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What Is the


What the Qur’an to this day, medieval Muslim scholars profoundly

Meant: And Why shape our understanding of the Qur’an. When the
It Matters English lawyer George Sale first translated the Qur’an
By Garry Wills into English from the original Arabic in 1734, he relied
viking, 240 pp., $25 heavily on centuries-old Islamic language. Jallalo’ddin,
Beidawi, and Zamakhshari, the names of some of Islam’s
greatest exegetes, fill his footnotes. When Keith Ellison
placed his hand on Thomas Jefferson’s copy of Sale after
becoming the first Muslim member of Congress, it rested
on a hundred-page summary of Muslim history and
commentary preceding the scripture.
Not much has changed since Sale’s time. The latest
academic English translation, The Study Quran, pub-
lished in 2015, cites the opinions of over forty medieval
commentators. Their views are valuable at times: they
were skilled philologists who unraveled some of the
scripture’s knottiest textual problems. But more often
than not they read their own values into the Qur’an.

Qu’ran Folio, probably Iran or present-day Afghanistan, Ghaznavid period, c. 1050

JAN/FEB 2018 ISSUE 2 3

Since their commentaries are baked into the Gettysburg Address have all received the
translations, the way they read the text is the same treatment: Wills reads the texts in their
way English speakers read the text today, for original language, explains the historical
better and worse. This is helpful in under- context, and defers to later interpretations
standing how Muslims have understood only as a last resort. The title of Wills’s new
their own scripture, of course; the history of book, What the Qur’an Meant: And Why It
scriptural interpretation is an integral part Matters, suggests he will give Islam’s holiest
of a scriptural faith, at least as it is under- scripture the same treatment.
stood and practiced by its adherents. But So does his vow to rely on the latest
sometimes it obscures what the scripture’s Qur’anic scholarship: “I am not a Qur’an
author intended. scholar, obviously. I cannot be one, since I do
Islamic tradition and the latest forensic not know Arabic.” To make up for this rather
evidence agree that the Qur’an appeared significant deficiency, he argues, he must
in the first half of the seventh century. Its turn to scholars of the book. This is sensible
contents initially circulated as separate enough. But the scholarship on which Wills
scriptures, which were combined in a single relies is almost exclusively The Study Quran.
volume soon after Muhammad’s death in Wills cites the book at least forty times in
632 CE. The text is written in the voice of the 145 pages he devotes to discussing the
God, so Muslims believe it is a record of His Qur’an. His understanding of the scripture is
speech and not the words of a man. Whereas correspondingly and sorely limited, confined
Jesus is the Word for Christians, the word is as it is to the traditional commentaries
the Word for Muslims. collected by The Study Quran’s authors.
But the meaning of the Word is not Had Wills surveyed the welter of opin-
always obvious. Unlike much of the Hebrew ions found in commentaries on the Qur’an,
Bible and the New Testament, the Qur’an both ancient and modern, his readers would
lacks context clues to help decipher the see that Muslims have disagreed profoundly
text’s intent. We usually don’t know who about the book’s meaning. Like all interpret-
God is addressing or why. It’s the Ten Com- ers of scripture, Muslim commentators start
mandments without the burning bush, the with different assumptions about how to read
Sermon on the Mount without the mount. their holy texts. They argue over what other
It was left to later Muslim scholars to fill in books they have to take into account, which
the gaps based on stories passed down by lead them to very different understandings. A
early believers. progressive Muslim reads the Qur’an differ-
We do not have to read the book this ently than an ultraconservative Salafi.
way. Modern scholars of other scriptures have Here is a small example. Verses 7-9 of the
translated or explained them by referring to sixtieth sura, or chapter, of the Qur’an de-
contemporaneous texts, rather than the later clare that God will “create affection” between
interpretive tradition. They treat the tradition believers and “those whom they hate.” The
as a product of its time and place, as is the verses also encourage believers to be “kind
scripture it purports to interpret. One of and just” to those who do not fight them or
the most skilled practitioners of this kind of drive them from their homes. Some medieval
scholarship is Garry Wills, who has made a commentators believed these benevolent
career of explaining the original meaning of verses were abrogated by other, more militant
scriptures, sacred and secular. The Gospels, verses, whereas other interpreters, such as the
Paul’s epistles, the Federalist Papers, and the polymath al-Tabari in the ninth century CE,

helped by them,” he writes, “we must see how
far terrorists have departed from the book
they say they believe in.” The jihadists and
critics have erred, Wills confidently contends,
because they are either ignorant of the book’s
true meaning or they have not read it. This
is a strange charge to level at someone like
ISIS’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who has
a doctorate in Qur’anic studies.
Wills aspires to remedy the ignorance
of jihadists and Qur’an critics by reading
the scripture with fresh eyes. Alas, he
knows so little about classical Islam, and he
relies so much on the opinions of certain
learned Muslims, that he is vulnerable
to their anachronisms and their agendas.
The problem is apparent early on, when he
endorses a letter written by Muslim scholars
who criticize ISIS for misunderstanding the
Qur’an. Wills does not realize that these
scholars have themselves departed from the
Qur’an in novel ways to make their case. As
Ella Landau-Tasseron, a scholar of classical
Islam, has demonstrated, both ISIS and the
letter’s authors strain the Qur’an’s meaning
to justify their positions on issues such as
jihad and slavery. This is only the first of
many instances in which Wills is misled by
said they were never abrogated. Today, in the his right-thinking (that is, left-thinking)
same way, ultraconservative Muslims argue exegetes, undermining his aim to expose
that these verses are subordinate to others, the ignorance of the jihadists and the
which say that believers should never love Qur’an’s critics.
infidels. Meanwhile, progressives insist that Of course, Wills is right to counsel
the verses should soften others that sound readers throughout his book not to judge
intolerant. Each reading is consistent with its Islam—or any religion—according to the
own rules of interpretation, and irreconcil- most extreme interpretations of its scriptures.
able with the reading of the opposing camp. Jihadists represent a minority view among
Wills, however, is not interested in Muslims when it comes to violence; ISIS’s
making a broader—and immensely import- poll numbers rarely reach double digits in
ant—point about the diversity of Islamic Muslim countries. And critics of the Qur’an
thought. Instead, he is on the hunt for com- unfairly blame the majority of Muslims for
mentaries that will help him prove that both the sins of the few. Still, by the end of Wills’s
jihadists and infidel critics of the Qur’an book, the casual reader cannot be sure if the
have misunderstood the book. “To help the jihadists and the critics have truly misread
majority of believers in Islam, and to be the Qur’an; she only knows that they read it

JAN/FEB 2018 ISSUE 2 5

differently than the interpreters whom Wills
prefers. The more informed reader, on the
other hand, knows that the jihadists and the
critics can produce just as many canonical
medieval commentaries to support their
views. And the jihadists are often better at
this game than their detractors. Evil people
are not always ignorant people.

fter three throat-clearing chap-

ters on Iraq and September 11
that have little to do with the
Qur’an—including a bewildering
fusillade against Francis Fukuyama—Wills
begins to make his case against the jihadists
and the critics. He focuses on four contro-
versial topics addressed in the scripture:
interfaith relations, war, law, and women.
According to Wills, the Qur’an envisions
three separate monotheistic communities—
Jews, Christians, and Muslims—living in
harmony. Each has its own covenant with
God and should not try to convert the oth-
ers; rather, the three faiths should be “allies”
in trying to convert the pagans. The Qur’an,
Wills asserts, never condones violence against
Jews and Christians. Indeed, it encourages
Muslims to marry them.
Wills ignores or downplays passages and
commentaries that do not fit his program.
The Qur’an praises Jews and Christians Qu’ran Folio, Shiraz mid-16th century
who follow Muhammad’s new book, under- CREDIT TK

cutting Wills’s contention that the Qur’an

doesn’t want Muhammad’s followers to win
these “people of scripture” to his nascent
Islamic community. The Qur’an instructs that the Qur’an never condones violence
Muslims not to ally with Jews and Chris- against Jews and Christians is contradicted
tians, which Wills acknowledges, but he does by the verse that states: “Fight those who do
not reconcile this with his contrary view not believe in God, nor the Last Day, nor
that the Qur’an wants the three faiths to be forbid what God and His Messenger forbade,
“allies” against the pagans. Wills’s statement nor observe the true religion among those
that the Qur’an wants the three faiths to who possess the Book unless they pay the
intermarry is not qualified by the Qur’anic tribute out of hand, degraded.” Most of the
verse that stipulates that only Muslim men medieval Muslim commentators Wills relies
can marry infidel women. His bold assertion on contend that this verse requires fighting

Jews and Christians until they pay tribute, a readers to suspect that he is engaging in
reading he willfully chooses to ignore. apologetics, rather than representing the text
Had Wills consulted recent academic fairly. Their suspicion will be correct.
work on conversion in early Islam, he would Wills also ignores an entire body of
have learned that there is a lively debate Islamic scripture, the hadith, that sometimes
about whether or not Muhammad believed advocates offensive warfare to spread the
he was founding a separate religious commu- domain of Islam. The hadith are statements
nity, or merely initiating a monotheistic re- attributed to Muhammad that were collected
form movement that would include Jews and decades or even centuries after his passing.
Christians. If Muhammad was not creating Muslim scholars debate the authenticity of
a separate community, then the whole notion individual hadith the way Christian scholars
of “conversion” is an anachronism, reflecting debate the authenticity of verses in the
later Muslim views and not the views of the Gospels. Still, these sayings are an important
Prophet. All this is missing from the pages of source of religious guidance for most Mus-
What the Qur’an Meant. lims, including on the topic of warfare—a fact
When Wills discusses war in the Qur’an, that flatly contradicts Wills’s statement that
some of the same problems arise. He repeats “Muslim orthodoxy lies in the Qur’an.” Wills
the standard red herrings that appear in can be forgiven for ignoring these scriptures,
Muslim apologetics: the phrase “holy war” since his book is about the Qur’an; but he
does not occur in the Qur’an; the book should acknowledge the Muslims (jihadists
does not mention virgins as a reward for included) who take them seriously and use
martyrdom in battle; the so-called “sword them to interpret the Qur’an. Their “igno-
verse” that commands Muslims to kill rant” readings of the Qur’an make a lot more
polytheists doesn’t use the word “sword.” sense when one takes the hadith into account.
These platitudes are either misleading (the There is a certain Protestantism to
absence of a phrase is not the absence of a Wills’s approach: the Qur’an is sola scriptura
concept) or inaccurate (there are virgins that for Muslims as the Bible is for Protestants,
reward noble deeds, and those deeds include a single shining sun that illuminates the
martyrdom on the battlefield). religious terrain. But most Muslims treat the
In his discussion of war, Wills proclaims Qur’an as a lodestar, found and followed by
that “the Qur’an never advocates war as a the aid of a constellation of scriptures.
means of religious conversion,” and that Wills’s discussion of Islamic law suffers
it only permits fighting in self-defense. from the same problems. “The word shari’ah
These statements contradict verse 9:5, which is used only once in the Qur’an, and there
requires Muslims to battle polytheists until it does not mean ‘law,’” he instructs. But
they repent and adopt Islam’s religious then he quotes a passage where a variant
rituals, and verse 9:29, which commands of the word is used in the sense of law. The
the believers to fight “people of scripture” of Qur’an is not a penal code, Wills remarks,
some sort. Wills’s position also goes against which is true; but he does not help the reader
the reading of most later Muslim commen- appreciate the bluntly stated punishments for
tators, whom he is eager to quote elsewhere crimes such as theft or illicit sex. Wills also
when they align with his views. I happen to fails to mention that the Qur’an’s rules were
agree with Wills’s positions on this subject, vastly elaborated in the hadith, which most
but his skimpy argument and his failure to Muslims consider probative in matters of
air other interpretations will lead informed religious law.

JAN/FEB 2018 ISSUE 2 7

If readers do not know all this ahead its modern misinterpreters also leads him
of time, they would think devout Muslims to downplay other issues that would offend
needlessly obsess about the law when it is not many readers today. He briefly mentions that
a big deal in the Qur’an. According to Wills, the Qur’an permits a Muslim man to “have
only a “minority” of Muslims want to impose sexual intercourse with pagan slaves he had
a “medieval” understanding of the shari’ah. won, bought, or captured.” That’s largely
Really? According to public opinion polling, true, and it certainly merits more discussion
that “minority” is a healthy majority in coun- than the single sentence he devotes to it, es-
tries such as Egypt, Morocco, and Pakistan. pecially since ISIS claims to have revived the
And it is not just their understanding of institution of slavery as the Prophet intended
Islamic law that is medieval—the scriptures it to be practiced.
that contain it are medieval, too. The most rewarding parts of What the
Qur’an Meant are where Wills strays from the
n his final chapters, on women, apologetics and the polemics to write about
Wills dwells on the problems the subjects he knows best, such as Christian
posed by passages in the Qur’an scripture and history. The misunderstandings
that are out of step with the surrounding the Qur’anic “sword verse,” he
modern liberal world. The Qur’an, he states, tells us, have a parallel in medieval mis-
“is definitely patriarchal—as is any seventh- understandings of a statement in Luke, in
century document.” Moreover, the Torah, which Jesus tells his disciples to buy swords
the Gospels, and the Qur’an “are all patriar- in fulfillment of prophecy and then becomes
chal, and therefore misogynist—as were the annoyed when they take him literally. Wills
societies in which they took shape.” This is observes that during the Middle Ages, some
incontrovertible by today’s liberal standards. Church leaders cited the verses to justify
The Qur’an’s liberal readers can appreciate papal armies.
some of its progressive views on women— Ignoring the commentaries sometimes
which Wills does—while admitting that they enables Wills to arrive at surprising inter-
are regressive now. pretations that make better sense of the
Yet Wills’s desire to smooth the Qur’an’s Qu’ran. When Wills reads a verse that says
rough edges sometimes leads him to need- “your wives are your fields, so go into your
lessly obfuscate its plain meaning, even when fields whichever way you like,” he breaks
it is not terribly offensive. Take verse 24:30-31, with the conventional reading of the text as
which instructs male and female believers to requiring women to perform sex on demand.
lower their gaze and guard their private parts. Instead, he explains the verse in the context
Women are further instructed to “draw their of polygyny and says that it has to do with
scarves over their bosoms” and “not display the rotation of wives—an original reading (at
their charms” to strange men. The second least to me) that meshes with other Qur’anic
instruction is vague—what is a “charm”? But verses about household politics. Wills’s treat-
the first is straightforward, which is why it’s ment of the Qur’an’s geographical context
odd that Wills maintains that the verse “has similarly offers fresh insight, especially where
nothing to do with women’s clothing.” It it relies on the author’s own analysis.
may not be a full-throated call for the hijab, Wills would have found much to help
but it is certainly a demand for women to him slip the bonds of tradition had he
cover their chests. consulted recent academic studies of the
Wills’s desire to save the Qur’an from Qur’an’s original meaning. In the last decade,

Qur’an lived a century after the book was
written. These interpreters did not know
Muhammad’s world, which had been swept
away after the Arab conquest that carried
the culture of Islam from the desert interior
of the Hijaz to cosmopolitan Damascus and

onsider the following example.

Verse 9:30 of the Qur’an criti-
cizes the Jews for saying “Uzayr
is a son of God.” The name
was unfamiliar to later Muslims, so they
conjectured that Uzayr must be the biblical
priest Ezra, who restored the Torah after
the Babylonian exile, according to Jewish
tradition. The Qur’an, the Muslims asserted,
was criticizing the Jews for worshipping Ezra
as the son of God, just as the Christians
worshipped Jesus as God’s offspring.
The problem with such a reading is that
Jews had never called Ezra a son of God.
“They lie about us, and falsely attribute to us
the statement that God has a son,” grumbled
the great Maimonides. He and other Jews
accused Muhammad of charlatanism for
advancing such a patently false doctrine.
Islam’s Christian detractors also seized on
a handful of Muslim and non-Muslim the error to score polemical points, leading
scholars, many affiliated with the Interna- the Muslim satirist Jahiz to complain that
tional Qur’anic Studies Association, have “they say the proof of our book is false and
vastly expanded our understanding of the our cause corrupt because we attribute to
book by reading the Qur’an without the help them what neither they nor their forefathers
of the later commentaries, and by comparing know… .They claim that we attribute to them
it with earlier and contemporaneous texts what they do not know just as we attribute
and artifacts. They have made some startling to the Jews what they do not know when our
discoveries: that the Jews and Christians of book says and our prophet testifies that the
Muhammad’s day knew of alternative bibles, Jews said Ezra is the son of God.”
that Muhammad was an ardent apocalypti- It was not until the early twentieth
cist, and that the pagans of Mecca may not century that a German-Jewish Semiticist
have been pagan after all. named Rudolf Leszynsky realized that the
The reason these findings are so at odds controversy was much ado about nothing:
with the traditional Muslim understanding Muslims had simply misunderstood Muham-
of the Qur’an is that the first Muslims mad’s allusion. Leszynsky, who had trained
who recorded their interpretations of the as a rabbi, assumed that Muhammad would

JAN/FEB 2018 ISSUE 2 9

not have, in his words, “drawn it from thin Leszynsky’s method of reading the
air to denigrate the Jews.” So he hunted for Qur’an was not novel. Classically trained
“the only place (in the Hebrew Bible) where philologists commonly approached the text
someone who is searching for polytheism this way in the early twentieth century. But
among the Jews could discover something the method fell out of favor, until recently.
like it.” That place, Leszynsky argued, Academics sniffed at the endeavor as an
was Leviticus 16:8-10, where God instructs Orientalist enterprise to deprive Muslims of
Moses to have his brother Aaron bring two their religious heritage, or as an exercise in
goats before God on the Day of Atonement. simple-minded hermeneutics divorced from
Aaron is to sacrifice one goat to God at the latest advances in literary theory. Better
the Tabernacle for the sins of the Israelites, to privilege the way Muslims themselves
and allow the other goat to escape into the had understood the text, it was said, or to
wilderness “for Azazel” as a further sacrifice. abandon all hope of recovering any meaning
(The people who translated the King James divorced from its later readers.
Bible borrowed William Tyndale’s neologism It is certainly worthwhile to study how
“scapegoat” for the escaped goat, which is Muslims have understood the Qur’an, and
where we get the term.) we should always be mindful of the hostility
Modern Jews do not believe that “Aza- that sometimes motivates attempts to recover
zel” is a reference to a separate being, but an original meaning for the Qur’an. When
many ancient Jews did. For them, he was Islamophobes celebrate scholarly articles on
one of the angelic “sons of God” mentioned the Qur’an that go against traditional Mus-
in Genesis, whom God exiled after they lim understanding of the text, they are not
had sex with women. Despite Azazel’s fall reveling in scholarly achievement so much
from divine grace, he continued to have a as they are celebrating Muslims’ supposed
following among the Jewish magicians of ignorance of their own faith. But politics
Muhammad’s day, who invoked his name in and piety should not stop scholars from
their thaumaturgical incantations. According trying to unravel any scripture’s mysteries
to Leszynsky, it was this figure, also known without reference to the later tradition. We
as Azael, to whom Muhammad was refer- do not expect this from biblical scholars and
ring, and not Ezra—an argument borne out we should not demand it from scholars of
by studies of early Qur’anic orthography. the Qur’an.
By criticizing Jews for saying “Azael is Without a baseline translation of the
the son of God,” Muhammad was cleverly Qur’an independent from its later Muslim
exploiting the angel’s ambiguous status in interpretation, non-Muslims have no
Judaism to accuse the Jews of polytheism. touchstone for judging the credibility of
The Prophet was not fairly describing the jihadist claims that the Qur’an validates
nuances of Jewish practice and belief, but their behavior. They also have no basis for
that was not his intent; he meant to make dismissing unedifying readings of the Qu’ran
a polemical point about the deficiencies of that do not comport with their own political
Jewish monotheism, and his Azael reference or philosophical preferences. They are left,
would have hit his Jewish audience where it like George Sale nearly three centuries ago,
hurt. Later Muslims missed Muhammad’s and Garry Wills today, to read the book as
allusion, because the religious world the its interpreters read it. For such readers, the
Prophet knew had vanished by the time they Qur’an has no independent meaning; it is
came along. commentaries all the way down.