A Devar Jonah Conversation
(This version is set up to start a conversation)
A salam Ah laykum. Shalom A lay chem, Peace be Upon You. And upon you Peace. Welcome to our devotional conversation on the Quran. We will read and recite together, from “The Opening” to “Humankind.”
Our main guide will be Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Quran. You will need to refer to this resource often, so order one today.
To pique your interest, I introduce myself in this creative essay:
Talking points are numbered to reference conversation.
The Final Belief
Spend one full year organizing
An Ecumenical Conference
On how to read Scriptures
Which only you attend.
1.) While the Quran, according to some Muslims, is not to be called Holy, it is Glorious, and teaches an exquisite truth. Holy is mostly a Christian category, borrowed from Torah, and originally means “set apart for sanctification.”
2.) “Holy” gilded and embossed on faux black leather is more a modern convention. Like the letters, black on white, the Bible brings out the best and worst in people. Scripture offers pegs for some to hang beliefs profane. So too the Quran. Truth be told, all depends on mastering the art and science of rhetoric. The fancy term is hermeneutics.
3.) Simply defined hermeneutics is interpretation. The science of interpretation is not limited to scripture. Think of hermeneutics as the rules for reading. The exquisite truth about the Quran, is that it is unreadable in translation. I have tried many times and failed. I studied Quranic Arabic thirty years ago in graduate school, but never mastered the language. I am relearning the basics of Arabic for my next reading, in Arabic. First a confession which is also a revelation.
4.) As you might already know my day job is Chaplain for the New York State Department of Corrections. Being in corrections my office is next door to the Imam. He is a jovial scholar from Ghana, a true African American. When inmates go back for “the count” our ecumenical laboratory opens. One entire section of the Imams library concerns Quranic hermeneutics. We often discuss how to read and interpret the Quran. We also discuss heady theo- logical topics.
5.) Just this week I brought up the challenge of the fourth monotheism, Baha’i, to Islamic teachings. I asked: If one accepts the New Testament replacing the Old and the Quran replacing all that comes before, then how do we accept the prophet of Baha’i, who breaks the seal of prophecy of Muhammad of blessed memory? The question is borderline rude but must be asked. Applied to Christianity, Mormonism becomes the challenge, since latter day saints trump the saints and sages of old by the logic of replacement scriptures. The Book of Mormon is a scripture that has eluded me, but that is an entirely different story.
The Exquisite Quran
6.) A confession. This is how I have returned to the glorious Quran for its exquisite inspiration. A true story. A Revelation.
I arrive first to work, followed by the Catholic and Protestant Chaplains and the Imam.
This is the time I write these studies for my inmates and sit and meditate on hermeneutics and replacement theology and other heady issues.
7.) The Imam arrives, does his morning ablutions, and then sits and chants the Quran. This always puts me on pause and I listen to the entire recitation without moving. I hardly breathe. Glorious. Exquisite. An illiterate rabbi, I learn my lesson well. This is an Arabic Quran. As for Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him, a recitation more than a reading.
8.) This means, in a way, the Quran is actually Holy, set apart.
9.) Am I an emotional convert?
When I was a student in Jerusalem I heard the Muslim call to prayer daily. In a way it also called to me and I felt like falling to my knees in an act of devotion.
I was already in enough trouble at my rabbinic school so I remained upright.
10.) In rabbinic school my teachers had a good sense of my destiny. Three of my fellow rabbinic students attended lectures at Pardes, a rival college, and of the Four who entered Pardes I was assigned the role of Elisha who became a heretic. I remain one to this day.
11.) I am also an apostate and infidel, but only in the minds of the orthodox. I am actually relieved to be excluded from their version of Paradise, and I prefer spending eternity with Shaw and Shalom and Kafka and even Nietzsche. I am happy to be the most unorthodox of rabbis. Add Spinoza to my colleagues in Eternity, devoted to finding the truth.
12.) After graduating rabbinic college I entered into a program of Judeo- Islamic graduate studies. My Master’s thesis was on the spiritualization of the Jihad in Muslim legal and mystical sources. This meant discovering that the lesser jihad is fighting and the greater jihad the holy war against our evil inclinations. The parallel in Torah is defining the Seven Native Palestinian Nations as representing the Seven Deadly Sins.
13.) As with many masters programs I did not master the material and considered going on for a doctorate. My Jewish advisors were not enthusiastic about my prospective Ph.D. thesis on the origin of the Quranic Jihad in Deuteronomy 20:10.
14.) Actually, if you turn to the Torah text now it is clear the Israelites were to sue for submission in entering the holy land under Joshua’s guidance. I am not sure if we have evidence of how much Muhammad, of blessed memory, knew of this text or Midrashim on the text. The text becomes a bit of a scandal for the rabbis who have Joshua ignoring the injunction of submission to the holy war. A pacifist transmutation occurs, in the words of Andre Neher, and Joshua sues for Peace.
15.) Hold on a second. The Imam has arrived. He is chanting. Sublime.
I order my questions for the Imam for today.
Imam, what are you chanting?
I am chanting from Sura 37, verse 100 to 113.
16.) I Listen.
Those verses I know best , I reply.
17.) I know. I have read your books.
18.) Imam what edition are you chanting from?
Muhammad Asad. I am giving you this edition as a gift. It is the best translation and commentary available in English. It also has good transliteration.
But Imam I protested, I know this is an Arabic recitation and I am relearning Quranic Arabic. I want to go beyond reading.
That is a good thing, and Asad’s edition is best for recitation. I know you are a Torah reader and understand the time it takes to properly trope the text.
19.) Thank you my friend. In graduate school I was a proof- texter. Now it is time to recite!
20.) Now I would like to approach the Quran with devotion. I am moved by your recitation. In fact, I would like to teach an appreciation of Islam and Quran to inmates by starting an interfaith discussion group. Are you in?
Yes, Rabbi. What format will we follow?
We will meet once a month. First inmates must learn about their own religion.
21.) We will begin with a very brief prayer or recitation by each Chaplain. We will focus on six major topics:
3.) Worship and devotion
4.) Rules of reading and methods of study
6.) Peace and war.
Each Chaplain will present for no more than ten minutes on the topic. Twenty minutes will be set aside for questions and answers.
22.) Sounds good. We will be able to discuss how fundamentalists often ignore fundamentals.
23.) We will learn to read and appreciate one another scriptures.
24.) We will end with the jihad and holy war and ethics.
25.) So you will inaugurate your dream, the University Within Walls.
Yes, Imam. First, in private, a few concerns.
26.) I think we will need to teach The Islam’s and The Judaism’s and The Christianity’s. You and I and Father P do not speak for every Muslim Christian or Jew. Also, we need to acknowledge our differences. We will not have disputations, but we will have true dialogue and trialogue. We will not over simplify, or embrace New Age uncritical universalism.
27.) Also, it is essential we acknowledge the limitations of proof texting. I am reading the Heretics Guide to the Quran and it is a waste of time. We know all scripture is open to misinterpretation. We will move beyond this approach and discuss the varying ways of interpreting the Quran, about how Shi’ism and Sufism read, about Kalaam and modern interpreters.
28.) Yes, rabbi this is the only acceptable methodology.
29.) A question about Recitation and Reading.
Your recitation appeals to my heart and awakens an emotional response. One experiences the miracle of Islam in the sounds of the chanting. When I chant Torah I practice from a Tikkun and breathe life into the text of the Torah by chanting the vowels and breathing according to the trope in the text. Torah reading varies according to region but all is a variation on a theme, a type of riffing when the readers’ emotions also enter the text and a dramatic interpretation happens. What are the parallels in Islam?
30.) Yes, Rabbi Quranic chanting also varies according to region. The dominant style is Egyptian.
31.) What about reading. Are there rules? Is it an obligation to study? To question?
32.) Yes, Yes, and Yes.
33.) Imam let me frame this as a question for moderns. In my community well-meaning individuals point to their hearts in describing their religion. They are good Jews in their hearts. They believe in the Ten Commandments they tell me.
Oy. Our tradition is actually more a pointing at the head. “Ten Commandments” are a construct of Reform Judaism and do not exist. Of course the 613 Commandments of the Orthodox Jew are also random and the number has little to do with the practice of Torah in our time.
34.) What I am asking is about reading and belief and practice in Islam today.
35.) Well, Rabbi, we do begin in the heart with recitation of Quran; which is beyond poetry and music. But Islam is for thinking people, as Imam Asad indicates, and thinking people must know how to read. This is an obligation.
36.) To the Muslim the Quran contains the words of Allah revealed directly and verbatim to Prophet Muhammad, Peace be upon him.
37.) Islam is not a seventh century innovation. Islam is not a person, race, or locality. We are not “Mohammedans.”
38.) Prophet Muhammad, Peace be upon him, is not the founder of Islam or author of Quran.
39.) The term Islam means the attainment of peace of mind that comes from submission of oneself to the will of God.
40.) Thank you Imam for this review of fundamentals. Time to turn to the central text of Islam and the central story of western monotheism, the story of Father and son and sacrifice found in our scriptures. With your permission I will begin with questions on the Genesis text before we move on to the narrative as it is found in the Quran.
41.) In Genesis, (Chapter 22) Father Abraham responds to a commandment to offer up his son on the Mountain Moriah. This is the Final Trial, number ten. The ninth trial, according to our rabbis of blessed memory, concerns Ishmael.
42.) The Final Trial has Isaac and his father submitting to the sword of sacrifice. The Final Trial in the Quran does not identify which son is to be offered. Most Muslims read Ishmael as the intended sacrifice. Moreover this story describes the act of coming into Islam. The Arabic verb aslama indicates an innovation, a new beginning, the birth of a new nature, even a type of New Testament. Do I overstate, Imam?
43.) I am listening, rabbi.
44.) I read the Torah and Quran as basically telling one story, and in my opinion some editing is essential. It does not matter if it is Isaac or Ishmael on the altar. The problem for me is the humble obedience of Father Abraham and
Son. My Abraham was always the lover of God, so fear and submission seem out of character. My Abraham argues with God, but is silent here.
45.) How does this Final Trial perfect the patriarch? What Final Belief do we walk away with from this scripture? I cannot believe in an unholy trinity of Ishmael Isaac and Jesus on a cross. If Jesus is Father and Son; then we have a suicide. In the crusades and holy wars and jihads of today all three remain bound upon an altar. We will discuss this with Father P in our seminar.
46.) Well, Rabbi, this is surely something to think about. But how do you have Torah without this incident?
47.) For me personally the clue is in the Guide for the Perplexed by our preeminent rabbinic scholar of all time, Moses Maimonides. In part three chapter 24 Maimonides admits that the trial is one of the great knotty problems of the Torah.
48.) The Final Belief for Maimonides is that the last trial of Abraham is the most extraordinary thing that could happen. One would think human nature was
not capable of such happenings. Abraham had no need to hasten; he had three days, so the act was not one of stupefaction.
49.) Also, teaches our great rabbi, the story defines the nature of prophetic revelation. All that is seen in a vision or dream by a prophet is a certain truth. In fact the actions of Father Abraham establish prophecy. Abraham listened, even though the command came to him in a dream or vision.
Imam this is an extraordinary reading. I do not think other rabbis will concur, but it sounds to me like Maimonides was reading his Quran and its commentators in his time.
50.) Well, my friend every translator of Quran has the incident as a vision or a dream. Our beloved Imam Asad goes further in his footnotes and reads the story as symbolic, as does the translator Abdulah Yusuf Ali. Rabbi, I mean Imam, Asad says Father and son surrender to what they thought to be the will of God.
51.) Yes, Imam Asad was also a rabbi. It is wonderful and astonishing to me that he reads the episode so similar to Maimonides. If I am not mistaken the Hajj reenacts this encounter between God and Abraham and son or sons.
52.) We have a tradition in Islam that the twin horns of the Ram were placed in the Kabba in Mecca.
53.) The twin horns of a dilemma, I said.
54.) Well, rabbi, said the Imam, remember Allah does not require blood or sacrifice.
55.) Here here. This gives me some peace of mind, but how are we to deal with those who justify holy war based on scripture?
56.) Well Rabbi, we are teachers. We must re-educate them.
57.) I am not sure fanatics are open to instruction. Nor will secularists admit that all wars are declared holy, whether by religious or political missive.
58.) All wars are considered just, and in need of justification. The argument that religion is responsible for more death in war than nations is true only up until the Twentieth Century. The dead from two World Wars, both political, equal, in number, all the dead up until modern times. Political wars have even inspired those of the same religion to kill one another, like the Jews in World War One.
59.) By the way, in my opinion, this was not legal according to Jewish law. Jewish Law does have a type of solution to the problem of war, but it is only for the individual, who has a right to exempt himself from any war.
60.) In my mind this is also the final test of democracy. Any nation that compels citizens to go to war is not free or democratic in my mind. This argument stands up morally even when a war is just or fought justly. The Torah exempts even the most heroic of the heroic from any conflict.
61.) As you know by now I did not study for a doctorate but instead wrote Final Testament, which expanded into The Final Age Testament, also known as the Five Books of Laurence. While the five are a western spiritual education they are also a rewrite of all that comes before and all of it is heresy. My transmutation is of the root metaphor of the West, Abrahams binding; which becomes Christ’s Cross, and Ishmael’s submission. This trinity is predicated on obedience to a patriarchal fathergod who demands some kind of sacrifice.
62.) I had no idea over twenty five years ago when I was writing my first book, Final Testament, that some refer to the Quran by that name. This makes perfect sense theologically and gives Islam the last word on religion. My point is that nothing is ever final in revelation. Similar to creation, revelation continues. This means prophecy, like poetry, while rare, is always a possibility.
63.) Religions doctrines tend towards fixing revelation in an ancient text, making the truth immutable and never changing.
64.) Creative reading is for poets and all must master the art.
65.) Poets are makers and creators and interpreters of creation. Poets may make of literature a new religion, but if they do, they will relive the errors of the past.
66.) Genius means understanding that God and the imagination are one.
67.) Genius requires being a disciple of Rabbi Stevens and a declaration of your final belief.
68.) That is the entire point of this discussion.
69.) The exquisite truth is that Torah is Truth, and Gospels Good News, and Quran Recitation, when we acknowledge that all testaments are historical fictions and never final.
70.) Avoid the dark rabbis and priests and imams who make the text a leather jacketed talisman. The prologues are over.
71.) Let the poets become like prophets who proclaim the rebirth of the individual.
Go beyond religion, and write the epic poem of your life. Kierkegaard is correct. Life is a poem you write yourself. Your small history of self will transcend the history of violence and hatred when you declare your independence from religion and politics and the couch of Freud. . These are all for the defeated. Be strong. Be strong. We will strengthen one another. Just say no to holy war.. Enough already.
72.) I offer this update of the root metaphor of Western religion in Book Two of Final Testament. A Second Time From the Heavens.
Meditations Before Beginning
1.) Since I am a devoted student of Quran I will raise questions as I read and recite and invite commentary and conversation.
2.) The nature of conversation is limited once I publish. My primary goal is to start the symposia of the University Within Walls.
3.) Next, the open ended technology of blogging will allow this conversation to continue ad infinitum. No one gets the last word.
4.) The blog will be found as A Rabbi’s Devotional reading of Quran.
5.) Also for our University Within Walls see The Devar Jonah Devotional Bible.
6.) Before beginning I would like to introduce you to my mentor Rabban Edwin H.Friedman.
7.) We open his Fables , and learn from the first page that Rabbinic Midrash, a tutor of the imagination, teaches that playful interpretation turns irreverence into an act of faith.
8.) Just what is devotion?
9.) Turning to Friedman’s last chapter on tradition we encounter Moses and Freud and Jesus and Marx. Muhammad is conspicuously absent.
10.) Truth be told even our most universal modern interpreters of religion leave Muhammad out of the mix, like Steven Mitchel Parables and Portraits.
11.) Friedman notes the frustration of the geniuses who start a tradition in comparison to the “improvements” of the followers.
12.) How would the founder of Islam fit into this discussion?
13.) Friedman jokingly suggests a manifesto to be signed by Buddha, Lao Tzu, Zoroaster, etc. that leaders disavow all followers.
14.) Is there a pattern in all traditions that the original message of the founder somehow gets lost?
15.) In the epilogue Moses and Freud and Marx indicate if you want to preserve your ideas, keep them to yourself.
16.) On the other hand, we have text. Do texts and scriptures preserve ideas?
17.) Is the key in the text?
18.) In the interpretation?
19.) Back to genius again. If God dictated the Quran and Muhammad simply wrote, than God must be considered to be a poet and perhaps the most sublime writer in the history of literature.
20.) My friend Harold Bloom, one of my favorite readers, in his Book Genius, inspires many talking points:
21.) “To regard Muhammad, seal of the prophets, as an authorial genius is to contravene Islam, since God himself speaks every word of the Koran.”
22.) “But the Koran cannot be ignored, as it is a work of genius we badly need to study.” (Page 113)
23.) “No one else in human religious history has given us a text in which God alone is the speaker.”
24.) “Audacity, a crucial characteristic of Muhammad in every way, marks The Koran’s achievement of a literary effect unlike any other.”
25.) “We can never relax as we read it, or when we recite it, alone or with others.” (Page 144)
26.) “Islam is far more reliant upon the Koran than Christianity is upon the New Testament or than Judaism is truly upon The Hebrew Bible.” (145)
27.) “Jesus as the incarnate Word replaced the Torah for Pauline Christianity; Muhammad voids that replacement, not by returning to Torah but by subsuming the Book within his own book. “(148.)
28.) In my opinion this is to expected, every revelation assuming some sort of improvement to what came before.
29.) Replacement is the issue. No Jew sees the Old supplanted by the New. No Christian will consider The Quran The Final.
30.) James Frey’s Final Testament does not supersede the glorious Quran, or my Final Age Testament , except in today’s Google ranking.
The Message of the Quran
1.) Muhammad Asad presents his message for “People who Think.”
2.) I add, “For People who Question.”
3.) In his foreword Asad asserts that “the Quran itself has never been presented in any European language in a manner that would make it truly comprehensible.”
4.) The exception may be his own work. What do you think?
5.) Note Asad’s presentation. The Key to the layout looks like a Mikraot Gedoloat.
We see a Targum, a transliteration, a Rashi and a clear introduction.
6.) First the recitation. Go to U Tube, Recitation of the Quran.
7.) Next, turn to Asad, and compare to other translations.
8.) If you are incarcerated, ask your Imam to chant the first Surah.
9.) Once you are on the other side of the barbed wire join this conversation.
10.) Either download the Quran explorer on U tube or read the translation of Asad or The Quran A New Translation by Thomas Cleary.
11.) This is the translation of the opening Surah of the Quran according to Asad:
All Praise is due to God alone, the Sustainer of all the worlds.
The most Gracious, the Dispenser of Grace
Lord of the Day of Judgement.
Thee alone do we worship and unto Thee alone do we turn for aid.
Guide us in the straight way
The way of those upon whom Thou has bestowed Thy blessings not of those who have been condemned (by Thee), nor of those who go astray.
12.) Imam Asad explains that the opening is also the essence, foundation, and condensed form of all the teachings in the Recitation.
13.) The Seven oft repeated verses of the first Surah remind me of the first Psalm.
14.) The recitation on U tube I find more moving than the translation. Time to relearn Arabic!
The Wisdom Obtained by Questioning
1.) I question the helpfulness of any translation of the Quran that is not approached as a commentary.
2.) Reviewing the Second Surah in translation by Asad I am a bit lost in the English unless I read it as Targum.
3.) I have a library of translations and am now reading The Quran, a New Translation by Thomas Cleary, 2004, Starlatch, U.S.A.
4.) Asad will be our Rashi as we rediscover our questions.
5.) Dr. Littell, in The Crucifixion of the Jews, (P.31) reminds us that the superseding myth is a double edged sword. As Church Fathers assume the New Covenant and Testament replace the Old, The Quran assumes a Final. He points out that Muhammad utters harsh language against the Jews, in the tradition of Theodosius or the Synod of Elvira.
Littells first proof text listed in the Quran is our Surah, “verse” 88.This is open for conversation
We will talk about all of this in our University Within Walls. You will be invited.
I await your response.
Stay connected, Theophilos!