Study the Quran or The Study Quran?

Author:Fudge, Bruce


The Study Quran is at once a radical and a deeply conservative work. An impressive achievement and the product of an extraordinary collective effort, it consists of a translation of the Quran accompanied by extensive commentary drawn mainly from premodern Arabic Quran commentaries (tafsir, pi. tafasir). It includes essays on various related topics, along with a chronology and maps of regions and even battles (Badr, Uhud, the Trench, etc.). The volume's goal is twofold: to represent the array of exegetical opinions from the vast commentarial tradition, and to make its own contribution to those opinions. How well does it accomplish these objectives? On the whole, very well. There is no doubting its utility as a handy reference work distilling a staggering amount of material. Just as valuable are the issues it raises, perhaps inadvertently, as to its place in the history of Quran commentary as well as in the academic study of Islam. What, if any, is its place in the field of Islamic Studies? How should it be used? And how should one go about reviewing it for a scholarly journal?


    First of all, what exactly is a "Study Quran"? Editor-in-chief Seyyed Hossein Nasr explains in the introduction that it is modeled explicitly on The HarperCollins Study Bible, without further elaboration. There is a significant tradition of Bibles in vernacular languages printed with commentary, destined for the use of the individual lay reader. The first and most famous of these was the Geneva Bible of 1560. James I was said to have objected to this Calvinist creation, complaining not only of the translation, but also of the marginal notes and their dangerous contents--and thus was the subsequent King James Bible free of commentary.

    The best-known study Bibles represent particular schools of interpretation. One of the most successful is The Scofield Study Bible, which first appeared in 1909 (as the Scofield Reference Bible) and follows the pattern set by the Geneva version. The scripture is accompanied by various notes, tables, and maps to guide the reader; it assumes a direct relation between the reader and the text, with limited priestly interference. Containing useful notes and cross-references, it has even been recently republished by Oxford University Press. Like the Geneva Bible, it presents a particular theological viewpoint, that of dispensationalism, whereby human history is divided into a number of periods according to a divine plan.

    The original Harper Study Bible (1964) also espoused a conservative evangelical viewpoint. The more recent HarperCollins Study Bible (1st ed. 1993) does not. The immediate model for the book under review, it is ecumenical in its approach and incorporates recent developments in various forms of biblical criticism. The Study Quran (hereafter TSQ) is likewise the fruit of academic labors and acknowledges various strands of Islamic affiliation: Sunni, Shi'i, Sufi, as well as the variants within those broad labels.

    Is there a precedent for such a book in Islamic scholarship? There are numerous abridged commentaries, such as the well-known Tafsir al-Jalalayn of al-Mahalli (d. 864/1459) and al-Suyuti (d. 911/1505). But Tafsir al-Jalalayn assumes a certain degree of knowledge, also of technical terminology, and the units of interpretation are very small, focusing on individual words or phrases. There are also more contemporary attempts to provide simplified versions of traditional commentaries, such as Safwat al-tafasir by Muhammad 'Ali al-Sabunl (b. 1930). One frequently finds lexical glosses in the margins of printed Qurans, and it seems equally common for one or another of the asbab al-nuzul works (explaining the circumstances in which individual verses were revealed) to be included as well. These types of glosses indicate the most common approaches to explaining or interpreting Quranic verses: lexicography and the context of the life of the Prophet Muhammad. TSQ is an altogether different creature.

    Nasr's introduction offers several statements as to the goals and purposes of TSQ:

    it would be grounded in the classical Islamic tradition in order to provide readers access to the many ways in which the Quran has been understood and explained by Muslims for over fourteen centuries, (p. xl) Another stated aim is to provide a translation of "the Quranic Arabic itself and not later interpretations of the Arabic," while "reflecting something of the inimitable eloquence" of its language. The accompanying commentary

    is meant to take readers beyond the literal meaning of the text when necessary, to clarify difficult passages, to reveal the inner meanings of verses when called for, and to provide a reasonable account of the diversity of views and interpretations in matters of law, theology, spirituality, and sacred history put forth by various traditional Islamic authorities. Our hope is that this exposition will enable readers to interact on various levels with the Quran and remove the erroneous view, held in some non-Muslim quarters, that because Muslims consider the Quran to be the Word of God, they do not think about it or interact intellectually with it, whereas the Quran itself invites its readers to mediate upon and think about its teachings. Our commentary, while based on the traditional commentaries, is not simply a collage of selections drawn from these books, but a new work. Our text has required making choices about both inclusion and exclusion of earlier texts in addition to providing in some places our own commentary, which is not found, at least not in the same way, in the earlier sources.

    Ours is therefore a new commentary that is nonetheless based completely on traditional Islamic thought and the earlier commentary traditions. We, and not earlier commentators, are therefore fully responsible for its content, which nevertheless contains numerous citations from the earlier traditional commentaries that we have consulted, (pp. xliii-xliv, italics added)

    Nasr makes it clear that this is a strictly Muslim affair, that all contributors are Muslim, and that although the book would be "based on the highest level of scholarship, it would not be determined or guided by assertions presented in studies by non-Muslim Western scholars" who may have examined various aspects of the Quran "but do not accept it as the Word of God and an authentic revelation" (p. xl).

    So TSQ comprises a new Quran translation and a commentary that consists primarily of brief summaries of opinions of premodern exegetes. It is, then, in good commentarial tradition, an epitome of previous scholarship, and as what my institution would call an oeuvre de vulgarisation, it succeeds. Insofar as it consciously adds something new, it lies largely in the realm of new interpretations of certain verses, and these are, of course, made from an insider or faith perspective. One should consider TSQ a primary source, a statement of one group of Muslims' approach to Quranic interpretation and another stage in the history of that interpretation.

    But despite the all-Muslim nature of the enterprise and the effort to draw on and contribute to the tradition of Quranic exegesis, TSQ resembles most closely not any previous Islamic precedent but the "study Bible" genre. This resemblance is not in the exegesis itself, but in the form and structure of the work and in its approach to the scripture.


    The most striking feature of TSQ is the extraordinary amount of work that must have gone into it, not to mention the need to coordinate the efforts of the individual contributors. Even a straightforward translation of the Quran is itself a formidable task, but here the translation is just the beginning. There is no doubt that the commentary is the main attraction, occupying at least three or four times as much text as the translation, probably more. Forty-one commentarial works are listed, from Muqatil (d. 150/767) to Ibn 'Ashur (d. 1394/1973) and Tabataba'i (d. 1402/1981). The majority are Sunni, but Shi'is are well represented and there are also a number of Sufi commentaries. The editors have tried to limit the "purely conjectural and fanciful interpretations or legendary and folkloric accounts" (p. xliv). More importantly, they have deliberately excluded "modernistic or fundamentalist interpretations that have appeared in parts of the Islamic world in the past two centuries" (p. xl).

    Any sentient reader will note the irony of the claim to exclude "modernistic" interpretations when TSQ's own exegesis, where it appears, is very much a product of its own time. The innovation is not evident on every page, but it is there, and not just in the commentary but in the structure of the book itself. The resultant tension between innovation and respect for tradition is TSQ's most marked feature.

    The translation is on the whole accurate and succeeds in rendering the Quranic words into their nearest English approximations. Some terms remain untranslated: jizya, nasi', zihar, hanif, etc. There are some attempts at archaizing the language ("unto," "thy," "thee," and so forth) but this remains relatively unobtrusive. The poetic or literary qualities of the Quran are not immediately obvious, but the more or less literal, workmanlike translation is no doubt appropriate for linking the text with the commentary. It does result in some curious renderings, such as 2:177, Rather, piety is he who believes in God (compare Muhammad Asad's but truly pious is he who believes in God, or Arberry's True piety is this: to believe in God). At least the translation does not neglect the difficulty of the Arabic wa-lakinna l-birrata man amana bi-llahi, but then the commentary is silent on the issue. (1)

    Despite the vast bibliography, by far the most commonly cited exegetes are al-Tabari (d. 310/923), al-Qurtubl (d. 671/1272), and Fakhr al-Dln al-RazI (d. 606/1210). This is understandable: the quantity of exegetical material...

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