A Sympathetic Reading
First Presbyterian Church
January 4th, 2009
First Presbyterian Church
January 4th, 2009
In the creation of the heavens and the earth,
In the cycle of night and day,
In ships that plough the sea, to humanity’s benefit,
In what God causes to descend from the sky of water,
Giving life to Earth, hitherto dead,
And peopling it with all manner of crawling creatures,
In varying the winds and clouds, which run their course
between sky and Earth—
In these are signs for people who reflect.
Last year, we read the Bible, cover to cover. This year, we are going to read the Qur’an. Actually, we are going to read interpretations of the Qur’an. For Muslims, the Qur’an is only the Qur’an when it is read in Arabic. We are going to read interpretations or meanings of the Qur’an.
Why? What is the purpose of this exercise?
It is what this congregation does. This is from our mission statement:
Honor our Christian heritage while we explore the knowledge and wisdom of multiple religions, science, philosophy, humanities and psychology to deepen and enrich our spiritual journeys.
I have some of my own reasons.
First, I think there is a great deal of misunderstanding regarding Muslim people, their religion, and their holy book. Islam, like Christianity, is being co-opted by extremists. The extreme voices in religion have become loud, shrill, oppressive, and in some cases, violent.
The extreme voices in religion advocate against science, against human rights, and for superstition.
Bishop John Shelby Spong wrote a book, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism. We also need to rescue the Qur’an from fundamentalism, both Christian and Islamic.
Hopefully, by becoming familiar with this text, we can better understand the complexity of this 14 hundred year old religion that has over one billion adherents worldwide, including adherents in our own neighborhood.
That brings me to the next reason. I am advocating becoming familiar with the Qur’an for the sake of being neighborly. The Muslim Community of Northeast Tennessee has a mosque in Johnson City. I have had some e-mail exchanges with the leader of the mosque. I am looking forward to having our two faith communities have some kind of fellowship in the coming year.
Third, I am curious. I don’t know too much about Islam or the Qur’an. I took a course in seminary, but have forgotten much of what I learned. I have certainly studied the Bible enough, but not this book that has a close relationship to the Bible. Many of the characters are the same. There is more about Mary, the mother of Jesus, in the Qur’an than in the New Testament.
Also, I am curious from a literary point of view. The Qur’an is a spiritual classic and that alone is reason to be familiar with it.
Fourth, I believe that the way to peace requires us to be sympathetic. I titled my sermon “A Sympathetic Reading.” That means a couple of things for me. To be sympathetic literally means to have a similar passion. When I read sympathetically, I am on the same side of what I am reading.
That is true whether I am reading a text or the story of a person’s life. To read sympathetically is to make the effort of appreciation, of honor, and of respect. That does not mean I agree with everything or that I do not read critically, but it means I read with an openness to hear something.
A sympathetic reading is one that expects that what I am reading will have something to say to me. In Chapter 7 verse 204 of the Qur’an, we find this verse:
"When the Qur'an is recited, listen to it and remain silent; perhaps you will be shown mercy." 7:204
Perhaps if we read with an open spirit and an open mind we may be blessed. The Qur’an is believed by Muslims to be the recitation of God to the prophet, Muhammed. If God has any realism for us, then to read the Qur’an sympathetically means to listen for the voice of God.
There is no reason to dismiss or accept the claim that the Qur’an is the Word of God any more than there is a reason to dismiss or accept the claim that the Bible or Jesus Christ is the Word of God. You can’t prove it either way. The reason we are gathered in a Christian church today is more than likely sociological than theological. If we were living in Indonesia, we would probably be Muslim.
The course I took in seminary was entitled “Christians and the Call to Islam” and it was about Christian-Muslim dialogue. The course was an introduction to Islam. But it was more than that. We learned about the history of the interaction between Muslims and Christians.
One of the figures I remembered from that study was Louis Massignon. He wanted Christians to read the Qur’an devotionally. His central concern was how Christians could appreciate Muhammed. Massignon was a mystic who had an “erotic love for the Divine.” He devoted his life to helping Christians discover Islam from within.
He was a fully Christian person--he became a priest in fact—yet he was completely at home with Islam. He died thinking he was a failure who no one understood. Yet his life experience and his commitment to understanding Muslims sympathetically influenced Vatican II and its openness toward Muslims.
His is the model I would like to follow. I am not interested in debating theology, nor in converting people. I am interested in the spirituality of it all and in finding ways to connect at that level. And I am interested in finding things we can do to work together for peace.
That is the sense in which I wish to give the Qur’an and my Muslim neighbors a sympathetic reading.
What about the Qur’an? To get us started. The Qur’an contains 114 chapters or surahs. They are ordered by length, longest to shortest. They are not chronological. They are not in the form of narratives like the gospels or the narrative portions of the Hebrew scriptures. They don’t tell about Muhammed’s life. They are similar in style to the Old Testament prophets. If you sit down and read Amos, you will find that God is pretty serious. That is kind of like the Qur’an.
You will find in there familiar characters from the Hebrew scriptures as well as Jesus. Muslims have a high regard for Jesus as a prophet but they believe that Christians exaggerated him. They have a point. It is an equally valid point to say that Muslims exaggerate the Qur’an.
That is what religion is, really, exaggeration—or a better word--metaphor. You have heard me preach now for three years. Probably you have recognized that my approach is metaphorical. A metaphor takes two things (one familiar and one unfamiliar) and links them.
God is Father is a metaphor. God is unfamiliar, father is familiar. God is mother. The earth is God’s body. Jesus is the word of God. The Qur’an is the word of God. Those are metaphors not descriptors. They say what is and at the same time say it is not. God is and is not father, and so on.
Metaphors evoke. Like a lightning strike, they offer a flash of insight, then are gone. A metaphor is not descriptive. Much of the frustration I have had with much of religion is when it hardens metaphors and parables into descriptions. Metaphors morph into dogmas and creeds and soon you are burning heretics and infidels at the stake.
I have no problem saying the Qur’an is the word of God and taking that quite seriously as a metaphor. I also have no problem saying Jesus is the second person of the Trinity as a metaphor. Metaphorical theology allows for contradictions, surprises, and odd combinations. The purpose is to open our senses to new relationships.
In the Qur’an, you will run across the phrase, “The People of the Book” that refers to Jews and to Christians. There is a guarded approach to the people of the book. They are both right and wrong from the Qur’an’s perspective. But the Qur’an regards them as brothers and sisters. There is a benefit of the doubt extended to Jews and to Christians that is not often expressed in the media.
The Qur’an is complex and ambiguous on many points. There is allowed great freedom of interpretation. As with the Bible, the rigidity comes from its interpreters.
The Qur’an is in the first person for the most part. God is speaking and often uses the royal we. It is repetitive and at times a little hard to read. God is pretty serious. But if you can read it sympathetically, you can find there some very important things.
Islam means among many things "to submit." It is an infinitive. One who submits to God is a Muslim. If you submit to God, you are a Muslim. Abraham is the first Muslim. According to the Qur’an, Abraham and his son Ismail set up the holy shrine at Mecca. You will read about this in the second surah or chapter. You will read about Ramadan, the importance of daily prayer facing Mecca, almsgiving, and making the hajj or the pilgrimage to Mecca once in a lifetime if you are able.
The Qur’an is all about monotheism. One God. It does not view polytheism favorably, nor what it refers to as the worship of idols. And of course, the Trinity makes no sense. It is an exaggeration.
When you read it, consider reading it out loud. There are websites that recite the Qur’an in Arabic. It would be good to memorize a few verses, perhaps the first chapter. This is recited five times a day when Muslims face Mecca to pray.
The sound is as much the message as the words. That is not an exaggeration. The sound itself conveys meaning. That is one reason why you only really can hear the Qur’an when you hear it in Arabic.
Guides to help in your quest. There are several English translations. I have about seven of them. I am taking this seriously! The most enjoyable is by Tarif Khalidi. It is called The Qur’an: A New Translation. Khalidi is a professor of Arabic at American University in Beirut. His translation is contemporary, lyrical, and from the reviews I have read, faithful to the content and the poetry of the Arabic.
A helpful book to go with it is The Story of the Qur’an: Its History and Place in Muslim Life by Ingrid Mattson. Prof. Mattson teaches at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. She describes herself as “a Western academic who is also trying to live as a faithful Muslim.” Those two books would be a good start. You can find them on my blog, Qur’an and Jive.
On the blog and in the newsletter, I will post the readings for the month, different resources, and because I am just weird that way, a quiz for each month. We should try to make it fun.
I am going to close by being a bit philosophical.
I am not sure how or to what extent religion brings out the better natures of humankind or how or to what extent religion leads to violence and destruction. It has done both.
It seems to me that a sympathetic reading can go a long way toward peaceful relations. In the end we human beings are on the same side. We operate with different metaphors toward the mystery of life. If we can relate sympathetically with each other’s metaphors and stories perhaps we will see in one another a flash of insight to the truth and beauty of the universe that we may not have known without this encounter.
Let us read each others’ texts and stories and metaphors with a similar passion, with sympathy. In so doing let us give ourselves to the task of glimpsing the divine presence –or as the Qur’an invites us—to sell our soul for the pleasure of God.
“Among people is one who sells his soul seeking the pleasure of God. God is tender towards his worshippers.” 2:206
May it be so.