Wednesday, 17 January 2007

Understanding Islam from its source text - and its people

I've just finished The Qur'an: A Biography, and I've only started to scratch the surface of the world's second-largest religion.

I was particularly struck by the story of Robert of Ketton, the first Westerner who attempted to translate the Qur'an into a Western language. He was, like me, a pen for hire, hired in this case by Peter the Venerable, a Christian Abbot who challenged the spirit of his times (the Crusades) by seeking to understand Muslims rather than slaying them.

From the book:

"In such a charged atmosphere, the effort to 'honour' the pseudo-prophet of Islam by translating his lies (the Qur'an) was itself an ecumenical act ... It may seem that most European Christians, including the Pope, had already made up their mind about the evil of Islam and the falsehood of the Qur'an. Peter suggests as much when he calls (in vain) for Islam to be approached, not 'as our people often do, by arms, but by words; not by force, but by reason; not in hatred, but in love.' "

(NB: The words "pseudo-prophet" and "lies" above refer to the mediaeval title of Robert of Ketton's work - "The Law of the Pseudo-Prophet Muhammad" - and don't reflect the views of the author of this book, Bruce Lawrence.)

I really respect this approach, particularly in the atmosphere of the crusades. He knew the difference between acceptance and agreement, a crucial difference that I learnt about in a discussion on improvisation.

More from the book:

"You may dislike someone or some idea, but still try to understand both the person and the concept that are alien to you. ... Though hostile to Islam, Robert was willing to trust Muslim scholars in trying to unravel what Muslims found believable in the 'false' prophecy of Muhammad."

As a follower of Christ (in training), I don't consider Muslims "the enemy". That's why it's downright embarrassing to read some of the nonsense that comes up in discussions like this one.

Thankfully, there are other, more thoughtful responses from the Christian community, like this one. Might be a good one to add to my reading list. (Sigh - it never stops!)

Even for non-Christians, I think it's important to understand - even respect - the book and the belief system that has shaped and continues to shape huge parts of the world. And while you're at it, it wouldn't hurt to understand - and even respect - the other book and the belief system that has shaped the Western world.

It can never hurt to truly understand.

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