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!