Understanding the Qur’an
translated from the Dutch by John Bowden
SCM Press, London, 2000, £14.95
(price at publication of review)
Reviewed May 2002; © Copyright, The Society of Saint Francis, 2002
If Jews and Christians are also ‘People of the Book’, this might suggest that the Qur’an holds the same place for Muslims as the Bible for Christians. But this is not so, Wessels explains. While the Qur’an for Muslims is the Word of God, the Word of God for Christians is Jesus Christ. So Muhammad, through whom the Word came, might correspond to the Virgin Mary. He does not add, however, that Muhammad is like the Virgin Mary and Emperor Constantine rolled into one, because this would bring up the political ambitions of the Prophet in his lifetime and aspects of Islam today.
Reading the Qur’an is not easy. The style is riddling and jerky, and much of the text contains threats and exhortations, or references to events in Muhammad’s life. Then in Arabic some of the writing is in rhyming, rhythmic prose, sometimes emphasised with oaths. These passages are considered to be the earliest. But Muslims do not read in this way. Typically the text is chanted to a group of listeners for whom it can only be in Arabic. Renderings in other languages are at best ‘interpretations.’
The author deals sensibly with major topics. The Unity of God is central for faith, and he discusses ways in which Muslims misunderstand the Trinity. The Last Judgement, heaven and hell, provide a dominant theme in the Qur’an. Wessels speaks of reckoning, profit and loss, the commercial life of seventh-century Meccans. The balance between deeds and faith, however, is not altogether clear.
Bases are suggested for dialogue. Mentions in the Qur’an of Isa (Jesus) and of his mother Miriam, might provide a starting point, but references are fragmentary and some either contradict the gospels, e.g. on the matter of crucifixion, or seem misleading, e.g. that the mother of Isa was the sister of Moses and Aaron.
All in all Understanding the Qur’an is very helpful for those interested in dialogue. And we ought to be interested, living in a world of accelerating globalization, where, in addition, the depth of religious feeling is often squeezed out by work and pleasure. The author has provided a good index and a short glossary with name equivalents. The four pages of ‘Contents’ are also detailed and especially helpful.
Robin Minney TSSF
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