My recent trip to Morocco got me thinking how much our cultures shape us and make us who we are – that is, how much the ruts in our thinking can masquerade as truth itself.
As I packed for my trip, I decided to bring along a couple of books – Susan Miller’s A Modern History of Morocco and a copy of the Qur’an I’d bought a couple of years ago, a 1934 translation by Abdullah Yusuf Ali. I thought they might help get me into the spirit of the trip – my first to a Muslim country.
Upon reading the first sixty pages of Ali’s translation when I first got it, I’d found it a bit like Leviticus or the Gnostic Gospels – fragments of wisdom scattered among verses otherwise resistant to comprehension. Miller’s history made more sense to me (once I started distinguishing between the Alawids, the Almohads and the Almoeavids). But I like getting to know about things I know nothing about; the more foreign, the better. So Morocco turned out to be a great trip, just as I’d hoped.
To begin with, it felt like a different planet, the terrain like the barren brown land of La Mancha where Clint Eastwood filmed spaghetti westerns to pretend he was in the American West. (It was barren, just sand and clay, devoid of plastic, steel or chlorophyll.) Yet when we crossed the Atlas mountains into the Sahara, I realized how much green I’d been taking for granted. Upon our return from the sand dunes to the “green” side of the Atlas, I did indeed notice occasional olive trees, date palms and cacti. The rare new shoots of chlorophyll in the otherwise dry brown wadis – the result of a downpour on our third day in the country, the first of a rainy season that, having just begun, showed no further hint of itself for the rest of our stay – were cause for celebration. After all, they had made the country comparatively lush. What had seemed a wasteland at first now showed precious signs of life.
The architecture was equally striking. Palaces, guest houses and mausoleums were opulent and ornate, sculpted or tiled into tiny squares, rectangles and diamonds, with Arabic scripts worming through the geometry like the tendrils of plants making their way through latticework. But more than the fancy palaces and riads, I was struck by the simple architecture of the countryside. Fields of clay separated by countless rock walls, most only one or two feet high, only a tiny fraction of which rose high enough to resemble stone buildings. Most of the structures were made of clay. Berber villages, many miles apart, often consisted of only a dozen houses or so. In one, a mountain village of sixty people called Outakhri, Lala Kabira treated us to two wonderful meals of lamb, eggs, vegetables, dates, couscous, green tea and flatbread, which we watched her bake in a blackened clay wood-burning oven. When I asked our guide, Said, if she was his mother, aunt or other relative, he gave me a most curious stare. Then he said, “No, she’s not related by blood. But when you spend your life in a village of only sixty people, there’s really no difference. Everyone is family.”
Not once in two weeks did I hear a complaint or a curse, not once an unpleasant gesture. As the days passed, I began to feel majesty in the clay-colored, mountainous land. The people, the food, even the terrain began to seem familiar.
One of our group, Juan Campo, is a professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. When I learned that Juan specializes in Islam, I asked for his opinion of Ali’s translation of the Qur’an. When he said it was a good one, I asked if he’d written any books that a layman like myself might understand.
Yes, he said. He’d been the chief editor of The Encyclopedia of Islam, (Checkmark Books, 2009).
I have now bought and studied that volume. My thanks to Juan for helping me better understand the basics of the Qur’an. I’ve also now read a good bit of Ali’s translation Based on this elementary introduction, I now understand that the Qur’an teaches as follows (citations are to chapter and verse of the Qur’an unless otherwise noted):
1. “There is no god but God” (21:25). (That is, there is only one God, and he is the God of all.)
2. That God is loving (85:14), eternal (2:255), merciful (1:1), omnipotent (3:26), omniscient (6:59, 21:4, 49:16), wise (2:216, 3:18), righteous (2:177), just (41:46), and forgiving of sins (3:31).
3. That when God says something should be, it is. (2:117, 3:59.) He created the world, a task which took him six days, creating day and night, the Sun, the Moon, and the stars (7:54, 10:3, 11:7, 21:33, 25:61-62.) According to some Muslim teaching, he created the Universe out of love, so that he would be known (hadith qudsi.)
4. God created the first human being, Adam, making him out of dust or wet clay, breathing the spirit of life into him (3:59, 6:2, 7:12, 15:29, 30:20, 32:9). He set Adam and Eve down in a blissful garden called Paradise, eating the fruits of the garden until Satan, the enemy (whom God had expelled from heaven for his disobedience) tempted them to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree (2:34-36, 2:168, 7:11-18, 7:189, 20:117-123).
5. Eve gave birth to Cain and Abel, and Cain later murdered his brother out of jealousy because God accepted Abel’s sacrifice rather than his (5:27-32).
6. God chose to save the righteous Noah, man of faith, while causing a great Flood that drowned the people who’d fallen into evil ways (7:64, 17:3, 37:75-77).
7. Jews, Christians and Muslims are “the People of the Book,” all descended from that great opponent of idolatry, Abraham, the pious husband of Hagar and Sarah, the father of Ishmael and Isaac, whose faith in One God was so strong that he was prepared to sacrifice his son at God’s command (2:133, 19:41, 19:69, 21:51-58, 21:66-72, 37:112, 6:74-84, 37:99-111).
8. God chose Jacob, Moses and Aaron as prophets (19:51-53, 21:48, 21:72). Moses was cast away on the waters as an infant, by his mother, to save his life (20:37-40). Moses rose to prominence under the pharaohs of Egypt (7:104-109). God spoke to him from a burning tree by Mount Sinai (28:29-30). He spent forty days in the desert and received the commandment tablets from God while there (7:144-145). In the absence of Moses, the Israelites worshipped the golden calf (7:148-149, 20:85-91).
9. After slaying Goliath, David received a kingdom and wisdom from God. Solomon ruled with wisdom and justice. God listened to Job in his distress, and was merciful to him for his righteousness. (2:251, 21:78-79, 21:83-86, 38:20).
10. John, the son of Zechariah (known to Christians as “the Baptist”) was a prophet made known to the father of Mary; he was princely, chaste, wise and righteous, and confirmed the word of God (3:39, 19:12-13).
11. Angels appeared to Mary and announced to her that God had chosen her above the women of all nations, saying “O Mary! God giveth thee glad tidings of a Word from Him: his name will be Christ Jesus, the son of Mary, held in honor in this world and the Hereafter and of those nearest to God; he shall speak to the people in childhood and in maturity. And he shall be of the righteous.” (3: 42-46). Mary questioned the news, since she was a virgin, but God, who “createth what he willeth,” simply said “Be!” and breathed his spirit into her. Thus was Jesus conceived. (3:47, 19:20-21, 66: 12).
12. Jesus is a spirit – Arabic ruh, or breath – proceeding from God; he is thus the word of God (4:171). God strengthened Jesus with this holy spirit (2:87, 2:253, 5:110), revealing the gospel of Moses and the prophets to him (2:136), teaching him the book of wisdom, and the law, and the gospel, and giving him the power to heal the sick and perform miracles (3:48-50, 57:27). God said to Jesus, “O Jesus! I will take thee and raise thee to Myself and clear thee (of the falsehoods) of those who blaspheme; I will make those who follow thee superior to those who reject faith, to the Day of Resurrection.” (3: 55). God ordained compassion and mercy in the hearts of those who follow Jesus (57:27). Jesus is “a statement of truth” and a “sign for all people” (19:34, 21:91).
13. Charity is essential to a good and pure life. As stated in the Qur’an (2:177):
Goodness is not that you turn your face to the east or the west. Rather goodness is that a person believe in God, the last [judgment] day, the angels, the Book, and the Prophets; that he gives wealth out of love to relatives, orphans, the needy, travelers, and slaves; that he performs prayer; and that he practices regular charity.
14. The world will end on the Last Day, a day of Judgement and resurrection in which nothing will be hidden, the just will be rewarded by a return to Paradise and the unjust damned to hellish fire (1:4, 3:56-57, 19: 37-40, 21:47, 69:18-31, 74:38). God will reward those who are faithful to him and his word by giving them a land of milk and honey, while punishing those without faith in eternal fire (2:164-167, 13:20-26, 21:39, 47-15). “Those who believe (in the Qur’an), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians [converts] – any who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness – shall have their reward with the Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve” (2:62). “Verily, this Brotherhood of yours is a single Brotherhood.” (21:92).
15. And so the Qur’an asks, “Who can be better in religion than one who submits his whole self to God, does good, and follows the way of Abraham, the true in Faith?” (4:125)
My dear Christian mother believed everything described above, yet her feelings about Muslims ranged somewhere between fear and loathing.
As I understand it, in Arabic, there were traditionally no vowels. The word Islam was essentially the three consonants, s-l-m – making Islam a cognate of the Arabic word Muslim, the Arabic word “Salam” (peace) and the Hebrew word “shalom” (peace). The word Islam is often translated “enter into a state of peace.”
As we all know, some people err by confusing substance with translation. Nowhere is this error more troublesome to me than when it comes to God. When my mother cringed at the thought of worshipping Allah, I don’t believe she understood that “Allah” is simply the Arabic word for “God,” derived from the same Semitic root as El and Elohim. I find it notable that, according to Professor Campo, Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews in the Middle East use the word “Allah” in referring to their God.
I so wish my mother could have understood this. Nothing was more important to her than submission to God. Yet she seemed not to understand that “Islam” is an Arabic word that, as usually translated, simply means submission to God. And that “Muslim” is simply an Arabic word for one who so submits. Had I spoken Arabic when Mom was alive, I shudder to imagine her reaction when I called her one who submits.
“I’m no Muslim!” she likely would have said.
My thanks to our guides, Hicham Akbour and Said ibn Mohamed, to our host, Lala Kabira, and to Professor Campo, for helping me take a new look at my family’s western culture.
(Peace be with you.)