Appreciating the Qur'an
A reflection by Oubai Elkerdi in Images and Words
A JJB appreciation by Jay McDaniel
“There is not a thing that moves on the earth, no bird that flies on its wings, but has a community of its own like yours. Nothing is left without a mention in the Book. Then they will all be brought into the presence of their Lord." (6:38)
Images by Oubai Elkerdi; Double-exposure. Filters borrowed from Crafty Dogma and Wojciech Sadlej.
Images by Oubai Elkerdi; Double-exposure. Filters borrowed from Crafty Dogma and Wojciech Sadlej.
A JJB appreciation of the Qur'an
If is fitting for a website called Jesus, Jazz, and Buddhism to have an offering on the Quran such as that provided by Oubai Elkerdi in the column on the right. There are two reasons.
One is that the Quran holds Jesus in high esteem. He is mentioned many times in the Qur'an and recognized as a Prophet of Tawhid (divine unity) whose healing ministry was an act of kindness, revealing the nearness of God to human life.
Indeed, most Muslims believe that he was born in a miraculous way and that he will return again before the end of time. They believe that his way -- his sunna -- is a way in which they, too, would like to walk. Put simply, Muslims seek to be followers of Jesus. Not "Christians" but followers of Jesus.
Another reason is that it is fitting to have an offering on the Qur'an by Oubai Elkderdi -- with more to come on other subjects -- is the tagline for Oubai's website: Oubai's Space. He calls it "a space for reflections and intellectual jazz."
Oubai appreciates the creativity and diversity of life and he experiences the Quran as an invitation to embrace that creativity and diversity. This includes reflecting on big questions in life but also reflecting on -- or, better, feeling -- the dynamism of life: the pulsing energy that flows through all things.
Many years ago the spiritual father of modern Pakistan, Muhammad Iqbal, proposed in The Reconstruction of Modern Religious Thought that the Qur'an, by virtue of the melodies and rhythms of its language, offers what we at JJB call a process or an organic view of life: depicting life itself as pulsating with a creativity in which humans participate, all of which is drawn by and toward God.
Muhammad Iqbal puts is simply in the first line of his chapter The Principle of Movement in the Structure of Islam: "As a cultural movement Islam rejects the old static view of the universe, and reaches a dynamic view."
Certainly this makes sense for those among us influenced by the philosophy of Whitehead, whom Iqbal cites favorably in his first chapter on Knowledge and Religious Experience. There's still more that makes good sense. It is that, as a living text -- a Book with an upper case B - the Qur'an, in Oubai's words, "forces us to abandon our notions and question our frames of thinking...It lays us low and leaves us naked."
Those of us influenced by Whitehead's philosophy often speak of God as a spirit of creative transformation in the world, a spirit whose very presence comforts the affilicted, to be sure, but also afflicts the comfortable, taking us out of comfort zones into more honest, creative, compassionate ways of living in the world.
And that's not all. It makes sense to us that the Quran should shift from topic to topic, blurring the boundaries of conventional, compartmentalized ways of thinking and displaying a deep, creative interconnectedness of all things: people, landscapes, feelings, ideas, sounds, sights, falling stars, rising moons. The apocalyptic warnings in the Quran are not simply warnings of what may come, they are invitations to stand naked beneath stars, hearts laid bare and motivations revealed, in the presence of the mystery at the heart of the universe.
It would not be surprising to say that, sometimes, when we hear the Quran, we feel God's very presence in the act of hearing, in the rhythms and melodies, the achings and longings, the fear and trembling, and, yes, the tenderness of the all-compassionate One. In a Whiteheadian context melody and rhythms are what feelings sound like, including God's feelings.
Does this mean that we Whiteheadians agree with the content of the Quran. If we are Muslims, we may indeed. If we are not, we will need much more listening to believe all the content, and we will ask questions, too. Of course the content is multivocal, poetic, evocative, and inexhaustible. There is a long and variegated history of interpretation among Muslims, as yet unfinished, the most promising future of which lies in the hands of voices heretofore under-represented in Islamic history: women very much among them.
But Muslim or non-Muslim, we process thinkers know that the meaning of a text, including a holy text, is not simply in the meaning of the words but also the sweetness of the sound, which have meaning in their own right, and that something can be heard -- something timeless and rich and blessed -- in the recitation of the Beautiful.
Does book reveal archetypes for the whole of creation and human life? This is possible. It is possible that eternal objects -- pure potentialities -- dwell in the very mind of God which are patterns for the whole of reality, and which are revealed to the eye of the heart when the Quran is heard. It is possible that Islam can help the world reclaim a wisdom forgotten to modernity but known to perennialists and sensed by Whitehead himself: that there sensing the forms or patterns within all things and knowing that, in the timeless beginning, they are present in the mind of the One.
Yes, all of this is possible, but there is no need for a final determination of the matter. Let there be multiple points of view from which the Quran is heard, Muslim and non-Muslim. And in the hearing, from whatever point of view, let us find something deeply human, and perhaps also deeply divine, in the cadences from which wisdom flows. For the Muslim the Quran is like a bubbling fountain with God as its source. There is no need to put a frame around it and pretend that it can be contained within a single interpretation. There is no need to make a mere book of the Book.
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From Oubai Elkerdi*
At once dazzling and disturbing, beautiful and surprising, the Quran challenges our human expectations of what a Book should look like and forces us to abandon our notions and question our frames of thinking. Titus Burckhardt once wrote: ”The Quran does not satisfy, it gives and at the same time takes away; it expands the soul by lending it wings, then lays it low and leaves it naked; for the believer, it is both comforting and purifying, like a rainstorm." Yet, until we are able to let go of our hubris and embrace the “way" of the Quran, we will never truly understand the Book and, by extension, Islam. What follows is one of the best descriptions of the Quran I’ve come across.
The Quran: literally, “that which is often recited." A web of rhythm and meaning, the words of which throb through Muslim worship and which, at every point in the believer’s life, break surface, sanctifying existence with the scent of eternity. A paradoxical flash of the divine light, penetrating the veil of solid existence into our world. Redolent with symbol, half-hidden meaning and rapier-sharp insight, it transforms the reader by suggestion rather than by formal structures of argument and proof. It demands to be accepted on its own terms: only when the reader is prepared to discard all that he believes a book should be, will he begin to discern its symmetries and its heart-rending power.
Goethe sensed this. In his West-Oestlicher Divan he declares how, after inspiring initial astonishment and fear, the Quran “soon attracts, astounds, and, in the end, enforces our reverence. Its style, in accordance with its contents and aim, is stern, grand, terrible—ever and anon truly sublime. Thus, this book will go on exercising, through the ages, a most potent influence."
And so it does. More so for the Muslim than for the most committed Protestant, holy writ is studied, memorized, and quoted. More than four million men and women in the world today have memorized the entire Quran: over six thousand verses. A far greater number have memorized shorter sections for use in their five daily Prayers. Throughout the Muslim world, from Senegal to Indonesia, to ride any bus or train is to see one’s fellow passengers quietly reading from a miniature copy of God’s Book or reciting it to themselves, enjoying a breath of the transcendent to relieve the tedium of their journey. The same Book, in intricate calligraphy, adorns the rear window of passing cars. Short, aphoristic verses are painted on the walls and doors of houses. The conversation of city businessman and rustic peasant alike is peppered with allusions and direct quotations from the Book. Everywhere human life is anchored to the hidden world by the Quran.
For the Muslim, God’s Book is much more than a source of liturgical and social rules; indeed, such topics occupy less than one tenth of the Quranic text; and it is more even than a revelatory declaration of man’s origin and his fate, an exposition of the truths of man’s spiritual nature and of judgement. The Quran is oft-recited, at the most profound possible level, because it is of God. Its text reveals God’s will for His creation, but is also a revelation of Himself. It is uncreated, timeless, a dimension of God’s pre-existent attribute of speech, communication: it is the Logos, which is the interface between the Absolute and the contingent realms. It is the pre-existent light which becomes manifest in history as prophethood. […]
One of the most surprising features of the Quran to the Western reader coming to it for the first time is the way in which subjects of many kinds may be found together in a single chapter, or even in the course of a few verses. This is an essential aspect of the Book’s message. It is human nature to endeavor to categorize and label our experience of the world, and we feel disconcerted when our familiar expectations of such an ordering are not fulfilled. The Quran, both in its literary style and in its internal arrangement, conforms to no human norms. It is a message which has broken through the veil of the unseen and causes us to look upwards, bringing us suddenly into a new dimension, a new mode of perception. The Quran is from the One, and it belongs to a higher order of creation than our own, where unity and differentiation begin to coalesce, and where our perception of a world dispersed into multiple states and forms loses its validity. But despite this unique feature, the formal message, the outward meaning of the Book, is in no way compromised; indeed, it gains in cogency, for each of its teachings and guiding principles is meaningful only in the context of the transcendent unity of God.
The question of the sequence of topics found in the Quran blends into another issue: the miraculous quality of the Book’s semantics and diction. For Muslims, it is an article of faith that the prose style with which its meaning patterns are articulated is inimitable in its beauty, precision, and moving grandeur, and that this constitutes the greatest of the miracles with which God confirmed the message of His last Prophet. This quality, known in Arabic as the I’jaz, comes over only very imperfectly even in the best translations; nevertheless it is still possible for the European or American reader to sense something of the breathless, insistent rhythms of the original. To the Arab, whether Muslim or Christian, the Quran has always remained the summit of eloquence which every stylist should aspire to emulate. Perhaps the greatest of all the arts evolved by Islamic civilization is that of the formal, virtuoso recitation of the Book before an audience, which is frequently moved to tears by the majestic cadences of a favourite passage, faithfully rendered by some master craftsman of the human voice.
— Abdul Wadod Shalabi and Abdal Hakim Murad, Islam: Religion of Life
* Oubai Elkerdi is a friend in the JJB community, an engineer on paper and an artist by vocation, who seeks to intertwine his analytic skills and artistic passions in the service of humankind.