Love’s Labours Scorned: Robert Wright on the Quran

A careful student of religious texts, Robert Wright, in the New York Times this week, offers his considered judgment on the what the Quran is:

[I]f you’re curious as to the reason for the Koran’s seeming ambivalence toward Christians and Jews: By my reading, the Koran is to a large extent the record of Muhammad’s attempt to bring all the area’s Christians, Jews and Arab polytheists into his Abrahamic flock, and it reflects, in turns, both his bitter disappointment at failing to do so and the many theological and ritual overtures he had made along the way. (For a time Muslims celebrated Yom Kippur, and they initially prayed toward Jerusalem, not Mecca.) That the suras aren’t ordered chronologically obscures this underlying logic.

And of the Quran’s jihad passages—particularly those not obviously referring to the soul, but to military combat—Robert Wright says this:

The Koran’s exhortations to jihad in the military sense are sometimes brutal in tone but are so hedged by qualifiers that Muhammad clearly doesn’t espouse perpetual war against unbelievers, and is open to peace with them. (Here, for example, is my exegesis of the “sword verse,” the most famous jihadist passage in the Koran.) The formal doctrine of military jihad — which isn’t found in the Koran, and evolved only after Muhammad’s death — does seem to have initially been about endless conquest, but was then subject to so much amendment and re-interpretation as to render it compatible with world peace. Meanwhile, in the hadith — the non-Koranic sayings of the Prophet — the tradition arose that Muhammad had called holy war the “lesser jihad” and said that the “greater jihad” was the struggle against animal impulses within each Muslim’s soul.

And Wright also offers some good sense with regard to the role that selective attention plays in sacred book interpretation:

[There is] a tendency to latch onto evidence consistent with your worldview and ignore or downplay contrary evidence. This side of human nature is generally labeled a bad thing, and it’s true that it sponsors a lot of bigotry, strife and war. But it actually has its upside. It means that the regrettable parts of the Koran — the regrettable parts of any religious scripture — don’t have to matter. After all, the adherents of a given religion, like everyone else, focus on things that confirm their attitudes and ignore things that don’t. And they carry that tunnel vision into their own scripture; if there is hatred in their hearts, they’ll fasten onto the hateful parts of scripture, but if there’s not, they won’t. That’s why American Muslims of good will can describe Islam simply as a religion of love. They see the good parts of scripture, and either don’t see the bad or have ways of minimizing it.

In other words, because textual interpretation is subjective, and passage emphasis can be placed wherever one chooses, what’s important is to assess accurately where the believer that you’re dealing with actually places that emphasis: either on love or hate. Wright notes that Jews and Christians, interpreting their own texts, play the same emphasis/de-emphasis game:

[T]here are those [biblical] passages where God hands out the death sentence to infidels. In Deuteronomy, the Israelites are told to commit genocide — to destroy nearby peoples who worship the wrong Gods, and to make sure to kill all men, women and children. (“You must not let anything that breathes remain alive.”) As for the New Testament, there’s that moment when Jesus calls a woman and her daughter “dogs” because they aren’t from Israel. In a way that’s the opposite of anti-Semitism — but not in a good way. And speaking of anti-Semitism, the New Testament, like the Koran, has some unflattering things to say about Jews. Devoted Bible readers who aren’t hateful ignore or downplay all these passages rather than take them as guidance.

And Wright notes that since Muslims, like Jews and Christians, pick and choose what they will activate in their sacred texts, it gives all human beings an opening to influence one another toward adopting loving (as opposed to hateful) activations:

[W]henever we do things that influence the attitudes of believers, we shape the living meaning of their scriptures. In this sense, it’s actually within the power of non-Muslim Americans to help determine the meaning of the Koran. If we want its meaning to be as benign as possible, I recommend that we not talk about burning it. And if we want imams to fill mosques with messages of brotherly love, I recommend that we not tell them where they can and can’t build their mosques. Of course, the street runs both ways. Muslims can influence the attitudes of Christians and Jews and hence the meanings of their texts. The less threatening that Muslims seem, the more welcoming Christians and Jews will be, and the more benign Christianity and Judaism will be. (A good first step would be to bring more Americans into contact with some of the overwhelming majority of Muslims who are in fact not threatening.) You can even imagine a kind of virtuous circle: the less menacing each side seems, the less menacing the other side becomes — which in turn makes the first side less menacing still, and so on; the meaning of the Abrahamic scriptures would, in a real sense, get better and better and better.

Get it? A virtuous love circle. Religion and humanity, in other words, at their best, are like this:

So let’s do it:

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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