Quran in Naskhi script written by the celebrated Turkish calligrapher Hamd Allah (15th century, Topkapi Museum


[The following is part two of a series on a lecture presented in the Hofstra Great Books Series on December 5, 1993. For part one, click here.].

So why am I here?

Let me begin with my discipline. I am an anthropologist by training and experience and a life-long student of Arabic (as a dynamic language and as an extraordinary corpus of folklore and formal literature). You may wonder why an anthropologist would stand before you to discuss a great book, an anthropologist who should seem to be more at home studying “primitive”, non-literate people (who can sadly boast of no “great books”.. Perhaps we should have a “Great Oral Traditions” series).

You see, as an anthropologist, I do not so readily discriminate between societies with books and societies technically without them. More specifically, as a cultural anthropologist, my ethnographic research (that is, my personal observations and documentation of what people do, say they do, or don’t do and think they should do) was in the Arab Islamic country of Yemen (located southwest of Saudi Arabia across the horn of Africa from more newsworthy Somalia). While many of the Yemeni men and women I knew in the field were not formally literate, they were clearly part and parcel of a religion of the book; as Muslims with an impressive local history they all related to the Quran as a vital text and they all (even if unschooled) knew by heart portions of the Quran, at a minimum the fatiha I recited at the start. To talk meaningfully about the Yemen I observed and studied and not to know something reasonably substantial about the Quran that Yemenis revere, would seem to me absurd, or at the very least the sloppiest sort of scholarship.

As an anthropologist I have a natural (at least it seems natural to me) inclination to look at a great book (the Quran, for instance) not by its cover or its contents alone, but by the way in which it informs people’s lives and thoughts. The question that interests me most tonight is not why the Quran is a great book, nor why those outside of the Islamic milieu should see it as such, but rather how Muslims see this greatness and act upon it.

The obvious caveat, of course, is that there is no one Muslim way of viewing the Quran, just as there is no one Jewish way of viewing the Torah, nor one Christian way of viewing the New Testament. None of these three sibling monotheisms is monolithic, a point often obscured by our ignorance of the theisms we are not born into, but certainly not justified by such lack of experience. The Quran can mean many things to those who must come to terms with it as revelation, depending on differing historical and cultural contexts, as well as personal idiosyncracies. This caveat is hardly a revelation in itself, and hopefully not the main point you will remember from this lecture. But periodically we must restate the obvious in order to establish why it is not obvious to everyone.

Given the general ignorance in American society of Islam, especially the theology based on the teachings in the Quran, it is important to go back to the beginning, the essence, the opening, the words that are by definition significant to all Muslims. This eloquent key, the fatiha, can initially open up for us tonight a preliminary appreciation of how Muslims look at their great book. After the fatiha, I will examine in brief some of the principles of Quranic interpretation by one of the most devout religious scholars in the history of Islam. I refer to Muhyi al-Din Ibn al-‘Arabi, who lived some six centuries ago, a pious Muslim who believed as fervently as the simplest and unschooled and yet an intellectual, philosopher, and scholar of the highest rank.

Following this, I will return quite precipitously to the present, to a controversy that has polarized Muslims apart from the “West” more than any other event in recent years. And a controversy, I will argue, that can best be understood on the basis of how Muslims treat their Great Book as great differently than we in the West treat (or perhaps more accurately, treated) our’s. My remarks are primarily directed at non-Muslims in the audience. Were I speaking solely to a community of believers, this discourse would assuredly not take the present form, cover the same well-traveled ground, nor be motivated by the same goals.

But let us return to the beginning, the opening of the great book before us.

“In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful”

For the Muslim all things begin in the name of God. The prophet Muhammad urged his followers to say this phrase at the start of any activity, such as the beginning of a meal, the start of a trip, or even (by extension) for beginning a lecture such as I did tonight. The essence of God’s name, literally the first two words in the Quran, is summed up by the 99 beautiful names (al-asma’ al-husna) which define the various attributes of God. Yet of all these attributes, the two most structurally significant are the two recited here. God is rahman (Compassionate) and God is rahim (Merciful). The first refers to God’s all-embracing beneficence, what God gives to humanity out of love and affection despite human foibles; the second refers to the divine mercy that flows after the appropriate human submission, effort and prayer. To recite this phrase is to remind yourself that God has mercy, no matter how bad you are or how good you appear to be in others’ eyes. This reminds us that the ultimate message of the Quran is moral; as a revelation it is like a deep personal letter written from a concerned parent to a child. Unlike the Torah or Christian Bible as a whole, this book does not yield a stringent legal code, nor does it create a sacred history of the world, nor does it record in boring meticulousness the genealogical links that justify past and future prophets. It is quite simply a message to get with it from a God whose main attribute is mercy.

to be continued