Thematic Studies on the Qur’an: 10 Significant Books (Part Two)

Thematic Studies on Qur’an is a significant and recurring theme in the literature on the Qur’an and things Qur’anic

By Dr Tauseef Ahmad Parray

IN CONTINUATION WITH THE PREVIOUS COLUMN (dated 13th March 2022), below is presented an assessment of five (5) more important books on the ‘thematic’ study and interpretation of the Qur’an. These books are: Farid Esack’s The Qur'an: A Beginner’s Guide (2005/2007); Ziauddin Sardar’s Reading the Qur’an (2011/ 2015); Massimo Campanini’s The Qur’an: The Basics (2007/ 2016); Abdel Haleem’s Exploring the Qur’an: Context and Impact (2017); and the present author’s Towards Understanding Some Qura’nic Terms, Concepts, and Themes (2017)/ Exploring the Qur’an: Concepts and Themes (2019).

Farid Esack’sThe Qur'an: A Beginner’s Guide (2005/ 2007): 

Farid Esack, a South African academic, has an international reputation as a Muslim scholar, speaker, and human rights activist. A prolific author, he has authored Qur'an, Liberation and Pluralism; On Being a Muslim; and The Qur'an: A Beginner's Guide. Drawing on both classical and contemporary sources, Esack outlines some key themes and explains the historical and cultural context of this unique work whilst examining its content, language and style, and the variety of approaches, including fundamentalist, feminist, and modernist, that have been used to interpret it. For him, the Qur’an has spoken to Muslims for over one thousand years; it is seen as law-maker, moral code, and the word of God. Other areas covered in this significant book include: the Qur’an as evocative oral experience; understanding and interpreting the Qur’an; the major themes of the Qur’an, including such issues as truth, justice and gender relations. A look on its contents gives a clear glimpse of what it covers:  Introduction; The Qur’an in the Lives of Muslims; The Word Enters the World; The Qur’an as Written Word; Gathering the Qur’an; The Prophet and the Begotten-not-Created Qur’an; Understanding and Interpreting the Qur’an; Belief in the Qur’an; and Righteous Conduct in the Qur’an. Besides the book is, as Esack claims, “a first attempt to present various views and trends in Qur’anic scholarship in a critical manner without forcing a particular position” (p. 10).

Another significant and substantial addition to this genre is Ziauddin Sardar’s Reading the Qur’an—The Contemporary Relevance of the Sacred Text (2011/ 2015) which includes a thematic interpretation/ commentary on first two surahs of the Qur’an, major themes and concepts of the Qur’an as well as contemporary issues in the light of the Sacred Text.

By looking at ‘the Qur’an as a whole, an integrated text’, the major themes and key concepts, explored by Sardar, range from Prophets and Revelation, time and history, truth and plurality, humanity and diversity, individual and community, to reason and knowledge, crime and punishment, rights and duties, nature and environment, ethics and morality, and reading and writing. Similarly, he also brings forth some of the ‘pressing issues of our time’, which range from ‘the Shari’ah (Islamic Law) to suicide bombing, politics and democracy, sex and homosexuality, science and evolution, to freedom of expression and the veil’, etc. By reading any part, section and topic of Sardar’s work, one can get an idea of what Sardar believes; and how he interprets the Qur’an and things Quranic in this second decade of third millennium. Though one may disagree with his interpretations of certain (core or contemporary) concepts, but one cannot stop appreciating his understanding and interpreting, in 21st century, the themes and concepts like time, history, ethics, modesty, knowledge, reason, science and technology, nature and environment, etc. In sum, Reading the Qur’an is a work to be read, re-read and worthy to reflect by every common Muslim, especially youngsters, and by those who have little or no knowledge of Arabic.

Massimo Campanini’s The Qur'an: The Basics (2007; 2nd Edition, 2016)

Originally published in Italian—is a concise and accessible introduction to the Qur’an. It includes an essential updated reference guide, including a chronology of the revelation, links to internet resources, and suggestions for further reading. Exploring the reception of the Qur’an through history, its key teachings, and its place in contemporary thought and belief, the main contents of this book are: Islam and the Qur’an; Structure and composition; God, humanity and faith; The Qur’an and the Qur’anic sciences; and Contemporary approaches to the Qur’an. The major themes and issues highlighted are the Qur’an as the word of God; its reception and communication by Prophet Muhammad (pbuh); the structure and language of the text; conceptions of God, the holy law, and jihad; and Islamic commentaries on Qur’anic teachings through the ages. Mustafa Shah (University of London, UK) has described it in these words: “With an emphasis on clarity and concision, Campanini has produced an accessibly informative introduction to the Qur’an”; while as Dr Orhan Elmaz (University of St Andrews) has praised it in high terms and has described it as “a good basic introduction to Qur’an”, full of “brevity”, and is “very impressive”, and is thus “most suitable for introductory courses on Islam or the Qur’an” and equally helpful for the general readers.

Abdel Halem’s Exploring the Qur’an: Context and Impact (2017) is another significant work in this genre, which is an extension of his previous scholarship.

In this book, he ‘challenges misinterpretations of particular Qur’anic verses from whatever quarter’, and ‘challenges the image of the qur’an put forward by many Western and Muslim authors’. It explores what is conveyed by the ‘Arabic text of the Qur’an itself, rather than [the diverse] view[s] expressed in imperfect tafsirs [tafaseer] or translations, or polemical readings of the text’. Divided into three major parts, Teachings (chapters 1-4), Style(chapters 5-10), and Impact (chapters 11-13), it specifically addresses these issues/ topics: The ‘Sword Verse’ Myth; Qur’anic Jizya: Tax Defaulters; Qur’anic Jihad; Qur’anic [view of] Paradise (in part-I); Legal Style: Qur’anic Shari’a—Avoiding the Application of the Ultimate Penalties; Euphemistic Style: Sexual Etiquettes; Narrative Style: Repeating Stories—Noah [AS]; Coherent Style: How to Read the Sura; Evidential Style: Divine Oaths in the Qur’an; Rhetorical Style: Arabic of the Qur’an (in Part-II); and The Arabic Qur’an in the Muslim World; English Translations of the Qur’an: The Making of an Image; and Translations of the Qur’an and Interfaith Relations. These chapters are preceded by an Introduction and followed by Conclusion. The work is praised, in high terms, by scholars like Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Asma Afrasuddin who are of these opinions, respectively: This work is ‘a major addition’ to the Qura’nic Studies literature, which ‘reflects mastery of the material as well as deep faith in the sacred nature of the Qur’an itself’; and ‘a learned yet accessible work born of deep erudition and familiarity … underlying spirit of Islamic thought and tradition. [It provides] careful and insightful engagement with some of the most important Qur’anic verses that are being deliberately misconstrued today’.

The present author has also attempted to make a humble contribution in this genre/ area of scholarship by publishing Towards Understanding Some Qur’anic Terms, Concepts, and Themes (published by Qirtas Publishers, from Karachi, 2017) with a revised edition as Exploring the Qur’an: Concepts and Themes (by Kitab Mahal, Lal Bazar, Srinagar in 2019).

It is a collection of twenty-two (22) topics/ essays which reflects on various key terms, basic concepts, vital and vibrant themes of Qur’an and things Qur’anic, and some (much-debated and constantly-contested) contemporary issues. With a Foreword by Professor Abdur Raheem Kidwai (a renowned academician and a specialist in the field of Qur’anic studies, from Aligarh Muslim University, India), the work is divided into two sections, viz: ‘Key Terms and Basic Concepts’ and ‘Vital Themes and Some Contemporary Issues’. The topics covered in the first section are: Concept of Human Life (Hayat al-Dunya and Aakhirah), Worship (‘Ibadah), Sincerity (Ikhlas), Piety (Taqwa), Virtuousness (Salih), Love (Hubb), Excellence (Ihsan), Intellect (‘Aql), Thinking (Tafakkur), Knowledge (‘Ilm), and Time and Dynamics of Change (in the light of Surah al-Asr, Q. 103).

In the second section, themes and issues dealing with different aspects of human life—ranging from ethico-religious, socio-political, to historical and contemporary aspects—discussed in the light of Qura’nic perspective, are: human nature and psyche, ethics and morality, modesty and indecency (Haya and Fahisha), social ethics, individual-society relationship, concept of history, rise and fall of nations, moral corruption and its Qura’nic solution, (and among the contemporary issues discussed are) Ijtihad (as a dynamic tool for reformation), Shura-Democracy nexus, and Religious Pluralism. To put it briefly here, the contents and subject-matter of this book touches some of the significant concepts and themes, topics and issues; those aspects, themes, and issues which have either been overlooked, or are newly emerged (and thus fiercely debated), or have been misunderstood (and misread) due to the diverse interpretations, altered evaluations, and varied versions: examples include Salih, Hubb, Ihsan, ‘Aql, Tafakkur, Haya, Ijtihad, Shura, and Pluralism. The book is written in a concise, succinct, lucid and persuasive manner. Blending the scholarship of past and present (produced by Muslims and non-Muslims), and reflecting on the major themes and issues of diverse nature, this book is a valuable addition in the field of Qur’anic Studies in general and in the thematic studies of the Qur’an in particular.

From this assessment, it becomes evident that the “Thematic Studies of the Qur’an” is a significant and recurring theme in the literature on the Qur’an—the Timeless “Guidance Unto Mankind” (Q. 2: 185), “explained on the basis of true knowledge” (Q. 7: 52)—and things Qur’anic which has indeed seen a surge in the 21st century.

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

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