By Lesley Hazleton
December 20, 2017
WHAT THE QUR’AN MEANT and Why It Matters
By Garry Wills
226 pp. Viking, $25
I know many well-intentioned people who’ve begun reading the Quran and given up within a few pages. The historian Thomas Carlyle considered Muhammad one of history’s heroic greats, yet called the Quran “as toilsome reading as I ever undertook. A wearisome confused jumble.”
It’s hard not to sympathize. Over the years, I’d picked up various translations, started reading, and rapidly found myself very much an agnostic Jew lost in a Muslim landscape. Good intentions, it seemed, were not enough. The Quran may look like a short book, but it’s not one you can curl up with on a rainy Sunday afternoon and read cover to cover.
I finally read it properly — as properly as I could, that is, using several different translations alongside the original Arabic — as part of my research for a biography of Muhammad. And that’s when I realized that the fact that so few people actually read the Quran is precisely why it’s so easy to quote. Or rather, misquote. In what I call the highlighter version, phrases and snippets are taken entirely out of context and even invented out of thin air, like the 72 virgins in paradise (I kept waiting for them, but they never appeared). This is the version favoured by both Islamophobes and their partners in distortion, Muslim extremists — partners in bigotry and its correlate, ignorance.
So what happens when a leading Catholic intellectual reads the Quran, especially one as attuned to language as Garry Wills? The answer, as unlikely as it may seem at first glance, is a delight. Which makes it a shame that his book is ill-served by its title.
Wills is hardly so presumptuous as to try to explain what the Quran means — or “meant,” that past tense evidently the heavy hand of the marketing department trying to link to previous Wills books on what Jesus, the Gospels and Paul all meant. Even the cover design is similar. And the subtitle (again I suspect a marketing decision, going for the obvious) refers to what prompted Wills to read the Quran. In his case, it was politics. He blasts away at the multiple varieties of religious and secular ignorance that led to the invasion of Iraq and thus to one of America’s longest foreign wars. He also includes a third kind of ignorance — the “fearful ignorance” displayed in “anti-Muslim animus,” too often reminiscent of the anti-Communist hysteria of the Cold War.
Once he gets to the Quran itself, however, Wills shines. With the same sensitive eye deployed in his Pulitzer-winning “Lincoln at Gettysburg,” he approaches the text in the spirit of exploration, bringing fresh perspective even for those who imagine they already know it well.
The Quran is “haunted” by the desert, he writes. “Nowhere else do you get a greater feel for the benignity of rain — or of water in any form.” Where heaven is “an urban ideal” in the Bible (the heavenly Jerusalem), in the Quran it’s “the oasis of oases, rinsed with sweet waters, with rivers running on it and under it, and with springs opening unbidden.” And in a lovely coda to that observation, he adds: “When I was growing up in the 1940s, a song was everywhere on the radio, ‘Cool Water’ sung by Vaughn Monroe. As I read the Quran, it keeps coming back to me, unbidden.”
Wills calls this book “a conversation — or the opening of one,” so there’s a particular joy when he discovers that “all things talk in the Quran. It is abuzz with conversation. For Allah, the real meaning of creating is communicating. The Quran is an exercise in semiotics. God speaks a special language, in which mountains and words and springs are the syllables. Everything is a sign.”
Where Wills’s Catholicism might have limited how he reads the Quran, on the contrary, he brings it to bear in interesting ways. I can’t think of anyone else who could place quotes from St. Augustine and the Quran side by side, enjoying both the unlikeliness and the aptness of the juxtaposition. Or revel in both the similarities and the disparities between the biblical and the Quranic versions of the stories of Moses, Abraham and Jesus (all three of whom, along with many other figures from the Bible, are revered prophets in the Quran).
As you might expect, Wills is deeply alive to context. In his discussion of jihad, for instance, he compares the word to “crusade,” which has long been a “time-bomb word” in the Middle East. Where the idea of a crusade may have “a rosy glow in Western minds … it is stained a dirty blood-red in the Arabic world.”
In fact, he points out, jihad does not mean “holy war.” It means “striving” — as in striving to lead a moral life. The main point of the Quran’s discussion of violence is to establish limitations on its use, and to “abstain from violence to the degree that that is possible.” While a few endlessly cited verses have to do with violence, “the overall tenor is one of mercy and forgiveness, which are evoked everywhere, almost obsessively.” This is what is striven for in the Quran, not war.
As for Shariah, Wills notes that the word appears only once in the Quran, and it does not mean “law,” but “path,” as in Allah’s reassurance to Muhammad that he is “on the right path.” Moreover, there is no single body of Shariah law. The “vague and sketchy elements of law in the Quran” were fleshed out “over a long and contentious history,” and in multiple branches, in much the same way as the many bodies of Christian law. So while “some seem to think that the fanatical punishments dealt out by the self-proclaimed Islamic State … are the essence of Shariah law … the vast majority of Muslims, and their most learned teachers, do not recognize these as bearing any relation to the Quran.”
Wills falters only in three brief chapters on women in the Quran, which come right at the end of his book. (Back of the bus, anyone?) A sense of discomfort and hesitation creeps in here, and both are justified. True, it might come as a surprise that while the Quran advocates modesty for both women and men, it never even mentions veils, let alone mandates them. And its take on polygamy is basically an accommodation to pre-Islamic practice — a stance of (in my words) “O.K. if you insist, but better if you don’t.” The “you,” of course, being male. As Wills notes, “Torah, Gospel, and Quran are all patriarchal and therefore misogynist — as were the societies in which they took shape. But misogynism is not all that all of them are. In all three of them there are traces of dignity and worth intended by the Creator when he made women.” The problem being that “traces” by definition don’t leave much of an impression.
Over all, however, Wills has written perhaps the best introduction to the Quran that I know of: elegant, insightful, even at times joyful. He may not be able to make reading the Quran an easy pleasure, but his encounter with it is a pleasure to read for anyone as open to discovery as he is.
Lesley Hazleton’s most recent books are “The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad” and “Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto.”