The Study Quran provides a scholarly yet accessible resource where one can quickly and easily explore how Muslims have interpreted the Quran through the centuries to the present day. The Study Quran is a much-needed project in a time when confusion about the Quran and Islam is so prevalent. Nieuwwij.nl spoke with one of the editors of The Study Quran, professor Joseph Lumbard: “The fact that The Study Quran has received opposition from extremist sects and from alt-right advocates indicates to me that they realize that a broader understanding of the Quran threatens their particular claims and agendas.”
For non-insiders, can you explain what in your view sets The Study Quran apart from many other translations? Were you surprised by the success of your book?
“What sets The Study Quran apart from other translations is that it is accompanied by an annotated academic commentary of close to one million words. The commentary stands apart from notes in many other translations in that it does not seek to advocate one particular school of Islam, but instead to give a broad overview. With nothing else like it in the field, scholars such as Bruce Lawrence have gone so far as to say, ‘No one will be able to offer a basic course on Islam, or to propose an in depth study of the Quran, without reference to this monumental achievement.’ Were there other study Qurans in Western academia, this would not be the case.
I was not surprised by the success of The Study Quran. That is not say that I expected it. But it has been clear to anyone teaching Quran in the West that we have been in need of such a volume for a long time. The Study Quran has filled a rather large void.
How has your personal view of the Quran changed after translating the text? Did you gain any new insight that you did not expect beforehand?
“That’s a very difficult question because my view of the Quran continues to change. If one is not contemplating the Quran, one is not really reading it, and contemplation will always lead to new insights. I have had many new insights, enough to fill many volumes. Working on <em>The Study Quran</em> was like being tasked with providing a detailed map of a city in which you have lived for many years. Once you roam the streets day and night walking into every corner and alley, it will be as if you are now living in a completely new city. I am on far more intimate terms with the text and am very grateful for that.”
Which words, verses or phrases were the most difficult to translate? And why do you think that was the case?
“When one gets into the finer points of translation, it is always idiomatic expressions and particles that are the most difficult to translate. For Arabic the particles are particularly difficult. In his book Mughnī al-Labīb, Ibn Hishām al-Ansarī provides 27 meanings for the particle waw, which most frequently means “and”, but can also mean “with” or “while,” and also functions like a period, comma, or semicolon, depending upon the context. The translators were able to come to agreement regarding many words that we thought would be very difficult to work out, such as taqwā (reverence). But there are many passages where we still maintain a healthy disagreement about the manner in which a certain conjunction or preposition was being used in the original Arabic.”
The Study Quran is mainly grounded in classical tafsir. Do you think modern tafsir are less interesting or did you perhaps have other criteria as to why you lean more towards classical works?
“The reason for giving preference to the classical tafsir is that many of them have stood the test of time. Some tafsirs that were written more recently may soon fade into the background and cease to be considered representative of a particular school of thought. But we do employ tafsir from the modern period, such as that of Allamah Tabataba’i and that of al-Shawkani. Ultimately, we were not trying to provide a laundry list of interpretations, rather we were trying to bring out some opinions that are most representative of the Quranic text itself and of the manner in which it has been received. As regards the latter, the classical commentaries were more representative. As regards the former, there are indeed observations made by modern scholars that add to those of the classical tradition. There are many observations from medieval and modern commentaries that I would have liked to include. But, unfortunately, we did need to draw the line somewhere.”
Can we say that the classical tafsir of the Quran is generally a humanistic one? Concerning which topics is that the case and in which cases is it not?
“It is very difficult to say that “classical tafsir” is anything in particular. Tafsir is a vast body of literature, spanning over one thousand years and providing insights from multiple perspectives. Within the classical tradition there are certainly tafsirs that speak more directly to what we identify as the “humanistic” concerns of contemporary humanity. If by “humanistic” one means concern for human welfare, that is a central concern of the entire classical Islamic tradition. If by “humanistic” one means a stance that values the agency of human beings and their ability to improve their affairs through the development and application of the intellect, that is certainly a part of the classical tradition. Such a perspective will be found quite extensively in the tafsir of Zamakhshari, as well as later tafsirs, such as those of Ibn Ajiba and Allamah Tabataba’i. But this is very different than the secular perspectives of humanism that we experience today.
For many classical commentators the intellect and revelation can be seen as twin sources of guidance (though others would object to this), but when it comes to understanding the nature of the human condition, our purpose and our final ends, they would maintain that the intellect, when operating properly will reach the same understanding as that provided by revelation and that the purpose of revelation is to awaken this capacity within the human being. Nonetheless, most would maintain that the intellect cannot operate completely independently of revelation.”
We live in a post 9/11-era and a current IS-era, with lots of distrust against Islam and Quran in general. Can you tell us how we can make good use of The Study Quran in this context?
“The Study Quran can prove invaluable for Muslims and non-Muslims who wish to get a broader understanding of how particular Quranic verses and passages have been understood over time. One has both extremists who claim the Quran as a source for their actions and ant-Islamic elements citing the Quran to denigrate Islam. With The Study Quran, one can pick it up and see other interpretations of verses that some of these parties may cite to support their agendas. The fact that the The Study Quran has received opposition from extremist sects and from alt-right advocates indicates to me that they realize that a broader understanding of the Quran threatens their particular claims and agendas.
Daniel Burke, a reporter from CNN said to one of the people whom he interviewed regarding The Study Quran that it was the first time he had ever felt like he was getting anything out of reading the Quran. This can be an important resource for reporters, scholars in other areas, even policy makers, and really anyone who just wants to get a broader perspective of what the Quran says and how that has been understood and applied by Muslims. Muslims have had a tendency to explain the Quran to non-Muslims in manner that advocated for one particular school of thought, one particular take on the Quran. The Study Quran does not do this and this is one of its particular advantages over other presentations of the Quran.”
We at Nieuwwij.nl strive to stimulate interfaith dialogue. We often hear from Christian theologians that Muslims should learn to view the Quran as a book that is not literally the word of God (like the Bible). Otherwise, they say, scientific study is restricted and the human freedom in developing a personal, modern, Islam is restricted as well. What is your stance on this matter?
“The basic facts of intellectual history prove that such statements are false and ignorant. Many of the greatest achievements and developments in the sciences were made by people who believed the Quran was the word of God and recited it every day. Ibn al-Haytham is considered to be the father of scientific methodology. Nasir al-Din Tusi is considered the first person to establish trigonometry as an independent discipline and is the inventor of the Tusi couple through which Copernicus was able to prove that the earth orbits the sun. Ibn al-Nafis is known to be the first person to have provided detailed diagrams of pulmonary circulation. The surgical procedures developed by al-Zahrawi spread into Europe and some surgical tools that we use today can be traced to his remarkably detailed instructions. If one examines the paradigm shifting scientific contributions of believing practicing Muslims throughout history one would be hard pressed to say that belief in the Quan as the word of God curtailed scientific investigation.
“But the question you pose reveals many layers of misunderstanding. One of the most important accomplishments of The Study Quran is that everyone now has access to a single volume that displays how, rather than curtailing intellectual development, the Quran gave rise to a rich and diverse culture of intellectual contemplation. For Muslims the fact that the Quran is considered the word of God serves as a recognition that we never know all that there is to know. God’s knowledge is infinite and our knowledge is finite. Therefore no one person or school of thought can ever claim a monopoly on knowledge and no one school of interpretation can ever claim a monopoly on the understanding of the Quran, try as they may. Hopefully The Study Quran can serve to relieve the tremendous misunderstandings necessary for one to be able to say that the Quran restricts scientific study and personal development.
“To say that one’s partners in dialogue must abandon a tenet that is central to their faith and their identity is to ask one’s partners in dialogue to be someone other than who they are. It is thus to deny the possibility of real dialogue in the first place. What is really being said in such statements is “If only they were more like us.” It results in juxtaposed monologues posing as dialogue.”
What are other projects you are working on and will there be a next chapter for The Study Quran?
“I hope that The Study Quran will be seen as an invitation to others to prepare more such volumes. There are many other methodologies that could be employed and other perspectives that could be taken for other study Qurans. Perhaps there will be future editions of The Study Quran as well. For my own part, I am working on multiple projects that stem from observations that arose while working on The Study Quran. There are multiple verses, such as Q 2:62 , whose interpretation history provides a window into classical debates regarding important issues in Islamic intellectual history. My dream is to find the funding for a multi-volume academic Quran commentary series similar to the Anchor Bible Series. This is an obvious next step for the field of Quranic Studies. It would be an honor to be a part of it.”
Joseph E.B. Lumbard is currently a professor at The American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. A translator, commentary author and general editor for The Study Quran, he is also a former Advisor for Interfaith Affairs to King Abdullah II of Jordan and the author, editor, and translator of several articles and books on topics of Islamic philosophy, Sufism, and Quranic Studies. Lumbard is a frequent lecturer and has taken part in several Interfaith dialogues, among them the Common Word initiative.
 Quran 2:62 “Truly those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabeans – whosoever believes in God and the Last Day and works righteousness shall have their reward with their Lord. No fear shall come upon them, nor shall they grieve.” From: The Study Quran, 2015.