A Catholic reads the Quran
Charlie Ducey | Sunday, November 22, 2015
In light of (or really, in the ensuing darkness of) recent international headlines, an impressive drove of laypeople have become self-professed experts on Islam. How very odd.
“Islam is a religion of peace,” we hear. “Nay, Islam is a religion of the sword,” we hear. “Islam deprives women of basic rights,” we hear. “Nay, Islam promotes the equality of women,” we hear.
Well, as a Catholic in the U.S. of A., I can’t claim to have much first-hand experience with Islam, nor do I feel myself at all qualified to discuss the religion’s tenets, origins or practices. I’ll leave that matter to bona fide campus experts like Professor Gabriel Reynolds (take his class on Islam and Christian-Muslim relations in the spring if interested). But, amidst the alternatively Islamaphobic and wishy-washy noise of pundits right and left, I figured I might actually take a look at the foundational text of Islam itself – al-Quran.
A few basic facts about the Quran might be worth noting before I digress into some of my amateur comments and observations. The Quran is composed of 114 suwar, or chapters, which are comprised of individual ayat, or verses. These chapters don’t exactly link together into a grand narrative, and even each individual surah takes on a style that is more contemplative than it is narrative-based. This might reflect the composition of the Quran itself, which Muslims believe occurred through recitation (which is what the word Quran means in Arabic) to the prophet Mohammed at intervals from the year 609 AD to 632 AD. According to scholars of Islam, the written form of the Quran was finalized during the time of the third Caliph around 20 years after Mohammed’s death, based on the manuscripts passed down to the first Caliph Abu Bakr.
We would need to travel some 1350 years and many hundreds of miles to reach the version of the Quran that I sat down to read. I picked up my square-shaped English translation with floral decals on its cover from a vendor on Oxford’s Cornmarket Street one day last spring. The bearded man who handed me the book reassured me that, despite the unavoidable inadequacies of translation, the core of the Quranic message could be found there.
I’ve hardly touched the book since then, but with all the accusations being thrown around, I thought it might just be worthwhile to look through a text that more than a billion people hold to be sacred.
Context means everything in written word, so I figured I would start from the beginning and read through a whole surah.
The Quran doesn’t seem to waste much space. After an opening exhortation to the “Lord of the Universe,” the first full-length surah, titled “The Heifer” (al-Baqarah), opens with the declaration: “This is the Book; there is no doubt in it.”
From there, the surah continues with a strong eschatological bent; that is, its ayat continually mention the punishment that awaits those who deny the truth. It’s not that God is made to seem merciless — the most common epitaph for God in this surah is “the Merciful” after all; rather, the teachings of the surah seem to be reinforced through reminders of the blindness of unbelief and the fire that is its just reward. Adherence to God’s path, so it seems, is paramount.
After having read only one surah, I’m in no position to make any judgements about the holistic content on the Quran. I did, however, come across one passage that seems particularly relevant to the tumult of ISIS and crisis in Syria.
In surah 2, ayat 84 to 85, God speaks to His people, saying: “When We made a covenant with you, We said, ‘You shall not shed each other’s blood, nor turn your people out of their homes.’ You consented to this and bore witness. Yet, here you are, slaying one another and driving some of your own people from their homelands, aiding one another against them, committing sin and aggression. […] Do you believe in one part of the Book and deny another part of it?”
Driving people from their homes? Shedding each other’s blood? The extremists in Syria might do well to give that passage another read (not that they wouldn’t find some way of contorting it to fit their ideology). And for those claiming that Islam is some war-mongering religion against which we must raise barriers and close borders, it might do you well to give at least part of the Quran — a single surah, a single ayah? — a little more than a glance. There are already upwards of four million Muslims in this country. We’re going to have to learn to get along, and learning about what each other believes might just be a start.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.