In 2002, UNC’s summer reading committee asked Carl Ernst to recommend a translation of the Qur’an that incoming students could comprehend and discuss at length. Ernst, a religious studies professor, could recommend only one—Michael Sells’ Approaching the Qur’an­—because it included thirty short, poetic chapters that he felt would not overwhelm incoming students. The committee took his recommendation, and a lot of people were furious.

Was UNC trying to convert students to Islam? Wasn’t the book choice insensitive and arrogant in light of the 9/11 attacks? Wasn’t discussing the Qur’an tantamount to teaching a specific religion to students?

A controversy erupted. The national press swooped in. There was even a lawsuit to force UNC to abandon its selection. But the university stood firm. More than two thousand incoming students read and discussed Sells’ book without incident. At one session, Ernst eyed reporters standing at the back of a room full of students and said he wished tomorrow’s headline would be, “Students read books, discuss ideas.”

Ernst was confused by the backlash. “People assume that if something is being discussed at the university, then it’s being endorsed,” he says. “That’s not what we’re about. Having students read books is what we do here.”

Click to read photo caption.

The summer-reading blowup got to him. “It showed me that misunderstanding the Qur’an was a serious problem,” he says. Radicals take a few lines out of context and promote the most extreme interpretation possible, which gets the most press. Ernst says Westerners are left uninformed and often antagonistic toward a book they know little about.

When publishers approached him about writing a translation of his own, Ernst agreed. But it wouldn’t be a straight translation or a theological introduction to the Qur’an. His book would present the Qur’an as a piece of literature steeped in historical context.

“A lot of people want to know what the Qur’an ‘says’ on particular issues, assuming it has a consistent position,” Ernst says. “The reality is that the Qur’an addresses different audiences and changes its method of communication over time.” The Qur’an—sometimes poetry, sometimes prose—was revealed over twenty-three years to pagans in Mecca and then to others, including Jews and Christians, in Medina. “So readers need to understand its historical context and the way it was constructed,” he says.

When Ernst started writing his book, titled How to Read the Qur’an: A New Guide, with Select Translations, he didn’t set out to address any theological arguments, but in a way he’s done just that.

Click to read photo caption. courtesy of UNC Press

He says the Qur’an is full of  an ancient literary style that allows readers to pinpoint the central meaning of long and sometimes confusing passages. Using this tool, called ring composition, Ernst found a major theme of the Qur’an that would surprise people who don’t know much about Islam—and even some people who do.

Confusing construction

It’s tough to just pick up the Qur’an and start reading. “Anyone who gets though the first 20 pages is very self-disciplined,” Ernst says. “It’s not easy to read.”

That’s because the Qur’an isn’t organized like other books, especially other religious texts. The Gospels, for instance, are chronological accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus. The Book of Revelation is mystical prophecy. The Qur’an, on the other hand, is presented as a series of 114 messages, or suras. And they were not put to paper in chronological order.

The longest suras were revealed toward the end of Muhammad’s life, but they appear at the beginning of the Qur’an. The shortest suras, which are poetic and often cryptic, were revealed at the beginning of Muhammad’s ministry. But they appear at the end of the Qur’an.

“If you start reading the Qur’an at the beginning, it’s sort of like reading a mystery novel by starting with the last chapter,” Ernst says. In How to Read the Qur’an, he sorts all that out.

Ernst shows how the suras evolved over twenty-three years into long passages of prose full of allusions to the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the Talmud, and even the apocryphal writings of Christianity.

Those references can confuse modern readers, Ernst says. For instance, sura 5 mentions the Israelites seeking the Promised Land after fleeing captivity in Egypt. Only two of them enter Canaan—Caleb and Joshua. “But the Qur’an doesn’t mention them by name,” Ernst says. “It only mentions ‘the two.’ This leads me to believe that the initial audience of this sura knew the text of the Hebrew Bible very well.” And that audience, he says, likely included Jews and Christians. Today’s more secular readers, though, might not understand the reference to “the two.”

Click to read photo caption. Wikimedia Commons

In his book, Ernst makes sense of such references for readers and shows how the Qur’an would’ve been understood by the people of seventh-century Arabia. This approach is not typical.

For centuries, scholars and theologians have organized the central points of Qur’an according to theme. This way, they can tell readers what the Qur’an “says” about specific issues. But that can be difficult because the Qur’an—if viewed as a single piece of revelation—is full of contradictions and paradoxes. Interpreters had to concoct the so-called doctrine of abrogation to pinpoint what the Qur’an really says about a particular issue.

Abrogation essentially boils down to one verse trumping the validity of another. This, Ernst says, is problematic for several reasons.

In sura 9, for instance, there’s a command for warfare against unbelievers. Today, “unbelievers” could mean anyone who’s not a Muslim. But Ernst and most scholars say Muhammad was referring to war against Meccan pagans who were tormenting Muhammad’s first followers. Muhammad clearly considered Jews and Christians to be believers. He even referred to them as “People of the Book.” Modern-day Islamist radicals don’t make that distinction, and neither do people antagonistic toward Islam.

Through the centuries, many Qur’anic commentators have said this so-called “sword verse” in sura 9 trumps the many verses pertaining to forgiveness for pagan unbelievers and acceptance of Jews and Christians. “Some legal scholars argue that the sword verse abrogates over 100 verses that contain peace treaties and counsels of tolerance,” Ernst says. “I find it rather unsatisfactory that such an extreme reading requires one to disregard large chunks of text.”

Making matters worse, sometimes contradictory statements appear within the same passage. Sura 60, for example, advises believers to avoid becoming allies with those who make war against them. But then it mentions how believers and disbelievers can establish friendships.

How are readers to make sense of this? Some scholars suggest we’re not supposed to. Some say sura 60 is composed of fragments from two different sets of revelation. But the contradictions within one passage force believers to pick which verse to take to heart.

Click to read photo caption. photo credit: Mark Derewicz

Ernst’s research reveals another explanation for sura 60 and how to approach seemingly contradictory verses. Readers have to understand how the text was structured before interpreting its meaning.

Lord of the rings

Modern readers are used to books presented in a clear, linear fashion. But some ancient writers preferred to structure their texts symmetrically. Scholars call this “ring composition.”

Imagine a 13-verse passage. In ring composition, the first and last lines of the passage refer to each other, the second and second-last lines refer to each other, the third and third-last lines refer to each other, and so on. Those verses introduce a theme, call attention to commonly held beliefs, and frame an issue until the main point of the text is revealed at the center. In a passage of 13 verses, line seven is the mathematical center. That’s where the most important point is.

Ernst first heard of ring composition twenty years ago when an Indian scholar reported finding it in a fifteenth-century Sufi text written in Hindi, a language Ernst can’t read. At first he was skeptical. “It seemed like numerology or something like that,” he says, “and I was a little suspicious of seeing deep patterns where I wasn’t sure they existed.”

He didn’t think about that Sufi text again until twelve years later—after UNC’s Qur’an controversy—when he met an Iranian scholar who said that Rumi, the great Sufi mystic, used ring composition in one of his treatises. This got Ernst’s attention. He found that other modern scholars had found ring composition in Homer’s Iliad and other Greek works. It’s been found in Persian texts. In India and China. It’s been documented in Arabic poetry, including pre-Islamic works.

Ernst read a book called Thinking in Circles, in which anthropologist Mary Douglass showed that some of the less-studied books of the Hebrew Bible—Numbers and Leviticus, for example—contain symmetrical structures. From there, Ernst found new scholarship on Paul’s letters in the New Testament. They, too, feature ring composition.

Click to read photo caption.

Ernst’s radar was up, and while writing How to Read the Qur’an in 2009 he came upon a book titled The Banquet, in which Belgian scholar Michel Cuypers provides evidence that sura 5 contains a ring composition. At the structural center of the long chapter is a well-known verse:

“For everyone, We have established a law and a way. If God had wished he would have made you a single community. But this was so He might test you regarding what He sent you. So try to be first in doing what is best.”

“What this means is that the establishment of multiple religious communities is part of the divine plan,” Ernst says. “The goal is for believers—Jews, Christians, Muslims—to have a contest in ethics. They should try to see which community can follow the divine command to do good and avoid evil.”

This, he says, is a clear sanction for religious pluralism. And its place in the text shows that it was meant to have more weight than other verses that were meant to introduce and discuss themes and events.

“I’ve always noticed that passage,” Ernst says. “But I never realized that it was such a central point.” It’s literally the center of a sura that scholars agree is one of the most important in the entire Qur’an. “And there are quite a few parallel passages to this one,” he says.

The heart of Islam

It’s hard to say why ring composition in ancient texts is just now being brought to the fore of academia, but Ernst says that the most plausible explanation is that over the course of centuries, more and more people became linear thinkers—A plus B equals C—until reading in a linear fashion became dominant. In fact, many scholars over the years have complained about the seemingly chaotic nature of ancient writings, Ernst says, “just because the texts don’t conform to modern tastes.”

As for the Qur’an, viewing it as a piece of literature is a relatively modern method of inquiry that demands a nontheological approach. Ernst says ring composition is now being discussed at major academic conferences in the United States. In Europe, two of the best-known Qur’an scholars—Angelika Neuwirth and Neal Robinson—have recognized that ring composition is prevalent within the Qur’anand that it demands further research. And in the Middle East, an American named Raymond Farrin has already uncovered the central meaning of one of the Qur’an’s longest suras.

In 2010, while Ernst was on a research leave to complete his book, Farrin, who teaches in Kuwait, published an article analyzing the structure of sura 2. Farrin points out that it, too, features a ring composition. This long sura, one of the last ones revealed, also boils down to a competition in virtue, during which believers—including Jews and Christians—should keep their faith.

Ernst says that not all of the Qur’an is structured using ring composition. “It’s too soon to say just how pervasive this is in the Qur’an,” he says. “Much more work needs to be done, particularly with regard to the Medinan suras.”  

But for his book Ernst tackled sura 60, the 13-verse passage that some scholars say was pasted together from separate pieces of revelation.

“It was even better than I imagined,” Ernst says. When viewed as a ring composition, the contradictory verses make sense. The outer verses refer to warfare against enemies and to Abraham’s battle with idol worshipers. But at the very center of the passage—verse number seven— is where the sura’s core message appears:

“Perhaps it may be possible for God to create affection between you and your enemies.”

“It’s just so striking,” Ernst says. “And when you see it in the middle of a conflict that leads you to the center, you have to say, that’s quite remarkable.”

These verses have been well-studied and cherished by mainstream Muslims for centuries; religious pluralism is not a new notion for them. But today, as Islamist radicals aim to divide the believers of the God of Abraham, Ernst and others are providing strong evidence that religious pluralism is at the heart of the Qur’an. It’s not one sentiment among equals. “It is literally showing up as a central theme,” Ernst says.

Ernst’s scholarship will likely not have any effect on the hearts and minds of jihadists or people who dismiss Islam as a false religion. He’s well aware that detractors—some of the same people who attacked him and the university during the 2002 summer reading controversy—will accuse him of defending a brutal religion.

Ernst, though, says he’s only a defender of reading, studying, and thinking.

“I’m not an apologist for the Qur’an in any sense,” he says. For instance, there’s no question that the Qur’an, like many religious texts, addresses a culture steeped in misogyny and patriarchy.

“My aim is understanding and explanation rather than advocacy or attack,” he says. “My main hope is to raise the level of discussion beyond the current impasse.”

The Qur’an is an important text for over a billion people. It has a history and a structure. “Let’s try to understand how it works,” Ernst says. This is what professors around the country do with all kinds of books. They do it with modern books, too. “This is what we do,” he says, “when we teach the Bible as literature.”