Cragg, 1973, The Mind of the Qur’an



The Mind of the Qur’an is the second of two books written by Bishop Kenneth Cragg during a period of study as a Bye-Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. The first book, ‘The Event of the Qur’an’, relates the content of the Qur’an to its temporal context in order to understand how the Qur’an could have transformed ‘a heathen Arab society of the seventh century into the first generation of Muslims’ (1971:15). The second book, which is the subject of this review, outlines the contours of a sympathetic reading of the Qur’an as experienced by a Muslim who memorises, reads and recites the Qur’an in order to worship God.


By Danny Crowther, Solomon Research Associate, Centre for Muslim-Christian Studies

The Mind of the Qur’an outlines the contours of a sympathetic reading of the Qur’an as experienced by a Muslim who memorises, reads and recites the Qur’an in order to worship God. Cragg understands three aspects of this experience to be essentially important: language, memorization and respect:

1. Language: Since the Qur’an repeatedly describes itself as an Arabic Qur’an (12:2, 20:112, 38:29, 41:3, 42:7, 43:3), the worshipping reader experiences the Qur’an primarily in the Arabic language regardless of his or her competence in this tongue. Cragg notes, however, that the Arabic of the Qur’an is a distinct historic form and that, ‘time has done much to put the insider and the outsider on more equal ground’ (1973:18).

2. Memorization: The Qur’an repeatedly describes itself as a remembrance (dhikr): 15:6, 15:9, 16:44, 36:11, 38:8, 41:41, 68:51 and 68:52: a name which describes both the message of the Qur’an and the way believers receive its message. As a message, the Qur’an exhorts and reminds its readers to be in submission (islam) to the way of life described and decreed in the Qur’an: a way of life based on the memorization and recitation of the Qur’an, especially in the salat prayer. As a result, the description of the Qur’an as remembrance refers to an on-going dynamic.

3. Respect: The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was a seventh century Arab who worshipped God in the way described in the Qur’an. As a result, the life of the Prophet exemplifies, fulfils and defines the message of the Qur’an. Therefore, a respect for the Prophet connects both to the essential nature of the Qur’an as an Arabic Qur’an and to the essential nature of the Qur’an as an on-going remembrance.

Having defined his approach to the Qur’an, Cragg then sets out to consider the interpretation of the Qur’an. Surah Al ‘Imr’an 3:7 declares that some of the verses of the Qur’an are clear and direct in their meaning (muhkam), but others are ambiguous or indirect in their meaning and application (mutashabih). Cragg argues that this verse encourages all those who memorise and recite the Qur’an to approach the mutashabih verses with both respect and imagination. In Shia Islam, interpretations that respect the Qur’an are determined by Shia imams and, in practice, this has limited imaginative reflection on the mutashabih verses by those both inside and outside this elite group. In Sunni Islam it is widely taught that respectful interpretations of the Qur’an only occur within the confines of previous established interpretations. This too has, in practice, limited imaginative reflection. Cragg argues that respectful, imaginative interpretation must transcend these limitations. Since the Qur’an commands that the Qur’an be memorized and recited by all Muslims, it is important that this recitation and memorization is allowed to be purposeful, creative and meaningful for all Muslims. This is the case in many of the mystical or Sufi traditions. Four areas are proposed as potential fertile ground for this kind of imaginative investigation: human nature, forgiveness, idolatry and creation:

1. Human nature: a chapter entitled ‘The Trouble of Man’ argues for the development of a complex and nuanced Qur’anic description of human nature that both includes and transcends the division of humanity into believers and unbelievers or Muslim and non-Muslim.
2. Forgiveness: a chapter entitled ‘Seeking forgiveness’ suggests that the way in which the Prophets have struggled with sin could be developed to explore their experience of forgiveness. ‘Surah 8:33 lays down the principle that as long as men sought forgiveness, God did not requite their transgressions’ (1973:113). This principle could be considered in the lives of the Prophets. For example, Sura Tsad 38:21-26 describes the repentance and forgiveness of David, but leaves the nature and form of the sin unspecified and open to interpretation with respectful imagination.
3. Idolatry: In the past, idols were worshipped in the pursuit of the control of nature for healing, health, security and prosperity. Since technology today has altered this link between the worship of created things and material provision, the teaching of the Qur’an on nature and idolatry could be explored in new creative ways in this new context.
4. Creation: a chapter entitled ‘The Sacramental Earth’ suggests that the wonder of creation connects both the worshippers of God, atheists, agnostics and the worshippers of idols. The chapter proposes that this is an important area for further Qur’anic reflection in the context of the increased inter-relation of religions and cultures.

It is no coincidence that these four areas are areas of interest to the Christian Bible and Christian theology which would describe them as the fallen nature of man, the grace of God made known in Jesus Christ, the worship of Mammon (wealth) and natural theology. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Cragg has been influenced by his Christian background in the selection of these four areas. The introduction to the book ‘The Event of the Qur’an’ explains that references to the Bible and Christian dogma have been avoided to achieve ‘an open historical awareness of Islam’ (1971:16) on its own terms.

In terms of a methodology of approach, the avoidance of references to the Christian Bible and theology does ensure that the Qur’an is observed and experienced on its own terms. However, in terms of a methodology of interaction, this approach is less helpful because, whether intentionally, coincidentally or inadvertently, Cragg has suggested four of the areas of special interest to Christian theology as areas for the respectful imaginative exploration of the Qur’an. As a result there is interaction between the Qur’an and the Bible, but, by not explicitly mentioning the Bible, this interaction is one-way. This does not allow Cragg’s own methodology to be examined (that is, his analysis of the Bible and Christian theology) nor does it allow the Qur’an and its readers to contribute to the development of the interpretation of the Bible and Christian theology.

Cragg understands Sufi movements to have ‘often been the major element in the religious history and the popular experience of Islam’ (p.164). His hope appears to be that if Muslim readers of the Qur’an are released from the fetters of traditional interpretation, they will come to similar conclusions about the nature of humanity, the forgiveness of God, idolatry and the place of creation as have been concluded by Christian readers of the Bible. These hopes are worked out in many of his later works, most notably in his ‘Mosque Sermons: A Listener for the Preacher’, (London: Melisende, 2008). Each of these sermons is a treasure packed with wisdom and insight. However, by not disclosing the Christian sources of this wisdom and insight, Cragg does not allow these sources to interact with the Qur’an and Muslim theology. In terms of Schleiermacher’s harmonious spiral of hermeneutics, Cragg’s work does represent an ever-turning spiral of interaction between the Bible and the Qur’an in which his opinions of both the Bible and the Qur’an have evolved. However, in this book, and many of his others, only the Qur’anic half of this interaction has been exposed.