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The Life of the Qur'an

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Very informative

Mohamad Jebara begin this book by discussing the Qur'an's roots, stating that the Qur’an’s grand opening chapter launches not with a word, but with … three enigmatic Arabic letters: Alif Lam Mim. He states that the letters appear together as if they form a word, yet the prophet Muhammad insisted that each letter exists as a separate entity.

He, further, states that the three Arabic letters are hardly the only element challenging readers at the start of the Qur’an’s grand opening chapter, because unlike the Bible’s bold declarative opening where God creates the elements of the world, one by one, in an unambiguous and detailed chronology, the Qur’an has no specific genesis. Rather than commencing “in the beginning,” the first sentence after Alif Lam Mim begins by alluding to something mysterious that came before: Thalik-al-Kitabu la rayb—“That is the book in which there is no confusion.”

The author discusses Muhammad's life, his belief, and writing of the Qur'an, along with the many hardships he endured, both personal and publicly.

Jebara states that fifteen days before he Muhammad dies, he experienced one final revelation, which was: Prepare yourself with action-filled hope for a day when you are reunited with the Loving Divine. Each soul will then receive full recompense for all it has earned, and none will be treated unjustly. Jebara states that the verse reemphasized the Qur’an’s message that reward derives from merit and actions—so therefore live each day with purpose and awareness of long-term goals. He states that right before Muhammad died, he entrusted the sole complete manuscript of the Qur’an to a woman. He soon drew his last breath—and then the Qur’an belonged to the ages.

The author states that Muhammad had forty-two top disciples, whom he had personally selected to preserve the Qur’an's wisdom as a living force for future generations, and six months after Muhammad's death, there was a struggle for custodianship of the Qur'an, at which time three hundred and sixty men and women who had committed the Qur’an to memory lay dead on the battlefield, and among them were forty of Muhammad’s top disciples. The author states that by a small miracle, two of the experts had fallen ill and remained in their tents recuperating while the battle raged, and that these two young men were the only remaining living links left to the Qur’an’s oral tradition of advanced exegesis: just two fragile strands of expert knowledge to bridge the Rasul’s oral teachings to future generations. The author states that with the death of the forty disciples, the sole written Qur’an manuscript was rendered useless without these specialists to help decipher it. Thus, the Qur’an’s future hung in the balance.

Finally, the author discusses how the Qur’an has repeatedly emerged from periods of stagnation and manipulation—and will no doubt do so again. He states that despite a constellation of contemporary obstacles blocking access to the Qur’an, that a new generation will eventually muster the determination to unlock its wisdom and harness its latent energy. The author, further, states that when that happens, the next Golden Age will far surpass any past splendor.

This is an excellent and very interesting and informative book on the origin and struggles Muhammad endured during his lifetime of writing the Qur’an, and how the Qur’an has survived until this day.

Highly recommend. A great read.

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Thank you NetGalley and St. Martin's Press for the e-ARC in exchange for my honest review.

The Life of the Qur'an is really in-depth and interesting. My husband is Muslim and I've only learned about the Qur'an through him. The author, Mohamad Jebara, did an immense amount of research, which I really respect. A very inspiring and detailed introduction to the Qur'an. I enjoyed the educational aspects of this book, the overview of Arabic culture and language, and sacred Islamic principles. I'm so happy I was able to read this prior to reading the translated English version of the Qur'an.

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As a Christian, I have to profess my ignorance when it comes to all things related to Islam and the Qur’an. I need to, at some point, sit down with the Islamic holy book and attempt to read it. Having not read it so far into my religious book reviewing career, I can only go by what I’ve heard others say about it. For instance, I wonder if the Qur’an demotes women to a position underneath livestock. (According to the book up for review here, The Life of the Qur’an, the short answer is no.) I also wonder how the Qur’an has been used to justify holy war — a subject that I’m not well-versed in understanding. Well, some of my ignorance has lifted like a veil after reading The Life of the Qur’an. This book is a companion piece to author Mohamad Jebara’s previous work, Muhammad, the World-Changer. While that book was an attempt to tell a straight biography of the Muslim prophet Muhammad, this book is more a chronological history of how the Qur’an was revealed to Muhammad throughout 22 years of writing. The two books are, in my mind, meant to be read side-by-side. A lot of what’s in The Life of the Qur’an is a repeat of what’s in Muhammad, the World-Changer. And that’s not to speak of the repetition you’ll find within The Life of the Qur’an: the book brings up no less than three times the fact that Muslim mothers would put cotton in the ears of their children lest they hear impure ideas while walking the streets of Mecca.

Still, if you take away that deficiency, you’re left with a powerful, albeit challenging, work to read. The Life of the Qur’an is divided into three sections. The first talks about the roots of the Qur’an: how the Arabic language shaped the Islamic holy book and the reasons behind so many divergent interpretations from reader to reader. This section of the book looks at why three Arabic letters start each of the major sections of the Qur’an and what they could mean or unlock in the text. The second part of the book is the chronological blow-by-blow of how the Qur’an was gradually revealed. This section follows what was previously told in Muhammad, the World-Changer but looks at the events relayed there through the lens of the Qur’an’s revealing, rather than through a third-person narrative. The third part of the book looks at the Qur’an’s impact: how it has come to be that so much blood has been shed over the book and the spirit and philosophy of the Qur’an that has influenced everything from the creation of algebra to the development of eyeglasses. There’s a lot of ground to cover here, but the book generally does what it sets out to do remarkably well.

Yes, there is repetition. However, in some cases, it was welcome repetition. After all, I read Muhammad, the World-Changer some two years ago, and the fact that I read an awful lot didn’t exactly remember large swaths of it. Thus, it was good to get a reminder of the salient points of that book brought up again to twig my memory. I can say that The Life of the Qur’an sustains interest: I read this in a single day, unable to put this book down. That is not to say, though, that there aren’t any dry stretches. This is an intellectual book, and sometimes the philosophizing can get a little wearying from time to time. However, it is an illustrative and instructive work that seeks to sew together how the Qur’an came into existence. The process of what was revealed at key points of Muhammad’s life intrigued me. And, of course, knowing what part of the Qur’an was revealed at a certain point probably yields a new light being shone on key passages — giving them new, fresh meaning that hadn’t been looked at in millennia.

Overall, The Life of the Qur’an is an enjoyable work. I did feel that some of this could have been winnowed down somewhat, and — to a certain extent — I did feel that this work rides the coattails of the author’s previous account. Still, this is a book best suited to those who are novices, such as me, when it comes to the Qur’an and anything having to do with the world of Islam. Going back to the ignorance I felt I had in the first paragraph of this review, I was surprised to learn how much the original intent of the Qur’an was to protect women’s inheritance rights. And Jebara’s thumbnail history of where things went wrong in Islam is enlightening — though, honestly, I feel that an entirely different book is waiting to be written there. It’ll be neat to see where Jebara goes from here in his scholarship of Islam for the ignorant (the author’s introduction to this tells us that he didn’t presuppose that the reader knew anything about Islam or the Qur’an). However, if you don’t mind the repetition, The Life of the Qur’an is an appealing follow-up to the Muhammad biography. If you don’t mind getting your hands a little dirty with the ethnography of words in Arabic to start with, this will likely delight readers of all religious stripes used to this sort of thing in books tailored to other religions. I think I learned something from The Life of the Qur’an, which is high praise indeed.

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For most of my life as a Preacher’s Kid, I have been interested in comparative theology and the story of how other religions come to understand their own scared scriptures. Toward that ideal, I have read english translations of many of the main scriptural texts for most world religions; however, being more at home within the Christian traditions, my ability to truly interpret and understand how these are received and implemented by the various practitioners. As a christian apologist, I am frequently working to provide context to many of the more problematic passages within my own text, so I am keenly aware of the need to know something of the context from which a sacred text emerged … and quite frankly, with respected to the Quran, I have only a limited understanding of that context (and there is plenty of fundamentalists proof texting on all sides to confuse the issue). To be clear, I do not speak any dialect of Arabic, nor do I have any depth in reading Quranic commentaries (with a passing exposure to the Hadiths). Quite frankly, the non-traditional organization of the Quran (by length instead of chronologically) make it even more susceptible to proof texting by proponents and opponents of the Muslim faith … so while I am not in a position to critique the accuracy of Jebara’s exposition on how the Quran can to be and how it should be interpreted, I had hoped that I might find a better appreciation for the text from an apologist and expert exegetist who has the background that I lack. I was not disappointed.

The book is organized in three (3) parts describing the environment into which the Quran was sent, how it was transmitted and received, and its evolution after the death of Muhammad, its principle recipient and herald. With a presumption that Jebara’s interpretations are correct, I found quite a lot to admire in professed purpose of the text, actually finding in it a lot of similarity to my own faith tradition … which is not too surprising given how much of that tradition is shared between the three (3) principle Abrahamic religions. One such shared focus in on that the author describes as a focus on “Blossoming” that has a direct correlation to the concept of “Flourishing” that I am more intimately familiar with. There is an expectation of ambiguity within the written archaic Arabic (without vowels) that permits multiple interpretations, a point supported by an anecdote where two students disagreed on a particular interpretation with Muhammad declaring that they were both correct. That makes it all the more heart breaking to see the state of relations between these faiths today that seems so far removed from the original intent of the revelations; in this case, the ambiguousness of the Arabic allowing certain fundamentalist interpretations for political purposes was briefly described in part III, but offers no specific critiques or solutions (despite some specific examples of where this form of error can be found today, the last 600 years or so of Islamic evolution is not covered at all).

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Beautiful, moving, and educational look at the Qur'an, good for even those unfamiliar with the text (such as myself). Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for the free advance copy.

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Thank you to the author, publisher, and Netgalley for allowing me to read and review. I enjoyed this book on a subject I know very little about. Informative and interesting.

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Prior to reading this book, I can honestly say I knew more about Mohammed than the Qur'an. What made me appreciate this book and this writer was that he treated it like any other holy book. He did not consider every word in the book to be sacred and holy and immutable. He is right in that the book was only written down by Mohammed's friends and early converts, but they weren't scholars, some were barely literate.

Even at the end of his life, Mohammed was still making additions to the manuscript and to the composition itself. Unfortunately, at his death there were few complete copies, and many were of slightly different configuration and text. Since Arabic was originally written without vowels, the meaning of words can vary in definition. One of the early Imams decided to standardize the text but made changes to the original that he saw fit, and had all other copies destroyed.

Areas of the Qua'ran were "revised" by this Imam to 'represent' his understanding of what Mohammed meant to say. This based on studies of the early book, by others prior to revisions, tell a slightly different story when it comes to Women and other Peoples of the Book(s).

We do know that people who proclaimed themselves the "Madi" and different Shi'a and Sunni scholars have altered the text to reflect their own beliefs (correcting for others mistakes). A very scholarly treatise on this very important book.

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The author, Jebara, invites us to enthusiastically explore the Muslim scriptures. He gives us some basics of how to understand and interpret this holy text that I’ve not seen in several commentaries of the Quran. He spent decades getting to a point where he felt like he understood the text. He also admits painstakingly reordering the passages chronologically which, when placed in parallel with Muhammad’s life, reveal some new nuances. He helps us understand linguistic gems in how the Quran is written. He also shares the dilemmas and conundrums that he faced and tries to provide solutions to them. Going through the history of the Qur’an, the author shows us how the scriptures promote women’s equality—e.g. inheriting property as do men and becoming teachers of the Qur’an. Readers are also exposed to early conflicts within the growing religion within a generation of Muhammad’s death, as well as a burgeoning exploration of the natural world giving us the basis of our scientific understandings: al-gebra (algebra), algorithms (complex calculations), alchemy (chemistry) and so on. The author admits he leans toward the Sunni school of interpretation but has also diverged dramatically in some key understandings of important verses and condemns the internecine “wars” within Islam, Judaism and Christianity.

He notes that the Quran is written using precise language. Yet the Arabic allows many nuanced readings. Muhammad taught that the Quran has seven different dialect variations. The author even cites an incident where the prophet Muhammad taught different versions of a verse (aya) to two different students saying both were correct. Similarly, many teachers interpret the Arabic to say it’s acceptable to strike a wife when there’s tension in the marriage while others might say the scripture is advising to have a separation (i.e. sleep in separate rooms) to release the tension. I’ve heard many believers say the Allah has protected the Quran from any changes, yet here we have tolerance for the various nuances.

Another conundrum is that the Quran assumes familiarity with Hebrew and Greek scriptures (the Christian Bible) because not all of the referenced people nor some of the incidents are fully narrated in the Quran. The Quran encourages students to know the Books of Moses (Torah/Taurat), the Psalms/Zabbur and the Gospels/Injeel specifically in order to understand the Quran itself. The author highlights this by pointing out how immediately in the first major chapter of the Quran, the second aya refers to “that book” (though often mistranslated as ‘this book’), meaning the canons of Hebrew and Greek scriptures. What stories are related, that many Bible readers would find familiar, have significant differences. This may lead to confusion too.

Some of those differences are well known, such as the near-sacrifice of Abraham’s son. In the Bible, the son is Isaac, whose mother was Sarah. In the Quran, the son is Ishmael, whose mother was Hagar. Others are less known: King David is warned by the prophet Nathan not to have an affair with Bathsheba in the Quran to avoid the sin of adultery while in the Bible he succumbs to the temptation and, after being confronted by the prophet Nathan, he experiences redemption. Illogically perhaps, the Quran presents Moses as an equal in the conflict with Pharoah to get the Hebrews released from slavery; Pharoah tries to gain an advantage by convincing the Hebrews that Moses’ intent leads to more hardship for them. Whereas it seems in reality, the political/military power dynamic is heavily in Pharoah’s favor. This ruler could easily quash a “nobody” like Moses who has no earthly authority, no army. Even in the Bible, the Pharoah seems to relent to release the Hebrews after each supernatural plague—Moses has unseen power—only to change his mind. In the Hebrew Scriptures, Pharoah still holds all the natural/human power cards; they escape Pharoah’s grasp through the miracle of a sea being parted, and Pharoah’s entire (?) cavalry and infantry being drowned. Though the Hebrews numbered several hundred thousand, maybe even a couple of million (leaving Egypt “like an army ready for battle” Exodus 13.18), they feared Pharoah’s cohort that was chasing them to the edge of that sea (Exodus 14). So was the power dynamic equal, as indicated in the Quran, or weighted heavily in Pharoah’s favor as the Bible recounts it?

Helpfully, the author emphasizes the common ground between the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). Though this book seems to be directed at outsiders to Islam, I wonder if it wouldn’t be helpful for studious Muslims to get this book in order to better understand their scriptures. Based on questions I’ve posed to friends who seemed stumped to know those answers and always referred me to an imam or professor for answers, I would guess this book would provide a framework for self-study.

If there’s any drawbacks to this book, it’s the repetitive telling of Muhammad’s history from different perspectives to illustrate Qur’anic passages. Also, quotations and historical “anecdotes” are not cited so it’s often hard to corroborate what’s being expressed.

I appreciate the publisher and NetGalley for allowing me to preview this book.

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I learned so much from Muhammad the World-Changer, that I knew I wanted to read more.

There are over a billion copies of the Qur’an, and it is not easy to read and understand. There are many interpretations, all a little different, which make it difficult to understand if Arabic is not your language.

In plain language, the author helps us to understand how the Qur’an came to be. There is much contested about parts.

I came away with a much deeper understanding.

Netgalley/ St. Martin's Press February 27, 2024

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In 2021, I had the privilege of previewing Mohamad Jebara's "Muhammad, the World-Changer," a rich and beautifully realized portrait of Islam's founding prophet. While I am not Muslim myself, I have long believed in achieving cultural awareness and, to the degree possible, understanding. It was a book I deeply appreciated and it was a book from which I learned quite a bit.

Jebara is now back with "The Life of the Qur'an: From Eternal Roots to Enduring Legacy," an innovative and extensively researched biography of the central text of Islam.

While Jebara's previous effort impressed me as a title with a surprising ability to essentially "crossover" and appeal to readers universally and of a variety of faiths, "The Life of the Qur'an" feels less likely to do so. Much of this can likely be attributed to the text itself. The Qur'an is a difficult text for those who practice Islam. For those who don't? It's almost unfathomable to capture all if its complexities. With its classical Arabic language, translation is difficult. The text offers a non-linear style of musings that are in many cases vastly different from Christian texts. For the most part, it's difficult to imagine Christians, or believers of other paths, simply picking up the Qur'an and exclaiming "I get it!" There's an awful lot to get. Even among Muslims, interpretation can vary wildly with wildly varying results.

Jebara is a scriptural philologist and prominent exegetist who has long been devoted to bridging cultural and religious divides. A gifted orator, Jebara is equally gifted as a writer and does a remarkable job of bringing the Qur'an to life by, essentially, illustrating its existence as a living text. "Jebara reveals how the Qur`an unfolded over 22 years amidst intense persecution, suffering, and loneliness," according to provided press materials. Jebara examines the book's obscured heritage, complex revelation, and contested legacy while providing a greater clarity for Muslims and non-Muslims about the Qur'an as a dynamic life force. The latter half of the book, in particular, practically lives and breathes life even as Jebara immerses us into the tapestry of the Qur'an.

"The Life of the Qur'an" requires, I'd say, a bit more patience and a bit more commitment as a reader than did "Muhammad." Jebara takes a deeper dive into Islamic culture and linguistics and these may prove to be difficult for the uninitiated. There were times I found myself stopping and looking up terminology and wording to ensure my understanding. There were other times that Jebara seems to sense "I'm going to have to explain this" and so he does.

An intelligent and beautifully realized expansion of his work in "Muhammad," "The Life of the Qur'an" isn't always the easiest read but it's a valuable, informative, and bridge-building book that will prove essential for both Muslims and those of other faiths.

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I voluntarily read and reviewed an advanced copy of this book. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
I really don’t know how to review this book. Jebara shows great insight and insoration in a approachable way.

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