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Structure and Quranic Interpretation: A Study of Symmetry and Coherence in Islams Holy Text.

Structure and Quranic Interpretation: A Study of Symmetry and Coherence in Islams Holy Text. By RAYMOND FARRIN. Ashland, Ore.: WHITE CLOUD PRESS, 2014. Pp. xvii + 163. S17.95 (paper).

The important and fascinating problem (along with the attendant problem of why it should be a problem at all) of the coherence of the Quran has been circulating through the general field of Islamic studies for a long time. Quran scholars have taken it up relatively recently. This book is not a summary of that scholarship but rather something of a popularization of many of its conclusions pressed into the service of a study of coherence as exemplified in the Quran through symmetry, chiasmus, and pairing/organization of suras into unified sections or systems of textual and narrative coherence. The second chapter of the book (pp. 9-21) was published a few years ago in The Muslim World as a study of the coherence of surat al-Baqara. This article has been revised and joined with some interesting supplementary explorations of coherence from different angles. Many of these theories and approaches have been the subject of recent scholarship. A cognate, though quite different, book was published a few years ago by Carl Ernst entitled How to Read the Quran (for which, see Travis Zadeh, "Quranic Studies and the Literary Turn," JAOS 135.2). The driving idea is traced ultimately to Nils Lunds work on the New Testament (1940) and its resurrection and expansion in the recent work of the late social anthropologist Mary Douglas with her explication of the so-called ring structure and chiasmus in oral composition. In her last book, Thinking in Circles (2007), she saw this mode of narrativity and composition as a universal human phenomenon--sometimes referred to as "Semitic logic" in older scholarship--and exemplified in a vast range of literature from the Iliad to Harry Potter.

Farrin and some of his predecessors argue that ignorance of the structure and method of chiasmus and its centrality in Islams holy book has caused the uninitiated (which apparently includes a large segment of the entire tafsir tradition) to miss the compelling and perfectly coherent narratological profile of the Quran. The volume under review is divided into two major parts: (1) the body of the text (pp. 1-74) with six chapters, and (2) a series of three substantial appendices (pp. 75-121) designed to illustrate and substantiate some of the authors more technical and intricate insights. The general pedagogical elan of the book is capped by a final section entitled "Reading Group Guide" (pp. 122-28). Frequently useful endnotes (pp. 129-43), a substantial yet incomplete bibliography (pp. 137-57), and an index (pp. 158-63) end the volume. In his introduction (pp. xvii-xvii), Farrin gives a brief summary of the intra-Islamic tussle between a populous group called here "the Partisans of Coherence" (beginning with al-Jahiz and reaching, though not ending with, al-Suyuti) and their opposition. The opposite camp is represented here, as far as I can tell, by Ibn 'Abd al-Salam (d. 1262), who wrote an intelligent paragraph (translated) on why we should not expect the Quran to be unified and coherent. The latter-day enemies of coherence seem chiefly to be the "Orientalists," some of whom are mentioned by name, beginning with Voltaire and ending with F. E. Peters. Finally, a succinct and useful prosopographical skeleton of the new scholarship of coherence is offered that spans both East and West: Farahi, Islahi, Tabatabai, Qutb, Neuwirth, Crapon de Crapona, Mir, Abdel Haleem, Zahniser, Robinson, Ernst, and ending with special emphasis on the brilliant and painstaking work of Michel Cuypers.

On the whole, this book is a welcome addition to the growing library of coherence. Its style and tone make it especially accessible to undergraduates who will undoubtedly thrill to the Fibonacci-esque charm of the argument. Questions will also arise. For example, if sura names and verse numbers are somehow accidental and frequently variant (as Farrin points out), how can they play a defining role in its heretofore secret structure? Many of the purely numerological or numeric aspects of this structure, including a prominent concern with the number 19, may resonate with a readership that recalls the experiments of the ill-fated Rashad Khalifa. In sum, however, the volumes main points--that parallelism, chiasm, and concentrism are important features of the form and composition of the Quran--are indisputable. To the degree that these features are explicated and convincingly demonstrated, this book casts light on an obstacle frequently encountered by the etic readership of the remarkable and sui generis Quran and offers more evidence to be marshaled against the enemies of coherence. There are very few typographical lapses.


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Author:Lawson, Todd
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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