My Favorite Books

The Walking Drum
Ender's Game
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
The Curse of Chalion
The Name of the Wind
Chronicles of the Black Company
The Faded Sun Trilogy
The Tar-Aiym Krang

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Review: The Life of the Qur'an: From Eternal Roots to Enduring Legacy

The Life of the Qur'an: From Eternal Roots to Enduring Legacy The Life of the Qur'an: From Eternal Roots to Enduring Legacy by Mohamad Jebara
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For most of my life as a Preacher’s Kid, I have been interested in comparative theology and the story of how other religions come to understand their own scared scriptures. Toward that ideal, I have read english translations of many of the main scriptural texts for most world religions; however, being more at home within the Christian traditions, my ability to truly interpret and understand how these are received and implemented by the various practitioners. As a christian apologist, I am frequently working to provide context to many of the more problematic passages within my own text, so I am keenly aware of the need to know something of the context from which a sacred text emerged … and quite frankly, with respected to the Quran, I have only a limited understanding of that context (and there is plenty of fundamentalists proof texting on all sides to confuse the issue). To be clear, I do not speak any dialect of Arabic, nor do I have any depth in reading Quranic commentaries (with a passing exposure to the Hadiths). Quite frankly, the non-traditional organization of the Quran (by length instead of chronologically) make it even more susceptible to proof texting by proponents and opponents of the Muslim faith … so while I am not in a position to critique the accuracy of Jebara’s exposition on how the Quran can to be and how it should be interpreted, I had hoped that I might find a better appreciation for the text from an apologist and expert exegetist who has the background that I lack. I was not disappointed.

The book is organized in three (3) parts describing the environment into which the Quran was sent, how it was transmitted and received, and its evolution after the death of Muhammad, its principle recipient and herald. With a presumption that Jebara’s interpretations are correct, I found quite a lot to admire in professed purpose of the text, actually finding in it a lot of similarity to my own faith tradition … which is not too surprising given how much of that tradition is shared between the three (3) principle Abrahamic religions. One such shared focus in on that the author describes as a focus on “Blossoming” that has a direct correlation to the concept of “Flourishing” that I am more intimately familiar with. There is an expectation of ambiguity within the written archaic Arabic (without vowels) that permits multiple interpretations, a point supported by an anecdote where two students disagreed on a particular interpretation with Muhammad declaring that they were both correct. That makes it all the more heart breaking to see the state of relations between these faiths today that seems so far removed from the original intent of the revelations; in this case, the ambiguousness of the Arabic allowing certain fundamentalist interpretations for political purposes was briefly described in part III, but offers no specific critiques or solutions (despite some specific examples of where this form of error can be found today, the last 600 years or so of Islamic evolution is not covered at all).

The chapters and sections in this work are:

Part I: The Qur’an’s Roots
Chapter 1: DNA: Arabic Letters and Language
Chapter 2: Ancestry: Abrahamic Mindset
Chapter 3: Audience: Stagnant Seventh-Century Arabia

Part II: The Qur’an’s Growth
Chapter 4: Hanif: The Qur’an as Challenger and Awakener
Chapter 5: Muslim: The Qur’an Guiding Healing and repair
Chapter 6: Baqarah: The Qur’an Directing Lasting Impact

Part III: The Qur’an Legacy
Chapter 7: The Struggle for Custodianship
Chapter 8: The Race to Unlock the Qur’an’s Vision of Blossoming

Some of the other points that really got my attention are:

Derived from the Arabic concept for separating strands of raw flax and weaving them into a garment, the discipline of Tafsir was developed by Muhammad to help make the Qur’an accessible and relevant to popular audiences. The field today comprises thousands of volumes of commentary aiming to assist readers in making sense of the Qur’an to help improve their lives.

Life-saving wisdom therefore needed to be passed down from one generation to another in a more permanent manner. In the Qur’anic account, Adam’s grandson Enoch invented writing and thus earned his moniker Idris—“the great scribe” (a parallel to Shakespeare’s moniker “the Bard”).

Imam: literally, “a guide out of a dark cave back to the light” (11:17 and 46:12);

Blindly inheriting idols reflected how polytheism froze critical thinking. A stone statue might be designed to appear awe-inspiring, but its inherent lack of physical dynamism signified a stagnant worldview. The Qur’an repeatedly invokes the Arabic term for idol—sanam—literally, “frozen in time.”

The English term “prophet” suggests someone foretelling the future, yet Semitic prophets are more focused on recovering a precious heritage in order to chart a better future. The Nabi, the Semitic term for prophet, describes an unlikely source of water bubbling up in an unexpected location, like a desert spring.

To help his two sons (and their own progeny) serve as guides who help others emerge from darkness, Abraham builds with each of them a special sanctuary. In Jerusalem, he and Isaac together construct a “masjid”—literally, “a place of re-grounding”—with a parallel masjid erected with Ishmael at Mecca.

The Qur’an calls Jesus Al-Masih, the Messiah—literally, “the anointed one” or “the one who wipes away injustice.” Rather than adopting the Jewish framing of the messiah as a political redeemer, the Qur’anic understanding of the messiah is a reformer anointed by God to revive the theory of Abraham and the structure of Moses.

Around 200 CE, rabbis began developing the Pirke Avot, a collection of wisdom literature, and the Mishnah (“study via repetition”), a compiled set of commentaries clarifying Biblical scripture. A century later, they expanded the effort to launch a mega-project compiling Jewish oral tradition into a grand work known as the Talmud (“instruction”).

The Qur’an does not hesitate to retell biblical incidents with modifications—or to introduce entirely new vignettes around iconic biblical figures. As a book purposely not constructed around a formal narrative, the Qur’an leverages these allusions primarily to emphasize a moral value rather than reveal an origin story.

To understand the Qur’an, therefore, requires knowing whom it addresses. While its wisdom may be timeless, it was not revealed in a vacuum, but rather in a particular social and historical context to a particular set of people, constantly adapting to its evolving audiences in seventh-century Arabia.

The city’s talisman was its central cubed shrine, called the Ka‘bah (“the Nexus”), which designated Mecca as the capital city of Arabia. Built by the patriarch Abraham, the shrine contained 360 devotional statues, one for each of Arabia’s major tribes.

To deepen its intimate relationship with Muhammad while simultaneously propelling him forward, the Qur’an began addressing him directly with the verbal command Qul! Typically translated merely as “say,” the highly nuanced directive conveys the need for visible action: “Emerge to publicly proclaim!” And not simply to speak, but to explain by demonstrating so everyone can hear and see. Qul embodies the opposite of retreating under blankets or stagnating in self-reflection.

I was given this free advance reader copy (ARC) ebook at my request and have voluntarily left this review.

#TheLifeoftheQuran #NetGalley

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My Ratings Explained ...

  • [ ***** ] Amazing Read - Perfect story, exciting, engrossing, well developed complex characters, solid plot with few to no holes, descriptive environments and place settings, great mystery elements, realistic dialogue, believable reactions and behaviors; a favorite that I can re-read many times.
  • [ **** ] Great Read - Highly entertaining and enjoyable, exciting storyline, well developed characters and settings, a few discrepancies but nothing that can’t be overlooked. Some aspect of the story was new/refreshing to me and/or intriguing. Recommended for everyone.
  • [ *** ] Good Read - Solid story with a 'good' ending, or has some other redeeming feature. Limited character development and/or over reliance on tropes. Noticeable discrepancies in world building and/or dialog/behavior that were distracting. I connected enough with the characters/world to read the entire series. Most of the books I read for fun are here. Recommended for fans of the genre.
  • [ ** ] Okay Read - Suitable for a brief, afternoon escape … flat or shallow characters with little to no development. Over the top character dialog and/or behavior. Poor world building with significant issues and/or mistakes indicating poor research. Excessive use of trivial detail, info dumps and/or pontification. Any issues with the story/characters are offset by some other aspect that I enjoyed. Not very memorable. May only appeal to a niche group of readers. Recommended for some (YMMV).
  • [ * ] Bad Read - Awkward and/or confusing writing style. Poor world building and/or unbelievable (or unlikeable) characters. Victimization, gaslighting, blatant abuse, unnecessary violence, child endangerment, or any other highly objectionable behaviors by Main characters. I didn't connect with the story at all; significant aspects of this story irritated me enough that I struggled to finished it. Series was abandoned. Not recommended.