Monday, April 23, 2018

What the Qur'an Meant: And Why It Matters by Garry Wills

Another liberal arts education in a short book
The most recent book by Garry Wills takes off from where he left off with three of his earlier book What Jesus Meant, What the Gospels Meant, and What Paul Meant. Now, he turns his attention to What the Qur'an Meant--And Why It Matters (2017). The first three books draw upon Wills's status as a classicist and as one of the foremost Catholic intellectuals of our time. But so why go into this new arena, and of what value might he bring to his endeavor? He answers the first part of the question--the "why?"--in the first three chapters. As should be apparent to all of us, the Islamic world is one that holds considerable sway for Americans, and our ignorance about the world of Islam is abounding. As to the second issue, about the value of his endeavor, it's true that he's not an Arabist and cannot read the Qur'an in its original text (unlike the Greek and Latin texts of Christianity he's pondered), but he brings the same patient scholarship and care to reading that he brings to the more familiar Christian texts. 

By reading this book, we learn about the meaning of jihad (struggle), shari'ah, and a host of other (sort of) familiar parts of the Qur'an. We learn that jihad is about struggle and that shari'ah refers to the right (straight) path, similar to some familiar Biblical injunctions. Also, we learn about Mohammed's thoughts (or more precisely, those of the Qur'an) about fellow people of the Book (Jews and Christians), who are to be treated with peace and forbearance. That there have been times when such peace and forbearance has not occurred reminds us how often those claiming fidelity to each of the three great monotheisms have fallen below from the intentions of the prophets. Some practices dictated by the Qur'an now seem archaic, if not barbaric. But if these are a mark against Islam, so are many of the actions and directives found in the Talmud and the New Testament, especially about the treatment of women. The wearing of the hijab (veil) is the least of problems: to many Muslim women, wearing some veil serves as a sign of feminism. 

Like each of the many books that Wills has written, one gets a mini-liberal arts education. Wills deftly mixes the problems associated with our contemporary ignorance and misunderstanding of Islam (and the consequent messes in Iraq and Afghanistan that we suffered) with a deep understanding of the Book that gave rise to this extraordinary religion about 1300 years ago. In a short book, I learned a great deal about what guides millions and millions of my fellow humans. It's well worth the time and effort. 

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