Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Recommended Reading: The Qur'an Gives Us Insight into the Muslim World-As Well as the Christian Faith

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Recommended Reading: The Qur'an Gives Us Insight into the Muslim World-As Well as the Christian Faith

Article excerpt


When I had heard that a Christian pastor in Florida was planning to burn the Qur'an as an evil book, I shuddered. My friend Abdul recites the Qur'an and finds comfort and inspiration in it. I first met Abdul while he was in graduate school, about 20 years ago. I had tried a few times to read the Qur'an to learn more about his Muslim faith. At the time I found it confusing and frustrating, but not worthy of incineration.

My curiosity about the Qur'an lingered over the years until, again through Abdul's generous invitation, I had a chance to encounter it while living in Egypt for a few months.

Living as a Catholic, talking, walking, eating, and laughing together with Muslims, I engaged in what Cardinal Francis Arinze has termed "the dialogue of religious experience." We shared stories, jokes, and recipes, but we also shared our prayers and love of God. I sought to understand their faith life as only another believer can, not through the study of comparative theology, but by the sharing of hearts.

Through repeated frustration, realized that the Qur'an is not like the Bible. It does not contain sustained stories of a people engaged in the divine drama that spans millennia as does our scripture. On the contrary, the Qur'an contains very little that is sustained over more than a few verses. At times it feels akin to reading something taped together from a shredding machine.

This impression is partly due to the manner of its development. Muslims believe the Qur'an was revealed to Muhammad over the course of two decades in the latter half of his life, 610-632. Muhammad, who is believed to have been illiterate, recited what he heard to his followers, who continually committed to memory each new set of verses as they were revealed, writing them also on whatever was available, including camel bones and pot shards.

Most of the revelations came as verses directed to particular settings or dilemmas, not as a sustained narrative, though certain themes do carry throughout. Within two decades after Muhammad's death, the verses of the Qur'an were gathered into the form that we see today. It is not organized by chronology, but rather by length of chapter, longest to shortest.

Thus the writing is really not comparable to biblical writings, which were revealed by God and composed by many authors over more than 1,000 years. To really understand the Qur'an and its place in Muslim hearts, it is essential to recognize that the proper terms of comparison are not between the Qur'an and the Bible; the proper comparison is between the Qur'an and Jesus.

The angel Gabriel figures strongly in both traditions and can help in understanding the parallels. In Christianity, Gabriel appears to Mary, who conceives the word of God made human flesh in her womb as Jesus. In Islam, the angel Gabriel appears to Muhammad, who receives the word of God made human sound in his hearing and recitation as the Qur'an. Both Jesus and the Qur'an are perceived by followers to be the direct embodiment of God's word.

Christians recognize Jesus as God's word made incarnate. Muslims hold the Qur'an to be God's word made "insonant." True, the Qur'an was eventually written, but today recitation is still the primary way most Muslims experience it.

The Qur'an is an aural encounter, surround sound throughout the day. Beside the five daily calls to prayer, it seemed each time I would ride in a minibus or take a taxi that there was a cassette of Qur'an recitation playing in the sound system, or the short opening chapter might be recited together with friends at the end of an evening of visiting.

As a child of Western culture, I approached the Qur'an as a book to read; my Muslims friends, however, approach the Qur'an as an occasion for listening and recitation. What I experience as disjointed in reading, they experience as a weaving of themes and layered repetition in listening. …

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