Thursday, August 11, 2005

# Posted 9:49 AM by Patrick Belton  

KAREN ARMSTRONG QUITE THOUGHTFULLY ON hermeneutics, holy war, and the mouse:
Many assume that if the scriptures are not historically and scientifically correct, they cannot be true at all. But this was not how the scripture was originally conceived. All the verses of the Qur’an, for example, are called ‘parables’ (ayat); its images of paradise, hell and the last judgment are also ayat, pointers to transcendent realities that we can only glimpse through signs and symbols.

Does the Qur’an really instruct Muslims to slay unbelievers wherever they find them? Does it promise the suicide bomber instant paradise and 70 virgins? If so, Islam is clearly chronically prone to terrorism.

People do not robotically obey every single edict of their sacred texts. If they did, the world would be full of Christians who love their enemies and turn the other cheek when attacked.

Part of the problem is that we are now reading our scriptures instead of listening to them. Most of us are accustomed to acquiring information instantly at the click of a mouse, and have neither the talent nor the patience for the disciplines that characterised pre-modern interpretation.

Historians have noted that the shift from oral to written scripture often results in strident, misplaced certainty. Reading gives people the impression that they have an immediate grasp of their scripture; they are not compelled by a teacher to appreciate its complexity. Without the aesthetic and ethical disciplines of ritual, they can approach a text in purely cerebral fashion, missing the emotive and therapeutic aspects of its stories and instructions.

Indeed, the word qur’an means ‘recitation’. Much of the meaning is derived from sound patterns that link one passage to another, so that Muslims who hear extracts chanted aloud thousands of times in the course of a lifetime acquire a tacit understanding that one teaching is always qualified and supplemented by other texts, and cannot be seen in isolation. The words that they hear again and again are not ‘holy war’, but ‘kindness,’ ‘courtesy’, ‘peace’, ‘justice’, and ‘compassion.’
Extracted rather heavily from her piece on p. 25 of today’s aforementioned newspaper, the last in a series of thoughtful pieces which Armstrong has contributed since the London bombings. An open note to propagandists of various stripes: distribute your newspaper for free in French bakeries with nice jazz and adjoining coffeeshops, and I will read them. Same principle also operative in the case of by far the best jazz radio station in Washington, whose transmissions periodically are interrupted by the mild trotskyist harmonies of Pacific Radio, several cumulative hours of worth I have listened to in my life rather than change the station.
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