Dr Ramon Harvey and Abdur-Rahman Abou Almajd on Qur’anic Studies.
Once again, we have an opportunity to reflect on Qur’anic Studies in this interview with UK-based researcher Dr. Ramon Harvey.
Dr Ramon (Ibrahim) Harvey studies the Islamic scriptural sources and classical disciplines with a focus on Qur’anic interpretation and the sharī’a. He received his MA and then PhD in Islamic Studies from SOAS, University of London, completing a thesis on societal justice in the Qur’an. Alongside his academic training, he has spent a number of years studying with traditionally trained Islamic scholars in the UK and has attended an intensive programme at Al-Azhar in Cairo. He has previously worked as a Senior Teaching Fellow at SOAS lecturing in Qur’an and Hadith. During the year at Cambridge Muslim College, he is working on revising his thesis into a monograph to be published by Edinburgh University Press and is writing a couple of journal articles on the transmission of Qur’anic qirāʾāt (readings) in early Islam.
Q. First of all, I wonder how you converted to Islam?
RH: To start, may I thank you for your interest in my work. The worldly means of my conversion was a friend, also a convert, who reached out and made the effort to talk to me about Islam, may God reward him. In reality, it was God Himself who opened up my heart with a very strong spiritual experience, which made me certain about the message of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), alhamdulillah.
Q. I want to know what made you focus on Qur’anic studies?
RH: The Qur’an is obviously at the very heart of Islam; the words of God, Most High. Ever since first reading a full translation of the Qur’an in the early days after becoming a Muslim, I have been fascinated by trying to understand its meanings. When I decided to pursue academic Islamic studies in the form of an MA at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, I took the Qur’anic studies course with Professor Abdel Haleem as my major. His enthusiasm for Qur’anic research was inspiring and confirmed my intention to do a PhD on the Qur’an. He has also been a great mentor for me, encouraging me to develop my own approach and make my own contribution within Qur’anic studies. As I have continued to research, I have found deeper and deeper layers to the Qur’an – there is no limit! I have been asked by some Muslims, ‘How can you say something new about the Qur’an?” I replied, “On which book would there be more to say?”
Q. Well, what new ideas do you think that you have added through your studies?
RH: That is a difficult question. I think the biggest contribution within my work on the Qur’an is in trying to look at everything that it says of relevance to the question of justice in society. There are many individual studies on themes of politics, trade, family and so on, but no-one has tried to deal with them all in this way. Another aspect is that I link the idea of societal justice to a wider vision of what the Qur’an tells us about the purpose of human beings in the world, particularly the role of stewardship. Finally, I develop my own method of thematic interpretation, drawing from both classical and modern insights about how to interpret the Qur’an. There are other interesting specific discoveries, but you will have to read the book for those!
Q. What do you think about academic study of the Qur’an by non-Muslims?
RH: I think that Muslims can sometimes be too defensive about studies of the Qur’an produced by non-Muslims. Of course, people who start from different assumptions will reach different conclusions about the text. This is inevitable. It is, however, incumbent on scholars to be as honest as possible about what they are doing and why. I think that, at least in Western academia, there is a broad acceptance of a range of theoretical stances and methods and this is healthy. The discussions that result from different people, whatever they believe, interacting with the Qur’an can enrich us all. Furthermore, we must remember that the Qur’anic discourse itself aims to open up a conversation with non-Muslims, both in its general address to humanity at large and its particular call to the ‘People of Scripture’.
Q. You present a nice vision of collaborative Qur’anic studies, but many authors use their research to undermine the Qur’an and the Islamic tradition. In your opinion, how should we treat negative views in Qur’anic Studies?
RH: It seems to me that Muslim scholars typically give one of two responses to these works, which are by no means a new phenomenon. Either they ignore them completely, or they go into a ‘hyper-apologetic’ mode, writing a strident direct refutation. I am not convinced either is very productive. I would suggest first try to benefit from the scholarship, even if you do not agree with the conclusions. Sometimes, these apparently ‘negative’ books or articles can open up new avenues for research, or unearth long-forgotten information. Secondly, even if you are burning with a passion to write a refutation, control yourself and continue with your own long-term research agenda. When you come to a point which the critical author has addressed – in your opinion incorrectly – fairly reference their view and present the evidence for your alternative understanding. This is how serious scholarship is done.
Q. There is a widespread assumption that Prophet Muhammad is the author of the Qur’an. Some scholars even claim that many Qur’anic stories and ideas were ‘stolen’ from Jewish and Christian teachings. What is the best answer to these claims?
RH: This question of the provenance of the Qur’an is what distinguishes a Muslim from a non-Muslim. With very few exceptions, we can say that all Muslims believe that the Qur’an is from God, while all non-Muslims assume it is from the Prophet. We should not then be overly scandalised by this state of affairs, as it has been this way since the beginning of the revelation over 1400 years ago. In terms of the relationship of the Qur’an to the stories of the previous prophets and their nations, the Islamic position is that the Qur’an is drawing from the same source as that of the previous scriptures, which is God. This accounts for any similarity. As for differences, if there is a definite conflict in meaning, Muslims of course affirm the Qur’an and assume human error in transmitting the Torah or Evangel.
The best book that I know for Muslims who feel threatened by these kinds of claims is ‘Al-Naba’ al-‘azim’ by the 20th Century Egyptian scholar M. A. Draz, which is published in English as ‘The Qur’an: An Eternal Challenge’. He argues very convincingly that there is no possibility that the Prophet could have composed the Qur’an. Ultimately, however, this is a matter of the heart. The Muslim is the person who hears the voice of his or her Rabb in the recitation of the Qur’an and that is something deeper and more real than any intellectual argument.
Q. Thanks for this answer. I want to return to the topic of your research again, what are you currently working on?
RH: My main project is a book with the working title ‘The Qur’an and the Just Society’, which is under contract with Edinburgh University Press. This study is based on my PhD and is an attempt at the first detailed thematic treatment of the Qur’an’s discourse on social justice to be written in English. The idea is to try to present the ethical structure of justice as a blueprint for society at the time of its revelation. I do not explicitly present a programme of how these principles should be realised today, though my research has given me with few ideas. With the additional research almost done, I will now be revising it into its final form for the publisher. Look out for it in the next couple of years. I have also been working on some journal articles focused on early Muslim history. In particular, I have become interested in the qirāʾa, or readings of the Qur’an, and their transmission in the first two centuries of Islam. This year I have been employed as a Research Fellow at the Cambridge Muslim College in the UK and this role has allowed me to focus a great deal on my thinking and writing, something for which I am extremely grateful. I come up with new ideas for research projects all the time in quite diverse areas within Islamic studies, so expect the unexpected, inshallah.
Q. How do you see the future of Qur’anic studies?
RH: It is obvious that after a period in which, at least in Western academia, study of the Qur’an stagnated, there is increased scholarly interest in this fundamental subject. The growth of journals, conferences and associations connected to Qur’anic studies seems to demonstrate that this reflects a long-term shift in appreciation for the significance of the Qur’an within the Islamic tradition and for human civilisation as a whole. In other words, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Qur’an cannot be ignored within scholarship. In terms of trends within the field, I suspect that as the discipline comes of age – in academic terms – we will see an attempt to police the range of acceptable methodologies. Right now, there is something of a free-for-all, with everyone working within their own frames of reference. Anyway, Qur’anic studies as a discipline in the Islamic tradition has quite an uneven development itself. Certain aspects have received a great deal of attention, such as qirāʾāt and tafsīr while others have been overlooked, especially when compared to the great emphasis on uṣūl al-fiqh (legal theory). I also expect there to be more exchange between traditionally-trained scholars, often from Muslim majority countries, and academically-trained researchers (I am a bit of both to be honest). I hope that the former could benefit from the critical thinking of the Western academy, while the latter could benefit from the rigorous mastery of Islamic disciplines still found in more traditional settings. There will also be a growth in new institutions in countries such as the UK and USA pioneering this synthesis of the two systems of education. Of course, God knows best.
Abdur-Rahman: Thank you very much, my friend Ramon (Ibrahim) Harvey.
RH: You are welcome. I hope that you continue this series of dialogues and are able to benefit the global community.