Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Book Write-Up: The Quran in Context

Mark Robert Anderson.  The Quran in Context: A Christian Exploration.  IVP Academic, 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

The bio of Mark Robert Anderson on Amazon states: “Mark Robert Anderson has completed graduate degrees in Islamic Studies at McGill University and Christian religion at Westminster Theological Seminary. For nearly a decade, he lived, studied and taught in Egypt and Jordan. Mark lectures and writes on Islam, the Qur’an and spirituality.”

The Quran in Context provides background information on the Quran and compares the Quran with Anderson’s Christian interpretation of the Bible.

Anderson weighs in on scholarly debates and issues.  He offers a historical defense of the traditional narrative of the Quran’s origins against scholarly ideas to the contrary.  As a Christian, Anderson probably does not believe that Muhammad received the Quran from God, but he agrees with the traditional narrative in that he holds that the Quran was the product of a historical Muhammad and addressed issues in the Arab world of Muhammad’s day; not every scholar believes in a historical Muhammad.  Occasionally in the book, Anderson argues against scholarly ideas that Muhammad was challenging specific Christian sects: in many cases, according to Anderson, Muhammad was lampooning Christianity rather than discussing an obscure sect that actually held the position Muhammad was attacking.

Anderson also discusses current debates on Islam.  For example, Anderson acknowledges that there are peaceful sects of Islam, but he does not agree with apologists who claim that Muhammad’s wars were purely defensive on his part.  For Anderson, Muhammad initially sought peace with Jews, Christians, and pagan Meccans but became more belligerent and militaristic over time, as Muhammad sought to spread the religious-political regime of Islam.

Anderson takes care to distinguish the Quran from subsequent hadith and Islamic interpretations.  What you think you know about Islam is not necessarily what the Quran teaches.  According to Anderson, the Quran does not argue that the Bible is corrupted, Muhammad in the Quran is not believed to do miracles, the Quran does not hold that Jesus escaped death at his crucifixion, and Jesus does not have the eschatological significance in the Quran that later Islam ascribes to him.  (As Anderson says, the Quran calls Jesus the Messiah, but it does not describe what that means.)  And, yes, Anderson offers his interpretation of passages that have been interpreted to suggest these things.

The book also explains how the Quran reflects cultural ideas and concepts within the Arab culture of the time.  No, Anderson does not say that Allah was originally a pagan moon-god, but he does contend that Muhammad’s conception of Allah’s transcendence reflects Arabic pagan ideas about their gods.  Anderson also draws contrasts, as when he compares Muhammad’s prophetic experience with the prophetic experiences of pagan Arabs at the time.

In comparing the Quran with his understanding of what the Bible teaches, Anderson’s version of Christianity comes out looking better.  The God of the Quran is distant, is a judge, and accepts people only if they repent, although Anderson acknowledges that the Quran often calls Allah merciful and compassionate.  The God of Christianity, by contrast, is loving towards all and desires a relationship with God’s creation.  Christianity believes that the Fall corrupted humanity such that it needed a Savior to be forgiven and spiritually transformed.  The Quran, according to Anderson, is not as dramatic about the Fall, and it holds that humans can save themselves by repenting.

Anderson does acknowledge nuances, though, which was why his introduction at the beginning of each chapter was helpful: it provided a summary that served as a sort of roadmap for the discussion that would occur in that chapter.  In addition, while one might think that Anderson’s idea that God wants to be our friend is a modern evangelical concept, Anderson takes great pains to demonstrate that it comes from the biblical narrative itself.

In terms of critiques, Anderson does seem to proof-text, and I am saying “seem” because readers could come back and say that he does not, and offer reasons that he does not.  In terms of the Bible, Anderson prooftexts, or, at least, he employs a synchronic approach that does not fully appreciate the diversity of the Bible or tie its writings to their historical contexts.  One can get the impression that he does the same thing with the Quran: he pulls out passages throughout the Quran and claims that they teach a specific doctrine about God (or salvation, or anthropology, or politics, etc.).  This criticism would not be entirely fair, for Anderson does root the Quran in its historical context and discuss changes in ideology that occur within the Quran, which occurred as the historical context changed.  Perhaps Anderson should have made more of a conscious effort to tie each chapter in the Quran with the historical context.  Moreover, Anderson should have been more vivid about Muhammad’s motivations: what exactly Muhammad was protesting, and why.

In some places, Anderson was rather elliptical.  For instance, he was trying to explain how Christianity balances and preserves both God’s transcendence and God’s immanence, while claiming that the Quran sacrifices immanence in favor of transcendence.  I am still unclear about how Christianity preserves both simultaneously, in Anderson’s view.  Anderson also could have been clearer in explaining the passage of the Quran that many Muslims interpret as saying that Jesus escaped death at the crucifixion.  Anderson makes a convincing case that Jesus dies in the Quran, but the road leading up to his conclusion about that particular passage was bumpy and technical.  There is nothing wrong with technicality, but interspersing the discussion with lucid summaries would have been helpful.

The book was more conservative than I expected, in the sense that Anderson essentially argues that moderate Islam does not coincide with what the Quran actually teaches, particularly on jihad.  I call this “conservative” because it coincides with what right-wing Americans say about the Quran.  At the same time, Anderson encourages understanding on the part of Christians, and his discussion on whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God was thoughtful.  He did not exactly say “no,” and he acknowledged the difficulty of this question, in light of the subjectivity that accompanies attempts to understand God.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest!

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