Tuesday, January 13, 2015

"Make not Allah's name an excuse"

     The first issue of Charlie Hebdo published after last week's massacre is coming out tomorrow, and in recognition of the free speech it represents, I thought I would dig this column out of my files. I wrote it March 30, 2006, when Christian Science Monitor reporter Jill Carroll was released after nearly three months of captivity in Baghdad. 
     But it was never published. 
     Reading the Quran had seemed like a good idea. All sorts of bad things were being done in the name of Islam—a driver had just plowed an SUV into a crowd and credited the Quran. So going to the source struck me as being worth trying. I tried to be moderate and respectful.
     My editor refused to print it, I remember him spooling out a variety of objections: I wasn't a religion expert.  I wasn't putting the Bible under similar scrutiny. 
     But it was bullshit; he was just afraid. 
    There was a lot of that going around, then and now. Despite all the "I am Charlie" bluster, the media have become timid on this subject, out of fear. 
     An unnecessary fear, I believe. Nobody is going to come kill you. Charlie Hebdo was an aberration. Not the new rule, or at least not a rule I care to live under. 
     The thing about a blog is, there's no editor, no permission to get, no one to blame for timidity. I'm posting the original column now because there's nothing objectionable in it. Not that person couldn't in theory object, but I don't write for that person. The only change I made is that originally I called the book the "Koran," but common usage is now "Quran" or "Qu'ran." The subheads are because the column ran over a full page.
     Opening shot
     "Fight in the cause of Allah..." the Quran tells us. "But do not transgress limits, for Allah loveth not transgressors."
     Thus not only should the West celebrate the freeing of Jill Carroll, the reporter held captive in Iraq for the past three months, but Muslims should be pleased as well, as her release is in keeping with their faith as laid out in their holy book.  
    Or as the commentary to the lines above elaborates: "War is permissible in self-defense, and under well-defined limits...Strict limits must not be transgressed: women, children, old and infirm men should not be molested."

     Go to the Source
     Like most non-Muslims, I had never read the Quran. Never considered reading it. Then a North Carolina man drove his sport utility vehicle into a crowd, injuring nine people, and justified his actions by citing the Quran.
     "Allah gives permission in the Quran for the followers of Allah to attack those who have waged war against them, with the expectation of eternal paradise in case of martyrdom and/or living one's life in obedience of all of Allah's commandments found throughout the Quran's 114 chapters," he said.
     Somehow, I doubted that the Holy Book of Islam tells believers to plow their SUVs blindly into crowds. But I really didn't know, because I had never read it and had no idea what it says, a void that called out for correction.
     So I trekked to the library, perched like a gleaming white spaceship in our leafy suburban paradise. As with the Bible, there turns out to be numerous editions and translations of the Quran, and I picked over them.
     While I was inclined toward a paperback version, for portability, my sense of aesthetics forced me to selected, despite its heft, a big royal blue, ornately decorated copy, in English and Arabic,
    "The Holy Qur-an, revised and edited by The Presidency of Islamic researchers, IFTA," printed in Saudi Arabia and donated by the Islamic Cultural Center in Northbrook—a good omen, as I've been a guest there for prayers, and as pleasant a bunch of regular, peaceful folk trying to live their lives and practice their faith you can't ask for. It also had a blue ribbon, for marking one's place. I like those ribbons.  

     I must admit, as I stood comparing the various versions longer than necessary, I realized I was hesitating. I was afraid. I tend to take a joshing view of life, and a joshing view of the Quran can get a person killed. Give credit to the respect-us-or-you're-dead approach to faith: it works.
    It struck me there were reasons for a certain respectful approach. As anyone who has ever read the Bible knows, it is filled with harsh assessments about people being stoned and cast into lakes of fire, and it would not be fair to view someone else's scriptures with a literalness that we don't view our own—except that the old Judeo-Christian ethic hasn't been stoning Sabbath-breakers much lately, having slipped into a more go-along-to-get-along approach. Since at least part of the Islamic world hasn't quite joined us there yet, it makes sense to at least see what's motivating some of them.
     Resolving to be as serious as possible—admitting at the get-go that I'm not scholar—I checked out a copy.
    I knew I had done the right thing when, arriving home, my wife seized the book and began eagerly reading it herself. For at least half an hour. She had never sen one before. I finally pried it away form her, and began to read myself. 
     The Quran begins like this:
    "In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the World's Most Gracious, Most Merciful; Master of the Day of Judgement."
    So far so good.
     Grace. Mercy—twice each. That's a promising start. The most noteworthy thing, to me, is that while the Bible begins by addressing the question, "Who are we and where did we come from?" the Quran takes great pains to define who Muslims are not, separating themselves from unbelievers—Christians and Jews—though the initial treatment begins benignly enough.
     "Those who believe (in the Qur-an) and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures) and the Christians and the Sabians, any who believe in Allah, and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord on them, shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve."
     No fear, no grieving—I'm all for that. But it doesn't stop there. Christians and Jews, while showing initial promise, are quickly shown as betraying their own faiths and losing the right to exist, their legacies taken over by Muslims.
    Jews, basically, deserve what they get:
Miserable is the price
For which they have sold
Their souls, in that they
Deny (the revelation)
Which Allah has sent down
In insolent envy that Allah
Of His Grace should send it
To any of His servants He pleases:
Thus have they drawn
On themselves Wrath upon Wrath.
And humiliating Chastisement
Of those who reject Faith.
None of this 'Son of God' stuff
     Christianity hardly fares better—its very existence is an insult to Islam.
    "They say: 'Allah hath begotten a son, Glory be to Him.' Nay, to Him belongs all that is in heavens and on earth; everything readers worship to Him."  
     A footnote to that passage explains: "it is a derogation from the glory of Allah—in fact, it is blasphemy—to say that Allah gets sons, like a man or an animal. The Christian doctrine is here emphatically repudiated. If words have any meaning, it would mean an attribution to Allah of a material nature, and of the lower animal functions of sex."

Don't be pals with other faiths
     The official, American administration, rose-tinted-glasses view of Islam is that terror is an aberration, and while there is support for that, as mentioned above, there is also plenty to back up the idea of a besieged Islam battling a hostile world.:
Never will the Jews
Or the Christians be satisfied
With thee unless thou follow
Their form of religion 
     I haven't found anything about plowing your sport utility vehicle into crowds—but I've read only the first 100 pages, with a couple thousand left to go. Some of it is tough sledding, but given how the conflict between Islam and the West has defined the past five years, and might very well define the next 50, it seems worth trying.
     My hunch is that like the Bible, like the Torah, like technology, or any other human artifact, the Quran can be used for good, or can be used for evil, depending on what is in a person's heart.
     Even the Quran seems to recognize this, and to speak to those who might have argued in favor of cutting off Jill Carroll's head instead of releasing her:
Make not Allah's name an excuse in your oaths against doing good or acting rightly. 
Or making peace between persons; 
for Allah is One who heareth and knoweth all things.
    No argument here.



  1. This is well-thought-out, but there are a large number of typos that you might want to fix.

    1. Ooh, you're right. I just re-read it, and found a bunch. Thanks. My fault for typing this in quickly and then bolting for lunch without reading it over.

  2. So did you finish reading it? Thoughts?

  3. Agreed, it would be interesting to hear your thoughts after reading beyond the first 100 pages. Plowing ahead through the rest of it seems like something you'd stick with.

    1. You give me too much credit. When I realized it wasn't going in the paper, I abandoned the project. Too much heavy lifting, even for me.

  4. It's not what's in these holy books, it's how fanatics abuse them to justify violence. Ancient interpretation of religious law paired with modern weapons, technology and social media. Result: random and excessive slaughter by ambush. But, they seem more intent on punishing their own followers as seen by the actions of ISIS and Boko Haram.

  5. The Koran is a very difficult book to read. I've read it many times and I get lost quickly. The Arabic language is very difficult and complex and the translations I've read seem like a babbling poet who is angry 80 percent of the time with some good verses about charity and hard core submission to God and the prophet. Did you get lost when you read it Neil?



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