Sermon conversations
This week's portion: blessed

Beginning my fall semester with the Qur'an

Masbaha, a Muslim rosary used for reciting the 99 names of God.

This morning I woke up bright and early and excited, because it's the first day of the fall semester! Okay, that's a complicated statement, actually. One of my summer classes won't end until next week, and then I'll have a final project on my plate. Three of my fall classes won't begin until after the Days of Awe, for which I am grateful because I have a high holiday pulpit to prepare for. (I'll post more about my whole fall slate soon, I promise.) But one of my classes began today, and I'm incredibly jazzed about it. I'm taking a class in the Qur'an!

I read the Qur'an a few years ago. (I managed to make a single post about it; I'd hoped that would be part 1 of a series, but never managed to write the rest of the series.) I found the book fascinating but also fairly opaque. I could tell that I was missing a lot because I wasn't reading the book in context. So when I saw that Professor Bill Darrow was teaching a class on the Qur'an at Williams this fall, I emailed him from Jerusalem and asked whether I could sit in. He graciously agreed.

Bill was one of my professors when I was a religion major at Williams fifteen years ago, so it's a treat to be in his classroom again. We began today with metadiscussion about how the class is structured and how we'll proceed. We'll be reading the Qur'an respectfully but not devotionally (a tension with which I'm intimately familiar, as someone who reads Tanakh in both of these ways.) We'll be approaching the text as literature, and as a literary work there are several things that make the Qur'an unique. For one, the authorial voice is understood to be God's; Muhammad (peace be upon him) didn't write the Qur'an, but rather received it as revelation. We learned a little bit about the idea of the book, the idea of writing, and what it means to consider the Qur'an as literature when the text presents itself as utterly other than literature (specifically as other than poetry, which was a central pleasure in that place and time.)

We'll look at legal texts (the Qur'an is about 20% legal -- the analogy which immediately sprung to mind for me is that between what we call halakha, Jewish law, and aggadah, storytelling.) We'll look also at interpretation, at the Sufi or mystical tradition, and at devotional readings of the text. And we'll also aim to look at how the text is read in modernity, at literalism and fundamentalism and how those come into play in the modern world. Bill noted that the Qur'an is a sacred text to more than a billion people, and that many of them learn it primarily as a musical text, something to be memorized and recited orally / encountered aurally. (Just so, many Jews today around the world know Hebrew only as a language of prayer and sacred text, something we recite but don't necessarily understand.)

We'll be reading Michael Sells' edition of the Qur'an (Approaching the Qur'an -- highly recommended by my friend islamoyankee), along with a number of secondary texts: Michael Cook's Muhammad, Farid Esack's The Qur'an: A User's Guide, Majid Fakhry's An Interpretation of the Qur'an, and Ingrid Mattson's The Story of the Qur'an, as well as a hefty packet of xeroxed articles. But although we're reading the Qur'an in English, Bill wanted us to have some sense of Arabic, so we spent the bulk of the class on a very basic introduction to the Arabic alphabet, and some simple lessons about how words are formed.

I found the introduction completely captivating. I was immediately struck by similarities. Arabic is built around tri-consonantal word roots. (So the root K-T-B yields words like kataba, "he writes," kattaba, "he causes [someone] to write," kitab, "book," and so on.) Hebrew works that way too. And the two languages share a number of roots. The Arabic K-T-B is the equivalent of the Hebrew C-T-B, which yields the Hebrew word lichtov, "to write." The Arabic F-T-H, "open," leads to the Arabic word fatiha, "opening" (as in: the opening sura of the Qur'an, called the fatiha.) There's an equivalent Hebrew root, F-T-Kh, which gives us lifto'akh, "to open." R-Kh-M in Arabic, Bill explained, has dual connotations -- and asked me what Hebrew words come to mind. "Rekhem means womb, and ha-rakhaman means 'the Merciful One,'" I said. Yep: that's what they mean in Arabic, too.

Of course, knowing some Hebrew is only partially helpful. I'll need to beware of false cognates, or places where the meanings don't quite match. And the Arabic alphabet makes my head hurt, since letters take different forms when they're at the start of a word, the middle of a word, or the end of the word. We spent the end of the class slowly trying to parse single significant words in Arabic, which was alternately fascinating (bismillah, "in the name of God," is made up of bism, "in the name" -- b'shem in Hebrew -- and Allah, "The God," the equivalent of the Hebrew ha-El) and dispiriting (I stared at taqwa, "devoutness" or "piety," for long minutes without being able to actually read what the word said.) It's frustrating to be incapable of parsing even single letters of the alphabet...but it's a "beginner's mind" experience that's probably a good way to start this class, since it will keep me mindful of the humility with which I want to approach the text.

For next week we'll be diving in to our pile of books and articles, and also spending some quality time with the fatiha, the opening sura of the Qur'an, both in written form (we've been urged to try to parse the words letter by letter) and aurally (the Sells edition we're using comes with a cd, so we can listen to the chanted text. Here's the fatiha as an online mp3, if you want to hear.)

I'm looking really forward to reading the Qur'an with a teacher who knows the text well and who can help me understand it in context. Of course, I'm coming to this experience with an agenda; it seems to me that Judaism and Islam have a tremendous amount in common, and I'm interested in exploring our common ground (linguistically, culturally, scripturally.) Yes, our traditions also differ in significant ways. But the parallels fascinate me, and I think both of our communities could benefit from a deeper understanding of how closely related we are. For me, this class feels like a good start in that direction...and an awesome way to settle in to Elul and Ramadan.

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