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Back after a long break

February 13, 2011 Leave a comment

I am back after a long, long break. Got a new job with Microsoft, got married, got pregnant, went on a honeymoon.

I've realized that I will take a number of long breaks from this project. I don't think I have any regular readers on this blog, and I've realized that doesn't really matter to me. This is a project I just want to complete. Say that I read the Qur'an, cover-to-cover, and I did it thoroughly and in detail.

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al-Kafirun, take 3: Going in depth with a podcast

October 11, 2010 2 comments

Commenter KT pointed me to a fellow named Nouman Ali Khan who has created a series of podcasts that analyze, in depth, each sura of the Qur'an (OK, I don't know whether he's done all of them, but he's definitely done a few).

I don't know much about Nouman Ali Khan or the Bayinnah Institute, but… wow. As someone who isn't religious and didn't receive a religious upbringing, I can forget that real exegesis–not the superficial stuff I'm doing here–can be as complex and as in depth as US Constitutional law.

Six brief lines, about 25 words. I'm fifteen minutes into Khan's detailed podcast on al-Kafirun, and as he digs into the complexity of translating from Arabic, the rich history of Qur'anic exegetes before him… and this text keeps popping into my head: "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed." A mere 27 words that has generated hundreds of thousands of words in analysis over the past two hundred years–probably more like millions and tens of millions–all about the narrow matter of gun ownership in the United States.

It's a sobering thought: I've undertaken this project, partly as an intellectual exercise to keep my mind active at an age when my career focuses my mind on a narrow world; partly as a project inspired by a book I enjoyed greatly, A.J. Jacobs' Year of Living Biblically; and partly as a way to build up a battery of knowledge to combat the Islamophobia that I encounter in the United States.

And I'm really just scratching the surface. Barely.

There's well more than a millenia of thought preceeding my project, and I'm barely even bothering to consider it. I'm just taking the philosophy behind U. Chicago's Great Books core curriculm and plunging ahead with the original text. Except that I don't have a professor who's studied more than just the original text to provide the context I need.

But back to exegesis. Khan disagrees with Jane Dammen McAuliffe's interpretation that al-Kafirun refers to ALL disbelievers. He also disagrees with my read on this sura: that this is a general statement of religious tolerance. His take: it's narrowly scoped to those of Muhammad's contemporaries (many of whom were his own uncles) who so desperately opposed his message.

"Who is this sura talking to? Please understand: This is not for all kafirun. This is not for everybody who disbelieves. This is not for your neighbors. This is not for the Jews and the Christians. This is specifically, specifically, being used for a group of people who received the special favor of Allah for generations, and then the most special favor of Allah, the final Messenger, and on top of that the final Revelation itself; they got to hear it with their own ears from the mouth of the Messenger himself and they still refused… to believe after years and years of endless attempts. It is at that point that they get this title [al-Kafirun]."

As I said in my first post, I'm going to get it wrong. Way wrong. What's really fascinating is coming to the realization that there's really no "right" way either.

Straying from my original intent

August 10, 2010 Leave a comment

I was in Eugene, Oregon this past weekend for a wedding and I scribbled a good dozen entries in a small journal when I had free time. As I did, I realized that I strayed from my original intent with this blog.

See, all I had this weekend was the 'Abdullah Yusuf Ali translation on my Kindle, and there are no footnotes or glosses or anything with the Kindle edition. At home, I have multiple translations with extensive glosses, I have Teh Intertubes to search for context, wikipedia to research concepts, etc.

But part of the point of this blog was to read the Qur'an without any more context than I already possess; To experience it as a Westerner without the lifetime of cultural knowledge and background similar even to what I, an agnostic/atheist, have picked up about Christianity in a "Christian country" by osmosis. I intentionally wanted to get it wrong (not deliberately misinterpret, but interpret as forthrightly as I could knowing that there was a good chance I'd miss some crucial information), and then later on see what the experts had to say.

The next 20 or so suras are among the shortest in the Qur'an, so I'm going to take the opportunity to do this the way I intended: two posts on each sura, one containing my first impressions, another with input from the experts.

Many of these subsequent posts were written on the road, so to adhere to the "fidelity" of a blog, I'll post in order that they were written. Meaning the bits with expert commentary will come much later.

Categories: About

Been a long time

July 25, 2010 Leave a comment

Not that there are likely to be many readers here, but it's been nearly five months since Katie and I have posted anything. Life and work have gotten in the way. I re-committed to my job (I had one foot out the door). We put our 1BR in Seattle on the market with the hope of buying a 2BR, and spent a lot of time preparing our home for sale. We got engaged. I got re-addicted to World of Warcarft.

But I've always wanted to read the Qur'an cover to cover, and every Saturday and Sunday morning, when I'm up hours earlier than Katie and wasting time with Salahaddin in "the World," this project nags in the back of my mind.

It's time to pick it up again.

I'm not sure Katie will resume posting any time soon–she is very busy with planning our wedding. We'll see.

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Genesis and Exe-whatever

February 4, 2010 Leave a comment

And then there's me. Unlike Mike, I know very little about the Quran. Probably more than the folks on Fox news, but a lot less than my co-blog-author who actually studied in it college and lived in Palestine. I, on the other hand, know a lot of Judeo-Christianity. While Mike may have been born to a former Jesuit, I'm the one who actually spent quite a bit of my childhood inside of a church. Like Mike, though, I have a fascination around the mythologies that are the foundation of culture. I've been drawn to Judeo-Christianity because, having been raised with it, I wanted to understand – the real stories behind the myth. While I don't believe the stories, there is something comforting about them – it's nice knowing that the memory of an entire people still exists.

Difference number two between Mike and me is that I still believe in God, except not in the way that I did as a Methodist teenager. The jury is still out (but mostly in) for Mike. I'm wondering how this will influence our separate readings of the Quran.

As Mike said, we'll probably get a lot of wrong. I'll probably especially get a lot of it wrong, since my knowledge is so limited. But, I think that's part of what will make this experiment of ours interesting.

Hopefully, we'll come out of this without ruffling too many feathers. That isn't the intent. The intent is to learn, to try to understand. To perhaps, in some small way, contribute to a bridge between cultures.

So that's me. And this is our task. Read the book. Blog about it from our two opposing perspectives (be it gender, culture, religion, what have you), and hopefully still be speaking to each other at the end of it.

Thanks for tagging along.

Categories: About

Genesis and Exegesis

February 4, 2010 Leave a comment

Here's the plan: I'm going to read the Qur'an, sura by sura, and write about what I think. This means that I will get it wrong. Way wrong. For some very simple reasons.

First, a lot of any religion isn't written down in its holy book, and since I'm not a Muslim, I don't have that cultural context outside of the book. All I have is the book, and the book can be misleading. Try, for example, to find a line in the Old Testament prohibiting the consumption of a turkey sandwich with a glass of milk. Or a sura in the Qur'an requiring a woman to wear a burqa. Or a verse in the New Testament about Jesus being born on 25 December. You won't. You may find a bit that people have subsequently interpreted to mean that. But the literal words do not exist.

Second, the Qur'an isn't a chronological story like Genesis or Matthew/Mark/Luke: The Qur'an is organized roughly by length. The first suras are super long, the last ones just a few lines. There's not a clean narrative, and it's going to make it confusing. To make matters easier for me, I'm going to read them in chronological order of their revelation, as if I were sitting beside Khadija or Ali and hearing it for the first time. But it's not like I've got a clear roadmap or anything.

Third, suras were revealed to Muhammad individually and independent of each other, and they can be specific–super specific–to the political situation faced by the Prophet and his community at the time of revelation. I simply won't know this background. Of course, there are advantages to this. Unlike the Old and New Testaments, the Qur'an was codified and finalized by people who knew the Prophet personally, so I can read some secondary sources to help me understand exactly what was going on. I plan to do this, but at first reading, I'll get it wrong.

Fourth, I'm reading in translation. Even if I were fluent in Arabic, Qur'anic Arabic is like Middle-English. It's almost a different language. And the Qur'an is not just a religious text, it's poetry, and I'll miss that entirely.

In short, Quranic exegesis is a risky proposition for a non-Muslim. But that's the whole point of the blog. The Qur'an is not easily accessible to a Judaeo-Christian audience, not even to someone–like me–that has studied the history of Islamic civilization, speaks some Arabic, and has lived in the Middle-East. I'm just going to dive in, and see what comes out. It will be messy, and that's the whole point.

I should also point out: I have a few axes to grind.

First, I'm one of those anti-religious nuts. For all the good things that religion has done for humanity, I have trouble seeing past the bigotry and murder and destruction that history proves go hand-in-hand with faith spun out of control.

Second, I'm deeply bothered by the widespread prejudice in the United States that Islam is a religion of bigotry and murder and destruction. Because it's done a lot of great things for humanity. Even if it is a religion–just like Christianity and Judaism and Hinduism–that has spawned it's fair share of bigotry and murder and destruction. Just less bigotry and murder and destruction than some other religions, in my humble opinion.

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