“What does the Koran say about…?” is perhaps the most common question my students ask me in the Islamic history courses I teach. It’s an understandable question, but they will be disappointed with the answer if they hope it will explain how Islam has been interpreted and practiced for all of history.
In the post-enlightenment West, a society historically influenced by Protestantism’s “back-to-the-Bible” appeal, many of my students have grown up imbibing a public discourse obsessed with a religious or civil tradition’s origins and founding documents—the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the Constitution—and by extension often assume that the only book of consequence for Muslims is the Koran. After 9/11, sales of the Koran skyrocketed. More recently, in the wake of the Orlando nightclub shooting, news outlets from Haaretz to Newsweek ran pieces asking “What Does the Koran Say about Being Gay?” And over the past month, as ISIS called for increased attacks during Ramadan, the Koran was again scrutinized as the source of the violence.
While there is no doubt that the Koran is a book of great consequence for Muslims and non-Muslims alike, it’s particularly important now to develop a broad awareness of the many kinds of texts, people, and movements that have helped shape Islam as a living tradition over time.
In the manuscript library at the Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, I recently discovered a manuscript that shows that Islam is always under revision—and that this revision occurred even within a single Islamic book, as its author considered and reconsidered his interpretations over decades of writing.