Books and Code · A Miscellany

The Qur'an: A User's Guide, by Farid Esack (A Review)


As short introductions to a religion written by one of its believers go, this one is pretty good. Esack lays out various views of the Qur’an and Islam more generally, not just the one he favors. Of course, he’s not entirely objective and doesn’t claim to be. In fact, he readily admits the opposite and asserts further that everyone brings their own biases to a text. As such, fundamentalists and non-muslim scholars and critics all receive jabs from Esack one way or another.

That said, I think he is overly critical of scholars who study the Qur’an from a non-confessional, literary perspective. He begins by dubbing them “voyeurs” in the introduction and at every point they are discussed in a negative light. But at least he engages with them in a serious and respectful manner, which is more than one can say for the Muslim world in general. (The vast majority of Muslims are presumably reasonable, peaceful people but they are not a political or religious force that matters, sadly.)

Case in point, while he does vaguely state that sex with women slaves and other bullshit might not be a great thing regardless of Qur’anic endorsement, he does not take the next step to openly condemn Muslims who use these passages to justify their repression of women, etc. Presumably because some of those folks are not above killing his ass. However, he’s more than willing to talk about how misguided scholars can be with their insistence on actual literary evidence. Several such scholars publish under a pseudonym precisely because they fear violence. Does Esack acknowledge this fact? No. (See Christoph Luxenberg and Ibn Warraq.) Compare this state of affairs with secular scholars of Jewish and Christian traditions. Saying that “this approach [..] has not been welcomed [by Muslims]” (p. 9) has got to be the understatement of the decade.

But like I said, given that stating the wrong opinions can get you killed for apostasy, I can’t really fault the guy too much for hedging. At least I know where to look for the real scholarship now.

It is also fascinating to look at theological battles in which you don’t buy either side. You realize how dumb theology is as a mode of inquiry. Argue about the theological subtleties of the “begotten not created” nature of the Qur’an until the cows come home and it doesn’t become any less pointless an argument in my eyes. You’re all wrong; it’s just a book written by fallible humans, just like the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, Bhagavad Gita, Moby-Dick, US Constitution, or anything else I could name. (Of the above, Moby-Dick is most likely to be divinely inspired as far as I’m concerned.)