Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Caner K. Dagli, Maria Massi Dakake, Joseph E.B. Lumbard, and Mohammed Rustom, The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary, 2048 pp., $59.99
November 2015 marked the release of a first-of-its-kind in the English language: The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary, edited by Seyyed Hossein Nasr. This Quran is impressive, timely, and necessary, especially for Western audiences debating the nature and teachings of Islam in light of attacks made by Islamist groups throughout the Middle East and the West, such as those in Ankara, Paris and San Bernardino, and increasingly heated presidential campaign debates regarding Muslims in the United States.
The Quran is a well-known and widely translated book. Even if one is not a Muslim, it is hard to deny that the Quran is a work with a distinctive voice of great poetic beauty, at turns melancholy, wistful and sharp. Why is this version different and why does it deserve a review? What sets this Quran apart from previous translations are the thousands of pages of commentary on each verse—sourced from traditional commentators, both Sunni and Shia—that along with analytic essays, swell the size of this Quran to over two thousand pages, instead of the normal 300–500 pages of most translations.
The commentaries are, in fact, the most important part of this Quran because they explain how the religious traditions of Islam are seen by their adherents and scholars. Most religious traditions understand their scriptures through a vast body of interpretation and commentary; to do otherwise is considered reductionist and the product of an incomplete understanding. However, many Westerners, especially those coming from a Protestant-influenced religious tradition, have an approach toward religious scriptures that is highly literal in nature. Unfortunately, this way of thinking is shared by the Salafist movement.
Those familiar with Nasr’s work know that he is a traditionalist who strives to approach religion through authentic sources. The vision of Islam on display in his writing and in this Quran is thus uniquely powerful and honest because it eschews both the fanaticism and extremism of Salafism and Wahhabism, movements considered new and deviant within traditionalist Islam. It also shies away from the temptation many Muslim liberals face in reforming their religion: the temptation of progressivism, the idea that claims Islam must somehow be reworked to accommodate and fit in with contemporary liberal thought, and that in fact Islam is the prototype of such thought if interpreted “correctly.” This last claim is wrong and dishonest because it flies in the face of both thousands of years of practice and scholarly conclusions. The world needs an Islam at peace with other civilizations, but it also needs forces that can check the excesses of 21st-century Western liberalism. It is one thing to realize that times are changing and adapt accordingly; it is entirely another thing to dilute belief systems to the point where they become meaningless.
Thus, the Islam presented in this Quran embraces the commentaries and traditions that “contextualize” passages in the text and demonstrate openness and flexibility without shying away from interpretations that many Westerners would disagree with. The Quran’s purpose is to not to confirm with Western notions of religion, but to expound on a distinctive, self-contained spiritual system that is in itself a way of life.
For example, consider a couple of passages from the Quran that Westerners find problematic. One passage is from Surah 4, Ayah 34, and reads:
…Therefore righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [their husbands’] absence what God has guarded. As for those from whom you fear discord and animosity, admonish them, then leave them in their beds, then strike them. Then if they obey you, seek not a way against them.
This is obviously one of the more controversial verses of the Quran because it appears to permit wife-beating. Islamic commentator Reza Aslan disputes the translation of the word for “strike” or “beat,” arguing that the Arabic word could be interpreted in over a dozen ways. But the explanation found in this Quran is more reliable in terms of what the traditions of the religion say, and takes a middle ground. The commentary explains that for the attitude of haughtiness (nushūz), “a husband is given a set of three sanctions to correct her behavior. These three sanctions are commonly understood as progressive, meaning husbands should begin with verbal correction….” The commentaries of three renowned Islamic scholars are cited in this interpretation of the commentary: al-Qurtubi (Spanish-Egyptian Sunni, died 1272), al-Tabataba’i (Iranian Shia, died 1981), and al-Zamakhshari (Central Asian Persian rationalist, died 1144).
The commentary then goes on to describe the process of how the verse was revealed to Muhammad: he had ordered a husband who struck his wife to be struck in retaliation before this verse was relayed to him, instructing otherwise. Six commentators quote Muhammad as saying “I wanted one thing and God wanted another,” and several other scholars are cited as saying that striking one’s wife is something to be avoided, and noting that striking is to be understood strictly for the purpose of altering behavior and not for punishment. But the scholarly exegesis here does not shy away from what is politically inconvenient today, noting that the commentators are in fact “unanimous” in translating the Arabic word to “strike.”
The most controversial verse of the Quran for Westerners is the Sword Verse (9:5). In context, it says:
(3) And an announcement from God and His Messenger to the people on the day of the greater ḥajj: that God and His Messenger have repudiated the idolaters. So, if you repent, it would be better for you. And if you turn away, then know that you cannot thwart God. And give the disbelievers glad tidings of a painful punishment, (4) save for those idolaters with whom you have made a treaty, and who thereafter commit no breach against you, nor support anyone against you. So fulfill the treaty with them for its duration. Truly, God loves the reverent. (5) Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wheresoever you find them, capture them besiege them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they repent, and perform the prayer and give the alms, then let them go their way. Truly God is Forgiving, Merciful. (6) And if any of the idolaters seek asylum with thee, grant him asylum until he hears the Word of God. Then convey him to his place of safety. That is because they are a people who know not. (7) How can the idolaters have a treaty with God and with His Messenger, save for those with whom you made a treaty at the Sacred Mosque? If they remain true to you, remain true to them. Truly God loves the reverent.
The controversy chiefly arises from the lines, taken out of context, that say “slay the idolaters wheresoever you find them, capture them besiege them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush.” Again, extremists would argue that these lines permit them to wage endless jihad on non-Muslims, while liberals argue for an extremely narrow, historically conditioned interpretation of the sword verse. The traditional commentaries and understandings found in the Quran, again, occupy the middle ground. It is very interesting to see the enormous scholarly debate on the topic of the use of force in Islam, as this is one of the most significant passages concerning that topic in the Quran. For example, two classical Islamic commentators argued that idolaters are fought “by reason of their idolatry and polytheism.” But most other commentators disagree since the next few passages explicitly guarantee safety (“if they remain true to you, remain true to them”) for those who have treaties with Muslims. Moreover, the verses have not been abrogated—when there are contradictory commands in the Quran, generally the later verses abrogate the teachings of the earlier ones, as per Islamic tradition. The commentary on the famous verse 2:256, which declares that “there is no coercion in religion,” reports that while some argue that these verses were abrogated by the Sword Verse, this interpretation would deny the “idea of responsibility before God, in which one is taken to account for one’s actions in both this life and the Hereafter,” according to the scholar Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (Sunni Persian, died 1210).
This Quran contains these discussions, and much more, including many poetic and mystical passages that do not necessarily have political or social implications. Take 24:35, for example: “God is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The parable of His light is a niche, wherein is a lamp. The lamp is in a glass. The glass is as a shining star kindled from a blessed olive tree, neither of the East nor of the West. Its oil would well-nigh shine forth, even if no fire had touched it. Light upon light.” The commentary by al-Ghazzali (Sunni Persian, died 1111), a mystic who has been accused of anti-scientific tendencies and is probably the most important figure in Islamic history after Muhammad, is quite beautiful. For him, the “niche, glass, wick tree, and oil all represent levels of perception and consciousness”—the niche represents the physical sense; the glass, the imagination; the lamp, the soul’s power; the olive tree, meditation; and the oil, the knowledge possessed by friends of God.
Evidently, the Quran is a complex book that never conforms to the fancies of those who want it to say whatever they would like. Without a doubt, some interpretations and passages of the text are difficult for modern Westerners to come to terms with. But this is fine: the purpose should not be to straightjacket all religions into a progressive worldview. The explanations, nuances and subtleties of the Quran are evident and worth noting in the commentaries found in this volume, which will help those unfamiliar with Islam gain a better understanding of it from its own perspective. The critical reader may note a few drawbacks to this Quran: for example, there are few contemporary commentaries or those drawn from South Asia, which demographically has the largest number of Muslims in the world and a long scholarly tradition of its own. And for a book that prizes tradition, this Quran lacks the Arabic version of the text, as is typical among most translations. However, these are all minor quibbles. As a whole, there is no resource as expansive, detailed and in line with what Muslims actually think about their own scripture that is currently available to those seeking to understand Islam as this Quran.