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Novices interested in learning about Islam, beware; picking up the Qur'an and reading is not the way to go. Not only is the Qur'an an extremely condensed and symbolic text, but each line has been subject to intense scrutiny and interpretation over nearly fourteen centuries. To understand the United States, after all, you would not start with a careful reading of the Constitution—and for roughly the same reasons.

In a creative piece of research with profound implications, Marlow takes a single verse of the Qur'an and follows its checkered career through the first six centuries of Muslim history. The verse (49:13) has radically egalitarian implications: "O men! We have created you from male and female. The most noble among you in the sight of God is the most pious." Marlow shows that the Arab conquests, abetted by Greek and Iranian influences, led to a highly stratified society very much at variance with this verse; then how this verse acquired an oppositional quality when political discontents adopted it as their slogan; and how over time the kingly courtiers and religious authorities worked jointly and with success to tame the egalitarian spirit of primitive Islam (by interpreting 49:13 to refer not to this life but the next world). Nonetheless, despite the growth of "hierarchical social ideals, the potentially subversive implications of 49:13 were not forgotten." In practical terms, the hierarchical social model may have been as well entrenched as in Europe, India, or China, but it could never win religious sanction and so remained more informal and less systematic than elsewhere.