This will almost certainly be the last post of this blog.  I pledged last Christmas to read the Qur’an closely in a year, discovering for myself as much as the book could teach me about Islam.  I was tired of hearing what others had to say about Islam, others who often were uninformed and loaded with an agenda that was anything but charitable to people different from themselves.  Also, I had been teaching a sizable unit in my 12th grade religion class on world religions for a few years but had not read the sacred texts of the religions I was discussing, and I thought it was time to rectify that.  Cultural events in America as a whole, in Tennessee, and even in Memphis caused me to see more and more of an anti-immigrant and specifically anti-Muslim sentiment, and it was time to see if there was anything to the fears I was hearing.

Now, just a few weeks past a year, I come to the end of the Qur’an, and therefore this blog.  It has been a good project.  Tough at times.  Several things happened personally (like a tree falling on my house!) and I found even just finding a half-hour to read and blog was impossible some days.  I am very glad I did this.  I believe I am a much better informed citizen of the world.  I also found that I have gained a greater appreciation for my own religion, Christianity; sometimes seeing what you have in contrast does that.  And who knows, maybe I have started a friendship or two.  At least one of you who reads this blog and is a Muslim has migrated over to my new year-long project, reading through the Christian New Testament again (see kingdomnewtestament.wordpress.com if you are interested).

A few times throughout the year as my Christian friends discovered this project, they asked what I have learned.  I would mention a few things, but really I have 180+ posts of realizations.  Still, it might be helpful for me to mention a few items that really stand out to me here as we wind this project up:

Muslims are people too:  This one seems like such a given that it shouldn’t need to be said, but it does.  If we would just take the time to actually get to know and talk with people who are different from us, we would find there is less difference than we think and so much room for kindness.  No, we are not all the same in our beliefs.  Yes, there are mutually exclusive ideas in various religions.  But the real point here is that Muslims are humans, not just a religion or a set of beliefs.  Muslims tuck their little daughters and sons into bed at night too.  They struggle with how to honor God in all they do; “struggle” is what the name of the religion means.  They fret about having enough to pay the bills, but not so much that money becomes an idol or “partner” with God.  They passionately desire the best for the world, they just define this slightly differently than others.  I am convinced though the solution is not to vilify or caricature all Muslims as terrorists.  Nothing will be gained from grabbing our kids close when Muslims walk by or develop a political platform that makes tax-paying, law-abiding, freedom-loving American Muslims feel marginalized in our society.  Get to know a Muslim and see what happens.

Keep reading:  Maybe my biggest realization came about halfway through the year when Muslims began to find and comment on this blog.  What I discovered is that if I really wanted to understand Islam, reading the Qur’an is only the beginning.  In fact, I am wondering now if I have read more of the Qur’an than some Muslims I have talked to this year (not the clearly learned Muslims who were kind enough to take a lot of time to educate me about their religion).  I was mistaken when I thought the Qur’an would unlock a thorough understanding of Islam.  I would say now that if one really wants to understand this esteemed religion one would be best served by reading the Hadith, the traditions and sayings of Muhammad that have been collected since his death.  Then pick up the Sunnah, the code for living in this world as a Muslim.  But that is far more reading and study than I am willing to commit to a religion other than my own.

Culture plays a bigger role in modern Islam than a text:  This is my hunch, though I am sure more learned people than I would say the same thing.  I have been struck by how American Muslims respond differently to my queries than Asian Muslims.  I noticed that the 1400 year old Qur’an approaches topics differently than commentators did a 100 years ago and that the translator and commentator of my translation from the 21st century had an even different take.  Time shapes thinking too.  I have noticed that empowered male Muslims speak differently about their religion than do women who are speaking out now about their religion.  And what about subjugated women who fear speaking out at all?  There is no surprise here; texts are infinitely interpretable.  We play a part in determining what a text means and an even bigger role in how a text is lived.  It would be nice to believe the Qur’an (or Bible) just means what it says, but there is logically and observably more to the equation than that.  I suspect 9/11 was driven by politics and cultural ideology more than religion.  I was struck by how few truly offensive passages I came to in the Qur’an.  I think the ugliness non-Muslims so often associate with Islam has more to do with what happens when a text gets into the hands of a cleric or charismatic leader with political or ideological aspirations, not what Allah meant in the Qur’an (if you believe the Qur’an is the words of Allah).

No, they are not out to get us:  Unfortunately, the common perception of Muslims in America is that Muslims want to kill non-Muslims.  There are few months when a student does not say as much, but we can dismiss this as adolescence.  But where are they getting this view?  Parents?  Television depictions?  Talk-show hosts?  Political candidates?  Religious leaders?  Sadly, some of all of the above.  Of course, my attention was most drawn to those passages that dealt with violence.  Maybe my greatest observation here is truly how few of these passages there are, especially in the more so Meccan last half of the Qur’an.  Then, I was reminded that, just like the Bible, these passages have to be taken in context.  All of them pertained to issues in 7th century Arabia, mainly involving aggressive pagans and a few cases of attacking Christians or Jews.  Generally, I do believe it is right to depict the condoning of violence in the Qur’an as self-defense.  I have no doubt, however, that even in the time of Muhammad this ideal degraded into more than self-defense; dealing with violence with more violence will do that.

Yet, some of them are:  It would be naive and irresponsible to ignore the fact that there are Muslims today who cite their religion as grounds for their violent attacks on non-Muslims, Christians and Jews especially.  Yes, there do seem to be some Muslims who do believe America is the “Great Satan,” though I still think we ought to ask why?  As I see it this goes back to the very same violent texts mentioned above.  As long as you have ayahs like these in the Qur’an — “Fighting has been ordained for you” (2:216) and “Kill them wherever you encounter them” (2:191) — you will have people who come along, regardless of context, and make these texts support their murderous agendas.  Is the Qur’an a violent book?  I don’t think so.  Can it be?  Absolutely!  Again, I think this has more to do with politics and ideology than religion.

Women get a mixed bag:  Is Islam inherently a misogynistic religion that subjugates women?  Like my observations about violence above, it depends on who you are talking to.  Are there passages that can be taken as demeaning to women?  Yes (4:34-35).  But there are also passages that are very protective of women, especially in cases of divorce.  Does polygamy have to be seen as demeaning to women?  No, but it can easily turn into that.  Are hijabs and burqahs prisons into which women are locked?  If you have a forceful husband who is used to getting his way and maybe has a jealous streak, sure they can be.  But they can also be incredibly empowering when they are the way a woman says she will control who can gaze upon her beauty and potentially turn her into a sexual object.  Again, I think the answer here has less to do with religion and more with personality, culture, and situations.  I suspect an American, Canadian, or British Muslim woman experiences a very different life than a young Muslim woman in parts of Iran, Afghanistan or India.

Islam gets so much so right:  In part it is because Islam is still eastern and tied to honor societies in contrast to western Christianity that seems to be driven more so by success, progress, and love, but I am struck by the respect accorded Allah in the Qur’an and in Muslim society.  This is a stark contrast to popular American Christianity-lite where “Jesus is my homeboy” or where we think the first thing we will do in Heaven is give God a hug.  The expectations placed on a worshiper of Allah are clear and high: be truly committed, no turning back, give it all or don’t bother.  The choices in life are simple and clear: Paradise or Hellfire.  Two paths to choose from, which one will it be?  Along that line, one’s eternal destiny is constantly before one as they read their Qur’an.  I would hazard to guess that Judgment and the afterlife are mentioned in at least 90% of the surahs.  People have a responsibility to care about and care for the weak and needy of our society.  Religion is intended to be embodied in flesh.  We do religion; it is lived.  Think about the five pillars of Islam: statement of belief, prayer, fasting, alms, and pilgrimage.  All of these pillars which “hold up” the religion are actions one does.  One doesn’t just believe Islam.  One does it.  I find much of this admirable.

Still, there is something missing — Jesus:  Unapologetically, I acknowledge that I am understanding Islam in contrast to my Christianity.  So many times this year I felt like Islam came close to the high ideals of Christianity, but then fell short, in large part because of how Jesus is viewed in each religion.  Let there be no doubt, Islam has a high view of Jesus.  He is a great prophet.  The honor he is given in this life and the next are great.  But he is no god in Islam; that would be blasphemous.  So what is missing when Jesus is not God?  Allah just does not come off as being as personal or immanent a god as the God of the Bible is.  Christians can say they are seeing God when they look at Jesus.  Christians believe Jesus reveals the heart and actions of God.  Christians can say their God has given them a flesh-and-blood example of how to live life, Jesus.  Furthermore, when Jesus leaves the earth after his resurrection he sends the Holy Spirit, who Christians believe is the very presence of God.  This Holy Spirit lives inside Christians, making us holy and guiding us through life.  Christians believe a part of their God lives inside of them.  I see none of this in the Qur’an.  Allah did not even speak to Muhammad himself.  Maybe the biggest nut I have tried to crack this year is the difference between Islamic and Christian views on grace.  Does Islam speak of grace and mercy?  Almost every surah starts by calling Allah the “Lord and Giver of Mercy.”  Do humans deserve to be saved from Hell, according to Islam?  No.  Is there any human who can be perfect enough to be deemed righteous in Allah’s eyes?  No.  Are there countless numbers of blessings that come to humans everyday because of Allah’s grace that we simply do not deserve?  Yes.  It is certainly appropriate to speak of grace in Islam.  But it is a fundamentally different kind than what you find in Christianity.  Muslims must live their whole life hoping for grace, while Christians know at their baptism that they have already received that grace because of the cross of Christ.  Muslims spend a life living in such a way as to be worthy of grace with a hope of salvation in the end.  Christians spend a life living in gratitude for a gracious salvation already given, knowing they never can do enough to be worthy of it.  No Christian would want their deeds weighed on a scale at the end of life, because we know we can’t be good enough and we also know God considers any sin to be too much.  As much as I have tried to understand both what I have read in the Qur’an and what the Muslims on this blog have share with me, I simply can’t get past the feeling that Muslims are trying to earn something.  Lastly, with the minimization of Jesus, there is a loss of his reordering of love, power, and success.  The first shall be last.  You gain your life by laying it down.  Blessed are you when you are persecuted.  Turn the cheek.  Repay good for evil.  Overcome evil with good.  Jesus saw life entirely different from conventional men.  No surprise there, he is God and was visiting our world from the world that is to come.  He was inviting us to help bring this new kind of life into this world and hasten the new creation.  This especially meant that we would see love, power, and success differently.  I am afraid that as I read the Qur’an I just heard much of the same ole story humans have always told: my side is better than yours so become like us and avoid the unpleasantness that comes to our enemies who fail to exercise self-control and pull themselves up by their own boot-straps.  This is still one big self-improvement project, though Allah is both more involved and real than Karma or Fate.  Yes, he gives a book to help, so read it and know it and follow it well.  It seems Jesus offers the world something you can’t find anywhere else.  Of course, I do not mean to be offensive in this last observation.

My final point is an obvious one: I am not a Muslim, nor a particularly well-informed scholar of Islam either.  These are the thoughts of an honest seeker of truth after a year of earnest reading and thought.  I am sure I am biased (who is not?).  I am sure I don’t understand things completely (watch the comments on this one for rebuttals).  However, let it not be said that I did not try to understand Islam for myself.  But also don’t let this blog be your last word on this prodigious religion.

Peace, shalom, salam.

How do we treat the “others” in our life, that is, people who are not like us?  This is a perennial question that all people must ask in life, regardless of religion or philosophy.  That is the question taken up here in this new surah, in particular how do people from one religion treat those who are not a part of their religion?

The first ayah sounds rather exclusionary:

You who believe, do not take My [Allah] enemies and yours as allies, showing them friendship when they have rejected the truth you have received, and have driven you and the Messenger out simply because you believe in God, your Lord. (60:1)

Later we read this:

God forbids you to take as allies those who have fought against you for your faith, driven you out of your homes, and helped others to drive you out: any of you who take them as allies will truly be wrongdoers. (60:9)

There are certainly other sentiments in the surah that carry the same connotation.  Do not value family connections more than God; Abraham didn’t (60:3-4).  Be careful about your marital arrangements.  Do not make unbelieving wives  stay with you if they wish to return from Medina to Mecca (60:11).  Do not bar a Meccan woman from marrying into your religion if she truly wishes to convert (60:10).  The overall point is simple: faith trumps and potentially nullifies all other connections.      

As friends learn about this blog and ask questions about what I am doing here and why, especially (like learning about the second largest and some say fastest growing religion is a bad thing?), I sometimes get the same one question: “I just want to know are Muslims out to get us?”  It is an honest question, I guess.  I do wonder who the “us” is.  While I am normally being asked by Christians, I suspect they mean Americans. 

So if one wanted to emphasize passages like these mentioned above, yes, I can see how Muslims would place distance between themselves and “others.”  In the wrong conditions and in the hands of a person who wanted to exploit otherness for their own power, this could become a threat to non-Muslims.  To be fair, I can also see that passages like these could be used by islamophobic non-Muslims to foster fear and prejudice against Muslims. 

Then, right here in the middle of this same chapter is a passage that turns all of this on its ear:

God may still bring about affection between you and your [present enemies]–God is all powerful, God is most forgiving and merciful–and He does not forbid you to deal kindly and justly with anyone who has not fought you for your faith or driven you out of your homes: God loves the just. (60:7-8)

The issue, then, appears to be how the “other” has previously treated the Muslim.  Just and kind people are to be treated in the same fashion.  If a person is not a direct threat to the freedom and faith of a Muslim, that person does not need to be opposed.  If a non-Muslim has not been a threat to the Muslim, they need not worry. 

So, in theory, the answer to my friends’ questions is a simple one: if we have done nothing to threaten Muslims, then we have nothing to fear from Muslims.  And in every interaction I have ever had with individual Muslims in North America, this has exactly been the case.  Mutual respect and kindness abounded. 

But we are back to who the “us” is in their questions.  If “us” means that non-Muslim and their family who live down the street from Muslims or a mosque, let kindness and just reign and fear can be assuaged.  If ” us” means Chrsitians, that becomes more complicated; but if we operate by the spirit of Christ that is marked by kindness and justice, we can have hope I believe.  However if “us” means Americans as it so often does, I am far less certain.  Has America done things and maintained policies that can be perceived of antagonistic to Islam?  Well, I guess it depends of whom you ask.

On the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, given the nature of this blog, it only seems fitting to conduct a little poll.  Please take the time to weigh in on these two common questions about which Americans (and presidential candidates) often have strong opinions.

Terry Jones, the infamous pastor from Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, FL, burned a Qur’an last week as he had threatened to do six months ago.  Now, this week seven UN forces and nine protestors died in violent clashes in northern Afghanistan as Muslims decried the desecration of their Holy Scriptures.  A copy of the Qur’an is not be destroyed, let alone burned in disrespect.  Find the details of the story here.   

Hatred only breeds more hatred.  Violence — whether killing a person or destroying what someone deems to be sacred — births more violence.  Destruction brings destruction.  And, as happened here, the response is usually worse than the first offense.   

This is all very sad.  Jones made an ideological stand (or was it a grab for attention?) and people died.  Families in Nepal, Sweden, Norway, Romania, and Afghanistan no longer have a loved one.  And the demonstrations continue.  Will Islamic extremists only use this to enlist further fighters to stop the flow of democracy, dignity and freedom to Afghanistan?  Pathetic.  Is Islam somehow discredited by the burning of a Qur’an?  If anything, one more professed Christian has further discredited the name of Jesus.  Unconscionable.

This blog was actually started in response to Terry Jones, at least in part.  Check out my very first post for more details.  Rather than burning a Qur’an, buying one and reading it sounded like a much more productive (and maybe even Christ-like) response to the growth and radicalization of Islam.  Misconceptions can be corrected by actually reading the Qur’an.  To be heard, it might help to listen first.  Respect is shown, even if in the end I cannot agree. 

I hope Terry Jones sees the ramifications of his actions, though as of Saturday morning he had not.  He was quoted as saying he feels no responsibility for the deaths in Afghanistan, blaming the extremist elements of Islam instead.  I hope his heart melts and sees that he too is acting in the extreme.  I hope others will see this as well and find a better way.  Meanwhile the dead are buried.  And so too, maybe, the possibility that Jesus will ever become attractive to those affected. 

Controversial Florida Pastor Terry Jones

The bill proposing that it be unlawful in Tennessee to craft state laws based on shariah law has been amended by the bill’s creators to eliminate any direct reference to Islam.  See the news story here and a previous post about the brouhaha here.  The changes make the bill what it should be: an anti-terror bill, not something that can be construed as xenophobic, anti-immigrant, or political endorsement (or attack) of a specific religion.

Today ends the first month of this blog.  I am learning much and asking lots of questions too.  I am struck by the many similarities between Islam and Christianity, similarities usually overshadowed in the rhetoric of our day.  I am also struck by the differences and there have been a few very significant ones. 

The next twenty ayahs are very interesting and produce several questions so I have a few posts simmering but nothing is ready yet.  But given that we have been at this a month and there appears to be some new traffic on the blog I thought I would do a redux of my first post and share again the raison d’etre of this blog. 

More than half (55%) of Americans say they know little to nothing about Islamic religion or practices.  This overwhelming ignorance is precisely the problem.  A lack of accurate information allows people with anti-Islamic sentiments to propagate misconceptions about the beliefs and intentions of Muslims.  Uninformed people won’t object; they don’t know otherwise.

Vandalism of a Nashville Mosque

Some hoped that after the tragedy of September 11th people would start to learn more about Islam.  It seems all that has happened in the last decade (has it really been a decade?) is that popularized stereotypes have become even more entrenched.  As a result American Muslims feel more and more marginalized and persecuted.  These feelings are breeding grounds for loneliness, otherness and exclusion.  For some so inclined, these feelings morph into hatred or even violence.  People who could have entered into dialogue are set at odds.

And this is precisely what Osama bin Laden hoped would happen.

So I read.  I read to educate myself.  I read to understand better.  I read to fight ignorance and its correlate prejudice.  Interestingly, the first word revealed to Muhammad by Allah was in fact “read” (96:1).

In August, a study from the Pew Research Center showed that 55% of Americans say they know little to nothing at all about the religion of Islam.  Two weeks ago, my local newspaper reported that 62% of Americans say they do not know a single Muslim personally.  No wonder there is so much prejudice against Muslims of all kinds in America.  It is easy to vilify people with whom you don’t have relationships.  Pew also found that people with more knowledge of Islam are more likely to view it favorably.

It was with total disgust that I watched the news out of Gainesville, Florida this past September as pastor Terry Jones declared September 11th “Burn a Koran Day.”  I was ashamed that this man filled with such hatred wore the same name of “Christian” as I do.  I remember telling myself that if he actually went through with his incendiary plans that I would instead buy a Qur’an on September 11th.  I thought at the time and still do that Christians could have a much greater influence of Muslims (though that wasn’t his plan, was it?) if we all bought a Qur’an, read it, and struck up a conversation with a real Muslim.  Maybe I am naive but I see Jesus being a part of a book circle before he would join the bonfire.

Well, Pastor Jones’s plans changed so I didn’t buy that Qur’an back in September.  But now I have.  Mine is an Oxford World’s Classics edition, translated to English by M. A. S. Abdel Haleem (no time to learn Arabic!), first published in 2004 and reprinted in 2010.  My plan is to spend 2011 reading the Qur’an cover to cover, blogging as I go.

I guess for me this is largely a cultural exercise.  Islam is the second largest religion in the world (1/5th of the world’s population) and by some estimates the fastest growing religion in the world.  The impact of Islam is being felt more and more in America and as this nation becomes increasingly more and more secularized we will likely see Islam grow even more here, as it has in England and Canada.  The recent events at Ground Zero in Manhattan; Murphreesboro, TN; and Oklahoma have elicited strong and usually negative reactions from many.  It seems now is a perfect time to become familiar with the sacred text of this prodigious religion and to do so first-hand.

Still, I am a Christian, and firmly so.  Maybe this is an act of religious curiosity, but I am not seeking a new religion.  Nor am I a religious pluralist.  I believe Jesus is the way to the Father (John 14:6) and that salvation is found in no other name (Acts 4:12) than this one foundation (1 Corinthians 3:11).  However, I have no interest in being as belligerent and uncharitable as some self-proclaimed Christians allow themselves to be.  I carry Jesus with me into this project so I won’t be surprised if I find truth and beauty and wisdom.  All of these belong to and come from God, and no religion — Christianity, Islam, or any other — should think they have sole proprietary rights to things of such ultimate concern.  Some might say that I can’t really understand the Qur’an because I have left my Christian glasses on.  That may be true, but let’s just see what happens.

I invite you to join me on this journey through the Qur’an.  If you would like to read with me, you might check out quranexplorer.com or al-quran.info.  These are two good online versions.  There are also several iPhone apps available as well.

May we be more informed and therefore more understanding because of it.