The Quran, the sacred text of Islam, is a compilation of God’s revelations as proclaimed by the Prophet Muhammad between 610 and 632. Muslims study this scripture with the aid of Quran commentaries, which explain and interpret the text, verse by verse. The first commentaries were written by the eighth century, and Muslim scholars continue to produce them today.
Commentaries help readers understand the Quran, a challenging text that does not always provide a situational or historical context for Muhammad’s declarations. Samuel Ross, assistant professor of religion, said the works have additional value: Because commentators often reference ideas from law, science and philosophy, scholars can compare commentaries from different times to discover how Islamic perspectives evolved. “These commentaries are like an archive of Islamic thought,” he said.
Ross is specifically interested in how, when and why Muslims have used the Bible to interpret the Quran.
The Quran mentions prophets such as Moses, David and Jesus as well as biblical narratives like the Israelites’ escape from Egypt. But such stories are abridged accounts that don’t always provide historical context. Ross said this is because the Quran presupposes its original audience — seventh-century residents of the Arabian Peninsula — was familiar with those stories. For readers in later generations and in other parts of the world, a commentary might fill in the gaps.
Ross said Islamic studies scholars know that some Quran commentators cited the Bible, but he wanted to get a clearer picture of how frequently the references happened and at what historical moments. His answers could shed light on how Muslims related to Christians and Jews throughout history.
Ross searched the text of 153 digitized Quran commentaries for biblical terms. The results showed that Quran commentators — with rare exceptions — did not incorporate such context until the late 19th century. Then, suddenly, commentators from all over the Muslim world began referencing the Bible.
His discovery raised new questions: Why didn’t commentators reference the Bible earlier? What happened in the late 1800s to spark the change?