Can a book that is “above time and beyond history” be the subject of a biography? Certain folk of a militant bent may say no, but Lawrence (Islamic Studies/Duke Univ.) bravely offers a sympathetic, even ecumenical, portrait of Islam’s foundational text.
According to Lawrence, the Qur’an, whose name means “recitation,” “sounds better spoken than read silently” and is “an oral book that is also a scripture,” a call to prayer that is the essence of prayer itself. The text—which Muslims believe the archangel Gabriel recited to the prophet Muhammad in the Arabian desert 14 centuries ago—declares itself to be the voice of the true religion (“The true religion with God is Islam”). It also declares, Lawrence holds, that peace (salam) is Islam’s overarching priority, which renders problematic the interpretation of jihad as holy war waged literally against nonbelievers. Lawrence ventures that militant Muslims are a small but vocal minority whose emphasis on confrontation obscures the faith. He goes on to examine the life of the merchant Muhammad, whose first preaching of Islam earned him the wrath of his neighbors in Mecca and prompted his flight to Medina, from which the new religion spread. He offers character sketches of early interpreters of the Qur’an such as Tabari, an immensely learned man who “would still have been one of the most important Muslim scholars of all time” had he confined himself to it instead of writing 30 books on all manner of subjects; and he gently twits Western misappropriations of the Sufi tradition (“Deepak Chopra, Demi Moore and even Madonna have claimed to connect with the Whirling Dervish”). Most usefully—and courageously—he upholds the Muslim tradition against another misappropriation, that of fundamentalist militants such as Osama bin Laden who take the Qur’an to be not a set of moral directives but a mandate for terror.
An important work for those seeking to understand—and defend—Islam.