By Joe Perez
Today on the Daily Dish, Andrew Sullivan asks his readers a fair question, crudely stated:
“If there is an argument for why the Quran is so good, please bring it forward. I’ve read the Quran several times and it’s not that good. In fact, it’s conspicuously bad as a moral map, and a spiritual map. You can wander blindfolded into a Barnes & Noble, and the first book you pick off the shelf will have more wisdom than the Quran. The Quran is uniquely barren of wisdom relevant to the 21st century. It’s got a few good lines about patience and generosity, and the rest is just vilification of the infidel,” – Sam Harris. Can any readers counter?
To which I responded today:
The Qur’an is a classic of world spiritual literature far exceeding the disposable drivel that you will pick off the shelf in the vast majority of the books at a Barnes & Noble. I would have thought you know this and could have written a defense yourself. In any event, as non-Muslims, there are many people better qualified than you or I to give a defense of the Qur’an’s merits as a guide to Islamic life and culture.
My own defense as an enthusiast of a world-centric spirituality enthusiastically inclusive of Islam would start with the observation that a classic is to be judged not by reference to its compatibility with the New Atheist mindset of a small minority of people in early 21st century America (i.e., Sam Harris and his readers), but by its enduring influence over well more than a millennium. The claim that the Qur’an is “so good” begins by noting that many millions of people have for many centuries thought it so good, and that in a world of constant cultural evolution it is hermeneutically garbage to assess their aesthetic and spiritual opinions crudely by certain contemporary standards.
You can’t throw the Bible out as barren of wisdom because it sanctions social practices we find offensive today, and you can’t judge spiritual depth simply by how frequently a text enjoins virtues such as patience and generosity. You need to judge the Qur’an more holistically and as a mystical vision, not a self-help tome spouting chicken soup platitudes nearly everyone today will agree with.
At the same time, I want to go beyond saying that the Qur’an is important historically and also claim that the Qur’an is worthy of reading as a spiritual guide for people today … if one does the difficult work of attempting to enter into the prophetic and mystical mindset of Muhammad whose visions and divine communications form the book’s essence. I take into account — as many non-fundamentalists do — Muhammad’s human fallibility and historic/cultural contexts (which leads to many statements that our own cultural worldspace rightfully holds as objectionable), and see it as an ingenious expression of a vision of a completely Integral Universe, one in which there is no secular (i.e., godless) realm, but every facet of existence is harmoniously in sync with every other facet, and the core of that essence is Love. This is a deep and timeless truth that is lost on Sam Harris.
It is also important to note that for Muhammad, every syllable, sound symbol, number, and even the shape of every Arabic letter is a meaningful representation of the Divine, in an aesthetically orderly expression … and the Qur’an’s esoteric nature is one that has inspired Sufi mystics such as Rumi and Hafiz to deep realizations of inner divinity. The Qur’an continues to inspire Muslims and non-Muslims today who are interpreting the scripture not literally (fundamentalists) or merely metaphorically and poetically (progressive religionists) but as a sacred expression of evolving cultural wisdom and mystical realization (integral thinkers) to which everyone in the world is called.