Monday, November 30, 2015

Quran Commentary by Maryamis

A new Quran translation and commentary has just been published by HarperOne, the fruit of a ten-year project headed by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, financed by King Abdullah II of Jordan and the El-Hibri Foundation, and carried out by "students" of Nasr, notably Joseph Lumbard. It seems that in this context "students" means followers, and that what we have here is thus a work of primarily Maryami scholarship. Not all those involved with the project, or endorsing the result, are Maryamis, however.

The work is entitled The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary, the phrase "Study Quran" following the example of "Study Bible," meaning an edition of the Bbible with extra material designed to support serious study. The emphasis is on commentary, with far more words devoted to commentary than to the actual translation. This is in keeping with the approach of classical Islamic scholarship, which did not just "read" the Quran as a text in isolation, but interpreted and understood it in the light of intratextual and intertextual references and other sources. The intratextual references are, of course, to other parts of the Quran; intertextual references are mostly to the hadith; and the other sources are primarily other commentators. The Study Quran generally follows this approach, though there are occasional comments that go beyond it, as when it is noted that "the right is associated with righteousness and blessedness... in Arabic, as in numerous other cultural-linguistic systems." In general, however, modern non-Muslim scholarly interpretations and discussions are ignored.

The Quran is a complex text that cannot be just "read," even in Arabic. Understanding almost any part of the Quran involves interpretation, which has to be based on something, whether a reader realizes this or not. What is true of the Arabic is even more true of a translation, as a translator needs to interpret before translating. A translation thus represents one particular interpretation, not the multiple interpretations that are possible on the basis of the Arabic text.

A translation and commentary, then, allows a reader to understand different possible interpretations. The difficulty, however, lies in deciding which interpretations to include, and which views to favor. The commentaries used in The Study Quran include the major Sunni classics, as might be expected. Modern or Salafi interpretations are generally ignored, though reference is sometimes made to Sayyid Qutb. Many Sufi commentators are included, as are some notable Shi'i commenters. On this basis, then, the commentary might be described as "traditional Sufi" and "Shi'i-Sunni," an unusual combination. Sometimes the commentary lists alternative understandings, and sometimes it cites particular commentaries. Sometimes, however, it merely gives the views of "most commentators," without identifying them or the dissenting views. This makes sense, as The Study Quran is already 2,048 pages long. It does mean, however, that in the last resort this commentary, like all commentaries, reflects the positions of its composers.

Perhaps inevitably under current circumstances, The Study Quran was reported by CNN not as a massive work of scholarship involving some unusual perspectives, but as a tool in the war against extremism. Some critics therefore responded to it in these terms, asking how terrorists were to be persuaded to use The Study Quran. This, of course, is not the real point.

A sample of The Study Quran may be downloaded here and another sample may be read on the work's dedicated website.

My thanks to JP for bring this translation to my attention.


Neon Knight said...

Hello/Salaam, Professor Sedgwick,

Hope you are well.

Haven't seen the following book, but the author discusses
the Maryamiyya & interviews Seyyed Hossein Nasr on the
adaptation of Sufism in North America and its relation to
Islam. Seems like one of the few books where Nasr's role
as Sufi Shaykh is discussed at any length.

William Rory Dickson "Living Sufism in North America: Beyond
Tradition and Transformation" (SUNY: 2015)

Also, on the "Schuon front"---hopefully clothed!---Arthur Versluis devotes 10 pages to Schuon in his
"American Gurus: From Transcendentalism to the New Age" (OUP 2014)

Anyway, sure you & your readers will find these interesting,
if you don't already know about them.

Thanks for the blog and for exposing, as it were, Schuon & the Maryamis.

Best of luck with the new book.


Neon Knight (after the Black Sabbath song)

p.s. Here's a memorial for Nasr's former muqaddam in Toronto, who died when
struck by lightning. If you scroll down, there's of picture of Omer wearing
standard Maryami dress & his wife sporting a Sari, with a huge Maghribi
"Allah" behind them. The W.C. Chittick (Sidi Shams) Anthology "In Search of the Lost Heart"
(SUNY 2012) is dedicated to Omer by the three Nasr disciples (Nasr-ites?) who edited it.
Incidentally, Kazuyo Murata, one of the co-editors, is Sachiko Murata's (Sayyidah Zaynab) niece,
if I'm not mistaken.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mark,

I thought you may be interested in this recent lecture in English by Shaykh Asrar Rashid refuting the Perennialism of Dr Nasr in the Study Quran from the perspective of traditional orthodox Sunni Islam (Ahl Al Sunnah wal Jama'ah).

I am sure you will be familiar with many if not most of the arguments, the primary one being that Perennialism directly contradicts a core tenet of the Islamic religion, namely the universality of the Messengerhood of Sayyiduna Muhammad and his pre-eminence over all the previous Messengers. If you listen to the end, you will hear the Shaykh recommending the listeners to go out and buy your book!

There is also a shorter lecture in Arabic by Shaykh Said Fudah, which makes similar points and discusses how traditional orthodox Sunni Islam defined the status of individuals who outwardly profess Islam while believing/propagating beliefs inimical or contradictory to it. This is the link:

What I find interesting is that vociferous and substantive criticism of Perennialism from traditional Islamic authorities seems to be increasing. It will be interesting how Perennialists who self-identify as Muslims will deal with such scrutiny and criticism, especially as they will not be able to easily dismiss it as some kind of illegitimate and uncomprehending reaction from "modernist" or salafi-minded individuals who reject traditional Islam.