Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Reading the Quran: Fundamentalism

I am no fan of fundamentalism, in any of its shapes, forms, or iterations.   Within Christian faith, fundamentalism represents a fundamental and irredeemable betrayal of the intent of the Reformation.  Bible-worship is the Protestant idol, just as ecclesiastical authority became the Catholic idol.

So as I encounter the Quran, I've been struck by how equally damaging Islamic fundamentalism has been to the spiritual lives of Muslims.   The Quran contains much to commend it both ethically and spiritually, but I can't read it without realizing how deeply it was shaped by a very specific context.   It is a fiercely and resolutely Arab expression of engagement with the divine, drawing on the forms and expectations of a single cultural context.   It has one voice, and one theological perspective.

In that way, the Quran is radically different than the Bible.  The many books that comprise the Bible speak from an array of different perspectives, spanning thousands of years and speaking from a range of different cultural contexts.  There is harmony, but there is also tension and dissonance.  Reading the Bible requires discernment, because taken in and of itself and without the guidance of the Spirit, it does not always cohere.  

Fundamentalism within Christianity has always involved awkward and extrabiblical interpretive gyrations to reconcile those perspectives.  It is a clumsy, inherently bankrupt theological exercise.

But the Quran speaks with one voice, in one language, from one culture, at one time.   Absolutizing that perspective...not the higher order values, but the cultural framework into which those values were expressed...would be easier, because of the cultural univocality of the Quran.  It requires very little effort. 

That poses a challenge on several fronts for resisting Quranic fundamentalism.  If the Quran is understood to require a "good" culture to share the same expectations about gender and jurisprudence as existed in sixth century Arabia, it cannot be reconciled with modernity.   To do this requires some portions of Quran to be understood as either metaphoric or leavened by context.

If, for example, we read the Quranic requirement to cut off the hands of thieves as no longer literal, but as representing the need to prevent the thief from stealing again, we're good.   If it's literal?  Then the resultant culture is not compatible with the ethos of the Western world...or of most democratic republics.

This requires a faith to say not just that a practice is no longer acceptable, but that it was not acceptable at the time, and to be able to find grounds for resisting an explicit statement in an ancient text.  Christians and Jews, for instance, would not consider taking a captive woman from a defeated nation as a concubine.  There may be rules to that effect in Torah, but our understanding of God has evolved past that point.  We no longer feel obliged to even defend that practice.  Similarly, though there are rules and regs for slavery in the Bible, it is not compatible with the essence of our faith.

Then there's the "inerrancy" issue.  Where there are inaccuracies in, for instance, the misrepresentation of the Christian Trinity, or the repeated assertion that Jews consider Ezra (a scribe influential in the rebuilding of the temple after the return from diaspora) the son of God in the same way Christians consider Jesus the son of God...the challenge for Islam is how to approach those Quranic variances from reality.

Context helps, of course.  Pointing out that the Prophet may have been responding to the worship of Mary and not actual Christian orthodoxy might help.  The Ezra thing, though, seems so out of connection with the reality of every historically recorded form of Jewish practice that it requires some pretty intense parsing.  Jews are monotheists, radically and completely, and at no point ever in recorded history outside of the Quran has Ezra been considered the progeny of the divine.   The only valid interpretation is to say, well, no, this isn't an accurate portrayal of Judaism.  Or perhaps to say, well, honestly, we have no idea what this means.  Which is fine, because it would be true.  Like the close-but-not-quite timelines in the Gospel of Luke's historical background information, there's some ancient-world-fudge-factor in the Quran.

Fundamentalism deals poorly with this sort of thing.   But for progressive, open-minded Muslims, saying: "Yeah, we're not sure quite what was being gotten at here" or "You know, that's just from context" is entirely feasible.    The higher order virtues in Quran govern their lives, and they are happy to live within the bounds of the surrounding culture and a more progressive interpretation of Islam.