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Book Review: Jonathan A.C. Brown’s ‘Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy’

By Mohammed Mishad K

Title: Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy
Brown, Jonathan A.C. Brown
Publisher: Oneworld Publications, 2015

A riveting narrative of the Islamic scholarly tradition and its rich history, Jonathan AC Brown’s Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy is a deftly depicted and well-conceived endeavor, one of the few scholars who are quite at home in razor-sharp analysis of both classical juristic tradition and modern Islamic world. An associate professor of Islamic Studies and Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, and editor-in-chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Islamic Law, his publications, among others, include Hadith: Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World, a dexterously combined prism of the Prophetic Tradition. His credentials as a great Islamic scholar are second to none.

Offering his talented insight, oceanic depth of knowledge in Muslim textual traditions, and awareness of the political contentiousness of scholarship in Islamic studies, Brown holds up a mirror to the Islamic scholarly tradition, and makes a foray into how Muslim intellectuals have sought to balance reason and revelation, weigh science and religion, and negotiate the immortal truths of scripture amid shifting values. An inside view into how key and controversial aspects of Islam took shape, the book navigates and comprehensively analyses the most contentious issues that are debated in the modern world.

Internal struggle within Sunni Islam between traditionalists, who clung on to schools of thought (madhab) and Salafis, who generally insist on the unmediated application of the text, is one of the conflicts clouded in obscurity, at least in the West. As a legacy of an early political succession dispute and unrelenting disagreement over the scope of religious authority granted to Ali and Fatima’s descendants in framing Islam, the Sunni-Shia conflict can be defined. However, the Sunni traditionist-Salafi struggle defies articulation. Since both parties claim to be following the Qur’an and Sunnah as inscribed in the canonical Sunni collections, though the latter generally makes weaker hadiths out of reckoning more readily than does the former, some traditionally-trained scholars are influenced by Salafi thoughts while many Salafis, not least from Saudi Arabia, are really espousing Hanbalite thoughts, and, above all, the pro-democratic Muslim Brotherhood, claiming to be one of the most senior Salafi organizations in the Arab world, is viciously ambushed by Gulf-sponsored Salafi preachers who consider democracy antithetical to Islam. So, the lines between the parties seem to be blurred and the way ahead for a writer to depict these complexities are strewn with difficulties. However, Jonathan Brown’s Misquoting Muhammad is an indispensable guide for anyone bewildered by these enigmatic transnational Sunni debates.

The introductory chapter starting with Egypt during the Arab Spring (2011) mirrors the major theme in the book: how Muslim scholars have endeavoured to reconcile truth in their scriptures with truth outside it (reason and empirical observation). Nonetheless, as he himself asserts, Brown predominantly focuses on the Sunni Muslim tradition in order to keep the book to a reasonable length (p. 5). However, he occasionally integrates many of the issues and questions that have preoccupied Sunnis with discussions of the multifaceted Shia approaches thereto. Obliterating the boundary of how the Sunni Muslim scholarly tradition was elucidated, he explores how it has adapted and responded to new complexities from the nineteenth century onwards.

Before concentrating on specific case studies, Brown devotes the second chapter to mapping the Islamic interpretive tradition and averring the nature of scripture in Islam and other religious traditions. He provides a succinct overview of three themes – traditionalism, rationalism, and mysticism, entrenched in the traditional Sunnism that formulated the Sunni law and theology during the first three centuries (AH). The chapter gives vital insights into early techniques of Hadith criticism, underscoring the inclination of Sunni scholars towards focusing on the authenticity of the chain of transmission (isnad), rather than an engagement with the content (matn) of the Hadith. Brown elucidates that the ensuing anxiety the Sunni scholars got entangled with concerning the role of reason in interpreting the scripture led them to have recourse to the evaluation of the chains of transmission in lieu of their contents, robbing reason of the process of Hadith authentication. As in his other books, Brown adheres to the existence of matn criticism in the first three centuries of Arabic Hijra, but admits it did not exist as a separate avenue of criticism until later. In the final parts of the chapter, Brown sheds light on how the disputes between traditional Sunnism characterized by law schools, Ash’arite theology and Sufi orders – the exponents of the aforementioned three themes – and the ‘austere iconoclasm’ of individual scholars like Ibn Taymiyah (d. 1328) and Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792) paved the way for revivalist movements, some of which were the keystones for today’s Salafi movements.

In the third chapter, “The Fragile Truth of Scripture”, Brown elaborates on how the Islamic world, preoccupied with the crisis of modernity since the nineteenth century, has coerced many Muslims to reassess their relationship with scripture and to reevaluate the classical approaches thereto. Brown rightly notes that “like all faith communities, Muslims’ approach to the scriptures has been influenced by their epistemological worldview” (p. 71). He highlights that since the early twentieth century, the epistemological viewpoint of modern Western historians, ingrained in elaborating on events and phenomena through materialistic or social causes, has made greater influence on the modernists in the Islamic world. According to Brown, for the modernists, this has left a not-formidable confidence in the cause of canonicity of the scripture, especially the Hadith corpus, while for the scholars who have turned a blind eye towards epistemological hypotheses, this has created an inescapable situation to confront its implications for understanding the scripture. Concluding with a discussion of scriptural hermeneutics and its tempos and dynamics, the third chapter gives an estimate of interpretive processes within the Islamic tradition. “The Qur’an is but lines written between two covers, it does not speak, rather it is but men who speak for it,” (p. 84) Brown cites the fourth Caliph, Ali bin Abi Talib. Hereby, what Brown emphasizes is that the boundaries of interpretation of the text are set by the community reading it. Whatever perspective it was read through, it could only be validated if it complies with the parameters set up by the ulama – the guardians of Islamic scriptural tradition. The codification of these parameters was known as qanun al-ta’wil (the rule of interpretation). Manifold interpretive processes, the conflicts between the particularity and generality of the Qur’anic passages and the import of asbab al-nuzul (the occasions of revelation) are comprehensively outlined. Relationship between Qur’an and Hadith, the issue of abrogation (naskh), and sundry strategies employed by Muslim scholars to reconcile seemingly contradictory verses of the scripture are also summarized. The latter is elaborated with an excellent case study regarding the raising of one’s hands during prayer, through which he demonstrates how Muslim scholars such as Abu Bakr al-Bayhaqi and Abu Ja’far al-Tahawi “used the evidence of scripture and the accepted tools for manipulating and analyzing it masterfully to pursue their own positions” (p. 109).

The fourth chapter, “Clinging to the Canon in a Ruptured World” digs up the crisis of scriptural hermeneutics that emerged as a result of the Islamic world’s encounter with modernity in the late nineteenth century. He scrutinizes the modern debate revolving around two major issues: the status of women and religious violence. Brown presents the modernist reformulation of jihad (as a fundamentally defensive mechanism) as something that makes the classical doctrine topsy-turvy. He underscores how modernists like Rashid Rida (d. 1935) and Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (d. 1898) underlined the significance of the idea of maslahah (open interest) and revamped the notion of consensus (ijma’) in order to introduce a new concept of jihad. This new formulation aligned the bellicose understanding thereof with necessities of modernity. Brown contrasts this understanding with the way the modern jihadists deploy the concept of jihad. He underlines how the latter approach has misconstrued the rich Islamic interpretive legacy and circumvented the traditional methodology of interpretation. The chapter also incorporates the debate over the status of women, particularly their entitlement to adorn positions of political authority as well the enactment implementing a minimum age (18) for them to get married.

The fifth chapter, “Muslim Martin Luthers and the Paradox of Tradition” revisits the rule of interpretation within the context of the intellectual dilemma posed by Shi’ism, not least Isma’ili Shi’ism, during the tenth and eleventh centuries. According to Brown, it was due to that the Sunni ideologies were threatened by Shi’i esoteric readings of scripture that the Sunni scholars emulated the rule of interpretation in order to underscore the necessity of reading the scripture according to its transparent meaning, though there are also some convincing evidence to consolidate otherwise. As Brown writes, “Sunnis stressed the centrality of literal readings to counter the attractive esoteric interpretations offered by their Shiite counterparts” (p. 169). Brown also stresses the political and intellectual challenge postured by Ismaʿili Shiʿism, specifically to underscore this point. In order to address the broader question of the relationship between the Qur’an and Hadith as well as to reflect how the latter has been assessed and deployed by modern jurists by different means from the vantage point of present, the chapter also explores three controversies debated in the modern world – the ruling of a father killing his child, capital punishment for apostasy, and the issue of the female leading the congregational prayers.

The sixth chapter, “Lying about the Prophet of God” deals with the utilization of unreliable Hadiths within the Sunni Islam. Here, Brown contrasts the Sunni accentuation on the authenticity of Hadith, on one hand and the continued propagation of weak or unreliable Hadith, on the other. Unreliable Hadith remained current in popular devotion or etiquette in order to inculcate a particular religiosity and piety among Muslims. Only in Hadith dealing with matters of law or legal obligations did Sunni scholars, by and large, refuse to trade off on the standard of authenticity. Historical material, hagiographical anecdotes, and moral maxims were considered beyond the scope of thorough Hadith criticism. However, the author does not render the chapter devoid of the strong resistance of the intelligentsia against the reliance on unauthentic Hadiths.

The seventh chapter, “When Scripture Can’t Be True” takes us into other domains of scriptural interpretation. In this section, the author conducts a case study of the Qur’anic verse 4:34, and elaborates on the juristic discourse about a husband beating his wife, assessing the various strategies employed by modernist Muslims to navigate the scripture. Here, Brown sheds light on various approaches of the modern scholars like Amina Wadud, for example, towards the verse surrounding this issue. It is notable that the author ended his book devoted to the scholarly interpretation of the scripture, detailing the ins and outs of a modern issue. It is thus assumed like a pragmatic-after-theoretic discussion.

For this reviewer, Misquoting Muhammad is a masterfully manipulated and deftly narrated book. With a pertinent contemporary instance of the 2011 revolution in Egypt, the introductory chapter exemplarily makes a foray into how scholars employed various methods to interpret the scripture in order to substantiate their opinions regarding the situation. Overall, the first three chapters establish a paramount foundation for the rest of the work, making readers acquainted with the specialized vocabulary used within the juristic discourse and revealing to them the complexities interwoven with the interpretive process. Plus, the third chapter, in particular, gives a critical insight essential for the reader to delve deep into the nature of juristic debates that have dominated the Muslim scenario since the nineteenth century. These chapters stretch out as a bridge for the issues concentrated in the remainder of the book.

In addition, with a narrative that tugs at the heartstrings, the book carries out an in-depth analysis of the scriptural hermeneutics in Sunni Muslim juristic thoughts. While elaborating on the interrelated issues, however, Brown stays true to his promise not to provide solutions for those issues and challenges that the Muslims are baffled with. Nevertheless, it introduces the readers to various perspectives regarding the subjects the book discusses about, leaving themselves as deciders of the conclusions.

To put in nutshell, the book is a study of interpretations of scripture in Sunni Islam over the ages that illuminates modern ethical dilemmas. Jonathan Brown carries out an in-depth, diachronic study of the subject of scripture and interpretation in general and the varied perspectives of modern Muslim scholars on jihad, the question of Muslim women leading prayer or ruling the state, domestic violence, the issue of ‘seventy two virgins’ bestowed upon the martyrs and child marriage in particular, along with other contentious issues such as the history of western antipathy toward Islam with unambiguous eloquence, crystal-clear clarity, and formidable scholarly abilities. Factually accurate, conceptually pertinent, and ethically grounded, Misquoting Muhammad is recommended for anyone interested in how Islam is defined and reinterpreted, challenged and appropriated.

Misquoting Muhammad is available here.

Mohammed Mishad K
is studying B.A. in English Language and Literature at the University of Calicut, Kerala, India. He is also a contributor to national and international magazines. Email:


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2 Responses to “Book Review: Jonathan A.C. Brown’s ‘Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy’”

  1. Muhammed

    Very good and attractive writing…. Thanks for the writer


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