The Qur’an is the central religious text of Islam which Muslims consider to be the verbatim word of Allah and the final divine revelation. Muslims regard the Qur’an as the main miracle of the Prophet Muhammad and the proof of his prophethood.
The Qur’an was verbally revealed through the angel Jibrīl (Gabriel) from Allah to the Prophet Muhammad gradually over a period of approximately twenty-three years beginning in 610 CE, when Muhammad was forty, and was concluded in 632 CE, the year of his death.
Shortly after Prophet Muhammad's death, the Qur’an was compiled into a single book by order of the first Caliph Abu Bakr and at the suggestion of his future successor `Umar.
Hafsah, who was the Prophet Muhammad 's widow and `Umar's daughter, was entrusted with that Qur'anic text after the second Caliph `Umar died. When `Uthman, the third Caliph, began to notice slight differences in the Arabic dialect he asked Hafsah to allow him to use the text in her possession to be set as the standard dialect, the Qurayshi dialect now known as Fusha (Modern Standard Arabic). Before returning the text to Hafsah `Uthman made several thousand copies of Abu Bakr's redaction and, to standardize the text, invalidated all other versions of the Qur'an. This process of formalization is known as the "`Uthmanic recension".
Here is an image of an eleventh century North African Qur'an in the British Museum.
Dr. John Kaltner is professor of religious studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee where he teaches courses in the Bible, Islam, and Arabic. Among his books are Ishmael Instructs Isaac: An Introduction to the Qur’an for Bible Readers (Liturgical Press, 1999); Islam: What Non-Muslims Should Know (Fortress Press, 2003); Inquiring of Joseph: Getting to Know a Biblical Character through the Qur’an (Liturgical Press, 2003); What Do Our Neighbors Believe? Questions and Answers on Judaism, Christianity and Islam, co-authored by Howard Greenstein and Kendra Hotz (Westminster/John Knox, 2006), and Introducing the Qur’an for Today’s Reader (Fortress Press, 2011).
Q: You are John Kaltner, the Virginia Ballou McGehee Professor of Muslim-Christian Relations, and you teach courses in the Bible, Islam, and Arabic. What made you take up Islamic studies?
Kaltner: I spent a number of years in the Middle East, mostly in Egypt, and that was my first opportunity to live in a Muslim-majority environment.
Many of my friends were Muslims, and I had the chance to learn about Islam through my conversations and interactions with them.
I was often struck by the many similarities between Islam and the Judeo-Christian tradition, beginning with their two sacred texts the Bible and the Qur’an. My primary area of training is in biblical studies, and my knowledge of Arabic allows me to explore the relationship between the two books.
In earlier generations most Bible scholars studied Arabic, but with the discovery and decipherment of other languages like Akkadian and Ugaritic study of Arabic became less important. In my work, I’ve tried to show that Arabic remains a useful resource for Bible scholars.
Q: In your book "What Do Our Neighbors Believe? Questions and Answers on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam" what did you want to explain?
Kaltner: I wrote that book with two co-authors, and our aim was to offer a general overview of the three monotheistic faiths by explaining how each one addresses the same set of questions.
The chapters touch on issues like sacred texts, leadership, practices, and social questions, and in each chapter we pose three questions that would be of interest to readers. For example, in the chapter on social questions we explore how each faith understands the relationship between religion and politics, the relationship between religion and science, and its teachings in the area of human sexuality.
The treatments are brief, and the book is written and designed in a way that allows the reader to understand the similarities and differences among the faiths in a general way.
Q: You’ve also written "Islam: What Non-Muslims Should Know." What topics does that book discuss?
Kaltner: I wrote that book soon after the events of September 11, 2001. During that time I was being asked by churches and other groups to give talks about Islam, and one of the talks I developed identifies and discusses six aspects of Islam that I think it's essential for non-Muslims to be familiar with in order to properly understand Islam and be able to evaluate how the media present it.
Those six aspects are the following: (1) Islam is a diverse and complex faith; (2) Islam is a religion of orthopraxy, or proper action; (3) Islam respects Judaism and Christianity; (4) there is no institutional hierarchy in Islam; (5) there is no formal separation of religion and politics in Islam; and (6) the word jihad does not simply mean “holy war.” I got much positive feedback when I gave that talk, so I decided to write it up as a brief introduction to Islam.
Q: There are many biblical characters through the Qur’an. The names of some of those prophets are mentioned in the Qur’an and many of them are familiar to Bible readers, including Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus. Why did you focus only on Joseph in one of your books?
Kaltner: I had written another book titled "Ishmael Instructs Isaac: An Introduction to the Qur’an for Bible Readers" a few years before I wrote the Joseph book.
In that first book, I treat how the Qur’an presents six biblical characters who play prominent roles in the Islamic text–Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Mary, and Jesus. I devote a chapter to each of the six and engage in a comparative analysis of what the two books have to say about each one.
I decided to save the Joseph story for a separate book because it’s such a long narrative in the Bible and the Qur’an and I felt I couldn’t do it justice in just one chapter.
The approach that I adopt is similar to that of the first book, but I go into more detail with Joseph.
Q: About the Prophet Muhammad you have written, "Because he is the standard for Muslims in every time and place, the Prophet Muhammad continues to play a central leadership role within his community centuries after his death. Many Muslims look to his example and intentionally model their own lives on what he said and did as recorded in the Hadith collections and other Islamic sources. Muhammad therefore remains the ideal figure within whose shadow all subsequent leaders must function and operate." Could you elaborate on that statement?
Kaltner: Although the two figures function differently for the members of their respective faiths, there are some important similarities between Jesus and Muhammad.
One concerns the way they both serve as role models and guides for Christians and Muslims. It’s not as common now, but a few years back many Christians would use the initials W.W.J.D. as shorthand for the question “What would Jesus do?” when they tried to discern how their faith expected them to act in a given situation.
Some Christians even wore bracelets with those initials on them. It was a way of highlighting the fact that Christians are asked to imitate the life of Jesus.
A similar thing takes place in Islam with the Prophet Muhammad. Many non-Muslims are surprised to learn that Muhammad is mentioned by name only four times in the Qur’an and the text isn’t primarily about him. But the collection of traditions related to the Prophet known as the Hadith provides many details about what Muhammad said and did, and this material has been very influential in shaping Muslim practice and behavior over the centuries. For Muslims the traditions in the Hadith help to answer the question “W.W.M.D.?”
Q: In your new book "Introducing the Qur'an: For Today's Reader" you marvel in your preface at the considerable ignorance non-Muslims have of the Qur’an and its teachings, especially given that it is the sacred text of one of the world’s major religious traditions. You also acknowledge many the similarities between the Qur’an and the Bible. Could you elaborate on those points?
Kaltner: A few years back when Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota was elected the first Muslim to the U.S. Congress, there was quite an outcry from some quarters when he decided to take the oath of office on a copy of the Qur’an.
Many thought the Qur’an should not be used for such a purpose, and Ellison was accused of being anti-American and worse. In light of what people were saying about the Qur’an at that time it was clear that most had little, if any, familiarity with the contents of the Qur’an and yet they were making outrageous claims about what kind of book it is.
Ironically, the book Ellison took his oath on has much in common with the Bible that his fellow members of Congress used for their own swearing-in ceremonies. Soon after this I decided to teach a course titled “The Qur’an and Contemporary Issues” as a way of introducing students to what the Qur’an teaches about a number of topics that are of particular interest to modern readers.
That course formed the basis of the book Introducing the Qur’an for Today’s Reader, which devotes a chapter to each of the following themes: the natural environment, the family, gender and sexuality, Muslim/non-Muslim relations, Jihad, war and violence, and death and the afterlife.
In many places the close connections between what the Qur’an and the biblical material teach about these areas are clear and undeniable.
That’s not to say that there are not differences between the two texts. It simply points out that there are some important similarities that are often ignored or unappreciated.
Q: Non-Muslims have many misperceptions about the Qur’an, but you think three are deeply ingrained and adversely affect how Islam is perceived: (1) that it is a misogynistic text that degrades women; (2) that it is a violent text that calls for war and violence against all non-Muslims; and (3) that it is the antithesis and polar opposite of the Bible. In various ways you try to dispel these inaccurate perceptions in the book. Please explain how you attempt to do that.
Kaltner: Two things I stress repeatedly throughout the book are the importance of reading the text of the Qur’an in light of its original context and the critical role interpretation plays in determining what the Qur’an means.
By the way, those two issues are equally important for a proper understanding of the Bible as well. There is no doubt that, as with the Bible, there are certain passages in the Qur’an that strike the modern ear as strange.
This is especially the case regarding things like how to treat people who are not part of the group and how men and women should relate to one another. The teachings can sometimes sound odd because they were originally addressed to a world and context that was very different than our own.
The challenge is to determine the relevance of such texts for our day and age, and that’s where the issue of interpretation comes in. Interpretation centers on the relationship between the word and the world. How do we apply a text that is centuries old and was originally directed to a very different audience to our modern world? Of course, there are differences of opinion on how to answer that question, but wrestling with it is one of the most important tasks facing humanity today.
Q: You tried to appreciate the fact that for Muslims the Qur’an is not merely a spoken or recited text but it is also a written text that is experienced visually, so many of the images in the book try to convey this dimension. Some images show how the Qur’an functions in the daily lives of Muslims by depicting them reading it or studying it, Could you elaborate on this dimension of the Qur’an?
Kaltner: Muslims have been reading and studying the Qur’an since the earliest days of Islam. Although recitation of the Qur’an has a long and venerable history, the physical and tangible presence of the sacred text is a central aspect of their faith lives. From all periods and places throughout Islam’s history some of the most cherished works of art are copies of the Qur’an that have been ornately decorated and written in painstaking detail.
This reverence for the written word continues into the present day. Typically, a family’s copy of the Qur’an is prominently displayed in the home, and the text has a strong visible presence in other areas of daily life.
Q: You have taught a course titled “The Qur’an and Contemporary Issues” in which each day you asked two of the students to find a website related to the Qur’an, What do you think of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Islam by Yahiya Emerick?
Kaltner: I’m not familiar with this book, but I was amazed at some of the Qur’an related sites students in the course discovered on the web.
Some of it is useful and presents an accurate portrayal of the Qur’an, but some of the sites were very disturbing because of the distortions they contain and the unfair stereotypes they seek to perpetuate.
The same is true about books that treat Islam and the Qur’an. Not too long ago I wrote an article that discusses the books written about the Bible and the Qur’an since 9/11.
Most of these have been written by Christians, although there are a few written by Muslims, and one of the things I discovered is that the majority of them tend to adopt a negative view of the Qur’an that presents a warped image of it and misrepresents its contents.
Perhaps the most disturbing thing I learned is that the books about Islam and the Qur’an that sell the most copies tend to be ones that are distorted and inaccurate in their treatment. Those are the “Idiot’s Guides” that really worry me.
Abdur-Rahman: Thank you a lot.
John Kaltner: It has been my pleasure. Thank you.
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