Striving to lead a moral life

A Catholic reads the Quran… helping us better get to know our neighbors, especially where Jesus was born (though Mohammad came later of course)

from the New York Times Book Review, 20 Dec 2017

The Quran is “haunted” by the desert, he writes. “Nowhere else do you get a greater feel for the benignity of rain — or of water in any form.” Where heaven is “an urban ideal” in the Bible (the heavenly Jerusalem), in the Quran it’s “the oasis of oases, rinsed with sweet waters, with rivers running on it and under it, and with springs opening unbidden.” And in a lovely coda to that observation, he adds: “When I was growing up in the 1940s, a song was everywhere on the radio, ‘Cool Water’ sung by Vaughn Monroe. As I read the Quran, it keeps coming back to me, unbidden.”

Wills calls this book “a conversation — or the opening of one,” so there’s a particular joy when he discovers that “all things talk in the Quran. It is abuzz with conversation. For Allah, the real meaning of creating is communicating. The Quran is an exercise in semiotics. God speaks a special language, in which mountains and words and springs are the syllables. Everything is a sign.”

In his discussion of jihad, for instance, he compares the word to “crusade,” which has long been a “time-bomb word” in the Middle East. Where the idea of a crusade may have “a rosy glow in Western minds … it is stained a dirty blood-red in the Arabic world.” In fact, he points out, jihad does not mean “holy war.” It means “striving” — as in striving to lead a moral life

As for Shariah, Wills notes that the word appears only once in the Quran, and it does not mean “law,” but “path,” as in Allah’s reassurance to Muhammad that he is “on the right path.” 

Moreover, there is no single body of Shariah law. The “vague and sketchy elements of law in the Quran” were fleshed out “over a long and contentious history,” and in multiple branches, in much the same way as the many bodies of Christian law. So while “some seem to think that the fanatical punishments dealt out by the self-proclaimed Islamic State … are the essence of Shariah law … the vast majority of Muslims, and their most learned teachers, do not recognize these as bearing any relation to the Quran.”

Wills has written perhaps the best introduction to the Quran that I know of: elegant, insightful, even at times joyful. He may not be able to make reading the Quran an easy pleasure, but his encounter with it is a pleasure to read for anyone as open to discovery as he is.



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