What I Learned Studying the Qur’an (II)

(Read Part I Here)

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.


Islam and the West, a Positive Approach

Today I published an article on the protests seen in  the Muslim world over the controversial anti-Islamic video that went live in August. My article follows a previous post but expands on my work in public diplomacy and public opinion to provide a much more complex, nuanced and optimistic (!) examination of the state of affairs that we in the West face with the Islamic world. I wrote it to challenge the self-limiting conventional wisdom that has hardened not just around this particular incident but regarding the West’s relationship to the vast, plural Islamic world as well.

My thanks go to the editors at Small Wars Journal for publishing my article.


Islam and the Political Aesthetic

An illuminated page from Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an, written entirely in gold. (British Library)

NOTE Sept. 22: With today’s events in Pakistan (and attending, preventable deaths and violence), my predictions about the numbers involved in the protests worldwide appears to have been off, certainly in scale.  Nevertheless I still stand by my argument that those protesting are vastly outnumber by those standing to the side.

There was a brief moment, early in the crisis – immediately after the deaths of four American diplomats in Benghazi, Libya – when there was a strange and welcome alignment that we haven’t seen before.  The murderers aside, those protesting the depiction of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) in an anti-Islamic video found themselves in accord with the U.S. government and several other reasonable observers – not to mention the actors fraudulently recruited to the production.  All agreed, in effect, that the video was a tawdry scrap of agitprop.  The producer, an Egyptian Christian, seemed so embarrassed by his feat that he wouldn’t appear in public.  As the journalist Ashraf Khalil observed, the deaths in Benghazi and elsewhere excepted, these videos were best mocked and then ignored.

But the demonstrations, predictably, grew and spread, and the predictably righteous reaction grew and spread in the West, and the ghost of Samuel Huntington rattled his chains.  I personally believe that the demonstrations across the Islamic world are less a spontaneous show of the easily aggressed feelings of Muslims than a deliberate mobilization by conservatives who seized on this video to maneuver against the democracy movements swelled during the Arab Spring and threatening their power.  (But that is for another post.)

I was alarmed by how stupidly and easily Western observers fell into their cliched, pat observations about Islam, casting the thousands (perhaps only hundreds) of demonstrators for the plural billion Muslims around the world who no doubt wondered (as I did) what to make of this spectacle.  While several anti-American demonstrations did take place, it is important to note that hundreds of millions of Muslims did not participate.  They were probably angered and riled by this transparently deliberate attempt to insult them – you would be angry, too, if somebody told you to obscenity your mother – but they probably dismissed it out of hand. They have more important things to worry about.

This didn’t keep self-important and in many cases self-appointed Western observers from telling those quiescent masses of Muslims what to think and believe about the insults rained down on them from YouTube and Charlie HebdoThey should get over it, become accustomed to their religious beliefs being mocked and denigrated.  As if you went to see The Last Temptation of Christ to spite your grandmother, or told your LDS co-worker that you found The Book of Mormon a laugh riot, he should really go see it.

But at the heart of these condescending arguments are as much an assertion of the political aesthetic as those demonstrating in the streets: that art should have a political purpose.  So as long as those hurling rocks and those hurling polished epithets agree on that, let’s understand what we’re talking about.

It’s difficult to capture succinctly a thousand years of artistic philosophy, but it is certainly true that the tradition of Islamic art shies from the physical representation of the human form. This is not exclusive, of course, but toward one end of this spectrum, particularly in the Sunni tradition, depictions of the Prophet are virtually unknown. (This should not shock anyone familiar with the iconoclasts or, for that matter, the severe Western anti-clerical movement that simply defaced churches across the West — resulting in such austere secular monuments as the French Pantheon.)  Nonetheless, Shiites are known to depict their saints in icons, particularly during the ashura, that would be familiar to Christians and Buddhists.  But overall the Islamic tradition discourages human or natural forms, leaving the Creation to God.  This seems a constraint, of course, but perhaps no more so than any canvas. Limitations define greatness.

This tradition encourages, at the other end of the spectrum, an extraordinary devotion to geometry in design and architecture.  Seen in illuminated manuscripts of the Qur’an (see above) and the ornamentation from mosques to homes, complex patterns and designs adorn. In their beauty and order they mirror Creation, reminding me of the Qur’anic Surah Al Rahman (“the Gracious,” 55):

The sun and the moon follow courses computed;
And the herbs and the trees both bow in adoration.
And the sky has he raised high, and he has set up the balance,
In order that you may not transgress the balance.

Cairo lattice window,
from an 1882 lithograph

This is perhaps most often seen across the Islamic world in the well-known lattices that serve both as shades in a sun-soaked climate and barriers from the prying eyes of neighbors to protect the modesty of women within.

Alicatado tiles, Spain (Tennessee Tech)

The intricate patterns of the latticework have been replicated in ceramic tile work, particularly in mosques and madrassas. The Blue Mosque in Herat, Afghanistan, stuns the viewer with its lapis tile work, overpowering the mosque that shares its name in Istanbul.  Tilework migrated from the Mahgreb north into Spain after the Moorish conquest, and now is popularly known in the West as Spanish mosaic tiles.

La Mezquita de Cordoba (M.C. Escher)

While living in Europe I was delighted to learn about the influence of Islamic design on Western art.  One of my favorite artists, the Dutch graphic designer M.C. Escher, was most influenced after a visit to la Mezquita at Cordoba in Spain (now a cathedral and World Heritage site).  The fantastic perspective of the mosque’s interior and the intricate, tessellated tile mosaics forever influenced his most famous and familiar works.

Consider these two comparisons as just an example (the links above will provide many more).  The one the left is from la Mezquita. The right, Escher’s inspiration.  (With all due credit to Philosufi and Fatih Gelgi for elaborating on what I learned while visiting the Escher Museum in The Hague!)

Wikipedia article on Alhambra

Tecpatl ceramics, Mexico (Tennessee Tech)

I visited Gibraltar, Seville, Sintra (Portugal), and Toledo where the Islamic influence remains despite the worst efforts of the Inquisition.  Ceramic tiles with their repeating patterns are still made in Seville.  From there, the Spanish colonial influence, affected profoundly by the Islamic conquest, lives on 1,000 years later from my native California to South America.

Sagrada Familia (The Joy of Shards)

And back again.  You can see this most explicitly in the meticulous exploded-mosaic style of Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona, which hosts most of his design and architecture.  His masterpiece is the Sagrada Familia, still under construction a century after it began, whose details are covered with fragments of brightly colored Spanish tiles intricately reassembled.  Gaudi was fanatically dedicated to his work but also profoundly religious and dedicated all his talents and devotions to this modernist cathedral.

So let’s make this abundantly clear: the Moorish conquest of the Iberian peninsula in the 8th Century directly influenced the quintessential modernist expression of 21st Century Catholic Europe.  We can’t rewrite history, but it’s hard to imagine this happening in quite the same, sublime way if the Islamic artistic tradition followed Western conventions of human and natural representation.  The Western artistic tradition we know today wouldn’t exist without the deep religious restraints of the Islamic tradition.  And since we are People of the Book, this is something to celebrate.  But Samuel Huntington would have us throwing rocks with those demonstrating in the streets, insisting that the gulf between our cultures is too wide and ne’er the twain shall meet.

What relevance does this have beyond the debased little video and the assaults that killed four Americans and others?  Only that those events sparked an argument about art and politics — although those engaged in the argument are too dimly self-important to realize it — and in that argument nobody so far has talked much about the Islamic artistic tradition, which is profoundly devotional and influential. Those who critique the “Muslim” reaction are very willing to accept the insult without sharing any reverence.  We live in a believing world.  To ignore that demonstrates a profound disrespect and ignorance that is, at the very least, the tinder which the radicals are working desperately hard to spark.

I believe that we could all look at the examples of the art posted above — or by perusing the links — and agree, too, that these objects are very beautiful and that beauty forms the basis of human expression.  (Perhaps we might even confuse some of their provenance?)  That, for others, God is written on the walls, provides a deeper understanding.  But there is nothing political about either of those expressions or experiences.