Review: The Critical Qur’an – Explained from Key Islamic Commentaries and Contemporary Historical Research

If you want a Qur’an commentary that goes where others fear to tread, then try Robert Spencer’s The Critical Qur’an. To describe it, imagine a certain translation of the Bible (say the RSV) that is footnoted with textual variants, theological commentary from Christian authorities spanning antiquity to the present, and also modern historical-critical commentary. The Critical Qur’an is a reference tool like that, and a very useful one.

There are four features of this Qur’an that are virtually impossible to find elsewhere in a single volume:

1. Variant readings. It’s one of the first Qur’anic commentaries, if not the very first, to provide variant readings from different manuscripts, in the same way that variant readings are found in most study Bibles for the Tanakh and New Testament.

2. Tafsir commentary. Citations from mainstream Muslim exegetes (the tafsir) are provided, spanning the 8th to 21st centuries. This is highly valuable since all these theologians and jurists are held to be authoritative. Their commentary allows the reader to understand how the Qur’anic texts have been, and continue to be, understood in mainstream Islam.

3. Critical commentary. There are also citations from Qur’anic scholars whose academic insights shed light on the textual evolution of the Qur’an.

4. Clarity. This Qur’an clarifies difficult or troublesome passages. For example, the many exhortations to jihad are usually translated as “strive hard” in the way of Allah — which is perfectly legitimate, since “jihad” means “strive” or “struggle” — but the primary meaning of jihad in Islamic theology is warfare against unbelievers. So in The Critical Qur’an, when it says “jihad” in Arabic, it says “jihad” in English, so the English-speaking reader will be keyed to the fact that this word has been consistently interpreted a certain way in mainstream Islam.

I’ll elaborate with examples of Spencer’s commentary, to give an idea as to the book’s format.

1. Variants

The Qur’an we think of today was published in 1924 in Cairo and has since been the dominant edition over the world — the supposed version of the Qur’an that was agreed on in 653 CE under Muhammad’s third successor, the caliph Uthman. In fact there were many different qira’at (variants) used throughout the Islamic empire, at least fourteen of which were known by the 8th century (all listed by Spencer on p 3). And each of those divergent traditions had more than one transmitter (usually two), compounding the variance.

Of those many qira’at, the Hafs tradition became the one of “Uthman’s” Qur’an of 1924, but the Warsh tradition still dominates in western and north-western Africa. The Critical Qur’an follows Hafs while noting the Warsh and other variants for some verses. So for example, Sura 2:10 reads (following Hafs), “They will suffer a painful doom because they lie.” Spencer comments: “Instead of ‘because they lie’ (yakzibuuna), the Warsh Qur’an has ‘because they accuse of lying’ (yukazzibuuna).” (p 14)

Another example is Sura 9:66, which reads, “If we forgive a group of you, we punish a group of you, because they have been guilty.” Spencer lists two variants for this one: “Instead of, ‘If we forgive [na’fu] a group of you, we punish [nu’azzib] a group of you,’ Ibn Kathir [the 8th century transmitter, not the 14th-century tasfir exegete] has, ‘If some of you are forgiven [yu’fa], others will be punished [tu’azzab]. Instead of ‘we forgive,’ the Warsh Qur’an has ‘he forgives.’ Instead of ‘we punish,’ the Warsh Qur’an has ‘he punishes.'” (p 142)

2. Tafsir Commentary

The bulk of Spencer’s commentary draws on the tafsir — mainstream exegetes, theologians, and jurists who are authoritative in the Islamic world, notably, al-Tabari (839-923), al-Zamakhshari (1074-1173), al-Qurtubi (1214-1273), Ibn Juzayy (1294-1340), Ibn Kathir (1301-1372), the two Jalals (Jalal ad-Din al-Mahalli, 1389-1459, and Jalal ad-Din al-Suyuti, 1445-1505), along with 20th century tasfirs, such as the influential Pakistani Syed Abul Ala Maududi (1903-1979), and the Indian Mufti Muhammad Ashiq Ilahi Bulandshahri (1925-2002). And others. Ibn Kathir and the two Jalals are cited the most frequently, given their influence.

So for example, Sura 8:12-13 reads, “When your Lord inspired the angels, I am with you. So make those who believe stand firm. I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Strike the necks and strike their fingertips. That is because they opposed Allah and his messenger. Whoever opposes Allah and his messenger, indeed, Allah is severe in punishment.” Spencer comments:

“[This passage] became one of the chief justifications for the Islamic practice of beheading hostages and war captives. Ibn Kathir explains that the angels are instruments of Allah’s wrath who are to ‘support the believers, strengthen their (battle) front against their enemies, thus, implementing My command to you. I will cast fear, disgrace and humiliation over those who defied My command and denied My Messenger. Strike them on their foreheads to tear them apart and over the necks to cut them off, and cut off their limbs, hands and feet.’

The Tafsir al-Jalalayn [the two Jalals] explains this in terms that assume divine assistance, asserting: ‘It happened that a man would go to strike at the neck of an unbeliever and his head would fall off before his sword was able to get there.’ ” (p 126)

For another example, Sura 9:29 reads, “Fight against those do not believe in Allah or the last day, and do not forbid what Allah and his messenger have forbidden,and do not follow the religion of truth, even if they are among the people of the book, until they pay the jizya with willing submission and feel themselves subdued.” Here is part of Spencer’s commentary on the verse:

“The Tafsir al-Jalalayn says that this verse specifies that Muslims must fight against those who do not follow Islam, ‘which confirms and abrogates’ other religions. The people of the book are mentioned in the verse and traditionally have been understood as the only ones who are offered the option of paying the jizya, while other non-Muslims who do not have a written scripture that is recognized in the Qur’an must either convert or die. However, the Tafsir as-Sadi explains that ‘the jizya may be taken from all the disbelievers, People of the Book and others, because this verse was revealed after the Muslims had finished fighting with the polytheist Arabs and had begun to fight the People of the Book and their ilk, so this condition is describing the real situation and is not meant to impose a restriction on accepting jizya from the People of the Book only.’

Ibn Kathir says that the dhimmis must be “disgraced, humiliated and belittled. Therefore, Muslims are not allowed to honor the people of dhimmah or elevate them above Muslims, for they are miserable, disgraced and humiliated.” The seventh-century jurist Sa’id ibn al-Musayyab is said to have declared: ‘I prefer that the people of the dhimma become tired by paying the jizya since He says, “until they pay the jizya with their own hands in a state of complete abasement.” ‘ As-Suyuti elaborates that this verse ‘is used as a proof by those who say that it is taken in a humiliating way, and so the taker sits and the dhimmi stands with his head bowed and his back bent. The jizya is placed in the balance and the taker seizes his beard and hits his chin.’ Al-Zamakhshari agreed that the jizya should be collected ‘with belittlement and humiliation.’

In explaining how the Jews and Christians must ‘feel themselves subdued,’ Ibn Kathir quotes a saying of Muhammad: ‘Do not initiate the Salam [greeting of peace] to the Jews and Christians, and if you meet any of them in a road, force them to its narrowest alley.’

With remarkably little variation, throughout Islamic history whenever Islamic law was strictly enforced, this is generally how non-Muslims were treated. Although today they’re often presented as tolerant toward the Christians, Ibn Kathir says that these rules ‘ensured their continued humiliation, degradation and disgrace.’ The Christians agreed not to ‘restore any place of worship that needs restoration’; ‘ride on saddles, hang swords on the shoulders, collect weapons of any kind or carry these weapons’; or ‘publicize practices of Shirk’ (see 2:193, 4:31, and 6:21). They also agreed not to build ‘crosses on the outside of our churches and demonstrating them and our books in public in Muslim fairways and markets’ or ‘sound the bells in our churches, except discreetly, or raise our voices while reciting our holy books inside our churches in the presence of Muslims, nor raise our voices [with prayer] at our funerals, or light torches in funeral processions in the fairways of Muslims, or their markets.’ ” (pp 137-138)

Commentary like this is immensely valuable on the strength of its authority, and it may inspire the reader (as it did me) to become more familiar with the tafsir.

3. Critical commentary

Spencer also has an eye on history and textual criticism — corruptions, substrata, and other aspects that challenge the reader. Sura 37:75-78 reads, “And Noah prayed to us, and the hearer of his prayer was favorable. And we saved him and his family from the great distress, and made his descendants the survivors, and left for him among the later people.” Spencer notes a possible textual corruption:

“The phrase ‘left for him among the later people’ is repeated at 37:108, 37:119, and 37:129. The Tafsir al-Jalalayn explains it as meaning that the ‘later people’ would remain ‘in praise until the Day of Rising’ of those righteous ones who went before. However, Barth notes that this usage of taraka alayhi, ‘we left for him,’ is unusual in the extreme and may be evidence of textual corruption, for this phrase ‘without an object in the accusative is against all Arabic usage, even against that of the Koran.’ (J. Barth, “Studies Contributing to Criticism and Exegesis of the Koran,” in Ibn Warraq, ed., What the Koran Really Says (Amherst, New York: Prometheus, 2002), 409.)” (p 311)

It’s worth noting that Spencer relies significantly on the work of Christoph Luxenberg, who argued that the Qur’an was derived from Syriac Christian liturgy, and that obscure portions of the Qur’an become clear when retro-translated into Syrio-Aramaic. I’m generally not on board with this sort of approach. Luxenberg’s large-scale etymological retroversions remind me of the way Maurice Casey reconstructed Aramaic passages behind the gospel of Mark. The Qur’an surely drew on Syrio-Aramaic sources, and perhaps some of Luxenberg’s etymological solutions are valid, but I’m skeptical that his approach can be taken as a rule. Likewise, it’s not controversial to acknowledge that Islam is descended from Christianity (a more obscure Torah-observant wing of Christianity, that is), and that in some ways Islam was the first Mormonism. You can easily spot Christian themes throughout the Qur’anic text, but I don’t see the “original Qur’an” as being an actual Christian lectionary as Luxenberg urges.

I count the following dozen references to Luxenberg in The Critical Qur’an:

2:1. The mysterious letters of the Qur’an, which in the Syriac lectionary indicated what Psalms were to be recited.

2:135. The idea of Abraham as a hanif (heathen), which was imported from Christian belief (Rom 4:9-12).

2:185. The word “Qur’an”, derived from the Syrio-Aramaic qeryana (“reading” or “pericope” or “selection for reading”).

3:96. Bakka, the first Islamic sanctuary, was doubtfully Mecca.

5:114. Echo of the Christian eucharist, but more than just an echo (as most scholars would have it): an actual Christian liturgical celebration lying behind the text.

17:64. Satan startling people with his voice, which is at odds with 114:5.

19:24. The Lord placing a stream beneath Mary, which originally had nothing to do with a stream but rather Mary’s delivering a virgin birth.

24:31. Women’s behavior in public, which paraphrases Isaiah 3:16.

44:54. The infamous houris, which is usually translated as “maidens” or “virgins,” and central to the Islamic understanding of the virgins of paradise. But hur (the equivalent of houri in Islamic tradition) doesn’t mean “virgins,” as even Arabic philologists acknowledge, but is rather the plural form of an adjective that means “white”. The original passage referred not to virgins but to white raisins, or grapes, which were a prized delicacy and indeed a much more fitting symbol of the reward of paradise (which is frequently referred to in the Qur’an as a “garden,”, in any case, rather than sexual favors from virgins).

52:24. Servant boys likened to “hidden pearls”. Like the “virgins” of 44:54, the “boys” were originally grapes and another example of Christian paradisal imagery.

96:6,15,19. “No indeed”, a confusing negation that makes sense when retro-translated, pointing to eucharist practices.

108:1-3. Three verses that appear pre-Qur’anic.

For all I know, some of these may be valid, though really I find only 44:54 persuasive and 3:96 an interesting idea. (Regarding the latter, it has been suggested that the original Islamic sanctuary was Petra rather than Mecca.) “Grapes” may very well lie behind the houris passage. I regard Sura 44:54 as somewhat analogous to Mark 2:27-28 (where Jesus says “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”) Maurice Casey argued that “son of man” was a generic for “man/humanity” in Aramaic, with Jesus saying, effectively, that the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath, and so any man — not just a messianic/titular Son of Man — is master of the sabbath. It makes good sense of the saying and fits the portrayed conflict in the gospel, though this generic use of “son of man” perhaps fits less well in other passages (Mark 9:11-13, 10:35-45, 14:12-26).

Linguistic retroversions have heuristic value but I don’t put too much stock in them. This isn’t much of a criticism, however, for whatever you think of Luxenberg, Spencer’s citations are useful reference points.

4. Clarity

In general Spencer brings clarity to passages that are especially problematic for non-Muslim readers and are often obscured in apologetics. For example, Sura 4:34 reads, “Good women are obedient, guarding in secret what Allah has guarded. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, give them a warning and banish them to separate beds, and beat them.” Spencer comments:

“Wife-beating exists in all cultures, but only in Islam does it enjoy divine sanction. Allah tells men to beat their disobedient wives after first warning them and then sending them to sleep in separate beds. This is, of course, an extremely controversial verse, but there is not a great deal of variation in how the primary translators of the Qur’an have rendered the salient word, waidriboohunna.

Pickthall: ‘and scourge them’
Yusuf Ali: ‘(And last) beat them (lightly)’
Al-Hilali/Khan: ‘(and last) beat them (lightly, if it is useful)’
Shakir: ‘and beat them’
Sher Ali: ‘and chastise them’
Khalifa: ‘then you may (as a last alternative) beat them’
Arberry: ‘and beat them’
Rodwell: ‘and scourge them’
Sale: ‘and chastise them’
Asad: ‘then beat them’
The Study Quran: ‘then strike them’
Saheeh International: ‘strike them [lightly]’

Those translations that add the word ‘lightly’ are not working from the Arabic text of the Qur’an, in which this caveat does not appear.

In her 2007 translation, The Sublime Quran, the Islamic scholar Laleh Bakhtiar translates waidriboohunna as ‘go away from them.’ In light of the essential unanimity among virtually all other translators, both Muslim and non-Muslim, this seems difficult to sustain, as it would require believing that all of these authorities got the passage wrong until Bakhtiar. But the acute embarrassment that this passage causes contemporary Muslims is widespread. In his 1980 translation, Asad adduces numerous traditions in which Muhammad ‘forbade the beating of any woman,’ concluding that wife-beating is ‘barely permissible, and should preferably be avoided.’

In contrast Sheikh Syed Mahmud Allusi in his nineteenth-century commentary Ruhul Ma’ani gives four reasons that a man may beat his wife: ‘if she refuses to beautify herself for him’, if she refuses sex when he asks for it, if she refuses to pray or perform ritual ablutions, and ‘if she goes out of the house without a valid excuse.’

Also, Muhammad’s example is normative for Muslims, since he is an ‘excellent example’ (33:21), and a hadith has Aisha report that Muhammad struck her. Once he went out at night after he thought she was asleep, and she followed him surreptitiously. Muhammad saw her, and, as Aisha recounts: ‘He struck me on the chest which caused me pain, and then said: Did you think that Allah and His Apostle would deal unjustly with you?’ In another hadith, a woman comes to Aisha and ‘showed her a green spot on her skin caused by beating from her husband;’ Aisha is made to say: ‘I have not seen any woman suffering as much as the believing women.’ ” (p 70)

Diligent clarity like this is what readers are often looking for in Qur’an commentaries to no avail, and so it’s a welcome breath of fresh air.

The question of cherry-picking

The Critical Qur’an puts to bed claims about cherry-picking. Critics like Spencer are often accused of this — fixating on verses of the Qur’an that advocate violence and oppression while dismissing peaceful texts — but this is the entire Qur’an, and Spencer comments on the (few) peaceful passages as much as the (many) violent ones, making clear why the former are problematic. The Doctrine of Abrogation holds that violent verses of the Qur’an take precedence over peaceful verses, since the violent ones were revealed later in the lifetime of Muhammad, when he was in a position to wage war and subjugate his enemies. Per Sura 2:106, later revelations abrogate earlier ones when the two are in conflict. Peace and tolerance are advised only when Muslims are in no position to wage war.

So for example, the highly militant Sura 9 is arguably the most important sura in the Qur’an, since according to the Hadith, it was the very last one revealed to Muhammad (see Bukhari, vol. 5, book 64, no. 4364). Sura 9 holds precedence over other suras and legitimates offensive war as normative for believers for all time. That’s not cherry picking on the part of the critic or commentator. It’s acknowledging how mainstream Islam “cherry picks” from its holy book and prioritizes its passages.

Other religions allow more leeway. The early rabbis, for example, were able to have lively debates over whether or not children suffer punishment for the sins of their parents, for there is no controlling text within the Jewish scriptures that would lead one to favor Exodus 20:5 (“yes”) over Ezekiel 18:20 (“no”), or vice-versa. That’s what makes most scriptures conveniently malleable. A Doctrine of Abrogation kills that malleability.

And it should go without saying — though it usually needs saying — that not every Muslim, nor even most Muslims, adhere strictly to Islamic doctrine. And there are very brave Islamic reformers doing their utmost to change things. Mahmoud Muhammad Taha (1909-1985) of Sudan tried to reverse the Doctrine of Abrogation and make the Qur’an’s early peaceful revelations supersede the later violent ones, and for this heresy he was killed. Reformers deserve our full support and respect for acknowledging the only (and very difficult) way out of the problem.

Most Muslims are peaceful and don’t follow Islam strictly. But significant numbers of them do. Jihad and sharia remain imperatives in mainstream Islam, and The Critical Qur’an goes a long way towards accounting for why that is the case. That won’t stop this book from being dismissed on grounds of “Islamophobia”, manufactured bigotry, and Spencer’s personal politics, but those are empty criticisms — ad hominems leveled by people who have little to show for themselves. The Critical Qur’an is a multi-purpose tool for those wanting to understand how Islam’s holy book is widely interpreted, for ideas about its origins and textual issues, and it is a most welcome contribution.

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