“Do they not consider the Qur´an (with care)? Had it been from other Than Allah, they would surely have found therein Much discrepancy. Yusuf Ali 4:82”
Professor Walter H. Wagner
Professor Wagner is adjunct professor of history and Islamic studies at Moravian College and Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books, including:
Opening the Qur’an: Introducing Islam’s Holy Book by Walter H. Wagner (Oct 15, 2008).
The Struggle for Modernism: Architecture, Landscape Architecture, and City Planning at Harvard by Anthony Alofsin (Jun 2002).
After the Apostles Augsburg Fortress Publishers (January 5, 1994)
We have a fresh opportunity to reflect about the Qur’an. At this point Professor Walter H. Wagner isn’t going to talk about his good book “Opening the Qur’an ” but he speaks on his views of the Qur’an.
The book is intended to acquaint non-Muslims with the Qur’an and major ideas and themes in Islam. Muslims may also find it helpful.
Walter Wagner’s “preamble” to answering the questions
Walter Wagner: Thank you, Abdur-Rahman, for inviting me to respond to some very important questions. I confess to being more of a learner than an expert. My writing about Islam and the Qur’an flows directly from my personal concerns for understanding religions generally, for seeking to come to deeper understandings about my own faith (I am a Christian) especially in relation to Judaism and Islam, and to share with others my experiences with the Scriptures of our faiths, their histories, and their situations for the future as well as now. Now, let’s get to your thoughtful questions.
Q: First of all I wonder what made you focus on the Qur’an?
Walter Wagner: I have been engaged in higher education as a professor and administrator for nearly half a century. In that time I taught, inadequately, survey courses on the Western monotheistic religions. I confess to doing reasonably well with Judaism and Christianity but was woefully ignorant about and superficial in understanding and teaching about Islam. Although I was rather well-informed about the political and global issues within the “Muslim World” and relationships with the “West,” I had little experience in engaging the Qur’an. In 1990, with 3 hours notice, I was catapulted into teaching a college course called “Introduction to Islam.” That began what is now a 22-23 year engagement with Islam and the Qur’an. At a seminar for non-Muslim teachers of Islam, the Gambian scholar, SuleymanGnang said that if we focused on and stayed with the Qur’an, everything else would fall into place. He was right! FaridEsack has used the example of lovers of their own Scriptures and friends of the lovers. I am vain enough to count myself as one of the closest friends of the lovers – and therefore seek to see the beauty, power, truths, and purposes of the Qur’an both through the eyes and hearts of Muslims as well as in my own eyes and heart. I recognize that I am not a Muslim and dare not question or negate Islamic faith concerning its inspiration. I can attempt to grasp the depth and devotion of that faith and its relation to Muhammad (PBUH). To understand Islam – and Christian history after 610—632, I must engage the Qur’an. Now – to understand myself, I must include the Qur’an as part of my self-understanding.
Q: After examining the Qur’an carefully, you said that via the holy book God is speaking to all human beings around the world, Could you elaborate on that please?
Walter Wagner: Surely the Qur’an (God speaking through it) makes statements about itself, the world and humanity. As Muslim theologians say, God can be known through God’s
books – the book of nature, the book of humanity’s basic structure (fitra), and the books which God has given to God’s messengers. While the immediate audience was composed largely of 7th Century Arabs, the Qur’an makes clear statements and exhortations, gives principles for just societies and individual ethics that transcend time and place.
Those principles and injunctions echo and sometimes amplify points in the Bible, especially with regard to caring for the poor, orphans, the distressed, widowed, etc. Those principles and directives are grounded in knowing God as the merciful and compassionate Creator – and as the Master of the Day of Judgment. On the one hand, every human can find the ethics applicable to society and individuals, and those who probe to the meaning and source of life, will realize that all comes from God and all will be returned to God. On the other hand, the universal dimensions of the Qur’an and Islam know no favorite race, gender, ethnicity or nation. Certainly there are passages that need to be understood in their historical and cultural contexts – just as there are similar (and sometimes more difficult) passages in the Bible. Interpretation is crucial in understanding and implementation. I am convinced that persons of good will can search all our scriptures and traditions to find the foundations on which we can work toward a just, equitable and peaceful world.
Q:it’s book of God, Prophet Muhammad can’t write anything like this. What else do you enjoy reading greatly in the Qur’an too?
Walter Wagner: At first I was bewildered, then fascinated and now deeply appreciative the ways in which the Qur’an speaks about the figures who are also in what Christians call the “Old Testament.” Frankly, Nuh-Noah is presented in a better light in the Qur’an than in Genesis. I admire Yusuf-Joseph and have used Surah 12 with mixed faith college students. He is a young man with family problems, away from home and traditional constraints. He faces risks and opportunities to give in to temptations and despair – and then vengeance. Yet he maintains his integrity and faith. Yunus-Jonah is a nasty and unforgiving figure in the Bible, but he is far different in the Qur’an. The Qur’anicSuleyman-Solomon is consistently faithful, wise and noble – and may make the reader smile because of his diplomacy with the Queen. Musa-Moses and Ibrahim-Abraham are genuinely heroic, and the non-biblical accounts in the Qur’an provoke thought and discussion.
Q: You write solidly and well about the Qur’an on “Opening the Qur’an ” I wonder what key concepts that need to be treated honestly?
Walter Wagner: I think there are three categories of issues that need to be treated honestly
The first concerns issues within the Muslim umma. Here I would include the means of interpretation (what biblical scholars call “hermeneutics). What, for example, is the role of itjihad; what about abrogation; what relationship do Qur’anic passages concerning criminal offenses have to secular law and efforts to establish Shari’a; how do the “occasions of revelation” of a passage relate to the application of that passage in subsequent generations and different cultures; the relationship of the hadith in interpreting the Qur’an; and – perhaps the hottest button issue – who has the authority to interpret and make that interpretation widely acceptable (where is the locus of authority in the umma)?
The second concerns the mixed Qur’anic statements about the People of the Book and the other peoples who are not Muslims. I realize that context is part of the answer and that “A Common Word” and the activities deriving from it and the Amman Statement are part of the on-going attempts for dialogue. Nevertheless, greater concern and clarity are sorely needed both within the umma and beyond it.
The third concerns finding the common ground among religiously committed and non-committed persons. All can gain much from the Creation-based understanding of our world being a network, a symphony, a marvelous exhibition of inter-connected relationship from galaxies to sub-atomic particles – and humans are the caliphs of God to care for it. Religiously committed persons can push further because we believe that this world is a creation and has a Creator. The Qur’an is a summons for action in caring, sharing and doing in the Name of God
Q: It is difficult to read the Qur’an without recognizing so many themes, ideas and people that are familiar from the Bible and from Christian tradition. How did you find it?
Walter Wagner: As I mentioned earlier, at first I was bewildered. I must also admit that Surah 2 made my head spin because of the rapid shifting of topics, length and subject matter. Now it is one of my favotites – it is truly the outline of the Qur’an and creatively follows the Essence of the Qur’an. I recognized not only the biblical analogues but also those from Jewish traditions and early Christian traditions. For example ʻIsa and the birds and Maryam in the Temple reflect respectively the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Proto-Evangelium of James. Methodologically, however, I think that while it is somewhat helpful to recognize the resemblances, it is preferable to let the Bible speak its accounts on its own and to let the Qur’an tell its accounts. Each uses the accounts and narratives to make each one’s distinctive points that contribute to the whole tapestry of God’s ways with humans and the world. I have found that reading the Qur’an through biblical lenses and reading the Bible through Qur’anic lenses confuses students (and even teachers!) and distances the readers from the books and one another. I admit that it takes time and immersion to let the Books speak for themselves.
Q: It is a great idea, why don’t you start this great project?
Walter Wagner: While I am a very “senior citizen” (that means old!), I am working on another book right now. I have considered a “dialogue-like” book on some of those shared figures in cooperation with one of my former Muslim students who is finishing his doctoral thesis first. Insha’Allah, we may put it together in the next two years.
Q: I absolutely love your book. I think a lot of readers enjoyed reading Opening the Qur’an, and it is found compelling and incredibly interesting by most of readers. I wanted to know how the idea of Opening the Qur’an in come true?
Walter Wagner: Your response to the book is truly humbling. I also know that there are some mistakes that need to be corrected and others that call for clarification. I have proven again (and again!) that only God is perfect. But to your question. I think you are asking whether the book is helping non-Muslims (and perhaps some Muslim) to understand the Qur’an before, during and after they actually turn to the text of the Qur’an. Based on anecdotal responses and the reactions of students and colleagues, they are opening the Qur’an with greater appreciation, some orientation to its place in Muslim piety and practice, certainly better views of controversial issues such as jihad, the treatment of women and attitudes toward Jews and Christians. One reviewer said that this is not a quick and easy read – and it was not intended to be so. I wrote in order to understand the Qur’an for myself and then to share the results. At the same time I report that I have been denounced, considered to be a traitor, heretic, demonic deceiver and fool by those who would rather not open my book or their minds. That is part of the price of engaging in inter-religious dialogue. In response, I have re-doubled efforts precisely in the areas of dialogue and cooperation.
Q:A traitor, heretic, demonic deceiver and fool, no, you’re brave, honest and a researcher who tells the truth….
You know that there are some mistakes that need to be corrected and others that call for clarification, Could you give us some examples
Walter Wagner: Some of the errors deal with Arabic grammar. Somehow I misidentified Imam Hussein’s resting place with Caliph Ali’s in Najaf instead of Karbala, that the Queen’s throne was not transported by an ifrit, that a passage concerning Ibrahim left the impression that he and not an unnamed person was involved with a doubter of the resurrection who slep for a century. There is debate in the sources over he treatment of captured Makkans following the battle of Badr, and I was too quick to cite the most negative (and minority) position. I am most fortunate in having a Musim student who gently and firmly corrected me! He is the individual with whom I hope to work as colleagues.
Q: I don’t know which favorite verse or Sura in the Qur’an you always read.
Walter Wagner:The Surah I find most meaningful and which I have incorporated in my own prayer life as well as in prayers when I lead Christian worship is the Al-Fatihah. Truly, it is the essence of the Qur’an and leads to the very heart of Christianity and Judaism. The whole Surah resonates with praise to God and an acknowledgment of God’s gracious and compassionate will and care of all that exists. The transition from praising God with the little word “and” (in Arabic, just one letter!) that moves from worshiping God alone to seeking God’s help is deeply moving and true. The dynamic of the rest of the Surah centers on the Straight Way. To walk and live on that Way, one needs God’s guidance AND the witness, example, aid of others who have gone ahead of us and who also accompany us. I visualize as guides and companions on that Straight Way Jesus, Muhammad, and the other heroes as well as the devout believers of other faiths. Yet more than one passage is especially cherished. I meditate on the Light Aya and Throne Aya in order to give myself more fully to God. I hasten to say that along with Qur’anic passages, I also meditate on passages from the Bible. We have much to share in our spirituality!
Q: I discussed with Philip Jenkins that he admires the passages about Jesus in the Qur’an, seen from a different perspective than in the Bible, what would you add?
Walter Wagner: The Qur’anic positions on God’s Tawhid, Jesus’ divinity, crucifixion, resurrection and Trinity all have a pre-Islamic history in Christianity, so they came as no surprise. To have them brought together in the Qur’an has made me start to consider how the Christian message was understood in 7th Century Arabia – even to the world today. I have to consider carefully and honestly what it is within the Qur’anic understanding that I need to hear more fully and openly. That mans I have to return to the early Christian views of Jesus – and they were not uniform. How did the present doctrines develop and what are they seeking to say? By the way, my specialty in Christian history is the early church, the development of doctrines – and rejected teachings (heresies). What do those teachings and views say today in a multi-religious world and a world that needs to realize that it is in desperate need for knowing God.
Q: How do you assess the future of the Qur’an?
Walter Wagner: The Qur’an needs to be opened! It needs to be opened by Muslims with an eye to listening to the word between the pages of the Book so as to strive for justice and equity within their own countries. When those are Muslim-majority lands, the principles of the Qur’an, regarded as life-giving and just, can lead to mutual help, security and prosperity.
When the Qur’an is opened by non-Muslims, it will need interpreters who are lovers of the lovers, that is, persons who know much about Islam and their own traditions so as to be hinges opening the doors between Islam and other societies. Here Muslim and non-Muslims can form teams to present living proof that we can learn and live together.
When the Qur’an is opened by Muslims and non-Muslims in dialogue sessions (and dialogue is not with intentions to convert), it is best to be paired with perspectives that involve more than words but with life-patterns and sincere sharing of devotion.
I know for myself and anticipate for others, that even for those who have memorized it, we have just started to open the Qur’an and ourselves
Walter Wagner’s Postscript: Thank you, Abdur-Rahman, for this opportunity. May God continue to open us to God’s truth and the fulfillment of the Divine will.
Abdur-Rahman: Thank you, Walter, you’re the bravest researcher I have ever met.