Since I am a grad student in Biblical Studies and interreligious dialogue, I recently volunteered my services to my church for adult formation. After a quick poll, our priest found that church members were most interested in two things: biblical studies and interreligious dialogue. Throwing the two together, the “Bible-Qur’an Study” was born. This month I have been leading a small group of people through examination of selected texts portraying shared characters in the Bible and the Qur’an. So far we have done Noah and Mary. In both cases people were perplexed and fascinated.
Now, I should be clear that I approach this with a certain level of respect and humility. Muslims in America are having a PR problem at the moment, to put it mildly! I try to be careful to not feed into whatever misconceptions people carry (consciously or not) about the religion and its adherents.
At the same time, the Qur’an does address itself as guidance for all humanity. In fact, it seems to specifically address Jews and Christians at many points, either by direct address (“O Children of Israel” in Surah 2) or by its repeated echoes and allusions to biblical tradition. So I see myself as merely responding to that address.
Furthermore, four evenings is enough time to only scratch the surface of the tip of the iceberg that is this sacred text. Muslims spend a lifetime pondering it, and they do so within a 1,400-year tradition of pondering it. We are reading small selections in translation.
So how do I get people into the Qur’an in four evenings? Biblical characters are a good place to start. It’s a feature of the Qur’an that Christians naturally find accessible and familiar. It’s also a way for us to return to our own Bible with new questions.
The class so far, in brief:
In the first class I introduced the Qur’an and gave some background on the Qur’anic notion of prophethood.
In the second class we looked at Mary in both traditions, focusing on the infancy narrative in Luke and the narratives of Mary in Surah Maryam (19) and Surah al-Imran (3). I argued that in both texts Mary is described prophetically, even if the religious traditions following those texts generally don’t focus on that reading. Given how many non-Muslims think of Islam as a uniformly patriarchal and gender-oppressive religion, I felt it was important to focus on a strong female figure in the text. (If I remember correctly, Mary is the only woman mentioned by name in the Qur’an.)
Next week we will look at Jesus. I don’t know what we are doing yet.
Two books that have been really helpful to me are John Kaltner’s Ishmael Instructs Isaac: An Introduction to the Qur’an for Bible Readers and Michael Lodahl’s Claiming Abraham: Reading the Bible and the Qur’an Side by Side. Both are written by Christians committed to dialogue with Islam, and both focus on shared characters and how each text portrays them differently. For an Islamic perspective on the Qur’an I have been using The Study Qur’an.
One of my firm beliefs is that interfaith dialogue must begin with some commonality, before we can engage the differences. One of the unfortunate casualties of our oppositional, argument-driven media (both mass media and social media) is that sense of meeting someone as a human and finding common ground. In reading Bible and Qur’an in parallel, we find common symbols, common figures, common theological problems, and, of course, common ground.
And perhaps we even find something of beauty. Beauty breaks down fear and invites dialogue and love. This is what I have found when showing The Saint John’s Bible; people who have uncomfortable associations with the Bible relish this Bible because of its beauty.
Hopefully in October we will host a speaker from Islamic Networks Group to give our congregation some background on Islam more generally. We as a parish wish to engage with one of our local mosques, to counter this time of division and hate in America. But for at least a few people from my church, their small glimpses into the Qur’an will have well prepared them to better appreciate and love the people who follow this text.