November 16, 2005

Inside the Muslim Mind and the Qur'an

Below is most of a short interview with Michael Sells, Professor of Islamic History at the University of Chicago, and author of the book, "Approaching the Qur'an" (think "Controversy in 2002 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill"). The interview appeared in the Minneapolis-St. Paul StarTribune.

Q Some Americans would see the title of your lecture, "The Politics of the Qur'an," as synonymous with the politics of terrorism. How do you respond?

A: One of the big problems in the American society is that people do not have a sense of what the Qur'an is. So when someone commits an act of violence and cites a verse from the Qur'an, which seems to justify violence, then it's easy for people to make the assumption that the Qur'an is a document of violence. So one thing that needs to happen is for people to have a general sense of the sacred texts of religious traditions and to see that there is violence and peace in all of the sacred texts and that people have justified violence by quoting all of the sacred texts.

Q Is there a fundamental gap in understanding between Islam and the West?

A: There are translation gaps. Muslims approach the Qur'an primarily through hearing it in Arabic. It's a very different experience than reading the Bible, and it makes it very difficult for people, when they pick up a Qur'an and read it, to understand the spirituality that Muslims feel and sense when they hear the Qur'an.

Q Does that translate into anything practical in terms of our understanding of the Muslim world?

A: What's often lost are the deeper feelings of tenderness, of solidarity with other human beings, of subtlety, of the ability to have many interpretations. All of these things when they are lost lead then to a very stereotypical sense ... a narrow, more rigid sense of what the tradition is.

Q There was lively controversy after the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill assigned students in 2002 to read your book, "Approaching the Qur'an." Critics said you sanitized Islam by leaving out passages commanding violent behavior in jihad. How do you respond?

A: It's a category mistake. If someone were presenting to Muslims aspects of the Bible that most Christians and Jews find deeply personal in their private religious lives, ... you would probably present something like the Book of Genesis. ... You probably would not present the Book of Joshua, in which God requires his people to exterminate all of the people of the Palestine area. ... I took the part of the Qur'an that Muslims learn first, that they memorize most often, and I translated that.


Jordan said...

I 100% agree with you that each holy book contains disgraces that we wish we could make dissapear. In my case, the Torah says some nasty stuff about beating and raping slaves.

But I think people are curious as to why Jews, Hindus, Budhists, and Christians seem to not be quoting scripture as they justify killing women and children (some exceptions apply... Bosnia, etc.)

As a jew, I must plead ignorance towards the Quran (except for the juicy stuff of course). I also must admit that I fear Arab/Islamic culture and I am worried that a class of civilizations has begun. But I don't think I should be blamed for my fear as it is not random. I don't fear Hinduism, a religion I am equally ignorant of. Therefore, I think it is only fair for the Arab/Islamic world to place the blame on the terrorists and the fundimentalist who support them (30% of the Arab world in 2002).

It is terribly unfortinate that good people like yourself must suffer because of others. But if muslims/arabs cannot abondon islamic literlism is not defeated, I doubt your religion will ever be viewed as piecefull in the westearn world.

In a simular note, the rise of Christian fundimentalism in America is also getting a tad scary.

By the way, great blog!

JD said...


Thanks for your comments on my two blog entries. I've been rather busy tonight and won't be able to respond just yet, but I did want to thank you for visiting and writing your comments. Insha'allah, I'll get back to these comments in a day or two.

JD said...

Jordan wrote: "I 100% agree with you that each holy book contains disgraces that we wish we could make dissapear."

Actually, I don't believe that I made such an assertion and, no offense, I don't believe that this is the case with the Qur'an. Two problems I do think many non-Muslims have in reading the Qur'an are: a lack of understanding regarding the historical, religious and linguistic contexts surrounding the Qur'an and its revelation, and an inability by many people (and not just non-Muslims) to read the Qur'an on a level deeper other than face value.

In that regard, I believe that the verses non-Muslims may believe to be "disgraces" are misunderstood as they don't understand the Qur'an in depth as many Muslims do. I will say that to understand the Qur'an in depth takes a considerable amount of time and study, and even I, myself, am still learning new subtleties about the Qur'an (even though I've been studying the Qur'an for about 10 years now).