When The Study Quran project was first offered to Prof Seyyed Hossein Nasr, he declined.
It is hardly surprising. Even for a living legend like him, interpreting the entire Quran is a vast spiritual responsibility. For devout Muslims, the Quran is not a book; it is a living reality. It is less like a Christian’s relationship with the New Testament, and more like her relationship with Christ himself.
Around that time, Prof Nasr had a heart surgery that nearly took his life.
That made him reflect on his decision. This intellectual burden cannot be carried by just anyone. With over 50 years of scholarly experience, this project was a spiritual obligation for someone like him. He had to carry it before he returns to God.
Later, to the delight of the publisher, Prof Nasr changed his mind and accepted their offer.
And after nine years of sacrifice and efforts, Prof Nasr and his team of scholars eventually completed their intellectual monument.
The first thing you notice about The Study Quran
When you first get the book, you will notice how thin the papers are. Often it takes me several seconds to carefully separate two sheets of pages. And as careful as you try to be, it’s almost impossible to avoid creases.
While that bothered me at first, I have come to appreciate the publisher’s decision to exclude the Arabic text and utilise the thin-grade ‘bible papers’ (1). It provides more space for the commentaries, and compresses such an extensive data into a single book, instead of multiple volumes of books.
This tradeoff allows The Study Quran to retain its comprehensiveness while being more portable and affordable — a far more attractive deal for those who are not researching the Quran professionally.
The beauty of its design and style
Beneath the blue book jacket, a golden geometric design embosses the front and back covers, an emblem of Islamic artistic elegance.
Each chapter begins with the ornamental calligraphy which means ‘In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful’. It then introduces you to the chapter’s themes and ‘occasions of revelation’ (2).
In the Translation, each verse is marked by a minimalistic red medallion and written in an honorific style. If English is your second language, you may need to keep your online dictionary with you. But with enough reading experience, you will find the Translation gracefully poetic, but not too Victorian.
Even for native Arabs, reading the Quranic Arabic demands the presence of mind and a working knowledge of its expressions. Indeed, when they read the same verses that they had learned since childhood, new insights can still dawn on them, because of the multiple layers of its language.
While that evocative quality of Quranic Arabic is impossible to emulate, The Study Quran genuinely attempts to simulate that reading experience for its English-speaking audience.
The Commentary is why you should own The Study Quran
The most striking element of the book is unquestionably its ecumenical Commentary. It encompasses all major Islamic schools of thought. While it guarantees that all 1.6 billion Muslims will find something they don’t like, it is invaluable for non-Muslims to appreciate how diverse the Islamic Worldview is.
Each verse is commented based upon other Quranic verses, narrations of Muhammad ﷺ (aḥādīth) and over forty authoritative references (tafsīr).
Moreover, you will occasionally find references to biblical texts or writings of great intellectual figures, such as al-Ghazali and Rumi.
After reading the Commentary for a while, because of its cross-referencing feature, things start to get strangely fascinating: You begin by exploring the commentary of one verse. Then it takes you to another verse hundreds of pages back. There, things become a bit clearer. So you read that passage a bit more, just to see where the thematic idea goes. Moments later, your mind connects it with an entirely distinct idea from another verse you read yesterday, dozens of pages away.
It happens again and again, where the Quranic commentaries become stargates that take you all over its galaxy. And they are all connected, like one long beautiful conversation, overflows with wisdom.
The Essays: A book within a book
While the Commentary alone is enough to deserve a place in your collection, The Study Quran also contains around 300 pages of Essays, which worth a book by themselves.
Carefully written by over a dozen scholars, they cover engaging topics, from ‘How to Read the Quran’ by Dr Ingrid Mattson to ‘Death, Dying, and the Afterlife in the Quran’ by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf. They discuss the motifs in the Quran which neatly complement the primary Commentary.
In the appendices, you can find the ‘Time Line of Major Events Related to the Quran’, ‘Biography of Commentators’, and several pages of coloured maps that supplement your understanding.
How to start reading as a beginner
Although The Study Quran is crafted for the broader audience, it is still a scholarly work that can overwhelm a beginner. Here is my recommendation on how to start:
1. Read ‘How To Read the Quran’ (page 1587).
Dr Ingrid Mattson is your tour guide. She gently introduces you to how Muslims read and treat the Quran.
2. Read ‘The Quran in Translation’ (page 1601).
Dr Joseph Lumbard orientates you with the linguistic aspects of the Translation (e.g. why it refers God as ‘He’ at first, then suddenly changed to ‘We’). It makes you less dizzy later on.
3. Read ‘Approaching The Study Quran’.
It is right after ‘General Introduction’. See also the ‘Abbreviations’ (it’s after ‘Acknowledgements’). These help you navigate the Commentary.
4. Proceed all the way to the first chapter, ‘The Opening’.
This chapter is considered the grand summary of the entire Quran. Muslims have learned it by heart since they were children. It is the best place to start exploring the Translation and Commentary.
5. Now that you are already in the main text, you are free to choose your next steps:
- You can go back and read the General Introduction by Prof Nasr. It is a dip into his ocean of knowledge and contains the background of The Study Quran.
- Or, you can check out the remaining Essays, especially if you have specific curiosities (e.g. What does the Quran say about War?)
- Or, you can continue exploring the Quranic chapters. I don’t recommend going straight to Chapter 2. Instead, start with the last chapter, then move to the second last chapter. Move towards the front of the book. You will find them easier to understand since they were chronologically revealed earlier and much shorter.
Of course, 1400 years of scholarly conversations can never be condensed into 2000 pages, and The Study Quran is by no means a replacement for a qualified instructor.
However, if you have an outsider’s curiosity and sincerity to know the Quran — which is the centre of Muslim’s intellectual and spiritual life — The Study Quran is an outstanding first door to enter that universe (3).
(1) I think the absence of Arabic text is not an issue for non-Muslims who do not read Arabic. You can find the Quranic text online, such as at quran.com. ‘Bible paper’ is a special material that balances thickness and tensile strength, typically used in Bible publications.
(2) ‘Occasions of revelation’ (asbāb al-nuzūl), is a big deal in Quranic interpretation. It is the science that informs, for example, where verses can or cannot be applied. Gross misinterpretations, even by religious Muslims, usually involve failures to appreciate this principle.
P.S. I earn no commission from your purchase. I wrote this because I’m in love with this book. Share it with those who you think will benefit from The Study Quran. They might love it too.