[Bruce Lawrence, left; his forthcoming book on the Qu’ran, right]

by Jana Riess
Religion BookLine , 11/22/2006

Duke University Islamic scholar Bruce Lawrence is running a half hour behind schedule, and it’s not even nine o’clock in the morning. At his hotel at the AAR/SBL meeting in Washington D.C., he chats with some Indonesian colleagues over a leisurely breakfast punctuated by laughter and snippets of Arabic. The visitors are trying to get the 65-year-old Lawrence to lecture in Indonesia in January, and he expresses enthusiasm about returning to a land where he recently spent four fruitful months.

His new book, The Qur’an: A Biography, (Grove Atlantic) is due out in February in the U.S.; it has already been published in the U.K. to critical acclaim. In it, Lawrence explores not so much the Qur’an’s origins as its cultural and spiritual influence from the 7th century to the present. He traces its impact on thinkers, leaders, and even buildings—two chapters discuss the Qur’an’s incorporation into the decoration of the Dome of the Rock and the Taj Mahal. Lawrence cheerfully admits he was not the press’s first choice to write the book (”they asked Karen Armstrong first, but she said no”), but believes he has approached the subject in a fresh way, particularly in a chapter that compares how American Muslim leader W.D. Mohammed has used its surahs (verses) to promote peace, while Osama bin Laden has employed them to justify violence.

It’s Lawrence’s earlier work on bin Laden that catapulted him into literary prominence earlier this year. His compilation Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden was published by Verso in late 2005, and was favorably reviewed by PW, The New York Review of Books, and The New York Times. It has sold around 35,000 copies thus far, the most of any of Lawrence’s six books, though even his more academic ones have done well.

It’s heady stuff for the former medievalist. “My whole life would have been as a medievalist without the Iranian revolution in 1979,” Lawrence told RBL. At the time, he toyed with the idea of leaving the academy and becoming a consultant on contemporary Islam, since so few Americans could speak Arabic and Persian, or were trained in Islamic studies. But, he said, “I recognized that I loved teaching and I loved my undergraduates. “Though he is now at the point in his career when many academics reduce or even eliminate their undergraduate teaching, Lawrence revels in it. “Teaching first-years is the absolute prize, the reward for doing all the other things we do,” he said.

And he’s not neglecting his research. He has an anthology about violence coming next fall from Duke University Press, and a book from Blackwell in 2008 about Islam in Indonesia. Lawrence is an active family man with two grown twin daughters and a wife who is a professor of Arabic. He also is an ordained Episcopal priest.

RBL is compelled to ask the obvious question: Do you ever sleep? “Yeah, sure, I sleep,” he chuckles. “Mostly on planes though.”