Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Q is for al-Qur'an

'I'm afraid there's no niche in the world for people that won't be either Pagan or Christian.' - Ransom, aka The Director, in That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis

The first time I read that line, the words that rose unbidden in my mind were these: 'There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his Prophet.' True, Belloc et al. have attempted to appropriate Islam as the greatest of the Christian heresies, but I think if we are going to play that game there is a much better case for considering Christianity as the greatest of the Jewish heresies. Muhammad never lived as a Christian or operated inside a Christian society the same way that Jesus lived as a Jew and operated within a Jewish society.

Over in Marco's blog we have been talking about not reading books, and the Qur'an is an example of a book in my life that I have never read. I never got past alif baa taa, you see, and the Qur'an is by definition in Arabic. I have read Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall's English paraphrase, The Meaning of the Glorious Qur'an and the 19th century Koran by Sale.* I had the first with me when I visited the future Nato many years ago, as our meteoric paths through idea space briefly passed- at a great distance, but probably closer than we had been before or since. The other thing I was reading was a very nice graphic novel life of Christ by a Peruvian Catholic of the Liberation Theology sort, while I think Nato was reading something evangelical that talked about how the wealth and power of the United States were signs of God's favour. I think. I may be misremembering/misrepresenting it dreadfully. I also took TMOTGQ with me one summer when I was labouring for a couple of geophysicists at a tiny camp at the back of beyond. Neither of them wanted to be geophysicists. One was an example of what I now recognise as the Sydney Anglo-Celtic yuppie archetype, who wanted to get into IT, and spent his evenings poring over computer techie stuff. I expect he eventually made a gazillion dollars. The other was a vegetarian interested in Eastern Philosophy who spent six months of each year backpacking around India, and he spent his evenings reading books of Eastern Philosophy. He was curious about my TMOTGQ and borrowed it for an evening. He found it quite traumatic. It was the most intolerant religious book he had ever read, he said. I think. I remember he was traumatised, at any rate. I also remember late one night, when there was an assignment I had to hand in the next morning that I hadn't started yet, and I was reading TMOTGQ. I asked myself the question: 'What would be a better use of my time if I were to die tommorrow? Staying up all night doing my assignment or staying up all night reading TMOTGQ?' That is the sort of foolish question first year university students ask themselves.

If you ever find yourself surrounded by Christians of that sort which considers the Bible to be the inerrant Word of God, and their constant company and constant repetition of their arguments are slowly wearing you away, drip drip drip, so that you begin to consider that maybe there is something to what they are saying, you must do what I did. You must stay up all night reading Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall's The Meaning of the Glorious Qur'an. Two things may happen, if you read with attention.

You may realise that the book you thought was an infallible book cannot possibly be an infallible book, but that the book you hold might be the shadow cast from eternity of an infallible book. Maybe it is what you are seeking. It is written like an infallible book, written by someone who teaches with authority, not like the scribes or the Pharisees. Here is the core of the message of the Old Testament, repeated without the barbarities and the improbabilities and the legalistic dross. Here is the same message, the call to the same God, but written with clarity, with confidence, with universality. That is one thing that might happen.

The other thing is that you may decide that infallible books are not for you.

Long have I been attracted by this confident voice out of the desert. It began, I think, with reading history. Islam seemed to me to have been since its inception the only proven competitor with Christianity in idea space. In my first histories of the future, the union of Christianity with Islam was a common theme. I fasted for Ramadan in 1990.

Do not worry: I am too Catholic in my marrow to revert. Should the great ideological conflict of the 21st century turn out to be the same as the great ideological conflict of the 12th, as the president of a Catholic student association suggested to me at Devil Bunny City University in August 2001, I know which side I will be on. But...

Until then, I am a teensy bit conflicted.

I'm with the robust defenders of Christendom. But if the struggle is between the robust defenders of Dar-al-Islam and the decadent and gormless post-Christian West, I'm not going to put myself out to help the infidels.

I have said most of all this before, probably better, in scattered places here and in comments on Nato's blog. This post in the 'Reformation' thread, f'rinstance.

*: If you don't have time to read these yourself, you could always read the Cardinal's book report.

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