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The Next Step Past Dialogue, or, What I’m Learning by Reading the Qur’an

About a week before Terry Jones hit the news, I started to read the Qur’an.

This is an imperfect venture if there ever was one. Not knowing the original Arabic, I’m relying on an English translation. Because the book is difficult even for scholars, I should probably be using commentaries. If I fuss with these “shoulds” and imperfections, however, I’ll never do it. So I pick up the holy book of my Muslim friends and struggle along.

While I’m not terribly far in, some things are already becoming apparent. The language is masterful, even in English. Many of the concepts also appear in the Bible: God’s justice and mercy, the imperative to care for the vulnerable, warnings to unbelievers. The text is sprinkled with pithy wisdom that stops me short and commands my attention. Reading it appears to feed my soul.

What a shame to burn something like that.

But what do reading the Qur’an (and similar practices) have to do with dialogue? They deepen dialogue in at least two respects.

First, a large part of dialogue involves listening with an open heart. We tend to think of this in terms of face-to-face listening: I grab a coffee with a Muslim friend and listen while he explains his faith to me. But this listening gets even deeper when we immerse ourselves in what the other is immersed in. Think of it as the difference between tolerating your spouse’s passion for opera, attending Carmen with her, and taking an opera appreciation course.

Second, as we’ve discussed before, one great way to break through our stereotypes of a particular group is to spend time with members of that group. We get to know them even more intimately when we experience the things that make them tick. Let’s say you believe that all French hate Americans. Then Jacques shows up at work one day and befriends you, which throws serious doubt on your stereotype. What finishes it off, though, is visiting Normandy and enjoying a warm welcome from everyone you meet.

It’s the difference between listening to others and—however temporarily or imperfectly—entering their world.

This is not an either/or thing. Even when we enter their world, we will need their help to fully understand what’s going on. Though I’m reading the Qur’an on my own, I’ll eventually need the insight of scholars to interpret the sometimes baffling text. And of course, time and energy and other commitments inevitably constrain us from immersing ourselves in every other person’s life, in every other culture, at this level.

But imagine what would happen if all of us did this with even one person, or one group—especially a group we see as our adversary. How much could this advance the cause of peace?

3 Responses to “The Next Step Past Dialogue, or, What I’m Learning by Reading the Qur’an”

  • From what I have been able to learn, the Qur’an can really be taken in two parts — The verses written when Mohammed was in Mecca and the ones he created when in Medina. The Meccan verses are more poetic and inspired. The Medinan verses are more instructional. And they were written during two periods in the prophet’s life, one when he was actually a working as a prophet, and the other when he was a military and political leader. So you get two different flavors from these two different kinds of passages because they are coming from two very different perspectives.

    Another thing to consider is that there is a separate but equally influential source of teaching within Islam. There are several oral histories that have been adopted and codified by Islamic scholars. Some are more “fundamentalist” (for lack of a better word) than others and they often play a very strong role in how the Qur’an is taught and absorbed. In some instances these oral histories speak of Jihad as a holy struggle against all non-believers. In others, Jihad is an internal struggle. For this reason, just as with Christianity, there are some hard-core strains of Islam pushing for holy war, and many others that are far more loving and tolerant.

    Personally, I think it’s time to modernize the three Abrahamic, monotheistic faiths into one, new modern movement that provides a less supernatural view of the logos. Relying upon myriad interpretations of ancient text for daily guidance is not getting us anywhere as a species.

    • admin says:

      And speaking of scholarship…

      Great post, Grant. I did not know about the Qur’an’s being written at two different times, and that’s very valuable context. Thank you.

      Your last sentence is particularly provocative (in a good way). My initial reaction is that myriad interpretations of ancient texts do get us somewhere, in the sense that they add to the rich stew of knowledge and experience on which we can draw to live good, fruitful lives. And I tend to think that the diversity of faith traditions gives us that many more ways to imagine the One who is beyond imagining, so that’s a good thing too. But this is just an initial reaction; I’ll have to chew on it some more.

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