October 18, 2007

Myth #278 of Islam

I had an odd conversation recently over at Daily Kos, albeit on an old topic. The comment that I responded to said, in part:

Another is the limitation that Koran only be used in the original Arabic, so that many followers are actually unaware of the actual or precise content of their own holy book - a true "reformation" problem.

I've heard this argument before: Many Muslims, not being Arabic speakers, don't know what's really in the Qur'an and, presumably, if they did know, would be appalled at the real contents and leave the religion. Not that this is what the guy at Daily Kos actually wrote but, as I said earlier, I've heard this particular argument before. Regardless, the argument as quoted above is still a load of crap. But, being the polite person that I am, I wrote the following response:

This is one of those odd myths of Islam that has little relationship to reality. Yes, the Qur'an is only the Qur'an when it's published in Arabic. Yes, formal prayer (salat) is performed only in Arabic. No, we Muslims do understand what is in the Qur'an. For one thing, there are such things known as "translations." ;) And even in those places in the Qur'an where there can be multiple meanings to a particular word (fairly commonplace in a language that is highly metaphorical), some of the translators will provide the other possible meanings in the footnotes to clarify matters. And then, of course, many (if not most) Muslims learn Arabic anyway, if only to understand the Qur'an in the original language.

The real reformation is in trying to remove all the ignorance and misunderstandings from the minds of non-Muslims and providing a true knowledge of Islam in its place.

Here is the original writer's response to me:

Catholics said the same thing before vernacular.

Sorry, but I don't think the little boys memorizing their Koran in Pakistani madrassas are so aware as you suggest. At minimum, the necessity of a conduit to the words themselves reinforces outside authority - as it did prior to Luther in Germany.

And the imported imams at European mosques in the likes of Hamburg and London are not always reliable interpreters of subtle concepts to their second generation immigrant followers; teachers for whom German or English may be a second or barely understood language.

I know as well, Jewish boys learning their Bible in Hebrew at yeshiva, are far from the level of comprehension that would permit them their own individual understanding.

And on understanding one's holy books generally, that is a swamp all by itself, and I doubt that the world's Muslims have a special leg up. Learning a "highly metaphorical" book, if even without language problems is rather challenging.

And I didn't mean to suggest anything I didn't explicitly say, but to the larger issue - you don't think Islam is unique, as I said... or are you just trying to pick a fight?

And my first thought was "little boys?" Why would we base the argument about comprehension of the Qur'an on "little boys?" No one expects perfect comprehension of any religious text from any child. They may understand the text well, but probably not as well as most adults. And as for "imported imams," while I granted that there may be cases such as he suggested (where "German or English may be a second or barely understood language"), this hasn't corresponded to my experience with "imported imams." I don't think this guy really understands all of the duties an imam plays within the local community. To be an imam is more than just leading prayers or teaching classes. The "imported imams" I have known had pastoral duties similar to what any priest or minister would perform outside of their churches. In such an environment, where dealing with other people is the primary responsibility, being fluent in the local language is an absolute requirement. So I responded:

No, not trying to pick a fight...

...just trying to give some straight dope to a topic that's often misunderstood. You are not the first person who's raised this particular - and IMO, erroneous - argument before.

Yes, of course, when kids are learning the Qur'an at a very young age, they are often taught by rote. But little boys eventually become big boys, and most of them learn the meaning of the Qur'an, either in their own language or by having learned classical Arabic. I wouldn't expect little kids to have comprehension necessarily of any particular religious text, but I would expect this of adults.

As for "imported imams," what you said may be true for some, although the "imported imams" that I've met have all been fluent in English. Even so, there are many other educational resources available worldwide besides imams, native or imported. One of the things that has struck me in my travels and in meeting other Muslims from around the world (from about two dozen countries so far) has been the similarity of understanding about Islam. It hasn't really mattered how one has learned about Islam (from one's parents, from an imam, from a madrassah, from the Internet, and so on), most Muslims have very similar understandings about Islam. Of course, there are disagreements on particular details, but considering the potential for confusion that could result, the disagreements are, for the most part, not that common.

What I'm trying to say is that, you've made this assumption that Muslims don't understand the Qur'an very well, and that this assumption doesn't correspond with reality. But don't take my word for it; go talk with Muslims in your neighborhood and see what they have to say.

There's been no further response to this last comment so far. I do think that this particular myth about Islam - Muslims don't understand their own Qur'an - is based on wishful thinking. After all, how would they know what's in the Qur'an? Are they so knowledgeable in classical Arabic that they've no need for relying upon translations from others? Have they even read a translation of the Qur'an? I think the fundamental problem can be summed up (yet again) by the Qur'anic ayah:

Never will the Jews or the Christians be satisfied with thee unless thou follow their form of religion. Say: "The Guidance of Allah,-that is the (only) Guidance." Wert thou to follow their desires after the knowledge which hath reached thee, then wouldst thou find neither Protector nor helper against Allah. (2:120)

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