Thursday, October 4, 2012

Reading the Quran: Finding a Place to Hold On

My initial reading requires some pushing.

The structures and patterns of thought of the first two suras reflect an approach to articulating faith that is very different from my own.   There is no unifying narrative to sustain interest.   What poetry might lie there is masked behind the veil of culture.

Following a short invocation sura, the second sura of the Quran moves immediately into an assertion of it's own authority.   This is the truth, it says.  If you do not believe it, you will be punished.   I am not fond of this bluntly coercive approach to sharing faith in my own tradition.

It's not the best start.

While I understand it theologically...any encounter with God tends to be a bit on the ferocious persuasive speech it comes across awkwardly.   If you are not Muslim, and are encountering this text for the first time, there are two possible responses.   The first is to take the bold claim of authority at its face.  For many, absolute confidence is the only prerequisite.   And it is, without question, a confident beginning.

I'm a tougher mark.  Just saying that you are something means very little.  Having encountered plenty of bold, self-assured fools and charlatans in my life, I require a bit more than just your assertion that you know what you're talking about.   The more radical your claim, the higher my standards.

For the first verses of Al-Baqarah, and then for page after page, I struggle to find purchase.   There is no articulation of interpersonal ethics, no expression of kindness, nothing but authority asserted and reasserted, mingled with threats and promises.   There is no sustaining narrative.   It is relentless.  At one point, I look to the study glossary of the most liberal translation, hoping to find a passage that talks about love to leaven the ferocity.   

The word "love" does not occur as a term in the glossary.


I take a break, and catch my breath.   There are, after all, large portions of Torah that are really difficult reading, particularly the historical/legal sections.   Revelation is both intentionally opaque and filled with violent imagery.  And I recognize, in this reading, that I would not commend a cold reading of the Bible as the best approach for someone interested in engaging with the faith.

So I press on.   And here and there, handholds start to surface.    

An interesting willingness to consider the good works of non-Muslims as evidence of their being right with God is described (Al-Baraqah 62).  It's so strong that the conservative translations feel obliged to subvert it by inserting their own English editorializing. 

When specific moral and ethical practice between human beings is finally described, it is familiar and gracious.   Be hospitable to strangers and those who are on the margins of society.  Give to those in need, as it is a fundamental duty.  Be patient.  Be just.  (Al-Baraqah 177)

Once, and then again, we hear that real faith cannot be enforced through physical coercion, and must be embraced willingly to be authentic.  (Al-Baraqah 256, 272)

The reading becomes easier.