Regardless of your religious and political persuasion, Harry Cluff says we all have something to learn from reading the Qur’an
Most major religions are based on texts that purport to relay, amplify or express the will of god. Exegeses of these books have lain the moral and social foundations of the world we know today. But many of these books are widely neglected by non-practitioners of a faith and labour under distressing misrepresentations provided by atheist commentaries. If, however, you read these works with a historical interest or with a secular curiosity, hoping to extract a grain of wisdom from a philosophy that is not your own, the reader is often surprised by the originality and profundity spread from page-to-page.Harry Club
The Qur’an is a world-text. It belongs to a list of books that are recognised globally. Homer’s Iliad & Odyssey; The Bhagavad Gita; The Complete Works of Shakespeare; The King James Bible; Sun Tzu’s The Art of War; Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations; Machiavelli’s The Prince, all exert an enormous influence on the way we think and behave and have been admired by intellectuals in almost every country. It is certainly advantageous to encounter these works and to have extracted some insight, some definition, some sense of the fundamental matters that eternally test us. We have the most discoveries, the most records, the most ideas to aid us in the endeavour of elevating our species. The Qur’an in particular urgently needs to be understood by non-Muslims for the sake of these improvements. There are over 1.8 billion Muslims alive today, making up almost a quarter of the world population. The future of the planet will be significantly influenced by the Muslim point of view. Mass media interests in Salafism, Wahhabism and the extremities of Islam dangerously belie the Qur’an’s basic and broader message.
The Qur’an is a literary masterpiece, powerfully articulated through exceptional poetry and prose. Indeed, some of the first converts had to be told that the Prophet Mohammed was not a poet and some pagan poets were even converted simply because of the sheer beauty of its language. I will avoid the morass of interpretations that have distinguished different eras and denominations and will keep to the clear underlying tenets that popularised this philosophy, rendering it one of the most ubiquitous spiritual and intellectual practices in human history. You are bound to notice similarities with other culture-defining magnum opuses, or you might be entirely surprised by how divergent Islam’s reputation is from its roots. In any case, there’s certainly no harm in having an understanding of what almost two billion of your brothers and sisters believe.
Tolerance is a sentiment which is repeatedly advocated throughout the Qur’an. “God guides who He wills”, “There is no compulsion where religion is concerned” and “Every one of you will return to God…” are quotes that are thematically indicative of the entire work. The earliest worshippers were desirous that no adherent to the faith should chide those of different persuasions or should be concerned with converting those pursuing an independent path. There are obvious exceptions. Intolerance should be invoked for those who aim to be unjust, for example. Defending good people in danger is also naturally encouraged. We often forget the simplicity of seeking to do good for those who are under threat and as an idea conceived in the violent social maelstrom of the sixth century, it is an extraordinarily progressive principle. The multicultural establishment of Islam demonstrates how these effusive sentiments resonated across tribal borders, languages and outlooks. These feelings of tolerance, defending the good and coercing no one because of their differences was meant to fortify a commitment to a notion of community (Ummah). The function of Ummah is to inaugurate a world community that transcends traditional divisions and ensures the harmonious co-existence of all humans on earth. In our global climate, these lessons would not go amiss by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. But this is not the only modern message the Qur’an delivers.
The Qur’an is also a green text. It portrays nature as a veil behind which God’s divinity awaits our awareness. It urges followers of the faith to seek signs of God in the natural world and to appraise them attentively.
“Surely in the creation of Heaven and the earth/and the alternation of night and day/and the ship that runs in the sea with profit/ to men, and the water God sends down from heaven/ therewith reviving the earth again after it is dead/ and His scattering abroad in it all manner of /crawling things, and the turning about of the winds/ and the clouds compelled between heaven and earth – surely these are signs for a people of understanding.”
The Qur’an’s command to search for God in nature spurred early scholars to diligently scrutinise their environment. In Islam there is little tension between science and faith. The pioneering conceptions and discoveries in maths and science that secured Islam’s status as a civilisation were divinely inspired. Reflecting on abstract questions of God’s ontology is not recommended. A higher preference is bestowed on inquiry into the nature of things: the undulation of the sea, the virility of flowers, the caliginous connection of time and space. As a result, sagacious readers of the Qur’an in the centuries proceeding the Prophet’s death penetrated mysteries that baffled an array of ancient thinkers.
The next core message is abstention. Relinquishing an interest in worldly possessions. Not unlike the Cynics, the Qur’an promotes the belief that a reliance on material objects corrupts the soul. The denigration of those base desires allows you to acquire a simpler appetite which is incapable of destroying the essential purity that constitutes the spirit. This, along with a dismissal of things that harm you or are sinful, leads to ‘God-consciousness’ or ‘Taqwa’. This is an inner moment when you become cognizant of God and His truth. For an atheist or non-believer of the Islamic God, the term God can signify the melodious balance of all things, like the force in Star Wars or Emerson’s conception of the natural world. Free of moral concerns and the weight of guilt, by clearing your mind of the clutter that can characterise consciousness from day-to-day, you access a higher state within and convene with the divine as well as any human ever has. In an age when our minds and senses are incessantly assaulted by information and the temptation of convenience over correctness, serenity is a virtue of inestimable value, one which can afford an adult the tranquillity of a child and supply a child with the calmness of an angel.
Its message on war, on casus belli, is to do so only in self-defence. It asks that we resist the urge to dominate, to practice patience, knowing patience is more likely to provide the right answer for a problem you face than any impulsive act of aggression. Restraint is a religious virtue advocated by many religions, from Christianity to Buddhism, but it attains a surprising and special significance in the Qur’an and we can all benefit from being reminded of its advantages.
Regardless of your opinion about the existence of God, of your political persuasion and the distortion of Islam for the sake of politics, everyone should read this beautifully written and philosophically rich book. It has guided the fates of billions of people over generations and it just might make an indelible impression on your own perspective too.