Western Academia and the Qur’an: Some Enduring Prejudices

Brill’s Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an (EQ) is the most ambitious and extensive project Western academia has undertaken on the Qur’an. It contains 2,919 pages in five volumes, with an additional 860 pages of five indices in the sixth volume, all published between 2001 and 2006. It took thirteen years to complete and it makes the claim of providing “rigorous, academic scholarship on the Qur’an… scholarship that grows from a plurality of perspectives and presuppositions”. (EQ 1, p.ix)

EQ contains 694 articles (although the description on the back cover as well as on Brill’s website claims that it has “nearly 1000 entries in five volumes”); and its articles fall into two categories: those “that treat important figures, concepts, places, values, actions and events to be found within the text of the Qur’an or which have an important relationship with the text; and essay-length treatments of important topics within the field of Qur’anic studies”. (EQ 1, p.xii) The description on the back cover of EQ further states, rather vaguely: “hundreds of scholars, both Muslim and non-Muslim, have collaborated in the creation of this work” (though when counted, there are 278 contributors, of which only about twenty percent are Muslim).

“Both the desire to take stock of the field of Qur’anic studies at the turn of the century and an interest in seeing this field flourish in the new millennium prompted our initial conversations,” the General Editor states in the Preface. “From its inception, then, EQ has gazed both backwards and forwards and this dual visioning has shaped the structuring of this encyclopaedia. As the associate editors and I proceeded with the planning, we were determined to create a reference work that would capture this century’s best achievements in Qur’anic studies. But we also wanted EQ to stimulate even more extensive scholarship on the Qur’an in the decades to come”. (EQ 1, pp.ix-x)

Yet more important than this retrospective and prospective vision was the editors’ desire to “make the world of Qur’anic studies accessible to a very broad range of academic scholars and educated readers”. (EQ 1, p.x) The editors had to make a number of basic decisions regarding defining features of their project of which two are especially significant: (a) they decided to use Englishlanguage lemmata in order to facilitate use by those scholars who do not have command of the Arabic, even as they recognized that it would inevitably result in the loss of the precision offered by transliterated Arabic entrywords; and (b) they did not make EQ an encyclopaedia of the Qur’an and its interpretation, resolving to formally exclude the latter even as they recognized that virtually every article in EQ would necessarily have to draw upon the corpus of Qur’anic exegesis.

As a more extensive examination of certain individual entries was undertaken in a previous review of EQ (Journal of Qur’anic Research and Studies, vol. 3, issue 5, pp.5-45); the present review will primarily explore the following aspects of EQ:

I. The fundamental premise and claims which have shaped the overall structure of this six-volume work;
II. Source material from which its content is drawn;
III. Intellectual ancestry

Read Full Article (PDF, first published in The Muslim World Book Review, 30:1, 2009)