restricted access Opening the Qur'an: Introducing Islam's Holy Book (review)
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Opening the Qur'an: Introducing Islam's Holy Book. By Walter H. Wagner. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008. Pp. xx, 547. $45.00. ISBN 978-0-268-04415-2.)

Opening the Qur'anis the fruit of a remarkable effort by a Christian scholar, Walter Wagner, to understand the Qur'an and its place in Islamic society. In the acknowledgments he refers to the "open Qur'ans, and scattered papers" (n.p.) that surrounded him during this project, and (whether or not the pun with the book's title was intended) by the end of the work the reader appreciates the sincere devotion with which he undertook this project. Wagner's devotion is in part a product of his concern for Muslim-Christian relations. In the course of Opening the Qur'anhe refers regularly to his conversations with Muslims. Not infrequently he discusses how a Christian might fruitfully read the Qur'an: "Let the Qur'an's underlying unity speak to, illuminate, analyze, advise, correct, admonish, and exhort the situation and the people involved" (p. 441).

Above all, Wagner seeks to lead the reader to an appreciation of Islamic reverence for the Qur'an. To this end, he sprinkles passages from the Qur'an in the pious translation of Yusuf Ali throughout the work, even when those [End Page 768]passages are only barely relevant to the matter at hand. So, too, Wagner tends to repeat traditional Islamic notions about the Qur'an; for example, that the Qur'an "is unlike any other book" (p. viii), or that it is the "finest and fullest Revelation" (p. 138). He also invents rather awkward phrases such as the "One-Only God" and "God's One-Only-ness," phrases with no basis in Arabic but that presumably are meant to reflect Islamic rhetoric on monotheism.

At the same time Wagner's unfamiliarity with Quranic studies and the Arabic language is evident throughout the work. Wagner is not aware, for example, that the name of Muhammad's grandfather Abd al-Muttalib cannot be abbreviated to Muttalib, that sahihmeans not "purer" but "valid," or that the abbreviation AS is not for A-Salam but rather for alayhi al-salam. Evidently Wagner should have been advised to use only English terms. Similarly, one wonders why no one counseled Wagner that anno hijra(which should be anno hijrae) is not "after the hijra" but "in the year of the hijra['emigration']." For his part, Wagner never boasts of any mastery of Arabic or the scholarly literature. His book, accordingly, should not be judged by this standard.

In other aspects, Opening the Qur'anis impressive, particularly in its breadth. In part 1 ("Approaching the Qur'an") Wagner includes a discussion of religious perspectives on the Qur'an (chap. 1); an introduction to Jewish, Christian (both chap. 2), and Islamic (chap. 3) narratives of salvation history; a description (according to Islamic sources) of the historical/geographical context of Islam's origins (chap. 4); a brief biography of Muhammad (chap. 5); a description (according to the Islamic sources) of the proclamation and codification of the Qur'an (chap. 6); and an introduction to Muslim exegesis of the Qur'an (chap. 7). In part 2 ("The Qur'an Opened") Wagner proceeds to his own commentary on specific passages in the Qur'an, arranging his commentary according to: passages at the heart of Islamic piety (chap. 8); eschatology (chap. 9);women (chap. 10); biblical figures, Jews, and Christians (chap. 11); and "justice and jihad" (chap. 12). Finally, in part 3 ("The Ever-Open Qur'an"), Wagner examines contemporary debates surrounding the Qur'an among the faithful (chap. 13) and, in an awkward pairing, among critical scholars and apostates (chap. 14; or, asWagner calls them, "rejecters" and "disparagers.").

Thus Opening the Qur'anis far more than an introduction to the Qur'an, but where exactly does it make a contribution? In critical terms, the work is not perfect. Wagner has a tendency to present Islamic doctrines shaped for the purpose of apology (e.g., that pre-Islamic Arabs were violent and depraved pagans, or that jihad is connected with justice in...