On the study of the Qur’an in the West

It’s difficult to say quite what I want to say about the events of the last week.  I feel sympathy for the families of those killed, and also for the thousands of people in Libya and Egypt who are once again facing violence head-on.  I feel angry at those who stirred up hate and spite with all of the self-awareness of a child chucking stones at a hornet’s nest.  And I feel fear, not of the fear-mongers here in the US, or those overseas, but of the system we have developed in which they, too, are facing each other head-on.

I’ve studied extremism, but the reality of ideologies prior to this century is that most extremists would have no real awareness of one another.  I’ve read apocalypses and apologetics from the seventh and eighth centuries that tell all sorts of lies about Christians, Muslims, Jews and Manicheans, but the reality is that these texts were confined.  They were read primarily by people who were already inclined to believe them, and no one else.  And there were extremists on all sides, all producing fear-mongering lies, but again, these lies were confined.

Now, the case is quite different.  It’s not difficult for those in the Middle East who wish to stir up hate to claim that Americans want to destroy Islam when all they have to do is search youtube to find hundreds of videos of Americans saying just that.  But at the same time, the internet offers the chance to spread information and knowledge in a way unthinkable three decades ago.  We in the West *experienced* the Iranian repression and the Arab spring in a way we never would have, if it were not for facebook, twitter and youtube.  So I’m not willing to claim that the internet is a threat, but as of yet, we’ve found no way to counter its capacity to spread misinformation.

Which is why I was happy but also frustrated to read Gabriel Said Reynolds’ article in the Christian Science Monitor about the need for dedicated study of the Qur’an in the West.  I am a huge admirer of his work, but I think in his analysis of the International Qur’anic Studies Association, he’s frankly a bit naive.  He’s right, of course, there needs to be committed study of the Qur’an in the West, in the way there is of the Bible, but it’s unfair to compare the two studies directly.  The Society of Biblical Literature is a hundred and thirty year old association that arose out of the first critical studies of the books of the Bible in the mid-nineteenth century.  In its history, it’s spawned one of the largest journals for the study of theology, it’s greatly impacted the study of the Ancient Near East, it’s associated from and then disassociated from the American Academy of Religion (and, at least according to AAR gossip, is in the process of re-associating again), and it has, at least in part, helped spawn the Christian evangelical and fundamentalist movements.  The SLB as it stands today, therefore, is the end result of more than a century of debate, and there are hundreds of thousands of Christians who still fight vehemently to stop it from its work.

I understand and share Reynolds’ frustration at the lack of an equivalent society for the study of the Qur’an.  I started my academic career as an Islamicist, and only came to the study of Christianity as a graduate student.  The first time I had to sit an exam about the Bible, I was instructed to study Biblical commentaries, a form of academic criticism almost completely lacking in English for the Qur’an.  My exam was on the letter to the Romans, which, in most printings of the Bible, is maybe twenty or thirty pages long[1].  The commentary was more than five hundred pages long.  It went through line by line, discussing linguistic variations, loan words, variant translations, metaphoric language, and overall structure.  It was amazing, and I remember sitting in the lower reading room of the Radcliffe Camera, quietly lamenting to myself, ‘why doesn’t this exist for the Qur’an?!’

But of course there is a reason it doesn’t.  Because we, as a field, cannot simply decide that we’re going to create our own SBL and be on our way.  We’re going to have to accept the century or more it will take us to build up the field, and as of yet, there has been no reason to do so. Islamic studies has been blessed with increased funding in this century, but most of the funding tends to get earmarked for the study of the modern Middle East, and even with the increase, the study of religions is still one of the most poorly funded fields in North America.  And Islamic studies is still faced with all of the problems of politics and personal history that I’ve talked about before.

But I agree with Reynolds that we at least need to start.  Because there is a need.  Because we are aware of Islam, and Muslims the world over are aware of us.  Because people are looking for information, and for want of the truth, they’ll take what is available to them.  But it is frustrating.  It’s frustrating to look at the SBL and feel like we’ll never catch up.  It’s so tempting to want to fast-forward through the next century, to a time, somewhere (I hope) in the future, where we address our deficiencies head-on, where we embrace and accept our checkered past, and move forward with something better than the generations that came before us.

[1] I think – I don’t have a Bible in front of me, as sadly all of my books are in boxes at the moment.

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About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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