Interpreting divine texts: Let the Qur’an define itself

It’s beautiful – but why?

In the Arab world, it is held as an unadulterated truth that the Qur’an is best read in its original classical Arabic. But is keeping it closed off to further translation supporting God’s will or suppressing it?

Many believe that what differentiates the Qur’an from other holy books is that it is undiluted by translation, that once a word is translated it loses its original breadth and depth. But is that really the case? Can we not also make the argument that a word, once translated into 100 languages, expresses an even greater breadth and depth?

The Qur’an defines itself. Less perfectly, perhaps, in Swedish than in Arabic, but surely far more valuably to the Swedes. One cannot hold goodness hostage to perfection.

Life is all about the grey area. When I was growing up I wasn’t sure where I belonged in the world of religion. The way religion was taught in the Arab world was always in absolutes. While I didn’t know much when I was young, I knew that I could not live in a black and white, either-or world. This was made most clear through a sermon delivered by a young imam who was studying for his doctorate at the Harvard Divinity School.

Speaking to a group of Muslim students, Imam Talal Eid said, “If you ask me whether charging interest is haram (forbidden) in Islam, I would say ‘yes’ and I would quote chapter and verse from the Qur’an for you.”

After a long pause, he went on to say, “But if I didn’t pay for my car with an installment loan, I wouldn’t be able to come here to talk to you about Islam.”

With that simple, expressive example between the absolute and the relative, the imam carved out a place of tolerance and compromise for me. He made it safe for me to be the judge of my own actions, to set my own course, to walk to the beat of my own drum. He made it safe to make my own rules using the lessons I learned with the heart and mind that God gave me. No one could force me to walk away from my duty as a Muslim by insisting there was only one way to live my life and practice my faith.

Tolerance begins in the classroom. Tolerance begins when we are allowed to read any text from any source, in any translation, and offer our opinions. Tolerance is born when there are as many opinions as there are people and when the power of reason is what separates a good grade from a bad one. In an Arab education, the power of memory and repetition are too often rewarded, while the power of reason is reprimanded.

In our schools, we get an “A” if we can memorise someone else’s teachings but an “F” if we dare to analyse it. Worse yet, we can be branded as heretics. I have heard many proudly say that one should value repetition over the use of one’s mind.

But if God had wanted us to be parrots, he would have given us feathers and beaks instead of minds and free will.

We need to move on.

In Europe the Renaissance helped break the control of those who favoured recitation over reason. Art played a huge part in that revolution. Suddenly, people were encouraged to have opinions about art and to discuss its implications. Meanwhile, art in our neck of the desert was, until recently, limited exclusively to the beautiful calligraphy of the Qur’an.

As beautiful as our art is, its meaning gave no room for openness of interpretation. How could one comment? I don’t like the colour purple on that verse? Maybe the writer should have used a larger font?

I once asked my ten-year-old son, Hamad, what he thought of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, the Mona Lisa. He liked her smile but not the colours. “Too dark”, he said.

I then asked him what he thought of a beautiful piece of Qur’anic calligraphy that honours a wall in our home. He looked at it and asked me what I meant. “Hamad, you just told me what you liked and didn’t like about the Mona Lisa”, I replied. “Why can’t you tell me the same about this piece of art?”

He looked at me confused and said, “It’s the Qur’an. Of course it’s beautiful.” And indeed it is. But that is beside the point; someday he will know of his own intellect why it is beautiful.

Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa is the creator of The 99, the internationally acclaimed group of superheroes based on Islamic archetypes. For more information, please visit the99.org. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).


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