A friend from Harvard has a new article out on reading the Qur’an. If you can get your hands on it, you should read it. Excerpts are below, with citation information.
Whitney Bodman, “Reading the Qurān as a Resident Alien,” Muslim World 99, no. 4 (2009): 689 – 706.
Many will read the Qur’ān casually, out of curiosity. Some will read it with more academic intent and some with polemical intent (a purpose that the Qur’ān condemns, Q 2:176). All of these readers are, in the words of Paul Griffiths, consumers of the Qur’ān. These readers are less likely to understand the Qur’ān as it intends to be understood, or read it as it intends itself to be read.
Here, at the beginning of Sūrat al-Rahmān, we must take the first āya as more than a name of God. It is the essence of God, the Self of God that subsumes all the pairings, all the creativity that follows. From the same root as Rahmān comes the word rahma , womb. The mercy of God is generative. It is not merely a particular attitude of mercy with which God regards the world. It is that ontological nature of God through which the world, in all its goodness and provision, is created. “My Rahmā encompasses everything” Q 7:156
This verse [55:17] is sometimes interpreted differently by Shī’ī commentators. Al-Qummī adds that the two easts are the Messenger of God and the Amīr al-Mu’minīn, and the two wests are Hasan and Husayn. Here and elsewhere we see that there are alternative canons of interpretation in the Shī’ī community and elsewhere, canons often overlooked in scholarly work.
The repeated question then put to us is, “Then which of the Lord’s favors will you deny?” This question is oddly phrased. It asks not whether we will be grateful. It accepts that all of us will be grateful for some things. It asks: considering all the bounties that God has provided, which one or few of these will we not accept? The issue is not simply gratitude; it is comprehensive gratitude. Thus we need to be schooled. Gratitude that is selective is not enough. It is natural to be grateful for some things. Gratitude needs to be our pervasive response.