In What the Qur’an Meant: And Why It Matters, Garry Wills sets out to educate his readers about the Islamic holy book with the goal of countering anti-Muslim prejudice. Shadi Hamid, while sympathizing with the aim, argues that the book both betrays its author’s ignorance and subverts his purpose:
[Wills] writes of al-Qaeda and the soldiers of Islamic State: “[these] minority fanatics seem to be unaware of their own traditions.” Here, he shows that his own knowledge of Islamic State’s theology is sometimes limited. The problem isn’t that Islamic State’s chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is unaware of more broad-minded interpretations of the Quran; it’s that he thinks they’re wrong. . . .
Wills [also] sometimes seeks to present Islam as something it never was. For instance, he claims that a “mountain of evidence” demonstrates that “Islam favors peace over violence.” But Islam is not a pacifist religion. For centuries, Muslim jurists developed a body of law on the waging of war, including how to treat prisoners and civilians caught in conflict and the definition of what properly qualifies as jihad. [But] why should Islam be pacifist in the first place? Since religions are more than just private belief systems, they inevitably must account not only for the ideal of peace but for the reality of war. The Quran was revealed to a prophet and a people engaged in battle, so Islam would necessarily have to address questions of violence and the conquest of territory by force. . . .
Wills makes other claims that are simply misleading, as when he asserts that “there are no ‘portions’ of the Quran that discuss sharia.” In support of his argument, he says that only about 500 of the Quran’s 6,235 verses deal with legal matters. The Quran is not a legal manual, but 8 percent of a book isn’t exactly nothing, either. The holy book is one of the major sources for interpreting sharia. Wills’ presumption appears to be that a religion having something to say about law is a bad thing and must therefore be played down.
I . . . worry about the unintended effects of trying to soften Islam’s image or dilute its content. Trying to make Islam digestible to non-Muslims by making it peaceful and legally ambivalent may only inspire more confusion. What happens when, after reading about this palatable, peaceful, and unthreatening religion, Americans are confronted by a version of it that is unapologetically assertive and uncompromising?