I’ve recently begun reading the Quran. I’m doing it because its absence was a hole in my multi-religious education. I had never been all that interested in Islam. My initial focus after my first spiritual experience at age twelve was, more or less by default, Christianity, and thereafter I became intrigued with Buddhist and Hindu conceptions of the holy, moving thence into the Hermetic traditions and then into Neopaganism. Islam with its strict, unimaginative monotheism, its we-have-the-only-way mistake so obviously displayed, its entrenched misogyny, and its propensity for spawning violence, struck me as something I could safely bypass. However, for the sake of completeness and because knowledge is always of value, I finally decided to plunge in and read the Quran (in English translation; learning Arabic for the purpose would be further than I’m prepared to go). Also, Islam gave rise to both the Sufi and the Bahá’i faith, and that to my thinking means it must have something going for it somewhere.
This decision and a discussion about it with a Christian friend of mine sparked this post. My Christian friend Dave expressed alarm at my reading the Quran, as he believes the book has great power. He worshiped once at a mosque and felt peace descend upon him and fellowship with those who prayed with him; he took the Shahada (I have not attended a mosque and don’t know if that was a requirement) and I asked him how he could reconcile this with his Christian faith. The Shahada is a two-part declaration of faith, usually expressed in English as “There is no God but God and Mohammed is His Prophet.” I could see that a Christian would have no problem with the first part, but what about the second? But Dave apparently does believe that Mohammed was a prophet. I don’t know how he reconciles this with his personal faith, but that’s his concern I suppose. His concern about my reading the Quran was that it would be “opening a window.”
I explained that I was not really “opening a window” as I had no intention of reading the Quran as scripture. Very simply, I don’t believe there is or can be any such thing as “scripture.” That applies to the Quran, the Bible, the Baghavad-Gita, the Vedas, the Buddhist Sutras, or anything else written in human language. Such writings may (and often do) contain powerful myths and metaphorical expression of profound insight. But the way that Christians like Dave (and also Muslims) regard these books, as divine dispensations of Truth, without error, before which we must kneel and obey, questioning only insofar as to determine meaning and proper interpretation (if even that) — this is not just a false idea but one whose truth is impossible. Literally impossible. Not only has no scripture in this sense ever been written and published, but none ever will be, because none can be.
I’m not yet convinced that Mohammed was a prophet. I’ve seen no indication in the early chapters of the Quran that he had any great spiritual insights, as is clear to me about both the Buddha and Jesus. There is some powerful myth in those early chapters, true, but all of it is borrowed from Christianity or Judaism, and Mohammed actually made no bones about this; his claim was that he was speaking a divine truth that had also been brought by a long line of prophets before him. But I haven’t gotten very far into the book yet; perhaps the indication I’m seeking will show up in a later chapter and I’ll change my preliminary impression.
Be that as it may, whether Mohammed genuinely was a prophet or not, and recognizing that Jesus certainly was one (that is, he was a spiritual teacher of great enlightenment and power), the attitude that both Christians and Muslims take toward their scriptures is my subject for today, and why that attitude is and must be wrong, not only about those particular scriptures but about all pretenders to that status.
Scripture is written in human language — Sanskrit, Hebrew, Biblical Aramaic, ancient Greek, Arabic, Farsi, even English in the case of the Book of Mormon. What is language? Where does it come from, and how does it communicate ideas?
Language is at root a set of tag-sounds. An association is created between a sound and an experience or category of experience. The word “tree,” for example, is a sound associated with a category of experience involving certain tall plants. Everyone has seen trees, and so once one learns that the word is associated with — “means” — those big plants, the word can be used along with other words to communicate ideas. “Climb that tree.” “Cut down that tree.” “Prune that tree.” “Watch out, there’s a bear in that tree.”
All of this is possible because everyone has experience with the things referred to in all these sentences: climbing, trees, cutting, pruning, caution, bears. The words refer to real things with clarity because they are things within normal human experience.
But when the words refer to “God,” “salvation,” “the soul,” “eternity,” and similar ideas, that’s no longer true. These are not things within normal human experience. In fact, direct experience of any of them is quite rare, and so in the minds of most people hearing or reading the words, they will either communicate nothing or, through misapplied metaphor, communicate a falsehood.
So that’s the first problem with the idea of scripture. Insofar as it’s attempting to communicate an understanding of God, it’s attempting the impossible. I will acknowledge that many of the world’s scriptures do contain valid metaphors for divine reality, but they do not convey understanding to those whose god sense is unawakened.
Scriptures also contain many references to and statements about less lofty subjects that are a part of common human experience: moral teachings, for example. These ideas, unlike the ones connected with sacred reality, can be communicated without metaphor and can be understood. But for the same reason, in our changing world they can rapidly become obsolete. For example, this appears in the Quran (2:228-229, Sahih International version):
Divorced women remain in waiting for three periods, and it is not lawful for them to conceal what Allah has created in their wombs if they believe in Allah and the Last Day. And their husbands have more right to take them back in this [period] if they want reconciliation. And due to the wives is similar to what is expected of them, according to what is reasonable. But the men have a degree over them [in responsibility and authority]. And Allah is Exalted in Might and Wise.
Divorce is twice. Then, either keep [her] in an acceptable manner or release [her] with good treatment. And it is not lawful for you to take anything of what you have given them unless both fear that they will not be able to keep [within] the limits of Allah . But if you fear that they will not keep [within] the limits of Allah , then there is no blame upon either of them concerning that by which she ransoms herself. These are the limits of Allah , so do not transgress them. And whoever transgresses the limits of Allah – it is those who are the wrongdoers.
I have no doubt that at the time these verses were written, they represented an enlightened teaching, introducing a measure of justice and compassion to the ways in which pre-Muslim Arabic men treated women. In today’s context in the West, however, they sound quite barbaric. That will be the fate of any moral teaching that can be expressed in any language, as time passes, technology progresses, and material circumstances change.
Scripture consists of these two categories of writing: those that attempt to express the truth of the sacred, can do so only in metaphor, and will inevitably be misconstrued by ordinary people; and those that express more comprehensible ideas that are by the same degree temporal and subject to change and obsolescence. To regard such writings as beyond question is inevitably to descend into error, on the one hand by freezing into rigor one’s dim and faulty interpretation of a spiritual metaphor, and on the other hand by refusing to upgrade moral beliefs into more compassionate forms when a change in the times permits or requires such an upgrade.
So as I said, I’m not reading the Quran as scripture, because I don’t believe there is or can be any such thing. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth reading.
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