Let's talk about funerals.
Mas'ei: borders and land

Reading the Qur'an 1

This summer, several friends and I decided to read the Qur'an together. I wanted to have a sense of Islam's holiest text, and now seemed like a good time to take that project on. I browsed these different translations a bit, and in the end I read the Penguin Classics Edition, translated by N.J. Dawood. (If this post about translations and secondary sources had been available to me before I began, I might have chosen one of the versions that islamoyankee recommends...)

I was intrigued by the areas of overlap I see between the Qur'an and the Torah -- and also the places where the Qur'an shifts or contradicts what's in the Torah. Though this intersection between our texts doesn't entirely explain our family history, I think it's at the heart of our relationship, especially when we're telling the same story from different points of view. Take Abraham (or Ibrahim): in both versions he's an iconoclast, and is father of both Isaac and Ishmael/Ismail, but in the Qur'an we see him praying that God will make Mecca secure, and thanking God for the gift of both of his sons. A different reading than I'm used to.

I'm mindful that I'm approaching the Qur'an without context, which limits my understanding. I don't speak Arabic (it's on my to-do list, but I need to master Hebrew first) and I don't have a clear sense of the lenses that Muslims use to understand and interpret the Qur'an. (I'll talk more about that at the end of this post.) Still, I hope there's something valuable in my response to what I've read.

This is the first in a loose series of posts which will address some of the areas of overlap and disjunction between the Torah and the Qur'an which I find most interesting. If you have responses, please comment; I hope the conversation will continue to shed light on these two traditions! As Pir Inayat Khan wrote, "There is no difference in the destination; the only difference is in the journey."


Mostly I want to talk here about places where the Qur'an and the Torah overlap: where they offer similar paradigms, where they work in similar ways. But first I want to look briefly at a place where the two diverge, because this leapt out at me quite early in my reading, and spurred some thoughts about collective religious narrative and relative truth.

In sura 2 ("the Cow"), verse 93, we read:

When We made a covenant with you and raised the Mount above you, saying: 'Grasp fervently what We have given you and hear Our commandments,' you replied: 'We hear but disobey.'

That fascinates me, because in Torah, the Israelites' response to that moment at Sinai is "all the things that Adonai has commanded we will do!" (In another place, the people say na'aseh v'nishmah, "we will do and we will understand." A lot of commentary has been devoted to the ordering of those two terms...) It makes sense that the Qur'an would frame the Jews as having imperfectly responded to God's covenant -- after all, if we'd gotten it entirely right, there wouldn't be a need for a later revelation, would there? --  but it was still enlightening for me to consider how the Qur'an sees Judaism. (The Qur'an sees Judaism in at least two different lights; as this page notes, the Qur'an can be used to justify either tolerance for or antipathy towards the People of the Book. But right now what interests me most is the glimpse of how differently Torah and the Qur'an tell the Sinai story.)

Clearly there's a difference between how my tradition defines itself, and how the Qur'an defines us. That cuts both ways; mainstream Judaism often presumes an understanding of Islam (like this one) which probably doesn't match how Muslims perceive themselves. We need to be mindful of these differences between how we tell our story and how others tell our story, how we describe others and how they would describe themselves. The truth of our shared story looks different depending on who's doing the telling, and we need to acknowledge that -- all the time, but especially when we're reading each others' scriptures.

One of the most intriguing overlaps comes late in sura 6 (Cattle), verse 152:

Say: 'Come, I will tell you what your Lord has made binding on you: that you shall serve no other gods besides Him; that you shall show kindness to your parents; that you shall not kill your children because you cannot support them (We provide for you and for them); that you shall not commit lewd acts, whether openly or in secret; and that you shall not kill -- for that is forbidden by God -- except for a just cause. Thus God exhorts you, that you may grow in wisdom.

Do not tamper with the property of orphans, but strive to improve their lot until they reach maturity. Give just weight and full measure. We never charge a soul with more than it can bear. Speak for justice, even if it affects your own kinsman. Be true to the covenant of God. Thus He exhorts you, so you may take heed.

I can't help seeing these lines as a parallel of what in my tradition we call aseret dibrot, the ten utterances. There are some differences; for instance, where Torah mandates that we honor our parents, the Qur'an instructs kindness. And in the Qur'an the "thou shalt not kill" line gets a modifier which isn't explicitly present in Torah -- though the argument could be made that it's there implicitly, given how often the Israelites wage war with God's apparent sanction! But the Torah and the Qur'an are united in abhorring idolatry, giving justice a central role, and celebrating covenant with God.

One of my favorite parts of the book is sura 55, The Merciful, which is stylistically unlike all of the others. Here's a brief excerpt:

He laid the earth for His creatures, with all its fruits and blossom-bearing palm, chaff-covered grain and scented herbs. Which of your Lord's blessings would you deny?

He created man from potter's clay, and the jinn from smokeless fire. Which of your Lord's blessings would you deny?

The Lord of the two easts is He, and the Lord of the two wests. Which of your Lord's blessings would you deny?

He has let loose the two oceans: they meet one another. Yet between them stands a barrier which they cannot overrun. Which of your Lord's blessings would you deny?

The footnote in my edition tells me to compare this sura with Psalm 136, which makes a lot of sense -- both are paeans of praise with a repeated refrain. There's a poetry to this sura which I didn't see elsewhere (I think Islamoyankee has a point that these prose translations are missing something vital). Though many scholars argue that the Qur'an is not poetry, I think their intent is to differentiate the Qur'an from particular Arabic poetic forms, and to distinguish between the Qur'an (which comes from God) and poetry which is crafted by the human mind. By my definition, this is absolutely poetry.

I want to tease out some of my thoughts about gender, food, and belief in the Qur'an and the Torah, but those digressions deserve their own post(s) -- stay tuned for further installments on this theme.

In the end, like the Torah, the Qur'an is fascinating and multivalent. Reading it opened more questions for me than it answered; I found myself wondering repeatedly how the different branches of Islam interpret some of the passages I found challenging or problematic. Of course the Torah contains plenty that I find problematic, too (you needn't look far on this blog to find evidence of that!) but I approach Torah with an understanding of some of Judaism's longstanding modes of interpretation, and that's a set of tools I don't have when I read Islam's sacred text. I'm not the only one in the blogosphere wrestling with this one:

At that point it occurred to me that, with our own Scriptures, we have generally learned (even the fundamentalists among us) a sense of which bits are to be read literally and which figuratively. When we read other people’s Scriptures, we have no such acquired sense and are much more likely to err on the side of reading everything literally.

-- Tony, in Reading Other People's Scriptures

(Right on, Tony.) Reading the Qur'an ultimately made me more curious about Islam than I had been to begin with -- and maybe that's the ultimate sign that it was a good use of my time! I'm glad that this helped me to understand just how much I don't understand, and how much I'd like to learn, about a tradition that seems at once a close, and a distant, cousin of my own.

ETA: If this is interesting to you, you might enjoy some of my more recent posts about Islam: A close Jewish reading of the fatiha, Ruh and nafs, nefesh and ruach, Abraham and the idols in midrash and the Qur'an (all three written during the fall of 2008).

Technorati tags: , , , , .