Yes, I’ve just passed another September 11 birthday. Another year older, wiser, etc.
I decided, in a move completely unrelated to my 45th birthday festivities, that I would read the Qur’an on this day. Why? Just because with nutbars who hijack the name “Christian” to justify their bigotry threatening to burn the Muslim holy book on September 11, I wanted to strike my own tiny blow in favour of peace, tolerance, understanding, and showing the world not all Christians are nutbars. Of course the vast majority of Christians are not nutbars, but you know who makes headlines, don’t you?
My decision to read the Qur’an on Sept. 11 did not attract attention from any major news sources, or even minor ones, but I went ahead with it anyway. Of course, I didn’t read the whole thing — it’s shorter than the Bible, but still, I had only one day. And since it was Sabbath and my birthday, I had to spend the morning at church and the evening at dinner theatre. But I did get a good chunk of it read. I finished up to Surah 14, which doesn’t sound impressive if you know that there are 114 Surahs. But they organize it with all the long ones up front, so page-wise, I got considerably more than 1/3 of the way through it.
What did I think? Well, I went into it pretty much blind, not even having looked up a “How to Read the Qur’an” website. I just started at the beginning and ploughed through, skimming in places. And the thing is, a lot of it was pretty weird. But what struck me that it was weird in just the same way, and probably to about the same degree, that the Bible would be weird if you had no previous exposure to it, just picked it up and started to read from Genesis 1:1. At least there weren’t any begats. Not in the part I read anyway.
Some of it was very beautiful. Some of it was hard to understand. Some of it was a lot like our Bible, in both the good and the bad ways.
It tells you on every page that God is merciful and gracious, but it also devotes a lot of page-space to judgment and condemnation … kinda like the Bible. It’s easy to see how moderate Muslims can get a message of peace and tolerance from this book, and just as easy to see how angry fundamentalists can get a message of hatred and violence from it. Again, kinda like the Bible.
Maybe all holy books are like that — big and complex and a little weird. (I hear the Bhagavad Gita is a blast … maybe I’ll try that sometime). And open to lots of interpretations. When I look at all the disturbing, difficult, troubling things in our Bible, it only makes sense to me if I read it through a particular lens — the lens of Jesus. I have to read the gospels first and evaluate the rest of what I read in the light of that. Jews, of course, share the first part of our Bible (or, I guess, we borrowed theirs), but read it through a different lens. I’m not sure, but I suspect many of them would say they read it through the lens of centuries of rabbinic interpretation and commentary.
So one of my problems in understanding the Qur’an was that I don’t know how Muslims read it, what their interpretive lenses are, although I could easily see how it might lead different people to draw different conclusions. It’s supposed to be a much more unified document than our Bible, having a single author over a short period of time (or having been revealed to a single prophet over a short period of time, as Muslims would tell you), rather than a whole bunch of writers over a long period of time in different languages and cultures. But, unified or not, it still seems to leave a lot of things about God’s character and how to treat others open to interpretation.
Some things were kind of fun — like the surahs that tell stories familiar from our Bible, but with a different spin and sometimes different details. Like, I’ve always known the story of how Potiphar’s wife tempted Joseph, but I never heard how she invited all her gossipy girlfriends (the Real Housewives of Egypt) to dinner so they could see for themselves what a hottie Joseph was, and she gave them all small knives and when they saw Joseph they were so overwhelmed by his hotness that they all cut themselves. (I think I got that right. I had to read it a few times).
I was also interested to see to what extent Islam in the Qur’an is portrayed as a successor and a corrective to Judaism and Christianity — the prevailing attitude (at least in the bits I read) seems to be “God revealed everything pretty clearly, first to the Jews and then to the Christians, but they keep getting it wrong, so let’s try to get it right, OK?” It’s easy to see how from this you can draw the message that all our three faiths share a common heritage and worship the same God, but you can also draw a message of undying enmity from it if you’re the kind of person who enjoys enmity — and sadly, there seem to be far too many people in all religious camps who like that sort of thing.
Bottom line? Reading someone else’s holy book, without guidance or commentary, is hard work. And it should be. It makes me respect what a hard job we all take on, trying to make some meaning out of our human lives and our longings for the divine, trusting ancient texts and a God we can’t see to guide us on the journey. Reading the Qur’an makes me aware both of how different from me, and how much like me, Muslims are. Which I think should make us all a little more tolerant of each other, but what do I know?