On Reading Abdullah Saeed’s ‘The Qur’an: An Introduction’

By Dr Tauseef Ahmad Parray

The Qur’an: An Introduction’ provides a broad and engaging introduction to the study of Qur’an in a simple and concise manner

PROFESSOR Abdullah Saeed, an internationally recognized Muslim thinker and academic, has made a significant contribution to the different aspects of Qur’anic Studies and important issues of modern Islamic thought. Born and brought up in the Maldives, he holds higher degrees from Saudi Arabia and Australia: he completed his PhD in Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne (UoM) Australia, in 1992, and since then, has been actively involved in the development of Islamic Studies in the same University. In 2004, he was appointed as the 'Sultan of Oman Professor of Arab and Islamic Studies', and in 2010, was elected Fellow of Australian Academy of Humanities. He is also the Director of the National Centre for Contemporary Islamic Studies at UoM. A strong supporter of ‘reform of Islamic thought’, he has published widely on a range of issues concerning modern Muslim thought. His publications cover Qur’anic hermeneutics, the (re) interpretation of the Qur’an, ijtihad and Islamic law reform, Muslims in the West, extremism in Muslim societies, Islam and human rights, and other allied issues and themes. These are also his broad areas of research interest as well.

Title: The Qur’an: An Introduction
Author: Abdullah Saeed
Publication Details: Oxon, RN and New York: Routledge, 2008
Pages: xvi+268; ISBN: 9780415421249

In the area of Qur’anic Studies, Saeed’s major works (most of them published by Routledge) include: Contemporary Approaches to the Qur’an in Indonesia (2005); Interpreting the Qur’an: Towards a Contemporary Approach (2006); The Qur’an: An Introduction (2008); Reading the Qur’an in the Twenty-First Century: A Contextualist Approach (2013); and Contemporary Approaches to the Qur'an and its Interpretation in Iran (with Ali Akbar; 2020); etc.

Below is presented an assessment of his The Qur’an: An Introduction, which is one of his important books (in this specific area) for two reasons: firstly, in this book he has heavily relied on his previous works, and secondly, he has tried to make it ‘as accessible and relevant as possible’ to provide a broad and engaging introduction to the study of Qur’an.

Providing a student-friendly guide to the many ways in which the Qur’an can be read, The Qur’an: An Introduction is a concise introduction to all aspects of the Qur’an: history, understanding and interpretation, providing coverage of both pre-modern and modern periods; plenty of examples to illustrate key points and aid student understanding; and summaries, timelines and a glossary. It gives an overview of the rich interpretive traditions from the time of the Prophet (pbuh) to the present day and examines the Qur’an in the Western scholarship as well. Written in an easy and accessible language, it is a basic introductory work, designed for both Muslims and Western non-Muslim students.

Saeed’s aim and objective for writing this book was to design, in an easy and accessible language, a basic introductory work, for both Muslims and Western non-Muslim students. In his own words: “Many valuable works have already been written about the Qur’an; some of these deal mainly with classical Islamic principles of interpretation and understanding; others are written by Muslim scholars for a Muslim audience, and some are written by Western scholars for a Western audience. This textbook aims to bring together aspects of these perspectives by providing a holistic overview of the Qur’an, its place in history and its role in the life of Muslims today” (p. xiv).

Consisting of twelve (12) chapters, the book is preceded by Acknowledgements and Introduction and ends with Glossary, Bibliography, and Index. Some of the major themes, issues and topics covered in this book are: the historical context in which Qur’an was revealed, and the ways in which Qur’an has been understood as both ‘revelation and scripture’; the important issue of the Qur’an’s compilation, providing views of the traditional Muslim scholars and more recent scholarship on the subject; major themes of the Qur’an; Qur’an in day to-day life of ‘ordinary Muslims’; the history of the ‘Western scholarship’ on Qur’an vis-à-vis recent developments in Qur’anic studies; ‘translations’ of the Qur’an; Qur’anic view of ‘Other Scriptures’; the ‘complex subject of interpretation’: exegesis, and its various types, an overview of the development of tafsir-writing as a discipline: from classical period to the modern times; contribution of some prominent scholars who are developing and have developed some ‘innovative ways to interpret the Qur’an’s message for the modern world’ like Fazlur Rahman, Amina Wadud, Muhammad Shahrour, Muhammad Arkoun, and Khaled Abou El-Fadl.

A significant feature of this book is that a list of ‘recommended reading’, books and articles (with a brief assessment of the main theme of that work), for those readers who wish to ‘enhance their knowledge of topics covered in this book’ is provided at the end of in each chapter. Also, each chapter provides, very briefly (and in points), an introduction of what is present in that particular chapter or what the chapter discusses, and is followed by a ‘summary’ of some of the main and important points discussed in each chapter.

For example, some of the important points put forth in Chapter 1, “The Qur’an in its context”, are: “The message of the Qur’an is embedded in the specific context of seventh-century Arabia, and is expressed in a language and symbolism that its first audience understood”; “Many elements of pre-Islamic culture and society were not rejected entirely by the Qur’an, but were accepted in a modified form”; and “Many teachings of the Prophet were socially progressive for his time” (p. 18).

Similarly, in Chapter 6, the discussion revolves around the “Western scholarship and the Qur’an”, and is divided into classical (Early), medieval (Later), and contemporary eras. Thus, the important points highlighted in this chapter include: Early Western scholarship on the Qur’an was largely polemical; Alternative Western theories about the origins of the Qur’an have questioned when it was composed, the identity of its author and what language it was originally written in; Today, the number of collaborative scholarly works on the Qur’an is increasing, as is the number of Muslim scholars based in Western institutions who combine traditional and modern approaches in seeking to understand the Qur’an (p. 113).

Moreover, in its last chapter it highlights “Modern interpretations of the Qur’an”, and focuses on the works of many prominent scholars—like Fazlur Rahman, Amina Wadud, Muhammad Shahrour, Muhammad Arkoun, and Khaled Abou El-Fadl—and argues that Rahman “played a key role in developing notions associated with a hermeneutical approach within Islamic studies” and is, thus, described as “arguably the first modern reformist Muslim scholar to link the question of the origin of the Qur’an to both its context and interpretation”; Wadud is “a central figure in the formation of a ‘hermeneutics of equality’” and Arkoun is a “pioneering figure of contemporary Islamic hermeneutics”; Shahrour, who is “influenced by postmodernism”, emphasizes “the need to differentiate between the divine and human understandings of reality”; and El Fadl is a “vocal opponent of literalist interpretations of the Qur’an” (p. 222).

Thus, keeping in view the themes and topics of this book, the author justifies fairly his claim that it is designed “for Muslims and non-Muslim students” equally to serve as “a student-friendly guide to one of the most influential and important religious scriptures of the contemporary world” (p. i). Thus, taking into consideration all these aspects—coverage of the topics, broad-ranging, lucid, engaging and preciseness—Saeed’s The Qur’an: An Introduction may fairly be described as a broad and engaging introduction to the study of the Qur’an.

The author is Assistant Professor, Islamic Studies, at GDC Sogam, Kupwara (J&K). Email: [email protected] 

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