A Religion of Peace?

This guest post is by long-time friend of the blog Michael Austin.

I read the Qur’an often because it speaks peace to my soul.

I know that sounds kooky, but I promise I’m not a hippie or anything. I don’t burn incense or wear sandals. I wouldn’t even call it a spiritual experience. It’s more like a calming effect. I love to read the text, and I love to listen to the recitations of a talented qāri’ (which I am doing even as I write). It’s not the meaning of the words that does the peace-speaking; it’s the words themselves. I have long been deeply affected by the way that the Qur’an represents the voice of God.

The divine voice that I encounter in the Qur’an is one of the most comforting things that I know. It reminds me of my own father’s voice when I was very young: calm and powerful, impossibly distant yet completely intimate, and supremely confident in who and what he is. Whatever this voice may be saying to other people, what it says to me is, “You can feel safe in my home because I’ve got everything under control. I’m not going to let bad things happen to you because you are mine.” This is how I need God to sound when it hurts.

This is why I become defensive when somebody says, “The Qur’an is an inherently violent book” or “Islam is a religion of hate.” These statements run directly counter to my own very powerful experiences. And I’ve been getting defensive a lot since the recent terrorist attack in France. It’s not that I don’t realize that some passages in the Qur’an sound violent and aggressive. I know that they do. And I am certainly aware that, in the early years of the 21st century, people inspired by the Qur’an have done a lot of terrible things. But neither the violent verses, nor the vile actions, constitute the meaning of the text. At least not to me.

Other books known for violence also speak peace to my soul from time to time. I love the Old Testament and read from it almost every day—even though parts of it (such as those dealing with the conquest and extermination of the Canaanites) have caused me to question the goodness of God. The Bhagavad Gita has given me more genuine insights per page than anything I have ever read—even though I know that it is framed as a speech urging a reluctant warrior to slaughter his cousins. The Iliad, the Aeneid, and the Inferno are three of the most beautiful books I know. They are also among the most brutal.

But the genocide, war, murder, and brutality are not what these books mean. At least not to me.

Personal interpretations are relevant here, since sacred books, like all books, can mean different things to different people. Complex cultural narratives can mean vastly different things to those who revere them. And widely shared cultural texts—such as the Qur’an, the Bible, or the Iliad—become widely shared cultural texts precisely because they can support multiple contexts and interpretations.

We know that the Bible and the Qur’an can both support peace and beauty because, at different times in their long histories, both of them have—just as they have both supported violence and unimaginable cruelty. An honest observer in 1200 AD would have seen an Islamic world dedicated to science and learning—one that had discovered algebra, block printing, and brain surgery at a time when the Christian West was more than 200 years away from discovering the fork. The line from the revelations of Mohammed to the Charlie Hebdo bombings goes through 1500 years of history—some of it spectacularly beautiful, much of it barbaric, and not all of it flattering to Christianity or the West. It makes no sense to try to understand Islamic extremism in 2015 by scrutinizing a text and ignoring fifteen centuries of context. Yet this is precisely what many of us are trying to do.

My big point is not that anything can mean anything or that texts are just so many inkblots in which to discover our own neuroses. I’m not THAT English professor. I am making a much more modest set of claims: 1) that all texts can support multiple narratives about what they mean; 2) that important cultural texts retain their importance over long periods of time because they are very good at supporting multiple narratives; and 3) that a religion as complicated as Islam will always have room for multiple interpretations of its sacred texts—some of which will predominate in certain times and places for reasons involving historically contingent combinations of text and context.

But here is my even bigger point: it is spiritually lazy to dismiss an entire religion as fundamentally evil based on a one possible reading of its sacred texts combined with the actions of its worst examples. This is much easier than trying to figure out who people really are and how we can love them, but loving one’s neighbor only counts when it’s hard. It’s easy to love those who see the world pretty much the same way that we do. Do not even the publicans the same?

And here is my biggest point of all: it is potentially disastrous that, at the very time that Americans need to be trying to understand the Muslim people on their own terms—by praying with them, singing with them, and sharing bread with them, and learning how to share a planet with them—some of our loudest voices want to represent the entire Muslim world as a unified threat to our way of life—using words like “expulsion,” “extermination,” and “fundamentally incompatible with American values.” These words  should terrify all decent people, but none more than Latter-day Saints, who know only too well what happens when people in power defer to the frightened mobs who speak them.

Is the Qur’an a book of peace? Is the Bible? Is the Book of Mormon? It all depends on who is doing the reading. We are more than sinners in the hands of an angry text, passively absorbing instructions and ideologies and turning them into checklists for our lives. We exercise agency when we interpret a sacred text. We decide which parts to emphasize, which parts to de-emphasize, and how to integrate a thousand small stories into one great narrative capable of giving structure and meaning to our lives. Those who want a religion of peace will use their agency to create narratives of peace from whatever materials their culture gives them. And those who want a religion of hate will do exactly the same thing.

Comments

  1. Wise and peaceful words, from a wise and peaceful man. Thank you, Michael.

  2. “Sinners in the hands of an angry text.” I love that one. I’m going to have to think about it some more.

  3. The Qur’an doesn’t provide much narrative – so it really can be like an inkblot. It’s the narrative of Muhammad’s life and Islam’s beginnings, largely found in texts outside of the Qur’an, that cause serious problems.

  4. Well, just to be a little more exact, the Qur’an contains many narrative fragments – references to Biblical names and events (but without providing the full stories) and also fragmentary references to events that are unique to an Islamic narrative history – but on their own, taken in isolation, these fragments don’t really provide a comprehensive picture of much. A reader must resort to other texts (particularly the Sira) to find how the Qur’anic verbiage can be fitted within an Islamic narrative or a story of Muhammad’s life.

    To give a little bit of perspective on this, the Qur’an only mentions Muhammad by name four times.

    So yes, when people become hyper-critical of the Qur’an and say it is a violent text that creates problems in the modern world, my response is that they need to take a deeper look at other Islamic texts that were created to fill out the larger narrative not provided in the Qur’an.

  5. Thank you for this. Profound wisdom here that we would all do well to carefully consider.

  6. >It all depends on who is doing the reading.

    Quite. And that “who” is shaped by many things, often not religious.

  7. So well said, Michael.

    “it is spiritually lazy to dismiss an entire religion as fundamentally evil based on a one possible reading of its sacred texts combined with the actions of its worst examples”

    As someone who’s not exactly spiritual, it’s also just intellectually lazy. I don’t defend Islam from these kinds of silly attacks because I’m pro-Muslim or pro-religion. I’m neither pro- nor anti-Muslim. I’m just pro-critical thinking and anti-B.S. And for so many Americans to speak so authoritatively about 1.5 billion people and their wide-ranging beliefs when those same Americans can’t even be bothered to read so much as a World Religions 101 survey of Islam is the height of arrogance and ignorance. I have no problem with criticism of religion. Quite the contrary, I have a problem when people behave as if the label “religion” ought to shield it from criticism, satire, or scrutiny. But the criticism ought to be grounded in rational, logical thinking, and the statements we see about Islam in the wake of Charlie Hebdo do not qualify.

  8. “But here is my even bigger point: it is spiritually lazy to dismiss an entire religion as fundamentally evil based on a one possible reading of its sacred texts combined with the actions of its worst examples.”

    While I certainly agree that there are people spiritually and intellectually lazy enough to dismiss Islam as fundamentally evil, isn’t this really a strawman argument? No reasonable and rational person would say that Islam is totally bad or completely evil. Would it not be more instructive to have a conversation about whether Islam actually creates more hate than other religions, and if so why and what, if anything, can or should be done about it?

    For example, I agree with the OP that any text can support multiple narratives. But I want to know why there seem to be more people willing to commit heinous acts of violence and hate who profess a belief in the sacred texts of Islam than in those of other religions.

  9. Jack of Hearts says:

    “But I want to know why there seem to be more people willing to commit heinous acts of violence and hate who profess a belief in the sacred texts of Islam than in those of other religions.”

    Lyons, I don’t think that’s the case: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/01/14/are-all-terrorists-muslims-it-s-not-even-close.html

  10. Islam has been around for about 1400 years. What were the Christians doing at about 1400 AD? What were they doing in the name of Christianity 100 years later? I imagine that an outside observer would wonder why there seemed to be so many people willing to commit heinous acts of violence and hate who professed a belief in the sacred texts of Christianity and indeed committed those acts in the name of Christianity. For that matter, plenty of people who profess to believe in those same sacred texts are STILL willing to commit heinous acts of violence and hate. There are also plenty of terrorists who DON’T get on the news (at least not here) who subscribe to Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. and commit their terrorist acts in part driven by their socio-religious views. Sadly, a certain species of religious belief lends itself to evil behavior, but people who tend toward that species of belief can be found in all religions. I don’t think it’s the religions themselves that “cause” hatred and violence, but the personality type that can find justification in the religion.

  11. This is terrific. I wish I could say the words as well as you have. Thank you.

  12. Michael Austin says:

    Lyons,

    I think that you are probably correct in saying that “no reasonable and rational person would say that Islam is totally bad or completely evil,” I don’t think that this tells us much about the state of the American electorate. It has been my experience that a fairly large number of Americans are arguing precisely this. Go to Google and type in “Islam Religion Peace” to see what I mean. This comes from two different places: fundamentalist Christians who think that it (along with Mormons) is a Satanic cult, and San Brownite atheists, who think that it is a religion that its followers take seriously–and that Christians would be just as evil if they took the Bible as seriously as Muslims take the Qur’an. By my estimation, we are looking at about 40% of the electorate, including some people with a lot of influence. That’s a lot of flesh and bone for a straw man,

    But your question, “how should the West engage the Islamic world” really is the crucial question here. I do not know the answer, excxept to say that it must involve actually engaging them, not writing them of as our eternal enemies. The times that the Muslim world was the most open to new ideas and values was probably the few hundred years between the conquest of Persia and the fall of Bhagdad. It is not a coincidence that this is the time when they had the most contact with other cultures through their extensive trading networks going both East and West.

    I am wholly a creature of the Enlightenment. I believe that the Enlightenment is a really good idea–a much better idea that either radical Islamicism or Sharia Lawd. And I also believe that really good idas usually win out in the end. Unfortunately, though, almost all of the Islamic world’s contact with the liberal post-Enlightenment Western societies has been in the form of Western imperialists, Western-backed dictators, invading armies, and guys dropping bombs from 5,000 miles away. These are really not the best ways to showcase the liberal values of tolerance, individual rights, and freedom of worship. I am pretty sure that we can do better.

  13. Jack of Hearts,

    That is a good article. That is exactly the type of discussion I think we ought to be having.

  14. I’ve read the Qur’an three times cover to cover; the Bible, sixteen times.

    Although I read several English translations of the Qur’an, I found that it has a certain rhythm to it – an artistry of comparisons and exhortations. Even with little instruction to guide me, it is pretty clear in its meaning.

    I look forward to reading a Portuguese translation next.

  15. I’m three years in to my reading of the Qur’an (law school has significantly hindered it) and I absolutely love it. Sometimes its super boring (what scripture isn’t), but there are many just beautiful nuggets of spiritual brilliance. If I lived by the principles I’ve found in the Qur’an, I would be a godly person.