Letter from the Editor
John L. Esposito, Editor in Chief
One of the most renowned scholars in the field of Islamic studies in the United States, Editor in Chief John L. Esposito provides a regular commentary for visitors to the site. These letters discuss topics pertaining to this resource and the Islamic world, developments on the site and other issues.
The Qur'an, one of history's most influential books, is foundational to Islam and the everyday lives of Muslims. Its form and content are attributed to God, while Muhammad is regarded as an instrument or a conduit. He is neither the author nor editor of the Quran, but God's intermediary.
Because of the sacred nature of the text, the process of translation can be difficult, fraught with issues involving the context, genre, syntax, and imagery. For that reason, I have been delighted by the success of The Study Quran, a recent project supervised by the distinguished Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Editor-in-Chief. As Professor Nasr notes in his General Introduction. "The Quran is for Muslims the verbatim Word of God, revealed during the twenty-three-year period of the prophetic mission of the Prophet Muhammad through the agency of the Archangel Gabriel (Jiril or Jabrail). The meaning, language, and every word and letter in the Quran, its sound when recited, and its text written upon various physical surfaces are all considered sacred."
Ten years in the making, this latest translation of the text carries on a long tradition of interpretation and exegesis. Historically, the first versions of the Qur'an into English were published by Christians. George Sale produced the earliest translation from Arabic into English in 1734; it remained the most widely used for some 200 years. By the early 20th century translations by Christians and Muslims alike began to appear: Abdullah Yusuf Ali's The Holy Qur'an: Translation and Commentary (1934) , Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall's The Meaning of the Glorious Qur'an (1938); and A.J. Arberry's The Koran Interpreted (1955). Other English translations have emerged as reliable interpretations of the text, including: Muhammad Asad's The Message of the Quran (1980), Thomas Cleary's The Qur'an: A New Translation (2004); Laleh Bakhtiar, The Sublime Qur'an (2007); and M.A.S. Abdel-Haleem's The Quran: A New Translation (2008).
Even more important, The Study Quran illustrates how the study of the Qur'an has become a truly global endeavor, encompassing voices from across cultures and traditions. The sheer volume of material and the range of opinion that The Study Quran communicates is itself something new in the field of Islamic studies, an indication of its impressive reach. The book includes essays by fifteen contributors, providing background and historical information on theological and metaphysical teachings, maps, and extensive study notes. Drawing upon a range of the tafsīr (exegesis) tradition, including Sunni, Shii, and Sufi commentaries, it covers multiple levels of interpretation: literal, moral, allegorical, and analogical.
This new, more accessible Qur'an is part of a larger trend occurring in both the academy and Western society as a whole, a development that was unthinkable a generation ago. Though Islam is the second largest of the world's religions, Muslims for a long time were largely invisible in the fields of education, media, politics, diplomacy, interfaith relations—even in the American Academy of Religion, the largest professional association of experts on faith studies. Years ago, a visit to a bookstore confirmed the invisibility of Islam for the vast majority of Americans. If lucky, a reader might have found one or two books on the topic. All that changed in a matter of decades.
Today Islam is among the fastest-growing religions in Europe and America. But what catapulted Islam onto the world stage was not its rapid growth, but the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1978–79, the emergence of militant extremist Muslim groups, and especially 9/11, Al-Qaeda, and global terrorism. The importance of understanding the Qur'an, its authentic teachings and the diversity of Muslim interpretations, has never been greater. The hijacking of the religion by Al Qaeda, ISIS and other militant extremists, as well as the exponential growth of Islamophobia (anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim bias, bigotry, hate speech, and hate crimes) in Europe and America—witnessed most recently in the US presidential primary elections and the the controversial statements of Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Ted Cruz—underscore the need for more informed policymakers, media figures, and religious leaders. This is not to say that modern Qur'anic interpretation should shy away from the more difficult passages. As Nasr put it in a recent interview, "The commentaries don't try to delete or hide the verses that refer to violence. We have to be faithful to the text…But they can explain that war and violence were always understood as a painful part of the human condition."
It is through a more accurate understanding of the text that we can counter the distorted narrative put forward by extremists and Islamophobes alike. In this way, Qur'anic studies can play an important role not only in the academy and inter-faith relations, but also in public policy and popular culture.
John L. Esposito
Editor in Chief
Oxford Islamic Studies Online
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