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Dutch professor places Quran within historical context

Irena Zajickova | Monday, April 20, 2009

According to Nasr Abu-Zayd, a professor from the University of Humanistics in Utrecht, Holland, the meanings and ideologies present in the Quran have changed much over time, but the book still presents a coherent worldview.

Abu-Zayd spoke at McKenna Hall Sunday about the origins of the Quran as part of the “The Qur’an in its Historical Context” conference, which aims to bring the Bible and the Quran back into conversation and explore new readings of the document. The conference will run until Tuesday and will take place at McKenna Hall.

An important aspect of the Quran is the text’s order, according to Abu-Zayd. The book is organized in order of length, not chronologically. The longer chapters come first and the shorter chapters can be found near the back.

Abu-Zayd said he thinks the book is organized this way to reflect a divine message.

“If the Quran was in chronological order, it would simply be the story of the life of Muhammad,” he said. “It would not reflect a divine message.”

This organizational system distinguishes the Quran from the Bible, which is to be read chronologically.

Another facet of the Quran is meaning, which Abu-Zayd said overshadows other important questions that scholars should consider.

Scholars of Islam spend much time trying to determine how the meaning of life is connected to the meaning of the Quran, which is difficult because the text is rife with contradiction, specifically in the way divinity is portrayed within the text.

“We find contradictions in many aspects of the Quran,” Abu-Zayd said. “We find contradictions in the way the divine is presented.”

Abu-Zayd said this issue brings forth an essential question: does the Qur’an present a coherent message or should its readers simply do the best they can in connecting all of the different messages to one another?

The Quran’s meaning has also changed over time as the political climate in Islamic countries changed.

“Between the 1960s and the 1970s, the meaning the Quran changed 180 degrees,” Abu-Zayd said.

In the 1960s, Egyptians considered the Quran a book of socialism and justice, Abu-Zayd explained. As the political situation in Egypt changed, the book morphed into one that emphasized peace and of protecting private property.

Based on all these factors, Abu-Zayd concluded that there is indeed a worldview present in the Quran, but one that still needs to be carefully analyzed. Since the historical context changes as time passes, the book needs to be reread as a whole, and not analyzed in terms of individual passages.

“There is a world view in the Quran, but we have to read the Quran not in this fragmented way that has been done so far,” Abu-Zayd said. “This is a reading we are still waiting for scholars to do.”