Qur’an in Conversation By Michael Birkel (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014. 282 pages.)

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Julian Bond



This book is meant for non-Muslims who want to understand the Qur’an but
are perplexed by it. Describing it as a complex book, neither thematic nor
chronological, but elliptical with much of its content out of reach of the uninitiated,
Michael Birkel explores how it is interpreted among North American
Muslims. From the beginning, this non-Muslim author highlights the diversity
of approaches and manages to present accessible “insider’s” views. Its seven
sections contain a selection of voices obtained through personal interaction
with the twenty-four Muslim contributors, a brief introduction, and a closing

The first contribution, “The Mother of the Book,” reflects upon how the
Qur’an’s first chapter is both foundational as its “opening” and opens hearts
throughout each of the five daily prayers. The two partner pieces, “Knowledge
Hidden and Manifest,” focus on the Qur’anic accounts of Joseph (by Ingrid
Mattson) and the encounter between Moses and the mysterious Khidr (by
Maria Dakake). The themes of both stories, namely, faith and wisdom, draw
the reader into the wider theme of aligning oneself with God. The author then
moves on to his second theme: “Close Readings, Old and New.” Mohammad
Hassan Khalil discusses God’s mercy with the phrase “In the name of God,
the Compassionate, the Merciful,” which appears at the beginning of all but
one sūrah. He wrestles with the idea of an everlasting hell, having discovered
as a student that some Muslim scholars challenge it on the basis of God’s
mercy. Alongside this “shocking” (his expression) opinion, he also came
across the conviction that non-Muslims would receive God’s mercy in the
Hereafter. Challenging negative readings of the Qur’an, he says, “Reading
the Qur’an under the benevolent shadow of raḥma allows one to appreciate
Scripture on a different level” (p. 37) ...

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