Weary from a mild stomach bug from the night before, I woke up to an NPR banner on my phone that proclaimed that 50 people had been killed in yet another mass shooting. My heart sunk when I read the name of the killer, and his ties to Islam. Although he was mentally unstable, and clearly homophobic, his supposed allegiance to ISIS is all we need to confirm our Islam=terrorism narratives. It is particularly disturbing that this mass shooting, this act of domestic terror was committed during Ramadan, the most sacred moth in the Muslim calendar, when the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him). This year I wanted to learn more about this increasingly embattled world religion, whose members make up over 20 per cent of the global population. So I decided to take a free online course through Harvard’s EdX series called “Islam through its Scriptures.” I am not far into the course, but in a short section on Ramadan it talks about how important fasting with intention is for Muslims, how all acts of sin or violence should be renounced even in the smallest measures. How reading the Quran is particularly important during this season of devotion.
The day before I heard about the shooting, I was riding home on the bus. The man next to me was reading the Quran off of his phone and sat transfixed in reverent stillness as his mouth muttered the same words recited by the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him). I will confess, it is hard, even for me, a relatively charitable liberal-minded, religiously obsessed graduate student, to disassociate the aesthetic of Islam with a bit of anxiety and fear of violence. Did he really have to display the screen so conspicuously? And mutter so loudly? I have read sections of the Quran, and to be honest was not that impressed; but part of the reason I am taking this course, to check my own nascent bigotry, but also to learn more about this growing world religion.
The Quran literally means ‘recite’ and so unlike protestant readings of the Bible, which are mostly semantic and devotional—we want to understand the meaning of the text—the Quran is meant to be felt and experienced by recitation. Muslim culture has developed sophisticated art of reciting the Quran in its original Arabic, which is the way it was intended to be read and recited (The official name of the Quran is actually the Arabic Quran). So the man on the bus, who read in Arabic and muttered aloud, was simply reciting in the way the book was meant to be recited.
The killer purchased a semi-automatic weapon legally and then invoked the name of Islam to dispense hatred and terror on mostly Latino gay men. The killer was an emotionally unstable homophobe who brought this twisted approach to Islam. Certainly Islam as a whole will continue to wrestle with both extremism and homophobia that are far too often finding justification in the Quran or the Sunnah, but this does not mean that Islam causes extremism or homophobia. Narrow fundamentalist approaches to any sacred text give fuel to the flames of both fundamentalism and bigotry on both sides.
It is heartbreaking to see so many dead at the filthy hands of one who would distort religion for violence and hatred. It is also heartbreaking to see Muslim friends feel the weight and pressure from us to apologize yet again for those who would seek to impose their rigid form of Islam on others. And yet even I have battled the temptation to associate Islam with terrorism because the media is so powerless to stop repeating this story.
While we pray for victims, donate blood and coin to funds, let us also examine the roots of our own traditions that feed hatred, and do something during this Ramadan season to reach out to the Muslims in our community and learn what Islam is really about.