Monday, October 1, 2012

Reading the Quran

Over the last several years, I've made efforts to engage with ideas and thinkers that form and shape the world around me.  If there's someone out there who seems to influence or have influenced culture, dagflabbit, I need to have experienced their inputs for myself.

That's taken me into the writing of Ayn Rand, and back into the writing of Nietzsche.  It's gotten me reading Saul Alinsky, and helped me make my way through the thought processes of Joel Osteen and Voltaire and Bertrand Russell and Sam Harris.

"Tolle, lege," sings the little voice, and so I take up and read, and it deepens my grasp of the creation in which I find myself.

But what I have not yet read, not successfully, anyway, is the Quran.  In my religious studies program in undergrad, the Islamic scholar in residence was on sabbatical, and so that gap remained unfilled.  Coursework on it was not offered in seminary, which had other fish to fry.

I've tried, on a few occasions, to read it as I'd read books of the Bible, and it has been disheartening.  I've flipped through the hardback translation I picked up at a used book store in Salt Lake City oh so many years ago, and I've sought a sura or a verse that sings to me as 1 Corinthians 13 sings, or as Matthew 5-7 sings.  In that seeking, I've come up empty.  I've tangled in a net of punishment language, repetitive exhortations to obey, and seemingly tautological assertions of authority, and I've abandoned the exercise.

Having encountered considerable grace in Muslims and in the mystic tradition of Islam, I've found this frustrating and disappointing.

And so, rather than seek a single section or passage, what I've decided to do is read the entire thing, reflecting on what I encounter.  This is not the approach I tell people to take with the Bible, but the Quran is a very different creature than the Bible.   As ta Biblia is a "book of books," it speaks in dozens of different voices across several millennia.   Charging right into a collection of stories and histories of an ancient people and expecting to make sense of it is both absurd and counterproductive.   You're better off beginning with first and highest order principles, and then using those to interpret your encounter with other elements of the narrative.  It's why I direct people beginning their reading to the Sermon on the Mount, and to the texts that are most likely to speak into their need.

But the Quran is the work of one time, and the articulation of one person.  It bears consistency of style and focus.  So I'll read it as I'll read a Gospel, or an Epistle, or a cohesive unit of tradition.  Start at the beginning, and take it as it flows.

I've done some of the historical/contextual stuff already, but that's not my deepest interest.   I am more interested in where spiritual commonality and/or dissonance lies.   My guide to interpretation...meaning assessing the spiritual validity of what I encounter...will be the same framework I use as I read my own sacred texts.  To what extent does this manifest the most fundamental truth about God's nature and our connection with God?   Where is the Great Commandment present?   Where is it absent?

It's not the kind of exercise one would be permitted in modern Egypt, or in Iran, or...were this the Bible I was certain benighted eras of historic Christendom.  But I don't live there or then, thank the Maker.