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Approaching the Qur’an by Michael Sells

Betsy Williams, Jane and Morgan Whitney Fellow, Department of Islamic Art

Posted: Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Folio from a Qur'an

Folio from a Qur'an, 9th–10th century. Made in Lebanon, Tyre. Dark brown and black inks, red pigment, and gold leaf on parchment. Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris (Arabe 346), folio 13

«Although the Qur’an shares much with the Judeo-Christian traditions of the Torah and the Old and New Testaments, it is often difficult for non-Muslim readers to understand the text's repeated formulations and unique approach to narrative. Michael Sells's book Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations seeks to assist the unfamiliar by emphasizing the Qur’an's literary qualities.»

Sells focuses on the suras (chapters) of the Qur’an, known as the early Meccan revelations. As the Qur’an is believed to have been revealed in several stages, many scholars have focused on comparing suras that were revealed before and after the Prophet Muhammad's journey (or hijra) to Medina in the year 622. They use stylistic differences—such as content and length—to posit dates for when each sura was written. In the introduction to Approaching the Qur'an, Sells provides contextualization for the recension of the text, for its parallels in pre-Islamic poetry and biblical traditions, and for the enduring practice of recitation. (Recitation is central to the Qur’an's early oral transmission and to the contemporary Muslim experience of the text.)

The most interesting part of the book is arguably Sells's translations. On the one hand, the Qur’an resists translation, because its words are inviolable in their original Arabic as the words of God. Yet Sells's efforts to render the poetic lyricism of these texts into English allow the reader to experience the breathtaking beauty of the passages. Those interested in listening to recitation of the texts in the original Arabic may also consult an audio CD that accompanies the book.

About the Book
Michael Anthony Sells, Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations. White Cloud Press, 2007

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About the Author

Betsy Williams is a graduate student at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, and was the 2012 Jane and Morgan Whitney Fellow in the Museum's Department of Islamic Art. Her dissertation is on precious-metal jewelry and notions of adornment in the Byzantine and early Islamic periods.

About this Blog

This blog accompanied the special exhibition Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition, on view March 14–July 8, 2012.