The Final Belief: Recite and Read
(One Rabbi’s Appreciation of the Quran)
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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.” Sanctification is a separating of holy and profane.
“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 inspires some; for others its verses are pegs to hang beliefs profane. Scripture inspires some to holy war; others to heal the lepers of Calcutta.
So too the Quran. Truth be told, all depends on mastering the art and science of rhetoric. The fancy term is hermeneutics.
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; 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 of Quran.
As you might already know my day job is Chaplain for the New York 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. Just this week I brought up the challenge of the fourth monotheism, Bahai, 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 Bahai, 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 later day saints trump the saints and sages of old by the logic of replacement scriptures. The Book of Mormon is a scripture that has defeated me, but that is an entirely different story.
The Exquisite Quran
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, in short order.
This is the time I write these studies for my inmates and sit and meditate on hermeneutics and replacement theology and other heady issues.
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.
This means, in a way, the Quran is actually Holy, set apart.
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.
In rabbinic school my teachers had a good sense of my destiny. Three of my fellow rabbinic students attended lectures with me 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. 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.
After graduating rabbinic college I entered into a program of Judeo- Islamic graduate studies. My Masters thesis was on the spiritualization of the Jihad in Muslim legal and mystical sources. This meant discovering that the lesser jihad is spreading the true faith 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. 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 PhD thesis on the origin of the Quranic Jihad in Deuteronomy 20:10. 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, Peace be upon him, 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.
Hold on a second. The Imam has arrived. He is chanting. Sublime.
I order my questions for the Imam for today. I await. The recitation stops.
Imam, what are you chanting?
I am chanting from Sura 37, verse 100 to 113.
Ah, the verses I know best, I reply.
I know. I have read your book.
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, but Asads edition is also best for recitation. I know you are a Torah reader and understand the time it takes to properly trope the text.
Thank you my friend. In graduate school I was a prooftexter. 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 seminar 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.
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.
Sounds good. We will be able to discuss how fundamentalists often ignore fundamentals.
We will learn to read and appreciate each others scriptures.
We will end with the jihad and holy war and ethics.
So you will inaugurate your dream, the University Within Walls.
Yes, Imam. First, in private, a few concerns.
I think we will need to teach The Islams and The Judaisms and The Christianitys. 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.
Also, it is essential we acknowledge the limitations of prooftexting. I am reading a 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.
Yes, rabbi this is the only acceptable methodology.
A question about Recitation and Reading:
Imam, 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?
Yes, Rabbi, the Reciter must be a scholar of the science and art of Quranic chanting. Yes, the chanting also varies according to region. The dominant style is Egyptian.
What about reading. Are there rules? Is it an obligation to study? To question?
Yes, Yes, and Yes.
Imam let me frame this as a challenge 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 I often respond.
This means you are a good person, not a good Jew, I tell them.
Our tradition is actually more a pointing at the head. “Ten Commandments” are a construct of Reform Judaism . Of course the “613 Commandments” of the orthodox is also a random construct and the number has little to do with the practice of Torah in our time.
What I am asking is about reading and belief and practice in Islam today.
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.
To the Muslim the Quran contains the words of Allah revealed directly and verbatim to Prophet Muhammad, Peace be upon him.
According to orthodox opinion, Islam is not a seventh century innovation. Islam is not a person, race, or locality. We are not “Mohammedans.”
But Imam isn’t Mohammad the ideal person, sort of like a Zen Master or Chassidic Rebbe rabbi who disciples learn everything from, including how to tie their shoes.
Prophet Muhammad, Peace be upon him, is not the founder of Islam or author of Quran.
Yes, we all refer back to Abraham, I responded, Jews Christians and Muslims
I am asking, what is fundamental to you, Imam.
Imam: The term Islam, which means the attainment of peace of mind that comes from submission of oneself to the will of God.
Well, I responded, for a muslim the will of Allah is expressed in a text, so we are back to hermeneutics.
Thank you Imam for this review of fundamentals. It is 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.
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. 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?
I am listening, rabbi.
I read the Torah and Quran and Gospels, 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 the enabling 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.
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.
Imam: Well, Rabbi, this is surely something to think about. But how do you have a Torah without this incident?
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.
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.
What are we to do with his three days of silence? Abraham had no need to hasten. Maimonides says the act was not one of stupefaction.
Also, according to 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. If the story is a vision or dream it is no longer only a nightmare. Perhaps the incident is a daydream. Maybe we learn more about the mind of Abraham than the mind of God. God commands the miraculous and Abraham responds. Future generations will actually be martyred. The sacrifice will be accepted even though God teaches and demands life. We are to surrender to peace.
Imam: 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.
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 commerates this encounter between God and Abraham and son or sons.
We have a tradition in Islam that the twin horns of the Ram were placed in the Kaabba in Mecca.
The twin horns of a dilemma I said. Prophecy or nightmare.
Well, rabbi, said the Imam, remember, Allah does not require blood or sacrifice.
Here here. This gives me some peace of mind, but how are we to deal with those who justify holy war based on scripture?
Well Rabbi, we are teachers. We must re-educate them.
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.
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 that time. Welcome to theAge of nationalism. Political wars have even inspired those of the same religion to kill one another, like the Jews in World War One.
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 aright to exempt himself from any war.
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.
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.
Imam, I look forward to discussing all this over the next six month in our monthly seminars.
We return to our offices and I continue with my thoughts and notes and sources for the daily lesson for my inmates.
It dawns on me that like my mentor, the great Maimonides, I just might be a sect of one. Since we all must move beyond our masters I am sure that his offering of 13 Principles of Judaism was a reaction to Christianity and Islam. If no prophet has arisen since Moses of his stature the claim that
Muhammad is the seal of the prophets is refuted. Moreover Maimonides believed he himself to be a prophet, even though rabbinic tradition says
Prophecy ended with the later Hebrew prophets.
The very act of offering doctrine is a response to Christianity. Combative, Maimonides acknowledges Christendom as part of the divine plan, but suggests that, in the end, they will admit their doctrines were false. This is not dialogue or trialogue but polemic meant for Jewish readers alone. I reject this approach, as do most rabbinic authorities. Believe it or not we really have no doctrine except that of the Oral Law. In the end, the final belief of rabbinic Judaism is that the Oral Law supercedes the Torah. This is a separate essay.
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 unholy trinity is predicated on obedience to a patriarchal fathergod who demands some kind of sacrifice.
I had no idea over twenty 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.
Religions doctrines tend towards fixing revelation in an ancient text, making the truth immutable and never changing. Creative reading is for
poets and all must master the art. 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. Genius means understanding that God and the imagination are one. Genius requires being a disciple of Rabbi Stevens and a declaration of your final belief. That is the entire point of this discussion. The exquisite truth is that Torah is Truth and Gospels Good News and Quran Recitation when we acknowledge that all testaments are fictions and never final. Avoid the dark rabbis and priests and imams who make the text a leather jacketed talisman. The prologues are over.
Time to reexamine and rewrite the tales of old.
Time for the courage of the lion.
Time to rewrite even Kafka and Scholem and Freud and Jung.
Time for Final Kabballah ; A Time when every citizen is a sage and genius.
Let the poets become 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. These are all for the defeated. Be strong. Be strong. We will strengthen one another. Just say no to holy war.
Nothing but the Truth
Swearing on The Bible to tell the Truth, The Whole truth, and Nothing but the Truth
How is the whole truth greater than the truth?
Why add “Nothing but the Truth.”
Please respond if you have an answer.
I am, therefore I question.
This thinking all began with my Rabbinic thesis written almost forty years ago.
We stand, with Rebbe Amschel, for unbridled individualism!