Not so very long ago, in the middle of a casual chat with a long-time acquaintance in a local café, I made a comment that changed the entire direction of the conversation, “You know, just this morning I read in the Qur’ān that…”
No sooner had I finished my sentence than my conversational partner – completely side-stepping the observation I had made – quizzically asked “Why are you reading theQur’ān?”
I was momentarily struck dumb. Why am I reading the Qur’ān? Why wouldn’t I be reading the Qur’ān? After all, I had just spent the previous year reading the entirety of the King James Version of the Bible, including its often overlooked Apocrypha; thus my now taking up the Qur’ān made perfectly logical sense to me. It continues the direct lineage of the faiths collectively known as the People of the Book, it’s the guiding scripture of over a billion of the world’s presently living inhabitants, and it’s a book I had not previously read.
However my inquirer would have none of this. That I had spent a year daily working my way through the King James Version made perfect sense and was even laudable to her, “but the Qur’ān…” She then began equivocating somewhat disconnectedly, bouncing through assorted themes that betrayed her entire understanding of the book to have come from the all-too-often sensationalistic popular American media.
“Have you ever read it for yourself?” I gently interrupted.
“Good heavens no!” she exclaimed. “Why would I?”
The conversation plays over and over in my head – especially the “why would I?” What can really be said in response to that? How can one successfully explain to another person whose entire understanding of a particular subject is not only mistaken but dangerously misguided that the opinions they hold are such – especially when their opinions seem to them to be so commonly held by so many others?
I have come to the conclusion that the best I can do is to offer my own reasons for reading the Qur’ān. As I have noted, I took up reading it following the completion of my reading of the King James Version of the Bible. In addition to my reading through the St. John’s Reading List, I like to have a religious book on my reading table at all times as I find it keeps my mind well balanced between the things of this world and “what dreams may come.”
However I have also long wanted to undertake a reading of the Qur’ān in response to some xenophobic themes I have noticed becoming increasingly common in American society; particularly anti-immigrant and anti-religious minority themes. In the case of Muslims in the U.S. – many but by no means all of whom are both immigrants as well as members of a religious minority in what is a predominantly self-described Christian country – these themes often exact an exceptionally high toll upon them.
Thus, ever the one to cling desperately – despite far too many social experiences that would seem to prove the contrary – to the guiding principle that knowledge is the best tool with which to correct the damage wrought by ignorance, I made the assumption that through reading the Qur’ān for myself, I would thus be in a better position confidently to refute misperceptions of it when I encountered them. Of course, this would depend upon one key thing being true: were the popular negative opinions I have so often heard voiced about it actually unjustified by the facts.
From everything I have read thus far – I have reached Sūrah 45 reading in reverse order from Sūrah 114 (this reverse order method of reading was recommended to me by Dr. Ingrid Mattson, who I sincerely hope will forgive me if I in any way have misunderstood her explanation and thus misrepresent it, as a good way for a first time reader to acquire a better understanding of key concepts contained in the latter portion of the book at an earlier time during the reading) – I can honestly say that I have yet to read a single thing about which I have found myself in the least troubled or that would in any way justify any of the negative commentary regarding the book that has become too easy to hear and read in the popular American (and European, for that matter) media.
What I have found in my reading is a remarkable collection of wise counsel that returns again and again to themes that I cannot believe anyone of any faith would find objectionable: encouragement to do good works, concern for the poor, devotion one’s parents, the importance of honesty, praise of humility, and most importantly, the absolute necessity of complete faith in God as all-knowing and supremely merciful. Indeed, I have found what I have read thus far in the Qur’ān to be more directly applicable to how best to live one’s life than the scriptures of the Bible upon which I myself was raised.
To be sure, I still have much to read before I will have read the entire Qur’ān. In fact, even then I will not properly have read it but only an English interpretation of it; the true Qur’ān, according to what I have elsewhere read regarding Islamic theology, being only fully intelligible when read in Arabic (a belief I very much respect having read the New Testament of the Bible both in English as well as in Greek and having seen for myself the effect of translation upon any text). However I can honestly say that I cannot recall when last I have been so wholly enthralled by any book I have previously read, either in regard to its content or how much I feel I have gained (both intellectually – acquiring a first-hand understanding of the content of the book itself – as well as spiritually) as a result.
Thus as to the question of “why would I?” I think I can now offer a number of good reasons. The acquisition of knowledge regarding any subject one does not understand, or misunderstands, is always to be desired. Knowledge can lead to wisdom, which can in turn be a very effective correction to ignorance wherever it is found – be that in one’s society or in oneself. Wisdom can also overcome fear, which both arises from and perpetuates ignorance. And finally, it is through seeking to know and understand, by at the bare minimum reading one another’s guiding scriptures, how those with whom we share this world variously interpret the reasons why we are here and what is expected of us in living our respective lives that we can better hope to do so in peace.
For those who might like to join me in reading the Qur’ān, the Council on American-Islamic Relations has a wonderful program through which a copy of the same edition I am presently reading – The Message of the Qur’ān complete with the original Arabic text as well as translated, transliterated, and annotated by Muhammad Asad – will be sent directly to you for the cost of the postage necessary to send it. For all seekers of knowledge and understanding, such a generous offer is one that it is difficult to in good conscience justify refusing.