that do not contradict principles of liberal democracy. He is right to say that the word “shari’ah” mentioned in the Quran refers to its linguistic meaning but doesn’t sufficiently clarify that Muslims do indeed have a discursive tradition of Islamic jurisprudence that engages heavily with legal questions. This may leave the new reader with the impression that law is a minor matter for Muslims. Because the Quran is his sole tool of analysis, his own defense of Islam as a religion is handicapped.

His chapter on commerce sheds light on the economic conditions of the Prophet’s time, clarifying that they were neither agrarian or industrial but commercial. While Quranic verses on economic ethics were reflective of such a time, they are nonetheless applicable more generally, as modern Muslims search for ways to navigate finance through their religiously-prescribed ethical means. His mentioning of the strong Quranic prohibition of riba, often insufficiently defined as usury, but can include misleading others in the statement of values or punishing late payments cruelly, is noteworthy.

The final three chapters are dedicated to women: ‘Plural Marriage,’ ‘Fighting Back,’ and ‘The Veil.’ He posits a fresh perspective on the issue of Quranic legal rulings on marriage and sex, namely that they would only fully make sense in the context of the structural arrangements and social norms that were in place in 7th century Arabia, including polygyny.

Polygyny, though permitted under certain circumstances (like treating all wives equally), was not required. In fact, it was discouraged in the Quran precisely because one would not be able to treat all his wives equally. Polygyny served primarily to place a limit on the number of wives in pre-Islamic Arabia, and the Prophet, who married many wives, did so for pedagogic and diplomatic reasons. Indeed, many of the rules that Muslims have for marriage stem directly from the Prophet’s own marital difficulties.

He opens up the chapter entitled ‘Fighting Back’ with strong words: “Torah, Gospel, and Qur’an are all patriarchal, and therefore misogynist — as were the societies in which they took shape. But misogynism is not all that all of them are. In all three of them there are traces of dignity and worth intended by the Creator when he made women. The task for feminists is to identify, investigate, and develop these traces” (page 187).

To undertake this task, he references Quranic stances on women that are relatively more progressive than their Biblical counterparts: the Quranic view on Adam and Eve which holds them both equally accountable in contrast to the conventional Biblical view which lays the blame squarely on Eve. He notes that the Quran was revolutionary in that it granted women the right to own property, and that the “bride-right” (dowry) was a monetary gift that the groom’s family owed to the wife.

In Islamic law, women are “agents with negotiable assets,” which may sound obvious to us today, but the idea that a woman was entitled to her own assets was revolutionary leading all the way up to even 20th century America.

The chapter on the veil discusses the few parts of the Quran which vaguely describe the code of dress along with multiple interpretations of those parts. For some Muslim women, veiling is empowering; for others, removing it is empowering, all depending on context. He points out what may seem obvious to many readers: Muslim feminists exist. However, his engagement with this broad topic is minimal.

He cites scholars of Islamic feminism like Leila Ahmed who grapple with these issues, and briefly touches on instances where feminism served colonial oppression, like Lord Cromer promoting feminism in Egypt but suppressing women’s rights at home in Britain. More recently, he references Laura Bush who spoke about liberating Afghan women through the war, but again, Wills does not adequately give the topic the comprehensive engagement it deserves.

As I read the book, I did my best to imagine myself as a non-Muslim reader approaching the Quran for the first time. It is clear in reading the book that he is attempting to appeal to a certain misinformed audience and that he is speaking to them at their level.

He aims to tell the reader that the Quran is an inspiring, illuminating, and meaningful text containing a plethora of wisdom, and a small degree of problematic notions, but that these notions are not much different from any other ancient text, and that they are mitigated by the overall thrust of the Quran: “The overall tenor is one of mercy and forgiveness, which are evoked everywhere, almost obsessively (page 213).

One can identify the Protestantism in his approach, which can be seen either as a positive or a negative. It is positive in the sense that it allows for fresh interpretations that challenge conventional problematic ones. It is negative in the sense that it restricts his ability to fully engage with the Islamic tradition and to mount a stronger defense of it.

The view of the Quran as the sole determinant of proper Muslim beliefs and actions, as sola scriptura, is ironically evocative of the originalist and literalist approach taken by those Muslims who disregard Islam’s discursive tradition and scholarship by looking directly and exclusively at the primary texts.

A serious student of Islamic Studies may not be satisfied after reading this book, but this student should do well to recognize that they are not its intended audience. While I would not recommend this book as a scholarly text, I believe it serves as a good starting point for those less familiar with the Quran’s mechanics and modes of interpretation.

Had Wills included a wider range of additional readings and scholarship, I believe his case would have been stronger. While he does not cite enough scholarship to leave the reader sufficiently informed on the intricacies of jihad, shari’ah, and women’s issues, he does a commendable job at introducing them to the new reader nonetheless. Wills hopes not to speak to scholars however, but rather to laity, hoping to bring them toward a new goalpost in their understanding. In this sense, he accomplishes his goal.

Against the backdrop of widespread misinformation, fear, and outright hatred of Islam and Muslims, Wills’ book should be taken as a welcome addition to the muddled discourse.

Let us hope that it brings us all closer to understanding and embracing one another.

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