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.
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.
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.