Tuesday, December 01, 2015

The Study Quran: What Gives?

Bismillah. AsSalamu'alaykum wa Rahmatullah wa Barakatuhu.

Afwan, I am generally concerned on this blog about inward matters and reflections, so please forgive me as I unleash my more jalali side here, but something needs to be said when, as one prominent scholar put it, so much benefit is being withheld from people because of detractors.

The much anticipated HarperCollins The Study Quran (#StudyQuran) came out about two weeks ago and has really captured in many ways, the state of our ummah today. I must say, as a teacher, one thing I note with great sadness is that our world as a whole is in a real state of intellectual decline. I'm not referring to formal academic training or output. I'm speaking of the basic ability to read, think, consider the logic of statements/claims. Our ummah, once a leader in learning and preservation of knowledge, is today, unfortunately, no exception. We've forgotten to read and think for ourselves -- we'd rather read tweets about books by people who themselves aren't reading them.

An immensely detailed work that took five trained academics (with the help of countless graduate students, an indexer, professional cartographer, and numerous scholars who contributed essays) a decade to complete, was released.  Over 2000 pages and nearly a million words of just commentary alone. To be sure, this was a labour of love -- such endeavours don't do much by way of career advancement in the academy -- for that one is better off spewing off short books of their own opinion with lots of footnotes paying homage to other academics.

In less than a week's time, an individual who does not personally know the editors and who does not even own The Study Quran, decided to take it upon himself to tweet to the world, "be aware that the editors do not hold Islam as the only valid religion to be followed today." This of course, was then retweeted by his friends and students, and so the social media fire began. In Punjabi, we have a saying that captures what has transpired on social media over the past week or so -- "Bandar dai hutt matches ahgee" -- "the monkey got a hold of some matches" -- not in reference to any one person, but the entire phenomenon of people thinking aloud on social media. This was followed up, by numerous tweets, comments/replies, Facebook posts and the like, stating that the editors are perennialists and that this is a view that is "outright kufr".


  • Let's stop right at the start of this social media mess. When this was tweeted, many people it seems, failed to ask a few simple questions of said tweeter.
    • Do you know the editors? (Answer: Nope.)
    • Did you contact them to find out their religious views? (Answer: Nope.)
    • Exactly what kind of training do you have that entitles you to "warn" the world about what you have assumed to be the religious views of four people who you don't know? (Answer: None, except that he studied with the Editor-in-chief, and then decided that anyone that works on a project with him must espouse all of his religious and philosophical views/perspectives/beliefs).
      • All of this alone, should have ended the discussion at its inception because it started with a faulty, baseless claim. In fact, being someone that might just know something about the editors, I can tell you that they are not all perennialists nor do they all have identical views on everything.
      • When one of the editors objected to being called a kafir, said tweeter denied it. Really? Well, when your tweets say that 1) the editors are perennialists; and 2) perennialism is kufr; well then, the basic syllogism would conclude that the editors are kafirs. I will assume as someone with academic training from the very academic institutions which he derides, listed on his social media as the places he earned degrees, that this much "A is B, B is C, therefore A is C" logic he must understand. And then recently, said tweeter posted saying that no matter how heated discussions get, they shouldn't become personal (even a hadith to support this assertion). I agree -- we have an entire genre of writings called the etiquettes of disagreement (and sufism itself is adab and akhlaq). I don't know about you, but if you accused me of kufr, I'd consider that pretty personal. Maybe said tweeter is just that much more "chill" than me.
Perennialist Book?

Shortly after this initial tweet, were posts with screenshots of pages of The Study Quran claiming that these clearly show perennialist thought being craftily inserted / camouflaged into the commentary.
  • Clearly, craftily camouflaged? If it's craftily inserted/camouflaged…it's done in a fashion that is clear? So is it overt or covert? I'm having a hard time understanding. Here's what is really muddling my understanding:
    • Others who retweeted/shared, said that The Study Quran "clearly and actively promotes perennialism". If it's clear and active this sounds to me like it's literally on every other page and stands out like a sore thumb. Yet, other tweets by these folks claim X or Y verse shows perennialism, though still "not clearly" or that it is "camouflaged" or "craftily inserted".
      • Hmmm…so it's everywhere, intentionally inserted in a "disingenuine" manner that is hidden but clearly all over the place. Does this make sense? Seems about as clear as mud to me.
"Critical Reviews". 

One might wonder (I would hope), how did these folks draw such conclusions about this dense work so soon after it was released? I mean to have enough conviction that their assessment is correct that they felt compelled to take to social media to warn the masses and save their faith! If you actually read what these folks are saying, one thing is very clear. One scholar told me he was "expecting the strong perennialist tone that pervades the works of the editors". The tweeter cited twelve examples as being places he (who does not own The Study Quran) was sure were misinterpreted -- before he even saw the work.
  • It's as though this group was waiting for The Study Quran to be released so that they could start to spew venom about it. Nobody can honestly say they read even a considerable portion of the work in so short a time. Here, the tweeter clearly doesn't have a high opinion of the intellectual capacity of his followers because he actually readily admits that he does not own a copy of the very text for which he is offering this "critical review" via social media (and no, because something was marketed via social media doe not legitimize criticizing it on social media because the work was not published on this medium -- rather, write a real review once you've read the work and then publicize your review on social media).
  • There's a hikm of ibn Ata'illah that one of my teachers often quoted to us, "he whose beginning is light, his end is light". I would venture to say also, that "he who begins with suspicion, ends with suspicion". The Quran warns us against suspicion and the Sufis (who these people proport to be/follow), pride themselves in having husn al-dhann (a good opinion) not su al-dhann (a bad opinion).
  • Again, the assumption that all the editors are perennialists because the editor-in-chief is? And that perennialism pervades their work? Not all of Dr. Nasr's books do -- and definitely not all of the works of the other editors! But how does one believe this assessment anyhow? Was the reading those works anything like the reading of The Study Quran -- i.e. opinions formed on the basis of perceived knowledge of the authors?
  • Coming to any work searching for a particular philosophy/perspective, one can surely find some way of locating it. As an English teacher I always drive that point home to students, we can easily read into any text and that is something to be weary of... That said, are people actually reading the translation and commentary of those twelve verses? You'd have to be searching harder than a Qadiyani looking for their creed in the Quran. The alleged perennialism just isn't there. What is there is a respect for the People of the Book, which is part and parcel of our faith. The Quran is also very particular in its language. For instance, "a guidance" is not the same as "the guidance". Respect for other faiths isn't acceptance nor is it perennialism. I've looked up all of the references. Sometimes their issue is with the actual verse because if you look at the commentary, often it's just reiterating what is in the verse itself.
  • We always tell non-Muslims not to take verses out of context. Well let's not do that either. The Study Quran is meant to be studied as a whole…they have copious cross-references -- read all of the related discussions. That said, if you find in all the related discussions the fiqh position given is wrong etc., make a note of it and send the editors a note or politely tweet/post what you have learned as the correct, ahlan wa sahlan, but there is no need to dismiss the entire work. Nobody should be taking fiqh from tafsir anyways, its not a fiqh matn it's tafsir :)
Another issue in its own right which I will not get into in detail about here, is the entire notion of having these "sincere" discussions on social media. The very nature of social media is such that it easily lends itself to assumptions, over-simplification, and divisiveness. There is too much distance and misinterpretation, and its public nature elevates egos in a dangerous way. As many commenters on social media have made clear, all this "scholarly" chatter is confusing people. Is that what is desired here? To deter people from reading tafsir? There has then been a claim that the intention isn't to do this because there "is much benefit" in the work, it just needs to be looked at "with caution". In reality however, the exaggeration of the alleged dangers in The Study Quran has frightened many away from it all together. As someone who is reading the work and often moved to tears because of the beauty of the Quran that is revealed to me, this saddens me.

Universal Validity of Religions vs. Salvation. 

I've seen numerous people asking the editors to answer the "simple question" of whether they believe people of other faiths can attain salvation -- this "simple" question of course is meant to "reveal" whether they are perennialists or not. The question however, is flawed. Now, for the record, I'm not at all a perennialist (not even close). I learned my aqidah according the Ashari school from a very staunch Ashari scholar who I respect greatly so please don't start labelling me here as well. That said, a number of my own teachers taught me years ago that these are two separate issues. Universal validity of religions is one thing (an absolutely heterodox view) and salvation for people of other faiths is an entirely different issue (fatra doctrine of the likes of Imam Ghazali or the teaching that our Master, Rasul Allah, God bless him and grant him peace, will intercede for other communities once his intercession for us has been accepted because he is a mercy to all the worlds). This is a key distinction for the masses on social media to grasp. That others may attain salvation does not validate their religion in this world. Not to mention that most people don't seem to know much about what perennialism is anyhow -- perhaps said tweeter has actually just done lots of dawah for the perennialists since I'm sure more people have looked them up in the last week than have done so for years since their popularity waned. In fact, I can confidently say, that more people have looked into it prompted by all the chatter on social media than would have based on reading The Study Quran with no such prior "warnings".
  • Which brings me to another contention I have with all these warnings of perennialism being in The Study Quran. The average Muslim has not heard of this philosophy (particularly prior to last week) and it is so foreign to the Muslim psyche, and so well-hidden (read: absent) in The Study Quran, that nobody coming to it with a clear heart and mind would be led astray in their aqidah based on the commentary found in it.
  • I first encountered perennialist thought at the tender age of 19 with no warnings and little knowledge of the religion other than what I knew by growing up Muslim. I knew immediately that this was not a mainstream perspective or one I wished to adhere to. Have more faith in yourself, folks -- why are you suddenly afraid to touch your copies of the Study Quran?! It's not a textbook on perennialism :)
  • Look at all the endorsements. Did they managed to pull a fast one on that many highly learned people? After its release many shuyukh who are not amongst the endorsers have also called this work "a victory for Muslims", and a "historical event". They've encouraged everyone to get one and are teaching from it themselves.
  • The editors have made a statement clearly indicated that they had no agenda in putting it together and that this is in fact what their methodology was: https://www.facebook.com/caner.dagli.92/posts/10100608388276822
  • Also, this: https://www.facebook.com/joseph.lumbard/posts/1047442181952798
Know too, that when Imam al-Ghazali's Ihya Ulum al-Din first came out, it was condemned and even burned in al-Andalus. Today it is the go-to orthodox work on Islamic spirituality and the Path. 

So my parting advice, readers, is this:

Do not allow yourselves to be herded like sheep by those who are the self-proclaimed shepherds of knowledge and orthodoxy. Instead, pay heed to the very first command of our faith: READ. "Read in the Name of Your Lord", and trust that you have enough of an intellect that you will not be led to kufr or heterodoxy by doing so… Read. Read. Read.

And Allah Ta'Ala knows best.


  1. Anonymous10:53 AM

    Thank you for this insightful review. I am non-Muslim but was wondering what all the kerfuffle about this Quran Study was. I love that book and own my own copy. It has certainly brought me closer to my own journey towards becoming Muslim!

  2. Happy reading…it's wonderful! Bless you on your spiritual journey :)

  3. Anonymous11:54 AM

    Thank you sister. This helped me so much. This is what I read online and I feel the EXACTLY the same way. May Allah All Mighty reward the authors of the Study Quran. It has given me back my relationship with Allah and it brings me to tears. I will always pray for the authors and they are better than I will every be. This is what one sister said online:

    "Serious students of the islamic sciences can critique this book. That's fine. But as a western convert, this book is an answer to my prayers.

    It's easy to understand and it's seriously helping me better learn about Islam and encouraging me to read the Qu'ran. I'm already finding so much clarification in this book. I find that it aligns very well to my ideal of the religion. And has actually helped me regain my faith after some periods of doubt.

    There may be places where the commentary is more apologetic or esoteric, but I don't care. The rest of the work far outweighs those few paragraphs.

    I recommend it for people like me ; English speakers that have no access to the Arabic language that have read translation of the Qu'ran already and need a translation and commentary that can clarify and help tie together what we have learned about the religion to its roots, regardless of sect or madhab.""