The Qur’an in What Context?

The Qur’an is a very strange document.  Although it is often likened to the New Testament, this has merely to do with its sacred status among its reading community, and does not shed much of any light on the Qur’an itself, how to interpret it, or how it developed.  While the New Testament is mostly composed of narrative, and secondly of letters of exhortation from the first generation of Christian leaders, the Qur’an is composed, it is claimed, entirely of God’s words which he revealed (or more literally, “sent down”) through the mediation of the angel Jibril, aka Gabriel.  Any narrative in the Qur’an is framed as a story which God, through Jibril, is telling Muhammad.

The traditional account is that Muhammad heard these divine oracles, memorized them, and used to repeat them in the hearing of his Companions, who likewise memorized them, until some time later they began to write them down.  When they did so, the traditional Islamic account continues, certain differences emerged among the Companions’ written records, and so the third caliph, ‘Uthman b. ‘Affan, standardized the text of the Qur’an.  Even ‘Uthman’s Qur’an did not have vowels or certain other diacritics, however, like other Arabic texts of that time, and so some variations in the recitation of the Qur’an persist until the present.  The vast majority of these variations make little difference to the meaning, of course, and medieval Islamic scholars compiled the differences in books of “recitations” (qira’at).

One large obstacle to understanding the Qur’an is that its Arabic language is significantly different, especially in its vocabulary, than all later Arabic texts.  Even the earliest Qur’anic commentaries (tafasir, sing. tafsir) wrestle with the meaning of certain key words.  While in many cases the medieval interpretations eventually became standardized, it is by no means clear that these commentators were doing anything more than guessing, and therefore not clear that we should be guided by their suggestions for the original meaning of the Qur’an in its historical context.

Our lack of knowledge of that historical context is a second large obstacle to interpreting the Qur’an.  Although later Arabic authors filled in stories about Muhammad, it is again unclear how much these stories can be trusted as stemming from Muhammad’s own lifetime rather than some later pious imagination.  Some stories, such as that of the Satanic Verses, were controversial even among medieval Muslims.  It is unclear how much we should trust these later Islamic sources.  On the other hand, the earliest sources regarding Islam were written by non-Muslims (conveniently translated in R. Hoyland‘s Seeing Islam as Others Saw It), although they often do not show much interest in Muhammad personally or the Qur’an.  And thus we are left without a reliable context for interpreting the Qur’an, beyond identifying its century.

In some sense, an even more basic obstacle to interpreting the Qur’an exists in the difficulty of identifying its genre.  In a very real sense, scholars looking at the Qur’an do not know what they are looking at.  Texts are typically composed in genres, and each genre has certain conventions which clarify what the words in the text are doing.  While I stated above that the Qur’an is God’s speeches to Muhammad through the mediation of Jibril, this is in fact a later Muslim characterization of the text, which is by no means necessarily convincing for the entirety of the compilation.  But since we have many texts from Late Antiquity, the period preceding the composition of the Qur’an, we can compare the Qur’an to various genres to get a sense of how it might be working.  This is a fruitful course for future research, and one recent suggestion has considered the possibility of using the Late Antique genre of “question and answer” literature to clarify certain passages of the Qur’an.  I especially appreciate D. Bertaina’s rejection of a reductionistic one-way influence model, although speaking of the Qur’an as an “active agent that witnessed question-and-answer events” seems to confuse the Qur’an and its composer(s).  I hope more Qur’anic scholars will take seriously the need to identify a context in order to interpret the Qur’an.


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