Understanding the Qur’an

Duke University


Understanding the Qur’an


Mohsen Kadivar, PhD

Spring 2024

Tue/Thu, 3:30-4:45 PM

Course Description

This course will offer an introduction to the Qur’an, the central text of Islam and one of the most widely read texts in all human history, yet it remains a closed book to most non-Muslims or to anyone not familiar with the grammatical rigors of the Arabic language. This study of the Qur’an will engage Islamic thought and belief as well as the use of the Qur’an in Muslim rituals and practices. Students will explore interpretations of the Qur’an from medieval to modern times. 

In this course, we will start with the history of revelation, the formation of the Qur’an as a book, and its interpretation from medieval to modern times. We will look at the question of understanding the Qur’an as the course focus and an even larger question: how does one teach the Qur’an as religious literature from a neutral viewpoint? Can the Qur’an ever be understood from a secular, or non-theological perspective? What lessons might one apply from literary criticism and biblical studies? What is the message of the Qur’an for human beings in the modern time? Is it the Book of Light, Morality, and Guidance, or the Book of Law? Is it the book of violence, fear, and terror or the book of mercy, love, freedom, and hope? What does revelation/words of God mean in Islam? What are the major themes of the Qur’an? How does the Qur’an describe God, human beings, the meaning of life, hereafter, morality, virtue, sin, evil, piety, money, sex, freedom, human rights, human responsibility, gender, ethnicity, religions, plurality, tolerance, peace, war, and violence? We will also explore how we can use the Internet as a resource, both for locating translations of the Qur’an and for exploring the multiple, often conflicting ways that it is interpreted both by Muslims and by non-Muslims.

This course doesn’t want the students simply to understand the Qur’an; it wants them to befriend it. By seeking to instill a personal connection with the sacred text, this course hopes to help the students move past what at times appears to be Western society’s chronic misunderstanding and suspicion of the Qur’an. Instead of ignoring those who have declared the Qur’an dangerous, this course teaches that we can do more than just tolerate a text that is unfamiliar to many Americans. We can take responsibility for making it familiar.

Close this search box.