IQSA at SECSOR 2013: Roundtable Discussion on Carl Ernst, How to Read the Qur’an

By Michael Pregill

IQSA co-sponsored a panel at the recent meeting of the Southeastern Commission for the Study of Religion (SECSOR), a regional affiliate of the American Academy of Religion, the Society of Biblical Literature, and the American Schools of Oriental Research. The panel, held on March 17, was a roundtable dedicated to a discussion of Carl Ernst’s new book, How to Read the Qur’an: A New Guide, with Select Translations (UNC Press, 2011). Brief comments on Ernst’s book were given by Gordon Newby (Emory University), Youshaa Patel (University of Tennessee Knoxville), and Michael Pregill (Elon University), followed by a response from Ernst himself.

Round Table Discussion featuring, from left to right: Gordon Newby (Emory University), Carll Ernst (University of North Carolina), Youshaa Patel (University of Tennessee Knoxville), and Michael Pregill (Elon University)

Round Table Discussion featuring, from left to right: Gordon Newby (Emory University), Carll Ernst (University of North Carolina), Youshaa Patel (University of Tennessee Knoxville), and Michael Pregill (Elon University)

In his book, Ernst adopts a literary method of analysis of the Qur’an, emphasizing the evolution of the Qur’anic Suras as moments in a long process of development of revelation to a new religious community. He thus deliberately avoids the thematic treatment of the Qur’an that is all too common in introductory works on the scripture, since this approach places too much emphasis upon the completed, canonical Qur’an as a source of law and theology and often elides the diverse viewpoints and even contradictions manifest in the Qur’an’s message. Utilizing the approach adopted by Neuwirth and others of following the modified chronological scheme proposed by Noldeke in the nineteenth century, Ernst divides his work between Early Meccan, Middle and Late Meccan, and Medinan compositions, paying close attention to the intertextual allusions both to older literature and previous Suras found in each stage of the Qur’an’s development.

Gordon Newby began the conversation by noting that he teaches the Qur’an in three different courses, and that Ernst’s approach well complements his own. In his remarks, Newby observed that Ernst’s emphasis on the Qur’anic Suras as an evolving discourse, a “developmental model,” fits well with his pedagogical focus on the multivocality of the Qur’an—its varied, complex, and often maddeningly indeterminate approaches to its subject matter. Cultivating an appreciation for scriptural indeterminacy in students who urgently want to know what the Qur’an “really means” can be challenging, but Ernst’s work potentially offers us substantial assistance in this task.

In turn, Patel focused on the questions of both the Qur’an’s audience as imagined by Ernst—likely more plural and ambiguous than later Muslim tradition might have us believe—and the audience of Ernst’s book itself, since the work implicitly seems to be aimed at non-Muslim readers. The Qur’an’s evident familiarity with the ideas and practices of older monotheist communities inevitably provokes the question of the real makeup and presuppositions of its late antique audience. Patel also interrogated Ernst’s attempt to dispel the claim frequently made by Western readers of the Qur’an that the scripture is incoherent and illogical, suggesting that instead of dismissing the idea of the Qur’an’s incoherence, we might rather embrace its use of non-linear argument and presentation of its ideas. He linked this to the experiential reality of the Qur’an as an oral and aural text, which seems like a necessary complement to Ernst’s emphasis on encountering the Qur’an as a written text.

Pregill’s remarks focused on Ernst’s methodological dependence on the sira or biography of Muhammad as the ultimate source used by the tradition to establish the chronology of revelation of the Suras. Reiterating the well-established “revisionist” critique of the sira, Pregill speculated that adopting a “Qur’anist” approach to the Suras—which abandons any presuppositions about their developmental sequence—often yields interesting insights; however, without any external basis for proposing an alternative chronology, all such hypotheses must necessarily remain speculative. He also noted that Ernst’s work not only succinctly summarizes the major insights yielded by recent investigation into the Qur’an’s structural reliance on so-called “ring composition” but also convincingly models the use of this technique in an original way, demonstrating for readers how they themselves might use it to execute their own close readings of Qur’anic passages.

In his response to the panelists’ observations, Ernst noted that he was inspired to write this book after being approached by a publisher interested in commissioning him to translate the Qur’an. Ernst decided instead to write an introductory guide to the literary analysis of the Qur’an, which seemed to him to be a more pressing need. Ernst felt that most readers unaccustomed to the “raw” Qur’an approached in the canonical order probably find the text forbidding and incomprehensible, and so an introduction to the Qur’an that demonstrates for the reader how the text emerged organically in its revelatory context, as well as how its message gradually changed over time, would be infinitely more valuable. (At the same time, in offering new translations of large parts of the Qur’an, Ernst has attempted to overcome the common reliance on antiquated language by most translators, opting instead for language that is more direct and contemporary, and thus hopefully truer to the Qur’an’s rhetorical and poetic style.)

Ernst’s interest in analysis based on ring composition was driven by the method’s capacity to preserve tensions within Suras. Understanding how the Qur’an deliberately seeks to build a creative tension between historical particulars and moral absolutes by positioning the former at the outer edges of Sura and the latter at the center allows us to recognize contradictions within the text—even, and especially, within individual Suras—as an indispensable aspect of Qur’anic rhetoric. This perspective encourages us to embrace such contradictions instead of dismissing them through the use of abrogation and other interpretive strategies that aim to produce a monolithic, univocal scriptural text.

Thanks are owed to all of the panelists for contributing their time and effort to this event; Alfons Teipen, who kindly agreed to moderate the panel; Dave Damrel and Rizwan Zamir, chairs of the SECSOR Study of Islam program unit, who first came up with the idea for the panel; and to all of the attendees. Special thanks are also owed to Erin Palmer (Elon University CAS ’13) for her invaluable assistance as rapporteur for this session.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2013. All rights reserved.

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