What the Qur’an Meant by Garry Wills

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Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, Islam, as religion, culture and geo-politics, enters our public discourses and barges in perfervid sentiments. Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You When The World Stopped Turning” poignantly corrals our visceral reactions. We sought answers to questions we didn’t know how to ask. For a short time, there was a spike in church attendance. Then American flags came down and we slouched forward to get on with a new normality. But our collective ignorance of Islamism lingers. If honest, we would accede to Jackson’s confession, I watch CNN, but I’m not sure I can tell you / The diff’rence in Iraq and Iran. The ruminations of many, including political and religious leaders, fall on a spectrum from apathetic ignorance, uninformed condemnation, rudimentary awareness to sympathetic tolerance. Some call Islam “a very evil and wicked religion” while others consider that “Islam favors peace over violence.”

The historian Garry Wills has spent his career thinking and writing about Christianity. With “What the Qur’an Meant,”* he opens Islam’s sacred text to an uninitiated audience. For those who do not have the inclination or time to study the Qur’an in depth, this thin book is a good introduction. The Qur’an is for Muslims the verbatim word of God. Like other world religions, Islamism has many traditions. Each tradition, from combatant radicalism to progressive placidity, reads from the same Qur’an (sometimes Koran). Written in Arabic, Muslims believe that it was given by the angel Gabriel to Muhammad, God’s messenger and prophet, in the seventh century CE. It has 114 chapters with more than 6,000 verses. In one’s journey through life, the Qur’an projects a sagacious realism, from the reality of God – “There is no god but God” – to the realities of creation, the cosmos and being human. It has chapters on the constellations, divorce, congregational prayer, the sand dunes, women and the resurrection. It also portraits Jewish “prophets” that include Noah, Abraham and Joseph. It also has a chapter titled “Mary” – as the mother of Jesus and the only named woman in the Qur’an.

Immediately, cautions is made from the start. Just as reading the Torah does not explain the Jewish people nor reading the Gospels offer clear understanding of Christians, the Qur’an will not elucidate the religion, culture or geo-politics of Muslims. What their adherents  embrace as faith and practice do not necessarily reflect what is written in the sacred texts. To say that Islam is a religion of “peace” or of “violence” is callow. Like most generalizations, its simplicity is more false and less true. Wills’ read reveals this reality. Qur’an’s piety is “submission to the will of God” – Islam means submission in Arabic. Its message is for Muslims to lead a peaceful co-existence with the followers of the Torah and the Gospel. Islam also shares the same etymology for “peace.”

Wills also dons his polemical cap and rants against America’s religious far right as well as radical Islamism. He writes that those who deny the Qur’an singular tenet of peaceful living with others are at risk of “Islamic heresies.” He also spends a chapter on “The Cost of Ignorance.” Much of Americans’ encounter with Muslims, from engaging in the longest American war in history to systemic racial prejudices, is mostly out of ignorance. There is a fine line between religious faith and political ideology. If we are ignorant of one than we are more likely mistaken of the other.


*Wills often refers to “The Study Qur’an,” edited by Seyyed Hossein Nasr. It is an excellent resource with translation and commentary for those who want to study further.