Notes and Reflections on Noah's Other Son, by Brian Arthur Brown -- see introductory post for more information on this book
In chapter 14 the author mentions several people who make "cameo appearances" in the Quran: Enoch (Idris), Job (Ayyub), Elijah (Illiyas), Jonah (Yunus) and a few others. He said these folks being only briefly mentioned should not be taken as an "insult" to them because the nature of the Quran is such that you can take "each ayah, or verse, ... out of context as a basis for meditation." Actually I believe he only means the Quran's statements about these individuals because I often see "take this in context" stressed when reading verses most of us consider the hateful verses in the Quran. "Slay the unbelievers wherever you find them" is much more tolerable in the context of ancient tribal warfare than a twenty-first century call to arms for Muslims against nonMuslims.
About these "cameo appearance" verses, the author notes: "The use of such material out of context is actually intended and approved. There is the presumption of additional knowledge furnished by the Hadith, or, in the case of Muslim scholars, the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, though the latter require careful exegesis because they are thought to be compilations from various sources, some of which have become jumbled." (pg. 153)
That made me smile since most Muslims I know will just flat out tell you: your Scriptures are corrupted so we can't use much of them unless they agree with the Quran and hadith. I found it amusing that this guy tried to make it all sound prettier by simply saying that Muslim scholars had to be the ones carefully looking at our "jumbled" Scripture.
Ever wonder why the Quran mentions Mary as Aaron's sister or puts Haman and the Tower of Babel together in a story that also mentions Pharaoh and Moses? The author states that this means in the Quran God is using "'types' of characters." Remember how the Quran often speaks of "its words are but 'signs' and similitudes'"? Referring to someone as 'a Haman' should be clear to us what that means just as in today's world most of us know what 'a Judas' or 'a Jezebel' are. (pg. 160)
On this topic, the author writes: "Perhaps seeking the deeper levels should not be so difficult with the Quran, because, as noted, every page reminds the reader that much here is sign and symbol. While the whole of Islam is inclined to meditate on the deeper meanings, one group in particular, the Sufis, have cultivated the practice of the deeper focus." The author says people "often erroneously assumed that Muslims are literalists," but "such is not the case at all. The sounds of the recitation are intended to lift the worshiper into an ecstasy in which the content of the passage is sometimes almost incidental to the meaning of the experience." (pg. 161)
How much do you value ecstasy or "meaning of the experience" over what the message is actually saying? Or are both necessary to grasp the true spirit and letter of the content?
I was discussing some spiritual things with a Moroccan Facebook friend recently and I used metaphors in an effort to explain. He later came back wondering why I used such things and I got to thinking how he didn't understand symbolism and maybe the Quran did not stress this. I'm used to the Bible using parables and metaphors so I use them at times when I'm trying to explain, for instance, how we have to be like a branch attached to the Vine (or root or Jesus) in order to produce fruit (good works) such as Jesus described in John 15. (A branch lying by the side of the road will wither and die because it's been cut off from its source of power.) Zayd either didn't understand or appreciate symbolic language and that's fine. Some people are literalists completely so I was surprised by this author stressing so much the rich symbolism of the Quran.
I've seen others argue that the Quran is very literal. One man I read said even its view of heaven is basically a "very literal sort of 'paradise'; in most respects it's the crudely concrete fantasy a very materialistic young man might come up with -- the best food, the best sex, the best entertainment, in the most comfortable setting, and all of it much more intense than anything on earth." I see where he is coming from. When I was reading the Quran I was struck often with how opposite of extreme desert life it was -- luscious gardens, much water, delicious fruits and drinks. Even someone who commented on those Quranic notes mentioned how much of Islamic heaven was symbolic of things they wanted but could not get on earth. Thus it was a 'reward' in the afterlife....a 'reward' for having done all those good deeds and passing all those moral tests.
Do you tend to believe the Quran is more about literalism or symbolism or a mixture of both? Do you get the impression most Quran readers understand it the same as you or do you believe it is open to much interpretation depending on the reader and the experiences each has had?
About Ezra's brief mentions in the Quran, the author wonders and states: "Ezra is important in the whole story of Abraham's family because he reconstituted Judaism following the Babylonian captivity and he supervised the Return. Muslims cannot help but meditate on this passage, and on its parallels in the Hebrew Scriptures, at this time when some kind of right of return is being negotiated between the Palestinian people. The question being asked is, 'Where is Ezra when we need him?'" (pg. 160)
Is this true? Do Muslims really study Ezra (Uzair) in this way? When talking to my Syrian friend, I've only ever gotten the impression another Saladin was desired in the region. You know...to free them from their oppressors. So to see "where is Ezra" here made me take notice.