The Study Quran: A Review
The Study Quran (SQ), a project of HarperCollins, can perhaps best be understood as an analog to its forerunner, the HarperCollins Study Bible. Originally published in 1993, the SB is an ecumenical project. Though various denominational actors and figures are cited, the SB bears no preference for one over another. Aside from its denominational accommodations, the SB is significant as an academic project – entry level courses in academic institutions teaching the Bible or Christianity routinely mandate the SB as required reading. As a result of its widespread use in academia, the SB has sold quite well, having exceeded 150,000 copies since initial publication. Therefore, although the SB may not hold much currency within devotional congregations, it retains a majority market share in academic environments.
Like the SB, the SQ is also an ecumenical work. The authors, a team of Islamic studies scholars led by Seyyed Hossein Nasr include Caner K. Dagli, Maria Massi Dakake, Joseph E.B. Lumbard, and Mohammed Rustom, account for both Shiite and Sunni perspectives when offering exegetical commentary and translating verses (see, for example, SQ commentary on Q 33.33), and have maintained translations of creed that can mutually support the various theological orientations that predominate in mainline Islamic thought (Atharī, Ash‘arī, Māturidī, and Mu‘tazilī). In addition to its ecumenicism, the SQ will likely become a bona fide standard for Islamic Studies courses in academic institutions throughout the world. Unlike the SB, the SQ enters an arena in which alternatives are sparse. Instructors have long struggled to provide accessible translations of the Quran, let alone commentaries that provide meaningful insight corresponding to seemingly ambiguous and otherwise difficult passages found in the Quran.
Quran Translations: The Current Landscape
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The challenge to provide accessible translations of the Quran has not been unique to academic environments. Originally published in 1934, Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s The Holy Qur’an: Translation and Commentary became a de facto standard in English-speaking communities well into the 90s. Though useful as an early translation, Yusuf Ali’s work was fraught with problems. The language of Yusuf Ali’s translation mimicked Victorian prose, employing terms that were not comprehensible to the majority of congregants. In addition to the linguistic shortcomings, the footnotes contained serious errors, particularly in earlier versions (later revisions eliminated much, though not all, of the truly egregious content). Finding alternatives, of course, was not easy back then. The most available alternative was perhaps Pickthall’s The Meaning of the Glorious Koran. Unfortunately, Pickthall, like Yusuf Ali, suffered from what Khaleel Mohammed described as “archaic prose and lack of annotation” (see Muhammad, 2005).
Over the past decade better translations have emerged, though few have gained serious resonance within the Muslim Community. Though not a particularly recent translation, Muhammad Asad’s The Message of the Qur’an has experienced broader adoption as of late, especially within the context of outreach. Despite its readable prose and accessible language, Asad’s translation contains explicit Mu‘tazilite bias resulting in gross interpolations and allegory in place of evident meanings. Take for example Q 13.27, which reads, “Now those who are bent on denying the truth [of the Prophet’s message] say, “Why has no miraculous sign ever been bestowed upon him from on high by his Sustainer?” Say: “Behold, God lets go astray him who wills [to go astray], just as He guides unto Himself all who turn unto Him”.” Notice here a few features of Asad’s translation – al-ladhīna kafarū is translated as “those who are bent on denying the truth,” instead of the more conventional “those who disbelieve.” This is not a mere terminological difference, but a theological distinction which I expect specialists in the field of theology to identify immediately. Perhaps even more meaningful is how yuḍillu man yashā’ has been translated – “God lets go astray him who wills [to go astray]” (emphasis mine) – an interpretation keeping with Asad’s Mu‘tazilite predilections. Elsewhere, Asad translates fa-zāda-humu l-lāhu maraḍā in Q 2.10 as, “so God lets their disease increase” (emphasis mine). These are not isolated incidents – miracles, any issue related to qadr, how ‘adl manifests and related items are frequently situated within a Mu‘tazilite worldview, rendering it problematic for the majority of Sunni congregations.
Another recent yet problematic translation of the Quran is Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din Al-Hilali and Muhammad Muhsin Khan’s The Noble Quran. Subsidized by the government of Saudi Arabia, copies of The Noble Quran can be commonly found in mosques both domestically and overseas. Unfortunately, the Hilali-Khan translation suffers from egregious errors and interpolations, advancing a particular orientation of Islam directly within the translation itself. Wherein prior translators largely constrained their efforts to translating the texts and footnoting their biases, like Asad, Hilali-Khan elected to interpose those biases directly into the translated words, making the distinction between God’s words and their own quite difficult. That many instances of interpolation repudiate Christianity and Judaism has not gone unnoticed, with Robert Crane referring to it as “perhaps the most extremist translation ever made.”
Two less problematic recent translation attempts include M.A.S. Abdel-Haleem’s The Qur’an, A New Translation, and Aminah Assami’s Saheeh International The Qur’an: English Meanings (accessible at quran.com). Both provide cogent, readable prose, and have largely refrained from incorporating denominational biases within the actual translation itself, though of course neither is perfect and there remains significant room for improvement. Some have alleged the Saheeh International translation as being little more than a recension of the Hilali-Khan translation sans doctrinaire. This allegation is not altogether untrue – translations such as, “And Our angels are nearer to him than you, but you do not see,” (emphasis mine) to verse Q 56.85 are indeed problematic. In the verse, the pronoun naḥnu (we) is translated as “Our angels”, in direct contrast with the literal meaning of the term. Though certain premodern commentators have interpreted naḥnu as referring to the angels, a direct translation would not render that meaning on its own. Due to this and other instances of interpolation, those with sensitivities to denominational impositions will likely prefer Abdel-Haleem’s translation.
All of this, of course, is to say nothing about the category of exegesis which is far less developed than translation. Few exegetical works have been translated to English, and those that have are often summarized with their own, often copious shortcomings. In this regard, the dearth of available vehicles through which inquiring minds can learn about the Quran and its meanings is palpable. For this reason, the SQ is not merely a contribution likely to take hold within secular academia, but lay believers as well, and the early reception to the SQ has certainly reflected that vacuum.
Features and Overview of the SQ
The SQ approaches 2,000 pages in full. It is, according to the authors, the product of a decade of work, and the academic rigor is apparent after even a cursory reading. The exegetical commentary of the SQ references forty-one commentaries in total, with medieval commentaries constituting the predominant points of reference. Of the commentators cited, Ibn ‘Āshūr and Ṭabāṭabā’ī are the most recent (both authors having died in the 20th century).
The book has many strengths. For one, the SQ incorporates prophetic traditions (ḥadīth) into the commentary, something that I suspect will not please structural reformists who anchor their efforts in a Quran-only epistemology. In addition, the SQ is not a work colored by the ideologies and agendas of secular liberalism (in its many forms). It makes no apologies for verses that appear inegalitarian, malevolent, or otherwise discordant with the metaphysical commitments of contemporary liberal society. Instead, the SQ contextualizes, elucidates the tradition, and offers an understanding of those verses within terms that the Muslim community (or at least some portion of it) has understood them for over a thousand years. This, I suspect as well, will not gratify reformists who view the majority of premodern jurists and theologians as having been prejudiced by patriarchy, exclusivism, and militarism.
For example, the commentary of Q 4.11, a somewhat controversial verse given its prescription for inequitable distribution of inheritance between men and women, explicates traditional inheritance law and does not reinterpret or historicize the apportioning of inheritance. The SQ explains that the inequitable apportioning of inheritance can be attributed to the males provider-responsibility within a household, a reasoning cited from the exegetical work of Ibn Kathīr. The commentary does not belabor the point, nor engage in apologetics. The explanation of Q. 4.11 alone makes reference to the exegetical works of Ṭabarī, Qurṭubī, Ibn Kathīr, Wāḥidī, Zamakhsharī and Ṭabrisī who is cited for the purpose of incorporating Shiite interpretations of the verse.
A similar approach can be seen in the explanation of Q 4.34, the infamous verse of nushūz. Again, the authors cite premodern jurists, expound upon the occasion of revelation (sabab nuzūl), and provide stipulations that premodern jurists would articulate when commenting on the very controversial locution ḍarb, or striking. Of note is that the authors do not adopt an alternative explanation or translation of ḍarb, electing instead for a hermeneutic of fideism to the tradition.
Adam, the genealogical father of man, the first of creation, and a prophet of God is created ex nihilo, miraculously from dust, and not reenvisioned in light of Darwinian macroevolution (see commentary on Q 2.30-37, 3.59, and others). The ḥūr ‘īn, or wide-eyed maidens of the Garden, are appropriately presented as otherworldly figures in the commentary of Q 56.22. Having been imparted to the general public via a medium of radicalism/extremism, the SQ authors do a good job of reconfiguring the discourse around the topic of the ḥūr from one that is predominantly sensual/erotic to one that is part of a realm that God described as that which “no eye has seen and no ear has heard and what has not occurred to the heart of any human being.”
The exegetical commentary of Q 13.11 explains the axiom, “Truly God alters not what is in a people until they alter what is in themselves,” as an imperative to individually reform. Premodern exegetes took this verse as an indication of how God’s blessings in this life, such as health and wealth, are contingent on ones obedience to God, which stands as a far cry from the more common revolutionary connotations with which it is deployed today.
The story of Lot is as well consistent with the premodern narrative concerning the sins of Sodom. Commentary on Q 29.28-29 explains that although “some maintain that Lot reproaches them [i.e. his people] for forcible rather than consensual sexual relations,” the “emphasis here and in 7:81; 26:165-166; and 27:54 is upon approaching men with desire and lust, whether consensual or not.” The consensual/forcible framing is a common one among those arguing for an interpretation of Islam that admits LGBT sexual relations as religiously lawful. Central to the argument of LGBT in Islam advocates is a Quran-only reading, concluding that the people of Sodom were in fact guilty of pederasty, rape, or in certain instances, highway robbery, and that their sexual orientation was made issue by later scholars prejudiced by heteronormative sensibilities. As the SQ authors rightly conclude, a Quranic reading of Sodom provides no such indications.
In many instances, the SQ provides lucid, powerful commentary on verses related to the hereafter, repentance, virtue, and self-discipline. There are few texts that so seamlessly integrate spirituality (tazkiya and taṣawwuf), eschatology, intricacies of juristic disagreement, and creed in one place. Take, for example, commentary on the Chapter of Joseph (Sūrah Yūsuf), which brings together biblical references alongside exhortations deriding envy, advocating persistence and patience, the palliative power of prayer, and familial solidarity. The SQ authors take no creative license in this exercise, but rather draw from the copious medieval and modern commentaries relevant insights that animate the content of the chapter in ways that other books simply don’t. Whether one is able to appreciate the painstaking research that must have gone into producing this work or not, a non-Muslim accessing the SQ as an entry-point for learning about Islam may in fact maintain their prior prejudices, but cannot conclude that Islam as a religion, and the Quran in particular, is a simplistic, irrational, malevolent, or univocal tradition from its content. This, if nothing else, merits considerable praise.
Points of Caution
All of the aforementioned said, there are reasons to be cautious. The SQ is an academic and educational work, and as such includes commentaries from sources that may not be considered orthodox depending on ones denominational orientation. This includes elaborating views on creed that do not comport with either the Atharī, Ash‘arī, or Māturidī Sunni mainstream. Some of the Sufi commentaries can come off as uncomfortably esoteric. Khārijite positions are occasionally expounded upon, and not for the purpose of refutation. Some will also find the inclusion of an essay by Ahmed el-Tayyib, the current Grand Imam of Azhar and Mubarak/Sissi loyalist who supported the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi, discomfiting, though it should be noted that the essay predates the 2011 Egyptian uprising.
The SQ’s commentary is commensurate with the conventions of secular academia. How that manifests is not always clear to common Muslims, but there are significant implications to the way in which language is employed. For example, when one refers to the self-referential nature of the Quran, or the way in which ‘the Quran teaches us’ something, the Quran is treated as an object, with its own voice. This taxonomy is deployed by academics to avoid making an ontological claim. By contrast, for believers, the Quran doesn’t say anything, God does. When we attend sermons, imams tell us what God says – it is God who proscribes, permits, ordains, praises, and condemns. Although such language is appropriate and necessary for those who do not affirm the divine ontology of the Quran (a not altogether insignificant constituent of the SQ) or work within contexts which do not permit overt confessional faith commitments, one should be careful not to internalize that language within confessional contexts and communities. As Muslims we believe in God and His Words, a statement that is not readily accepted in popular culture.
Early critics have challenged legal rulings attributed to various madhāhib elucidated in the SQ as either not the dominant view within the school or misattributions. Though the SQ catalogs ḥadīth citations and exegetical commentaries, no such citations are provided for legal positions. Referencing source works for legal attributions would help to abate these criticisms, and one should consult a schooled teacher or imam for definitive positions within a particular legal school.
The SQ is a reference work, one that Muslims working in academic contexts will have to engage with. Students and lay congregation members pursuing ṭalab al-‘ilm should take consult with a reliable teacher as to whether it is advisable to study, and if so, how. Put plainly, Muslim readers should not expect the SQ to inform their beliefs about orthodox Islam.
Departing from Consensus
The Case of rajm
There are, of course, more serious concerns. Verses explicating ḥadd punishments, such as Q 5.38, are not avoided or explained away. Instead, communitarian benefits are articulated, destabilizing effects of wrongs examined, and premodern exegetes referenced. The more difficult case of zinā in Q 24.2 is a notable departure from this general heuristic, with the SQ authors opting to entertain a rather murky hermeneutic and call into question the juristic consensus related to the issue of rajm. In this regard, the authors initially mention the four principle prophetic traditions concerning rajm, but later purport “inconsistencies” and “incongruities” between them based on details within the disparate reports. In addition, the authors attend to the question of naskh, both with regard to the abrogated āyah of rajm as well as the question of the sunna abrogating the Quran and whether or not non-mutawātir reports are sufficient for overturning clear, unambiguous Quranic prescriptions.
There are a number of issues with this hermeneutic that I will try to synthesize here. Firstly, and most simply, is that rajm for zinā has been part of the juristic consensus since the inception of Islam (the Muhammadan variety). There is little debate that it was carried out by the Prophet , the Companions, and Forebears thereafter. It continued to be enforced for centuries after the early generations, with no scholar seriously arguing it as having been misapplied prior to the 20th century. One would, in effect, have to accept that thousands of scholars spanning centuries simply got it wrong on the topic of rajm for zinā, or somehow acted in bad faith. Second, is that the prophetic traditions concerning rajm are not negligible. The principle reports cited in the SQ span dozens of traditions in Bukhārī and Muslim alone, with narrations pronounced by way of thirteen independent Companions of the Prophet across the two canonical texts. ‘Alī, ‘Umar, Abū Hurayrah, Jābir, Zayd ibn Khālid, Ibn ‘Abbās, Ibn Mas‘ūd, Ibn Abī ‘Awfa, ‘Ubāda, Buraydah, Jābir ibn Samura, ‘Imrān ibn Ḥusayn, and Abū Sa‘īd al-Khuḍrī all provide rajm accounts, may God be pleased with them. In other words, the single most authoritative works in the field of prophetic narrations contain a multitude of independent reports about the Prophet (pbuh) having carried out rajm and the Companions fervently defending its place within Islamic jurisprudence. Ibn Qudāma (Mughnī), al-Bayhaqī (al-Kubrā), Ibn Ḥazm (Marātib al-Ijmā‘), Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr (Istidhkār), Ibn al-Mundhir (al-Awsaṭ) and Māwardī (al-Ḥāwī) cite a consensus on the issue of rajm, with the lone exception of Ibn Qudāma who states that he “is unaware of any discordant [views on rajm] other than the Khārijites” (see Mughnī 3/209). To simply dichotomize the issue as one of aḥād reports and dispense with it is not enough.
Third, the “incongruities” referred to are forced upon the various traditions. For example, in comparing the opportunities to recant afforded to the male adulterer with the Jewish couple to whom the Prophet (pbuh) extended no such opportunity, the Prophet (pbuh) may have felt reluctant to offer leniency out of fealty to the already extant rabbinic authority. As is mentioned in the tradition concerning the Jewish couple, the Prophet (pbuh) requested a copy of the Torah and adjudicated based on the content of their tradition, not his. The Jewish couple tradition mentions the couple as approaching the Prophet for the explicit purpose of escaping the retribution for zinā as explicated in the Torah. Al-Zamakhsharī, al-Ṭabrisī, al-Ṭabarī, Ibn Kathīr and al-Rāzī all either explicitly make mention of the Jewish couple tradition or invoke the ḥukm of rajm as one of the reasons for the revelation of Q 5.42-43 (this is made note of in the commentary of Q 24.2 in the SQ as well), the latter of which states “And how is it that they come to thee for judgment, when they have the Torah, wherein is God’s Judgment?” The “misquotations in the Torah” mentioned in the SQ may in fact belong to a recension of the Torah extant during the prophetic period. As for the employer’s wife tradition, then it makes no mention of the specifics carried out by the delegation sent to obtain a confession. It is quite possible that in inducing the confession, the delegation afforded the employer’s wife ample opportunity to deny the allegation and she simply chose to confess like the pregnant adulteress. Banishment, combining stoning and lashing, and related considerations may be viewed as discretionary – perhaps based on the nature of the infidelity, the prophetic traditions support additional punishments above and beyond the explicit ḥadd. For example, the tradition of the employer’s wife begins with the father whose son who had committed adultery with his employer’s wife. The father attempts to offer compensation for his son’s crime of adultery, and the Prophet’s inclusion of banishment may have been added as a future deterrent against attempted bribery. There are other possibilities, many of which are examined and detailed in works authored by premodern legists. In conventional jurisprudence, scholars would exhaust legal instruments of reconciliation prior to classifying prophetic traditions as conceptually irreconcilable (muḍṭarib). No such effort was exhausted in this scenario.
Fourth, the issue of naskh al-tilāwah, although important, is not the central legal issue in determining the applicability of rajm. Even in the absence of the abrogated verse, the multitude of prophetic traditions, practice and statements of the Companions, and juristic consensus forms a sufficient corpus to evidentiarily support rajm. Though the more contentious topic of naskh is an important one and certainly a salient consideration for this verse, the prophetic practice is definitive in its application of rajm. Fifth, the aḥādīth of rajm do not abrogate the verses stipulating jaldah, but rather delimit them to unmarried individuals. Finally, although the SQ mentions rajm as “a more grievous punishment than all others mentioned in the Quran,” that distinction almost certainly belongs to the punishment for ḥirābah in Q 5.33.
This is merely an expounding of the premodern consensus, but says nothing as to how Muslim communities should wrestle with these traditions today. Some modern jurists have called for a moratorium on the ḥudūd altogether, and others have specifically called for a revisitation of the specific ḥadd related to zinā due to unfortunate abuses, honor killings, and other misapplications that have resulted in the deaths of many innocent lives. This is not a trivial matter, and I hope the above defense of rajm’s place in the tradition does not come off insensitive or tone-deaf to those problems. Nonetheless, any earnest effort to address current abuses will have to take the tradition and its evidences into account, something the SQ fell short of demonstrating.
Soteriological Pluralism in the SQ
An even more problematic concern is with the SQ’s pluralistic commitments. Upon release, critical reception of the SQ fixated almost exclusively upon the pluralist advances of the SQ, responding most pointedly to an essay in the SQ authored by Joseph Lumbard entitled The Quranic View of Sacred History and Other Religions. After reading social media vituperation over the inclusion of pluralist soteriological commitments, my initial suspicion was that such a reading was overstating the pluralist overtones, preoccupied with an essay in the back of the book and perhaps curious interpretations of verses Q 3.84-85. Though this was somewhat true, critics were not altogether wrong in begrudging the multiple areas in which pluralistic interpretations are forced into passages that do not ostensibly support them and have never been maintained as such within the tradition. What follows will again be an attempt to synthesize the primary arguments averred by the SQ authors within the exegetical commentary itself while also paying heed to a few arguments in the Lumbard essay. The primary arguments in the SQ concerning this topic are as follows:
- Q 5.73 rebuts Monophysite Christology and not Chalcedonian Christology. Non-Chalcedonian Christological orientations are presented on multiple occasions as the focus of the Quran.
- Q 2.79 and elsewhere are not speaking about the Kitābī Also, the sacred texts of the Kitābī traditions have not been excessively altered.
- Q 2.62 is the primary verse, serving as a rule for the salvific efficacy of other traditions. More critical verses addressing other traditions should be subsumed beneath Q 2.62.
- Q 3.84-85 and elsewhere speak to a general, universal “islam,” or submission, and not to the specific “Islam” characterized by Muhammad’s (pbuh) prophethood.
With respect to the Trinity, the SQ maintains in multiple places that orthodox Chalcedonian Christology is not the subject of God’s reprimand in the Quran, but rather exaggerated forms of the Trinity are, namely, Monophysite Christology (‘exaggerated’ being an argument extended from Q 4.171 which reproaches the ahl al-kitāb for exaggerating (taghlū) in their religion). Although the SQ does in fact state that the tradition largely considers a unicity of God with three hypostases as incommensurable with the theology of Islam, a grievous error, and a major sin, in other places it delimits criticism to non-Chalcedonian Christology and largely creates a distinction between a Trinity with three hypostases and shirk, alleging the former to not necessarily constitute the latter.
In the commentary of Q 4.171 and Q 5.73 it is stated that “the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity as three “persons,” or hypostases, “within” the One God is not explicitly referenced, and the criticism seems directed at those who assert the existence of three distinct “gods,” an idea that Christians themselves reject.” Later, the commentary states that “Islamic Law never considered Christians to be “idolaters” (mushrikūn) and accepted Christians’ own assertion of monotheistic belief.” In certain instances, the SQ portrays Chalcedonian Christology as a minority, or at the least, largely misunderstood/unknown during the formative period of Islam.
Although medieval Eastern Christianity was more complex than the current post-Niceno-Constantinopolitan theology which dominates today, Chalcedonian Christianity was not altogether uncommon and there is little reason to assume the early Muslim community to be somehow unaware of its presence and beliefs. The essential criticisms of the Quran include attributing divinity to Christ, a child to God, and belief in a Trinity. There is no scholar in Islamic history, which I am aware of, that provided a concession for one Christological orientation over another, and exposure to Melkite Churches and its concomitant beliefs existed from the earliest days of Islam.
The earliest Christian apologetic text in Arabic to address Islam was a manuscript entitled On the Triune Nature of God (Fī tathlīth Allāh al-Wāḥid) by an unknown author (loosely dated to the early/mid-8th century). In it, the author goes to great pains to emphasize that Christian theological commitments are not of three separate “gods”, but of a single God with multiple states. One can assume that this means that in the formative period, Chalcedonian Christology was not being treated any differently than other forms of Christology, and the earliest Muslims regarded it as constituting the very Trinity which the Quran rebukes. Another early Christian writing which is largely a polemic against Islam is John of Damascus’ (656-749) Fount of Knowledge. A Chalcedonian Christian, John characterizes Muslim belief as follows:
“He says that there is one God, creator of all things, who has neither been begotten nor has begotten. He says that the Christ is the Word of God and His Spirit, but a creature and a servant, and that He was begotten, without seed, of Mary the sister of Moses and Aaron. For, he says, the Word and God and the Spirit entered into Mary and she brought forth Jesus, who was a prophet and servant of God. And he says that the Jews wanted to crucify Him in violation of the law, and that they seized His shadow and crucified this. But the Christ Himself was not crucified, he says, nor did He die, for God out of His love for Him took Him to Himself into heaven. And he says this, that when the Christ had ascended into heaven God asked Him: ‘O Jesus, didst thou say: “I am the Son of God and God”?’ And Jesus, he says, answered: ‘Be merciful to me, Lord. Thou knowest that I did not say this and that I did not scorn to be thy servant. But sinful men have written that I made this statement, and they have lied about me and have fallen into error.’ And God answered and said to Him: ‘I know that thou didst not say this word.”
Of note above is John’s characterizing of Islam’s conception of God against the Trinity (note that elsewhere in Fount John argues time and again for Jesus being consubstantial with God, in contrast to his Muslim interlocutors). John’s location in the first century of Islam is critical, as his understanding is largely being informed by information imparted by the Companions unto early converts. In this regard, John describes Muhammad as advocating for “one God, creator of all things, who has neither been begotten nor has begotten.” This same dynamic can be observed in the treatises (mayāmir) of Theodore Abū Qurrah (750-823) which have been translated by John Lamoreaux in his work entitled Theodore Abū Qurrah. Theodore Abū Qurrah is instructive as his treatises often simultaneously respond to both Islam and Monophysite Christology, directing vituperative criticism toward both.
Therefore, one has to conclude that if God were addressing only certain Christological orientations and not others, or that it only explicitly called out three separate “gods” but not “states” or hypostases, then that nuance was either missed by the early Muslim community, or the early Muslim community succumbed to religious chauvinism and simply disregarded its otherwise ecumenical nature. The distinction between the legal categories of ahl al-kitāb of mishrikūn does not mean that one cannot simultaneously be another. Indeed, anything that derogates from the unicity of God constitutes a type of shirk, let alone a belief in a godhead with three concurrent states, one of which is believed to be the son of God.
In the commentary of Q 2.62, attention is paid to the case of one who hears about Islam, but encounters obstacles that prevent Islam from taking hold. The SQ cites al-Ghazzālī’s work Fayṣal al-tafriqah which speaks of the ‘unreached’, an excuse that was admittedly more plausible in premodern societies. Theologians have long incorporated such individuals into the category of ‘excused’ from immediately being subject to chastisement, in keeping with Q 17.15 “We do not punish until We have sent a messenger.” How the notion of ‘unreached’ translates to those whose only exposure to Islam is via the medium of hostility and antagonism, only God Knows.
Though one may argue that soteriological pluralism is ancillary to the overall project of the SQ or somehow constitutive of a fraction of the two-thousand page oeuvre, the reality is that pluralist references are almost impossible to miss. Many verses that repudiate Christian or Jewish doctrine are reinterpreted or historicized. Salvific efficacy is extended to all religions and paths, so long as they are somehow subsumed under the general postulate “islam”, instead of the particularized Muhammadan “Islam” (capital “I”). In this regard, belief in the Prophet is optional and inessential for entry to Paradise. Moreover, belief in the Quran itself, compliance with its injunctions, and conformity with the strictures inherent to Islamic law are all non-compulsory for individuals living in a post-Muhammadan world. In theory, one could conceivably renounce the particularized Muhammadan Islam altogether in favor of a more broadly understood “islam” and still find themselves entitled to God’s salvation.
Such an understanding of soteriology is almost impossible to support within a full reading of the Quran, and certainly impossible after taking into account the less accommodating ḥadīth tradition which contains unambiguous reports such as, “By the One in Whose hand is the soul of Muhammad, there is no one among this nation, Jew or Christian, who hears of me and dies without believing in that with which I have been sent, but he will be one of the people of the Fire.” Verses repudiating the Kitābī traditions are not scant – they compose a major constituent of the Quran, including extensive passages in Baqarah, Āl-‘Imrān, al-Nisā’, and Mā’idah. They include critiques of Kitābī theology, ecclesiastic authorities, alterations of sacred texts, and implores the ahl al-kitāb to submit to the message of the Quran and the Prophet . Attempts to proffer an inclusivist soteriology requires, as has been shown, a reliance on the Quran-alone absent the prophetic tradition, a subordination of the majority of verses addressing the Kitābī traditions beneath Q 2.62, dismissal of the scholarly tradition, and unsubstantiated historicizing. Such a conclusion can fairly be described as a departure from consensus and unfaithful to the tradition.
The current landscape of Quran exegesis in English to date has not had much to offer non-Muslims and Muslims born in western lands seeking to learn about the Quran. As a result, inquiring minds have been relegated to unreliable, often simplistic, web sites responding to “hot button” issues within a very particular theological/denominational persuasion. Consequently, the intellectual legacy of Islam has largely gone unappreciated outside of specialist circles. For many lay Muslims, scholastic discordance has been perceived as an exceptional circumstance, disagreement portrayed as regrettably derogating from an unrealistic ideal of unity, and theological polarizations the norm. Lost in the myriad challenges associated with inaccessible literature about the Quran has been the increasingly perverse portrayal of Islam and the Quran in the minds of the general public.
The presence in recent years of more intelligible Quran translations has surely helped, but accompanying commentaries remain nonexistent. Within this context, the SQ is a monumental contribution to the field of Quran studies, offering perhaps the first proper exegetical work on the Quran in the English language. Anchored in a traditionalist narrative accumulated over a thousand years, the SQ has coalesced the views of luminaries and theologians from disparate theological orientations and denominations. Although it is not the “final word on a whole tradition”, as Caner Dagli remarked in response to early critics, it certainly provides appreciable insight into a sophisticated, multi-dimensional tradition which has come to formulate how Islam is conceptualized today.
The SQ has regrettable instances in which it has departed from consensus, namely, with respect to rajm and soteriological pluralism. In both cases, traditional theological methodologies have been jettisoned in favor of extenuating considerations and questionable heuristics that contradict normative orthodox religious teachings. Despite these legitimate and important concerns, I think we would all agree that policy makers, non-Muslims interested in Islam, Muslims distant from their faith, and universities making use of the SQ is preferable to the overwhelming majority of content related to the Quran today. In that vein, we are certainly in its authors debt. May God remunerate their efforts abundantly, and guide them and us to what pleases Him. Ameen.
And God Knows Best.
 I gratefully acknowledge the feedback from the SQ authors in support of this piece. Their insights and feedback has animated this review in important ways. Though some of the critiques in this article are not favorable in reviewing certain topics in the SQ, I have found the authors themselves to be nothing other than genuine, open to dialogue, and very interested in furthering conversations that have been generated since the SQ’s release.
 Translations, by definition, are subject to the shortcomings inherent in attempting to convey meanings from one language to another. The case of the Quran presents more complications than most – ‘clean’ equivalents are not always available for certain terms, let alone the stylistic, rhetorical, and linguistic features native to Quranic passages. Ultimately, this requires interstitial commentary and interpretive decisions, many of which are non-trivial. The term “translation”’ can, therefore, be somewhat misleading. A more candid nomenclature would be ‘an interpretation of the Quran’s meaning.’ See Some Linguistic Difficulties in Translating the Holy Quran from Arabic into English (Brakhw, 2012) for a more detailed treatment of the topic.
 Though much of the social media fervor has employed the term perennialism, pluralism is, in fact, a more accurate term to denote the extending of salvific efficacy to diverse faith traditions. Though particular perennialist orientations may accord a pluralist soteriology, one does not necessitate the other.
Eschatology -a branch of theology concerned with the final events in the history of the world or of humankind
Esoteric- relating to or being a small group with specialized knowledge or interests
Salvific- having the intent or power to save or redeem
Soteriology- the branch of theology dealing with the nature and means of salvation
Perennialism-is a term referring to a number of 20th century writers who rejected modernity and argued for a return to the perennial truths as preserved in the traditions of the world religions. Though perennialists often view each of the world’s religious traditions as sharing a single, universal truth on which foundation all religious knowledge and doctrine has grown, they do not immediately accord salvation to all faiths, nor do they necessarily consider all faiths valid.
Pluralism- pertains to diversity of religious belief systems co-existing in society. In this paper, it was used specifically to refer to the worldview that one’s religion is not the sole and exclusive source of truth.
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