Not far outside Paris stands one of the many monuments to the almost innumerable dead of World War I. This one is not unusual marking the graves of the many Americans who fought and died on European soil during that conflict. But it is unique for the remarkable attributes of those who remain there: they are Americans who died serving France, not the United States. This is the monument to the Escadrille Lafayette, U.S. aviators who flew the skies over the Western front defending France against German imperial fighters before the United States entered the war in 1917.
The monument to the Escadrille Lafayette near Versailles.
In the post-WWII era of American preeminence we in the United States are accustomed to being “first to fight”. Although this feeling has changed after 13 years of war, it is still interesting, indeed jarring, to remember a time long ago when Americans were far more reluctant to entangle themselves abroad. The United States was dragged quite in spite of itself into both World Wars. So Americans who wanted to fight first — for personal, moral or ideological reasons — had to find other ways to get into combat.
Most famous among these, of course, were the irregular Lincoln Brigades in Spain prior to the outbreak of World War II. Famously socialist but cynically manipulated by Moscow, they were heroic but largely ineffective against Franco’s fascism. During the expanded war in Europe Americans more often than not joined the Canadian forces because it was easy to cross the border and volunteer. Americans especially joined the Royal Canadian Air Forces (RCAF). In fact, probably the most famous poem about flying ever written, “High Flight,” was composed by John Gillespie Magee, Jr., an American aviator with the RCAF.
More than 9,000 Americans joined the RCAF before the United States entered the war. Canada, as a dominion of the United Kingdom, fought on the side of the Allies following the German invasion of Poland in 1939 and the United States did not join them until Pearl Harbor more than two years later. More than 840 Americans died in Canadian service.
In this way, these Americans have much in common with the tens of thousands of colonial forces who volunteered or were press-ganged into service for the crown or Champs Elysees. In both World Wars, all the imperial countries — France, Belgium, the United Kingdom and Germany — drew on colonial possessions in North and West Africa, Central Africa, South Asia, and East Africa respectively.
And these Americans, like many of the colonial forces, have been not recognized here at home as having lost their lives in the service of the United States. Presumably their families never received benefits from the United States government for their death, either. But as you can read in this Toronto Star article, their service is beginning to be recognized here at home.
It’s important to remember that many of these Americans saw what Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt did: the inevitability of war with Hitler and the unity of interest particularly with Great Britain and the Allies. As on American who served with the RCAF noted in a letter home during the war, he felt that his service with the Canadian forces was in the direct interest of the United States: “[T]here is no question of serving Canada to the neglect of my mother country. He who serves Great Britain or any of its Dominions also serves the U.S. and vice-versa. Our differences are in arbitrary boundary lines only.”
John Gillespie Magee (via Bomber Command Museum Canada)
Nevertheless the tragedy of war and lost youth that is an inevitable collateral of Memorial Day is all the more poignant when considering these young Americans who served, and died, in a noble cause so far from home and wearing the flag of a foreign nation. Magee is a special case in point. Happily, he is known by every pilot in the English-speaking world for one poem he wrote. But it is worth imagining what verse he might have contributed had he survived the war. As it is he is buried in aptly named Lincolnshire, England. He died in a training accident having never seen combat. But he “touched the face of God” before he was even 20 years old.
This winter, during a period of unemployment, I studied the Qur’an at the Howard University School of Divinity. Here’s more of what I learned.
The Book is a Conversation
I can attest for those of us on the outside without cultural knowledge or language ability that Islam and the Qur’an can appear like an idée fixe – a series of received edicts reinforced by conservative understandings that are consulted as an unchanging body of law. This distorted picture is the result of innocent isolation, hoary media narrative, or stone-cold ignorance. But it is a cultural fact that must be overcome.
Even attempts to learn through nuanced reporting and scholarship can give a sense of a diverse, if static, political and theological world instead of the roiling plurality of political reality. We would — and I do — feel aggrieved if foreign audiences saw a single, monolithic “America,” or even a simplistic black and white, or red and blue, “United States”. Growing up and living here you know that our country is in a constant state of defining itself. It is the same anywhere and with anyone else.
So to read the Qur’an, and to discover within it an early community debating itself, was a bracing shift from dusty received wisdom. Much of the book is structured as a series of responses from God through the Prophet to His followers. This is a departure from the diktat we are used to in the Old Testament – an angry God wiping out his creation, testing His faithful, or sending down orders to His people (although there are plenty of reminders of these past events in the Qur’an). The Old Testament has the feeling of an ancient tragedy. Structurally, the Qur’an also differs from the Gospels, which read like individual set pieces in which Christ acts opposite people who accompany him, as if in a BBC period drama. In many parts of the Qur’an, God responds almost directly to questions posed from beyond the fourth wall. He is engaging the community directly in conversation.
This may explain why I was flummoxed when I first tried to read the Qur’an unaided. The text shifts between a familiar third-person narrative and an omniscient first-person-plural (“we”) voice speaking directly to somebody who is perpetually unheard off-stage. Who is speaking? To whom? What is the subject? There is minimal exposition. In these one-sided conversations there is little of the epistolary form or parable-telling that populates the Christian Bible.
The Qur’an invites a conversation – in Dr. Alwani’s term, a dialogue – with the text, and with God, about a good life well-spent. The Qur’an repeatedly invokes that God “is all-seeing and wise” but He does not meddle directly in the affairs of mortals. This is a Kantian universe of free choice where God provides guidance, proscription and the model of His Prophet but we the people are left to debate and apply these counsel to our own lives. This is why Islam is a living belief and not a dead letter.
Occasionally the book employs the parable, or moral-telling story, and these are some of the most thought-provoking in the book. The story of Joseph (Yusuf, Qur’an 12), for example, is the only surah dedicated entirely to an Old Testament prophet and largely retells this well-known story. Here it reads as a profound meditation on faith, suffering, fidelity and forgiveness.
But the story, like much of the book – indeed as with any complex test – demands interrogation. What lessons are we intended to draw from this story? How are we supposed to treat others? How do we live our lives? Once we begin to interrogate the text, it immediately becomes clear that the book is not a series of simple rules or dictates as the extremists would like us to believe, but a series of questions about the moral nature of human existence.
The book is a continuation
It may surprise someone who has not read the Qur’an that Joseph features prominently in the book in addition to Jesus and Mary, or Joseph, or Moses. Some may recall the recent prohibition of the film “Noah” in some Islamic countries, by government or clerical fiat. It is true that the Qur’an broadly discourages idol worship, including that of prophets and saints, to avoid intercessors in the relationship with God. (This has resulted in part in the distinctive and extraordinary geometric art forms in the Islamic world.) But importantly this is not a uniform assessment held by all scholars and all communities. Here again is evidence of an ongoing interrogation of the text and an active debate within the Islamic community itself.
Russel Crowe in “Noah”.
It should be clear by now that I am not a religious scholar. So most of what follows is based on intuition and aspiration. And I am, happily, not the first or only one to assert this. Nevertheless I found it impossible to read the Qur’an and not see a single intellectual and theosophical thread running from Adam and Abraham through Jesus and Muhammad. All of the texts refer forward and backward to one another and rely on one another’s prophetic tradition and sacred texts. I would not want to take away the cultural traditions, national heritage, language and law of Jews, Muslims and Christians. But I have also seen how the individual traditions are illuminated in relief and contrast to the other Abrahamic traditions, enough to see the possibility of a single golden braid of belief.
The concept of a Judeo-Christian civilization or tradition is largely a modern idea. This assertion is by no means an attempt to undermine it. It is just to note that not long ago Jews and Christians culturally and politically were a world apart and it took concerted political and intellectual effort to bring the traditions together. Much longer ago the three belief traditions lived together under one political order or another and then were driven apart. Reading the original texts and understanding the broad edicts of belief in the same God, spiritual devotion, forbearance towards one another, and charity to the less fortunate, a way toward a unified Abrahamic tradition becomes clear. That may seem naive and idealistic right now, but we have witnessed events at least as idealistic in our own lifetime.
Church and mosque, Urosevac/Ferizaj, Kosovo.
Indeed, this has been the most pleasurable and intellectually stimulating aspect of my interfaith sojourn: to make new friends and see how learning about others lights up and invigorates their own belief. A Muslim friend has studied the Torah. A rabbi makes compassion and understanding his personal jihad. The prison chaplain’s son told us he could work better with his father, who ministered to Muslim converts behind bars, after taking Dr. Alwani’s course. All the students thought her course should be required, not an elective, at the divinity school. Remembering with amusement my father’s tales of his dreaded Saturday morning theology courses in college, I wondered why religion courses were no longer required in (most) American undergraduate schools. How could such a religious country, one founded on the principles of religious freedom, get so far from the intellectual curiosity of the founding families who included the great Islamic civilizations in their vast surveys of models for our republican government?
Still, my introduction was only that: a beginning. Dr. Alwani, the Howard divinity students and my new friends taught me that while this experience may start someplace, it never really ends. We don’t stop learning. We are always coming back to great books like the Qur’an and the Bible for knowledge, guidance, illumination and wisdom over the course of our lives. The religious scholar Karen Armstrong calls the philosophers and prophets she has studied her friends, and I find that fits for me, too. I have far greater understanding and confidence now that I have been shown this vast new library. With the help of all my new friends, I hope to use it wisely.
This winter, during a period of unemployment, I studied the Qur’an at the Howard University School of Divinity. I have the course instructor, Dr. Zainab Alwani, to thank first, followed by her students and Howard University, for this extraordinary opportunity. I am profoundly grateful to them and to the many generous friends who have guided and encouraged me along this illuminating interfaith journey. How I came to Dr. Alwani’s class is a good story worth telling, but not here. Suffice it to say my friends tell me it is no coincidence that I was without work when the opportunity presented itself.
Anyone approaching the Qur’an recognizes that it is a daunting volume. For those who don’t speak Arabic – which includes the majority of Muslims – the book is usually read in translation. This should not be an obstacle until we realize that the Christian Bible has been translated into European languages from its original languages for more than a millennium. The oldest English Bibles predate the Norman Conquest and the Tyndale and King James translations have had centuries to pervade our language. By contrast, the earliest English translation of the Qur’an dates from the 17th century and translations do not occur nearly as frequently as the Bible. Consequently, its influence on Western and Anglophone culture was less profoundly absorbed, even setting aside the political conflicts dating from the Crusades onward.
The first English translation of the Qur’an, completed by George Sale, 1734
The Qur’an’s rhetorical structure may not be immediately familiar to the late, modern or Christian reader. It is interesting how much even secular Westerners accept without notice being raised in the Church and Christian-influenced culture. The Qur’an, for someone not raised with it and steeped in the culture it has influenced, requires a strategy. Attempting to read it alone and unaided, I had none, which led me in large measure to Dr. Alwani’s class.
The Book is the Miracle
I joined Dr. Alwani’s seminar in upper northeast Washington, D.C. The Howard University School of Divinity is a small, quiet, bucolic campus near the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land. I had never taken a religion course before and now I would sit in a class with master’s students who were Christian scholars. The seminar was small, about five students, among them a prison pastor’s son, a retired Air Force officer working for the Veteran’s Administration, and an accountant who could quote Bible verse at will.
I quickly realized an introduction to such a book was like an introduction to Constitutional law, or the Bible, or moral philosophy. The Qur’an is an intellectual and spiritual universe and there was no conceivable way we could capture its entirety or plumb deeply the entire book or even explore single themes, surahs (chapters) or characters in great depth. Indeed – to provide a sense of scale in this endeavor – Dr. Alwani told us, “Every word in the Qur’an is a concept.” If my friend in Sarajevo, who had set me down this path by inviting me into her intellectual and spiritual home, in this survey course Dr. Alwani had invited us into a library – a vast civilizational Alexandria, with the surahs of the Qur’an marking the stacks.
Nevertheless, I was not daunted or dismayed. In fact, I was invigorated. I had been discouraged when a friend’s gift of a book (The Road to Mecca by Muhammad Asad) revealed to me the profound gulf that existed, quite in spite of my efforts, between my knowledge and the vast range of Islamic scholarship available in English. Now, Dr. Alwani was laying out guideposts that would become more familiar as I moved through the Qur’an.
This was a different way of thinking. By way of example, one of the early questions for the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) was why, if he was delivering the word of God, he should not perform miracles like his predecessors. Indeed, the notion of miracles is so ingrained in American, Christian and even secular Western society that we may not know that unlike most prophets of Judeo-Christian tradition, few miracles are attributed to Muhammad.(1) The Qur’an reveals that the message is the marvel – that (Dr. Alwani, striking a pose like Charleton Heston, her Qur’an held aloft for emphasis) the book is the miracle.
I found this profoundly satisfactory but I had to think about it to understand why. Partly, I realized, was the fundamental humility of the assertion. The focus of the Qur’an, while clearly aspiring to the hereafter, is nonetheless on questions of how to live in the here and now. The book is stripped of all supernatural trappings save the revelation itself. It draws the reader’s attention to its word, message and actions rather than the “magic” of the super-endowed ur-humans Westerners are accustomed to as our prophets – parting seas, walking on water, healing the sick, and the rest. Without these distractions, we can concentrate on what is important: our behavior towards one another.
But much more of my personal satisfaction is rooted in language. I write; I live through and in language. We are immersed in language. The Qur’an as we comprehend it now – written down, printed, and bound in a book or transmitted by electronic means (six translations are available free on my smart phone) – existed before the means to record it. Indeed, as Dr. Alwani noted, this points directly to the notion that the words existed before the revelation and that they are one and the same with God. They are eternal and exist quite separately from the “book” itself. This illuminates one of the most famous lines from the New Testament, indeed, in all of English: “In the beginning, the word was with God, and the word was God.” (John 1:1)
The Qur’an itself means “the recitation,” and the thrilling first words of the revelation to the Prophet – “Recite!” (Qur’an 96:1) – is a divine exhortation to public language.
Muhammad recited for 20 years until his death. His Companions, at that time, memorized the recitation. This is important to contemplate for a moment. I recalled the oral traditions of the early epic poems such as the Odyssey or Iliad, which existed in large measure in the mind of the bards who recited them. I also remembered the ending of Fahrenheit 451, when the hero joins a band of other men who have memorized whole volumes that have been destroyed by burning. Literature, indeed language as we know it, began in the mind and was transmitted in the spoken word. This is how the Qur’an was first communicated and preserved. That alone seems miracle enough.
But of course that is not the miracle Dr. Alwani was speaking of. The Qur’an asserts it is the direct word of God without intermediation. Only when reading in translation is there something lost, although it is clear in its reading, and reading the tafsir (exegesis) and Islamic jurisprudence, that the original language leaves much to interpret. (We who must read the Qur’an in language other than Arabic are at a further disadvantage.) Nevertheless, it is both comforting and awe-inspiring to hold the book and know that God’s revelation is contained between the covers.
For anyone remaining skeptical that the text is miraculous in either the divine or human sense, Dr. Alwani shared with us the tradition of tajweed, or beautiful recitation of the Qur’an. For Muslims this is taken as given; the nearest modern analogy for Christians I can think of is devotional music such as G.F. Handel’s Messiah, in which Biblical verses are set to music. In tajweed, the Qur’an itself is sung. Here is an example, made all the more astonishing for the spectacle of children memorizing the entire Qur’an and reciting ayah, or verses, in tajweed:
I believe I can speak for the other students who were spellbound listening to the children, many of whom did not speak Arabic. It only takes a rudimentary understanding of music to recognize the beauty of tajweed, which lies at the very heart of the Qur’an and Islamic belief. Tajweed is by necessity bound up with the language of Arabic and Arabic script. My father remembers a colleague who expressed the three-fold beauty of Qur’anic inscriptions that illuminate mosques the world over: “The writing is beautiful, the sound is beautiful, and the thoughts are beautiful.”
Detail of Qur’anic inscription from the interior of the Blue Mosque of Herat, Afghanistan. Photo by Mark Schlagel
Again I thought of how much my own belief was directly affected by language (specifically and necessarily English); how much I enjoyed reading scripture when bored by homilies during Mass; the ecstatic feeling I experienced joining hundreds singing Messiah’s Hallelujah chorus; Wynton Marsalis describing the sacred music of J.S. Bach, “like God entering the room”; how so many forge a relationship to the divine through music whether it is Cantor Helfgot’s or Ali Khan’s or John Coltrane’s.
NEXT: The Book is a Conversation.
(1) This is not without debate, of course. Islamic scholars attribute many miracles and miraculous aspects to Muhammad. Qur’an 54:1-2 relates the miracle of “splitting of the moon” in the presence of the Prophet and the rest of the surah enumerates the scourges of the Old Testament (significantly, this surah names the Qur’an as a miracle several times. The Qur’an (17:1) also notes Muhammad’s miraculous miraj to Jerusalem.
What we are witnessing in Russia and parts of Ukraine has been unprecedented since the consolidation of control after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 , (I hesitate with this historical analogy) the collapse of the Weimar Republic, and the occupation of Eastern Europe after World War II: the systematic centralization of the means of communication and the destruction of independent news media and civil society.
Taking all these actions together is a kind of inverted information warfare — a war on information, a purging of all wrongthink, of anything that doesn’t resolutely advance the official ideology of the Center. It’s important to remember the point to this war on information, which is to reinforce political control in the Kremlin. While the state has the means to do this, it is not an expression or exercise of genuine political power — it is a substitute, in the form of brute control, for it.
Observing these actions and watching their culmination, it was impossible, strangely, not to remember the brilliant advertisement for Macintosh broadcast in 1984 (see above). It’s worth quoting the ad’s copy in full (which can be found here, penned by Steve Hayden) which is chilling both in its pitch-perfect mimicry of totalitarian language and for its weird anticipation of the course of current events. We can almost imagine some crude translation of a transcript from a bug on Kremlin walls recording a recent conversation taking place therein:
“My friends, each of you is a single cell in the great body of the State. And today, that great body has purged itself of parasites. We have triumphed over the unprincipled dissemination of facts. The thugs and wreckers have been cast out. And the poisonous weeds of disinformation have been consigned to the dustbin of history. Let each and every cell rejoice! For today we celebrate the first, glorious anniversary of the Information Purification Directive! We have created, for the first time in all history, a garden of pure ideology, where each worker may bloom secure from the pests of contradictory and confusing truths. Our Unification of Thought is a more powerful weapon than any fleet or army on Earth! We are one people. With one will. One resolve. One cause. Our enemies shall talk themselves to death. And we will bury them with their own confusion! We shall prevail!”
Of course, for the advertisement this was meant as an allegorical assault on the great IBM/Microsoft monopoly, but the “Information Purification Directive” could easily be a real mandate from the Duma — the assault on any source of information that does not conform to the Center’s dictation of Truth. “Our enemies shall talk themselves to death. And we will bury them with their own confusion.” This sounds like the pablum that authoritarian and totalitarian governments feed their people: don’t think, we’ll do that for you; the people of so-called free countries are enslaved and overwhelmed by the chaos and disorder of “freedom”. Forfeit the freedom of thought and moral action to us, the state, and in exchange we will take care of you.
While no doubt not all Russians are falling for this line again — let us remember, as even those who live and work in these countries have forgotten, that part of information monopoly is the absence of opposition and alternative narratives — it is amazing (though according to Czeslaw Milosz it should hardly be surprising) how many are signing up for it. See this video posted by Radio Free Europe where a Russian “journalist” — in fact, a paid stooge of the Kremlin, given that virtually all communications in the country are now controlled by state — equates all journalism to propaganda. It is an appalling prostitution of the human mind.
Many observers continue to insist that Vladmir Putin is concerned with international opinion, the position of Russia as a global actor, and the greater glory of his country. This is exactly inverted. His only concern is with Russian domestic opinion, which is the tiger he must ride lest it devour him. Consequently, the only way to change the course of events in Russia and Ukraine is to alter domestic Russian public opinion. (It is no coincidence that the Ukrainian separatists attacked TV stations to broadcast Russian state channels.) This is the challenge facing both the local opposition and anyone trying to help them — the ability to develop alternative narratives, communicate and organize — because all the available means to do so have been coopted and corrupted.
I’m not so naive to suggest this quarter-century-old advertisement provides a realistic model for political development in repressive states. But in its own strange way it goes some of the way to understand the challenge.