Monday, January 2, 2012

Book 84, Saudi Arabia: The Quran

Happy New Year! So after over a month, I'm finally done with al-Quran Qadim!

Yessir, I knew I could've gone with easier choices like Rania al-Baz's Disfigured (socially significant and pretty well written), Rajaa Alsanea's Girls of Riyadh (revolutionary but badly written, according to most critics), and Jean Sasson's Princess (still don't trust its veracity). But I wanted something really iconic, a jewel of world literature. a book worth the boasting rights. Why not a book written (or transcribed) by the most influential man in history, a figure whose name I dare not utter without a pbuh and whose face I dare not upload at all?

And the truth is, there are several reasons why this wasn't an entirely good idea.

I still remember having to read bits of the book for my Contemporary Civilization class during sophomore year; we were guided by an Arabic-speaking Jewish girl who gushed over the sheer poetry of the text, and all the Americans oohed and aahed over how much more liberal and enlightened some of the laws are compared to Deuteronomy or Leviticus. Whereas I was distressedly thinking how all the Muslims I knew (especially in Singapore) were more liberal and enlightened than even that. (Yes, imprisonment for female adultery [an alternative reading of "stoning"] is less draconian than death, but in the 21st century?)

Still, I figured maybe reading the whole thing would give me some context. My friends recommended the rather beautifully archaic Abdullah Yusuf Ali translation for my enjoyment. And now I'm finished, I've ended up delaying my post for three days, so nervous am I about how to appear as both a critical humanist and a non-Islamophobe.

Yet at the risk of incurring the wrath and legal action of everyone in Singapore, I'm going to make a list of 4 reasons why reading the Quran alone isn't a great way to fall in love with Islam.

1. The surahs are super confusing.

The Quran, as you probably know, is a series of divine revelations: each one of them is meant to be a stand-alone insight into spirituality. So they're free to meander as they like from topic to topic, rather than staying focussed on a single issue - e.g. Surah 4, an-Nisa, is supposedly all focussed on women but after 25 verses it goes into more generalised, abstract ethics. Pretty difficult for study, no?

2. The stories are scattered all over the place.

The Book contains all these references to tales of prophets from the Old and New Testaments: Adam, Noah, Lot, Abraham, Moses, Zakariya, Mary, Jesus; also non-Biblical stories like Saleh and the Companions of the Elephant. But these are mostly told in fragments, so that you need a concordance or annotations to piece everything together - plus, a few key details are repeated in sura after sura, while others in the Biblical versions are left out. Thus you'll get pretty damn tired of the Pharaoh yelling at Moses, but no mention is made of the colourful variety of plagues he visited on Egypt. The versions of the stories in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles are patently more accessible and rounded out.

3. The order doesn't help.

I'm not complaining about chronological order here - I know it'd be next to impossible to trace their history, so I can't blame the original redactors for placing them in order of length. But currently, the surahs are arranged from longest to shortest. That's really frustrating for a novice reader: we have to plough through the long, bifurcating thought processes of Surahs 2 through 40 before we start seeing some surahs with the sheer, crystalline focus of secular poems. (Yes, there are wonderful poetic moments in longer surahs, but they get gobbled up in the range of topics covered.) Imagine if they were arranged from shortest to longest: then people would be hooked in by the concise poetry of the early suras and keep reading all the way to the end.

Hmmm. In retrospect, this might not be a good idea. Most of the laws are laid out in the longer suras; they're important.

4. And yes, I know this will be controversial: there's a lot of hellfire.

The Quran does mention tolerance and how Allah is all-merciful, but it's really hard for a non-believer to swallow this when so many of the suras (especially the longer suras) mention fire and punishment for us in some way. We're told we'll be cast into the fiery pit and forced to eat of the tree of Zaqqum; there are also constant invocations of prophets at Warners of the end of the world, when our very bones shall testify against us. It gets really exasperating. Maybe fear works as a conversion tactic for some people, but us freethinker skeptics? You'll catch more flies with honey than vinegar. (It was actually the act of reading the Old Testament that made me stop being a Christian ten years ago.)

Thus I do think it's understandable why some Muslims end up as terrorists, because the Quran contains so much condemnation of unbelievers and polytheists and those who ignore the Signs. While there are commandments for tolerance of other religions - People of the Book, that is - they make up a much smaller total portion of the book.

What does this mean? Well, basically that the Quran is a supremely slippery text, and it's not immediately accessible to outsiders; perhaps not even to insiders. It's quite different from most books of the Bible; in fact, it recalls the compilations of Zhuang Zi in some respects - how nonlinear and poetic it is, and how strange. Obviously Muslims pair it with the Hadith and the writings of religious scholars who've interpreted the Book.

It also means that the best strategy to make people conceive of Islam as a positive force in the world is for Muslims to be positive forces in the world themselves - boasting about the roots of your religion isn't going to be so effective when the roots are so tangled. Let's hope the bits of the Quran that are especially venerated from now on are the ones that celebrate tolerance, science, co-operation, social justice

As for me, I don't know what to think. Sure, I've got minor boasting rights for getting to the end of a book, but do I understand Islam any better than I did before? Damned if I know.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote: And such are the Parables We set forth for mankind, but only those understand them who have knowledge. (29:43)

Next book: Maha Gargash's The Sand Fish, from the United Arab Emirates


Da Xiang said...

I remembered one day my muslim friend pulled out an english quran from her bag to "show off". So I asked her why don't you read 5:51? So she flipped to the page and start reading the first few words aloud before coming to a silent followed by a what the...

Anonymous said...

Maybe this will answer your question.