A Religion of Peace

January 15, 2015

Cross-posted at By Common Consent.
By Board Member Michael Austin.
I read the Qur’an often because it speaks peace to my soul.
I know that sounds kooky, but I promise I’m not a hippie or anything. I don’t burn incense or wear sandals. I wouldn’t even call it a spiritual experience. It’s more like a calming effect. I love to read the text, and I love to listen to the recitations of a talented qāri’ (which I am doing even as I write). It’s not the meaning of the words that does the peace-speaking; it’s the words themselves. I have long been deeply affected by the way that the Qur’an represents the voice of God.
The divine voice that I encounter in the Qur’an is one of the most comforting things that I know. It reminds me of my own father’s voice when I was very young: calm and powerful, impossibly distant yet completely intimate, and supremely confident in who and what he is. Whatever this voice may be saying to other people, what it says to me is, “You can feel safe in my home because I’ve got everything under control. I’m not going to let bad things happen to you because you are mine.” This is how I need God to sound when it hurts.
This is why I become defensive when somebody says, “The Qur’an is an inherently violent book” or “Islam is a religion of hate.” These statements run directly counter to my own very powerful experiences. And I’ve been getting defensive a lot since the recent terrorist attack in France. It’s not that I don’t realize that some passages in the Qur’an sound violent and aggressive. I know that they do. And I am certainly aware that, in the early years of the 21st century, people inspired by the Qur’an have done a lot of terrible things. But neither the violent verses, nor the vile actions, constitute the meaning of the text. At least not to me.
Other books known for violence also speak peace to my soul from time to time. I love the Old Testament and read from it almost every day—even though parts of it (such as those dealing with the conquest and extermination of the Canaanites) have caused me to question the goodness of God. The Bhagavad Gita has given me more genuine insights per page than anything I have ever read—even though I know that it is framed as a speech urging a reluctant warrior to slaughter his cousins. The Iliad, the Aeneid, and the Inferno are three of the most beautiful books I know. They are also among the most brutal.
But the genocide, war, murder, and brutality are not what these books mean. At least not to me.
Personal interpretations are relevant here, since sacred books, like all books, can mean different things to different people. Complex cultural narratives can mean vastly different things to those who revere them. And widely shared cultural texts—such as the Qur’an, the Bible, or the Iliad—become widely shared cultural texts precisely because they can support multiple contexts and interpretations.
We know that the Bible and the Qur’an can both support peace and beauty because, at different times in their long histories, both of them have—just as they have both supported violence and unimaginable cruelty. An honest observer in 1200 AD would have seen an Islamic world dedicated to science and learning—one that had discovered algebra, block printing, and brain surgery at a time when the Christian West was more than 200 years away from discovering the fork. The line from the revelations of Mohammed to the Charlie Hebdo bombings goes through 1500 years of history—some of it spectacularly beautiful, much of it barbaric, and not all of it flattering to Christianity or the West. It makes no sense to try to understand Islamic extremism in 2015 by scrutinizing a text and ignoring fifteen centuries of context. Yet this is precisely what many of us are trying to do.
My big point is not that anything can mean anything or that texts are just so many inkblots in which to discover our own neuroses. I’m not THAT English professor. I am making a much more modest set of claims: 1) that all texts can support multiple narratives about what they mean; 2) that important cultural texts retain their importance over long periods of time because they are very good at supporting multiple narratives; and 3) that a religion as complicated as Islam will always have room for multiple interpretations of its sacred texts—some of which will predominate in certain times and places for reasons involving historically contingent combinations of text and context.
But here is my even bigger point: it is spiritually lazy to dismiss an entire religion as fundamentally evil based on a one possible reading of its sacred texts combined with the actions of its worst examples. This is much easier than trying to figure out who people really are and how we can love them, but loving one’s neighbor only counts when it’s hard. It’s easy to love those who see the world pretty much the same way that we do. Do not even the publicans the same?
And here is my biggest point of all: it is potentially disastrous that, at the very time that Americans need to be trying to understand the Muslim people on their own terms—by praying with them, singing with them, and sharing bread with them, and learning how to share a planet with them—some of our loudest voices want to represent the entire Muslim world as a unified threat to our way of life—using words like “expulsion,” “extermination,” and “fundamentally incompatible with American values.” These words  should terrify all decent people, but none more than Latter-day Saints, who know only too well what happens when people in power defer to the frightened mobs who speak them.
Is the Qur’an a book of peace? Is the Bible? Is the Book of Mormon? It all depends on who is doing the reading. We are more than sinners in the hands of an angry text, passively absorbing instructions and ideologies and turning them into checklists for our lives. We exercise agency when we interpret a sacred text. We decide which parts to emphasize, which parts to de-emphasize, and how to integrate a thousand small stories into one great narrative capable of giving structure and meaning to our lives. Those who want a religion of peace will use their agency to create narratives of peace from whatever materials their culture gives them. And those who want a religion of hate I will do exactly the same thing