Reading the Quran--Surah 1 ("al-Fatihah", "The Opening") and Opening Thoughts

In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful
Praise be to God, Lord of the Worlds
the Compassionate, the Merciful
Master of the Day of Judgment
Thee we worship and from Thee we seek help
Guide us upon the straight path
the path of those whom Thou has blessed, not of those who incur wrath, not of those who are astray.

Surah 1 (Study Quran translation)

So begins the Quran, in the form of the first chapter, or surah, in its entirety.  Al-Fatihah is a prayer, and (so the notes tell me) is used as the basis of the five-fold daily prayers performed by practicing Muslims.  In Catholic high school, I was taught the four purposes of prayer--adoration, thanksgiving, penance and petition.  In seven short lines, al-Fatihah covers at least three of those purposes, with the possible omission of penance.  It is a very direct, rather beautiful prayer.

"Direct" is a descriptor that I suspect will be coming up repeatedly in this series, as the Quran is seen by Muslims as "direct" in a very important way.  Even the most hardline Christian (or Jewish, for that matter) fundamentalist will concede that the Word of God as manifest in the Bible is necessarily mediated through human authors.  All Christians and Jews would agree that human beings wrote every word of the Biblical text.  Sure, those human beings were inspired by God to write the text (at least, again, so Christians and Jews believe), and there are significant disputes over who the author of certain texts is (i.e. did Moses write the Torah?), but one way or the other there are people communicating God's Word through their own voices.

Muslims do not believe this is true of the Quran.  The word "Quran" means "recitation."  Muslims believe that Mohammed is not the author of the Quran, but simply the person chosen by God to, for lack of a better term, take God's dictation.  The author of the Quran is understood by Muslims to be God, in a completely unmediated and direct manner.  The Quran is thus understood to be God's direct communication to humanity in a way that no Christian or Jew, even the most conservative, would affirm about the Bible.

This strikes me as a critical and essential difference in the way believers approach the text.
So much of the last 200 years in the Christian and Jewish world has been taken up with critical Biblical scholarship--the attempt to piece together the human origins of individual books of the Bible, map the ways they influence and were influenced by other texts, etc.  While this work has been extremely controversial, the fact that everyone accept the text as written by people creates a baseline for such work to be done.  Everyone agrees that there was a guy named Paul who wrote a number of letters to various churches, so it is not that much of a leap to look into Paul's influences and circumstances

In theory, no such critical scholarship should even be possible on the Quran, as there should not be any human fingerprints on the Quranic text.  It should not be possible to pick it apart and find the seams, because there should be no seams to be found.  And if human fingerprints can be found on the text, in the same way human fingerprints are all over the Bible, it strikes directly at the core claims of Islam itself.    

Given the shortness of this surah, I don't have all that much more to say on Surah 1.  And I don't want to move on to Surah 2, which is by far the longest in the Quran, with 286 verses. So, I figured I would round out this post with some observations on the Study Quran text itself.

The editors of the text made two editorial decisions that struck me upon first reading.  First, the translation is very intentionally going for a "King James Bible" style of English.  The rationale provided by the translators for this choice is they want to avoid producing a translation that will be dated in the future, as well as trying to recreate the fact that Quranic Arabic is to modern Arabic in much the same way King James English is to modern English.  As a general rule, I don't really see much point to using archaic language, and I think the notion that archaic language is somehow more reverent is silly.  I suspect I will become annoyed by the self-conscious use of Ye Olde English as we go along.

The other intentional choice involves the textual commentary associated with each surah, which is very extensive (as an example, there are six pages of dense type commentary for the seven verses of Surah 1).  The Study Quran relies very consciously on traditional Islamic commentaries, and does not engage with any neutral or critical scholarship on the Quran from non-Muslim sources.  Within that framework, it engages with what appears to be a wide variety of commentators from a wide variety of time periods (with what seems to be an emphasis on Medieval sources).  But it is very intentionally written from the point of view of believing Muslims that approach the text from that perspective.  In this way, it is different from many mainstream, "academic" study Bibles (such as, for example, the Harper Collins Study Bible, published by the same folks that publish the Study Quran, or the New Interpreters Study Bible that I like and use often), and more like more the more sectarian alternative study texts (such as, for example, the conservative Catholic Ignatius Study Bible or the famous Schofield Bible).

Whatever the merits of this choice from the perspective of the Study Quran as an academic work, I think that is not a problem, and may even be helpful, for this series.  Part of the goal is to come to an understanding of how Muslims understand the Quran, and respected historical commentors will shed more light on that question than modern scholarship.  The only exception to that is I would be interested in seeing some discussion of textual criticism and a discussion of textual variants.  The introduction dismisses this question by asserting that there are no textual variants of the Quran, which strikes me as somewhat difficult to believe given the text is almost 1400 years old.  I am sure that has to do with this "seamless garment" idea I mentioned above, but one would expect scribal variations or simple errors that creep into any ancient text.  Interesting, but clearly not something these commentators are looking to explore, and beyond the scope of this project in any event.

Next up--Surah 2, "Al-Baqara," "the Cow."


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