The Koran and the Ethics of Faith and Questioning

by Michael Potemra

All sacred texts become alive in their faith communities through very specific historical acts of appropriation — the efforts of believers to figure out which parts of a text are literally true and morally binding, which parts are more important than others, and what the central values are that the religion must cultivate. Part of today’s global pathology is that in one religion, Islam, certain interpretive strategies have gained social dominance, with consequences of which we are all too painfully aware. There recently crossed my desk an effort by Ziauddin Sardar, a professor at City University in London, to bring a critical spirit to bear on this tendency. The book is Reading the Qur’an: The Contemporary Relevance of the Sacred Text of Islam, recently published by Oxford University Press, in which the author defines his task as follows:

To be a believer is to see the Qur’an as a living book. . . . I, unlike those who see it as a fixed text, can never be certain about its meaning — which changes with changing circumstances. All I can do is interpret the Sacred Text, using my own reasoning and knowledge. But in the end I have to give the Qur’an the benefit of the doubt — my doubt that I have a complete grasp of what it is saying.

It is doubt and open-mindedness that keeps the text alive and capable of revealing its relevance through different situations. . . . As the celebrated Muslim thinker al-Ghazali suggested, the best way to read the Qur’an is by freeing the mind of all dogma, interpretations and commentaries — these limit and condition our understanding. . . . We may also sometimes have to reject the obvious, outward exegesis and literal meaning to get a deeper appreciation of what the Qur’an is trying to say to us. An open text, with an eternal message, demands an open mind, ready to engage with all possibilities.

A couple of points. First, someone wedded to a particular literalist interpretation could retort, correctly, that no human being comes to any text without any dogmas or presuppositions; he might even chide Sardar for importing Western liberal dogmas into Koranic interpretation. But I think Sardar is nonetheless right: Even if perfect success is impossible, the effort to continue questioning the text is more than worthwhile — it is essential.

Second, Sardar’s phrasing about a “fixed text” is unfortunate, because to say that one is opposed to a “fixed text” suggests that one would seek to tamper with the text in an intellectually illegitimate manner. But I am reassured about his views in this regard, because of some of his earlier comments about Qur’an translation over the past century, which suggest he does not mean it in this objectionable way. He complains that in recent years, some English versions have been altered significantly to bring them into line with the opinions of dominant fundamentalist radicalism. (That of Yusuf Ali, which is very popular, has, he writes, “been subjected to what can only be described as a truly nefarious onslaught of revisions.”) English-speaking Christians are all too aware of translation controversies — but in our tradition, a new Bible translation is usually clearly labeled as such. To do otherwise is to treat the text the way the Kremlin treated the Great Soviet Encyclopedia.

A Western Episcopalian’s endorsement of Sardar’s particular interpretations on Koranic topics would carry little weight, even if I declared myself (contrary to fact) competent to issue it; and perhaps they would even be worse than useless. But I think that he is asking the right questions, and the health of the world community over the next couple of centuries may depend on how well, and how often, others in his faith ask the same questions. It is hard, looking at today’s landscape of Islamdom, to be optimistic. But it would be unwise to abandon hope. Over the past couple of centuries, the West has seen a burgeoning of different interpretations of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, and yet both of these Abrahamic faiths remain vigorous. Continuing to question is not the death of faith, but its life.