Quran, Christians & Modern Islamic Thought

Dan Holbrook

A relatively new face dealt with some age-old problems last Tuesday, as visiting professor Rachel Scott of the religious studies department presented her lecture on “The Qur’an, Christians and Modern Islamist Thought.” Main Hall 201 was already full as the lecture began, and stranglers who were late to the presentation found themselves hunting for seats.
Scott focused on several key verses in the Quran which deal with the “People of the Book,” the Muslim term for their monotheist contemporaries – including but not limited to Jews and Christians – who had earlier received a form of the divine revelation. Though current affairs may have lured some attendees to the event, the talk actually focused on the treatment of the People of the Book within a hypothetical Islamic state.
Those who’ve studied any religion won’t be surprised to learn that these verses have been given many different interpretations. “Verses in the Quran about the People of the Book are often quite ambiguous,” cautioned Scott, later adding that “there are verses both praising and condemning” the monotheists.
To interpret a particular verse, a scholar must keep in mind its “occasion of revelation” – the historical context surrounding Muhammad’s verbal revelation of the words later recorded in the Quran. Many verses concerning the “People of the Book” may be referring to specific monotheists who were politically involved with the Muslim prophet. The concept of abnegation – the process by which a later verse nullifies an earlier verse – is also vital to any understanding of the Quran.
Much of Scott’s lecture dealt with the ways in which modern interpretative traditions use these methods. With the caveat that Western conceptions of “liberal” or “conservative” are a poor way to pigeonhole individual Islamic scholars, she divided the traditions into three categories: confrontational, conservative, and conciliatory.
Applying these interpretative lenses to various verses, such as the “jizga verse” (9:29) and the “verse of the sword” (9:5), Scott showed the radically different ways different groups understand the Quran. And that’s a lesson applicable even today.