This is another in A&U’s series Books that Shook the World, a range of booklength commentaries analysing the most influential books in history. A few weeks ago, I reviewed Simon Blackburn’s book on Plato’s Republic, which I thought was a tedious and unenlightening attempt at writing for a Cambridge professor. Now I see the Dominion’s gone and reviewed it favourably. “Pfff”, and “Pah” I say to them! They know nothing.
Fortunately, this one’s better. A book about another book had better do one of two things: provide thorough and useful analysis and background to help those studying in earnest, or else communicate to the reader a sense of the book’s importance and brilliance, inspiring them to read or re-read the original text. Ideally a book in this series would do both, but I think either educating or inspiring is probably sufficient to justify its existence. Lawrence takes the serious route.
This is a very dry book. There isn’t a single attempt at humour, no wry asides or authorial winks. It’s a solemn book about the history of the Qur’an, and by extension the history of Islam. If you have a genuine interest, you’ll find it very clearly and concisely written. One gets the feeling that Lawrence has very carefully pared back his exhaustive scholarly knowledge to present a few of the most crucial and relevant developments in the history of Qur’anic development and interpretation. It’s a story that begins in the seventh century with a camel trader hearing the voice of God, and ends with chapters on Osama bin Laden’s Jihadic interpretation of the Qur’an and how the verses can be related to the treatment of AIDS victims.
So I can’t really recommend this book as light entertainment. If you’re not already somewhat curious about Islam, you’d probably be bored stiff. It seems like it would make a useful reference book though, perhaps for a Religious Studies student who wants a clear and reliable resource on the Qur’an that doesn’t get too bogged down in detail.
Allen & Unwin