A Christian Pastor Reads the Quran

I am a Christian pastor and I recently read the Quran.

Yes, I’m writing to share that I read something. I’m also going to use three times as many words than usual to do so. Why? Because I have no editor or advertisers, so freedom of speech.

brevity

Anyway, I set out to read it for two primary reasons: 1) General curiosity; and 2) I cannot stand it when people who haven’t read the Bible claim to know what it teaches. I don’t want to do the same thing with the Quran. 

When I started this project all I knew about the Quran was that it was written in Arabic and is spelled two different ways in English (which is due to nothing more than a preference in transliteration, because English is annoying like that). On top of this, I only possessed a vague understanding of Islamic history (and my mental picture of that history basically looks like Aladdin, which is kind of embarrassing to admit).

So everything was new to me – including the structure of the book. It’s broken up into 114 episodes called “suras,” which are arranged by length (not chronologically) and named after a key theme or person within. (For example, sura 4 is “Women” and sura 13 is “Thunder”). And my lack of historical knowledge was (slightly) improved by the historical introduction, editorial comments, and footnotes offered in the translation I used.

aladdin

Now, I actually finished reading the Quran several months ago and didn’t intend to write on it. I just wanted to explore. But I ended up deciding to chronicle my thoughts for a few reasons:

  • One, President Trump’s recent executive order on immigration. I won’t join in the throng of ill-formed opinions over the EO itself, but this post may help clear up some misconceptions about Islam.
  • Two, which is a more evergreen issue, Barna Research Group recently reported that 87% of Evangelicals think it would be difficult to have a “natural and normal conversation” with Muslims. Familiarity with their authoritative text helps reduce this percentage.
  • And three, selfishly, I wanted to write this post because the Quran was the most exhausting read I have ever undertaken and I wanted a written trophy to validate my experience. 

 

baby 2 waah

I’m not kidding, adorable yet condescending baby, I had never experienced this level of reading fatigue. At times, I felt like I was crawling through the text. At other times, it felt like I was doing weighted lunges uphill while holding my breath. I frequently had to urge myself to stay focused, and I’d coach myself with one line encouragements like, “You’re almost there, buddy. Power through.” Then I’d turn a page and OH SWEET SURA THERE’S MORE I’M NOT GOING TO MAKE IT!!!!!

 

baby 2 waah

Listen you cute, squeezable troll only capable of mono-syllabic insults, I’m not alone in this sentiment. Philosopher Thomas Carlyle said that it was “as toilsome reading as I ever undertook; a wearisome, confused jumble, crude, incondite.” Historian Edward Gibbon called it an “incoherent rhapsody of fable, and precept, and declamation.” Yes, Carlyle was known for being quite crabby. And Gibbon wasn’t too friendly to organized religion. But still.

Now, why was it so hard to read?

It wasn’t the sheer volume of the Quran. It’s only 4/5 the length of the New Testament and the halfway point is sura 24, so the pace of sura digestion speeds up towards the end (suras 61 to 114 are bitesize).

It wasn’t the translation I used, either. It was very smooth and accessible. (As a side note, the translator opted for the neutral term “nonbeliever,” instead of “infidel.” Formally, they mean the same thing, but infidel has a lot of baggage attached to it).

Now, the book’s writing style is admittedly tough to handle for the first time reader. Personal pronouns and verb tenses pivot on a dime. It can go from Allah speaking to Muhammad, to Muhammad speaking to the readers, to a referential quote from someone else to Allah, and back and forth. It’s like a game of sacred conversation tennis.

But that’s a minor stylistic issue. Here’s my theory as to why I got so fatigued while reading the Quran:

Ease of reading is a function of context.  

Let me explain this.

The Quran utilizes high context communication, meaning that familiarity with the situation is more assumed than spelled out. There are numerous allusions to stories and events that don’t have any antecedents (prior stories) in the text itself. For example, there is an assumed familiarity with the people of Thamud (apparently bad guys) and the people of ‘Ad (also apparently bad guys). But their stories are never told in the Quran. The Samiri are supposedly the ones who led the Israelites astray in Golden-calfgate (more on the biblical parallels in a moment). Who are they? No one seems to know. Same with Dhu’l-Kifl. All that can be inferred about him is that he’s a prophet.

One example that vexed me while reading was the character Iblis. He pops on the scene in 2:34, and all that can be discerned from his first appearance is that he’s an angel who refuses to bow down to Adam. (Yes, Allah commands the angels to worship Adam, which I found interesting).

Then, a couple verses later, Satan appears (2:36). But apparently Iblis is Satan (despite both terms being used to identify him in the same passage).

And then the jinn start popping up (6:100, 112, 130; 7:179; 11:119; 15:27). Who are they? I eventually figured out that they’re not human (but are capable of having sex with women), were birthed by smoke, and are evil little beasts.

But then the plot thickens. Guess who turns out to be a jinn?

iblis

Yes, different baby for whatever reason – IBLIS!!!

So all of this to say, my lack of categorical context made it frequently tough to comprehend what was going on. But that, too, was not the main reason why I think reading the Quran was difficult. I believe there was another missing piece of context that matters more, which leads to my first big observation:

 

Observation #1: Community context is vital when reading sacred texts. 

 

As a pastor, I don’t face this problem with the Bible. But I was reading the Quran by myself as a non-Muslim with no connection to the book aside from my curiosity. The Quran has played absolutely no role in shaping my worldview. I wasn’t raised hearing stories of the jinn, learning about Islamic conquest, or engaging in the five pillars. And not only was nobody else reading the book with me – nobody else I knew was even able to converse with me about it. If I had quit reading in the middle, it would not affect my life in any way.

I was truly alone in this project.

So it donned on me. A shared interest in a sacred text provides a level of meaning necessary to enjoy reading it. Daily devotionals and Bible reading plans have a high failure rate, I’d argue, because they are (relatively) lonely pursuits. And even though reading is an individual activity, it doesn’t have to be isolating. Community context is what makes this true.

But enough about my process. I do have some thoughts on the content of the book itself. This leads to my next big observation:

 

Observation #2: Fear is Allah’s favorite motivator, but the Quran does not promote the use of violence. 

 

The main purpose of the Quran is “so that [Mohammad] could bring warning in a clear Arabic tongue” (26:192-195). In fact, judgement is the predominant theme of the book, and “Allah is watching you” is reiterated over and over and over and over.

And in contrast with the genre-diverse Bible, the Quran only has one – High Velocity Allah Sermon (although, Sura 55 is highly poetic and I bet is beautiful in Arabic). Every sura except for sura 9 begins with, “In the name of Allah, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy…” His omniscience and omnipotence are emphasized throughout, and his names put the “all” in Allah. He is referred to as “All” Hearing, Seeing, Knowing, Wise, Forgiving, Merciful, Powerful, and Aware. He’s also described as the Controller, Holy One, Source of Peace, Granter of Security, Guardian, Compeller, Creator, Originator, Shaper, Judge, Most Sublte, Most High, Most Great, and, only once that I could find, Most Loving. There is very little “tender and compassionate” imagery associated with him.

In sum, the picture of Allah in the Quran is of a terrifying deity. And he is quite severe in his punishment (8:25):

“Garments of fire will be tailored for those who disbelieve; scalding water will be poured over their heads, melting their insides as well as their skin; there will be iron crooks to restrain them; whenever, in their anguish, they try to escape, they will be pushed back in and told, ‘Taste the suffering of the Fire.’” (22:19-22)

Vivid.

Also, whereas the Bible displays the full array of human emotions, the Quran does not offer much of the human perspective. It is a directive from Allah on what to do now with a warning of what is coming next. There are frequent calls for unbelievers (and hypocrites) to repent, and obedience to Allah is paramount.

But the Quran does not justify violence. 

The infamous “sword passages” are there, but they are subject to the same question raised with the Bible – do they apply today?

This is where historical context does matter. Arabian polytheism was the big enemy of Islam at the time, and they are the primary (if not only) object of the sword passages.

  • 2:190-195 involves retribution against attacks during the pilgrimage. This is hardly a justification for contemporary terrorism.
  • 9:1-11 allows for the “killing, seizing, and besieging” of “idolaters” wherever they are encountered. But the idolaters in question are people who broke a treaty with Mohammad and had attacked first (9:13).
  • Yes, those who wage war against Allah and his messenger are to be punished by death, crucifixion, the amputation of an alternate foot or hand, or banishment from the land unless they repent (5:33). But these prescriptions are retaliatory as well.

Basically, I think the Quran faces the same problem the Bible does – verses being ripped out of context to justify behavior that is antithetical to the prescribed behavior for the faithful. However, with all of this said, the historical context is a double-edged sword for the sword passages. Historically, Muhammad led the early Muslims in a series of battles and Islam was spread via military conquest, so violence is ingrained, to some degree, within the spread of the faith. Contrast this with the first few centuries of Christianity, where it spread through evangelism, and with poor women credited for much of the expansion.

Which leads to my next observation…

 

Observation #3: The Quran reinforces patriarchy, but women are to be treated with respect. 

 

Sura 4 is entirely devoted to the topic of women. It forbids treating them as property or harshly (4:19), and they are said to have an equal share in the future Paradise (4:124). And 2:187 says, “They (your wives) are your garment and you are a garment for them.” This presents the idea of mutuality.

However, marriage is not exactly an equal partnership. Marrying slaves is allowed, and so is polygamy and divorce. (Sura 65 gives the guidelines for it. Once separated, women end up in a marriage purgatory of three months, timed by their menstrual cycles, before they can remarry).

On the topic of women’s bodies, there is nothing even close to genital mutilation or other abuses mentioned in the Quran. But there is permission for a husband to hit a wife if she is “high-handed” (meaning that they assume superiority to their husband). However, this is only after the husband ignores her at first and then sleeps on it (4:34). Knee-jerk retaliation is definitely not permitted.

Also, women are told to “lower their eyes, guard their private parts, and not display their charms beyond what is acceptable to reveal” (24:31). This is more about modesty, but I understand that “what is acceptable” is vague enough to account for something like the hijab.

In sum, it seemed pretty evident that even though patriarchy is assumed and reinforced throughout the Quran, men are to treat women with dignity and respect.

Now, with those two unpleasant topics out of the way, my biggest takeaway of the whole project was this:

 

Observation #4: The Quran contains so many bridges for conversation with Christianity.

 

Even though the Quran is his final revelation, Allah affirms “the Scripture” (Old Testament) and “the Gospel” (New Testament). What I found fascinating is that Jews and Christians are talked about a ton (way more than I anticipated), and are referred to as the “People of the Book.” (The Children of Israel are even addressed directly in 2:47, and those who don’t follow the Torah are said to be like “asses carrying books” (62:5)).

Many Bible characters and events are depicted within. Moses is mentioned frequently. Also making cameos are Jonah, Noah, Abraham, Lot, Aaron, Pharaoh, Jacob, Isaac, Joseph, Gabriel (also known as the Holy Spirit in 16:102), John, Mary (whose mother is apparently named ‘Imran – 66:12), Zachariah, Ishmael, Adam, David, Solomon, Job, and the Queen of Sheba.

However, the biblical characters are associated with numerous stories that are not in the Bible. For example, Abraham prays a lament over the idolatry of Mecca (14:35-36). And Job makes a vow to beat his wife once his health is restored, and, when it is, he regrets it. So Allah tells him to fill his hand with grass and to then hit her so as to not break the oath (38:41-44).

But the most notable character is Jesus.

Jesus is mentioned on numerous occasions, and he is remarkably different than he is in the New Testament. In the Quran, he is the son of Mary (2:87), and the virgin birth is affirmed (19:17-35), but he is not “son of God” (23:91). On top of this, it is explicitly stated that Jesus didn’t die on cross (4:157-159); and that he is not the Messiah (9:30).

In sum, Jesus’ deity is roundly rejected in the Quran, which leads to a concluding theological observation:

 

Observation #5: There is no way to reconcile the differences between Allah and YHWH. They are not even close to the same God.

 

Even though Allah explicitly claims to be God (29:46) and Muslims are to argue that they are one and the same (29:46), the differences between the two are irreconcilable. On top of the rejection of the deity of Christ (mentioned above), there is a direct refutation of the Trinity (4:171). So any belief that “Christians and Jews and Muslims worship the same God” is indefensible.

aladdin2

I guess.

This project corrected some of my assumptions about Islam. Reno isn’t exactly teeming with Muslims, but I hope I would be one of the 13% of Evangelicals who can have a “natural and normal” conversation because of my time spent reading the Quran. Given the current political/social climate, I think this matters.

Now before this post ends, I have some stray observations I will include because, again, I have no editor and this is therapeutic as I continue to recover from DRT (Difficult Reading Trauma):

  • The contrast in origins of the sacred texts is of note. The Quran’s first revelation came to Muhammad on the “Night of Glory” while he was alone in a cave. But with every new revelation (spanning the course of about 22 years), there would be witnesses.  Muhammad would go into a trance – his face would be flushed, his body would go limp, he would appear to be asleep, he’d sweat, and he’d begin reciting new verses of the Quran. This would happen at different times – he could be walking, sitting, and even preaching. Those who heard it would memorize it, then recite it to others. This overtly supernatural revelation stands in stark contrast with the Bible’s unspectacular composition. And the lofty prose of the Quran contrasts with the Bible’s humbly mundane communication style at times, like Paul saying “Tell Phoebe I say hi” and “Look at how big the words I write are!”
  • Allah created the universe in six days, although this doesn’t mean six literal days (10:3  says a day is a thousand years 32:5; and in 70:4 there is a day whose length is fifty thousand years).
  • Allah created the heavens and the earth for a stated purpose: to reward each soul according to its deeds (45:22).
  • What is the purpose of man? He was created for toil and trial (90:4). Also, Allah’s act of creating humans is… peculiar… “Was [man] not just a drop of spilt-out sperm, which became a clinging form, which God shaped in due proportion, fashioning from it the two sexes, male and female?” (75:37-39)
  • The Quran doesn’t have a “prosperity gospel.” Unbelievers may have wealth (which is temporary) (104:1), and believers may not. Wealth is even said to be a distractor (102:1). The message seems to be “work in this life, reap in the next.”
  • On the topic of the afterlife, Islam’s future paradise = unfettered indulgence in the best of this world. Paradise, the future home only for true believers, is filled with fruits, gardens, couches, friends, wives, a mystery drink that causes no “headiness or intoxication,” everlasting youths, clean and wholesome speech, and silk clothes (37:40-49; sura 56). (Contrast this with the biblical picture of heaven, which is far more God-centered). Also, there is a future resurrection (23:15).
  • In Islam, what saves a person is obedience to prescribed religious practices (5:93; 8:2; 29:69; 74:43-45).
  • Muhammad gets special treatment when it comes to his wives and slaves (33:49-52).

Christian, husband, pastor, father. Occasionally, I try to arrange words into sequences that make a difference.