Religion 154S: Qur'an Over Time

January 31, 2010
Bruce Lawrence

Credit: Les Todd

Bruce Lawrence doesn't want his students simply to understand the Qur'an; he wants them to befriend it.

In the first few weeks of his Focus seminar on the Qur'an, Lawrence assigns his students "custodianship" of five surahs, or chapters, of Islam's sacred text. Three of those surahs will be the shared responsibility of everyone in the class: "Surat al-Fatiha" ("The Opening," according to a common translation), "Surah Ya Sin" (the phrase defies translation into English but the chapter is generally considered "the heart" of the Qur'an), and "Surat al-Ikhlas" ("The Pure Truth").

Each student will also take on individual responsibility for two additional surahs of his or her choosing. Once students have determined which surahs they will serve as custodians for, "everything that takes place for that individual over the course of the semester will relate to those chapters," says Lawrence.

Custodians conduct research and present their analysis of their chosen surahs. The custodians' collective aim is to guide the entire class to an understanding of the Qur'an that Lawrence believes lies somewhere in the middle ground between spiritual acceptance and disinterested analysis. Lawrence believes this to be an appropriate approach to teaching a text that he says should be treated as an "open-ended document" to which personal reactions and interpretations can vary without missing out on either the essence of the book itself or its context. Regardless of a reader's religious affiliation, Lawrence maintains that "the Qur'an can become a friend."

The idea of Qur'anic custodianship was introduced to him by a man he met on a trip to Amman, Jordan, in 1990. In a heartfelt letter, the American expatriate and devout Muslim asked Lawrence to become a custodian for a particularly moving surah—"Surat al-Zilzal" ("The Earthquake"). Lawrence's acquaintance died shortly thereafter, but the idea resonated with Lawrence. "I've never looked at the Qur'an or read it with the same eyes since," he says.

By seeking to instill a personal connection with the sacred text, Lawrence hopes to help his students move past what at times appears to be Western society's chronic misunderstanding and suspicion of the Qur'an. Instead of ignoring those who have, in his words, "declared the Qur'an dangerous," Lawrence teaches that we can do more than just tolerate a text that is unfamiliar to many Americans. We can take responsibility for making it familiar.

Professor: 
Bruce Lawrence is the Nancy and Jeffrey Marcus Humanities Professor of religion and an associate director of the Duke Islamic Studies Center. He is currently a Carnegie Scholar of Islam. He earned his Ph.D. from Yale University in the history of religions with a focus on Islam and Hinduism. His research interests include institutional Islam, Indo-Persian Sufism, and the comparative study of religious movements.

Prerequisites: 
None. Open to freshmen and sophomores in the "Muslim Cultures: The Middle East and Beyond" Focus program

Readings: 
Thomas Cleary, The Qur'an: A New Translation; Anna M. Gade, Qur'an: An Introduction; Shaykh Muhammad al-Ghazali, A Thematic Commentary on the Qur'an; Bruce Lawrence, The Qur'an: A Biography; Mustansir Mir, Understanding the Islamic Scripture: A Study of Selected Passages from the Qur'ān; Ali Ünal, The Qur'ān with Annotated Interpretation in Modern English

Assignments: 
Three short papers and a final paper, custodianship over five surahs of the Qur'an