Romanticizing the Qur’an

I recently saw this TED video over at Sociological Images. Although Sociological Images is one of my favorite blogs, there are serious problems with it, and I wish there had been some critical commentary in the post. Here are just a few critical questions that came to mind as I watched it.

  1. The lecture seems fundamentally designed to romanticize the Qur’an—perhaps in order to make the audience more tolerant of Muslims. While the latter might be a legitimate social goal, the former is not an academic exercise.
  2. The speaker criticizes “misquoting” the Qur’an. That suggests that there is such a thing as authentic quoting. In doing so she is implicitly drawing lines between orthodoxy and heresy—which is not an academic exercise. In addition, she makes a distinction between the authentic text—in Arabic—and degraded, secondary translations. Has she never heard of Derrida or post-structuralism?
  3. She makes a distinction between fundamentalism (as inflexibility?) and her own apparently more open-minded approach to the Qur’an, although as far as I know this sort of distinction has no second-order analytical value.
  4. She talks as if the Qur’an had one single message she might discern (“The Qur’an is quite clear …”). Why might we not assume, by contrast, that it has more than one message, or that it might contain tensions or even outright contradictions?
  5. She passes back and forth between “the Qur’an says” and “God says” without making it clear whether the latter means “according to the Qur’an, God says ….” Is she making a theological statement about what God says or a historical-literary statement about what the text says about God? What if God doesn’t exist? How would this complicate her message?
  6. Why is it that dilettante research and naïve hermeneutics are generally acceptable when it comes to talking about those things that fall under the category of “religion”? Are we to believe someone who has spent 3 months reading the Qur’an in Arabic is the most scholarly person they could find to exegete it for us? Would TED post videos of me talking about medical science?
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5 Responses to Romanticizing the Qur’an

  1. Kathleen Gibbons says:

    For whatever it’s worth, it’s not clear to me that this is intended as an academic exercise – TED is kind of weird, and I confess i don’t really know what their deal is, but it doesn’t seem to me as though it’s always (or ever?) about discussions we would call “academic”. But it appears to me that this is one person given her account of a kind of “what the Qur’an means to me” vein, rather than someone presenting herself as a Qur’an scholar per se- indeed, she seems to go out of her way to avoid that charge by referring to herself as a “tourist.” Which isn’t to say she isn’t romanticizing, but I’m not sure she can be faulted for that on the same grounds that you would fault an actually Qur’an scholar. (What she’s doing here doesn’t seem to me to be anything more “authentic” or “inauthentic” or what have you than, say, a sermon. Which seems like that’s kind of what this is.”

    And, per your final question…I actually think if one of us were famous enough (they are sort of social climb-y), TED might post “one famous religion scholar’s deep thoughts on medical science.” They are sort of fruity like that.

  2. Deane says:

    Great points!

  3. Cris says:

    I agree with Kathleen’s suggestion that having Craig Martin give a TED talk on medical science might prove fruitful, and force us to think about “whatever medical science issue Craig has researched and thought about for three months” in different and perhaps even productive ways. Having said this, naive readers and interpreters should know both their strengths and weaknesses. One might suppose that Craig’s talk on medical science would express some awareness of these, whereas Lesley express no such awareness. Derrida aside, whatever happened to basic reader response theory? This is where some solid little bits of Stanley Fish can a very long way.

  4. cmartin says:

    Upon reflection I think you’re right Kathleen—it is probably unfair to hold her accountable to academic standards if that is clearly not what she is intending.

    On the other hand, if what she’s doing amounts to giving a sermon, then that should be pointed out. And we should ask why TED is posting sermons. Would they post sermons from conservative religious practitioners? On what grounds would they include liberal sermonizing but not other sorts?

  5. Yael says:

    Got here through Sociological Images, and wanted to thank you for what you’ve written. I have to admit that I didn’t have the patience to actually hear this TED talk, so my position is a bit flawed, but I enjoyed your analysis nonetheless.
    Some background: I know Arabic through university studies that focused on Classical Arabic, and included some Quran studies as well, even though I can’t claim to be familiar with the entire book, just with some of the basic concepts and a few select Surahs. And I know what a complex text a book like the Quran is, especially when taken in its larger historical context.
    And I always have problems with the romanticised notions (which, being a secular Jewish Israeli, I tend to hear a lot also about aspects of Judaism like the Bible, Halachic texts etc.) which basically say ‘It is a beautiful, benign creation, and it is just SO MISUNDERSTOOD’. With all these texts, a lot of their effect comes from the different interpretations that people give them and have given them through the ages. To say that Islami extremists misunderstand the Quran is to miss the point entirely – just the same as when saying that moderate Muslims misunderstand the Quran (a notion you can often see in anti-Islam rhetorics, and, perhaps not so surprisingly, also in extremist Islami rhetorics). The problem with the extremist interpretation of the Quran isn’t that it is ‘wrong'; it’s definitely possible, and some would say easy[*], and the problem is that it exists – that extremist people will find justifications for their worldview in their interpretation of whichever text they hold sacred. And this is what people are afraid of – not the text itself, but the extremists. Saying that the text is fine and the extremists are wrong is horribly simplistic, and doesn’t actually solve anything.

    [*] This comment is long and parenthetical enough as it is, so I’ll try to keep this point short: The Quran grew out of a tribal culture with a very strong warrior aspect (the concept of war, and of giving your life in glory in battle, is quite prominent in pre-Islamic poetry). In addition, a lot of the Quran was in fact composed after Muhammad gained a significant amount of followers and while this new group was waging battle against various Arab tribes – so obviously, these parts have a lot to do with war, and how important it is to fight the enemies of Islam, and how terrible these enemies are and how much they will suffer in Hell, and so on. While I’m sure that moderates can look at these things and say ‘Okay, that was true for that specific time with the specific events that were going on’, for the extremists that see this sort of war as ongoing in our times, there is a lot of stuff in there they can easily draw on.

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