Interview by Wipf and Stock Publisher
As a scholar of the Hebrew Bible, what got you interested in studying the Qur'an?
Mainly, curiosity drew me to the Qur’an. I knew very little about Islam’s holy book. Muslims assert (and the Qur’an itself claims) that if a person pproached the Qur’an in an honest, open-hearted way, the Qur’an’s divine authorship would be obvious. I knew many Muslims and I wanted to know more about this book, central to their formation. I accepted the challenge. I would read the Qur’an using all the skills at my command as a biblical scholar, and see what makes the Qur’an so special.
What is the significance of your title, Solomon and the Ant?
It comes from the sixth chapter, which is about the biblical figure of King Solomon who features in this odd Qur’anic story – Solomon marches down a field accompanied by his army. In their path is an ant colony. One of the ants cries out, warning the ants to flee. Solomon understands the ant’s language and he laughs. What is the meaning of that laugh, and does Solomon trample the ants? This chapter is a centerpiece of the book in so many ways. I think Solomon stands for God, and the story becomes a way for Muslims to think about God’s nature.
How do you think the Islamic community will respond to Solomon and the Ant?
Honestly, I’m very curious what Muslims will think of my book. I hope they will see it as a sympathetic reading where I treat this thing that they love, the Holy Qur’an, with respect, admiration, and insight. I hope that as they approach the Qur’an through my eyes they will gain new understandings. I suppose some Muslims will see my efforts as an imposition on their beliefs. However, I have presented earlier forms of the chapters in Qur’anic conferences and to individual Muslims. They have responded with curiosity and interest.
Having produced this book, how has your impression/understanding of the Qur'an changed?
So much has changed in my understanding and appreciation of the Qur’an. Previous to my researching and writing this book, I expected the Qur’an to be rigid and legalistic. I expected it to resemble the parts of the Bible containing specifications for rituals, and rules for behavior. The Qur’an has a lot of that, but the parts I worked on had features I never expected to find, containing humor and beauty, portraying complex individuals engaged in dramatic confrontations. These Qur’aic narratives courageously confronted the most divisive questions in theology. The stories were exciting and open-ended. I never expected that. What is the overall theme of Solomon and the Ant? What were you trying to say?
The book is in three parts. The first about monotheism, the second theodicy (why do the innocent suffer?), and the third prophecy. In each I show how the Qur’an and the Bible face similar questions, although with many differences. Overall, I want my readers to leave with an appreciation for the literary, religious, theological value of the Qur’an, that the Qur’an has relevance for the existential questions that face humanity, that the Qur’an is interesting and worth examining. Also, I expect readers to see the Jewish and Christian Bibles with a new appreciation.
What qualifies you to write about the Qur'an?
I am a careful reader of ancient sacred texts, having written extensively about the Hebrew Bible. For this book I learned to read Arabic. I am not a trained Qur’anic scholar, but I have presented my work for Qur’anic scholars who have accepted me in their guild. I have read both ancient and modern commenetaries on my texts. Perhaps my greatest qualification is my love for the material I present, and my fervent desire to learn the Qur’an’s secrets.
How do you think Christians and Jews will respond to Solomon and the Ant?
Many Christians and Jews think that Muslims worship a different God. Too often we in the United States regard Islam as something strange and exotic, even dangerous. I hope that Christians and Jews would find that the Qur’an stands as a sacred text in comparable stature to the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, that they can gain insights in their own traditions by examining the foundational text of Islam.