Foundations: No.80 Spring 2021
A Concise Guide to the Qur’an: Answering Thirty Critical Questions
Ayman Ibrahim, Baker Academic, 2020, 145pp, £16.99
Daunted by the Qur’an?
For the Christian reader unfamiliar with the literary and theological world of the Islam’s primary source of revelation, approaching the Qur’an can be pretty daunting. You may have heard the helpful maxim, “the Qur’an is to Muslims, what Jesus is to Christians”, but what does this actually mean for us? Quite apart from the lack of any discernible thematic or chronological structure that we might associate with such an influential text or the fragmented and choppy feel of the narrative in our personal reading of the Qur’an, there is the key challenge of how we talk about and refer to such a venerated and hallowed book in our conversations with Muslim friends and colleagues.
Allow me to nail my colours the mast straight away and say that Ayman Ibrahim’s 145-page concise guide is a fantastically helpful contribution to the field of accessible Christian scholarship of the Qur’an. Somewhere between robust and recommended, but less accessible, academic books like Keith Small’s Textual Criticism and Qur’an Manuscripts (2011) and Mark Durie’s The Qur’an and Its Biblical Reflexes (2018) and a more accessible but poorly researched and polemical work such as Don Richardson’s The Secret of the Koran (2008), Ibrahim has written an approachable, even-handed and gently critical primer on some of the most important questions that arise when thinking through the authorship, historicity and thematic content of the Qur’an.
For whom does Ibrahim write and why?
Ibrahim is up front and clear about his target audience in this book. He is writing mainly for Christians with little or no awareness of Islamic theology or Qur’an studies. However, what makes his treatment of the critical questions most useful for any of us who want to take these matters into our conversations with Muslims is that he clearly has Muslims in mind as a secondary audience.
He is also explicit in his introduction about his three-fold evangelical goals in writing this book; firstly, to encourage Christians in their evangelism, dialogue and conversations with Muslims, secondly, to teach and train Christians to understand the diversity of Muslim interpretations of the Qur’an and thirdly to invite Muslims – probably via their Christian friends – to consider some of these critical questions (e.g., xiii and 93).
Whilst Ibrahim is transparent about his own background and perspective, his treatment is not a Christian “response” and less still a polemic against the claims of or about the Qur’an. Rather, I would describe it as an honest and gently critical engagement with key critical questions that arise in the study of the Qur’an. This is well researched and clearly Ibrahim has done his homework.
What themes does he deal with?
Ibrahim’s thirty questions are dived into two parts: Questions 1-15 in Part 1 deal with the history of the text, while questions 16-30 in Part 2 treat the content, features and themes of the Qur’an. The author addresses thorny questions, such as the Muslim claim of the incorruptibility of the Qur’an. He exposes the reader to the significant historical-textual critical issues that undermine the mainstream Muslim confidence in current versions of the Qur’an by rereferring to Islamic, secular, Jewish and Christian scholarship. He points out that the 1924 Cairo edition of the Qur’an that most modern Muslims read and believe to be the authorised version has only been agreed upon for less than 100 years (47-60).
Ibrahim also treats the Muslim claims about Christians and their views of central doctrines of God (the Trinity), (89-94) and the identity and ministry of Jesus (108-115) that arise from the Qur’anic text. What is particularly helpful is his nuanced way of presenting the Qur’ans’ treatment of these doctrines, showing how the text both supports and condemns these Christian beliefs. With regard to the person and work of Jesus, he demonstrates both the continuity and radical discontinuity in the Qur’an. Rather than a simple binary table of points of continuity and discontinuity, what Ibrahim succeeds in doing is showing how the presentation of Jesus and other biblical prophets operate within the matrix of the Qur’ans’ concerns.
Ibrahim’s style and presentation
In treating these thirty critical questions the author follows a helpful four-fold pattern. First, he raises the issues behind the question being treated; second, he presents a balanced assessment of different Muslim perspectives on this issue; third, he gently raises critical questions addressing the issue and fourth, he concludes with a reminder of the mainstream Muslim consensus on the issue (e.g., 50). The effect of this is to give the reader a basic but sound understanding of both the textual-historical issues involved as well as the mainstream consensus Muslim interpretation of the issue, whilst also peeling back to reveal a less visible but nonetheless very real diversity in Muslim thinking (e.g., xiv).
His approach is enhanced by sporadic references dotted throughout the book of stories from his own life and experience of encounters and conversations with Muslims. They are related to his background as a Coptic Christian growing up in Egypt and then later from his life in the US where he now lives and teaches at The Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. (e.g., 109) These give texture and context to some of the issues he discusses.
The question-and-answer style allow the reader to dive in and engage with a specific theme without having to have read the whole of the book (e.g., xv). There are of course pros and cons with this approach. The obvious pro is that in a short time you can have a good summary of the issue, with some pointers to further material for more in-depth reading. No chapter in this book is more than nine pages long and most are between three and five. The con is that it the style feels quite bitty and lacks the richness that a longer deeper narrative would achieve.
Although my review is positive, for the sake of balance, I will finish with three critical comments and then three reasons why I think Ibrahim’s book is to be commended and why I have no hesitations in recommending it.
First, as I have indicated, I find Ibrahim’s writing style, with short sentences and a tendency to list numerous questions, quite choppy. In parts it reads more like a list of bullets points strung together than a narrative exploring the themes. For me, his text lacks flow. (e.g., 34) Second, though he raises a whole host of really important critical questions in most of his chapters, he only addresses a small number of them. The result is that I found myself tantalised by the questions but left feeling frustrated that he does not treat most of them (e.g., 35). Finally, whilst he makes it clear that his book is not an exhaustive scholarly treatment and he justifies his choice not to litter his narrative with endless notes and citations, nonetheless I think it would have been enhanced by a few more of these references. For example, he often writes “some scholars” or “one account” but does not give any references to them. (e.g., 23) However, in fairness to him, on the most important source, he does make sure to give Qur’anic refences for all the points he makes.
There are numerous reasons why I think Ibrahim’s contribution is helpful. First, the accessibility of his book for those less familiar with the world of Qur’anic scholarship, which is probably most Christians in pastoral or para-church ministry in the West. Although this is not a comparative study of the Qur’an and Bible, Ibrahim does on occasions make some helpful comparisons with textual criticism in Christian theology (e.g., 48, 90). When he does this, he does so fairly: he does not compare the best of Christianity with the worst of Islam. Second, his presentation and treatment of Muslim sources and debate about these is both accurate and broad. He opens up what to some – both Muslims and Christians – might seem like a “hidden world” of diverse Muslim perspectives. This is well supported by primary sources and occasionally – though not enough in my view – secondary sources. Finally, the most helpful and winsome dimension of his approach is his gentle and balanced tone. One of the reasons most of us struggle to deal with questions that his book raises is our lack of confidence in the material on the one hand and even greater fear of offending Muslim friends and dialogue partners on the other. This is a book that I could read with most of my Muslim friends looking over my shoulder and not feel awkward about turning to them and asking, “So what do you think?”
In this way Ibrahim has succeeded in producing something that is neither polemical nor does it avoid addressing difficult but important questions about the Qur’an (e.g., 5, 33, 84).
Dr. Patrick (Pat) Brittenden
Leader of the Hikma Research Partnership, a ministry seeking to amplify the voice of believers of a Muslim background through research, writing and dissemination.