Sources and Methods #22: Jonathan Brown


Jonathan Brown 101:

Jonathan Brown on Wikipedia

Jonathan Brown's website / blog

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Jonathan Brown's books (via Goodreads)

Misquoting Muhammad (via


Show Notes:

3:40 - What I was trying to do was to write a book that would introduce a reader with no background - or take a reader with a good amount of background into more depth - into of the world of dealing with scripture in the Muslim tradition. How Muslims have understood they’re scriptural tradition and built on it to understand their religion in the face of centuries and centuries of change and particularly, recently more intensive change…. to get readers to see it as one of the world’s intellectual traditions that participates in the same dialogues and questions that other religious and philosophical traditions have dealt with.

5:13 - As a historian, I don’t think humans have much role in shaping history, I’m more of a materialist.

8:00 - (One of the big questions is) How do human beings know what God wants, without falling victim to their own whims and inclinations? So you have revelation, which is supposed to come in and free human being from their own biases and their own weaknesses and the weakness of their reason. But at the same time, revelation isn’t accessible except through reason and through interpretation, which is inevitably compromised by biases. So in a lot of ways, the Islamic tradition is about a lot of people and a lot of schools of thought trying to say - here’s the best way to minimize that bias.  

16:25 -  Most of these problems (spiritual authority in the Muslim world) are problems of modernity. It’s the problem of, how do people deal with an interpretive tradition, a scriptural tradition in a world where a lot of the tools of interpretation have been democratized or popularized, both through printing, through mass education, and then through electronic media and the internet. So prior to 1850, the people who spoke for Islam and told people what it meant was a class of scholars… it was fairly unified in how it saw the world and the message it preached. That starts being challenged in the late 19th century by the creation of – in the Muslim world – of European-style universities by the rulers of those Muslim states to try and match European development. And eventually you get the rise of the intellectual, who will be a practicing Muslim but will chip in with his two cents about religion from a different perspective, and that creates a new pluralism of authority. That’s the same world we’re in now.

19:52 - A lot of what I do in teaching and in my work is getting (them) not to look and act on the face of scripture too much but to always at least start looking for ways to be instructed about what’s behind the face of scripture.

20:41 - So I think Muslims should look at their own tradition and look at how they have indulged their own whims and their own biases over the centuries - and I did that in the book on the issue of women-led prayer - but I also think the same questions need to be asked with / to our interlocutors where questions assume certain cultural preferences.

33:25 - If there’s one thing I could have people understand: It would be to see Muslims as normal people and Islam itself as a religious tradition.

35:20 - If there’s a misunderstanding of religion or a version of Islam people don’t like, it must be corrected by Muslims, because they’re the only ones who will listen to each other.


37:26 - One thing I do, is I take very good notes. I usually take paper notes. So if I read a book, I usually make notes in the margins. When I finish the book, I go back and copy down all the notes in the margins of things I want to quote. So whatever it is I read, if I find it interesting, I’ll take notes on it and put it in my notebook. First thing is to take very good notes of everything. In this book, there were things I wrote down in college 20 years ago.

The second thing is - when I realize there’s a project I’m working on, or an idea for an article or a book, I’ll come up with a symbol. This book was an M with a circle around it. And I’ll go back and look through my notes. And 1) This will refresh things in my mind for teaching or other things and 2) it might be for my project. So when it gets time to actually get on to a project, I’ll go back through my notes and copy down all that information into a Word file with footnotes. So I’ll basically have a gigantic list of data, and I’ll start to organize that into chapters and themes, and that I’ll write into the outline document. So the writing comes from the data up to the final product.

In terms of processing information - obviously I read a lot, but talking to people is very important, and I find my teaching a very important tool to understanding what I read.

42:00 - When one tries to write a book that tries to get a lot of information across to an audience that is not a specialist, than you have to chose material that you can relate easily, and if it’s foreign to them, there has to be a really good reason why you’re going to tell them about it, and you have to be ready to give it the time it needs to explain that material. So you have to chose things that are relatable, but at the same time you don’t want to have everything relatable because then they think there’s nothing different about what I’m reading from my own life.


Brown’s picks:


Lawrence of Arabia

The 13th Warrior


On The Muslim Question by Anne Norton


Reggae or anything by Dire Straits