In a recent blog post, we discussed what a sacred text might be. In conversation, the idea that the West view the Qur’an as suspect deserves some further introspection. Most people is North or South America have not read nor understand what the Qur’an is, and make assumptions about different interpretations of texts. Christians should not have any trouble struggling with the idea of different interpretations of texts. As of this writing, Wikipedia lists 108 completed versions of the Bible in English and dozens more partial and unfinished versions. That’s just English. That does not count the different languages and their own idiosyncrasies of language which may change subtle meanings. Let’s just say that there is a wide variety of translations, interpretations, and commentary on meanings contained within the Bible, perhaps more so than any other “sacred text.”
Be that as it may, the Qur’an is a relatively new piece of literature in the consciousness of Western peoples, mainly due to global conflicts and media hype. The Quran or Qur’an is one of the world’s newer religious texts, having thought to been revealed to Muhammad beginning in 609 C.E. over the course of 23 years by the Angel Gabriel. The book itself is considered a miracle and is considered to be one of the foundational reasons for Muhammad’s prophethood. Margot Patterson, in her book “Islam Considered: The Christian View,” states: “The Quran is of inestimable importance in Islam, more important to Muslims than the Bible is to Christians, even fundamentalist Christians.”
Because of the timing of its delivery and the beginnings of wider literacy amongst people at that time, the Quran was completed in written form within 20 years of the Prophet’s death, by the third caliph, Uthman, in 654 C.E. Even with its relatively new nature, there are slight variations that have to do with the spread of Islam in the years after the Prophet’s death, especially as it moved throughout Arabia, Persia, and eastward.
The meaning of the word Quran is “that which is recited” or “the recitation.” The whole foundation and working of the Quran is complicated and challenging. While there are many, many translations into languages other than Arabic – upwards of 112 in 2010 were counted – there seems to be lesser variation on Arabic texts than there are for Biblical translations. Muslims generally believe that to understand the true meaning of the Quran, one must learn Arabic and, even better, ancient Arabic. This would not dissimilar to learning Aramaic to understand the original translations of many of the works attributed to contributing writers of the Bible. To be clear, when using the term “Bible,” the meaning is both the old and new testaments.
The recitations, or lessons, contained within the book trace from Adam through to Muhammad, all of which are told with a specific type of prose language. Indeed, when reciting the Quran for prayer, there are different, codified ways to recite the text, with different emphasis given to each method. The Quran is organized into chapters called suras but they are organized in no particular order. Even though it covers the revelations to Moses and Jesus, both considered to be Allah’s Prophets, they are not necessary sequential. One does not generally read the Quran from beginning to end.
All of this information is easily obtained and digested by the serious investigator. What is a little more difficult to digest is the differences in meaning between the Quran and other religious texts, like the Bible. The Bible is viewed by Christians as generally being the influence of the divine on its individual writers, all conveying the message as they understand it. It is divinely inspired, for the most part, but not actually divine itself.
Because the Quran is generally a single Prophet’s words, an illiterate Prophet, the words are seen as purer, as divine as if the hand of God had grasped a pen and wrote them. Christians see that God became manifest in Jesus. While Muslims do not see God manifest in the actual Quran, it’s as close as one might be able to get to having god speak to them directly. This difference, subtle as it may be, is profound when it comes to understanding how the words of each are held in regard.
Additionally, because of nature of the texts, the directives given therein, the challenge ongoing for humanity, Islam believes, is to incorporate the Quran’s doctrine into humanity’s ever changing Earth. This leads one to the discussion about Sharia Law. Christianity and indeed, the Bible, are not structured in such a way as to govern a community.
The Christian Church is the last living legacy of the Roman Empire, a government in and of itself. Judaism and Islam have both created a law-giving structure built off religious, sacred texts, in which to govern a community or far-flung communities. They were not tied to a central government much as the Christian Church was since its inception. It’s difficult for many modern Christians to get their heads around; many typically see religious law as a kind of impingement on their freedoms. What one must understand is that many people feel a higher judgement above the laws of man; many would submit themselves to religious laws before they submit them to an independent government, one which may not have the sanctity of their after-life in mind.
Halakhah and Sharia have many similarities. The word sharia comes from the word halakhah, the Jewish canonical law. The difference between Christian canonical law is that it generally comes from a single source – the Pope. In this community based law system, rabbis or imams are responsible for interpretations and their interpretations stand unless a council may be called to help with judgments. The misunderstanding comes from most American’s belief that Muslims or Jews in America would prefer canonical law rather than the country’s legal judgments. This is generally untrue. An excellent article on this is located in the Jewish Observer, here: https://thejewishobserver.com/2013/04/16/afraid-of-sharia/. While there outliers across religions – yes, there are Christians who oppose American law as well – observant Jews and Muslims follow the laws of the country in which they live, even if these laws impinge on their religious freedoms. As the article states, polygamy is legal under sharia but even in Arabic countries, it is still rarely practiced. It is not practiced in the United States because it is illegal here, for every religion.
There have been many interfaith conferences between Jewish, Muslim, and Christian leaders. There will most likely need to be more. While this continues, the onus is on the rest of us, the believers of whatever faith we have, to learn more about the other people in this world, what they believe, how they act, what they find important. As the article in the Jewish Observer relates, we should not be afraid of any religion. We may need to work hard to understand the nature of religions and under and when something is mainstream and when it is fundamentalism. Just like political extremists, there is a great difference between the far ends of the spectrums of religions and a great deal in the middle. The edges is where extremists and fanaticism reside. This is where most people begin to go sideways in their understanding: believing the fundamentalism is the entirety of a religion.
Fundamentalism spans the globe. There are fundamentalist Buddhists, after all. Fundamentalism is a strict adherence to irreducible tenants of a religion. An example for Christians is the virgin birth of Jesus. In many cases, other Christians would not be seen as Christian because they do not necessarily believe in a virgin birth. Included in fundamentalism is the general literalness of translation. It is not enough to believe that Mary was “metaphorically” virgin; fundamentalist Christians believe that she was actually a virgin. There is no symbology in the meaning. The words of the sacred texts are interpreted literally, not symbolically. In general, fundamentalists are not militants unless they feel a fanaticism that is above all else. Militancy to faith also spans religions and it is born more from fear than from the religion itself. “Religious fanaticism is defined by blind faith, the persecution of dissents and the absence of reality.” In his book “Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk,” Neil Postman states that “the key to all fanatical beliefs is that they are self-confirming….(some beliefs are) fanatical not because they are ‘false’, but because they are expressed in such a way that they can never be shown to be false.” One cannot confuse Fundamentalism, Fanaticism, and Faith. They are very different and cannot be singularly tied to any one religion.
The best way to combat fanaticism is understanding and knowledge. The Freemason knows that there is a fundamental law that underlies human nature, and these texts really seek to make that divine law accessible to all human beings, regardless of where, when, and to whom they are born. The Quran is piece of that understanding. We might be seen as the generations that demonized Islam, much as other generations and countries have demonized Judaism and Christianity. Do we have to be? Seeking to learn is what sets the discerning, intelligent human apart. We can’t develop a better humanity if we can’t understand what is important to all of us, not just ourselves. There is beauty, grace, and knowledge everywhere, if we can be strong enough to listen.
Thank you for publishing this enlightening article. I hope it will encourage many Masons to learn for themselves what Islam is rather than buy into the negative hype from Islamophobic elements in the media.