"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Last of My Notes on 'Muhammad' by Karen Armstrong

My final notes from this book, Muhammad: A Prophet For Our Time by Karen Armstrong. Forgive me as they are rather scattered in nature, but since they are things that took my attention and I took the time to type, I will just stuff them all in this post to get them out of the way! I left some questions for you throughout. :) 
While speaking of the Quran, Karen Armstrong tried to convey how lovely it is to hear recited. How it mesmerized listeners, made them reflective and "enter a different mode of consciousness"  as they "had an immediate encounter with Allah."  Indeed the Quran was meant to be read aloud or recited in Arabic.  She stressed the Quran loses its 'punch' if translated into another language and indeed I recall my Syrian friend being dismayed at how ordinary the Quran seemed when he read parts of it in English for my sake.   
Armstrong makes note that "Biblical Hebrew is experienced as a holy tongue in rather the same way." However there is "nothing holy about New Testament Greek" so Christians don't understand sacred languages in the same way that Jews and Muslims would.  Indeed our Scriptures present "Jesus as the Word spoken by God to humanity."  (emphasis mine) Hey, it's a tradeoff I'm willing to take!  No learning classical Arabic or Hebrew for me. I can experience all the sacred language I want by looking to Jesus!  
Indeed Armstrong writes next, "Like any scripture, the Quran thus provided an encounter with transcendence, bridging the immense gulf between our frail, mortal world and the divine."  Weird because that is essentially what Jesus did for us in our Christian worldview.

What irritates me about the Quran rather Armstrong's praises of it, is that she stresses the need for it in Arabic.  I don't think the majority of the world's residents are going to bother learning classical Arabic so they can experience this wondrous feeling they are supposed to get upon hearing the Quran recited. I can hear the Quran recited and find it lovely although I do not understand the words.  Are we supposed to be moved by the beauty much as we are moved to joy or tears by a song?   Songs makes me cry sometimes...does this mean God touched my heart? Just musing out loud.
I believe God speaks in a universal language so that all of His creation can know Him without having to learn some strange, difficult language.  (Speaking from the back of my throat is hard work.  I've tried, but I only use those muscles for clearing gunk out of my throat usually! Yes, I have a weak throat!) For me, Jesus is universal. He is a life we can see and follow ... no words necessary.  Reminds me of that saying, "Preach a sermon every day. If necessary use words."  Jesus is that. He preached a sermon wherever he went. Sometimes he used words.  Most of the time, his sermons were actions. I like that.  Actions are more easily understood by all than are languages.
Question:  What do you think?  Does God speak so all can hear Him or only those willing to learn an ancient language like Hebrew or Arabic?   Or do you believe one who truly wants to know God will do whatever it takes - including learning a difficult foreign language - to know God better?  The Apostle Paul said God is evident in nature - which is universal - so we are without excuse.  Thoughts?

Karen Armstrong notes that many of the earliest suras invited the listeners to question themselves and left "the audience with an image on which to meditate but with no decisive answers."  Almost as if God wanted them to reflect and find their own answers rather than have set rules.  (pg. 61)
Question: Do you think God left some things purposefully vague so we would reflect and seek answers and maybe mutual understanding instead of being dead-set in one way and not willing to budge? Or do you tend to believe God has rules set in stone that no on should seek to modify or update as centuries pass?

The Quran didn't believe people were "inherently evil, but they were forgetful" and "all too eager to push [any] uncomfortable ideas to the back of their minds."  So the Quran was a reminder for them to do good deeds - remember the poor, be humble instead of proud, be generous instead of greedy.
Question:  Do you prefer and/or agree with this view that people are just forgetful instead of evil?

Something that did strike me as really good is when Armstrong told how putting your head to the ground was a sign of humility that was missing among the Quraysh who were a proud people. Actually all the bedouin tribes were proud, I'd say.  (Are we not all proud?) This seeming groveling and making oneself a slave to Allah was hard for many of them to accept. But for those who did, it was a reminder five times daily of their submission before God.  "It taught their bodies at a level deeper than the rational to lay aside the self-regarding impulse to prance and preen arrogantly."  (pg. 65)

Armstrong mentions "most people objected to the day of reckoning" idea promoted by Muhammad. They thought this was "an old wives' tale" because they didn't understand how rotting bodies could be resurrected to live again.  (pg. 67)

Question:  Do you see how these actions and ideas could be hard for people to come to terms with?  What do you think of them personally?

Karen Armstrong believes the "story of the night journey reveals Muhammad's longing to bring the Arabs of the Hijaz, who had felt that they had been left out of the divine plan, into the heart of the monotheistic family."  This, she claims, is a story of pluralism of the monotheistic kind. "In Jerusalem, he discovered that all the prophets, sent by God to all peoples, are 'brothers.'  Muhammad's prophetic predecessors do not spurn him as a pretender, but welcome him into their family.  The prophets do not revile or try to convert each other; instead they listen to each other's insights."   (pg. 97)

Armstrong believes one verse quoted often to "'prove' that the Quran claims that Islam is the one, true faith and that only Muslims will be saved," in fact teaches the opposite because the word "islam" here was used prior to that word being the official name of Muhammad's religion.  When read in context, Armstrong believes this is a very pluralistic verse which includes all who surrender to God regardless of their official religions.  Here is the verse she means:

"For if one goes in search of a religion other than self-surrender (islam) unto God, it will never be accepted from him, and in the life to come, he shall be among the lost." (pg. 99)
Question:  Do you agree with Armstrong that Islam is very pluralistic ... at least it was meant to be? Is it still or do you find it not as Armstrong has described? Do you agree that this verse should be translated to include all who submit to God regardless of religious labels (Hindus, Jews, Christians, Muslims) or do you believe it means only Islam is the way to God?

In this chapter the author explains that hijrah (migration) from Mecca to Yathrib was "absolutely unprecedented."  She said abandoning kinfolk for the "permanent protection of strangers" in a land where "the tribe was the most sacred value of all... amounted to blasphemy."   She said this was "far more shocking than the Quranic rejection of the goddesses."  (pg. 108-109)
I just thought that information was interesting and makes sense! I guess it would be like me abandoning my family to take up with some Chinese people and fighting my people!  Strange!
Thoughts on any of this? 


observant observer said...

1. I am sorry, but I tend to fall asleep on hearing monotonous recitation of any language especially ones that I don't understand....;-). If God can only be encountered by some strange language, may I choose that the language is my native language, pleaseee? And by the way the arab language does contain words to describe unholy things, doesn't it? What if we recite some of those in Arabs, I bet my muslim friends here will still feel the aura of holy....LOL, sorry for that sarcasm!

observant observer said...

2. Is the highest law also vague? The Golden rule, do onto others what you want others to do to you seemed to be vague? Those surahs of meditating the questions were perhaps like the opening of a lesson, you ask questions because you were not sure what the answers,you encounter problems surrounding you. That perhaps was the experience of Muhammad,he had questions first, but later on he seemed to know all the answers to be chained to his followers.

3. If the problems laid on the bedouin being too proud, why Islam praise it self for the whole world to be taken as universal recipee while there are other parts of the world had no problem of submitting themselves to God earlier than Islam in many many ways?

I believe that anytime those nasty corrupt leaders in my country steal the public money, they were not unconscious about it. I really really think that Karen Armstrong had submerged herself into the cloud of Islamic thought. It is very often heard in muslim world that whenever someone err or sin, it is because he/she forgets. How can you blame someone if he excuse himself being forgetful? its the lamest excuse I can hear of.

Jasmine said...

I agree that "islam" initially meant "surrender" and later became the name for an institution and then later a brand - so that the whole meaning of the word is lost completely and now serves differentiation rather than unity.

With the language stuff - bit dodge that we all have to learn another language, its basically saying that God is an Arab isn't it? And if God only spoke in Arabic, then why did he speak through Hebrew and other languages before then? Its not the same God is it - if he only speaks one language and then uses different ones for different holy books. That just doesn't make sense. God speaks to us through the voice we recognise or need at that time and inspires us and right here, right now: that's English language for me, Turkish language for my grandma, Polish for my friend Agnes and many other languages for many different people.

Do I believe there are set rules or rules that you interpret. I think that there has to be some set rules. Set rules can sometimes clash with each other and its down to the individual to decide what is the best course of action, but we do need some clear set rules. I like the 10 commandments for this reason - clear, set in stone(literally) and easy to understand. We need a clear manifesto of morals.

I think some people are evil. I think Josef Fritzel is evil. I think Hitler was evil. I think rapists and murderers are evil. I wouldn't describe Josef Fritzel as forgetful - and he just needed reminding. I think there are people out there who rejoice in evil and sick deeds and take a great deal of pleasure from it as well.

Susanne said...

I got some replies by e-mail that did not show up here...weird. That happened before. Must be Blogger issues. I'll post them before I reply to the comments. Thank you all for taking time to leave your thoughts on this!


sanil has left a new comment on your post "The Last of My Notes on 'Muhammad' by Karen Armstr...":

"In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God."

I'm always a little suspicious of the claim that the Quran is extraordinary in Arabic. I'm sure it's beautiful and poetic, and the translation to other languages may lose some of that. But take this verse I quoted above. That is obviously not the original language. It is not quite poetic, and in fact if you really think about it, it's a little choppy and redundant. But it sounds like poetry. Why? Because most of us who were raised Christian (especially in the John-loving Baptist-y traditions. :D) have heard it over and over and over. It flows naturally in our minds and mouths. Granted, I do not yet know Arabic and so can't test it. But I have a feeling that at least some of this beauty assigned to the spoken Quran is seen there because they've been taught to see it.

Of course it's prettier and clearer in its own original language, but as far as, as you put it, "this wondrous feeling they are supposed to get upon hearing the Quran recited"...yeah, probably not. For one thing, it's not our language and it is never going to sound as beautiful to us because we will have to translate it back to English to understand it anyway, and we did not grow up hearing this as God's word and being taught that it was beautiful and life-giving. And anyway, if it is just beautiful and we are encouraged to learn it for aesthetic purposes...ok, maybe that would make some sense. If we're meant to understand it as truth then A)the message should ring true w/o the poetry and B)it should be as beautiful in any language. If God is all-powerful and reveals himself via a poetic Scripture that is recognized as God's Word partially because of it's beauty, shouldn't it be beautiful to everyone who hears it? Otherwise it seems a little underwhelming.

Ah, Armstrong. :D I'm really going to have to re-read this. You note a lot of liberal-hippie-religion-scholar ideas that she claims were present from the beginning of Islam, and from what I know of her most of the time, she probably doesn't cite sources on that. I want to believe her, but I am very very suspicious. It comes across more like bending facts to justify both holding a post-modern liberal worldview and glorifying an ancient worldview that just doesn't fit with it. Why not just recognize we live in different times and understand different things, and let it go?

No, I don't think Islam was originally meant to be pluralistic. If it were, Muhammad wouldn't have had to force conversion among the people, and the earlier chapter on war and violence wouldn't have existed because that part of his life wouldn't have existed. I think it can allow for pluralism and acceptance of other religions, just like Judaism and Christianity can, and I think that's a responsibility that we have in today's world. We don't have to insist that idea existed in ancient times to justify holding it today.

Susanne said...

Observant Observer, I agree...why can't God please use my language. :-) Then again maybe he only wanted Arabs to know his will...maybe they needed the 'reminders' more? ;) I understand what you mean about being forgetful as a pretty lame excuse for some sins. Seems rather convenient, but hopefully people are aware that God knows if they TRULY forgot or if they are merely using that as an excuse so they won't be punished by authorities. I agree that Muhammad seemed to get most all the answers his followers would need. They certainly have a huge list of rules/preferences to follow! Maybe the beginning suras were more open-ended with a variety of answers whereas later all the answers fell into place? I appreciate all that you shared!

Jasmine, welcome and thank you for your thorough answers! I'm glad you agree that God speaks through a variety of languages. I find it not scandalous to think the God who created everything could speak our variety of languages. :) I really enjoyed all that you shared - good stuff. Much appreciated!

Susanne said...

Sanil, I don't know why your reply didn't show up here since I received it first in my e-mail box. I only noticed it was missing when I came to reply to you ladies' wonderful comments.

Great point about John 1:1 and how it sounds familiar and "poetry" -ish to those of us who grew up hearing it. Hehehehe... you make me smile. :)

I will admit that the Quran sounds pretty recited, but I also find many songs lovely. It doesn't mean the Quran does something for me spiritually precisely because I can understand very very very few words - usually just a proper name. I agree that the message is what is important and should hold up well whether it's recited in Arabic or read in English or sung in Chinese or typed in German.

"You note a lot of liberal-hippie-religion-scholar ideas that she claims were present from the beginning of Islam" -- hahahahahha! Well, I note things that seem different from how I was taught whether that's in all my years as growing up in a Christian family OR the few years I've learned about Islam from mostly Muslims. I like to point out the differing stuff for the sake of discussion sometimes. I find it fun to see what rings true for people and what stands out as made-up stuff. :)

Really enjoyed all that you added, as usual. Thanks much for taking time to share what you did.

Thank you, ALL, for what you added! I always enjoy learning from YOU!

Suroor said...

"Jesus is universal" Wow! I never thought about Jesus as the Word of God like that. why didn't I?! You are so right - whether you understand Arabic or Greek or Hebrew or you don't, Jesus is verb rather than a noun and hence anyone can understand him.

Thanks for this. I will think more about this.

Susanne said...

Suroor, you're welcome. :)