A tiny, fringe fundamentalist cult in Florida, of the sort that American popular Christianity specializes in producing, has announced that it will burn the Qur’an on the anniversary of September 11 because it considers Islam an evil religion. The group also targets gays and the Wicca worship of the Goddess.
This is more cult-like thinking, of the sort I discussed yesterday, in which ‘good’ equals ‘us’ and ‘evil’ equals people we don’t agree with.
The German poet Heinrich Heine (d. 1856), in his play lamenting the forced conversion of Spain’s Muslims to Christianity, “Almansor,” wrote, “Wherever they burn books, in the end they will burn human beings.” (When the Nazis burned books in 1933, Heine’s were among those set afire, and his prediction was borne out).
The antidote to hateful and grandstanding ignorance such as this is learning and reading. The way to combat book-burning is to spread around books and consume them.
I discuss in my book, Engaging the Muslim World, the various charges against Islam from groups like this one and show how they are not true.
I liked the response of CAIR, the Council on American Islamic Relations, to this proposal, which is that Americans should take the opportunity presented by this controversy to actually read the Qur’an. I’d go them one better and suggest that some book reading groups who meet regularly select the Qur’an for their next set of discussions.
For the early chapters of the Qur’an, I warmly recommend Michael Sells’s Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations, which manages to be both a pleasure for the English style and sensitive to the nuances of the underlying Arabic.
I’ve done study groups on the Qur’an from time to time in informal settings, and was surprised to find that the translation people told me they found most accessible is Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s rendering of the Holy Qur’an. Intended in in part for English-speaking South Asian Muslims, it is steeped in the Muslim tradition of Qur’an commentary but goes out of its way to explain phrases that are cryptic or telegraphic in the original Arabic.
Reading the Qur’an without context is actually not very useful since it is a highly historical work that refers to contemporary events constantly. Although it is now an older book, W. Montgomery Watt’s Muhammad, Prophet and Statesman is still a good place to start for understanding the context of the Qur’an. In fact, I’d advise people to read it first, and then read the Qur’an backwards, starting with the shorter Meccan chapters that Sells translated and moving toward the front of the book with its longer Medinan chapters, many of which retell the stories of Abraham, Moses, Joseph, and Jesus or refer to Muslim attempts to avoid being wiped out by the attacking Meccan pagans (which anti-Muslim polemicists misinterpret as Muslim aggression).
And, speaking of Heine and old Muslim Spain or Andalus, for a delightful book about the relations of Christians, Jews and Muslim in medieval Spain, see Maria Rosa Menocal’s The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. You’ll find there that current controversies like that in Florida are nothing new. But Menocal argues that while there were periods of fundamentalism and persecution, the over-all achievement of Spain (both Christian states like Valencia and Muslim ones like the Umayyad Caliphate centered at Cordoba) was of a broad tolerance and a shared love of learning (the library at Cordoba had 600,000 volumes at a time when there were probably only a few thousand manuscripts in all of France). In many ways, the multicultural religious atmosphere of medieval Spain , before the Almohads from one direction and the Inquisition from another did it in, most resembles that in the United States today.
Menocal is brilliant throughout, but especially good at recognizing the secular aspects of Arab culture that often formed an attraction even for those in Andalusia who did not convert to Islam. Alvarus, a hard line Christian priest, lamented:
‘The Christians love to read the poems and romances of the Arabs; they study the Arab theologians and philosophers, not to refute them but to form a correct and elegant Arabic. Where is the layman who now reads the Latin commentaries on the Holy Scriptures, or who studies the Gospels, prophets or apostles? Alas! All talented young Christians read and study with enthusiasm the Arab books; they gather immense libraries at great expense; they despise the Christian literture as unworthy of attention. They have forgotten their own language. For everyone one who can write a letter in Latin to a friend, there are a thousand who can express themselves in Arabic with elegance, and write better poems in this language than the Arabs themselves.’
Menocal suggests, in more elegant language, that Arabic romantic poetry was a babe magnet in Cordoba even for the Christian girls.
In many ways, the shoe is now on the other foot. Young Muslims often devote themselves to English and to American pop culture, and it is English that has the massive library, whereas the modern Arabic one is thin despite areas of excellence, as with the novels of Nobelist Naguib Mahfouz. But all along, the two cultures have interacted on a basis of admiration, not just competition or bigotry. Menocal thinks that the Renaissance and Enlightenment were actually peculiarly parochial in Europe, in contrast to the mixed-up character of medieval Spain, and despite the ugly periods and occasional fundamentalist movements, there are certainly innovations in toleration achieved in Valencia (a Christian kingdom that made a legal place for its Muslim subjects) and Cordoba that can inspire us today.