A Course on the Qur’an as Literature

By Emran El-Badawi

I offered an undergraduate course last spring for the first time on the Qur’an as Literature. My goal was simple, I wanted my students to read the text closely and interpret its verses themselves. Their apprehension, at first, to commit to this bold exercise soon gave way to an ease and skill with handling the text.

Framing this course on the Qur’an as “literature” emphasized the literary qualities of the text and de-emphasized a theological approach. It meant going deep into the rhyme, rhetoric and homiletic nature of the text. It also entailed divorcing the text, to some extent, from Tafsir. I took some cautionary notes from Andrew Rippin’s article on the pitfalls of “The Qur’an as Literature,”[1], but some of this was new territory for me.



Part of the course description reads:

This course examines the content and literary style of the Qur’an and in the context of the late antique Near East, ca. 2nd-7th centuries CE. We will read the text alongside the texts belonging to the “People of the Scripture” (ahl al-kitab), i.e. Christians and Jews, and other religious groups explicitly mentioned in the Qur’an. Their scriptures include the Hebrew Bible (al-Tawrah), the New Testament (al-Injil), Zoroastrian texts (cf. al-majus) and Arabian prophetic speech (shi‘r kahin). This comparative approach will provide students with a rich understanding of the Qur’an as an integral part of world literature, and challenge contemporary and traditional assumptions about the text. This approach will also allow the Qur’an to speak for itself, rather than reading it through the eyes of medieval interpretation (Tafsir) or prophetic tradition (Hadith) which began in the 9th century CE. This course also exposes students to some of the scholarly challenges of studying the different layers of a text (Meccan vs. Medinan), identifying its audience, trying to construct the history of its transmission (oral vs. written) without much evidence, and to the limits of translation.

Fortunately, the class size was fairly small, 15 or so, and students came from different religious as well as cultural backgrounds, which made for much lively discussion and debate. Students were pushed to think critically and in a systematic function about the Qur’an, as well as challenge their own assumptions about the text. For students I find two principle barriers that stand between them and the Qur’an. These are the ‘politicization of the text’ on the one hand, and the ‘confusion of the text with traditional interpretation’ on theother. More broadly speaking, I wanted them to appreciate scripture not just as a religious text, but as an integral part of world literature that holds value in the academy.

For an undergraduate course like this, all instruction and materials were in English. Reading materials included  How to Read the Qur’an by Carl Ernst (who incidentally has a terrific course on this subject!) [2] and several supplementary articles including: a rhyming translation of Q 93-114 by Shawkat Toorawa, a qur’anic reading of the Psalms by Angelika Neuwirth, and a humanistic reception of the text by me.[3] Students were encouraged but not required to buy a translation of the Qur’an, given the plethora of translations online. (Although for practical purposes we used Yusuf Ali’s translation during class time). Finally, included in the course materials were sections of the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, post-biblical exhortations (e.g. Ephrem the Syrian), Zoroastrian texts and Pre-Islamic poetry. For some students it was the first time they had read the Qur’an; for others the first time they read the Bible. In both cases, students expressed how pleased they were at this eye-opening experience and fruitful exchange.

The course benefited a great deal from following stories posted on the IQSA blog (that’s right, this blog!) and the Qur’an Seminar at the University of Notre Dame, which was still running at the time. To my surprise, students were both curious and welcoming of the technical dimensions of Qur’an study. Some of our best discussions, for example, involved scrutinizing the rhyme of Arabic poetry or considering a particular Syriac word. The course naturally explored a number of qur’anic themes like apocalypticism, prophecy, law, etc, as well as introduced students to debates concerning the text’s chronology, speaker and structure. My happiest moment was when a student expressed to me how the course “made the Qur’an part of a much more intellectual conversation.”

Teaching this course was a tremendous learning experience for both the students and myself. The students learned how to navigate a sometimes unwieldy text and appreciate its tremendous contribution to the world in which they live. Collectively, we learned that as long as one approaches any scripture respectfully as well as critically, the task of understanding it becomes that much easier.

[1] Andrew Rippin, “The Qur’an as literature: perils, pitfalls and prospects,” Bulletin of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies, 10.1, 1983.

[2] Carl Ernst, How to Read the Qur’an: A New Guide with Select Translations, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.

[3] Shawkat Toorawa, “’The Inimitable Rose’, being Qur’anic saj‘ from Surat al-Duhâ to Surat al-Nâs (Q. 93–114) in English rhyming prose,” Journal of Qur’anic Studies, 8.2, 2006; Angelika Neuwirth, “Qur’anic readings of the Psalms” in Ed. Angelika Neuwirth et al. (eds.), The Qur’an in Context, Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2009; Emran El-Badawi, “A humanistic reception of the Qur’an,” Scriptural Margins: On the Boundaries of Sacred Texts, English Language Notes, 50.2, 2012.

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

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.