Whitney S. Bodman responds to Rachel Friedman
I appreciate the effort involved in Rachel Friedman’s review of my new book, but I would like to elaborate on reader-response theory as a justifiable method in the study of the Qur’an.
To begin, Friedman is right that I avoided the issue of divine authorship. I did not think and do not think that it is relevant to my project. I have no intention of guessing at the intentions of God or ruling on the authorship of the Qur’an. Reader-response theory focuses primarily on the nature of the reader rather than the nature of the author.
Readers, of course, are eternally varied. I find it quite strange to claim that God — even an omniscient God as understood in Islam, Christianity, and Judaism — can somehow take into account all possible readers through time and geographical space. Further, God would have to articulate the Qur’an within the limits of human language, specifically the Arabic language, maintaining comprehensibility to all non-Arabic readers. Such a quality would be true of the Mother of the Book, the Concealed tablet, the primordial un-created Qur’an in heaven, but that is not the mushaf that we have available to us on earth.
Readers should be informed readers, aware of possibilities and nuances. The purpose of my lengthy tour through pre-Islamic narratives about evil was to allow us all to be better readers. Some of them are quite fun, like those stories from the Apocrypha, the wild stories of primordial jinn, the isra’iliyyat, that al-Tabari kept under his mattress. But then he did include them in his tafsir, to the dismay of some of his successors. He also liked informed readers.
Reader-response theory has been applied to other sacred texts, such as the Written Torah, which, like the Qur’an, is understood to be the exact words of God. There is no reason not to use any tool at hand so long as it operates within the parameters of the text to which it is applied.
There is, I believe, nothing that I claim that violates the core beliefs of Islam as expressed in the Qur’an. The difficulty here is not the text’s self-understanding but rather traditional Muslim understandings of the Qur’an. The whole concept of its self-understanding is quite problematic. How on earth would one know what the Qur’an’s self-understanding is? Any understanding of any scripture is a human product, a human interpretation. If there is one thing that both postmodern and reader-response theories teach us, it is that nothing is self-interpreting. We can never remove ourselves from the process. Every understanding of the Qur’an is shaped by culture, time, personality, and so forth.
I freely depart from the classic commentaries, though I pay attention to them. Their authors are readers of the Qur’an just as I am. But are they more legitimate readers of the Qur’an then I am? That is an interesting question. Most likely, to most Muslims, the established authorities are clearly more learned, more competent, and hence more legitimate interpreters of the Qur’an than I am. After all, it is theirs.
Or is it?
To whom is the Qur’an addressed? Is it addressed only to Muslims in the sense of those who claim the religion of Islam? Is it only for those who are native Arabic speakers?
I think the testimony of the Qur’an itself is that, in the end, it is for everybody, everywhere, at every time. Thus, you and I, even with our modern and postmodern Western training, are legitimate readers of the Qur’an. No Muslim has to accept our readings. Perhaps some of them will find something useful in what I have written. I hope so. But it would not detract from what I have done even if every Muslim on the planet rejected my reading. The Qur’an is not their private book, any more than the Torah, the Gospels, the Heart Sutra, or the Bhagavad-Gita are private to the communities that hold them the most dear.
As I say in the beginning of the last chapter, this is my own reading of these stories, one possible reading within the range of many possible readings. I explore some interesting angles that I see in the text. In that sense, Friedman is precisely right. The book is experimental. It is not, however, my purpose to make the Qur’an “more approachable and meaningful to audiences that may otherwise find it alien and hard to comprehend.” My audience is rather those who spend their lives trying to understand the Qur’an and might appreciate a fresh view. My audience is people like me, who find the Qur’an endlessly fascinating, beautiful, and boundless.