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

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Pondering the Symbolism of the Quran

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.

Any thoughts?


sanil said...

I'm confused by the "Mary as Aaron's sister" comment. Why is that strange? Is it a different Mary from the one who is mentioned as his sister in the Bible? (Miriam and Mary are the same name in Hebrew.)

Susanne said...

I'm pretty sure it is directed at Jesus' mom and not Miriam from the OT. Make sense?

sanil said...

Oh, ok. Hm, that is weird, I'll have to pay attention to that. Thanks!

observant observer said...

I heard that when Uzair is mentioned in the Koran,it is mentioned as a warning that the Jewish were in deep trouble/sin/grave mistakes for regarding him as the son of God, which is rather similar stand on how Christians regarded Jesus as the Son of God. Now, this author mentioned different take on this....I'm just baffled and wonder....??? So we need another son of God perhaps (if the Muslim can take something as a parable, not literal....)...whattt??

sarah said...

I actually agree with the author you mentioned. Much of the Quran has multiple meanings and interpretations both physical and spiritual. So when it speaks of Mary as Aaron's sister it means that she has similar spiritual standing to Aaron perhaps in the role she played in the message of Christ - she was a supporter and friend to him as the prophet.
I think many Muslims take the Quran too literally and do not understand the metaphoirical or symbolic value.
But how many parables are given in the Quran? Loads, especaillay about gardens, etc. Clearly not everything is literal.
This is also a reason I don't believe in the physical return of the first Christ. I believe that the Messiah will be a person coming in his spiritual likeness and doing the same job.

Amber said...

The whole Mary/Miriam confusion thing still bugs me. If it's a mistake, it's a mistake and a big one. If it's meant to be a character comparison then it *still* doesn't really work since Miriam (Aaron's sister) actually fell from grace with Aaron for questioning Moses' leadership. So she doesn't really represent the spirit of Mary the mother of Jesus in my mind. Miriam was a prophetess, but like all the other prophets heavily flawed. The Virgin Mary is supposed to have been the perfect woman in Islam as well as Christianity, right? And she's *not* considered a prophetess. So I'm not sure what the comparison is supposed to show, if that's what it's meant to be. But I guess others may have different opinions. *sticks nose in the air* I'll allow it. ;-)

*kicks feet idly* I've gotten that split personality thing too, on whether or not the Qur'an is supposed to be literal or metaphorical. *shrug* But you find the same problem in Christianity. People who insist that it's 100% *exactly* what happened, historically. That the words on the page must be read literally no matter what science, history or your own logical brain tells you. Even when what they say makes no sense or is horrible.

IMHO, religions work with symbolism and metaphor than black and white literalism. Scripture has to be open to interpretation or we'll be stuck back when it was written down (by flawed men) and that's no good for anyone.

Suroor said...

Interesting comments here. I don't have anything new to add, just that I really enjoyed the post and the comments.

Susanne said...

Observant, apparently Ezra is mentioned twice. Once is as you said the Jews made him "the son of God" and the other is Ezra's role in reestablishing the Jewish faith post-exile. I just didn't mention the other one, but I'm glad you brought it up. :)

I don't know if this author knows what he is talking about, but he consulted with a number of Muslims according to his acknowledgments. Maybe they are more prone to symbolism in Canada where the author lives.

Thanks for your feedback!

Susanne said...

sarah, thank you for all that you added! I was hoping a Muslim would actually answer some of the questions from this post. I appreciate that.

Christ is from the Greek for Messiah so it's a title rather than a person somewhat. So I guess you could have different Christs/Messiahs and they not be Jesus (a specific person). I think this is what you believe when you said someone coming in the same spirit as he, but not Jesus himself is returning. Interesting perspective!

Glad you shared...thanks!

Susanne said...

Amber, LOL @ you sticking your nose in the air and allowing that interpretation of Mary/Miriam! Ha! Ha! You are so funny! Not to mention, tolerant! ;)

Yes, you make a lot of sense in your thinking of scripture having to work symbolically. Good points!

Thanks much for your feedback. Enjoyed it as usual.

Suroor, thanks!

Zayd said...


You said : “"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.”

One of the most known rules of Qur’anic recitation is Al-Waqf (Stopping of recitation). The authorization or the INTERDICTION of the recitation’s stopping are clearly marked in the Qur’an with special signs and symbols. It is formally FORBIDDEN to stop at the end of many verses in the Qur’an, needless to talk about quoting a passage out of its proper context.

Here is the context of the passage that you quoted :
Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah loveth not transgressors.
And slay them wherever ye catch them, and turn them out from where they have Turned you out; for tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter; but fight them not at the Sacred Mosque, unless they (first) fight you there; but if they fight you, slay them. Such is the reward of those who suppress faith.
But if they cease, Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful
And fight them on until there is no more Tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah; but if they cease, Let there be no hostility except to those who practise oppression.

So it is that simple, verse 191 is not a call to arms for Muslims against nonMuslims, not even to any tribal genocide. It advocates the very fair right of self-defense which is authorized (in the twenty-first century) by the United Nations Charter: “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of collective or individual self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.”.

You said : “Zayd either didn't understand or appreciate symbolic language”.

What I didn’t appreciate was your use of the symbolic language to give your own interpretation to a very clear statement, just because you don’t agree with it. It is clearly stated in your NT that “"Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by actions, is dead”. You used a symbolic example (which I would have appreciated if it was correctly used) to convince me that the passage means : “Faith by itself is sufficient. Actions will come naturally.” 


“The whole Mary/Miriam confusion thing still bugs me.”
This issue was already brought to Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him and he clearly responded to it:
Mughira b. Shu'ba reported: "When I came to Najran, they (the Christians of Najran) asked me: You read "O sister of Harun (Aaron)" (i. e. Mary) in the Qur'an, whereas Moses was born much before Jesus. When I came back to Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) I asked him about that, whereupon he said: The (people of the old age) used to give names (to their persons) after the names of Apostles and pious persons who had gone before them.
The People of Isreal used to call people by either their last names, or by adding words such as you "Son of..." or "Brother of...." or "Sister of...." When they called people "O Son of...." they didn't mean for that person to be the actual biological son of the person whom they used his name. The other person could be a simply in the family tree or a last name. When Jesus was called "Jesus the son of David" for instance, the Jews didn't mean to call Jesus the actual biological son of David. Similarily, when they called Mary "O sister of Aaron", they meant to call her sister of Aaron in faith !. Not the actual biological sister of Aaron.

Susanne said...

Zayd, thanks for the explanation of those verses. See. I told you they are better stated in context than out. :)

I guess we'll just have to disagree on the faith and works thing. I still don't believe I can earn my salvation by being good.

Thanks, too, for sharing about the "sister of Aaron" bit. That's kind of how I think of Jesus as son of God as he is not God's biological son.