How to Read the Qur’an, by Carl W. Ernst

In the decade since 9/11, it seems as though every trade publisher and university press has brought forth a volume like this one: a guide to the Qur’an for the perplexed. Carl Ernst, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, eschews the usual method for books of this sort. He contends that guides to the content, themes and teachings of the Qur’an prematurely iron out the tensions and conflicting statements in the text. Instead, he appeals to us as readers and teaches us how to make sense of the text, because in order to understand what the text says, we need to understand how it says it.

As he makes a case for his chronological, literary and intertextual approach, Ernst enumerates the sources of perplexity about the Qur’an concisely and persuasively, including archaic translations in King James English; selective proof-texting by politically motivated, unsympathetic polemicists; unwarranted expectations that a sacred text should take narrative form; and speculative conspiracy-theory explanations of the Qur’an’s composition.

Ernst’s alternative mode of reading hangs on three key strategies. The first: don’t begin at the beginning! Read the text chronologically, he advises, and he includes a chart that lays out both the traditional Egyptian ordering and the 19th-century text-critical ordering by German Orientalist Theodor Nöldeke. The lyric qualities of the shorter early suras, or chapters, received by Muhammad at the beginning of his career in Mecca and before his flight to Medina are the general reader’s best entry into the Qur’an. The length and complexity of the suras increased through the 22-year career of Muhammad. In the Qur’an, the suras are generally arranged from longer to shorter, and thus in roughly reverse chronological order.