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.


  1. Yes---Surah 2 is probably the most difficult Surah (it has a lot of law and is complex) but this is because this surah was revealed in Medina/Yathrib at a time when the Prophet was establishing the rules of community, justice, law...etc...

    To give you a sense of the nuance you are missing because of language limitations of translations.....
    verses 2-5 are a definition of a mutaqeen (one who has Taqwa, Taqwa = love/awe of God, God-awareness)
    therefore, verse 2 establishes that this guidance is for those who are mutaqeen. Verses 3 and 4 give the characteristics of a mutaqeen (mutaqeen includes Jews and Christians (and others)also as mentioned in verse 4...)
    verses 6 and 7 are about the kaffir (one who rejects belief)--it is not about "disbelief" out of ignorance---but an active rejection of a Belief after knowing it (belief=an intellectual assent to a set of propositions) from verse 8 onwards are descriptions of various munafiqueen (hypocrites).

    an intellectual assent requires the use of reason---therefore when the Quran declares itself to be a revelation---some test/proof is required. verse 23 says that if the Quran is man-made, any person should be able to produce a surah that matches in quality---if this is possible, then the Quran is definitely man-made. (The shortest Surah is I think about 4 verses long....) Since the linguistic beauty is lost in translation---one would not be able to appreciate the challenge of the Quran. (Micheal Sells has tried to capture somewhat the poetry in his translation of the shorter surahs....)

    the story of (Prophet) Adam (pbuh) verses 30-36.....
    Angel (= one who carries messages...messenger)In Islam Angels do not have free-will, though they have intelligence. The Angels ask God why he creates a being that will cause mischief and bloodshed ? (reference to human free-will) and God shows them the difference between Human intelligence (creativity) and knowledge of Angels. (Einstein said it well---"Knowledge points to all that is while imagination points to all that can be")
    Iblis is mentioned here--his story will be given more fully in Surah 7. Iblis is an entity with intelligence and free-will created before human beings. his story will highlight an important theme of the Quran.
    In the story of Adam in surah 2, God forgives him (verse 37) and promises guidance to all human beings. (children of Adam). That is why there is no "original sin" in Islam....therefore Jesus Christ (pbuh) does not need to die for sins.

  2. forgot to mention---Khalifa (trusteeship) is another important concept---verse 30 mentions God gave human beings a sacred trust for the care of all his creation.
    God's will = right belief that promotes right intentions that lead to right actions for the benefit of all of God's creations. (---that is the purpose God created human beings)