Why Any Religion?
(rather than none at all)
The pages that follow this opening italicized paragraph were first published in 2018 as an afterword to my book God in the Qur’an (Alfred A.Knopf) where they bore the title “Is the Qur’an the Word of God?” Since that time, however, because this afterword begins by confronting the anomaly of religion itself, I have repeatedly found occasion to cite it in other-than-Islamic contexts, and others have done so as well. For that reason, I requested -- and the publisher has granted -- permission to post the afterword, with the new title that you see above, on my website. Beyond the changed title, the text that follows is unchanged from the original. JM, 3/14/22
Is the Qur’an the Word of God?
Wilfred Cantwell Smith, a Christian scholar who devoted much of his career as a scholar of religion to the study of Islam, made that question the final chapter of his book On Understanding Islam. I open this afterword with his question because the moment is at hand to stop talking about Yahweh and Allah and start talking about God.
Both the Bible and the Qur’an claim to be the Word of God; and whatever else that Word is about, it is necessarily and unavoidably about God Himself. Each scripture, in other words, claims to be a kind of guide to God. But which guide should be trusted, and who has the authority to answer questions about them? The statement just above, “Both the Bible and the Qur’an claim to be the Word of God,” is effectively metaphorical, for both scriptures are silent until someone reads them—silently or aloud, alone or in company—and honors them as the Word of God.
Lofty claims are easily made, after all, and have been made by countless claimants far beyond not just these two originally West Asian scriptures but far beyond even all the great historic scriptures of the world’s religions put together. Thousands have made such grand claims, and almost none have had their claims honored for long or by many. Why is this? We have every reason to wonder why. What did the few have that the many lacked?
In Act 3, scene 1 of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1, when Glendower boasts “I can call spirits from the vasty deep,” Hotspur shoots back:
Why, so can I, or so can any man,
But will they come when you do call for them?
I may call for the whole world to honor a given text as the Word of God, but will the world come when I do call upon it? The question is entirely serious, for when the answer to such a question is massively yes, and millions come forward in response, the consequences can be titanic.
In The Kingdom, Emmanuel Carrère’s semi-confessional, semi-historical, semi-polemical jeu d’esprit of a book, a French television director compares Christianity to the bizarre imaginings of the neo-gnostic, science-fiction fantasist Philip K. Dick and then, struck by his own comparison, goes on:
He says it’s strange, when you think about it, that normal, intelligent people can believe something as unreasonable as the Christian religion, something exactly like Greek mythology or fairy tales. In ancient times, okay: people were gullible, science didn’t exist. But today! Nowadays if a guy believed stories about gods turning into swans to seduce mortals, or princesses kissing frogs that become Prince Charmings, everyone would say he’s nuts. But tons of people believe in something just as outrageous and no one thinks they’re nuts. Even if you don’t share their faith, you take them seriously. They play a social role, less important than in the past, but one that’s respected and rather positive on the whole. Their pie-in-the-sky ideas coexist alongside perfectly level-headed activities. Presidents pay deferential visits to their leader. Really it’s kind of strange, isn’t it?
Is Fabrice Gobert, director of the French TV series Les Revenants (later, in English, The Returned), right to assume that “In ancient times, okay: people were gullible, science didn’t exist”? Science in its latest forms did not exist, of course, but were people really any more gullible then than they are now? We have the very word skeptic from the Greek skeptikos; skepticism constituted an entire recognized school of philosophical thought in late classical antiquity. When Saint Paul expounded Christianity before the Council of Athens (the Areopagus), his more skeptical hearers walked out on him.
And yet there was skepticism within Christianity itself. Read St. Augustine in the Confessions arguing
that astrology is not a science through which one can foresee the future, but that men’s reading its signs has the same power as casting lots. As these astrologers say so much, some of what they say is bound to come to pass, not because they know something, but because by constantly talking they stumble upon the truth.
Augustine believed many things that Fabrice Gobert would find strange, some of them more Platonic than Christian, but in this passage the Christian saint is entirely modern in his determination to be skeptical rather than gullible where astrology is concerned.
Earlier, the prophet Isaiah was scathing in his sarcasm about idolatry. He evokes the picture of a wood-carver preparing to make an idol—ah, but not before a fireside dinner!
Half of [the wood] he burns on the fire, over this half he roasts meat, eats it and is replete; at the same time he warms himself and says, “Ah, how warm I am, watching the flames!” With the remainder he makes a god, his idol, bows down before it, worships it and prays to it. “Save me,” he says, “for you are my god.” (Isaiah 44:16–17)
Isaiah believed in God, but intellectually, psychologically, and aesthetically he was as capable as Gobert of standing back from idolatry and remarking, “How strange!” and even “How ridiculous!” The Jews and Christians of the Roman Empire were atheists vis-à-vis all gods but their own, and don’t suppose that the Romans failed to notice!
The deeper questions then are why people like Gobert himself do indeed take seriously strange beliefs that they themselves do not accept and how in the world such strange beliefs can end up playing a social role “that’s respected and rather positive on the whole.” Why is such an outcome ever possible, even remotely, even just occasionally? Why did the Jews and Christians, so skeptical about all other religions, make an exception for their own beliefs? And, by the same token, why does Gobert make a comparable exception for modernity and science? Is the world that science and modernity have made really doing all that well?
Carrère himself does not think so. “We’re heading straight for the wall,” he writes:
if not for the end of the world, then at least for a major historic catastrophe that will entail the disappearance of a significant part of humanity. Those who hold this belief [Carrère includes himself] have no idea how it will happen or what it will lead to, but they think that if not they themselves, then at least their children will be in the front row.
And yet these secular apocalyptics do continue to have children, perhaps out of blind faith that modernity and science, against all the accumulating evidence, will somehow save their children or that, even if that faith is misplaced, it is the only alternative. But is it? Is there truly no alternative?
Is, for example, Philip K. Dick an alternative? If there is no difference in strangeness between Christianity and Philip K. Dick, why not give Philip K. Dick a try? Might one not imagine building a movement around Dick’s fictions, calling it Dickianity or some such name, and seeing whether it would prove to play a social role that’s as “respected and rather positive on the whole” as the role played by Christianity? To that question, the answer comes quick, loud, and easy: of course, you can imagine such a thing. Such concoctions are only too easy to imagine. The novelist Robert Coover imagined the founding of a new religion in his satirical The Origin of the Brunists, and other novelists and screenwriters have dreamed up other cults, all well within the rules of realist fiction. This much is easy. What is incomparably harder is actually doing such a thing, actually founding a new religion and sustaining it not just for a few years or decades but even for centuries or millennia.
Individuals have sometimes taken works of fiction as guiding revelations for their lives. The journalist Rebecca Mead reports such an attempt in her 2014 book My Life in Middlemarch, about the existential importance to her of George Eliot’s novel by that title. Joyce Carol Oates, reviewing this “bibliomemoir,” as she called it, for The New York Times Book Review, listed an impressive assortment of earlier such efforts. So, fictions can to a point serve as guides to life, and a fiction like Coover’s—a fiction about a community organized around a fiction—need not be dismissed as strange or laughed off as mere farce but may well be honored as serious fiction. “Serious fiction,” we say, as the literary awards are presented, implicitly distinguishing it from “trivial fiction” and granting that the serious variant plays some role in real life that is denied to the trivial, even though both are made up, and neither is true. What the serious variant is—we say, rather revealingly—is “believable.”
In sum, even in the realm of strange fictions, certain tests do seem to be available. A given fiction may “work” at least at the level of an individual life. It may be consulted, recalled to mind at critical moments, consulted as private scripture, “believed in,” if you will. It may be the one book that you must have with you on the proverbial desert island. It may even carry some sort of message for an entire society, in which case it may approach the status of the Word of God. But for the Word of God offered as such, there are, as we shall see, certain other tests available.
Let me now pause to tell you a story, a simple story originating perhaps in the late Middle Ages but perhaps much earlier and surviving in several forms. Maybe you have heard it already, but no matter: it has survived many retellings. Here is how I would tell it:
A kind and wealthy father had three sons whom he loved very much. All three longed to inherit their father’s golden ring, an ancient ring, handed down from generation to generation, a ring that—they knew, for he had told them—conferred upon the wearer the power to be beloved by God and by all God’s creatures.
As the father’s life lengthened and as death, all knew, could not be far off, each of the three sons begged that it might be he to whom the wondrous ring would pass.
Poor father! He loved each of his sons so much that he could not deny any one of them this treasure, yet to give it to any one of them would so grieve the others! What to do?
Secretly, the father sought out a highly skilled goldsmith and, entrusting him with the golden ring, commissioned him to make two identical copies. Now, with three rings in hand, the father gave one to each son, each son believing that he had
inherited the one and only ring and thus that he and only he would soon be beloved by God and by all God’s creatures.
Before long, the kindly old man breathed his last, with his three sons at his bedside, and after laying him to rest, each son stepped forward to claim his role as his father’s successor, each offering the golden ring in proof of his claim, each stoutly maintaining—as was indeed true!—that he had received it from his father’s own hand. On one thing the brothers all agreed—namely, that only one ring could be the true ring, but which ring was it?
The matter could only be resolved in court, and the presiding judge first ordered that goldsmiths and other experts examine the three rings for signs of forgery. After extended examination and the application of all available tests, the experts returned their verdict: the three rings were identical in every regard; there was no slightest difference among them.
The three sons, nonetheless, demanded that the judge resolve their dispute, declaring one ring authentic and the other two fake. Patiently, the judge pointed out that there was no fair and equitable way to do this, but the three sons were adamant. Finally, growing indignant, the judge delivered his verdict.
Undoubtedly, one ring was authentic, he said, but determining which one it was could only be done retrospectively. Let the three sons, then, each wear his ring and years later, as their lives lengthened and, like their father’s, were nearing the end, let them then return to the court, doubtless to a different judge. At that point, looking back on their respective lifetimes, that future judge could determine which son had been beloved by God and (for this at least would be measurable) by all God’s creatures. Such would be the test, the best test, and the only test available.
Where was this story first told? No one really knows. The oldest extant version of it appears in an anonymous Latin compilation of tales, the Gesta Romanorum, dating from the late 1200s. That title means “The Deeds of the Romans,” but the tales often bear little or no connection with Rome and may come from much earlier times; some of them, perhaps, from distant Arab, Persian, or Indian locales. In the Gesta Romanorum version, the tale of the miraculous ring is a parable, the judge is God, and the three sons are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Expert testing, in this version, proves that the Christian son has the real ring.
Decades later, Giovanni Boccaccio in his Decameron revised the tale to make the precious ring a precious gem, the teller of the tale a Jew, and his hearer a famous Muslim sultan. In this version, in effect, the Jew comes out subtly on top. Four centuries later, the German playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, in his drama Nathan the Wise, retained the Jew as the tale-teller and the Muslim sultan as his hearer but gave the tale the form in which I have just retold it—a form in which there is no immediate winner, yet there is an answer to the key question. There is an answer because there is a relevant and reasonably empirical test, however long it may take to conduct that test.
Bearing this kind of life-test in mind and bearing in mind as well the background question of why and how any seeming fiction, however strange, comes to be honored as “serious fiction” or as a guide not just to life but even to God, let us now return to Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s question, “Is the Qur’an the Word of God?”
Smith begins by noting that the question has been answered “yes” by millions and “no” by as many millions more and that, either way, the answer has had consequences not just at the level of private lives led one way or another but at the level of entire civilizations shaped one way or another:
It is no small band of eccentrics that holds [the Qur’an] to be God’s word; nor is the idea a passing fashion among some volatile crowd. . . . Civilizations are not easy to construct, or to sustain; yet great civilizations have been raised on the basis of this conviction. Major cultures have sprung from it, winning the allegiance and inspiring the loyalty and shaping the dreams and eliciting the poetry of ages proud to bow before its manifest grandeur and, to them, limpid truth. . . .
Equally impressive, however, have been those who have said “no.” They, too, are not negligible. They, too, are to be numbered in the hundreds or thousands of millions. They, too, have constructed great civilizations, have made great cultures dynamic. The outsider [to Islam] distorts his world if he fails to recognize what has been accomplished on earth by those inspired by the positive response. The Muslim distorts his, if he fails to appreciate the possibilities evidently open and beckoning to those who say “no.”
Had Egypt remained as Christian as it was in the sixth century, it would be culturally as much a part of Europe today as Greece or Germany. Had Spain remained as Muslim as it was in the ninth century, it would be culturally as much a part of North Africa as Morocco or Tunisia. In either case, the lives of Egyptians or of Spaniards would be profoundly different.
Historically, the baton of leadership has passed back and forth between these two. From the time of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt at the end of the eighteenth century through Britain’s overthrow of the Mughal Empire in India and Russia’s colonial expansion through Muslim Central Asia to the Pacific in the nineteenth, the civilization that said “yes” to Smith’s question has felt the painful and humiliating encroachment of the civilization that said “no.” Now, in the twenty-first, the civilization that said “no” is feeling the encroachment of the civilization that said “yes.” Michel Houellebecq’s recent novel Submission, in which a Muslim political party becomes the governing party in France, probably captures France’s preoccupation with religion, such as it is, better than Emmanuel Carrère’s The Kingdom does with its novelistic speculations about the early Christian Church.
Smith notes, astutely, that once the Qur’an question has been answered in the affirmative at the civilizational level, it is typically no longer even asked at the individual or even cultural level. “Muslims do not read the Qur’ān and conclude that it is divine,” he writes.
Rather, they believe it to be divine, and then they read it. This makes a great deal of difference, and I urge upon Christian or secular students of the Qur’ān that if they wish to understand it as a religious document, they must approach it in this spirit.
I have urged a semblance of this spirit upon the non-Muslim readers of this book by introducing, early in its foreword, the notion of “suspension of disbelief.”
What is true at the civilizational level of the affirmative answer is equally true, of course, of the negative answer. Historically, Jews and Christians have not read the Bible to determine whether it was merely human. They have believed that it was somehow much more than merely human and read it for that reason. And just as Muslims generally ignore the Bible, so Jews and Christians have ignored the Qur’an for the obvious and analogous reason. In either case, whether or not there has been prejudice in any invidious or interpersonal sense of that word, there has clearly been a prejudgment.
In making this claim, I have in mind lay readers rather than scholars, but I would go beyond Smith in claiming that Western historical critics of all sacred scripture—that is, not just of the Qur’an—never read these texts as the Word of God, abstaining from any such engagement for methodological reasons that Smith ultimately respects. Of such academic criticism of the Qur’an, he writes:
The Western academic scholar, too, has not studied the Qur’ān, asking himself whether this be divine or human. He has presumed before he started that it was human, and he has studied it in that light.
Such scholars, he writes, look for the source of the Qur’an
in the psychology of Muhammad, in the environment in which he lived, in the historical tradition that he inherited, in the socio-economic-cultural milieu of his hearers. They look for it, and they find it. They find it, because quite evidently it is there. . . .
Those who hold the Qur’ān to be the word of God, have found that this conviction leads them to a knowledge of God. Those who hold it to be the word of Muhammad, have found that this conviction leads them to a knowledge of Muhammad. Each regards the other as blind. From what I have said, you will perhaps discern that in this matter I feel that in fact each is right.
As a Bible scholar, I readily agree with Smith: one may write vast and penetrating analyses of the views of Israelites and Nazarenes in antiquity, all the while remaining entirely noncommittal on the question of whether the Bible is the Word of God. The latter question, as one that scholarship cannot resolve anyway, is one that scholarship need not ever address.
In effect, then, scholarship about either the Qur’an or the Bible is like the expert testimony of goldsmiths in the Parable of the Ring. Competent as such scholarship may be on its own terms, it is beside the point of a question like “Is the Bible the Word of God?” or “Is the Qur’an the Word of God?” Meanwhile the enormous and, yes, sometimes clashing civilizations that have been so differently shaped by different answers to these questions remain significantly different and, much to the point, are mingling as never before. Once, they could and did ignore one another to a very considerable extent. Now, this is no longer possible, and meanwhile both regularly encounter the secular alternative that preemptively answers all “Word of God” questions in the negative. William Cantwell Smith, as a pioneering scholar of comparative religion, was early in insisting that bilateral relations among religions would prove less fateful in the long run than the relations that each would establish or fail to establish with such operationally secular forces as the market and the media.
So, at the end of a book whose title begins with the word God and nearing the end of an afterword in which I said that it was at last time to talk about Him using that dread word, where are we? I promise: we will talk again about God before this book ends, but first I need to deliver a little exhortation in favor of the imagination. If you are irreligious, can you imagine yourself religious? I urge that you try doing so. If you are religious, can you imagine yourself irreligious? My advice to you is the same. If you are not a Jew, can you imagine yourself Jewish? If you are Jewish, can you imagine yourself a Muslim? If you are Muslim, can you imagine yourself a Jew or perhaps a Hindu?
Why bother? Because even if you have no intention of changing your views or your habits, the very experience of imagining yourself thinking and living in another way will foster in you, out of transferred self-love, a measure of sympathy. It will foster a sense of the reasonability and human possibility of views and ways of life different from your own. Imagine yourself as other than you are, and you begin imagining others as no less human, no less sincere, no less levelheaded, no less likable than you are yourself.
James Boswell, in his famous Life of Samuel Johnson, reports himself asking the great doctor, “Pray, Sir, do you not suppose that there are fifty women in the world, with any one of whom a man may be as happy, as with any one woman in particular?” To which Johnson answered, “Ay, Sir, fifty thousand.” Leaving one woman for another is, in a way, like conversion to another religion; and though marital infidelity is common enough, so is marital fidelity, in which a man or a woman imagines intimacy with another partner, even imagines decades of life together, and yet remains faithful to his/her spouse. Absent such imaginings, to be sure, divorce would never happen, but perhaps marriage itself would never happen either. In itself, the act of imagining instructs, enriches, and deepens any man or woman’s engagement with his or her own life.
In the mid-1960s, I was a philosophy student at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, where at the time textbooks, lectures, and examinations were all in Latin. (Nowadays, they are mostly in English or Italian.) My ethics professor was a French Jesuit, Père Joseph de Finance, S.J. Dutifully, Père de Finance lectured in Latin, but whenever something amusing occurred to him, as did happen from time to time, he would lapse into French. This he did once as he spoke of a French girl expressing gratitude that she had been born French, for the poor thing would have been oh so unhappy if she were English. After quoting the girl (his niece, I bet) in French and with what struck me as an affectionate chuckle, Père de Finance went on in Latin to explain that, of course, if she had been born English, she would have thanked God for her good fortune.
What was his point? Honestly, I can’t remember. What I do remember is that I left that lecture thinking a bit admiringly, What if I had been born French? Would I be like Père de Finance? I liked de Finance; he was close to my favorite teacher—gentle, subtle, persuasive rather than ever dogmatic, like the clerk in The Canterbury Tales: “gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche.” In a word, he seemed wise. If I had been born French, would I have been more like him? Would I have been wise?
Voluntary expatriation is another form of conversion. I have met a good many willing and happy expatriates over the years, yet I know from repeated experience that one can go ever so far in that direction and still head for home in the end. So it can be with religions, as the once relatively isolated and insulated civilizations that have been shaped by those religions begin now to shape themselves into a hybrid, pluriform civilization in which all exert power but none rules. It is an altogether salutary exercise at such a juncture to imagine yourself as other than you are even if, most of the time, you are well advised to take the exercise as just that: an exercise, an excursion, but not your destined home.
Smith, once rigorous honesty about his challenging question has brought him to a virtual impasse, begins casting about for a still-to-be-disclosed middle course between “yes” and “no.” He sets aside, to begin with, mass conversion—above all, mass conversion under any kind of duress. Once common enough, this alternative is now beyond reach even if some power were again to seriously attempt it. All the religions of the world, if one truly reckons with the whole world, are now minority religions, and none is ever going to become the ruling majority. Religious domination, even religious tyranny, will remain locally possible, but globally uniformity in this domain is beyond reach, for religion has proven that it defies full state control, even in a highly controlled society like China. Secularists, too, are a minority. And even if, by their own lights, they have all the right answers and the most humane way of life, they, too, will remain a minority. No one of these life-alternatives will ever become the hegemonic host for all the others as its managed guests, however benign the management may promise to be.
We are, in short, really and truly stuck with each other here in the darkness. How to light a candle? Smith sees both Christians and Muslims “in search of an answer to our question more subtle, more realistic, more historical, more complex than the traditional ‘yes or no.’” And he offers as an aside what may stand, finally, as the modest rationale for this book:
Significant in this new situation, where both traditional groups are setting out in search of a larger answer, is the fantastically potential novelty that, in the process, both groups are beginning to deliberate on each other’s books.
So now, in cautious hope, deliberating on the Qur’an and more specifically on God in the Qur’an, I address myself to my non-Muslim readers. Recalling all that has filled the earlier chapters of this book, let me invite you to imagine yourself worshipping God as we have seen Him presented in the Qur’an. You don’t have to become a Muslim to imagine this. You can be like the little French girl imagining what it would be like to be English, or (probably better) like an American in his green twenties, sitting in a Roman lecture hall imagining what it would be like to be a wise, subtle, and mature French philosopher. You can even be like a married man or a married woman imagining—but only imagining—intimacy with a new partner. This is just an exercise, just a mental experiment.
Agreed? Step into the mosque of your imagination, and as you bow down and touch your forehead to the floor saying, “God is greater,” or as you hear others saying those words in Arabic,
you remember . . .
that when God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Paradise, He warned them that Satan would tempt them. (In the Bible, no such warning is given.)
that when they succumbed to temptation but then quickly repented, He forgave them and explained that after a lifetime on Earth, bearing only the trials and tribulations that ordinary human life entails, they could return to Paradise. (No such forgiveness or distant hope is proffered in the Bible.)
that when one of Adam’s sons slew the other, God condemned the murderer but coached him toward compassion by sending a raven whose scratching in the ground prompted the remorseful killer to bury his dead brother. (No such solicitous counsel is offered in the Bible.)
that when God sent a destructive flood, he warned those in its path beforehand and provided an ark on which, had they accepted Prophet Noah’s warning, they could all have floated to safety. (No such warning is given in the Bible.)
that when God chose Abraham as his prophet, he instructed him in monotheism before sending him against Abraham’s idolatrous father and his tribe. (In the Bible, God’s command to Abraham is peremptory and linked to fertility rather than to monotheism.)
that when God sent Moses to Pharaoh with the same prophetic message that He later conveyed to Muhammad, Pharaoh initially scoffed but in the end converted and accepted God as the only god. (In the Bible, God takes control of Pharaoh’s mind and bars the gate against any such conversion.)
that when God sent Jesus as a prophet to the Jews and they sought to kill him, God rescued him and took him to Himself. (In the Bible, Jesus dies saying, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”)
Far be it for me to bash the Bible. The Bible is my scripture. The Qur’an is theirs. In writing this little italicized meditation, I hope only that by exercising your imagination just this much, you may find it a little easier to trust the Muslim next door, thinking of him as someone whose religion, after all, may not be so wildly unreasonable that someone holding to it could not be a trusted friend. Taking a further hopeful step, you might imagine that very Muslim neighbor returning the favor and imagining his way into your mind, your guiding texts, and your religious or irreligious life as you have imagined your way into his.
As general editor of The Norton Anthology of World Religions, I chose to begin my introduction to that ample exercise in comparative religion with a simple poem, “It Is Enough to Enter,” by Todd Boss. Boss ends his poem with these lines:
It is enough
to have come just so far.
not be opened any more
a door, standing ajar.
The suspension of disbelief, as we have practiced it in this book, is one way to open the door, and I will consider it a major accomplishment if the door remains standing ajar for a while. But at the same time, is there not something finally unsatisfactory about this? I certainly think so, but then, too, one need not leave a door permanently ajar to leave it open for a very long time. Such is the wisdom of the Parable of the Rings, and I find antecedents for such ultra-long-term forbearance in all three of the religions that have figured in this book.
In the Qur’an, this is the patience that God counsels in Sura 5:48:
For every community We decreed a law and a way of life. Had God willed, He could have made you a single community—but in order to test you in what He revealed to you. So vie with one another in virtue. To God is your homecoming, all of you, and He will then acquaint you with that over which you differed.
The homecoming God alludes to here is the Last Judgment, and so the postponement in question is a postponement to the end of time.
In Judaism, the end of time and the coming of the Messiah are heralded by the return to earth of the prophet Elijah, the prophet who was taken to heaven in a fiery chariot and so never died. But Elijah, at his coming, will also resolve all questions that the rabbis (and everybody else) have been unable to resolve. The Hebrew word teiko, meaning “tie” as in “a tie game,” is originally a Rabbinic acronym for “Tishbi will resolve all difficulties and problems.” (Elijah, who apparently came from a town called something like Tishbah, is called Tishbi or the Tishbite in Rabbinic tradition.) Once again, then, we are counseled to accept with patience the indefinite postponement of answers to the questions and disputes that we ourselves cannot now resolve.
In Christianity, the Last Judgment, as evoked in the Gospel of Matthew, makes the very knowledge of Christ strikingly irrelevant. Those who feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked, and visit the imprisoned will on the Last Day be credited with performing these services for Christ whether they knew it or not and whether (or so I take it) they have ever even heard of him. The transparent moral exhortation here is very close to the Qur’an’s “So vie with one another in virtue” (5:48), while you wait patiently for the justice to be accomplished that is now beyond all human doing.
Is the Qur’an the Word of God? Ultimately, if that question must be asked, then we must wait for God to answer it. Structurally, the question has a little something in common with the question, as between Jews and Christians, “Is Jesus the Messiah?” Jews believe that the Messiah has not come. Christians believe that he has come but will come again. So, rather than fight about it, they may wait for the Messiah to come and then ask him if this is his first visit or his second.
I am being a bit light-hearted about a serious question, but about the wisdom of postponement, I am completely serious. We may die without knowing the answers to certain crucial questions, but we need not surrender them for that reason. Is one lifetime not long enough? So be it, but let the question linger anyway. Let it hang in the air.
What is a human being, what purpose does he serve?
What is good and what is bad for him?
The length of his life: a hundred years at most.
Like a drop of water from the sea, or a grain of sand,
such are these few years compared with eternity.
This is why the Lord is patient with them
and pours out his mercy on them.
He sees and recognizes how wretched their end is,
and so he makes his forgiveness the greater.
When the Bible and the Qur’an give different versions of the same episode, which is to be judged the correct version and thus the Word of God? This dispute shines through in the Qur’an itself as we saw earlier where Allah counsels Muhammad how he is to respond to the charge that what he recites is a fabrication:
Or do they say: “He fabricated it”? Say: “If I fabricated it, upon me falls my sinful act, and I am quit of your sinning.” (11:35)
Or, as I paraphrased this line, “If I made all this up, so much the worse for me. But if not, so much the worse for you.” Such challenges to Muhammad sometimes came from the Jews of Medina, who recognized that what they heard from Muhammad contradicted what they knew from their scripture. His reply—and his countercharge—could have been a recitation of Qur’an 2:79:
Wretched too are those who write Scripture with their own hands and then claim it to be from God, that they may sell it for a small price!
Woe to them for what their hands have written!
Woe to them for the profit they made!
But while we wait patiently for Elijah or Allah or Jesus or whoever to arrive and adjudicate all such disputes, we don’t want to be perpetually on guard that the guy next door may kill us if we don’t kill him first, and we don’t want him to be perpetually on guard against us out of the same ugly fear. So, let’s instead get to know him well enough to live with him in peace; and if that means getting to know his scriptures and his God, let’s take the time to do that too.
I do not minimize the obstacles here. As a Christian and a seventy-five-year-old choirboy, I am deeply attached to the American folk hymn “What wondrous love is this?”—a hymn that does not just assert but exultantly sings out what Islam denies—namely, the divinity of Christ, the Lamb of God who is God:
To God and to the Lamb I will sing, I will sing;
To God and to the Lamb I will sing;
To God and to the Lamb
Who is the great i am
While millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing,
While millions join the theme,
I will sing.
And if I were a Jew—I, who have imagined being Jewish much more often and much more vigorously than ever I imagined being French—I would mournfully thrill (I do thrill, anyway) to HaTikvah (“The Hope”), the national anthem of Israel, and to Deuteronomy 7:7–8:
It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—indeed, you are the smallest of peoples; but it was because the Lord favored you and kept the oath He made to your fathers that the Lord freed you with a mighty hand and rescued you from the house of bondage, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.
The Lord loved us, and here we are, I would think, millennia later, not numbering in the hundreds of millions, like the Muslims and Christians, still small, but eternally indestructible because He will never desert us. I would feel special, ennobled, set apart by just what Islam denies, namely, the special status of Israel as a chosen people and a light unto the nations.
Yet I recognize a brilliant symmetry in how Islam combined Judaism’s criticism of Christianity with Christianity’s criticism of Judaism. Christianity insisted, against Jewish tradition, on universalizing God’s covenant with Israel to include, in potential, all of mankind, dissolving Israel’s privilege in the process. Islam accepted this critique: the Muslim ummah is as universal in aspiration as the Christian church. Judaism insisted, against emergent Christianity, that as God alone was divine, there could be “no two powers in heaven”: Jesus was not the Lord; only the Lord, haqadosh baruch hu', was the Lord. Islam accepted this critique: there is no room in its theology for a divine Christ or any other power associated with the one and only God.
From each, by a kind of radical simplification, Islam took what was most precious and most defining and yet at the same time eliminated from each what was most problematic. From Christianity, it stripped off the doctrine that had produced, by the time of Muhammad, endless controversy and multiplying sectarian division, while from Judaism—or from the Jews as a people—it stripped off the self-segregating sense of privilege that over the centuries would contribute to envy, enmity, and savage persecution.
The Qur’an in translation, I readily admit, has little initial literary appeal for those whose literary sensibility has been shaped outside Islamicate culture, and it certainly never offers any journalistically tidy summary of the sort that I have just risked. Many, perhaps most, first-time readers find it confusing, and yet deliberately willed, aesthetically contrived confusion is part and parcel of a great many masterpieces of modern art, and the easy clarity that we do not demand of them we have no call to demand of ancient art, including ancient literary art—and including the Qur’an.
Forty years ago, I wrote a little essay entitled “Radical Editing: Redaktionsgeschichte and the Aesthetic of Willed Confusion” for inclusion in a volume not of Qur’an criticism but of Bible criticism. The Bible is often at its most confusing where successive hands have engaged in the wholesale editing—commonly called redaction—that invites modern scholars to try to tease out the history of the redactions (the Redaktionsgeschichte, in German, and German scholars led the way in this effort). The goal, always, has been to recover the original work hiding behind all the later alterations.
Yet who is to say that earlier was better than later? The alterations may have made to brilliant effect even if they overtook a different effect intended by an earlier author. Some regard the narrative that frames the long poems of lamentation that fill the Book of Job as the addition of a redactor and regret the effect that this later narrative—sometimes disparaged as a happy “folk tale”—has on the bleak, despairing grandeur of the poetry alone. Others, however, see the redactor as a genius who by that addition endowed a set of turgid poems which otherwise would have sunk under their own weight with suspense, drama, and literary immortality.
What Bible readers need to remember when confronting the Qur’an is that redaction need not be a matter of the written revision of written texts alone. Oral redaction is equally possible and can be equally brilliant. In an oral culture, a durable oral redaction can acquire the same sense of unimpeachable truth and authority that the last written redaction of scripture has traditionally enjoyed in Judaism and Christianity.
Historically speaking, there is little doubt that a process of oral redaction of traditions about Adam, Noah, Moses, and others had taken place in Arabia before Muhammad received the revelations of the Qur’an. The Qur’an does not claim to impart these traditions for the first time. Rather it repeatedly reminds Muhammad, and Muslims through him, of the traditions’ acknowledged truth. Honored already as the Word of God, they may be amended in detail but are primarily reinforced as they are incorporated into the Qur’an as God’s final revelation to Muhammad himself. Thereafter, in perfect parallel to the Bible, the status of the Qur’an as the Word of God is validated by the community that accepts it as such.
As for those outside that community, a little effort in exploring the Qur’an can pay large long-term dividends at the broad civilizational level where the answer to questions like “Is the Qur’an the Word of God?” and “Is the Bible the Word of God?” (not to speak of “Is there a god?”) determine entire ways of life. And if you are among the many whose default position on such questions is to regard anything produced in human language as a human creation, another question is worth asking at this point.
Can any truly great literature be entirely secular?
George Steiner addresses this question in his book Real Presences, a kind of philosophy of literature:
The limits of our language are not, pace Wittgenstein, those of our world (and as a man immersed in music, he knew that). The arts are most wonderfully rooted in substance, in the human body, in stone, in pigment, in the twanging of gut or the weight of wind on reeds. All good art and literature begin in immanence. But they do not stop there. Which is to say, very plainly, that it is the enterprise and privilege of the aesthetic to quicken into lit presence the continuum between temporality and eternity, between matter and spirit, between man and “the other.” It is in this common and exact sense that poiesis opens on to, is underwritten by, the religious and the metaphysical. The questions: “What is poetry, music, art?” “How can they not be?” “How do they act upon us and how do we interpret their action?” are, ultimately, theological questions.
If Steiner is right, then taking the time that you have now taken to acquaint yourself with just a small sampling of Islam’s scripture and through it with just one approach to God as Islam knows Him, you have been engaged in theology even if you are an atheist. But fear not: it may be that in the process you have helped in a small way to give the emergent hybrid civilization we so badly need a chance to take its first breath and let loose the first cry of a blessed and welcome new life.