Monday, May 12, 2008

Book Review: The Story of the Qur'an: Its History and Place in Muslim Life by Ingrid Mattson

The Story of the Qur'an: Its History and Place in Muslim Life by Ingrid Mattson. Blackwell Publishing, 2008. ISBN: 9781405122580. 262 pp. Paperback. Find the book in a library near you.
The Story of the Qur'an: Its History and Place in Muslim Life
One of the motivations I had for this blog is guiding people to good introductory materials for non-Muslims to learn about Islam. If we can call books like Suzanne Haneef's What Everyone Should Know About Islam and Muslims the first generation of Muslims' attempts to educate non-Muslims about Islam using contemporary English and mass, high-quality publications, Dr. Mattson's book represents a new generation of mass outreach books.

"First" generation books typically avoided difficult issues such as sectarian splits, slavery, marginalization of women and values not held by liberal European and American audiences. The authors were more concerned with filling a void of ignorance with a general, positive impression of Muslims.

The flood of pseudo-scholarship post September 11, 2001 about Islam has reduced the effectiveness of these first generation books by claiming to tell readers about Islam through out-of-context quotes from individual Muslims and scriptures. Anybody who has actually attempted to refute this kind of literature knows the frustration of attempting to counter a simplistic, positivistic, non-contextual 2-3 line quote with the 2-3 pages of necessary technical discourse. I believe we should adopt the phrase Dr. Mattson uses to describe these critics of Muslims: "non-Muslim Islamic fundamentalists." (p. vi)

What I'm calling "second" generation Muslim mass outreach books is characterized by starting from a more-or-less manageable topic, which may or may not be the object of United States or Muslim culture wars, and telling a story of how contemporary Muslims came to hold beliefs on that topic and adopt practices related to it. These books are characterized by a degree of accssible scholarship which, while not cutting edge for scholars in the field, causes the general reader to hesitate from adopting a "fundamentalist", unsophisticated, fossilized, ahistorical position based on reading statements such as "Islam advocates X" or "The Quran says X." The reader comes to appreciate that Muslims have cultural and intellectual history, just like other religious groups, and that revelation, reason, socio-economic factors, historical events and outstanding individuals have all played roles in shaping that history.

I think a good example of this distinction is Martin Lings's tremendous book, Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources. I'd classify this, with reservations, as a "first" generation book, because it does not go into the dialogical process by which Muslims came to view the Messenger Muhammad salla Allah alayhi wa sallam. It does not discuss the factors which caused al-Qadi `Iyad to write al-Shifa, and how his ideas dominated pre-modern Muslim thinking about the topic, despite the existence and persistence of alternatives. This first generation book is unique in that Martin Lings did not allow contemporary concerns to dominate the narrative, and this independence and authenticity to the traditional Muslim viewpoint is why I still recommend this book over other English biographies of the Messenger salla Allah alayhi wa sallam.

Dr. Mattson's book, therefore, will not be a simple read for the reader who wants a simple answer to the question, "Does the Quran instruct Muslims to kill non-Muslims indiscriminately?" The reader must enter the book either seeking to understand the Quran as a Muslim does or develop that desire (or else skip to Chapter 5, which of course I don't recommend!). Chapters 1 and 2 try to convey what it means to have God speaking to humans through a messenger whom God has commanded to convey His religion. Chapter 3 details the attempts Muslims have made to preserve this speech from that time fourteen centuries ago until our time. Chapter 4 shows how the speech and its written pneumonic aids function in Muslims' architecture, ritual life and popular culture. These chapters distinguish Dr. Mattson's book from the discourse which constrains itself to the contemporary audience's concerns, thereby entrenching the concerns and never guiding them to more productive questions. The problem with simply answering "Does the Quran instruct Muslims to kill non-Muslims indiscriminately?" either affirmatively or negatively is that it neither opens a door for the non-Muslim religious seeker to see the religious value of the Quran nor does it open a door for the ardent non-seeker to come to an accomodation with his/her Muslim neighbors who want to build a masjid next door, sacrifice animals for the eid or take time off work for jumu'a or pilgrimage.

A particularly effective technique Dr. Mattson uses in these chapters is illustrating how these aspects of Muslim cultural and religiously history appear in contemporary life. She relates the story of a Chicagoan Muslima named Reem who acquired an ijaza to read the Qur'an just like the people we read about in the musty books which express this history. She tries to convey to the reader how the Qur'an is perceived aurally. She tried to explain how Guantanamo Bay prisoners could be more concerned with the mistreatment of the mushaf than their own mistreatment. She gave examples of how the words of the Quran are used in medicine, social occasions such as births, deaths and weddings, and even naming children.

For the impatient and polemical, chapters 5 and 6 more directly answer the demands of contemporary audiences. But here again, Dr. Mattson takes the reader (gently) through the development of Qur'anic hermeneutics. In this, she echoes the writings of many good authors such as Mohammad Hashim Kamali, John Obert Voll, Khaled Abou El Fadl, Wael B. Hallaq and some new publications from the International Institute of Islamic Thought. The reader is forced to reject absolute certainty in facile interpretations of multi-faceted issues, such as "Islam liberates women" and "Islam subjugates non-Muslims."

Chapter 6, "Listening for God," is a beautiful explanation of the tension between charismatic and gnostic religious authority for Qur'an interpretation and scholastic hermeneutical methods and the tension between elitist and (my terms) instictive, humane or fitri interpretation. Elites struggle among themselves to choose scholastic or gnostic methods, but it is "only with such accountability [to the greater community] and oversight that any sector of Muslim society can carry and trasmit the values their community ascribes to the Qur'an." Dr. Mattson goes on to note that "Ordinary people will never demand such accountability, however, if they do not have a certain level of confidence in their convictions and courage to articulate them. This is why we need not only to study the history of the dominant leaders and institutions in Muslim societies, but also to search for the voices of marginalized individuals and groups - to see how they articulated and maintained their faith when they had little power." (p. 226) Yet, all involved in the interpretive project must do so in community and with introspection to avoid distortions resulting from each person's individual emotional scars and secular self-interest.

Lastly, each chapter has endnotes. The book has a bibliography, glossary and index.

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